Nikon Z System News and Commentary

News and commentary appropriate to Nikon Z system users. Latest post on top.
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Lens Firmware Updates: 20mm and 85mm f/1.8

Nikon issued version 1.01 lens firmware updates (LN) for the 20mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 to fix a problem where the camera might display an F-- and the viewfinder brighten briefly while autofocusing.

To perform a lens update, download the file, copy it to the root of a card, insert the card into the camera, mount the lens on the camera, and then use the Firmware update option within the camera (it should find the lens update if you do the steps right). The lens must be mounted on the camera to perform the update.

Nikon’s Z Lens download center

Also, the Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 has had a firmware update for the Z cameras (see here) and Viltrox has released lens profiles to use with the lens (see here).

What the Z9 Needs to Satisfy

Surprisingly, the list of improvements the Z9 needs to meet pent-up expectations isn't as long as you'd expect, as the Z6 II and Z7 II are very good cameras. However to get D3/D4/D5/D6 and even some D500 and D850 users to give up their DSLR, or to get Z System users to move up, a number of key things must be part of the upcoming flagship Z9:

  • No viewfinder blackout, plus instant AF indicator updates. The biggest detriment to the current Z's is what happens in the viewfinder. For casual and static photography work, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the Z6 II and Z7 II viewfinders, but the minute you start bumping the frame rate up and/or begin tracking erratic and fast-moving subjects, the wheels start to come off, and the Sony A9 and A1 models suddenly look really good. Specially above 5.5 fps and in AF-C focus mode is where the Z6 II and Z7 II are weak and the Z9 needs to be strong. We need a no blackout viewfinder that refreshes at 120 Hz, and we need focus indicators that are instantaneous in update and confirm continuous autofocus performance. Anything less is going to be a marketing problem.
  • More customizable controls and more customization. The current Z's are a little button deprived, and Nikon's choices for customizations tend to be paternally minimal and out of sync with user requests. Instant AF Area mode choice is necessary, for one, but I don't think I'm alone in saying that I've got six button customizations I want to do with only four buttons I can assign them to on the current cameras, and some of those buttons have further limitations on what I can assign to them, so I can’t always put the function on the button I want it on. That's not "flagship" status to say the least. so the Z9 needs to fix that. Meanwhile, not only do I want to see the return of customizable banks, but I want to see Nikon expand that to Save/Load different Settings/Banks combos. My request for this now goes back 10 years, yet we still get a single settings file with an indecipherable file name. Finally, there are some small omissions that need to be addressed, such as the inability to lock the focus sensor in a position (the old L position on the Direction pad). 
  • "Competitor-matching features/performance" or better. The Sony A9, and now the A1 have set some marks for what's expected from a flagship mirrorless camera. 20 fps, 45mp, and 4K video seem like the low end of what's needed now, with 30 fps, 50mp+, and 8K video being more the "norm". Personally, I'd be happy with 14 fps mechanical shutter, 24-36mp, and 4K 120P, but reality is that "marketing numbers" will matter by the time the Z9 shows up at your dealer in late 2021. A lot of folk might stick "global shutter" in here, but none of the competitors actually have a true global shutter yet. We definitely need to see very fast rolling shutter at a minimum, but global shutter would be icing on the cake. Lower-than-competitor numbers aren't going to fly, and would just generate more fan-boy flames directed at Nikon. Everyone will be looking to see if a feature/number is better on the Canon R5 or Sony A1, and they shouldn't find that if Nikon wants to re-establish themselves as a top dog.
  • Incredible body and battery. This seems like a slam dunk given that the image Nikon provided with the Development Announcement is essentially a slightly scaled down D6. That should mean full metal frame, excellent sealing, and the EN-EL18 battery type with its already amazing capacity. But details will matter here, too. Backlit buttons, hardened glass over the Rear LCD, and similar small details are what we're looking for, and will be important to call these out in marketing. Sony's weak point is the build of the A's. They don't have anything like a D6. Nikon needs to flaunt that in a Z9.
  • Sophisticated, high-performance focus. The tendency has been towards "all automatic" autofocus systems (because that's what the non-pro—and even some pros—wants so they don't have to learn anything complex), but we've all been burned by Auto—or should I call him Otto?—at one time or another, and I don't see that changing any time soon. If I know how a focus system works and have enough options to configure it (and can change them instantly) I can get better-than-all-automatic focus pretty much every time. I'm not sure I need tons of new options, as Nikon supplied on the D6 with the new highly-configurable Groups, but I do need a handful of AF Area modes that each work differently and in ways that are known (i.e. Nikon will need better documentation). Couple all that with "fast" and I'm set, and so are you.
  • Small raw that works. You thought I was going to write "high ISO capability," didn't you? No, I'm pretty satisfied with high pixel count cameras up through the ISO values I normally work at. Moreover, the Canon R5, Nikon Z7 II, and Sony A1 are holding their own despite their 45mp+, at least in the ISO values most commonly used. Image sensors have gotten good enough that they're accurately recording photon randomness, and that's nearly the sole "noise" you're seeing today in a properly exposed and processed shot. But what I'm not satisfied with is when I don't need the full pixel count but also don't want to give up the ability to process raw. Nikon's gotten better at small and medium size raw files, but I want more. Pixel binned, we're talking 12mp. So small raw format has to do at least as good as that, I think. e.g. match the noise, increase the acuity, but produce 16-24mp sized files. 
  • 8K video. Yes, unfortunately there's no doubt that a flagship has to create 8K video on demand now, even if that's time limited, speed limited, and bit depth limited. Again, I'd rather have 4K 120P than 8K if we're going to boost internal bandwidth off the sensor, but the Japanese seem to want to get to other level capabilities in video before they're really a requirement of the market (I believe this to be driven by NHK's aggressive research, which is funded by television licenses in Japan). I suppose they think they're "future proofing" their products, but in reality the Japanese are making products today that probably won't hold up to full scrutiny if and when 8K really takes off. If Nikon implements the two-second JPEG burst in 8K—current Nikon cameras do 4K up to 30 fps for two seconds—that would be useful, though.

