Nikon Z50 Announcement

Nikon today announced the Z50, their first APS-C mirrorless camera, as well as two Z-mount DX lenses for it. 

bythom nikon dx

The Z50 uses the D500/D7500 sensor with phase detect autofocus cells added, meaning this is a 20mp camera using a very well-established and high-performing sensor.

Nikon's using the term "insanely small, amazingly bold" in at least some of its marketing material. Indeed, the Z50 is smaller than the Z6 and Z7: a bit (0.3") smaller in width, depth, and height. But I wouldn't call that insanely small, even with the remarkably small kit lens (see below). Ultimately, the Z50 will be regarded as "smaller" if customers perceive the entire system they pack as taking up less space, which I think Nikon succeeds at here. 

From a pragmatic standpoint, Nikon is also using the term DX still, so this is the start of the Z DX system. More on that in a bit, too.

The design looks like a Nikon 1 V2 mated with a Canon EOS M and adopted some genetic material from the Nikon D5000. By that I mean it's a squat little DSLR-like body with a big EVF/flash that hangs off the front and back of a slim body, and which uses the old D5000 tilt down 180° rear LCD idea that has failed over and over again in practice to truly excite anyone. 

I think the idea is that this allows handheld selfies (there's a lot of Instagram references in the marketing materials). But think about it for a moment, the lens has to focus to about a foot-and-a-half to make that work at all, and you're going to see a lot of arm in your shot at 24mm equivalent when you do. For vlogging, the problem is worse. Most serious vloggers are going to want to put the camera on a gimbal or stick, and that restricts the usefulness of the tilting LCD. Nikon did make it so that most buttons and camera controls are disabled in the 180° flip, so that you don't accidentally miss-set something while handling the camera that way. The touch screen is still active, though.

That flip down LCD seems like a slightly lame nod to the Instagram crowd to me. In practice, I'll bet we see few using it, and I'll bet that the folk that buy this camera are going to complain about the lack of fully adaptable tilt (e.g. up/down).

Some people are liking the overall body design (other than the flip down LCD), some seem to think it's a little too busy and frumpy. My take is that the Z6/Z7 seemed that same way to many when photos of it first appeared, but in practice, most people seem to think the Z6/Z7 design is decent once they handle the camera. I suspect the same will prove true for the Z50.

The Z50 features Nikon's dual Command dial ergonomics and a significant hand grip, which is good news for all those complaining about the soap bar designs of many of the small cameras. Likewise, Nikon's kept a wide array of their usual buttons (including two front Fn buttons) and paired that with a new on-screen set of quick task touch areas that function as buttons. Unfortunately, quite a bit of cheese (buttons) is moved on the Z50 from the Z6/Z7, which is disappointing. 

(I would have voted for the DISP and i button to move to the LCD panel while leaving everything else the same. Unfortunately, sometimes new designs have trickle-down effects: the button on the left of the EVF became the Flash Release, so now you have a button starting to migrate. When it migrated to where the Playback and Delete buttons were, then the complete cheese shuffling began. I think Nikon does themselves a disservice every time they think that "consumer" = different customer, and that moving stuff like that is okay.)

There's a bit of simplification from the Z6/Z7: we lose the Drive Mode plus the dedicated zoom buttons, which move to the LCD touch panel; no top LCD panel; we lose one Custom U# position and gain new EFCT (Effects) and SCN (Scene) positions, which is consistent with the consumer cameras; there's no thumb stick. We do gain the ML-L7 Bluetooth remote control, though, which I think is going to be more important than the flipping LCD.

This isn't really a stripper, entry-level camera like the D3xxx DSLRs were, and probably sits somewhere between the D5xxx and D7xxx lines in terms of capabilities and handling. Nikon's even brought back the pop-up flash over the viewfinder.

