What will the Nikon D3x and DM1 mean to you?


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     Exactly how will new Nikon cameras like the D3x and DM1 (or whatever Nikon decides to actually call them) affect how you will take pictures?  Whether the D3x shoots 5 fps or 12 fps, or whether the DM1 has a 36 megapixel or 50 megapixel sensor shouldn't be the key thoughts on your mind.  You may not be one of the lucky ones with $5995 or $9995 to burn for one of these cameras, as exciting as they are.  It's more likely that the real effect on your photography will come several years from now, when the technology trickles down to the level of cameras now priced at the Nikon D700 and D300 levels.  What you really need to know is how you should plan for a digital future that will be here a lot sooner than you expect.
     I've always been more interested in how new digital imaging technology will change the way we take pictures than in the nuts-and-bolts of the technology itself.  After all, those who hailed the introduction of the “horseless carriage” saw only a faster way of getting from Point A to Point B.  They had no inkling of traffic jams, smog, road rage, or wars sparked by the desire for more gasoline.  Leonardo da Vinci “designed” a helicopter, but couldn't have imagined Life Flight,  Black Hawk assault craft, or commercial chopper joy rides over Niagara Falls.
   Now that Photokina ’08 is past and speculation is once again centered on “the next big thing” from Nikon.  Something “real big” could be announced at or just before PMA 09 in Las Vegas, March 3-5, 2009.  Or it could come sooner than that.  What will the Nikon DM1 or D3x really mean to you?  My speculations on the import of these new cameras begins below.
NEW!  My real-world evaluation (not review) of the most valuable Nikon lenses I've used:
Specific lens and accessory recommendations for your camera:

Part One: The Medium Format Nikon DM1

  First up, Nikon’s first-ever digital medium format camera, which, if you'll allow a little imaginative license, will be a semi-modular professional camera with a 36 x 48mm 50 megapixel sensor, ISO 25-800 sensitivity, and files so huge that the smallest memory card you'll want to consider will be a 233X UDMA-enabled 32GB card that can barely squeeze 100 aboard images.  Your $9995 will get you a camera with built-in GPS and WAN capability (make sure your laptop is compatible!), and a 4.3-inch TFT LCD.  Sound like a super-budget-priced Leica S2 or Hasselblad H3DII-50?  We can dream, can't we?  The medium format digital arena is a new one for Nikon, and one that sells in low volumes to highly finicky customers.  Do not be shocked if the company attempts to deliver a knock-out punch to the competition right out of the gate, while simultaneously making FF (FX) format cameras like the $8000 Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III suddenly look very, very, overpriced. Canon is already on a course to do the same thing with the EOS 5D Mark II and later cameras all by itself.  At PhotoPlus Expo in New York City in October, the buzz was all about the 5D Mark II.  Obviously, 21 megapixels for $3000 is a hot button.  The megapixel horse race is not yet over.

A little background

One good thing that may come from Nikon's 36 x 48mm medium (MX) format camera may be the abolishment of the term “full frame” as applied to digital SLR cameras.  In the brief history of the digital realm, “full frame” has become the grand-daddy of all misnomers. Nikon refers to the D3 and D700 as FX-format cameras (rather than full frame) because “full frame” is an arbitrary term applied to the 24 x 36mm format, which is itself actually a double frame size compared to the original 35mm motion picture film's 18 x 24mm frame.
     Don’t blame Thomas Edison, et al., who slit George Eastman’s 70mm film stock down the middle lengthwise, and perforated both edges with 16 perforations per foot (4 per frame.)  The 35mm “full frame” designation derives from comparison with all the odd-ball departures we’ve seen through the years, including “half frame” cameras (from Olympus and others),  the Robot line’s 24 x 24mm format, some 24 x 32mm and 24 x 34mm rangefinders from Nikon itself, and Kodak’s ill-fated Advanced Photo System (APS) film format, which lives on today in formats called APS-H (from Canon) and APS-C (from virtually everybody else, in variations with 1.5 to 1.7X “multipliers.)
     My hope is that in the near future, at least in the Nikon world, we’ll have only MX, FX, and DX terms in use to refer to medium format, full frame, and APS-C digital frame sizes.

