Why the D3X will still sell

You can read Thom Hogan, you can not read Michael Reichmann (because he tells you to read Thom Hogan instead!) and you can muse for hours on the unexpected price bombshell which accompanied the Nikon D3X launch. Then you can watch in surprise as the camera sells.

Why? Read on.

First of all, Nikon already has the two key lenses required to make 24.5 megapixels work on full frame. The 14-24mm and 24-70mm f2.8 G AF-S designs (more so the 14-24 than the 24-70) deliver something which neither the Canon full-frame system nor the medium-format alternatives can offer. Plenty of DX rather than FX format owners have bought these lenses, they are not the exclusive territory of the D3/D700 and I was first sent both to test with the D300. They were launched with that camera before FX was more than a rumour.

With Canon 1Ds MkIII owners taking peculiar measures (semi-dumb lens adaptors) to get the Nikon glass on to their bodies, and Carl Zeiss Oberkochen launching an entire series of Canon-chipped manual focus lenses on the back of the growing legend of Canon optical shortcomings, Nikon arrives with more pixels and the glass is sitting there waiting. Sony did not even manage that; the 16-35mm f2.8 Zeiss is yet to appear.

Why is a 24 megapixel camera with a 14-24mm lens so useful?

Taking a rise out of the opposition!

Here’s why. It is as useful as a 12 megapixel full frame DSLR equipped with a 20mm PC shift lens offering 8mm of vertical rise/fall plus 5mm either way of cross-front assuming you stick with a vertical shape crop from a vertical composition. The 12 megapixel crop of out of the 24 megapixel full frame (approximately 17 x 25.5mm) allows this equivalence.

But, of course, you are not limited to a vertical crop; you can lift a horizontal 16 x 24mm, almost 12 megapixels, from the very top of a vertically composed 24 x 36. You can make a square crop from the top of the image, cutting off wasted foreground. Do this and you still have 16 megapixels left – that’s exactly the same as the original, and surviving, Hasselblad V-series digital backs. They only offered 37mm square on a camera intended for 56mm square, with the widest lens a 40mm and no possibility of a rising front movement (though alternatives, in the Flexbody and Arcbody with 35mm lens, did once exist).

In short – given its exceptional rectilinear geometry, even illumination, and corner to corner sharpness at normal working apertures, the 14-24mm Nikon becomes more powerful for architectural work at 12-16 megapixel final images sizes than any hand-holdable medium format rig on the planet.

I’m using a Sigma 12-24mm on my Sony Alpha 900. I know the score! I can do stuff on this combination, stopped down to a sensible f11, which no current medium format digital can even fit in the viewfinder. I did it years ago with the same lens on film, now I can do it again with digital. And Nikon D3X buyers will be able to do much the same with a far more versatile fast wide zoom.

This is an uncorrected 12mm Sigma view on full-frame 24.6 megapixel Alpha 900

This is how much data must be lost to add further correction using Photoshop CS4 Lens Distortion – though by sacrificing some sky area, a more correct original version would gave been possible.

This a final crop – 42.5MB of image, or approximately 14 megapixels. That’s enough for most professional uses including full page height publication. To get to this point required not only a 12mm full frame wide angle (Nikon’s 14mm will do just as well in most situations) but 24 megapixels of uncorrected image, otherwise the crop would yield a much smaller filesize. This why the combination of full frame, a high pixel count, and good ultra wide lenses really matters. NB: a small amount of perspective convergence is left in this version. Architectural view camera users know that an absolutely parallel ‘upward’ view looks as if it’s diverging to the eye; you should always ‘undershoot’ the correction a slightly.

You have to be an experienced shooter with a specific demand for a certain type of image before any of this matters to you. Consumer-level buyers will rarely even understand why it counts. Any architectural, interiors, real estate, industrial or commercial photographer will need no further persuasion.

