The Nikon Mirrorless Wish List

I’ve been communicating with a lot of Nikon DSLR (and some former) users lately about what Nikon might do with their eventual re-entry into the mirrorless camera market. (The Nikon 1 lineup last had any changes three years ago, and recently we’ve been seeing a lot of  “discontinued” or “not available” listings online; even NikonUSA’s store lists every Nikon 1 camera as “temporarily unavailable".)

As I’ve noted in previous articles, based upon sources in Japan I’m pretty sure that Nikon prototyped pretty much every mirrorless possibility we can think of. I’ve received credible reports of all kinds of designs, mules, prototypes, and mockups, varying with everything from sensor size to lens mount to sensor type to design type to feature set. Clearly Nikon has been trying to make sure it considered all possibilities before making any final decision. Returning to mirrorless is an important milestone for them and their future in cameras, and I think it’s clear they want to try to get it “right."

That said, I’ve become more and more curious about what the Nikon DSLR customer thinks Nikon should be doing in their return to mirrorless. Obviously Nikon will do something, but what do the current Nikon shooters expect them to do? The current group of D7xxx and up Nikon DSLR shooters is critically important to hold onto as a Nikon customer moving forward. So I’ve been actively engaging that Nikon DSLR crowd to discuss mirrorless with me.

It seems we have some points of contention and some points of agreement. 

One clear point of contention seems to be whether or not Nikon should make a DX entry mirrorless system. This is a tricky bit, as most of the people I’ve talked to that are making comments about this already own cameras (well) above the entry point, thus they have no personal interest in such lower-end DX cameras. I’m just going to dismiss that contention by saying this: Nikon needs a DX-M system that can at least hold its own against the current Canon EOS M system. I just don’t see that they have a lot of choice in that, as the DX DSLRs are where ILC volume is fading for Nikon and causing market share loss, and Nikon needs entry points that are not on the expensive side if they really want to stop the epic contraction they’re experiencing. 

So, while most Nikon DSLRs users are conflicted about DX-M, I’m not: Nikon needs to do it, do it soon, do it right, and have a compelling story about it when they do. We’re talking here about cameras that will live in the D3400 space, maybe up to the D5600 space. Cameras that compete with products such as the recent Fujifilm X-T100 and X-T20, the EOS M’s, and whatever Sony decides to do with their future APS-C offerings (at least below the A6500, which is a high-end APS-C in my opinion). Thing is, you just can’t ignore the under US$1000 space, nor the near-pocketable camera space. You also can’t make a full frame camera that meets either of those two criteria, so one choice has to be APS-C, thus what I call DX-M.

I’ll return to that thought in a bit. 

The other major point of contention among Nikon DSLR owners that I'm finding concerns any full frame mirrorless camera Nikon might produce. Nikon DSLR users are completely split on one thing: it’s almost a 50/50 “make a new mount” versus “use the existing mount” split as far as I can tell.

The “make a new mount” side seems to have bought the line that mirrorless is always smaller and lighter because of the mirror removal, so you can almost effectively proxy this contentious point by asking what the size of a full frame Nikon mirrorless should be. If the answer is “needs the DSLR ergonomics with perhaps with some weight trimming” that person will almost always say “use the existing mount.” If the answer is “has to be small and light to match the Sony A7"—which isn’t exactly that small and light anymore folks (the A7 grew from 474g to 650g in three generations)—that person will almost always say “create a new mount.”

Both sides on the mount argument do agree on one thing, though: new mount or old mount, if there’s a drawback to using a legacy Nikkor on this future full frame Nikon mirrorless camera, Nikon has made a mistake. Pretty much any drawback will trigger disappointment it seems. That’s going to be a very high bar for Nikon to get over. I have no doubt that a recent F-mount type E AF-P lens will do just fine on any mirrorless camera Nikon makes. However, each step back in the mount history reveals something that will be harder to accomplish. To wit:

  • Do all the AF-S lens motors work well enough, particularly in Single Servo mode, where we probably want a contrast detect final step?
  • Will the D lenses that require a screw drive motor in the camera still work, and like the above, will they work well enough?
  • Will aperture rings in older lenses still work to control aperture?
  • Will AI indexing actually be supported?

Nikon might be able to finesse things by having a perfect F-mount adapter for a new mount Nikon mirrorless. Might. Everyone I ask about this tends to be highly skeptical about how far back Nikon can support the legacy lenses with a new mirrorless system. It also seems that each person has their own “breaking point” in this regard. That’s usually expressed as “If my X lens no longer works I’ll be looking at other options in the future, such as the Sony cameras.” (Where X defines a lens in one of the four tiers I put in bullets just above.)

