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.  

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