Monday, October 7, 2013

Launch Review: Nikon D610: This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things... err, make that a D400

The Nikon D610: It's "1" better....

Going back to Photokina 2012, Nikon made the biggest splash in the year of "affordable full frame." Canon had also announced the EOS 6D and the Sony the DSC-RX1  but those cameras shipped months later. Nikon was the most prepared; they had retail units of the D600 in mass circulation within days of the announcement. This proved to be the culmination of a year-long push to move the high-end DX crowd into full-frame camera systems. The FX lens set had already been refreshed, but curiously, there were no significant DX lens upgrades, nor was the mythical D400 anywhere to be seen despite multiple rumors and hints of what the company had been testing.

The answer to this was obvious; "low-end FX" and "high-end DX" have a measure of overlap, and ostensibly, Nikon wanted to keep their marketing message clear to anybody who was going to spend $1800-$2000 USD that the camera to have would be the D600 and not a DX camera.  If everything had gone according to script, this should have been mission accomplished; Nikon got into this market space first, they had a well-featured camera that was cheaper than any other full-frame camera before it, and they had fleshed out the more affordable end of their FX line to support the camera. New product category created, back to our regularly-scheduled programming and on with the D400. If only it were that easy....

In short, this is what's new for the D610:

  • Presumably a new shutter
  • Improved automatic white balance
  • New 3fps silent mode

Note the inclusion of the word "presumably" in the first point. How Nikon is describing the D610 is that it has new features, faster overall fps and a new 3fps silent mode. I think this emphasis is deliberate on their part; the words "improved shutter" raise too many uninvited questions about what was going on with the D600.

How We Got Here

Just some perspective: The Nikon D600 is now just over a year old at the time of this writing. It's still a great camera. If it were launched today, there would be nothing "outdated" about it's specifications, construction or ergonomics. Consider the companies that don't have full-frame cameras yet: Pentax, Fufjifilm... and then consider whether or not the Canon 6D or the Sony SLT-A99 have lit the world on fire. In retrospect, it shouldn't have taken much for Nikon to hit it out of the park...

As you are probably now well aware, the global camera market is facing a number of challenges, and will likely contract in the coming years as smart-phones eat up what's left of the low-end compact  market and the upgrade rate of enthusiast/pro-level equipment slows down. That in itself was a given, but Nikon shot themselves in the foot twice with the D600. The first was the notorious mirror-box debris issue. I think that the D600 gets unfairly pegged with this, as the D800 and D7000 no longer carry the stigma of  left-side AF alignment and excessive oil splatter, at least not for recent units. The second and larger problem was that the uptake of the D600 was slower than expected, prompting Nikon to go overboard with discounting and bundling during the holiday season for 2012. The problem with this is that once you've exposed consumers to a lower price, they will be conditioned to think of that as the new baseline price. Just ask JC Penny.

Hence, we now have the D610.  A few tweaks to the production run and Nikon can say that it's a new camera and a fresh start. The model change from D600 to D610 echoes the minor changes seen from the SB-900 to the SB-910; it's too soon for a generational change but because of how fast information gets disseminated on the internet, minor upgrades have to be packaged and branded to maintain the perception of the company maintaining forward momentum.

However, this puts us back into the same predicament as we were in 2012. Nikon has reconfirmed their commitment to making the D6xx series work, but the camera market is weak and that once again leaves no room for mixed messages. Guess what falls by the wayside again? That's right, the D400. The reason why this situation persists is because Canon are in the same predicament. The 7DmII is nowhere to be seen, the 6D isn't the sales hit that people had hoped it to be, and what's worse, for less than the price of a new 6D, there are plenty of good copies of the more rugged 5DmII floating around.

The problem for the camera companies is how to maintain profitability in the back-half of the market cycle when unit volume is in decline. For most, the solution is to head for the hills and to push average selling prices up. You see this to varying degrees of success in the automotive world. After the unintended-acceleration debacle of the 80's, Audi had nowhere to go but upmarket and to live off of fewer sales of higher-end cars... that also carried larger profit margins. This allowed them to survive until their renaissance in the late 90's as a serious rival to BMW and Mercedes. This strategy can't work for everybody, though. Witness Lincoln, Acura et al.  Not everybody can be Rolex, some have to be Seiko, and still others have to Timex, but the point is, there's room for many to thrive at the different tiers in any given market, but having multiple companies gunning for the apex creates one winner and multiple casualties. Leica headed for the hills a long time ago; its doubtful if they could survive making cameras in the way that they did in the days of the M3. Olympus started pushing upmarket with the OM-D E-M5, and now further with the E-M1, but they have yet to see profitability with their camera business.