In terms of technical specs, the camera will shoot 11 fps, the EVF is 2.36m dot, which is down from the Z6/Z7's 3.7m dot one and has about .7x magnification (Nikon's marketing is starting to do the CIPA cheat, claiming 1.02x magnification and ignoring the crop), the rear LCD goes back to the lower cost 1.04m dot one, and the mechanical shutter is only good to 1/4000 (and 1/200 flash sync). Some of those specs are downgrades from the Z6/Z7, but I think appropriate for the price point and market of the Z50.

At US$860 for the body only or US$1000 with a 16-50mm kit lens (keep reading), the Z50 is priced just a bit over the old, and I mean old, D5xxx price point. That price basically puts the Z50 up against the Canon M6m2, the Fujifilm X-T30, and the Sony A6400. When looked at that way, the new Nikon body looks pretty competitive. The camera and lenses will be available "in November."

Meanwhile, we get two Z DX lenses: the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR and the 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR. Yeah, no sensor stabilization in the Z50. It appears that Nikon will put that into the Z DX lenses they produce instead, much like they did with DSLRs. These two kit lenses are collapsible, further emphasizing the small/light nature of the Z50 for travel. The f/6.3 long end apertures are a bit disappointing, but given how compact a Z6 with the 24-70mm f/4 already is, I can see exactly why Nikon went for making the Z DX system much more compact by compromising a few things like aperture.

Indeed, the 16-50mm is smaller than many "compact" primes. In its collapsed position it barely sticks out at all. How Nikon managed to get VR into such a small space is probably an interesting technology bit we'll eventually learn about. The 16-50mm is claimed to be 4.5 stops CIPA, the 50-250mm is 5 stops.

The Nikon crowd (and the competitor's fan boys) are talking a lot about the Z50 already. The camera is being pre-judged by almost every one of those forum posts you see. Just like the Z6 and Z7 were. So let's do a better evaluation of the pluses and minuses:

What Nikon Got Right

  • APS-C finally makes it to Nikon mirrorless. I've been writing for some time that this had to happen. You need a lower-priced feeder system, and DX DSLRs don't feed full frame mirrorless particularly well. But let's be clear, Nikon got to APS-C mirrorless seven years after Canon and Fujifilm, and nine years after Sony. That's a huge head start to give competitors. 
  • The kit lens goes to 24mm equivalent at the wide end. After producing 18-xx lenses for the DX-sized sensor almost forever (in digital camera years)—which is a 28mm wide equivalent—Nikon has finally given us something that can be truly said to go wide angle. 
  • The frame rate wasn't stifled. At 11 fps, the Z50 is out of D3xxx/D5xxx territory and into D500 territory. The sensor tech Nikon is using enables fast offload of the data, and for a change they didn't limit a lower end model arbitrarily. At least not in frame rate.
  • The ergonomics look better than the Sony A6400, while the specs and price look similar. It's too early to tell without doing extended shooting, but on first handling it appears that Nikon didn't sacrifice ergonomics for size. Like the full frame Z's, Nikon's claim to fame continues to be making good handling cameras that put controls where the photographer needs/wants them. Sony has started cleaning up the controls/grip on the A7 series, but still has menu and naming confusion to deal with. 
  • Nikon didn't use up the single digit names. I know that single-digit Z# for full frame and double-digit Z## for crop sensor seems wrong to a lot of people, but I think this is the right choice. It provides for fairly extensive (1-9, and 10-90) model potential. Not that I think we need nine full frame and nine APS-C cameras. Probably three or four of each is more than adequate. But with a single digit used for both, that would leave no room for shoe-horning in another model if the market could sustain it. Coupled with Mark II type nomenclature, this naming system should work fine for the number of cameras Nikon is likely to produce, and it clearly differentiates the lines (where D500 and D850 don't, for example). 
  • It's ready for 2019 holiday shopping (barely). It's going to be interesting to see how Nikon positions this new entry against all the Nikon DSLRs they need to need to still sell. But the real point here is that Nikon can finally begin to stop the last big leak (which was DX shooters moving to Canon, Fujifilm, or Sony mirrorless APS-C). 

