Nikon Z System News and Commentary

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Another Legacy Lens Gets its Moment

Back in 1999 I wrote about a lens that was near perfect for the initial Nikon DSLRs: the 58mm f/1.2 NOCT. That lens, mounted on those early DX bodies, was an incredible choice for portraits (87mm effective). Sure you had to manually focus, but back then the autofocus systems weren't all that great to start with, particularly in low light. 

Within a week of me writing about the desirability of the NOCT on the new digital bodies, NOCT prices sky-rocketed as others suddenly realized what I had pointed out. Prices on the used market went from just over a thousand dollars to about US$2500 very quickly, partly because Nikon hadn't produced many of these incredible lenses in the first place. (Today a NOCT in perfect shape should go for somewhere close to US$4000.)

So here we go again (I really should buy up the supply of these lenses I write about before I publish my remarks). 

bythom nikon 45p

In examining the Zfc, I started thinking about what existing lenses really belong on this camera. Once again there's a lens that makes perfect sense to me: the 45mm f/2.8P (make sure it's the P version). This highly compact lens has a bunch of things going for it: (1) at 67mm effective focal range it's a really nice portrait lens for the Zfc, though not as long or as fast as a NOCT; (2) even on an FTZ adapter, the result on the front of a Zfc body is still very compact; and (3) the P in the lens designation means that the lens is "chipped," so it reports focal length and apertures to the camera. Heck, the painted colors in the etching on the lens go really nicely with the sand-colored Zfc, if you're trying to make a fashion statement ;~).

Like the NOCT, the petite 45mm P wasn't produced in huge volumes. Only a bit over 35,000 were made over about five years of production. At the moment they're hard to find, and one in really good shape is going to set you back US$400 or so (as I write this, probably more soon ;~). Once people discover that this lens is an excellent match with the Zfc (and the silver version looks like it belongs on the Zfc so much that people are going to want to paint their FTZ adapters silver, too), the supply is going to get even lower and the price move up higher. 

But the 45mm f/2.8P is manual focus you complain. Sure, but the Zfc has plenty of manual focus tools that work due to that chip to render that complaint mostly moot. If you're going to complain about anything with this lens, you should complain about its simple Tessar-design optics. The center is very sharp and contrasty, but the corners tend more towards blurry. However, since I'm suggesting this lens—as I did with the NOCT—as a portrait lens, I don't think you'll find the corner performance all that bad, and wide open you'll also get some gentle corner vignetting that complements portraiture, too. 

Followup on Upcoming Z Products

It's tough to get specifics about what Nikon might be up to in the Z System these days. That's partly because the company is not flying subsidiary product managers back to Japan for updates and everything is going through a tightly-managed communications channel. Moreover, the pandemic protocols going on in Tokyo have Nikon working a bit differently, and the leaky saki-bar conversations aren't happening late into the night. 

That said, I continue to get small pieces of information, some from new sources (which makes them questionable until proven reliable). Three commonalities among all the sources seem to be:

  • Nikon has gotten very active again in sensor development. I'm not sure that this is wording it quite right, though. Up through the D2h sensor, Nikon was very active at the sensor conferences, publishing research papers, and registering patents. Then the group went mostly into silent mode, though it continued to work with partners on new sensor designs. Late last year external signs of bustling activity seemed to return, and we saw, for example, the very interesting 1" stacked sensor presentation at one of the imaging conferences early this year. I'm still not convinced that all of the recently published work is ready for cameras, but I'm sure some of it will be soon. The Z9 will be the first camera to reveal what Nikon's sensor group has been up to, and probably with whom (which I still believe to be Tower Semiconductor). 
  • The next Nikkor Z's won't be so predictable. I keep hearing about some less expected and different specs for the next round of lenses that are moving from the design to ready-for-production stage. In particular, it appears that Nikon won't repeat the same PF specs in the Z mount (e.g. no 300mm f/4), creating entirely new Z PF lenses (as I had hoped). Could it be that we'll have a full line of PF from 200 to 800mm, only some will be F-mount and some will be Z-mount? Only time will tell, but so far the whispers I've heard are "yes." Personally, 400mm f/4 S PF is what I want, and an 800mm f/8 S PF might prove interesting, too. 
  • Bodies are still being debated. Clues abound that the Zfc was a quick decision to push to manufacturing. What I don't know is what data/debate drove that quick turn (I had heard about a Z50 II being worked on, and the Zfc has exactly the Z50 II specs that I had heard, so did the Z50 II turn into the Zfc, and will there be a Z50 II now?). As I outlined with last week's "Latest" article, the only for-sure cameras to come are the Z30 and Z9, and even the Z30 isn't a near term for sure due to parts shortages. Everything in between is still being heatedly debated in Tokyo as to how it forms the full body lineup. Logic dictated my writing in my earlier article, but Nikon marches to its own drummer (often hearing a rhythm none of the rest of us hear). Moreover, bodies still drive the overall story at Nikon Imaging. Until the body lineup gets fully fleshed out and (mostly) stabilized, we're likely in for more surprises such as the Z50 II to Zfc switcheroo. To me, the Z90, Z6 III, and Z7 III would be the line-defining decisions to lock down at this point. What Nikon decides to do about each of those product positions is key to all the other body choices they'll need to make. As I've noted, Nikon has tinkered with creating a Z90 but is not yet committed (that I know of), and the III update cycle is still enough away that some of the Z9 decisions are likely to spill over. 

