Why Does the Nikon Z fc Have an APS-C Sensor?

Nikon's new Z fc has been widely praised for its return to retro styling and — indeed — taking the design cues of the much loved FE/FM series. It's one thing to make a retro camera, but it's quite another thing to sell it. So, who is it targeted at?

As much as I hate the now overused term, Fuji has made retro-styled cameras the "new normal," starting with the now-classic X100 in 2011 before moving on to a similarly style ILC in the form of the X-Pro1 in 2012. Fuji has take the notion of "classic" and make something of a game plan out of it since it reinvented its Imaging Division at the beginning of the 2010s, subsequently extending these design elements to its medium format GFX 50R. However, it's not only Fuji that is playing the retro game; not to be outdone, Olympus' OM-D range harkens back to their golden era, while some of the PEN models (such as the PEN-F) are delightfully charming.

Of course, old and charming isn't everyone's cup of tea (or Joe), and Sony and Panasonic, both consumer-electronics oriented manufacturers, are not exactly known for retro styling. That's not to say manufacturers can't be lured in to the retro look (Panasonic's GX9 for instance), but equally, a few added manual dials a retro camera does not make! On that note, neither Nikon or Canon are renowned for "old style," although both the Nikon 1 J5 and Canon G9X Mark II are what we might call "retro-inspired," even if they don't go the whole hog.

Of course, among all this retro zeal that seems to be imbibing manufacturers at the moment, we mustn't forget the most retro of retro brands: Leica. It has built its brand on a combination of high quality, exclusivity, and design appeal. In many ways, it is the Apple of the camera world, and while it also pursues minimalist elegance, it does both modernist and retro. If there is one camera that perhaps exemplifies this approach, then it is the Leica M Edition 60. Released in 2014, it was the first digital Leica to eschew the rear LCD screen, built to exacting standards, and was a limited edition. In all, only 600 were built at the mildly eye-watering price of $18,000, which got you a 24-megapixel full frame sensor, but obviously no rear LCD. Or perhaps it was a Leica M3 with no film! Any which way you look at it, Leica has the wherewithal to make retro cool, take great photos, and make plenty of money at the same time!

Why Retro?

So, really, why is retro at least relatively popular with consumers and so manufacturers? Perhaps the first myth to dispel is that — errr — it isn't! On the DSLR front, Canon and Nikon make up 95% of the market, and neither are known for their retro DSLRs. On the mirrorless front, Sony and Canon make up 67% of the market and again aren't known for their ageless designs. Fuji and Olympus are still significant players, though, but their markets are much smaller.

Given the above, I think there might be three reasons why there is a market for retro styling. Firstly, there is undeniably nostalgia associated with designs from the past and many of these, if not iconic, are retrospectively seen as something quite beautiful. Of course, this belies the fact that when they were designed, these cameras were often cutting edge with leading technology, such as the Leica II or Nikon F, although it can be the convergence of many factors that leads to a more polished product like the Leica M3 or Nikon FM. In this sense, who wouldn't want to own an icon? Perhaps that leads on to the second reason, which is that these cameras are just "different" to modern or contemporary designs and we all like to be different. Retro designs stand out, are a talking point, and are just pleasing to look at. This maybe highlights the fact that these purchases could be viewed as conspicuous consumption, bought because of the way they look as much as the task they undertake. For some, it is a fashion statement,\ and users are being sold a lifestyle.

The final reason is about using a camera. There is something fascinating and enjoyable about operating a piece of complex technical machinery. Cameras fall within this broad area, and to take high quality photos in manual mode, particularly when you are using film, requires practice and shows significant accomplishment. In fact, back in the film days, the mark of a professional photographer was one of technical mastery. What really made you stand out was if you also achieved artistic mastery. The gradual automation of all aspects of photography has made taking photos a lot easier, and so making your mark in photography has therefore required you to push two envelopes and engage with a third. The first is to be artistically great or at least replicate artistically great photos (photo of the Mesa Arch, anyone?). The second is to really push the technical envelope of what is achievable with existing hardware (think about how time-lapse photography has developed over the last decade). And the third? Have social media success. What retro cameras therefore bring back to the party is that ability to do some technical fiddling, something which I know I find enjoyable in much the same way as driving a classic car.

