Nikon Z System News and Commentary

News and commentary appropriate to Nikon Z system users. Latest post on top.
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Some Z Lenses Get Instant Rebates

NikonUSA is discounting six Z mount lenses at the moment, so here's my usual commentary on whether this is a good deal or not:

  • 14-30mm f/4 S — US$200 off. Yes, I know my review didn't kiss and hug this lens they way you all wanted it to. It's still a really good lens. And at US$1100, that's a very good price. You don't find many other wide-angle zooms anywhere near this good down in this price range.
  • 20mm f/1.8 S — US$100 off. Not a huge discount, but this is a really strong performer, as my upcoming review will show. US$950 is a very reasonable price for a wide prime this good.
  • 24mm f1/8 S — US$100 off. Not a huge discount, but a somewhat reasonable price now at US$900. This isn't my favorite among the f/1.8's, but it's not a slouch, it's just not exceptional.
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S — US$300 off. A stunning lens, now at a—for Nikon—really good price. I can't recommend this lens highly enough if you need the speed in the mid-range. It's arguably one of the best mid-range zooms out there, and now just under US$2000.
  • 35mm f/1.8 S — US$150 off. 35mm isn't my favorite focal length, by far, which is probably one reason why I'm not higher on this lens. But at US$700, it's a lens you light wide shooters should be paying close attention to. No real flaws. 
  • 85mm f/1.8 S — US$100 off. Just buy it. Don't read anything, just go and buy it. Even Z50 users should consider it. At US$700 this lens is starting to get down to bargain territory considering how good its optics are. If Nikon made every lens this good and put it at this price, people would be running into camera stores again.

Meanwhile, the Z5 gets a US$100 discount, and the Z50 get an extra US$100 discount when bought with either lens kit, and the Z6 II and Z7 II get a free FTZ Adapter with them. 

All links to B&H, this site's exclusive advertiser. 

We Need Subject Tracking as a Separate AF Area Mode

I spent some time yesterday with someone trying to master their Z6. Subject Tracking was definitely a good AF Area mode to be in at the time, but here's the problem: Subject Tracking is still broken, even after the firmware updates.

Here's what I kept having to tell my poor subject. "When you press the AF-ON button..."

  • ...and you see red boxes, press the OK button.
  • ...if you see see a white box, put that box on a subject you want to track and hold the AF-ON button to track that subject.
  • ...if you see a yellow box, you're tracking.

The problem is in that first bullet: if you exceed the Standby Timer limit, you end up back on that first bullet, and you probably miss the photo you wanted, as the focus system is tracking what it thinks is the subject, not what you want tracked. The nonsense of having to press another button at times simply slows you down just enough that the moment in time you were trying to capture—in this case falcons taking off or landing—is gone. 

While the new method introduced in firmware updates is better than what we had at first release, which was even more of a mess, it's not what we need. And while I'm at it, this is coupled with the insane removal of AF-ON+Area Mode functions in the Z cameras. Had we had those and a separate Subject Tracking AF Area mode, I could just program the switch into the thumb stick. Normally, I'm in Dynamic Area, but being able to immediately go to tracking via button press would be very useful. 

It's never been the case that the Z's are slow or bad at autofocus. What has been and remains the case is that Nikon has messed up the user control of the autofocus system to the point where we lose photos if we ever dane to change AF Area mode. And no, Nikon, putting more choices into the i button menu is not the answer. That's still another step that takes you out of picture-taking mode and into setting mode and then you miss the photo. 

Fix the Focus Modes is now what I will chant loudly in Nikon trade show booths when we return to meeting in person, and it's my number one feature request on all Nikon Z cameras. I really don't understand how Nikon can totally fix something on one set of cameras (D500, D5, D850) and then decide to un-fix it in the next (Z6, Z7, all Z's, D780). This speaks to people who are not photographers making important decisions in the process of designing cameras, with no one reviewing those decisions to see if they're the right ones. 

What Does Thom Want From Nikon?

We've had the last announcements for Z's in 2020, I believe—there may be some pricing adjustments and accessory items making noise—so it's probably a very good time to set down my hopes for what happens next. Note that these are not rumor-based things, these are the things that I want Nikon to do in the next round of important announcements.

Bodies

We're still missing a lot of the DSLR lineup choices in the mirrorless lineup. The question is this: which of those things should Nikon concentrate on right now? If I were in charge, two bodies need to happen: Z70 and Z8. These would be equivalent to the D500 and D880 respectively. Wait, what's a D880? 

I've written for some time that the D850 is the best all-around camera you can buy. That's still basically true, but if Nikon wants to keep that position intact, they'd need to iterate the D850 and/or duplicate what that iteration would be in the mirrorless world. We need more attention given to the "pro" level details, a little less attention to the "prosumer" type compromises. And we probably need more pixels.

Why more pixels? Because a true all-around camera has to serve both the pixel-craving crowd as well as the speed-craving crowd. 45mp is okay for the pixel-cravers, though no longer the top dog, but when you do something like pixel bin in order to get speed, 45mp is also not quite enough (closer to a 12mp result, which is where we were years ago with speed cameras, not where we want to be today). Even Sony's 61mp sensor would only get us to 15mp binned (96mp is probably where we'd really want to be today with binned output). 

There is a compromise position: pixel-shift shooting with the 45mp sensor coupled with clear speed and quality improvements with the mRaw capability. But my point is this: we need a pro-level camera that's capable of "doing it all." The Z7 II isn't quite that. The Z8 would have to be that in order to separate itself out. 

Meanwhile, DX really needs to survive. It's the lower cost way into serious cameras. Personally, I think that pursuing the bottom end, e.g. a Z30, doesn't really do anything long-term for Nikon. But a D500 replacement in the Z mount, call it a Z70, would. Clearly, such a direct replacement is possible today, as the shutter/sensor already exist, and the dual EXPEED system now punches up the AF. Nikon doesn't sell many D500's these days. Partly because it's a much older camera and partly because they never really bolstered that camera with appropriate lenses other than the PF telephotos, which made it a niche market camera (wildlife and sports). 

Still, the D500 user is not the type of customer Nikon would want to lose. Ever. That's partly because that customer also buys those big expensive lenses, but also because they're right in the target of what the remaining market will be for dedicated cameras: serious enthusiasts with particular specialities. 

