Nikon in 2021: What happened, why and where next for the Big N?

Nikon in 2021
(Image credit: Nikon)

Back in January 2020 Nikon raced out of the starting blocks with the announcement of the Nikon Coolpix P950, Nikon D780 and NikonAF-S 120-300mm f/2.8E, and didn’t let up. The Big N continued to launch the Nikon D6, Nikon Z5, Nikon Z6 II and Nikon Z7 II, tallying no fewer than six camera launches throughout the year. 

Nikon in 2021 was a year largely spent bolstering its mirrorless lens line-up (momentarily ignoring the Nikon Z9-shaped elephant in the room) with a whopping 12 products announced throughout the year. No F-mount releases suggest that Nikon is focusing on its mirrorless systems and, with the quality of Z lenses it’s been pumping out, it isn’t hard to see why.

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Highlights include the extremely impressive Nikon Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S, a very welcome addition to the DX Z-lens line-up in the form of the Nikon Z DX 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR and Z mount’s first official super-telephoto lens announcement, concerning the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S and Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S.

Nikon only launched two new cameras in 2021, but boy did they knock it out of the park and into the stratosphere! The Nikon FM2-inspired Nikon Z fc flew off shelves thanks to its solid innards and stunning retro looks, and following a development announcement in March, the long-awaited Nikon Z9 launched in October and delivered a spec list befitting its flagship status and then some. Here's the Big N’s 2021 in a nutshell… 

February – Firmware for the Z6 II and Z7 II

(Image credit: Nikon)

It wasn’t until February that Nikon released its first product announcement, a firmware update for the then-new Z6 II and Z7 II mirrorless cameras. Firmware Ver. 1.10 would boast 4K UHD / 60p support for the Z6 II, enhanced Eye-Detection AF and Raw video output support. Alas, that was all February had to offer, but March was just around the corner and so was a sneak peek at the biggest announcement of the year… 

March – The Z9 is officially happening!

(Image credit: Nikon)

Nikon debuted its NX Studio image editing software at the beginning of March, which combined the functionality of existing software ViewNX-I and Capture NX-D into an all-in-one software solution. NX Studio is available for compatible Mac and Windows operating systems, and enables users to view, process and edit images. It even features a basic video editing tool and best of all, it’s completely free!

As exciting as NX Studio was, the following week’s announcement would really set tongues wagging. Nikon finally confirmed long-standing rumors that it was working on the Z9, its very first mirrorless flagship. The development announcement was understandably vague, but we were treated to a tantalizing glimpse of a pre-production camera and a few juicy specs. 

Nikon said the Z9 would, “deliver the best still and video performance in Nikon history,” and revealed that it would house a full-frame stacked CMOS sensor, a new image-processing engine and support 8K video recording. We’d have to wait until much later in the year to find out more, and it was definitely worth it! 

April – 2021's first physical product announcement

(Image credit: Nikon)

At the beginning of April Nikon teed up its first physical product announcements of the year, a pair of laser rangefinders. The best laser rangefinders are designed to help golfers gauge the intended distance of their next shot, and Nikon’s Coolshot ProII Stabilized and Coolshot 50i are able to calculate slope and height measurements, too. The former represents the peak of Nikon’s rangefinder line-up, boasting stabilization technology that’s designed to help mitigate hand shake and the ability to provide measurements as quickly as 0.3 seconds. 

A couple of weeks later, Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II users were treated to their second firmware update of the year, as part of a bumper firmware rollout announcement for all existing Z cameras. Highlights included boosts in AF performance for the Nikon Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II and Z5, as well as the implementation of the Save Focus Position option for the Z6, Z7 and Nikon Z50, enabling the focus position to be saved when the camera is turned off. 

June – Nikon Z fc and a plethora of lenses

(Image credit: Nikon)

June would prove to be the busiest month of the year for Nikon product launches thus far, with the announcement of four lenses and a brand new mirrorless camera. But first, Nikon would launch a new remote shooting system for pro sports and news photographers called NX Field. 

The app was released via Nikon Professional Services and enables multiple Nikon cameras to link together for remote shooting. It was compatible with the Nikon D6 and D5 at launch, with support for specific Z cameras set to follow.

On the same day Nikon delivered its first lens product announcement of the year, and it was something plenty of Z users had been waiting for. The Nikon Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S and Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8 would be the first Nikon-branded macro lenses launched for the Z system. 

The Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S received full marks in our review, where we praised its spectacular all-round performance, pro-grade build quality and handling, and 4.5-stop optical VR.

The Z MC 50mm f/2.8 fared similarly, with a very respectable 4.5 star rating. We cited its impressive image quality, compact and lightweight build, and very precise manual focusing as highlights. 

(Image credit: Nikon )

June ended on a high, thanks to the launch of the Nikon Z fc mirrorless camera and a trio of accompanying lenses. The spiritual successor to 2013’s Nikon Df was an instant hit, and it’s easy to see why. It’s stunning Nikon FM2-inspired retro good looks and tactile dials wooed us right out of the gate. And it wasn’t a case of style over substance, either; beneath the hood is a similar spec sheet to the very well received Nikon Z50.

We awarded the camera 4.5 stars in our review, noting its compromised ergonomics – though entirely necessary due to the authentic retro styling – and lack of DX Z-mount lenses, but these were minor concerns thanks to the gorgeous styling and solid specs. Nikon’s first camera release of 2021 was a resounding success! 

