This is a two-part interview focusing on the Nikon Z 5, released in August 2020 in Japan.
In Part I, we interviewed Nikon’s engineers on the Z 5’s development concept and of the attention that was paid to the details in its development. We also talked to them about our first impressions of the camera and asked specific questions. They provided thorough answers including discussions regarding detailed specs.
(Interviewer: Yoshiki Toyota, Photography: editorial)
From left to right: Naoki Jinbo, 4th Development, 1st Development Department, Development Sector, Imaging Business Unit Makoto Imamizu, ID Group, Design Center Nobuyoshi Suzuki, 2nd UX Planning, UX Planning Department, Imaging Business Unit Yusuke Adachi, 1st UX Planning, UX Planning Department, Imaging Business Unit Goichiro Mori, 3rd Designing, Designing Department, Development Sector, Imaging Business Unit Masayuki Fujita, 1st Designing, Designing Department, Development Sector, Imaging Business Unit Norimitsu Asami, 3rd Development, 1st Development Department, Imaging Business Unit
It’s rare to see with recent cameras, but I feel the Z 5 doesn’t boast many explicit selling points on the brochure. There’s no mention of an impressive spec such as “the smallest in the same class,” for example. What was the concept for this product?
Mr. Adachi: At the release of the Z 7 and the Z 6, we had a vision of expanding the Z series’ lineup. There are various ideas on how to expand the lineup. We, at Nikon, would like more people to use the camera, so our conclusion was to introduce a so-called affordable camera that can be their first full-frame model. This is how we planned the Z 5, with a concept of bringing more people the joy of using full-frame cameras while offering high basic performance.
How did you decide on the specs for a camera with such a concept?
Mr. Adachi: We usually first decide our ideal users – who do we want the camera to be used by? We discussed within the team and then built our target user image.
There were largely two types of Z 5 target users. One type is the full-frame DSLR users who want to try a mirrorless camera for the first time. The other type is APS-C or other non-full-frame camera users who are considering stepping up to a full-frame model. We discussed what would be the Nikon-like approach toward these target users and decided the spec requirements thereafter.
What were the things you were particular about when deciding on the Z 5’s specifications?
Mr. Adachi: With the Z 5’s product planning, we all shared across different departments that we wanted to inherit Nikon cameras’ strengths. We believe Nikon cameras’ advantage is their high quality as tools. We decided to be particular about the quality, rather than catalogue specs.
The Z 5’s design is almost the same as the Z 7/Z 6. Was this in order to realize an affordable price?
Mr. Adachi: Yes. As you can see, the Z 5’s design is almost the same as the Z 7/Z 6. We decided to share the same parts with the Z 7/Z 6 to realize an affordable price and to reduce costs while keeping the quality high.
Mr. Imamizu: By sharing covers and operational parts, we can ensure operability and an operational feel – as well as dust- and drip- resistance and robustness, equivalent to the Z 7/Z 6. This is a clear merit in terms of quality.
Could you tell us more about sharing the same parts with the Z 7/Z 6?
Mr. Imamizu: For example, a switch with leaf spring is used for the shutter-release button just like the Z 7/Z 6, providing a sensitive touch feel. For buttons, rubber switches that were customized exclusively for the Z 7/Z 6 are used, achieving a quiet operational sound and smooth button feel.
These implementations realized the goal of achieving the same quality as the Z 7/Z 6 while reducing costs, so we believe the Z 5 users will be very happy.
Inheriting higher models’ parts like this may satisfy users by getting more than their money’s worth, but it doesn’t always benefit the company. Didn’t anyone in administration object to this plan?
Mr. Adachi: Nikon, as a company, does not hesitate to adopt higher models’ parts in lower models. We tend to incorporate good parts and evaluated points, regardless of class borders.
Mr. Imamizu: To be honest, using higher models’ parts is tough in terms of profit ratio. Sometimes it depends on the product’s concept, but usually we prioritize letting users use better things – so if we have to choose, we would choose high quality over the cost.
