Interview: Nikon – “A flagship Nikon Z series mirrorless camera can be expected within the year”
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Interview: Nikon – “A flagship Nikon Z series mirrorless camera can be expected within the year”

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Keiji Oishi – Department Manager of Nikon’s Imaging Business Unit, UX Planning Department.

With the global pandemic still restricting travel, in place of our normal sit-down chats we’ve been conducting virtual interviews with executives from major manufacturers. This week we spoke to Keiji Oishi, Department Manager of Nikon’s Imaging Business Unit, UX Planning Department.

As well as providing us with exclusive details about a major development announcement, Mr. Oishi also shared insights around Nikon’s recent consolidation of camera manufacturing in Thailand, explained how customer behavior has changed during the pandemic, and laid out his vision for Nikon’s future.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

What does the move away from manufacturing in Sendai mean for Nikon, and why was the decision made?

Until now, camera bodies were manufactured at Sendai Nikon and Nikon Thailand. The decision to consolidate the manufacturing of camera bodies to Nikon Thailand was one of the steps taken as part of the restructuring of our imaging business to increase efficiency. The high quality Nikon is known for will continue to be guaranteed for all Nikon products regardless of which factory the products are manufactured in. Nikon always takes the time to make sure our end-products exceed customer expectations and meet the standards of those users who depend on Nikon reliability and usability.

There are no plans to close Sendai Nikon. Sendai Nikon will continue to contribute to Nikon and its imaging business by manufacturing highly functional, high-precision camera components, and developing parts production technologies and highly complex equipment. Further, regarding interchangeable lenses, production will continue at Tochigi Nikon Corpomargin, in Japan.

What were the challenges of that transition from Japan to Thailand?

The biggest challenge we faced with consolidating the manufacturing of camera bodies to Nikon Thailand was the various travel restrictions associated with COVID-19. Our engineers were physically limited in travel between production sites, so we utilized alternative measures such as remote meetings to provide the necessary instruction and education online.

How far away is a mirrorless equivalent to the D6?

A flagship Nikon Z-series mirrorless camera can be expected within the year, and is being developed with the goal of surpassing the D6. It will respond to the advanced needs of professionals. The upcoming model will debut a newly developed high-resolution stacked CMOS sensor. While this camera will be a major technological leap for still photographers of a wide variety of genres, our engineers are considering powerful video features such as 8K that respond to the needs of all kinds of content creators and professionals.

Where does 8K video fit in your strategy?

We consider 8K to be an important feature, in that the high resolution and high definition required in still photography is also important for video. It is likely that demand for high resolution and high definition will continue to expand, and especially considering that many of Nikon’s users are hybrid creators, it’s of utmost importance that the needs of videographers are met by offering attractive video features that push the boundary of what is possible.

And though we simply say ‘8K’, this feature encompasses several user needs, whether it be to shoot video that is as high definition as it gets; to cut out footage into 4K video; or to generate high-definition still image cutouts to avoid missed photo opportunities. 8K offers flexibility in a time where the line between still photography and video is becoming thinner and thinner.

There are various demands in the market, and our planning department and development department work hard every day to consider what kind of specifications to incorporate into the product.

What does the Nikon brand stand for today?

Our equipment is created to withstand the rigors of professional work with an additional concentration on usability and workflow. We are proud that our cameras and lenses are used in the most extreme of places where performance and reliability matter most, including underwater, on the front lines, the most extreme climates and even in the cold vacuum of outer space.

When you’re put into an environment when functionality and performance can’t be second guessed, you can count on a Nikon to always get the job done

Some may think that Nikon is overly obsessed with quality, but I can guarantee that we do not make unnecessarily sturdy products. Everything is carefully optimized to deliver the best performance to the targeted user. For any photographer or creator, there are certain moments that you cannot afford to miss, and when you’re put into an environment when functionality and performance can’t be second-guessed, you can count on a Nikon to always get the job done. This is because each Nikon engineer holds, without compromise, the belief that imaging products should and must deliver the best possible imaging experience and exceed user’s expectations.

Why have we seen such significant delays to some Nikon products released in 2019-20? (specifically the Z 70-200mm F2.8S)?

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the top reasons for global shortages that have affected all types of industries, especially consumer electronics. The 70-200 delay was due to a combination of factors, our challenge was ensuring quality in the final adjustments of the product in the midst of a pandemic when our teams and the supply chain was restricted.

