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More Rambling About Mirrorless Cameras Nikon Z Edition

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Since I wrote my last article rambling about mirrorless cameras, Nikon released their first two full frame mirrorless cameras (the Z6 and Z7) and the rumor mill has leaked images and specs for Canon’s full frame mirrorless camera. And while Canon won’t be announcing their mirrorless camera properly until closer to the end of September September 5th, there’s some things to talk about now anyway.

As I noted in the last article, I’m still very much not a mirrorless fan. For my uses there are too many compromises, especially when it comes to power consumption, for me to really get behind them. I’m also decidedly not an average enthusiast level consumer, so my take on features and specs is not likely to match theirs.

I really worry about Nikon these days. They seem confused and somewhat rudderless to me at this point. Actually I started worrying about them when they released the D5 and D500 with maximum ISOs that are flat out unusable.

Admittedly, I thought with the D850, that they had realized that it’s not how big the number is on box is that makes a great camera. They went back to sold specs that insure that the photographer is going to get solid images out of their camera.

Then they went and released the Z6 and Z7.

At first glance, they look like reasonable full frame mirrorless cameras. And to a certain extent they are. However, when you start digging into the details they the picture just starts getting confusing. Who’s the target market?

Storage

Take for example, the storage situation. Both the Z6 and Z7 are single card slot cameras.

In and of itself, that’s not a big deal. A number of consumer and “prosumer” level cameras, including even Canon’s full frame EOS 6D mark II, have only a single card slot. Seeing only a single slot wouldn’t normally raise much in the way of an eyebrow to me.

Except, we’re talking about Nikon here. They’ve long moved to dual card slots for even their prosumer cameras. For example, the D610, which is their lowest tier full frame DSRL, has dual SD card slots. So does the D7500.

However, a single slot is not a very “pro” level solution. In fact, Nikon was called out for the single card slot by a number of people in various social media circles for only including a single slot. In fact, to get to a single card slot you have to go all the way down their product line to the D5600, a very consumer level DX camera.

Then there’s the competition, at least the competition we know about, the Sony A7 series. The A7 III and A7R III have dual card slots. It’s only the A7S II, and lower, that has a single card slot in Sony’s lineup.

While it remains to be seen what Canon will do with their still unannounced EOS R full-frame mirrorless body, their situation is somewhat different than Nikons. Namely, not having a dual slot consumer level camera isn’t a backwards move for them.

On one hand, having only one card slot very much says “consumer camera”.

On the other hand, there’s the choice of card that Nikon went with: XQD.

XQD is decidedly not a consumer oriented format. The de facto standard for consumer camera media is SD cards, at least ones of some increasingly high performance flavor.

SD makes a lot of sense, even in a semi-professional or professional sense. There’s utility in ubiquity, and SD cards are ubiquitous.

I can walk into a convenience store like a CVS or Walgreens, an office supply store like an Office Depot, or a consumer electronics store like Best Buy, and almost be guaranteed to find SD cards.

While those cards might not be the fastest or biggest, they still are cards that I can use.

More importantly, since SD cards and card slots are supposed to be backwards compatible, not being able to find the fastest cards in a pinch isn’t a big deal. Shooting, even shooting slowly, is a far better situation than not shooting at all.

This isn’t the case with XQD cards. You’ll probably find them in camera stores. Somewhere like Best Buy might carry them, but it’s not a given. A quick search on their site for availability near me is very hit and miss.

Then there’s the price factor. XQD cards are expensive. Moreover, when compared to XQD cards, SD cards are practically free.

To put some perspective on this, a 64 GB XQD card is $140 on B&H right now. Comparatively, an identically sized SD card can be had for $33 right.

Granted, the SD card isn’t nearly as fast as the XQD card is[1], but that only really raises the question of how much speed is really needed.

XQD’s write speeds really only shine when you’re shooting raw at 14 FPS for extended durations. If you’re taking single shots, spread out over even a second or two, the write speed isn’t doing anything for you.

Moreover, this all assumes you’re shooting raw, if you’re shooting jpeg then the files are typically so small that even old slow SD and CompactFlash cards are more than fast enough to provide functionally unlimited buffers.