The main command dial feels different. Is this not also shared with the Z 7/Z 6?
Mr. Imamizu: No, it isn’t. Z 7/Z 6’s main command dial is made of aluminum, while resin is used for that of the Z 5. However, an aluminum top cover is used for the dial top to keep the elegant look. Also, the roulette pattern pitch is changed to improve how it fits to the fingertips during operation.
I didn’t think the main command dial was made of resin. I personally felt better operating it on the Z 5 rather than the Z 7/Z 6. I was really surprised.
Mr. Imazumi: Reducing cost while maintaining an operational feel and elegant look was the biggest challenge for us, as the design team, during the product development.
Comparing the Z 5 with the Z 6, I noticed the difference in AF. The Z 5 clearly focuses slower in low-light or low-contrast scenes. I also felt the Z 5 was a bit slower in other scenes as well.
Staff in charge of AF (answered via email later): Because the image sensor is different, there is a difference in read-out speed. As frame rate control under low light differs, the Z 6’s AF focusing speed is faster than the Z 5.
Is the Z 5’s AF algorithm itself the same control as the Z 7/Z 6?
Mr. Adachi: There is a tuning difference adjusted for the image sensor, but basically the same algorithm idea is applied.
I felt the EVF was as wonderful as the Z 7/Z 6, but why does it look noisy in low light, compared to the Z 6?
Mr. Jinbo: Noise characteristics differ due to the image sensor. This effect is obvious at a high ISO or in low-light scenes.
Contrary to the impression I had through the EVF, its high ISO performance is not bad at all.
Mr. Asami: The image sensor is different from the Z 6, but the design of image characteristics is done to perform at the maximum capable level together with EXPEED 6.
A back-illuminated CMOS sensor is good for high ISO, but it must have been challenging to achieve an equivalent spec with the front-illuminated CMOS sensor. On the other hand, read-out speed is slow and rolling shutter distortion is obvious with silent photography.
Mr. Jinbo: Read-out speed and noise have a trade-off relationship, but we prioritized noise performance with the Z 5, considering its product concept. We wanted to deliver both high image quality and high ISO performance, so the maximum ISO of 51200 was realized like the Z 6.
Actually, high ISO image quality felt as good as the Z 6 even when I compared shooting with both.
Mr. Jinbo: We, the development members, feel the same. We were particular about high image quality and high ISO performance as the product concept.
ATTENTION TO THE SHUTTER-RELEASE BUTTON
I’m really impressed by the Z 5’s comfortable operational feel. The power switch is located coaxially with the shutter-release button and it feels smooth and stable. This is superior to other companies’ cameras. The shutter-release button is located appropriately where I can put my finger naturally. It has a consistent push feel regardless of the angle and the feel on its own is wonderful. This is where I feel Nikon’s uniqueness stands apart.
Mr. Imamizu: It makes me feel happy and that our efforts have paid off hearing you say that.
When the Z 7/Z 6 were released, I felt the size around the shutter-release button was made to be compact just like the camera body when compared to the D series, while keeping a refined operational feel. When I operate the camera, it gives off more of an expensive impression than just how it looks.
Mr. Imamizu: I believe it is a result of both the design team and the quality assurance team’s efforts.
Mr. Mori: The shutter-release button is most frequently used in a camera, so I believe it must offer a smooth operational feel. Different users may push it in their own way, but we designed it with attention not to cause unevenness in any potential methods of operation.
The shutter-release button offers a smooth push feel ranging from high-end models to entry-level models of both the D and Z series – including the Z 5 and the Z 50.
Mr. Mori: Nikon designs with the same philosophy throughout products of all classes.
This is just an example, but if you develop a camera with its core concept of being affordable and if you make a design that compromises on how the shutter-release button feels, would the quality assurance team accept that just because it is suited for the concept?
Mr. Mori: Regardless of the product price range, those kinds of compromises are not allowed, so we have to make further efforts with the design.
