Nikon Z System News and Commentary

News and commentary appropriate to Nikon Z system users. Latest post on top.
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Teaser Three

What did I write back on October 13th? "I expect the third teaser to hint more at the focus system, and likely to be sports oriented."

Well, teaser three does exactly that. Eye focus in tennis, soccer, track, and vehicle focus for motorcycles and auto racing. There are a couple of small things to note in the video. First, eye detect from the side is shown a couple of times. Curiously, in the hurdles, the eye being followed is not the closest one. In the vehicle tracking, closest subject priority seems to be used (or at least "closest part of the vehicle") and as the car goes round a corner note how the focus slides and narrows from one side of the car to the other. Note how off-center most of the focus points shown are, too. The final soccer scene is a little confusing to me: why are none of the players identified as being the focus target until we pan across, and then why does the system move from eye to face detect? Finally, the burst speed shown at the end works out to 20 fps. But it's unclear if that's mechanical or the faux electronic shutter sound.

Whatever the details you glean from the 28 second video, Nikon seems to be making a statement of confidence and applicability here: the Z9's focus system can handle sports just fine. Probably better than the D6 given the off center eye detect.

So what's next? 

Nikon Rumors is saying announcement is next week. I'm not so sure. The date I was originally given was the first week of November, not the end of October. It's possible that Nikon moved the date, given all the other action going on among their competitors. With Sony launching the A7 Mark IV tomorrow, Nikon is going to want to counterpunch quickly.

Firmware Updates for the Z6 II and Z7 II

Nikon today dropped version 1.30 firmware updates for the Z6 II and Z7 II cameras. The updates consist of basically one (or two in the case of the Z6 II) new additions, one control clarification, and two fixes. Not exactly the firmware update another Web site was saying was coming, so some may be disappointed.

The new addition for both cameras is a Portrait Impression Balance function. This is a new menu item that appears on the PHOTO SHOOTING and MOVIE SHOOTING menus, and allows you to create up to three hue and brightness adjustment modes to adjust skin tones. As part of the new feature, Nikon has also published a new Portrait and Wedding Photography Guide for the two cameras, where the function is described in detail (along with other useful information).

The Z6 II also gets the Voice Memo option that was added to the Z6 in a previous firmware update. Why Voice Memo isn't also in the Z7 II firmware update is something that Nikon's paternal engineering team will need to explain to everyone (but, of course, won't). 

Meanwhile, something that people complained about when reviewing images has been adjusted: now when Image Review is On, it won't matter if the Rear LCD is tilted or not. 

Finally, we have a very specific focus problem that has been fixed, and now the SB-5000 flash-ready light will operate when using an WR-10 or WR-R11b transmitter.

I suspect the timing of this firmware update is deliberate: Nikon adds a feature or two just prior to Sony announcing a new competitive camera (A7 Mark IV on Thursday). If there is a big change to Z6 II and Z7 II focus firmware coming as has been suggested elsewhere, I wouldn't expect it to come until the Z9 has launched. Why? Because it's almost certainly going to play off a change that the Z9 makes to focus choices. 

More Random Questions Answered

"How bad is the [Fill_in_Z_Camera_Model] in low light autofocus?"

This question is impossible to answer without putting the answer into some sort of context. Moreover, camera settings and even firmware updates make a difference to my answer.

Consider the current Nikon cameras specifications (set without Low-light adjustments and using the viewfinder):

  • -2 EV — Z5, Z7, Z50
  • -3 EV — D750, D780, D7500, Z7 II
  • -3.5 EV — Z6
  • -4 EV — D500, D5, D850
  • -4.5 EV — D6, Z6 II

0 EV is f/1 at 1 second, basically. EV is the exposure value, which is really a stand-in for the "amount of light getting to the image plane."

Even within one of those settings I tend to find some differences in performance. Remember, the DSLRs focus with the lens wide open, but the mirrorless cameras focus at the set aperture up through f/5.6. So if you're stopping down, the mirrorless cameras tend to lag the DSLRs just a bit in really low light (though in really low light you're not likely to be stopping down). On the other hand, if you're using the maximum aperture, the mirrorless cameras tend to be slightly more accurate in focus, all else equal.

Usually when I find someone talking about how bad the autofocus is in low light, there's something else involved. Often it's contrast. In particular, the Z System cameras so far are only sensitive to detail on the long axis. Sometimes just tilting the camera off horizontal slightly is enough to get good focus in conditions that are challenging. The DSLRs tend to look at detail on both axes; indeed, the D6 does so across all of its focus sensors, which makes it better than the Z6 II at the same low light level.

At other times the problem is underexposure. The EV numbers reported above apply to essentially a "correct" exposure. When you start underexposing, you're lowing the absolute EV. You also have to think of "exposure" as meaning the area where focus is attempted. It should be obvious that if you're trying to focus on black in low light you'll have a harder time than if you're trying to focus on white (and again, you need contrast in either). 

There's little doubt in my mind that the Z DX cameras and the Z5 are the worst of the bunch in terms of focusing in truly low light. That said, my office is generally dark (to keep reflections off the display) and I happen to have a Z50 sitting on my desk, so I just did a quick-and-dirty test (at ISO 100, with the default settings in place). At about 2 seconds and f/3.5 (proper exposure) I started to have some mild hunting issues on a decent contrast subject. It wasn't many years ago when DSLRs couldn't attain focus in such situations, which gets me back to the context comment: how you view the focus performance of the Z cameras is likely to be influenced by what you were doing before using one. Using a D6 and moving to a Z5? Yeah, I can see exactly how you might feel that you're missing something in low light. Going from a D300 to a Z6 II? I suspect you'll have the opposite observation.

It also isn't as if there aren't things you can do in low light to help the autofocus system. In the extreme, turn Low-light AF On, turn Apply Settings to Live View Off, and boost your ISO temporarily to achieve focus. Some suggest using AF-S with Pinpoint AF-area mode, but I don't think you usually need to go that far (that last setting will force contrast detect to be used as the final focus positioning, and will slow the focus system down, though make it highly accurate). 

I guess the real question is this: how often do you need to rely upon the autofocus system making quick work of finding focus in really low light? There's little doubt that the Z6 II is the best choice for you if that's something you are constantly encountering. However, in pragmatic usage, even with a Z50 I find it rare that I'm struggling with focus. 

If you're struggling, in the order you should do it: (1) set a correct exposure; (2) make sure you're focusing on a contrasty area; (3) rotate the camera slightly to help find some short axis detail; and (4) invoke the Low-Light AF/Apply Settings to Live View/ISO help. 

"I'm not getting great results with the 50-250mm lens. What's wrong?"

So let me tell you about something I'm still investigating. In general, I'm not having issues with the sensor-VR cameras. However, with the 50-250mm lens-based VR on the Z50 and Zfc bodies, things are a little different. Sometimes everything seems to work perfectly, sometimes I get slightly blurry results with a clear motion impact. (I don't see this problem with the 16-50mm, but then again 50mm isn't 250mm, either.)

I believe this to could be an interaction effect of the timing between the lens-VR and camera-focus systems. If VR is working hard before focus is achieved, I'm seeing worse results than if the focus is first dead on and then the VR system starts trying to correct camera handling. Small vibrations seem to create this problem more so than simple camera handling movements. For example, I see the problem when in a moving vehicle more than I do when I'm standing on solid ground (hmm, wonder what happens during an earthquake? ;~). Likewise, I see the problem when using the gripless Zfc a bit more than I do with the substantially-gripped Z50.

I first noticed this issue when photographing from a plane trying to isolate a ground detail. I kept getting sub-par (but still somewhat usable) results. When I examined these problem images versus the better ones taken with the same lens in the same session, I noted a small motion in the problematic ones. But also a small missed focus. You probably won't notice this inconsistency unless you're pixel peeping, because the difference is small, but at this point I'm convinced that there's something I need to pay attention to and understand. I just haven't 100% worked out how to avoid it. It appears that focus needs to be prioritized over VR, which means that stabbing at the shutter release totally spontaneously at 250mm produces worse results than first ensuring that I have proper focus and am doing my best to keep the camera stable while doing so.

"Why is there so much used Z camera/lens inventory available?"

Sampling and updating, basically. Let's take them individually.

Nkon's had some excellent pricing at times that has allowed a DSLR user to see whether "mirrorless is ready yet, or not." A lot of folk apparently didn't like what they found, though I suspect it was more that they didn't take the time to learn how to optimize their use of a mirrorless camera. These "not ready yet" users then sold the camera they sampled. (The ongoing supply chain issues have prices mostly returning to list price on new gear, so such sampling has reduced for the moment.) 