Summary:

  • Z30 — No. Pursuing absolute volume isn't the right approach for the Z System right now.
  • Z50 — Give us a Z50 II sooner rather than later, adding in some of the things we got with the Z6/Z7 IIs.
  • Z70 — Yes. Add to the Z50 II performance, features, and build to pull the D300/D500 users into mirrorless.
  • Z5 — Fine the way it is for now, but gradually lower the price.
  • Z6 II — Fine the way it is for now, but firmware updates of substance would be nice.
  • Z7 II — Fine the way it is for now, but firmware updates of substance would be nice.
  • Z8 — Yes. The first truly pro body, with everything that suggests. Should target being the best all-around mirrorless camera.

Lenses

Between the 16 available lenses and the 11 additional lenses on the Road Map, by the end of 2021 we should be in a reasonably nice place. Not yet F-mount equivalent in choices, not yet FE-mount equivalent in choices, but still, most of the top needs would have be filled.

Yes, I'm going to drone on about DX (buzz buzz ;~).

If Nikon adds even a single DX body to the Z lineup, particularly a higher-end one, the DX lens choices are going to look abysmal. Worse than the limited F-mount DX lineup was. Which is to say "bad, and seriously constraining the potential customer base." 

I've been pretty consistent in my comments about DX lenses, I think. We need a few DX-sized primes that are spec'd right, we need a kit wide angle zoom, and we need faster wide angle zoom and mid-range zoom options. Above 70mm, DX doesn't get any clear benefit in size/weight with traditional optical designs, but throw in a Z PF or two and a Z DX user would be happy. 

  • 12mm f/2.8
  • 16mm f/2
  • 24mm f/2
  • 10-24mm f/4-6.3
  • 8-16mm f/2.8-4
  • 16-70mm f/2.8-4
  • 200mm f/2.8 PF
  • 400mm f/4 PF

I'm sure some will quibble with my choices here, but they're mostly to illustrate the needs, not to particularly call out a specific specification. Three of those lenses a year with the rest on a clear road map, and Z DX users would be mostly happy, particularly since they can still dip into the full frame Z lenses (the 14-30mm f/4 wouldn't be a terrible choice for a Z70 user, for instance). 

In full frame, Nikon hasn't made any bad choices so far. It's really just that the line is only filling at the rate of 8 lenses a year, so there's a lot of catch up to do. I think I've been clear with my personal choices there, too (these are additions to what's already in the road map):

  • f/1.2 prime set completed: 24mm, 35mm
  • f/1.8 prime set extended: 18mm, 105mm, 135mm
  • macro set extended: 70-180mm, 200mm+
  • Additional zoom choices brought over from F-mount: 8-15mm, 70-300mm, 120-300mm, 180-400mm
  • Additional telephoto primes: 500mm
  • Additional telephoto PF: 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, 800mm
  • Tilt-shift: 19mm, 45mm, 85mm

The two groups together (DX and FX) make 27 more lenses, or over three additional years worth of releases at the current introduction rate.

Here's what I don't want to see: Nikon making less than 8 new lenses a year until the lineup is equivalent to where they were in the F-mount (or better). Indeed, I'd love to see Nikon stretch that to 10-12 new lenses a year in the short term. Between the 11 lenses already in the road map and another 30 or so I would add, 10 lenses a year would get them most of the way in three years. Here's another thing I don't want to see: too much concentration on consumer zooms. We don't need the 18-xx type proliferation we saw with DX DSLRs. We also don't need a half dozen 24-xx lenses, either. 

Accessories

Here's where I'd say that Nikon is completely off track. Accessories really speak to how a customer uses their camera. They are customizing their camera to a need, and/or simplifying certain work flows/needs when they start accessorizing. 

Most conspicuous in the "where's Waldo" accessory drama Nikon has created for themselves are flash units that are truly compatible with the Z System and move the flash tech forward in useful ways. Personally, I want WR-enabled SB-500 and SB-5000 units that also support AF Assist, at a minimum. When I say WR-enabled, I mean that there's a WR-R10/11 inside the Speedlight that can trigger remote Speedlights. That way, we don't actually need the WR-R10/11 nub in our remote release slot (I still want that, too, by the way, as it has other useful purposes). 

Frankly, flash is an area where technology still hasn't been maximized. We all want accurate TTL and level setting with remote flashes, right? Unfortunately, light falls off with the inverse square of distance. Does a flash know what its distance is? No, not really. I can think of all kinds of ways to fix that problem (lidar sensor in the flash, for example, but also this: camera communicates lenses focus distance to the flashes and the flashes communicate their location vis-a-vis the camera and the camera calculates the distances). We've all watched McNally in his flash mastery. Yes, he relies on some automation, but he's constantly dialing in values and moving flash positions in almost a trial and error methodology at times. Dialing in a "formula" isn't possible with our current flash tech. 

What do I mean by formula? "Ambient at 60% of exposure, key light flash at 40% of exposure, fill light flash at 25% of exposure." That's sort of simplistic (and probably not accurate to what I'd actually use), but we need to start somewhere. In my perfect world, I could move the flash units or subject distance and my formula would still stay true and the camera could handle that automatically. What we do in the studio today is set up our light and then force our subject to stay within a small area defined by that light. 

And yes, a grip with a shutter release on it is nice, but oh my, are we missing the point. I want an NVME SSD in my grip, and want the camera backing up to that (away dual card slots!). And that's just a start with what we could add to the camera via a correctly designed bolt-on accessory system. Most camera accessories are afterthoughts and have to deal with the already existing camera design; one reason why we got the dreadful MB-N10 grip with the original Z6 and Z7. Let's design the system from the get go, Tokyo. But to do that, you need to talk to more of us photographers to understand where our pain points really are. 

Final Thoughts

We never quite got everything we'd have wanted out of a DSLR system. That's because the DSLR grew out of the SLR and was a replacement for it, and it took generations of iterations to flesh out all the major issues with that. Unfortunately, the Japanese camera companies are approaching mirrorless the same way. Sony's a good example: A series SLRs to SLTs to A7 mirrorless, iterate, iterate, iterate, and now you have an A7 Mark III that isn't up to the specs of the Nikon Z6 II ;~).