Nice to have, but not necessary:

  • More dynamic range. The current cameras have plenty of dynamic range. Indeed, more than you're going to output. I actually find myself more dealing with compression/movement of dynamic range in the shadows and highlights than I do trying to get more dynamic range these days. Still, improvements are improvements, and shouldn't be dismissed. A cleaner raw data set is always welcome, so if we can squeeze a bit more dynamic range out of the image sensor and save that in an accurate 16-bits, I'm not going to complain. I just don't see it as necessary for the success of the Z9. (On the other hand, it's likely that the Z9 will have better-than-D6 dynamic range at the low ISO end.)
  • Voice annotation. I still don't see why Nikon hasn't done more with this on the D6: voice annotation is very useful for event, photojournalism, and sports photographers. With built-in microphones and speakers, this one is a no-brainer to do, but it's generally been done minimally when it is done. 
  • Updated flash. The Sony A1 allows faster flash sync plus flash sync with silent shutter, so that's a performance benchmark that people will look at (see above). But the real problem is that Nikon has mostly neglected their Speedlight system since the D5 first appeared. We now have a hodgepodge of flash units that do or don't conform to the latest camera menu system, that can't provide AF Assist lighting for the mirrorless cameras, and which have "last decade" abilities. Nikon will point to the Chinese knockoffs as having savaged the Speedlight business, but sorry Nikon, the problem is you: you didn't innovate and lead with the flash system, so you got passed by the cloners, who did. So, Nikon ought to make another stab at the business or cooperate with a third party. Either is fine with me, and either would be nice to have show up with the flagship.
  • Better communication. The D6 added SnapBridge, so I expect a Z9 will have that, too. But that's not "better," it's just what's expected now. Nikon really needs to invest more in the FTP side of things, both via Wi-Fi and Ethernet: if I'm going to take lots of photos with lots of pixels, I need to get those off the camera fast for my clients. The current D6 capabilities are okay, but somewhat cumbersome to set up, and the camera doesn't push data into them as fast as it should. Citius, Altius, Fortius please.
  • Tilting/Swivel LCD. Here's the thing about flexible parts: they often break under heavy use. If Nikon can make a moveable LCD that can endure near torture by us ham-handed photographers, great, add it please. But if not, I'd rather just have even more hardened glass over a fixed LCD.
  • The DTZ adapter. We had a long period where Nikon produced a lot of screw-driven autofocus lenses (basically up to the D1 launch). Many of those lenses are just fine optically and still in Nikon users' gear closets. But they just don't fit into the Z world particularly well. Now it may be that Nikon didn't want to compromise focus and battery performance with an adapter  providing the big muscle for focus with the initial Z cameras, but the Z9 is a flagship, has a big battery, and really needs to step up and put those lenses back to work. At least that's what some think. I'm less concerned about this item, but it would be nice to have.

One final bit also has to do with lenses. Nikon, of course, has arguably the best f/2.8 zoom trio of anyone in the full frame arena with the Z-mount 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70mm-200mm, and those are going to appeal to the group that buys the Z9. But Nikon's going to need to do a lot more, and quickly. Yes, the upcoming 400mm and 600mm exotics will be part of the answer, but not all of it. I think we're going to need to know more about Nikon's f/1.2 (and faster) prime plans, we need a wider focal range for the mid-range zoom, and we really need a sub 14mm solution plus more >70mm solutions (e.g. 105mm f/1.4 would be nice). Part of announcing a flagship is showing off what it can do, and lenses are going to be a big part of that, so Nikon will need a clear Lens Road Map for 2022-2023 that backs up the "flagship."

So what's your over/under point for the upcoming flagship? What does it absolutely have to have, and what is just a nice addition?

Why I Don't Put Much Credence in BCN Market Share Numbers

The oft-repeated BCN+R mirrorless numbers from retailers in Japan basically say this: Sony is in first place, then Canon, Fujifilm, and OM Digital Solutions, with Nikon and Panasonic nowhere to be found since BCN doesn't report out more than the top group. Thus the oft-repeated "Nikon is failing" chant from the disinformation crowd. 

No, Nikon is mostly doing something different. (Whether that is wise or not is open to debate.)

BCN's numbers are (1) Japan only; (2) biased towards chain and consumer outlets (think Best Buy/Target in the US); and (3) aren't often reported in those quoting BCN with the actual models being sold also noted. In the current 2021 mirrorless numbers just posted, for instance, four low-cost cameras took up a bit over one-third of the entire chart (Sony A6400, Canon Kisses, Fujifilm X-A5). Nikon does not seem to be targeting the types of outlets that BCN+R tracks, and the only product they have that compares to those most popular Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony models is the lonely Z50 and its two lenses. As I've been writing since, well, forever, no clear commitment to DX means fewer sales and leakage of customers to the other makers. All in the under US$1000 market.

