The Nikon Z System, Almost Two Years In

Back in fall 2018, the Nikon Z-mount mirrorless introduction caused a lot of questions to be asked, but not necessarily answered. After all, Nikon had previously dumped their earlier mirrorless system, the Nikon 1. Thus, there were serious questions about commitment and likely success. 

It’s time to relook at some of those questions and also hold Nikon to task on a few things.

First off, Nikon did the right thing by announcing a lens road map with the system, a first for them (the Nikon 1 did not have a road map). Moreover, Nikon has pretty much held to that road map and has now extended it further, building confidence that they are truly committed this time. Given that these Z lenses are not just new optical designs, but also mechanically different, the short delays on a couple of the new lenses we can live with. That’s because the results speak for themselves: every Z lens made so far has turned out to be quite good, maybe even exceptionally good. 

So the lens commitment from Nikon not only seems to be there, but it is rolling along quite nicely and being rounded out with mostly good decisions about focal lengths, with only a couple of exceptions. Optical performance has been excellent, too.

The exceptions. (Everyone get ready to chant…) 

Well, "buzz buzz" is back. ("buzz buzz" is the annoying sound I make in Nikon's ear when they neglect a lens set.) 

The Z50 is a really nice small travel camera, but all we can see right now are three lenses for it (two already out). Nikon—like Canon and even Sony to some degree—is in denial about the lower end market. The best target buyer of a Z50 is an existing, sophisticated Nikon user looking for a carry everywhere camera. 

Example: for my work the full frame Nikons are my go-to cameras. Literally, there’s nothing I can’t do with them. But I don’t always want to carry a five pound camera and lens hanging off my neck, let alone walk around with a big 30 pound plus backpack. The Z50 and kit lenses packs (densely) into a very small bag I can stuff in my briefcase, leave on the car seat, or sling from my shoulder. But that only gets me from 24-375mm coverage in slow aperture lenses. 

Missing completely is any indication that Nikon will make a DX wide angle zoom. Or any wide DX prime. Or any fast aperture DX lens. Buzz, buzz. Again. Not that Nikon is alone in this problem. Canon’s making a slightly different mistake with their M lenses, but has a lot of buzz buzz going on, too. 

Both companies simply can’t compete against the full crop sensor lens lineups of Fujifilm or m4/3, and the fact that they can’t means that they think the Z50 (or M) customer is that more and more elusive casual consumer, who only wants convenience. Canon and Nikon need to be especially wary of Sony here, as Sony at least has a reasonable, if not completely rationalized, crop sensor lens set. The fastest way to cede market share is to not notice what the others around you are doing and why they’re taking your customer away.

So while Nikon Z FX seems to be progressing nicely and I’m comfortable with the pace and quality of lenses we’re getting there, I can’t say the same for Z DX. That’s a mistake Nikon will eventually regret if they don't fix it.

I said “multiple things” up front. Another problem on the lens front does impact FX: no teleconverters. It’s virtually a necessity if you’re going to make a 70-200mm ;~).

I’m pretty sure that there’s some bean counter like product manager sitting in Tokyo looking at the Nikon Z lens road map (!) and then saying: “what do we need a TC for, the only thing anyone would put it on is the 70-200mm. Let’s just sell that customer a 100-400mm.” Dear lord. If this is even close to an accurate portrayal, it just means that Nikon continues to miss a key point: you’re in a consumer business and what the customer wants, the customer wants. Even if they don’t buy it! 

Nikon is a company that grew in the photography business due to word of mouth and perception. Every time that Nikon management gets distracted and looks at cost cutting, efficiency, or tries to expand further into truly consumer products (low end), they seem to forget that. I generally don’t toot my own horn, but just how many potential Nikon customers does Nikon think I’ve stopped from buying by writing something negative about what they’re doing? And I’m just a small, but influential blip on the Internet. Word spreads fast from multiple “informed” sources these days. 

Which brings me to focusing. Not of lenses. Of messaging. Nikon completely lost control of public perception with the Z cameras focus abilities at launch. Completely. One of the biggest marketing failures I’ve seen from them, and I’ve seen plenty. 

By trying to get viral impressions out fast, Nikon dipped into the “I can assess a camera in an hour or two” YouTubers. Well, I’ll say this: you get what you sow. There was some nuance that needed to be navigated on the Z launch when it came to focus performance. Sony was several years in with getting their AF fully up to speed. If you don’t believe me, pick up one of those cheap original A7’s that still can found new in some places (or get a cheaper used one). Not so great, and far worse than a Z6 or Z7. Okay, how about the A7 m2? Better, but still had a lot of issues and not as good as a Z6 or Z7. It wasn’t until the A7 m3 that Sony dialed things in.

