Friday, September 12, 2014

Launch Review: Nikon D750 First Impressions



The long wait is over. The D400 is finally here  nowhere to be seen and we now have even starker evidence that Nikon is serious about moving as much of the enthusiast crowd up to full frame as is economically possible. In many ways, the D750 is like the D3s; its a capable camera that few were expecting.The headline specs are:


  • 24 mp sensor with AA filter
  • 51 AF point, MULTI-CAM3500 II
  • AF functional down to -3EV light levels
  • Group AF mode (like D4s and D810)
  • 6.5 fps, does not change with additional battery pack
  • Aperture control during live view and video recording
  • 91k pixel RGB exposure sensor (same as D810)
  • Articulating 3.2" 1.23k-dot screen
  • Built in WiFi 
  • Same video capability as the D810
  • Simultaneous SD card/external video recording

Nikon threw the proverbial kitchen sink into the D710. Except for the full metal body and "pro-level" control layout of the D810, the list of features not on this camera is fairly short. Though it's "another 24mp camera", it has broader market appeal than the D810 and ticks off more of the check boxes that enthusiasts watch for than the D610. In other words, not as much of an "action camera" as people had hoped for, but it is ostensibly being set up to be a big part of Nikon's FX lineup. 


  The full review is up. Go here for the complete run-down.


Market Positioning and History


For the Nikon faithful, it's good news/bad news. The good news is that we finally have the "high speed, general purpose" upgrade to the D700 that everybody wanted, even if the D800 was (mostly) that camera all along. The bad news is that the D750 is being launched at a time when most of Nikon's long-suffering pro-DX crowd was expecting the D300 successor. Even though it will be well received, the market (in abstract terms) wasn't asking for the D750; the D810 at a more reasonable price would have sufficed. Many, many people have been waiting for a true D300 successor, and putting it off even longer without so much as a word for Nikon's future DX plans is now either unconscionable or Machiavellian depending on how unhappy you are about it.

In ever sense of the word, the D800 was the true successor to the D700. Never-mind the massive jump in megapixels and the slightly slower operation, roughly the same crowd that was attracted to the D700 was also drawn to the D800. What is this crowd? It was partly professionally inclined, but the majority of purchasers are well-funded non-professionals, or at the very least, part-time professionals. The non-paid portion of the market is the key as this segment is the least committed to the requirements of a high-resolution full frame existence. You don't have to shoot the D800 at its full 36mp resolution in order to get the benefit of its sensor; the downsized output will still look better than a D4s at all but the highest ISO levels. This point never seemed to take hold; most people know it in fact, but would rather have a dedicated lower megapixel camera instead. Hence, the unceasing wish for "something like a D700." The front profile of the D750 wasn't done without thought: it has the "strong-shoulder" look of the D700 instead of the tapered slope of the D800 and D810.

The weekend-pro portion of this market is also indicative. Even though Nikon has treated the D300 faithful quite shabbily, fundamentally, they are correct to prioritize full frame ahead of pro-DX. The game has moved on since the days when the D200 and D300 were the workhorse cameras of the weekend wedding crowd; today, if you are aren't shooting full-frame, you aren't competitive. You only have to think of how many Canon 5D Mark II's are still in use to understand this point. Yes, pro-DX is a fundamentally solid idea and would still make for a solid camera today, but without the "pro" portion of the equation, it looses some of its raison d'ĂȘtre. Fujifilm and Olympus are making pro-spec sub-full frame cameras, but its a case of the mirrorless cameras gaining market share in the shrinking segment of serious crop-sensor cameras.

As for the price point of the D750, Nikon seems to be treading dangerous ground by stuffing five different bodies into the smallish full-frame space. You could make the case that Nikon is heading for the hills and is trying to shift its product mix towards the higher margin end of the scale, but this is a precarious game. Only a small portion of people can afford or justify FX equipment; economically speaking, there is no way to grow the pie big enough to offset any major loses in the DX space. The prospects of this strategy working the long term are thin, but if anything, the enthusiast market is getting used to seeing higher equipment prices with the passing of time. The ability for consumers to pay for more expensive but higher spec equipment might not change, but perhaps attitudes will soften.


Product Design

"Consumer" Style Body


For some, the fact that the D750 looks like the bigger D7100 will be a turn off. No round eyecup. No separate AF-On button. Dedicated mode dial. This is snobbery, of course; but there's a method to all of this. Nikon isn't just out to sell a FX DSLR; they are trying to convert as much of their enthusiast DX users to FX as possible. An easy way to do that is to make the controls and ergonomics as familiar as possible. Canon is guilty of this as well; the EOS 6D is in many ways, a simpler camera than the EOS 70D which sits below it.
 In practical shooting, it's not that big of a stretch. The D810's left-side button cluster is easier to use by touch than the left-side buttons on the D610, but the real-world differences are not as large as the internet would have you believe.


