Nikon Bets Big on Z-Series

August 23, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

In hindsight, it looks like a preemptive shot across the bow.

On August 15, Sony published a press release highlighting market research data from The NPD Group showing the company had achieved the number one spot in the U.S. full frame interchangeable lens camera market in both a unit and dollar basis.

Put another way, Sony was telling the world that the industry’s long-standing duopoly of Canon and Nikon had finally been shattered–upended by a product category that didn’t even exist until six years ago.

Whether you feel Nikon’s entry into the full frame mirrorless market is a natural step or a long overdue one, it’s unquestionably the case that it’s a critical move for Nikon’s future. As a company, Nikon has been losing revenue every year since the a7’s introduction. While the losses can’t solely be laid at Sony’s feet, the migration of pro photographers to Sony’s platform couldn’t have helped the company’s finances.

So when Nikon executives unveiled the new Z series of full frame mirrorless cameras in New York today, they made clear how high the stakes were. Executive Vice President Jay Vannatter called the system “the future of Nikon.”

With just about every Nikon ambassador in the Western Hemisphere in attendance, the company proclaimed its goal to capture the top spot in the full frame interchangeable lens market (precisely when this would be achieved wasn’t stated). In other words, they aim to beat Sony at its own game.

Nikon is banking on the fact that its wealth of optics, accessible through a lens adapter, and a century’s worth of imaging innovation will propel the Z series. It’s a camera system aimed squarely at professionals, with a rugged, weather-sealed build and a high-resolution sensor. It shores up a few video liabilities that have hampered Nikon DSLRs, such as the lack of 10-bit output, and packs extensive autofocus coverage and a brisk shooting speed. And while the camera is significantly smaller than a D850, its prominent ergonomic grip gives the Z7 a much more comfortable feel in the hand than your typical mirrorless, at least to us.

Of particular note is the lens mount, which is larger in diameter than Sony’s E-mount, addressing a weakness raised by Sigma back in 2016 (though that hasn’t stopped Sigma from embracing the E-mount system). The larger mount is the result of Nikon engineers having a “blank slate” to design a new system from the ground up, said Bo  Kajiwara, President and Chief Regional Officer of Nikon Americas. Among other things, the mount will enable Nikon to build even faster lenses–including the forthcoming Noct, a 58mm f/0.95 lens. It also promises superior sharpness out to the edge of the frame and high image quality when using F-mount lenses on the adapter.

While it is throwing its weight behind mirrorless, Kajiwara took pains to emphasize that Nikon sees the system co-existing with, not replacing, the company’s DSLR line. But if the Z series performs well in the market–and if Canon does what many expect they will do and follows suit with a full frame mirrorless of its own–the logic and momentum of the market will take over. In such a world, can the DSLR survive? Time will tell.

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