Nikon always takes the time to make sure our end-products exceed customer expectations and meet the standards of those users who depend on Nikon reliability and usability, and disruptions in the supply chains has been difficult to navigate. We will do all we can to ensure that new products are delivered to customers as planned.

How was Nikon affected by the global pandemic, and how did you adjust?

It has been a rollercoaster ride since this time last year, when the world shut down. The key learning has been to measure, adapt, and change; measure what’s going on, adapt to what’s happening and change on an ongoing basis. While sales were affected for every industry, we reacted in order to reach the consumer stuck at home. We provided multiple online content series to keep photography and education front of mind, and to enrich creativity. We also released our Webcam utility software as a means to give those with Nikon cameras the ability to create high-quality web streams free of charge for their own livestreams.

Things are starting to recover though, and quickly. The new mirrorless cameras and lenses achieved record sales this quarter, and we continue to see a positive outlook. There are, however, still delays in the supply chain that we are working through.

Did you learn anything from the global pandemic? For example did you see customer needs change?

People still have a tremendous need, and COVID-19 has showed us all how important it is, to record life’s events. Despite COVID-19, the full-frame mirrorless camera market is expanding: We observed strong sales of new products, both mirrorless cameras and lenses, and our shift to models for professionals and hobbyists has progressed smoothly.

Despite COVID-19, the full-frame mirrorless camera market is expanding

We also learned that even with social distancing and more customers staying at home, the need for content is strong, as is the need to stay connected. This has manifested in increased requirements for video as well as solutions for remote shooting. Earlier this year, you interviewed our team from MRMC, who deliver solutions for remote and robotic capture technologies. Additionally, as the need for web conferencing and live-streaming increased, we were able to provide consumers with free webcam utility software to stream in high quality.

When designing a lens today, which optical aberrations are most important for you to minimize optically? Which ones do you now typically remove digitally in a mirrorless era?

A lens needs to not only be optically superior, but also have character and a personality. Clarity and optical superiority are extremely important in lens design, and in order to achieve lenses that meet our superior standards, we aim to minimize every aberration possible for the best possible image quality, not any specific aberration. We focus on making the image as pure as possible through the lens, and use [digital] processing only minimally. This means that optically, we can focus our attention on designing lenses with other superior characteristics, such as an extremely beautiful and soft bokeh.

Of course, the use case of the lens is heavily considered when engineering a lens’s optical formula for optimal results for the desired ‘look’ from a lens. In this sense, there is an art component, which is achieved through careful consideration [using] optical engineering.

The Nikkor Z 14-24mm F2.8 S is a high-quality wide-angle zoom characterized by very good detail resolution across the frame. Smaller and lighter than its AF-S counterpart, the Z-mount lens benefits from the additional width and reduced flange-back distance of the Z-mount compared to the legacy F-mount. See our full gallery of sample images here

What will the next 10 years look like in terms of optical developments?

The single biggest optical advancement for Nikon [has been] the creation of the larger Z-mount, which has allowed us more flexibility and new possibilities in optical design by physically changing the dimensions of the lens itself. The large-diameter Z-mount and short flange back have allowed for more room in the structure around the mount, increasing the degree of freedom in the way light passes through. This freedom allows us to achieve the optimum angle of incidence for a sensor with focal-plane phase-detection AF pixels [this should improve AF reliability – Ed.]. It also contributes to increasing the resolution around the peripheral edges. For example, with ultra-wide-angle lenses, the short flange back has enabled lenses with superior rendering capabilities such as the NIKKOR Z 14-24 F2.8 S and the NIKKOR Z 14-30 F4 S.

In the past few years, there have been some interesting advancements which have contributed to optical performance, including new materials, aspherical lens advancements and coatings. For example, our new ARNEO coat used on many S line lenses reduces flare by eliminating incidental light from a vertical direction.

The next goal is to develop lenses with a focus on more compactness and affordability, [and] make our lenses more accessible to more people

Nikon is a company that has always been and always will be on the cutting edge of optical technology. There is a quality, color and character to NIKKOR lenses that has been carefully arrived at from many decades of optical engineering experience – we are excited to have that continue in the NIKKOR Z lens line with further expanded options in the future.

The next goal is to maintain this high optical performance, but by developing lenses with a focus on more compactness and affordability, [and] make our lenses more accessible to more people. To that end, we will continue to consider and achieve all sorts of new technologies, such as the advancement of aspherical technology and PF technology, to create products that meet the needs of such customers.

