Review: Nikon Z7
With photojournalist David Dare Parker as my witness I can honestly say I have been wishing Nikon to make a full-frame mirrorless camera for 11 years.
On November 14, 2007, David and I helped Nikon Australia launch the D3, and that evening we joined Nikon’s head of research and development, Tetsuro Goto for dinner. Being doco photographers, we asked Mr Goto if Nikon would consider building their new sensor into a mirrorless camera, but we never got our answer, until now.
Last month Nikon finally announced their first full-frame mirrorless cameras - the 25-megapixel Z6 and 45-megapixel Nikon Z7.
The Nikon D3 was not the world’s first full-frame DSLR, nor was it the first camera to have dual memory card slots, but the D3 did redefine our expectations of professional DSLR cameras.
In many ways the same holds true for Nikon’s new Z6 and Z7 cameras. Neither camera brings significant innovations to the market; 5-axis in-body image stabilisation and 4K video recording have been common to other brands for five years, and the inclusion of a 3.68M-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) and 3.2” tilting touchscreen LCD should almost go without saying.
What the Nikon Z6 and Z7 will do though, is redefine our expectations of mirrorless cameras.
Body and layout
The Z7 offers the performance of Nikon’s D850 DSLR in a package that is more compact and lighter; the body weighs 675 grams and yet the Z7 feels as robust and familiar as its larger sibling.
The control layout is common to that of most Nikon DSLRs; the On/Off switch is located around the Shutter Release as are the Video Record, ISO and Exposure Compensation buttons. The sub command (aperture) dial is still under the index finger position but the main command dial is now externally mounted which should make it easier to adjust with gloves or sweaty fingers.
To the left of these controls is a new OLED panel that shows the shutter, aperture, ISO and battery status, release mode and exposures remaining.
This option to look down at the top deck and know what the camera is set for is important to most experienced photographers, particularly those travel and documentary photographers who are regularly moving in and out of various environments. The OLED panel brightens to suit the conditions, but it can also be turned off.
On the left of the deck is the mode selector with settings for Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority and Manual modes, plus an “Auto-Everything” mode and three “User Settings”. The user settings are easy to configure with your favourite control options, making it easy to switch between shooting requirements (landscape, street, portrait etc).
The first thing you notice when moving from a DSLR to the Z7 is the clarity of the EVF. At first I was concerned I might not see enough highlight and shadow detail but the EVF provides a broad tonal representation of a scene.
I was even more impressed when I started using the camera in low light; in situations where human colour vision was fading, or you would be struggling to see through a DSLR viewfinder, the EVF on the Z7 was revealing colour and detail with almost no grain or noise.
In static situations the Z7 focused in as little as -4EV, and the 5-axis in-body image stabilisation made handheld photos possible in these same conditions, often with stunning results. I often work handheld in low light conditions and will shoot at ISO settings from 3200 and even 6400 ISO; the Z7 not only performed well at these ISO settings but I was even surprised at how well the camera worked at 12,800 ISO.
The shutter feels similar to most current Nikon DSLR cameras, but so too does the sound of the shutter; the Z7 is slightly quieter than D810 or D850 cameras, but not by that much.
There is a silent mode on the camera, but this system will only work in a true constant light environments such as daylight or tungsten lighting; if the scene is being lit by LED or fluorescent lighting there is a chance you will get a corrugated lights effect (rolling shutter) across the image at higher shutter speeds.
The silent shutter mode will be useful if you are photographing animals at rest, or quiet doco situations, but if the subject is moving rapidly you will possibly get exaggerated motion in the image, caused by the relatively slow scanning of the sensor even at high shutter speeds.
One thing I was keen to test was how the Z7 would handle studio situations where flash exposures are significantly brighter than the modelling lights. I set the Z7 for a typical flash exposure (1/125 at f11, 100-ISO) and the EVF went black, but when I attached my TTL flash trigger to the Z7’s hot-shoe the EVF automatically adjusted to the situation and the Z7 performed surprisingly well.
As in low light shooting situations, the Z7’s EVF allowed me to see a brighter picture than I would normally see from my DSLR in the same conditions.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Nikon’s new mirrorless system is the Z-mount. The new mount is 10mm wider than the 60-year-old F-mount, and this will allow Nikon to build faster lenses for the system; a 58mm f0.95 lens will be released next year and a 50mm f1.2 lens in 2020.
Of even more interest is the flange distance, the gap between the lens mount and image sensor. Short flange distances allow lens makers to make wide-angle lenses without retrofocus optics that are common to most wide-angle lenses used on DSLR cameras.
At just 16mm, the flange distance on the Z7 is 30mm shorter than the F-mount system (46.5mm) and it is also shorter than most other mirrorless cameras on the market including the Leica M-mount (27.8mm), Canon’s RF-mount (20mm), the Micro Four-Thirds mount (19.25mm), the Sony-E mount (18mm) and the Fuji X-mount (17.7mm).
Expect to see some interesting wide-angles for the Z system in years to come. Nikon already have a 20mm f1.8 and a 15-30mm f4 Z lens planned for next year and a 14-24mm f2.8 Z lens in 2020.