So where did the Z6 fit into the picture when it came out? I’d say somewhere between the m2 and m3 Sony. Where is it today with the 2.x firmware update? I’d say equivalent in all ways except for Nikon’s silly OK button insistence with 3D Tracking.

I’m pretty sure that the 2.0 firmware update was known to be coming by Nikon when they launched the Z6 (and Z7). In other words, they knew that they’d get tagged on face/eye recognition, and were still working on it. If they had done any real customer testing, I’m pretty sure they would have also known that pressing OK is not okay. 

Which brings me to the underlying problem (other than just being bad at marketing): Nikon really needed more than lens road map. They needed (and still need) a product and feature road map. 

This hesitancy to tip your hand via road maps isn’t actually doing them—or any other camera company—any good in a declining market. They fear that the products on the shelves won't sell, but they're not selling anyway. I’ve written it before, I’ll reiterate it again: your most likely future customer is your existing customer. We’re fully in an upgrade-driven market now, not a “see our killer features that the competitor doesn’t/won’t have” one. Nikon (and Canon) built a legacy inertia with 100m+ lenses, flashes, and other accessories that people don’t really want to have to completely replace just to move to a new type of camera (i.e. mirrorless). 

What an existing Nikon user wants from Nikon is this: a solid idea of where they’re going and that they’ll be able to match competitors. 3 cameras and 23 lenses aren’t enough to say that. This devoted and coveted system user wants to be able to better plan and estimate their upgrading. 

I’m one of those who believe that DSLRs still have life to them. Indeed, I’d tend to say that the D780 is almost there: all it needs to keep DSLRs in people’s minds is a flip-down or overlay EVF in the optical viewfinder. At that point, it would be a near perfect hybrid of what’s best about DSLRs and what’s best about mirrorless. Would I pay more for that? Yes, within reason. And such a product would be 100% within Nikon’s reputation for legacy support, keeping those tens of millions F-mount lenses they spent so much time making dominant still relevant.

Thus, I’d have been strongly tempted to make a product/feature road map if I were Nikon. It doesn’t have to be detailed, and you can still hold back some surprises, but something like this:

DSLRs — The following cameras will be updated to our current DSLR/mirrorless standards: D5, D850, D750, D500, D7500. Other DSLR models may be updated if demand warrants it. [By putting that last bit in, you’re almost certainly telling people to pick something else, so demand won’t be there ;~]
Mirrorless — We will move towards feature and model parity with our DSLR lineup, allowing the user to choose between DSLR or mirrorless without giving something up.

I mentioned legacy, and there’s another area where Nikon didn’t quite get it right: the FTZ Adapter. Why there aren’t more adapters—ala what Canon did—I don’t understand. I see three clear adapter options:

  • G/E AF-S/AF-P lenses only. The simplest adapter for most current lens users. (Basically the current FTZ Adapter.)
  • D and screwdriver lenses. More complex, more power hungry, but keeps older lenses relevant. (Sells modestly, but keeps the legacy Nikon user from being pissed off by the abandonment of a class of lenses.)
  • AI/AI-S lenses only. Yep, there’s room for this type of adapter, and it would be useful to some of the faithful; given how simple it would be, this is the one that you for sure put a drop-in filter option into. (Why? Full AI support enables the full PASM exposure options.)

You'll note that having a set of adapters like that would essentially provide full legacy support back to 1979. Isn't that Nikon's reputation? Why would Z mirrorless be "only partially supporting legacy"? 

While I'm nattering about small things, what the heck is going on with flash? Yeah, we get that the red light AF Focus Assist lamps don't work for mirrorless cameras that use the blue rows of the sensor for focus. Did someone not catch that at Nikon? Where's the flash unit that restores AF Focus Assist from the flash? 

The Z cameras are great cameras—I like all three—but they're being held back by small things that are fixable.

But the question many have been asking has been answered: they're here to stay, and they're the future of Nikon ILC. The Z6 and Z7 are essentially at parity with the Sony Mark III models, and Nikon has shown that they're still pushing features and performance into the Z system, so I suspect we'll see Nikon and Sony playing leapfrog at some point soon, much like Canon and Nikon played leapfrog with DSLRs.

The real issue with the Z system almost two years in is basically this: it's still a young, immature system in that there are too many missing components some folk are waiting for before transitioning. I'll close this article by listing those products that we still need to see from Nikon for Z to satisfy those folk that are still on the fence:

  • A Z-worthy Speedlight, one that restores AF Focus Assist
  • A high-end DX body
  • A fuller and well-considered DX lens set
  • A top-end FX body for D3/D4/D5 users to transition to
  • An adapter that supports F-mount screwdrive lenses
  • A 1.4x teleconverter for sure, probably a 2x one, as well
  • PF lenses in the Z lineup


text and images © 2020 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2019 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #sansmirror