Partial Carbon Fiber Frame


The D750 uses carbon fiber composite for the front face of the camera, with a magnesium alloy frame for the top and back of the camera. This type of construction is similar to the D610 and D7100. The carbon composite that the D750 uses is ostensibly the same as that used on the D3300 and D5300. Not only is the material lighter and stronger than the previous polycarconate composites, its rigidity allows for more leeway in arranging internal mounting points. 

In case you are wondering, a partial metal frame does not necessarily mean that the D750 is less durable than the D810. There were a number of users who experienced D800 frame damage due to dropped cameras. In such cases, the force of impact is transmitted from the ground to the lens, through the lens mount, into the frame and into a weaker portion near the back of the camera. In other words, excessive rigidity is not necessarily the best engineering solution. On the D750 and the D610, the use of a composite material on the front means that the front of the camera has a greater degree of elasticity to dissipate the shock of an impact. Why then, the metal frame at the top and rear of the camera? The LCD panels. Since these are glass, it seems that Nikon has "allocated" the metal for these parts of the camera so that the frame doesn't "twist" around the glass in the LCD displays. You want the front of the camera to have some give, given that it's the part of the camera that has a higher chance of being in jeopardy, but you want to back part of the camera to be rigid, because the LCD displays can't tolerate as much deformation.


"Faster" Frame Rate


In the obvious, practical way, 24mp and 6.5fps makes for a faster camera than the D810 at 5fps and 36mp. It's not as fast as the rumoured figure of 8fps that was passed around the internet before the official launch, but it is fast enough for a semi-pro camera. The D300s was 6fps, 8fps with the battery grip. Strangely, for a device reputed to be an "action camera", this seems to be slightly behind what we were used to for  Nikon semi-pro cameras, but it also must be remembered that autofocus performance has improved through the years as well. Even if the AF module is from the same family, the actual performance has been tweaked with each new generation; that';s not counting the Group Area mode for improved tracking of moving subjects. If you were hoping for D4s-like levels of burst-mode shooting, then its worth pointing out that 10fps also requires a significant increase in AF computational power to get those rapid-burst frames in focus. For the price of the D750, the performance is fair.


Sensor Resolution


For many people, 36mp is "too much"... though that thought doesn't hold up to scrutiny when you consider that 24mp is also more than what most people need. The more precise way of stating it is that 36mp is a bit too far ahead of the curve in terms of what is out there in terms of computational power and storage availability. That was true when the D800 was launched, and it is still true today. By that logic, trading resolution (quality) for a faster burst rate (performance) is a practical proposition. However, it bears repeating that even though the D800/D810 aren't high-speed cameras, 5fps is more than enough if you practice good anticipation and timing. It's actually adequate for quick moving subjects that aren't sports related. Of course, when you spend $3000 USD for a camera, you aren't looking for "adequate", so in this regards, the D750 will open up new photographic opportunities for people who aren't going to be spending D810-levels of cash.

A word about the inclusion of an anti-aliasing filter on the sensor. Much will be made of it, but it's largely an inconsequential detail as of 2014. While it's true that removing the optical low-pass filter produces sharper and more contrasty images, the benefit is often subtle. What's more, it's not the case that camera sensors are either filtered or unfiltered; those that have anti-aliasing filters have varying degrees of strength. Historically, as sensor resolution has increased, AA filter strength has decreased. The D810 will produce moiré patterns in some situations, where as the less pixel-dense D750 and D610 won't. Again, it's a reasonable design choice for the type of camera that the D750 is, as the crowd has more casual shooting tenancies. In this regard, think of the D810 as a Corvette of Porsche 911; lots of power with extremely high handling limits that will get inexperienced drivers into trouble. In comparison the D750 is more like the Toyota FR-S/Subaru BRZ; sporty, but since the power isn't overwhelming it lets a less experienced driver come closer to the limit of handling. However, as analogies go, this one has limits: there's no reason why the D750 won't go on to be a workhorse camera for working professionals.


51-pt AF


It's a given that a semi-professional Nikon body would use the a variant of the MULTI-CAM 3500 found elsewhere on the D810, D4s and D7100. Though it's not a case of "more is always better", the more important issue of why the 51-point system is better relate to focus precision and reliability at lower light levels. To be honest, the Nikon autofocus system is arguably a tad bit behind that used in the Canon 5DMIII in terms of motion tracking, but the gap is closed with the inclusion of the Group Area mode from the D4s and D810. The MULTI-CAM 3500 technology seems to have entered a  neither-nor portion of its lifecyle. It is neither at the cutting edge of current technology, nor is it an outdated piece of technology. Its an AF unit that is well-regarded by the industry, but there doesn't appear to be a strong rationale to devote resources to drastically improving it... especially considering the other challenges that Nikon is facing.

