The designer of the Nikon Z 7 and developer of the Toyota Supra sat down with us to discuss what today's consumers seek in high-end cameras and advanced sports cars.

Photo: Kentauros Yasunaga Text: Takeshi Sato, translated by Pen Online

Young people are increasingly gravitating away from cars, and with smartphones becoming more mainstream, the need for digital cameras is in question. Despite these issues, a high-performance full-frame mirrorless camera and advanced sports car have recently hit the market. We spoke with the lead designers of these two products, and came to understand how good product design can lend true richness to our lives.

“A sports car is not something you'll struggle to live without. It's not essential—but that's exactly the point.” This comment by Tetsuya Tada, developer of the Toyota Supra, sent a shiver down our spines. Nobuo Hashimoto, lead designer of the Nikon Z 7, smiled wryly, adding, “Some people ask why one would need to buy a costly camera when you can just take photos on your smartphone.” Tada was even more assertive, “That may be the case, but you'd be surprised to learn that sports cars are a growth industry.” Read on to find out why.

“The notion of a ‘convenient and handy’ car will likely be replaced by ride sharing and autonomous driving. That leaves sports cars to driving aficionados who want to enjoy the ride,” said Tada. Hashimoto agreed, “More and more, consumers are compartmentalizing their use of products. A smartphone will do for snapping photos on a daily basis, but if you wanted to create a special piece, you would pick up a dedicated camera.”

So it seems that sports cars and full-frame mirrorless cameras are coming from the same place in terms of what they offer as products. We had the designers try the other's product and share with us their insights about this next generation of sports car and full-frame mirrorless camera.

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Chassis based on functionality

  • A short wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear tires) allows a car to take turns more sharply, while a wider track (the distance between the driver and passenger side tires) enables more precise cornering. The Supra was developed with both of these aspects clearly in mind.
  • Hashimoto noted, “The quality of a Nikon product is clear as soon as you see or hold it.” The Z 7 draws on the advantages offered by a mirrorless design while emphasizing ease of use and optimal placement of the grip and controls.

When we asked Tada what he emphasized with his new design, he responded, “The track and wheelbase are the most important aspect of a car's driving performance. The majority of sports cars around the world have a wheelbase to track ratio greater than 1.6 (wheelbase divided by track). The Supra opts for a ratio of 1.55, which seems to go against all common sense. This allows the core design of the Supra to offer stability and excellent cornering.” In other words, the Supra's design achieves the ultimate in drivability and cornering.

  • “Generating power with a turbo engine is very simple. The challenge is in cooling it,” says Tada. To that end, the Supra's front grill is designed with cooling in mind, allowing air to be efficiently drawn in.
  • According to Tada, one key factor in the design of sports cars is how to most elegantly vent airflow towards the rear of the car. The rear view was also designed around the idea of optimizing airflow.

Hashimoto shared with us the fact that the design of the Nikon Z 7 puts functionality first, like the Supra. “We employed a new large-diameter mount to pursuit a new dimension in optical performance. Revamping a mount is a major undertaking for a camera manufacturer, as it affects compatibility. Yet taking the long view, it's important to add increased functionality. For example, adopting the new mount allowed us to develop the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct, which strives for maximum sharpness.” This lens has received rave reviews from photographers working in night conditions, and users say it allows them to take more realistic photographs than ever before. In this way, gaining access to these high-performance lenses is in and of itself a key factor in choosing a high-function mirrorless camera over a smartphone.

  • The larger 55 mm diameter Z mount was developed in order to greatly increase optical performance. A larger mount allows more light to reach the image sensor, but making it too large results in a large and unwieldy camera. Hashimoto said that maintaining that balance between optical performance and size was a challenge.
  • The camera offers a firm grip, and buttons and controls that are easy to operate without mistake. The team made countless mockups in order to get the interface just right. The thin red lines in this image represent the points the team sought to improve.

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Repeated trial and error for a better response

  • Hashimoto says, “There is quite a lot to learn from the design of cars, so the Nikon Design Center subscribes to a variety of books on auto design.”
  • “One identifier of a well-designed car is the ability to intrinsically feel the position of the four tires when you sit down,” says Tada.

Taking the wheel, Hashimoto asked Tada, “How do you decide on steering wheel feel and response?” Tada replies, “As a product for enthusiasts, steering wheel response is a key factor, and everyone has their own preference. For the Supra, we chose one master driver with whom we discussed the best approach, and ultimately achieved the right feel based on his recommendations.”

Hashimoto explained that getting the right feel for Nikon products involves working with professional photographers and engaging in open debate. “We create multiple mockups to get the right feel for the grip, the best angle and placement of controls, and so on, making refinements as we go. We made so many prototypes for the grip on the Z 7 that I lost count.”

  • The Supra's inline-six turbo engine echoes through the mountains with a powerful whine that is nevertheless clear and distinct. Sound is another key factor in shaping the driving experience of a sports car.

