What Cameras Are There Room For?

Product lines are always malleable things that tend to shape shift over time. Sometimes that's because the producing company doesn't quite get their targeting right, sometimes the anomalies are due to availability of the right components, sometimes it's just short-term (easy pickings) targeting to grab a few extra sales. Nikon's been guilty of all three at times in the past.

The current Z System camera lineup is not particularly well rationalized. Consider:

  • Z50 vs. Zfc — Basically the same camera with different UI, and without a lot of price differentiation. Perhaps that picks up a few extra sales at the US$900-1000 price point, but I'll bet that a truly differentiated DX camera would have picked up more. 
  • Z5 vs. Z6 — Keeping the original Z6 in the lineup tends to hurt the Z5 sales. US$1300 (Z5 current price) versus US$1600 (Z6 current price) really isn't a lot of pricing difference for some clear performance and feature benefits. But without the Z6 in the lineup, the price differential from the Z5 to the Z6 II at US$2000 would tend to be too high to generate any up sells. This is one of the areas where things get really tricky. Leaving older cameras in the lineup—Sony's leaving three generations in their lineup—does help dealers in trying to extract the most money from customers walking in the door. The one-on-one up sell is the go-to tactic of good sales people.
  • Z7 vs Z7 II — Again we have a pricing gap (US$400), though this time it doesn't really support a decision one direction or the other. For the more likely users of this camera level—the Z7 models are not the all-around equivalent of a D850, they do far less well on motion subjects—I think I'd just opt for the extra dollars in my pocket over the bigger buffer and added focus modes/performance. 

Then we have the gap to the Z9. Nikon has a lot of features and performance they now need to roll downward in the lineup. But they don't want to do that too aggressively lest they just move Z9 sales to Z7 III (or Z8) sales. Moreover, we have some image sensor issues. Nikon's stuck on 20mp DX, and 24mp and 45mp FX, and has been for going on five years or so, which is a lifetime in the ever-moving technology businesses. 

So what cameras does Nikon have room for?

My first answer comes in that stuck image sensor statement: Nikon quite obviously has an opportunity in 24-32mp DX, and in 60-100mp FX. Assuming we keep all the current models, a 26mp Z70 and an 80mp Z8 actually would broaden the product line nicely without competing with the other models. Push the stacked sensor idea down to the Z6 III while keeping that body lagging the Z9 in some meaningful ways, and then add the EXPEED7 processor to the Z7 III and build in something like pixel shift shooting, and you've got a modern, well-rounded product line. 

Will Nikon do that?

No.

So I need a second answer ;~).

The fear a lot of us have is this: Nikon will in the near term (1) modestly iterate the Z50 so that it narrowly is better than the Zfc; (2) just push EXPEED7 into the Z6 III and Z7 III, which will improve buffer and focus performance some, but not really address everything that needs to be addressed; (3) use the Z5 underpinnings to come up with a Zf instead of a Z5 II (the Z50->Zfc cycle all over again); (4) not build any additional pro-level body (e.g. Z8 in any form); and (5) despite everything they've said that contraindicates it, launch a Z30. To me, that type of development would continue to leave the Z System product line not very well rationalized. 

Thus, I need a third answer ;~).

The most likely answer is a hybrid of my two previous answers. The lineup becomes:

  • 20mp Zfc DX
  • 26m+ Z50 II DX (or possibly 26mp+ Z70)
  • 24mp Z5 and Zf FX
  • 24mp+ EXPEED7 Z6 III
  • 45mp EXPEED7 Z7 III
  • 45mp Z9

If the above lineup turns out to be the near term answer, it means Nikon is not being particularly aggressive. Truly aggressive would be:

  • A full, competitive DX line starting with the Zfc at the bottom, multiple cameras above it, and with many more DX lenses
  • Z6 III and Z7 III updates that bring the stacked sensor design down to them with all the benefits shown in the Z9
  • A 100mp Z8 in a pro-caliber body, and centered on studio and high resolution work
  • A video-only camera, and Nikon's first video-oriented Z Nikkors

Here are the problem spots for Nikon:

  • In DX (APS-C), Canon and Fujifilm are pushing higher specified products than Nikon, and more likely to pull over the remaining DSLR APS-C users.
  • In DX (APS-C), Sony is pushing the vlogging/video side aggressively, opening a new category in which Nikon doesn't really play.
  • Nikon DX starts at basically US$900 for a body, US$1000 for a kit. Competitors have lower-priced options.
  • In FX (full frame), Sony is ahead in high pixel count and Canon is also rumored to be entering with 100mp soon. Nikon has no answer.
  • In video, Canon and Sony have dedicated product lines using their mirrorless lens mount, and lenses to support those cameras.

However, playing devil's advocate, one could say that Nikon's 700k unit volume is actually relatively modest, and doesn't need a broad, deep product line. The right Z70, Z6 III, Z7 III, Z8, and Z9 should be able to accomplish most of such a volume and meet Nikon's only pro/hobbyist goal. Nikon still has a huge DSLR base from which to draw new mirrorless users over time, so getting a few cameras "right" could be construed as a better option than filling out the product line and rationalizing it more.

To answer the question in the headline, then, there's a split verdict: (a) Nikon doesn't need to add much in the way of models (a Z70 is a Z50 repositioning, and a Z8 is the sole new model); or (b) there's clearly room for at least four new models if Nikon really wants to go broad (Z70, Zf, Z8, video). This, of course, is not what the long-term rumors have suggested. Those rumors say the next Z camera will be a Z30. 

With EXPEED7 now in the bag and obviously able to perform at state-of-the-art levels out through 8K/60P, I'd say that image sensors are the real decider for what Nikon shows us next, and how the product line evolves. The problem with that, of course, is that every sensor fab in the world is basically at or over capacity at the moment, so launching new sensors in new products has taken the entire industry longer than they thought it would. 

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