Nikon Z System News and Commentary

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What Does II Say About III?

We now have the Z6 II and Z7 II as updates to the original Z camera models. The all-knowing Internet seems to have pronounced these updates as "modest." 

That's not entirely unusual. In the D1 through D6 sequence, the odd-numbered models (eight years apart) were the bigger changes while the even numbered models tended to reflect smaller, or less dramatic changes. Nikon's research and engineering teams have schedules set up in a way that the biggest changes happen on eight year boundaries, slightly less big changes happen on four year boundaries, and more modest changes happen on two year boundaries. 

That's a generalization, of course, but it's a useful one in trying to figure out how camera models change over time. 

The II generation Z's came two years after the originals. We'd expect the III generation to come in another two years (give or take; you'll see why I say that in a moment).

Thus, we'd expect a "bigger" change between the Z6 III and the Z6 II than we saw in the Z6 II versus the original Z6. Ditto on the Z7 side of things, though that's a little more complicated, as it sits closer to what will eventually be the high end of the Z system.

I think it's safe to say that EXPEED7 is going to be in the III's. As cameras get more sophisticated and handle more data bandwidth, they need more horsepower under the hood, and EXPEED is where that lives. It's possible that EXPEED, or some portion of it, moves to the image sensor (as in stacked sensor design). At the Z6/Z7 model level, though, I don't expect that to happen soon. The costs associated with stacked sensor development and deployment are high, so it's going to happen first in very high-end Z's first (much like what happened at Sony with the A9). 

I do believe that we'll see sensor changes in the III's. How aggressive those changes are, I can't predict at the moment. Image sensor change is one of the reasons why I wrote "give or take", above. Image sensors are very long lead items in camera designs. I've written about this before, but "sensor lock" often comes at least a year in advance of releasing a model, because so many other things flow from that. You also can't just "go back to the fab" and run another quick test with a fix or change that you decide you need. That's not only costly, but the fab process itself isn't something that happens in a day or even a week. Much of the time, it's a one-month process from submission to finished chip, even for small-scale testing. So if issues come up in the sensor change you didn't expect, you can find yourself immediately off your desired timeline.

Why do I expect sensor changes?

Well, first there's the on-going current everyone is swimming in: sensors, like most silicon, are like water in a river: they keep moving downstream. (Or maybe it's salmon headed to spawn: they keep moving upstream. For some reason, my metaphor engine doesn't seem to be working well today ;~). But regardless, the point is that we've sat at 24mp for lower-level full frame for going on a decade, and we've got technologies available now where we can move forward. Certainly 30-36mp works for the Z6 III, since 8K video is essentially 33mp...

But more to the point, I've seen Nikon suddenly become highly active again in the sensor patent arena in the past year or so. When I see these patent flurries, it usually means that Nikon is actively working on entirely new image sensors for upcoming cameras, even if the patents are for technology we won't see in the eventual camera. It's clear to me that Nikon's sensor groups are poking around with new ideas, exploring new technologies, and coming up with sensor changes in great quantity at the moment, which means that they're being fully funded to do "new sensor work." That only comes when the group is actively pursuing big sensor changes. In the in-between sensor times, the group is not nearly so active on the R side of R&D, but more on the D side, with patents only slowly trickling out. 

Generally, I see Nikon's sensor patents as reflecting things that they've probably now tried prototyping "on fab." We might not see some of those things because the prototypes didn't meet some standard that Nikon required. In some of Nikon's patents, it's clear that new fab production techniques would be necessary, and sometimes when you move from known techniques to new ones, you discover things like yields are too low for the thing you're trying to do. 

With that out of the way, I see two things happening with image sensors in the III generation. Let's look at the Z6 in particular: (1) more pixels and sensor bandwidth to support 8K and other options; (2) something to address vertical information discrimination in the focus system. Those two things seem to be at the heart of many of Nikon's patents. 

EXPEED7, new image sensor, what else? 

This is where things are getting difficult for the camera companies. Feature-wise, our cameras are pretty much stuffed. Yes, I can point to more nuanced changes I'd like to see—and probably will—in the way some features work. Nikon is always looking at the UX, so we often see menu organization changes (several of the things that live on the PHOTO SHOOTING menu could likely be given further categorization: we have "image" settings (e.g. area, quality, size, ISO, Picture Control, white balance) and "function" settings (e.g. bracketing, multiple exposure, HDR, interval, time-lapse, focus-shift shooting). You could sub-group the PHOTO SHOOTING menu some to reduce the scrolling that you need to do to find something. I don't know for sure that Nikon will change that in the III models, but I wouldn't be surprised, as it's the type of thing they catch over time, which is why Nikon menus are relatively easy to understand and use.

To me, the big thing outside of the new internal hardware would be algorithmic and control changes. Auto Area AF works very well now, but there are a lot of things that can be done to make it even better. Some of that would be changes to the way it works (algorithmic) and some would be changes to how users make it work (control). Both things need to be addressed to take the focus system to the next level, and the III models really need to be doing that. 

We also have some "easy pickings" available. The EVF can go up-scale (more pixels, faster refresh). The card slots can get more flexible (CFe/SD combo slots). You could put electronic contacts at the hot shoe to support mics and other accessories without needing a cable or sticking a dongle into the side of the camera where it intrudes on your grip. 

At this point, you're starting to see a "much better" camera, aren't you?

  • More pixels
  • Faster operation
  • 8K video support
  • Better EVF
  • Better AF with more control
  • More flexible card use
  • More structure to menus
  • New accessories

Heck, Nikon wouldn't really have to make much, if any, change to the body design (and manufacturing line). We've already got enough controls in the right places (though I'd personally take the Drive button and make it Fn3, and maybe restore the Shooting Method dial under the Mode dial, as that was a more useful control). 

Before someone starts emailing me with more radical and extensive changes, remember that the Z6 III and Z7 III are likely going to be part of a bigger line (Z5, Z6 III, Z7 III, Z8, Z9?). These third-generation cameras I'm discussing here would end up more in the lower middle of Nikon's lineup than the top.  

