What Does a Z7 III Need?

Continuing in my series of cameras that are due for updates and exactly what that update should be, we come to the Z7 III. 

The problems with the Z7 III are now multiple. 

The original Z7 was often referred to as a "mirrorless D850." That was mostly due to its being 45mp and around the US$3000 mark. Many assumed that this was Nikon just putting a D850 into mirrorless form. As most have come to realize, that wasn't true. 

First up was the more consumer interface (Mode dial, U# instead of banks, missing button customizations, and more). The lack of a true vertical grip for the original Z7 added to the "not a D850" problems. From the beginning, I had the Z7 model slotted below the D850. Eventually, most users came into agreement with me.

Unfortunately, the Z7 II didn't exactly push the body up to be a true mirrorless D850 replacement, either. In terms of useful changes, Nikon didn't make many. Sure, the buffer improved and the AF system got a thorough tweaking, but in terms of things still missing that a D850 user might want in mirrorless, most of those didn't show up. We did, however, get a vertical grip option that worked. So, a step forward but not a large step.

Meanwhile, competitors have been showing up with advantages that the D850-type user might want: higher frame rates, 8K video, more pixels, and pixel shifting, for example. 

Don't get me wrong. I still like and use my Z7 II, but it's been relegated to landscape and backup body status in my gear closet, and even at that I find myself looking at it askance wondering where the meat went.

All the crowd noise now asking for a Z8 doesn't help, either. It doesn't really matter whether a Z8 might someday appear with 45mp or 61mp+; the Z7 model now sits in a lonely place in the lineup without as many supporters as before, and things could end up worse if the right Z8 appears.

To me, the Z7 III is the most challenging of the camera updates Nikon has in front of them. Part of that is that they targeted so low in the prosumer range with the original and thus the Z7 never received the clear acclaim that the D850 did (the D850 sat at the top of the prosumer range, or perhaps at the bottom of the true pro range). Nikon needs to fix that, somehow. 

Here's my take.

  • Viewfinder The 3.69m dot viewfinder is okay, but every competitor is at 5.76m dot for their "high pixel count" body. Users want to see exactly what it is they're going to get. A higher frame rate would be nice, as would some other viewfinder touches. Peaking and Zebras simultaneously would be highly desired by folk trying to figure out precisely where focus and exposure is for their landscapes. The full Z9 gridline types and no slide show on action above 5.5 fps would trim that out. Thom's Choice: A Nikon smooth 5.76m dot, no slide show, more/better gridlines. What Nikon will likely do: 5.76m dot, more gridlines. Nikon needs: 5.76m dot.

  • Rear LCD — Tilting has issues, articulating has issues. Tastes great, less filling. The Z7 III is the one camera that could use the Z9's dual-axis tilt mechanism and stop the debate. As for size, clarity, and touch capability, Nikon already does just fine with that. Thom's Choice: Z9-dual tilt. What Nikon will do: hard to predict, but would probably stay with tilting. Nikon needs: nothing specific.

  • Image sensor — Here's where the Z7 III gets defined. Prosumer says "stay with the current 45mp sensor, but add pixel shift." Pro says "move to more pixels and add pixel shifting." However, read the next section, because it, too, is triggered by the image sensor. Thom's Choice: 45mp and pixel shift. What Nikon will likely do: stick with 45mp. Nikon needs: pixel shifting.

  • Video — If you have 45mp+ at the image sensor, you now need to provide at least 8K/30P on the video side. Since we all expect EXPEED7 in the Z7 III, the camera-side bandwidth should certainly be there, but I have doubts if the original sensor can do all that's needed without some additional work on its offload speed. Meanwhile, ProRes capability, 10-bit 4:2:2 internally, and the raw capabilities that EXPEED7 would allow are highly wanted, too. Thom's Choice: 8K/30/24P, ProRes, 10-bit 4:2:2 internal, RAW internal. What Nikon will likely do: ProRes, 10-bit 4:2:2. Nikon needs: 8K, ProRes, 10-bit 4:2:2, RAW internal.

  • Focus — While the Z7 II is quite good and very usable in autofocus, I see three clear areas that need addressing: (1) Subject tracking needs to really be 3D-tracking; (2) the EVF needs to keep up; and (3) we need more button customization. Fix those three things and I have no complaints. Some of you will disagree. You'll want the Z9's subject detection, I'm sure. Guess what? The competitive cameras don't really match that. Selectable human/animal/vehicle detection is fine, automatic detection is a bonus. I find that especially true for the "pixels" camera, particularly if it stays on the prosumer side of things. Nevertheless, the three things I note here have to happen in conjunction with one another in order to move the focus system up to Z9-like levels, which is where we all want the Z7 III to be. Doing only one or two doesn’t get us focused on other things. Thom's Choice: implement 3D Tracking, address the focus position lag in the viewfinder, and add AF-ON+AF Area customization to the buttons. What Nikon will likely do: 3D tracking plus subject detection improvements. Nikon needsimplement 3D Tracking, address the focus position lag in the viewfinder, add AF-ON+AF Area customization to the buttons, and perhaps use the Z9 subject detection improvements.

