Keiji Oishi, Department Manager of Nikon's UX Planning Dept, Imaging Business Unit.

We were at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas last month, and during our time on the floor we sat down with Keiji Oishi, Department Manager of Nikon's UX Planning Dept, Imaging Business Unit.

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In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr Oishi gave us an insight into Nikon's strategy at all levels of its business, and shared some details of Nikon's (then very much under wraps) new professional flagship, the D6.

Nikon recently released the D780 - some people might be surprised to see the launch of a new DSLR in 2020.

The development of the Z-series is our core focus, but we need to support the demands of our DSLR customers, for the latest technologies. The D780 represents a leap in terms of technology compared to the D750. The D780 has what we might call ‘over-class’ features for a DSLR of this type, such as the autofocus algorithm from the D5, and the shutter mechanism of the D850.

It also incorporates some of the advantages of mirrorless technology, such as live view autofocus performance and Eye-Detection AF. It’s all combined in one model.

The D750 continues to be competitive, long after its introduction. Why did you feel it needed updating?

The D750 is a very good camera, and its sales are good because of its well-balanced specifications and its price point. But some customers were starting to consider replacing [their D750] because their camera body is five years old.

We’re at a transitional stage at the moment, with our customers. They’re wondering which platform is better for their needs

Some people we’ve pointed towards the Z 6 or Z 7, because of the advantages of mirrorless, but some customers want to stick with DSLR because of the optical viewfinder, autofocus performance in some situations, and also the long battery life. For those customers looking to replace their D750, we wanted to prepare two options - the Z-series lineup, and also DSLR.

Does this indicate a deliberate strategy going forward of creating closely-related ‘companion’ models, across the Z-series and DSLR lineups? The Z 6 and D780, and the Z 7 and D850, for example?

I can’t say that we’ll do that forever, but we’re at a transitional stage at the moment, with our customers. They’re wondering which platform is better for their needs. And given the current state of our technologies we’ve concluded that we should prepare both options right now - Z-series, and DSLR, because of the [different] advantages of both platforms, for different customer needs.

The Nikon D780 is a significant upgrade over the D750, offering a lot of the same technologies as the mirrorless Z 6 in a solid, power-efficient DSLR form factor.

Do you have a sense of the timeframe over which you’ll transition customers away from DSLR, eventually?

We haven’t finalized our plan yet. At this time I can say that we will prioritize both DSLR and mirrorless. We also want to complete our Z system: that’s the first priority. At a certain point, we hope that all DSLR customers will [ultimately] be satisfied by the features provided by mirrorless, and will shift to the Z system. That’s the goal. But until then, we will continue to develop DSLRs.

In building out the Z system, what are you prioritizing? Lower-end or higher-end products?

We’re actually going in both directions. The Z 50 is a good entry-level body, using the DX format, but we also want to expand the FX lineup at both the high-end, and the more affordable level.

The Z 50 is still fairly new in the market - how do you see the DX Z lineup evolving over time? Or do you see it as a step-up model on the way to full-frame?

The Z 50 is a well-balanced body. The beauty of the Z 50 is that it uses the same mount as our FX cameras, so Z 50 customers can use DX and FX lenses. But if they require more, let’s say high image quality or more resolution, we can point them towards the Z 6 or Z 7..

Nikon's DX format Z-mount lens lineup currently consists of only two 'kit' zooms but Nikon sees FX-format lens compatibility as a major advantage of the Z-mount compared to some competitive systems.

Traditionally, APS-C customers tend to buy fewer lenses. Do you expect your DX customers will purchase full-frame lenses for their camera?

Currently, our 16-50mm and 50-250mm [DX format Z-mount lenses] offer very good optical performance. So first of all, I would like Z 50 customers to explore those two lenses. And on our roadmap we have another lens, the 18-140mm, also for those customers. We want to make [DX lenses] affordable, and of the right size.

A lot of DPReview readers want to see something like a small, high-quality 35mm equivalent lens for DX.

Some of our FX customers also want more affordable, smaller lenses, for example pancake lenses. if we can make those kinds of lenses [for FX] they will provide a good solution for both DX and FX-format customers. We have a 28mm and a 40mm [already] on the roadmap [for full-frame].

