Nikon Announces the Zf

Zf 26 2

The News

Today Nikon introduced the Zf, the latest body for the Z System lineup. The big bullet point is that this is a completely new camera to the lineup, not an update, and it's a retro-design camera, to boot. 

Similar to the Df (and later, Zfc), the Zf is an ode to Nikon’s earlier film SLR body designs, ones where the primary controls were marked dials, not buttons. The Zf sports lockable dials for shutter speed and ISO, plus one for exposure compensation. The kicker? Z-mount lenses don’t have aperture rings, which sort of spoils the full retro idea. Yes, you can set apertures via a control ring on most lenses, but that’s a loose, freewheeling ring, and is not click-stopped or marked with aperture. 

This brings up one of the issues that Nikon (and also Fujifilm) have been grappling with in putting out retro design cameras: dials-only is a slow way of working and doesn’t fully tie into the speeds of the electronics in their ability to make instantaneous changes. Many who like dials-only cameras are changing settings while not looking through the viewfinder, which caused Nikon to add a small LCD on the top panel of the Zf to display aperture (ala the Zfc). 

When the Df came out Nikon produced marketing materials that talked about slowing down while photographing, and "truly enjoy[ing] the experience of taking amazing images." Nikon also used the term "pure photography" when describing the Df. However, when the Zfc was introduced, Nikon marketed much less about the traditional dials interface, and much more about the style of the camera, which was said to reflect the look of the classic FM and FE film SLRs. 

With the Zf, Nikon talks about “high performance and iconic looks.” On paper as a generalization, that sounds great. In practice, I’m not convinced that the iconic doesn’t get in the way of the performance. 

Nikon is pretty much taking the retro thing to the limit with their cameras: the Zf, like the Df and Zfc, has no large right-hand grip area (instead, it has a slight bump on the front edge of the camera, probably in recognition of a common Zfc complaint). The lack of large hand grip makes the camera look less like a DSLR and more like a film camera, but this has ergonomic consequences that both Nikon and Df/Zfc buyers seemed to be willing to ignore. (Or, more accurately, the ones that didn't like the lack of hand grip bought an accessory that added one.)

While the Df DSLR omitted video, the Zfc and now the Zf include it. Of course, that adds another anomaly for retro-style cameras: digital video wasn’t around when the models these cameras are supposed to emulate existed. So, with the Zf we get the usual lever that switches us between stills and video modes, but now that lever also has a B&W position (eek; is that B&W still, or B&W video? ;~). Moreover, we get a fully articulating Rear LCD, which is not retro in any way (real SLRs didn’t have a display ;~). Fortunately, the Zf has Nikon's full touch capability on the display, but that means the dials probably aren't being used much in vlogging position ;~). (Pardon me a moment, my tongue keeps getting caught in my cheek.)

Curiously, the back of the Zf has a different arrangement of buttons compared to both the Z6/Z7 style and Z8/Z9 style. Upper left is playback and delete (Z6/Z7 style). Lower right is the two zoom buttons, DISP, and MENU, which is the Zfc style. Meanwhile, we also get the Z30/Z50/Zfc AE-AL button instead of an AF-ON button. (Wait, if you're using dials, implying manual exposure, why do you need an AE-AL button again? Because the user isn't using the dials and in some automatic mode, that's why. This is the kind of convoluted thinking that the legacy designers keep getting themselves into.) I'm sorry, but whoever is in charge of distributing buttons needs to get on some meds, because they're out of control. 

Another surprise is that the image sensor used in the Zf is the 24mp image sensor that is in the Z6 II. Fortunately, it's backed by sensor-based VR and EXPEED7, which a number of folk were questioning would happen when the rumors about the Zf first came to light.

One interesting aspect of the legacy/retro design of the Zf is how well it links up to the Cosina lenses (Voigtlander). Not only are those lenses chipped, but they also fit the retro styling cues well. At present, we have 15mm f/4.5, 35mm f/2, 40mm f/1.2, 50mm f/1.0, 50mm f/2, 65mm f/2 macro. I’ve just reviewed two of those lenses; I'd say that these lenses line up very well with the slow, manual-oriented user.