The full top ten: A6400, Kiss M, X-A5, Kiss M2, A7C, X-S10, A6100, E-PL10, X-A7, A7 Mark III, which account for about 60% of the sales BCN+R reported. This top list has almost always been mostly low-cost cameras coupled with a few just-released models every time I've seen it. 

Nikon wants to sell US$1300 to US$3300 mirrorless cameras right now. Probably for the simple reason that those have larger profit margins and thus pay back the R&D costs of making the transition faster. Moreover, Nikon seems to emphasize SE Asia/China and the US market more than the Japanese market. 

While it's not a perfect indicator, I can tell by my book sales how those models are doing (at least with the English-speaking crowd). The Z6, Z6 II, Z7, Z7 II are doing well. Quite well. Not DSLR peak sales levels—which none of us are ever going to see again—but solid, healthy, and growing sales. Which you can kind of see by the fact that the Z6 II and Z7 II are difficult to find in stock in the US, and even the older Z6 and Z7 have darted in and out of stock in recent months for some SKUs (as does the Z50 two lens kit). 

When Nikon says that they're operationally profitable again, I believe them. They've cut so much cost out of their system that even in a slug of a year they've got their heads above water again. Nikon's current fiscal year ends next week and they're not in a discounting mode, which means they're meeting their projected numbers. Meanwhile, the executives have been out and about among the Japanese business press outlining how things are going and offering fairly rosy projections for their coming fiscal year (we'll hear all that officially, with specifics, in a bit over a month, but these so-called whisper sessions so far seem to be optimistic). 

I'm not sure Nikon could weather another severe downturn in the camera market as well as they did last year, but that's not what anyone is projecting for 2021. Everyone is predicting ILC market growth in 2021 (particularly in revenue). Nikon is likely to add three mirrorless bodies in their upcoming fiscal year, along with a dozen lenses. That's more than what they did in 2020 (three bodies, six lenses). If I'm correct about that, it means the lineup will total nine cameras and twenty-eight lenses within twelve months. I'm sure some of you will still complain that somehow these are "not the bodies" or "not the lenses" you wanted, but I'm not sure any camera company can truly say they're doing everything their customers demand.

Perhaps turn down the volume on your Internet connection for awhile. The "news" that's currently running at full volume may not be anything you need to hear. 

____________________________

The corollary to all the "Nikon is failing" chants is a similar "only Sony can succeed" claim. Those phrases are often used together in the same post or comment. Unfortunately, this is incorrect logic. 

Clearly Sony is in an excellent position at the moment. It's been executing on the same strategy now for a much longer time than either Canon or Nikon, who are still transitioning their strategies (Canon even more so than Nikon). The Alpha lineup is mature and has plenty of choices, and the lens lineup is starting to approach "full" (though it is far too dominated with 24 to 85mm options). It's highly likely that if you want a mirrorless still camera or an interchangeable lens video camera, Sony has something you'd be interested in. And it will perform well. Kudos Sony. 

However, "only one succeeds" is not how markets work. Markets ebb and flow, and right now Sony is flowing. DSLRs are clearly ebbing, so Canon and Nikon, who dominated those markets, also are fighting an outgoing tide. Neither Canon nor Nikon has gotten to the point where their mirrorless lineup is fully fleshed out, so they aren't fully strengthening yet. 

No doubt that the #1, #2, and #3 order in ILC will get shaken up some as we get deeper into the mirrorless era. Just how much would be difficult to predict, but both Canon and Nikon have large bodies of DSLR users who haven't moved to mirrorless yet, so I wouldn't exactly count them out in terms of re-establishing their dominance (and by the way, Nikon's "dominance" never really pushed past 35% market share in the last three decades).

My point, though, is simple: Nikon doesn't have to fail for Sony to succeed (so stop showing your low self esteem, Sony fan boys). Nor does Sony's success mean Nikon's failure. 

I can't tell you how many times I've watched Nikon ebb and flow. I tend to think they always end up with an overreach (true consumer products) followed by retrenching at the pro end and starting the process over. The Z9 is going to be the camera that tells us just how fast and far Nikon moved back the other direction (from consumer DSLRs). That they're talking about it so early would suggest that they're confident that it's going to be a great product. 

Meanwhile, I'm mostly pleased with the Z products Nikon has been producing. I just wish they'd produce them faster and in enough quantity so that they stay in stock. 


The Z6 II and Z7 II Complete Guide is Here

The first edition of my Complete Guide to the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II is now available for purchase. You'll find it in the books section  this Web site. And yes, there are enough differences between the original cameras and the new ones to justify having a separate book. The last time I tried to cram more than two cameras into one book it became a mess of qualified statements and tables trying to point out differences. I prefer—and I think you will too—the clarity of simplicity and directness. I also suspect that the cameras will deviate some as Nikon updates firmware in the future, too.

My review of the Z6 II will probably come next week, as I'm still testing one aspect of the camera and the weather is not cooperating. 

About that Asterisk

The more I look at the high resolution image that Nikon released to the press (see below), the more I believe the asterisk. In case you don't recall, the asterisk was "The appearance of the camera may differ from the photo shown above."

The things that strike me as odd about the image are these: (1) it's Z, not Z9; (2) the red swoop looks like a decal; (3) the two button reset and two button format shortcuts are stenciled on the body, with the two button reset returning to the exposure compensation button; (4) the 10-pin and PC sync connectors are angled  outwards; (5) there's no snap line for the plastic part that would house SnapBridge components; (6) we've gone back from the small red self-timer indicator light to a big autofocus assist type light on the front (and on the opposite side); (7) the Focus Mode button is also angled and does not seem to have a switch around it; and (8) there are no microphone holes visible. 