What Nikon Got Wrong

  • At launch, really wide angle support is lacking. 21mm full frame equivalent is currently as wide as we get in the Z lens lineup at the moment (with the full frame 14-30mm f/4 S). That's something that will need to be corrected quickly. Yes, you could stick one of the DX wide angle zooms on an extra cost FTZ Adapter, but that sort of misses the point of APS-C versus full frame in mirrorless. APS-C absolutely needs to provide true system compactness and simplicity. 
  • The lack of in-body VR is a bit of a problem. Note that recently I wrote about solving user problems, not adding features/performance. Thing is, in-body VR really does solve a problem for a number of users who simply can't hold a camera steady enough in all situations (and that goes double for video). Especially on a small, light camera. Of course, in-body VR is a big expensive part, as well as something that adds weight, bulk, and battery consumption. In all likelihood this is a bean counter decision. I hate bean counter decisions as they tend to compromise what would be a better product. The problem is doubly concerning because virtually all of the existing and known future Z mount full frame Nikkors you might use on this camera lack VR. Those amazing 50mm and 85mm primes? Not stabilized on a Z50, right where most people would want and need it. The only good news here is that the direct competition doesn't have sensor-based IS at this price point. If product marketing had won instead of the bean counters, it would have been because the right camera at this price point with IBIS would be perceived by customers as better and therefore be an easier sell.
  • The new battery seems like a mistake. Sticking the SD slot in the smaller grip's battery compartment meant that the EN-EL15 was out of the question. Nikon has a long history of issues supplying new camera accessories quickly to market demand, which includes batteries and chargers, unfortunately. We'll see how fast we can get extra batteries for the new camera, but history doesn't predict well for Nikon here. That the new EN-25 battery also has a lower Watt Hour rating than the EN-EL15 isn't encouraging, either. And, now we need a new charger, too: MH-32.
  • The product number may be wrong. If indeed the Z50 is supposed to slot in at the D7500 equivalent spot as Nikon seems to want to imply, Nikon marketing messed up. The name should be Z70 so that people understand the line this new product sits at the end of. The D70 DSLR was one of Nikon's best-ever selling products, and that group of users has been one of the more diligent about upgrading (though many have no upgraded to full frame). Meanwhile, the D50 DSLR wasn't so venerable or well liked (and the eventual D5xxx were generally overlooked by serious shooters because of its compromises). You just don't want people thinking this is the mirrorless version of that. Silly mistake, though Nikon might be thinking that they will iterate multiple models above the Z50. Still, that would have left Z80 and Z90, so exactly how many models was Nikon planning for? The entry camera should be the Z30, this camera should be the Z70, and if Nikon gets around to a D500-type of camera to match their flagship full frame, that should be the Z90 (which would match the likely Z9). 

Not a Big Deal

  • 20mp sensor instead of 24mp. We're talking about 5568 versus 6000 pixels across the long axis. You can't see a 7% increase in resolution. Truly. Given that Nikon is using a current and proven photosite technology, I'm fine with the sensor decision. 
  • f/6.3 versus f/5.6 on the long end of the lenses. Yes, this is a third of a stop, and no one wants to lose light with smaller sensors. But it's also only a third of a stop. I watch people make exposure errors greater than that all the time. In terms of focus performance, mirrorless isn't like DSLRs, where f/6.3 starts to be a focus performance problem.

Overall, the Z50 looks less like a D7500 done mirrorless than a dead-on Sony A6400 competitor. I think that's a bit of a mistake, but it's not a fatal one: Sony is indeed the one competitor that Nikon needs to match or exceed, and Sony's engineers have mostly been mailing in their A6xxx updates, in my opinion. 