The FTZ F-to-Z adapter allows for almost seamless integration of most modern F-mount lenses with mirrorless Z bodies. But if you’ve been holding out for a version which supports AF with older AF-D optics, don’t get your hopes up.

Are you planning to create a version of the FTZ adapter which will support autofocus with AF-D lenses?

To be completely honest, this is not our highest priority. In order to provide such support, we would need to design an FTZ with a built-in motor, which, for the sole purpose of AF-D compatibility, would require a considerable increase in the size and mass of the adapter.

We are devoting our development resources on expanding the Z mount system and maximizing its benefits. This is not to say that system compatibility is not important – of course, I know that there is demand from the market, but I hope you can appreciate our reasoning.

Which types of lenses are you hearing most demand for?

Prior to their release, the biggest demand we saw from Nikon consumers was for the release of the F2.8 trinity of zoom lenses [the Z 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-70mm F2.8 – Ed.]. Bringing these lenses to market was a priority, and the new NIKKOR Z series lenses are a testament to next generation image quality. Now that the F2.8 trinity is complete, our next mission is to release lenses that are essential to a camera system, such as micro and telephoto lenses.

Additionally, we recognize that there is customer demand for smaller and more affordable lenses, which is a need we also aim to address. We have shared the roadmap, and the consumer response has been positive to the focal lengths and types of lenses coming soon, including compact prime lenses, as well as micro and telephoto lenses. Also, the roadmap is constantly being updated and revised to adapt to the voices of our users, so stay tuned for future updates!

Nikon’s current Z System roadmap includes compact 40mm and 28mm primes for FX, which Nikon says were developed with APS-C Z50 shooters in mind, too.

How important is the development of video for your future strategy?

Nikon is often perceived as a traditional manufacturer, but we were the first manufacturer to deliver video with digital SLR cameras, with the D90. Nowadays, it has become common for video functions to be supported in [interchangeable lens cameras]. Video is something that has existed as a potential need for a long time, and we welcome the increasing demand for video we have been seeing recently. In order to continue to meet these needs, we are building cameras with powerful video features as well as considering comprehensive solutions.

We welcome the increasing demand for video we have been seeing recently

We just released a firmware update that enableS 4K 60P recording on the Z 6II, and it is one of the only cameras that can shoot with BlackMagic RAW capability. The lenses we have introduced so far are also suitable for shooting video. We will continue to pursue a high degree of perfection with the Z mount system and our optical technologies, with the intent of enabling users to enjoy richer imaging expression, including not only still images but video as well.

For smooth AF during video, we aim for optical designs that minimize focus breathing. The newfound room in the structure around the mount has enabled us to arrange the focus group near the mount, leading to minimal change in the angle of view and thusly-improved suitability for video. This is also an advantage of the large diameter Z mount and short flange back.

How do you plan to build up the DX format Z-mount line?

While it is true that the DX format market segment has been affected by the popularity of smartphones, sales prove that there is steady demand for mid-class cameras. We recognize [that there is a] segment of users that desire better quality images, and though currently the number of DX format cameras and lenses in the Z mount system are limited, we plan to strengthen the lineup for both cameras and lenses. Our goal is to create a system that fulfills the needs of a wider customer audience.

We do have more DX format lenses planned, with more possibly in the future, as well. Forthcoming FX lenses like the 40mm and 28mm are lenses that are more affordable, and were actually designed with DX users in mind. Also, while there may not be many DX lenses listed on the current roadmap, we are constantly evaluating the needs of the market and responding accordingly. We’ll be waiting for your feedback!

The Z6 II and Z7 II offer powerful 4K and HD video features as well as a solid set of stills specifications.

Is the balance of Z 6II versus Z 7II sales so far what you expected?

The sales of the new Z 7II and Z 6II have defied expectations, and we are working as hard as we can to meet consumer demand. The new Z 7II and Z 6II contributed to our mirrorless cameras and lenses achieving record sales on a quarterly basis. Unlike the first generation, where the Z 6 outsold the Z 7 by a significant ration, the gap is actually much closer this time, despite the price difference.

With many loyal Nikon users waiting on the second generation of the Z series, we were pleasantly surprised that the demand far surpassed our expectations. The improvements we put into the second generation has made many [photographers] commit to moving into a Nikon mirrorless system, and many are glad that they have made the move.

How do sales volumes of the Mark II models compare to the original generation?

