A Few More Thoughts on Nikon Z

I hope I can return to writing about all mirrorless cameras soon, but Nikon's new mirrorless launch, much like some earlier Sony launches, is dominating the news, the Internet discussions, and my In Box. 

I get a lot of questions asking about how Nikon's future might look and whether Nikon did the right thing. I'm getting a lot of push back on the single slot and "consumer" lenses.

Let's start with one major thing: Nikon did not make the D850 any less desirable.

When the rumors started that Nikon might make a 45mp mirrorless camera, there was a lot of debate about that. One group said they'd never do that, because it would cannibalize the D850 sales, and that product was a hit and only one year old. Another group said that Nikon would rush to mirrorless and that the D850 would be old news fast.

Well, Nikon fooled both groups. The Z7 is not a D850 replacement. Nikon has made design decisions that protect the D850 yet make the Z7 reasonably compelling against the Sony A7Rm3. That was a pretty tricky thing to do, but it validates what I've been writing for a long time: the D850 is the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can buy, the Sony A7Rm3 is second. And now the Z7 slots right there in second, too. 

What did Nikon do that kept the Z7 below the D850? Single slot, 5.5 fps max frame rate with live view, smaller buffer, less sophisticated continuous autofocus capabilities, 1/200 flash sync, no PC socket, and a host of other small things. Indeed, there's this: Nikon could take the few things that the Z7 is better at (on-sensor PD for live view, better video output, some tweaks to things like focus stacking, etc.) and add them to make a pretty compelling D860. 

Nikon walked a very narrow line, and seems to have done so successfully. Both the mirrorless and the DSLR sides have things they can improve on, yet both are quite good, arguably state of the art for their categories.

Coupled with more consumer-like lenses at rollout (e.g. 24-70mm f/4), Nikon has initially positioned the Z7 just below the D850. I'm sure that won't last forever, but it's a clue to what Nikon's marketing really should be.

In short, Nikon targeted the high-end enthusiast with the Z6/Z7 and initial lenses, not the pro. It shows in almost every decision, including which pros they had shoot with the camera prior to launch. The eight pros highlighted in the brochure are urban architecture, wedding, adventure, time-lapse, video, social media, and food pros, with one primarily wildlife photographer thrown into the mix. I'm surprised there wasn't a true travel photographer in there, and a bit surprised that the wildlife photographers are there.

The Z6 clearly slots even more into that consumer enthusiast category. Indeed, I've already received quite a few emails from D6xx and D750 users about their interest in the Z6. Given that those DSLRs are at least four years old in design, there was pent up demand for something new in the high-end enthusiast realm, and the Z6 and Z7 are Nikon's response.

Note also that we have room for better Z cameras (Z8 and Z9 ;~). 

In many ways this mimics exactly how Sony started with their full frame A7 line. It worked for Sony, and it's going to work for Nikon, too, I think.

So I think of the Nikon Z system as an indication of the start of transition, not replacement. Nikon has put together product that is compelling for those sitting on older DSLRs and for first-movers, but not compelling enough for the dedicated pro who has specific needs still only addressed by the DSLRs. 

For me, the next pillar of the transition I'm going to be looking for is what happens for the Tokyo Olympics. Will that camera be a Nikon D6, a Nikon Z9, or both? That will tell us a lot about how fast Nikon thinks the transition for all will take. 

Meanwhile, the really interesting thing is at the bottom of Nikon's lineup now. I've written a number of articles recently that center around the "Nikon needs a feeder system" thought. By that, I mean that Nikon needs ILC product in the US$500-1000 range (really probably US$300-1500 range) that bring new users into the Nikon world, and which Nikon can transition up to the higher end cameras over time. 

The Z lens Road Map includes exactly zero crop sensor lenses. Realistically, only the forthcoming 14-24mm and 14-30mm Z lenses would give you any realistic wide angle for the crop sensor. So either crop sensor Z doesn't appear until 2021 (those eight blank entries in the road map), or something else happens. 

I outlined one of the possibilities earlier: Nikon keeps the DX F-mount and uses AF-P lenses. We have three consumer-oriented AF-P lenses (10-20mm, 17-55mm, and 70-300mm) already that should work perfectly fine for mirrorless (e.g. no performance issues with continuous focus due to the new motor system). 

Yes, that means an empty lens snout for a crop sensor mirrorless system from Nikon, but given the depth of the hand grips Nikon uses, that's not a big deal. They could still make a mirrorless camera smaller than the current D3400 using the same lenses (for validation, see the Canon SL1 and SL2). Indeed, the old Sony R1 design scaled down seems somewhat compelling for such an entry (e.g. all grip and lens, virtually no body). 

Final thought: I'm with Lloyd Chambers on Nikon's marketing: "I care about the functionality." Nikon marketing for the Z system has all kinds of superlatives in it, but almost nothing about how the cameras help me make better images. If you're looking for Nikon's best work at that, try the 78-page system brochure. At least there you'll find some hints at the feature/benefit type of marketing that you might be looking for.

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