Nikon is doing a little bit of the same by trying to convert as many serious-enthusiasts and semi-pros to FX as possible. Even if it means losing money on a the body, the FX lens system as a whole carries higher profit potential per unit than the DX system. This begs the question, why not just do that with DX cameras? A D300s carries higher profit margins than a D7100, the increase in price more than makes up for the component cost. The answer is that they will eventually have to in the form of a D400, but if you look at the DX system as a whole, the lack of higher margin DX lenses creates a disincentive for Nikon to develop the DX system. Remember, if you equip your camera with those fancy new ART lenses from Sigma, Nikon will have lost some of your business.

The Upgrade in Execution

Good product marketing is important... not the sales side of it, but rather, what a product is should be the majority of the marketing before the advertising even begins. The problem with the D610 is that it does this in an inconvenient way for Nikon. With only an AWB and shutter functionality upgrade, it raises the unfortunate question in the mind of the consumer of whether or not the model designation change is merited. It also alienates existing D600 owners; if all it required was a mirrorbox upgrade, then why not just rollout a fix during the production run? After all, the number of Nikon's that have had changes without a model change are numerous:

  • D200: Early units had banding with bright light sources
  • D80: Later units had reduced purple amp glow
  • D7000: Early units had excessive oil splashing
  • D3: Voluntary buffer upgrade program
  • D800: The notorious left-sided AF alignment issue

Which makes the D610 a bit of a mystery considering how rarely this has occurred in the past. The fact that it went noticed in the transition between SB-900 to SB910 shows you how little interest the lay public has in flash units now that our cameras go to ISO 6400 and beyond. One assumes that Nikon made a calculated decision with the D600-D610 model change, but the move essential signals that they are doubling-down on the D6xx series for the time being, even at the cost of alienating existing D600 owners. A clear acknowledgement of an issue is a hard thing to accomplish in modern business. What makes it harder is that it's not completely clear if the D600 had a pervasive quality issue. It is clear that the D600 now has a pervasive perception issue.  Let's think about how they could have handled this:

  1. Quietly update the D600 and let word of mouth trickle out that the issues have disappeared in the later units. Not unheard of, but unfortunately, this has the least immediate impact on sales. The benefit of regaining consumer confidence is also delayed. The continued dissatisfaction is not.
  2. Acknowledge that there have been issues with the D600 and introduce a service program, like they (grudgingly) did with the D800. The troubling thing about this option is that if it was a limited number of units that were affected, then they should have gone with this option. If all of the units are suspect, then profits from the D600 program would be severely reduced. (Remember, most of those units sold at a discount from the initial launch price) Nikon did not do anything to quiet concerns by issuing a statement about the excessive debris without actually addressing what was the nature of the problem was. It would be a stretch if all of the units are suspect; you would have expected later production units to be trouble free. Nobody knows that there is something wrong with a product in the same way that the people who make it, so the problem would have been identified quite early. If only Nikon had given a clear and concise indication that this was the case, a lot of trouble would have been saved.
  3. Do what they just did and announce a new model designation with some minor upgrades. To the consumer, this is the most distasteful option, as Nikon will have essentially given themselves a free pass. They are implicitly admitting that there was something amiss with the D600 without specifically saying so. However, it would be short-sighted to think that the designation change is all about quality; changing the model number also resets the clock on discounts. Remember all of those heavy discounts last year around Christmas time? Interesting to see if that will happen again; by any logical course of action it should be avoided at all costs.

Option two would have been "the right thing." Option three, the one they went with, is not completely "the wrong" thing, but since actions speak louder than words, it isn't hard to see why the consumer base isn't exactly pleased with this outcome. It's a rather distasteful means of communicating with the customer base, but not unheard of. (Google: "Porsche + 996 + IMS failure" for another sordid history of not acknowledging a product problem.) All of this is rather unfortunate, as the D600 is an extremely capable camera, fair value even for the super-DX price that you pay for it. It's not like Nikon installed a sub-par mechanism to cut costs, the D600 shutter is rated to 150,000 cycles, which is the same as what the professional-quality D300 is rated at.

What We Got

Improved automatic white balance. This is always a nice feature to have; however none of the modern Nikons are terrible at automatic white balance, so if the tweaks hold true, it's a case of "more good."

New 3 fps silent mode: This is actually much more useful than it sounds. Say that you are in an auditorium photographing your kid's dance recital. A single-shot silent mode would be okay for music, but a faster silent mode would be a boon for anything moving. Three frames per second might not sound fast, but it's roughly what the D80 used to be able to work with. Fast enough with anticipation, but not quick enough to really subdivide fast action.

More frames per second: The difference between 5.5fps and 6fps is more or less a rounding error. It's a nice to have, but in real world shooting it won't make that much of difference. You can see why it made the upgrade list though; as a slight tweak to the shutter system, a barely faster shutter is a fairly cheap upgrade to manufacture.

What We Didn't Get

Curiously, the microphone is still on the main body of the camera (next to the lens) instead of on top of the pentaprism housing as it is with the D7100 and D5200. Considering that this is a trend that is happening across all cameras (moving the microphone away from the noise of the lens motors), it leaves the D610 a generation behind in this regard.