As I've pointed out since 2008, we also need to communicate our images now. Twelve years later we find camera makers mostly still trying to iron out how the basic cameras work in the DSLR to mirrorless transition, and we get lip service to the thing that would make us incredibly more effective. Plus when we do get something that's useful, like the current SnapBridge, we find that we can "tag" our images for social media, but only with the tags #NIKON and #SNAPBRIDGE. Hmm. What about my tagging needs, Nikon? Be happy to use the #NIKON tag, but I need my own tags in there, too. In the last Silicon Valley company I managed, if I had told any of my software engineers I needed user-supplied tagging, including from a list I can edit on the fly, the new build would have been on my desk the next morning for me to try.

Funny How Opinions Don't Always Match Specs

I'll just stick to the Z6 II today. Technically, that camera goes up against the Canon R6, the Panasonic S5, and the Sony A7 Mark III. Headlines and statements across much of the Internet say that "Nikon is playing catch-up." But many go further and say that Nikon still hasn't caught the competition and suggest that Nikon is woefully behind.

Let's mostly ignore the subjective experience, because there's simply no way we're all going to agree on that. Still, it's worth a passing comment. Having now shot with all four (briefly with one, admittedly), my own personal opinion is that the Nikon has the best ergonomics/UI, the Canon second, the Panasonic a close third, and Sony the worst. But a Canon DSLR user is going to find the R6 ergonomics/UI more to their liking than the Nikon Z6 II, and a Nikon DSLR user vice versa. That's because both companies are now producing mirrorless products that operate like their DSLRs. Panasonic's ergonomics/UI are fine, but because there's no real "muscle memory" you'd probably need to grow into them. Sony's ergonomics/UI are still evolving, as the A7S Mark III shows, but I consistently have the most trouble with the A7 Mark III. 

But let's talk about published specs instead. 

  • Price — Canon loses
  • Pixel count — Canon loses
  • Pixel shift — Nikon, Canon, Sony loses; Panasonic wins
  • AF system — Panasonic loses
  • Image stabilization — Nikon and Sony lose; Canon wins
  • Viewfinder — Panasonic and Sony lose
  • Rear LCD — Sony loses; Nikon wins
  • Frame rate — Panasonic loses; Canon and Nikon win
  • Storage — Panasonic and Sony lose
  • Flash sync — Nikon loses, Canon close behind
  • 4K video — Sony loses; Canon wins, Panasonic close behind

We could dice up some more bits and pieces to rate specs on, but that's enough for a simple comparison to see if the statements on the Internet about Nikon lagging behind might be right:

  • Canon — 5 wins, 3+ losses
  • Nikon — 3 wins, 3 losses
  • Panasonic — 1+ win, 4 losses
  • Sony —  0 wins, 6 losses

Lo and behold, the newer cameras have the better specs. The oldest camera is now lagging, despite the fact it's already been iterated twice. Moreover, we've got a lot of "ties."

Personally, I wouldn't declare any of these cameras a "winner." All four are strongly competent cameras with deep feature sets and solid performance. All four are cameras that should last you many years of happy shooting. 

My point today, though, is that the notion that "Nikon is seriously behind" is a false narrative that many seem to want to play up, even in the press. The Internet, particularly the Twitter/Facebook side, is getting dinged for the promotion of a lot of disinformation and tainted intent these days, and somehow that's all now showing up in in camera coverage on the Internet, too.

I'm happy with what the real narrative should probably be: Nikon took a very good camera and addressed users' most frequent complaints, making it an even good-er camera. Is that not one of the things we want camera companies to do? Or do we just want more "brag numbers" to flaunt and we need to feed our egos using confirmation bias?

Questions That Haven't Been Answered

  • Has banding been eradicated? Unknown. Nikon certainly is aware of those reports, since it was discussed on major sites like dpreview within the reviews. Moreover, most of us believe the cause is a small math problem for the 14-bit ADC within the sensor, which should be able to be adjusted to give at least an improvement if not full eradication. This is going to be one of those things that's going to require finished cameras in testing to verify one way or another.
  • Has focus speed been improved? Yes. What we don't know is how much, and the characteristics of the improvement. Moreover, there are a number of nuances that would need to discussed, and nuance requires testing. 
  • Will the Z6 and Z7 get any firmware updates of II generation features? I certainly hope so. There are a few bits of low-hanging fruit that would be useful to the first generation users. I don't think that "performance oriented" things can be done in the original cameras. So, something like 900 second shutter speeds, it should be possible, but things like the changes to focus performance probably can't be. Given that the original Z6 and Z7 appear to be staying in the lineup, Nikon should understand that firmware updates will keep those cameras selling. In other words, it's worth doing. But...we never know until it happens with things like this.
  • Will we get pixel-shift in a firmware update on the II generation cameras? I certainly hope so. 
  • When will the cameras actually ship? Nikon went from specific dates to generic dates (November for the Z6 II, December for the Z7 II). Until product is actually tracked into the subsidiary inventories, I don't think we'll get a better date. 
  • What's the speed of the CFe slot on the camera? Is it faster than the slot on the previous models? The XQD cameras all max out to about 230MBps write speed. Any improvement here would be useful, particularly when the buffer fills.
  • Will we get an FTZ Adapter that supports screw drive autofocus lenses. Unknown. This is what I call a "friction" problem. Many who raise this issue use it as their excuse for not buying a Z System camera. If Nikon actually made such an adapter, those folk would no longer have a reason not to buy the Z (but they might find a new complaint ;~). 

Firmware Updates for the Z6, Z7, and Z50

Nikon today introduced firmware updates that address the issue where AF Fine Tune saved values were not being correctly applied:

  • Z6 3.12
  • Z7 3.12
  • Z50 2.02

Nikon's download center

So What Are the New Complaints?


