How Full Will the Nikon Z Lineup Get?

While you sit waiting for any significant Nikon camera announcement—no, DX quadruplets wouldn’t count—you start looking at the noise and try to discern if there’s a signal there. That, of course, can produce a lot of false positives.

I get emails all the time about “future Nikon Z products.” Some are (1) clearly made up, some are (2) hopeful thinking, some are (3) educated guesses, and a few come from (4) informed sources that have been proven right in the past. One thing that is interesting in evaluating all those emails is that there seems to be more standard deviation (range) than I’m used to seeing. Even in #4. 

Back in the mid-DSLR days, for instance, email from #1, #2, and #3 sources didn’t tend to step far from what would be common expectations. For instance, image sensors over the entire lineup sort of went from 6mp to 10mp to 12mp to 16mp to 24mp, or some similar pattern. The top cameras moved first, the lower cameras moved second. Those first three types of “sources” would all tend to mostly send me messages saying “the next version will be x-more pixels.” 

While some of that pixel pushing is still happening in the overall market, there seems to be a bit less urgency in the camera makers to just up the pixel count and more urgency to make cameras better in some different way. Just in the Nikon DSLR to mirrorless transition, for instance, we moved to sensor-based VR, started to lose the mechanical shutter, and have a stronger emphasis on higher-end video capabilities. 

The Z9 is an even more emphatic statement from Nikon in that respect than the original Z6 and Z7 were. While at some level you find similarities (mount, sensor-VR, etc.), in retrospect the Z6/Z7 now seem to be more of a transition statement while the Z9 seems to be more of a “this is what Z is about” statement. Obviously, for a new line you have to start somewhere, and the Z6/Z7 designs were mostly melding the full frame DSLR bits with what you could do with a new mount and no mirror. That the Z6/Z7 basically used the old Nikon 1 autofocus techniques as their starting point was another example of melding rather than pioneering. 

Meanwhile, the Z9 was indeed a series of new statements on the part of Nikon. No shutter. Real-time EVF. Sophisticated new AF. Raw video. New file formats. New orientation abilities. Add in the best remaining DSLR bits, plus take the good parts of the transition models and refine those. One thing you can say about the Z9 is that they didn’t throw away anything from the DSLRs and early Z’s that is useful and expected, but simply added some new technology statements and abilities. 

The question everyone has been asking since the Z9 first appeared is “how will that flow down into the rest of the lineup?” Nikon themselves have said it will, several times over the course of the past year. But how?

I think that’s part of the reason why I keep getting a wide range of “future products” being sent to me via email. The overall gamut of possibilities is huge, and we can all come up with “missing” products as well as guess at how an existing product might take on one or more of the Z9/more pixels ideas, and even perhaps add new ones. 

Before going further, let me say something out loud. I don’t think we’re going to see identical twins at the top again. If you look back, you’ll see that Nikon basically began the DSLR era with identical twins (D1h, D1x), reworked them (D2h, D2x), and then reworked them again (D3, D3x). Same exact body, different image sensor, basically. What happened next was a move toward related siblings instead: the D4 and D800 were followed by the D5 and D850 pairing. 

I believe that this sibling approach will be continued. As in Z9 and Z8 being a big grip speed camera paired with a high pixel count small grip camera. It avoids the D3/D700 problem where one camera took sales from another. The split sibling strategy has been working well for Nikon for a bit over a decade now. That strategy even partly mimics the pre-DSLR era successes (e.g. N90 and F4, F100 and F5). Nikon isn’t afraid to do something new, but it also looks very closely at what’s worked in the past. 

Where I’m still somewhat confused about what Nikon’s lineup may turn to next is in everything else. The DX triplets haven’t helped any of us figure out what DX might eventually be like. The Z5/Z6/Z7 triplets were more transition cameras that now need a lot of refresh, and which could absolutely go different ways (different tech deployment at different levels, as well as different customer targets). 

