With a bevy of camera announcements (and rumored announcements) setting the internet on fire over the last couple of weeks, I thought it might be fun to offer a review of a different sort.
To start things off, I will point out that this will not be a review of a particular Nikon camera, per se. As a career-long Nikonian, I will mention some things I like and don’t like about their products in general. But I’m approaching this thought exercise only from the distant standpoint rather than diving down into issues like specs or comparing one camera to another.
This is also not intended as a way to say that Nikon is better or worse than any other camera brand. It’s simply that I personally have the most experience with Nikon and intend to continue to shoot with Nikon and thought it would be fun to analyze their strengths and weaknesses the same way I do a quarterly review of my own business.
Camera reviews and company reviews actually have a lot in common. In both cases, you have to look at the subject’s strengths relative to the competition. You have to consider red flags in the business model while searching for hidden opportunities. And, ultimately, you have to decide whether it’s worth the investment.
Businesses usually become large in one of two ways. Either they have a revolutionary product that brings a brand new technology to a market that didn’t even realize it needed it. They scratch an itch that it turns out a large segment of the public was trying to scratch. And, seemingly overnight, the company goes from a name on a business loan application to a verb, like Google or Netflix.
The second way a company grows is little by little. They may not have a product that revolutionizes the market, but they make a solid product consistently for years and years, and the business grows a little bit at a time. These companies, at some point, do usually have a yen for creating technologies that push their market segment forward. But their real value is that they have built up so much trust among their customer base over the years that their user base comes to purchase their products almost out of habit. Camera companies that last seem to fall somewhere in the middle.
Now, when I say “habit,” I don’t mean to slight the company's product. Rather it is meant as a compliment. I’ve been buying Nikon cameras for going on 20 years now, and I can say I have yet to buy a bad Nikon camera. There are some I’ve loved more than others. But they have all been variations on good, which has earned my trust when it comes to purchasing decisions. This trust from its base is almost more valuable to a company like Nikon (or Canon) than attracting converts.
As a simple analogy, we can look at it from the context of politics. Let’s say we have two political parties. Party A and Party B. Most of the population of a country falls into one party or the other. Then, there are independents in the middle who sway one way or the other depending on the election. Winning those independents can often be the key to winning the election. But if you try so hard to win independents that you ostracize your base, you run the risk of not only losing the election but seeing your baseline support erode.
One of Nikon’s biggest competitive advantages is, in fact, that baseline support. Clients who have been through thick and thin with Nikon and have come to depend on the tools they create to run their own businesses. Of course, that advantage can cut two ways.
It’s Currently Competing With Itself
As I said, I was interested in exploring Nikon more because the brand has meant so much to my own photography career. I’ve had multiple Nikon bodies over the years and currently have a Nikon D850, D750, and finally came around to buying a Z 6.
I wasn’t an early adopter to mirrorless, however. In fact, if you've read any of my previous articles, you’ll probably be well aware at this point that I still prefer DSLR’s for shooting stills. The Z 6 purchase was mainly the result of wanting a second body to focus on video which is an area where mirrorless really shines.
Of course, in the mirrorless market, Sony jumped out to an early start in gaining market share while Nikon and Canon largely sat on the sidelines, preferring to focus on their DSLR lines until fairly recently. Once the growth of mirrorless got too big to ignore, each company took its first tentative steps into the mirrorless market. There seems to be a common belief that neither Canon nor Nikon, hit it out of the park with their initial offerings and that both companies have a long way to go before they catch up with Sony. I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment. For one, Sony had the mirrorless market completely to itself for several years, aside from Fuji who aimed their crop sensor cameras at a slightly different market segment (and their medium format cameras at an entirely different market). The first round of Nikon and Canon mirrorless cameras weren’t perfect. But, it’s important to remember that the Z 6 and Z 7 were the first interactions of Nikon mirrorless cameras, not the last. So, grading on a curve, I’d say both cameras turned out pretty darn well. Especially given the firmware update, I’ve been thrilled with my Z 6 to the point where I would give serious consideration to a Z 6s, Z 7s, Z 8, or whatever else Nikon has come down the line.