Fast fashion

So, why else would the D3X sell? I interviewed Hasselblad’s CEO Christian Poulsen at photokina 2008. He told me it was unlikely Hasselblad would ever aim for faster than 3 frames a second even though the H-series body and lenses were theoretically capable. As they advance to 60 megapixels plus on the back end, the front end is slowed down to modest potential. One shot a second… one shot every 1.5 seconds… maybe 1.5 shots a second. Spending a day with Phase One shortly afterwards, they had much the same message. ‘Auto-winder’ speeds were going to have to be enough for medium format users.

The D3X shoots at 5 fps. That’s a magic figure for studio and location fashion work. Five frames a second catches action at the speed of typical catwalk moves, studio jumps and poses, pretty well. It doesn’t cut for sports action. I tested the Alpha 900 at 5 fps on racehorses, and Olaf Ulrich pointed out that the horses were all hitting the ground at 2.5 paces per second so my 5 fps only ever got two positions. 9 or 11 fps would have caught those critical in between phases of the gallop. The same goes for any fast action or sport.

Fashion and action portraiture don’t move at those speeds, but they do move faster than 1 frame every 1.5 seconds, or indeed 2 shots a second. New flash systems like the Profoto Pro Acute AIR series can deliver hyper-fast durations and recycling times, but 5 fps is nothing new to studio flash. Both Morris Industries and Jessop (through the purchase of the Powerflash company) offered this 25 years ago. Balcar did the same when not having fun electrocuting careless photographers.

Fashion location shooters use location battery-pack versions of the studio generator strobe kits. They also use natural light for action sequences. Most love the change in differential focus and lens angle of view brought by a return to full frame, after working with the DX format. Many already use Canon 1Ds MkIII, but Canon has some peculiar limitations – for example, not even the MkIII supports second-curtain flash sync with PC-coax or PocketWizard (etc) triggered studio flash. The D3X does.

Right now, second curtain sync is not a deal breaker in the big megapixel count DSLR market. Why? Because you can’t do it with Canon except by using their own camera-top battery guns (not with ANY Canon, and you couldn’t do it with film either). So you won’t find many examples of second-curtain short bulb exposure or slow speed synch technique. But the Sony Alpha 900 does support it with studio flash, so does the D3X, and through the larger Nikon user-base we can expect to see good creative applications.

Framing generosity

Pundits, with whom I opened this article, like to think that sports and wildlife photographers really don’t need 24 megapixels full frame and that only landscape, studio and similarly static shooters will be queuing at the cash till.

They are wrong. From the first days of Leicas equipped with wire-frame sports finders, action photographers have struggled with framing, composition and timing. Whether panning or setting up a camera to catch static action, anything crossing the field of view has been subject to the delays of the camera’s action plus the even greater eye-brain-hand lag of the human operator. One reason for the popularity of the machine-gun motordrive technique is that a continuous burst of two dozen frames gives you a fair chance of catching one with the moving target both a decent size in a tight frame, and well placed.

The Leica M cameras were popular for action despite the rangefinder limitations, because with longer lenses a frame remained visible beyond the image area. Sigma’s original SD9 and SD10 were also very good to use as they had a full 35mm frame, with a grey-tinted outer zone surrounding their 1.7X crop factor image. Nikon’s implementation of DX cropping on the D3X is similar, and much better than Sony’s token marks in the viewfinder. I can promise you, when you are shooting in haste and tracking a subject, those tiny corner markings just disappear!

However, unless you desperately need that 7-9fps in place of 5fps, the full 24 megapixel frame offers something invaluable for the action and sports shooter – extra image all round! Don’t think you need a longer lens to fill the frame. Of course you don’t. You were happy with a 300mm f2.8 on DX? Welcome to your 300mm f2.8 on FX.

What do you get? You get the same 12 megapixels in the centre of your shot, plus another 12 surrounding it. Remember those shots with a foot cut off, a ball just out of the frame, a brilliant expression from another player missed because you were homed in on a tight crop? 24 megapixel action shooting recovers better compositions, missed details and adds cropping potential for different shapes.

