Remember the days of the Nikon 1? It was just ten years ago, but also a lifetime. A literal lifetime as the mirrorless marketplace as we know it is only about 13 years old.
It’s an epoch that has seen cameras develop from the initial Micro Four Thirds and APS-C pioneers to the full frame professional machines of today. It’s the biggest shift in the camera industry since the adoption of autofocus more than 35 years ago. And just like in the late eighties, the release of mirrorless cameras has challenged the status quo with increasingly rapid success.
The mirrorless vs. DSLR argument is one of the dumbest civil wars ever fought. For years any article about mirrorless gear or camera gear in general has been the scene of this war, with comment sections of dubious intellectual quality serving as the battlefields.
But with clicks and passion usually follows sales, and mirrorless pushed through the initial skepticism to become a major player in the camera market, and is now arguably numero uno.
Some camera companies saw the writing on the wall and jumped in early. Still riding the waves as an “upstart challenger,” Sony dove in early on mirrorless development for consumers and professionals alike. Panasonic was the first through the door and pushed the envelope with each new camera. Even Olympus used the opportunity to carve out a slice of its shrinking relevance. The old school stalwarts, Canon and Nikon came in late — Nikon seemingly the last to arrive at the dance.
Kind of. The Nikon 1 was a legitimate mirrorless camera, it just wasn’t a legitimately useful one. The 1 series was meant to compete with the mirrorless leaders at the time, seemingly Olympus most of all. That was a really short-sighted approach. Instead of pushing the mirrorless camera to the next level (which Sony would soon do with the A7), Nikon played it safe. It’s not what you would expect from a company that often leans on its heritage as an innovator and class leader.
It was the same story when autofocus came out. Canon completely overhauled their entire mindset, while Nikon played it conservatively. At the same time, Canon’s carpe diem-ing with EOS took them to the forefront of the industry.
Decades later Nikon still hadn’t learned the lesson. While other companies were taking the lead on mirrorless, Nikon released the D850 (admittedly the greatest DSLR ever made). When they finally released the full frame Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7 in 2018, they were playing catch up. This time it wasn’t just with Canon, but also with Sony and Fujifilm. It wasn’t whether Nikon was first or second, but just how far behind in third place they were, and whether they would ever rise higher.
To many of us, it seemed that the once-invincible giant was trending toward paper tiger status.
Then COVID-19 hit and the company faced issue after issue that threatened their bottom line. In November 2020 the company fired 20 percent of its international workforce as the pandemic created a decrease in demand. 2021 was looking even worse as Nikon posted its highest ever loss — $720 million — in the first half of this year. Suffice it to say that many companies would struggle to survive that kind of loss.
I’m not trying to be dramatic or belabor a point, but I think it’s fair to say that Nikon’s back has been up against a wall since the summer. When anything gets backed into a corner, it can do one of two things: give up, or use all of that deep-down “fight or die” strength and survive.
Yesterday, Nikon telegraphed very clearly that they are not giving up.
Here I’ll pause and be transparent about some stuff. Most of my cameras have the word Nikon on them. Admittedly, they are all dinosaurs and I’m not someone that buys a lot of gear every year. But I’ve been a Nikon shooter since I was a kid and that’s never changed. It’s not coming from a place of brand loyalty, just the sunken cost fallacy.
Second, is that I have an extremely low interest in mirrorless cameras. I have not one iota of passion to the argument of DSLR vs. Mirrorless and my personal opinion is that mirrorless cameras remove me even further from a connection to the photos than a DSLR does. People can shoot whatever they want, I couldn’t care less. I’ve never been in a gallery and thought “what a great photo, what camera and lens took this?”
Okay, so I shoot with Nikon equipment and mirrorless isn’t my cup of tea.
Having said that, I watched yesterday as Nikon released the most capable camera ever made.
The Z9 is a flagships of flagships. A camera that isn’t just the best camera you can buy, but also one that expands the boundaries of what you should expect from the best camera you can buy. Nikon held a virtual release event for the camera, but all the hype and marketing around this camera is just window dressing. With or without it, it’s an incredible machine and that it comes from a company that people were starting to write off is all the more exciting.