Spec by spec, the Z50 matches up decently against the A6400. Not perfectly, and certainly not clearly exceeding the A6400, which is pretty much the same thing that Nikon did with the Z6 versus the A7 and Z7 versus the A7R. I personally don't like the fact that Nikon didn't exceed Sony on any of these cameras (other than ergonomics). Perhaps that wasn't possible on the development schedule once Nikon made the all-in push to mirrorless. 

Long term, Nikon will need to start showing where they're better than Sony, not equal to them. That's as much a marketing problem as it is a technical one. For example, I and many others believe that the Z6 sensor produces easier to post process raws than the same sensor in the A7m3. The A7m3 has bigger files, bigger gaps in the raw data, and the compressed version of Sony files can produce clear artifacts on high contrast edges, for example. Marketing that difference would be tough to do for a good marketing organization; it's impossible for Nikon's.

Finally, we have to talk about lenses (buzz, buzz ;~). In DSLRs, none of the major players created a full lens lineup for their crop sensor cameras. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all stuck pretty much to consumer spec zooms with DSLRs. In the mirrorless world, that won't work so well, primarily because one-and-a-half of the competition already has a full lens lineup. (The one is Fujifilm, the half is Sony.) Moreover, another crop sensor competitor, m4/3, has a fuller lens lineup. 

Along with the camera introduction, Nikon released a new lens road map for the Z mount. That includes one additional DX lens (18-140mm) and raises the question of whether or not Nikon is once again seeing crop sensor as "just consumer."

On the other hand, Nikon did add a 28mm and 40mm compact prime lens to their Z lens schedule (full frame lenses that could be used on Z DX). So maybe they're trying to play the game a little trickier this time.

As far as I'm concerned, Nikon now needs a full set of Z lenses for APS-C. Above and beyond what Nikon has announced they're working on, at a minimum I'd put that at:

  • 14mm f/2.8 (~20mm equivalent)
  • 16mm f/2.8 (24mm equivalent)
  • 23mm f/2.8 (35mm equivalent)
  • 35mm f/2.8 (50mm equivalent)
  • 10-20mm f/2.8-4 (15-30mm equivalent)
  • 16-50mm f/2.8-4 (24-75mm equivalent)
  • 50-135mm f/2.8-4 (75-200mm equivalent)

Note I'm being relatively relaxed on aperture here, which some of you may object to. There's a reason for that: the APS-C Z's have to live in a system size world that's clearly smaller than the full frame Z's. I would argue for smaller lenses over faster lenses. Moreover we have 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 S lenses that can provide faster aperture if that's what you really want.

I worry that Nikon will once again make some fundamental mistakes with crop sensor: (1) that crop sensor is only about consumer convenience zooms; (2) that serious shooters only want full frame; and (3) that full frame f/1.8 lenses can suffice for crop sensor, too (e.g., they don't need that 35mm f/2.8 because they already have a 35mm f/1.8 S; at 50mm and above, that's possibly true, but below that, no). 

All said, Nikon's finally made it fully to the mirrorless party. They still have their work cut out for them—additional camera models, more lenses, new flash/accessories—but we can now see the shape of things to come. Nikon's targeting reasonably sophisticated users with solid first generation products and promising more. 

I suspect the Z50 will sell better than most people predict. Being last to the APS-C mirrorless market gave Nikon a chance to dial in their design so that their first iteration stands up strong against everyone else's fourth through eighth generation. At US$1000 for the basic kit, the Z50 is actually priced a little bit competitively for Nikon. 

Final comment: Nikon's left broad room at both ends of the DX camera spectrum. Their original strategy plan for DX mirrorless was two entry cameras. They've instead come to market with one in the middle. I have no doubt we'll see a low-end model appear under the Z50 to eventually replace the D3600. And I suspect we'll see a higher end model to replace either the D7500/D500 or to be the new D300/D500 pro-camera-in-DX form (I vote for the latter). But as with F-mount DX, I think that Nikon needs to pay more attention to the lens selection they produce. Two consumer convenience zooms aren't going to cut it (buzz, buzz). 

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