Take an extreme example. Suppose you had a 24 gigapixel camera with a 300mm lens covering a 240 x 360mm sensor, and you just set it up to cover an entire football pitch. You wouldn’t need to move the camera, just fire the shutter while sitting watching for the right moment, then pick any part of the action out.

This is fantasy but covering action sports with the extra image area of the D3X is not fantasy, it’s a step forward. The same goes of course for the Canon 1Ds MkIII though Nikon’s 3 million extra pixels will add a touch more detail to a crop from any given focal length of lens. Canon sports shooters have adopted full frame, and so have wildlife shooters, where the movement of a subject even using a IR trip sensor can be so fast you get a shot of a tail. Now Nikon specialists get the same option.

But they already had full frame – sure. They had 12 megapixels, and 12 very good megapixels with amazing high ISO performance. The point with 24 megapixels is that a tight crop, even a very small crop, can make a better half page or full page.

Why is 24 better than 21?

Although there’s nothing in it really, we work with certain paper sizes in Europe and the US. A typical European magazine measures 210 x 297mm (8.25 x 11.7″) while many US publications are 8.5 x 11″. When 6 megapixel cameras appeared, the 2000 pixel width translated to 6.6 inches at 300dpi, the industry standard for litho printing at 150-200 line screen. To fill a page, an image needs extra ‘bleed’ (usually 3mm or 1/8th all round) and may also need some leeway to move it around for layout design purposes.

Clearly, the 6.6 x 10 inch 300dpi image is really perfect for a half page of either US Letter or A4 format. Even 8 megapixels, and then 10 megapixels, was not really enough to allow alignments, crops and bleeds at uncompromised resolution for full page repro. When we got to 12 megapixels, we finally had perfect full page shooting with leeway for cropping and bleed.

Now I’ve printed excellent double page spreads from 6 megapixels. It can be done, with the bleed. Not every shot will make it, and perfect low ISO technique with excellent glass is needed. What I’m talking about here is the worst case – the high ISO shot, poor light, ordinary lens performance. Generally, any properly shot 12 megapixel DSLR image is good enough for a full page and much easier to work up for a spread.

21 megapixels, currently Canon’s largest image size, just squeezes in to an ideal double page spread pixel count. It is 18.6 inches by 12.48, plenty of leeway on the length but just a bit tight on the height for A3 (12.2 inches is needed for A3 with bleed). It is better on American paper sizes, where a spread is 11 x 17, but most of the world is now based on A-size printing. It’s also just perfect (assuming the shot needs no crop or straighten-up work) for best possible quality 12 x 16 or 12 x 18 art prints.

24 megapixels (in whatever exact variation) makes a 20 x 13.3 inch 300dpi size (both Nikon and Sony are slightly over this). That little bit extra doesn’t appear to count for much until you start straightening horizons or verticals, making minor crops, tidying up. And, if you have a perfect shot with not a wasted pixel in sight, it is a very small step away from making the standard size exhibition print of 20 x 16″.

Of course, the 21 megapixel image will do so and I’ve made plenty of 20 x 16s and the larger A2 size from much smaller files. But those extra pixels genuinely do count. I provide images to Alamy, the on-line picture library, and after working with both the Canon 5D MkII and the Alpha 900 side by side I found that the small increase in filesize made a difference to the squarer or more panoramic crops I could apply to the images while staying above Alamy’s 17 megapixel (48MB) minimum filesize. I would really like around 28 megapixels, to be able to make a precise square crop…

Which is almost back to where I started – the benefits of extra pixel real estate.

The DX3 price

In Britain, the DX3 is priced at £5495 which is £500 less than the official retail price of the Canon 1Ds MkIII. Commentators have looked at that £4500-4800 average street price of the Canon today, and assume the Nikon will be more expensive when in fact it’s likely to be less. Initially it will probably be discounted to match the Canon.

Has the D3 sold badly? No doubt it has since the D700 was launched! We purchased a D3 only one month before the D700 appeared. That certainly caused some deep thought. Will Nikon repeat a mistake, or repeat a triumph? Perhaps the D700 has been such a resounding success they are bound to bring out the putative D700X – or perhaps the D700 put such a sharp end to demand for the D3, they won’t produce a D700X because it would devalue the D3X.

