I got a sneak peek at a pre-production version of the new Nikon Z fc and thought I’d share a handful of thoughts.
I should start by pointing out that this article is based on a pre-production version of the new Nikon Z fc provided to me by Nikon. I mention that early for two reasons. One, you may want to know that as a reader, although the opinions related here are my own. And two, because it might help to explain the subtle sound of welled-up tears in my voice as I know that this particular copy is only a loaner and that I don’t get to keep it.
I’m guessing from that opening statement, you might be able to predict my feelings about the camera. But let’s get into the details. I will begin my initial review of the camera by admitting that I’ve been waiting for a camera like this for a long time. I’ve been a Nikon user for my professional work for going on two decades now. My purchasing decisions when it comes to investing in tools for work have been less about scouring the market and more about waiting for Nikon to release the next high-resolution body once my current camera has run its course. Sticking to Nikon has always been as much practical as a matter of preference. I like the way Nikon’s professional cameras feel in my hand. But I have also already invested unspeakable sums of money over the years into lenses and accessories, and it simply makes financial sense to stay within the family.
Yet, there was always one area where I felt I was forced to commit a bit of light adultery. While my big-bodied, built-like-a-tank DSLRs have been true workhorses for me throughout the years, aside from my very first camera when I was just learning, my bigger cameras have never spent a great deal of time with me during off-hours. It’s not that I didn’t still yearn for the image quality. But, generally speaking, when I found myself going for a walk, or traveling, or simply trying to take pictures of the dog around the house, the DSLR bodies which were perfect for work suddenly felt cumbersome in my living room. Since 99% of the images I create are work-related anyway, this is hardly a major concern. But I always pined for a smaller and more nimble body to have with me at all times that wouldn’t draw so much energy or so much attention as to impede my ability to enjoy my day off.
Because Nikon hasn’t always had a mini model that appealed to me, in the past decade, I have tended to turn to Fuji for all my compact camera needs. I loved the tactile feel of the dials. I also always loved the styling. But before you think me a complete hipster, I should probably point out that my enjoyment of both the tactile shooting experience and the look of the cameras was less a matter of me wanting to buy the photographic version of a throwback jersey and more of me being old enough to have those cameras resemble the actual cameras I used when learning the art. There is something in the design that is at once familiar and also just different enough from my work DSLRs to offer me a fresh perspective when shooting for fun.
I’ve had several versions of the Fuji X bodies, but as much as I loved shooting with them for fun, they never were quite efficient enough or fully suitable for the needs of the type of work that I do professionally. So, my camera case always found itself segregated. The working camera, lenses, and accessories are in one case, the small portable stuff in another or, perhaps more likely, casually wedged into an empty space on the kitchen counter for easy access. Yet, the sheer Virgo in me always wished for a bit more of a streamlined approach. I liked the design of the Fuji X cameras, but I’m a Nikon-ian at heart. So, what I really wanted was a small portable camera from Nikon that could both give me the mental separation from shooting with my workhorse DSLRs and also still share some of the same lenses, accessories, and workflow from my main kit so that I wouldn’t have to double my expenses.
It took a hot second and beginning the transition from DSLR to mirrorless for Nikon to do it, but I do believe they may have finally come up with that camera that I’ve been waiting for.
Let’s get the caveats out of the way first. No, this camera is not going to replace my D850 or the Z 7II for my professional work. Nor was it intended to. Not that the camera isn’t perfectly capable of producing “professional” images. But this camera is best suited for personal work. It’s a completely different mentality. I mentioned how much I love the tactile feel of dials. But, truth be told, top dials are far less efficient than the front and rears dials found on DSLRs or top-level mirrorless that can be easily adjusted without removing your eye from the viewfinder. There’s a reason why camera manufacturers moved toward the simpler front and rear dial design. It’s faster. But, despite having both top dial options as well as front and rear dial options, the Z fc isn’t about speed. It’s about taking the time to really enjoy the process of taking an image. It’s about being mindful of your exposure settings and the audible joy of hearing that single click. I might not have time for all of those things when I’m at work with a client standing over my shoulder. But when I’m shooting for fun, that is exactly the type of experience that I want to have.
As a side note, this would probably also be the perfect camera for someone who is just learning photography. At under $1000 or just over $1000 with one of the kit lenses, it’s not an unrealistic investment, relatively speaking. Also, the tactile experience is incredibly useful when you are starting out and really trying to internalize the effects of your exposure triangle. While turning the knobs is a pleasurable experience, it also forces you to be cognizant of each change you make. For someone just learning, this type of conscious image-making is essential.
