Lost in all the recent excitement of the Nikon D5/Nikon D500/Canon 1DXMkII/Pentax K-1/Sony a6300 and Fuji X-Pro 2 announcements was Nikon announcement of their new DL “premium compact” camera line-up. The DL line-up consists of three models all sporting fixed lenses, 1.0” 20.8 megapixel sensors and the new EXPEED 6A processor. The Nikon DL18-50 with its 18-50mm equivalent lens is there to tempt the landscape and architecture shooters. Street ‘togs and all-rounders are offered the DL24-85 with a 24-85mm equivalent lens. For nature and wildlife buffs the DL24-500 sports a 21x superzoom 24-500mm equivalent lens.
This DL line-up is designed to attract serious enthusiasts and pros. All three shoot RAW and 4K UHD video and the controls and menus are laid out to closely resemble the Nikon DSLRs making transitioning between cameras easy for Nikon users. The DL18-50 and DL24-85 are “pocketable” (not in a cell phone pocket, but a bigger pocket). The DL24-500 is based on the “bridge-camera” (AKA superzoom) platform used for the popular Nikon P900.
So in a world where point-and-shoots are lining up to commit hara-kiri, why would Nikon introduce not one but three very expensive point-and-shoots? Because they still hope there is a market for something between a DSLR and a smartphone. As smartphone image quality continues to improve, any compact camera that wants to survive will have to produce very high quality images. Enter 1.0” sensors. These have roughly four times the surface area of the standard 1/2.3” sensors found on most point-and-shoots (the Coolpix line-up for instance), and 2.8x the area of 1/1.7” sensors (such as found on the Canon S120). The 1.0” sensor is the same size (Nikon calls it CX) as found on the ill-fated Nikon 1 cameras. The Nikon 1 was Nikon’s attempt to capture the better than point-and-shoot, but smaller-than-DSLR market, but never caught on with consumers because other interchangeable lens mirrorless offerings had larger sensors (micro-4/3rds and APS-C) and superior image quality. There are other 1” sensor compacts out there such as the Canon GxX series or the Panasonic SX100, but the DLs’ real competition and the one many pros slip into their pocket as a backup is the Sony RX-100 (all four versions have proved popular).
The Sony RX-100 IV is no slouch as Nasim’s review proves. If the Nikon DL hopes to compete it will need superior optics and handling. Fortunately it seems Nikon realized this and did their best to keep the menus and controls compatible with their DSLR line-up. This seems like a good strategy as the Sony RX-100 line-up has been the dominant choice in the pro-pocket camera world for years, but lots of RX-100 users hate Sony’s confusing and disorganized menus. On the optics front Nikon included lots of the upper-end Nikkor lens features like fluorine coatings, aspheric elements and ED glass. The DL18-50 lens is even Nano-coated.
In any title fight, if there’s a tie, the reigning champ, in this case the $950 Sony RX100, keeps the crown. So how does Nikon plan to take down the RX100? The obvious direct competitor is the Nikon DL24-85. With a 24-85mm equivalent lens it squares up closely against the RX100 III and IV’s 24-70mm equivalent lens (The RX100 I and II featured a 28-100mm equivalent zoom). At f/1.8-2.8 the Nikkor and Sony’s Zeiss lenses are equally fast. The Nikon has a 20.8 MP sensor, the Sony 20.1 – call it a tie for resolution. They both claim to shoot up to ISO 12800 but I’ll believe that when I see it. As Nikon generally uses sensors made by Sony I’m guessing the DLs have Sony sensors and I’d be surprised if there is a significant difference in performance at final output. Nikon lands punches with 1:1 macro focusing mode and hybrid phase-detection/contrast-detection autofocus. Sony counters with a slightly slimmer build, lower weight and a built in electronic viewfinder. What could be the knockout punch for Nikon is the price – 300 bucks cheaper. However when one is spending $650 or more bucks for a compact camera, price is likely secondary to image quality in the final buying decision. Which is why I’m eager to get a review copy and put it up against the Sony. (PS – if you’re thinking of buying an RX100 it could pay to wait a bit and see how far Sony drops the price to stay competitive.) If the Nikkor lens outperform Sony’s Zeiss-branded lens, then Sony is in trouble. Oh yeah, the Sony shoots at 1/32000 sec and the Nikon only at 1/16000, but wait, the Nikon has Bulgarian language support – gotta say I’m pretty torn on which would be more useful.
Why would I be excited about the DL24-85? As many of you know I’m a dedicated rock climber and a quick nimble optically superior camera that would fit in a tiny pouch on my harness is very enticing. For a long time I shot Canon Powershots – the S95, S100, S110 and G10 and G12. The image quality was pretty darn good but all of them had the same crappy lens shutter that would scratch the outer element when exposed to the tiniest bit of grit. As outdoor cameras they sucked. Despite endless consumer complaints about this on the Internet, Canon never fixed the issue (at least as of the S110) and would refuse warranty fixes unless you really hounded them. I would describe the problem to their service reps who would then tell me “you are the only person who has ever told us of this problem.” To which I would reply, “you never read the hundreds of complaints on the internet about the exact same issue?” After which they would grudgingly replace the lens so it could get scratched another month down the road. I finally gave up on Canon Powershots after my S110 broke on the first day of a five-day ascent of El Capitan. I’ve been looking for a replacement ever since, but even though friends raved about their RX100s I wasn’t convinced I wanted to drop a grand on a point-and-shoot. My finger has hovered over the RX-100 buy button a few times, but always on last year’s model that was being discounted, but never quite enough. So yes, I am excited by the Nikon DL24-85, especially for climbing photography, and a bit for it’s promised macro capabilities. I can’t wait to report back to all of our readers on its performance when we get a review copy. If I feel the DL24-85 yields publication-quality images then I might push “buy”.
