So, is the new Nikon Zfc a vanity project by Nikon, or a long overdue simple ‘dials’ and buttons take on modern cameras? As ever, the internet and commentators everywhere are divided on the issue. So this means that the Zfc is very definitely going to be a contentious design decision. Spoiler alert up front, I absolutely love the idea of the Zfc. It’s something I’ve been wanting Nikon to make, not for years, but for decades. I wrote this article back in 2011 essentially wishfully asking Nikon for a ‘retro’ take on the modern DSLR. Of course, Nikon did toy with the idea of a retro inspired camera in 2013 (yes it’s that long ago already) with the Nikon Df. This was a hodge-podge of parts that resulted in a clunky to use camera that was essentially a re-badged D600 with controls that didn’t quite merge the design ethos of analogue and digital (my take on the Df is here:). The Df continues to have its followers, but overall was not a sales success in the long term.
A New (?) Camera by Nikon
So what is the Zfc? Essentially the new camera from Nikon is an updated Z50 (think Z50 II) internals squeezed into an uncannily FM-esque ‘panda’ style body. ‘Panda’ incidentally, is the term given to the old chrome plate and black leatherette style of camera from the pre-1990s. When I say that the camera is uncannily FM-esque; when you see an old FM2 and the Dfc side-by side, they could easily be confused by the uninitiated. The design cues are unashamedly retro inspired, down to the Nikon badge in the old font along with the slight protruding name plate.
According to reviewers who have actually held the pre-production variant of the Zfc, there is a weight difference between it and its stylistic forebear, with the Zfc being significantly lighter than the old manual film camera. Also, although the Zfc has a magnesium alloy body, it’s a far cry from the old copper-silumin bodies of the the FM/FE series cameras. Still, it’s likely that the Zfc is better weather sealed than the old manual film cameras were (they weren’t sealed at all whereas the Zfc is actually weather-sealed against dust and moisture, although by term ‘moisture’ it probably is not the same as a fully gasket clad D5). So body feel is more akin to the plastic fantastic FM10 than the built like a brick FM2.
I’m not going to recite all the specs verbatim from the launch as there are a plethora of other sites that spend significant time commenting on them. For a decent overview you can read the first look on DPreview or the multiple articles (not particularly positive if you are looking for acclamation) by Thom Hogan on Zsystemuser. Or for a rehash of the actual press release there is also Photographylife ...amongst many others…just google "Nikon Zfc".
In a nutshell though, the Zfc is an analogue inspired control layout camera housing an effective 20.9mp APS-C (yes, crop frame) sensor. That sensor delivers oversampled 4K @ 30fps video as well incidentally. The weight, battery included, comes to a svelte 445g, while the battery itself is the same EN-EL25 that is used by the Z50 camera.
My Initial Thoughts
I am unashamedly excited about the prospect of an analogue styled camera. I am fully aware that nostalgia drives part of this allure. There is a good reason that we moved away from the dials of past to ergonomically shaped hand grips and button inputs. However, for some photographers, and I am one of them and know plenty others, the dials approach to photography is a preferred way of shooting. The vast majority of my photography is shot in manual mode. Doing street photography with my Fujifilm XT-1 is a pleasure, because of the dials. I look down at the dials and see exactly what the settings are (with the caveat that the camera needs to be set to manual).
The Df got the controls wrong. They essentially lied to you (dial will show one setting, but the mode or other settings would actually be different), and the nostalgic throwback of putting the exposure compensation dial on top of the ISO dial on the left of the camera was a mistake. Nikon got it right with the F4 back in 1988, and have positioned the EV dial on the right now (exactly as Olympus and Fujifilm have been doing) where your thumb can control it while your eye is to the viewfinder. The Dfc still has the problem of dials not necessarily aligning with the actual setting, particularly with ISO. However the simple mode selection switch nullifies that issue for the most part (again similar to the F4, just on the left rather than the right of the camera top plate).
If I have an issue with the dial controls, it’s simply that there really should have been an ‘A’ setting on the ISO dial. Even in the days of film there was a ‘DX’ setting for reading the ASA/ISO speed directly from the film canister. I personally rarely use auto-ISO, but I can see where this would irk users to a certain degree. If Nikon ever continues with this line of design I will not be surprised if an update adds an ‘A’ setting to the ISO dial.
Apart from the lack of an ‘A’ setting on the ISO dial, the only other two issues I potentially have with the camera as announced (bear in mind I have not used the camera, this is all based on images and videos of the camera and is only my thoughts on the announcement), is that I would really have liked it to take the EN-EL15 battery (better battery life and compatibility with the rest of the equipment that I and likely other Nikon photographers are likely to be using) and it really ought to have some way of monitoring audio output.
Nikon didn’t just make a retro-inspired small camera. They stuffed excellent video capability into it at the same time. They even added a fully articulating swivel screen to the camera (the first on a Nikon interchangeable lens camera). As such the camera begs to be used as a light run and gun video camera or vlogging camera. There’s audio input, N-log colour profile (robust and easy to grade) as well as the ability to power the camera via USB-C during filming. Why on earth would you leave out audio monitoring then? The only workaround is for the photographer to use a mic that has audio monitoring (for instance using a Zoom H5 as a pass-through audio interface thereby allowing monitoring via the interface). If you use a standard shotgun mic, unfortunately the only monitoring you can do is by watching audio levels on the rear LCD screen; not ideal.