What MX entails

As exciting as the Nikon DM1 may seem to those of us who watch the advances of digital technology with shock and awe, the first Nikon MX-format camera will have little effect on those of us currently using FX or DX cameras.  Here’s why:

Expense

The Nikon DM1 will be costly.  Other cameras in the digital medium format arena are priced in multiples of $10K.  Even with an ultra-low price, the DM1 will not be something that well-heeled amateurs buy as the ultimate new toy, unless they are really well-heeled.  I know plenty of amateur D3 owners who buy the 200-400mm VR lens just in case they need it, but the DM1's price tag will cause a lot of them to think twice.  The fact that a Nikon MX-format camera won't be easy to carry around your neck as a show-off item will also dull the lustre of this ultimate toy.
     As with the $30,000 digital SLRs I first used (actually, borrowed from Kodak) in the early 1990’s the DM1 will be a camera that you need to cost justify.  In the early days of digital, catalog photographers and photojournalists were able to afford pricey cameras because digital photography gave them something they could use right away to save money or time.  Even an affordable Nikon medium format camera will likely make sense only for those who need the extra pixels.  Architecture, catalog work, portraiture, and other bastions of medium and large-format film photography will be the primary arenas for the DM1, just as existing medium format digital cameras play there today.
     So, if a camera is too expensive for you to actually own, how does it benefit you?  It's possible that the Nikon DM1, if priced reasonably enough, will help drive down the cost of more reasonably-spec'd FX cameras.  Research into 36 x 48mm sensors will also trickle down to FX-sized imagers, too, even though one of the strengths of medium format are larger, fat pixels and improved dynamic ranges, a trend that's the opposite of the direction we're seeing in some DX-format cameras with tighter pixel densities and as many as 15 megapixels of resolution within those cramped confines.
     More prestige for we Nikon photographers once Nikon enters the MX field?  Don't count on it.  MX and FX/DX are two different worlds.  While Hasselblad and Leica are still names to conjure with, Mamiya's reputation today is solely within the confines of medium format.  The company's 24 x 36mm models were so popular that the last one was introduced nearly 30 years ago.  An expensive Nikon MX camera is not going to do much to increase sales of FX/DX cameras, or increase the number of non-white lenses you see at news and sports events.  Only innovative FX/DX cameras, like the D3 are going to do that.

Lenses

Naturally, you can forget about using any of your existing lenses.  And don’t count on resurrecting your old Zenza Bronica optics, either.  If you end up migrating to Nikon medium format, you’ll be buying all new lenses, and the selection is likely to consist of a few choice primes followed by a trickle of other optics that may emerge as the DM1 gains acceptance and favor (assuming it does.)   And expect these lenses to cost as much as you’re paying for your FX digital camera today.
     If Nikon is planning to introduce the DM1 anytime soon, these new lenses are already in the pipeline.   That actually could account for the perceived dearth of new lenses for FX/DX digital cameras.  With limited resources for designing optics, it's possible that MX lens design has siphoned off talent that would otherwise be creating those fast, updated prime lenses many D3 and D700 owners are screaming for.  I personally haven't bought into this theory 100 percent, because the new 14-24mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f2.8 zooms, the spiffy fast VR sports lenses, and one of my favorites -- the 18-105mm VR -- are nothing to sneeze at.  All of us would like more and better Nikkors, and if designers are working on MX format lenses instead, it does have an effect on the rest of us.

Accessories

You’ll probably need a lot of new accessories, although there are a surprising number of  existing gadgets for Nikon FX and DX cameras which should be able to be used with the Nikon DM1.  Compact Flash cards – sure, if they are large enough and fast enough.  It's going to take a long, long time to write 50 megapixel files to a memory card, regardless of the size of the buffer and efficiency of the digital image processor. Maybe the new Nikon SB-900 will be compatible, although it's difficult to picture someone mounting one of these speedlight monsters on top of an already-huge medium format camera for candid flash photography. (The DM1 will be used a lot in the studio, using studio flash.)  But it's likely that the existing Nikon remote controls and other accessories for the 10-pin socket will work.  We should see GPS and WAN devices compatible with MX, FX, and DX cameras.  It's even possible that a beefed up version of the EN-EL4(x) battery and chargers will be shareable.

Size

Leica went for the 35mm/digital SLR form factor with the S2, and the Nikon DM1 should follow in that mold.  However, the camera will be large.  That won’t deter many photographers, and may, in fact, add some allure to the new medium-format Nikon.  When I started working for a daily newspaper many years ago, I used their Rolleiflex and Mamiya twin-lens reflex cameras, but couldn’t let go of the SLR layout (even when using a TLR with a prism finder.)  I ended up with a Fujifilm 6x9 “rangefinder” style film camera, and jumped to the Pentax 6 x 7 when it was introduced.  I was happy, but both cameras were huge.  The Nikon DM1 will be built on the same scale.
     So don’t expect to use this camera as a walk-around PJ box, although I am sure there will be hardy souls who will use this mode in order to gain those extra megapixels.  When taken outside the studio, it will be best used for contemplative photography, including architecture and landscapes, and will work best on a tripod.  But heck, most of my best FX and DX photos were taken with my Nikons mounted on a tripod, too, so the change won’t be fundamental.

Next Up

I’ll have more comments on the Nikon DM1 as the weeks past.  My next installment, Part Two, will look at what the Nikon “D3x” will do for you, and how it will change Nikon photography.

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