One other point of contention that I keep encountering: whether a new Nikon full frame mirrorless camera should be entry or pro. Is it a 24mp competitor to the A7m3, or is it to be a 45mp+ replacement for the still out-of-stock D850?

I’ve been consistently surprised by the ones that only want the pro side of things and are eager to replace their D850. I actually don’t get it. I’ve written and still believe that the D850 is a better all around camera than the Sony A7Rm3; I fail to see what Nikon could do to make a mirrorless D850 today that tops the DSLR D850. 

There’s a reason why the entry versus pro question comes up over and over in my discussions. And it’s a third group that brings that into better focus:

At least a few Nikon DSLR users take a different approach to defining a new mirrorless product, totally ignoring sensor specs or entry versus pro. I also need to point out that Goto-san’s remarks in China last year echo this: make a full frame camera that supplements the DSLRs, not replaces them. 

To understand that, you have to consider the Nikon Df. While it’s a DSLR, the Df didn’t really fit into Nikon’s DSLR lineup in any easily definable way. Nikon themselves had a difficult time marketing it, eventually picking the “it’s different, and more like our old film cameras” story. The Df didn’t sell all that well—somewhere in the 50-100k units lifetime—partly because it was an awkward marketing ploy (no video capabilities, really a cheap D610 body underneath, no true support for the legacy manual focus lenses that Nikon suggested were great to use with the camera, and more). 

That said, there were customers that bought the marketing line that the Df was something different than the traditional DSLR. Indeed, I think all of us Nikon DSLR owners wanted the Df to be even more distinguished from a traditional DSLR. Where was the expanded abilities to deal with the old manual focus lenses, for instance? Focus peaking, anyone?

So what would make a full frame Nikon mirrorless camera distinguished from the DSLR brethren? 

As I note in an article over on dslrbodies this week, it wouldn’t be telephoto lenses. Once you get to telephoto focal length usage, the DSLRs rock over the mirrorless cameras, and probably will continue to do so for some time. Moreover, the DSLRs have tremendous lens selection, though getting better and better optical designs has also made a lot of the lenses grow in size. 

You’re probably seeing where I’m headed.

Many of the DSLR owners I talked to want a supplemental camera system, and they specifically want that supplemental system to be small and light. Indeed, that’s why they’ve been sampling mirrorless cameras from other makers. You might remember that this is how I got into m4/3 back in 2009: supplement my telephoto-laden DSLRs on safari with something small to shoot mid-range.

Over a decade ago I suggested that Nikon needed to make an FM3D. Basically the small and simple FM3a film SLR size and style body, but brought fully into the digital era. Along with this, Nikon would also need to make a modest set of small lenses to complete the “small and light” package: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm primes that are near pancake in size, maybe an 18-35mm and 24-85mm zoom that were as compact as possible. The Df felt like a half-hearted attempt to get to that. What a clear subset of the Nikon DSLR crowd wants is a full-on attempt to get to that FM3D idea. 

The interesting thing is that there seems to be full agreement over one thing among pretty much all the Nikon DSLR owners I’ve talked to about future mirrorless: smaller and lighter is a requirement. That should seem obvious, because if that isn’t achieved, then what’s wrong with just continuing to refine the DSLR? 

I was shooting yesterday testing out a Nikkor 19mm PC-E lens with the Nikon D850 DSLR. Since that lens is manual focus, I was using Live View and focus peaking (a feature that the D850 has and older D8xx DSLRs don’t). Another Nikon shooter (D810) noticed me and came over to see what I was doing, and immediately took to the focus peaking on Live View. Yes, all you mirrorless readers, the DSLRs can continue to make strides in Live View shooting. Which is the thing that most of you find useful with mirrorless cameras (though via an EVF; but even that isn’t necessarily ruled out for DSLRs, as one can easily imagine a hybrid DSLR viewfinder, and several have been patented).

Nikon was slammed on the Web with negative publicity when they withdrew the DL cameras and never produced them (reminder: 1” compact cameras styled with DSLR-type controls). At present, Nikon has no true small and light camera option available (remember, the Nikon 1 isn’t actually available anywhere that I can find, including directly from NikonUSA). What Nikon DSLR shooters are telling me is that they want such a camera. Indeed, that they expect any mirrorless option Nikon comes out with will be clearly smaller and lighter than the DSLRs. 

So where does that leave us (and Nikon)? 

Nikon’s in a tricky spot, and they’re terrible at marketing (comparatively to the other camera makers, none of which is all that spot-on in marketing themselves). Moreover, Nikon has trimmed advertising so much to the bone it is now completely missing in action. That means that whatever mirrorless camera they launch pretty much has to go viral on its own based upon its features, abilities, and design. And that means they need the Nikon faithful to gush over it.