I had Nikon’s new Nikkor Z 24-70mm f4 zoom and 35mm f1.8 prime lens to test with the Z7 and they both performed beautifully. The new Z lenses have a distinctive new styling compared to current F-mount lenses; rather than rubber rings on the focusing and zoom controls, the new lenses have finely machined metal focus and zoom rings that are very smooth to operate.
The focusing ring electronically controls the focusing, but in the menu presets you can reassign the ring to adjust the aperture or exposure compensation. The new lenses also feature a new motor technology that allows the Z lenses to work almost silently, which is rather important if you are going to be using the Z cameras for video work. More on that later.
I was also given the new FTZ adapter for testing, which allows F-mount lenses to be used on Z cameras. I used a few of my F-mount lenses on the Z7, including the 70-200mm f2.8E and a 300mm F4 PF and they all performed perfectly.
If I had one small wish for the FTZ adaptor, it would be that Nikon make another version with a built in filter mount (similar to Canon’s new EF-R adaptors) so that ND filters can be put behind lenses that otherwise do not give me this luxury, including the 19mm PC-E and 14-24mm lenses.
The chance to photograph a band performance was a good test of the Z7. Per usual I opted to manually control the exposure, but I let the Z7 control the focussing using AF-Continuous and Auto Area AF mode; in this setting the camera automatically prioritises faces.
The system worked well most of the time, and if the camera detected two or more faces at once I could use the AF joystick (sub-selector) control to quickly switch over to my preferred focus point.
On a few of occasions the camera failed to focus on a face that was directly in front and centre in the viewfinder, erring instead to find faces further back in the crowd. This was a bit frustrating and I hope Nikon works on a solution to let photographers reset the AF point to the centre of the frame with the push of the AF joystick, rather than having to fumble for the main multi-selector controls to reset the AF.
In the Pin-Point, Single Point and Dynamic Area AF settings, the focus is far more reliable and can cope well with most situations, even in exceptionally low light. The only exception to this if constant movement is happening between the photographer and the subject; for now the AF system is just not as fast and reliable as you might find on cameras like the D850 or D5.
It is worth noting that the manual focus on the Z7 is easy to use, and in instances where I was struggling with the AF I could easily adjust the focus manually.
I also assigned the two Function buttons beside the lens mount to help with focusing; I preset one button to zoom in on a scene for manual focussing (you have a choice here of 50%, 100% and 200% zoom) and the other button I set up to allow me to change my AF settings while still looking through the viewfinder, something that I regularly do with my Nikon DSLRs.
I prefer not to use the LCD display when working amongst crowds, and so using the small Monitor Mode button (on the left side of the viewfinder) I set the camera to Prioritise Viewfinder mode.
In this setting the camera behaves a lot like a DSLR with the LCD remaining off (except for playback and menu adjustments) and the EVF only turning on when you put your eye to the viewfinder. This mode is good for working discreetly in a crowd but it also helps the battery life. Over the evening I made over 600 images on less than half a battery.
During testing I also used the Z7 to shoot two small video projects for a client. I don’t often shoot videos and when I do it has typically been on my usual work cameras, a Nikon D810 and so it was actually rather pleasurable using the Z7 for this work.
Unlike DSLRs, you can use the EVF on the Z7 during capture which is very useful when filming in sunny conditions; the tilting LCD panel is also easy to use in most conditions.
The addition of zebras (a visual warning that reveals blown out highlights) over the top of the live-view makes it very easy to nail the exposure in most situations and despite putting the camera through a few challenging situations, the auto white balance also performed well.
For one piece of video I used the Z7 with the FTZ adaptor and my 300mm f4 PF lens to make a long shot of a subject walking up a rather busy Collins Street, and to make the situation even more interesting I used DX crop mode to increase the length of my shot out to 450mm.
Once I saw my subject walking towards me (from about 100 metres away) I was able to touch the LCD screen to acquire focus and from there the camera did a great job of tracking my subject as he approached the camera.
The Z7 was good at maintaining focus in interview situations where I was using a wide aperture and relying on the Z7 autofocus to keep track of any subtle movements in the subject.
One thing you do notice is the subtle difference in lens noise between the Z lenses and the F-mount lenses; the Z lenses make an almost imperceptible murmur as they focus, but in the same video situation F lenses are inclined to make more chatter.
This is not a problem if you are using a wireless lavalier microphone on your subject, but if you are relying on the camera’s built in microphone you will notice this lens noise in your footage.
I had hoped to try capturing some 10-bit N-log video from the HDMI output but I was unable to buy my preferred Atomos recorder in time. That being said, the 8-bit video quality from the Z7 is very good and thanks to the zebra functions, the majority of video clips were all accurately exposed.
With the Z7 you have option of capturing 4K video at 30P and 1080 video at 24 through to 120P. Other useful features in video mode include focus peaking and timecode.
Another feature of the Z7 that impressed me in testing video was the battery endurance. I had heard concerns from other reviewers that the battery life on the Z7 was average, but I did not find this to be the case.