What does need to be addressed is Live-View autofocusing. At one time this would have been considered frippery, but given the credible performance that modern mirrorless cameras give, it is no longer an area that should be ignored by the DSLR manufacturers. Nikon has a respected on-chip phase detection  platform with their Nikon 1 cameras, but the problem is that technology came from Aptina, which was subsequently acquired by ON Semiconducter. The majority of Nikon's DSLR sensors are Sony-sourced, so it's not a simple case of scaling up the V3 sensor to DSLR sizes; different patents, different suppliers. The 24mp full-frame sensor in the Sony A7 does have phase detection, but it's implementation on that camera is not as convincing as that on its A6000 cousin. In any case, Sony apparently is reserving the on-chip phase detection technology for themselves. 

While we're at it; it's nice that Nikon none has the zebra-stripes video exposure aid, but there's one aid that all mirrorless cameras have now that is conspicuously missing from their DSLR's: focus peaking. This is (figuratively) a criminal state of affairs. Modern DSLR viewfinders are hard to manually focus with because they are optimized for brightness rather than focus precision. You can put an aftermarket split-prism focusing screen into some cameras, but that is less than ideal as it interferes with the operation of exposure meter. Given the user base, it's much more likely that a DSLR user would want to focus manually than a mirrorless user, yet the smaller "downmarket" cameras have the technology while Nikon does not. 


Exposure Meter


Same exposure meter as the D810. That's a good thing. Exposure accuracy is one of the traditional and enduring positive points about Nikon DSLR's. This in conjunction with the wide dynamic range of the current generation of sensors makes for a one of the best shooting experiences in photography. The better Canon cameras are a tad bit better at maintaining focus on moving subjects, but the Nikons are better at nailing the exposure of the moving subject why the camera is tracking it. 


Articulating rear LCD display


The D750 joins the D5300 as the only other Nikon DSLR to have a flip out LCD display. This is a feature that has long been missing on Nikon's "serious" cameras; until now, Nikon has treated flip-LCD displays in the same way that Canon seems to regard pop-up fill flashes: as consumer-level features. Of course, that's hogwash, as both have their uses. Given that the D750 inherits all of the video functionality of the D810, the flip-out LCD display arguably makes the D750 more of a video DSLR than its big brother.


WiFi



In a way, the D750 is the D5300 of the FX lineup: flip-out LCD and built in WiFi. One wonders if that was by design to have FX echo DX. To be honest, Nikon's WiFi app is merely "okay." You can transfer pictures and you can use a smart device as a remote trigger, but otherwise, the hassle of connecting camera to device and the relatively slow transfer speeds make it a feature that will be used only sparingly by most.


Is it Safe to be An Early Adopter?


The list of Nikon cameras that have arrived with early shipment quality control issues is now lengthy. The most notable was the D600 and how its sensor-debris issue was fumbled, prospective buyers of the D750 will also have memories of of the left-sided autofocus array calibration troubles of some D800 units. By recent history, the D810's launch as relatively trouble free, with only (thus far, anyway) a long-exposure noise issue that as solvable by sensor-remapping and firmware upgrade. 

Obviously, early adopters are Guinea pigs; its just that the pre-order hype phase just after a model launch causes some users to forget that. Nikon seems to be slowly turning the corner on how it handles well-publicized quality control issues, but it simple doesn't have a long enough recent-history of good service under its belt. The company knows that it is being watched closely, and it probably has the intention to turn the public relations ship around, but it doesn't look like it yet has the infrastructure and company culture in place to win the public over. The D810 was a minor problem that was inconsequential for a number of people, which Nikon quickly addressed. The problem was that it was also an easily avoidable problem that should have been caught before launch, and it came at a time when the D610 was still fresh in everybody's mind.

Simply put, if you can wait, do so. In all likelihood, nothing bad will happen for picking up an early-production D750, but many cameras get tweaks in their lifecycle without triggering a model name change. As well, if you wait longer, you will benefit from not having to pay the premium of a camera that is just out of launch. 

