DX DSLR: IQ is tired; UX is wired.

Acronyms FTW!

Canon and Nikon have now both released their “high-end entry” DSLRs incorporating essentially everything they know about sensors, image processing, video, and what have you in an entry-level body. The big differentiators between $799 (for the D5100) and $1799 (for the 7D) are viewfinder size and accuracy, fairly abstruse things like micro-focus adjustment, “pro” features such as weather sealing, and marginalia such as continuous shooting speed and buffer size**, and number and type of autofocus sensors. Nikon has even included 14-bit RAW support in the D5100 (so its Dx0mark sensor score may equal or exceed the D7000’s, whereas the D5000 was slightly outscored by the D90).

This essentially marks the point at which Nikon and Canon have given up trying to use basic image quality as a differentiator between APS-C models. (Ken Rockwell has been arguing for years that Nikon’s best IQ — modulo sensor size — is always found in its most recent camera, regardless of price, unless it’s the D3000). But Nikon and Canon now aren’t even using megapixels or dynamic range*  as a differentiator  for imbeciles and enthusiasts — respectively — now. You can compare them here — this should link to dpreview’s D5100 High ISO page — to my eye, the D5100 is as good as the D7000 and K5, and better than every competing APS-C or Micro-four-thirds camera.

* Note that while Canon has offered 14-bit RAW support for years as standard feature throughout its range, the measured dynamic range has lagged behind Nikon’s 12-bit pipeline in actual testing.

** According to Nikon’s product information (unless it’s changed since I linked it) the D5100 has a 16 frame RAW shooting buffer. This would make its shooting buffer larger than the D7000’s (and buffer size is/was perhaps the single biggest criticism of the D7000).

Not coincidentally, the low-end cameras in both ranges are now, unambiguously, the best DSLRs offered by either vendor for shooting video. The D5100 even supports 1080p30 , which begs the question as to whether the D7000 will get a firmware upgrade to match it.

So, that’s the line in the sand. From now on DX cameras will compete, as did their analog forebears, on user experience, something neither Canon nor Nikon are really much good at.

Aside: Pentax seems to be more thoughtful about DSLR design than either Nikon or Canon. (It also does a better job of delivering enthusiast lenses.) For example, Pentax introduced an exposure mode where the photographer picks Aperture and Shutter Speed and the camera picks ISO (which is so obvious) which the others haven’t picked up on. Similarly I believe there’s a program mode where one dial selects ISO and the other works like the dial in Program (or “Professional” as Rockwell puts it) mode — adjusting Aperture and Shutter in opposite directions. Both modes make more sense than any exposure mode on a Canon or Nikon.

D90x Approacheth?

With Canon’s new consumer DSLR offering 1080p video (albeit at 20fps), 15MP, and 14-bit RAW, the obvious shortcomings of the D90 are more obvious than ever. I also note that my favorite discount camera store is out of stock on the D80, while Amazon is selling D80s for the same price as D90s. Obvious conclusion — the D90 is replacing the D80 at the ~$700 price point and a successor to the D90 with the obvious deficiencies addressed is on its way.

Canon 500D

Canon has announced the latest in its consumer DSLR line with 15 MP and 1080p (@20fps) / 720p (@30fps) video. Assuming Canon inserts this camera at the logical price point (presumably slightly cheaper than Nikon’s D90), that pretty much sets a new bar for DV cameras which will either need to match the 500D’s image quality or come in under its price. It also means that Nikon will need to respond with a D90x (say) that offers 1080p (and, I hope, 14-bit RAW).

And remember that the Panasonic GH-1 is already out there, waiting to eat their lunch. And while the Panasonic’s image quality may be marginally inferior to that of the Canon and Nikon DSLRs (the D90 in particular has ridiculously good low light performance), the GH-1 is smaller, cheaper, has it all over them on the video side of things.

And one — well two — more things. The GH-1’s rear video screen swings out and twists, like a video camera’s, and its electronic viewfinder works for video, like a video camera’s. Shooting video on a conventional DSLR is going to get old, fast.


Oh and one more significant advantage of the GH-1 for shooting video — its autofocus works continuously while shooting.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and weep…

And I’m referring to you Canon and Nikon (and Sony and Olympus).

(Can you tell I’m looking forward to WATCHMEN?)

Panasonic has released the GH-1, the “real” version of its G-1, aka the first truly modern interchangeable lens digital camera. In doing so, it marks the emergence of Panasonic as perhaps the leading manufacturer of consumer cameras today. Time will tell whether Canon and Nikon (and Sony) are able to preserve their dominance of the still and video digital camera markets by reacting.

What’s so special about the GH-1?

Well, it’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a DSLR by virtue of not having a mirror/pentaprism viewfinder assembly, or a large heavy shutter. It’s a “fly-by-wire” camera with an electronic viewfinder, but the electronic viewfinder is as big as a good DSLR viewfinder while accurately previewing the effects of shutter speed and aperture (because it’s live view). It focuses the way a point-and-shoot camera does, but it focuses as fast as a DSLR. Oh, and it shoots 1080p at 24dps and 720p as 60fps.

Image quality is not quite up there with the D90 or 5D MkII, but then you’re paying two thirds the price of the first and a fraction of the price of the second. It’s probably going to be cheaper than most halfway decent HD camcorders. And unlike the D90 it has proper stereo microphone hookups.

All this, and the option of Leica and Zuiko lenses.

Another Annoying D90 “Feature”

Turns out that the D90 uses lossy compression on its RAW files.

The D90 achieves relatively small RAW file sizes by applying lossy compression to the data whether you like it or not – to put them into context, the D300 with the same resolution typically delivers 12-bit RAW files measuring 13.6MB with lossless compression, or 14.2MB with no compression at all. It’s always good to save space, but we’d sooner the D90 employed lossless compression on its RAW files, or at least gave you the option. For that you’ll need the D300. (Cameralabs.com)

This is a really annoying decision. It’s bad enough that the D90 doesn’t offer 14-bit image processing (something you get with the much cheaper Rebel XSi, and the slightly cheaper 40D) but this is just dumb. Perhaps Nikon’s lossy compression is so damn good that no-one can tell the difference, but why not make it an option. I guarantee not having a lossless file format will cost Nikon sales.

Deliberately crippling cameras (heck, I’m betting that Nikon is using the same circuitry as the D300 and just flipping some firmware switch to disable 14-bit processing and uncompressed RAW) means that the digital camera market is teetering on the edge of massive price drops (after all, it’s clear that the D90 is a D300 in a flimsier box for 60% of the price, or would be sans deliberate crippling), which are all the more likely given the economic situation.

It used to be typical for camera companies to sell a ruggedized version of a consumer camera for a ridiculous amount of money. For that you got interchangeable components (focusing screens, backs, viewfinders), weather seals, longer life components, faster motor drives, and so forth). But the cheaper camera didn’t have a special circuit in it to deliberately fuck up your pictures.

Until Nikon is willing to stop insulting my intelligence, I’m not buying another piece of Nikon kit.