I also keep hearing from folk who sampled a Z camera and then decided that it didn't take their photography forward enough to justify the money spent, so they dump it on the used market trying to recoup as much as possible. This has been particularly true for the Z50. Somewhat less true for the Z5. Even less true for a Z6, and it seems that the Z7 is probably the body least prone to this sample-and-dump business. 

Personally, it took some time for me to get fully settled into my Z's, but they've pretty much replaced my DSLRs for most of my photography, with the D500/D6 being still somewhat better at certain tasks, so these are the DSLRs I use most often now. 

The other interesting thing that happened is that a lot of early Z6 and Z7 owners ended up making a quick upgrade to a Z6 II or Z7 II. I was a little surprised at this—and I suspect so was Nikon—but it seems that the II changes were just enough to have folk get out their credit cards again. With a number of these folk, it was the USB Power Delivery that pushed them over the edge, as the II cameras suddenly became great streamers during the pandemic. Others pointed to the dual card slots (?!$#?), and still others pointed to the real vertical grip and the new "no overlays" display function. Whatever. Enough of you found reasons to make a quick second generation update, and that left a lot of first generation models on the used market (I should note that this same thing happened with the Sony A7 and A7R when the Mark II models appeared). 

With lenses, I've noticed something slightly different: people opting for some of the higher-end lenses and then discovering that the gains are smallish, because the kit and other f/4 lenses are already really good. I've seen more f/1.8 and f/2.8 lenses come back onto the used market than I would have expected, given their high quality. This trend is not nearly as visible as the used body trend, but definitely can be measured. 

"Will there be a Z8?"

I suspect so, but likely not any time soon. There's the simple issue of "what is a Z8?" If it's a body with an integrated vertical grip, then a Z8 pretty much has to be the studio camera to the Z9's speed camera. Which implies what, a 80-100mp image sensor? If it's a single grip body, then the Z8 has to be different from a Z7 III, which is itself likely to be a fairly high specified body in its own right. I suppose once again the distinction would have to come mostly in the image sensor. Another new sensor puts a lot of stress on Nikon's sensor group and all the downstream image quality work. Nikon's already juggling five image sensors, and probably needs at least three more to fill all the camera gaps. 

Right now I think it's more important to imagine what the Z7 III will be than what a Z8 will be. If you can define the Z7 III, then you know what design space is left between it and the Z9. 

My best guess is that Nikon is prioritizing the following models in their mirrorless lineup and we'd see them sooner than a Z8: Z50 II, Z90, Z5 II, Z6 III, and Z7 III. That's a lot of cameras to get honed just right. And plenty of product space to distinguish Nikon's engineering from the competitors'. Moreover, there's likely two new image sensors just in that group alone.

So I'm not worrying about what a Z8 is and what hole it will fill. It'll happen when it happens.

"Why haven't you reported about Nikon's two f/1.2 zoom lens patents?"

I'm trying to reign in the speculation some, basically. We have plenty to talk about with just the existing products and some known pending ones. Sprinkle in a few clear gaps that need filling, and that's more than enough to write full time about. 

For those that aren't aware, Nikon some time ago (January 2019) patented a 35-50mm f/1.2 and 50-70mm f/1.2 zoom design. The Japanese patent application appeared in August of this year. Recently, a Japanese Web site discovered the Japanese patent and published the information, and that has now spread through to global photography sites. 

My take on these two lenses is NOCT-like: Nikon was experimenting with what they could achieve optically in their new, far less restrictive lens mount. Would such lenses actually appear? Well, maybe, but I'd be shocked if they appeared before Nikon had filled in most of their known gaps and needs. Why? Because these fast zooms are not trivial undertakings. They'd be large—at least as big as the 70-200mm f/2.8—expensive, have a lot of complex glass with difficult polishing in them, and because of the narrow focal range, not particularly more useful than the 50mm and 85mm f/1.2. From a system standpoint, they wouldn't add a lot. 

You might note a theme in the answers to these last two questions: yes, Nikon could do a lot of things in the future and they could be unique and intriguing. However, Nikon has bigger fish to fry at the moment. Nikon needs to completely shore up the existing Z System lineup, fill some more critical gaps, and keep the iteration pace up so as to stay in the leapfrog contest with Canon and Sony. Z8 and f/1.2 zooms are more in the halo product category than in the useful category, and Nikon needs to double down with the useful products right now. 

The good news is that patents and leaked information shows that Nikon's engineering teams are back to trying to find the boundaries of what can be done, and very well could turn what they're doing into viable products, if needed. Reality, however, is that Nikon needs to sell a lot of US$1000-2500 cameras and even more US$500-2500 lenses. That's Job One in Tokyo. Speculation about Job Two (or more likely Job Three or Job Four) isn't going to help them much. 

The Lack of a DX Road Map

With the launch of the 18-140mm lens, Nikon has now completed the entire known "road map" to Z DX. That's two cameras (neither of which was on a road map), and three lenses (two of which weren't on a road map). Not much of a road map, but it's now complete, nonetheless. The Zfc instead of a Z50 II seems to also suggest that II might not happen in DX. At least not for some time.

Meanwhile, Z FX still has a road map: the Z9 is coming (to use Nikon's words), and we have six lenses still on the Lens Road Map to look forward to.

A casual reading of the two overall statements above is this: Nikon wants you to know how you'll be able to configure your FX system now and in the future, but not at all with DX. This is a continuation of something that started developing in 2009 with the Nikon DSLR line, beginning in Europe and then spreading to the global marketing: first and foremost Nikon wants to sell you a full frame camera and lenses. It's where their expertise and product margins are both maximized. 

The problem is this: as much as full frame gets all the serious discussion in photographic circles—from online fora to dealers to pro photographers—it's crop sensor cameras that sell in volume. This provides the camera companies with (1) new customers to lock into their system and eventually move upstream; (2) additional parts reuse strategies that saves them money, and (3) keeping manufacturing plants running efficiently. 

My buzz, buzz commentary—the words I use to indicate Nikon's lack of continued DX lens lineup expansion—is my irritating way of reminding folk that Nikon does not have any strong commitment to the more consumer side of cameras. Nikon's history is replete with major thrusts into consumer cameras to increase sales volume, followed by retraction not long after. DSLR DX was basically a ten-year phenomena. In the ensuing decade, we've been mostly given minor updates to existing products, particularly so at the lower end of DX. 

Not that Nikon's current Z DX products are bad. Just the opposite. The Z50 and Zfc are very capable cameras—though basically the same camera in two different UX forms—and the two original DX lenses are both incredibly good for their size and price. I still rate the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 as the best of breed, though Fujifilm's 15-45mm f/3.5-5.6 isn't too far behind. The Nikkor 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 is also quite good when handled correctly, and a real bargain when obtained in the two-lens kits. From the published MTF charts, I expect the new Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 to be better than the older F-mount equivalent, which was a good lens. 

Reader response to that 18-140mm though, seems to echo my own thoughts: why 18mm as the starting point (even my main iPhone camera is wider than this)? We're talking about essentially a 28-210mm lens (FX equivalent), which is old-school thinking in terms of focal range, and certainly not vlogging/selfie useful. I would have preferred 16-120mm, and I think many of you would, too. But the telling comment in multiple emails I received yesterday after Nikon's announcement was this: the 18-140mm range only makes sense if there were also a 10-20mm DX lens (or 9-18mm). 

I've written about messaging before. Nikon's Z DX messaging so far seems to be "you'll get what we give you when we give it to you." Is that enough to blunt the DX DSLR users switching to Fujifilm XF or even OM Digital Systems m4/3? I'm not sure it is. Earlier this year it was reported that Nikon's mirrorless market share was fifth, behind Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, and OM Digital Solutions, in that order. Most of that was due to Nikon's low crop-sensor camera sales. In full frame mirrorless, Nikon is a strongly competitive third, and at times during the past two years, second. 

To all the folk asking me where Z DX is headed, the answer is "I have no idea." I don't even have anything I can point to in order to speculate on what the future holds for crop sensor from Nikon. Z DX so far has been more a toe in the water than a system. I'm pretty sure that the supply chain issues aren't helping Nikon make up its mind what to do and how fast to do it when it comes to Z DX: better to use what parts they can get for the full frame lineup, where margins are higher. Thus, releasing a high-volume Z30 doesn't seem to be in the cards for Nikon at the moment.

I predicted earlier that the Zfc would sell well out of the gate, but eventually stall. One of the reasons I predicted a stall is that Nikon is pretty much exhausting the easy potential customer base for US$1000 mirrorless crop sensor by placing two nearly identical cameras in the same space. But the other issue for Nikon is that three lenses are not enough. Okay, let me cross that out and give Nikon a little additional credit: six lenses are not enough (the other three are the compact 28mm f/2.8, 40mm f/2, and 50mm f/2.8 macro, all of which play well on the Z DX bodies). 