  • No FTZ-S (screw-drive focus support. Since Nikon spent lots of time "fixing" user complaints with the original models—fixing is in quotes because I've been of the belief that most of those original complaints were excuses not to buy, not true operational complaints—but didn't pick up on the big one: so many legacy lenses got left in the dust by not supporting screw drive autofocus. I keep hearing from long-time Nikon users who say "no Z for me until they fix this." Like the complaints that were just addressed, this isn't so much a true operational complaint. Once you've used a few Z (and even current F) lenses, you aren't putting your 28-105mm D lens on the camera.
  • Crop 4K/60P (and not until next year with a firmware update on the Z6 II). This complaint mostly comes from Sony fans, who, ironically, if they bought a Sony body at the same price would also not get full frame 4K/60P ;~). To me this is a faux complaint until such time as Nikon really decides that they're in the video game (see also next). 
  • No internal 10-bit video recording (or internal raw video option). Given that these are primarily cameras for still photography that do really well as video cameras, plus the fact that we do have 10-bit N-Log HDR ProResRAW (and soon Blackmagic RAW) via the HDMI port, I'm not particularly concerned about this. If Nikon started making clear video-specific lenses, then I might change my mind on this, but I'm fine with the way things are. It's also curious that the folk complaining about 4K/60P crop and no internal 10-bit aren't also complaining about the 30-minute limit on video recorded internally. This is one way that disinformation and trolling shows up on the Internet: it picks up on a talking point it wants to promote but doesn't actually have a full world view of the issue and its related bits. If you want a camera to be "all in" with video, it's more than one or two bullets that need to be addressed. 
  • Europe is once again complaining about pricing (particularly Scandinavian countries). The US prices—without VAT or sales tax—are more reasonable than most folk expected, but in Europe we once again see a trend Nikon has been using for awhile, which is to set a high price (with VAT included) and then let the market (dealers) eventually discount that down to what moves product. So much micromanaging. And I'm not sure it actually produces maximum results.
  • Lenses. No matter how fast Nikon moves, they're going to be dealing with this complaint for a couple more years, as going from a 60+ lens lineup to a 16 lens lineup (now; 24 by end of next year) is still restrictive, particularly when the mount isn't open to third party developers. I was astonished at how many of you wanted a 70-200mm f/4 S lens, and I think Nikon would be, too. The 70-200mm f/4G lens wasn't a top seller. But I think the issue here is that if you commit to the Z mount, you don't want to spend US$7000 right away picking up f/2.8 zooms. You need more budget-friendly options initially. So, the 14-30mm f/4, 24-70mm f/4, and 70-200mm f/4 would entice more users to switch from DSLR to mirrorless.

And I have a few of my own:

  • Nikon redesigned the WT-10 (now WT-11b for the Z's), and still didn't get it right. With the WT-11b plugged in, access to the HDMI port is still blocked. Seriously, Nikon, whoever's in charge of accessories really needs to be permanently given an office with a view and you need to talk to customers more about the accessories.
  • The MB-N11 appears to be a redesigned MB-N10. Better, but... Nikon makes the claim "...has a built-in USB-C port...[which] will come in handy when you want to use one port to provide constant power to the camera and the other port to communicate with software or other equipment." A situation that was described to me was tethered shooting. No, I don't want two cables plugged into my camera for tethered shooting. Moreover, clearly USB Power Delivery works while streaming video via the same cable (e.g. Webcam use), so exactly why do I want two cables again?
  • I don't like setting-dependent performance issues. The Z6 II does 14 fps, but only with Single Point AF set. The other AF Area modes apparently will drop you to 12 fps. 
  • "Rapidly expanding ecosystem." This was a bullet point in Nikon's press releases and other materials. It's hyperbole. Moreover, two of the things they pointed to as "expansion"—the vertical grip and the radio transmitter—are fixes, not additions. I'll believe "rapidly expanding" when I see it. What I see right now is steady progression.

Nikon Announces the Next Chapter (Z6 II and Z7 II)

You're going to have to look very closely to see the differences between the first and the second generation of Z's that Nikon announced today. For example, on the Z6 II, I see four external changes after staring at the body for until I went cross-eyed: (1) Z6 II badge ;~); (2) larger card slot door; (3) ever-so-slightly deeper design (ala the Z5); and a slight change to the prism size/shape/slope. 

bythom z6ii wlens


I actually consider this lack of apparent physical changes to be good news. I don't like camera design changes just for the sake of change. We've had SLR-type cameras for most of my long life, and at this point there are things that just aren't broken in designs, so why fix them? It'll be nice knowing that whether I pick up a Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, or Z7 II that I don't have to think hard about which camera it is I picked up and adjust hand position or remember what new control to use.

Nope, all the "new" in the II series is pretty much inside. Which is where I wanted it.

I'm going to write this announcement article a little different than I usually do. Because these are direct replacement cameras (Z6 II for Z6, Z7 II for Z7), I think that most Nikon followers already had some very specific gripes about the original and expectations about what would be done about those gripes, if anything. Thus, I'm going to group my comments. I've been capturing user feedback for almost two years on the Z's now, so I have a pretty good sense of all the things that were being asked for. Here we go...

Minimum Expectations
We start with things that I think most Z users and potential buyers would have had in their "minimum expectations" list:

  • ✔︎ Dual card slots — Yep, you got them, though now we'll have arguments about whether the CFe/SD configuration is the right choice or not ;~). For some reason, single card slot was one of the "total mistakes" of the originals according to the YouTube Noise Measurement counters. The II models get two slots, one the same as the original cameras and which takes XQD or CFexpress Type B cards, the second being a UHS II SD card slot. Along with the dual slots comes all of Nikon's well-honed dual card support options. If you want to know what that is, just study the Z5 manual. I'm not overly pleased with the mismatching slot choice, but all those folk who are deluded enough to think that they're going to shoot a Z7 II with their 10-year old SD card in Slot 2 are probably as giddy as leaders on powerful steroids would be.
  • ✔︎ Vertical grip option — Another of the loud complaints on the original cameras was the lack of a vertical grip, particularly once the MB-N10 Battery Pack option finally appeared and turned out to be some intern's project that didn't quite work right. Yep, Nikon fixed this with the II's, too, and without compromising the weather-resistant design of the camera. Instead of contacts on the bottom of the camera, we get them inside the battery compartment, which is really where they belong. I'm happy with that change, though you probably will never see me using the grip ;~).
  • ✔︎ USB Power Delivery and EN-EL15C battery — Once the Z5 appeared with these things, it was a foregone conclusion that we'd see the same on the eventual Z6 and Z7 replacements. While lower in volume than the first two complaints were, I heard plenty of grumblings about battery performance—particularly the misleading CIPA numbers—and the fact that USB battery charging was allowed, but not USB powering of the camera. Again, Nikon has obviously heard the complaints and responded with two very useful capabilities we didn't have before. Indeed, more than the first two, these are things I will use and appreciate.
  • ✔︎ Better focus performance — To me this was always an incorrect complaint, particularly once the firmware updates came along and fixed a few things that were sub-optimal. It wasn't focus performance that I felt lacked on the Z6 and Z7, it was control of the focus settings during the heat of shooting, coupled with no guarantee of Closest Subject Priority (CSP) in any of the settings. CSP was a Nikon innovation when it first appeared, yet ever since it first appeared it's had an on-again, off-again appearance. Nikon needs to stop being so paternal. Give us a CSP mode, and let us control it on the fly, simple as that. We're grown ups. We can press a button when we sense a need. As far as the Z6 II and Z7 II go, Nikon is promising even better focus performance than with the initial models, partly due to the use of a second SoC (System on Chip). Excellent. I'll always take improvements.