One DL camera with no competition is the DL18-50. The combo of super-wide-angle capability, 1” sensor and pocket sizing makes this perhaps the most exciting member of the DL line-up. I see this fitting in great for several uses – how about a lightweight landscape camera for a backpacking trip from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other? Or utilizing the superwide capabilities in Antelope Canyon? Or when shooting wildlife where I already have a pack crammed with a 500mm or 800mm lens, a 150-600mm and a D4s and a D500 (please Santa!) and the last thing I want to add is a 16-35mm and a 50mm lens to my load in case a landscape opportunity presents itself. The DL18-50 is half the weight of the 16-35mm alone. Oooh, I’m just drooling over the possibilities. Before we get too excited, and I hate to do this, but perhaps we need to bring back those sad memories of that first Match.com date where everything looked so good on the monitor, but in real life a basketball could kiss better. We’d better wait to see how the 18-50mm lens performs. This is the one DL that has Nano coating on the lens – a good choice as at 18mm you’re just begging flare to enter your lens. I’ve seen some pretty good sample pics, but I’ll hold judgment until I’ve seen my own results. Nikon boasts of some other goodies like 20 fps shooting, optical VR and perspective control, but realistically I see high frame rate and VR as nice touches, but bigger plusses on the other DL models than the 18-50 as most wide angle shooting is of static or slow moving subjects. But for when you need it – the mountain bike jump sequence or low-light landscape sans tripod – these will be nice. The perspective control feature is something I could duplicate myself in Lightroom, but would need the foresight to give myself cropping leeway – no a big addition in my mind, but could help save some shots at the wider angles if you don’t give yourself enough leeway. So in the end I think the success of the DL18-50 will depend heavily on it’s corner-to-corner sharpness throughout it’s zoom range. This will make or break this camera for the landscape photographers that are the primary target.
Last, but not least is the DL24-500. This is the guilty pleasure camera of the DL family. The one you’ll hate to love in front of your photogeek friends but can’t wait to get your hands on. I would never say this if the Nikon P900, another supertelezoom “bridge camera” hadn’t been so damn fun to shoot. Check out my review of the P900 here. The P900 had an insane 83x zoom range. Unless you were shooting the moon or tiny birds, the long end of that range was wasted. And, as stated in that review, even though an 83x zoom range would suggest a huge compromise to image quality, this really wasn’t the case. Nikon’s optical engineers did a great job. Sure it wasn’t DSLR quality, but for a huge zoom range on a 1/2.3” sensor it way surpassed my expectations. Which is why I’m excited to get my hands on the DL24-500. At a cool grand one has to think the lens is far superior to the 600-dollar P900’s. The other issues I had with the P900 that made me not lust after owning it were poor low-light performance, long shutter lag, slow zooming and lack of RAW file output. The DL24-500 shoots RAW, has a far bigger sensor with bigger pixels (with backlit technology for better low-light performance) and we’ll have to wait to see about the shutter lag and AF speed. If the shutter lag and AF speed aren’t issues I can see this being a great “safari camera” for enthusiasts and those intent on traveling light. For the pro wildlife photographer I could see this being something I’d bring on a scouting mission so as not to miss some crazy once-in-a-lifetime happening, but not a camera I would pack when I knew when and where I was going to shoot.
The DL24-500 won’t fit in your pockets unless you still have some MC Hammer parachute pants in your closet. It has an electronic viewfinder, unlike the DL18-50 and DL24-85 which have optional EVFs (not priced yet, but rumored around $280 which negates the price advantage over the Sony RX100 IV).
One thing I can’t help but praise is the presence of custom exposure modes on all the DL models. These modes (e.g. U1 and U2 on the D7200, et al) are sorely missing on Nikon’s pro models such as the D4s and D810. These are hugely useful to any photographer and especially pros because they intimately understand exposure. Why Nikon doesn’t offer these on the D5 or D500 is puzzling/infuriating/moronic/aggravating/f’ed-up/add your own expletive here. HELLO NIKON – THIS IS AS SIMPLE AS A FIRMWARE UPDATE TO THE PRO LINE-UP – WHY, WHY, WHY DO YOU DENY YOUR MOST LOYAL CONSUMERS THIS VALUABLE FEATURE??????? (Hee hee, as an aside, autofocus was invented by Leica, but as they deemed it a feature pros didn’t need they sold the technology to Konica-Minolta. Nikon doesn’t have a monopoly on misunderstanding the needs of pros.)
Some worrying questions arise when thinking about this new line-up. First in my mind is battery life. How much juice will the EXPEED 6A suck (or the optional EVF) and how many spare batteries will I need for a rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon? How will the new sensor do in low light? If battery life and noise are acceptable then I think the success of the DL line-up will come down to optical performance. And the one last niggling worry – will quality assurance be good this time around?
My hopes are high because I think Nikon is finally listening to its customers (yay D500!) and coming out with new products that aren’t the purse-ready Nikon 1 or hipster-ready Df. The DL line-up comes as a surprise to me as Nikon has seemed so oblivious to consumer demand for years. Launching a competitor to Sony’s cherished RX100 and a whole new creature with the DL18-50 seem like very positive announcements indeed. Hopefully this also extends to dealing with their numerous QA issues of the last 5 years.
If your final output is website sharing or small prints, the DLs are probably overkill. This might change as monitors and bandwidth improve, but for now smartphones or smaller sensor point-and-shoots will suffice for this market. For publication or printing large, the 1” sensor will be good for most applications, though at higher ISOs image quality will break down quicker than larger sensors. This leaves Nikon treading the fine line between DSLR image quality and point-and-shoot size and convenience. The DL specs appear they right on track, but whether the price point is right remains to be seen. We won’t know until they actually hit the market.
Are you excited? Let us know in the comments.