Nikon 2

Nikon 2 (by RC Jenkins)

Occasionally, I bring up a hypothetical system I’d like to see from Nikon.

It won’t happen; but this is more of a thought experiment for a discussion to get the creative juices flowing for people who think creatively and to get the defensive juices flowing for people who don’t.  So get ready to pick your side and dig in. Because honestly, who really needs to hear anything at all from anyone else before just arbitrarily picking the side you already wanted to be on anyway?  Here we go (again)…

The system is called Nikon 2; and Nikon 2 is the spiritual successor to Nikon 1.  If you’re really good at counting, you’ll note that it’s also the numerical successor to Nikon 1. hmmm…what did that “1” stand for again…?  Wasn’t it the number of units they sold?  Or something like that.

Nikon 2:

  • shares the Z mount and is fully compatible with all Z lenses
  • does not have a huge selection of dedicated lenses
  • Uses the latest, greatest sensor technologies
  • Introduces novel features that would be risky or expensive for higher-end cameras
  • Is affordable for more people
  • Is designed primarily for producing online content
  • In practice, exceeds in IQ well beyond APS-C cameras and phones
  • Has a sensor that is…nope…it’s still too soon.  We need more context.

So here is one example of a Nikon 2 camera’s specifications:

  • 14-bit sensor readout: 1/240+
  • No mechanical shutter
  • HDR option on-sensor
    (can quickly take 2 shots at different exposures, like an iPhone)
  • IBIS that can move faster & further, resulting in gimbal-like stabilization
  • 4K120 12-bit raw video.  10-bit ProRes HQ 422, h.265.  HD240.
  • Direct USB-C connection to record or monitor video on a phone via app
  • 30FPS raw stills
  • Latest Expeed 7 AF
  • Priced between $500 – $1000
  • Rapid pixel-shift for 8K stills
    (Rapid, to reduce motion blur)
  • Novel features, perhaps the ability to internally rotate the sensor for portrait vs landscape
  • 4K native resolution (3820 x 2160 = 8MP); perhaps also a 6K option
  • Sensor size:  21.3 x 12 mm (16:9 native; or could be vertical-native)
    (^ There it is)

Why is it so cheap? Not only does it lack a mechanical shutter; but the sensors are far cheaper than either full-frame or APS-C. In just one simple example, suppose they use a 12″ wafer for sensors. They might be able to make 64 full frame sensors from this; but they might be able to make 240 Nikon 2 sensors from the same sized wafer. When accounting for defective sensors, each Nikon 2 sensor might be 4x (or more) cheaper, depending on the technology.  For example, stacked sensors might have a higher / compounded defect rate.  Here it is visualized:

Why only 4K (or perhaps 6K)?  The real question is: why not?  Since the camera is targeted at making content displayed in either UHD/4K (high-quality YouTube) or 2K/HD (Instagram, TikTok, etc.) and not making giant landscape prints of stills, why would these customers need more in most cases?  The low resolution helps keep sensor, processing, and storage costs down while keeping the sensor readout and downstream processing fast.  As an example, if they used 4K along with a “partial stacked” design similar to the Z6iii’s, they could offer a sensor as fast as the Z8’s for a fraction of the price of the Z6iii.

Unlike some of the smaller players, with Nikon’s brand and recent releases, they can spread margin and R&D across more customers.  And it’s not as though they need heavy R&D:  the sensor is really the only difference here–not an entire new mount or AF system or lens catalog…more on that later. So a $500-$1000 mini Z8 is not outside the realm of possibility. A great $300 video-centric camera for most content creators is not outside the realm of possibility.  But all of these things are likely outside of the practical realm for APS-C or Full-Frame.

But…don’t we already have APS-C?  Here’s a secret:  mounts can have more than one format; and APS-C has its earlier roots in getting more frames out of film and its more recent roots (as in 20 years ago) in “affordable” slow sensors.  It turns out that “more frames” isn’t a digital problem.  APS-C doubled roll count on film by feeding the film vertically instead of horizontally thus halving the frame, which is why cinema cameras used Super 35.  Some stills cameras even shot vertical frames while feeding horizontal 35mm film, like the original Olympus Pens.  But we don’t really have this “need more frames out of a roll of film” problem today–we can pick any sensor size, because we’re shooting digital.  And when we look at sensor costs:  yes, APS-C is much cheaper than full-frame; but that’s only for older, slower sensors.

