In photography as in life, it sometimes seems no good piece of kit goes unpunished. In 2012 as the world imaging community prepared to descend upon Cologne, Germany for the biennial imaging fair known as Photokina, the two leading manufacturers of consumer and professional digital cameras introduced major new products. About a week before the fair Nikon introduced the D600. Days later, Canon introduced the EOS 6D. Marketed as entry level full-frame CMOS sensor bodies, the D600 and 6D were intended to attract enthusiasts and crop-frame camera users to make the move into full-frame. The D600 joined Nikon’s flagship D4 and professional D800 and D800e in the FX category of full-frame DSLR bodies. Canon’s flagship 1DX and professional 5DMkIII welcomed the EOS 6D in completing that full-frame lineup.
Fast forward to the present day and, as the 2014 edition of Photokina opens, Canon has not introduced a new full-frame body since 2012. By contrast, Nikon has introduced four new FX (full-frame) DSLR cameras, including the just announced D750. The D750 features an impressive spec sheet:
- An all-new 24.3 MP CMOS sensor
- Nikon’s most advanced 51-point auto focus system (incl. group area AF)
- Nikon’s flagship Expeed 4 image processor
- Native ISO range of 100 to 12,800 (expandable to ISO 50 and 51,200)
- Full 1080p/60 HD video (incl. auto aperture/auto ISO smooth adjust)
- Light but strong carbon fiber and magnesium alloy frame
- Nikon’s first FX body to feature built-in WiFi
- The first full-frame DSLR by any manufacturer to sport an articulating rear LCD screen
The response to the D750 on the InterWeb has been immediate and impassioned. Much of the response has been intensely negative. Peruse the popular rumor and fan boy sites, and you will likely see comments such as – Another toy camera from Nikon…It’s disappointing…This is an instant fail IMO…This sucks.
So, why all the venom directed toward a camera that, on paper, makes a strong case for being the best all-around DSLR on the planet? To understand, we need to go back in time to another Photokina summer. In July 2008, Nikon introduced the D700, a professional full-frame DSLR body. It was just the second FX body developed and released by Nikon and was packaged with many of the performance specs of the flagship D3. The D700 featured the same sensor as the D3, a rugged frame, similar controls and layout as the top line pro body and a burst rate that, when paired with Nikon’s battery grip, topped out at an impressive eight frames per second. D3 shooters bought the D700 as their backup body and many pros bought the D700 as their primary body. Adding the rugged crop sensor (DX format) D300 to the mix gave Nikon a trio of professional bodies to meet the needs of dedicated still photographers,
In digital photography, the lifespan of a flagship body generally runs between two and four years. Canon unveiled the EOS 1DX in October 2011. This body replaced the EOS 1DsMkIII (2007) and was a shot across the bow of the long-in-the-tooth Nikon D3. Thus, it was not at all surprising when Nikon announced the all-new 16 MP D4 in January 2012. The D4 replaced the D3 and immediately established itself as a worthy adversary to the 1DX. With the D4’s release, D700 and D300/D300s shooters waited for the next shoe to drop. Which would it be, a replacement for the D700 or the D300?
One month later in February 2012, Nikon announced the D800 and D800e. Previously, Nikon had built a reputation of developing low megapixel (relative to Canon) pro bodies that excelled in low light. With the 36 MP D800 and D800e, Nikon more than doubled the resolution of the Flagship D4. These bodies quickly became favorites of landscape and portrait photographers. However, loyal D700 shooters were left wanting more. While the D700 could make images at an impressive 8 FPS, the D800/D800e barely made 4 FPS. What they wanted was the D4’s sensor, Expeed 3 processor and auto focus system in a D800 body.
By mid-2012, the Web was abuzz with talk of a D700 replacement being announced at the next Photokina. When the D600 emerged as Nikon’s major announcement in Cologne, D700 fans were not pleased. Despite its 24 MP (two-times the D700’s resolution) CMOS sensor, superior low light performance and 1080p video recording capability, the D600 was missing several key features in the eyes of D700 loyalists.
- No professional build quality. The D600 offered weather resistance but didn’t have the D800’s rugged full magnesium alloy frame.
- No 51-point auto focus system. The D600 inherited the D7000’s 39-point AF system.
