Nikon Mirrorless Rumors

Please note the headline: these are rumors, not facts (coupled with some opinion). 

Everyone seems to want to know what I've heard about upcoming Nikon mirrorless efforts, so I thought I'd describe that all in one place. I felt that this was necessary especially because all of the Internet discussions I seem to encounter have mostly centered around something different than what I hear Nikon will deliver first. 

Mind you, these are a bunch of data bits gathered piecemeal from multiple sources that I've attempted to put together into one logical package:

  • Two DX mirrorless bodies shipping in May. 24mp, new sensor, though Nikon has prototyped higher count sensors. Roughly at least D3400/D5600 types of features/capabilities in all respects, but in a small, mirrorless camera. That would likely mean things like Compressed NEF 12-bit. Also much more attention to video features. What I don't know is whether Nikon's original goal of making this camera with no mechanical shutter (e.g. going all electronic) will be realized or not. If not with this first generation, it should happen soon thereafter.
  • Three initial lenses. One kit, one prime, one unknown but likely a superzoom, also shipping in May.
  • Two new accessories. One of them certainly has to be an F-mount adapter; the other, maybe that new N16F1 remote they keep hinting at?

This would be a "big launch" for Nikon. That's a lot of inventory to move near simultaneously and get dealers to take on and promote successfully. Nikon also has a lot of marketing to do to tell customers why their new entry makes sense to purchase considering all the mature competition Nikon will be going against. My guess—if I'm hearing the specs correctly—is that the main messages would all center around the new tech in the sensor coupled with legacy: silent shooting, fast autofocus, excellent video, and the ability to use all those existing DX lenses that Nikon never made (buzz, buzz). Oops, snark. ...all those F-mount lenses that are in everyone's closet. Oops, still snarky. ...all those nearly 100m Nikkors that they've sold in the last 60 or so years.

Don't shoot me if this turns out to be wrong. As I note, I'm pulling this together from a variety of sources, some of which have proven right in the past, others with which I have no real experience with in terms of rumors, but who seem to be in the right place to know what's going on. Moreover, this particular launch has been pushed back more than once already, and the details got clearer over time, an indication that something is going into production. I'm not entirely sure why the delay occurred, though I suspect sensor development had something to do with it. One source tells me that September will be the launch date if Nikon can't manage May.

May implies an NAB (April) launch, not a CP+ (March) launch, though that would be a bit embarrassing for Nikon when everyone else shows up at the home turf show with something new at CP+ and they don't. September implies a Photokina launch. I doubt that Nikon would launch a new system without having a trade show to do so at, as it substantially increases the press coverage they'd get, and they're going to need all the help they can get.

Where's the FX mirrorless camera, you ask? After all, that's the model that everyone on the Internet seems to want to talk about.

I don't know how far behind any FX models are from the DX mirrorless launch. Moreover, that adds complexity to that first launch: what message is Nikon going to say about possible future mirrorless offerings (e.g. Lens and Camera Road Maps)? Still, DX is a lower bar for Nikon and something they need to get done less they lose even more unit volume in their camera group. 

First and foremost they basically have to match the Canon EOS M series with at least D3400-level performance and solid, competent products priced right (the lack of a physical shutter would help achieve that). I know many of you want far more. Given how good the D3400 is, how good the recent DX kit lenses have been, and how good Nikon's engineering team is, I expect something that's going to shove its way into the US$700+ price range in a way that will get attention, though.

Another question, of course, is that + in the last sentence. At prices much higher than that the new Nikon entry has to be better than a lot of existing crop sensor mirrorless cameras to resonate. I know that Nikon has carefully benchmarked the EOS M5/6 and the M5 sells for around US$1000 with kit lens, but I can't imagine Nikon being able to have any success at a higher price level than that. That price level is also where the Fujifilm XT-20 with kit lens sits, for example. And frankly, the D7500 and D500 live not very far above that price range, too, particularly when the latter is on sale.

Nikon needs to somehow find a way to sell more new consumer DX cameras, not replace volumes of other things, and that means US$500 to US$1000 has to be the target. Unfortunately, Nikon will have to shoot some of its own products in the foot to wedge in a new one. Which makes the degree of difficulty really high. Especially since there aren't many DX lenses to stick on that adapter (buzz, buzz: how many years have I been chastising Nikon for not filling out the DX lens set? Can you now see why? I've been told by at least one in Nikon management that some at the company have finally realized that Fujifilm has a nice, full crop sensor lens lineup, and that's a problem).

Yes, I know a lot of you were expecting full frame first. I don't think that has a chance of happening, though there certainly were debates within Nikon about doing just that. There's always the DL possibility, where the DX mirrorless efforts come up short in some way and upper management just decides to eat the R&D costs rather than ship. Just as that was the wrong decision with the DL models, it would be the wrong decision with DX mirrorless, too.