And so Comes the Z fc

All of which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Nikon's Z fc. Making a retro camera is something that Nikon has tried before in the form of the Df. This was based around the D4 sensor with some elements (AF for example) from the D610. It was a brave and surprising entry into the retro market and wasn't entirely successful. For some, it fit the mold perfectly, but for others, it had poor ergonomics, felt a bit like a frankencamera, was slow, and ultimately just too expensive. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't a big seller.

The Z fc is therefore intended to right several perceived wrongs for Nikon. Firstly, it makes a retro entry into its Z lineup, and Fuji has shown that this can sell well. Secondly, it has undeniably better design cues than the Df. The question that then follows is why go for an APS-C chip? Nikon is not Fuji, and the comparisons between models are not entirely equivalent. Fuji only offer APS-C, so Nikon's decision is an active one and in stark contrast to the Df. In short and as I've alluded to above, the Z fc is about form over function, and they don't believe the high-ticket pro market is the one to sell into. As we've seen with all manufacturers, the volume — and profit — is in the quality amateur sector, and this is what Nikon is aiming for. Indeed, while there is a price bump in comparison to the Z50, it compares favorably to its (technical) competitors, such as the Fuji X-S10 and Sony a6400. It's also an interesting that the second DX format camera is retro styled. Nikon had to get the pro-level bodies out first to place a marker for their Z-system intentions; however, it's the DX models that will generate sales. The Z50 was everything it should have been. The Z fc is therefore intended to fill that marketing gap and sell the lifestyle, perhaps best exemplified in Nikon Asia's promotional video below. Has Nikon hit the mark on this one? I think so.

Body images used under Creative Commons courtesy of Skyring, Wilson4469 and Ferencvizi via Wikipedia.

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49 Comments

Pan daBear's picture

The first person to mention “millennial” or “hipster” in a comment gets the Crotchety Old Bag Award!

Matt Edwards's picture

Nothing wrong with an aps-c sensor. As mentioned in the article I think this will sell well to new camera owners who are attracted to the styling, but I could also see existing Nikon users grabbing this for a well spec'd travel camera that they can use their existing lens library with.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Interesting thought.
But why not save money and get the Z50 for travel with the same lenses?

Matt Edwards's picture

For me, the additional manual controls on this camera make it worth it. I also like the looks.

Paulus van Aken's picture

Because this one looks so much better!

Thomas H's picture

I am not concerned about the DX sensor, I am concerned about Nikon's income. Retro is a marginal market. They need really a Z-mass-seller. I am not against "retro", it is like having a historical car in you garage and taking it for a ride. I recently photographed with my 35-70 D f/2.8 and 80-200 D f/2.8, just out of nostalgia. But a camera like the Zfc, as exciting it is for the passionate photographer, will not reverse Nikon's ordeal and fall from grace. Remember the release of D3 and D700? For a brief time Nikon trumped Canon in sales in Japan. A return to be the number one? No, an endless series of bad decisions followed. A mere few years later Sony, a consumer TV and transistor radio company integrated Minolta Camera, and started to provide one after another innovative camera, which swayed professionals and prosumers alike to the new mirrorless technology. Soon Sony had Nikon in their rear mirrors, and aimed at Canon, the only real remaining opponent. The Zfc is not going to turn the tide, as lovely and well made it is. We need a Z-mass-seller.

Matt Edwards's picture

Only time will tell if this new model is a good seller for Nikon or not. Obviously they think it will be, or they would not have brought it to market.

Stuart C's picture

I’m at the point now where I believe it has been done purely to troll 35mm users… or at least reading through the various related articles would suggest so, such anger and negativity amongst that user base, puzzling.

Zachary Bellino's picture

My 2 cents?

APS-C is easier to design a compact camera around. I'm not sure if it increases profitability, but that is another factor.

