Nikon Launches a New DX Z Camera

Nikon today officially launched the Z50 Mark II Legacy Edition. Uh, no, I mean Zfc. 

Take a Z50, make a couple of Mark II level of changes to it, and then give it a “cool” retro design, and you have the Zfc

bythom zfc frontback

Let’s start with the fixes. We get a fully articulating LCD as opposed to the tilting one. Personally, I believe that the smaller the camera, the more an articulating LCD should be the preference, and the Z50 was a small camera. So I’m all for the new LCD swivel. We also get the Z6 II/Z7 II Wide Area AF (L) capability to use eye or animal detection, and USB Power Delivery. The Zfc also gets the 900 second exposure capability when in Manual exposure mode.

The retro design is the big differential point on the Zfc, and it’s going to provoke a lot of discussion. First off, we lose the handgrip and go back to the more classic large soap bar shape (you can get an optional “grip”, which is really more of a modest hump your fingers can grab). No grip means two hands, folks. On a really small camera. So you end up buying an accessory (GR1) to fix a design problem. Yeah, I don’t tend to like that, though some are fine with that. 

We lose one Fn button, the ISO button, the U1-U3 options (replaced with i button options, apparently), but gain an exposure mode switch (PASM + Auto), and a selfie mode, . The touch buttons on the LCD become real buttons again.  Many of the design decisions Nikon made are ones I probably would have made, as well. There’s some clear logic to simplification versus carrying over traditional features/placements. Moreover, the CADCAM engineers have managed to carry over plenty of classic Nikon design cues and make the Zfc look very deliberately designed to invoke legacy nostalgia. The Df tried to do that but felt far more like a series of design kludges. 

bythom zfc top

My big problem, though, comes with the return of dials. Not that I’m against dials, but I am against dials not done right. Since we have an Exposure Mode lever (Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual), that means that the shutter speed dial will lie to you at times. Ditto the ISO dial, as it, too, doesn’t have the A position that has become customary on most of the retro dial-focused cameras. Moreover, we still have the Front and Rear Command dials, so there’s not only potential conflict, there’s a weird redundancy, just like on the much maligned Df. The Zfc seems less Frankencamera than the Df was—the Df was a D600 body with added dials using a D4 image sensor—but I see plenty of things in the Zfc that tells me that Nikon didn’t fully learn the lessons the Df provided them.

bythom zfc 28mmse

The Zfc is US$1099 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 SE lens. That kit lens has silver trim to match the panda styling of the camera. A kit with a special edition 28mm f/2.8 (a decorative silver ring is the “special” part) is US$1199. I will say that the 28mm special edition kit sure looks a lot like the old E Series products from back in the film SLR days. The basic Zfc is “black panda,” but Nikon will let you order it with the zoom kit lens in six pastels (yellow, pink, white, brown, green, and gray).

At US$959 body only and with the minimal consequential improvements, it seems to me that Nikon is just splitting the potential Z50 customer into two similar products, which doesn’t seem efficient (though see my other article). Nikon still has a need for an entry camera and for a sophisticated DX camera (Z90). The Zfc seems to be more a personal project than a product line necessity, though. I was a bit surprised to see the words “first legacy Z design” in the Japanese press release, the implication that there would be others. The USA press release didn’t repeat that, so maybe it was hasty marketing prep.

The thing about product management—and management in general—is that you need to know when to say “no” and when to say “yes” (or force some new “yes” on the organization). Great management is all about giving the right yes and no decisions. Me, I’d probably have said “no” to the Zfc. No matter how good it might turn out to be, no matter how much sales and profit it might generate short-term. It simply sends a wrong signal to potential customers in my opinion. Okay, maybe not to Japanese home market customers, who like small, retro cameras (probably because it reminds them how their country stole the camera market from the Europeans).

Nikon’s biggest issue right now is messaging. Nikon is losing customers because the messaging isn’t clear, the urgency seems low, and there are gaps and missing elements in their product line. The ZFc doesn’t fill any of those gaps, doesn’t change the urgency factor, and wasn’t a missing element. The Nikon messaging is confusing (buy a Z50 or a ZFc, they’re essentially the same camera). 

My prediction for the Zfc is the same as it was for the Df: it will seem to sell decently at first, because Nikon never ramps production enough to meet initial demand on virtually any product. There will be plenty who are curious enough to try it, thinking it solves some problem for them (or just that it looks “adorable,” just like the camera they had 40 years ago). 

Nikon doesn’t need niche success products right now, anyway. It needs to prove that the Z System is one of the three viable mirrorless systems for long term. From bottom of the line to top. With plenty of lens and accessory options. The Zfc seems like a distraction to that. 


So, here’s a question that should terrify everyone, including Nikon management: if the Zfc sells better than the Z50, what’s that suggest, and what should Nikon do about it? If the Zfc sells worse than the Z50, then we have an obvious answer, but it would tell management that something was wrong with their decision making, so still not good.

The problem is going to be even more nuanced than that, though: I suspect that in some regions and for some audiences the Zfc will sell better (at the expense of the Z50), while in others it won’t. Moreover, I think that Zfc sales will be front-loaded; it will sell well initially as some size of audience responds to the legacy design, but I don’t see this camera having long legs.

That Nikon management was willing to try something that’s different either shows confidence or desperation, but I can’t figure out which. Nikon may have research in the home market that elicited the Zfc idea. But is that research something along the lines of “a film SLR-like Z would sell well,” or “Fujifilm is killing us”? I don’t know. 

I do think the Zfc will do well in the Japan. It’s outside Japan that I have doubts about. 


And a prediction: Nikon will be quickly out of stock on the Zfc/28mm lens combo. Which will prove a point I’ve been making for over a decade: where the heck are the DX primes? (Buzz, buzz is back ;~)

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