Now it very well may be that yes, the Z9 is different from the D6 body design in all those ways. It may be that only some of those things are true for the final Z9 and that the photo is touched up from a late prototype. Heck, it could be that someone at Nikon photoshopped a bunch of existing parts together to approximate what the final camera looks like. 

I'm thinking that you shouldn't doubt the asterisk. Thus, all the masterful measured mockups popping up around the net probably aren't going to tell you the exact size of the final camera. 

Another Thought on the Z9

The emails are already starting to pour in on the Z9. Here's a quick thought you're not going to like: it's going to be really difficult to get one of those Z9's in 2021. Regardless of whether they launch it in August or December. 

I'm already seeing that the proposed Z9, assuming it lives up to currently vague expectations, is going to be in high demand. So much demand that I'll bet that you very few of you will be able to get one without an NPS Priority Purchase cut-in-line order for the first four to six months. 

The Z9 clearly has the potential to be like the D800 and D850 were: demand far exceeding initial supply, and thus long wait lists everywhere. Worse still, in the past I don't believe Nikon has ever had a first month production of the top flagships of >10k units. Now perhaps the new robot-assisted build system they're using on the Z models will help with that, but this will be an entirely new  body design they'd be trying to do that with. They'll proceed cautiously. 

I've already heard from two people that have placed an order for the Z9 at their local dealer. They won't be the last. And we don't even know anything specific about the camera yet. My reading is this: the Nikon faithful have been waiting for this, and are ready to pounce, whatever the price. I've seen this a few times before (D3/D300, D800/D850 to name a few). And Nikon is already struggling to meet demand on the Z6 II and Z7 II. Those that predicted that Nikon would stop selling cameras at all are going to be amazed at how many they actually sell, I think. 

Despite my prediction that the Z9 will be a sell-out for some time, that actually doesn't deal with all of the pent-up demand. Right behind all those "I'm going to order a Z9" emails I've been getting is a wave of "please tell me that they're still going to make a D850 replacement and a Z8" ones. The next wave will be "what about a Z90 DX companion?" 

It must be exciting times in the Tokyo headquarters right now as the Nikon executives see the mirrorless transition is actually happening and going well. Plus they have many more cameras and lenses they need to quickly produce, so it's busy times, too. But it also must be tense times, as you also don't want to mess up anything that's working (e.g. the D850). 

My advice to Z System users and watchers: have some patience. Nikon's going for a triple axel, not a double salchow. 

_________________


Bonus: While Nikon said that the supplied photo of the Z9 might not match the final camera, everyone rushed to run their Shadows sliders up on that dark image. The discoveries so far: (1) it has a top LCD, (2) the power switch has the illumination position (backlit buttons?), (3) there is a button cluster (with a BKT button) on top of what is likely a Shooting Method dial; (4) the Focus Mode button appears to have returned below the lens release button, (5) the light (AF Assist or just Self Timer?) flopped to the shutter release side to make room for the 10-pin connector and PC Sync slot on the other side; (6) the three buttons behind the shutter release are unchanged; (7) the vertical release has a function and ISO button behind it; and (8) the size is bigger than the II's and smaller than the D6. All of this is what would be expected, actually. It's the back of the camera we're all interested in ;~).

Cat is Out of the Bag — Z9 Development Announcement

After dpreviews' interview revealed a Nikon Z flagship coming "within the year," a few days later Nikon has now provided a full Development Announcement for the new camera. 

It's a Z9. 

bythom nikon z9

Not a lot was disclosed in terms of details: an FX stacked sensor, a new image processing engine, 8K video support, available in 2021. While camera pictured appears to be a D6 body with a Z9 on it, thus has a vertical grip, the footnotes say "the appearance of the camera may differ from the photo." 

I know that some think that a development announcement doesn't include details because they "might change." I doubt that is the reason for Nikon being light on specifics. Nikon wants plenty left to be surprising and create viral marketing replication when they actually do announce the product. (It also appears that we're going to have a tease rollout given the mailing list signup and dedicated page.) It's been very rare in my experience that any significant specification changed from development announcement to launch. Sometimes a number changes slightly (e.g. buffer) or a footnote gets added (e.g. feature works up to x fps). But in terms of the big picture or the major marketing points, no, I'm pretty sure Nikon would have locked all that down at this point. It is true, however, that the Z6/Z7 had autofocus changes via firmware after launch. So another possibility is that a feature/spec doesn't get unlocked at first release because the firmware and testing for it didn't make the launch schedule.

In past Nikon development announcements, the lag from the first announcement to the actual camera being officially released has ranged from a quick couple of months to as much as a year. Generally, though, it appears to me that Nikon does this type of announcement about at the point where the first small scale manufacturing begins (to create official, non-mule, prototypes), which seems about right in order to have official prototypes ready for some to use at the Tokyo Olympics in July. 

The ball's now in Canon's court. I noted in my articles on the dpreview interview that Nikon was playing a FUD game. Canon's going to have to get in that game now, too, methinks. Canon played the tease game with the R5 before official launch, but now they're facing the possibility of the Tokyo Olympics having the Sony A1/A9 Mark II combo appearing all over plus now Nikon Z9 prototypes being used, as well. The R5 does hold up well against that competition in many ways, but if Canon Rumors is correct that a Canon R1 is coming early next year, I'd have to guess that Canon is going to have to reveal that by July. 

