8.26.2018

Thinking about the Nikon Z series after reading more from Nikon and trying to figure out what they were aiming to produce versus what reviewers thought Nikon was trying to produce.

It's all in the design mix.

Everybody seems to think that Nikon's design goals with the Z cameras were to match, or somehow better, what consumers like about Sony full frame cameras. This is a mistake. Nikon was trying to figure out how to deliver a totally different set of design parameters. And I maintain that the indicator of this (regardless of how many faux engineers want to argue the point) is the re-invention of the lens mount. Nikon's goals are less about delivering a spec sheet full of matching metrics and, in my opinion, they are interested in nothing less than making a system that delivers the highest potential image quality in a mirrorless package.

The proof will be in the lenses. People have been aghast on the web forae about the cost of the 50mm f1.8 lens ($599) and it's because legions of writers have trained them to think of all 50mm lenses as being "nifty-fifties", designed to be decent performers, and also designed to be dirt cheap. Most 50mm 1.8s are based on really old five and six element designs using standard elements and assembled in cheap, plastic lens bodies. The lenses can generally be forgiven if they are not very sharp wide open because most of them can be bought new for around $125. No wonder everyone is up in arms, they seem to believe that what Nikon is offering is just another garden variety nifty-fifty attached to an "Art" lens price tag. A "kit" lens.

If the wags were diligent enough to do some easy research they'd find that Nikon's new Z, 50mm f1.8 is a totally different animal, and a look at the specs would suggest that it might be a bargain at the price point the lens occupies. Why? Well it's a twelve element design in nine groups. The lens features two ED elements as well as two aspherical elements. The lens surfaces are nano crystal coated and it's also internal focusing. It is definitely not your hipster nephew's Canon or Nikon (F series) nifty-fifty by any means. And if you can believe Nikon there is no need to stop down past full aperture to attain the highest levels of sharpness. It's painfully sharp right at f1.8. If you compare that with older series of 50mm f1.4 and f1.2 lenses from Nikon and Canon you'd understand that even with their lofty price tags the fast 50mm lenses of yesteryear really needed to be stopped down a couple of stops to be critically sharp. If the new Nikon 50mm matches their stopped down performance while used wide open that certainly mitigates against the need to spend more for "faster glass." Seems to be in line with the idea that Nikon's design goals all circle around creating the ultimate in imaging performance throughout the system.

Next let's look at the new 35mm f1.8 lens. It's equally interesting from an optical point of view since it features 11 elements in 9 groups, has three aspherical elements along with two ED elements. It's got the nano crystal coating, weather sealing, the same sharpness aim points as the 50mm and the lens focusing ring can be repurposed as a programmable control ring. So, if the lens proves to be sharper than any of its competitors; from Canon to Sony to Zeiss, would it be worth the asking price of $849?

My point is that most reviewers seem to be sitting down with a list of features that are offered on current Sony A7 models and going down that list just mindlessly dinging the Nikon products for not focusing on matching the Sony list. It's my contention that Nikon had a different model in mind. I think they are going to make demonstrably better lenses as well as demonstrably better color science processing in photographs and video, and make those attributes their prime differentiators. Seems a damn sight more valuable to me than getting into a misguided pissing match about which system can shoot the most frames per second. Or which system has the most automation features.

I guess my questions for all the naysayer are these: If the Nikon Z cameras can leverage the new mount (and have really optimized the color science) such that the images from the cameras are, technically and aesthetically, much better than the images coming out of any of their competitor's cameras, and the cost of this perfection is one QXD card instead of two fragile SD cards, which would you choose? If the Nikons have better image performance across the system as well as better handling and better industrial design but this comes at the cost of no having eye detect AF, which would you choose?

The question at hand is: Are you interested in collaborating with a camera to make great images or do you demand all the gingerbread features that allow you to play tech-savant while being totally happy with images that, going forward, will represent a compromise?

I could be totally wrong. Nikon could be blowing massive smoke into our knowledge pipeline. But if they turn out to match what now seems like advertising hyperbole with real performance it will eventually come down to each of us having to choose whether we prefer one implementation over another.

I've handled the Sony A7 bodies over the three generations but no one I personally know has handled an actual Nikon Z camera. If my experience and my hunches are correct I anticipate that Nikon has produced a camera body that feels just right in most people's hands. They can be brilliant lens makers as well. Especially, I would think, if their existential survival depends on it.

I don't believe much of what I've seen and read on the web so far because the fact that all the reviewers were working with cameras that had unfinished firmware makes all of their shared experience little more than "fake news." The proof will come out the week Nikon starts to deliver cameras. For the person who is an imaging perfectionist the new system may just deliver exactly what mirrorless fans have always wanted: A platform with near medium format performance combined with great haptics. Too bad about lower specification for frames per second. I just can't shoot studio still life images with anything less than 21 frames per second. And GPS.

Oh, and for all the people comparing Sony video to Nikon video..... one video project with a GH5S and you'll never look back. It's the ultimate argument that photographers who shoot video WILL benefit from a two camera system.

HERE'S MY FREAKIN DISCLAIMER: (Let's see the other guys match this!): We not only didn't go to a Nikon unveiling event, we also didn't belly up to the open bar, photograph the silly set ups and otherwise waste time. We didn't preview or review a camera with unfinished firmware. We aren't advertising Nikon, Amazon or B&H on this site. We have no pre-order links, or indeed any links at all to product attached to this article (blog post?). And we have engineered no affiliate links to take advantage of what I've just written here.

