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What might the Z6 II and Z7 II tell us about future pro Nikon mirrorless models?

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The Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II are solid updates to the original Z6 and Z7 but neither represents a ‘new’ concept in the Z-series lineup.

With the Z6 II and Z7 II, Nikon has modernized its high-end Z-series full-frame lineup, and made its offerings more competitive against midrange and high-end ILCs from Canon, Panasonic and Sony. But while the Z7 II is the nominal flagship, it’s clearly not a ‘professional’ model in the same sense as the D6 and (arguably) the D850. While new to the market, neither Mark II model represents a new concept. This means that the gap which has existed at the top of the Z-series lineup since 2018 is still there.

So how might Nikon fill it? What can the Z6 II and Z7 II tell us about a future Nikon pro model?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that instead of a single semi-pro or professional ‘Z8’ we’ll actually see two high-end models from Nikon, probably announced sometime next year, to be available in summer 2021. They will offer extremely similar controls and UI, but will be based around different sensors and intended for different purposes: one for speed and versatility, and one for resolution and maximum image quality.

For the sake of simplicity as you navigate this article, I’ll call them the Z8 and the Z8 S – with the ‘S’ here being my shorthand for ‘speed and sensitivity’.

Nikon Z8 key specifications (hypothetical)

  • 60MP sensor
  • 10 fps continuous shooting
  • Full-sensor PDAF down to -4EV
  • Comparable autofocus performance to D850
  • Expeed 7 processor
  • D800-level weather sealing
  • Dual card slots (2X CFe or CFe + SD)
  • High-res sensor-shift mode/s

Nikon Z8S key specifications (hypothetical)

  • 20-24MP sensor (possibly Sony 24MP stacked-CMOS from a9/II)
  • Super-high maximum ISO
  • 20 fps+ maximum continuous shooting (unlimited buffer)
  • High-quality electronic ‘silent’ shooting
  • Full-sensor PDAF, sensitive down to at least -5EV
  • Comparable autofocus performance to D5/6
  • Expeed 7 processor
  • D800-level weather sealing
  • Dual card slots (2X CFe)
  • High-quality 4K video

Both models will feature D850-level build quality and will offer a similar UI, with a button-and-dial logic for switching exposure modes (rather than the Z6/7’s exposure mode dial). They’ll use the same battery pattern as the existing Z6/7-series, keeping the standard bodies relatively small, but both will be compatible with a twin-battery vertical grip, which will add at least one uniquely ‘pro’ expansion feature (a LAN port, maybe? Or a rear OLED sub-display?). Nikon isn’t going to make the ‘only one card slot’ mistake again so expect twin slots, either both CFexpress Type B, or maybe CFe + SD in the case of the resolution-focused Z8.

Expect the Z8 to feature a relatively low-resolution sensor in the 20-24MP range, paired with a new faster processor

The hardest thing to predict is which sensors Nikon will use in its next-generation of high-end full-frame ILCs. Let’s take the hypothetical Z8S first – the high-speed action-focused model. The 24MP sensor used in the current Z6 and Z6 II is excellent, but dated. It’s fast enough for most photography, but likely not fast enough to support super high frame rate shooting, really cutting-edge autofocus, or next-level 4K video.

It’s possible that Nikon might reuse the Toshiba/Sony sensor developed for the D6, or maybe a version of the 24MP stacked-CMOS chip introduced in the Sony a9 (assuming that Sony Semiconductor is willing and able to supply it). Either way, expect the Z8S to feature a relatively low-resolution sensor in the 20-24MP range, paired with a new faster processor called – and I’m going to go out on a limb again – Expeed 7.

The Sony a9 and more recent a9 II have defined what a ‘professional’ sports and action-focused mirrorless camera should be. I expect Nikon will want to put a Z-mount product into this category as soon as possible.

Low-ish resolution will be the tradeoff for what I’d expect to be a very high frame rate and near-unlimited buffer. The 2020 Olympics never ended up happening but assuming the world of sports and events gets back on track in 2021, you can bet that Nikon will want its mirrorless cameras to be visible on the sidelines alongside high-speed pro models from Canon and Sony.

While it’s possible that the Z6 II will remain Nikon’s flagship video/stills hybrid camera for a while longer, I think it’s more likely that a hypothetical Z8S will represent a step up, offering meaningfully different (better) 4K, aimed at satisfying the needs of semi-pro and professional multimedia shooters. If the sensor does end up being in the 20-24MP range, It won’t be able to shoot 8K but maybe that’s not a bad thing…

A continuous shooting rate of 10-12 fps seems reasonable, but the Z8 doesn’t need to be any faster than that

It’s easier to predict the chip which might go into a hypothetical resolution and IQ-focused Z8. While not currently listed as available to third parties, the Sony Semiconductor 3.76µm 61MP sensor currently found in the a7 IV may become an option for Nikon in the coming months. While not a massive step up in terms of effective resolution over the 46MP sensor in the Z7 II, this high-speed BSI-CMOS chip is a solid technological leap forward.

If a version does make its way into one of Nikon’s future high-end ILCs, I’d expect to see it paired with beefed-up IBIS and a sensor-shift high-resolution mode. A continuous shooting rate of 10-12 fps seems reasonable, but a 60MP camera doesn’t need to be any faster than that.

The Nikon D6 and D850 feature backlit controls for comfort during low/no-light shooting. I’d expect that future professional Z-series cameras will do the same. This shot shows a D5, with its top and rear LCD status panels also illuminated (in pale blue). Maybe a future ‘Z8’ could have an optional vertical control grip with a secondary rear status LCD?

As for autofocus, I’d expect the Z8 and Z8S to offer extremely similar systems (at least in terms of how they operate) which get much closer to the experience of the D850 and D6, including a true analog for 3D AF tracking. The Z6 II and Z7 II seem somewhat improved over the original-generation, but Nikon knows it needs to close the pro performance gap with Canon and Sony, and I expect that this will be a major priority (and a major marketing-point) in future high-end Z-series model.

Much of what I wrote above is wishful thinking, but while this is guesswork, it is somewhat informed

As for cosmetics, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nikon takes the opportunity to break from the slightly angular, skinny-feeling Z6/7-series and create somewhat larger, curvier bodies, somewhere between the D780 and D850. Expect a 10-pin remote release socket and flash sync on the front of the body (like the D850 and D6) and a return to DSLR-style rubberized, recessed control dials.

So that’s my article. And I won’t lie, much of what I wrote above is wishful thinking (I guess I just really want a Z8…). Despite the oft-expressed conviction among commenters that DPReview sees product roadmaps years ahead of time, I know no more about what Nikon is planning in 2021 and beyond than you do. But while this is guesswork, it is somewhat informed, both by Nikon’s approach to building out its DSLR lineup, and by the gaps and omissions in the current Z-series lineup compared to its competitors.

What do you think? Feel free to make your predictions in the comments.

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