The only problems with the FUD game is that (1) you have to produce something worthy of the FUD; and (2) you have to hope that nothing will come along between the development announcement and the official release that lets the winds out of your sails. 

I noted several people on the Internet writing "Nikon didn't have any choice, they need to keep people from moving to the Sony A1." I'd add the Canon R5 to that, too, as 8K is now a thing you have to market against. So it's probably true that Nikon needed to say something that places them in the top arena again. Seven consecutive cameras (don't forget the D780) in what would be regarded as the D5600 to the D850 range puts a lot of attention on the middle of the market. Plenty of money to be made there, for sure, but Nikon has a deep pride in state-of-the-art engineering that's taken a bit of a hit lately because the D6 was lukewarm and the Z7 II didn't push the Z7 past the D850.  

Of course, now all the speculation starts:

  • What are the exact specs and performance?
  • Exactly when and how much?
  • Could a Z90 be twinning behind the scenes (for simultaneous announce)?
  • What is a Z8 going to look like?
  • Will it blend?

Who Will Make Nikon's Next Sensor?

The recent Nikon revelations have started the old "Sony makes all Nikon sensors" conspiracy theories all over again. Just a reminder, those statements have never been accurate. In the last 20 years Nikon has used image sensors manufactured by Aptina, Renesas, Toshiba, and Tower Semiconductor, as well as Sony Semiconductor. 

What do we know? (a) That the upcoming Nikon Z9 flagship camera will feature a stacked sensor (so it will likely be BSI also). (b) Nikon also just revealed an image sensor research project that involves a 1" BSI stacked sensor prototype with both the image sensor and the companion semiconductor fabbed at the 65nm process size.

So, some other facts: at the moment I'm aware of three companies that are delivering production quantity, stacked image sensors (mostly at smartphone sizes, though): OmniVision, Samsung, and Sony Semiconductor. A couple of others, including Nikon, have now demonstrated R&D projects with stacked semiconductor technologies. 

Neither OmniVision nor Samsung seem to be making large format sensors at the moment, so the natural assumption is that Sony Semiconductor would be the only one able to provide Nikon a stacked image sensor. Sony's known stacked sensors, however, appear to utilize two different-sized process sizes bonded together, and I don't believe either of them are 65nm. Thus, this probably means Nikon's 1" research project was fabbed at Tower Semiconductor, which began a 65nm image sensor program in Japan back in 2014. In other words, we have another possible large sensor producer that now has stacked capabilities, and on a fab local to the Nikon research team.

Tower in Japan currently processes 12" wafers with 65nm BSI process and copper wiring, and supports stitching, dual light piping, and global shutter, pretty much all things we might expect in a state-of-the-art full frame image sensor. And yes, the 2.7 micron pixel size Nikon announced for that 1" sensor project also fits on that fab (it can go as small as 2.5 micron with global shutter), and that's smaller than we need for a new full frame flagship camera. 

Thing is, Nikon makes the equipment (steppers) that makes semiconductors such as image sensors. While ASML has the largest market share for steppers by far, it is currently mostly catering to companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, and TMSC outside of Japan. In Japan Nikon (and Canon) have done far better selling steppers to the local electronics companies. That's how Nikon's sensor group ended up at times during the digital age working with Renesas and Toshiba for image sensor supply. It's probably how the Sony/Nikon relationship first started, though it's unclear just how good that relationship is today. 

So, I'd conclude that there are two likely possibilities for Nikon's flagship camera image sensor: that they somehow got Sony Imaging—remember that group claimed that they paid for much of the R&D work on the A9 sensor, which was the first full frame stacked sensor—to agree to let them use (a derivative of) the existing sensors, or that Nikon specified a new sensor to use and/or created their own new technology. In that latter case, it very well could be Tower Semiconductor that fabs Nikon's upcoming sensor, which would almost certainly mean a new Nikon-specified design. That could also explain why the flagship camera is arriving last in Nikon's Z full frame lineup: full sensor development has very long lead times. 

Let me be clear: I don't know which is going to be the case for Nikon's Z9 flagship (Sony or Tower), but I'm nearly certain one of them will turn out to be the supplier. My reading of the tea leaves seems to suggest it is more likely Tower than Sony. Others will claim it is more likely to be Sony than Tower. None of us know.

Do I care who makes the sensor for Nikon's upcoming flagship camera? Nope, not at all. Nikon has shown good judgment virtually throughout the digital era in their selection of technologies and sensors to use. Even some of the maligned cameras—the D2h comes to mind—actually had very good image sensors in them for the time. The D2h's "flaws" were in the lack of adequate near IR filtration and only having 4mp when Canon was already double that, not particularly the image quality, which I found quite good. All of the current Nikon cameras, DSLR and mirrorless, have image sensors that can claim to be at or near state-of-the-art. 

Unfortunately the secretive nature of Nikon's engineering coupled with the insistent demand of the Internet to speculate in lieu of actual information means that we're once again getting the old "Nikon is stuck with Sony" type of posts. I don't believe that's ever been true, and I don't believe it to be true today. I've outlined a few things that are known above, but that actually wouldn't completely rule out a third option: that Nikon will use a sensor from a source not yet known. 

Again, I don't care whose name is on the back of the chip where it will never be seen (and etched in code in the silicon where you'd need special equipment to see it). What matters is how the sensor performs, which is obviously not going to be known until a camera appears and we can all test it. Which is still a ways off (sometime in 2021, likely late fall).