Nikon is fully committed to the future of the Z system, and we will have 23 lenses by the end of 2021

We need to make these kinds of lenses. The roadmap is always evolving, year by year, which is why we don’t put any dates on it. Additionally, we understand that many potential customers are interested in teleconverters and we are thinking about it. Although [teleconverters] are not in the Lens Roadmap, we understand the necessity of those accessories. Nikon is fully committed to the future of the Z system, and we will have 23 lenses by the end of 2021.

There are almost no restrictions for the Z mount system, compared to F-mount. The approach to lens design is totally different than for the F-mount system. Our engineers get to enjoy lens design from scratch. They can aim for ultimate image quality.

The Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 S is one of the company's first lenses designed from scratch for a wide diameter mirrorless lens mount. Without the physical restrictions imposed by the narrow F-mount, Nikon's optical engineers were able to deliver excellent performance, even at maximum aperture,

Does that mean that the manufacturing techniques for Z mount lenses are different, too?

Yes, that’s true.

You’ve had 18 months or so to gather feedback from Z 6 and Z 7 users - what lenses do they really want to see?

Basically, they’re just saying “more lenses!” But we’re getting most requests for a pancake. The mirrorless camera bodies are smaller than DSLR, but the lenses are still the same size. A lot of our Z 6 and Z 7 customers want to make their system size much smaller, so this is a priority for us.

What feedback or requests have you had on the cameras themselves?

The number of card slots was one of the [most common] pieces of feedback. Also, we have received requests for a vertical control grip. Customers are used to the D850 or D750, with two slots. With the Z 6 and Z 7 we wanted to minimize the [body] size.

There is a grip available now, obviously functionally quite limited, has it done well in the marketplace?

It hasn’t been as popular as vertical grips for the DSLRs, but some customers really appreciate the additional battery capacity.

In developing the Z 6 and Z 7 Nikon placed priority on minimizing the size of the camera bodies. As such, the company opted for a single card slot, supporting high-speed XQD / CFexpress media. Apparently, one of the most-requested features from Z 6 and Z 7 owners for future models is another card slot.

Do you see your APS-C and full-frame customers as being different?

Actually, our APS-C customers are unique, I think. There are two kinds: one is the person who wants a second camera. They’re really [interested in] system size. For those people, APS-C makes sense because it makes the cameras smaller.

The other kind is first-time camera buyers. We want to promote [the Z 50] to these people as an affordable, small camera that creates good stills and video. Because these customers don’t just stick to stills, they also want to enjoy movie capture. We feel the Z 50 offers a good balance for both these kinds of customers.

Obviously there’s a lot of competition now in the mirrorless market. What is the most important customer demographic for Nikon, in the medium-term?

Nikon’s advantage is that we have a full lineup, for both DSLR and mirrorless, that satisfies the needs of many kinds of customers. This still isn’t offered by other manufacturers, so far.

We want to create a new group of customers. Of course we want to prioritize our existing users, but we also need to capture more new photographers, who are currently enjoying using their smartphones, but who want to move towards better image quality, to differentiate their work from others. For those customers we want to send the message that we can help them create good images with a small platform. With the wide diameter of the Z mount we can create very good optics.

The size difference between the Z-mount (left) and the legacy F-mount (right - obviously) is significant. The wider diameter and much shorter flange-back allow Nikon's optical engineers a much greater degree of freedom when designing lenses for Nikon's new Z system.

Those are the same people that every manufacturer, across the entire industry wants to attract. What is your strategy to actually get the message across to them?

We want to emphasize the benefits of the Z-mount diameter, and short flange-back distance, which differentiates the image quality from our cameras from others. So by introducing our technology to those customers we want them to understand the beauty of our system, and bring them into our world.

How will Nikon be competitive in the full-frame market in the future?

We understand that we need to keep on evolving, with the Z series as our first priority, and complete our lineup of Nikkor Z lenses and accessories.

Some of our customers still see an advantage to DSLRs, because of their particular usage needs

By having a full system lineup, the customer can easily enter the system and see the great advantages of the mount diameter and short flange back. This is our strategy.

Have you seen a drop in DSLR sales following the launch of the Z 6 and Z 7?

We have seen some impact, but much less than we anticipated. Some of our customers still see an advantage to DSLRs, because of their particular usage needs.

Looking forward, how important is video capture to your camera strategy?