Mr. Imamizu: We pay a lot of attention to comfortable operational feel. From dial operation to button push and the shutter-release feel, the reliability as a tool is different from other cameras within a similar price range.
What did you focus on and what are the new features in terms mechanical design?
Mr. Mori: There are no new features in terms of mechanical design, but as explained earlier in terms of design regarding the dial part material, we focused on reducing cost while not making it look cheap. For example, the back cover is changed from the Z 7/Z 6’s magnesium alloy to resin with the Z 5, but we paid attention to make it look as high quality as the dials and other parts.
It’s hard to notice the back cover is made of resin without inspecting it carefully.
Mr. Imamizu: For example, the axis of the mode dial barely has any rattle when rotated. It is made and assembled with high precision, so it gives a smooth rotational feel. After repeated discussions with the quality assurance team, we decided to place a heavy importance on the smooth feel of the camera’s various components.
It does feel very smooth. Did you consider how this operational feel would affect customer satisfaction for the price?
Mr. Imamizu: That’s exactly right.
Why did you choose to use metal for the Z 5’s exterior? Is this because of placing importance on the things related to satisfaction for the price? Or was it from focusing on the different characteristics of the material?
Mr. Imamizu: By comprehensively judging sensitive touch feel, texture superiority and robustness, we decided to actively adopt a metal exterior.
The Z 5’s mount surface finishing touch is changed from the Z 7/Z 6, right?
Mr. Imamizu: Yes. As the mount material is changed, so the frictional property is also changed, and we adopted an optimal pitch pattern. That’s why the finishing touch is different from the Z 7/Z 6.
How do you decide on the mount material?
Mr. Imamizu: Cost and material characteristics. The quality does not change depending on the material. Harder usage is expected with higher models, so we choose robust materials even if they are costly.
Are the surfaces processed?
Mr. Imamizu: Metal plating is done to the lens mount of the Z 5.
Surface processes like molybdenum coating or DLC are done to automobiles in terms of low friction and high durability. Metal plating is done for corrosion-resistance?
Mr. Mori: Yes. Corrosion-resistance is considered. Of course, we confirmed the durability as well. We choose the material depending on the product characteristics.
HOW ABOUT THE CAMERA BODY'S ROBUSTNESS?
How rough can the Z 5 be treated? The D series cameras were really robust, and when I was using the D800 or the D300, I carelessly dropped them or hit them many times, but they kept working with no problems. Is the Z 5 as tough as the higher models of the D series?
Mr. Mori: We cannot present the actual evaluation criteria, but we design based on the evaluation criteria of strength. The Z 5 is made fairly robust. It is hard to be equivalent to the D series flagship models, but the Z 5 can resist tough usage.
It is the case with many manufacturers, but there is no concrete indicator for dust- and drip-resistance. From my experience, I believe Nikon’s dust- and drip-resistance performance exceeds the general expectation. The dust- and drip-resistance of the Z 5 is equivalent to that of the Z 7/Z 6, so I assume it is equivalent to that of the D850. Why don’t you give a specific example such as how many hours it can be used in the rain?
Mr. Adachi: I guess it is because we judge it based on our unique standards.
I had no problem exposing a higher model to fairly heavy rain for more than one hour – it was because I had to use it under that specific condition to perform my task and in the end it was OK. However, it is not widely known that dust- and drip-resistant cameras can survive a little rain with no problem. I thought an indicator example might help assure users.
Mr. Mori: That’s a good point. I understand how effective their actual drip-resistance performance is, so I can carefreely use my entry-level model in light rain. However, it is hard to express the specific amount of rain. It is hard to define the expressions of how much would be light rain and how much is considered heavy rain.
For example, the Z 5 would have no problems if we shower it with a hose like watering a flower, right?
Mr. Mori: I believe so, but it depends on the way and the environment, so it is hard to be 100% assured.
