Let’s assume for a moment Nikon was a genie and could grant me one wish. Aside from wishing for 1,000 more wishes, here is what I would ask for.
Recently, there were financial results released that showed Nikon being in a precarious position in the market. True, that statement could have been made about Nikon anytime in the past couple of years. But there was something about this report that was particularly troubling. It’s been no secret that Sony has been dominating the mirrorless market for some time, having entered the game several years earlier than Nikon and Canon. Nor is it surprising to see Canon ahead of Nikon. They have a larger share of the overall camera market, so you’d expect they might also have a larger share of the mirrorless one. What was distressing was that Nikon was not even third, not even fourth, but fifth on the list of mirrorless sales behind Fuji and Olympus.
Again, Fuji has a very particular niche, also has a significant lead time when it comes to mirrorless, and makes a great product. So, maybe we can cut Nikon some slack there. But Olympus? Not to take shots at the quality of Olympus cameras at all. They are a long-standing brand with a great product. But that brand’s sales have been so low for so long that the company recently announced they were exiting the business altogether. If Nikon is shipping fewer units than a company that is going out of business, there’s just no positive way to spin that.
As a career-long Nikon shooter and someone who loves their products, including their mirrorless line, this is a matter of concern. I don’t necessarily think that we Nikon shooters have to worry anytime soon about the company going out of business completely. I think they would be bought by another tech company long before the brand name was allowed to die. And even if it did go under, I expect it would be a slow death with cameras, lenses, repair sites, and the like allowing us to continue to shoot Nikon for at least the next decade. But, again, I don’t expect that future to come to pass.
I’ve written previously about Nikon’s strengths within the market as well as how their greatest strength might be their largest obstacle. Namely, Nikon makes some of the best, if not the absolute best DSLRs on the market. Professionals the world over have trusted Nikon DSLRs for years and continue to do so today. In fact, while Nikon finds itself in a tenuous position in the mirrorless world, they still maintain a firm position at number two in the DSLR market, behind only Canon. While the majority of internet hype these days centers around the mirrorless world, it’s important to remember that most professional photographers are still relying on traditional DSLRs day in and day out.
Mirrorless cameras have their advantages for sure. The EVF makes manual exposure significantly easier. There are massive improvements when it comes to video in a market increasingly geared towards hybrid shooters. They are physically lighter. The new lenses designed for mirrorless cameras offer significant customization advantages over their DSLR brethren. But, as useful as these things are, it’s important to note that none of them necessarily make you a better photographer, or, more importantly, improve image quality. The sensor inside my D850, for example, continues to put out amazing files. The original Z 7, with a similar megapixel count, produces similar results, but there isn’t a built-in image quality upgrade to entice existing DSLR users like me to make the switch. The advantages of mirrorless are more creature comforts for us photographers as opposed to tangible differences that directly impact the final product being delivered to clients. In other words, if the clients can’t tell the difference, at least not enough to pay more for our services, then investing in a whole new system becomes more of a want than a need for someone who's living depends on using their camera to generate the most income with the lowest expenses.
Currently, despite trying out a number of different mirrorless systems over recent years, the Nikon D850 still remains the queen of my castle. New-fangled mirrorless advancements aside, there is still no machine that allows me to excel in such a variety of shooting circumstances without having to cut corners. I can shoot everything from fast-moving athletes, to still life, to traditional portraits, to birds in flight all with the same camera body. And while video advancements in mirrorless are undeniable, I can even shoot video in a pinch with my D850 just so long as I don’t mind manual focus.
Of course, my experience is not unique. In fact, it is the sheer awesomeness and dependability of Nikon DSLRs that I think explains the poor market share at the moment for Nikon mirrorless. Simply put, if you are an existing Nikon customer, you are also the prime candidate for moving into the Z mount mirrorless system. But if you already have a camera perfect for your needs, why would you go through the annoyance and expense of shifting over to an entirely new system, even if that system does come from a manufacturer you’ve grown to love and trust?
While I still use my DSLR for the majority of my professional work, I did purchase a Nikon Z 6 almost a year ago to serve as a dedicated video option. I’ve written about my experience with the original Z 6 previously, so I won’t rehash a complete review. But, I will say that the original Z 6 far exceeded my expectations. Especially at the price point at which I was able to acquire it, the Z 6 has definitely earned its keep, even to the point where the camera, which was bought primarily for its video capabilities, has become my go-to camera for shooting stills for fun and has even been used to shoot entire assignments in both still and video when the 45.7 MP of my D850 wasn’t necessary. I’ve enjoyed it so much, in fact, that were it the higher-megapixel Z 7, I suspect I might use it even more for stills-only projects as well.