  • Frame Rate/Buffer10 fps is more than enough for this level of camera if it stays prosumer. However, as noted earlier, getting that with a slide show in the viewfinder has to stop. Effectively, the current camera is a 5.5 fps one (the Z7 II becomes unusable for moving subjects or composition above that; static subjects don't need high frame rates). Keep the current mechanical shutter this round, which can manage 10 fps, but address the EVF side of what happens so that we see each frame, and with as little blackout as possible. The buffer doesn't really need direct addressing, though it would be nice to get the CFexpress slot supporting CFexpress speeds instead of XQD speeds. Thom's Choice: no real changes other than using a faster CFe card slot and ending the slide shows. What Nikon will likely do: huge buffer improvement due to EXPEED7 and things like High Efficiency raw, increase fps top speed to 20 fps. Nikon needs: accurate viewfinder stream.

  • Shutter — Given the Z9, the critical question is whether Nikon might drop the mechanical shutter in the Z7 III. Doing so probably requires a new stacked image sensor for a pixels camera, as otherwise we get way too much rolling shutter issue with the current Sony Exmor-based BSI technology. All the recent non-stacked sensor cameras that have high frame rate capabilities have clear rolling shutter impacts. The question is whether Nikon would tolerate that in this model. I sure hope not. Thom's Choice: I'll stick with 1/8000 mechanical. What Nikon is likely to do: implement a faster electronic shutter, possibly drop mechanical shutter. Nikon needsup the flash sync speed to 1/250.

  • ConnectivityOther than bringing the USB port up to the current Power Delivery specification, I'm not sure whether Nikon needs to invest any real effort here. The Bluetooth/Wi-Fi connectivity isn't overly constrained by the camera, it's mostly constrained by Nikon's poor software applications on the mobile device and computer side. It would be nice if Nikon made a "performance mode" for USB connections, but I'm not convinced that this is an area that currently needs addressing to keep up with competition for this model. Thom's Choice: update the USB port to current standard. What Nikon will likely do: not much. Nikon needs: mobile app improvements.

My problem in trying to better define where the Z7 III should be is that I don't yet fully know what Nikon is thinking. As noted earlier, the Z7 update could go either of two ways: (1) stick to the lower prosumer orientation, which mostly means adding features but not get overly burdened by trying to up the performance; or (2) push the Z7 III above the D850 to a true pro level, which does mean that performance issues need to be moved considerably forward. In fact, #2 also would tend to put pressure on moving from U# controls to banks, and duplicating the Z9 customizations. But #2 would also make defining a Z8 more difficult.

Sticking with #1 would let Nikon keep the price in the US$3000 range, leaving them with a clear gap they could later fill with a pro model without a vertical grip (e.g. Z8). Moving to #2 would also likely mean raising the price, and how much that price would need to get raised would depend upon how much unique they do.

How about the third option staring Nikon in the face: do nothing but stick the Z9's internals into the existing Z7 II body, and take out the mechanical shutter. That would leave you with a 45mp camera with pro image and focus performance capabilities (and 8K video), stuffed into a daily driver body. While that would be easy enough to do, would anyone really be happy with that approach? This would be a bit like stuffing a supercharged V8 into a Ford Maverick. 

Moreover, the consumer-type buyer would stop lusting after a Z9 and buy the less expensive Z7 III in the Z9 implant scenario, while the pro would buy a Z7 III as a backup and be mumbling about missing elements and mismatching UX constantly. I'd say neither of those would be positive things for Nikon, because it leaves some money on the table and makes some users frustrated. Not a winning combination in my product management playbook. The perfect combination is to sweep all money off the table and make all users happy, but it's really tough to walk the narrow plank that gets you there.

Finally: while the Z7 led the mirrorless parade initially, I believe that the Z6 needs to be the first to the upgrade gate this time around. Nikon has time to do the Z7 III right. And by "right" I mean to find the Z7 III's unique and defensible position in the full frame lineup. As I noted, I'm fine with my Z7 II at the moment. While it's not my daily driver, it's sitting in the garage with the tank full, ready when needed. 

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