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Nikon might go 'all in' on mirrorless systems. It's about time.

Nikon's 100th anniversary

As Nikon celebrates its 100th anniverary in 2017, the company reportedly is going to get serious about mirrorless cameras, according to Yahoo Japan. It includes the possibility of developing multiple mirrorless cameras.

For photography enthusiasts, there are two reactions (and one of them isn’t, “Ho, hum.”).

  • Why would Nikon do that?
  • What took so long?

I am in the second group.

The mirrorless camera segment is one of the few bright spots in digital photography since smartphones became the de facto camera for most people. That started with Apple’s iPhone, which debuted 10 years ago. Despite the limits of smartphones, it’s good enough for most people.

Quickly, let’s define mirrorless. This refers to those cameras that have interchangeable lenses. A point and shoot is a mirrorless camera, but today mirrorless refers to interchangeable-lens cameras that don’t have traditional reflex viewing systems.

While Nikon and Canon have sat at the top of the heap for the DSLR market, other camera makers found new life – and customers – in the mirrorless market, which Nikon and Canon have largely ignored.

IF YOU BUILD IT ...

Olympus, Panasonic, Fujfilm and Sony have flourished with their mirrorless cameras. In fact, you can say that most of the innovation, as well as the most interesting products, can be found in the mirrorless segment. Even Hasselblad developed its own mirrorless camera, the X1D.

Olympus and Panasonic use the Micro Four Thirds half-frame sensor with each offering cameras that appeal to different audiences.

Fujifilm’s X-series cameras have developed a loyal following with a product line that includes an advanced fixed-lens camera and enough bodies to appeal to novices, as well as serious amateurs. Additionally, it has 23 lenses with more in development. The success if its X-series led to the development of a medium format camera, the GFX.

Sony has its E-mount models, as well as a line of traditional DSLR Alpha-mount cameras, which were developed from models it inherited when it acquired KonicaMinolta in 2006.

Ricoh Pentax had a boutique mirrorless system – the Q, and there continues to be rumors that it is working on a new Pentax-branded system. Even as Pentax has been behind the curve when it comes to digital, rumors also swirl that Ricoh is readying another mirrorless system.

WHAT ARE NIKON'S PLANS?


The three Nikon 1 models.

That brings us back to Nikon. Nikon’s current DSLR lineup runs from entry-level models to mid-range SLRs to its single-digit pro-level “D” series.

Nikon has a toenail in the mirrorless arena with its Nikon 1 series of interchangeable-lens cameras, which use a one-inch sensor. The line has grown stale. At the moment, there are just three models (seen at left), and there hasn’t been a new camera in nearly two years.

Whether by intent or (product) design, the Nikon 1 cameras primarily appeal to novice photographers and not enthusiasts. Only the V3 has features that might attract the “serious” amateur. At US$1,200, it is priced well above similarly spec’d cameras from competitors. Then, there are the limitations of its small imaging sensor and a thin lineup of 13 lenses, which includes nine zooms and four primes. Finally, a dearth of new models has led some to question Nikon’s commitment to the system.

Not surprisingly, Canon has shown a similar lack of enthusiasm for mirrorless. Even after releasing three models within the past year, it remains to be seen whether Canon will continue to support the system with new bodies and lenses. For its part, Canon has four bodies and just seven lenses, of which six are zooms.

There are several routes that Nikon can take. Many Nikon users today might not know that its earliest camera was a rangefinder. A rangefinder-style mirrorless camera could be successful.

It worked for Sony when it created the NEX-7, and it has worked with the Fujfilm X-Pro and the Olympus Pen-F and Pansonic’s Lumix GX cameras. What is interesting is that each of these companies also offer mirrorless cameras with SLR-style bodies.

Of course, there is always a Leica digital M rangefinder, but those cameras are in a different category.

APS-C OR FULL-FRAME?

Nikon also could enter the market with an APS-C sensor that is intended as an alternative, rather than a replacement, for its entry-level DSLRs. Would this cannibalize sales of those DSLRs? Possibly. However, when weighing risk vs. reward, the reward is that many people who want a Nikon as their first camera now have an alternative – something that they don’t now have. More importantly, it gets them into the Nikon system, where they might stay for the long term.

Brand loyalty does still matter.

There is further speculation that Nikon might create a full-frame mirrorless camera. Who is the prospective buyer of such a camera? It could possibly be a professional photographer, but the biggest market will be advanced amateurs and those who have the bank account to buy into this system.

This partly is a reflection that the mirrorless market sells primarily to amatuer photographers. Amateur doesn’t mean novice. It simply means that an amateur doesn’t derive his income from taking photos. However, it should be recognized that amateurs are willing to spend money to buy into a quality product.

It also doesn’t mean that pros don’t use mirrorless cameras, because they do. However, from everything that I’ve seen, the higher-end Nikon and Canon DSLRs are still the cameras of choice among working pros, and for a number of reasons, that probably won’t change anytime soon.

What is Nikon’s future in mirrorless cameras?

If it wants a future in photography, it had better be robust.

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.