One thing is certain. The D3X is the first camera to be priced AFTER the major readjustments which have hit currency values, interest rates, disposable income, credit availability and other vital aspects of the international market for such items. Canon’s announcements of relatively small (5-10%) price rises earlier in 2008 were reactions to the fledgling financial crisis. Existing stock is not a problem as far as keeping current prices goes; future production is another matter.

The D3X may seem overpriced now but the truth is that all such cameras – including consumer level DSLRs – have been underpriced for several years. When I bought a house in 1972 it cost £4,400 and a Hasselblad 500C which was the pro workhorse equivalent of a Nikon DX3 or Canon 1Ds MkII at the time was £480. I checked the same houses today and they sell for £140,000. By those standards, a basic pro camera with lens should be over £15,000. My salary in 1972 was £100 a month, in case you think modern house prices have gone up out beyond recognition – the same junior reporter’s job today is paid at £1,500 a month. So by that standard the pro camera+lens should be around £6,500.

And indeed, it is!

– David Kilpatrick FBIPP Hon FMPA

18 thoughts on “Why the D3X will still sell

  1. Pingback: Making the Case For the Nikon D3x Digital SLR Camera | neutralday

  2. Since you mention me, I’ll respond ;~).

    Many of your points are well taken: there are several very nice lenses that will help the D3x do a nice job with all those extra pixels. Curiously, Nikon didn’t manage to really say that at the D3x launch: you’ve done a better job than they did at making the image quality marketing pitch.

    However, a couple of points.

    First, my point hasn’t been that Nikon will sell no D3x bodies. My point has been that they didn’t rise above the bar on their marketing and have allowed one big (and to some not nasty) surprise set the tone for the launch: the price. Because of that, they’ve put doubts into Nikon shooters minds rather than removed them. I’ve not yet really talked about the camera itself and whether it might be worth the money or not, mainly because I don’t have one to assess. However, I can and do comment on how Nikon handled the launch. And even before I had clicked Publish on anything I wrote my In Box was already filling up with emails, some angry, all negative. Nikon hasn’t done themselves any favors with the way they’ve handled this launch, and the surprise of the pricing is just one of those things.

    Second, your comments on the pricing can’t be let stand as they’re written ;~). “It will probably be discounted…” would actually reflect a big problem for Nikon. The price is what they said it is. The dealer discount is based upon that, and the dealer discount is slim, typically somewhere around 15% here in the US. Thus, any discounts reflect a DEALER deciding that they need to trim the price and take less than their usual percentage in order to move the camera. That’s actually what’s happening with the D3 and 1DsIII here right now: both have discounts AT THE DEALER that is essentially wiping out the dealer profit. The dealers are doing that to move bodies they committed cash to, not because they think that’s the right price. This indicates weak demand. Were a D3x to show any discount at launch, that would also indicate weak demand.

    As for the currency adjustments causing the pricing change, that argument doesn’t fly, either. The price in Japan is 898,000 yen. Try running that through your currency calculator: the US price is actually LOWER. There’s been no inflation in Japan to account for the pricing change there.

    Finally, I can’t accept the “it used to represent X percent of my income/costs/whatever so it should always be that percent of my income/costs/whatever” argument. By my pricing calculations, the D3x is actually somewhat less expensive for Nikon to make than the D3. Indeed, in high tech, that’s often the case: you can design in ways that reduce costs substantially over time. That’s why things like TVs, even the highest end ones, have dropped over time relative to inflation. In essence, you’re saying that Nikon should profit more relative to inflation, that you’ll pay the full cost of that because that’s the way it should be.