Overall, my sources are still reporting to me what they can, but details are really difficult to come by right now, so the information is more generalized than it often is. I doubt we'll get more clarity on the body lineup until 2022, and maybe late in that year, at that. I suspect that we'll get a new lens road map with the Z9 in November. Finally, the Z9 will have the first new sensor in whatever the next sensor lineup Nikon has planned. 

So, for now, most Nikon users are in a wait-and-see position. This isn't the first time this has happened, and each time it's happened in the past, the wait was absolutely worth it, as Nikon surprised us in new and interesting ways. Still, the clock is ticking for Nikon. They need to answer some key questions about the Z System soon. The Z9 will provide some of those answers, but we need more information than just one new camera's specifications. 

Zfc Release Schedule

It's never clear what the situation is as Nikon corporate has the habit of making announcements in Japan that either (1) don't apply to all other regions; or (2) apply to other regions but haven't yet been translated and posted by the regions.

The plan had been to release the Zfc to dealers on July 23rd. The Japanese-only message posted on Nikon corporate's Web site now says that only the Zfc 16-50mm kits will arrive at the end of July. The Zfc with 28mm kit has been postponed, due to delays in parts supply. 

Perhaps I'm reading more into this than I should, but my suspicion is that Nikon moved the 28mm f/2.8 (special edition) forward because it made the Zfc look more compelling, but then Nikon got far more orders for the kit with the 28mm lens than they were expecting. To the point where they simply don't have the parts supply lined up anywhere close to demand. 

What part is impacted is unclear, however many autofocus lenses (of all makers) relied upon parts from the plant that burned down in Japan, and there aren't a lot of other suppliers that can be tapped. 

Bottom line: the Zfc is going to be out of stock the day it ships, and only the body and body+kit lens are going to ship (at least in Japan).  

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The "parts shortage" problem is becoming another messaging problem. Not just at Nikon, but other companies, as well. On the one hand, the camera companies all want to announce and release new products (for competitive reasons), but they're often unable to fulfill even their current product demand under current conditions (Fujifilm lens supply is becoming an issue, for example). You don't build up good will by announcing and then not delivering. 

Moreover, I'm seeing more and more comments from customers now that imply deliberate misinformation from camera companies. I.e. the camera companies know in advance that they can't deliver a product, but announce it anyway. Then they issue the now ubiquitous "demand exceeds supply" press release.

I don't think that's it at all. I think three things are amiss: (1) the camera companies have gotten even worse at predicting how a product will do, as the pandemic has worsened their already bad customer connections and field information isn't get back to and being interpreted by HQ quick enough; (2) most of the camera companies have cut manufacturing to meet a lower overall volume level, which is lower than initial product surges; and (3) the camera companies are getting supply promises that aren't being met (because shipping was delayed, the parts from new supplier didn't pass testing, or the supplier just lied about when they could ship). 

The problem, of course, is that businesses are like sharks, they have to keep swimming (yes, I know most sharks don't have to; I'm using a commonly-held belief here as a metaphor). Nikon, in particular, has looked more like a non-swimmer lately as they make manufacturing and supplier adjustments, and pandemic-raised issues keep getting in their way. Still, this is becoming another messaging problem. Customers, both active and potential, keep seeing messages, both real and trolled, that indicate that "Nikon isn't keeping up," and at some point when messages get repeated over and over people just start believing them rather than trying to figure out if they're true or not. 


The Latest on Upcoming Z Bodies

Because rumors are flying freely at the moment, I'm getting more questions about where the Z System is going and what to expect. Some things are reasonably predictable, some are less predictable, some are still speculation.

Let's start with the predictable:

  • Z30 — Not only was this camera prototyped, but it went to certification worldwide. As best I can tell it's basically a Z50 without an EVF and is targeted as the entry Z camera to compete with the likes of the M50's of the world. Given the recent Zfc, I would guess it likely that some of the Z50 II type things might have made it to the Z30, such as USB power/charging. Launch imminent, dependent upon parts.
  • Z9 — As I've said pretty much from the beginning: a 45mp powerhouse all-around camera designed to supplant the D6. Why did I lock in on the 45mp resolution? Because of Nikon's continued use of a particular sized photo diode over time (D850, Z7, Z7 II) coupled with the apparent switch of that technology over to Tower Semiconductor. The only question I've had is what's in the stacked layer of this new sensor: is it just DRAM/output, or is it DRAM/processing/output? The latter would allow the expanded DR Nikon demonstrated in a 1" chip in January. We also don't know if this sensor can go completely global shutter or is just fast rolling shutter ala the Sony A1/A9. But it's clear that it can run at 30 fps full frame, provide 8K video, and drive the EVF without blackout, so it has to be one or the other stacking approach. The focus system is completely rewritten and object aware. The menus get a refresh. The rest is what you'd expect from a D6. Launch in November, dependent upon final testing.

