What Are Nikon’s Development Priorities?

Nikon keeps repeating a few things in their management presentations when it comes to cameras: “ML” (mirrorless) and “mid to high-end DSLR” are the two areas that keep being listed as priorities. Other things that keep getting mentioned are “accelerate the ML lens releases” and “fill out the lens lineup.”

Obviously, Nikon users would like to have more of a clue about the future than Nikon has been dropping. Lately, the emails I’ve been getting are all “where is the X” and “will they make a Y”?

Let’s start with the only known in Nikon's future product scenarios: Nikon has a published Road Map of additional Z mirrorless lenses. Currently we have 13 Z lenses (two of which are having birthing issues at the moment) with 10 more having been defined and said to be available before the end of 2021. With Z lenses, therefore, the only real open question is “what happens in 2022 and beyond?” 

Clearly, one thing seems likely: a series, probably only a few, of f/1.2 primes that will be started by a 50mm f/1.2. Beyond that, the obvious gap is in high-end telephoto lenses, particularly the kind that would be necessary for a sports/PJ camera. Personally, I’m fine with using the F-mount lenses on the FTZ adapter for the time being for long telephoto. But, yes, that delayed 70-200mm is worrying me a bit.

Since I'm starting with the Z system first, the much bigger question is “what new mirrorless cameras will we get from Nikon?” 

Here’s my guess: a Z5 (Z50 body with a full frame sensor) and a Z8 (the first truly “pro” mirrorless model from Nikon). You probably want to know why I write that.

First, the Z5 is what I call a no-brainer development cycle. The camera is basically done. It’s really just sliding an already known sensor/digital board (Z6) into an already known camera body (Z50). You’re probably asking why they’d do that. Here’s the answer: the D600/D610 was the best selling full frame body Nikon’s made. It was a best seller, despite the dust/oil issues. 

The reason for the D6xx’s success is somewhat simple: price coupled with what the installed base had previously. Nikon made a ton of DX DSLR sales over the course of almost two decades. When those folks want to move up in a model, they covet full frame because it’s the “in thing,” but they’re price sensitive buyers. Moreover, they want the consumer-friendly controls they’re used to. That was true in 2012 when the D600 came out, and it’s true today. 

You may note that the 24-200mm f/4-6.3 Z lens that Nikon is almost shipping is…wait for it…VR. Now why would that be? Because a Z5 wouldn’t have sensor stabilization and at 200mm there would be a slight improvement even with sensor stabilization on the Z6 and Z7. I suspect another VR lens or two in the next Road Map that would be suitable for a price conscious customer and which would complement a Z5. 

I guess that a Z8 is coming because I keep hearing bits and pieces about a higher end Z camera—but not an A9 competitor—coming out of sources in Tokyo. As I’ve noted many times, the Z6 is positioned below the D780, and the Z7 is positioned below the D850. There isn’t a true “pro” Z camera, and with Canon now headed the pro direction with the R5, Nikon has no choice but to do the same thing. 

Nikon has two other easy Z camera options: A Z30 that’s a Z50 without an EVF, and a Z70, which would be the Z6 body with an APS-C sensor. The former is more likely than the latter. But neither is a sure thing given. The on-going market collapse means that Nikon is likely planning for a future where they’re only making 800k to 1m interchangeable lens cameras a year. How many models can unit sales that size sustain? Not the plethora of products we’ve been getting from camera companies.

Yes, this means that I think the Z6 and Z7 are likely to stay in the lineup. They’re either going to get firmware updates to make them better, or we’ll see a Z6s and Z7s (Nikon’s way of saying Mark II). I suppose it’s possible that a Z8 would be the replacement for a Z7 and the Z7 would stay in the lineup for awhile at a lower price, but that leaves the Z6 in a strange place where it doesn’t have a number it can move to with a similar update. I’m guessing that Nikon’s already signaled that full frame Z mirrorless will be Z5, Z6, Z7, Z8, and eventually Z9. 