As for timing, we're talking about late fall 2022 through fall 2023 as the likely target release date. The exact target would depend upon other Nikon offerings in the works as well as how fast EXPEED7 and a new image sensor get through the development process into actual production. 

Also, there's one other element of timing that comes into play: at the point where Nikon stops announcing new DSLR gear—which I'd judge to be 2023—Nikon is going to want to have product on the mirrorless side that's extremely compelling for the installed base to move to. That's where some of the current management debates are coming into play. 

The overwhelming portion of the Nikon installed base is DX DSLRs. I'd argue that you need cameras that the D3xxx/D5xxx crowd would likely move to (Z50 II), and that the D7xxx/D500 crowd would want (Z70). I'm not sure that you need lower than the current Z50. Trying to push those DX users to full frame messes up the users' lens sets and thus increases the cost for them to move from DSLR to mirrorless. Increasing the move cost has two implications: (1) lower demand; and (2) competitors' products now can be considered.

For me, the "perfect" set of announcements for one to three years from now when DSLR finally begins to peter out: Z50 II, Z70, some additional Z DX lenses, Z6 III, Z7 III, and an FTZ adapter that supports screw drive lenses. By then we would probably also have the first generation of a Z8 and/or Z9, as well. 

Of course, the state of the camera market is such that the old iteration patterns might not get repeated, or might get lengthened. At the moment, though, every indication is that it's business as usual at Nikon, at least as much as it can be with pandemic restrictions, supply chain shortages, and more cost cutting all currently in play. 

What Lens? Poll Results

I was essentially testing two things with my recent "which lens would you buy" polls. 

This wasn't a poll that can, within a particular statistical significance, predict how the market will actually react. Generally, those that responded are serious Z System enthusiasts who are eager to share information about their desires, which doesn't necessarily reflect the overall market. I was originally going to let these polls go on for a week, but as with all my polls, I monitor results as they come in, and the data began to clearly stabilize within an hour of posting! So I'm arbitrarily writing about the polls with 600+ responses each, as I don't expect that more responses are going to change the results. As I note below, I'll probably be following up with an n-sample poll of Complete Guide purchasers, which would be more statistically valid.

First up, was a poll trying to ascertain whether Nikon was making the right decisions with its lens Road Map. In a "perfect" world, every lens in the Road Map would have strong demand for it. If there are lenses that don't produce strong demand in the Road Map, then we have to assume one of two things: (1) Nikon wanted to produce that lens for bragging/competitive reasons; or (2) Nikon got their demand assessment wrong. 

I'll tell you what I thought as I pushed "publish" on the poll: that the 24-105mm, 100-400mm, 105mm macro, and 200-600mm lenses would all get strong support. I've heard from enough Z System users by now to understand their basic thinking, so I was pretty sure that clear demand would be there for those lenses. That's actually one of the things I was testing. I wanted to see if I was correctly reading my readers. 

First, some overall numbers. With the first 600+ votes counted in each poll, respondents voted for 1451 lenses in the first poll (average 2.2 per voter) and 1300 lenses in the second poll (average 2.1 per voter). Quite obviously we didn't have people who just clicked every choice. Indeed, I got plenty of emails that indicated that some didn't respond to the polls at all because the lens they really wanted wasn't in the choices. 

Thus, people seemed to have taken my "you intend to purchase" instructions to heart. I've left both polls open, to give you the chance to respond if you already haven't. (Please adhere to the intent—lenses you'd purchase assuming a reasonable price—and not try to skew the numbers with nonsense responses.)  I'll eventually do an n-sample poll of the various Z Complete Guide owners to see what results I see from book purchasers. 

Let's get to some results. In order of preference, here's the interest the lenses already on the Road Map produced:

  1. 24-105mm f/2.8-4 — 19%
  2. 100-400mm f/4-6.3 — 17%
  3. 105mm f/2.8 — 16%
  4. 200-600mm 4.5-6.3 — 12%
  5. 40mm f/2 — 12%
  6. 28mm f/2.8 — 11%
  7. 85mm f/1.2 — 5%
  8. 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 — 3%
  9. 50mm f/2.8 — 2%
  10. 400mm f/2.8 — 2%
  11. 600mm f/4 — 2%

About aperture designations. Where known, I used Nikon's value. Where unknown I had to make something up that fits with what Nikon has been doing so far. With some lenses, a change in aperture spec might change the results.

That went pretty much as I expected. I did expect the two compact primes (28mm and 40mm) to do a little better than they did, but when you get 10%+ on a "I will buy" poll from a serious audience, I'd call that indicative of strong demand. The audience that tends to read this site daily—and thus would have seen and responded to the poll—is very much high enthusiast thru pro user, and I had previously assessed that group as mostly having pent up demand for telephoto options. 

The 18-140mm DX and 50mm Micro-Nikkor feel like old Nikon consumer-influenced options. Perhaps they'd do well with that type of customer, but Nikon themselves say that they want to target high enthusiast and pro. Thus if Nikon thinks they'll be a lot of uptake on those upcoming lenses from their desired on-going buying group, they're probably wrong. 

Put another way, it's easy to see that the first six lenses in the list are going to appeal to a fair number of Nikon's most favored customers. The two exotics at the bottom of the list were always only going to have only a few takers due to likely high price. It's those other three slots in between that seem like a questionable use of Nikon's limited production capacity to me. I personally wouldn't mind seeing the fast 85mm, but #8 and #9 on that list are lenses I can't see myself, or many others, using.

My second poll was disingenuous. I've been hearing from multiple sources about bodies and lenses that are being considered and still in debate in Tokyo. (Yes, designs and prototypes sometimes don't make it to market.) 