You might notice that the four things I thought everyone would have in their minimal expectations were addressed in Nikon's Next Chapter announcement. Phew! They jumped over the low bar. Yeah, I know that's a little snide, but Nikon isn't always quite so fast and direct to address issues that customers point out in their gear. The Z System is important to Nikon, and they're listening better than they usually do. What's not to like about that?

Maximal Expectations
Next, let's look at the highest bar and see whether the II's get over it. Our next category are the long reaches that I personally thought would not happen until the next, higher numbered body appears:

  • New sensors — At one end we had people wanting 61mp or more, at the other end we had people wanting 6K global shutter, and we also had people asking for stacked. If you haven't already noticed, "new" sensors are coming less and less frequently from everyone now. Oh, we get some modest tweaks to existing sensors, but something truly new that would require a full-on re-masking coupled with fab changes is something that is going to be more rare as camera volumes drop. The Z6 II and the Z7 II use the same basic sensors as the current camera. Perhaps there are some low-level adjustments somewhere—getting banding out of the 14-bit raw data might be something that was targeted as it was mostly a math issue—but the basic photo diode, sensel, ADC, and all the other major attributes of the image sensors are the same as with the first generation Z's. With the additional SoC, some of the fastest bandwidth modes available on those chips are now usable, so we get some modest improvements here and there (focus, plus see next section). I'm sure that there will be those that bemoan the fact that we didn't get completely new image sensors and now start saying that Nikon isn't capable of same. They'd be wrong. Nikon most certainly is working on at least one major new sensor (and I think two), with some very interesting attributes to it. I'm not at all sure they're working with Sony on this new image sensor, either. What I'm hearing is that Nikon has been working on something with their own new IP (as they did, for example with several other key sensors in the past, most notably the D3 sensor, but others, as well). So patience, grasshoppers. Just to be clear, the Z6 already had and the Z6 II still has the best 24mp full frame sensor available, and the Z7 already had and the Z7 II still has the best 45mp full frame sensor available. 
  • 5K, 6K, 8K video, and internal RAW recording of same — Those are big asks that nobody has really pulled off. Video is also secondary in Nikon's world, not primary, so asking them to be first is something that isn't likely to happen. Don't get me wrong, 8K is coming from Nikon, and raw video recorded internally is probably coming from them, as well. But think about it for a moment: the Z6 and Z7 present right in the middle of Nikon's product lineup, not at the top. Some things will wait for the top models. Higher resolution is one of those things, particularly in video.
  •  Internal flash, radio triggers — Nikon's been moving away from internal flash units in the cameras except for the consumer models. Are the Z6 II and Z7 II consumer models? I'd say no (which brings up the question of why the Z5 didn't have internal flash). Likewise, internal WR-R10 type radio transmitters aren't something I'd expect in the middle models, either.  
  •  Better EVF — The EVF in the existing cameras is quite good. You might have noticed how much emphasis Nikon gave to the optics behind the 1/2" LCD in the viewfinder during the original Z6/Z7 launch. Nikon's an optical company, first and foremost. To them, it's not the pixel count of the viewfinder that's the most important, it's how the image appears to the eye of the user. I've used a lot of EVF cameras. The Z6 and Z7 are about the best of the bunch, regardless of dot counts, refresh speeds, or other attributes. The Z6 and Z7 are the "most like" DSLRs I've seen, too. I often forget I'm using a mirrorless camera when I pick up my Z's. The question I've always had is whether or not more dots would "improve" that experience. I'd guess that a higher refresh rate might, but not necessarily more resolution. I'm okay with the EVF staying the same.

So, Nikon fulfilled the minimal expectations, but ducked the bar on the inflated expectations. That, of course, leaves a big middle area to cover, and that's where we'll find a few more changes in the new models.

Tweener Expectations
Here we put the expectations that are in the more reasonable category, but not necessarily in a highly demanded category. 