APS-C on its own is not a well differentiated format today; and a proper APS-C system is expensive.  Ask Fuji, or compare their lenses to Nikon full-frame lenses; and then guess why Fuji’s ILC sales are likely only around 25% (if that) of Nikon’s.  There are a handful of exceptions to expensive lenses; but crop-format customers generally have limited budgets, on the order of $500 for an initial camera + lens; and then around $200 per lens afterwards, with $500 being a stretch.  And crucially:  they are doing so because they have content and perspective they want to share and differentiate.  So because of this true lens expense and its misalignment to customer budgets, brands have to make the lenses slower; and APS-C–which is theoretically 1 stop behind full-frame–ends up usually 2-3 stops behind FX in practice, which often ends up back in phone territory.  This is why most standard DX zoom lenses are F/3.5-5.6; while most standard FX zoom lenses are F/2.8 or F/4.  APS-C as a distinct sensor size is overkill.  Don’t hold your breath for F/2.8 DX zooms or lots of F/1.8 DX primes.  A handful at the wider end is it; and we’ve already got a few, like the 24mm F/1.7 DX or the 12-28 DX.

But notably:  this camera is designed for content consumed on today’s displays.  Today’s displays are 16:9 or 9:16, not 3:2 like our camera sensors.  And when compared to APS-C in video (cropped to 16:9), the APS-C area is only 24×13.5mm, with the rest cropped out.  That is only slightly larger than the 21.3x12mm of Nikon 2 I’ve described.  So in today’s era of content creation, Nikon can get competitive by saving sensor area that goes unused, while still producing high-end content that’s well differentiated from phones and almost identical to APS-C.  (And I think the ability to internally rotate the sensor to portrait or landscape would be one of those buzzy features).

But…Nikon 1?  Yes; but correlation is not causation.  And aside from not realizing that the sensor I’ve described is roughly twice as large as Nikon 1 sensors, Nikon 1 was a failure for a number of reasons beyond the sensor size.  Including that it had mainly slow and/or expensive lenses to attach to the small sensors; and that it was an isolated system with its own mount that required lots of isolated R&D Nikon tried to recoup quickly, which resulted in a very expensive system for what it was that sort of defeated the purpose.  Nikon 2 doesn’t have any of these problems.  It doesn’t have heavy R&D and production costs for a dedicated line of lenses.  It doesn’t have its own isolated mount.  It doesn’t have an unclear and shrinking target audience.  It doesn’t have a substantial difference between APS-C and itself in IQ; but it does in speed and content-producing features, where it’s better.

And that commercial-only assessment is ignoring the technical achievements of Nikon 1.  Nikon 1 offered 1200FPS slow motion; it was one of the first systems with on-sensor PDAF; and it had things like 40FPS raw shooting…a decade ago.  So while one could argue that 1” sensors have been failures and produce terrible results; one could also be wrong.  Smaller sensors are still around, even in very high-end equipment.  If you’re watching the various FIFA tournaments or the Olympics, you may be surprised to learn that they’re mostly shot on broadcast cameras, with ⅔” 4K-native sensors.  Yes, those are sensors less than one fourth the size (2 stops behind) of Nikon 2.  And yet those cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars and produce images that look good on a huge 4K TV.  It turns out that interchangeable lens cameras can be paired with…lenses!?!  Whaaa….!?!

But now that we already have lots of Z lenses in 2024, we don’t even need a dedicated lens lineup. Attach a $200 40mm F/2 to Nikon 2, and you’ve got a great portrait lens (equivalents: 80mm height / 68mm width) with real bokeh and plenty of subject separation and sharp detail.  Or the $200 24mm F/1.7 DX for a fast normal prime.  Or if you’re splurging, try the new $600 35mm F/1.4 or 50mm or 85mm F/1.8S.  Even the 24-120 or 24-200 or the 28-400, for everything from normal to ultra-telephoto, like a professional broadcast camera.  There’s even a 12-28mm DX lens already, for wide to normal on Nikon 2.  And one of the best parts is that this method actually starts customers on an upgrade path–buy a Z6 later, and you’ve probably already got some full-frame lenses that you bought for your Nikon 2.