So I put a couple of lenses I've heard seemingly valid rumors about slightly disguised in that list (no I'm not going to tell you which ones). Not only was I curious as to how those rumored lenses might be responded to, but I was also curious about some of the other gaps in the lineup and whether they were key gaps or not. In my haste to get things done, I unfortunately left out three lenses that should have been in that second list (10-20mm DX, 35mm f/1.2, and another lens I shan't name at the moment because it's also one of the specific rumors I'm getting out of Japan). That's not a huge problem, though, as again these polls aren't statistically valid; they're more of a generalized temperature reading. I'm just trying to read the room.

So how did the temperature reading go? "Compact" definitely seems to resonate in some way (I'd judge the 70-200mm f/4 and 70-300mm as "compact alternatives" to the 70-200mm f/2.8 or 100-400 telephoto zooms). Fast PF also seems to intrigue you, even though you likely know those are going to be more expensive lenses. I'll just say this: what I'm hearing that Nikon's considering in the next round of Z mount lenses has a strong component of compact as well as new exotic. 

To the actual numbers:

  1. 70-200mm f/4 — 22%
  2. 70-300mm f/4-6.3 — 16%
  3. 500mm f/2.8 PF — 10%
  4. 300mm f/2 PF — 8%
  5. 105mm f/1.8 — 8%
  6. 14mm f/1.8 — 7%
  7. 16-24mm f/4-6.3 — 7%
  8. 16mm f/1.8 — 6%
  9. 135mm f/2.8 — 6%
  10. 24mm f/1.2 — 2%
  11. 28mm f/1.8 — 2%
  12. 70-150mm f/4-6.3 — 2%

The top options were clearly telephotos, but did that 500mm f/2.8 PF number surprise you? I'll say this: it probably won't surprise Nikon. Likewise the 300mm f/2 PF. I get the strong sense out of Tokyo that there are two directions they're contemplating taking PF: (1) more reach (compete with the Canon f/11's); and faster reach (dial in lenses that don't currently exist). They might go both directions. I'd be all for that. 

For the record, the two compact zooms I put in the list would be supplements to the 24-50mm (makes a 16-150mm kit) and I would think them quite small and collapsing. I was a little surprised to see that their numbers weren't particularly high in the poll. 

Overall, there's again a lot of interest in telephoto, which is to be expected, because as I write this Nikon only has two lenses that go beyond 85mm (70-200mm and 24-200mm). 

I should say that my own answer to both polls would go like this:

  • Road Map Nikkors: 100-400mm, 105mm, 200-600mm. While obviously I'll be trying to review all the lenses on the Road Map as they appear, in terms of what I've kept in my gear closet and what I believe I still need, it boils down to those three lenses for me, and I'd tend to say I'd only keep one of the two zooms after seeing how they handle and perform.
  • Possible New Nikkors: the 16-24mm and 70-150mm would certainly be intriguing along with the 24-50mm to make for a really compact Z5 travel kit, but really the two lenses that I'd most likely purchase would be the 70-200mm f/4 and the 300mm f/2 PF.

As we started the year I was pretty sure that Nikon was going to release (announce?) two lenses in 2021 that aren't on its official Lens Road Map. On-going limitations due to the pandemic and the tightly constrained supply chain might change that, particularly now that Japan is limiting public interactions again (Nikon is reducing staff working together in offices and doing more at-home work again through February 7th, which slows down all their internal processes). 

That said, I know Nikon is hustling to get the Road Map lenses out. Moreover, we've heard rumors of another DSLR lens or two. If all this is true (and not interrupted even more by supply chain and work-related issues), that would make 2021 one of the most consequential "lens years" for Nikon in the entire history I've been covering them on the Internet. 

It's not surprising, though, that a company whose entire history has been centered on optics would turn to their primary expertise to help them navigate a pivot in the dedicated camera market. As I've noted before, Nikon doesn't have a dud in the Z-mount lineup, and they're executing many of these new lenses at a quality level they've not generally hit before, even though most of us already thought our DSLR Nikkors were just fine. 

What Lenses Do You Really Want?

I've got two polls today. Let's start with the Nikkor lenses on the current Road Map. Note that I've placed some reasonable guesses at aperture for some of them, as Nikon doesn't specify: click here to vote on Road Map Nikkors.

Now let's consider some lenses that aren't in the Nikon Road Map: click here to vote on Newly Defined Nikkors.

Thanks for voting. I'll be presenting the results next week.

For some reason, the polls aren't embedding correctly, so I've had to resort to links for the time being.

The "What Lens" Question

I also keep getting variations on the following question: "I bought the Z# with the kit lens. Should I sell the kit lens and get the f/2.8 zoom, or buy the f/1.8 primes?" 

I don't want to seem condescending, but this is a "not sure what I'm doing" type question. Those questions are never answered the way the questioner expects them to be, because they aren't representative of a real or known problem. It's more FOMO (fear of missing out).

We have a lot of new Z camera users now, as this was a relatively successful Christmas for Nikon's mirrorless system, and we had three new models to attract people who formerly sat on the bench. So let me turn these questions around and suggest an approach to finding the answer yourself.

  1. Just shoot with the kit lens for awhile. There's not a dud in the lot. The 16-50mm, 24-50mm, 24-70mm, and 24-200mm are all excellent lenses as far as they go. Sharpness is not typically going to be an issue with them, and chromatic aberration shouldn't be a problem, either. I'll happily use any of the Nikon Z kit lenses for general purpose work and not worry about it. We would have been extremely happy with any of these lenses a few years ago, now we're just happy with them ;~).
  2. Assess issues that arise, and correct. If sharpness is an issue with these lenses, then you need to figure out why. It's one of two things: your handling and understanding of the camera, or you got a bad copy of the lens or camera, or both. A lot of people think that VR means every picture will be sharp, for example. It doesn't work that way. First, VR doesn't halt subject movement, and second, if you get really sloppy with your handling thinking stabilization "will fix it", VR very well may not be able to compensate. You also may not have mastered the focus system yet. As I suggest in my books, start with simpler, static, one-time focus situations and work your way up to complex, dynamic, continuous focus situations. In doing so, you'll likely verify for yourself that the lens probably isn't an issue. 
  3. When you're sure the lens and camera are performing correctly, look for issues again. This is where you start to discover that the f/6.3 maximum aperture on the lens is keeping you from isolating subject from background, or that star fields aren't rendering as points in the corners of the frame, or the linear distortion correction is not rendering corners quite as well as the inner field. In other words, in this step you're trying to identify a specific trait that is causing you grief. Once you've identified that, you can start to evaluate what other options might help you correct it. 