Two real reasons I buy "retro" cameras?
1.) Form factor/ergonomics. Vintage slr designs were more space conscious, and grips are unnecessary for many users.
2.) Control scheme. Every camera and lens combo should have a dedicated analog (printed) aperture ring, shutter dial, and even ISO dial.

Example: on cine lenses, focusing aid text is printed outward for focus pullers... likewise a camera has vastly improved ergonomics if there are clearly printed and click-stopped dials on top so you can go about your business without constantly crouching and peering into a vf or rear screen.

Both factors above don't necessarily mean "retro" ... Sony A7C has a modern control scheme and compact size. And legible LCD screens on top can help with controlling exposure even if it's not "retro." But meeting both conditions with a design definitely starts to point the camera toward "retro" forms.

Peace!

Max Wiltshire's picture

I just don’t understand why you would buy this instead of a Fuji, given the extensive lens range and maturity of the system.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Yup, personally I agree with you.

If it would have been a full-frame camera, that would have been different, as Nikon uses some pretty good FF sensors.

John Kane's picture

1. You already are invested in the Z-mount ecosystem.
2. You don't need more than the kit lens, and you prefer the Nikon look.
3. You are of a certain age, and want a camera that looks like the Nikon you loved in the 1970's.
4. You are of a certain age, and want the retro-Nikon hipster look.
5. You are more concerned about Fuji's long-term viability than you are of Nikon's.
6. The Nikon specs better fit your specific use case than the Fuji specs.

Bottom line: Nikon will have more orders of these cameras than they will be able to sell for quite some time. This camera will be very popular.

Max Wiltshire's picture

Some very good points, John - you’re right; there certainly are reasons I hadn’t thought of.

Not sure being more concerned about Fuji’s long-term viability than Nikon’s is a sensible one though. Fuji is a highly diversified company whose digital camera/lens operations are a fraction of their turnover. Nikon’s business is really only digital cameras/lenses (and v.small markets like binoculars, rifle optics, etc.). They are trying to stay afloat on a shrinking share of a shrinking market, without any other revenue streams to fall back on.

I’m not a Nikon-hater by any stretch (before I moved to Fuji a year ago I shot Nikon for years and think they are fantastic).

I think Nikon will survive and be fine, but I also think that if long-term viability were a concern, Fuji is the better bet especially given the wealth of used gear available already, even if they pulled the plug on the X mount system tomorrow.

Paulus van Aken's picture

Nikon is alsof quote big in machine optics for chip-makers, second only tot ASML.....
Optics always were numbers one

Chris Rogers's picture

"Bottom line: Nikon will have more orders of these cameras than they will be able to sell for quite some time. This camera will be very popular."

Indeeeeed. Nikon is already having trouble keeping up with pre orders. I think this camera is going to sell like hot cakes to "influncers". Especially on instagram. I see so many images of retro and retro styled cameras that get loads of views/ likes on that plat form. Even the fujis. Just posting pictures of one of these will net instafluencers a lot of that magical "EXPOOOOSURE"

Stuart C's picture

As a heavily invested Fuji user, I actually like this camera… Nikon do need to sort their APS-C lens lineup out though, it was terrible on the F too.

Dave Haynie's picture

That's reallly the problem here: Nikon, like Canon and Sony, treat APS-C as a consumer product line. And entry level to get you into their system. So they pretty much just make consumer-grade lenses. Yes, you can fit a FF lens, but you sacrifice quality, because of the cropping, over a designed-for-APS-C lens.

And along with that, do they have a committmrnt to compact lenses? Fujifilm and Olympus have lines of very good lenses that match the size of their smaller bodies, even if they also make larger, heavier, faster lenses for the pro market, those who are not size conscious, etc. All of which match their smaller sensors.

Between Nikon's past behavior and their questionable economics vs. Fujifilm or Sony these days, it's hard to recommend anyone jumping in for this, no matter the cool esthetics. I get that part of it -- I own Olympus and Fujifilm. But that was mostly just a bonus on top of the availability of true compact systems.