The number one complaint I keep getting from Z50 and Zfc users, though, is "no true wide angle." The missing 10-20mm (or 8-16mm, or 9-24mm, or whatever you think is the best wide angle zoom configuration) is keeping Z DX from becoming anything like a "system." For now, my advice to people has been that you either go to one of the third-party manual focus lenses, or you "go big" and get the 14-30mm f/4. 

For me, a Z50 with the 16-50mm has become my carry-all-the-time camera. Small, competent, reliable, and mimics the main Nikon UX. For a Z50 (or Zfc or Z50 II or Z70 or Z90) to go beyond that role, I need more lenses (yeah: buzz, buzz). 

Consumer cameras have long been fighting smartphones for more casual photography, and mostly losing that battle. The ways that crop-sensor cameras can get the smartphone out of a user's hands are: (1) better results, particularly in low light; (2) more control, flexibility, and capability; and (3) more customization of image choices, typically through lenses. At the moment, I'm not 100% seeing how Nikon intends to win that battle with Z DX. 

So I'd like a new road map from Nikon. One that gives us some idea of how DX progresses, and one that extends the FX system beyond March 31, 2022. I know some of you are happy to just wait and see, but we're now in what's going to be the most intensely competitive time for mirrorless. Longer term results are going to be determined by how people make decisions about mirrorless in the coming year.

___________________

I also posted a short Zfc Quick Advice article today to help you round out your Z DX system based on a Zfc body.


Teaser Two with a Slice of DX

Nikon today released the second short video teaser for the upcoming Z9 camera. This time we're in the Linyati Game Preserve in South Africa filming 8k video. 

There's not a lot new to learn. The front has three Fn buttons for the horizontal position, only one of which looks like its usable for the vertical hand position. Nikon is suggesting that you can 8K record video for longer than the usual 29:59 limit, eventually showing a value of over an hour. The new latch mechanism for the card door is finally visible, as is what appears to be a Kensington lock mount at the bottom right of the camera. That big flat top plate now has a Z9 logo on it. Finally, what looks to be the 100-400mm lens makes a brief appearance. 

As with the first teaser, not really anything that wasn't already known is being leaked by Nikon so far, we're just getting confirmations. I expect the third teaser to hint more at the focus system, and likely to be sports oriented. Or maybe that's the release video...

Meanwhile, at the same time as dropping the video, Nikon also announced the 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 DX lens via press release. This US$600 lens comes with the slogan "less to carry, more to see." Looking at the lens design and the published MTF charts, this mirrorless version of the 18-140mm appears to be clearly better at the 18mm end, and perhaps slightly better at the telephoto end (though with different astigmatism). The mirrorless version has two aspherical and two ED elements while the F-mount version had one of each. Nikon once again is claiming that focus breathing is minimized for video use, though as I've noted before sometimes that's partly achieved via the lens corrections.

Curiously, all of Nikon's initial marketing materials for the lens show a Z50 in use (update: the press announcement did have a picture of it mounted on the Zfc, but the other marketing materials all show a Z50). I'm not sure if that's because those materials were produced prior to the Zfc coming out and we're just getting a delayed launch due to supply chain issues, or whether that's intentional on Nikon's part. I suspect the former. But as I noted in my Zfc review, the balance of that "fun" camera gets upset if you put too big a lens out front, due to the lack of hand grip. This is something I'll be looking at when I get my copy to review. The 3.6" length and low weight probably isn't a problem at 18mm, but can you really hold it steady on a Zfc at 140mm with the lens extended. Probably, but barely? Don't know yet, but will work to find out.

So, if you're keeping count:

  • 7 camera bodies launched (Z50, Zfc, Z5, Z6, Z6 II, Z7, Z7 II)
  • 1 camera body teased (Z9)
  • 21 lenses launched (20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm f/1.8; 28mm f/2.8; 40mm f/2; 50mm f/2.8 macro; 50mm f/1.2; 58mm f/0.95 NOCT; 105mm f/2.8 macro; 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm f/2.8; 14-30mm, 24-70mm f/4; 24-50mm f/4-6.3, 24-200mm f/4-6.3; plus the DX trio 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3; 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3; and 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3)
  • 6 lenses teased (24-105mm, 85mm f/1.2, 100-400mm, 200-600mm, 400mm f/2.8, 600mm f/4)

At the moment, those teased products are the full set of mirrorless items I expect Nikon to release between now and March 31, 2022, though I suppose there's still some possibility that we see another DX body in that time period. 

Finally, the third small thing Nikon dropped today was a firmware update for the WR-R11 remote controllers, which makes it easier to end pairing (which would be necessary if you're going to use the controller among multiple cameras).

Some Random Z Questions Answered

"Does U1 remember the extended shutter speeds on the Z6 II?"

Yes, I can verify that there's a bug in Nikon's implementation of Custom Setting #D6 (Extended Shutter Speeds). If you set a long exposure in Manual exposure mode, it is remembered correctly both when the camera goes to standby and when the camera is turned off. So, for instance, setting 60" stays 60" under all cases in Manual exposure mode. But if you save that setup to U1/U2/U3, though, something different happens: if the camera goes to standby, the long exposure time is forgotten and 30" will appear when the camera is re-activated. However, if you shut the camera's power switch to Off, then turn it back On, 60" will be remembered. Bug. Nikon needs to fix it in firmware.

"Is the old 35mm f/1.8 DX lens a good choice for the Z50 and Zfc?"

I'd say no. First, coupled with the FTZ it becomes a bit "big." Second, focus is noisy. But more importantly, the 40mm f/2 is generally an optically better lens, at least so far in my testing (vignetting is its biggest fault). You get that small size and silence back, too, with the 40mm f/2. Still playing with the Viltrox AF lenses for the Z mount, but I'm thinking that the Viltrox 33mm f/1.4 might be a better choice, too.  

"Where's the promised fall Z6 II/Z7 II firmware update?"

Well, only Nikon Rumors made that "promise" (and it was a rumor, not a promise). I do expect that as the Z9 undergoes its final testing that Nikon may roll a few things they've been working on into a firmware update for the Z6 II and Z7 II, but that's just speculation on my part. It would be prudent business practice on Nikon's part, though, because it would extend the life span of the II models. Technically, we wouldn't expect replacements for those models until late 2022 at the earliest, but since Sony is overdue for an A7 III update and coming near due on an A7R IV update, Nikon has to keep their two best sellers "current" as much as they can. Knowing Nikon's tendencies, I don't think they'll update firmware on the II models with things that are new on the Z9 until the Z9 has launched (or perhaps coincident). 

"What do you think of the Z9 teaser campaign?" 

Well, it's not revealing anything that we didn't already know, so in terms of "meat" there isn't any so far. Maybe that will change with one of the later teasers. But in terms of generating lots of discussion (and emails in my In Box), the teaser campaign is doing what a teaser campaign should: it's generating plenty of commentary and anticipation on the Interwebs. However, at least for the professional photographers that talk to me directly, it seems that the only thing they want to know is when and how much (though a few want to know more about the focus system). 

"Are you going to change your mind on the Zfc?"

Uh, no? What exactly do I need to change my mind about? The Zfc is a Z50 II with a different UX, a UX that isn't optimal as far as I'm concerned. I keep asking people who rave about the Zfc to me about what exactly it is they find so great, or in Nikon's words, "fun." So far, none have been able to describe anything other than the design makes them feel good. About what, well, they're not particularly specific. 

The Zfc is a nice camera, and if the Z50 didn't exist, we wouldn't have the awkward comparison that Nikon has created for themselves. Thing is, I have both the Zfc and the Z50. The Z50 is the one that keeps getting stuffed into my laptop case as my every day camera. Your mileage may vary. I have no problems if you pick the Zfc over the Z50 (or vice versa, like me). Just make sure that you're making your choice for photographic reasons, not because dials remind you of your childhood. 

"Why don't people talk more about the Z5?"

I don't know. It's a solid choice for still work, with its primary drawback being that it's not great at focusing in really low light. I don't mean low light. I mean really low light. I've even come around to having more respect for the 24-50mm f/4-6.3 kit lens, which is the appropriate walk-around lens for most people, as it makes for a darned compact and competent pair that doesn't call attention to itself (the 24-200mm f/4-6.3 would be the other lens that seems most appropriate on the Z5).  

For awhile there you could pick up a Z5 at a steal of a price for what it is (US$999). Unfortunately, the parts shortage has pushed it back up to around the US$1300 mark, at which point it's just a more modest bargain (particularly in today's low/no discount environment). 

"Which 50mm lens should I get?"

Let's see, we have three full frame Nikkor lenses at 50mm now (plus a "near 50" lens in the 40mm f/2). The answer is relatively easy for most of you: do you want slightly smaller/lighter and macro (50mm f/2.8MC), or slightly larger/heavier and dramatically sharp (50mm f/1.8 S)? Given that those two lenses are within US$50 of each other, that should be the choice most of you are making. Yeah, there's the stop-and-a-third faster aperture on the f/1.8 lens, but I'd still say that the primary decision point is macro and size for most of you.

