More Thoughts on the Nikon Zf

The Zf is now hitting users’ hands, and a lot of questions are coming up again, just as they did with the Zfc. Many of these questions have to do with “ignoring the dials” and “customizing the camera."

Here’s my basic problem with the Zf design: if you don’t want to use the ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation dials, you don’t get a lot of benefit by skipping them. Setting those dials to C and 1/3 step lets you use the button+dial and Front/Rear Command dial approach to things, but the lack of other customizable buttons on the camera means that you still have a “slow working camera.” 

Nikon, of course, will point to the i button as a shortcut to the menus, but this is just a medium speed in setting things, not a fast working speed. Moreover, it can only point to 12 places in the menu (and one that isn't!). Have you counted how many places you might want to go? ;~)

Let me put things a different way. In the Z System, we have two highly configurable cameras: the Z8 and Z9. We have three somewhat crippled cameras in terms of configuring: the Z5, Z6 II, and Z7 II. And we have two cameras with highly limited customization: the Zf and Zfc. (The Z30 and Z50 sort of fall into a different group, as they’re catering to the entry level user, where complexity probably should be avoided.)

Many of you wrote me notes after my brief earlier post about the Zf announcement while I was offline. Those notes fell into basically two camps: (1) agree with Thom; or (2) the Df is not a camera for Thom, thus so what?

As I’ve been trying to point out for awhile now Nikon’s Z System camera lineup has some issues when comparing it to Canon or Sony. Instead of fixing those issues, Nikon has essentially made a camera that caters to a different audience. The “core” of Nikon’s lineup (Z5, Z6 II, and Z7 II) are now all over three years old, which is typically retirement age for digital cameras. Yes, these models are still around, but they're showing their age and can’t do things the younger crowd from the competition can. 

Instead of dealing with its aging core products, Nikon instead did a parts recycling to create what I would call a niche camera. Yes, there is an audience for such a camera, but it’s smaller in size than the core audience, and frankly, not particularly big here in the US (or Europe), thus the Zf appeal is regional as well as niche. My sense of the reaction to the Zf is that we have a modest sized group that loves it for its nicheness, but a larger group that is now in “what about me?” mode. Plus a few tweeners that will reluctantly accept the legacy approach because they want one of the new features buried in the menus.

If one accepts the theory that Sony’s shift from DSLR to mirrorless is what made them leap from a distant third to a strong second in the camera market, then comparing where Nikon is five years in versus where Sony was is interesting. I’d generally say that Sony was doing a better job of iterating its main cameras after five years of mirrorless than Nikon is, but Nikon is doing a better job with introducing lenses. Sony’s full-frame A7 models were already in their third generation and being supplemented (A9) at the five year mark, and their APS-C models were also complete and well iterated, as well. 

Of course Nikon is first and foremost an optics company. Virtually everything they do revolves in some way around lenses and manipulation of light. Thus, it’s not a surprise that they prioritized a complete lens lineup as quickly as possible. Still, five years in the middle of the camera lineup, where the Zf sits, feels soft and not having been given enough attention. It’s a bit as if the operative construct in Nikon R&D for the middle units is waiting for Mr. Goodsensor. 

Those of you who like the Zf for some reason—old school, fun, sexy,—shouldn’t be put off my critical commentary about it. I will state that the Zf is almost certainly not the camera for me, but it very well may be for some of you. If so, then buy it. If not, then don’t. That’s one of the benefits of capitalism: the consumers’ pocket book can change companies’ minds. Early dealer feedback here in the US says that Zf demand is modest, and mostly centered on the Zf+40mm kit. 

One reason why I worry about this is that there will be those that buy the Zf because it’s the only new thing in the lineup that doesn’t cost as much as a Z8 yet gives you some of the same benefits. Nikon could misread the signals and think that this is more than just mere tacit acceptance of a new model in lieu of waiting for the one they wanted. I personally don’t want Nikon spending even more time and effort on these legacy-style designs, as I believe it is ultimately a culdesac with a minimal short term upside, and those that buy the Zf "just because it's new" may feel bad if a "better" Z6 III comes out in six months. 

Then there's this: having just taken well over 10,000 images in three weeks with my two Z8’s, I can point to dozens of button+dial things that need to be added or improved on the Z8. In other words, the top end DSLR-derived design still has much more fleshing out that can be done to create an even better product. Especially at the Z5/Z6/Z7 level.

Ultimately, technology firms have to look forward, not backward. The Zf doesn’t look forward enough for me.


But you wanted some useful commentary ;~)

  • The Zf does not ship with a charger. Nikon's assumption is that you have a wall adapter that you can plug the supplied USB cable into to charge the battery in the camera. Only EN-EL15B and EN-EL15C batteries will charge in the camera. You'll probably want a dedicated charger, but don't buy Nikon's expensive versions, find one of the ubiquitous third-party USB chargers that abound on eBay and Amazon.
  • You need a UHS II Speed Class 3 card. If you want to record 4K video, you absolutely need this. Oh, and you want a card larger than 32GB to avoid your video being split into multiple files. Nikon's buffer figures (186 frames lossless compressed NEF) are achieved with this type of card (SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-II, to be exact). So if you think the Zf is a video or speed camera, consider yourself forewarned ;~).
  • The Zf is surprisingly loaded with "extra" features. Those dials speak of a simple camera, but the menus don't. I was surprised that things like IPTC data, voice memo, split-screen viewfinder, video waveforms, FTP support, Portrait Impression Balance and Skin Softening, Starlight view, series playback, and a host of other advanced features showed up. This makes the Zf a bit of a Trojan Horse: on the outside it looks all legacy and simple, but press the MENU button and be prepared for needing the 879-page reference manual. Add in things like pixel shift shooting, focus-based VR, and subject detection in manual focus, and you end up with quite a menagerie of features to learn and contend with (and set only by menu ;~).
  • It's not as ugly as the prototype I saw. I earlier described the Zf as an ugly duckling. I'll now take that back. The final product shaved off all those rough edges and fixed the fonts. I'm now the owner of an orange version, which actually looks pretty stylish. Of course, I've never tried to look stylish in my long life, and I don't think a Zf is going to fix that now, but still: it attracts attention and I like attention. Hmm. Maybe I should paint parts of my 400mm f/4.5 orange?
  • None of you seemed to notice when I added the Zf to the top header image on this site ;~). I guess that's because the black version doesn't call attention to itself as something different in the Z System lineup.

I'll have much more to say soon, as I start my thorough testing of the Zf.

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