The less predictable is also starting to come into focus, though some details are missing:

  • Zf — Probably the future entry full frame model. Making it is easy enough to do. Making it succeed long term is a little more difficult for reasons I've cited before: while the buzz is highly positive on the Zfc's retro styling and dials before anyone starts to use it, in practice a lot of folk won't be using those dials, so the buzz may fade. A Zf would also need full AI-S indexing on a new FTZ adapter to really resonate (and pull a lot of MF lenses out of the closet). Likewise, the manual focus helper tools need to be improved. Possible in 2022.
  • Z50 IIWith the Zfc in the bag, Nikon now needs to push the Z50 II forward. The Zfc got all the most likely Z50 II additions: USB power, better AF, articulating LCD, 900-second exposure capability, and a few other minor things. What the Z50 II additionally needs is sensor-based VR. Possible in 2022, probable in 2023.
  • Z6 III — Because this is the popular model in the Z lineup, it is absolutely guaranteed a III update. People are questioning what that would be. I don't see Nikon making substantive changes to the body, so once again the change is likely to be internal. New image sensor (30-33mp?), new EXPEED, some Z9 focus additions, firmware/UX updates. This camera just has to keep its competitive place (against Sony A7 Mark IV, Canon R6), and I don't see any problems in Nikon doing just that. Probable in late 2022 or early 2023.
  • Z7 III — The Z6 and Z9 bracket this camera and you have to leave room for what might be a Z8. Thus, there are only two likely options Nikon can pursue: (1) the Z7 III gets a higher pixel count sensor (80mp), or (2) it stays 45mp. If the Z6 III bumps resolution and the Z9 comes in at 45mp, this effectively means that people would look to a Z7 III either as the baby Z9 or the resolution champ. Either is possible. The baby Z9 option would be easier to do, but in the current Z7 body that means it would be button/control starved, which some wouldn't like. I think the Z7 III would more likely to be pushed upwards as the resolution champ, with added features tailored to that (pixel-shift photography, for instance; in-camera image stitching would be nice, too). Probable in early 2023. (I suspect the Z6 and Z7 lines will separate in announcement dates.)
  • Z90 — I continue to hear snippets about development of a top DX camera that would be a Z9 baby (which is another reason why the Z7 III would go the resolution champ route). While before what I heard was just internal debate residue, now I'm hearing enough to suggest to me that something along these lines is in the engineering process (i.e. went from R to D). That still doesn't mean a Z90 will appear, but it does mean that design and feasibility work is being done. What I haven't heard is anything about a new DX sensor (other than stacked 20mp, which would be the easiest thing for Nikon to create [proven top layer]). Possible in 2023.

Which leaves us the speculation (I've heard virtually nothing about the following):

  • Z1 to Z4 — Why did Nikon leave these numbers open? The implication is lower-end FX, but four possible models? Don't think so. I'm not hearing anything in this realm, though the Z30 opens up the possibility of a low-end EVF-less FX body with the Z5 sensor appearing as a Z3 model. Unlikely at the moment.
  • Z5 II — The original Z5 already received much of the II changes by the time it appeared. Moreover, if Nikon makes a Zf as is now being rumored, the 24mp FX position would get quite cluttered (Zf, Z5, Z5 II, Z6, Z6 II). I suppose Nikon could swap the old D750-style image sensor for the newer Z6-style image sensor, which would provide some video and speed gains. But I'm not hearing anything about a Z5 II so I'm in total speculation mode here. Unlikely at the moment.
  • Z70Trickier than you think if a Z90 is actually progressing and a Z50 II is also in progress. Another 20mp DX camera in between those two would be a tough finesse and sell job, as it has to have features that lie between what is essentially a near D7500 and a near D500. Nikon never defined that position, and I don't think they will define it in the short term future. Unlikely.
  • Z8 — Nikon likes pairs, not trios (though they've done trios (D100/D1h/D1x comes closest). Most important pairs: D300/D3, D800/D4, D500/D5, Z6/Z7. There's an engineering organization reasoning behind this, as it's two teams working (usually) in slightly timing-offset parallel (one team leads, the other closely follows). I'm hearing Z90 tidbits but not Z8 tidbits at the moment, which would lead me to believe that a Z8 isn't imminent and wouldn't be a baby Z9 as many desire. I think Nikon wants to have the US$6500 body have some time of its own in the best all-around FX spotlight, and not dilute that by coming out with the same camera in a non-vertical grip body at a lower price. Unlikely for now.

You'll note from my timing suggestions that I would expect seven bodies in the coming two year period. That's a full plate for Nikon. Thus, the speculative models aren't likely to show up in that period, if at all. 

So, if you're following along, that would make the lineup:

  • DX — Z30 (entry), Zfc (entry retro), Z50 II (midpoint), Z90 (high-end)
  • FX — Z5 (entry), Zf (entry retro), Z6 III (midpoint), Z7 III (high resolution), Z9 (high-end all-around)

That's nine models, with some reasonable spacing. I could market that lineup. It would hold up pretty well against Canon and Sony, I believe. And yes, we need more DX lenses (buzz, buzz).

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Please note this is speculation based upon bits and pieces I hear from within Nikon and parties close to Nikon. Nikon Imaging is a very self-examining organization, and they often make course changes based upon their latest assessments, or, in the case of some emergency conditions that have happened over the years—earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and now pandemic—they shift product development and manufacturing based upon what they can actually get parts for. Still, I'd be surprised if the lineup at the end of 2023 isn't close to the nine cameras I list above.

Another Zfc Comment

As I look at the Zfc a little more closely, another thing struck me: with the camera body Nikon has made a reasonable (but not perfect) nod to the way things used to be. With lenses? Nope. 

What stands out most is that Nikon doesn't have a single Z-mount lens with an aperture ring, not even the NOCT. Moreover, Nikon doesn't "click" the added control rings (as Canon does), and the focus-by-wire response on the focus rings feels all wrong for truly manual focus work. In other words, the camera feels "more manual and retro," but the lenses feel "too modern." 

