All images by DPReview
In our conversations with Nikon representatives, one phrase has come up again and again: ‘A D3 moment’. The company is hoping that the new Z9 will have the same impact on the mirrorless Z-mount lineup as the D3 did for its DSLRs. But what exactly does a ‘D3 moment’ mean?
Picture this: Nikon is on the back foot. The company’s traditional dominance of the high-end camera market has been steadily eroded, with the biggest threat coming from a hungry competitor with a reputation for technical innovation and rapid iteration. Nikon – a company once synonymous in the camera world with the word ‘professional’ – is at risk of appearing out of date, and out of step with a new and more demanding generation of photographers, tempted by flashy new technologies on offer elsewhere.
But all that is about to change; at least that’s what Nikon executives hope. And now, in the sweltering Tokyo heat, the company’s leaders, engineers and marketing teams are preparing with nervous excitement to release a camera that they believe will put Nikon back in the game, put its competitors back in their place, and restore their company’s reputation as a manufacturer of world-class professional cameras.
This might all sound very topical, but I’m not talking about 2021, I’m talking about 2007, and the hungry, technologically-flashy competitor wasn’t Sony, but Canon. And the camera that Nikon was preparing in those hot, humid months wasn’t the Z9, but the D3: a DSLR that, Nikon hoped, would make the professional photography world sit up and take notice.
In 2007, Canon dominated the high end of the DSLR market, in mind-share at least
The photography industry (and the world) of 2007 was very different to today. We weren’t struggling to do business in the face of a global pandemic, for one thing, but amazing as it might seem, in mid-2007 the very first iPhone had only recently come on the market, (so compact cameras were still a thing, and a hugely profitable thing at that), Instagram didn’t exist, and on the still-nascent Twitter, the first hashtag had yet to be used. By odd coincidence, the hashtag was invented on exactly the same day as the Nikon D3 announcement: August 23rd 2007. Facebook had recently become available to the general public, but it was still a decade away from realizing its full potential as a mass disseminator of fake election fraud memes and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories to your parents. It was a more innocent time, is what I’m saying. A time when Tom was still everybody’s friend.
Back in 2007, Canon dominated the high end of the DSLR market, in mind-share at least. Nikon was making made some really good digital cameras, but it was mostly still relying on CCD sensors, and it hadn’t yet cracked full-frame. The D1 and D2-series pro DSLRs were solid cameras, but they couldn’t compete with Canon’s EOS-1D-series in terms of either high ISO image quality or autofocus. The 50 year-old Nikon F-mount too was showing its age, and appeared to be approaching the upper limit of its technical potential. The feeling among many enthusiast photographers was that Canon’s technologies were just… better.
|The Nikon Z9 (right) pictured alongside Nikon’s first true pro SLR, the original F (left). Mechanically, they could hardly be more different, but the concept behind them remains the same.|
Nikon wasn’t yet on the ropes, but it was looking shaky. Canon hadn’t had everything go its way, with the unreliable AF of the EOS-1D Mark III (2006) being a notable misstep, but in August 2007, Canon was drawing its arm back, poised to release its fourth full-frame DSLR (the EOS-1DS Mark III) and like an aging prizefighter, Nikon really needed a win. Even Kodak had brought a full-frame camera to market by that point, as long ago as 2002. Admittedly they seemed not to have bothered finishing it, but still. Kodak of all people!
I was among the journalists sweating through our suits in a conference room in Tokyo that August, when Nikon finally made the announcement that it hoped would both win back the hearts of professional and enthusiast photographers. The first ‘D3 moment’ happened in that room. As the presentation got underway, it became clear that the D3 was a genuinely revolutionary product. It might have been Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR, but the D3 didn’t seem like a first-generation product: It offered a powerful combination of useful resolution (12MP wasn’t considered amazing in 2007 but it wasn’t embarrassingly low either), blazing speed, truly stunning image quality at medium and high ISOs, and highly advanced autofocus. Every previous pro DSLR had forced photographers to accept a compromise somewhere. It seemed like the D3 didn’t.