  • ✔︎ Frame rate/Buffer improvements — Neither the Z6 nor Z7 were exactly slouches when it came to frame rate, though the fastest shutter speeds had some liabilities (see slide show, below) and the Z7's buffer was a bit confining when pressed. Now the Z6 II shoots at 14 fps with over three times the buffer.
  • ✔︎ 4K 60P — Seems like the Internet absolutely requires this for some reason, though virtually no one on that same Internet is actually using 4K, let alone 60P as their output ;~). I'll say that it is nice to have this ability available, but it's a real pain in the butt to just set your camera to that and shoot away. Files fill your card incredibly fast, and you should probably buy shares in storage companies like Seagate, because you'll be adding a lot of capacity to your computer in order to store and edit them. Well, Nikon has decided to give you 4K/60P, but the new whining has already started, because it's only with a 1.7x crop on the Z6 II. That was predictable, given the image sensor in the camera. Full frame is really about 6K, and pulling all 24mp of data off 60 times a second wasn't going to happen. I'm perfectly fine with the crop.
  • ✘ 10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording — While this seems like a high-end feature and these are middle cameras, this is one place that the extra horsepower of the II models ought to come to play, and something that is very welcome. 
  • Release mode dial — The DSLRs have a Release Mode dial that sits under the Mode dial (or top button cluster). The Z's have a Release Mode button. There is a difference, as the dial is persistent across other shooting modes and shutdown, while the button isn't. Given that Nikon decided to keep the bodies as intact as possible—which makes for getting them into production faster and benefitting from everything they've learned making them—adding controls was probably never going to happen this generation. Moreover, the Z6 and Z7 are the "middle" bodies; Nikon's surely saving a few things for the "top" body(ies). 
  • Illuminated buttons — See the last sentence, above: for the top bodies.
  • ✘ Focus mode button — This is a trickier one. For me, it isn't so much that we're missing the Focus Mode button of the DSLRs on the Z6 and Z7, it's that we don't have a plethora of buttons that we can configure, and then we find that we can't actually configure some of the DSLR focus abilities into the buttons we do have. 
  • ? AF-C focus confirmation — Unknown. Check back later.
  • ✔︎ Additional AF-C modes/control — Well, we get eye detection in Wide-Area (L) Mode now, which I guess is a new mode. Certainly going to be useful to some event and other photographers. Low light focus acquisition has apparently been improved, too.
  • Articulated display — I almost put this in the Maximal Expectations list. Indeed, it may belong there, because the ones asking for this tend to be video shooters, which isn't the primary intention of the cameras. Personally, I was expecting Nikon to put an articulated LCD in the Z6 followup, as that camera is a remarkable all-rounder that excels at both stills and video. But I never expected that we'd see anything other than the current tilt screen in the Z7 followup, as for still photographers, the tilt aspect is more appealing. Of course, why can't we have both? It's not like that can't be engineered. But again, given that Nikon was in "reuse the body mode" and made the updates more about internals than externals, I didn't expect things to be different, and that's what we got. 
  • ✘ Pixel-shift shooting — I'm keeping my fingers that Nikon will do this via a firmware update, because it's the feature that I find conspicuously missing now, particularly on the Z7 II. 

And a surprise: new WR-R11 radio controllers are coming in November. 

Bottom Line
So, this brings us down to the bottom line: has Nikon done enough? Yes, I think so, though it feels more on the minimal side than anything approaching maximal. More importantly, the original Z6 and Z7 stay in the lineup for the time being, just at lower price points. So if you don't need the things in the Chapter II versions, you can save some money and get a known reliable mirrorless full frame camera at a reasonable price.

Which brings me to the other aspects of the Z6 II and Z7 II you need to know:

  • Z6 II — Retails for US$1999 and will be available beginning somewhere around November 24th. 
  • Z7 II — Retails for US$2999 and will be available beginning somewhere in late December.

Join me later today for a roundtable discussion of the new Z's, where you'll be able to ask me questions I haven't answered here or on the data pages for the new cameras.

The Not Quite Yellow Program

I noted last week when NikonUSA announced the new Z5 Yellow Program—which is only available via The Nikon Store—that dealers were going to get angry. Today, Nikon announced a new, related program, the Z5 Test Drive, which does work through dealers.

Available at authorized Nikon dealers that agree to participate and have available inventory, basically you walk out of your local store with a Z5 and 24-50mm f/4-6.3 lens kit for US$50. At the end of the week, you can apply that fee to the full sale price of the kit and keep it, or return everything to the dealer. 

Meanwhile, as I write this, the NikonUSA main page doesn't promote the Z5 Test Drive, only the Yellow Program, so if I were a dealer I'd still be angry. Moreover, the Yellow Program's FAQ hasn't been updated ("What stores are participating in the Yellow Program?" doesn't point to the One Week Test Drive as an alternative at your local dealer).

This all seems a little disorganized, and also seems to point to NikonUSA trying real hard to move more Z5 inventory—particularly the kit with the 24-50mm lens—without reducing its price. I can tell from book sales that the Z5 isn't moving in the volume Nikon probably expected. But Nikon is also working at cross purposes with themselves: the upcoming Z6 II and Z7 II launch has anyone thinking about buying a full frame Z camera waiting to see what those are and how the lineup will look after their launch. 

Methinks NikonUSA is trying to micromanage a problem in ways that the customer (and dealer) isn't going to respond well to. There are simpler and better approaches that would probably achieve the same thing. For instance, most people (including me) believe that the Z5 will go on sale for the holidays, so just putting a 90-day price guarantee on the Z5 would be useful in getting some off their duff and ordering the product. Had NikonUSA approached me about bundling my book with the Z5 through the end of the year, I might have considered that. There's always the "free" FTZ thing, too. 

What that strikes me is this: NikonUSA sees "the problem" as "we need to get Z5+24-50mm boxes out of our inventory." And if they can get them out of dealers' inventory, the dealer will order more and reduce NikonUSA's inventory. The benefit to the customer NikonUSA is offering is basically "try it risk free." No doubt that will entice a few, but I'm not sure that customers are sitting around worrying about the risk of buying a Z5 (other than what a Z6 II might look like ;~). What's the reason why they should want the camera in the first place? 

I do note that NikonUSA picked up on something I wrote and leads with the "Your full frame mirrorless journey starts here" marketing tag as being first and foremost on the Test Drive page (as opposed to the "Expand your creative playground" slogan they usually use). 

Let me state it unequivocally: the Z5 is the best entry full frame mirrorless camera you can buy, and probably the best entry full frame camera, period. If it's not selling at Nikon's expectations, then the problem is one of two: (1) it's priced too high; or (2) Nikon can't convince people of what I just wrote—as have others—through their marketing. (Also: (3) that people can't get it with the lens they wanted, as the 24-200mm kit is sold out and the 24-70mm kit isn't available here.)

The irony is this: there's nothing else like a Z5 on the market. The Canon RP is a shadow of a camera comparatively. The Sony A7 Mark II might be still available, but that's buying into things that are broken and have been fixed in current products. The Sony A7C is a more expensive oddball, and more likely to appeal to videographers than still photographers (likewise the Sigma fp). Panasonic doesn't really have a true entry product. If Nikon can't sell the excellent Z5, then there's no "entry market", and we all know that not to be true. 

I've been working on an article about one aspect the Japanese camera companies, particularly Nikon, get wrong these days. It has to do with management, and what you're managing to. Nikon is using 20th Century management ideas—and mid-20th century, at that—in an environment that dictates you move faster and different here in the 21st Century. I've seen this problem in US companies, too, and there's a correlation between the age of top management and whether they're using older or newer management thinking.