Put simply, the Zfc design is highly dissonant with the current Z-mount lens designs. This indicates that there is no top manager at Nikon who's forcing any consistency of design goals at Nikon. The body side of engineering decided to try a Fujifilm-style play to see if that gave them traction in the lower-end market, but the lens side of engineering never got that memo (or worse, ignored it). 

One thing that could have helped a little would have been to produce a new lens adapter, call it the AITZ. No focus or aperture arm activation needed, just AI-S indexing with max aperture and focal length reporting back into the camera. Of course, this brings up the other dissonance in the Zfc: it's DX, not FX. All the older AI-S lenses that might benefit from such a new, simpler adapter are 1.5x the focal length that the user would actually want. (Note that you can use third-party "dumb" adapters to use old lens with aperture rings on the Zfc, but those adapters don't report any information to the camera.)

A Quick Setup Tip

Nikon's User Settings still confuse a lot of folk. Some firmware updates zero out the User Settings and restore the camera to factory defaults.

So, the procedure for firmware updates is:

  1. Save user settings (and Save menu settings) to card.
  2. Remove card from camera.
  3. Put firmware update on card using your computer.
  4. Put card back in camera.
  5. Perform Firmware update.
  6. Load user settings and/or Load menu settings from card.

It's possible that some firmware updates might break the settings file formats in the future, but this currently works.

One problem I have with the one slot cameras (Z6, Z7) is that I can't dedicate an old, small SD card for firmware updates and settings files. What also happens is that some people on those cameras format the card each time they put it back in the camera and then lose their settings files. You can keep a copy of the settings files on your computer, but it's a pain to be moving those back and forth. 

As I've pointed out before, not only does Nikon mess us up with the crude settings file formats they use (one encrypted file, dedicated name that isn't intuitive), but that they no longer support keeping settings files in Camera Control Pro (CCP) and being able to load them across a cabled hookup (or in SnapBridge, if you want go wireless). Nikon needs to completely rewrite CCP and redo how settings files are created (user named files, and multiples please). We need the ability to move those files via cable, wireless, or card. 

Considering that CCP is the only Nikon software that is still sold, you'd think that someone at Nikon would have figured out that the reason why they don't sell many is that its usefulness keeps going backwards, not forwards. 

I've written it before but I'll do so again: Nikon seems to have focused virtually all their engineering resources on just camera body and lens design. In so doing, they've left accessories, software, flash, and a host of other "system" things out to dry and wither. The reason for this is that upper management—which must approve all decisions—and bean counters are in charge, and don't have a photographer-focus anywhere I can see. No one making the decisions is actually a photographer any more. It shows.

New Firmware Updates

Nikon updated the firmware for the Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II today. It's just a bug fix to address a problem where the aperture mechanism adjustments of a lens mounted on the FTZ adapter would become more noticeable when you rotated the zoom or focus ring on the lens. The Z50, Z6, and Z7 received a similar update earlier. 

Firmware updates are available on Nikon's Download Center Web site.

What Are the Next Nikon Z Cameras?

Plenty of future Z System camera rumors are circulating, and this time, it is literal circulation, as in Site A says something and that is picked up by Site B, which is then picked up by Site C, and then Site A uses Site C's interpretation to further the circulation.

As far as I know, the Z System cameras known to be readied for customers are: Zfc, Z30, and Z9, in that order. Zfc now, Z30 as soon as parts allow, Z9 in November. Further than that the crystal ball has cataracts and a very fuzzy view.

The camera that keeps getting mentioned as next after the Z9 is the mythical Z8. The most common rumor circulating is that it will be 60mp using the Sony Semiconductor sensor. I believe that rumor to have actually evolved from Nikon's Z9 sensor testing. As far as I know, Nikon tested three different 45mp+ sensor "bases" for the Z9 before settling on their own design. But I suspect that this multiple sensor prototype testing was really all just benchmarking against their own design in the first place. 

I've gotten no hints from any source about what a Z8 might be and when it would come. Okay, that's not quite correct: there's a body patent many are interpreting as the Z8 because it's essentially a "bigger Z7" (extended bottom area). Personally, I'm perplexed why you'd extend the Z7 body downward without adding anything in that extra area (no controls, buttons, displays, etc., extend into it, so what's in there? It isn't battery given that there is no new access door). The common assumption I've seen on the rumor sites is that the body extension is for heat dissipation. However heat dissipates upward in normal operation, so it seems unlikely you'd put something at the bottom to dissipate it. 

The Zfc tells us that a simple and logical Z System lineup is not exactly what Nikon is pursuing (e.g. Z30, Z50, Z70, Z5, Z6, Z7. Z8, Z9). Beyond the Z5, Z6, and Z7, Nikon seems to be "targeting" and feeling out different aspects of the market. Those three full frame mirrorless models basically are D610, D750, and D850 replicas, mirrorless versions of the three full frame DSLRs that paved much of Nikon's post D3/D700 full frame DSLR success. That Nikon replicated those three DSLRs in the Z System seems to indicate that this is where Nikon thinks their strength is. (Yes, I know the Z7 isn't quite a D850, but the Z5 turned out better than a D610; the transition was never going to be a perfect one-for-one match, but it's awful close.)

The Sony A1 probably changed the Z9 target slightly, which may explain some of the delay (most of the delay is simply getting everything done, tested, and into production). I suspect the Z9 is a triple-gain sensor, trying to edge into better response at both low and high ISO values, which would make it more the general purpose, all-around pro camera that Sony is trumpeting with the A1. 