Concluding Thoughts


The full frame portion of Nikon's DSLR lineup is now looking crowded, though appearances might be deceiving. The Df is the odd-man-out of the group; for a brief time it bridged the gap between the D610 and the D800, but it was really more of an experiment on the part of Nikon rather than the start of a new camera line. There was a lot of initial excitement about that camera, but that didn't last as long as Nikon would have hoped. The Df will continue to appeal to a certain type of shooter, but because it doesn't embody the mainline Nikon ergonomic virtues, it's really more of a "special edition" camera. If the Df is the camera that starts with a bang and ends with a wimpier, the long term effect on Nikon will likely be small as it isn't a mainline "volume" model.

Though the D600 was heady stuff when it was first launched, its successor, the D610 is starting to look decidedly pedestrian compared to its FX siblings. Though it is still capable camera, the one thing that kept the D6xx series from being truly beloved instead of merely respected was the exclusion of the higher-grade 51-point AF unit. Comparing the D750 against the D610, it's not that the D750 has more features (it does) but that it imposes less restrictions. If you used the D700, you would have likely found the D600 wanting in some regards; if you've used the D810, the D750 will probably not lack for much. The only way that the FX lineup makes long term sense is if the D610 goes down in price and if the Df persists, but sort of like a museum piece in the way that Leica's MP does for Leica.

A more interesting question is not how the D750 fits in Nikon's FX lineup, but how it disrupts Canon's lineup. The EOS 6D is positioned further down the consumer scale than the D610, and the 5D Mark III is roughly the equal of the D810 in product positioning, but the spanner in the works is that (at least on paper) the D750 does very well against the upper-level Canon at a much reduced price. That difference narrows when you compare the kit lens options; MSRP for the D750 with AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4 VR is $3,239.96 USD, which is close to the street price of 5D Mark III with the 24-105L. The caveat is the the Nikon is the optically better lens of the two, though not by much. When taken as a whole, the D750 creates a marketing distinction between the existing D810 and the 5D Mark III; by virtue of being almost comparable to the Canon, the D750 lets Nikon make the case that the D810 is "better." However, for those who depending on their Canon's for professional videography, the D750 is unconvincing. The 5D Mark III's higherst video bitrate is 38 megabits/s, whereas the D750 shares the same as the D810/D800... a dated 24 megabits/s in light of all of the other camera announcements of 2014. 

A more vexing question is what happens to all of the long suffering D300/D300s users who are waiting for the mythical D400, and who do not want to settle for the D7100. There are no easy answers to that one. A cold, honest look at the situation tells us that the D7100 is more than a capable enough camera for this group of users. Even if a D300s user decided to bite the bullet, follow Nikon's lead and step up to the D750, it would require a re-alignment of his/her lens set.


Recommendations


D300 User: Tough call, but not because of the logical of the situation but because of the emotional baggage that Nikon has saddled on this user group. The logical choice of camera that is close-ish to what the D300 did is the D7100, even if it is a step down in handling and build quality. The future as Nikon sees it favours FX; jumping to the D750 means keeping up with the Jones and all of the FX lenses that Nikon has been keen to roll out.

D7000/D7100 User: Two choices: Either the D610 or the D750. Both are designed to be easy for DX users to step up to. It's no coincidence that the D750 bears a strong resemblance to the D7100. Which one you choose depends on how willing you are to go up the food chain. The D610 will be for users who are looking for "more" but not the "best." The D750 will be for those D7xxx shooters looking to upgrade to "more" because they are doing more with their photography, either in paid work or in more challenging shooting conditions.

D600/D610 User: Even if you have a D600, you have a relatively new camera. Even though the D750 is more "pro" than the D600 or D610, it's not big enough of a change to justify another camera purchase over $2000.

D700 User: Yep, this is your camera. Wonder why the model designation is "D750" instead of "D620"? That's because Nikon has historically had a lot of success with sevens; think D70, D700 and D7000. If you think that's silly, what are the chances that Nikon will use the name "Coolpix B" for some future camera?

D800/D810 User: You are most likely shooting at a level beyond the scope of this blog, but even then, the virtues of the D750 as a backup camera to the D810 speak for themselves.

3 comments:

  1. Congrats! Best analysis on the D750 I've found on the web so far. I don't agree the D800/810 was the successor to the D700. 36MP means most people need a new computer to handle the large files....a $500+ cost we don't need. Ideally the D750 should have mirrored the D4s like my current D700 mirrored the D3. 16MP would have been more than OK with the D750 features. Nevertheless, I am going to take the plunge and have ordered a D750 for release date. I hope it was worth the wait.

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    1. I've had a sneak peak at it. It's very capable and the price is bargain compared to the alternatives. BTW, you don't need all 36mp of the D810 to appreciate its file quality; the files downsized are still gorgeous. Tweaking D800 JPEg's isn't too bad, but doing full on RAW edits is a chore.

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