The Nikon Z is a big step for Nikon but they need to keep being brave
The Nikon Z is a brave and important step for Nikon and, while it might not have got everything right first time, it shows enough promise to encourage existing users to commit themselves to the system. However, to deliver the system's full potential, Nikon needs to continue being brave.
A brave new lens mount...
It may sound odd but I think the most significant thing about the Nikon Z cameras isn't that they're mirrorless: it's that they use a new lens mount. This may sound like the same thing, but I think it's informative to separate the two ideas.
A mirrorless design lets the body be a bit smaller and allows a more consistent experience between stills and video shooting, but that's not that radical. Casting off the existing limitations of your mount and looking to the future: that's a big step.
Nikon is a company with a long history and a proud 100 year tradition of making excellent products. Whether it's the Nikon F, F3, FM, D3, D500 or D850, it's produced some genuinely superb cameras. And then, of course, there are the lenses: it's 59 years since the company introduced the F-mount and the majority of those lenses can still be used, to various extents, on its latest models.
Moving to a new lens mount, even if you do everything you can to respect history by maintaining backwards compatibility, is a huge step. Canon's reputation took a knock when it took the decision to abandon its existing FD lenses and move to the EF mount. It was a big move but one that's been vindicated by how future-proof a large, all electronic mount has proven to be. Sony, conversely, made the decision to squeeze a full frame sensor into its E-mount, rather than try to add a third mount to its lineup.
|Nikon showed a series of mockup lenses when it launched the 1 System, but the decision to spell-out its plans for the Z mount represents an unusual degree of candor for the company.|
The move to mirrorless was, then, the perfect chance to design a new lens mount and Nikon has clearly gone out of its way to make something flexible. If you asked a team of engineers who'd spent their entire careers working with the restrictions of a narrow-throated, film-era mount to design something new, the vast, adaptable Z-mount is probably what they'd come up with.
And this is promising for the future: it provides plenty of scope for making a wide range of lenses without having to worry about sending light to the corners of the sensor at hard-to-capture oblique angles.
|The Z mount compared to the F mount.|
...a little shortsightedness?
But, while I commend Nikon for making a break with its past, I worry a little that it's decided not to share the details of this mount with third party makers.
It's understandable that, having sold 100 million lenses for your existing mount, you might feel you don't need anyone else's help. However, for photographers without any F-mount lenses, the initial lack of third-party support (in terms both of adaptors and native lenses) will look like a weak point.
The dimensions of Sony's E mount may look somewhat restrictive when compared with the Nikon Z's but even if you think solely in terms of full frame, it has a four and a half year headstart and native support from both Sigma and Tamron. This gives it a huge advantage in terms of native lens availability and one that it's likely to maintain if Nikon won't let anyone else play in its sandpit.
Wouldn't it be better to open up the mount and make the whole system look more attractive to would-be buyers? After all, you shouldn't have to artificially protect your own lens sales if you're confident that yours are better quality or better value than those of third parties.
...and some opportunities missed
Beyond the lens mount, Nikon has struck a similar balance of respecting history and seizing new opportunities: copying much of its widely-admired ergonomics and UI directly across while also making much greater use of the touchscreen than would have made sense on a DSLR.
But the job's not done. In designing the Z7, Nikon seems to have used a continuation of its live view AF system (the one no one uses), rather than see the move to mirrorless as an opportunity to re-think how AF would be controlled, given a blank piece of paper.
Nikon has instead opted for a clumsier system adapted from its live view AF tracking system. This requires you to press 'OK' or tap on a subject before it'll start tracking
Initially this will present a hurdle for Nikon DSLR users moving across but that in itself shouldn't be the deal-breaking argument: these cameras need to attract new users, too. The more compelling argument for more closely mimicking its DSLRs' through-the-viewfinder AF behavior is that it's the best in the industry. And it should be: Nikon's literally spent decades refining it, to the point it's used by news, action and sports journalists the world over.
Nikon's 3D Tracking system, where you position an AF point and it tracks whatever was under that point when you initiate AF is brilliant. No matter which system we've each come from, there's consensus in the DPReview office that 3D Tracking represents best practice. There's a reason why Sony's mirrorless cameras seem to more closely copy its behavior with every generation (though if they could also take note of Nikon's system working without the need for an infinite number of AF area modes, that'd be good, too).
Unfortunately, Nikon has instead opted for a clumsier system adapted from its live view AF tracking system. This requires you to press 'OK' or tap on a subject before it'll start tracking, rather than simply tracking based on your pre-selected AF point. Worse still, it requires that you disengage tracking (either by pressing 'OK' again or by tapping onto a different subject), rather than simply reverting to your chosen point when you release the shutter button.
This might not sound like much of an inconvenience, but it's the difference between being able to switch subjects in-the-moment, rather than having to stop shooting, make a change and start all over again. It's a loss of precisely the immediacy and simplicity that makes 3D Tracking so good in the first place.
To be clear, I'm not criticizing the AF algorithms themselves: we've not fully tested it yet but the Z 7's tracking seems incredibly sticky: my concern is solely about the user interface.
Act now, before things become set in stone
As I say, Nikon's through-the-viewfinder behavior is so good that it would be worth Nikon trying to mimic it in the Z system's interface. And yes, there'll be the added bonus that it'll be behavior that existing users expect. But they need to do it now, before the new, less refined behavior becomes ossified as 'the behavior our existing users expect.'
So, having made a break with the past to adopt a radical, future-proof lens mount, I call on Nikon to be brave again and redesign its AF behavior. And maybe have a think about whether third-party lenses are a threat or a benefit.
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