  3. What a load of nonsense!

    Cameras are not underpriced.
    Cameras and houses have nothing in common.
    The ‘street price’ of the D3x will be $8000 per Nikon.
    The Canon 1DsM3 has a street price of $6500 (Amazon.com).
    When you charge a lot more than the competition, there is a problem.
    For most of us wanting more megapixels, the Sony A900 and
    Canon 5DM2 will be the more appealing choices.
    The bottom line: the D3X is not worth $8000.

  4. I didn’t know you worked for Nikon marketing. The $8000 price point has pissed off the Nikon prosumers royally since their Canon friends are getting 20+ MP cameras for 1/3 of what Nikon’s offering costs.

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  10. Thom, thanks for taking the time to visit and leave such a thoughtful reply. One key difference is that I’m writing from a European market viewpoint, and you from a US market. Since US market prices were once (no longer) as low as half those of Europe, heavy discounting TO dealers was uncommon. But in Europe, discounting is done by the distributors as well as by the dealers (whether they admit it or not). It can be complex – based on gross turnover including consumer products, for example, or on cashflow terms. Offer to pay outright instead of 30, 60 or 90 days and the price can shift considerably. In Europe, companies like Nikon retain title to their products held by dealers and unpaid for, because so many work on the basis of getting buyers before their credit period is up – and some fail so badly they end up out of business.

    The Sony A900 was launched in the UK at £2100 and has fallen as low as £1550 despite relatively solid demand. The main reason for slowing demand has been the appearance of some extremely low-cost vendors, and the expectation that the price in general will fall to £1600 instead of the current normal discounted retail of around £1800.

    This is a different market. For example, the Canon 5D MkII is coming in at 25-30% more expensive than the Sony A900 in the UK and seems unlikely to change its relative position – but in other world zones, the A900 is more than the 5D MkII.

    In Britain, there are enough Nikon professionals who will go for the D3X to ensure it does sell well. There is a minimal enthusiast market for this level of camera, but a very solid professional and hire department demand. The London hire counter purchasers will probably have to be put on quotas, or they would buy the entire first deliveries.

    As for me, I’m using an Alpha 900 and very happy to keep £4000 in my pocket – but 95% of the potential buyers for the D3X would have no interest at all in even trying the Sony (Minolta) alternative. I’ve seen 35 years of this, including one national newspaper chain (United Newspapers) attempt to make Minolta their house camera. Nikon is Nikon – and the D3X will sell!


  11. Why you keep comparing the Canon and Sony marketing?
    They have different marketing and production cost. Non of them were comparable.
    Nikon should stick with their own pricing.
    Sure D3x will sell, but will that worth it?

  12. David,

    Some very good points raised by you here. Yes, the D3X is selling, definitely and it hardly seems like retailers in Europe nor in the States need to discount it to get it out the door (that would’ve been most disturbing just as it hits the shelves).

    Of course the price of the body will drop over time, everything containing electronics does. How rapid it will fall may be of interest to some consumers dashing out hard-earned money, but this surely is a secondary item and of lower interest to someone who finds good use of the body _now_.

    There are indeed Nikonians comparing the D3X with mid-range (pro-sumer) models from e.g. Canon, and who state the D3X is overpriced. One simple item missed in such comparisons being that the cameras are targeting different audiences, e.g. build quality being different.

    Consumers who wanted a 24mpix camera for landscape at some 5k USD are disappointed at the pricing. They have to wait substantially before the D3X hits that floor IMO and they should rather stick around for the upgrade of the D700, a D800.


  13. Great Article, David. I believe D3X will definitely sell to collectors and also top-rank professional photographers. I have tried that a D3X in a shop yesterday, it is absolutely amazing, stunning and so on.

    Well, this situation is similar to those big telephoto lens like 400 F/2.8, 500, and 600. Only special photographers with special needs would make a purchase.

    Another reason why it will sell is because it is like a jewel among cameras. As not everybody has the money to purchase something like that.

    Any how, I agree with you that this camera will sell to those professionals, however, I believe after all those professionals got their cameras, there will be a sharp decrease in the demand of this camera. Then both Nikon and us will both know what’s going on as they’ll either lower their prices or D700X will come out.

    Just my 2 cents.