Will 2018 be the year that Nikon finally dives into the serious or professional mirrorless camera market? It appears that will the case, based on various rumors that seem to be (allegedly) floating out from Nikon headquarters. But, which mirrorless camera will we see first, and what could it offer? Those are the burning questions.

Disclaimer

This post is not meant to be a criticism of Nikon, nor is it meant to be just another DSLR versus mirrorless debate. It has a simple premise: If Nikon were to make a serious mirrorless contender some time in the next ~365 days, what would it be? Which features or specs do Nikon engineers absolutely have to “get right the first time”, and which, if any, shortcomings, might be in the first generation of a new Nikon MILC system?

nikon mirrorless predictions for 2018

First and foremost, it would be fantastic to see both FX (full-frame) and DX (APS-C 1.5x crop-sensor) mirrorless systems hit the market at the same time in 2018. However, since Nikon has always taken a “slow and steady wins the race” approach to everything they do, I would settle for just one serious mirrorless ILC option appearing on shelves before Christmas 2018.

[Rewind: Is the Nikon D750 the best wedding DSLR ever?]

The boldest statement would be a professional full-frame mirrorless camera, and this would be a wise move by Nikon. If anybody has been counting, Sony is now eight full-frame mirrorless (ILC) bodies into their own system, and their latest two cameras, the Sony A7R3 and the A9, are in my opinion, nearly perfect executions of the ideal mirrorless camera, comprising a kit which almost any professional could find acceptable for the type of work they do.

So, if Nikon only had the resources to produce one mirrorless “flagship” in 2018, I’d like to see something that is roughly the same price as either the D750 or D850, with roughly the same basic photography features.  However with that should come the certain added benefits of a mirrorless system, including being smaller and lighter, but more importantly, (to some at least) things like great hybrid autofocus, a great EVF, and maybe IBIS if we’re lucky!

Having said that, we could certainly see both FX and DX mirrorless contenders in 2018. Something with the performance of the D500, but in the size / weight / price range of the D7500 or even the D5600, I would imagine could be an amazingly hot camera that Nikon couldn’t make fast enough.

Nikon 1 J5 Front Angle 1

Nikon 1 J5 & Kit Lens

Nikon 1 Series Mirrorless: a baby step or a misstep?

Like Canon, Nikon does already offer a mirrorless system: the 1-series.

However, the sensor in this Nikon mirrorless ILC is very small, with a 2.7x crop factor, the same size sensor we see in high-end point-and-shoot cameras like the Sony RX10 and RX100 series.

The reason the Nikon 1 system wasn’t widely adopted by very many serious photographers is that the image quality just isn’t as good as the latest DX sensors we’ve seen from Nikon, let alone the FX sensors.

Furthermore, I’ve owned the Sony RX10 mk2, and I honestly can’t imagine too many reasons anyone would rather have an ILC system with this sensor size instead of a high-end P&S camera like a Sony RX series with its 24-200mm (equivalent) f/2.8 lens, or an RX100 with its 24-70mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.8 lens.

Sony RX10 mk2

Sony RX10 mkII (24-200mm equivalent f/2.8 lens)

I don’t know what happened at Nikon headquarters or in their testing, but it’s a shame that they had to completely nix the DL series which would have competed nicely against the Sony RX10 and RX100 series. I would have loved to own the Nikon DL with the 18-50mm equivalent f/1.8-2.8 lens.

But I digress. The bottom line is, Nikon went in a very different direction with their existing mirrorless ILC system, likely for two reasons: they wanted to avoid hurting DSLR sales before they were truly ready to make that leap of faith, and they also wanted to maximize the advantages of portability and affordability that a mirrorless system can offer.

The important question we face now is: has Nikon learned anything from the development of those ~10 mirrorless cameras in their 1 system? The answer is yes, at least based on the on-sensor technology that we’ve seen in the latest Nikon mirrorless cameras like the hybrid autofocus and viewfinder quality in the Nikon 1 J5. It’s not yet entirely on par with what Sony, Fuji, and Canon are offering in terms of on-sensor autofocus, but it is at least a good sign that Nikon won’t be starting from scratch when they release an FX and/or DX mirrorless body this year.

Canon-EOS-M-Top-EF-M-22mm-f2.0Canon EOS-M series mirrorless camera,
with 22mm – a great candid walk-around kit

Sony A6000, with Rokinon 12mm f/2,
a fantastic compact astro-landscape kit!

Nikon’s Mirrorless Mount and Lenses

Nikon’s biggest decision is not whether to make a DX or FX mirrorless camera body first. The big decision is, what to do for the mirrorless lens mount?

Nikon has by far the greatest legacy of all camera mounts, since unlike Canon they did not switch mount sizes in the late 1980’s. Nikon’s F mount is many decades old, and modern high-end DSLRs are compatible with almost every Nikkor lens ever made.

So, will Nikon mirrorless finally be the system that breaks this long-standing tradition? Yes, I believe it is inevitable. A major advantage of any mirrorless system is the potential for a shorter flange distance which makes camera bodies significantly smaller, and in some cases, (mostly linked to wider focal lengths and slower apertures) …more compact lenses.

Nikon Mirrorless: electronic autofocus only

Nikon’s AF-D motor was phased out of beginner Nikon DSLR bodies over a decade ago, however it has still been included in most advanced Nikon DSLRs to this day. With a Nikon mirrorless camera, that will have to change.

