CP+ Nikon Interview

When we attended CP+ earlier this year in Yokohama, Japan we sat down with senior executives from several major camera and lens manufacturers. We were lucky enough to sit down with a number of Nikon engineers to ask them about their overall strategy with respect to FX vs DX, and DSLR vs mirrorless. We were also able to ask pointed technical questions regarding innovative technologies in Nikon cameras, and the answers were very enlightening. So without further ado... 

From left to right: Tsuyoshi Watanabe, Product Sub Manager for the D810A in the 1st Designing Department, Shigeo Matsushima, Product Manager for the D810A, Marketing, SLRs & Interchangeable Lenses, Shigeru Kusumoto, Department Manager, Marketing Department, Satoshi Hayakawa, Product Manager for NIKKOR lenses, SLRs & Interchangeable Lenses, Masahiko Inoue, Section Manager, Marketing, Consumer Products, Marketing Department, and Keiji Oishi, Product Manager for the D5500, SLRs & Interchangeable Lenses.

Can you give us a description of your strategy for APS-C vs. Full-frame DSLRs? How do you see those two product lines developing?

We consider both formats important for us. It just depends on the application on the part of the users, and it also depends on what needs the customer has. But we consider both lines important. As for future product line, we are sorry we cannot answer that question.

Nikon continues to create many more FX format lenses than DX. Does this signify a different approach to the two platforms?

We don’t consider that we manufacture more FX than DX lenses; we’ll focus on both.

So the different number of lenses released for the two platforms – does that mean you’ve had more work to do on full-frame? 

We don’t feel we have more FX than DX products now; we have a full line-up in FX as well.

Do you think there’s space in your DX line-up for a professional DX camera? Something to directly replace the D300S?

We have top-end for FX, but we don’t have one for DX. Canon has an equivalent [professional DX] product – the 7D Mark II – which [I assume] is why you ask this question. We will not deny any possibility of developing further lineup in DX, and any range in the future. 

Announced six years ago, the D300S was Nikon's last 'professional APS-C DSLR. Could there be another one round the corner?

So FX is not your professional product, and DX is not your consumer product?

No, that’s not how we see these two ranges.

Nikon reacted extremely quickly to the D750 flare issue - much more quickly than to the D600 oil spots problem. Does this reflect a change in approach to feedback and quality assurance?

Thank you for that comment. Every time we encounter an issue, we revisit the QA process. In the case of the D600, we also reviewed the QA process at that time [after the issue was raised]. We’ll continue to improve our QA and service by quickly responding to the customer’s voice.

What did you learn from the D600 episode?

In the case of our handling of the D600 issue, we took too much time before we got our response to the customer. That was an issue we realized, and we took that as a lesson, and took quicker action on the D750. We learned from the D600 episode.

One thing we’ve seen with DSLRs in the D5500 and D3300 class is that as resolution gets higher, AF accuracy becomes critical. With higher-end DSLRs we microadjust focus routinely, but this feature is not available on the D3000/5000 series of cameras. How are you dealing with this issue?

We don’t have micro-adjustment on that class of cameras. We do have stringent quality criteria and standards, and based on these standards, we don’t see any problem with not having micro-adjustment for that class of cameras. But going forward, we don’t deny that this may be an option in the future.

The Nikon D5500 has an advanced 39-point AF system but does not offer autofocus fine-tuning, which makes it less reliable when paired with large-aperture primes, where small focus inaccuracies are made very obvious by the high-resolution 24MP sensor.

So this would not be a problem with mirrorless.

Correct - mirrorless uses contrast AF, and there is no problem as long as contrast detection AF is being used. 

The obvious next question is: as resolution increases and mirrorless becomes more practical for AF accuracy reasons, when will Nikon create mirrorless products with an equivalent specification to these entry-level DSLRs? 

As for SLRs, we’ll continue to improve accuracy of AF and Live View AF. For mirrorless, we have the Nikon 1 series. We have D-series SLRs, Nikon 1 mirrorless, and our CoolPix line as well. We’ll ensure the best product mix to meet the wide range of customer needs.

The 1-system is 4 years old, and it hasn’t gained wide-spread acceptance among enthusiasts, at least not in the US. If you could go back, knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently? 

The benefit of Nikon 1 is that it’s very small. Its also good at capturing moving subjects, and it’s very high speed. This is a new value proposition to the customer. So, no we wouldn’t have taken a different approach. We have two different categories: the D-line and the 1-series, and with these lineups, we believe we’ll meet all the needs of customers.

