Let’s play a little thought experiment, and imagine an alternate universe, just one quantum away. In this alternate universe, there exists a camera company called Nikon…
It’s late 2011, the world is waiting on Nikon’s entry into the mirrorless world. Panasonic and Olympus already has a three-year head start and are forging ahead with the joint Micro Four Thirds system. The year before, Sony launched its own mirrorless system cameras with the NEX series, a compact range of cameras with large APS-C sized sensors.
Nikon announces the new Nikon 1 V1 and J1, mirrorless system cameras with an APS-C sensor inside, and a revolutionary hybrid auto-focus (AF) system. Imagine a camera the size of a Sony NEX, with the astounding ability to shoot up to 15 frames per second. A Smart Photo Selector mode takes 20 shots in an instant, before, during and after you press the shutter, then selects the best five for you.
One wonders why anyone would pay this much for fast speeds. Nikon says that with the 1 cameras’ quick reflexes, you’ll never miss another great moment - making this the perfect camera for parents with young children. Would you want to miss your child’s first walk just because your camera was too slow?
Plus, the cameras come with built-in Wi-Fi, so you can share your images to your smartphone in an instant.
Of course, a new system means a new mount and thus new lenses. While the 1 series’ can use Nikon’s rich library of DSLR lenses with an adapter, Nikon will be launching a new line of 1 series lenses to go along with the camera.
Oh, and the prices? The entry-level J1 with two lenses will go for S$599, while the higher-end model competes with the then-entry level D3100 DSLR at $999 with two lenses.
Nikon indeed launches two new mirrorless system cameras in late 2011, the V1 and J1, with the same astounding shooting capabilities...but with a 1” sensor which is smaller than Micro Four Thirds and APS-C. Neither had Wi-Fi.
The entry-level J1 launched at Nikon D3100 to D5100 prices (S$999 to S$1,249) depending on the kit, while the higher-spec V1 launched at D5100 prices and higher (S$1,299 to S$1,549).
It’s late 2013, and Nikon has been teasing the heck out of its fans over a new ‘digital fusion’ kind of camera. It announces the Nikon Df, a compact, full-frame, mirrorless system camera, smaller than even its previous entry-level DSLRs had been.
It carries the same impossibly fast hybrid AF system found in the Nikon 1 series cameras, and because it uses the same mount, can use the same lenses the company has been releasing for the past two years. Akin to mounting an APS-C lens on a full-frame DSLR, an automatic crop will be applied, but native lenses for the new full-frame mount will be introduced at launch and further filled out.
And yes, you can still shoot up to 15 frames per second, with auto-focus tracking in every single frame, at full-frame quality. The viewfinder might be electronic, but Nikon believes that electronic viewfinders are at a good enough state and can only get better.
The best part? In homage to its heritage, the Df looks almost exactly like a FM SLR, only slightly bigger and actually slightly lighter. Nikon points out that the Df doesn’t just pay respect to the look and feel of the original FMs, but also respects the portability of the old film cameras - this isn’t just a skin-deep makeover.
Critics voice concerns that Nikon is abandoning its DSLR line-up, but the company states that “it skates to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” Nikon remains firmly devoted to its professional users, pointing to the leading-class, fast and high ISO D4, the revolutionary D800 with 36MP, and the 16MP high ISO, D700s, but states that the new 1 series will eventually replace its APS-C line-up and introduce full-frame to everyone.
Price? S$2,399 with a kit lens.
Nikon announces the Df, a full-frame DSLR with mechanical dials and a retro-makeover.
A Real Conclusion from an Imaginary Universe
Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy for a writer in his desk to imagine all sorts of fantastic products without any real-world engineering problems to solve or levels of corporate approval to win. I understand the inherent hubris and accept it completely.
But hopefully I make a point: Nikon has no lack of excellent technologies, from the hybrid AF system in the Nikon 1 cameras, to sharp, high-performance lenses, to sensors which push the boundaries of clarity and color every year. They understand their professional customers perfectly, as demonstrated by the high-performance D4 and D800 cameras and a fully fleshed out FX range of lenses.
But does Nikon understand consumers, and the future of compact, mirrorless, and APS-C DSLR cameras?
Alternate universe (AU) Nikon follows along mostly the same lines as present universe Nikon, with a few tweaks. The Nikon 1 series uses an APS-C sensor instead of a 1” sensor, throwing out perhaps the single biggest barrier to its adoption. It also comes out at a lower price to wipe out prosumer compacts and competing mirrorless cameras with one blow.
AU Nikon also pulls a Sony, instead of releasing our version of the Df - essentially a full-frame DSLR with a retro makeover - it makes a full-frame mirrorless camera at extremely competitive prices.
Yes, this means that AU Nikon eventually phases out its APS-C line-up of DSLR cameras in favor of mirrorless, and the DX series of lenses is committed to posterity with its 1 series replacements. But it doesn’t abandon its professional users, with a carry-everywhere D700s, a high-resolution D800, and the anything-anywhere D4, with their accompanying FX lenses.
Would this have worked, or would AU Nikon be joining the ranks of BlackBerry and Nokia today? Well, we'll never be able to know - but if you’ve read this far, let me put one question across to you: Which universe's Nikon’s products excited you more than the other?
P.S. For the sake of brevity, we haven’t gone into alternate universe Nikon’s other major accomplishments, like a S$300 compact camera with a 1” sensor and the same abilities as the J1.
Disclaimer: No quarks, protons, ion storms, Sliders or Romulans were injured in the imagining of Nikon’s alternate universe.
Alvin Soon / Associate Features Editor
I like coffee and cameras, but not together.