So Why is the Z5+24-200mm Out of Stock?

Z5 body only? In stock most everywhere.

Z5 body plus 24-50mm f/4-6.3 lens? In stock most everywhere.

Z5 body plus 24-200mm f/4-6.3 lens? Out of stock most everywhere. This, despite the fact that you only get a US$100 implied discount buying the 24-200mm lens in the kit.

I'm going to go out on the limb a bit on this one. NikonUSA missed a clue.

I've now gotten at least a dozen emails that go like this: "I wanted the 24-200mm lens, but it was out of stock, so I bought the kit..." After the ellipsis comes some variation. Either "I'll sell the Z5 body" or "I'll sell one of my older DSLR bodies and use the Z5 as a backup" seem to be common. And I've also gotten plenty of emails that indicate that people would have liked to have seen a Z5+24-70mm f/4 S bundle with the same implied price discount you find in the Z6 bundle.

Meanwhile, the Z5 body plus 24-50mm f/4-6.3 lens is in stock everywhere, but the 24-50mm lens only is out of stock everywhere (including my NPS Priority Purchase order). Exactly the opposite problem as with the 24-200mm.

This is not the first time Nikon has had this problem—I can point to multiple launches with similar issues—and it seems to happen more in the US than anywhere else, so it's clearly either an intentional result or a logistical error. Neither are particularly good for making customers happy ;~).

Nikon loves its spreadsheets. Tells them exactly how many to make and where to send them to maximize some bottom line number down at the bottom of the sheet. This is what back in the late 70's used to call "Visicalc Mentality," which is a form of what today we call confirmation bias. The spreadsheet can't be wrong. 

But to the customer this practice is clearly wrong. 

I'd argue that it's wrong to the company, too. Since the Z5+24-200mm is out of stock, and that's clearly a popular combination, it means that the actual sale Nikon makes doesn't happen today, instead it will happen some time in the future. Pushing potential sales out into the future is risky, because by the time you can build out supply to meet demand, competitors may have introduced something that will get that potential customer's attention, and that future sale never happens. (And then we get Nikon quietly dumping inventory into the Gray Market.)

That Nikon keeps having this same problem means that they're either fine with it, don't know how to fix it, or haven't actually figured out that it's a real drag on their financials. 

So let me put it clearly: the time when you can most get a product to go viral and word of mouth speaks loudest is when you launch it. Right now there should be a bunch of folk who got Z5's with the 24-200mm lens running around saying "wow, this is good; it might be everything I need in one bundle." They're not, because they haven't gotten their product yet, despite somewhat sluggish sales for the Z5 out of the gate. (That's another story for another day, but I think that once we hit the holiday season and we have five clear FX body choices priced correctly, the Z5 sales will pick up.) 

Nikon tends to be their own worst enemy when it comes to product launches. That's a shame in this case, as the Z5 is quite good, and both price and feature set should have broad appeal. With the 24-200mm, it really is the all-in-one travel camera. Only you can't get that combination. Doh!

The Yellow Program is Back

bythom z5 yellow


NikonUSA today announced the Z5 Yellow program. Like the Z50 version that occurred shortly after its launch, the Z5 Yellow program allows you to try a Z5 camera risk free for 30 days. If at the end of 30 days you're not happy with the product, it can be returned to NikonUSA for a full refund, including shipping charges. All the kit options are available, including getting a US$50 FTZ Adapter along with the purchase.

This program is available until the end of November. At the moment, the purchase can only be done through the Nikon Store (going to be some angry dealers).

Lots of Speculation, Few Answers

It's interesting that, with one week left before Nikon introduces the Z6 II and Z7 II that a rumor post about a future "Z9" is all anyone seems to want to talk about. 

Let's start with this: I know there was a "mule" out there that Nikon was testing for their high-end mirrorless camera. It sat in a D5 body, actually, making it invisible to anyone looking at it. The F-mount on that body was basically just considered an FTZ by the internals ;~). I'm not sure if things have progressed to a true mirrorless prototype yet. Probably, given that Nikon has incredible incentive to have such a model at least in limited use at the 2020NE Olympics. 

I'm not at all sure about the rumored specifications being discussed, though. They seem in conflict with the product definition and target user. 20 fps at 45mp at 12-bit Lossless Compressed is 730MB a second, which would be right about at the limit of what CFexpress card slots in the camera would be likely to achieve. But more to the point, at anything above ISO 2400, the existing 45mp sensor would be at a noise deficit to the current D5/D6 sensor, by at least a half stop at ISO values I tend to use shooting sports/events. Moreover, I have a hard enough time dealing with 20mp image files as fast as my clients want, so 45mp would make my problem HC (Hors Category). So something doesn't seem right with the rumored sensor/frame rate specs. Unless you consider this rumored model an R5 competitor, not an A9 competitor. 

But wait, you say, what about "binning" or mRaw? Binned (or sRaw), we'd get 4128 x 2752, or 11mp. Not really enough pixels, plus we'd have the aliasing associated with that. At mRaw we get a 24mp image, but the file size savings aren't much, we get baked in white balance and linearization, there's lossy compression of data, and color information is compromised in shadows. Oh, and on the current cameras, the buffer is reduced. No, I don't want that, either. 

So I'm perplexed about why I'd want a 45mp "high speed" camera. The Nikon Rumors listed specs feel a lot more like a Z7 II Pro to me than a D6 replacement. 

Which brings me back to the Z6 II and Z7 II. It seems interesting that press that might normally be under embargo at this point prior to a product launch are all currently running articles about what they'd like to see changed or added. If they aren't being disingenuous and risking their relationship with Nikon, this would seem to imply that next Wednesday will just be a "surprise." Okay, we'll probably get details a day early thanks to a Nokishita Tweet, but I'm betting that the subsidiaries don't yet know the full story, either, and will be scrambling to update their Web sites just like the rest of us. Normally at this point in a significant product launch, NikonUSA personnel would have made a trek to Tokyo to get fully debriefed. In this pandemic, I'm not sure that could or would have happened. New York, where NikonUSA is headquartered, is still on mandatory quarantine orders for such travel.

