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The Future of FX
and DX Formats

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35mm Crop Factor

35mm film marked with Nikon sensor sizes.
(Green: FX, full-frame, Red: Nikon DX. See also Crop Factor.)

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July 2008      More Nikon Reviews

Summary     top

Ritz Camera


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Nikon DX and Canon 1.6x formats are here to stay for a long time for practically-priced cameras.

Nikon FX and Canon full-frame cameras will be expensive and always be at the top of each maker's line for a long time. I see no hot deals in full-frame cameras for quite a while. FX cameras will always be priced above anything else in smaller formats – that's just how marketing departments plan product lines.

I wouldn't postpone anything expecting to see cheap full-frame cameras anytime soon. See also Obsolescence.

See Crop Factor to understand what these formats mean.

History     top

In the beginning, 35mm cameras shot odd-sized frames.

Nikon's first camera, the Nikon I rangefinder of 1948, shot a 24 x 32mm frame. The 1949 Nikon M shot in 24 x 34mm.

Nikon's first FX (24 x 36mm) camera was the Nikon S2 rangefinder of 1954.

Ever since 1954, all Nikon's film cameras have shot in FX: 24 x 36mm. (I'm graciously forgetting the idiotic APS format, which I always told you was stupid, while photo magazines of the era told you to buy them.)

In 1999 Nikon introduced the world's first practical DSLR (see DSLR history), which for reasons of economy and practicality, shot a diminutive (DX) 16 x 24mm frame.

Back in the early days, when 6 megapixels was only science fiction, these tiny DX chips were a great way to permit smaller lenses and less expensive cameras. Nikon introduced a limited range of DX lenses which were smaller physically, but are not able to cover the larger film or FX frame.

DX lenses were needed for wide angles and fisheyes, since even the widest and fishiest FX lenses weren't short enough to be really wide or fishy on DX. DX lenses were never needed for normal or tele lenses. Conventional FX lenses work perfectly on DX for that.

When sensors made it to 10 MP, there started to be too many pixels in too small a space for optimal quality. 10 MP cameras like the D200 were very demanding of lens performance, and because each pixel was so small, collected less light and thus had less sensitivity, which lead to more noise when pushed to same ISO as a larger sensor, or the same sized sensor with fewer pixels.

As resolution increased, Canon started making a practical 11MP FX format digital SLR in 2002, while Nikon still tried to cram too many pixels into a DX sensor. At 11 MP on a DX sensor, noise is starting to climb enough to be visible even at normal ISOs. Nikon's 12 MP DX D300 often has obvious noise when ADR is engaged, even at ISO 200.

Today    top

As of 2008, DX cameras are available starting at under $500 with a lens, while FX bodies alone start at $3,000 from Nikon and $1,900 from Canon.

Canon makes the only FX format DSLR at under $2,000, the Canon 5D, which has been around since 2005.

In 2007, Nikon introduced its first FX DSLR, the $5,000, 12 MP D3. In 2008, the $3,000 FX 12 MP Nikon D700 was announced, which is an amateur camera.

FX cameras are at the very top of the lines of the couple of makers who offer them. FX cameras are not going to be cheap for a long time, if ever. Large slabs of precision silicon (chips) are very expensive, and always have been. Electronics keep getting cheaper and faster because the electronic chips have been getting smaller. Making big sensors has always been expensive.


Canon's full-frame cameras aren't smart enough and can't use Canon's EF-S lenses designed for their 1.6x cameras.

Nikon's FX cameras are smart enough to switch automatically to a smaller area of the sensor when a DX lens is used.

DX lenses don't work as well on FX cameras as they work on DX cameras simply because the FX cameras work at lower resolutions. A 12MP FX camera only uses 5MP when it uses the central DX portion of its sensor, while even the cheapest DX D40 has 6 MP in its DX sensor.

The FX D3 is the fastest Nikon ever when shot in DX, but its resolution isn't as high as cheaper DX cameras.

Tomorrow    top

The DX format is now limited to amateur use. That's OK, because most serious photographers are amateurs. Nikon discontinued their last professional DX camera, the D2Xs, in 2007. As those who paid attention noticed, Nikon never introduced any professional DX lenses. All Nikon's DX lenses are built to mid-line amateur standards, except for the 17-55mm DX, which was built pro-tough, but is a focal range sold to rich amateurs, not pros.

Nikon won't likely be making any DX pro cameras ever again, however every FX camera is going to be on the top of Nikon's product line, and very expensive, for many years to come.