Yes, the 24-70mm f/2.8 S is a better behaved lens than the 24-70mm f/4 S. Most people won't be able to see that, and certainly not without pixel peeping. Ten years ago, the kit lenses weren't so great. These days, the kit lenses are quite good, and you have to pay big dollars to get small gains over them. 

Finally, lenses have purpose. The purpose of the kit lenses is to be the Swiss Army Knife in your collection: general purpose. If you're filleting fish or carving a turkey, you probably want a different knife. So what is the photographic thing you're trying to do that requires a different knife (lens)? For instance, portraits generally need a 70-105mm focal length and a reasonably fast aperture to create the more studio-type shots you're imagining. The 85mm f/1.8 S is a great lens for portraits. But it's not general purpose ;~). 

I'll likely have more to say about this as I try to rationalize my own Z lens gear closet in the coming year. Some of my F-mount lenses on FTZ adapters are being retired, some aren't. But it's always about purpose. 

What Card Should You Get?

With the Z6 II and Z7 II now out in the wild and lots of new Z's that came as Christmas presents, it's time for some card advice:

  • If you bought a Z6 II or Z7 II, buy CFe (CFexpress) cards. Also buy a CFe card reader. You're basically setting yourself up for the future and ignoring the past. For the second slot, make sure you have fast UHS-II SD cards: the camera is only as fast as the slowest card in the camera, and the SD card will always be the slowest card, so make sure you've got fast ones.
  • If you bought a Z6 or Z7, things are more complicated. If you can find a really good deal on XQD cards, sure, consider them, as they perform best in the camera. Otherwise, just stick with CFe.

While it's nice that XQD transitioned to CFe in a reasonable way and Nikon users benefited from this, the transition isn't without issues. The big one tends to be card readers. There have been three distinct sets of card readers (and a fourth that's rare). Original XQD readers don't support XQD 2.0 cards, XQD 2.0 readers don't support CFe cards, and CFe readers don't typically support XQD cards (though there are some rare exceptions that usually require drivers be installed on your computer). 

Thus, a Z6, Z6 II, Z7, or Z7 II user really should consider standardizing on one form of card (and thus, one card reader). The general advice in the bullets, above, is that the older Z6 and Z7 users should just stick with XQD, the new Z6 II and Z7 II users should start and standardize on CFe. It just makes your life easier. As it is, I've had to retire some XQD cards (1.0) and carry two card readers (XQD 2.0 and CFe) just to manage my current card situation. Not optimal, but bearable. My advice is to avoid the aggravation and standardize, if possible.

See also The Card Situation in the Accessories section

The Random Firmware Gods

Sometimes I wonder who Nikon is talking to and why they're responding the way they do. What happens is that we get these wandering functions and features within the Nikon cameras, which means you have to be careful about upgrading, because a feature that you're using might go away for no stated reason.

Case in point, TIFF. Nikon has long offered uncompressed TIFF as a file output choice on their high end cameras, including the Z6 and Z7. A TIFF file gets the Nikon EXPEED Picture Controls and White Balance applied, but does not add compression of the data like JPEG does. The Z6 II and the Z7 II removed TIFF as a file option. 

No doubt Nikon did a poll somewhere and discovered that almost no one was using TIFF in their Nikon's anymore, so they removed it. Wrong question and wrong answer (those two often go hand in hand ;~).

When TIFF support was first offered, Nikon's JPEG compression still was a bit heavy handed. There definitely was a reason to shoot TIFF over even JPEG Fine because the results were more useable and malleable in post processing. Over time, as image sensors and the original NuCore JPEG processing got refined, there wasn't as much of a reason to pick TIFF over JPEG Fine, particularly since the TIFF file would be so much larger and reduce the buffer of the camera. 

The correct question to ask users should have been "What would make you shoot TIFF?" and the correct answer would have been "11-bit+ files with lossless compression." Nikon knows how to do both things, so you'd think this would have been a no-brainer. Moreover, that's a marketable benefit, because no other camera has that ability, and it would be a useful one for some photographers. In other words: make the feature better, don't remove it.

We have other instances of Nikon's firmware sleight of hand, as well. The one that provoked the most email to me recently was the change in Multiple Exposure. When that feature was first added to Nikon DSLRs, it allowed output in NEF but didn't allow retention of the original exposures. Now the feature is basically "output only in JPEG, but can retain original NEF exposures." Nope. Still not right. We want "output in JPEG or NEF, able to retain original exposures." (Actually: "output in JPEG, TIFF, or NEF" ;~)

Nikon gets deep engineering right more often than not. They're wizards at sensor development, EXPEED-embedded algorithms, focus and exposure algorithms, and all the practical hardware type engineering challenges. Where Nikon needs someone guiding them is on how the photographer deals with the camera, or basically UX (user experience). In some firmware and camera updates we get better UX, in other cases we get worse UX. It should always be: "better." 

Z Stock Update

So what's in stock after the holidays and what isn't? (See related article)

It's tough to figure that out, as there is some variability between dealers. Also, I can only speak for the US; the situation in other countries will be different. But in calling around among a few UD dealers, here's what I think the body situation is:

  • Z5 — available at list price
  • Z6 — lingering stock available and still on sale (rumors production stopped)
  • Z6 II — some options out of stock, typically body only
  • Z7 — lingering stock available and still on sale (rumors production stopped)
  • Z7 II — out of stock, back-order situation
  • Z50 — available at list price (though 2-lens bundle still discounted)

And lenses:

  • 14-24mm f/2.8 — available
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 — available
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 — in stock, but not a deep stock
  • 14-30mm f/4 — available
  • 24-70mm f/4 — available
  • 24-50mm f/4-6.3 — available
  • 24-200mm f/4-6.3 — back-order situation
  • 20mm f/1.8 — available
  • 24mm f/1.8 — available
  • 35mm f/1.8 — available
  • 50mm f/1.2 — back-order situation
  • 50mm f/1.8 — in and out of stock
  • 85mm f/1.8 — in and out of stock
  • 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 DX — in and out of stock
  • 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 DX — back-order situation for non kits
  • TC 1.4x — back-order situation
  • TC 2x — back-order situation
  • FTZ Adapter — available

Did Nikon Make a Mistake?