Other reviewers I’ve read have noted the similarities between the Z fc and the Nikon Z 50. They both have similar 20.9-megapixel DX sensors and somewhat comparable feature sets. Personally, I’ve never shot with a Z 50. So, I can’t give you a detailed side-by-side analysis. From a sheer ergonomics standpoint, the obvious difference would be that the D 50 has a deeper grip, whereas the Z fc is much flatter. If you are someone, like me, with bigger hands, you might prefer the studier hold you will get with the Z 50, especially if you are using it for your work camera and want something with a bit more rugged feel. For someone with clumsy fingers like me, smaller cameras always present something of a challenge, which is why my professional bodies tend towards the larger size, as the added real estate makes it less likely I will accidentally activate an unintended setting.
The Z fc clearly turns up the style points by comparison. No, the way a camera looks isn’t its most important attribute. But, looking good doesn’t exactly hurt. During my few weeks with the pre-production unit, I made a point of bringing the Z fc with me pretty much every time I left the house. I am pleased to say that its presence neither prevented me from accessing any desired activities, nor did the sleek black and silver finish ever conflict with my fashion choices. The small and slim package, along with the silver 16-50mm kit rarely drew unwanted attention. Its petite profile makes it a very good choice for street photography when you want to be able to shoot candidly on the street without raising your fellow citizens' ire by pulling out a heavy camera and an even heavier telephoto lens.
Speaking of lenses, with my pre-production unit I received the NIKKOR Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR lens. It’s a super-compact 24-75mm equivalent which includes Vibration Reduction. Now, if you’ve read any of my previous articles about Nikon gear, you might pick up on the fact that I tend to prefer lenses that do not need to be unlocked prior to use. The DX 16-50mm, on the other hand, is more like the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S, which requires you to turn the barrel and extend the lens ever so slightly before it can be put into use. As someone with a limited attention span and a desire to move as quickly as possible, I’ve never been a big fan of having to unlock the lens first. I feel like I will always forget to unlock it at the key moment and miss a shot.
Of course, there’s a reason for the design. Having the locking mechanism, allows the lens to collapse to its absolute minimal form when it isn’t in use. This can really come in handy when packing the lens into an already overloaded suitcase or when walking long distances between potential shooting locations. And while I still prefer my lenses to always be ready to go, I will admit that the collapsible locking design makes a lot of sense when using a super-compact camera like the Z fc. Even at full extension, the DX 16-50mm, which comes in at a mere 135 g, is never a lens that you are going to consider to be exactly hefty. You won’t be placing any undue stress on your neck when carrying it around with you on long excursions. And the 24-75mm equivalent zoom range is very useful for general everyday photography. Of course, you could also opt for the kit with the NIKKOR Z 28mm f/2.8 SE prime. That offers a small size and FX capabilities. The Z 28mm is roughly a 42mm equivalent on the Z fc body. But, if you are already a Z 6II or Z 7II user, it will also allow you to use that lens on the full frame bodies as well.
As this was a pre-production unit without the final firmware, I can’t give you an in-depth analysis of image quality. Nikon has never given me a reason to doubt image quality before. And I suspect, though I haven’t done the comparison myself, that the image quality would be very similar to what you would get with the Z 50. So, if you have experience with that camera, I think it should give you some idea of what to expect. During the limited pre-release time I’ve had the camera, I haven’t been able to yet open the raw files in Capture One, as is my normal workflow. So, I’ve been shooting everything in raw plus JPEG in order to review the files. The straight-out-of-camera JPEGs are looking good so far. But, again, it makes sense to hold off on any pixel peeping until I get my hands on a final production unit.
Truth be told, image quality is simply not the most important reason why I find myself drawn to this camera. Sure, image quality is important. But assuming they uphold the Nikon tradition, which the initial straight out of camera JPEGs seem to suggest that they have done, users of the Z fc should be perfectly satisfied in the image quality department. But what sets the Z fc apart from any other products in the Nikon line is the user experience.
