Nikon Announces the Next Chapter (Z6 II and Z7 II)

You're going to have to look very closely to see the differences between the first and the second generation of Z's that Nikon announced today. For example, on the Z6 II, I see four external changes after staring at the body for until I went cross-eyed: (1) Z6 II badge ;~); (2) larger card slot door; (3) ever-so-slightly deeper design (ala the Z5); and a slight change to the prism size/shape/slope. 

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I actually consider this lack of apparent physical changes to be good news. I don't like camera design changes just for the sake of change. We've had SLR-type cameras for most of my long life, and at this point there are things that just aren't broken in designs, so why fix them? It'll be nice knowing that whether I pick up a Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, or Z7 II that I don't have to think hard about which camera it is I picked up and adjust hand position or remember what new control to use.

Nope, all the "new" in the II series is pretty much inside. Which is where I wanted it.

I'm going to write this announcement article a little different than I usually do. Because these are direct replacement cameras (Z6 II for Z6, Z7 II for Z7), I think that most Nikon followers already had some very specific gripes about the original and expectations about what would be done about those gripes, if anything. Thus, I'm going to group my comments. I've been capturing user feedback for almost two years on the Z's now, so I have a pretty good sense of all the things that were being asked for. Here we go...

Minimum Expectations
We start with things that I think most Z users and potential buyers would have had in their "minimum expectations" list:

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  • ✔︎ Dual card slots — Yep, you got them, though now we'll have arguments about whether the CFe/SD configuration is the right choice or not ;~). For some reason, single card slot was one of the "total mistakes" of the originals according to the YouTube Noise Measurement counters. The II models get two slots, one the same as the original cameras and which takes XQD or CFexpress Type B cards, the second being a UHS II SD card slot. Along with the dual slots comes all of Nikon's well-honed dual card support options. If you want to know what that is, just study the Z5 manual. I'm not overly pleased with the mismatching slot choice, but all those folk who are deluded enough to think that they're going to shoot a Z7 II with their 10-year old SD card in Slot 2 are probably as giddy as leaders on powerful steroids would be.
  • ✔︎ Vertical grip option — Another of the loud complaints on the original cameras was the lack of a vertical grip, particularly once the MB-N10 Battery Pack option finally appeared and turned out to be some intern's project that didn't quite work right. Yep, Nikon fixed this with the II's, too, and without compromising the weather-resistant design of the camera. Instead of contacts on the bottom of the camera, we get them inside the battery compartment, which is really where they belong. I'm happy with that change, though you probably will never see me using the grip ;~).
  • ✔︎ USB Power Delivery and EN-EL15C battery — Once the Z5 appeared with these things, it was a foregone conclusion that we'd see the same on the eventual Z6 and Z7 replacements. While lower in volume than the first two complaints were, I heard plenty of grumblings about battery performance—particularly the misleading CIPA numbers—and the fact that USB battery charging was allowed, but not USB powering of the camera. Again, Nikon has obviously heard the complaints and responded with two very useful capabilities we didn't have before. Indeed, more than the first two, these are things I will use and appreciate.
  • ✔︎ Better focus performance — To me this was always an incorrect complaint, particularly once the firmware updates came along and fixed a few things that were sub-optimal. It wasn't focus performance that I felt lacked on the Z6 and Z7, it was control of the focus settings during the heat of shooting, coupled with no guarantee of Closest Subject Priority (CSP) in any of the settings. CSP was a Nikon innovation when it first appeared, yet ever since it first appeared it's had an on-again, off-again appearance. Nikon needs to stop being so paternal. Give us a CSP mode, and let us control it on the fly, simple as that. We're grown ups. We can press a button when we sense a need. As far as the Z6 II and Z7 II go, Nikon is promising even better focus performance than with the initial models, partly due to the use of a second SoC (System on Chip). Excellent. I'll always take improvements.