You can buy the Zf in three ways: body only is US$2000, body+40mm f/2 (SE) is US$2240, body+24-70mm f/4 is US$2600. Nikon says the camera will be available in mid October.

Thom’s Commentary

The overdue Z6 III seems to have become a Zf, at least temporarily. In the process it lost things and gained others, someone decided the DX button choices were correct, and this produced a new camera. Oddly, this now gives Nikon three 24mp FX cameras to go along with their three 45mp FX and three 20mp DX cameras. This trio thing seems to be by design, but why? Is producing three models actually generating more sales than two? Apparently Nikon seems to think so.

One of the things that many have pondered since the arrival of the Z8 (and some of us before ;~) has been where does a Z6 III fit in? Technically, yes you could stick a 24mp stacked image sensor and EXPEED7 processor in a Z6 body, but what does that do to the lineup? You get a camera that performs like a Z8, but with fewer pixels and some body compromises. In essence, you'd likely cut down sales on the recent Z8 by producing everyone's "expected" Z6 III. Thus, there was incentive on Nikon's part not to put out a true Z6 III too quickly. 

Yet the Zf is, in essence, a bit of a Z6 III. It has EXPEED7 and the new Z9 autofocus system. 14 fps full performance, with 30 fps pre-release capture JPEGs was added. Focus performance now extends down to -10EV (but that’s with an f/1.2 lens). Focus position can be managed by your thumb on the rear LCD. It has an improved VR system that tracks stabilization to the focus point, not the center of the frame. It has a 4, 8, 16, or 32-image pixel shift capability (produces 96mp max). It adds HEIF support. The Zf even features 10-bit internal video recording. Had Nikon just stuck all the “new stuff” into the Z6 body, I’m pretty sure everyone would be happy. Not excited excited, but happy. 

It’s as if Nikon thought that to get the user base to that excited excited level, all it might take is a some colored bodies with dials on it. 

I wrote earlier this year about the camera companies each trying to find a “lane” that they owned, something that made at least some of their offerings unique. For example, with Sony lately, that’s been “let’s flip the still/video emphasis to video/still.” I suspect that Nikon thinks that the Df/Zfc/Zf thing amounts to a unique lane, particularly as many of the Nikon installed customer base are there because of “legacy” ties. 

Some argue that Fujifilm took the “dials camera” baton from Nikon and that made Fujifilm successful. However, notice that Fujifilm has had to make many of their recent cameras (X-H2, X-H2s, and X-S20) into more “dials+button” cameras for a reason, and the line of truly legacy style cameras at Fujifilm has now dwindled with discontinuations of several models. Even so, in full frame, the Zf will be unique. Canon, Panasonic, and Sony won’t be able to claim they have a product in a similar lane. 

So, yes, in at least one sense a Zf seems somewhat logical. 

But is it? The first thing that struck me about the Zf is this: why would you limit a camera by handcuffing the UX when it has so much to offer in terms of sophistication and performance?

As you’re probably well aware, I’m not a fan of the Df or the Zfc. And here we have a third variant, the Zf. The older legacy dials-style body design has a ton of conflicts with the long-used Giugiaro-designed button+dial style. Dials start to lie to you (or do nothing) in pragmatic use, which means that they become useless in controlling the camera. So we end up with both dials-style and button+dial style in the same body, yet the number of buttons on the camera are fewer. The Df, of course, ignored video, but you can’t do that with a current model, so now we have dials that will really lie to you if you start doing video work in certain modes, and we end up with an articulating Rear LCD, as well, which is very modern selfie/vloggy in nature (e.g. opposite of a legacy thing). 

Of course, I’m writing this without having actually used the new model yet, so maybe there are handling surprises awaiting me that will make me temper my criticisms this time. However, to me, Nikon’s UX has become too sprawling and unorganized with the Z8/Z9, and I don’t see how adding some dials and taking away some buttons is going to help that in any way. 

And yet, no one can deny that the Df and Zfc sold a reasonable number of units profitably for Nikon. I run into users who, like Goto-san (the Df was his development baby), gush about these legacy cameras and talk about them with great fondness (shouldn’t they be talking about their photos with great fondness? ;~). More importantly, the retro thing (e.g. Fujifilm X100V, Nikon Zfc) somehow seems to have resonated with millennial influencers, and it’s important for Nikon to develop the next generation of customers for their products (though with a somewhat flawed frankenkamera design?). 

