If you are a Nikon shooter, you might have found the announcement of the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E VR AF-P puzzling. While it looks great on paper, the lens seems to be ahead of its time, since the only cameras the lens is fully compatible with are the recent DX cameras. What is the point of announcing a full-frame lens, if it is limited to only a few DX cameras and practically no FX cameras? To me, it shows that Nikon is getting ready to announce something really big, something many of us Nikon shooters have been waiting for – a full-frame mirrorless camera. As I was looking at the details of the new 70-300mm VR AF-P, I realized that this lens would be an ideal candidate for a mirrorless camera. It is small, sharp and lightweight, which is exactly what a lightweight and compact Nikon mirrorless system needs. On top of all this, Nikon’s president has already hinted at an upcoming mirrorless release (link in Japanese, use Google Translate), although nothing was said about the format / sensor size. While this is my personal speculation, the release of the full-frame 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E VR AF-P to me is an indication of a full-frame mirrorless coming to the market.
Many Nikon shooters have been puzzled with a potential mirrorless camera release. While Nikon has already probed the mirrorless market with its CX cameras, the 1″ sensor has been the culprit of its mass adoption. Back in the good old days of steady camera market growth, Nikon thought that it could lure many point-and-shoot photographers to its CX system and increase its overall market share. Enthusiasts and professionals knew that the small CX sensor would not be able to compete with the image quality of DX and FX cameras – CX was never meant to be a DSLR replacement. However, the forecast analysts were wrong; the point-and-shoot market went the opposite way, in favor of cell phone cameras and the camera market tanked.
Camera manufacturers have been suffering ever since, with some even quitting the market completely (as in the case of Samsung). Despite the fact that we see a lot of R&D poured into the camera market from all who are left, the numbers and the growth potential have not recovered or realized, and likely never will – cell phones are getting better every day and the demand for more serious cameras seems to be staying with the enthusiast and professional crowd. Hence, instead of trying to penetrate into the already saturated cell phone camera market, it makes sense for companies to target those who have genuine interest in photography. Sony realized this early on jumped on the full-frame mirrorless bandwagon as soon as possible (after probing the market with a few APS-C offerings), while others like Fuji started out with lighter APS-C cameras and are now pushing into medium format mirrorless.
It has been discouraging to see Nikon’s lack of engagement in mirrorless technology. We have not seen a single update to the CX product line for the past two years and it seems like Nikon has either abandoned CX or is planning to slowly phase it out in the future. We know that Nikon’s DSLR market share is declining and the mirrorless market is on the rise, so there is definitely some redistribution of the market share taking place. I personally know a few photographers who sold their Nikon gear and moved to a mirrorless system, while many others are reluctant to spend their money on Nikon cameras and lenses, worrying about the company’s future. I feel the same way too – if Nikon continues on the same path of hanging on to DSLRs, I might jump ship one day, as that’s not where innovation and technology are heading for sure.
Nikon understands this very well and that’s why its engineers are working hard on bringing out a mirrorless camera. Nikon only has one shot at making it right and judging from what Mr Kazuo Ushida is saying, that’s exactly their plan – to make something that will challenge the best of the mirrorless cameras on the market. That’s going to be tough to achieve, but given Nikon’s history and its experience with CX, it is not an impossible task.
One thing that Nikon cannot do is start from scratch – that would be instant death, since it would be tough to stay focused on so many different systems and bring yet another format to support. Nikon must use its existing lens line-up with a mirrorless product, which would achieve two things – help migrate Nikon DSLR shooters to a mirrorless system and keep them away from switching to a different system, and introduce a complete mirrorless system to the market, with the most number of lenses and accessories available. In my opinion, that is the only way to success.
What does this mean? Well, we would have to continue to deal with a long flange distance of the Nikon F mount, so the new mirrorless camera would have to be somewhat similar in its depth compared to DSLRs. However, lack of pentaprism and reshuffling of the internal camera parts, in addition to a lighter carbon fiber / plastic shell design, can definitely produce a lightweight and compact mirrorless camera that would appeal to most Nikon shooters. Those who want to be on the edge can move up to a mirrorless camera and those who prefer the optical viewfinder (OVF) can continue shooting with DSLRs. Both will continue to use their existing Nikon lens and accessory investments, which would be a win-win situation. It would also make it easy for Nikon to support the two and allow for easier transition of its customer base from DSLRs to mirrorless in the future.
Looking at the new 70-300mm VR AF-P, I can see the appeal of a lightweight mirrorless camera and that’s where Nikon is hopefully heading. It will be interesting to see what happens next. I am hoping that Nikon will give us something big on its 100th year anniversary…