Nikon’s Strategy Offers Value, but Is That Enough?

Nikon’s Strategy Offers Value, but Is That Enough?

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.

The Cameras

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.

The Lenses

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.

I'm still using a number of F-mount lenses, including this 24mm f/1.4.

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?
 

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42 Comments

Jon Winkleman's picture

Offering affordable entry level Z camera is a smart move. As many online content creators are looking for still and video cameras a step above an iPhone, it is smart for Nikon to offer lower end entry level Z cameras for the Nikon ecosystem. I have been shooting with Nikon’s D8XX series since the introduction of the D800. The image quality especially regarding dynamic range is superior to Canon and even Sony who makes the sensors. I love Nikon glass. Between the pandemic impacting manufacturing in China and Japan, the delay of the Olympics and photography trade shows and the economic hurt faced globally I am not shocked that Nikon is having a bad year and cameras such as the D850 successor and the Z9 are having a delayed release. Especially during the pandemic, releasing some entry level Z cameras is a smart move.

Gary Pardy's picture

Value eventually wins out, but emotional attachment makes drawing customers from competing platforms very difficult. I caved and switched to Fuji from Sony, realizing that Fuji is simply better value for my particular use case... but the emotional adjustment will be more difficult than any workflow adjustment...

Timothy Roper's picture

I may be very wrong, but I think the XQD card for the first gen Z bodies really held back sales. Even finding a reader was more hassle than it should have been at the beginning (my Sony one never even worked). And most people didn't want to spend time figuring out what those weird new--and extremely expensive--things are. Pros can handle that kind of thing no problem, but it was a big mistake for a brand new camera that needed to sell very broadly. And as a result, they have a lot of catching up to do.

John Pouw's picture

Yep I think you are spot on with the XQD card being a detractor. I pondered for quite some time before buying the Z6 and though I love it, the choice of card is a pain in the bs even only considering the cost of them. Fortunately, Nikon decided to give one 64gb XQD card free with the cameras here in NZ otherwise I may have not made the plunge. Have to say though, the lenses are awesome even the F4 ones and the 50mm F1.8 is brilliant.

Peter House's picture

I'm currently due for an upgrade on equipment. I have been shooting Nikon for about a decade now. Its been a workhorse all those years and always got the job done. But because I am at a point in time when I NEED to upgrade, and as I look over the marketplace, I'm having a hard time justifying a Nikon purchase, from a professional standpoint.

Mark Houston's picture

It really depends on how much much money you have invested in your optics.

Alex Coleman's picture

I'm at a point where I'm considering a couple thousand more in gear (24-70 2.8, 70-200 2.8) and I'm considering the same thing. Not sure if there's a bright enough future to justify the investment, hence this article. I'd suggest trying out Canon/Sony bodies in a store - ergonomics are significantly different, especially with menus. Also, build out a hypothetical kit - none of them have the same depth as DSLR, so you might find you're missing an essential piece.

Herco le Fevre's picture

To me the approach Nikon took with the Z-line makes a lot of sense addressing wide-market needs first before diving into niches. On some specs the Z-cameras are perhaps not yet as mature as the D850 or the D6, but they are certainly easier to handle during a long day in the studio. The Z-lenses I used (85/1.8 and the 70-200/2.8) are exceptionally good.

I've had both the A7RIV and the Z7 for an extended test run here to replace my Fuji X-based system (and next to my GFX). It's mostly fashion and portrait/make-up. I really liked the Z7 and as a stills camera I prefer it over the A7RIV in terms of handling, menu, viewfinder and image quality (dynamic range and ISO64 as a base sensitivity).

However, I do need faster 85 and 135 lenses and I want to be sure they'll be there in native Z-mount. Otherwise the Sony has the advantage of the lens catalog incl. 3rd party lenses like the excellent Sigma 85/1.4 DN. I decided to wait a bit longer until the Z7II and perhaps the next version of Nikon's Z-mount lens roadmap or an announcement from Sigma and/or Zeiss. Their Batis line would be perfect for Z-mount.

Alex Coleman's picture

Them keeping the lens mount locked down has definitely been a disappointment, especially considering how easy it would be to adapt even non-Z-specific lenses thanks to the flange depth.

R S's picture

The lenses are just decent and prioritize just good enough? Nonsense.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I use a dozen + F-mount lenses but my 14-30 and 24-200 Z-mount lenses on my Z7 are absolutely superior.