If size/weight is more important to you than macro or absolute optical performance, then the 40mm f/2 enters into the picture. It's a good lens, but not up to the optics of the f/1.8 S, so you're buying it on price and small size and low weight. 

Yes, the 50mm f/1.2 S is about as good of a 50mm optic as we've ever gotten from anyone—it's nearly as sharp at f/1.2 as the f/1.8 lens is at f/1.8, which is truly remarkable for such a fast-aperture lens—but the price and size really make the 50mm f/1.2 S a specialty lens. If you need a speciality lens, you already know what it is. 

DX users get a different choice with the Viltrox 56mm f/1.4. Given how you'd typically use 50mm on DX, the appropriate choice to be making is the Nikkor 50mm f/2.8MC for macro, or the Viltrox 56mm f/1.4 for portraits. Pick which you need to do more often on your Z50 or Zfc. 


What Do I Want in a Z50 II?

Now that the Zfc has been in the studio long enough for me to do longer side-by-side comparisons, I can now specify the things that the Zfc changed that I'd really like to see in a Z50 II. Plus, of course, there are a few things both cameras miss that I'd like to see added. So today I'm going to define what I want to see in a Z50 II model.

Yes, I know most of you just want to speculate on Z9 features, but most of you aren't buying a Z9, are you? Nikon's sweet spot has always been at about the N80/D70 point, so let's see what they could (probably quite quickly) do to add a Z in that position.

Let's start with the Zfc additions that the Z50 II should add, as they're essentially "no-brainer" engineering at this point:

  • USB charging/power. USB Power Delivery should be a given at this point. It has so much application in so many different scenarios that it's now a requirement.
  • USB-C. This goes along with the above (though isn't necessary to do so), but really is starting to be a requirement for modern connectivity. We don't want Nikon to "cheap out" again and re-use old, less expensive connectors and lower performance ports. 
  • Articulating Rear LCD. Some might argue with me about this one, but for a do-it-all small camera, tilting isn't enough. We're at a price point and size here where selfies and vlogging come into play, and tilt up/down just doesn't suffice. 
  • Focus changes. Nikon probably made more of the focus changes in the Zfc than was warranted. Yes, low-light focus detection got better, as did automatic tracking speeds, but that doesn't make a night-and-day difference, in practice. It's just nice to have, and therefore should make their way over to the next Z50 model. The addition of the Wide-area AF (L-people) mode made more of a difference, and thus it too needs to be in an updated Z50.
  • Shutter speeds to 900 seconds. Nikon added this first to the astrophotography-oriented D810A, and everyone else then said "we want that, too." While it's not a big thing, it would be nice to just make this option systemwide, not dole it out as a marketing check box when another one is needed.
  • Focus shift shooting. Like the extended shutter speeds, Nikon probably added this more as a marketing check box item to be able to promote as new than really think a Zfc user needed it. Nevertheless, it's time to get rid of the paternalistic "camera X only gets Y features" attitude in Nikon engineering. So additions like this need to stay in future models.

Next up, let's add a few of the more subtle things the Zfc changed versus the Z50:

  • Real buttons rather than the faux touch buttons. You can't find the three faux buttons on the Z50 by touch; you can find the real buttons on the Zfc by touch. This makes a big difference in a few use cases, such as magnifying view with your eye at the viewfinder. Big plus for the Zfc approach, with no plus for the Z50 approach. Thus, change the Z50 II to real buttons, please. Moreover, the Zfc buttons all have a little bit more relief than the Z50 ones, which makes them a little easier to find by touch. I'd go a little bit further and add in even a bit more relief than the Zfc provides.
  • The tucked microphones. The Zfc has a better built-in microphone placement (more resistant to weather). I'd go with that over the top-plate position.
  • I can be persuaded to keep the ISO dial of the Zfc, but only if two things apply: (1) we get an Auto ISO (A) position, and (2) we don't lose the extra button behind the shutter release (e.g. change the ISO button to Fn3). Otherwise, I say keep the ISO button and lose the dial.

Things we don't want from the Zfc:

  • No grip. The Z50's grip was correct and appropriate. Keep the Z50's hand grip.
  • No flash. The Z50's little pop-up flash isn't incredible, but it's incredibly useful. Keep the Z50's flash. Bonus points for adding a Commander mode.
  • Lame Command dials. The Z50's Command dials are easier to find and use, and the Rear one far bigger and easier to find and use. Like the button relief, this makes a difference when using the camera with gloves on. Keep the Z50 dials.
  • One Fn button. One is less than Two, and the Z50 was already challenged with button customization options. Don't ditch the second Fn button.
  • Colors. Okay, some of you probably want the different colors of faux grip leather, but that clearly complicated the Zfc launch and availability, and this is something that is probably better done with third-party aftermarket replacement panels than trying to get things right at the factory. I'd rather have a personalize later option than have to pick and then wait for something specific at launch.

Finally, we need to add in things that both the Zfc II and Z50 II will need:

  • Number 1 with a bullet: sensor-based image stabilization. This is particularly true because Nikon isn't building out a full line of lenses with VR in them (and probably shouldn't). The compact 28mm and 40mm really need stabilization on a small body. Ditto the 50mm macro. So what's happened is that the majority of lenses I'd tend to use on the Z50 (and Zfc) have no stabilization. Time to fix that.
  • A faster way of positioning the focus system. The Direction pad is too far down the back, particularly on the Z50. Moreover, pressing a Direction pad multiple times is not the same as a quick positioning device. We need either an active thumb stick or the ability to move focus position via the Rear LCD with your eye at the viewfinder. Bonus if we get both.
  • Time to move beyond 20mp. I have no issues with the current 20mp sensor, but the problem is that 20 is becoming less and less competitive a number in this space, and Nikon needs to be more competitive, not less. Beyond just offering more pixels, there's the issue of faster sensor offload, which might open up things like faster viewfinder refresh and 4:2:2 internal recording, which would be nice additions. While I'd like to see Nikon match Canon's 32mp APS-C sensor, really anything from 24-32mp is fine.
  • Return to Optimal. The Zfc/Z50 both only support Size Priority for JPEG images. I've never understood why every JPEG variation needed an Optimal Priority versus Size Priority option, so I'd just say give us one Optimal option, e.g. JPEG Fine Large ★. Let the rest of the JPEG settings be Size Priority.
  • A more layered menu system. Sony got this right on the A1, and Nikon needs to follow. 32+ things on a scrolling PHOTO SHOOTING menu means too many things are buried and take longer to find/change. We've got room for seven "sub-categories" (e.g. Image/Color, Flash, Focus/Lens, Series Photos [bracketing, multiple exposure, etc.], and so on. Choose a category, choose an option, done. No more scrolling. For this level camera getting to a setting fast is important; you don't want to lose photo opportunities while scrolling through long lists.
  • Actually use UHS-II. The current cameras are limited to about 95Mbps in my testing. This is almost certainly a limitation of the physical card slot mechanism Nikon is using, not a limitation of what EXPEED6 can do. UHS-II on the current cameras is basically a marketing item with no meat on it. Faster image offload would mean bigger buffer, and that would open up the performance from being consumer to prosumer in that respect.
  • Lenses. Okay, I couldn't be consistent in my criticisms without this article repeating my "buzz, buzz" mantra. I don't particularly care if the additional lenses are Nikkors or Viltroxes or Sigmas. But the Z50 (and Zfc) are somewhat crippled by the availability of appropriately-sized lenses. "Sized" is not just physical size, but also focal length. Indeed, it's the combo that's getting Nikon into a bit of trouble. For instance, the 14-30mm f/4 isn't a bad lens for the DX crowd in terms of focal length, but it's physically larger than a Zfc can handle well, and bigger than the 10-20mm f/4-5.6 we all expect for DX. The incredible aspect of the Z50 is how competent the camera is for its very small size. We don't want that blown to smithereens by having to put bigger, heavier lenses on it. Note that adding sensor-based VR really starts to open up the Z50 world to the Viltroxes and Sigmas of the world, so again, I don't care which way we end up building our Z DX lens set, it's just that we need a Z DX lens set.

So, when we take all of the above and put them into an updated camera, what we end up with is a Z50 II whose claim to fame is (1) "all the good things that preceded it", (2) plus an updated image sensor living on a VR platform, (3) coupled with some modest-but--still-notable other changes/additions. Here it is in all it's glory:


You'll note that I didn't need to change much physically, and neither would Nikon. 

Personally, if Nikon made this camera, I'd update in a heartbeat. So would many of you. And a lot of you would get off the fence and embrace Z DX instead of looking to Fujifilm.