It was interesting to watch how Nikon rolled out the Z6 II and Z7 II in the holiday season. It reminds me of why holiday releases are fraught with peril. 

With the Z6 II, the US received body+24-70mm f/4 kits in November, while Japan didn't get that kit initially. As it was, the Z6 II kit went in and out of stock in the US during the holidays. Body-only availability didn't seem to happen in the US, or if it did, it was in very small numbers (and NPS Priority Purchase?). Meanwhile, the Z7 II barely showed up. A few lucky individuals got their bodies, but overall numbers were again very low, basically almost the one-per-dealer mark outside of NPS PP. As far as I know, no kits were available in the initial, minimal dealer stocking.

In short, NikonUSA might be happy because it feels like the new models "sold out." But they should actually be concerned, as they weren't able to meet demand, and demand doesn't stick around forever in the constantly changing world of cameras.

I've long had a problem with the way Nikon releases kits and bodies. The whole thing is driven from a spreadsheet in Japan that Nikon believes "maximizes" the dollars. I'm not at all convinced that it does. Moreover, it angers customers, something that Nikon is going to need to stop doing if it wants to return to the number two position in cameras again. 

In essence, Nikon is going against "let the market decide" while trying to micromanage results in a way that benefits Nikon. Put another way, Nikon is arrogant enough to think that they know better than their customers what products to package together or not. I'm pretty sure that Nikon is mistaken, and this holiday season with the Z6 II models would pretty much be evidence number one in my prosecution. 

Here's the thinking from Nikon's perspective:

  • Bundling lenses makes for a higher SKU (stocking unit) price. If Nikon delivers all the bundles first, they believe their initial income on a launch is higher. This assumes that the initial buyers all need a lens. There's a presumption of new users over existing customers here.
  • Bundling means shipping fewer boxes. Moreover, there are cost implications involved. While they're minor on a per box case, they add up fast if all your boxes have that cost reduction. This assumes that Nikon makes and ships the right boxes.

Here's the thinking from the customer's perspective:

  • I can't always get what I want. If the customer wanted the 24-200mm lens with the Z6 II instead of the 24-70mm, they were out of luck for Christmas 2020, because the bundle didn't exist, nor could you build your own because the body-only box wasn't available (and the 24-200mm itself was out of stock much of the time). Many of those folk simply didn't buy. Now, you might say that Nikon can sell them "next quarter," and that would be partially right, but Nikon is essentially ignoring the time value of money. They'd be better off with the sale now, not later. And all it takes is a competitor's new camera launch to take the luster off the II models.
  • My lenses are getting devalued. Some people just buy the bundle they can get and then resell the lens (because they already have it or they wanted a different lens that wasn't in a bundle). eBay is full of 24-70mm f/4 lenses right now because of that. Nikon's forced bundling is creating over supply of some lenses, and as we all know, excess supply means things devalue. 

The bottom line is the same as I've been writing for decades now: Nikon isn't very friendly to its customers, and it isn't getting friendlier. That's despite the fact that the easiest sale for Nikon to make is to a previous customer. Why would you intentionally make things more difficult for that previous customer? 

Nikon continues to wonder why customers leak out to Fujifilm or Sony. Well, this is one of the reasons why. Not necessarily directly, but the continued assumptions about customers putting up with whatever it is Nikon thinks is best for themselves is a huge friction. It makes customers pay closer attention to all the other attributes of the system and support. Oh, third party repairs are being killed. Oh, a promised firmware update took far longer than expected. Oh, they still haven't fixed one of the major complaints about the previous gear. Oh, they've cut NPS support staff again. Eventually all the built-up friction gets so great that people don't buy at all.

I'd argue that the proper approach is what I call "build a bundle." Ship bodies, ship lenses. Apply an instant discount when bought and registered together. (That last part is important to keep dealers from gaming the system.) 

The Sadder Case of the MB-N11

You're probably aware of my scathing review of the MB-N10. Well, today I bring you the sadder case of the MB-N11. Out of box, mine doesn't work. Oh, it works to power the camera just fine, and it'll charge the battery via USB. But none of the controls work (dials, AF-ON, thumb stick, Fn button). I might as well have stuck an MB-N10 onto my Z6 II ;~)-. 

So, back it goes, and we'll see if a new copy will actually work as expected so that I can actually review it. However, a word of caution to Nikon: this is the sort of problem you definitely don't want to have. I'm getting more "out of box" issue complaints from Nikon users lately. If Nikon wants to return to profitability, it's going to have to do a better job. It's just not the product specs that influence our buying decisions, it's the entire user experience. 

2021: Likely Z Gear Versus Wanted Z Gear

So that we can keep track, actual predictions are underlined.

bythom 2021 calendar

While Nikon's product planning seemed to finally come into focus in 2020, word out of Tokyo is that there are still debates going on internally about what else to pursue, and when. This is particularly true of Z DX, as Z FX seems to have stabilized into an agreed upon strategy moving forward.

Lenses, of course, are an area of clarity with Nikon, with their Z Lens Road Map showing 11 new Nikkors that are coming. Probably 8 to 10 of those will actually ship in 2021, and I am going to predict that there's at least one or two lenses that will pop up that aren't on the Road Map. Nikon still apparently thinks that the Lens Road Map would give too many clues to competitors as to cameras they might be working on. I'm pretty sure that they are wrong about that: the interconnected supply chain provides plenty of early clues as to what camera companies are actually working on, and the R&D timelines are such that even if you suddenly knew that Company X was working on Y, it wouldn't really change your plans.

