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Nikon -- Current and Future Digital SLR Strategy
Soon Nikon is going to announce the long waiting flagship digital SLR product D2X. In Photokina 2004 currently going on in Germany, a lot of reporters are attending. At the press release event we are fortunate to have Nikon's Senior Executive Officer Tomino Naoki to give us an enthusiastic speech, and to discuss Nikon's digital SLR business strategy.
1) Why D2X abandons LBCAST?
Reporter: D2X is already announced in Japan. Many Nikon DSLR users were asking when this product will be released when the D2H was announced in 2003. The D2H uses Nikon independently developed LBCAST sensor. Nikon claimed that comparing to traditional CMOS sensor LBCAST has better characteristics such as handling small incoming light angle. However, D2X adopts an APS-C size 12mp sensor co-developed with Sony. Why abandons such excellent LBCAST sensor? We would like to hear from Nikon regarding sensors.
Tomino Naoki: To be honest, this is a R&D problem. Specifically, we believe for the timing of D2X, the co-developed sensor is our best choice, whereas LBCAST was our best choice when we released D2H back then.
R: So why not use the next generation LBCAST? What kind of performance is the reason choosing Sony's sensor for D2X?
TN: D2X increases a lot of pixels, and for 12mp high speed shooting requirement we need to find a fast readout sensor. Sony has such multi-channel readout technology to meet our high speed performance sensor requirement.
R: In principal LBCAST uses similar technology as CMOS, therefore isn't it possible to obtain such result with CMOS multi-channel technology? Is there a difficulty in developing multi-channel readout technology in LBCAST?
TN: That's not the case. It's possible to develop the multi-channel readout technology for LBCAST similar to the CMOS sensor used in D2X. Actually we are working on this with LBCAST and such product is already done. However, the D2X can't wait for the (LBCAST) product so the Sony product was chosen.
R: Mr.. Tomino, when you introduce the D2X sensor you mentioned "it's co-developed with Sony", and "developed for Nikon's specification". Doesn't it mean that this sensor can be sold to Nikon only, and can't sell to other manufactures?
TN: Regarding the sensor, it's a product that Sony and we have overcome a lot of difficulty and spent a lot of effort. Therefore it's going to be used for ourselves only. However, if both companies agree, it's possible to sell to other companies. Most likely it will be this direction.
2) No compromise for achieving 12 mega pixels
R: From D1X's about 6mp to jump to D2X's 12mp, and sensor is still DX size (about APS-C size), there must be a lot of technology improvements. However, comparing to D1X, is there any loss in other areas as pixel count doubles?
TN: As we all know if technology stays the same, the smaller a pixel area gets, the worst to pixel signal noise ratio. However, final photo quality is not only determined by signal noise ratio. After reading electrons from pixels, transferring, and processing, we then get a final picture. Although pixel area is smaller this time, because the use of new technology the loss from smaller area can be overcome, and sensor's own standard is also higher.
R: Does it mean there is no loss or other problem with DX size achieving 12mp density?
TN: Yes. However, if you want me to achieve 20mp in this area it will be difficult. 12mp, no problem.
R: You said during Photokina 2004 press release that a full frame product can be developed if there is customer requirement. Specifically, is there a related research going on?
TN: Regarding 135mm full frame we are going through a study of possibility. However, full frame is definitely not cheap. How many customers are going to purchase such over 1 million Yen camera? This is a business issue. Thus we want to wait for a while. Last year we release DX lenses, now we announce the intention of "at least three year development with DX standard", that's what we are going to...
R: The people who are going after full frame, they are quite a persistent bunch, aren't they? However, to the professional customers, don't you think there exists such demand for full frame?
TN: Regarding the pursuit of full frame, you know also that it's not much relationship regarding professional or high-end armature users. Those who ask for full frame think that if sensor size is same as 135mm film, digital SLR can be as good as film SLR. However, we should know that in some aspects DSLR sensor already exceeds film SLR performance. Whether now it's time to completely convert to digital is not a simple topic though.