_____________________

What did I miss? Let me know. However, don't suggest that we up-level this to a Z90 type camera. That would be a different model for another time. We're talking solely about what a Z50 II update should look like. It still needs to fit into the ~US$1000 slot.

Update: the two things that commonly came up in your responses as additional requests to mine were (1) return the dust shaker mechanism; and (2) add a headphone jack.

And the Turbulence Begins...

Warned you. Keep those seat belts fastened.

Nikon today dropped the first teaser video for the Z9, on an internet page called z9iscoming.page, which seems almost like a religious statement. The only new tidbits in that teaser was seeing the tilt screen in action and the fact that the layout of the information on the Rear LCD now flips when you use the vertical grip. It's a strange teaser that makes little sense. Why is the first scene upside down, for example? Why does he take only one photo? Seems to have been put together a bit hastily. 

That's not the turbulence. 

The first bit of turbulence is the assertion out of Poland that there are two cameras, the 24mp Z9 and the 102mp Z9X. While I wouldn't discount the eventual appearance of a 102mp Z camera—megapixel increases are inevitable—a dual Z9 release is not something that lines up with the information that has leaked, nor with Nikon's own promotion of the Z9 as an 8K video camera. While I've long been an advocate of the same body h/x dual releases (e.g. D1h/D1x, D2h/D2x, D3/D3x, heck even the Z6/Z7), I've not heard a peep that this was considered for the Z9. Ironically, now that this new rumor has popped, it creates turbulence no matter what Nikon does: no dual release disappoints those that glommed onto that new rumor, while an actual dual release would be such a surprise that it would make the whole market rumble. 

Then we have some dealers posting a placeholder page for the Z9 and a price that seems off (equivalent to US$11,000). This is normal. I've seen incorrect pricing on store sites prior to big releases for over two decades now. Moreover, the only way that Nikon would be able to price at that level is if the Z9 broke new technology ground in a way that Canon and Sony aren't even close to. You can't sell a camera that's much like a Sony A1 at nearly twice the price and survive in this market. So its good news either way: either that's not the right price, or Nikon has something so incredible up their sleeves that price is no object. I'd vote for the former being the correct version.

The problem with doing a teaser campaign as Nikon now seems committed to, is that in the end the customer evaluates whether the tease was worthwhile or not. Nikon has had the problem before of launching a product where the tease got people speculating beyond what the product actually turned out to be. And thus, in the end, those customers were disappointed. Their hopes were built up, but then not completely rewarded. "Tease" has to have a payoff. Nikon's first teaser video doesn't seem to point towards any payoff.

People seem to be getting all out of whack with their Z9 expectations. It'll be a Z9. Exactly what we'd expect a Z9 to be, I believe: A1 equivalence in a D6-like body. With Nikon pro touches and improvements throughout. I believe there's only one potential surprise in the mix, but it's not one people are hypothesizing about. 

Expect more speculation that's all over the board as we get closer to the announcement date. Since Nikon's first teaser video didn't actually didn't seem to tease anything, the Internet will be awash in speculation to fill the information void. Seatbelts need to be fastened until the rocket has completely launched (and for a period of time after launch). 

Fasten Your Seatbelts. Turbulence Ahead.

I'm slowly getting the sense that there's more riding on the Z9 introduction than I originally thought. 

Nikon has a lot of obvious headwinds they're fighting: (1) the slide from second to third in ILC market share; (2) the ongoing "doesn't focus as well as a Sony" hyperbole; (3) being last to the true "pro" mirrorless camera; and (4) not enough lenses happening fast enough. 

Some less obvious issues are (1) the lack of a DSLR road map moving forward; (2) the collapse and reappearance of DX, only in worse form; (3) the constant reduction of staffing and services worldwide; and (4) the ongoing lack of accessories being in stock, even critical ones, such as batteries.

I've written about all of those things at one point or another in recent times, but the reason for the lede line in this article is the bigger problem: a customer lack of confidence. More people than ever seem to now believe that Nikon will not stop going the wrong direction. Call it the slow slide to irrelevance. A problem that has a long history of victims in the Japanese camera industry (e.g. Pentax, et.al.). 

I expect the Z9 to be a tour de force based upon the snippets of information that have been shared with me. A strong statement of what Nikon can do. I do worry that it's being rushed a bit. And a buggy tour de force would lose some of its force. I also worry that the lenses aren't yet there to fully amplify the force. But I expect a really good camera to appear. Better than my D6 and A1. 

That's a pretty high bar to jump over.

And, of course, that's just my bar. From the posts I see elsewhere and the email piling up on my computer, I think many of you have set the bar even higher. 

The risk to Nikon here is that Sony has a trio or so of tour de force mirrorless cameras. Canon now arguably has a trio, too, though the Internet seems to be underrating those. Sony has a deep list of lenses now, though is specifically missing some of the critical exotics necessary for the A1 and A9 to fully shine. Canon has some unique lenses that catch the attention (the new 16mm compact and all the telephoto options that Nikon has no answer for other than an FTZ adapter).

I know that Nikon originally considered making the Z9 announcement not just a Z9 announcement. Historically, the D1h/D1x, D3/D300, D4/D800, and D5/D500 announcements, along with some other near coincident/accompanying critical lens announcements, have been the big "movers" for them. Nikon knows they need a big mover announcement to get their ILC mojo back. Unfortunately, things have transpired so that it's looking like Z9+400mm is what we'll get from them. Both have some surprises in store for those who haven't been sniffing for details. But I return to my original thought: is that going to be enough?

Two months ago I would have said yes. But the on-going negativity I see from so many about Nikon's present and future has me worried that my yes has turned into a maybe. 

While most people think everything rides on the Z9's autofocus system, a camera is more than the sum of its parts. I expect the Z9's focus system to be a step further than the D6's. And the D6 focus system is state-of-the-art. It's simply brilliant when set correctly. 

However it's never been about how brilliant a focus system is. Sony basically made it about how automatic the autofocus system is. Virtually all the Internet-driven praise about the Sony system tends to be from people that are getting results they never got before by just setting everything to auto. Meanwhile, I just got another email from someone I've helped master the Z System focus who says they're getting 100% keepers now, but that's not with everything on I-do-nothing auto, it's done by controlling what the system does. 

This was the bane of the Z System launch party: people wanted to pick it up, point the camera at something, and have it always do the right thing. When it didn't, they didn't take the time to figure out why that might be (and Nikon's launch handlers didn't manage to help much). Meanwhile, I took those same cameras almost immediately to Africa and with a little study had no real issues nailing focus, over and over and over. So I worry that with the Z9 launch we could have a repeat: best possible focus system for a thinking photographer, but somehow fails to impress the "just set auto" crowd that Sony has conditioned to good, but not perfect focus.

Which brings me to an irony. The (mostly) guys buying US$6500 pro cameras don't always take the time to learn how to use them. The job of a photojournalist or sports photographer is hard enough without having to learn some camera nuance. Things happen so fast in their world, and they're expected to deliver the goods instantly. So much so that the all-auto approach is usually their first choice. Of course, to stand out in that world, good enough is not good enough. You'd better be the master of your tools if you want to stay at the top of that heap. Nevertheless, lately I've seen a lot of folk that should know better start down the good enough path and give it plenty of verbiage.

So I worry about the upcoming Z9 launch. (I've been saying November all along for that launch, though I've heard that Nikon has been trying to push it forward into October. I'm now getting reports from dealers who are scheduling preview sessions with Nikon product managers in the next two weeks.) Nikon has a lot riding on getting the details right, and making the right kind of splash. Meanwhile, some of the loyal Nikon fans have gone overboard in their expectations, while the Sony fans are ready to pounce at any perceived lacking.   

Buckle your seat belts. Things could get bumpy.

Update: added comment about dealers getting briefings in early October.

The Strange Case of the EN-EL25

I've been dinging Nikon over accessory and battery available for quite some time. Apparently, no one's home in Tokyo. 

First, a reminder: the two cameras Nikon wants to sell the most quantity of, the Z50 and the Zfc, both use the EN-EL25 battery. No other cameras use this battery. The official CIPA numbers for those cameras with the EN-EL25 is 300 shots, which means that you're almost certainly going to want an extra battery, maybe two.

After a very brief restock, B&H and many others are once again out of stock for the official Nikon version of the battery. Which sells for US$70. Except when it doesn't. At one point last week, the official battery was going for US$101 on Amazon. But don't worry, you won't have to pay that price, because it's out of stock again, and available for whenever it reappears for a now discounted US$61. Let's see, in stock Amazon charged US$101, out-of-stock, they'll give you a discount. Yeah, right.

