Ergonomics. It’s not all about it, but it’s a very important aspect. If you don’t carry your gear with you, it’s not going to take any pictures for you. If you don’t instinctively find the controls on your camera, it’s not going to take any great pictures for you. The Nikon D3x fails in the first sense, the Nikon D3100 in the second.
The Nikon lineup consists of five different families of DSLR cameras, two targeted toward the ‘amateur’ and two toward the ‘professional’. The term prosumer (wannabe professional consumer) has been coined to cover the middle ground. If we accept the Wikipedia categorization of Nikon DSLR cameras, we can adopt the table at the bottom of that page a bit for this discussion. We add the highest ISO to each camera and a weight column to the right.
The entry level and mid-range consumer cameras in the table have (with the exception of the D50 which was actually a scaled-down D70) a screen-oriented interface, in which you need to navigate on the display on the back, sometimes even through menus, to reach, set, and modify key functions like ISO, white balance, motor drive, exposure meter, bracketing, and more. This is not a matter of getting used to; it will never allow your camera to operate as an extension of your mind. So the lack of dedicated buttons and controls is not possible to remedy – such cameras will always be toys. As it happens, this applies to all yellow cameras in the table. The yellow marking is intended for cameras without autofocus (‘screw-drive’) motor, an omission we will get back to in another post. But it is clear that these yellow cameras were never intended for the serious or interested amateur, no matter how good their sensor image capabilities are. Yellow stands for toys.
The professional cameras in the table are of two sub-categories: flagship and compact. The flagship ones are what should really be called professional cameras as they are targeted at and appeal to people that make a living out of taking pictures. At the same time, of course, they appeal to pro wannabes and some amateurs that think imitating the professional’s choice of gear would improve their image (as a person) or images. Of course, these cameras have all the dedicated buttons you need (well, almost anyway) and well-thought out controls. They are, after all, intended for everyday use by craftsmen. But look at the rightmost column, weight. The column contains a typical weight of that category of camera, in grams. Weight is one of the most important ergonomic considerations, as many professionals with back problems can testify. For serious amateurs, back problems are less of an issue, but heavy gear is either no fun or not brought at all. The overweight is not possible to remedy – such cameras will always be a burden. As it happens, this applies to all green cameras in the table. The green marking is intended for FX cameras (cameras mimicking old 35 mm film), something we will get back to in another post. It also applies to some old professional cameras (the Nikon D1 and D2 series), which although they are in grey are also too heavy to handle. Green stands for overdone.
This leaves us with the prosumer (D100, D200, D300) and advanced consumer (D70, D80, D90, D7000) series of cameras. Being in the middle ground, they offer similar feature sets with a few more features in the prosumer camp. Nikon’s strategy is to catch the serious amateur at the advanced consumer level and later upsell to the prosumer level. Equivalent sensors go into both categories. They have comparable feature sets. The main difference is in weight and durability. If you are going to heavily abuse your camera, you should opt for the heavier and more durable prosumer camera. Otherwise, the more lightweight camera is ergonomically to prefer and thus more fun. The ergonomically optimal series is the advanced consumer series, which is recommended for enjoyable shooting sessions – enjoyable in carrying and shooting as well as results.
It is not that Nikon are silly or ignorant. These are deliberate design choices that we have to live with. They know that the yellow ones are toys and the green ones tanks. Similar choices are made by any manufacturer, so this is not an argument against Nikon in favor of Canon, Sony, Leica, or whoever.
PS. Don’t confuse prosumer with serious amateur. The prosumer is interested in being like a professional, the serious amateur does not want to. The serious amateur is interested in creating images for the fun of it, not for selling or serving an organization. If the serious amateur sells an occasional picture or wins an occasional photo contest – then it’s just the icing on the cake.