Like modern cars, I rarely apply the word “exciting” to cameras made in the last 30 years. But this camera makes me excited.
The Z9 brings us back to the question that must have been asked when the F5 and the EOS-1D X came out: “What else could you possibly want in a camera?”
Without wanting to regurgitate the camera’s spec sheet, a few things stand out:
45.7 MP stacked sensor
A new processor that is 10 times faster than that in the Z7II
“High-efficiency RAW” files that (allegedly) retain all detail at one third the size
An autofocus system that can automatically track nine different moving subject types (at 120 autofocus calculations per second)
Abiity to autofocus as low as -8.5 EV
Dual CFexpress Type B slots
VR with forgiveness of up to six stops of compensation
Blackout free viewfinder
20 fps RAW shooting
30 fps JPEG shooting (120 fps JPEG shooting at 11 MP)
Also releasing alongside the new Nikon FTZ II Mount Adapter expanding compatibility with more legacy lenses
Then there’s the fact that this is the first professional mirrorless camera to completely do away with the mechanical shutter. That’s a bold move not just for a brand with Nikon’s history of reluctance, but also for a camera that is geared specifically toward the professional market that hates to jump without looking. And not for nothing, you can shoot this camera silently at up to 1/32,000 of a second.
But that’s not all.
Nikon’s approach to video over the years has been so bad you almost think they hate it and only included it in their cameras begrudgingly. Well, them days is over. How about 10-bit 8K UHD video at variable frame rates for more than 2 hours without stopping? How about 33 MP stills you can take from the footage. How about greatly improved handheld shake reduction? You get all of that and a lot more with the Z9.
There are impressive design elements as well, which is really notable as I think cameras have suffered greatly from a lack of inspiration over the last year. The Z9 is more robust than Nikon’s other mirrorless bodies, offers button support for vertical shooting, is specially designed to dissipate heat (especially valuable for that 8K video) and is 20 percent smaller than the Nikon D6. With this camera you seem to somehow get the best of both worlds: substance and a svelte form factor.
The Z9 is a bonkers camera. Absolutely everything else is below this camera in averaged specifications. Take my money. Well, first let me take out a small business loan to pay for what I assume will be an insanely expensive camera.
Only. Not. Because. It. Costs. $5,500.
That’s less than the Nikon D6. It’s $1,000 less than the Sony Alpha 1, and $500 less than the much less impressive Canon EOS R3. So it’s an industry leading camera that’s somehow cheaper than the competition? Now this is podracing.
Half a T-Note is still a ton of money, and likely beyond the pockets of most of us. And in my case (assuming I was in the market) it’s still a tough sell considering that Fuji seems determined to make medium format cameras cheaper than a well-used jetski.
I don’t want to go too far here. Nikon has had a few rough years, and a camera with, shall we say a “limited consumer market,” isn’t going to be the cure all for their economic woes. But that’s not the point of the Z9, the point is that Nikon used this camera to show its willingness to innovate again.
The best part of the Z9 isn’t the camera, but what it says about the company’s mentality. It seems Nikon is tired of being an afterthought. A distant third place is a tough pill to swallow for a company with Nikon’s legacy and ego. Finally they seemed to have woken up and found themselves behind the count. Instead of trying to get on base, they swung for the fences and ended up crushing it.
Everyone should want something like the Z9, whether they shoot Nikon or not. There’s not a lot of camera companies, and the industry tends to slag on innovations and rely too much on incremental improvements to keep the cash flowing. (If you doubt that, just look at the last 30 years of DSLR product design.) The more companies pushing the envelope the better, if only because it forces them to give more to photographers and hopefully for less money.
The Z9 isn’t made for someone like me, but it still makes my mirrorless-ambivalent mouth water. It makes me want to give mirrorless a shot, or at the very least test out something modern that’s made with passion and ambition. (Also, that new lens mount adapter expands lens compatibility to my beloved AF-D lenses, so I’m running out of excuses here.) Conversely, I assume the Z9 has also been the reason for dry mouths in boardrooms elsewhere in Japan.
It’s been a long time since Nikon’s fired a shot like this one, but it’s about time they did.
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