But, would I sell my D850 to buy a Z 7 right this moment? No. Not because the Z 7 isn’t good, but rather because the D850 is a borderline miracle worker. It’s pretty much the perfect camera for my kind of still work and it’s hard for any camera, mirrorless or otherwise, to compete. I think Nikon wanted to pitch the Z 7 as something of a mirrorless version of the D850 due to the similar sensor size. But I think they may have done more marketing damage than good by soliciting that comparison.
Again, it’s not really a fair fight. One is the very first Nikon mirrorless camera. The other is the end result of decades worth of R&D and real-life field use in designing the perfect DSLR. Of course, the same conversation could be had from consumers considering whether to trade from their D750/780 to a Z 6 or from their D500 to a Z50. In my case, I know that, if I’m going to trade in a camera that has proven itself to be an all-star for a newer version, then the newer version needs to be definitively better than the camera I already own. It can’t even be on an even-par. If you want me to invest a significant amount of money into a new camera system and likely new lenses, then the advantage of the investment needs to be absolutely clear.
In this sense, Nikon mirrorless is not competing against Sony or Canon. They are competing against themselves. Their existing products are just so darn good. Of course, that’s a positive thing. But, it does mean that getting a base who already loves the product you are currently offering to trust you and change to a completely new one will take some time.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the rumored Z 6s and Z 7s will exceed sales expectations where the first generation of mirrorless cameras might have fallen short. I think the biggest potential target market for those second-generation mirrorless cameras will be existing Nikon customers as opposed to first-time buyers. Three years' worth of market research and real-life user experience later, I suspect this second generation will address many of the issues which arose during their maiden journey. If the rumors are right, they will address things like the number of card slots, battery grip options, and other minor improvements over the originals. Personally, my own dream is that they will find a way to incorporate the 3D tracking autofocus system from the DSLRs into their new mirrorless bodies.
But if they can create a second generation of mirrorless cameras that are genuinely better alternatives than their already excellent DSLRs, I don’t think it would take too much to get existing Nikon users, hesitant to invest in mirrorless, to have a real look.
This is an area where Nikon will need to walk a tightrope for a little while, but ultimately could be sitting on a major competitive advantage.
My original plan when purchasing the Z 6 was to stick with the FTZ adaptor and my existing F mount glass to cut down on costs. Nikon has a simply amazing back library of excellent F mount lenses already on the market. For existing Nikon users or users wanting to adopt less expensive legacy glass to the new mirrorless format, this is a real money-saver. One of the biggest hurdles of coming into a new system is having to reinvest in lenses. From my test so far with the FTZ adapter, I haven’t noticed any major disparities in terms of focus speed when using my F mount glass on the Z 6, meaning you could legitimately go to the Z mount without needing to buy a single Z lens.
With that said, I've since bought two. Why? Well, in my case, the entire point of the Z 6 was to serve as a video-centric body in conjunction with my D850 being used for stills. The F mount glass focuses well through the adapter, but it turned out the F mount lenses are a bit loud when focusing. It’s not something I ever noticed in all these years of shooting stills. But, after a few video shoots ended up with audible focusing gear sounds on the soundtrack, I decided that I should purchase at least one Z mount lens to address the problem. Not only did the 50mm f/1.8 S fix that particular problem, but it created another one. A personal one. The native Z mount lens, more designed for video, focused plenty quietly. But it turns out that it is also razor-sharp, pretty much the perfect weight for the Z 6 body, and is littered with certain customizable features that I never realized were even a possibility. Long story short, I fell in love with the lenses even more than the body itself, so much so that I purchased a second lens, a 24-70mm f/2.8 S, to use with the system.
While that poses a problem for my bank account, it provides an opportunity for Nikon. As many photographers will tell you, before deciding on a camera system, you should first consider the lenses. Camera bodies get all the glory but tend to have very limited shelf lives. Lenses, on the other hand, can stay in use for decades and make all the difference in your images. I only have the two Z mount lenses so far, but, if these two are any indication, the new lenses are going to offer photographers huge advantages over their F mount counterparts, while at the same time, being able to operate in the same kit as legacy F mount lenses via the adapter. This not only removes a huge hurdle to reaching the existing, ready-to-buy Nikon base, but actually gives them an incentive to try the newer mirrorless systems, which will drive future revenue to the company.