Okay, so what about DSLRs, the thing you’re reading this site for?

Curiously, Nikon management keeps talking about DSLR development. I think the plan was to make a D780, D880, and maybe a D7800 or D580. I’m a little worried that the virus killed so many sales that the D780 doesn’t look like a success. That would make Nikon more hesitant to keep iterating DSLRs, I think.

I know that work on a D880 was already happening, and I haven’t heard anything about that stopping. I am thus still expecting a D880, which would basically be the same formula as the D780: (1) meld the Z improvements into DSLR Live View and video; (2) incorporate customization and refinements like we’ve been seeing in the basic feature set on each new model; (3) side-load some of the D6 features/changes; and (4) otherwise use the well-proven DSLR body and feature set.

The timing of the virus, unfortunately, probably has Nikon management second-guessing themselves. I already mentioned that the D780 sales have been weak, but so is the demand for the just-released D6. In both models, I know plenty of folk who didn’t buy them because their expected income stream is gone or questionable, and so they’re in wait-and-see mode for how fast the economy recovers before making any buying decision. 

Because Nikon is cutting back so much on staff, it’s not likely that product management is doing any significant polling of the user base to figure out what the customer is likely to do in the future. I’ll bet that Nikon is flying pretty blind in terms of customer input for camera development at the moment. Still, I’d be surprised if they don’t have a follow-on replacement for the D850 (e.g. D880), and within the next 12 months.

But anything else in DSLR bodies? That seems unlikely at the moment. Personally, I’d argue that Nikon should take the Z50 sensor and make a D580 using it. You'd get a significant bump in Live View and video, and you'd get the chance to bring that camera into EXPEED6 and add current features and systems. I’m sure there’s still a market for a “baby” D6 just as there was for a baby D5 and baby D3. It’s not a huge market, but it’s a real market that is worth keeping active. Even today, there isn’t another camera that really matches the D500 in capability. When you own a niche like that as Nikon does with the D500, you have to protect it. 

Finally, there’s a slim chance that Nikon actually tries to go “hybrid” with a D7 in 2024. There’s been patents filed that suggest that Nikon has tinkered with such designs. It’s a tough technical problem that adds significant costs, though. I’d think that just transitioning the sports/PJ camera to mirrorless would happen faster, easier, and cheaper.

Which brings us to DSLR lenses. It seems clear to me that some of Nikon's upper-level lens designers are still working in the DSLR F-mount space. A lot of the things they work on and produce tend to be what I call “projects of interest.” In other words, they’re not surveying users and trying to figure out what lens the user needs, they’re picking lens design problems they’d like to tackle and getting clearance from product management that it’s something worth doing. 

Thus, it’s difficult to predict what new DSLR lenses we might get other than they’re likely to be “special” and high end. Look at the few recent F-mount lenses we’ve gotten. In backwards order: 120-300mm f/2.8E, 500mm f/5.6E PF, 180-400mm f/4E, 70-300mm AF-P (which was working on stepper motor focus needed for the Z system), the 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5, and the 19mm f/4 PC-E. All “special” in some way and mostly high-end. 

I suspect that we’ll get a trickle of one F-mount lens a year, two at most, and fitting what I just said: a challenging design issue more than a commonly requested lens.

Trying to put all of that into a short term timeline:

2020: Z5, maybe Z30, 3 or 4 new Z lenses, maybe one F-mount lens

2021: Z8, remaining Z lenses on current Road Map, new Z Road Map, D880, maybe one F-mount lens

Longer term, things shift even more towards the Z system. I expect the 2024 sports camera to be a Z9 (or will Nikon bust their naming system and call it a Z1?). For DSLRs to continue, Nikon’s going to need to see actual DSLR sales are continuing in some significant volume. I don’t see that happening with D3xxx or D5xxx models. It’s questionable even at the D7xxx and D500 level. The D780 is going to have to start selling once the virus situation clears up for Nikon to put more resources into the DSLR side, I think. 

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