While XQD is faster, it’s not like it ultimately makes that much of a difference either at this point. The fastest UHS-II SD cards are topping out at 250 MB/s and 300 MB/s now, and are still slightly cheaper than a XQD card ($118 versus $140). SD Express cards will be as fast as XQD cards, and will quickly, due to economies of scale, become much cheaper then them.

And this just brings me back to the whole backwards compatibility thing. With SD cards, the end users can tailor their cards to their needs. For $140 they can buy a really fast 64 GB card, or a moderately fast 128GB card, or a lot of slow (but still probably fast enough) 64 GB cards for a ton of space.

This is the kind of confusion that reigns throughout the design of the Z6 and Z7 themselves. Pro media cards, but a consumer oriented single slot camera.

Battery Life

The simple reality, and this is why I don’t and probably never will, consider mirrorless cameras to be replacements for DSLRs is that there’s a ton of performance compromises that have to be made. The single biggest problem is the power budget the cameras have to work with.

The Z6 and Z7 are especially disappointing in this respect. They’re rated for 330 shots based on the CIPA test standard on their standard 14 wH battery. Compare this to Sony’s A7RIII, which manages around 550 shots on a 16 wH battery.

That’s barely better than Canon’s EOS M6 (290 shots) with a battery that’s half the capacity (7.5 wH).

Neither of these cameras turn in a performance that’s all that impressive though. Consider that Nikon rates their D850, which uses a sensor similar to the Z7 and can maintain a similar frame rate (7 FPS to the Z7’s 8), at 1850 frames on the same 14 wH battery.

Part of my issue here is that it’s not like Nikon didn’t know what they were getting into. While this is their first full-frame mirrorless camera, it’s not their first mirrorless camera. Moreover, their DSLRs are some of the better performers on the power scale. The D850’s 1850 shots is appreciably better than the 5D mark IV’s 900 on similarly sized batteries.

I can’t see how this whole situation won’t be frustrating to serious users. I look at my mom, who self describes as someone who takes memory pictures and snapshots, and the 200-300 frames per battery of her EOS M3 is a never ending frustration. She travels with a minimum of 4 batteries, and generally burns through 2.5–3 per day. And she’s very cognizant of turning off her camera when she’s not using it.

Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this kind of thing is acceptable to anybody. I certainly wouldn’t tolerate it on a $2000 or more camera, and I can’t think of a good reason why anybody else should either.

Moreover, there’s no announced vertical shooting/battery grip. From what I can gather, Nikon has told some photographers (at least ones with sufficiently good contacts and a big enough media presence) that there will be a battery holder add on for the cameras, but that it won’t have vertical shooting controls.

The power/frames situation with these cameras is already looking poor enough that this sort of becomes a mandator accessory for any serious shooter. But the lack of veridical shooting control is just real odd — assuming that what I’ve read and heard is true. I mean, aside from the need for the extra power, this battery box just becomes dead weight then.

This is also a point where again, Nikon lags behind the competition. All of Sony’s mirrorless cameras have battery grips available for them. Not just battery boxes, but full on vertical shooting grips. Likewise, the rumors surrounding Canon’s EOS R also have a model number for a battery grip that’s to go with the camera.

Frame Rates

Honestly, a similar thing can be said about the Z’s frame rate and the big asterisks that goes with it. Admittedly, their is a tad of typical Nikon going on here. The maximum advertised frame rates for both cameras are only possible with the exposure locked to the first frame and in 12-bit raw or a smaller format such as JPEG.

The penalty for 14-bit raw varies by camera. On the Z7, 14-bit raw limits you to a maxim of 8 FPS with the exposure locked, and 5 FPS with full metering and AF. On the Z6, 14-bit raw only limits your max frame rate to 9 FPS from 12 FPS (though again with the exposure locked). Compared to the D850, with the same XQD card, can manage 9 FPS[2] in with 14-bit raw files.

What’s interesting about the loss of frame rates and metering on the Z cameras (as well as the changes in behavior with Sony’s Alphas) is that it clearly shows the limitations of loading everything (imaging, metering, and focusing) onto the image sensor. There simply has to be more reads from the sensor and more processing done on the data to get ot the same end result. Further, this all has to be done on a sufficient power budget that the frames per battery don’t get totally obliterated.