Summing up my initial impressions of the Nikon D3 back in 2007 (for my employer at the time, Amateur Photographer Magazine) I wrote “with the D3 comes the first sign that Nikon has spent the past few years not panicking, but planning”. More than a decade later, I have the same feeling about the Z9.
The D3 seemed like it had been sent from the future. A future, apparently, where artificial lighting had been outlawed
It’s hard to imagine now, in a market where every manufacturer offers technology that would have seemed space-age even just a few years ago, but the D3 was a massive leap forward. And not just for Nikon, but the whole industry: Everybody was impressed by the D3, even tech journalists – and we’re the the hardest people to impress on earth. Nikon knew it had something special – alongside the D3, the company unveiled a confident new advertising slogan in Asia: ‘Nikon is good, isn’t it?’
It was the D3’s autofocus and low-light imaging capabilities which became its most celebrated feature, and in this respect Nikon opened up a technical lead that it maintained for many years. I was moonlighting (sometimes literally) as a live music photographer when I first got my hands on a D3. Suddenly I could get pictures in conditions that were simply beyond the capabilities of any other camera, which gave me a meaningful advantage over the photographers shooting beside me. Compared to the Canon EOS-1D Mark II I had been using up to then, the D3 seemed like it had been sent from the future. A future, apparently, where artificial lighting had been outlawed.
That was my D3 moment, but it seemed like everybody who used one had their own. Almost overnight, the D3 became the new benchmark for professional DSLR imaging. A lot of photographers (myself included) even switched systems, in order to take advantage of the D3’s unique combination of features and performance.
After the D3 came the D3X, which offered more pixels (but less speed), to compete with the Canon EOS-1DS Mark III. Then the wildly popular D700, which featured the same sensor as the D3 but in a smaller and more affordable body, and which competed directly with the Canon EOS 5D. The D3S introduced some small but welcome tweaks (and became the subject of my first in-depth review for DPReview) and then came the D4, the super high-resolution D800-series, and you know the rest. Nikon might have taken a long time to get to full frame, but thereafter it moved quickly and confidently.
The Z9 is a huge leap forward for Nikon’s Z mirrorless line, and with its revamped 3D AF Tracking and much higher resolution, it even eclipses the D5 and D6
It will be a while before we know whether the Z9 truly does represent a ‘D3 moment’ but from our impressions so far, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable comparison. The Z9 is a huge leap forward for Nikon’s Z mirrorless line, and with its revamped 3D AF Tracking and much higher resolution, it even eclipses the D5 and D6. It also appears at least competitive with the Sony A1 – currently the best-in-class mirrorless camera for autofocus in our opinion – and offers a combination of speed and pixel count (and potentially also efficiency) which the Canon EOS R3 can’t match. Fourteen years ago I wrote about the D3: “It seems that, in Nikon’s eyes, the company has crossed an important threshold. Compromise […] ends here”. It’s early days, but I think the same can be said now about the Z9, especially given its aggressive price-point.
Nikon has seen its market share steadily eaten away in recent years, and the Z9 won’t turn that around overnight: it’s still a big, heavy professional-level camera after all, aimed at a relatively small base of users, and and priced beyond the reach of most. And the challenges that Nikon is facing now seem more existential than those of 2007: The once-profitable markets for entry-level DSLRs and compact cameras are a fraction of the size they once were, for example, removing a major source of R&D revenue. That particular issue isn’t unique to Nikon, but of all the manufacturers, Nikon seems also to have been hit particularly hard by ongoing COVID-related supply-chain problems, which have coincided with a tricky transition period when the company has been consolidating its main production effort in Thailand.
But while Nikon has been knocked down a few times of late, the Z9 shows that it’s emphatically not out. And if, for its next trick, Nikon can pull off a D700 moment… well, wouldn’t that be something?