Is Nikon’s Z9 Too Late to the Mirrorless Game?

Loyalty may be the determining factor

Key Takeaways

  • Nikon has announced its Z9 flagship camera body, for sale later this year.
  • The Z9 is Nikon’s mirrorless alternative to its top-end D6 DSLR.
  • Nikon closed two lens factories in 2021 and needs a hit.
Four people standing by the railroad tracks,one using a mirrorless camera and another a point and shoot camera.
Jessica Cao / Unsplash

Nikon’s new flagship Z9 camera is a beast, but is Nikon too late to the full-frame mirrorless game? After all, it won’t even be available to buy for a good while yet. 

Nikon has one of the best pedigrees in photography, but it lags in mirrorless cameras, the latest big thing in cameras for pros and enthusiasts. These cameras are smaller and lighter than big DSLRs, while adding one significant feature that DSLRs can never match.

But Nikon has let the competition run ahead. Is the Z9 enough to catch up? The answer is a resounding "maybe."

"For their target market, I don't think it's too late," Ken Bennett, a staff photographer at Wake Forest University, told Lifewire via forum post.

"I have a lot of professional colleagues who shoot Nikon. They have dipped their toes in the mirrorless pond with the Z6 and Z7, but they are all still using their D5 and D6 [DSLR bodies]. If the Z9 can replace the D6, they'll all switch."

The Mirrorless Advantage

Mirrorless cameras are named for what they lack, but they are more than that. DSLRs, and film SLRs before them, have a mirror set at 45 degrees between the lens and the sensor.

This mirror reflects the image up into the viewfinder, so you can see exactly what the lens is seeing. The mirror then flips out of the way when you take the shot.

It works great, and SLRs have been popular since they were introduced in the 1940s. Still, the mirror mechanism takes up a lot of space and requires that the lens be mounted relatively far away from the sensor.

The Nikon Z9 Camera.
Nikon

This makes the cameras bigger and requires bigger lenses. The mirror is why an SLR is huge compared to a point-and-shoot, even if they use the same size sensor/film.

Mirrorless cameras don’t need a mirror. They take a live feed from the sensor and show it on a high-resolution screen in the viewfinder.

This makes for smaller cameras and lenses, but it also lets you preview the exact photo you’re taking, right down to exposure, and any film simulations you’re using. You see the result before you release the shutter, not after the image is captured. 

Nikon’s problem was that it ignored the market for too long. 

"I'm a long-time Nikon user, but both Canon and Nikon were very late to the mirrorless party, allowing Sony to get a big piece of the market and opening the door to Fujifilm," Robert, photographer and administrator of the Fuji X Forum, told Lifewire.

Catchup

Historically, camera buyers would be locked into one manufacturers’ system by the lenses. Nikon lenses don’t fit on Canon cameras, and so on. Nikon has an exceptionally long heritage because its F lens mount remains fundamentally unchanged since 1958.

You can even use a modern Nikon autofocus lens on an old 1960s film SLR, although focus will remain stubbornly manual.

But in the change to mirrorless, even Nikon created a new lens mount, ceding one of its most significant advantages. Because mirrorless cameras are smaller, there’s space for lens adapters, and Nikon makes one that lets you keep using those of F-mount lenses.

"Lens compatibility will be a huge part of that. If you are familiar with the controls and can use your existing lenses, then that will keep you in the Nikon camp."

Unfortunately for Nikon, F-mount adapters also are available for Sony and other cameras, so you can use Nikon lenses on Sony cameras and so on.

Nikon still has a couple of things going for it. One is loyalty. Nikon might not make the most interesting cameras, but they are consistently among the best. And perhaps the biggest reason to stick with Nikon is that you already know how they work.

Camera makers are quite conservative with their high-end models in terms of their controls. The Nikon F100, a film camera from 1999, would be familiar to any DSLR user. 

Getting it right is especially important for the iconic Japanese brand. Just last month, it announced that it is closing two of its lens factories to save costs. Given the love and respect for the brand, it might not be impossible.

"It's never too late if you have the best product," says Fuji X Forum member Spudl. "That's what Nikon has to ensure. And yes, lens compatibility will be a huge part of that. If you are familiar with the controls and can use your existing lenses, then that will keep you in the Nikon camp."

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