FX sensors are still very expensive precisely because they are FX. Electronics have gotten cheaper every week for the past 50 years because circuits are continually made smaller, which makes them cheaper. In 1985, one-micron technology was state of the art, and today, 45 nanometers is state of the art. Smaller geometries let us make smaller chips, which are faster and cheaper. An FX sensor is still a huge chunk of silicon wafer, which is still, and will continue to be, very expensive.

I don't expect to see a $1,000-range FX camera for many, many years. There won't be any $1,000 FX cameras until Nikon's very top DX camera (like the D300), and Canon's very top 1.6x camera (like the 40D) are selling at $750.

Even if FX sensors magically became free, FX cameras will remain at the top of the line, and remain as the most expensive DSLRs. We're not likely to see any "budget" FX DSLRs. The marketing world doesn't work that way; FX cameras will be the premium cameras of a line-up. Digital isn't like film, where you can pick up a used large-format camera cheaper than a 35mm SLR.

Recommendations    top

Don't Fret

Don't worry, get what you need to shoot today, and be happy.

What About DX Lenses?

Nikon's first amateur FX camera, the D700, as well as the D3, are compatible with DX lenses. That's how Nikon does things. Unlike Canon, who dumpstered all its previous lenses when Canon changed its lens mount in 1985, almost all of the over 40 million Nikkor lenses Nikon has made in the past 50 years work to some extent on every camera.

With Nikon, so long as your camera and lens are within about two decades of each other, everything works perfectly.

Should you buy a DX lens today? Sure, if you have a DX camera. You'll make a lot of pictures with it until you ever see an inexpensive FX camera. If Nikon comes out with a less expensive FX camera, its most likely going to cost way more than any DX lens you may be considering.

Used Nikon lenses are always worth money. If Nikon comes out with a free FX camera tomorrow, you can sell any DX lenses and not have lost much money from their new price.

If you do get an FX camera, it's unlikely you'll ever want to touch a DX lens again. All Canon's lenses for the past 20+ years, and most of Nikon's lenses for the past almost 50 years, work fine on their respective FX digital cameras. Neither Nikon nor Canon need to introduce any new lenses for FX, although of course all of us have wish lists of lenses we'd like to see.

I expect Canon, Nikon and everyone to be making DX and 1.6x cameras at least through 2020. DX makes, and will continue to make sense for a long time for most practical cameras. I'm still waiting for at least a DX sensor in a professional pocket camera. Hey Nikon - put my D3 sensor in my 35Ti, will you please?

DX and 1.6x cameras always have worked perfectly with FX lenses. That won't change. The only potential compatibility issues have been mechanical, not optical.

What About FX Lenses?

Should you hoard old FX lenses in speculation that they might become more valuable if an affordable FX camera arrives?

No way! Are you really going to invest in yesterday's technology today in anticipation of tomorrow?

People tend to forget that there are zillions of people happily buying these lenses today to shoot on film. It's just that the people shooting on film aren't wasting their boss' time at work farting around on internet forums talking about it.

When Nikon introduces new SLRs they usually introduce new lenses well suited to it, like the exotic 14-24mm that came out with the D3 in August 2007 and the landmark 18-200mm VR that came out with the D200 in November 2005.

Whenever an affordable FX camera arrives, it will most likely be announced at the same time as the lens you really want to use with it, like a 28-200mm VR or 24-135mm VR.

Nikon has made so many FX lenses over the decades (about 40,000,000), and so many people are still using them every day, that it's unlikely that any new cheap FX camera of your dreams will have enough of an effect on the broader used lens market to affect prices much. All the better FX lenses, like the 17-35mm and 70-200mm VR, are already being used today on film and digital.

It's far more likely that Nikon will introduce new AF-S FX lenses that will drop the values of the current FX lenses. For instance, the discontinued 28mm f/1.4 AF sells for over $4,000 used today, and the suckers that are paying that for them will be stuck when a new improved AF-S version surfaces.

Yesterday's FX technology, the old screw-type AF system, is a pain. New lenses are AF-S, which allow instant manual focus simply by grabbing the focus ring. Most of today's lenses, like the 50mm f/1.4 AF, are of the old focus type.

Ordinary FX lenses, like the 28-105mm, aren't likely to go up in value because: 1.) the same people who might want to use them on a FX camera are already using them on their DX cameras, 2.) Loads of people, like me, have been using them all along to shoot film on our FE and F6 film cameras , and 3.) an affordable FX camera is going to cost $3,000, not $1,299. It's still going to be a rich man's game, not one for bargain hunters.

Extraordinary FX lenses, like the 28mm f/1.4 AF and 13mm f/5.6, are already astronomically priced more for collectors than working photographers. New, improved versions of these lenses are likely to come out, dropping the values of the older classics.


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