Of course, what we’re actually seeing from mirrorless cameras, is a huge compromise in frames per battery to make everything work.

Articulated Screen

So this is another point where I’m a bit lost. No, not the inclusion of an articulating screen; that’s something that should, in my opinion, be a standard on modern cameras DSLR or Mirrorless. Rather it’s the type of articulating screen.

One of the big advantages of a mirrorless camera design is that it frees up where things have to be.

If you consider a DSLR, the sensor has to be where it is, and nothing can be put in front of it. This means that if you have say a 45mm register, then the closest you can have the PCBs and stuff in the camera is 47 or 48mm behind the lens mount. There’s a balancing act that has to happen here though, because the viewfinder is optical, anything you want to stuff behind the sensor (such as the LCD display), has to be kept as thin as possible to keep the viewfinder from having to be incredibly complicated.

With a mirrorless camera none of this applies. The front edge of the viewfinder is dictated by the designer, which means the eye-piece can be pretty much anywhere in relation to the sensor. Ultimately, this means that aside for aiming for thin-for-the-sake-of-thin designs, you can afford to put a substantial LCD articulation system on the back of the camera.

This is something both Nikon and Sony haven’t really done. The Z6 and Z7 have thin, up-down rotating, articulation systems on thin rear LCDs. This is great, on an SLR, where having a substantial LCD assembly is problematic for the above reasons, but it’s not much of an issue for a mirrorless camera.

The consequence of this is that the LCD on the Z6 and Z7 can’t be rotated forward. Now this doesn’t sound like a big deal, and for some it’s not going to be. However, for anybody who needs to get in front of the camera (i.e., vloggers) this problematic.

I’m not even a video guy, and I almost never get in front of my camera, and I find this problematic enough to call it out as a missing feature.

This just goes back to my point, adding another couple of mm to put a nice robust (and it doesn’t even have to be that robust) fold out and rotate LCD. At a minimum it would make for a selling point over the Sony A7 cameras, and it’s a feature that Canon’s EOS R appears to have (at least based on the leaked images).

Sure we can argue about the utility of such a feature. But Nikon needs to differentiae their products form the competition by more than just the name alone.

Lenses; Staples First, Nikon

Lets start with a positive point, Nikon has published a roadmap for the Z mount lenses they intend to release in the next 2 years.

Okay with that out of the way, I don’t really follow the immediate lens release plan. Sure, the Z cameras can mount F mount lenses with an adapter, so it’s not like your completely out of the ball game if the initial releases don’t really fit your needs.

Moreover, I don’t have market research information here. I certainly can’t say for sure what the most popular lenses are for various market segments. So Nikon very well might be releasing something reasonable.

That said, a lot of this depends on just how quickly Nikon rolls out their lenses over the next 2 years.

The current roadmap from Nikon is as follows:

201820192020
35mm f/1.858mm f/0.9550mm f/1.2
50mm f/1.820mm f/1.824mm f/1.8
24-70mm f/485mm f/1.814-24mm f/2.8
 24-70mm f/2.8 
 70-200mm f/2.8 
 14-30mm f/4 

For the sake of comparison, for the first 3 years of Sony’s FE mount they released:

201320142015
Zeiss 35mm f/2.8Zeiss 24-70mm f/428mm f/2
Zeiss 55mm f/1.870-200mm f/4Zeiss 35mm f/1.4
24-70mm f/3.5-5.6Zeiss 16-35mm f/490mm f/2.8 Macro
 28-135mm f/424-240mm f/3.5-5.6
   

And, though still unannounced, the lenses we expect from Canon for the EOS R platform this year:

2018
RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro
RF 50mm f/1.2L USM
RF 28-70mm f/2L USM
RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

And just because I’m interested in the comparison the first 3 years of Canon’s EF lens releases:

