Digital Photography in Flux

It seems to me that this is a terrible time to buy a new digital camera, certainly a terrible time to buy anything other than a sub-$200 point-and-shoot.

Mid-range compacts ($200-300) are going to be made obsolete pretty soon as the high-end compacts ($300-500) are heavily discounted and then their features are moved into the more inexpensive models. Why? Because DSLRs are starting to sell for under $500 and the Micro Four-Thirds system is going to make small sensor compacts look like the garbage they are.

High-end compacts, such as the Canon G10, are expensive but fundamentally inferior to low-end DSLRs in image quality. The only reason you would buy one of these cameras is because it’s smaller than a DSLR, but they’re still not exactly compact and their image quality is only a small notch above cheaper cameras. New Micro Four-Thirds cameras will be as small or smaller, offer interchangeable lenses, and (very near) DSLR-level image quality.

Meanwhile low-end DSLRs are getting cheaper as they face competition from Micro Four-Thirds compacts, each other, and heavily discounted mid-range DSLRs (e.g. the street price of the Nikon D80 body is around $600 now — that makes a Nikon D60 or Canon XSi at a similar price just look silly).

As we get to the mid-range and high-end DSLRs we have a bunch of cameras that are already obsolete, except (arguably) for the Sony A900 (with its new 25MP full frame sensor, but it’s a Sony…) and the much hyped Canon 5D mkII (with its outmoded AF). Nikon’s D300, D700, and D3 all are beginning to look a little behind the times (they were introduced with fairly low pixel counts, and the market has just accelerated away from them). Canon’s new low-end range has the main virtue of being (relatively) cheap. The D90’s innovative video mode is already looking like a beta-quality product (Costco is taking pre-orders for D90 kits and the D90 isn’t even out yet). I love Nikon, but the D90 is looking like a loser. It has a video mode that doesn’t quite work, 12-bit image processing, and a price point sandwiched between the Canon 40D and 50D, both of which beat it on build quality, responsiveness, and still image quality. The sad thing is that while the 40D and 50D make the D90 look silly, they’re also both obsolete. Canon has already announced that the 50D’s successor will probably feature video capture.

Some time in the next year we’re going to see:

  • Micro Four-Thirds system cameras with in-body vibration reduction, HD-video capture, and a selection of superb lenses that don’t lock you to a single high-quality vendor (i.e. you’ll probably be able to buy Leica and Zuiko lenses for them at a minimum). At last we’ll be able to buy a pocketable camera that takes photos that are nearly as good as anything we could take with a “full-sized” camera.
  • Reasonably-priced Canon or Nikon bodies with HD-video capture that doesn’t suck, 15+ MPs (with no appreciable image quality reduction), usable ISO 6400 (the D90 is damn close), 14-bit image processing, and — just possibly — in body vibration reduction. I wouldn’t be surprised if full frame sensor cameras appear in the $1500-2000 price range (heck, Sony will probably be there with the A900).

Obviously, if you’re a pro, your camera pays for itself, and next year’s camera doesn’t matter. But for most of us, we don’t get to drop $1000 on a camera every year, and this seems like a truly awful year to buy a camera.

On top of all this, the economic downturn is going to force camera companies to cut into their hefty margins on higher end gear to keep volumes up. Once consumers become used to $300 entry-level DSLRs, they’ll never be able to bring the price back up (nor should they).

The Nikon D90’s Annoying Flaw

Nikon’s long-rumored and just-announced D90 is a pretty wonderful piece of kit by all accounts, but with one notable and annoying limitation buried in its tech specs. It has a 12-bit A/D converter whereas Canon offers 14-bit support in its similarly priced 40D (indeed I can find 40D’s selling from reputable vendors for under $950) and considerably cheaper EOS 450D. While providing HD video capabilities in the D90 is certainly a radical, bold, and perhaps even compelling move — skimping on still picture quality (tonal* range) is pretty annoying.

Perhaps Nikon is trying to differentiate its “pro-ish” D200 and D300 from it’s “enthusiast” D80 and D90 with tonal* range. If so, this seems to me to be a grave¬†misjudgment. Serious photographers will be intrigued by the video shooting capability, but ultimately I think that — effectively — limiting the D90 to inferior quality “film” is very, very bad idea. Nikon never did similarly dumb things with film cameras — why do it with digital?

Nikon is now in the rather odd position of having a huge gap between the D60 (which retails for around $600) and the D200 (which retails for around $1300) which has two Canons (the 450D and 40D) in it, both of which shoot 14-bit RAW.

Now, just how big a difference 14-bit makes over 12-bit in practice is unclear. Pixel-peeping review sites such as dpreview.com haven’t really started looking hard at it, but it’s obviously important enough that both Canon and Nikon have added support for it in some of their cameras. In theory, each “bit” should equate to an f-stop of dynamic range, which would make it ridiculously important.

Anyway, leaving 14-bit RAW support out of the D90 seems like a foolish oversight. It gives people a reason not to buy the D90. The D80 simply did everything it could reasonably be expected to do and then some. It was incredibly successful because there was simply no reason not to buy it. The D90’s lack of 14-bit support will give me, for one, pause. Of course, Nikon may release a D90x with 14-bit RAW once it ramps up production … in six months.

Second Thoughts

If you visit the Nikon’s D90 web page you can see a sample of the video quality, which is stunning. Autofocus is disabled while shooting, so it’s not going to be an all-round camcorder substitute, even with a separate audio recorder (which is a good idea even if you’re using a real camcorder) and an external battery grip. So, video is definitely not a half-arsed feature.

While the 12- vs. 14- bit issue is galling, it’s worth noting that the D90 excels the 450D (and in several cases the 40D and 50D) in some rather more important ways, such as continuous shooting speed (4.5 vs. 3.5 fps), 3D predictive autofocus, autofocus points, metering, and viewfinder quality. So, while the lack of 14-bit NEF support is still grating (reminiscent of Apple blocking dual display support from iBooks to differentiate them from Powerbooks way back when) Nikon is delivering an all-round superior camera.

The street price of the D300 is dropping, too, so I guess Nikon is bracketing the 50D with the D90 and D300, and letting the D90’s superior usability deal with the 40D and 450D.

Correction

As per comments from an alert reader, 14-bit refers to tonal range not “dynamic”. The two aren’t completely independent (as per my responses in comments) but I stand corrected.

Post Script

dpreview has posted sample shots from the Nikon D90 and also the Canon 50D. The first thing I look for is good low light performance, and both produce very usable output even at ISO 6400 (if you pixel peep, it looks like the Nikon produces “clusters” of noise while the Canon produces more outright artifacts, but this is just one photograph per camera of different scenes).

There’s no question that the $1000 D90 trounces the $800 450D. Although the Canon has 14-bit RAW, it is built like a toy, has a pentamirror* viewfinder, maxes out at ISO 1600, uses its flash for low-light focusing, and offers lower shooting speed (3.5fps vs 4.5fps). The 50D barely trumps the D90 for considerably more money with compact flash, 14-bit RAW, and slightly higher resolution… but the D300’s price is now in the same ballpark as the 50D.

Canon has finally released an image-stabilized 18-200mm lens (quite reasonably priced too) which will at least remove that as a reason to go Nikon.

* Every film SLR I’ve ever owned or used has had a pentaprism with excellent coverage, and not one cost more than $350, so why on earth do we find pentamirrors acceptable in $800 digitals?

Canon 50D at 6400 ISO
Canon 50D at 6400 ISO
Nikon 90D at 6400 ISO
Nikon D90 at 6400 ISO