Do you think there’s a place for a bigger sensor mirrorless camera in your line-up?

As for the possibility of larger sensor mirrorless - since competitors have already done this, technically speaking it’s possible. However, we want to highlight the advantage of the Nikon 1 system: it’s very small, including its lenses. For example, last year, we launched the V3, and photographers, especially those specializing in aviation industry and birds, highly appreciated the Nikon 1 series’ benefits: portability and small size. We still believe that Nikon 1 has room for further evolution. This is the area we want to put effort in to, rather than making bigger sensor mirrorless cameras.

But when the EVF and grip are attached the V3 is about as large as some APS-C mirrorless cameras and not much smaller than some full-frame models...

Last year we launched the V3 with the 70-300mm telephoto lens, which is equivalent to more than 800mm in terms of full-frame. Yet [the lens] was palm size. So this is the biggest benefit of the Nikon 1 system. On top of that, in the beginning of this year, we announced the development of a SDK for the Nikon 1 series. This will allow it to have advanced camera control abilities. The Nikon 1 cameras are very suitable for quiet operation, so we’ll focus on the remote trigger and control capabilities.

ISO 64 on the D810 was something new, despite the 36MP Sony sensor in the camera typically having a base ISO of 100 in previous cameras. Does this mean that Nikon has a lot of customization and influence over the sensor development, despite it being a Sony sensor?

We can’t speak about [third parties that] we work with. This is a position of Nikon - we will find the areas where we can show our strengths, and we’ll research and develop such areas, and commercialize that technology.

The D810 offers class-leading dynamic range at ISO 64. Those graduated ND filters in your bag from your days of shooting Velvia are quickly becoming less relevant- here's a single exposure shot with a D810 that captures an impressive scene dynamic range. We were curious as to why the new D810A, specialized for astrophotography, only goes down to a rated base ISO of 200.

Why is the base ISO of the D810A ISO 200, whereas the D810 goes down to ISO 64? We’ve found the Raw dynamic range to be class-leading at ISO 64 on the D810.

What we did for the D810A is new to us: we changed the characteristics of the IR cut filter in front of the image sensor. We transmit four times as much light at 657nm [as usual]. Because that sensitivity went up significantly, we couldn’t achieve a base ISO of 64. In other words, the D810A has better sensitivity in red areas, and the resulting color balancing leads to higher blue and green sensitivities. This leads to the higher base ISO of 200.  

We like the introduction of electronic front curtain in the D810, but we think it would be very useful if it were available in all shooting modes, especially if paired with short exposure delays. The first press of the shutter button could move the mirror up and open the shutter, and after a short delay, the exposure could be initiated electronically. 

Thank you very much for your idea!

If you offered delays shorter than one second, such an implementation could work for hand-held shooting and would eliminate all potential sources of sharpness-reducing vibrations.

Yes, the D810 has special requirements in terms of shutter speed, so we can’t follow the regular sequence other models have. We understand your comments though and the potential needs, so we will explore the possibility in the future.

If you had to convince a first-time camera buyer to invest in a D5500 over - say - a Sony a6000, what would you tell them?

I think the optical viewfinder is a strong point of our SLR system. This allows users to be able to take pictures as they see [them]. This is our competitive advantage. Of course mirrorless is smaller, but our SLRs offer other advantages, such as our family of lenses and accessories. The D5500 is a great introduction to SLR photography.

Nikon's 3D tracking offers class-leading subject tracking, allowing the camera to track an initially chosen subject (the eye, in this case) despite subject, or camera movement. Cross-type AF points (shown in blue), however, are limited to the central region only.

One of the shortcomings of Nikon’s AF sensors are the more centrally-located cross-type points. Do you plan to employ cross-type points spread further across the frame? 

Using cross-type sensors may help improve AF performance, and we know that Canon is using cross-type sensors in many different models. However, this does come at a higher cost, and we have to take all these factors into consideration. Including not just the number of cross sensors, but also the area and layout of the sensor.

We understand there are pros and cons, but we have to strike a balance. For example, our recent AF systems now work down to -3 EV. We must consider the needs of our target users – in this case, whether or not they need cross-sensors.

What is the most difficult challenge for you as resolution of sensors increases?