You might notice that the four things I thought everyone would have in their minimal expectations were addressed in Nikon's Next Chapter announcement. Phew! They jumped over the low bar. Yeah, I know that's a little snide, but Nikon isn't always quite so fast and direct to address issues that customers point out in their gear. The Z System is important to Nikon, and they're listening better than they usually do. What's not to like about that?

Maximal Expectations
Next, let's look at the highest bar and see whether the II's get over it. Our next category are the long reaches that I personally thought would not happen until the next, higher numbered body appears:

  • New sensors — At one end we had people wanting 61mp or more, at the other end we had people wanting 6K global shutter, and we also had people asking for stacked. If you haven't already noticed, "new" sensors are coming less and less frequently from everyone now. Oh, we get some modest tweaks to existing sensors, but something truly new that would require a full-on re-masking coupled with fab changes is something that is going to be more rare as camera volumes drop. The Z6 II and the Z7 II use the same basic sensors as the current camera. Perhaps there are some low-level adjustments somewhere—getting banding out of the 14-bit raw data might be something that was targeted as it was mostly a math issue—but the basic photo diode, sensel, ADC, and all the other major attributes of the image sensors are the same as with the first generation Z's. With the additional SoC, some of the fastest bandwidth modes available on those chips are now usable, so we get some modest improvements here and there (focus, plus see next section). I'm sure that there will be those that bemoan the fact that we didn't get completely new image sensors and now start saying that Nikon isn't capable of same. They'd be wrong. Nikon most certainly is working on at least one major new sensor (and I think two), with some very interesting attributes to it. I'm not at all sure they're working with Sony on this new image sensor, either. What I'm hearing is that Nikon has been working on something with their own new IP (as they did, for example with several other key sensors in the past, most notably the D3 sensor, but others, as well). So patience, grasshoppers. Just to be clear, the Z6 already had and the Z6 II still has the best 24mp full frame sensor available, and the Z7 already had and the Z7 II still has the best 45mp full frame sensor available. 
  • 5K, 6K, 8K video, and internal RAW recording of same — Those are big asks that nobody has really pulled off. Video is also secondary in Nikon's world, not primary, so asking them to be first is something that isn't likely to happen. Don't get me wrong, 8K is coming from Nikon, and raw video recorded internally is probably coming from them, as well. But think about it for a moment: the Z6 and Z7 present right in the middle of Nikon's product lineup, not at the top. Some things will wait for the top models. Higher resolution is one of those things, particularly in video.
  •  Internal flash, radio triggers — Nikon's been moving away from internal flash units in the cameras except for the consumer models. Are the Z6 II and Z7 II consumer models? I'd say no (which brings up the question of why the Z5 didn't have internal flash). Likewise, internal WR-R10 type radio transmitters aren't something I'd expect in the middle models, either.  
  •  Better EVF — The EVF in the existing cameras is quite good. You might have noticed how much emphasis Nikon gave to the optics behind the 1/2" LCD in the viewfinder during the original Z6/Z7 launch. Nikon's an optical company, first and foremost. To them, it's not the pixel count of the viewfinder that's the most important, it's how the image appears to the eye of the user. I've used a lot of EVF cameras. The Z6 and Z7 are about the best of the bunch, regardless of dot counts, refresh speeds, or other attributes. The Z6 and Z7 are the "most like" DSLRs I've seen, too. I often forget I'm using a mirrorless camera when I pick up my Z's. The question I've always had is whether or not more dots would "improve" that experience. I'd guess that a higher refresh rate might, but not necessarily more resolution. I'm okay with the EVF staying the same.

So, Nikon fulfilled the minimal expectations, but ducked the bar on the inflated expectations. That, of course, leaves a big middle area to cover, and that's where we'll find a few more changes in the new models.

Tweener Expectations
Here we put the expectations that are in the more reasonable category, but not necessarily in a highly demanded category. 