Any Nikon FX mirrorless should come later in the year and will shoot for a far higher price, but not too high lest it dislodge the D850 too quickly (or even the still popular D750). It needs to be somewhere in the Df/D610/A7 arena, which is basically above consumer DX (remember, the D6xx was really an FX D7xxx, so slightly more prosumer than consumer, even though Nikon currently describes the D610 as "FX entry-level"). An FX Nikon mirrorless also has to do better than what could be done with the same level of DSLR, otherwise it would be best for Nikon to just iterate all the FX DSLRs, perhaps just making them more hybrid (e.g. far better Live View/Video performance). 

I've noticed that a lot of Nikon's FX mirrorless patents lately tend to speak towards something more Df-like (low light capable, slightly retro). We know that's what Goto-san was lobbying for with his public statements last year. As I noted in my article about Nikon's 2018, the combo of a low-light sensor mirrorless with a set of fast primes and a fast-ish mid-range zoom seems to be where Nikon is headed. And yet, the FX camera Nikon absolutely needs to replace and re-invigorate the most is the D610. Nikon certainly wants to reset the price level to something approaching US$2000, yet still cater to first time FX users, particularly Nikon DSLR users converting to mirrorless. Meanwhile, the Sony A7 is a moving target: everyone expects that camera to reach Mark III status at some point this year; plus no one really has been able to describe yet what Canon will be doing (they will be doing something full frame mirrorless this year). 

One interesting aspect is how Nikon currently markets full frame. There are basically three messages you find in the product pages for FX on Nikon's Web sites: "greater resolutions", "exceptional in low light", and "full potential of finest lenses." Could it be that FX mirrorless would be marketed the same? 30mp with excellent low light capabilities and use of F-mount lenses via a "perfect" adapter sounds interesting, doesn't it? 

Still, I haven't heard very many clear details of any Nikon FX mirrorless offering yet; not much seems to have leaked other than it's in the works and that it is still prioritized very high. What I'm not hearing at the moment is about any real effort to upgrade the aging DSLRs in the lineup. 

Finally, I'll say this: Nikon seems to have finally come to the realization that they've messed up with lenses. In crop sensor, both m4/3 and Fujifilm APS-C have better specified, fuller, and more varied lens sets than Nikon does in DX (buzz, buzz boys and girls). Meanwhile, Nikon's FX lens line isn't exactly filled with video-capable lenses, and most recent lenses they've introduced have been bigger than the ones they replace, which runs counter to the standard mirrorless "small and light kit" approach. 

Thus, Nikon finds itself having to produce a lot of new mirrorless lenses, and ridiculously fast if they want to be competitive. Yet as I've noted many times on, Nikon's average lens production is basically six new lenses introduced a year, with a peak something more like nine. Hmm. If the DX mirrorless camera ships with three lenses, that leaves only three more for the FX mirrorless camera this year if Nikon just plays to averages.

I've written it before: Nikon has been lazy in protecting their advantages. They've tended to do what they think is just enough rather than keeping their engineering teams trying to stay well ahead of competitors. A lot of this has to do with the bean counters at Nikon. In the trenches, Nikon has incredible engineering talent. Managing them they have a lot of bean counters who've been saying nay to all the right things that could be done (e.g. DL) and yay to all the wrong things (e.g. KeyMission). Nikon spent the last decade fishing for volume in all the wrong places, and actually producing negative volume.

While it has nothing to do with mirrorless, per se, let me illustrate how Nikon has gotten themselves boxed into this corner of design laziness. Let's just look at one technology: wired communications.

Many Nikon cameras still use USB 2.0 (2000 intro, 480Mbps). A small handful of recent ones use USB 3.0 (2008 intro, 5Gbps). The reason why they do this is cost: older parts are cheaper. Current USB technology is 3.1 (2013 intro, 10Gbps), and the next technology is USB 3.2 (2017 intro, 20Gbps).  Of course, we could also do this type of wired communication with Thunderbolt, which was 10Gbps in 2009, and is currently at 40Gbps. And let's not talk about recharging a Nikon in-camera battery via wired cable ;~). 

Now why is this of relevance? Well, cameras have been increasing pixel counts and frame rates constantly. While those counts keep going up, the wired communications have tended to not keep up. Olympus and Panasonic have USB 3.1 in their recent mirrorless cameras, which is about as "current" as we see, and I applaud them for that. 

But Nikon? Their 9 fps, 45.4mp D850 is still USB 3.0. Shooting with that camera at my usual settings I generate 468MBs of data a second. That's 3.8 gigabits per second. Add in all the communications overhead Nikon generates and the way they manage the USB 3.0 channel, the wired communications is far slower than the camera's data collection. Tethered shooting or mass file transfer via wire, therefore, is decidedly old school and slower than it needs to be when you adopt old technologies like that. And that's in a professional camera.

Thus, when Nikon finally does introduce their next mirrorless system, the thing I'm looking for is where the bean counters reigned in the engineering teams too much. Three lenses at launch would be one of those. Will there be more? Thing is, the more of those little cost-cutting frictions there are, the less advanced Nikon's solution will look. Even for an entry DX consumer camera.

Still, I'm looking forward to what Nikon will offer. We should know soon, at least if we can believe these rumors.

*Once again, I've been using the shorthand "Buzz, Buzz" to razz Nikon about its pathetic approach to DX lenses since FX was introduced in 2007.

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