So What Do I Really Think of the Z System?

Believe it or not, today is the third anniversary of the Z6 and Z7 launch announcement. It's a good time to take make a solid assessment of where we're at and how Nikon has done so far.

  1. Being last was exacerbated by the pandemic. Unfortunately, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Nikon product development has slowed down, not sped up. I can't really blame this on management, as it's an unfortunate consequence of a combination of factors that all conspired to take any early momentum away from the Z System. Coupled with the fact that Nikon (along with Canon) was five years later to full frame mirrorless than Sony, that apparent slowness is still producing less-than-optimal results for Nikon. I was encouraged by Nikon's early acknowledgement of things they needed to fix/improve on the original cameras with the early firmware updates and subsequent II models. But by all appearances, the pandemic mostly ground any further progress to a halt (the Z9 will eventually show us that some urgent work continued). 
  2. No, Nikon's autofocus isn't terrible. It does take adjustment and learning to master, but I find it highly useable, with these specific quibbles: (1) the absence of AF-ON+Area mode customization; (2) the focus sensor position in the automatic modes has a bit of a visual lag to reality; (3) no clear acknowledgement of focus achieved in AF-C; (4) Continuous H (extended) is unusable with autofocus of moving subjects due to the slide show lag; and (5) Closest subject priority is no longer guaranteed, only taken under consideration. None of those are deal breakers, but all make the Z System less capable than it could be. The Nikon faithful are going to need the Z9 to fix all of these, then see that passed down into the other models.
  3. Nikon's priorities are wonky. Numerous executives and top management ran around saying that they wanted to cater to the high-end enthusiast and professional market, then we see them launch a Zfc with statements that it is a "casual" camera with much of the marketing targeted at millennial influencers looking for style, not need. Priority #1: get more lenses out. Priority #2: more of the customer-demanded fixes that defined the II models, and across all existing models. Priority #3: make sure the Z9 is a winner and defines Nikon's full ability with camera technology. Priority #4: fill the true enthusiast gaps (Z90, FTZ for screw mount/AI, upscale the Z7 II some more, get the accessories situation under control). Priority #5: grow the user base. It seems Nikon keeps thinking #5 is their top priority (happened with DSLRs, too, so it's systemic). The overriding priority to all these priorities should be "keep current customers and give them things they want to buy." Yeah, that's not going as well as it could. Update: some people are misinterpreting what I mean by "current customers." I don't mean people who've bought Z's, but am referring to the large number of folk who are vested in any Nikon mount, but particularly the F-mount.
  4. The S lenses have been superb, the rest less so. While I was updating my review rating table I was struck by: 12 S lenses, all of which I recommend in some way (conditional to yes to highly). 5 non-S lenses, with the two DX ones being the only ones I recommend. The f/2.8 zoom trio is the best trio of fast zooms I've seen from anyone (and they're all S), but I'd argue that we don't really have the camera yet that is going to make them sing. The Z7 II comes close, but note my focus quibbles (#2). Update: I should have added this: my point is not that we don't need/want lower specification lenses, but that Nikon so far has put too much priority on trying to top themselves and others with S lenses, and while that has produced some excellent lenses, it isn't filling the line fast enough. And when they have turned to non-S lenses, some seem odd choices other than perhaps the DX lenses and the 24-200mm. 
  5. D500 and D850 users, in particular, are reluctant to transition to mirrorless. Can't blame them, as those are cameras that still aren't matched by almost anything, mirrorless or DSLR. Nikon hasn't given those users better cameras, only a different camera in the case of the Z7/Z7 II. My predilection as someone who's run multiple product management organizations is that I'd cater to this group both ways: make a better replacement DSLR for them, and make an equivalent alternative mirrorless for them. It's particularly important for Nikon not to lose these customers (and the D5/D6 customer, as well, but I assume the Z9 will hold them). 
  6. The Z6 II is arguably the best 24mp mirrorless full frame camera you can buy right now. Yes, better than the Sony A7 Mark III, even in video, though I expect Sony to soon up their game with the Mark IV and leapfrog ahead again. While the 14-30mm f/4 and 24-70mm f/4 lenses slot in perfectly with this camera, what does the Z6 II user do for 70mm+? When I wrote that Nikon's priorities were wonky, I meant it. The customer's priorities should determine the product line, and woefully missing is any kind of telephoto lens that isn't the expensive 70-200mm f/2.8 S. I don't care what it is, 70-200mm f/4, 70-300mm f/4-5.6, 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3, or any other affordable telephoto zoom that might address this customer's needs, Nikon needed it yesterday and might deliver it next year. Might. Did the word "system" ever come up in product management meetings? ;~)
  7. The Z50 and Z5 may be the most underrated mirrorless cameras you'll encounter. Indeed, the Z50 with two lens kit or the Z5 with the 24-200mm lens are excellent travel choices, and arguably the best of the bunch for those on a budget. Small, competent, light, cover a lot of focal range well. Nikon has made them a bit like plain, black, government agency pool cars in their appeal, though. Nothing to get excited about. Almost unnoticeable among the other options. No marketing to speak of. Just a black blob of a body not particularly well documented by Nikon. Useful accessories and spare batteries (for the Z50)? Uh, yeah, I think there might be some, don't know if you can get them, but you can always put an order in and see what happens.
  8. The current total is essentially three body choices. (1) Z50/Zfc. (2) Z5/Z6/Z6 II. (3) Z7/Z7 II. Nikon's management seems to keep throwing darts at the same target segment (and not at the center bullseye, but maybe the 10 ring). Yes, the Z9 will add a fourth, but an unaffordable fourth choice for most. It's almost as if Nikon has forgotten how important the D100 was to the D1h/D1x, D300 to the D3, D500 to the D5. The missing Z70/Z90 type of camera is extraordinarily obvious to any observer (as are the requisite DX lenses that would be needed, buzz, buzz). The Z30/Z3 type of camera is also conspicuously missing, and yes, even if you're going to concentrate on the high-end enthusiast, you still need an entry point to your model line. I can't truly condemn Nikon on this point (#8) because of the first point (#1): I'm pretty sure Nikon would have moved faster and with more diversity of product had they not had their wings taken out from under them by pandemic disruption. Still, great organizations don't let great problems derail them. 

A lot of people forget that it took Sony quite some time to get their mirrorless lineup in order (the lineup started in 2010). Sony wandered around for several years with a variety of NEX models that had constantly changing UX, eventually introduced interesting but problematic full frame models that needed several iterations to hit stride, and is apparently now distracted by vlogging. It was really not until 2017-2018 that we had a nice array of reasonably specified cameras and enough lenses to call the Alpha a "full" system that strongly warranted your attention. 

So three years puts Nikon more at the 2016 equivalent of where Sony has been, and I'd argue that Nikon has done a better, more targeted approach that didn't flail around trying to find itself. The problem, of course, is that 2016 is five years ago. Nikon still has a lot more to do fully build out the Z System and make everything we want from them. Can they do that in two or three more years? I think they need to, but I'm not currently seeing the urgency to do so. In their defense, the pandemic has totally disrupted so many things that it's difficult for even the best companies to stay on the track they wanted to be on. 

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