Of the three lenses launched, the Nikon Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR Silver Edition would prove to be essentially the same kit lens available with the Z50, but with a retro-cool paint job. The Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 SE – although full-frame – is designed to match the Z fc’s retro aesthetic and features a very usable 42mm focal length when attached to a DX camera. It was designed using original blueprints and features a smooth and chunky customizable control ring – it doesn’t get much more authentic than that! 

The Nikon Z DX 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR was a development announcement, but more on that later… 

September – Z 40mm f/2 and the next-gen Monarch

(Image credit: Nikon)

Jump to mid-September and Nikon had announced the Nikon Z 40mm f/2. This diddy full-frame prime was particularly welcome considering its DX-friendly size, where it would provide a 60mm focal length. It scored 4.5 stars on test where we praised its compact and lightweight form factor, fairly fast aperture, and sharp and silent operation. 

Nikon would release more optic news before the month was out, but it wouldn’t be anything to do with cameras. The best binoculars are an essential piece of wildlife photography kit and we were treated to an announcement regarding the next generation of Nikon’s coveted Monarch binoculars, the M7 and M5 series.

October – The Nikon Z9 is finally launched!

Following the development announcement back in June, Nikon announced the Z DX 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR at the beginning of what would turn out to be a very busy October. The superzoom would be a welcome addition to the very few dedicated DX Z lenses available. It earned a respectable four stars in our review, where we praised its useful zoom range, 5-stop optical stabilization and good overall performance. 

But that was merely an appetizer for what was yet to come. On 05 October Nikon launched the first of four Z9 teaser videos for what would be the imminent official announcement of the Z9. On 27 October Nikon started a 24-hour online countdown timer and the following day it finally happened. 

(Image credit: Nikon)

Nikon’s first flagship mirrorless camera boasted a 45.7MP back-side illuminated stacked sensor, Nikon’s Expeed 7 image processor, 493 hybrid phase/contrast detect AF points, and 5-axis image sensor shift. And during our Z9 hands-on review, we praised its mighty 120fps burst shooting, 8K 60p video resolution, two hours of 8K 30p video capture and Deep Learning AF.  

But the Z9 wasn’t all that was announced on 28 October; the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S, Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S, Z 24-120mm f/4 S and Mount Adapter FTZ II were all revealed at the same time. This was a big deal and an essential announcement, considering the Z9’s sports and wildlife capabilities, because the Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S and Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S would be the first super-telephoto Z-mount lenses to be officially announced by Nikon.

The latter was a development announcement, so details were thin on the ground, but the former boasted a particularly neat feature, an internal lens element that moves when zooming in and out to maintain a consistent centre of gravity.

The Z 24-120mm f/4 S would appeal to anyone looking for an S-Line travel zoom and is particularly intriguing considering the fantastic performance and incredible popularity of the existing Z 24-70mm f/4 S. Finally, the Mount Adapter FTZ II – although not quite as exciting as new lenses galore and a brand new flagship camera – proved an interesting addition thanks to its upgraded ergonomics.

November – Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 announced

(Image credit: Nikon)

Following October’s announcements aplenty, you could forgive Nikon for taking November off, but it was back to business with a firmware update for the Z7, Z6, Z5, and Z50. 

A week later, the Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 was announced. This would prove essentially the same lens as the Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 SE that launched alongside the Nikon Z fc, but as our 4.5 star review proved, this certainly wasn’t a bad thing. The lens’s compact and lightweight build, impressive overall performance and neat retro styling makes it a superb option for those who want to travel light and look good while doing so!

December – Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S super-telephoto

(Image credit: Nikon)

You’d think Nikon and its elves would take December off, but there was one last present under the tree in the form of a December 13 announcement. The Nikon Z 28-75mm f/2.8 was revealed to be half the price of the similarly specced Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S. Naturally, we can’t wait to get one in our lab. At the same time Nikon also revealed it would be adding the Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S Super Telephoto Prime Lens to its Z lens roadmap. We await the official announcement and full specs with bated breath.

External factors meant it would be unfair to expect a repeat of Nikon’s explosive start to 2020. But although the first half of 2021 was relatively quiet, the second half burst into a veritable smorgasbord of tantalizing new releases. Arguably, this was the year that Z-mount’s now formidable lens line-up really matured and Nikon certainly hit the retro-chic, nostalgia-fueled sweet spot when it came to the gorgeous Z fc. 

And of course, we were gifted an official announcement for arguably the most exciting Nikon camera in years. In fact, what better way to kick off 2022 than with Z9 shipments… please Nikon, pretty please!

Read more: 

Nikon Z9 hands-on review
Nikon Z fc review
Nikon Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S review
Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8 review
Nikon Z 40mm f/2 review
Nikon Z DX 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR review

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Mike Harris
Technique Editor

Mike is Deputy Editor for N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine, and brings with him over 10 years experience writing both freelance and for some of the biggest specialist publications. Prior to joining N-Photo Mike was the production editor for the content marketing team of Wex Photo Video, the UK’s largest online specialist photographic retailer, where he sharpened his skills in both the stills and videography spheres.  

While he’s an avid motorsport photographer, his skills extend to every genre of photography – making him one of Digital Camera World’s top tutors for techniques on cameras, lenses, tripods, filters and other imaging equipment, as well as sharing his expertise on shooting everything from portraits and landscapes to abstracts and architecture to wildlife and, yes, fast things going around race tracks.