We’ve really prioritized video customers, at both entry-level and high-end. The Z 50 is a good solution for an entry-level video customer, like a YouTuber. But for professional customers, we introduced new firmware for the Z 6 and Z 7 for RAW video output. That’s the kind of approach we want to take - step by step, and we want to keep those kinds of professional-level features in future products.

Do you have any sense of how many customers have opted for the Raw video firmware update?

I can’t share the exact number but it’s more than we expected. It was a real surprise.

We want to do regular scheduled firmware updates to keep the products up to date

The firmware update was promised a long time ago - why did it take so long to become available?

To be honest, it was just a question of resources. But after I took over product planning, we are planning to schedule firmware updates more frequently. We don’t want that kind of delay [again] between the announcement of firmware and its availability. We want to do regular scheduled firmware updates to keep the products up to date for a long time.

What are the most important differences from the D5 to the D6?

The D6 has two big advantages. The first is the performance of its new autofocus system, and also the interface for transmitting images. These two advantages are of major importance to professional photographers, who need more rapid data transfer and more focus accuracy. In these respects the D6 is a dramatic jump from the D5.

the forthcoming D6 is a powerful camera designed to satisfy the needs of Nikon's most demanding customers, but it's still a fairly traditional, stills-focused DSLRs.

The D6 obviously has a 4K video feature, but it appears to be primarily a stills camera. Is that fair?

Basically yes.

Was the decision not to load more video features into the D6 based on feedback from professional D5 users?

Yes, we had a lot of requests from D5 users around stills features, but fewer requests and opinions about movie enhancements. Most of the customers for the D5 don’t need things like 4K, 60p video for sports shooting. If they were shooting for commercial uses like weddings, maybe they would need it, but not for sports.

Do you think that this requirement is met, for example, by the Z 6?

The Z 6, yes, or the D850.

Editors' note: Barnaby Britton

Mr Oishi is a candid and engaging interviewee, and a man who is clearly passionate about his company and its customers. Few other manufacturers have quite as much history behind their brand, and for this reason alone Nikon's move into full-frame mirrorless was probably always going to be a little fraught.

Despite the fact that Nikon's Z 6 and Z 7 are among the most well-rounded mirrorless ILCs on the market, and certainly among the nicest to use, the cameras have attracted some criticism from the company's own customers over the past 18 months. Some people complained about their single card slots, some people complained about the limitations of their autofocus implementation, some people complained about the lack of a proper vertical grip, and some complained about their cost (because some people always complain about the cost).

It just goes to show that you can't please all of the people all of the time. But you can try. I'm sure that a lot of our readers will be pleased to hear Mr Oishi's comments about more regular firmware updates, for one thing, but the launch of the attractively well-featured D780 is another indication that Nikon is genuinely keen to keep its customers happy - whatever system they're invested in. Mr Oishi all-but confirmed that during this 'transitional stage', Nikon will create both mirrorless and DSLR bodies which share common technology.

Nikon would like to transition its customers over to mirrorless at some point, en masse, but the company is in no rush

The Z 7 is already (almost) a D850 without a mirror, and the new D780 seems intended both to reassure Nikon's wider DSLR customer base that the company hasn't forgotten about them, and also to satisfy the immediate needs of D750 owners interested in an upgrade. Nikon is probably also hoping that the raft of 'mirrorless' technologies offered in the D780 will smooth an eventual transition to Z-mount, if and when buyers choose to make the 'big' switch.

It's clear from talking to Mr. Oishi that Nikon would like to transition its customers over to mirrorless eventually, en masse, but the company is in no rush. Several things have to happen before a full transition to the Z-mount becomes realistic. One of those things is lenses. Mr Oishi mentioned that 21 lenses will be available for Z-mount by the end of next year, and repeatedly stressed that the roadmap is very flexible, based on requests from Nikon's customers. As it stands right now, that roadmap includes a couple of vital professional-friendly telezooms, as well as a 105mm macro and more primes.

Another factor, of course, is that compared to beginners and enthusiasts, transitioning professional sports and photojournalism photographers (a vital demographic for Nikon) over to mirrorless will be a slow and gradual process. These people rely on their cameras to make a living, one split second at a time. Despite its impressive feature set, the new D6 is still a fairly traditional, stills-focused DSLR, because that's the kind of camera that Nikon's pro users are asking for.

For now.

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