(L-R) Mr Naoki Kitaoka, Department Manager of the UX Planning Department in the Marketing Sector of Nikon's Imaging Business Unit, pictured with Mr Takami Tsuchida, Sector Manager of the Marketing Sector inside Nikon's Imaging Business Unit, at the CP+ 2019 show in Yokohama Japan.

We were in Japan earlier this month for the annual CP+ show in Yokohama, where we sat down with senior executives from several camera and lens manufacturers, among them Nikon.

We spoke with three Nikon executives from the Marketing Sector of Nikon's Imaging Business Unit:

  • Naoki Kitaoka, Department Manager, of the UX Planning Department.
  • Takami Tsuchida, Sector Manager.
  • Hiroyuki Ishigami, Section Manager of the Product Planning Section IL, UX Planning Department.

Please note that this interview was conducted with multiple interlocutors through an interpreter, and has been edited for clarity and flow. In the interests of readability, answers have been combined.

How do you think the market for full frame mirrorless will evolve?

In terms of hardware, it is likely that mirrorless will catch up with DSLR. But one thing that is a challenge is the time lag of electronic viewfinders. Even though we have a great mirrorless [solution], we cannot beat the optical viewfinder.

For really high-level professional photographers at sports events and so on, I believe that the DSLR will survive. I think there will be a synergy between DSLR and mirrorless, so we can expand the market moving forward.

I hesitate to talk about our competitors, but while Sony only offers mirrorless cameras, both Nikon and Canon offer DSLR and mirrorless, so there are more options for our customer bases. DSLR and mirrorless cameras have their own unique characteristics.

The Nikon Z6 and Z7 feature a high-resolution electronic viewfinder which prioritizes clarity and sharpness over response speed. One of the secrets behind the large, sharp viewfinder image is the complex optical unit behind the display panel, which contains multiple elements including an asphere.

The Z6 and Z7 offer very high resolution finders, at the expense of response speed, compared to some competitors. Why did you make this decision?

There are various factors, however we decided on three main pillars for the Z system. The first pillar is a new dimension of optical performance. The second is reliability, both in terms of the hardware and also the technology, and the third is future-proofing of that technology.

The view through the viewfinder should be as natural as possible

To touch on the first pillar, optical performance, we’re really trying to be the best and provide the ultimate performance of the viewfinder. The view through the viewfinder should be as natural as possible. To achieve that goal we did two things - we focused on the optics, and also on image processing.

With current technology there is always some time lag, it will take some time and if we want to shorten the response time and compromise in terms of resolution, the [experience] deteriorates. Of course, we’ll continue to try to make the response time shorter.

Is it more important for the viewfinder response to be faster in a camera more geared towards speed?

That depends. In the Z7, our first priority was not speed. Therefore, if we were going to launch a camera focused on speed, we’d need to review [viewfinder responsiveness].

What kind of feedback have you received from your Z6 and Z7 customers?

Very similar to [DPReview's] feedback. For people who don't prioritize high-speed shooting, they’re happy with the performance and the portability of the system. In many cases they’ve totally switched away from DSLR.

The Nikon Z6 is a lower-cost companion camera to the flagship Z7, which has already out-sold the more expensive model. According to Nikon, the Z6 has proven especially popular with filmmakers.

Is the Z6 attracting a different kind of customer to the Z7?

When we launched them, we expected that sales would be about 50:50, however the Z6 already has a larger customer base. It’s more price competitive. Video shooters are telling us [the Z6] is very user-friendly, and in the US market, the Film Makers’ Kit has become popular.

We’re going to create easier to use and friendlier equipment for photographers that need to do both stills and video

In the future, would you like Nikon to appeal to serious professional videographers and filmmakers?

If you mean Hollywood or television broadcast videographers, we’re not trying to address that segment. However we are targeting freelancers, one-person team kind of videographers - that kind of shooter. That’s the kind of direction we’re going in.

We’re going to create easier to use and friendlier equipment for those photographers that need to do both stills and video. For example, photojournalists, or wedding photographers.

On the optics side, in the S-series lenses we took great care over the video functionality as well, so for example when you zoom the focus stays there, there’s no defocusing, and there’s no change in the image angle when you focus, either.

Do you think that strategy might change in the future?

We’ll keep an eye on the market, and look at the demands of our customers.

Despite the entry of the Z7 into the market, the D850 continues to be a major seller for Nikon, and in some ways remains a more capable camera for professionals.

Do you plan to increase your production capacity, to make F mount and Z mount products in parallel? Or will you scale down production of one line to make room for expansion of the other?

Even though we’ve now launched Z mount into the market, we still have a very robust [F mount] customer base, and a good reputation thanks to our DSLRs, especially products like the D750 and D850. And sales are still very robust.

I want to grow the Z series and D series at the same time - we’re not weighing one against the other. For example, developing Z lenses alongside F-mount lenses will put a lot of pressure on us, so efficiency of production will be very important from now on, because we really want to maintain production and development of both lines in future. When we can, we’ll commonize parts and platforms, and of course we’ll monitor trends in the market, and where the growth is.