In the meantime, I'm enjoying the current Z's, including the Z6 II and Z7 II, which represent Nikon's best work so far in mirrorless. That we have confirmation that there will be a better camera soon is nice, and I can't wait to see what Nikon has been up to. I'll bet that most of you will still be buying a Z6 II or Z7 II though ;~).

Upon Reflection

dpreview's published interview with Keiji Oishi of Nikon yesterday went viral much the same as my defense of Nikon did last month. Almost every photo Web site today is pointing to the dpreview interview. It seems that the world wants "good" Nikon news. 

The question is whether it really is good news that Nikon is going to make a mirrorless camera to surpass the D6. That's where my further reflection comes in.

No, it's not necessarily good news.

Oh, it's good news in the sense that Nikon knows that the A1/A9 and R5 (and likely R1) have established a strong top for mirrorless Nikon doesn't yet match. Heck, even Olympus has the E-1MX. Nikon will be about last in the market to have a true flagship, so such a camera is overdue. But think about it for a moment. How much space will there be between the Z7 II and a Z-better-than-D6? 

In reality, quite a bit. Too much space as far as I'm concerned.

First, a better-than-D6 body is likely going to cost at least as much as a D6. So the first problem will be that we will have a huge price gap between US$3000 and US$6500 (would Nikon dare go lower or higher?). Thus, while all of us want the things that a D6-like Z might bring—banks, more button customization (particularly for AF), workflow improvements, ftp, faster frame rates, better viewfinder, durability, infinite buffer, etc.—most people would still be looking for something in the Z7 II price category at worst case. 

As my upcoming reviews for the Z6 II and Z7 II will point out, Nikon missed a bunch of critical needs for these cameras to hold serve against the ongoing and relentless Canon/Sony competition. While Nikon did fix a number of things that users perceived to be wrong with the original models, that list of fixes was relatively short (AF improvement, buffer improvement, dual card slot, vertical grip option, USB Power Delivery). Most of the missed elements not in the II models are the things that pros would require, thus Nikon is potentially making the Z line "one camera for pros, but several cameras for everyone else if they don't mind giving up pro features and performance."

Specifically, the Z7 II is the camera that's not quite right. It's not a D850. Oh, sure, it is in the sense of image quality. But in terms of usability, the Z7 II still has issues that the D850-type user wants to see fixed. Being able to immediately switch Autofocus Area mode by button press would be one, and that really should be a firmware-level change; it doesn't require redesign. Unfortunately, that's not the only problem. The User Setting idea (U1/U2/U3) is terribly implemented and confusing to customers. The focus indicators clearly lag where the camera is focusing, don't confirm in AF-C, and are less precise than competitors'. So many of the things that made the D850 such a seminal camera unmatched by any other DSLR just aren't in the Z7 II, yet the Z7 II would be the mirrorless camera chasing those customers. 

If Nikon is going to do what I think they're going to do—launch a D850 DSLR replacement and a Z mirrorless flagship this year—and in doing so are trying to protect that new DSLR by not pushing the Z7 II to where it could easily go, Nikon is making a critical strategic mistake. 

Now perhaps Nikon thinks that because demand for the Z7 II is higher than they can meet that everything's copacetic. I don't think that way, and that's short term thinking that can get you into deep trouble long term. The demand for the Z7 II is high because that's all we have at a time people are making a decision on which mirrorless to move to from DSLR. What I'm hearing from users is that they feel like they're "settling" when moving from Nikon DSLR to mirrorless. Not that the Z System cameras are bad, they're just not pushing the boundaries the way the D500, D5, and D850 did in DSLRs. 

And that brings me back to the point. It appears that Nikon will sometime this year push the boundary on a D5-equivalent (now D6) mirrorless camera. But they're not managing to do that with the rest of their lineup, and, of course, we're talking about a future Z-better-than-D6, not a current one. The reality today is that the D500 is better than the Z50, the D780 is better than the Z6 II (though not by very much), the D850 is better than the Z7 II (by a bigger distance), and we don't have a D6 equivalent yet.

Do I want a Z-better-than-D6? You betcha. But I still want a Z-equal-to-D500 and Z-equal-to-D850, as well. 

Oishi-san's interview was candid and interesting, but it still represents FUD marketing. (That's Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, a technique to keep someone from buying a competitive product because you hint you might have a better one coming.)

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Bonus: Oishi said that an FTZ-type adapter that supports screw-drive lenses "is not our highest priority." He further indicated that would also require a considerable increase in the size and mass of the adapter. I call BS on both claims. If I can measure a strong wait-and-see contingent that requires screw-drive support before they'll move to mirrorless, certainly Nikon can, too. Moreover, the one corporate asset that Nikon has over all the other camera makers is "true legacy support," and dismissing a group of lenses that are in a lot of their customers' gear closets is flying in the face of that, and risks losing that asset.

Then there's the issue of "size." First, the Japanese are nothing if not great at miniaturization, and so Oishi-san seems to be saying that Nikon isn't very Japanese ;~). But I'm not sure that his statement is accurate in the first place. More likely the reason why Nikon doesn't want to support screw-drive lenses has to do with power consumption, not size. And focus speed/accuracy. 

I'll be honest here: I'm not much interested in screw-drive focus support for F-mount lenses on my Z cameras. About the only lens I might think that's worthwhile for is the 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor, and most of the time I'm manually focusing that anyway. We're past the days of noisy, slow, sometimes inaccurate (because they don't repeat to a position well when driven fast) lenses should be tolerated. This is a bit like people insisting on mechanical linkage manual transmissions with a pedal-driven clutch in automobiles, when a modern paddle-selected double clutch system would be better.