198719881989
EF 15mm f/2.8 FisheyeEF 24mm f/2.8EF 50mm f/1.0L USM
EF 28mm f/2.8EF 200mm f/1.8L USMEF 85mm f/1.2L USM
EF 50mm f/1.8EF 600mm f/4L USMEF 20-35mm f/2.8L
EF 50mm f/2.5 compact-macroEF 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 IIEF 28-80mm f/2.8-4L
EF 300mm f/2.8L USMEF 34-70mm f/3.5-4.5AEF 80-200mm f/2.8L
EF 135mm f/2.8 Soft-FocusEF 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 
EF 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5EF 50-200mm f/3.4-4.5L 
EF 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5EF 100-400mm f/4.5A 
EF 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5Extender EF 1.4X 
EF 50-200mm f/3.5-4.5  
EF 70-210mm f/4  
EF 100-300mm f/5.6  
EF 100-300mm f/5.6L  
Extender EF 2x  

Of course, with the Nikon Z, Sony FE, and EOS R systems, there is the ability to use F, A, and EF mount lenses respectively, so unlike the EF EOS system of the late 80s, there’s no need to release nearly as much glass in the opening years.

Looking at the charts, historically 35 mm and 50 mm lenses seem to be popular things to release in the opening salvo. Sony did it, Canon is doing it with the EOS R it seems, and even going back to the initial EOS release, Canon released a 50mm f/1.8 in the initial year too.

And honestly, I don’t think a mid-speed (e.g., f/1.8) 35 mm and 50 mm prime are bad things. They’re small, typically light, and shouldn’t be all that expensive purchases. The 35 is a reasonably good focal length for street photography, and even can be pressed into landscape use. The 50 is the classic standard lens, need I say more.

The 24-70mm range has historically been popular for general purpose zoom lenses. Moreover, with a sub 3x zoom range, the lenses historically have been well optimized. Of all the lenses in the initial release, I think this will probably be the most popular.

The final lens announced, though slated for release next year, is the one I think is least well positioned: the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct.

To me the point it’s a pointless lens for bragging rights among manufacturers, nothing more.

At a minimum I think this was a bad investment in terms of engineering time and resources for a fledgling system. Sure it sounds impressive, and it gives the marketers something to crow about, but lets look at this more realistically.

To start with it’s going to sell in very small quantities. Peta Pixel puts the rumored street price around $6000. This simply isn’t going to move in great quantities.

Moreover, it’s a manual focus only lens. Not that there’s anything wrong with manual focus lenses, but that’s another strike against it in a lot of market segment. Focusing an f/0.95 lens, even with focusing aids, is not an easy feat.

And this ultimately kind of brings me back to my comment about the system being confused, or at least being confusing to me. The 58mm Noct is definitely what I would consider a very high end pro lens. It’s based on the estimated price tag alone, its the kind of that that very few people will be buying and using.

While it’s great in the sense that it’s a halo product and an aspirational one at that. There are a lot of other lenses that are far more likely to both sell more readily and make the Z system more attractive now.

While mount adapters aren’t a big deal with mirrorless cameras, going on the comments I’ve seen on a number of sites they’re also not something that a lot of people really want to use. They’re a necessary stop gap, but they’re not a good long term solution.

Final Thoughts

All together it’s not like the Nikon Z cameras are bad or anything. However, I’m I’m really not impressed by them either.

Now I know some of my friends would say something like, “well that’s just because you’re a Canon guy and don’t like Nikon.” And that might be true to an extent.

Then again, I really don’t like Sony, almost to the point that if they were the last company that made cameras, I’d stop taking pictures. However, when looking at the A7R III and A7 III, and comparing them to the Z7 and Z6 respectively, I can’t help but find myself leaning towards the Sony’s.

About the only thing that really stands out with the Zs over Sony’s cameras is that the ergonomics look much better.

However, the biggest problem with standing out on ergonomics, is that they’re not an exclusive and unchangeable thing. While Nikon may have the advantage over Sony today, Sony can easily adjust their cameras for their next release. And then Sony still has the more mature system.

Granted, Nikon is surely going to iterate from here. These won’t be the last Z cameras they release. Moreover, the most important part is getting the lens mount right, as that’s the thing that sets the tone of the system going forward. And when it comes to the lens mount, I don’t think the Z mount is a failure in any respect.


  1. A 64 GB SanDisk UHS-1 SD card is $33 and rated at 95 MB/s, the Sony 64GB XQD card is $140, and rated at 400MB/s. ↩︎

  2. Though it does need to have a larger EN-EL15 series battery in the battery grip to provide sufficient power to do so. ↩︎

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