The real question with the 2021 Nikkors is "what comes first, when does the rest appear?" Two things tend to define this: (1) camera introductions; and (2) lens element complexity. The more complex a lens is optically, and the more it needs special or aspherical lenses, the longer it takes to move from design to production. So, lenses like the 28mm and 40mm compact lenses probably could appear sooner rather than later, while a lens like the 100-400mm S-line may come later in the year. Of course, that depends a bit on when the 100-400mm work started, but given that it wasn't on the original Road Map, I'm guessing that it's a later in the year lens, not an earlier in the year lens

Meanwhile, a lens like the 24-105mm S-line is almost certainly linked to a camera (as is the 18-140mm DX, by the way). Meanwhile, the 400mm and 600mm S-line lenses are likely linked to the fact that a few preproduction versions will appear at the July Tokyo Olympics. 

Which brings me to cameras.

While the II series Z's are a nice step forward, and I expect to see the Z6 II in use at the Tokyo Olympics, that event really sets a timeline for anything "better" Nikon is going to announce in 2021. Yes, there's a Z8+ in development. It's not exactly what you think it is, but it is most certainly pro in nature. And I'm pretty sure Nikon wants it to be at least in preproduction form by July, preferably launched soon after. I expect that to be the only Z FX body to be announced in 2021

Meanwhile, II seems to be on Nikon's mind now. I've heard two slightly different variations of the Z50 II specs, which almost certainly is coming in 2021 (and with which the 18-140mm lens will likely be announced, as well as at least one other DX lens). Don't expect big differences that make for a dramatically different camera, but do expect Nikon to do the same thing they did with the Z6 and Z7: fix/change some user frustrations.

So, in terms of what's likely from Nikon in 2021 in the Z System:

  • Z50 II (update of the original)
  • 10-20mm Z DX lens (surprise ;~)
  • Z8+ (new pro body)
  • eight Z FX lenses (possibility 1-3 additional slip forward into 2021 release)

To this I'd add the orphan-child camera, if Nikon corporate can make up its mind about it: the DX Z30. This is where much of the debate still rages within Nikon: just how low do they want the line to go, and is that model differentiated enough to succeed (both against Nikon's own products and the competition). I don't know the answer to that. I do know that a Z30-type camera was prototyped years ago, but never launched. And that another Z30 prototype is ready today, so could be released in 2021 if Nikon wants to.

One thing that's going to confuse the market a bit is that Nikon is definitely still committed to launching DSLRs and DSLR lenses in 2021. I'm okay with that, indeed encourage it if they are the right models, but I worry that Z System users might misinterpret that. 

Nikon is not "all in" in mirrorless (only Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony truly are). Nikon is all-in on prosumer/professional gear, and because of their legacy DSLRs, they're going to continue to serve the top end mirror-slappers for awhile longer. It's low-hanging fruit for them, and it's not going to take away mirrorless R&D. 

But that brings up the other half of this article's title: the "wanted" Z System gear. If I'm understanding this site's readers correctly (and I think I am), the primary items would be:

  • Z70 (the D500 replacement)
  • more Z DX lenses, particularly f/2.8 (or f/2.8-4) zooms and at least a couple of small fast(ish) wide primes
  • 60mp+ Z8 (to match or best Sony A7R Mark IV)
  • 24mp Z9 (to match or best Sony A9 Mark II)
  • Z PF lenses (most requests are for 400mm)
  • 70-200mm f/4
  • 70-300mm FX smallish lens (also dovetails with DX well)

It should be obvious that the wanted list doesn't really match the likely list. Not that I don't think that Nikon will get around to some (if not all) of the things on the wanted list, but I'd be surprised if any of these specific things showed up in 2021. 

The lens side is easier to say why that's true for: from conception to production is about a three year process with lenses. Simpler lenses can be done quicker, but the lenses in that list aren't "simpler" (other than DX primes). We've seen three iterations of Nikon's Z Lens Road Map so far, and I'd guess that what is on the Road Map currently are lenses that are in the last half of that three-year process. If true, sometime later this year you'd see a Road Map update, and perhaps some of the lenses you're asking for will start to appear.

The good news is that 2021 will be the year the major third-party lens makers join the fray with Z-mount autofocus lenses. Once Sigma and Tamron bring their primary FE mount optics over, there will be a lot of choice in the 24-200mm range, and some additional options outside that range.

Image sensors are a different problem. I believe right now Nikon is totally centered on their 20mp, 24mp, and 45mp sensors and updating them, as that's quicker and easier for them to do. Those sensors also have strong foundations already, and remain highly competitive. Nikon is almost certainly working feverishly on new sensors—I see a recent massive churn of Nikon sensor patents and backroom buzz flying by that indicate this—but I think what that R&D produces for completely new sensors won't be seen until 2022 at the earliest, partly because many of Nikon's ideas require new production techniques in the fab, and that takes time to get right before you can start mass production. 

Nikon can deal with the lack of innovative new bodies easily, too, if they just look at my Still Missing list and implement as many of those as possible as firmware updates for the II's and 2021 cameras that are coming. Nikon did something very right in creating the first II's—they mostly attacked user problems with the original models—and they need to continue to do this kind of work with this second generation of cameras. Lots of things on my Still Missing list are really firmware changes, not physical and hardware differences, so if Nikon can show us in 2021 that they are adding functionality and performance in firmware, I think that will easily make up for not releasing a plethora of new bodies.

I'm actually looking forward to 2021 with my Z's (now II's), and the things that I believe Nikon will launch during the year. The Z System should be considerably stronger by the end of the year than it is now, and that's all we should be asking for.

Tips for New Z System Users

So, you just got your first Nikon mirrorless camera and are wondering where to start. 