Take a look inside Nikon's Sendai factory [August 2018]

Can you give me an example of a new, efficient production process in contrast to an older, less efficient process?

We are really interested in automation, and we’d like to automate so we don’t have to depend [entirely] on human labor. For example, we’d like to have a 24/7 operation in our factories.

Since we launched the Z series, our users have been asking us to apply mirrorless technology to the DX format

Do you think the Z mount will eventually be an APS-C platform, as well as full-frame?

I cannot disclose our plans but for today I can say that since we launched the Z series, our DX format DSLR users have been asking us to apply mirrorless technology to the DX format as well. If we employ APS-C sensors [in mirrorless] maybe the system can be made even smaller. So as we go along, we’ll listen to the voices of our customers.

One of the advantages of the narrow dimensions of the 60 year-old F-mount is that the APS-C cameras that use it - like the D3500, shown here - can be made remarkably small. That will be a harder trick to pull off with the larger Z-mount.

We understand some of the benefits of a short flange back and wide diameter mount, are there any disadvantages?

In comparison to F mount, [when designing lenses for Z] we can really guide the light, even right to the edges of the frame. This gives uniformly high image quality across the whole image area. The camera can also be thinner.

There’s no particular challenge or shortcoming in this kind of design, except that the mount diameter determines the camera’s size. You can’t make the camera any smaller [than the height defined by the diameter of the mount].

Does a shorter flange back distance make the mount and lens alignment tolerances more critical? Is it harder to correct for reflections and ghosting?

Generally speaking, when it comes to alignment, no. But there is more risk of sensor damage in [such a design, with a rear lens group very close to the imaging plane ] if the camera is dropped. So we needed to create a system to [absorb shock] in this instance. When it comes to ghosting, it is more critical, so we have to really reduce reflections. Only by doing this were we able to [make the design of the Z mount practical].

Is there a software component to that, or are you achieving the reduced reflections entirely optically and via coatings?

No software is involved.

Editor's note: Barnaby Britton

Last year was a crucial year for Nikon, and the Z system was a hugely significant move for the company - one on which the future of the manufacturer may depend. Nikon has been careful not to talk about the Z mount replacing the 60 year-old F-mount so much as complementing it, and in our meeting at CP+, Nikon's executives were again keen to emphasize that they see DSLRs and mirrorless cameras co-existing - at least for now.

Clearly though, as they admit, 'mirrorless will catch up with DSLR' eventually. And already, for Nikon, mirrorless has opened the door to a new customer base for the company: filmmakers. While Nikon isn't targeting professional production companies or broadcast customers (not yet - although the forthcoming addition of Raw video is a strong indicator that they'd like to) I get the sense that the Z6 has been more of a hit with multimedia shooters than Nikon perhaps expected. It certainly seems as if sales figures for the 24MP model have come as a bit of a surprise. It's unclear though whether the proportionally greater sales of the Z6 compared to the Z7 are a result of the cheaper model over-performing, or the flagship under-performing in the market.

A mirrorless D5 it ain't, but the high-resolution Z7 is an excellent platform for Nikon's new range of Z-series lenses

The Z7 was always going to be a relatively tough sell at its launch price, with the inevitable comparisons against the incredibly capable and still-popular D850, and the fact that the similarly-specced (and in some ways more versatile) Z6 was coming fast on its heels. Regardless, Nikon clearly sees the Z7 as living alongside its high-end DSLRs, rather than as a replacement model. As the executives said in our interview, 'in the Z7, our first priority was not speed'. A mirrorless D5 it ain't, but the high-resolution Z7 is an excellent platform for Nikon's new range of Z-series lenses, which are at least a generation ahead of their F-mount forebears in terms of optical technology.

We've heard a lot about the benefits of wider, shallower mounts for optical design (and the benefits are real, by the way, especially when it comes to designing wide, fast lenses) but it was interesting to hear about some of the challenges that emerged. Principle among them are the need to reduce aberrant reflections, which can cause ghosting, and the requirement for a robust sensor assembly to avoid damage from impact.

Right now, the Z system is a full-frame system. But in this interview we got the clearest hint yet that this might not be a permanent condition

Judging by Roger Cicala's tear-down of the Z7 last year, it's obvious that Nikon really prioritized ruggedness and 'accident-proofing' in the Z6/7. It turns out that one of the reasons for this focus on build quality is the close proximity of the stabilized sensor not only to the outside world, but also to the rear elements of Z-series lenses.

Right now, the Z system is a full-frame system. But in this interview we got the clearest hint yet that this might not be a permanent condition. Reading between the lines, a statement like 'since we launched the Z series, our users have been asking us to apply mirrorless technology to the DX format' is as close to a confirmation that this is being actively worked on as we'd expect to get from a senior executive. As for how far away an APS-C Z-mount camera is, I wouldn't want to guess.

There's always a chance, of course, that Nikon could go the Canon route and use a totally separate mount for APS-C. I doubt it, but Mr Kitaoka did make the point that the width of the Z-mount defines the size of the camera. And the Z-mount, as we know well, is very wide indeed.