This is a camera built for people who love the art of photography and want to indulge their inner shutterbug by luxuriating as much in the process as in the end result. As an example, one of the first things I noticed about the Z fc was, of all things, the shutter button. I can honestly say that of all the cameras I’ve owned through the years, the shutter button has never before been a major attraction. But there is something about the curve and smoothness of this particular shutter button that really made for an enjoyable press. I realize that is both a wholly subjective and somewhat random observation. But I can’t lie. I just loved pressing down on the shutter. The accompanying sound of the shutter click didn’t exactly make me dislike the camera either. The sound on the shutter click is somehow familiar. It almost sounds like you are shooting with one of Nikon’s legacy film cameras. In the mirrorless age, I don’t fully know what exactly goes into making the specific shutter sound a camera makes. But, whatever they did with this one, they got it right.
That shutter sound also reminds you that the camera has a very respectable shooting speed. Shooting up to 11 fps, I never found myself left wanting when capturing fast-moving objects. This is hardly a sideline sports shooter. But for practical real-world use, I’ve found the frame rate to be more than sufficient for anything from street photography to capturing birds and butterflies that suddenly appear for a photo op.
I’m also finding the autofocus speed to be surprisingly good. At moments, it almost felt like the focus is snappier on the Z fc than on some of the full frame Z bodies I’ve shot with. I haven’t done any side-by-side testing, and I’m guessing my mind may have been playing tricks on me at the moment. But the fact that such a thought even crept into my mind in the first place should give you an idea of the camera’s capabilities.
With all the legacy touches like the film shutter click and the top dials, I also have found myself enjoying the most modern innovation. I know that a fully articulating LCD screen is a dividing point for many users. Some love it. Some hate it and think LCD screens should only tilt up and down rather than swinging all the way around to face the front. I’ve found myself on both sides of the debate depending on the shooting scenario. But, in the case of an ultra-portable walkaround camera like the Z fc, the fully articulating screen is a perfect addition. From a practical standpoint, you don’t necessarily need to be a vlogger to want to take a selfie from time to time. And, given that the form factor of the Z fc means that it will be used heavily as a travel camera or when hanging out with friends, the ability to flip the screen around and take a quick shot of yourself in front of the Taj Mahal is more of a plus than a hindrance.
Personally, I have come to love fully articulating screens for a reason that perhaps they may not have been intended. Generally speaking, I hate screens. I’ve only begrudgingly accepted EVFs into my life while still preferring optical viewfinders. While even DSLRs have LCD screens, I’ve never been one to constantly review images on them. And live view? Fuggedaboutit. I am a straight eye to the back of the camera guy. Live view is for cell phones.
Okay, I’m exaggerating for fun. But I truly can count the number of times I’ve taken a still photograph with the LCD screen of a camera on one hand. So, that should give you some indication of my preference. And that’s why I love fully articulating screens, but not because of how they look when pulled all the way out. I love them because you can flip them around and completely close them on the back of the camera as well. It’s almost like the LCD doesn’t exist at all. I love being able to do this with any camera. With a camera that is intentionally designed to feel like old film cameras that never had LCD screens to begin with, having a screen that you can make disappear is a perfect choice.
If this initial thoughts article has come off as somewhat effusive, it’s because I honestly can’t think of too many negatives to the Z fc. As stated earlier, no, it is not going to replace your DSLR or top-line mirrorless cameras for heavy professional work. But, it’s not supposed to. Instead, I envision this to be a camera that will appeal to both pro users and enthusiasts alike. Pro users will enjoy the change of pace and being able to have an additional low-cost body for personal shooting when they don’t want to carry their main workhorse. Enthusiasts will appreciate the camera's lower price point, ease of use, and styling that really encourages you to take it with you when you leave the house.
In fact, the only item Nikon left on my wishlist is the somewhat obvious elephant in the room. As wonderful as this camera is, I can’t help but imagine the same camera with a full frame sensor. Despite Nikon allowing me to test out the Z fc, I can confirm that I have absolutely no idea whether a full frame version of the Z fc is in the works. But I can confirm that was such a camera to exist, my money might just log on to B&H and spend itself.
As someone who is both a photographer and a cinematographer, I would of course love it if the Z fc had a more robust feature set on the video front as well. If you need things like a 10-bit external log or raw video upgrades, then you are definitely better off going with one of the full-sized Z bodies. But again, this is not the camera meant for that type of work. It’s meant more for casual shooting, especially casual still shooting. But if you happen to be on that vacation to see the Taj Mahal, it is more than capable of creating clean 4K footage up to 30 fps.
As is, I definitely see a Z fc in my future. The only sad thing is that, sooner or later, I will have to send this test unit back. Unless I make a run for it. I’m really considering making a run for it.