Since so many of you new Z users are coming from Nikon DSLRs, I'm going to make that assumption and point out things that you need to pay attention to that might be different than you're used to. If you're coming from a competitor's system, you're really starting from scratch, and my first suggestion would be that you pick up one of my Complete Guides for the camera you bought.

  • Battery: it will seem that the drain on the main battery (EN-EL15) is higher initially than it is on DSLRs. That drain occurs because an internal clock battery has to be charged. I'm finding that it takes most people two or three charge cycles before they can correctly interpret their battery usage. If you're spending a lot of time in the menus while you learn the camera, it might even be higher than that. Don't panic. Give it a week of use and several main battery recharges before you try to evaluate battery performance. Meanwhile, any Nikon-made EN-EN15 will work in your Z5, Z6, Z6 II, Z7, or Z7 II. Third party batteries are still a little hit or miss.
  • SnapBridge: I generally recommend that you avoid setting up Smart device and other wireless transfer initially. The reason? It's too easy to set the camera so that Bluetooth is always on and draining the battery, and not noticing. Wait until you have the time to thoroughly read either Nikon's manual on SnapBridge, or the section on it in my books before trying to use it. Short answer: SETTINGS/Connect to smart device/Pairing should be Off unless you're actively using SnapBridge, and Send while off is dangerous, too. This isn't to say that SnapBridge isn't useful—in its current state it is very useful—but you have to pay close attention to how things are set if you don't want to wake up with empty batteries.
  • Display: the most common complaint is "the LCD doesn't seem to be working." This is virtually always because you accidentally pressed the Monitor Mode button |[]| and changed the viewing mode. Press that button until you see the display again and you've "fixed" your problem. Likewise, get used to pressing the DISP button to cycle through and see additional information. Finally, stay away from Continuous High (Extended) initially, as the viewfinder display changes when you use that, and it takes some getting used to.
  • Settings: the U1/U2/U3 positions on the Mode Dial and Save User Settings option only save PHOTO SHOOTING, MOVIE SHOOTING, and CUSTOM SETTINGS options (as well as exposure mode and current exposure settings). But they do not save Shooting Method (frame rate, self timer, etc.). The Save Menu Settings option saves the current state of the camera. This is one of the big sticking points that new-to-Nikon users often have, and User Settings don't work like Banks if you're coming from a higher end Nikon DSLR. Tip: If you have a Z5, Z6 II, or Z7 II, take one or more old, small capacity SD cards and save settings to them. This way you can restore the camera to what you want quickly by just inserting only the SD settings card and restoring. I have several SD cards with settings stored this way (and because settings files are unique, I can store the Z5, Z6 II, and Z7 II settings on the same card). 
  • Photo/Movie: a common issue is that some new users don't understand that camera customization is split. You have to define button/control changes for photos (Custom Setting #F1 and #F2) and movies (Custom Setting #G1 and #G2) separately. Since I use the switch around the DISP dial as a quick way to get to 16:9 aspect ratio, I have to make sure that I've got settings that are the same for both (though see final note in Settings, above). 
  • Firmware: it's highly likely that you'll need to perform firmware updates on your camera. Nikon updated pretty much everything in the October to December timeframe, and it's unlikely that a box sitting on your dealer's shelves has the latest camera firmware. But note also that the FTZ adapter and three of the Nikkor Z lenses have had firmware updates, too. Use Nikon's Download Center to check for updates for all your camera components.
  • Software: likewise, while you're at the Download Center make sure that you get the latest Nikon software (Capture NX-D, View NX-i, etc.). If you bought a Z6 II or Z7 II and try to use Nikon Transfer that isn't up to date, you can't see the second card slot in the camera when transferring to your computer, for example. 
  • Flash: three things. First, as far as I'm concerned only the SB-500 and SB-5000 are close to fully compatible with the Z cameras (they lack Autofocus Assist with flash, though). Nikon moved to a "Unified Flash Control" system in the D5 generation (and Zs) where menus are used to control flash, and older Speedlights don't support that. So you end up with grayed out menus on the Z cameras when you mount older flash units. Second, Apply settings to live view is cancelled when flash is active. Third, you can't set Silent photography when using flash. Those three things keep causing new Z users to stumble.
  • Filters: it seems that there are plenty of folk still trying to use UV, Skylight, or Clear filters on their lenses "as protection." Do yourself a favor: take the filters off and always use a lens hood. As I've written elsewhere (see the dslrbodies site), I'm not at all convinced that filters are actually protective except in a very few unique situations (e.g. gases from volcanic action, sea spray). But more importantly, I've yet to find any such filter, including some high cost ones, that doesn't reduce contrast and increase flare tendencies. The Z lenses are excellent or better. Don't make them worse!

All that said, the biggest stumbling block for most users is the autofocus system. While it's similar to the Nikon DSLR focus system, there are plenty of differences that can catch you unawares and cause grief. If you're going to spend time on studying anything, it should be the autofocus system. My advice has always to start with the simplest (AF-S, Single point) and work your way to the most complex (AF-C, Dynamic area; AF-C, Wide area; and AF-C, Subject tracking). In between we have Auto area (with Face and Eye detection turned on, whether in AF-S or AF-C). This advice is premised on: if you want to best understand how the system works, start with the mode you have the most control over (AF-S, Single point), work your way towards letting the camera do everything (Auto area with Face/Eye detect), then look at how you can override/control the camera when it is doing most of the work (AF-ON button use with AF-C and the modes where you control where focus is initiated).  

Finally, this: try the Auto position on the Mode Dial. Seriously. This puts the camera into "camera does everything" mode. You might find it illuminating (literally, in some cases). If the camera is doing a better job in Auto than you can do by manually controlling things, quite obviously you're not understanding something and need study and practice to get better results. That's always humbling, but that's also useful information. 

More than once in the field I've come across someone struggling. By making that one setting, everything improves for them, which tells me that they weren't fully understanding how to use their camera. Today's cameras are hugely complex and rich in features, customizations, and overrides. In the right hands with the right study and practice those are good things that allow for extraordinary control and precision. In the wrong hands without study and practice you get random results. 