Personally, I look at the memory card slot to check for dust- and drip-resistance in a simple way. I could tell the Z 5 was of a high caliber because it is sealed firmly. Closing the slot cover felt firm and of a high-quality.
ATTENTION TO MEMORY CARD SLOT DETAILS EVEN DOWN TO THE CLICKING SOUND OF THE COVER
Mr. Imamizu: The memory card slot cover is rigid and very firm. Even I am impressed with its rigidity. With the Z 5, the memory card slot is doubled with the SD card and so the cover became bigger. It serves as both a finger hook for holding the camera and as a memory card slot cover. It does not rattle at all however strong I use it. I was also surprised with the Z 7 but I reaffirmed Nikon’s high design and manufacturing technology, as the Z 5 does not lose its elegance at all while retaining a bigger slot cover.
Mr. Mori: The opening part is basically an intercuspation of plastics, so water would enter if the sealing was not firm. We design it carefully to avoid issues in case water enters due to rattling. We also pay attention to the clicking sound when opening the cover. At the beginning of development, it didn’t sound very nice opening or closing the cover. As the cover became bigger than the Z 7/Z 6, it became heavier and more powerful. We finally reached the current sound level after repeated adjustments.
With other manufacturers’ products, the memory card slot cover is often located where the palm rests. Like the Z 7, even though the Z 5’s slot cover is a movable part, it also receives pressure as a grip but does not rattle at all. I found it to be a strong structure.
Mr. Imamizu: The memory card slot is doubled while maintaining the same size and sharing the same parts with the Z 7/Z 6. I heard the biggest challenge was designing around this slot in terms of keeping the compact size.
Mr. Mori: Memory card insertion/extraction performance was not sacrificed because of the double slot. Of course, solving it by making the body thicker would have been easy, but we didn’t want to make such a compromise, so we had to consider the balance between memory card insertion/extraction performance and overall body thickness.
Observing the memory card slot after hearing your story, the separation between the slot 1 and 2 is so thin! Despite the thinness, it does not bend at all even if I push it with my finger.
Mr. Imamizu: The reasoning goes beyond particular reasoning from any one specific person in the decision-making process. Like the evaluation of the operability, functionality – such as the clicking sound of the memory card slot cover – is evaluated based on if it feels comfortable during use.
It’s true that it’s easy to change the batteries of Nikon cameras and the clicking sounds are not cheap. By the way, is it difficult to improve the sealing of the battery-chamber cover? If it is drip-resistant and has no problem in the rain, I feel like it would be OK to put the camera on a wet surface.
Drip-resistant cameras have a high resistance against water from above, but they are not resistant against water from below – like when placing them on a wet table. Actually, when I tested placing the Z 6 on a wet table and shook the table, water entered the battery-chamber because of capillarity.
Mr. Mori: The memory card slot cover and battery-chamber cover are made on the same dust- and drip-resistance standards, but placing the camera on a wet surface is almost like a partial submergence so it’s hard. We’ll consider it as our future challenge.
WHAT IS THE "STANDARDIZATION" OF THE DESIGN?
The Z series’ operational parts are made three-dimensionally from button positions to shapes.
Mr. Imamizu: They contribute to operability, so we place them by creating contrasts in angles and in a three-dimensional sense. This helps users recognize which finger is touching which button during operation. This is something we have been continually inheriting as a know-how from the collective history through the years of Nikon.
Is the know-how something consolidated in documents?
Mr. Imamizu: In the Design Center, there is a document called “Standardization” where ideas on designing Nikon products are consolidated. As much as I can publicly reveal, the release mode button is made less bumpy to prevent mistakenly pressing it while firmly gripping the camera. This idea is inherited across all the Nikon cameras.
Why are there zero mentions to these unique strengths on Nikon’s product page? Using the camera after hearing these stories, I’m impressed at how convincing it feels.
In Part II, we will talk about the new kit lens NIKKOR Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3 and legacy of Nikon.
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.