Here’s what I think Nikon should do:

  • DX-M — EVF and EVF-less models that target the X-A5/X-T100 and M5/M6/M100 and which will eventually sit in the D3400/D5600 price points (it can be a bit above that on launch if the camera is well done). Such a product needs a wide, mid-range, and telephoto zoom kit lens set that’s small, a superzoom, and yes, two or three compact and faster aperture primes. It would help if these had serious video creds. Goal: small and compact entry cameras. 
  • FX-M — an EVF model that’s supplemental to the DSLR line initially. It needs to sit where the D610/D750 live in terms of price point. Such a product needs a wide angle zoom (that 18-50mm DL idea sure sounds great here if it can be made compact enough). And it needs some small primes and an F-mount adapter for everything else. If this camera is really bringing video features along at state-of-the-art levels, those small primes also need to be video-friendly (which is tricky, since they’d almost certainly be fly-by-wire focus). Goal: the day-DSLR-replacment for travel, family, and fooling around. Let the DSLRs still handle the heavy lifting for the serious shooter. 

But this leaves out something. I see people—and camera companies—get far too carried away with basic spec lists and specific product features. 

Here’s what I personally will be looking for in anything Nikon does in mirrorless: does it have Nikon’s DNA

Nikon themselves don’t always seem to understand what that is, so let me explain several things that make Nikons Nikons:

  • Best in class still image quality. They’ve missed the mark a few times along the way, but it’s been clear from day one in the DSLR era that Nikon has targeted this with every product. I’d argue that today the D850 is the best-in-class high pixel count full frame camera, the D5 at or near the best-in class high ISO camera, the D500/D7500 the at or near the best-in class APS-C (DX) cameras. Heck, the four year old D750 actually does a very good job of keeping close to the just released A7m3, despite all of Sony’s purported sensor tweaking. 
  • Best ergonomics. Guigiaro’s SLR/DSLR design language for Nikon was dead on. As I’ve explained many times, it’s all about right hand and finger position versus major controls. Nikon’s deviated from this over many decades very rarely, and at their own expense when they did (witness the Nikon 1). Finger over the shutter release, always. Hand position stable while making control changes, always. Fingers find key controls easily, always. Eye at the viewfinder when making changes, as much as possible. Coupled with a menu system—now with excellent touch control—that is pretty well organized and easy to navigate, what you learn on a lower end Nikon DSLR generally translates very well to the higher end cameras, so you’re not relearning things. (There’s an exception, but it would be easily fixed if Nikon’s engineers would ever talk to users.)
  • State of the art technology. Nikon equivocates sometimes on this one (I’m looking at you Nikon Wi-Fi), but Nikon usually opts for a new and yet-to-be proven technology when it makes sense. For example, XQD. The ultimate problem as we’ve moved forward in digital cameras almost always resolves around bandwidth: moving data around. If you go back and look at who was first at multi-channel readouts and pretty much any other bandwidth-related advance, you’ll find Nikon's hands are dirty. They understand moving many bits of data around while not compromising anything while doing that. 
  • Intelligence. People forget that Nikon was pioneering in so many near-AI things we take for granted today in our cameras. Nikon’s early matrix metering adding intelligence from multiple sources along the way and is still rarely matched by others. Focusing algorithms now do things we never thought possible on a DSLR. Things that seemed like science fiction when they were first proposed tend to be commonplace now in Nikon products (e.g. the recent Automatic Picture Controls that respond to the scene rather than you having to pick which Picture Control to use). 
  • Legacy support. Yes, we’ve had hiccups with this along the way, too, but it is pretty amazing that you can still pull old Nikon gear out of the closet and use it with current cameras. I mean really old gear. My 40-year old 58mm f/1.2 NOCT lens works just fine on my D850. My 30-year old remote cable works just fine, too. It’s really difficult to say that about any other camera maker. Of course, mirrorless is another big changeover like DSLRs were, and it’s a big task for Nikon to keep legacy support going when you encounter such big hurdles. 

I’m sure I could come up with other things I could add to that list, but those are the five seminal strings of DNA I see in pretty much all Nikon gear, and which I as a Nikon user have appreciated over all these years (I can now say that I’m at 54 years of using Nikon gear even though I do supplement that with other companies' products these days). 

I’d argue that those five strings of DNA have to be in anything Nikon does in their re-entry into mirrorless cameras for Nikon to succeed. Regardless whether it is DX, FX, consumer, pro, 24mp, 45mp+, new mount, old mount, or any of the other ideas that Nikon DSLR shooters shared with me. 

Ball is in your court, Nikon. 

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