If you find Auto worked better than your choices, then you have some work to do in learning your camera. My advice here is sort of the opposite of what I said with autofocus (start with full control, slowly automate): start with full automation and de-automate one thing at a time under you fully understand and can control it. Then de-automate another function. 

Congratulations on your new gear. You're going to find it is quite capable of excellent imagery, under almost any circumstance. But sometimes to get there you need to do some homework.

When, When, When?

I'll remind folks that I'm a one-man band performing a complex opera here. I'm constantly juggling various projects and sometimes changing my priorities. So...

  • When will the Z6 II and Z7 II Guide be done? I don't know. NikonUSA didn't bring in many Z7 II bodies, and I'm still waiting on mine. The good news is that this book is based on the existing Z6/Z7 Guide, so it's more a matter of verifying things and documenting differences than writing from scratch. Once a Z7 II is in the office, I'll be able to judge a likely publication date more easily.
  • When will (10 currently in progress!) lens reviews be done? This is going to be an ongoing issue for me in 2021, I think. This is the year that things change for the Z System, with enough Nikon and third-party lenses that the whole system seems quite expanded and presents useful options to most types of photography. I want to make sure you have useful information and opinions about all those new optics. I'm going to have my hands full trying to complete tests, do field evaluations, and write up the results, so bear with me. You'll probably see at least two new lens reviews this month, with many more right behind.
  • When will you review the Z6 II and Z7 II? Frankly, I'm not in a hurry to do this. I want to get plenty of experience with the changes in the autofocus system and continuous tracking before I finalize my thoughts here, and the opportunities for field shooting that would complete that testing are limited until the pandemic begins to clearly wane and I've joined the group that are vaccinated. Suffice it to say that the Z6 and Z7 were really good cameras, and the Z6 II and Z7 II are better. The more nuanced view will have to wait.

Nikon's a bigger organization, so perhaps the expectations there are different?

  • When will Nikon launch a new Z camera model? This question is tricky, as a critical supplier suffered a catastrophic fire that's impacting all camera makers. That said, I don't think Nikon will delay their launch windows, and the first one is already open (now through end of February). I'm expecting two new Z cameras for sure this year (one DX, one FX, though internally Nikon corporate seems to be continually debating what to do about DX). If I had to guess, the DX one will be first, the FX one in late spring or early summer. It's the FX one that everyone is waiting for.
  • When will Nikon launch more Z lenses? I think we'll see the next lens launch very soon. Indeed, I think we'll see most of the 2021 Z lenses by the end of summer (or the FX camera launch, whichever comes first). That doesn't mean everything will ship immediately, though. The 400mm and 600mm may be more like the NOCT, with a development announcement and prototypes in field. 
  • When will Z gear go on sale again? Historically, Nikon returns to lens rebates in February, and they sometimes have big sales in the February/March time frame so as to make their fiscal year numbers look good (their fiscal year completes at the end of March). But product shortages coupled with improving sales coupled with another write-off of assets means that Nikon isn't likely to try to push some last minute quarterly sales gains as they usually do. They might bag the current fiscal year to make the next look really good. That said, I'm pretty sure we'll see some ongoing sales and discounting, but not with large discounts, and particularly on things that are in plentiful inventory. I expect the Z50 to drop in price soon. I wouldn't be surprised if the original Z6 and Z7 go out of stock and thus not get discounted highly, as I don't believe they're still made (Sendai stopped making them in October, and I don't think they've since taken up production residence in Thailand). A few of the lenses may get on-going discounts. Thus, I'd be surprised if Nikon is at all aggressive about discounting here in the US in early 2021. 
  • When will Nikon sell off the Imaging group? Hah! Trick question. Certainly not going to happen any time that I can predict. In other words, it's not likely. What I'm hearing out of Tokyo is that Nikon still has assets to write off (and repurpose), which will make the financial statements look negative short term, but that the sales efforts are going well, and the on-going product lines are profitable and growing. Nikon Imaging will be smaller, leaner, and probably faster, but it isn't headed out the door.

You Requested This

I've updated the lens ratings table on the header page to the Lens Review section. Lenses for which I'm currently working on reviews—e.g., the 50mm f/1.2 S or 14-24mm f/2.8—will now be given preliminary ratings based upon my early testing. 

It's possible that those early ratings might change a bit as I get more field use of the lenses still being tested. But as the first thing I do with a lens is run through test charts and a few specific scene evaluations, I'm reasonably comfortable that a lens is performing as I've rated it. In some cases, I have to borrow or rent a lens for brief periods—e.g., the very expensive NOCT—and I won't publish my review of such a lens until I've had enough additional experience with it to be sure I'm not missing something. Thus, offering early ratings gives you a peek into what I'm thinking.

On a rare occasion, a lens will exhibit an issue in extended field use that I didn't see in the more lab-type testing. For instance, I once discovered an odd flare pattern that could be triggered with one lens, but it took thousands of images before I encountered that issue. 

More Firmware Updates

The Z6 and Z7 have been updated to version 3.20 firmware while the site was inactive for Christmas. These updates fix some known bugs and add some video capability:

  • Video — Blackmagic Design Video Assist recorders are now supported, along with Blackmagic Design's raw format. RAW shooters can now get proper ISO adjustment in Final Cut Pro. Note that raw video capability is a fee-for-service upgrade. Your camera must first be modified by Nikon before these functions will be available.
  • Fixes — Exposure indicator now appears with non-CPU lenses, rotation of the focus/control ring now works properly for all Nikkor lenses, all aperture values can be selected with control rings when shooting video, some unexpected aperture values during bracketing have been fixed, and power aperture controls now work after standby.

Site Inactive Until 2021

byThom, and thus, is officially closed until January 2, 2021. That means no new updates for this site until then.

Don't worry, I haven't stopped writing, organizing, editing, or testing. I'm just taking two weeks off from posting while I work on other things that need to get done.

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

Looking for other photographic information? Check out our other Web sites:
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