Just when you thought true innovation had given way to product iteration, and manufacturers were resorting to adding non-core functionality (like DSLR Video) to try to expand the appeal of cameras, the game changes. The success of the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (which were initially expected to threaten the entry level DSLR's, but instead got priced more in the mid-range), along with Sony's introduction of Pellicle mirrors into DSLR's, puts both Nikon and Canon under pressure, while also creating opportunities for them.
When predicting or speculating about future plans for Nikon and Canon, you must not forget the impact each companies products and release scheduling has on the other. Take for example Nikon releasing (possibly rushing) the D90 to market mere days before the release of the Canon 5D Mark II, so they could claim bragging rights as the first video-enabled DSLR; or the launch of the Nikon D3s with its amazing low light ability, to steal some of the thunder from the Canon 1D Mark IV announcement a week later.
Let's break the predictions down by target market, starting today with the pro cameras, and continuing over the next few days:
Pro DSLR Predictions:
The Pro DSLR segment has traditionally been split into two – high-speed bodies for photojournalists and sports shooters, and high-resolution bodies for studio and fine art photographers.
High-Speed Pro Bodies:
Nikon currently has the D3s in this segment, which turns two years old in the middle of 2011. If Nikon holds to its historical release schedule, then a Nikon D4 announcement is due some time in the summer of 2011, give or take a couple of months. Canon on the other hand have only just announced the 1D Mark IV this year, so this is likely to be their pro high-speed body for at least the next couple of years.
Unfortunately for Canon, the two most important features for the high-speed bodies are ISO ability and Autofocus. The current Nikon has a definite edge in the high ISO department, and although the 1D Mark IV autofocus is extremely good, many argue that Nikon has a slight edge in Autofocus also with their 4 year old CAM3500 AF system. The important area for sports shooters where Canon does have a slight lead is the frame rate, but not by much.
Given no update to Canon's pro high-speed body is expected any time soon, what might Nikon bring to the table with the D4? Whatever the D4 ends up as, it will be the basis for the pro Nikon body for probably the next 4 years, and so the D4 will be a major step forward. Lets start with the easy stuff: ISO and resolution. Some have commented that the ISO abilities of the D3s are "ahead of the development curve" and therefore a higher resolution D4 is likely to have inferior high-ISO abilities. We have to disagree, innovation has never been linear, but rather made up of large and small steps. Cleary Nikon took a large step with the D3s, but with an anticipated 2 years between the D3s and D4, we very much doubt Nikon engineers have been sitting idle... in that time they should have made at least a few small steps forward, and perhaps even more. Given that, we very much doubt Nikon would launch a D4 with inferior ISO abilities to the camera it replaced. Instead we expect a D4 to be able to match, possibly even better its predecessors low light ability, while giving a modest bump in resolution to around 16-18mp.
Nikon will also introduce a new autofocus system with the D4 (and likely share that system with the D4X, D400 etc). We'd expect the autofocus system to be a noticeable step forward from the CAM3500, given 4 years of development time since its release.
Fully featured video capabilities are a given also, at least 1080p with a wide range of frame rates.
The D4 is potentially going to be Nikon's pro platform through 2015, maybe beyond, so what else might be in store? One of the biggest limitations of the system right now is the mirror, especially with high frame rate shooting. The black out that occurs while the mirror raises prevents the AF and metering from working, and ultimately limits your max frames per second. In addition it's a moving part that uses battery power, makes a lot of noise, and can fail (although the Nikon mirror/shutter mechanism is very, very good). With mirrorless cameras getting a lot of attention in the mid range, and Sony introducing pellicle mirrors, the days of the traditional SLR mirror/shutter combination are limited. A pellicle mirror is not a good fit for a high-ISO camera, since it robs the sensor of light. Arguably EVF (Electronic View Finder) technology isn't there yet, but perhaps it may be by the summer of 2011? With the mirror gone, a pro DSLR that can silently shoot bursts at 20, 50 or even higher frames per second, all with uninterrupted autofocus tracking, would be an interesting beast indeed.