I wrote in a recent article that one of the main reasons why I purchased the Z 6 to do video, despite already having a number of other video systems from competing brands, was that it was simply easier for me to match my color between stills and video on jobs where I am shooting both. Yes, you can do wonders in post these days to make just about any camera brand take on the color profile of another one. But that’s still a lot of work. The Z 6 complements the stills I’m shooting with the D850 because they share the same base color theory. Where the Nikon color science ranks on the scale compared to other brands is both subjective and besides the point. The point is that it makes my life easier and be more efficient.
With that said, completely subjectively speaking, I happen to love the way Nikon handles colors. This is no doubt a result of having shot with them for so long. In a recent article where I discussed the colors emitted by my Fujifilm GFX 100, I related a story of how I kept trying to get its color to match those of my Nikon. Keep in mind that the color accuracy of the GFX 100 is second to none. What you see is exactly what you get. It’s one of that camera’s biggest strengths. But, because I’ve been shooting with Nikon's for so long, my mind is somewhat hardwired to want to see those Nikon colors in my images. It is not objectively better. I’ve tested it side by side with the GFX 100, and, as much as I love my D850, the GFX colors are more accurate. But photography is, of course, an art form, not a mathematical equation. “Right” is a matter of preference. In this case, I love the slight warmth native to Nikon cameras. I couldn’t give you a scientific explanation as to why. I just do. And I know I’m not the only Nikonian out there who feels that way and would factor that into a purchasing decision in the future.
A Less Defined Legacy When It Comes to Video
Earlier in this essay, I pointed out that I purchased a Nikon Z 6 primarily for its skills as a video camera. Only three years ago, if I had included the words “Nikon” and “video” in the same sentence, it might have drawn jeers of derision. Until the arrival of the Z 6, Nikon really didn’t have anything that could be considered a first choice filmmaking tool. Some of the DSLRs had video almost as an afterthought, but this was one area where Nikon always lacked. Some may still contend that other brands have better video offerings, but these days, the Nikon mirrorless cameras have a legitimate chance to compete.
As social media drives the need for more and more content and many younger photographers especially are as enamored with creating YouTube content as they are with building their stills portfolio, video capabilities drive new camera purchases in a way that they never have before.
Prior to recent years, in order to scratch that video itch, consumers had to upgrade to more expensive cinema cameras or dedicated video systems in order to produce high-quality content. Canon, for example, has always been a leader in the pack for having a separate higher-end video camera line in addition to their stills driven cameras. They’ve even often been accused of crippling their own stills cameras intentionally in an effort to protect the market share of their more expensive line of cinema cameras. From a business standpoint, this makes sense. You don’t want to put too many features into your less expensive DSLRs. Otherwise, why would someone pay more for the cinema camera? But regardless of how you felt about their tactics, Canon always had a top-notch motion product to offer. Pushed by Sony, some of these video capabilities have slowly begun to trickle down into some of their newer still cameras and were ultimately taken to a new level with the Canon R5.
Nikon, on the other hand, has never had an upscale video line that it had to fear to cannibalize. At first, this seems like a disadvantage, as they don’t have a product to compete against the Canon cinema cameras on the market. But it could also be a major opportunity. Because they don’t risk cannibalizing other segments of their own market share, Nikon is perfectly positioned to pour higher-end video features into their DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Unless they have plans to create a cinema camera, then the Z line will be the pinnacle of video on a Nikon camera for the foreseeable future. That means they have no motivation to hold anything back. Their competitive disadvantage in the cinema camera and video camera market can be a competitive advantage in the mirrorless and DSLR market. Their curse might actually be a blessing.
From a selfish point of view, I definitely want Nikon to continue to thrive. I’ve shot with just about every type of camera on the market by this point, and still, no other brand’s cameras have quite melded to my hand as easily as my Nikons have. Sure, they may not currently be number one in market share. But, I don’t buy cameras based on market share. I buy them based on the advantages they give me as a photographer and as a business owner. Nikon is well positioned to be able to provide the top quality product its customers have come to expect for decades to come. And I, for one, look forward to seeing what they will do next.