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Nikon to expand full-frame SLR line

Camera maker expects to broaden line of large-sensor SLRs, a move that could appeal to enthusiasts and provide more competition to full-frame leader Canon.

SAN FRANCISCO--It looks like Nikon, having followed Canon into the market for high-end SLRs with full-frame image sensors, will continue the effort by offering lower-end models as well.

Nikon's $5,000 D3, due to ship in November, employs a full-frame image sensor. Nikon

Nikon's $5,000 D3 camera, announced in August and due to go on sale in November, employs a sensor the size of a full frame of 35mm film. These FX-sized sensors offer higher sensitivity and a broader field of view than the smaller DX sensors Nikon has used in its SLRs until now. Nikon will develop new DX-based cameras, but the company will flesh out its FX line as well, said Steve Heiner, senior technical manager of Nikon SLR marketing.

"I think you'll see other FX products. It's a sensor size we're committed to," Heiner said at a meeting here with reporters.

Heiner wouldn't offer details about timing or models, but extrapolating from his remarks, it looks like Nikon will offer a lower-end full-frame model. Full-frame technology will spread to lower-end cameras, Heiner said. "We have seen so many technologies at the highest end that migrate downward," he said.

The digital SLR (single-lens reflex) market is hot, with electronics giants Sony, Samsung and Panasonic giving new competition to the traditional powerhouses Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax. One reason camera makers are pouring resources into the area is because profit margins and growth are better than with compact cameras; InfoTrends predicts that SLR shipments in North America will increase from 2.2 million this year to 3.2 million in 2011, while compact camera sales will peak in 2009. Another reason: SLR owners can turn into long-term customers because the incompatibility of other companies' lenses and camera bodies makes it expensive to change brands.

SLRs are costlier and bulkier than point-and-shoot cameras, but they offer much snappier response, better performance in low light, interchangeable lenses and the option of extensive manual control. SLRs are particularly popular with parents who are frustrated by the sluggish response time of most compact cameras.

A mid-range full-frame SLR could help Nikon counter Canon, whose full-frame models include not only the $8,000 top-end EOS-1Ds Mark III, to ship in November, but also the $2,300 EOS 5D that's been on sale for two years.

Asked specifically if Nikon plans a 5D equivalent, he wouldn't share specifics, but did add that it "doesn't take a rocket scientist" to see the D3 has tantalized some photographers who aren't served by the D3. "That leaves a lot of other photographers out there intrigued."

One complication of full-frame SLRs is lens compatibility. Because a DX sensor is physically smaller, it has a narrower field of view than an FX-based camera using the same lens. That means, for example, that a DX-based Nikon D300 with a 50mm lens will cover the same scene as an FX-based Nikon D3 with a 75mm lens. One effect of the change was that Nikon photographers buying early SLRs from the company had to buy new wide-angle lenses.

Most folks don't need to worry much about the different sensor sizes, but one group does: those in the DX market today who are candidates who could be interested in an FX camera in the future.

The image sensor in Nikon's D3 camera is just a hair smaller than a full frame of 35mm film. Nikon

Those people, chiefly enthusiasts and pros, should think twice before buying a DX-specific lens. Although it likely will be lighter and cheaper than an FX-compatible equivalent, it'll work only in a limited way on FX cameras. (DX lenses won't necessarily shine light on the full FX sensor, so Nikon's D3 by default crops the image to a lower-megapixel DX-sized patch of the sensor.)

Nikon and Canon took divergent strategies with their full-frame SLRs. Canon made the move first, beginning in 2002, when many fewer professionals had made the move from film to digital. That meant that group was better able to preserve their investment in lenses geared for 35mm film.

Nikon, though, waited until 2007, at which point many Nikon pros had already had to purchase new lenses to cover the wide-angle limitations of 35mm film lenses combined with DX-sized sensors. So now Nikon's push is aimed more at the higher sensitivity of its FX sensor. A physically larger sensor means each pixel can be made larger for a given sensor resolution, and larger pixels are better at distinguishing the light coming through the lens from electronic noise in the sensor.

The Canon 1Ds Mark III has 21.1 megapixels, a tally that should appeal to studio or landscape photographers or others who need very large images. The D3 has 12.1 megapixels, but offers ordinary sensitivity as high as ISO 6,400 and high-range of 12,800 and 25,600. That's likely to appeal to sports photographers who have fast-moving subjects and to news and wedding photographers who must shoot in low-light situations.

One wild card in the SLR future is Sony, which got a running start in the SLR market by purchasing the assets of Konica Minolta. Its current Alpha A100 and imminent A700 models use smaller sensors, but some expect a full-frame option soon when the company releases a professional model in development now.