Tada took the time to share with us a behind-the-scenes anecdote about sports car development. “The Toyota 86 is the predecessor to the Supra. When we designed that car, Akio Toyoda, the president of the company, test drove it and said simply, ‘I can't establish a rapport with this car,’ and left abruptly. We thought long and hard why he said that and decided we wanted to make a car that would not simply be a snap to drive. We wanted it to only show its true quality with practice and mastering. That's the kind of sports car you would want to pay money for— something that gets better with time. We described it as a car that ‘amateurs can't drive,’ but the sales team nixed that right away (laughs). The Supra has definitely inherited that DNA and is truly an enthusiast's sports car.” Hearing this, Hashimoto laughed, “With the prime lens I talked about earlier, focus changes with changes in distance as small as the thickness of a business card. It requires the utmost precision. I almost want to dare the user to master it. Unfortunately, the higher-ups wouldn't allow me throw down that gauntlet (laughs).”

  • Tada loves his Z 6, and enjoyed pairing the Z 7 with the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct during our interview. “This lens is dramatically expressive, but hand-held shooting with it is a challenge for me (laughs).”

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New forms that honor the past

  • The C pillar, a column which runs from the rear edge of the side windows to the trunk, is inspired by the Toyota 200GT, one of the company's classic cars of the 1960s.
  • Tada says, “What I focus on when driving is how the rear fenders are reflected in the side mirrors. That strongly influenced this design.”

After riding in the Supra, a visibly excited Hashimoto exclaims, “I first thought it felt quite gentle, but when you push on the pedal, it really takes off. As Tada said, the design allows the driver to clearly feel where the four wheels sit. This makes it easier and more intuitive to drive. When you put the pedal to the metal, however, it turns into a real monster. I was amazed at the contrast, as well as the technical know-how behind it.”

After using the Nikon Z 7, Tada revealed that he is an ardent fan of the Z 6, which is arguably a more all-purpose version of the Z 7. He told us that his father insisted that only Nikon cameras were real cameras, so he naturally gravitated to a D7000. Tada picked up a Nikon Z 6 just this year. He was emphatic about how he had already dived in and found the grip and controls, informed by ergonomics, easy to use, and how he had achieved some sharp images using the body stabilization mechanism that reduces camera shake with hand-held shooting. Yet when he looked through the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct, he was flushed with newfound enthusiasm, “This lens is incredibly expressive!”

  • The camera was outfitted with the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct lens, introduced above.
  • While the camera employs a new design and forward-looking form, the head, where the viewfinder is located, makes a visible nod to conventional SLRs.

We then returned to the subject of design. According to Hashimoto, the camera world seems to be shifting towards a retro style, but the Z 7 marches to the beat of its own drum.

“The Z 7 is a forward-looking camera, so the design is streamlined to convey a modern and fresh feel. The lack of an optical viewfinder gave us more design freedom, but we stuck to a conventional shape for the head area where the viewfinder would normally be found so that the camera's appearance would be familiar to die-hards.”

  • A key “driver” of the sports car experience is the steering wheel response. Working in conjunction with a master driver to refine the vehicle's response, care and attention was devoted to making sure the steering wheel felt responsive and snappy.
  • The Supra's center console eschews unnecessary ornamentation and puts functionality first. The design seems to impart the lesson that excessive flair and ornamentation is not in the true spirit of design.

Tada says, “I don't like designs that reference the past. We wanted to make this a brand-new sports car.”

He was quick to add, “However, as an homage to the designers who came before us, we made the C pillar (the column spanning from the rear of the side windows to the trunk) reminiscent of the 2000GT.”

  • Employing a touchscreen LCD panel and a wide range of assistive driving technologies, the Supra incorporates the latest concepts in vehicle control interfaces.
  • The Z 7 features new interfaces like a touch screen and an information menu displayed in the viewfinder. The Z 7 also offers users a variety of ways to use their photos, such as transferring them to a smartphone, from which they can be posted to social media.

Both the Nikon Z 7 and Toyota Supra embody a respect for the heritage behind them while taking on bold new designs and forms, and reflecting a user-centric approach to their design. Though completely different types of product, both seem to hint at what we might expect with the next generation of products.

Nikon Z 7
  • Dimensions (W × H × D): 134 × 100.5 × 67.5
  • Weight: 585 g (camera body only)
  • Effective pixels: 45.75 MP
  • ISO sensitivity: ISO 64-25600
  • Price: Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price
  • Nikon Customer Support Center: 0570-02-8000
  • https://imaging.nikon.com/
Toyota Supra
  • Dimensions (L × W × H): 4,380 × 1,865 × 1,290
  • Engine: 3.0L inline 6-cylinder turbo
  • Maximum output: 340 PS/5000 rpm
  • Maximum torque: 5000 Nm/1600-4500 rpm
  • MSRP: from ¥4,900,000 (tax included)
  • Toyota Motor Corporation Customer Center: 0800-700-7700
  • https://global.toyota/en/
  • *Specs taken from vehicle RZ configuration

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