What's a Little Mirror Between Friends?
With much fanfare and anticipation, this week heralded the official launch announcement for Nikon's new mirrorless Z-mount camera system. Not everyone was happy.
I'm not going to wade too deeply into whether the announced Z6 and Z6 cameras are good or bad. They are what they are. They will please some and disappoint others. What I'd like to speak to instead is dynamic Nikon's announcement has created online. Suffice it to say, not everyone got what they wanted. Whether it be the lack of a second XQD slot, the controversy over battery life, or the curious fascination for eye-focus AF assist, there are a lot of folks complaining in online forums. One user even went so far as to create a petition on change.org to coax Nikon into adding a second card slot. Whether this was intended as a serious effort or not is unclear.
With this introduction, Nikon needed to walk a narrow tightrope. They had to avoid letting down the pent-up dreams of their users while at the same time they didn't want to cannibalize the market for their amazingly successful D850 DSLR. Pack the new mirrorless bodies with every possible feature short of the kitchen sink and some potential buyers would be ecstatic. Others would balk at how all those features pushed the sticker price too high while still complaining that Nikon left out the one feature they really wanted. The list of possible features is endless. Someone is bound to feel left out.
It's interesting to consider just who the target audience is for these new cameras. Both the Z6 and Z7 seem to exist in an in-between land, neither consumer oriented nor professional. I think this was intentional on Nikon's part.
Anyone shooting an older or mid-level Nikon DSLR should see these new Z-mount bodies as a chance to upgrade. Professionals are unlikely to be shooting older or mid-level bodies.
Had Nikon targeted their new mirrorless bodies squarely at the professional market, it would likely result in D850 sales plummeting as all those loyal DSLR shooters jumped on the mirrorless bandwagon. Shifting sales from one body to another might sound fine to some of their customers, so long as they get what they dreamed of. But it probably doesn't make good sense for Nikon. Nikon needs to be successful in both the mirrorless and DSLR markets. Regardless of what the future holds, both types of cameras will co-exist, at least for some time to come. Had Nikon merely shifted development from DSLR cameras to mirrorless, they would have ceded the DSLR market to others. Nikon has the best DSLR out there today in the D850, and that's quite an achievement. Now a year after it went on sale, it's still difficult to find one in stock to buy. It's that popular. There are a whole lot of photographers out there who drool over the prospect of owning a D850 and are only mildly interested in mirrorless, if at all.
And even if Nikon had risked cannibalizing their DSLR future by offering a truly professional level mirrorless now, not everyone who bought such a camera would be likely to end up satisfied. Let's be honest, although Nikon has had some previous experience with mirrorless, I doubt anyone today would want to use the abandoned Nikon 1 line as comfort. There may still be some kinks to work out with this new Z-mount mirrorless initiative, however minor. I wonder if those folks mad about the Z7 not providing two XQD card slots to improve reliability have considered the implications of shifting from a DSLR platform that has been honed through numerous generations of engineering to what is effectively a version 1.0 mirrorless platform. OK, call it 1.5 if you give credit for learning from the mistakes of Nikon 1. This time, I think Nikon has it right, even if the Z-mount can't yet be all things to all types of shooters. As we should have gleaned from the endless Nikon versus Canon SLR wars, Nikon may not often be first to market, but they usually come out on top in the end. Witness the current D850 if you doubt that last assertion. Patience can indeed sometimes be rewarded. Sony may currently own the mirrorless full-frame market because of Nikon engineering taking the tortoise approach rather than the seemingly faster hare, but if history is any guide, Nikon's slow and methodical approach may succeed in the end.
Since the beginning of the F-mount in 1959, Nikon has done a fantastic job of maximizing compatibility for existing lenses when used on newly released bodies. The Nikon F-mount is truly legendary. But its specifications leave little room for innovation, literally. The throat diameter of an F-mount lens is only 44mm, one of the smaller diameters for any SLR lens format from any manufacturer. For comparison, the new Nikon Z-mount has a much expanded 55mm diameter. The ill-fated Nikon 1 lenses were a mere 40mm. Canon gave up on their FL and FD-mounts with their 48mm diameter decades ago and moved to the now standard 54mm diameter EF-mount. Back then, this gave Canon the largest diameter mount for any 35mm SLR system. But it also made a huge number of their users mad that that their existing lenses would no longer work if they upgraded. It made some made enough to move to Nikon who was advertising their commitment to stick with the F-mount system. It only makes sense that photographers wanted to buy into a system that offered future compatibility. If Canon was going to stab them in the back by forcing them to buy all new lenses, they reasoned that those lenses may as well be Nikon rather than Canon.
Yet in the years following this period, Nikon has had to live with their F-mount fortunes. But lenses today are no longer simple mechanical tubes with glass elements. Modern lenses have CPUs and electrical contacts to power modern features like silent wave focusing motors and vibration reduction. Squeezing all this into a Canon 54mm diameter lens throat is no doubt easier than in a Nikon 44mm mount. This difference gave Canon a huge advantage once the dust settled on the EF bloodletting.
Nikon had to find a way to introduce a larger diameter mount without unduly alienating their customers. They wanted to learn from Canon's mistakes of the late 1980's. The push towards mirrorless has made that possible. The larger Z-mount is brilliant. The new Nikon FTZ adapter that will allow you to mount the smaller diameter F-mount lenses on newer Z-mount bodies is brilliant. And this opportunity was only now possible due to the removal of the mirror. SLR bodies have to be thick enough to allow room for the defining mirror to swing up and out of the way when the shutter fires. A mirrorless body naturally doesn't need all that room, and so can be made thinner. The F-mount specifies a flange to sensor (or film) distance of 46.5mm. The new Z-mount distance is only 16mm. If it were possible to directly mount an F-mount lens on the Z-mount flange, it would still focus 46.5mm away, behind the sensor position. An adapter that will let you push the lens a bit further out (46.5 minus 16mm, or 29.5mm), it would again focus in the right place. As long as they were going to need such an adapter, Nikon used the opportunity to enlarge the throat diameter as well. The same FTZ adapter that would solve the distance problem could also adapt the mount diameter to fit. Nikon has finally found a way to increase the diameter with minimal impact to their customer base. DSLR shooters have a broad array of F-mount lenses. At first, Nikon Z shooters can use those same lenses on their Z6 or Z6 by way of the FTZ adapter, but over time can look forward to new, innovative lenses that will work only on their Z-mount body, not the older F-mount format. To me, this bodes very well for the future. Indeed, this prospect is one of the main reasons I'm interested in Nikon's mirrorless line. Personally, don't mind the mirror and really don't need an electronic viewfinder. Yes, I say that now, but reserve the right to change my mind in the future, especially if I get into shooting video.
And while Nikon may be a great engineering company in the long run, they have always been a horrible marketing company. I used to say that Canon made great advertisements while Nikon made great cameras. I think that if Nikon made any missteps with their mirrorless announcement, it was one of marketing, not engineering. The teasing approach they built up over the last few weeks and more gave little in guidance as to what to expect and left nearly everything up to the imagination. And as we've learned from all the online chatter since then is that some people have vivid imaginations, and you don't always get what you want. Or at least not without a bit of patience sometimes.
This week's announcements of the Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras won't be the last Z-mount introductions. If you're feeling disappointed, perhaps the Z8 or Z9 will be more to your liking.