I wondered why we didn't see replacement batteries from third parties earlier, but they've finally appeared. Most seem to be from the same source, though they have different names like Zthy, Dongni. Kastar also finally seems to have an EN-EL25 replacement battery, which sells on Amazon for US$40 at the moment (there's a discount on the two-pack). (I'm not going to put affiliate links into this article at the moment, nor have I added them to the appropriate accessories page on this site, as I haven't verified that any of these cloned batteries work reliably.)

But here's another interesting twist:

  • Nikon EN-EL25 — 7.6v, 1120mAh
  • Dongni/Zthy — 8.7v, 1350mAh
  • Kastar — 7.6v, 1320mAh

In theory, at least, the Kastar battery ought to provide a bit of a boost in terms of images per charge. In practice, power ratings of third-party lithium-ion batteries don't seem particularly accurate. 

In my experience so far, Kastar has tended to be a reliable third party source for batteries and chargers. Can't speak for the others yet. I've ordered samples of all so that I can do some testing. I'll let you know what I find out. 

I have no idea why Nikon thinks that people will be happy with cameras with only one battery. Why would they want anyone complaining about anything, let alone not being able to buy a second battery for a camera that doesn't have a deep shots-per-charge number? But apparently no one in Tokyo cares about what people say after they've bought their camera. 

14-200mm is not Enough

A couple of responses to my “When Will the Dam Break” took the form of “but Nikon already has the Z-mount lenses most people would use.” 

Yes, Nikon has basically equalled Sony in terms of f/2.8 zooms. I’d even argue that the full Nikon f/2.8 zoom trio is “better" than the current Sony trio (Sony’s 70-200mm f/2.8 apparently is going to have a new version soon, though). Yes, Nikon has the most-often-requested fast primes (e.g. 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm). Yes, Nikon now has a couple of really compact lenses (28mm f/2.8 and 40mm f/2, and some might count the 24-50mm kit zoom). Yes, Nikon has state-of-the-art travel zooms (24-70mm f/4 and 24-200mm f/4-6.3). Nikon now has two excellent macro lenses, too.

I’ve not argued that the 14-200mm range of Nikon’s Z lenses is particularly lacking. It isn’t. It just needs a bit more filling out (a 70-200mm f/4, more f/1.2 lenses, 28mm and 105mm f/1.8 are the ones that I think are the highest priority there). Pretty much every lens Nikon has produced in the 14-200mm range for the Z-mount is excellent at what it does.

So, yes, if you only photograph in the 14-200mm focal range, I can’t see any real reason why you’d be dissatisfied with Nikon’s options versus Sony’s (or Canon’s, or anyone’s). 

Unfortunately, perception is the problem. I’ve already outlined Nikon’s primary fault: the lineup ends at 200mm. Nikon simply wants you to use an FTZ adapter for telephoto at the moment, and that’s not a perfect solution (and you might not already have the lens you want, so buying an F-mount lens to put on a Z-mount camera isn’t a solution most want to pursue). 

If you argue with a Sony fan, it goes like this:

Sony fan: we have more lens choice (including seven prime lenses in the 40-55mm “normal” range).
Nikon fan: but Nikon’s equivalent lenses are better.
Sony fanWhat’s Nikon’s equivalent to the 105mm, the 70-300mm, 100-400mm, the 200-600mm?
Nikon fan: Two of those are in the Road Map.
Sony fan: I wasn’t even including third party lenses, where are they?
Nikon fan: We’ve got three Viltrox autofocus primes now.
Sony fan: Compared to what? 40 in the Sony FE mount? But what I meant is that we can buy an inexpensive third party f/2.8 zoom trio and you can’t, we can buy a third party long telephoto zoom that’s less expensive and you can’t. Need I go on?

Nikon can’t (currently) win the perception game. So the on-going Internet debates start Nikon in a hole. As you’re probably starting to figure out, influencers actually do influence. Catching up once you’re in a hole is harder than not starting in a hole, which was part of my point in my articles earlier. 

Long-term readers know that I write about “frictions” that make a company (or product) less efficient than it could be. Let’s count up Nikon’s Z-mount frictions:

  1. Last to market.
  2. Not open to third party support.
  3. Some Nikon lenses not fully usable on the FTZ adapter (e.g. screw drive focus lenses).
  4. Corporate downsizing slowed lens release as they consolidated manufacturing.
  5. The pandemic has slowed engineers getting manufacturing of new products up to speed, produced parts shortages, and has made shipping (supplies and final product) slower.

Only one of those is outside Nikon’s control. So how do you overcome those five frictions? In order:

  1. Be better. Produce better products. (I’ll give Nikon a solid B on this; A on quality, including image quality, C+ on features/diversity)
  2. Encourage third party support. (Nikon gets an F here; they just won’t do it)
  3. Introduce an additional adapter to address a three-year-old problem. (Nikon gets an Incomplete here; I’ll change that to an F at some point)
  4. Just saving money isn’t the only goal, making processes more efficient is important, too. (Hard to grade at the moment; I think I’d give them a B- if it weren’t for #5)
  5. Create new ways to work, have alternate parts sources/strategies, use alternate shipping choices, even if more expensive. (Nikon has done somewhat better than average here, believe it or not. I’ll call it a C+/B-)

#1 and #2 intersect highly with what I've been writing about in terms of lens options. Nikon’s done a partial job so far. They almost certainly require the third-party lens makers to start providing additional options in order for Nikon to not cede the #2 share in ILC permanently to Sony. So, yes, when the dam breaks is critical. Sooner is better than later for Nikon users and fans. 

When Will the Dam Break?

Sony 39, Nikon 16.

But that’s not the final score. Another player, Third Party, actually leads the contest.

What am I talking about? Lenses, of course. Specifically, full frame mirrorless lenses. 

Sony did one thing very, very right when they introduced the E-mount many years ago: they opened it to licensing from others. That’s not overly surprising, because at the time Sony had a 25% stake in Tamron, and the combination of Sony/Tamron could produce more lenses for the new mount than Sony could by themselves. For antitrust reasons, if Sony opened the mount to Tamron, they really needed to open it to everyone. (I should note that there are appear to still be some secrets in the communication on the mount, but the basics are disclosed to anyone willing to sign the agreement.)

In essence, Sony triggered what I call Ecosystem Amplification Effect. The bigger the ecosystem surrounding the primary product(s), the more likely the product(s) is(are) successful. Particularly when the competitors go it alone and stay proprietary. 

The natural inclination in Japan has always been to stay proprietary. But that’s also what lost them so many tech categories over the years to other global companies, including computers and smartphones. As I like to say, if you keep playing the same game the same way you should expect to get the same results. 

Which brings us to Nikon. 

Nikon clearly is playing the same game the same way. To my knowledge, they haven’t shared any information about the Z-mount with anyone. They required the third party lens makers to reverse engineer the ever-changing F-mount, and now they’re doing it again with the Z-mount. Proprietary. No Ecosystem Amplification Effect. So instead of close to 100 autofocus lenses from multiple makers as Sony currently can tout, Nikon can just say “16”. With only 6 more known to be coming. 16, 22, it doesn’t matter does it, that’s still far less choice than 100. 

But the proprietary dam broke once before, and it’s getting ready to break again. I’ve now used two Viltrox autofocus lenses on my Z cameras, and they seem to work just fine. So a crack has appeared in the proprietary Z-mount dam. Thus you’re probably wondering when the dam breaks.

Ironically, it’s the old chicken and egg problem. Nikon hasn’t sold enough Z cameras yet to get the true dam breakers—basically Sigma and Tamron—excited. In the end it will all be a numbers game for those two lens makers. They have a basic calculation they go by: what percentage of the installed base would we likely sell to, and is the installed base now big enough that the result would attract our attention? After all, parts shortages are still going on, so you want to put your effort in the highest ROI first. And for mirrorless full frame lenses that would currently be the Sony E-mount, which has a larger base of cameras than the others. And again, Sony's making it easier for the Third Party gang to make their product work in the first place.

It hasn’t actually helped that many of the Z6 II and Z7 II buyers aren’t new buyers, but rather Z6 and Z7 upgraders or extenders (extender example: bought a Z7 body, decided to supplement with a Z6 II body). Thus, while overall unit sales look pretty competitive for Nikon full frame, the actual number of current users isn’t as high as that would suggest.

Still, I think we’re at the point where Sigma and Tamron would actively be pondering the “when” question. I’m also sure that they’ve been experimenting with the mount communications and getting to know those better, as they have to deal with that anyway through the FTZ adapter. Thus, if Nikon can keep any reasonable momentum in the market—and I believe that’s a certainty—the dam will break. We just don’t know when with any specificity. I’d guess 8 months, +/-6 months ;~). 

Which brings us to the question of where the dam will break and how badly. 