Personally, the Zf doesn't interest me (yes, that was predictable, given my previous objections to the Df and Zfc; see note below). I suspect the Zf will be another love/hate camera to me, much like the Df was. That's certainly been true of some reactions from others to all the rumor leaks prior to the Zf announcement, too.

The Zf is un-ergonomic in too many ways for me, unfortunately. The legacy things seem more in contradiction with the modern things more than ever. Style-wise, I find the Zf a bit of an ugly duckling (even the Nikon name on the front plate squares up and introduces essentially a fourth font to the markings). However, I'm also sure that a number of you think otherwise. Thus, I'm also sure Nikon will sell a fair number of Zfs in the initial offering period, partly because it's also the only sub-US$4000 full frame camera introduced by Nikon in the last three years, and in many ways it's effectively a Z6 III. But I also expect that initial demand to cool rapidly, as it did with the Zfc. (The Zfc still seems to be popular in Asia, though.)

But Nikon is also marketing against a clear "not for me" contingent that doesn't want the new features/abilities in a retro-style body, but rather a modern style body. Do I think it's a coincidence that the Zf shows up before the Z6 III? No. I'd bet that Nikon is thinking that Zf before Z6 III produces more sales than Z6 III before Zf. 

Every time I've written about the Df or Zfc (and probably now the Zf), I get pushback on my pushback. That's fine. Some of you are one with the dials, and think the retro style is fine. You're 100% entitled to that view. However, I'm a working photographer, and I'm not going to try to temper my view on retro-style cameras to mollify those that like them. You know who you are, and you'll dismiss my thinking just as fast as I'm dismissing yours. 

What strikes me in many of the messages I get on this subject though is that there's a lot of defensiveness on the part of the person who wants to argue against my position. They seem to feel they have to defend their decision, but then they never really get around to much more than a "Mikey likes it" type of argument. That too is fine, but it doesn't warrant trying to debate me about it; just liking something is not debatable without substantive arguments posed in support. 

Open debate about how a camera should operate and how we interact with it is good. Yes, I have a strong opinion and I believe I've been consistent in providing reasons for that. I'm willing to listen to reasoned arguments of others, but generally I've not been getting them from the retro-design aficionados. Basically, their strongest argument to date has been "I like it and it makes photography fun for me." If so, buy the Zfc or Zf, I have no problems with that. If you're going to spend US$2000 on something, you probably should get warm, fuzzy feelings from it. 

However, the first Zf user that sends me an email asking how to do sophisticated Hybrid Button AF on it at maximum frame rate is likely to get a bit of a rant back from me. It's not really designed for that type of photography.  

Speculation will now turn back to two future Z system lineup additions: the Z6 III and 61mp+. It seems clear to me that a 33mp Z6 III with many of the Z9 and Zf hand-me-downs would play very well. The issue for Nikon is that it has to live in the quasi-do-everything realm of the Sony A7 Mark IV and Canon R6 Mark II and come in at the US$2500 mark. Nikon's autofocus intelligence needs to fully catch up this iteration at this price point (which it should). But in doing so, it has to not also undercut the Z8. Note that US$2500 price mark, by the way. With the Zf sitting at US$2000, any Z6 III is likely to move up the pricing ladder. 

That higher price point is a tricky, but very important space. 33mp with EXPEED7 would do it, but I’d like Nikon to push the envelope a little more this time. Particularly given that we’re no longer on two-year iteration cycles with the Z6. What’s the “special sauce” of a Z6 III versus the Canon and Sony offerings? And how will that sustain over another three-year iteration period?

Which brings us to a puzzling bit: Nikon once took the megapixel lead and iterated on it to stay there (that started with the D3X and continued through the D850). If rumors are correct, Nikon will be last to greater than 45mp, though. It seems, by default now, that the Z7 III would have to be the camera to do that (one could also argue a D8x, I suppose). More pixels, but what else? That’s the question no one can answer (other than some in Nikon, and I’m not sure they’ve agreed yet on their answer). A higher number of pixels also seems to require the higher level of UX. E.g., Z8 level controls, not Z7 level.

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