Nikon’s recent announcement of the Z 7 II and Z6 II, as well as their lens roadmap, paint an interesting picture for the future of the Z system. At a time when every other manufacturer offers increasingly expensive and exotic lenses and cameras, they’re going against the grain. Is that enough in today’s market?
One of the most interesting details of the announcement of the second versions of the Z series was actually at the very end. The spec changes were modest, mostly incremental bumps to things like focus speed. What stood out to me, however, was the prices. At a time when other manufacturers are bumping their prices higher with every release, Nikon kept the Z 6 price the same and actually dropped the Z 7’s. I think this is partly due to the relatively weaker spec sheet versus some of the other mirrorless peers on the market, but I also wonder if it reflects a more intentional strategy on Nikon’s part.
With a few exemptions, almost each piece of the Z system seems to prioritize “good enough” over “top of the line”. At each price point, they seem to be making a more conservative choice, skewing to the lower end of the spec sheet or price bracket, depending on how you break things down. There could be a number of reasons for this, which we’ll take a look at later. First, however, I want to talk about where I see these decisions most prominently.
As mentioned, the announcement of the Z 7 II and Z 6 II is coming at a pretty significant time in the market. Canon’s was just recently announced, finally adding a flagship level body to the RF line, bringing with it headline grabbing features like 8K video. Sony’s competition to the Z 7 II offers significantly more megapixels. These were being released into an increasingly mature, competitive mirrorless landscape, while for Nikon, they represented one of the best chances to quell DSLR user doubts and encourage the jump into the Z system. Put simply, these bodies have to deliver in some capacity.
Based on the comments I saw surrounding the launch, I’d say it was a mixed result. There was nothing setting the internet ablaze, in a good or bad way. Instead, it just seemed to be an example of confirmation bias. Those who already liked the Z system found that this improved on some of the pain points, addressing the things conspicuously missing like a second card slot and functional vertical grip. Critics saw it as just a warmed over Z 6 or Z 7.
When the new bodies were being teased, I laid out a few of the points I’d like to see improved to keep them competitive. While they hit a few of them, I’d count myself more in the “warmed over” camp of critics. Assuming these are flagship bodies of the Z series until at least mid-2021, I don’t think they are competitive enough to prompt switching to the system from other brands, upgrades from existing Nikon DSLR users, or particularly upgrades from existing Z system users.
Instead, I think they just represent Nikon staying the course. The bodies themselves are fine. I like the design and operation of most features, the sensor is competitive with others in the corresponding brackets, and the feature set is good enough. That these revisions are so minor, yet these bodies are still relatively competitive says that Nikon got a lot right with the first generation — significantly more so than Sony’s first a7 bodies or Canon’s RF cameras, for instance.
Some new lenses have also been added to the Z system roadmap over the last few months. Combined with those already released, I think there’s a pretty accurate picture available of the native Z lineup, at least for the next few years. Setting aside the few DX offerings, FX Z lenses are essentially split into two categories: prosumer and pro.
The f/4 zooms are great for what they are: lightweight and portable, while still offering strong image quality and decent focus performance in good light. The f/1.8 primes straddle the line between pro and consumer, with a high sticker price, but surprisingly good performance for a f/1.8 lens (which has typically been more consumer oriented).
There’s the expected pro trinity, covering 14-200mm at f/2.8, with excellent performance, but spotty availability. Performance-wise, these only slightly improve on the f/2.8 trinity already available for F-mount, an important point to consider when evaluating the benefits of the mount. You could also put the f/1.2 and f/.95 50mm options here, although I think the Noct is particularly unsuited to any use besides looking cool on a desk.
Overall, I’d say you could sum up the lenses the same way as the bodies: decent offerings, hitting most of the expected notes. It’s nice to see that they’ve finally rounded out the pro trinity in particular, although I can’t figure out how it took so long to essentially match what they already had in F-mount. Some of the choices seemed a bit funky: two super-specialty 50mm lenses before anything beyond 200mm stands out as an unusual priority.
Why This Matters
I’ve created some of my favorite shots with my Z cameras. They’re great performers, and they make the right set of compromises for what and how I shoot. Having an f/4 capable 24-70mm for hiking that doesn’t leave sharpness behind with weight has been awesome. The 14-30mm is a great ultra-wide, capable of taking filters and drastically outperforming my old 16-35mm. To me, video isn’t even a consideration and I’ve done just fine with 1 card slot. Overall, the Z kit was and continues to be the right fit for me.
What is a consideration however, is what questions this strategy raises about Nikon going forward. Are they going to be able to field an entire set of Z lenses quickly enough, especially now with DX Z also being a consideration? Nikon made their name in lenses, and while the Z offerings are strong, they are also a safe choice. Does that mean R&D has been deprioritized? Is there a body or bodies coming that will sit above the Z 7 II? The pro-sports and reportage niche is conspicuously empty, while the Z 7 II doesn’t offer significantly more than the 3 year old D850.
In past calls with analysts, Nikon’s management has identified the need to shift their product mix to a higher average selling price. While a Z 6 II sale is certainly better for the bottom line than a D3300, competing in this prosumer niche is going to be difficult without meeting or exceeding the competition in specs. It means less mindshare and correspondingly less market share. Have they made a deliberate choice to compete on price rather than specs?
As I’ve discussed in other pieces, the camera market is undergoing a massive contraction and won’t be able to support a dozen different camera manufacturers going forward. Canon and Sony, partly because of their wide product line beyond even cameras, should be able to continue forward. With their positions all but cemented, is 3rd place in this shrinking market enough to build off?