Sunday, September 07, 2008

Nikon M1 (Otoji)

As the DSLR war heats up the reaction of Canon management vs Nikon becomes interesting. Nikon are clearly benefiting from the Internet rumor mill. I would not be at all surprised if Nikon PR is the source of many of the leaks. That is the smart strategy if you are ahead. Canon is (currently) behind and they are threatening the canonrumors site with legal action over the use of the name.

Which brings us to the persistent rumors that Nikon is planning to make a medium format camera. In particular the recent Otoji spy shot and hints that 'automatic repositioning of the focal plane of the sensor unit when the adapter is mounted' and 'mirrorless design' are key.

It is an interesting technical puzzle. Given what we know about Nikon's technical capabilities, product line and the general photographic market, what specs would make sense for an MX format camera?

First off, the low hanging fruit. The product name could only be M1. We are told that the code name is Otoji, meaning 'big brother' or 'big uncle'.

Second, price point. I would say that to be really successful Nikon would have to bring the price down to $10K and allow at least some use to be made of F-Mount lenses. Mamiya already have a $10K medium format digital camera (inc lens). Hasselblad have a kit of camera plus lens for $13K. Nikon cannot compete if they are significantly above these prices.

Mirrorless design certainly sounds logical. A reflex action viewfinder would severely constrain the design. An electronic viewfinder would provide much greater flexibility.

The leaked photograph describes a camera that has a 40MP full frame mode with a 12MP FX format crop mode. As others have noted, this indicates a sensor that is 54mm on each side. Full medium format is 56mm.

I do not buy the idea of interchangeable backs. The cost of the camera is in the sensor and the electronics. The electronics are built to match the sensor. Nor do I think that moving the sensor just to make use of an FX format lens makes a great deal of sense. There is no magic to the distance from the mount to the lens, its just where the camera and body join. The mount could be closer to the focal plane or further away. The only significant feature of the mount is that all the light rays have to pass through it. A larger diameter mount for MX format lenses might make sense but not a movable focal plane, not if the same effect can be achieved with a piece of metal.

What might make some sense is the ability to shift the focal plane backwards and forwards in order to extend the covering power of FX lenses to cover the full frame, the effect being similar to using a bellows or extenders. But this would shift the focus point of the lens and the expansion would decrease the effective ISO (there being only so much light hitting the sensor, doubling the area that the light is spread out over will reduce the effective ISO by one stop).

The other big question is whether the camera would have a focal plane shutter or an in-lens shutter allowing for fast sync speeds. I don't see why this has to be either, or. Why not both? Nikon have already gone this route with in-camera and in-lens autofocus motors. A focal plane shutter is going to be essential if F-mount lenses are going to be useful but there is no reason why MX mount lenses could not have an in-lens shutter as well. In the digital age it is quite possible to do both.

The part of the story that has received least attention so far is lenses. I think that we can predict that the initial lens set for the M1 will be a 24mm f/3.5, 45mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/2.8.

The reason for this is that these are the focal lengths of the three new PC lenses Nikon came out with this year, to some surprise since a PC lens is a fairly exotic beast and in the age of Photoshop correction, shift is easier to correct for in post-processing.

But consider the fact that the chief difference between the design of a PC lens and a normal lens is the degree of coverge and suddenly the logic becomes clear. The PC lenses allow for a shift of 11.5mm suggesting a coverage of at least 48mm plus whatever extra coverage is required to support the 8.5 degree swing. If the actual coverage is 56mm we can guess that these these are really MX lenses performing double duty.

Now if you were to add a 150mm f/3.5, Nikon would have already covered half the fixed focal length range of Mamiya. And at the same f-stops! That is more than sufficient for an initial launch. And just as many folk have found that DX zoom lenses have sufficient coverage for FX on the upper end of their range it is likely that the same effect would apply..

So what is the probability the prediction is correct? Well Nikon has the MGM arena booked for a BIG event at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers expo. If the D3x/D4 is launched at Photokina as expected the WIPPI launch is almost certainly a medium format camera system.


ThierryD said...

Where is the business case for a MF Nikon ? Is the MF market even a niche market ? Many providers but few customers.
"The key to capitalizing on a niche market is to find or develop a market niche that has customers who are accessible, that is growing fast enough, and that is not owned by one established vendor already." (Wiki)
Nikon could become the established vendor quickly, customers are accessible, but I'm skeptical on the "growing fast enough"

Laurent SJ said...

Maybe we should reconsider the devide between DX FX and MX formats.
What is the difference really ? film/sensor size no ? but also weight/bulk of body and lenses ? until now, MX bodies were real big and slow, quality type... not for photojournalism use. But look at a D3 sporting a 14-24mmf2.8 lens, isn't it a lot bulkier than a DX ? or the new D700 FX ? how much bigger and heavier would be a new Nikon MX ? not a lot i bet. MX makes sense then, to allow photosites to breath on your larger sensor, giving improved contrast, tonal range and color. "growing fast enough" isn't dependant on this new MX business proposition, Nikon scale of production will ensure ultra competitive MX pricing vs Mamiya, phase1 or Blade, whilst the Nikon tec will make your MX fly compared to the old idea of "medium format = Slow" but still, MX remains vulnerable to a sudden world economic contraction, oh yes !

PHB said...

I think that the point here is that bridging the 35mm and Medium Formats puts Nikon into a completely different class to Canon. Its a halo model.

It is probably easier for Nikon to do this than to match Canon lens for lens and feature for feature as some folk propose.