There are a number of elements involved: (1) the image processing capability to process the ultra-high resolution images; (2) capturing the pictures without vibrations; (3) the capabilities of the lenses to capture all the detail; and (4) AF accuracy. 

Editors' note:

This interview was a tough one to edit, partly because it was conducted with several interlocutors, and partly because much of it was 'off the record'. Hopefully though, if you've read this far you'll have learned a few things. We were encouraged to hear Nikon representatives acknowledging the company's slow response to the D600's oily sensor issue, and it's obvious that lessons have been learned. The much less serious 'flare-gate' problem that affected some D750 bodies was dealt with much more quickly, and this kind of responsiveness builds customer trust. 

Users of Nikon's APS-C format DSLRs and lenses should be reassured too that Nikon appears (or certainly claims) to be placing equal importance on development of DX and FX. We've yet to see this pay off in terms of DX lens development, but the D7200 (which was released after this interview was conducted) is certainly a very strong player in the high-end APS-C class. There's some hope too for people waiting for a 'D400' - in our interview, Nikon executives actually admitted that they don't have a 'top-end' APS-C DSLR like the Canon EOS 7D II. While not by any means a confirmation that Nikon is working on one, we definitely got the impression that the executives we were speaking to believe that there's room for a 'professional' DX format DSLR in their lineup. You (didn't quite) read it here first.

We spent quite a lot of time in this interview talking about two challenges facing DSLR makers in an era of 24MP+ resolution sensors. Namely, AF accuracy and shutter/mirror vibration-induced softness. Both of these problems are largely side-stepped in mirrorless designs (although it took many manufacturers a while to really address shutter shock, and cameras like the Sony a7R have still not remedied this issue). Starting with autofocus, as a consequence of their reliance on off-sensor phase-detection AF modules, all DSLRs are vulnerable to AF inaccuracies. These issues become more and more noticeable at higher capture resolutions, and with faster lenses. High-end DSLRs tend to offer some kind of AF fine-tuning, but it's a cumbersome process, and only valid for one subject distance and one focal length.

Worse, entry-level models like Nikon's D5500 and Canon's Rebels don't even offer any provision for AF adjustment at all (though you can send your body and lens in for adjustment by the manufacturer). This make shooting with fast prime lenses something of a lottery when it comes to AF inaccuracy (trust us, we've tried it). There is innovation on this front - Sigma's USB dock, for example, allows for calibration of four different subject distance and focal length ranges with their lenses. Canon offers calibration for two ends of a zoom, and holds patents for using sensor-based contrast-detect AF to self-calibrate phase-detect modules (though we haven't seen any fruits of this patent yet).

What Nikon brings to the table with regards to accurate autofocus is the most usable and trust-worthy subject identification and tracking to date - which ensures that the camera focuses on what you want it to focus on. To be frank, Nikon's '3D' subject tracking leaves its competition in the dust. However, we were specifically curious if Nikon was working on any advancements to AF accuracy and precision of their modules in combination with their lenses, but were only able to get a generic statement that they are working towards higher standards for AF calibration and tolerances.

The other major challenge faced by DSLR manufacturers is shutter/mirror vibration-induced softness. Flagship products like the D800-series must be shot very carefully if mirror and shutter-induced softness is to be avoided at certain shutter speeds. And though Nikon's redesign of the mirror and inclusion of electronic front curtain in the D810 is a huge step forward, the reality is that it's still practically difficult to get the most out of these high resolution sensors. The D810 in particular has usability issues around its otherwise excellent electronic front curtain in that it's limited to Mirror Up mode. Furthermore, all high resolution offerings from all brands exhibit deleterious interactions between mirror/shutter vibrations and optical stabilization systems (our initial tests of the Canon EOS 5DS show that it is no exception).

In the end, this requires a meticulous approach to shooting, or often limiting yourself to certain shutter speeds, in order to maximize the resolution offered by these sensors. On a positive note, when we raised these points with Nikon engineers in our meeting, it sparked a lengthy off-record discussion.

And that brings us to our final point: we were particularly impressed by the open respect displayed of competitor's offerings: Nikon themselves openly admitted that the 7D II was a top-of-the-line professional DX camera, and that Canon's use of cross-type sensors across their entire AF array is an advantage. They were also very open to critical feedback- when we mentioned particular issues, Nikon executives were very interested in continuing conversations and critically analyzing our feedback. This attitude speaks highly of the company, and makes us confident that Nikon is interested in listening to good ideas to make their products better. And that's really the best you can hope for.