R: That's to say, you don't think we should simply compare digital SLR sensor to film SLR?
TN: Regarding the arguments of film camera or digital camera, it's really meaningless. Since the D1 digital SLR series is released in September 1999, five years have been passed. During this period we always base on replacing film as our goal to develop sensors. However, now we learn after five years it shouldn't be simply replacing film however. It should be developed further to be used in other areas. Thus our product line looks like a triangle, there is only one top point. During the five years we learn not only there is a triangle for enjoying photography, there is also a triangle for enjoying creativity (Note: not sure exactly). Therefore, in today's press event I also call the Coolpix "flagship" product
3) Both are D2 but X and H are totally different
R: After handling D2X prototype, although there are three times more pixels, response and operation are pretty much same as D2H. If one can use D2X so easily, isn't the D2H living space is seriously limited?
TN: Still making you feel this way! (laugh) Not only to the D2X series, digital cameras evolve with time and there will be developments. So it's nature that the D2H position is threaten. However, both products have significant price difference, and targeted customers are also different. If not pursuing pixels D2H is still a very good choice.
We don't want to create a pixel competition. On the contrary, we hope to have break-through in other areas. For example in picture quality there are many areas: signal noise ratio, smooth gradation. Just because there are so many areas the answer of "which is the best" is more than one.
R: From the time of D2H release to now D2X release it's been a while. We notice both are very similar. Could you tell us the evolution of both, and in which areas?
TN: From outside they are the same. However inside they are totally different. Image processing ASIC circuits are different of course, auto exposure and auto focus are the result of evolution. If these areas are not optimized even the hard to get excellent sensor still can not fully utilized.
R: According to lens manufactures, there is a tendency to analyze lens with identical pixel (100%?) with digital high pixel count era. Areas like aberration, focus precision and such are much more strengthens. For D2X to jump to 12mp, is there anything done for these areas?
TN: We note very well AF precision needs to be improved, and as such address the issue. With the DX lenses released last year, one of the reasons is AF precision issue. The DX size lens requirement is to meet digital time requirement, of course that includes improving AF precision.
Although the mount is the same, with now using monitor to examine photos at 100% for evaluating high pixel count digital camera, it's difficult to the old lenses.
We could just say "these are twenty year old lenses, sorry we can't handle them". However, in practice no matter old or new, all lenses are examined with such 100% pixel evaluation. Thus, not only AF precision, even resolution the DX special lenses are better than the old Nikkor lenses.
R: Obviously the DX special lenses are. We wonder in the camera body construction is there anything done to improve AF precision?
TN: Yes it's done in D2X. It's hard to say how much as I don't have any specific data. It is sufficient to meet the AF precision required by 12mp and not only AF, even MF is easier to be focused. You will know when you handle the camera.
4) Future plan: five product line-up
Lastly, this reporter ask Mr. Tomino regarding future Nikon digital camera line-up.
R: Today Nikon's digital SLR has three product lines: top of line D2X and D2H, and entry level D70, mid-level D100. However, the D100 is relatively old, plus the voice of calling for even lower price to attract beginners and high-end matures, how does Nikon answer?
TN: Let's talk to about existing products. First of all, D70 and D100 are different machines with different characteristics. Especially for people who wants a digital SLR, or jumping from film camera to digital, D70 is the best. Those who want to seriously shoot pictures with their own efforts D100 is their choice. Although they look very similar, their characteristics and advantages are quite different.
Now what are we going to do in the future?
Below and above D70 and D100 there will be new products. And obviously there will be a replacement of certain model for the market.
R: That will be five product lines, don't you think it's a little bit too many? And I think if the D100 next generation is similar to D2X in terms of performance the D70 product line can meet some of the mid-range user market, am I right?
TN: As you know there are a lot of different customer's requirements. To meet their requirements we need to build many different kind of cameras to their needs. Thus we need to expand our product line-up.