I’ve been too busy in my “day job” during the past couple of months to keep up with the Nikon rumor mill so when Nikon announced the D700, I was surprised AND a bit confused as to where this new camera fit into the D-series lineup.
I own a Nikon D70, D200 and D300. As expected, the the higher the model number, the more capable the camera. This makes sense! However, if you look at the entire collection of D-series model numbers, it gets very confusing. For example, the D40 is newer and more capable than the D50 or the D70. The recently announced D60 is even newer and more capable. Now, Nikon skips from the D300 to the D700? I feel like I need a decoder ring!
I decided to capture several of web pages for offline reading (using Adobe Acrobat 9 of course!) from dpreview.com, kenrockwell.com, and wikipedia and study them on my recent flight from London to home. I had some time to kill and was ready for a break from the job after a long week of meetings. After studying each of the 19 Nikon D-series cameras, I now understand the entire lineup much better than before. From looking at some of the popular photography message boards, I noticed that many others share my confusion so I felt that my research was blog worthy.
I created a simple grid showing every Nikon D-series camera sorted by release date of the camera. I’ve selected a handful of attributes to put in the columns of my grid. I don’t propose that these are the only attributes worth considering when evaluating a digital camera so don’t base any purchase decisions solely on my grid! The attributes selected are used to illustrate the high-level differences between each camera model.
* The D300 and D700 will do 8 FPS if used with the battery grip
** Higher ISO speeds are available via “boost” but quality suffers dramatically
Here are my conclusions on the basic numbering scheme of the Nikon D-series (feel free to correct me):
- Dx = Pro-level camera. The priority is in features and ruggedness, not size and weight. Check out the frames per second (FPS) on the D3 compared to the Dxxx and Dxx models. It’s obvious that this camera is for hard-core photographers. Take a look at the photographers on the sidelines of an NFL game. You’ll see a lot of D3’s. These photographers need very fast frame rates, huge storage capacity and a camera that can survive an occasional 300lb collision! Nikon focuses on giving professional photographers what they want and spare no expense to deliver. Take a look at the price of the D3 and you’ll see what I mean! It ain’t cheap! I want one but I can’t justify the cost. I do just fine with my D300.
- Dxx = Entry-level camera. Although these cameras are categorized as “entry-level”, they are extremely capable and solid cameras. Entry-level describes pricing more than capabilities. Many of these cameras are used by pros, sometimes as a backup camera. I know a professional photographer that carries a D70 as a backup to his D2Xs. He knows that if the D2Xs fails, he can keep doing his job and deliver good images using the D70.
- Dxxx = High-end amateur and pro. These cameras fill the gap between the previous two categories. Their specs are very good and many pros find them more than adequate (including myself).
Below is a illustration from wikipedia that further breaks down the categories:
DX vs. FX
The Nikon D-series cameras followed a long line of 35mm film SLR cameras. The size of a 35mm film frame is about 36mm x 23.9mm. When the D-series was launched, Nikon and others wanted to use a similar size digital sensor because it would allow all of the lenses to have the same angle of view as they did with the 35mm SLRs. Unfortunately, a sensor this size was not practical at the time so Nikon went with the smaller 23.7mm x 15.7mm sensor (now known as the DX format). Photographers using lenses from the their 35mm cameras had to re-calibrate their brains when thinking about focal length to adjust for the difference! The DX sensor is smaller so the image projected by the lens is cropped. As a result, photographers using their existing lenses had to multiple focal lengths by 1.5 to estimate the new results. For example, with a 35mm film frame, a 200mm lens provides 4X magnification, but with the smaller DX sensor, the resulting image is equivalent to a 300mm lens (200×1.5) resulting in a zoom of 6X. Although this sounds like a nice bonus, it made wide angle lenses not so wide when used on a DX camera.
In 2003, Nikon introduced DX lenses. These lenses projected an image that matched the size of the DX format sensor. A list of Nikon DX lenses can be found here.
The Nikon D3 is the first Nikon digital SLR to use a sensor that is the same size as the original 35mm film frame. This new format is called “FX”. There are several advantages of a larger sensor, one of which is that the non-DX lenses work as expected. However, if you use a DX lens on the Nikon D3, it only projects the image on the middle 5.1 megapixels of the 12.2 megapixel sensor.
The new Nikon D700 is the first Dxxx series Nikon SLR to provide a FX format sensor. Now it starts to make sense! The Nikon D700 is basically a lower-end version of the Nikon D3 providing a more affordable alternative to the Nikon D3 for photographers that desire the FX format. The Nikon D300 is basically a DX format equivalent of the D700.
My assumption is that there will be more DX format DSLRs and will most likely be named the D400, D500, etc. I suspect that D700 was chosen as the FX model number to some room for future DX additions.
FYI – I’ll personally skip the D700. I’m still very happy with my D300 and my Nikon 18-200mm DX lens. I do own a few non-DX lenses, including one of my favorites, the Nikkor 50mm f1.4, but I don’t have a real need to switch to a FX format camera, especially considering the cost of the upgrade.
If you are a photographer looking to purchase your first Nikon DSLR, don’t let the whole DX vs FX debate frustrate or confuse you. You’ll be happy with either format. My recommendation is to go with one of the Dxx models and later get yourself a higher end Dxxx. I often recommend the D60 or D40 to friends as a first DSLR. If you are on a very tight budget, a used D50 or D70 is a fine choice. All of these take fantastic pictures. Most are sold as a kit that include a decent starter lens.
If you want to read more about DX vs FX, I’d suggest the following:
- Bjørn Rørslett’s D300 review – dedicates a substantial page discussing DX vs FX
- Ken Rockwell’s article
- Thom Hogan’s article
By the way, although I am obviously a “Nikon guy”, there are equivalent cameras in the Canon lineup that are fantastic choices as well. I’d like to see a similar breakdown of the Canon DSLR models to the one I provide above. I did find a timeline of Canon DSLR articles on Wikipedia.
To learn more about any of the cameras mentioned above, visit one of these great sites:
- Ken Rockwell’s site – reviews and discussions of just about every digital camera
- DPReview.com – great reviews, all brands
- Nikon’s site
- Thom Hogan’s site
Other good comparisons:
NEW – Nikon D700 brochure (10.5MB PDF) – http://nikonusa.com/Assets/Digital-SLR/25444-Nikon-D700/PDF/25444_D700_brochure.pdf
NEW – dpreview.com has a great side-by-side comparison tool. Below are 3 sets of comparisons:
Below are a few pics I’ve shot with multiple Nikon cameras (and one Fuji – sunset out plane window). To see high-res versions and the EXIF data to see which camera shot what, go to http://gregorywilson.smugmug.com. Dpreview.com also has sample images for all of the cameras mentioned above.