- Not a pro layout. The controls and menus were designed to be familiar to D90 and D7000 shooters.
- No 1/8000-second shutter speed. The D600 peaked at 1/4000-second.
- No 1/250-second flash sync speed. The D600 peaked at 1/200-second.
- No 8 frame per second burst rate. the D600 peaked at 6 frames per second.
What D700 owners had asked for was a D4 imaging system in a D800 body. What the D600 offered was basically an FX version of the consumer D7000. What was Nikon thinking? Well, they may have been focused on costs and customer retention. In business, one of the keys to maximizing profit is to reduce operational costs. The rugged, pro-build quality of the D4 and D800 bodies were more expensive to produce than the consumer quality D7000. While a hypothetical D700 replacement would need to be manufactured in Japan at greater expense and narrower margin, the D600 could be manufactured in Thailand at lower cost and a higher profit margin.
Another factor Nikon must have considered was the migration of point & shoot photographers to smart phones. The rise of the smart phone had given the general public a take everywhere camera with immediate access to Facebook and Twitter where they could share photos with family and friends. Point & shoot camera sales were in free fall in 2012 and Nikon must have been concerned this trend would eventually hit the crop sensor market. Rather than invest in a format they considered to have a questionable future, Nikon chose to entice enthusiast and crop sensor photographers to upgrade to full frame. The D600 was priced at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of Nikon’s professional FX bodies yet delivered comparable image quality. Yes, the D4 was better in low light and, yes, the D800 delivered higher resolution, but the D600 was no slouch. It offered comparable performance at a consumer price…or so it seemed.
Soon after D600 bodies started shipping. Reports surfaced on the web of oil and dust particle build up on the camera’s CMOS sensor. One D600 owner produced a time lapse video showing an accumulation of debris and oil that would choke a horse. Nikon had a problem. Their gift offering to enthusiast photographers was turning out to be a Trojan horse. However, Nikon refused to acknowledge what the reports and evidence clearly indicated – the D600 shutter mechanism had a problem. Nikon’s failure to immediately address the problem would allow it to grow into a major public relations disaster that deeply tarnished the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality imaging products.
In February 2013, Nikon finally issued a service advisory on the D600. The advisory offered guidance on the correct procedure to use when removing the natural accumulation of dust from a sensor. In essence, Nikon was dismissing the reports as normal dust accumulation. Meanwhile, D600 owners continued to report problems with their cameras and the impact on sales was immediate. When the camera was first introduced in September 2012, a launch price of $2,097 had been set. By November, Nikon was offering instant $100 rebates on their new body. By Christmas, customers were offered a free 24-85mm lens with the purchase of a D600. In January 2013, grey market distributors were pricing the D600 at $1,686. In May, a factory refurbished D600 was priced at $1,560. The camera’s value was in rapid decline and its reputation as a product that had been rushed to market too soon was forever sealed.
In October 2013 – only a year after the first D600 bodies shipped – Nikon introduced the D610. It was announced as a minor upgrade to the D600 but everyone knew it was an attempt to bring and end to the dust and oil disaster. The move backfired. If anything, Nikon’s decision to reissue the D600 with a new shutter mechanism was seen as tacit admission that the dust and oil problems were real. In February 2014, Nikon issued a service advisory to D600 owners offering a free inspection, cleaning and shutter assembly replacement, regardless of the warranty status of their cameras. In March, China ordered Nikon to stop selling the D600. This was followed soon after by a third service advisory that mentioned the option of, on a case-by-case basis, replacing defective D600s with D610s. In August, Nikon reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit with D600 owners. As part of the settlement, litigants were offered new D610s in exchange for their D600s.
To date, Nikon has yet to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for delivering a camera with a poorly designed shutter mechanism that allows the accumulation of dust, debris and oil on the sensor.
To fully appreciate the damage the D600 dust and oil debacle has done to Nikon’s reputation, consider that DxO Mark tested the D600 soon after its initial release and ranked it as the third-best digital camera sensor on the market. This should have been a time of celebration, with Nikon reaping the rewards of having delivered an outstanding entry level full-frame DSLR camera. Instead, they spent a year in denial and are still in damage control. Even the D610, which by all accounts does not suffer from the dust and oil issue of the D600, has not been able to distance itself from that long, dark shadow.
