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.

Looking for other photographic information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | general/technique: bythom.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

text and images © 2021 Thom Hogan — All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #zsystemuser