That said, I know there's a ton of you out there that believe that not being able to autofocus screw-drive lenses is a clear Z System liability. Nikon keeps trying to deny that you exist or are important. That is just another example of the thing that I've been writing about for years: Nikon is paternalistic and doesn't have a strong connection and communication with its customers. That needs to stop.

Nikon Opens Up (a bit)

In an interview with Keiji Oishi, Nikon's UX Planning Department Manager, a few details were shared on dpreview that typically don't get talked about by a company before the actual product announcements:

  • A flagship Z model will appear "within the year".
  • The goal is surpassing the D6.
  • It will debut a high-resolution, stacked sensor.

This corresponds with the information I've heard: possibly late summer/fall official announcement, probably 45mp with a new Nikon-designed sensor, probably 8K video, definitely targeting the highest end user. (Since there are plenty of rumors of new cameras floating around at the moment, for those wondering what the two just-registered products that are likely to be announced next are, I believe them to be a DX mirrorless camera and the D850 DSLR replacement.)

The full interview is quite long, and has a fair amount of interesting information in it, so I highly suggest you read it on the dpreview site. Again, it seems strange that Nikon is making marketing noise post-CP+, not at CP+.

All Z News Fit to Print

The Z50 received a firmware update today to version 2.03. This is basically just two bug fixes, one involving Picture Controls used in the RETOUCH menu and the second involving use of control rings to change aperture in video mode. It's curious that Nikon didn't add this to their CP+ firmware updates (Z6 II and Z7 II), so I suspect that we're seeing updates from different groups on different schedules. In other words, Nikon is not congregating announcements, but rather letting things happen pretty much as they get done.

Meanwhile, Nikon published several lens patents, which perhaps tells us some new information. The upcoming 40mm lens appears to be a 40mm f/2.8 (technically 42mm f/2.9 in the patent that just appeared). A 50mm f/2.8 and 55mm f/2.8 variant also is in the just-published patent. (Update: after Bill Claff of photonstophotos fame entered the formulas into his simulator, it became clear that these patents all extend to 1:1, thus it is most likely that this is the patent for the upcoming 50mm macro lens.) Interestingly, these optical designs appear to be somewhat the inverse of what we're used to, with larger, highly curved elements at the back, and small elements in the front. These lenses also appear to be external focus (front elements move in focus; update: that makes sense given that they're macro lenses). 

Also published were patents for a 16-35mm f/2.8 zoom, as well as 18-50mm f/2.8-4 and 16-50mm f/4 variations. While it may seem odd to be exploring wide angle zooms again so soon after the release of the 14-24mm f/2.8, I know that there is demand for a wide angle zoom that stays on the camera more (e.g. gets up into the minor wide or even normal focal range). 

While Canon has been releasing patents fast and furious, and often long in advance of us seeing said optics come to production, Nikon seems to be doing the opposite: releasing relatively few patents, and quite near the start of actual production, sometimes even just after. I'm not sure if this is intentional or just a reflection on differences in process. 


Nikon Quiet at CP+

As expected, Nikon used CP+ mostly to promote the new video capabilities of the Z6 II (4K/60P and Blackmagic RAW support) and to promote the Z System in general. No new product was announced, and the only talk about such was a vague "we plan to release many new products this year." There was the side announcement of the stacked sensor development (1" targeted mostly at industrial use), but that was more a magician's move so that you're watching the wrong hand. 

While it's possible that some new Z thing might launch between now and May, I don't really expect that. Perhaps a lens or two might sneak out, but as I've noted before, I think Nikon wants to save significant new product announcements for the period right around their year-end financial results meeting (typically second week of May). Given the supply chain issues everyone is facing at the moment, that would also give them a little time to deal with those, too.

I've already stated why I think Nikon will wait until May for product introductions, but let me repeat it. The current fiscal year financials are going to look bad due to large write downs of assets and pandemic-reduced sales activity. Nikon is also doing almost nothing to juice last quarter sales in their current fiscal year, so they're essentially low-balling the current fiscal year. I'm pretty sure that what they want to do is show "growth" in the next fiscal year estimates, both in terms of sales volume and in terms of units. To do that, they don't want to ship anything new that might have high volume until at least April, and preferably not even divulge those products until May when they're talking to all the business press. Given the Tokyo Olympics in July, I suspect the May to July period is going to be Nikon's main launch target this year.

We still have nine lenses on the Road Map that should be released in 2021, and two additional ones (the 400mm and 600mm) that will probably be more of a development announcement with prototypes in use at the Tokyo Olympics. I'm pretty sure that the 24-105mm is slated to be launched with the Z8-type body later this year and the 18-140mm DX will be launched with the next DX camera announcement. Other than that, it's anyone's guess as to how Nikon has prioritized the lenses. I would hope that we see the 28mm and 40mm compact lenses, one of the macro lenses, and the 100-400mm zoom earlier rather than later in the year, but we're running out of "earlier." I have heard of four additional lenses that aren't on the Road Map that are moving from development to production, and I expect at least one of those to make it to market in 2021 (the wide angle DX zoom). 

I still expect at least two bodies, one DX, on FX, which will extend the lineup at each end. But that still leaves a lot of missing pieces to Nikon's mirrorless puzzle. Some things, like missing accessories, seem to be in progress but with no real indication of priority. I'm pretty sure, for instance, we'll get the battery dummy for the Z50 that allows for AC power at some point, for example, but when?