Matt Edwards's picture

Only thing I would like to point out in your comment is that you don't sacrifice quality using an FF lens on a crop sensor camera, not sure where that is coming from. I use multiple FF lenses on my aps-c camera and in many cases it actually benefits quality.

For example, if a lens is noted to have softening at the edges of the lens, it is less of any impact on a crop sensor because you are actually not using the edges of the lens. I have seen no downside to using FF on a crop sensor camera, other than size / weight.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

At least with this Nikon Z system, you can use your lenses on all Z mount cameras. Unlike Canon with their EOS-M and EOS-R mounts.

Stuart C's picture

Yes true, although ive never been a fan of putting expensive 35mm glass onto the supposed budget friendly APS-C cameras.

Matt Edwards's picture

Expensive / good glass makes just as much of a difference on aps-c cameras as it does FF cameras. Throwing a nice FF lens on my Sony A6000 makes it into a little powerhouse of a camera that I can travel / hike with all day

Stuart C's picture

It was never a comment about the quality, it’s about the size and weight, 70-200 f2.8 lenses on an APS-C camera generally look silly

Matt Edwards's picture

But it is still a lighter package then the same lens on a FF camera, and with telephoto gives the added benefit of the crop factor, effectively increasing the range, which is why I like using a 70-300mm on my aps-c for wildlife photography.

I guess I don't care much if it looks silly, since it works and is a more mobile package for my use

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

True, but a 100-400mm lens for Fuji APS-C is as big and heavy as a 100-400mm lens for a Canon FF camera, to name an example from my personal experience. ;)

And Nikon Z-mount DX lenses will also still work on a Z-mount FF camera, in crop-mode so even if not ideal it's still a usable lens, unlike a Canon EF-M lens on a Canon EF-R mount camera! :D

Stuart C's picture

That’s a bit of a niche example though, long telephoto lenses are roughly the same size on all systems, purely based on the fact they have to be at least 40cm long to cover the focal length.

My point was more to address those people who attach 70-200mm f2.8 or 24-70f2.8 lenses to a £600 camera with a smaller sensor, they look ridiculous and imo are a completely unnecessary expense.

If Nikon truly followed Fujifilms example and create some awesome compact primes and a version of the outstanding XF10-24/55-200 lenses then they would have something great for this new system.

Paulus van Aken's picture

I've hot a D500, alsof Dx, not esspecialy a budget camera

Stuart C's picture

I’m not sure I follow? Doesn’t seem to relevant to this discussion?

T Jacobs's picture

"ive never been a fan of putting expensive 35mm glass onto the supposed budget friendly APS-C cameras."

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I don't know if the Zfc will be a success or not, but if it would have been a full-frame camera it might have made an enticing upgrade (in image quality) from Fuji APS-C cameras.

As it is, this camera is not making me want to migrate systems once more!

Matt Edwards's picture

The newer crop sensors are honestly getting so good that I don't know if I see a personal need to upgrade to FF at all.

I don't print huge images so extra MPs don't help me alot, and just take up more memory and processing power when editing images. The ISO performance on aps-c offerings is getting very impressive. I don't do video work. So for my usage aps-c is great, as it is for many others as well

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Yes, for my usage APS-C is also great. I do see a potential for FF to improve image-quality for my night-shooting though, and sometimes I do feel the lure of extra MPs for more extra detail. (In macro photos for instance, where I often crop a lot to focus on the best details, it would sometimes be nice to have more MPs left in the final image).

nick turner's picture

Full frame, z-mount lenses and retro styling would have given this a great point of difference from fuji aps-c bodies and sony full frame/aps-c bodies. Instead it sits in direct competition with fuji, and it also competes with sony bodies for those consumers where retro styling is not important.

John Herzel's picture

I'm not sure why the world is looking at this as a "serious" or "technical" camera. Maybe it's just a "fun" camera. I still use my Canon A-1 film camera because it's fun to use (well developing and printing can get un fun sometimes), not because of any technical reason, but rather the healthy nostalgia that it brings back.
Nikon will sell a ton of these. Canon should do something similar as well. APSC on a modern sensor is good enough. The EFM mount is good enough. Let's have some fun!