But where does that leave the Z7 III and Z8? And how would a Z7 III be different than a Z8? 

The usual response is that the Z7 III would continue at 45mp and a Z8 would be many more megapixels (minimum 60mp). I suppose that's possible, but personally I'd just as soon have an improved Z7 III. Give it pixel shift and a derivative of the Z9 sensor and you're done (okay, you need a bunch more stuff in a III, which must be tick not a tock cycle, but most people are only talking about image sensor and pixels in terms of the Z8). 

The Zfc opened up the possibility of a Zf unfortunately, and frankly, I believe a full frame Zf makes more sense long-term than a Zfc. Couple the fact that a Zf would be easier to create quickly than a Z8 that is unique between the Z7 III and Z9, and thus it isn't difficult to see that a Zf might come before a Z8. But then again, it might not.

I think anything beyond the Z9 is pure speculation at this point, though. Zfc, Z30, Z9. That's the known coming Z camera parade. Z50 II, Z5 II, Z6 III, and Z7 III would seem to be givens at some point. That leaves lots of gaps and targets for Nikon to try to fill, and a very unclear picture of how they'll do that. 

My advice to Nikon: the gap that is most urgent to deal with is the Z90 (D500 equivalent). Fujifilm keeps trying to sneak up to the D500 with the X-T# line, but is still not there yet. Sony is distracted and iterating other things. But I fully expect Canon to step in with an APS-C RF body to take over the duties of the 90D/7D Mark II models, and to do so within the next 12 months. What could have been a clear leadership position for Nikon with a Z90 is a window that will eventually close.

All that said, the real issue for Nikon mirrorless is still lenses. Nikon's leaning too heavily on the FTZ to make up gaps, and we still have AI-S and D-type lens deficits that aren't addressed by the FTZ. I believe it's more important for Nikon to address lens gap issues at this point than it is to address holes in the body lineup. Fortunately, the lens and body engineering is fairly separate, so both can be pursued in parallel. Nevertheless, the lens spigot has only been trickling new offerings in the last year (six to be exact) and needs to be opened up more. Nikon's fully feeling the result of not cooperating with third-party lens makers now, while Sony continues to benefit from that.

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Meanwhile, I've been doing a bit of analysis of the available market analysis on Nikon stock. At the moment, the five analysts I know that follow Nikon produce one sell and four hold ratings of various levels of confidence. The Morgans apparently disagree: JPMorgan currently says Downgrade, while Morgan Stanley says Upgrade ;~). Wallet Investor says Nikon stock is a "bad investment" (1-year window), expecting it to be down 30% (I'm pretty confident they're wrong). 

Out of Tokyo I've heard whisper numbers that indicate Nikon thinks they'll slightly beat their Q1 forecast and will clearly beat their H1 forecast. If Imaging sales/profits were not coming in at least to expectations, I think the analyst ratings I'm currently seeing would be much more bleak than they are currently. Nikon's stock price has recovered from a late 2020 low to a 12-month high. Bottom line: Nikon isn't going out of business. It's not going out of the Imaging business. Things are going mostly to plan in Tokyo. (Disclosure: I do not own, and have never owned, Nikon stock or the US derivative of it. Nothing in the above statements should be construed as investment advice.)

One Last Take on the Zfc Launch

I continue to engage in a lot of discussion about the upcoming Zfc camera with my site readers. Let's see if I can put my primary concern into succinct and proper form:

A. Nikon has lots of gaps they still need to fill with the main Z System lineup, both bodies and lenses.

B. If the Zfc is successful, it immediately creates new gaps in appropriate lenses for the Zfc.

Thus, IF B THEN A SUFFERS because Nikon has limited resources to make new product. And IF NOT B THEN WHY B in the first place?

At this point, if Nikon doesn't soon shift resources to make more appropriate lenses for the Zfc (and Z50, buzz, buzz), then the Zfc becomes a three or four lens product, much like the Canon M series, which I regard as a dead end because of its limited lens lineup and mount incompatibility. In this scenario the Zfc becomes a short-term success, but a long-term problem. 

So why did Nikon make the Zfc? A combination of several reasons: (1) same reason they made a Df; (2) attempt to shore up Japanese and Asian market low-end sales and fend off Fujifilm; (3) attempt to make up for still rapidly decreasing D3xxx/D5xxx sales; (4) the Z50 II changes were already in progress; and probably (5) it's what they could quickly do with the parts and time constraints they currently face. 

The bigger issue is that the Sony Alpha lineup is broad, deep, and relatively complete. The Canon RF lineup is quickly expanding and likely to consume M (certainly at the high crop sensor end). Thus, Nikon's two biggest competitors are moving forward and will dominate the realm that the Z50, Z5, Z6 II, and Z7 II live in. Instead of holding serve on the big court, Nikon is sitting on the sideline playing a game of Pacman on a Gameboy. My In Box says that quite a few of Nikon's most loyal customers are noticing that and wondering why.

I've said it before: Nikon's messaging is problematic (and that's being kind; it's really FUBAR). It's not that the Zfc is a bad camera—though I wouldn't know for sure about that until I've used one for awhile—it's that the Zfc doesn't really help Nikon dig out of the hole they've already dug for themselves. Nikon executives speak of the need for urgency, but Nikon's execution doesn't live up to that at the moment. 