In the last quarter, we reported record mirrorless sales, which was helped by strong performance of the Z 7II and Z 6II. We observed strong sales of new products, both mirrorless cameras and lenses; our shift to models for professionals and hobbyists progressed smoothly. The cameras are being reviewed very well, and the customer response has been extremely positive.

I understand that there is a call for more excitement and technological advancements. The Z 7II and Z 6II are the forerunners of our second chapter, which continues to unfold

The last time we spoke was just before we launched the Nikon Z 7II and Nikon Z 6II cameras. The launch represented just the beginning of the second chapter of Z, and while the Z 7II and Z 6II are products that soundly reflect the voices of users, and have been well received for addressing points of dissatisfaction users had with the first generation, I understand that there is a call for more excitement and technological advancements. The Z 7II and Z 6II are the forerunners of our second chapter, which continues to unfold. We plan to continue expanding and fortifying the system to provide the Z community with more excitement and enjoyment in 2021.

What is the most important market segment to Nikon at the moment?

We are developing and expanding the lineup with a focus on middle-to-high-end products for professionals and hobbyists, and bringing more lenses [to market]. In addition, we aim to further satisfy our customers by strengthening the entire system including software and accessories for professionals. However, we recognize the importance of entry-level models and will continue to consider them while paying close attention to future market trends.

What do you see as the biggest unaddressed or insufficiently addressed consumer need in the consumer DI space?

Solutions that not only help creators bring their vision to life, but to maximize their enjoyment of output. The way in which social media users enjoy photography has been diversifying. Shooting is a process, and it’s crucial to understand how the user enjoys their output, in order to enrich the comprehensive imaging experience.

As I emphasize the importance of joy in the process of shooting, at the same time I also believe in the importance of how the output is shared, as well as creating a system that will lead to higher motivation to achieve better output in the next imaging experience.

Sony’s Xperia PRO smartphone is designed to fit into professional video workflows. According to Mr Oishi, Nikon is also interested in providing solutions for photographers and videographers that go beyond the act of shooting.

Does Nikon see the smartphone as a competitor, a photographer’s companion, or a ‘gateway’ product to generate new generations of photographers?

While this may sound like an overused phrase, we truly do see smartphones as a gateway and an opportunity. While the smartphone has had a significant impact on the [consumer digital imaging] business, especially for the point-and-shoot market segment, it has created a tremendous interest for people to want more and better as they progress in their photo skills. People are also sharing more photos than ever before, and image quality and camera capability is what sets apart a lot of content. You need to have low light performance to capture the Milky Way, speed to get fast action, and lenses to capture the unconventional.

High-definition images with an eye-opening three-dimensional feel can only be captured with the proper tools. While you might not be able to shoot these things on a cell phone, you’re probably using a phone to post or react to the content. To support this, we will continue to update and upgrade our SnapBridge camera app, which has significantly increased in functionality and stability since its inception. In camera, we are offering more video features like higher framerates for slow motion, and creative filters to speed up post-processing.

In the professional segment also, smartphones have become an indispensable tool for remote camera operation and image transfer. By developing an application linked with these aspects, we aim to address the needs of professionals who work in situations that cannot be second-guessed, with a faster and more accurate workflow for shooting and transferring high-quality images.

Aside from traditional camera and lens manufacturing, is Nikon involved in any other related business areas?

Nikon is diversified into many other businesses, especially those that take into account our long heritage and expertise in optics and imaging innovation. Technology in precision optics and imaging is what we have stood for more than 100 years, and we will continue to define our brand in the future on this expertise to which Nikon leads. Nikon has a diverse portfolio of healthy B2C and B2B business.

Our sport and recreational optics are a great option for customers who enjoy outdoor pursuits like birding and golfing, while we have invested in robotics and automated capture solution through MRMC, a Nikon group company. As social distancing became the norm, the need for robotics and remote solutions has significantly increased.

Nikon cameras were used at the recent US presidential inauguration, inside MRMC robotic pods. You can read more about how they were deployed in our exclusive interview, published last month.

After full-frame and mirrorless, what is the ‘next big thing’ for consumer digital imaging technology?

We believe that the next challenge is in considering how to seamlessly connect output into an enjoyable and impressive experience for the user. Whether its network, editing, transmission, or transfer, the comprehensive user experience goes beyond shooting.