Nathan McNeill's picture

Earlier this year i decided to make the move to mirrorless, after Canon revealed the R5 and 6 the specs were impressive but with rumours of the Z6 and 7 refreshes i waited to see what Nikon was going to bring. But before then i saw a Z 24-70mm that was on sale for over $1,000 less than the RF variant so i just bought it and i knew the Z6 was an excellent photo camera with very good video, so i made an assumption the refresh would have dual slots etc and be a little better.

My point is i think Nikon has made the right choice making these improvements and sitting something like the Z6 II in a very affordable space - for my system with a body, 24-70 and 70-200 f2.8, by going Nikon i saved around $2,700 AUD over going Canon. Thats enough for other gear that will make a significant improvement in my business esp. In these times. But for Nikon to make inroads in the mirrorless space they need D500 and D850 moments as well as snowing some real innovation to move forward.

AJ L's picture

For me, prioritizing landscapes and having some F mount lens already, the Z7 was a no brainer. Super sharp lenses, makes my F mount glass look better than my D800 ever did, fantastic raw files and best in class weather sealing. They totally nailed it. Even a kit of modest glass (24-70 f/4, 85 and 50 f/1.8G, 70-300 AF-P) gets me stunning images. And it needs new memory cards, but takes the D800 batteries, so that’s a bit of a wash. And the kit with the 24-70 is selling for $2500 refurbished.

Alex Coleman's picture

That was the exact set of decisions I made - even down to the AF-P lens. The issue now is I've branched out to some more live action work and need some faster glass, and with the trinity in Z costing $6K, I'm considering whether there's a future in Z worth that much.

Rey cisneros's picture

Right now I will buy the z7ii when it comes out the camera that will hit the ball out of the park will be the z 9 stay tune

Max C's picture

Put everything aside (like the epic reign of the A7III) as of right now the Z6II is the best $2000 dollar hybrid camera on the market.

It's a late entry for sure, and it's taken the lead in its price category just marginally. That's the issue I think most people have. We were expecting Nikon to push the boundary further with the second iteration of the Z line.

Nikon instead decided to do just enough to move past the A7III and to entice their Nikon DSLR shooters to finally switch to the Z system.

Without creating more distance between themselves and their competitors, there is no reason for anyone to switch to Nikon. Conversely, people have been diving back into Canon since the R6 and R5 release because the tech was a significant leap forward.

And with the Sony A7IV supposedly coming in 2021, why would anyone shooting the alpha series switch to Nikon before seeing what the A7IV has to offer.

In short the Z6II and Z7II are good cameras, would have been legendary 2 years ago. Nikon acted to late, tjey counter-punched to softly and now their competitors are almost ready to come out of their corners swinging in 2021.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yup. I definitely get the feeling they're on their back foot, making me closely consider whether it's worth further committing to the mount.

Rob Pul's picture

"The spec changes were modest"

Jeez, youtubers/bloggers...they bashed the Z6/Z7 like if they were useless cameras just because of one card slot and no grip, now that those have been addressed (together with many other updates) they're suddenly "modest" issues.

"relatively weaker spec sheet versus some of the other mirrorless peers"

This is just spinning the argument on the negative. Which peers exactly? Nikon priced the Z7 around specs and to gain volume.

Alex Coleman's picture

The addition of a card slot and grip capability just brings the II versions in line with other cameras in that bracket, including Nikon's own DSLRs. If the changes to the camera can be summed up with card slot, grip, faster AF, I'd say that's pretty modest updates, given it took two years.

For the Z7 II, look to the R5 and A7R IV. For the Z6 II, consider the R6 and the A7 III.

Rob Pul's picture

What do you mean it took two years? Two years is right time for an upgrade, for any camera maker, and that's exactly what Nikon have done with the Z6II/Z7II.

As for the competing cameras you mentioned, again, you're giving it a negative spin. The Z7II/Z6II are not priced because of "weaker specs", they're priced in line with the specs for the price point they're in. For the Z7II it's the same price point as the previous Z7, the R5 is at a different price point with different specs and will be addressed with another model if Nikon wants to fill that gap. Same for Z6II and R6. Otherwise you'd have to state that any camera from any maker is priced because of "weaker specs" in relation to cameras at higher price points, which I don't think you did.