For perspective (and to prove that 1 ≠ 2), Nikon 1’s 32mm F/1.2 (85mm F/3.2- equivalent) portrait lens cost $900 when it launched a decade ago.  $900!!!  And $900 > $200.  Q.E.D.  Maybe things like that–rather than the sensor size–had something to do with why the system was a failure.  Only a fool would buy such a lens.  Completely unrelated:  didn’t you like the main picture of the Z6 next to the Z8 in my Z8 review?

An added benefit of using FX lenses in particular is that the image circle is so much larger than the sensor. This means the sensor has plenty of room to move around with IBIS; and with a lighter-weight sensor assembly to move. So throw away that gimbal–you don’t need it any more.  So now, it’s even less to spend, less to carry, and with better stabilization than even the highest-end cameras today.

But…the Z7iii or the Z50ii?  And I ask you:  what do those have to do with Nikon 2?  Really, nothing.  That was a short section.

In transparency, we all know the market is small because most people use their phones. There are some content producers; and this area is arguably growing a bit.  And they will consider Nikon 2 upon viewing the stunning content produced and the price.  And that’s why it’s worth trying, but not a huge investment for a whole new system. Unlike Nikon 1 or even DX, Nikon 2 is not a whole new system.  It’s a single camera–maybe 2 at most–that leverages a lot of what Nikon’s already done; and crucially, it’s not a new set of lenses and it’s not a new mount.

I can feel the defenders rushing down to the comments, shorting out their keyboards with the foam dripping from their mouths, ready to ignore what was written above and talk about how Nikon 1 was a failure and how we already have DX and phones and something about dynamic range or equivalence or megapixels or how nobody needs video because they only shoot stills and someone on Youtube already told them what was the best stills camera.  Patience.  Before we get that far, let’s step away from imagination and into reality for a second.  Because a picture is worth a thousand words:

I invite you to click those for fullscreen and to pixel peep–the differences only get more pronounced as you do.  One of these was taken with Nikon 2:  it comes from a 21.3x12mm sensor area; it has UHD/4K resolution; and it was taken with a $200, compact 40mm F/2 full-frame lens.  The other was taken using the portrait lens of an iPhone 15 Pro that cost $1000.  Both were taken from the same position.  The question isn’t “is this as good as APS-C?” or even “Is this more important than a Z7iii?”  You can even assume “no” for both of those if you want because it doesn’t matter.  The questions are:  “Do you see differences between the camera and the phone?  Do you think the quality on its own–even when you pixel peep or view in fullscreen–is the difference between every day phone quality and ‘professional enough’ for Youtube, Instagram, TikTok, or any other common content sharing platform?  And do you think some content producers would pay $500 (including a lens) for a relatively compact system that could produce that quality, along with the other features listed earlier (like 12-bit raw video, 120FPS 4K video, gimbal-like stabilization, etc.)?”

Remember:  we’re halfway through 2024; and more people are vertical doomscrolling or watching YouTube than staring at a print on a wall.  Nikon would benefit from both a test bed platform for new technology (particularly in sensors and video) to trickle up and a cheaper option for customers making content for display on phones.  The irony being:  they need more technology here for that cheap entry point. And I don’t think that content-entry platform is a half-frame camera with a slow and expensive sensor paired with tiny-aperture lenses for people mainly shooting stills.  Nikon 2 is the system that shows that Nikon really understands how most people use cameras to share content in 2024.

We did it!  I now cordially invite you to comment on why you need a stills-only 100MP Z7iii with 16-bit raws.

– RC Jenkins, a formally educated, world-renowned expert in all subjects & internet user

I shot the Nikon Z8! (but I did not shoot the deputy)

If that was Nikon’s exit…what an entrance!

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