Nikon finally accepts that mirrorless is here to stay

Posted on by Mike Evans

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While the little world of Macfilos has been concerned with two new and very relevant cameras — the Leica M10-P and the Panasonic Lumix LX100 Mark II — the wider universe has been focused almost entirely on Nikon. Late to the party or not, the arrival of the new Zeds (or Zees if you live in the USA)¹ is an event of major importance.

With Canon expected to follow suit in entering the mirrorless market in 2019, the new genre, which arrived only in 2008, is set for eventual supremacy. The DSLR will continue for some years, I believe, but gradually the many advantages of digital viewing will win through.

Yesterday I rather jokingly suggested that Nikon had slavishly copied the Sony a7 range, and there are indeed many similarities in appearance and in the adoption of 24MP and 42MP sensors to differentiate the two main cameras. Without a doubt, Nikon will follow with variations, as Sony has done successfully with the a7S, for instance. 

Fierce competition

A top display, similar to the Panasonic G9 and Leica SL. No doubt the next Sony will follow suit

But from today the photographic world will never be the same. We can expect fierce competition between Sony and, first, Nikon, then Canon. Some commentators have suggested that the Zeds outgun the Sonys on autofocus speed and other technicalities, but Sony will fight back and within months will have leapfrogged to even higher goals. This has got to be good, some strong competition for Sony at last. One thing is certain, Sont will not lie on its back and let Nikon tickle it's tummy.

With sensor technology having reached a point where, for most people, future improvements in image quality will be pretty academic, we now have a staggeringly competent range of alternative homes for our money. Yesterday the mirrorless players were Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus and Sony — with Leica hovering expensively in the background. But now one of the big two professional manufacturers is upping the ante and providing even more incentive for future development.

Below: A good overview of the new Zees/Zeds. I take an instant dislike to the arrogant Nikon representative who insists the camera be called the Nyekon Zee throughout the world. Good luck with that. It reminds me of the hoary old story of the marching soldiers watched by doting parents: "Look, everyone is out of step except our Johnny". Full marks to Chis Niccolls for holding his own from his Canadian perspective.

If my memory services me, Nikon is now the third manufacturer to enter the full-frame sector, after Sony and Leica. And 35mm sensors, once so expensive, have now become mainstream. At the same time, Sony has shown that the bodies need not be huge (Leica SL huge, for instance), but can be similar in size to APS-C or, even, m4/3 bodies. It is telling that the Panasonic G9 is very similar in size to both the Sonys and the new Nikons. 

Of course, lens technology is the big issue here. Full-frame means bigger, heavier professional housings. It’s where m4/3 wins out every time, despite the increasing girth of the camera bodies. 

The little and the large

The FX adapter is being bundled with camera bodies at a knock-down £100 extra because Nikon realises that existing customers with shelves full of lenses need to be encouraged to make the switch to the Zeds.

The mirrorless world is now settling down into five sensor sizes, one-inch, m4/3, APS-C, so-called full-frame and medium format. Smaller sensors are virtually dead, victims of the smartphone. While MF remains rather bulky for general use (despite Hasselblad’s admirable efforts at miniaturisation), the big battle lies between m4/3, APS-C and full-frame. Something has to be squeezed. The one-inch sensor is now providing one of the best solutions for travel because of the small body size and correspondingly large zoom possibilities (see the Leica C-Lux and Sony RX100 VI). And full-frame is developing nicely. It will continue to win market share now that Sony has some real competition. 

That leaves us with m4/3 and APS-C currently occupying the middle ground. It is anybody’s guess which way consumers will jump in this segment of the market. Fuji fans, in particular, will explain that APS-C offers the very best compromise — almost up there with full-frame in IQ and enjoying lighter and smaller lenses than is possible with full-frame. On the other hand, Olympus and Panasonic addicts can claim that the modern Lumix or OM-D is capable of producing professional results in a system that, overall, is the lightest. The smaller sensor also excels in video and autofocus capabilities. It is also a system which benefits from a massive range of native and third-party lenses.

The APS-C format is hugely popular, especially in the DSLR world where tourists everywhere have basic Nikons or Canons with kit lenses slung around their necks. Most of them have the 18-55mm standard zoom permanently attached to the camera and many, I suspect, do not realise that it can be removed — still less replaced with a fast prime. This market is ripe for the plucking by Olympus and Panasonic. I feel sure most people who opt for the entry-level DSLRs would be better served by micro four-thirds. 

As the focus moves away from DSLRs, whether full or crop frame, the spotlight is certainly going to move to the more modern mirrorless cameras with their WYSIWYG electronic viewfinders. 

What's in a name?

What is clear, is that after ten years mirrorless is now a mature market. It has still to conquer the professional world where DSLRs rule supreme for the moment, but Nikon is leading the way to a gradual change. It is going to be an exciting second decade for the non-SL camera market. Perhaps, at this stage (as William Fagan suggests in a comment to yesterday’s Nikon article) we should stop talking about mirrorless. We need a new name. Mirrorless has a slightly negative connotation, as though it is somehow second best by not having a mirror. I suggest we should now talk simply about digital cameras, for the new crop are indeed just that — digital through and through. It’s the DSLR that’s the odd one out in being only half digital. Maybe "digital camera" and "mirror camera" would be a more accurate description. 

¹ On the subject of nomenclature, Nikon has succeeded in introducing a new system which will be pronounced entirely differently depending on where you live. In the USA we will be talking about the Nikon Zee while in Britain and much of the rest of the world, our new camera will be the Neekon Zed.

Images courtesy of Nikon