Hasselblad is and was a photography company with a true pedigree, known for making the cameras NASA chose to use on the moon. But in the early 2010s, they seemed to have lost their way. Nikon seems to be in a similar position. Can they turn it around as Hasselblad did?
Style Over Substance
Let’s jump back to 2012 and the announcement of Hasselblad's Lunar. In case you’ve forgotten this odd bit of camera history, it was a Sony NEX-7, but retailed for about 5x the price of the Sony, thanks to the addition of a fancy leather grip. In an interview, Hasselblad’s head of business development stated: “This is a camera for both serious photographers and enthusiasts who aspire to shooting with a Hasselblad.” This was followed up by the announcement of the Stellar, which was leather covered Sony RX100, and later a Hasselblad HV, a restyled Sony A99. Put simply, Hasselblad wasn’t bringing anything new to the table, except maybe some talented leather crafts, all at an exaggerated price point.
This choice to put development and marketing efforts behind a vanity project that didn’t make use of the company’s competitive edge wasn’t a good call. Hasselblad’s more recent effort, with the X system cameras, featuring a new lens mount and Hasselblad-designed lenses, has been more of a success.
I draw the comparison with Nikon’s current situation because the announcement of the Z fc has me worried that Nikon is heading down that same path. I wasn’t a fan of the Df back at the launch, as it struck me as an expensive camera hamstrung by cost-cutting, notable only for its throwback design. Fortunately, that was a one-off… or so I thought.
As a Nikon user, I was very interested in the announcement of the Z system. A new mount, a serious effort at mirrorless, and rave reviews over the initial Z lenses convinced me to buy in. Getting into a new system always involves putting a bit of trust in the company’s promises, and for the most part, Nikon has delivered. The lenses that have been released have continued to uphold the standard, and new body releases have slotted in well.
Alas, that implicit contract has shown some cracks over the last year or two. The cadence of lens releases has slowed down, with some really noticeable absences still evident, like the lack of a 200mm+ option in Z mount. Meanwhile, the lower end has been just minimally supported, with two basic DX lenses announced and a third overlapping one placed on the roadmap.
Now, against that backdrop, Nikon has decided to create a retro-styled version of the Z 50 with a firmware update. Just like Hasselblad took a NEX-7 and put some leather on it, it’s looking like Nikon is following the same formula with some silver paint.
To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Nikon building out the lower end of their product stack; in fact, I think it’s really important. Nikon has to find a way to funnel users into the ecosystem and brand, and having a $1,500+ full-frame camera as the lowest option isn’t going to make that happen. Unfortunately, putting some leather on a Z 50 isn’t going to do that either.
Instead, create a model that fits above or below the Z 50. The D3000-series cameras sold in huge volumes for Nikon, while the D7000 and D500 users don’t have a compelling Z APS-C to move over to. When it comes to lenses, there are a lot of directions to go. Users have been eager for a range of compact primes to pair with the lightweight Z bodies, pros are still missing native mount telephotos and fast primes that aren’t one of three 50mm variations. The Z APS-C lens lineup is even more dire than that of the F mount.
The Big Picture
Beyond the specifics of this product or that product line, I’d love to see Nikon better leverage their competitive edge. They make brilliant lenses; all of the reviews of the Z mount lenses have shown that. Most of their existing offerings are an excellent value, at a time when the market has gone crazy with $6,500+ bodies and $2,500+ lenses.
To return to the Hasselblad example, those rebranded models didn’t work because they lost sight of the fact that a camera is many things, but at its core, it’s a tool for artists. Producing a special edition is fine, but not when it’s taking the place of meaningful development.
Now, with the continued contraction and strengthening competition in the camera market, Nikon has to focus on the product. The high end has seemingly been left wide open, with missing telephotos and only the “announcement of development” of a flagship mirrorless camera presenting a poor visual heading into the Olympics in Tokyo.
Low-end and DX ranges have continued to experience neglect and the creation of artificial limitations. Nikon, like Canon, continues to believe that the moment users need an advanced feature or lens, they’ll just upgrade right out of DX, EF-S, or M gear. That doesn’t work if you instead consider that these are users who you need advanced features to attract in the first place. If the competition is a very capable cell phone camera, your product has to bring something more to the table. Fewer features, less capable software, and worse options for connectivity aren’t going to make that an easy sell.
The Z fc isn’t inherently a problem. Trying something new, doing a special edition, and taking a risk is all fine; the problem is that this seems to be taking the place of “real work” that needs to get done. Back in March 2021, Nikon’s CFO mentioned that 12 new lenses were to be released in the next 12 months. Since then, we have gotten the development of a few lenses announced, but they’re not “released” in any real sense, and the 105mm that was actually released came with the announcement of significant shipping delays for most buyers.
What makes this all so frustrating as someone watching the industry and using the products is that they are great. I’ve really enjoyed my Z gear, but I’m worried that missteps and a misallocation of resources are going to prevent the vision of the system from being fully realized. Just like Hasselblad returned from the leather-coated wilderness with the X1D, I’m hoping Nikon can navigate a path to consistently releasing the great Z products that photographers and enthusiasts will enjoy shooting.