Sigma, for instance, has a trio of crop-sensor lenses that would fit nicely with the Z50/Zfc cameras: 16mm, 30mm, 56mm, all f/1.4. Nikon isn’t producing lenses that would be competitive with those, which has to intrigue Sigma, particularly as the Viltrox lenses seem to be getting picked up by a number of Z DX users. Thus, if the Zfc really has kick-started crop-sensor body sales, we might see the dam break over on the smaller end first. 

Tamron, meanwhile, has had good success in full frame mirrorless with their f/2.8 replacement zooms and their telephoto zooms (17-28mm, 28-75mm, 70-180mm, and 150-500mm). Those f/2.8 zooms seem like a logical fit with Z5/Z6 users (lower price than Nikon’s), while the long telephoto is something missing in Nikon’s lineup at the moment. I’m a little surprised that the Tamron 150-500mm wasn’t targeted at the Z mount already, but perhaps Tamron thought Nikon was going to be far faster to market with their 100-400 and 200-600 options. (One of the things holding back DSLR to mirrorless conversion is price of replicating lens sets. Having a less expensive set of zooms available would help that, but again, Nikon doesn’t think that way.)

The frustrating thing for Nikon Z cameras owners, of course, is that they all want the dam to break (soon and completely). They’re wondering why it hasn’t broken already, and they look in envy at the choices in the Sony E-mount while sitting at the foot of the dam waiting for their eventual bath. 

Update: focal lengths for Sigma lenses fixed.

Catching up With Sony

There's a perception among most that Nikon needs to catch up with Sony to have a real chance at establishing the Z System as fully competitive. 

Yes, that's absolutely true in one basic sense: Sony went fully into mirrorless with APS-C in 2010 , and with full frame in 2013. Nikon didn't re-start (the Nikon 1 being their first attempt in 2011) until 2018. So Sony has had a much longer time to build out product lines, add lenses, and refine performance and features. Nikon is indeed playing catch-up in the overall sense.

So it's probably worthwhile examining where the real catching up needs to happen, and where Nikon is doing just fine. 

Let's start with the "these things are fine" parts:

  • Image quality. I have no issues here with where Nikon is at. In actual use, Sony's 60mp camera really doesn't provide much beyond what Nikon's 45mp camera does when all is said and done. Likewise the 20mp Nikon DX cameras versus Sony's 24mp APS-C ones. As I've stated several times, I actually prefer working on my Z7 II raw files over my A7R Mark IV raw files. I don't know if it's Nikon's white balance preconditioning or something else, the Z7 II files are clean and easily processed. Even Nikon's 20mp DX sensor holds up particularly well against Sony's 24mp APS-C sensor; and once again I'm not going to quibble over a few pixels.
  • Exposure. Nikon's metering system continues to be state-of-the-art and not matched by anyone else, with one exception I'll note later.
  • Build quality. The Z's so far have all been really well made. Even the lack of weather gaskets on the Zfc/Z50 is handled nicely with part overlaps used to stop casual water ingress. I've been abusing my Z's as much as I do/did my DSLRs, and they're holding up just fine. 
  • Video. Surprisingly, Nikon's been on top of things in terms of video. Not only did they pioneer raw-over-HDMI with Atomos, most of the Z-mount lenses have been carefully refined (along with the lens corrections) to provide little or no focus breathing in video. Other than the Z7 models, Nikon has tended towards oversampling, which produces very good-looking video, and the rolling shutter tends to be good (other than on the Z5). 
  • Autofocus. I know I'll get push-back on this, but I don't think Nikon's speed to focus, auto detections, or tracking of focus are problematic. About the only clear thing that Sony does that Nikon doesn't is bird eye detect (and black eyes on black heads are a real problem for my A1). Yes, there are a few things that are slightly behind a competitor in the Z System autofocus performance, but not anything significant, at least with the current iterations (Z6 II, Z7 II, Zfc). Moreover, Nikon made the progression to where they are much quicker than Sony did (try a 2017 Sony A7R Mark III versus the 2018 Z6/Z7 models with the current firmware and you'll see what I mean). 
  • Multiple exposure, interval photography and time-lapse. While I don't agree with every "refinement" Nikon has made—some nuanced features have been dropped or changed—Nikon had an early lead in including sophisticated functions such as these, and they've tended to add to that (focus-shift, for example) and stay on top of that. There is one exception, though, which I'll again get to below.
  • Touchscreen. Nikon actually started to perfect this in the compact cameras, but wisely brought those abilities over to the ILC models. Refined, mature, with good performance and choices. 

Nikon shouldn't sit on its hands regarding the above aspects of the Z cameras, though. All of us would like to see improvements in all of those areas, it's just that we're not finding Nikon particularly lacking vis-a-vis the competition. Thus, we're just looking for refinement in the above areas to keep Nikon competitive, not out-and-out change.

That said, Nikon does have a number of areas where they've fallen behind and which they need to address:

  • Lenses. Let's get the elephant out of the room first. There's virtually no Z camera owner who isn't telling me about their need for a still-missing lens. Z users clamor for third-party lens support, too, as they see Sony now with an overwhelming set of choices (other than exotic telephotos, which are more limited). This is what time has given Sony: eight years of lens production by themselves has generated 39 full frame lenses, and eight years of sales of multiple bodies has produced a large enough user base so that we also have Sigma and Tamron regularly adding to that lens count number. Nikon's at 16 and no third party support of significance. Time is the only thing that evens this out, unfortunately. But Nikon needs to be faster at producing lenses rather than slower. Yes, I know there's a pandemic going on, but Nikon executives have stopped indicating any sense of urgency about lenses. 
  • DX. Twin lower-mid-level DX cameras and a pair of DX lenses simply don't hold up against Fujifilm's and Sony's offerings, and they don't even hold up against Canon's likely dead-end M system, either. One problem is that no one wants to believe Nikon is serious about DX until we see more of a "line" as opposed to a couple of toe-dippers. This is complicated by the fact that Nikon needs to fill out the FX lens line still, so there's the further belief that any additional DX product takes away from FX products. I don't believe that to be true, but actions will be the only thing that gets others to believe Z DX is something more than a diversion. 
  • Focus indicators. Nikon's focus area indicators lag reality and can't confirm continuous autofocus. Sony's don't and can. Enough said.
  • Customization. Nikon really owned camera customization for quite some time (dating back into the film SLR era). They've gotten lazy at defending that and no longer lead. Sony does. (1) Sony allows almost any programmable control to be set to almost anything in the menu system; (2) Sony has a better MR (U# in Nikon parlance) system, in almost every respect; (3) Sony now allows saving multiple, named settings files to cards. That's just things at the overall level. Sony is also getting nuanced things right that Nikon isn't, too. Nikon is too paternal and minimal in its approach now. It used to be that Nikon only allowed you to customize the Fn3 button to three things; now it's up to seven (on the D6, which probably indicates what it'll be on the Z9). I'll also once again point out the missing AF-ON+AF-area mode customizations that are sorely missing on the Z cameras. Sorry, Nikon, but you've fallen from #1 in customization to #2 or maybe even #3 among the full frame mirrorless players. 
  • Pixel shift. Nikon was late to sensor-based image stabilization, and is now late to things that use that, such as pixel-shift photography. Similar to that, I'd love to see Nikon pick up on some of the other things that Olympus helped pioneer in ILC, including live composite view on long exposures. 
  • Real-time exposure tools. Zebras only work in video mode for some reason. We have no simple way to see what the raw data exposure looks like. RGB Highlights disappeared (it’s back on the D6, so there’s hope). 
  • Viewfinder performance. Optically, the Z viewfinders are very good. Nikon spent time to make them look more natural and similar to what a DSLR user would expect, and it shows. However, two specific areas have Nikon falling behind Sony: (1) dot count and refresh frequency, which impact just how well you ascertain subtle differences; and (2) continuous photography performance. The latter is the one that bothers me most: at up to 5.5 fps, the Z's are great, and I have no real complaints. They have very little blackout and a solid minimally lagged live view. Try to use the fastest frame rates, however, and the current Nikon EVFs become slide-show disasters: low perceived frame rate, terribly lagged view. I don't care that the viewfinder doesn't black out, the Z’s are not usable to follow moving subjects when you set Continuous H (extended). You simply can't keep composition intact above 5.5 fps with moving subjects, and if composition isn’t kept intact, autofocus suffers (this is actually the real reason why people complain about Nikon’s autofocus system). The Sony A9, A9 Mark II, and A1 show what's possible here, but even the other most recent A7 models do a better job (as do the Canon R3, R5, and R6). 

I have little doubt that Nikon will eventually catch up. The engineers and managers I've talked to since the original Z System announcement at Nikon all reluctantly acknowledge that they need to. And Nikon still has some of the best camera and lens engineering in the business, if not the best. 

