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.

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