Whither Do We Go?
It’s interesting that in the press release, Nikon refers to the Zfc as the “first Z-series camera to adopt a heritage design”. Does this mean that there will be more? Also, I’m not the only person to think it a little odd that the prime lens announced alongside and styled similarly to the Zfc, the 28mm f.28 SE, is a full-frame lens. This tiny little lens is exactly what a lot of photographers have been clamouring for: a small, light, inexpensive, pancake lens. But this is a full-frame lens giving an effective 42mm field of view on the Zfc. Surely it would make more sense to put this on a full-frame camera?
Then, where are the rest of the DX/APS-C appropriate lenses? If the Zfc was meant to counter the flow of photographers moving from Nikon to Fujifilm, Nikon has a tall task ahead of them as Fujifilm has an optically excellent full range of appropriately sized lenses for their APS-C camera range. To stem the Fujifilm bound tide, Nikon needs at the very least some kind of commitment that they will produce similarly styled 14, 23, and 35mm lenses (for 21, 35 and 50mm equivalents).
Further to this, the photographers clamouring for a retro-inspired camera, those that really buy into the nostalgia schtick, are likely to be predominantly full-frame users, or old-school Nikon shooters with a cupboard of old F-mount glass. APS-C is probably not where they were hoping the retro inspiration would lead. Rather, I think this camera was targeted to new photographers, moved by the retro trend where the style is more important than the function, as opposed to old photographers, who want to get back to their photography roots (that was the purpose theoretically of the Df, and that did not go as well as it was supposed to).
That the Zfc target audience is not long-standing Nikon users is hinted at by the fact that you can buy the Zfc in a range of pastel colours. This screams that the Zfc styling is first and foremost a a ‘style’ choice as opposed to a functional choice. In Japan, the most popular cameras amongst new photographers (at least according to BCN Ranking ) are cameras like the Olympus OM series, Fujifilm and Sony cameras - all with retro-inspired control layout and form (Sony is admittedly very much a button driven camera operation, but the style of the body and the top dials and switches are still reminiscent of the older analogue cameras).
|The various colour options for the faux leatherette in some regions inidcate that the style of the camera is a primary marketing tool for Nikon. If form were more important we'd probably get an all-black version as opposed to 'panda'.|
That 28mm lens and the wording of the press-release (admittedly there could be a translation issue here) intimates that there may be more analogue styled cameras in the future from Nikon. If the Zfc is a sales success, I strongly suspect we will see a Full-frame camera with similar styling. After all, why call the camera the Zfc, and not the Zf? Unless Nikon is leaving a door open to the development of a full-frame retro inspired camera that they can call the Zf. I don’t think it’s a far leap of imagination to go from the Z5 to a Zf in the same way that the Z50 went to the Zfc.
My current ‘street’ camera - the setup that I use for documentary and street photography - is a Nikon D780 coupled to a diminutive Voightlander 40mm f2. This is pretty much an identical setup to the Zfc with the 28mm lens. No surprise then that I am excited about the Zfc as it hits my exact sweet spot for a particular type of work that I do. It just happens to do it in a smaller, lighter package than I am currently using. What’s not to like there?
To be absolutely frank, the looks of the Zfc are it's biggest selling point, and why not? Fujifilm capitalised on the looks of it's X line of cameras very effectively. Put side by side I actually prefer the way the Zfc looks to something like the XT-4. Some photographers might bemoan the loss of grip; I don't. This is a super lightweight camera, so a grip isn't entirely necessary. The grip can be added (yes at a cost, but from a marketing perspective the options to bespoke your camera make good marketing sense), but I and many other photographers enjoyed handling the old MF series cameras (I still periodically use my FE2 loaded with Ilford film).
Oh and here's something cool. The FM2 needed the MD-12 winder to get 8 frames a second shooting. The Zfc shoots a nippy 11 frames a second on it's own. That's pretty cool. It also has excellent autofocus (swiped directly from the Z50 so we know it's good).
I hope this is a marketing success for Nikon. I personally would have preferred a full-frame version, but I think there's a good chance that might still come if the Zfc is successful. Short term I really think it will be. The fact that there are already vlogging kits being announced for the Zfc means that the camera is being targeted to a very different audience to the person reading this article.
As a tester I showed pictures of the Zfc and the Z50 to my YouTube besotted teenage daughter (when I say besotted she is determined to 'manage me' and avidly watches my follower count and has researched and given me advice on how to grow my channel). She didn't miss a beat when pointing at the Zfc as her preferred camera, alongside the comment, "that one looks authentic!"
Nikon made the mistake of marketing the Df to the die-hard Nikon afficionado. It was doomed to fail as a result. For that to work you literally needed a virtual digital equivalent of the FM, made to look and feel and shoot like it. They're marketing the Zfc to my daughter and her generation. It's modern internally, but looks 'authentic' on the outside. It has a sort of hipster street cred. That's why I think Nikon will be successful this time round. Forget what the photographers say about the camera. Concentrate on what younger non-camera owning but photographic minded youngsters say. Oh, and Nikon, if you are listening, price it accordingly for those youngsters and you might have a new generation of Nikon users.