Which brings us back to the just-announced Nikon D750. In early August when Nikon Rumors announced Nikon’s plan to introduce a new full-frame body at Photokina, the early reports described it as an action camera. Then, came the rumor that the new DSLR would be called the D750. This generated an immediate buzz as people made the obvious connection to the dream of a long-awaited successor to the D700. The online comments quickly focused on the wants of D700 owners: professional build quality, fast and accurate auto focus and a lightning quick burst rate. A D4s sensor in a D810 body is what D700 owners had come to expect.
That is not the D750.
Nikon markets their DSLR cameras in three categories: Entry-level, Enthusiast and Professional. The D750 is Nikon’s top Enthusiast level DSLR camera. Nikon does not market the D750 as a professional camera body. It is not the D4s sensor in a D810 body. Neither is it, as the many critics have claimed, a souped up D610 sensor in a D610 body. And this, friends, is where the D750 story gets interesting. One could fairly describe this camera as a cross over. It borrows features from all digital camera categories.
The D750’s outward appearance is almost identical to the D610. Beneath that enthusiast level surface, lies a completely new animal. The frame is a magnesium alloy, carbon fiber blend resulting in a rugged, weather resistant and relatively lightweight body. The layout of the interior components is completely new for Nikon. This internal redesign created space for fully-integrated WiFi while substantially reducing the size and weight of the camera body. WiFi is pretty standard stuff in consumer bodies. Small size and low weight are definitive qualities of mirrorless cameras. Rugged build and weather resistance are qualities that define professional DSLR bodies.
The Expeed 4 processor and 51-point AF system are taken straight from Nikon’s flagship D4s and professional D810. Other features borrowed from Nikon’s professional lineup include full 1080p/60 HD video, auto aperture and auto ISO during video recording, and an industry-leading focus detection range of -3 to +19 EV. The articulated rear LCD is another feature taken from their consumer line of camera bodies. Performance characteristics shared with the enthusiast level D610 include a 1/4000-second maximum shutter speed and a 1/200-second flash sync speed.
In the D750, Nikon has delivered a camera designed and intended to appeal to a broad audience. In so doing, they’ve made a camera that – while incorporating features from several genres – is impossible to peg into any one category. The 24 MP sensor is among the best available…but it’s not the D810’s 36 MP sensor. The 6.5 frame per second burst rate is among the fastest in the market…but it’s not as fast as the 1DX or the D4s. (or the D700) The 1080p/60 HD video recording capability is very good…but it’s not 4K. The build quality is rugged and weather resistant…but it’s not weather proof. It’s impressive feature set is packed into a small, lightweight body…but it’s not mirrorless small.
In a nutshell, the D750 seems to be a Jack of all trades and a master of none. There is, perhaps, one exception. Could the D750 be the master do-it-all camera?
If you enjoy shooting sports, the AF system and burst rate will more than get the job done. In the professional full-frame DSLR category, only the Canon 1DX and Nikon D4/D4s have faster burst rates. If you enjoy portraiture and landscapes, the 24 MP sensor will deliver gorgeous, detailed images. Only Nikon’s D8XX lineup offers higher resolution. On paper, no DSLR does a better job of achieving focus in low light and the high ISO performance of the D750 is among the best in the market. If you enjoy shooting video, the D750 allows production in full HD with stereo audio. The dedicated video professional may be better served by the Panasonic Lumix GH4 or the Sony A7s. However, the D750 offers video functionality that is more than adequate for the enthusiast.
In short, the Nikon D750 looks for all the world like one of the best – arguably the best – choice as the camera that can do it all. If you are a professional photographer looking for a second body, wouldn’t it be nice to replace your current backup with something that is a little smaller and lighter? Something with outstanding resolution and low light performance? A camera with industry-leading auto focus? A camera you can use to capture quality video and sound? A backup body that does all this at a price point below $2,500? If you are an aspiring professional looking for one body that can take on any assignment (or an enthusiast seeking the same) does the D750 look like the perfect all-around performer? This is a camera body that, on paper, appears capable of shooting anything: editorial, sports, wedding, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, street, video…you name it.
Is the new Nikon D750 the best all-around DSLR camera in the world?
Bill Ferris | September 2014