However predicting the Nikon D4 will not have a mirror is a bold move, it all depends on whether an alternate technology is ready in time. If it is, dropping the mirror opens up a world of possibilities.
High-Resolution Pro Bodies:
Both Nikon and Canon are likely to release their next generation pro studio bodies by the end of 2011, the question is what will they look like?
Starting with Canon, the current 1Ds Mark III is already looking very old, with its modest 21 megapixels, and with ISO abilities outperformed by the cheaper 5D Mark III. The Nikon D3x is generally regarded as an exceptional camera, with Nikon aiming it more at the Medium Format market with its 24 megapixels, and it is a camera Canon has yet to respond to.
From Canon, the first thing you'd expect is a significant boost in resolution – probably in the 32mp to 40mp range for the Mark IV to leapfrog the current Nikon. Again this is likely to be their pro high-res camera for the next few years, so it needs to be a major step forward over their current body, and indeed the Nikon D3x.
Similarly Nikon will respond. They know the 1Ds Mk IV is coming, and they have several approaches they can take. The could for example iterate the D3X into a D3Xs, tweaking the sensor, adding video, maybe more processing power or even slightly better ISO abilities. If Nikon decide to take that approach, it could happen any time now given the age of the D3X, then in a couple of years leapfrog the Canon with a D4X.
Or they could wait on Canon, and announce a higher resolution D4X around the same time, or shortly after, depending on what they have ready to release.
The third option is to release a D4X at the same time as the high-speed D4 camera (when they've done this before, the high-speed camera took on a letter 'h' in its name, like the D1h and D1X for example).
All are valid approaches, and all can be made to work depending on where their engineering departments are in their development cycle.
So what else might a D4X or 1Ds Mark IV have that we may not be expecting? The image circle put out by the lens limits the size of the Sensor. Yes, before I get emails, you can use an adapter increase the size of this (this is basically what a teleconverter does), but this certainly won't enhance the resolution of the lenses. However nothing says you have to have a traditionally shaped sensor – indeed you could squeeze a slightly larger square sensor into the same image circle (which would give you more megapixels without increasing pixel density), and this could line up nicely if both companies are serious about making inroads into the medium format market.
The other major disadvantage the current D3X and 1Ds Mark III have, at least when compared to MF cameras, is their low flash synch speed. Using leaf shutters inside the lens, much higher speed flash sync's are possible with Medium Format bodies, giving the photographer more control over ambient light. This is yet another argument for eliminating the mechanical shutter and going with an electronic shutter – if either Nikon or Canon are serious about the MF market, some fairly radical changes may be in store with the D4X and/or 1Ds Mark IV.
Canon is the easy one – with the 1D Mark IV still shiny and new, a high-resolution 1Ds Mark IV is clearly coming (some recent rumors state it may be called something else, but whatever it is called, it's coming). A higher resolution (32-40 megapixels) sensor is certain. If Canon are truly interested in eating into the Medium Format space, some surprises like a square sensor or electronic shutter with higher flash sync speed would make a lot of sense. Chances of this camera being released before the end of 2011 are very high.
Nikon on the other hand is a little harder to predict. A Nikon D4 (possibly D4h) should be here in the summer of 2011, give or take a month or three. We expect a new AF system, 16-18 megapixels, with the same or slightly better high-ISO abilities as the D3s. The camera should have Nikons best video implementation to date. What would make the D4 really interesting to sports shooters would be dropping the mirror in favor of some new technology, enabling uninterrupted autofocus and previously unseen frame rates.
As for a high-resolution camera from Nikon in 2011, this is much harder to predict. If something is coming soon (next few months), it'll almost certainly be a D3Xs (basically a tweaked D3X, built around the same sensor but with video and some other enhancements). A D3Xs would mean a D4X is unlikely until 2012 at the earliest.
However if the high-res camera comes either next summer with a D4 (or D4h), or later, possibly even 2012, then expect much higher resolution, new AF system, and possibly something more radical like a square sensor or electronic shutter with higher flash sync speeds for studio photographers. It all depends on how serious Nikon are about making inroads into the Medium Format space.
Next Up: Prosumer DSLR's....