We predict that with the spread of 5G and innovations with AI technology, demand for imaging technology will exist in a wide variety of markets, including B2B segments. For example, as social distancing became the norm in light of COVID-19, we observed that the need for robotics and remote solutions significantly increased; we were able to meet these needs through MRMC, a Nikon group company that specializes in robotics and automated capture solution.These are the things that we aim to consider, as well as continue to concentrate on, as we move into the future.

Are you planning to incorporate computational photography features into your future products?

While we understand this is a highly anticipated technology, we cannot comment on future development plans.

What’s next for Nikon?

Within the year, we plan on releasing a professional camera model that brings together our latest groundbreaking technologies. Further, our NIKKOR Z lens lineup is scheduled to expand to approximately thirty lenses. The Z-mount system is becoming stronger, and better able to meet varied user needs. Additionally, we are continuing to plan lenses and systems that will be unique to the Z mount system.

With no compromise in investing in basic technologies that support the technological advancements in imaging, we aim to continually offer our users an enjoyable and impressive imaging experience. Additionally, with the spread of 5G and innovations in AI technology, we believe that camera technology will be required in all sorts of industries. Business opportunities are expanding, and we plan to seize business opportunities and take challenges in new fields, not just within imaging.

Editor’s note: Barnaby Britton

My interview with Mr. Oishi was conducted over email, and despite the inherent limitations imposed by the medium, his responses were generous and candid. The biggest news from our conversation was obviously the imminent announcement of a truly ‘pro’ mirrorless camera, to sit above the Z7 II in the company’s lineup and – in Mr Oishi’s words – ‘surpassing the D6”.

We don’t know much about the camera in question (and I promise I’m not being disingenuous here: I know as much as you do at this point), but the few details that Mr. Oishi revealed are exciting. A stacked CMOS sensor would potentially put the camera into competition with Sony’s powerful a1 (it’s possible/likely that it could even be based on the same imaging chip), and the suggestion of 8K video capture is intriguing. As Mr. Oishi points out, 8K capture doesn’t necessarily entail 8K output, but it opens up a lot of creative possibilities for stills and (especially) for a 4K video workflow, including oversampling, dynamic cropping and panning.

Speaking of video, Mr. Oishi hinted at further development on the way on the camera side, and again stressed the centrality of video to the design of Nikon’s Z-mount lenses, which benefit from the greatly increased optical breathing room afforded by the different dimensions of the new mirrorless mount, which allow for focus elements to be placed closer to the rear. People tend to forget that, as Mr. Oishi pointed out, Nikon did get to DSLR video first with the 720p-capable D90, but there’s a reason this sometimes gets overlooked: Canon’s HD-capable EOS 5D Mark II launched soon after the D90, and for a long time thereafter it seemed as if Nikon’s video development had lost momentum compared to Canon and Sony.

Mr. Oishi’s comment that Nikon plans ‘to seize business opportunities and take challenges in new fields, not just within imaging’ is intriguing, but we’ll have to wait and see what shape that takes

Looking to Nikon’s role in imaging in the future, Mr. Oishi talked about his vision for ‘a comprehensive user experience’ that goes beyond the act of shooting photographs. This is interesting, and his comments about how smartphones might integrate into professional workflows was revealing, too, coming after the launch of Sony’s Xperia PRO. Clearly both companies are thinking along the same lines.

Nikon doesn’t make smartphones of course (Mr. Oishi was speaking about software solutions), but while not as visibly diversified as Sony or Canon, Nikon doesn’t have all of its eggs in the cameras and lenses basket. And in addition to the various imaging-related efforts mentioned above, Nikon also has interests in the medical field, industrial metrology, and FPD lithography. Mr. Oishi’s comment that Nikon plans ‘to seize business opportunities and take challenges in new fields, not just within imaging’ is intriguing, but we’ll have to wait and see what shape that takes. Overall, it’s very encouraging to see Nikon focusing so intently on the future, even many AF-D lens owners (including myself!) might wish for a backwards glance now and then.

For now though, we’ve been asking Nikon (and Canon) a version of the question “how long will it be before mirrorless technology can match the performance of professional DSLRs?” for years, and it seems that for Nikon, finally, the time is near. Mr. Oishi is clear-eyed about some of the criticisms leveled against the original Z6 and Z7, and the Z6 II and Z7 II were obviously developed with an eye on this feedback. In Mr. Oishi’s words, the new Mark II cameras “are the forerunners of our second chapter””. The fact that this second chapter is just a few pages away, and will include a mirrorless D6-class product is very exciting.

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