What am I expecting? I'm expecting Nikon to address all the major issues that people had with the original Z6 and Z7, and perhaps sprinkle a couple of tasty new bits in, as well. Slots and power were the big two physical complaints. The Z5 dealt with those, and I expect the Z6 II and Z7 II will follow suit. While focus performance was dealt with in firmware updates, there's still more that could be done. The Z6, in particular, could use 10-bit internal video coding. But to me, the thing I'll be looking for most closely is whether Nikon heard and understood the subtle handling issues, particularly where it comes to controlling the AF Area mode during shooting and focus confirmation in AF-C. My own current "wish list" has expanded out to more than 30 items (I need to update that page). But I'll be perfectly happy with what I've just mentioned getting addressed.

I've written it before and it bears repeating here: the Z6 and Z7 are excellent cameras. I've been using them as my primary cameras for everything other than sports, and without regret. My expectation is that the II announcement is going to "dial in" these two models to keep them highly competitive.

It really isn't bodies that are Nikon's problem at the moment, after all. There's a strong need for more lenses. With Canon being very aggressive with apertures, there's also a need for Nikon to be more imaginative and innovative with the lens set, as well. Then there's Speedlights and accessories to consider. The weakness of the Z System is not the bodies. Next Wednesday will just make that more obvious.

A Surprise For Nikon

First I asked you to use your imagination and define some new Z lenses that weren't in the lineup, and which you wanted available. Then I asked all of you to vote on your top three choices from the 44 lenses that got suggested. It was interesting that none of you got into the realm of ridiculous or impossible-to-design lenses. All 44 of the suggested lenses are ones that can be made. Only a few would be somewhat challenging optical designs to get right in the Z mount.

After the first 250 votes, the results are already reasonably clear, but they're probably not what Nikon was expecting ;~).

I wrote that I thought I knew what the results would be. Here's what I thought before your results started coming in: (1) DX lenses (buzz, buzz); (2) different macro options; (3) more telephoto choice.

So, was I right? Here are the top eight choices, graphed against the average and median.

Bingo. 

Indeed, five of the six DX lenses were above the average response, and four of them were significantly so (the other two frequent DX requests were the 8-16mm f/4 DX and the 16-60mm f/4 compact DX). Only four macro lenses were in the suggested list, but half of them made it into the top 3! And as with DX, there were several telephoto lenses lurking just beyond the top eight. 

Note that six of the top eight were twice as preferred as the average lens in the list, and the other two were close to that. But our winner? The 70-200mm f/4 at almost four times the average response. 

Of the top eight, I'm only sure that one of them will actually be made (the 85mm f/1.2). The 70-200mm f/4 might get made. The rest are outside of Nikon's likely "vision." 

A Countdown Timer is Not Marketing

bythom nikon countdown


Nikon has used the "countdown" approach to product announcement before, most notably with the infamous Df, but also with the Nikon Z System itself. I suspect that Nikon is still shell-shocked from the aftershocks from those countdowns. They used teaser videos that hinted at some vague aspects of those upcoming products, and then got shellacked in social media afterwards when people were disappointed by something in the actual announcement. 

Why do I say that? Because this time we only have gotten a countdown timer, plus some emails and social media pointing to the timer. Tick, tick. Tock, tock. Nikon's got a clock.

Is Nikon marketing really going to let everyone just fantasize for two weeks? Apparently so. There's not even something vague being said (i.e. "You wanted changes and improvements. We listened. Here they come."). Okay, I suppose that "the next chapter" says something. But it also says nothing. 

I'll write it again: marketing is about setting expectations. The only expectation Nikon marketing has set is that there will be a launch event soon. That's a pretty low bar. 

I hope that there are local embargoed events scheduled prior to the actual one—especially considering how inconvenient the actual timing is for the US and Europe, which is half or more of their customer base—as just dropping everything at once is risky given the YouTuber-type commenters looking to get clicks, and tending to exaggerate or distort things when let to their own devices. But I wouldn't know if there's a local embargoed pre-event here in the US, as NikonUSA continues to pretend I don't exist. 

So I sit watching the counter, just like you do. Tick, Tock, my that's a boring clock.

Oh, and one other thing: If you go to the NikonUSA site's front page, "The Next Chapter" doesn't actually mention Z. That's going to get some thinking that Nikon will tell us about the DSLR future, too. 

The Firmware Fumble

First, the Nikon post (which only shows on the 3.11 firmware pages):

An issue has been identified in firmware versions 3.10 and 3.11 in which fine-tuning values selected for AF fine-tune > Saved value are not correctly applied when pictures are taken. A fix will be made available via the Download Center as it becomes available. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Next, Nikon Rumors' headline: "Do not install the latest Nikon Z5/Z6/Z7 firmware update."

Unfortunately, both these things are problematic. First, Nikon's warning doesn't appear on the 3.10 update pages (nor does it appear on the Z5 update page). Keeping a Web site accurate and up to date with so many moving parts is hard. I know, because I struggle with it every day. But Nikon really needs to elevate their warning so that everyone know what's happening, and that there are consequences if they've already updated their cameras. And the warning needs to appear on all the pages for which the problem is active.

However, Nikon Rumors is overstating the problem, and there's a secondary consequence of not making the update: you can't use the new teleconverters, nor can you update lens firmware with an F-mount lens in the FTZ (though this currently only impacts one lens that I know of). Moreover, there were bug fixes in 3.10 that some people actually would want. 

There's no need to panic here. First, AF fine-tuning options isn't something you'd tend to do with Z-mount lenses. I've not encountered a native Z lens to which I'd want to make an adjustment. If you're making AF fine-tuning options with a Z-mount lens you probably instead need to check to see if that lens has focus shift and learn how you deal with that. 

I have seen F-mount lenses in the FTZ adapter that need AF-Fine tuning, though generally not any recent Nikkor. So, yes, there are some folk that would have to turn off Saved Value in AF-Fine tuning options and live with a not-optimized system if they've already updated their firmware, or who need to update their firmware to take advantage of one of the other things those updates enabled.

Note to Nikon: this would be a good time to "fix" your naming ;~). On most Z cameras, the menu item is AF fine-tune, while on the Z5 it is AF fine-tuning options. I believe that the latter is Nikon's current templating.

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

text and images © 2020 Thom Hogan — All Rights Reserved
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