Matt Edwards's picture

I think the cool thing about it is that it is a fun camera, but also has some pretty good specs. No reason this cannot be used as a "serious" camera as well.

John Herzel's picture

I think that fun can also be good enough and even serious sometimes (fun and quality are not mutually exclusive) and the Z50 is basically both at the same time, and the Z50 is the basis of the ZFc. Improved looks and extra dials are generally an advantage. I see no downsides here, and a lot of camera sales. Fiji proves that APSC can be high quality. And fun. And Serious. All at the same time. The df was FF and extremely expensive and had photo only specs. It was a seriously good photo camera. And seriously good looking. Maybe too early. I think the ZFc will succeed where the df failed.
I've said too much. But I like where Nikon is going here.

Jay C's picture

If i'm weight/size conscious, i'll go with Fuji. If i want full frame, Z5 is there for $999. I don't see how Nikon cranks this fc at $950 with it's below-average lens makes sense. I'm a Nikon/Fuji user and this is clearly a no-go, maybe for a die-hard Nikon owner who wants that retro looks.

T Jacobs's picture

Below average lens? The 28mm retro lens they are releasing with it has stellar reviews so far.

Erpillar Bendy's picture

It's a good-looking camera, but the APS-C sensor is a dealbreaker for me. Full frame would be interesting.

Charles Mercier's picture

Looks like making it FF would have put it well over the important $999 price though. That's a lot of lost sales. (Yes, they have done many studies, $4.95 vs. $5.00/$99 vs $100 does make a difference.)

Matt Edwards's picture

If you haven't used any of the newer crop sensor cameras from any of the big names recently, you may be missing out on how good they have gotten. When I went to mirrorless I went with aps-c, thinking I would invest in some good FF glass and then upgrade down the road. Now I am seriously questioning the need to upgrade to FF for my usage anyways...

M C's picture

I am a Fuji XT3 user. Perhaps one of the reasons we Fuji users bought into the system is that we are tired of having to dig into menus to make changes or to try and remember which unmarked button we set up to make those changes.

jim hughes's picture

Because APS-C is an excellent size, it makes for smaller and lighter gear, and you can do ANYTHING with it except impress people by slinging around the bogus marketing term "full frame".

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Well some FF gear is smaller and lighter than some APS-C or m43 gear! :D

I do think that FF still has an advantage over APS-C in some areas: high-ISO star-landscapes for instance, if I'd have a FF camera I could probably get a bit cleaner images.

If I take a photo with a macro lens and I want to crop to the "good parts" of the image, it would sometimes be nice to have more MPs left.

So I don't see it as just a bogus marketing term.

But I do feel that since I upgraded from a Canon sensor to Fuji, my image quality has improved for the things that I shoot and the extra quality I could get from a FF sensor is probably not that big a difference anymore to really care about it now.

Paulus van Aken's picture

If you crop on FullFrame you go back to Dx.
I have the 2.8 105 on my D500, it' s like a 150, already cropped.
And still have 20Mp.......

Stephen Strangways's picture

.

Pan daBear's picture

Well said

M C's picture

Why not?

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Call me back if there is a FF version without an LCD

Bernd Steinfeld's picture

Quo vadis Nikon? I mean it still doesn't make sense to me since there are no compact APS-C lenses available from Nikon Z-mount. I cannot imagine they deliberatly intended to leave that market to Chinese third party manufacturing.

Come on Nikon, you should finally understand what longterm 25year+ Nikon-enthusiasts like me really want: a 2nd gen FTZ Adapter that supports AF-D lenses. Unless you don't do that, there will be 2 gear sets with me Nikon DSLR - full frame an Fujifilm X - APSC. And to tell you the truth: since I moved to Fuji, I haven't taken the Nikon DSLR out of the cupboard - so you shouldn't wait too long...