The upcoming Z9 will show us just how much of the "need to do" list Nikon has tackled. I suspect it will be everything on the above list other than lenses—which march to their own drummer at Nikon—and DX, which is still taking baby steps. If so, then the next step is seeing how fast those changes and improvements move down into the Z6/Z7 level cameras (e.g. Z6 III and Z7 III), and eventually the entire lineup. 

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Lest you think that Nikon’s the only one with problems, Sony has its own set of unique issues. At the pro level, they need more exotic lenses (200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 800mm f/5.6, 120-300mm f/2.8, 200-400mm f/4, etc.). Sony also needs telephoto options that are light and compact, ala Nikon's PF lenses or Canon's recent aperture-challenged optics. In the camera realm, Sony is missing the full frame entry model that will compete with the Canon RP replacement and the Nikon Z5, while the A6#### models are under stress from Fujifilm's XF system. If Fujifilm gets to 8K capable, high bandwidth (33mp+ BSI stacked) in APS-C before Sony, that would prove to be problematic for Sony's continued APS-C success. Finally, just as Nikon is late to pixel shift, Sony is late to focus shift.  

Is the Zfc "Fun"? Is it Selling?

That word—fun—keeps coming up in marketing materials as well as in press coverage of the Zfc camera. Nikon's executives and product designers have used the word many times both as they introduced the product, and now as they provide ongoing support and press responses. As happens with PR, the word has now been picked up and used by a lot of media, as well.

Maybe I'm a curmudgeon, and don't know how to recognize or have fun. 

I had to look up the word "fun" to make sure I wasn't having a senior moment. So let's go to Merriam-Webster: (1) what provides amusement or enjoyment; (2) a mood for finding or making amusement; (3) (a) amusement, enjoyment (b) derisive jest; (4) violent or excited activity or argument.

So:

  • Does the Zfc provide amusement? Well, maybe some of you might laugh when I show up with a pink camera. 
  • Does the Zfc provide enjoyment? Apparently, to many of you having a camera with dials that you don't always use does indeed provide enjoyment. Also apparently, when that dial is no longer active or starts lying to you, that does not appear to take away your enjoyment of the dials.
  • Will a Zfc help you find amusement? Perhaps. I've personally not found that to be the case. Walking around photographing with it I was not amused to have to keep answering "what camera is that?"
  • Should we make fun of a Zfc (derisive jest)? No. It can provide serious results, just as can a Z50.
  • Will you get violent or excited activity using a Zfc? Not likely. Indeed, Nikon keeps talking about slowing down and photographing casually in their words about the camera, which is sort of the opposite.

Okay, let me get my tongue back out of my cheek for a moment. There's a synonym for fun that I think fits best in describing how some (many?) find the Zfc: pleasure (i.e. pleasurable). 

People are having a visceral response to the Zfc, much like comfort food. They find it pleasurable. They find the familiar controls—even if not actually used much—make them more comfortable than having to trust the unmarked dials Nikon has been using for decades. And the Zfc has virtually all the pleasurable aspects of the Z50, other than the hand grip and some customizable buttons.

I was struck by this recent statement from the owner of fujirumors.com: "I can’t really fall in love with cameras that are stupidly easy to use, I prefer those who are FUN to operate." There's that word again. But it speaks to the way people interact with their camera, much like most car aficionados prefer manual transmissions and no automatic drive assist settings. They prefer the visceral sense of directly controlling their equipment even if it makes it more difficult. In essence, the gear commands their attention, not the thing that they're doing with the gear (driving, photographing).

But as I've noted several times, there's a lot more style than substance going on, particularly if we compare the Zfc to the Z50 II that could have been (see below). I'm okay with people buying a product because they find it pleasurable. I'm still going to point out the dissonances between design and function, though. 

Which brings me to this: are people buying the Zfc?

Obviously, many are, but it's very difficult to say for sure this early how well it is selling, as many of the initial sales were pre-orders triggered by Nikon's better-than-usual launch campaign, not sales because someone went into a store and handled a bunch of cameras and decided the Zfc was for them. Nikkei just published what I'd call a soft, Nikon-friendly article that attempts to say that by being the #3 seller in Japan the first week on sale the Zfc constitutes as a "hit." As Hollywood moguls will tell you, it isn't so much the opening night gross that's important to the success of a movie as is the drop-off and on-going tail in attendance. 

I'm on record as predicting that the Zfc will sell well initially, but it likely won't be a long-term best seller. We'll see if I'm right. (For the record, BCN's full August month sales in Japan have the D3500 two-lens kit at #18, the Z50 two-lens kit at #22, and the Zfc one lens kit at #24 [the body only is at #37]. It's difficult to ascribe anything to that as the D3500 and Z50 would have been selling from large built-up inventory stock, while the Zfc sales would have been constrained by first production shipment levels.) 

The Zfc does seem to be selling well in Japan so far, and as long as that doesn't detract Nikon from the real work at hand—re-establishing their high enthusiast and pro tools in the mirrorless realm—I'm happy for them. 

If we're going to use anecdotal, not-apples-versus-applies, early evidence, though, I'll just say this: my Z50 book sold significantly more copies its first week than my Zfc book did. And "hit" cameras generally don't stay in stock at B&H as the Zfc has. The Zfc is a nice camera, it sold decently after initial shipment, but I'm not sure it's a "hit" as Nikkei seems to think it is. Time will tell. I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

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It seems that when I critique anything about the Zfc, a whole host of angry defenders try to come to its rescue, much like happened with the Df before it. My criticisms don't make the Zfc a bad camera, I just feel that there are better cameras, or that the Zfc itself could have been better. More than one person arguing with me (elsewhere or in emails) hasn't even owned a Df or Zfc, let alone used them for any work.

So let me see if I can put a point on things. I own and use a Zfc and a Z50. Which do I use most, and which do I anticipate using most in the future? Well, that would be the Z50. Image quality is identical. Yes, the Zfc has slightly better autofocus characteristics, but that's not enough for me to compensate for the slightly better control configuration abilities on the Z50 and its much better grip, particularly when using the macro lenses and the telephoto zoom handheld. It is a system camera, after all. 

So let me try this out on you. What if Nikon had taken a Z50 and simply added metal Mode and Exposure Compensation dials that had the "look" of the Zfc's dials, dropped the redesigned Zfc viewfinder hump onto the Z50 body (which loses the flash; see above illustration), replaced the tilting display with the articulating one, given us the same panda styling and color options, and launched that as the Z50 II? There'd be plenty of retro on display, just no ISO or shutter speed dial. Heck, add the ISO dial if you really want that (means we'd get another programmable button! ;~). Yeah, I would have liked that camera better, too. 

I like how the Zfc looks. Very classic, with excellent choices for positions, angles, and sizes of things. But none of that really helps me take better photos than I get with the Z50. Plus I don't have as much fast, direct, discrete control, despite the dials. 

To this point I still haven't seen a real statement from Nikon that distinguishes the Z50 and Zfc in marketing. I'm not sure they can, as they're basically the same camera in different dress. Buy the version of these un-identical twins that suits you would be my advice. If you like classic style and dials, then the Zfc should be your choice. If you want to be able to hold telephoto lenses well and have more direct control of things, the Z50 should be your choice.

One thing that is interesting to ponder is this: would Nikon have sold less, the same, or more of the Z50 II as they did the Zfc? In both cases, the Z50 would stay on the market for awhile at a lower price point, thus Z50+Z50 II sales > Z50 sales, and Z50+Zfc sales > Z50 sales. But would there be a significant difference attributable to the Zfc? If yes, then Nikon did the right thing (for themselves). If no, then Nikon did the wrong thing (for customers). 

Z Tidbits in Nikon's 2021 Report

Nikon has published their 2021 Report—basically their annual report—in Japanese. I haven't yet seen an English version of the document, but expect one soon.

A couple of Z-related things appear in the report. 

  • Of course, the Z9 will be launched.
  • A reaffirmation that "nearly" 30 lenses will be available by March 31, 2022 (implies 6 to 8 lens launches by then depending upon what they're counting and what "nearly" means; there are currently 8 lenses still in the Road Map that haven't been launched).
  • An odd discontinuity from their targeting high-end hobbyist and professional proclamations: "to increase the number of younger users, we will launch entrance models [note the plural; I think that refers to Zfc and Z30] with strengthened functions."
  • They once again use the phrase "flagship models" [again plural] when referencing future mirrorless cameras to be launched. Okay, Z9 is one, what is the other (or others)? 

The big issues confronting the Imaging Group during the year were (1) contraction of market; (2) intensified competition; and (3) parts procurement. Strangely, they didn't seem to suggest that travel restrictions have played much of a part for the Imaging Group (it did for the Precision Group, and that was noted).

I'll leave the rest of my remarks for later, when Nikon publishes the 2021 Report in English and you can follow along.

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