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Examining the current state of “Nikon quality” with the Z 5 (Part II)

Throughout Part II of the interview with Nikon’s engineers, we discussed the Z 5, released in August 2020 in Japan, in further detail. There were also conversations on the NIKKOR Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3, an unexpectedly high-performance lens, and the traditions passed down through Nikon over the years.

From the preplanning concepts of the NIKKOR Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3, a new kit lens that realized compactness as a system, to its development story and the Z series’ hereafter, we delve deeply into the core of the “Nikon quality” in these discussions.

(Interviewer: Yoshiki Toyota, Photography: editorial)

Read Part I here

The story behind the development of a new kit lens – NIKKOR Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3

COMMITMENT TOWARDS THE THICKNESS OF 1MM 

This time, it was more of the kit lens than the Z 5 body itself that excited me the most. The rendering performance was amazing, and I was really impressed.

Mr. Suzuki: To be honest, we didn’t expect to achieve this high of a performance at the designing stage.

Is it one of those cases where “things just happened”?

Mr. Suzuki: Yes. We were able to make a lens that exceeded our expectations. For the S-Line lenses, we set strict standards in most of the criteria to produce a performance that surpassed certain level. Whereas, the standards for the non-S-Line lenses are less strict and relaxed.

For the NIKKOR Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3, we focused on its compactness and aimed for its size to be smaller than the F mount lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G which is 52.5 mm in length. We were also able to keep the weight down to less than 200 g. As we focused on the size and weight, our lens design team decided not to set such high standards on its rendering performance but instead aim for the corresponding performance.

But once we developed the lens, both the MTF and resolution performance levels were high. I think it’s the designers’ pride, but even from the time of DX lenses we’ve been putting our best efforts into what goes into the kit lenses – so I guess we’ve just done the same this time as well.

It may sound suspicious if I praise the lens too much, but the resolution is sharp from edge to edge and there’s less aberration. I didn’t encounter any problems even if I turned off the distortion and vignette controls. Such a high level of performance in so small of a size… I was really surprised. Was this lens planned in advance?

Mr. Suzuki: This lens was originally planned as a “thin standard zoom lens.” On the product lineup that was scheduled internally, this lens was supposed to be released a lot later. But as the Z 5 started to progress, we received a request from the person in charge of the Z 5’s product planning that he wanted to release this as its kit lens. It was a difficult challenge for us schedule-wise, as we needed to move the development schedule forward.

Do you have any specific stories behind the effort?

Mr. Suzuki: It was challenging to meet the standard, such as rendering and achieving the backlight performance that the lens design team set. While we aimed to make the size equivalent to that of the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G, we had to experiment a lot through trial and error to fit the goal size for months. These were biggest impressions left on me throughout the process.

We always receive the state of progress via email. Everyone was surprised to see that we were still working on the same problem for months. From the goal-achievement point of view, we were desperate to keep the 50-mm length. But we had a discussion to compromise 1 mm for the sake of its performance and we landed at 51 mm in the end. Even with this size, we accomplished our goal of producing a lens that is equivalent to the size of the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G, which is 52.5 mm in length.

Is it really a lens that “just happened” if that much effort was put into it?

Mr. Suzuki: There’s a tendency that the lenses we produce will end up with higher rendering performance than before even if it’s not an S-Line lens. We all have this mindset to put our best efforts forward in acquiring a performance that is higher than the conventional standards – especially for the NIKKOR Z lenses. From that point of reasoning, this lens is full of rich design that employs multiple ED glass and aspherical lens elements, which is unusual for standard zoom lenses in this price range.

When looking at the overall balance, I think we can still maintain a high satisfaction level even if we loosen our goal values by a small amount. I think we can suggest a wider variety of products with different characteristics such as “a lens that pursues compactness” or “a lens that maintained its unique characteristics on purpose.” At the same time, there’s always a conflict between the planning team and the design team as most of the members in the design team have a strong sense of pride to make the products better.

By the way, is there a reason that the lens hood is not included in the kit lens?

Mr. Suzuki: We didn’t include it when considering the selling price.

Will there be a major difference in price if the lens hood is included?

Mr. Suzuki: We can’t tell you the exact price but there’ll be a difference. I think that it’s the same when the other brands exclude lens hoods from the package. Personally, I wanted to include it and I’ve been puzzling over it until the very end.

Although this is from past data, the hood sales for a lens that had excluded it in the original package has been very small. While there’s a persistent idea that attaching a lens hood is common sense, the percentage of entry-level users to actually use the lens hood has been very low.

Moreover, the backlight performance of our recent lenses has been extremely high, so we don’t always need to attach the lens hood anymore. Rather, it has been used as a protection for the users at this level.