While giving the camera some solid usage, I was able to work with the camera for at least three or four hours before needing to change the battery. And another feature I really enjoyed is that you can use your EN-EL15 batteries from Nikon DSLRs, including the D800, D600 and D7000 series cameras in the Z7.
This is really useful if you already own a Nikon system. Worth noting is that you can charge the Z7’s new EN-EL15b battery using a USB cable, a feature that will be handy if you prefer to travel with the minimum or charging paraphernalia.
Having spent two weeks working with the Z7, it was rather difficult to give the camera back.
There is a lot to like about the new camera system, from its compact size and solid, weatherproof construction through to its well considered control layout, its bright EVF, 4K and 8K video time-lapse, built-in wireless connectivity to smart devices, and more.
The user interface on the Z7 is as good as any camera on the market and I am certain most Nikon users will feel familiar with the Z7 as soon as they get their hands on it.
In truth, the Z7 is not exactly the camera I was hoping for when David Dare Parker and I talked to Tetsuro Goto back in 2007; the Z7 is not that much quieter than a normal DSLR, and the silent mode is not reliable enough yet to be used in challenging light or movement conditions.
And while the Z7 is capable of both focusing and delivering amazing images in low light, I do not feel the Z7 is ready yet for the rigours of documentary photography, where moments often come and go faster than a politician’s whim.
That being said, I am impressed with the Z7 and the new Z-mount lens system. One shot that I made during testing really exemplified what this system can offer - a photo made handheld in an antique bookshop.
Relying on the Z7’s 5-axis in built image stabilisation and 45-megapixel sensor along with the exceptional optics of the Nikkor Z 35mm f1.8 lens I made a photo at 1/40th of a second, at f4 and 1600 ISO; and what amazed me was that I was able to read the title and author’s name on almost every book of the 6 shelves that I photographed. Years ago I would have needed a 4 x 5 camera and a heavy tripod to have achieved the same feat.
There is no doubt Nikon is playing catch-up in the full-frame mirrorless market but as we know, Nikon is very good at playing this game. Prior to the launch of the D3, Nikon was quite literally an underdog in the professional digital market but with that one camera they redefined our expectations of DSLRs.
I don’t think the Z-system is ready to surpass the market with this one camera and three lens just yet, but I am certainly looking forward to what this system is going to offer us in the near future.
HANDLING ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Typical Nikon - the Z7 feels great in the hand and is just as easy and familiar to navigate and use.
FEATURES ★ ★ ★ ★
Built in 5-Axis image stabilisation and exceptional EVF performance perform well, and the weather sealed body is beautifully crafted.
AUTOFOCUS ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Works perfectly in conventional situations, even in exceptionally low light, but there is room for improvement in dynamic situations.
IMAGE QUALITY ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Z7 is on par with the Nikon D850 for image quality, with amazingly sharp, detailed images.
VALUE FOR MONEY ★ ★ ★1/2
At just over $6000 for the body with the 24-70 f4 lens, the Z7 is expensive for a prosumer camera, but if you want a travel worthy option to the D850, this is it.
Most Nikon fans will be impressed with the Nikon Z7. It is a very capable camera, as are most Nikon DSLR cameras, which brings Nikon users to a tough choice - do they start investing in the new the mirrorless system or do they stay with the DSLR system. Decisions, decisions.
Nikon Z7 SPECS
Sensor - 45.7MP BSI-CMOS sensor with on-sensor phase detection
Format - FX / 35.9 x 23.9 mm
Resolution - 8256 x 5504 pixels
Other Resolutions - 5408 x 3600 (DX crop), 6880 x 5504 (5:4), 5504 x 5504 (1:1), 8256 x 4640 (16:9)
Lens Mount - Nikon Z mount, (compatible with older F mount lenses using an adaptor).
Body - Magnesium alloy with environmental sealing.
Autofocus - 493 Point Contrast and Phase Detect system.
Shutter Speeds - 30 seconds to 1/8000 of a second. Mechanical shutter and electronic options.
Maximum Sync Speed - 1/200th of a second.
ISO Range - 64 - 25,600 ISO, expandable to 32 - 102,400 ISO
Exposure Comp. - ± 5 stops in either 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments.
LCD - Tilting 3.2-inch, 2.1-million dot LCD touch screen.
Viewfinder- Built-in OLED 3.69-million dot electronic viewfinder operating at 60 fps.
Built-in Flash - No; Hot-shoe compatible with Nikon external flashes.
Movie resolutions - 3840 x 2160 @ 30p/25p/24p and 1920 x 1080 @ up to 120p
Movie formats - MPEG-4 / H.264 / Nikon Log10 (via micro HDMI output)
Ports - USB 3.1, Micro HDMI, Microphone, Headphone, Remote (via MC-DC2).
WiFi - IEEE 802.11a/c + Bluetooth.
Battery - EN-EL15b lithium-ion battery. Rated for 330 images based on CIPA standards.
Dimensions - 134mm x 101mm x 68 mm
Weight - 675 grams (body only with battery)
Street Price - $5,488 body with FTZ F-mount lens adaptor; $6188 with 24-70mm f4 kit lens.
More information - www.nikon.com.au
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