Nikon Mirrorless: electronic aperture only

Nikon’s mechanical aperture coupling has been around in one form or another for many decades, basically since the very beginning of Nikon SLR cameras. Only a few of the latest, most exotic Nikon lenses have begun offering electronic apertures, but again this will have to become the norm for Nikon mirrorless cameras.

Nikon mirrorless: A legacy F-mount Adapter

Of course Nikon will not leave its hard-working pros (or die-hard collectors) without an F-mount adapter to whatever sexy new mirrorless system they debut. No matter how many new mirrorless lenses they might be able to deliver within the first year of announcing a mirrorless system, it won’t be enough, nor will it satisfy the large number of folks who will undoubtedly want to just continue using their current Nikkor lenses.

It should be easy for Nikon to create a simple F-mount adapter which works with fully-electronic lenses such as the new 24-70mm f/2.8 E VR. The hard part will be, how to integrate a mechanical aperture coupling, and/or a mechanical AF-D focus motor, into a relatively small adapter? The adapter will either need to be extremely high-tech and therefore quite pricey, or it will need to be a bit large and unwieldy. Or, unfortunately, there is a perfectly good chance that an adapter which offers full mechanical F-mount compatibility will be both large and expensive.

This is probably something that a lot of folks at Nikon are currently losing sleep over, but in my opinion it is a necessary leap to take. Actually, I suspect that Nikon already knows this, considering their departure from the AF-D motor system over a decade ago, and their recent increase in usage of electronic apertures in lenses as consumer-oriented as the DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4.

Maybe Nikon will offer multiple adapters, one  basic model that only offers electronic communication, another that offers electronic communication plus mechanical aperture functionality, and then one full-featured adapter that does it all.

Nikon Mirrorless: Autofocus Performance

While a handful of features and design aspects are easy to guess, a few key items are still a wildcard. Namely, how good will Nikon’s on-sensor autofocus be? Can it match Canon’s Dual-Pixel AF, and Sony’s latest hybrid AF seen in the Sony a9 and A7R3? Hopefully.

A Nikon patent surfaced recently for something called “quad-pixel” autofocus, which sounds like a competitor to dual-pixel autofocus. Only time will tell if Nikon can get this crucial feature right the first time.

[Rewind: Sony A7R3 | The Much Anticipated Successor with A9 Power]

Nikon Mirrorless: IBIS?

What about in-body, sensor-based stabilization? I have no idea what Nikon will decide to do here. A few other companies have already proven that lens-based stabilization can work well in tandem with sensor-based stabilization, so it’s not entirely out of the question.

Nikon Mirrorless: The EVF

How good will the EVF be? It’s very hard to tell where Nikon currently stands on this technology because EVFs are downright scarce in Nikon’s lineup right now, mostly only appearing in P&S superzoom cameras. Meanwhile, the EVFs found in the high-end Sony A9 and A7R3 are cutting-edge, almost lifelike some would argue.

Therefore, I do not have 100% confidence that Nikon will execute a professional-grade EVF flawlessly the first time, however I do expect that whatever they try will be impressive, even if it needs a few tweaks before it’s perfect.

Nikon Mirrorless: The Battery Life

Last but not least, one of the most important things that I hope Nikon will do differently from other mirrorless systems is an all-new, high-capacity battery. Sony originally went with a very small battery for their mirrorless cameras, likely to impress the market with how lightweight the cameras could be. Unfortunately, these batteries die after just minutes of video recording, or just a few hundred clicks of still photography. Now, with the likes of the Sony a9 and A7R3, we’re seeing bigger batteries, at the expense of some weight savings.

Hopefully Nikon decides that weight savings is not as important as battery life, at least for many serious photographers, and that a balance should be struck, one which maximizes battery life, and matches that of a DSLR, preferably.

Late To The Game in 2018

If Nikon doesn’t hit a home run in 2018, they will receive lots of criticism. This of course may not concern Nikon management, and it may not affect their profit margins or market share at all just yet. However, 2018 could be the year that a snowball effect starts “rolling” towards a major, unavoidable market shift. In other words if they delay in 2018, 2019 will bring even higher expectations, and it will only get worse from there.

Nikon D7200 vs Sony A6300 KitsNikon D7200 kit, versus Sony a6300 kit
(Both are versatile prosumer tools worth considering)

Why Does Nikon “Need” a Mirrorless system?

I do not wish to beat the dead horse that is “DSLR vs mirrorless” too much, but I must address this one question from a practical viewpoint:

One major reason that mirrorless systems are gaining traction in the market is something other than actual superiority. Mirrorless camera systems can simply be cheaper to manufacture since they involve fewer mechanical parts, and more simple electronics.

In today’s increasingly competitive market, affordable mass-production option is almost always a winner.

Despite doom-and-gloom predictions shouted around the internet, Nikon (and Canon) will at least appear to be doing just fine for a few more camera generations whether or not they deliver full-frame mirrorless in 2018. However, the technology gap is closing, and with each year that goes by the overall consumer opinion changes slightly. Sooner or later it will begin to have a more significant impact on actual sales than the decades-old status quo has led executives to believe.

Simply put, Nikon (and Canon) need to make their next big move sooner rather than later, because with each new camera generation the competition gets more impressive and the excuse “we’re still ahead in market share” becomes an increasingly tenuous argument to make.

I hope the near future includes fantastic mirrorless and DLSR options from Nikon, Canon, and Sony. Healthy competition is better than a dominating monopoly.