No removal of the anti-aliasing filter. I would argue that the D610 doesn't need it; certainly the D600 copies that I have used didn't require it. It certainly makes a difference on the D7100; even if the outright resolution isn't increased over the D5200, the files from a D7100 generally show more micro-contrast at the same settings. However, as the D600 uses the FX image circle, it's 24mp are less demanding of the lens than the 24mp on the smaller DX image circle. So in other words, what the D7100 does by removing the AA-filter, the D610 does naturally with a conventional sensor. Also remember that a modern sensor isn't a perfectly flat object; removing one element like the AA-filter changes it's depth, meaning that the the whole assembly has to be re-aligned. Certainly "more is better;" without the filter, the D600 would benefit in the same way that the D800e benefits, but because of the lower pixel density, the D610 would be more prone to false colour patterns. Indeed, on the recently released Sony DSC-RX100R, Imaging Resource found that the increase in sharpness was slight, but the increase moiré was...well... more. Moiré can be removed in software, but it's never as easy as they say it is, and that in a nutshell is why the D600 and D610 use conventional sensors. If they had gone filter-less, they would stop being the easy-going user-friendly cameras that they are. The analogy would be taking a sports car with superb handling and ruining it by tuning the suspension for outright performance only.

The other thing that we didn't get was the MULTI-CAM3500 51-point autofocus unit used in the D7100 and all of the other FX cameras. One could argue that this would have also been a cheap upgrade to do, as the D610 would then part share with a broad range of cameras. As it is, it still does, sharing it's 39-point AF unit with the mass market D5200). I personally would have preferred this; as with many people, I find the AF points too-tightly grouped in the center of the frame to be useful. On the D800, the outermost just barely make it to the 1/3 mark for rule-of-thirds composing. The problem with the D600 and the D610 is that you have to do some focus-recompose if you are using the viewfinder for shooting off-center subjects, which reduces your AF accuracy. The D610 isn't alone in this regards, though, the Canon 6D is just as horrid.

There is actually a benefit to having the tightly-grouped AF points in the D610, one that few people talk about. For keeping track of moving subjects when you are using the center of the frame, the density of the AF points makes tracking subjects more precise... so long as you stay in the confines of the AF array.

However, its not hard to see that the 51-point AF unit was never seriously in the works for the D610, and the reason is precisely because it wold be the single-largest improvement for the camera. Think about it this way: You're a non-pro who is looking at an FX camera.... The D800 is too much, but the D610 is affordable... fairly easy decision but you will probably be lusting after the D800 after you buy the D600 regardless. Say your budget is a bit bigger... the D800 is a bit out of your budget but the D610 doesn't give you want you want. You can settle or you can spend a bit more and reach up to the next tier. Now see how that changes with a D610 with the 51-point AF unit: suddenly, you don't have to reach anymore, the cheaper camera has more of what you want. That's precisely what Nikon wants; for the armchair economists, this is classic price discrimination at work. How do get the most money out of your best customers without scaring away your less well to do patrons? This too, is product marketing. (In other words, the D6xx series will get the 51-point AF array when the D8xx series gets something better!)


In the end, the D600 was and still is a great camera. One hopes that Nikon did not wait until the D610 to sell defect-free units, but a heavily discounted late-run D600 would be good value for the money for the bargain hunter. I've heard of retailers seeing the debris issue even as late as now, but so much of the evidence out there is anecdotal and difficult to quantify. To qualify as a bargain, I would personally aim for lower than $1800 USD (the lowest price we've seen so far) for two reasons.

  1. You have an increased expectation of performing wet sensor cleaning over the D610. Hint: It wouldn't help to negotiate a wet-cleaning kit into your purchase. Bargain hard, most retailers will be happy to clear the D600 now that it is an out-going model.
  2. You will possibly suffer financially  if you re-sell the camera later, as the whole model line will have the debris-issue tagged onto it, early or late model run. Keep your sales receipts and make note of your serial numbers so that you can prove that you have a late-production unit.

That said, the excess debris and oil splattering, though annoying, aren't catastrophic, merely annoying. If you do pick up a unit, it would be best to make it through your first 2000ish shots as quickly as possible so that you can identify if there is a problem with your unit.

If you are looking at the D610 now, it's best to wait and see what discounts will be applied heading into the holiday season. With every new model, camera companies get a chance to re-set the clock and move average selling prices back up. Note that Nikon is listing the D610 at a MSRP that is $100 USD lower than the D600 introductory price. This actually means very little considering how few units were sold at the $2,099 USD price before massive discounts started appearing. Considering how little has changed on the D610, the clock on prices has certainly been re-set, but it will be interesting to watch how fast it winds down again.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read - insightful. Enjoy your posts.