Nikon will almost certainly retain the third place ILC market position as the dust settles and we complete the move from the DSLR era to the mirrorless era. However, third place is going to be down in the dicey profit region that Sony once occupied (12-14% market share). This won't be the first time Nikon has fallen in market share in ILC to the third position. However, when cycles like that repeat, you have to look harder at the reasons why they do, because the source is likely endemic in your management practices. 

Personally, I'm more interested in the 28mm lens than the Zfc, and as most of you know I'm not a fan of 28mm as a focal length. I would have preferred a Z50 II with the Zfc changes, as I really like the Z50 as a travel camera (and a 28mm f/2.8 on it would be useful).

Meanwhile Nikon absolutely needs the 100-400mm or 200-600mm lens to appear soon. The Z owner base is clamoring for telephoto options and instead getting retro crop sensor bodies. 

Zfc Lens Irony

If you’re a manual exposure user—where the dials of the Zfc start to make more sense—there’s a delicious irony in the Zfc that I’m not sure Nikon is going to like: all those third-party DX manual focus lenses are more appropriate for the camera than many of the Nikkors (because of the aperture rings).

Some of the lenses I’ve noted that are likely very appropriate for the Zfc user are:

I’ve kept that list to just the smaller and mostly wide angle lenses, as the lack of a hand grip on the Zfc would start to make the larger lenses less comfortable while shooting. 

All of the above lenses are manual focus, and the Zfc doesn’t have user settings (U1, U2, U3, etc.), so you’re going to want to have the i button quick menu set so you can quickly select monochrome Picture Controls and Focus Peaking, then return to what you were doing. It’s far easier to manually focus with the right peaking set to appear over a monochrome rendering, thus my recommendation. 

Here Comes Another Round of Guessing

Nikon Japan has already posted that pre-orders for the Zfc have exceeded expectations, and that they won’t be able to deliver enough units to fill that demand (unclear whether that’s Japan-only or worldwide).

I’m sure plenty of folk will point to how this means that Nikon was right, that the Zfc was the camera everyone was waiting for, and will be wildly successful. Of course, Nikon doesn’t tell us how many they will produce in the initial shipments, so you can’t really judge much from Nikon’s statement. (I’d bet 25-30k initial units of all SKUs, and that’s only if there aren’t parts constraints in effect that I don’t know about)

Moreover, despite my own personal reservations, I expect the Zfc to sell well initially. There are plenty of folk that have convinced themselves from the announcement that a retro camera is what they want. Just as with the Df, the Zfc first round orders will look good. It’s what happens after the reviews come out and people have experience not really using the dials (again: you won’t use the shutter speed dial in P and A modes and 1/3 shutter speeds, and you won’t use the ISO dial in Auto ISO, and you don’t have an Aperture dial ;~) that matters. I’ll reiterate that the first full review in China bemoaned the lack of suitable lenses, so you have to ask yourself just how many people are there that want a camera with really only a 16-50mm or 28mm lens. (Okay, the 50mm macro seems appropriate, too.)

Meanwhile, what’s happening to Z50 sales? Are Z50 sales now so low that Nikon can shift parts to the Zfc, or does the Zfc double the Z DX sales? 

We’re in early days of Z DX. How it eventually plays out is unknown, and we still have the Z30 to see launched and the one known additional DX lens that is now only partly launched (18-140mm development announcement). 

Did Nikon Just Provide a Z9 Focusing Clue?

The latest patent filed by Nikon in Japan concerning AF is an interesting one. Basically it describes an image sensor that performs with a global shutter during AF (i.e. composing) but switches to a rolling shutter for the actual image taking. 

To understand why that would be desirable you have to look at what’s happening currently with many phase detect systems in mirrorless cameras. The old Aptina/Nikon method developed in the Nikon 1 cameras and still used by Nikon, Sony, and others is to use rows of sensor data that can be pulled off the image sensor simultaneously. In the current cameras, that’s every 12th row. Effectively, there’s a global shutter for every 12th row but a rolling shutter for all rows during image taking. 

The reason you need a global shutter for focus information is that with moving subjects, the subject may have moved slightly by the time you read the next rolling shutter group of photosites. Focus accuracy can be compromised when relying upon rolling shutter information. Meanwhile, focus accuracy is compromised by the current system because it really only sees detail on the long axis (the rows of focus-enabled photosites, but with big gaps between rows).

The reason you don’t want a global shutter for the image data is that electronic noise of various sorts will compromise the dynamic range and photosite data integrity. 

I keep seeing clues that some future Nikon camera—likely the Z9—will use all photosites for focus and introduce a focus system with better vertical data discrimination. 


EH-7P no Longer Comes with Z7 Models?

Nikon Japan has announced that due to parts shortages, the EH-7P USB Charger will no longer be supplied with the Z7 and Z7 II. However, it’s not clear if that’s a regional or global decision (as of serial numbers in the 8000’s, it was still in US Z7 II boxes). While the EH-7P has been available separately, it tends to be in and out of stock (currently out of stock at this site’s exclusive advertiser, B&H). 

The good news is that the EH-7P is basically a USB Power Delivery wall wart. Any certified USB Power Delivery wall wart should work to charge or power the Z6 II and Z7 II models via USB-C. The EH-7P is 5 volt, 1 amp, so any USB Power Delivery above that should work fine.