So that’s the case. Another reason why I personally wanted a lens hood was that it looked much better with it when the kit lens is attached to the Z 5.

Mr. Suzuki: I think so too.

I heard that this lens also supports movie recording, such as minimum focus breathing and AF operational sound.

Mr. Suzuki: Yes, it is a lens that supports movie recording. At first, we thought we didn’t need to perfect this lens that much, so the priority of having movie support was low at the planning stage. However, when the lens was actually completed, its movie performance exceeded our expectations and that is why we are promoting this point now.

The challenge for manufacturing

Talking about the overall Z series, were there a lot of hardships during the manufacturing process?

Mr. Suzuki: To be honest, it was hard work. From the beginning of mirrorless camera availability, the demand for lenses has been strict. For example, “Is the curve of the lens elements shaped how it was originally planned?” and “Is any dust getting in when we move the zoom ring?” Since these kinds of standards have been very strict compared to the time of D-SLRs, there’ve been many issues and realizations even after the production has started. So we were preoccupied with responses to those general issues.

Do you guys manage the S-Line lenses with a strict 100% inspection policy, for example?

Mr. Suzuki: After we have stabilized the production process and established a high-quality product, we do a spot check instead of a 100% inspection. For the S-Line lenses, the quality management standard of manufacturing line itself has been kept high, therefore we can maintain a reliable quality even without the 100% inspection.

Can’t lose with the performance

There is an opinion, that I fully agree with, that you will never be disappointed by the Z lenses. I can truly attest to all of the comments you mentioned today, as I believe that you can enjoy comfortable rendering with high resolution and clarity in all of the lenses while never getting partial blur from any of them.

With that said, after the release of the Z lenses, I have an impression that it has become harder to find situations that the lenses are not good at. For example, in regard to zooming position and focus distance – we used to get strange depictions when certain positions and distances were combined, but now you can’t find those kinds of weaknesses anymore.

Mr. Suzuki: Nikon is not the current leader in the mirrorless camera market, so there’s a mindset that we can’t lose to the other brands in terms of performance. Therefore, we carry out a benchmark comparison for all kinds of focus and shooting distances while working with a “we have to out-do our rivals” spirit. Of course, we don’t always win in all of the categories, so we compromise some of them where the practical situation is more infrequent than the others. But for the rest of the categories, we never compromise. I think those kinds of efforts are yielding positive results.

Were there any specific goals when designing the Z lenses? I feel that the lenses are of a high performance without having any strong characteristics. They render clearly as transparent pure water. It is as if having no uniqueness is the greatest uniqueness of all.

Mr. Suzuki: Because the demands for the optical performance is high, the so-called “strong characteristics” that represents the aberration balance tends to be ingenuous.

Do you mean to say it is the gift of pursuit in performance?

Mr. Suzuki: Yes. If we achieve a high score and high performance in all of the categories, depending on how you look at it, the depiction reproducibility may end up being such that “the quality is high, but there’s no unique characteristic.”
As the mount system is new, we all have a strong desire to produce something better. Shifting to mirrorless means working with a short flange focal distance. This allows us to have more freedom in lens and mechanical design, which results in keeping the optics compact and allocating the mechanisms without any problems – letting us pursue a more superior optical performance.

Having said that, there is a certain amount of proportional relation between the lens size and the optical performance. We always have a hard time balancing out the size that is just right for the Z series body while maintaining its high optical performance. At the same time, depending on its degree, we don’t tolerate the idea of strengths and weaknesses after compromising on the performance at this point in time.

Mr. Adachi: This connects to what Mr. Suzuki said before that “we can’t lose in terms of performance.” However, we continue our research towards the best rendering balance as there are demands to leave a certain amount of flares during the movie recording.

I was wondering if it was harder to propose a more flexible-thinking lens than the other lens manufacturers as Nikon’s design guidelines are very strict.

Mr. Suzuki: No, if we know that there are needs for those kinds of lenses, we can definitely produce them as a new product. Although it is hard to define if one can be considered as a proper need after it has been a hit in one area, as the rendering needs are different in each country or region.

For example, it’s the same kind of situation as for cooking. We admit that we need to proactively discuss when we decide if one flavor will be accepted or not, in regard to the question of “do they prefer something lightly flavored or something with a strong taste.” Although we are currently at the stage of strengthening the product lineup along with our road map, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will continue following the predetermined path. I think we are at a point in time where we need to strengthen the proposal of unique lenses simultaneously.

I’m really looking forward to seeing them when they’re released.

Mr. Suzuki: I can’t tell you the details, but we are planning various things now.

What is the current “Nikon quality”?

I understand that there are extraordinary levels of passion for quality. I remember using the words “Nikon quality” when the Z 7 and the Z 6 was released. Can you tell us about the “Nikon quality”?