For those who don’t know, the Z 6 and Z 7 are basically identical except that they have 24.5 MP and 45.7 MP sensors respectively. As someone who tends to do multiple cropped versions of almost every image I take, the added resolution of the D850/Z 7 seems to be just the right balance for me between file size and resolution. So, you might be asking yourself why I haven’t just made the switch already and helped add to Nikon’s mirrorless sales count. Well really, it’s just one thing.
No, it’s not the one card slot. Despite the ridiculously overblown commentary on how “you can’t be a professional photographer if you don’t have two card slots,” that is not a hurdle for a commercial photographer who is likely shooting tethered in the first place. Not that I don’t understand the appeal for wedding and event shooters, mind you. It’s just that different shooters have different needs, and that’s not one that affects my own purchasing decision.
I’ve already pointed out ways in which the Z 7 actually excels over the D850. The video is a major step forward and does have a tangible impact on my workday. While I still prefer an optical viewfinder to an EVF while shooting stills, the bright and fast viewfinders in the Z cameras are definitely among the best EVFs I’ve ever used. So, despite my professed love for optical viewfinders, even that is not the single most important thing stopping me from making the shift.
Earlier in this essay, I pointed out that the reason my D850 remains top of the heap is the fact that there is almost no shooting situation in which I would have even the slightest fear about its ability to produce. Certainly, if I were a sideline sports shooter, something like the D6 would produce a better frame rate, but the D850 is fast enough for 99% of anything I personally would ever shoot. There are definitely newer and cooler cameras on the market, but the objective of buying a camera is to suit one’s needs, not to look cool. And the D850 scratches my every itch.
The original Z 6 and Z 7, on the other hand, scratch most of my itches. Unfortunately, the one they leave behind has a real-world effect on my ability to do my job. The autofocus is not yet on par with their DSLRs.
As I mentioned in my D6 discussion, I don’t shoot from the sidelines at sporting events. But I do shoot athletes and fast-moving subjects for a living. They may be in the studio or on location, but that doesn’t exactly diminish their foot speed. So, I need an autofocus system that can keep up with them. With 3D tracking and the various area autofocus modes, Nikon DSLRs have always been at the top of the industry when it comes to shooting fast-moving subjects. There’s a reason why you see so many Nikon and Canon DSLRs on sidelines around the world.
That’s not to say the focusing system in the Z 6 and Z 7 is bad. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t purchase my Z 6 until after the camera had already received several rounds of firmware updates, but I’ve found the autofocus to be very good in a majority of situations despite several early detractors. It is not, however, on par with what my D850 can do. I don’t think even Nikon itself would argue with that statement.
With the rumors of the prospective Nikon Z 6 II and Z 7 II to have dual processors, the hope is that this will allow for a faster and more accurate autofocus system. For me, this is the single problem that absolutely has to be solved before I could rightly consider making the full switch from my Nikon DSLRs into their mirrorless system. There are rumors that the new cameras will include other enhancements, like the much-requested two cards slots, but if the pictures aren’t in focus to begin with, then it doesn’t much matter how many cards slots are there to back them up.
Ideally, the new cameras would incorporate some of the old focusing systems. Focusing systems in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras operate in fundamentally different ways. So, I’m not expecting things to be exactly the same as my D850. But in a technology world where the sky's the limit, I don’t see why Nikon would be unable to improve the mirrorless focusing to match their existing DSLR technology.
If they are able to reach a point where an existing Nikon DSLR shooter can easily migrate to the Z system and match the autofocusing speed of their D6, for example, then they will have hit the point where a lot of existing Nikonians would seriously look at making the switch. If they can produce a focusing system that exceeds that of the D6 or even the D850, then it would be a slam dunk.
The official announcement from Nikon is only days away regarding their next generation of Z cameras. And soon to follow, we will see a myriad of reviews of the new system outlining all the new tricks it has up its sleeve. But for me, what I really want to hear about is whether or not the autofocus is finally on par with the DSLRs already on the market. If so, that will allow all those other niceties that mirrorless has to offer to take full effect and might even convince a lot of Nikon lifers to make the switch.