I’m Confused

So Nikon is marketing the Zfc towards a more style-conscious younger crowd, it appears. So if you’re not in that crowd, you get a Z50 instead?

bythom nikon zfc colors

Great, so the dedicated camera user that’s button-and-dialed into Nikon’s well established UX doesn’t get a flipping LCD, better autofocus, USB-C, USB charging, and 900 second shutter speeds (which I’ll note CAN’T be set on at the Zfc’s shutter speed dial, so much for dials ;~). The Zfc is being perceived by some as sort of an FU towards the button-and-dial Z50 crowd: sorry, you can’t have any of those things that would make a good camera better. Let’s hope for at least a firmware update that gives us the better AF and 900-second shutter speeds on the Z50, but I’m not holding my breath (if it was in progress, it should have came with the Zfc announcement; I suspect we’ll get a real Z50 II instead at some point).

While Nikon added video to the Zfc—learning a lesson from the Df—the dials mean you won’t be making exposure adjustments with those dials while taking video: they make noise and disturb your camera handling. So you assign the lens command ring to it (if it has one, otherwise you lose the manual focus ring for a more silent exposure adjustment capability).

There’s a reason why DSLRs (and the serious mirrorless cameras) ended up where they are in design. The hand grip came about because it’s difficult to hold a gripless camera once you start mounting something other than a small, compact prime on the camera. The button+dial interface came about because you could change settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder or your right hand away from the shutter release. That list goes on. 

I’ve now heard from three trusted friends that have used a Zfc prototype. Their reaction tends to be “nice, but it’s not for me.” 

The important question that I’m confused about is “where is Z DX headed?” We have just two cameras and they point two different directions. We have a couple of lenses pointing one direction, a couple others the opposite direction.  

Look, I get the fashion statement thing. I have the same research Nikon does about buying tendencies with the young and particularly in Asia, and right now big black DSLR-like cameras are not interesting to that crowd; nostalgia and form over function is. Neckstrap cameras are “not cool.” Pastels are hot. 

But that leads me back to my original statement: if Nikon is willing to cater to the fashion group when it still needs to fill gaps with its long-term loyal crowd, what’s that say to their best customers? 

Nikon wants to be hip. The Nikon 1 was all about hip (e.g. Ashton Kutcher). KeyMission was about being GoPro hip. DLs were going to be RX hip, but RX hip died fast enough that Nikon backed away. 

Let me be clear: I believe that satisfying the hip audience is not going to restore Nikon to a strong, long-term ILC market share. What worries me most is how many emails I’ve been getting that contain statements like this one: "I've been a dedicated Nikon user for over 30 years and am increasingly fed up with [Nikon’s] approach.” 

Realistically, Nikon has to convert many more Nikon DSLR users into Nikon Z System users in order to maintain (let alone build on) their current third place market share in ILC. Ever since Goto-san promoted the Df idea there’s been a part of Nikon Imaging that thinks that “just build a legacy camera of some sort and it caters to our established audience.” There’s only one problem with that: Nikon’s biggest audience never used an F, they started with and/or use a D. The legacy issue that Nikon users do resonate with has to do with lenses, not bodies. That’s why a Zfc body isn’t making them happy, but an FTZ-S/AI adapter might. 

Finally, the Zfc name suggests a Zf is coming (and one source with good connections is hearing it is). Such a camera would have done better than the Zfc probably will. But again the messaging and signaling in splitting the Z System is what I judge to be beyond Nikon marketing’s ability level. Just imagine the outcry if instead of a Z8 in 2022 we get a Zf instead. What the heck is a Zfc, Zf, Z50, Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II, Z9 lineup? 

I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. But I’ve been studying the ILC market closely for 30 years now and believe I have a good sense of its pulse. It really feels to me that Nikon has gone for a short term win here at the expense of the long-term one. Historically, Nikon isn’t a low-consumer product maker, though they’ve entered that market multiple times. Pretty much every time they’ve pushed hard into that realm, they have initial success followed by collapse. That’s not how Nikon engineering was designed to work and how it functions best. 

Nikon’s marketing department says that the f stands for film, and the c for casual in the Zfc name. They also say that they want the camera to be used by anyone, anywhere, casually. Hmm. I would think a totally LCD touch UX would be better suited for that than dials that might lie to you. 

Unfortunately, the Zfc messaging puts stronger pressure on the Z9 to be an A1 equal or better. Nikon has let Sony steal the full frame technology leadership (A7S III, A7R IV, A9/A9 II, A1). Canon is working hard to catch up to Sony (R5, R3). Nikon only has the Z9 left to get above those Sony models (at least this year; but Nikon doesn’t have infinite years to get back on top). Right now, Nikon’s models are mostly all perceived as just below the equivalent Sony models.

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Okay, one last thought: I can’t help but think that Nikon is waiting on image sensors (and probably non-Sony ones). The Z9 image sensor is new, for sure, and it’s the real critical path on the development schedule, one reason why that camera isn’t coming until the end of the year. But all the other mirrorless models that Nikon might contemplate for the near future (Z90, Z8, Z6 III and Z7 III) likely need new image sensors, too. 

So what can Nikon do with current image sensors? Make a Z30, Z50 II, Zfc, and a Zf.  We’re likely to get all four before anything on the above list (other than the Z9). So perhaps Nikon is just trying to get through a rough supply period, much like they had in 2011, which disrupted a generation of cameras. 

Still, consider me confused. 

Nikon Launches a New DX Z Camera

Nikon today officially launched the Z50 Mark II Legacy Edition. Uh, no, I mean Zfc. 

