The New State of Z Mirrorless

It's been a while since I've done a full "camera line" summation, a short summary of how I believe things line up in the Z System. With recent introductions of the Zf and Z6 III, it's time for a re-do.

State of DX

The state of DX bodies has remained flat-lined for two years now, ever since the June 2022 release of the Z50 II without a viewfinder, aka the Z30. We did get two lenses almost a year later (27mm f/1.7 and 12-28mm f/3.5-5.6 PZ VR), however for the last year it's been crickets chirping. 

It's unclear if this is a deliberate walk away from the DX idea, or just a temporary lull. Other than on-going Fujifilm releases and a brief spurt from Canon, crop sensor APS-C has been mostly quiet across all vendors for some time now. I'm going to guess this is an image sensor problem. No, not the lack of a new sensor design, but rather the lack of enough new fab time.

Fujifilm is easy to understand in this respect: they've opted to put most of their on-fab time into APS-C. You get almost three times as many APS-C sensors out of a 12" wafer as you do full frame ones. So if you've booked a fixed amount of fab time (highly likely given the current situation) you can produce about three times as many APS-C sensors as full frame ones. Only Fujifilm would really want to do that. 

Nikon likely creates the current 20mp DX image sensor in sporadic batches and then uses the rest of their fab time concentrating on full frame sensor production, much of which is completely new (which requires fab testing time, as well). That DX sensor is now eight years old, which also suggests that Nikon hasn't fiddled with anything truly new in DX for quite some time. That doesn't mean they won't, but the longer we see no changes, the more likely it is that DX is being written off by Nikon. As I've long written, I consider that to be both a strategic and tactical mistake on Nikon's part.

State of FX

The product line currently runs Z5, Zf, Z6 III, Z7 II, Z8, and Z9, in that order of sophistication and performance. Price-wise, it looks like this:

Prices as of June 17, 2024. Discounts come and go.

That's pretty close to the old 1.4x pricing progression Nikon has used for quite some time. The Z7 II now sticks out in that progression because it's in its near-retirement time and thus being highly discounted. 

As Nikon promised, the Z9 technology from 2021 is being brought down the line: Z8 and Zf in 2023, Z6 III in 2024. All are EXPEED7, and the Z6 III, Z8, and Z9 are new image sensors (I don't see any change in the Zf's older image sensor). What's left on Nikon's FX plate is to bring EXPEED7 to the Z5 and Z7 models, and perhaps create a videocentric camera, as well. Given how long Nikon kept the D600/610 unchanged in the lineup, I think it unlikely that the Z5 will get a refresh any time soon, which would seem to indicate that the Z7 pricing position would be next for Z9 trickle-down. Note that I don't take a Z7 III model as a given, but something in that pricing space is highly likely sooner rather than later.  

So where are we with the models?

  • Z5 — An entry model that is still quite competitive, particularly given the price point it normally sells at. It just clicks on.
  • Zf — This is a very clear step up into a more sophisticated camera, but it's not a customization or remembered settings beast. The design is more for occasional, casual use. 
  • Z6 III — The workhorse of the lineup, partly because it's at about the top of the "inexpensive enough for most to buy" range. The pixel-shift feature adequately covers landscape use, the pre-release capture adequately covers the wildlife/sports use. So you can also think of it as a well-rounded camera. 
  • Z7 II — Heavy discounting tells you that Nikon knows that this model isn't holding the old price position any more. The Z6 III and Z8 effectively make it difficult to squeeze something in between, so I believe any new offering at this price point will have to be a clear "new offering." As in a clear design or content change of some sort.
  • Z8 — The current heavy-hitter in the Z lineup. By that I mean it's the most common choice for those looking for a top-end camera, both in performance and features. 
  • Z9 — Pops has squired plenty of progeny now. If you need the build toughness, big battery, GPS, and a few other minor additions of this model over the Z8, it remains the alpha. Firmware updates have kept the Z9 fresh, but I think we're nearing the end of those and the beginning of what's next. 

The Future of Z

Nikon, as well as the other camera makers, is in a tricky space now. Think of it this way: if you were to buy a Zf, Z6 III, Z8, or Z9 today, exactly what would provoke you to update those cameras some day? And how far in the future do you think that'd be? Looking back the other direction I still see quite a few of the D3, D4, D5, D6, D300, D500, D750, D8xx, and even many in the D90 to D7500 crowd still gainfully using their old DSLR. If the current Z lineup isn't pulling them forward into mirrorless, there's the strong chance for a volume "stall" to happen. This is one reason why I write that the US$1000-2000 DX range is critical for Nikon to address.

Sure, the gearophiles will continue to buy top level FX gear because they need bragging rights in having the latest and greatest. But these folk are not the bulk of the market. I still wonder if the overall market can sustain a 6m+ unit volume of interchangeable lens cameras each year. The current volume gains feel weak, and it wouldn't take much of an external shock—for example, an economic recession—to put sales in serious decline again. 

Nikon really only has two unique things that they can throw at the future: legacy and dramatic new engineering. They're leaning a lot on the legacy crutch at the moment (Zf and Zfc), and they no longer have the unit volume to justify R&D reinventing camera tech every year. That's one reason why they purchased RED: it gives them more space to work with that pays (and paves) the way with some new R&D. Bringing RED over to the Z-mount also will sustain the lens side of Nikon, too. 

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