My confusion is added to by the fact that my #4 type sources have written to me about more than a dozen different new bodies. Some just penciled in, some prototyped, some that became mules, some that are starting to appear in the wild as pre-production.  Still, more than a dozen is significantly more new bodies than Nikon will actually introduce. 

So let’s talk about that a bit. At the top of every page on this site you see the current seven basic Z-mount bodies. How many more different bodies—as opposed to II and III updates—will be added? Answer that question successfully and you’ll know what the future Z lineup will look like.

DX, of course, is a huge question mark in terms of new units. Nikon’s taken the same guts and put it in three different claddings (Z30, Z50, and Zfc). All have been modestly successful, but Canon and Fujifilm are now putting huge pressure on DX with their latest APS-C models, and I doubt Sony will sit still much longer in APS-C. It’s easy enough to see that the DX lineup should be expanded by two models (Z70, Z90), but the question is whether Nikon sees it that way or not. The real problem here is image sensor. 20mp APS-C is now decidedly behind the times, no matter how well it performs. Canon is at 24/32mp, Fujifilm at 26/40mp. Nikon has to make a significant sensor move of some sort, or be satisfied with declining pickings at the bottom of the crop-sensor market. 

What I’ve been trying to get any details on is what APS-C sensor Nikon has decided upon for their future forays. Beyond the obvious Sony-derived options, I’ve identified two new possibilities (#4 emails received have suggested another). The problem is that a new DX sensor decision would be one of Nikon’s most closely held secrets, despite the fact that it will involve a third party (fab) and has to be made long before you can release a product to manufacturing. It’s unlikely that we’ll get much of an early read, if any, on any new Nikon sensor choice, and sensor choice will truly dictate what happens next in DX. 

Meanwhile, full frame doesn’t appear to have any real “gap” in its lineup, though the recent market emphasis on vlogging/creator cameras would open room for a Z3 model. Unfortunately, once again sensor choice rears its head in trying to predict future models. Some of the Z9 technologies require either the Z9 sensor or a new sensor (one that doesn’t currently exist). Other of the Z9 technologies would still need a faster readout speed on the image sensor itself, something that can probably be managed by iterating existing sensors. 

Trying to cobble together what Nikon’s future Z System lineup will look like from lots of secrecy and a widely divergent set of input is an impossible task. One where I’ll have to make a hypothesis instead of a prediction or specific leak. For example, I’m pretty sure one inside source is trying to see if I’ll publish a particular bit of information, but I’m not sure why he wants it leaked. It could be a test, it could be just an accurate pass along. But without at least a second clear verification, I’ll stay quiet. 

Nikon’s current camera lineup is seven models, three DX (Z30, Z50, Zfc) and four FX (Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II, Z9). Three of those seven models tend to undercut near direct competitors in price (Z5, Z6 II, Z9), a clear strategy to build volume in a transition. I’m not sure that will still be used in the coming model offerings. Both Canon and Sony have priced higher, and a Z6 III, for example, done right would be the new kid on the block and could be priced alongside competitors instead of lower. Nikon is not forecasting volume growth, but clearly is looking for sales and profit growth from the group, so I believe that we’re looking mostly at expansion above the current models, and that the overall one will see some pricing adjustments.

Thus, my first hypothesis is that in that header at the top of the page I will within eighteen months or so need space for five DX (Z30, Z50 II, Z70, Z90, Zfc) and six FX cameras (Z3, Z5 II, Z6 III, Z7 III, Z8, Z9). Total=11. 

But I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: from my best sources I’ve been hearing about far more models being considered than those 11 I just listed. The operative word is “considering." It’s possible that while waiting for parts shortages, travel, and economic issues to all settle out that Nikon has been using the time to consider more options than usual and figure out what they really feel the best combination is for producing higher sales and profits. I hope so, because even 11 models would be a lot to market and sell efficiently, and getting the lineup dead on right is going to be critical to its overall success.

It’s at this point I’ll share something a Nikon executive told me recently: “you’re going to be very busy soon."

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