Mr. Adachi: It is difficult to say that one particular principle represents the “Nikon quality”, but we’ve set the threshold for the evaluation testing quite high. As Nikon has been manufacturing cameras for decades, I think it is the idea of a standard level of quality that has been cultivated throughout the history and an overall accumulation of experiences that make up the “Nikon quality”.

Is there a group of people or a team that works on quality oversight, aside from what is done in terms of the product certification?

Mr. Adachi: Yes. There is a gatekeeper kind of organization. Apart from the quality assurance group which carries out endurance testing, there is also an image testing team in the Development Sector. They go out into the field and repeatedly test out for themselves and give feedback on their results.

WHICH TO PRIORITIZE? COST OR QUALITY?

Would there be major changes made if you received word from an authority in the gatekeeper organization in the middle of the development stage?

Mr. Adachi: Yes, there would be. For example, say there are two products. One is product A which can be produced cost-effectively but has a chance of decreasing the users’ satisfaction level. On the other hand, we have product B which will cost more but it will satisfy the users’ more. It comes down to the quality assurance group who have the strongest opinions when making the decision between the two options. From the company’s management point of view, we need to maximize the profit so we always try to lead towards the best solution after vigorous discussions.

Was there a similar case such as this during the development of the Z 5?

Mr. Imamizu: It is difficult to answer about the devices, but from the design point of view, one of the differences between the Z 7/Z 6 and the Z 5 is the existence of the shoulder LCD (information display monitor) and the mode dial position. Focusing on the mode dial position, we could achieve a cost benefit from removing the shoulder panel. Also, there was an objective to ensure the full operation of the camera with just your right hand, so we moved the mode dial to where the shoulder LCD used to be.

There were numerous discussions held between us and the development team, even just about the position change of the mode dial. Actually, not only the position, we needed to verify the dial diameter, roulette pattern, and the pitch over and over again. We then suggested the best specifications and the position to the design team.

However, we don’t simply adopt the best solution from the design team onto the products as there’ll need to be adjustments made due to the spacing circumstances of the inner parts. Concerns about cost are also factored in during these adjustments. After going through these processes and persuading other teams that certain features could or couldn’t be compromised and also repeating minor adjustments, the mode dial on the right shoulder was finally achieved.

Mr. Mori: This is not something limited to the mode dial, but we often get a request to make each part move only when you wanted it to move. We need to make each part operate smoothly when the photographer specifically operates them and to make sure they don’t move unintentionally otherwise.

Making it easy to handle and avoiding operational mistakes are at times conflicting in nature, so we needed to carefully find the balance between both during the design period. We repeatedly verified the position of the operational elements, torque, and roulette pattern.

Regarding the high ISO image quality and USB Power Delivery

Were there any particular elements in which you put in considered extra efforts? Could you elaborate on some of the details?

Mr. Adachi: During the production of the Z 5, the product planning team had requested the development team to put extra effort into the high ISO image quality. This was because after we gathered users’ opinions from the market research, we saw that some of their expectations for the full-frame model included better image quality, larger bokeh, and a better performance in high ISO situations. Among the user feedback, we found that the percentage of high ISO image quality expectation was exceptionally high. One of the differences between the Z 6 and the Z 5 from the device point of view is the backside illumination CMOS sensor and the front illumination CMOS sensor. As it is generally said, the backside illumination sensor is more advantageous in regards to high ISO sensitivity under low light situations. Although there are differences device-wise, we requested to pursue the ISO sensitivity to the very limit of our capability.

In the end, we achieved a level of ISO 51200, which is the same maximum standard sensitivity as the Z 6, so I think we did a great job.

Mr. Fujita: In regard to the electrical design, USB Power Delivery and charging is one of the things we worked hard on. Since this was the first time being featured in Nikon cameras, there were struggles as we needed to make our way through trial and error to make it operate safely and consistently. Also, we have adopted many new components in the electrical system – such as a new image sensor and an SD Double Card Slot, so we needed to redesign the basis as well as commit to the energy-saving performance. As for the SD Double Card Slot, both of the slots are compatible to the UHS-II. To achieve the goal of 100 fps of continuous shooting during all of the various shooting modes, some schemes in terms of controls were incorporated.

Does that simply mean you increased the buffer size?

Mr. Fujita: From various perspectives, we decided it was difficult to increase the buffer. After focusing on how we could smoothly write the data onto the SD cards, we were able to achieve this by adding additional lines of code. Since joining the company, I’ve noticed a tendency in the office to be extremely strict against any compromises. This can be said in all of the departments, but they really never tolerate any compromises. Every single day, we struggled to realize the best balance.

Was there something that was inherited from other models for the electrical design, in regard to such traditional ways of thinking?