Take a Z50, make a couple of Mark II level of changes to it, and then give it a “cool” retro design, and you have the Zfc

bythom zfc frontback

Let’s start with the fixes. We get a fully articulating LCD as opposed to the tilting one. Personally, I believe that the smaller the camera, the more an articulating LCD should be the preference, and the Z50 was a small camera. So I’m all for the new LCD swivel. We also get the Z6 II/Z7 II Wide Area AF (L) capability to use eye or animal detection, and USB Power Delivery. The Zfc also gets the 900 second exposure capability when in Manual exposure mode and a 3x3 framing grid (rule of thirds).

The retro design is the big differential point on the Zfc, and it’s going to provoke a lot of discussion. First off, we lose the handgrip and go back to the more classic large soap bar shape (you can get an optional “grip”, which is really more of a modest hump your fingers can grab). No grip means two hands, folks. On a really small camera. So you end up buying an accessory (GR1) to fix a design problem. Yeah, I don’t tend to like that, though some are fine with that. 

We lose one Fn button, the ISO button, the U1-U3 options (replaced with i button options, apparently), but gain an exposure mode switch (PASM + Auto), and a selfie mode, . The touch buttons on the LCD become real buttons again.  Many of the design decisions Nikon made are ones I probably would have made, as well. There’s some clear logic to simplification versus carrying over traditional features/placements. Moreover, the CADCAM engineers have managed to carry over plenty of classic Nikon design cues and make the Zfc look very deliberately designed to invoke legacy nostalgia. The Df tried to do that but felt far more like a series of design kludges. 

bythom zfc top

My big problem, though, comes with the return of dials. Not that I’m against dials, but I am against dials not done right. Since we have an Exposure Mode lever (Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual), that means that the shutter speed dial will lie to you at times. Ditto the ISO dial, as it, too, doesn’t have the A position that has become customary on most of the retro dial-focused cameras. Moreover, we still have the Front and Rear Command dials, so there’s not only potential conflict, there’s a weird redundancy, just like on the much maligned Df. The Zfc seems less Frankencamera than the Df was—the Df was a D600 body with added dials using a D4 image sensor—but I see plenty of things in the Zfc that tells me that Nikon didn’t fully learn the lessons the Df provided them.

bythom zfc 28mmse

The Zfc is US$1099 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 SE lens. That kit lens has silver trim to match the panda styling of the camera. A kit with a special edition 28mm f/2.8 (a decorative silver ring is the “special” part) is US$1199. I will say that the 28mm special edition kit sure looks a lot like the old E Series products from back in the film SLR days. The basic Zfc is “black panda,” but Nikon will let you order it with the zoom kit lens in six pastels (yellow, pink, white, brown, green, and gray).

At US$959 body only and with the minimal consequential improvements, it seems to me that Nikon is just splitting the potential Z50 customer into two similar products, which doesn’t seem efficient (though see my other article). Nikon still has a need for an entry camera and for a sophisticated DX camera (Z90). The Zfc seems to be more a personal project than a product line necessity, though. I was a bit surprised to see the words “first legacy Z design” in the Japanese press release, the implication that there would be others. The USA press release didn’t repeat that, so maybe it was hasty marketing prep.

The thing about product management—and management in general—is that you need to know when to say “no” and when to say “yes” (or force some new “yes” on the organization). Great management is all about giving the right yes and no decisions. Me, I’d probably have said “no” to the Zfc. No matter how good it might turn out to be, no matter how much sales and profit it might generate short-term. It simply sends a wrong signal to potential customers in my opinion. Okay, maybe not to Japanese home market customers, who like small, retro cameras (probably because it reminds them how their country stole the camera market from the Europeans).

Nikon’s biggest issue right now is messaging. Nikon is losing customers because the messaging isn’t clear, the urgency seems low, and there are gaps and missing elements in their product line. The ZFc doesn’t fill any of those gaps, doesn’t change the urgency factor, and wasn’t a missing element. The Nikon messaging is confusing (buy a Z50 or a ZFc, they’re essentially the same camera). 

My prediction for the Zfc is the same as it was for the Df: it will seem to sell decently at first, because Nikon never ramps production enough to meet initial demand on virtually any product. There will be plenty who are curious enough to try it, thinking it solves some problem for them (or just that it looks “adorable,” just like the camera they had 40 years ago). 

Nikon doesn’t need niche success products right now, anyway. It needs to prove that the Z System is one of the three viable mirrorless systems for long term. From bottom of the line to top. With plenty of lens and accessory options. The Zfc seems like a distraction to that. 

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So, here’s a question that should terrify everyone, including Nikon management: if the Zfc sells better than the Z50, what’s that suggest, and what should Nikon do about it? If the Zfc sells worse than the Z50, then we have an obvious answer, but it would tell management that something was wrong with their decision making, so still not good.

The problem is going to be even more nuanced than that, though: I suspect that in some regions and for some audiences the Zfc will sell better (at the expense of the Z50), while in others it won’t. Moreover, I think that Zfc sales will be front-loaded; it will sell well initially as some size of audience responds to the legacy design, but I don’t see this camera having long legs.

That Nikon management was willing to try something that’s different either shows confidence or desperation, but I can’t figure out which. Nikon may have research in the home market that elicited the Zfc idea. But is that research something along the lines of “a film SLR-like Z would sell well,” or “Fujifilm is killing us”? I don’t know. 

I do think the Zfc will do well in the Japan. It’s outside Japan that I have doubts about. 

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And a prediction: Nikon will be quickly out of stock on the Zfc/28mm lens combo. Which will prove a point I’ve been making for over a decade: where the heck are the DX primes? (Buzz, buzz is back ;~)

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