How nikon is not taking mirrorless cameras lying down

The clue in Nikon’s new autofocus module.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The clue in Nikon’s new autofocus module.

Pictures Nikon
Pictures Nikon

At CES 2016, Nikon announced two new DSLR cameras, the FX flagship D5, and the DX flagship D500. From the outside looking in, anyone might assume that it’s DSLR business as usual for Nikon. But they would be wrong.

The D5 and the D500 reveal that it’s not DSLRs as usual for Nikon, and that they clearly have an eye on mirrorless cameras. And the clue is in the new Multicam 20K autofocus (AF) module found on both cameras.

How mirrorless AF went from underdog to serious contender

For the past few years, mirrorless cameras have been upending ideas of how camera autofocus systems should work. Instead of using the phase-detection AF technology found on DSLRs, mirrorless cameras use contrast-detection AF technology to fi nd and lock onto subjects.

At the beginning, this looked like a bad idea. Early mirrorless cameras suffered from slow and inaccurate autofocus. On the other hand, phase-detection AF was mature technology, and the AF systems on DSLRs were running circles around mirrorless cameras.

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Fast forward to 2016, and the story has flipped around. AF systems on mirrorless cameras are doing things that DSLR cameras simply can’t do, because of the latter’s limitations of having a mirror-box.

For example, some mirrorless AF systems can fi nd and lock focus anywhere within the image. DSLR cameras can only find and lock focus on specific focal points in the central area of the frame.

Mirrorless AF systems also benefit from being exposed to the scene directly through the image sensor, instead of being exposed to the scene indirectly, through light redirected via the mirror to an AF module, like in a DSLR.

This lets the mirrorless camera do neat tricks, like recognize faces, eyes, and even recognize the single eye that’s closest to the lens for a precise focus lock.

To add insult to injury, many of the flagship mirrorless cameras today use hybrid autofocus systems, which combine both phase and contrast-detection AF technology together, for the speed of phase-detection AF and the precision of contrast-detection AF.

One recent example is Sony’s A7R II full-frame mirrorless camera, with a hybrid AF system that comprises 399 phase-detect and 25 contrast-detect points, the widest phase-detect coverage of the frame across any full-frame digital camera today.

Nikon’s new AF module is taking mirrorless seriously

To their credit, Nikon’s 1 series of mirrorless cameras featured a groundbreaking AF system from its

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launch in 2011, with class-leading AF performance and speed. With the new Multicam 20K AF module in the D5 and D500, Nikon appears to be taking what they learned from their Nikon 1 cameras and putting it into their DSLRs.

The Multicam 20K AF module comes with 153 AF points with 99 cross-sensors (though not all points are selectable). The high number of AF points, up from 51 focal points on the D4S, provide the D5 with the widest AF coverage on any Nikon FX DSLR to date.

Incredibly, the same flagship AF module that was designed for the full-frame D5 is also in the APS-C D500, which makes the AF coverage far more comprehensive than any APS-C DSLR today.

Nikon is also banking on faster AF speed and accuracy, by providing the new Multicam 20K AF module with its own dedicated processor. Nikon has also included a brand new RGB metering sensor with double the resolution, from 91,000 pixels on the D4S to 180,000 on the D5.

This sensor is what enables 3D tracking AF on Nikon DSLR cameras (the ability to lock on and track objects moving through the frame), and the new high-sensitivity sensor should increase the D5 and D500’s ability to recognize and track subjects.

Is improved autofocus enough for DSLRs to fight back?

The new Multicam 20K AF module reveals that Nikon is not ignoring mirrorless trends, and is in fact, trying to merge the best of what mirrorless and DSLR cameras have to offer, by trying to create its own hybrid version of the best of phase and contrast-detection AF abilities, if not technologies.

Is it enough to offset the drop in camera sales and the invasion of rival mirrorless camera brands? Who knows. But it’s good that each system, be it DSLR or mirrorless, is trying to outdo the other. It’s what leads to advancements in technology, and how we — the customers — win in the end.

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