Mr. Fujita: It’s not only limited to the Z series, but a circuit that was employed in the film cameras are still being adopted in our D-SLR series. Although I’ve been involved in this for a long time, as I was one of the electrical designers who was part of the creation of film cameras, there are models in the latest D-SLR series that still employ a circuit that was used from the time I first joined the company.

Can you tell us which parts?

Mr. Fujita: I can’t tell you the exact name of the parts, but it’s a circuit that communicates with the lens system. Although they are being renewed in the Z mount system and for the F mount system that has electronic contacts, the lens connection of both the older and newer versions is the same, which means you can use both of them. We inherited the same lens communication circuit and power supply in order to maintain this compatibility. Of course, there’s a reason that it is something already functional and it doesn’t need much improvement. But we can feel to be a part of Nikon’s history from the fact that we are using the same circuits and parts from the era of the film cameras.

The future “formation” of the Z series

As the current Z series models are being designed with a mutual concept, will there continue be a similar tendency to look ahead for the future models too?

Mr. Imamizu: For the Z 7/Z 6 and the Z 5 which took over the two, they were designed based on the common design concept. While centering the large diameter mount with high optical performance as the core, we concentrated the components into a compact body size; such as the grip that considers the users, EVF, and an easy-to-handle operational system – all in an optimal shape and layout.

Although we can’t tell you about the future design in detail, what we can reveal at this moment is that the Z series’ design will continue to evolve. We will keep on pursuing the degree of perfection as a tool, in order to meet the demands of all users through the evolution of technologies and customer communication.

Mr. Adachi: It may be the ergonomics, but we put the importance on the easy-to-use UI for the users when developing all of our products. So, it is the product planning team’s thought that this key notion will not change even as we progress into the future.

Although the styling could change depending on the era or the shape might change depending on the parts and mechanical formation factors, we will continue to pursue an easy-to-use design build, the same as always.

Mr. Imamizu: For Nikon, the ease of use in keeping the best distance between the users and the camera as a tool exists as our strongest core goal. You could also describe this in the way a sense of unity exists between humans and horses.

You are pursuing how the cameras should function when seen as a tool.

Mr. Imamizu: Yes, that’s right.

I certainly think that it is superior in terms of the physical sense of touch and operability. I personally feel that Nikon is creating cameras with exactly the right sense of unity as between humans and horses. On the other hand, I get an impression that the operational system in regard to UI hasn’t had any major improvements. I’d love to see some improvements made as it’s been two years since the release of the Z series.

Mr. Adachi: Although we have been revising small parts, we know that we’ve been receiving requests about the operability. We’re planning to reflect these requests in the future models.

As the main designer, can you tell us the best angle to view the Z 5?

Mr. Imamizu: Personally, I like to look up at the camera diagonally from the bottom, from the grip side.

It looks more powerful, right?

Mr. Imamizu: Yes. I want people to see that it is full of calculated decisions. It is also the part which I want the users to actually experience and that’s why I like this angle. From this angle, you can see the grip where the users will touch the most including the shutter-release button, the most important part of a camera. The EVF is also on the back where we put our best efforts forward for the sake of a large mount and the comfortable viewing experience. I think this is the angle where you can see the formation all of these elements at its most realized.

I really sympathize with what you just said. Once again, I don’t understand why you don’t share these kinds of points on the Nikon website.

Everyone: (laughs)

By the way, do you ever talk about your ideal camera, something like a “Nikon of your dreams”, within other staff members?

Mr. Adachi: We actually talk a lot about our ideal cameras, as some people are like a walking dictionary.

Not only in the Imaging Business Unit, there are many staff members who are simply a Nikon fan or likes cameras in general.
In the past, we did an internal survey about the Z 7/Z 6 and there were a lot of opinions from the other units aside from the Imaging Business Unit. We were surprised to receive so many detailed opinions from them and we understand that there are many people who love cameras within our company.

Finally, was there anything that you wanted to achieve but couldn’t for the Z 5?

Mr. Adachi: We feel that we did our best against our goal, but we certainly struggled with whether or not to have the back monitor in tilting mode or vari-angle mode until the very end. From the marketing point of view, we had an option to go with the vari-angle monitor when you think about the compatibility of movie recording. However, we prioritized the camera size and landed on the tilting monitor.

About Yoshiki Toyota

Born in Hiroshima, Japan in 1981. Interested in mechanics, he aimed at becoming a combustion engine engineer, but started aspiring to be a photographer after being inspired by the photographs of Shoji Ueda, Yoichi Midorikawa, and Robert Mapplethorpe. He graduated from the Department of Photography in the College of Art of Nihon University, worked as a photo studio staff, then got involved in DSLR development and became a freelance photographer. He has a passion for black and white photography.