I know Nikon wants to move fast—indeed their executives have said that out loud in interviews—but they're not. They're moving at a steady pace, but it does not look "fast" to me. Z System users will just have to remain patient. The development is happening, but the production and delivery is lagging at the moment. 

No CP+ Launches?

Nikon has published their CP+ schedule, with all their content now being accounted for. Unless Nikon is playing really coy and being deceptive, all their presentations center around the Z6 II and Z7 II with their firmware updates, and on other current products, with particular emphasis on the new video capabilities (sessions on Blackmagic Design RAW and on editing RAW with Adobe Premiere are on the list). 

I've noted that the supply chain issues are causing everyone grief at the moment. Pentax cancelled their pending camera release because of this, while others seem to be announcing and keeping their fingers crossed (or maybe they have enough parts in inventory to siphon off products that aren't selling). Nikon seems to be struggling to meet Z6 II and particularly Z7 II demand as it is, and parts shortages aren't going to help that.

I've also previously predicted that Nikon would wait until after their year-end financial results are announced—which would be in early May—before rolling out any significant new product, particularly something like a Z8. I'm pretty sure that Nikon is micromanaging their finances to get as much of the bad news out of the way in their current fiscal year so that the upcoming fiscal year will look better (and show growth) in comparison. Unfortunately, both the continuing pandemic and the supply chain issues are going to impact the early part of their coming fiscal year, though. (Technically, their fiscal year ends March 31st, but Nikon typically doesn't like to launch a product just before their year-end financial conference, which usually happens in the second week of May.)

In some better news, the WR-R11 is now available here in the US (finally!). Those who've been waiting for the radio wireless remote option can now get it.

Z6 II and Z7 II Firmware Update

Nikon today announced that the Z6 II and Z7 II will receive a 1.10 firmware update on February 25th. The primary improvement on both cameras is "improved Eye AF." The exact difference is that smaller eyes are detected and better pupil detection was added. Both cameras get support for Blackmagic RAW with the Blackmagic Design Video Assist 7 recorder. ProRes RAW support gets additional EXIF information that is picked up by Final Cut Pro (e.g. White Balance). As usual, the RAW support options require that the camera have been upgraded by the paid firmware service by Nikon. Finally, the Z6 II also gets native 4K UHD/60P support (with DX crop), as promised when the camera was announced. 

The firmware can be downloaded through Nikon's Download Center, but not until February 25th.

Some Nikon "Answers"

In a recent interview session in China, a few fairly direct comments about Nikon's decision making were made:

  • N-Log recorded internally has a lowish priority in development compared to other things, thus hasn't been implemented yet.
  • Besides the impact of dual processors, significant algorithmic changes were made to the focus system.
  • Nikon has had internal discussions about whether to support pixel-shift photography as a firmware upgrade to some models or only in new models.
  • Concentration was made on recognizing more types of eyes (e.g. animals) rather than recognizing eyes at a distance (smaller eyes).  

As usual when talking with Nikon, if you ask the right direct question you often get a reasonably direct answer back. The thing that struck me most about the overall interview, both in context and specific answers, is that Nikon doesn't have a strong sense yet of differentiation, at least at the marketing end. By that I mean that the primary "benefits" of the II series is seen as improved algorithmic things (focus and image processing), better battery life, better buffer and continuous speed, improved video functions, and the addition of some modest features, such as the 900-second long exposure ability. That's not a great "marketing" list, as all those things are mostly subtle changes to edge cases. The heavy hitting improvements aren't really there (pixel count, global shutter, improved low light capability, better viewfinder (no blackout), and so on. 

When you look at the II's that way, it answers a simple question: no, Nikon wouldn't bring those II generation features to the original Z6/Z7 via firmware update, even if it were simple, because it reduces the differentiation of the second generation model. 

All the camera makers are fighting the same problem at the moment: their products have gotten so sophisticated and good that finding "easily marketable" improvements to launch new generations is getting more difficult. I'd argue that there is a lot that can be done to improve both current and future cameras that isn't being done. Terry White today pointed out one of my long-held frustrations with Nikon's menu system: it takes me a long time trying to document why something might be grayed out in the menus, as I have to test just about every option combination and permutation. In my books, I try to put a comment in my step-by-steps along the lines of "if this is grayed out, then check to see if you've also set X, Y, or Z." Even Nikon's own manuals aren't comprehensive in this respect.

Nikon seems to be sincere in trying to understand user requests these days, but I still have problems with how they're interacting with users and whether they can see where a user has a real problem but the user doesn't know that they do or what the answer would be. In other words, if you poll users about things to add, change, or improve, they'll give you a list, but that list probably isn't as important as finding the pain point the user doesn't realize they have, or can't express well, and fixing that. I personally have a long list of those things, yet Nikon doesn't seem to be interested in hearing it.

I still can't pin down what Nikon is likely to do at CP+. When Nikon goes completely quiet it can equally mean they have a big announcement or no announcement. I can't believe that they'd let CP+ go by without something new, though. New Z lenses seem like low-hanging fruit, as does a first firmware update for the II generation models. The parts shortages and pandemic production and distribution issues have got camera makers backing away from committed dates at the moment. NikonUSA has quite a bit that's out of stock or in low supply at the moment, and new announcements will just make that picture look worse.

What happened to older content? Well, it's now in one of the archive pages, below:

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