Instead I read everything that Nikon said they intend to do, every specification about each of the new products and matched those things against my own camera use profiles and attempted to talk about why I think this is a different product than all the other stuff on the market. In the same way that the Nikon D800 was different than everything that came before it back when it was introduced.

I'd like to buy one of the Z6 cameras as well as a 50mm f1.8 Z lens. I think it would be cool. But probably not that much better than the images I already get out of a Nikon D700 with a Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens. But I'm kinda tired of the mercenary writing crews trying to force the Nikon Z story  into a Sony box.

Get over it. It's a different product and probably aimed at a different demographic/user profile.

Don't like Nikon's new stuff? Just don't buy it.

Added later: Apparently the lack of a second card slot and eye AF isn't discouraging tens of thousands of pre-orders for the Nikon Z7. Check this out: https://petapixel.com/2018/08/28/nikon-is-sorry-that-the-z7-is-selling-so-quickly/


Intimate camera handling versus menu driven convenience-appliance use.

Venice. 

When I mention how strange I find it that some people pick out a feature, or lack of feature, on a camera and call it a "deal killer" I think I'm just reflecting how differently people approach their creative tools. I find myself wondering why other people make the trade-offs they do with equipment and am sometimes puzzled by which compromises are most important to them.

To use an example: If two cameras were equally capable of making very, very high quality images but one camera was designed to feel much better in the hand, and have a better overall interface, while the other camera was less comfortable in use but had features such as two card slots (presuming the competitor has only one card slot) or included GPS, which one would I choose? Well, of course I would choose the one that I'd enjoy having in my hands for hours at a time, possibly over the course of years.

But equally experienced photographers of a different mindset might choose to ignore ergonomic shortcomings in order to have the piece of mind that a dual card slot might bring, or to leverage the (very questionable) advantages provided by GPS (which I find a worthless concept for any but hardcore travel photographers).

People are free to choose whatever combination of handling, build and feature sets they want but choices that diverge from mine always cause me to stop and try to decipher why they value the very things that seem to fly under my radar while being willing to put up with various operational discomforts instead.

I think I finally figured it out. The answer lies in the way the two different contingents think about cameras in general.

I started thinking about the difference in the way people use their cameras and feel about their cameras in the context of how groups of people use their smart phones. At first I thought it was a generational thing but many people older me by a long shot are virtuosos with their phones. They know all the cool apps and controls, they whisk around town creating personal hot spots, doing their banking and using their phones to control their daiquiri blenders, the temperature of their bathwater and to automate the bird feeder in the back yard. I bought my iPhone to make and receive phone calls and only recently mastered texting. I think of products as singular tools despite adoring the "idea" of Swiss Army knives.

If I had to chose between a phone which makes it easy to make calls on and to get texts with versus a phone that could do a million more things I know I would gravitate to the simpler phone just because the onus of having to master a thousand apps and a dozen pages of menus makes me tired and makes me feel as though all of our time is leached away learning a million useless control steps but the tool is never really pressed into actually doing the art. Or the call. Or the whatever.

My preference in a camera will generally be how it feels to use it. How much it becomes a trusted ally in helping me do the things I want to do and create the images I want to create. I spend long days with my cameras and generally have one by my side most waking hours.

If you shoot the same way and in the same style most of the time you either get used to the feel of the camera or you grow to dislike it. Whether you persist with a camera that makes your brain/hand combination unsettled for the sake of either specification satisfaction or some feature you can't find anywhere else depends on your individual disposition.

I see cameras as very, very specific tools. More so since I started shooting video in earnest with the GH5S. I tested that camera for stills and it's fine but it is so much a dedicated video camera that this is all I find myself using it for. If I want to shoot video I pick up the GH5S. I like the video files from the camera more than anything else I've shot since the days in which we shot 35mm movie film. I may, in fact, try to trade my original GH5 for another S variant just for that reason. But I don't see the GH5S as an "all arounder" and won't take it along in situations where I my intention is to just shoot photographs.

At the other end of the spectrum I find the Nikon D700 to be a very, very comfortable physical camera with a very well thought out and uncomplicated physical interface design. It is designed for one this only and that is to take photographs. It is unencumbered by video, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-fi and all the countless modes that more modern cameras fester with and so it has a clear intentionality of purpose and seems to convey that sensibility of intention to a daily user. To put it clearly it is a camera that becomes more and more transparent to the process the longer one uses it and gets comfortable with it. And, at the bottom of all camera design and use isn't the real idea to make a camera which doesn't distract from the process with poor handling and unnecessary operational complexity? It is for me.

A quick way to tell whether you prefer a "pure" experience or "need" the complexity of a feature rich camera is this: Do you know what all the function buttons on your camera are programmed to do and do you use all of the function buttons on your cameras in the process of making your photographs? Do you routinely use Bluetooth or wi-fi in the daily routine of making your own, personal, not-for-publication photographs?

If you answered yes then you are probably the same type of person who understands all the myriad possibilities of your smart phone and how to access them. We are opposites. Our camera choices may never converge. And that's the starting point to understanding how I'm going to approach my approach to the new Nikon Z cameras. I'll be evaluating how well they work as shooting cameras; not how many check boxes they tick. I'm ordering the Z6 as it makes the most sense.

When I get back from San Antonio this evening let's look at what Nikon's real intention for the new cameras is, as expressed by the insanely well designed lenses as represented by the 35mm f1.8. See Michael Johnston's most recent discussion of this lens at theonlinephotographer.com

I'm headed down to San Antonio to visit my dad and have lunch with him. I'm taking along a Nikon D700 and the 85mm f1.8. Should be a nice day for a visit. Happy Sunday!