  • ✔︎ Frame rate/Buffer improvements — Neither the Z6 nor Z7 were exactly slouches when it came to frame rate, though the fastest shutter speeds had some liabilities (see slide show, below) and the Z7's buffer was a bit confining when pressed. Now the Z6 II shoots at 14 fps with over three times the buffer.
  • ✔︎ 4K 60P — Seems like the Internet absolutely requires this for some reason, though virtually no one on that same Internet is actually using 4K, let alone 60P as their output ;~). I'll say that it is nice to have this ability available, but it's a real pain in the butt to just set your camera to that and shoot away. Files fill your card incredibly fast, and you should probably buy shares in storage companies like Seagate, because you'll be adding a lot of capacity to your computer in order to store and edit them. Well, Nikon has decided to give you 4K/60P, but the new whining has already started, because it's only with a 1.7x crop on the Z6 II. That was predictable, given the image sensor in the camera. Full frame is really about 6K, and pulling all 24mp of data off 60 times a second wasn't going to happen. I'm perfectly fine with the crop.
  • ✘ 10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording — While this seems like a high-end feature and these are middle cameras, this is one place that the extra horsepower of the II models ought to come to play, and something that is very welcome. 
  • Release mode dial — The DSLRs have a Release Mode dial that sits under the Mode dial (or top button cluster). The Z's have a Release Mode button. There is a difference, as the dial is persistent across other shooting modes and shutdown, while the button isn't. Given that Nikon decided to keep the bodies as intact as possible—which makes for getting them into production faster and benefitting from everything they've learned making them—adding controls was probably never going to happen this generation. Moreover, the Z6 and Z7 are the "middle" bodies; Nikon's surely saving a few things for the "top" body(ies). 
  • Illuminated buttons — See the last sentence, above: for the top bodies.
  • ✘ Focus mode button — This is a trickier one. For me, it isn't so much that we're missing the Focus Mode button of the DSLRs on the Z6 and Z7, it's that we don't have a plethora of buttons that we can configure, and then we find that we can't actually configure some of the DSLR focus abilities into the buttons we do have. 
  • ? AF-C focus confirmation — Unknown. Check back later.
  • ✔︎ Additional AF-C modes/control — Well, we get eye detection in Wide-Area (L) Mode now, which I guess is a new mode. Certainly going to be useful to some event and other photographers. Low light focus acquisition has apparently been improved, too.
  • Articulated display — I almost put this in the Maximal Expectations list. Indeed, it may belong there, because the ones asking for this tend to be video shooters, which isn't the primary intention of the cameras. Personally, I was expecting Nikon to put an articulated LCD in the Z6 followup, as that camera is a remarkable all-rounder that excels at both stills and video. But I never expected that we'd see anything other than the current tilt screen in the Z7 followup, as for still photographers, the tilt aspect is more appealing. Of course, why can't we have both? It's not like that can't be engineered. But again, given that Nikon was in "reuse the body mode" and made the updates more about internals than externals, I didn't expect things to be different, and that's what we got. 
  • ✘ Pixel-shift shooting — I'm keeping my fingers that Nikon will do this via a firmware update, because it's the feature that I find conspicuously missing now, particularly on the Z7 II. 

And a surprise: new WR-R11 radio controllers are coming in November. 

Bottom Line
So, this brings us down to the bottom line: has Nikon done enough? Yes, I think so, though it feels more on the minimal side than anything approaching maximal. More importantly, the original Z6 and Z7 stay in the lineup for the time being, just at lower price points. So if you don't need the things in the Chapter II versions, you can save some money and get a known reliable mirrorless full frame camera at a reasonable price.

Which brings me to the other aspects of the Z6 II and Z7 II you need to know:

  • Z6 II — Retails for US$1999 and will be available beginning somewhere around November 24th. 
  • Z7 II — Retails for US$2999 and will be available beginning somewhere in late December.

Join me later today for a roundtable discussion of the new Z's, where you'll be able to ask me questions I haven't answered here or on the data pages for the new cameras.

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