Alex Coleman's picture

The card slot and grip should have been there from launch - these were features Nikon had for years before on similarly-priced DSLRs. Missing them, while not critical to me, was a sticking point for a number of users.

You can't just compare them to the past Nikon Z cameras, but instead consider the market they're in. For a high resolution, full frame mirrorless camera, each of those I listed are viable options at a similar price point - it's only natural to compare the specs between them. A $500 price difference washes out when you consider a full kit will be $10,000+.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Until one of these class leading cameras has computational capabilities, in body post processing, and immediate and direct access to the internet, these cameras, as a group, really aren't very distinguishable. For many uses, the new iPhone 12 just smokes these cameras. I was very surprised when I recently saw some of the latest capabilities of the new smart phones.

John Pouw's picture

No disrespect Alex but in NZ the R5 is priced at $7,350 body only while the Z7 II is priced at $5,800. The A7RIV is priced at $5,497 so that is comparable. For the R6 you will pay $4,459 and the Z6 II is $3,800 so more comparable there but still more than a 10% price difference. I also think the A7 III is a great camera but it is showing it's age. Yes it has amazing image quality, dynamic range and autofocus, no question. But it is also showing its age compared to new cameras - ergonomics average, EVF average, LCD poor, UI average - yet it still fetches the same price as for example a Z6 (1) body which matches it I think in all respects (bar the second card slot and maybe battery life). The Z6 (1) is also better in the areas where the A7 III is average by todays standards. I am in no way knocking the A7 III, its a brilliant camera but it could only be the holy grail for so long. So given that Nikon have not increased the price dramatically for the Mark II models of both cameras while improving on the areas people found disappointing about the originals, I think the article makes its point. :)

Terry Poe's picture

"is 3rd place in this shrinking market enough to build off?" Unfortunately for Nikon it's not even the 3rd place.

In mirrorless camera market Nikon is currently in the 5th place, after Sony, Canon, Fujifilm and Olympus
https://photostudio.org/sony-tops-mirrorless-sales/

Alex Coleman's picture

At least right now, you can look beyond mirrorless. While it's the future, DSLR sales still account for a lot of the revenue.

J Cortes's picture

Keep in mind that will change as Nikon will overtake Olympus in sales. It hasn't been in the mirrorless business for FF very long in relation to the others. Nikon will climb after their period of transition and then the naysayers or doubters will change their tune and say they knew it all along that things would change.

Scotten Jones's picture

I was a long time Nikon shooter who bought a Fuji XT2 for a trip to get a lighter kit and liked it so much my Nikon gear hardly got used any more. When the Z7 came out I bought it with the 24-70mm f/4 and love the image quality with reasonable weight, Nikon kind of won me back with the Z7/6 although I have a bunch of Fuji gear I use as well. When the 14-30mm f/4 came out I got that too and it is another great lens, sharp and light weight. I primarily shoot landscapes and f/4 is perfect for me. What I find incredibly frustrating is the lack of a 70-200mm f/4 Z lens. I bought a 70-200mm f/4 F mount lens and use the FTZ adapter but where is the native Z lens, it isn't even on their roadmap. They started an f/4 trinity and then dropped the ball. Even the Nikon reps don't understand why there isn't a 70-200mm f/4 Z lens.

AJ L's picture

Similar experience here. I’ve been a D800 user, and a Fuji user since the XE1. I’d been enjoying a Nex-5n but what really won me over was the Fuji 35/1.4, and before I got my Z7 I was mostly using an XH1. Coming from that, the Z ergonomics are immediately familiar. I also don’t want an f/2.8 tele zoom because of cost and weight, so I’m using a 70-300 AF-P on the FTZ adapter and it’s really excellent. Nikon could make something along those lines, or an f/4, in Z mount and I’d be very happy.

Alex Coleman's picture

Similar path here. I tried the XT-1, but it was just too much of a step down from my D800. I love the Z7 and the f/4 zooms were a big motivating factor to switch. The missing Z 70-200 f/4 is quite a mystery, considering the broad design philosophy. I sure hope the two unnecessary 50mm options didn't take away a lens spot from that 70-200.

John Pouw's picture

I think Nikon just put the 70-200mm F4 on their release calendar so thats awesome. I hear you though, as a landscape photographer myself, the F2.8 was way out of my price bracket and requirements. :)

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