Review: Nikon Z5
If ever there was a camera with an identity crisis then it’s the Z5; Nikon’s newest full-frame mirrorless camera. Nikon calls it an entry-level full-frame, but actually the truth is a whole load more interesting and, depending on your needs as a photographer, the Z5 could be the best buy from Nikon’s current mirrorless line up.
So, let’s rewind a little; Nikon were a little late to the mirrorless party but struck back with the launch of not one, but two models in 2018 - the Z6 and the flagship 45-megapixel Nikon Z7, which shared the same pixel count as Nikon’s acclaimed D850 DSLR.
Fast forward two years and Nikon has released its third full-frame mirrorless and the Z5 is both similar and different to its two stablemates, giving potential buyers a real dilemma over which model to spend their dollars on.
Same, but different
The Z 5 is built around a 24.3-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, which is actually achingly close to the Z6’s pixel count (24.5-megapixels) and this blurring of the lines between these two cameras is a theme that will run through this review.
Of course, when it comes to pixel clout, there’s far more clear water between the Z5 and Nikon’s flagship Z7, which of course stretches well ahead with 45-megapixels on offer.
Some photographers may believe that 24-megapixels is on the low side for a full-frame camera, but unless you’re looking to print for billboards or excessively crop into your frames, the maximum file size of 6016 x 4016 pixels should be enough for both enthusiasts and professionals alike.
The physical dimensions of the Z5 are virtually identical (okay, the Z6 is 5g heavier at 590g) to those of the Z6/ Z7 – though like the Z6, the Z5 doesn’t have the LCD display on the camera’s top plate like the Z7.
Those looking to add a second body to their kit bags won’t find any difference in the feel and handling of the Z5 over the Z6 - for example, the Z5 has the same size 3.2-inch LCD found on the Z6/Z7, albeit with a smaller resolution on the screen.
However, there’s zero difference in resolution when it comes to the Electronic Viewfinder - the fine, 3690k-dot EVF is a pleasure to use and exhibits virtually no lag, proving just how far Electronic Viewfinders have come over the years.
Of course, the Menu system is instantly familiar to existing Nikon photographers and is well thought out and easy to navigate around. But perhaps most importantly is the fact that the supposedly entry-level Z5 retains the 5-axis In Body Image Stabilisation system found on the more expensive Z6 / Z7.
This is a key feature of Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless models and makes a real difference when shooting out on location - especially coming into its own when shooting in lower light conditions, handheld and at longer focal lengths, which typically can lead to problems with shake and image blur.
Of course, pairing the Z5’s IBIS system with a lens that features VR technology will see a better stabilising performance than leaving it just to the camera body.
Another key difference between the Z5 and its Z6/ Z7 stablemates is the media used to record stills/video. Inside the Z6/Z7 is a single slot for an XQD card, while the Z5 offer dual SD card slots. While it’s true XQD cards can record higher write speeds, this again doesn’t tell the full story of how this works in the field.
SD cards are more affordable, more photographers are likely to have already invested in a number of SD cards (thus won’t want to invest in new pricey XQD cards) and if you have a problem in the field, it’s likely you can dash into the newest mini-mart and pick up an SD card from the electronics shelf.
What’s more, with the Z5 offering dual card slots, this gives you the option of making an instant back up of your files (just in case anything goes wrong with the first card) or choosing to record stills to one card and video to the other.
I tested the Z5 over a number of weeks in a host of different situations, from the comfort of a photography hide shooting wildlife, to capturing landscapes in a variation of weather conditions. The Z5 didn’t miss a beat and was an absolute pleasure to use. Performing well in all situations and coping well with any bad weather that came its way.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that despite Nikon calling the Z5 an entry-level model, the body still benefits from weather-sealing to keep moisture, dust and sand out and away from the camera. The focusing features in the Z5 are impressive and the camera offers the same 293 AF-point count as the Z6 (the flagship Z7 features 493-AF points).
In real terms, this means the Z5 locks on to subjects quickly and accurately, though I personally preferred to use the joystick on the rear of the camera to switch between single AF points than relying on the touchscreen.
Perhaps most impressive was the Z5’s silent shooting mode, which I tried out in a photo hide with small birds just a metre away from me. The mode literally doesn’t make a decibel of noise and certainly didn’t disturb my subjects, enabling me to capture close up imagery of these feathered wonders.
The good news continued when I returned home and analysed the results on the computer because the image quality from the Z5 is seriously impressive and on par with out-and-out professional cameras rather than (so-called) entry-level models. Images were sharp, had great colour rendition and retained an impressive amount of detail.
In fact, when editing RAW files from the Z5, I was surprised with just how much tonal data was present so Highlights could be rescued and detail could be revealed in Shadows when I had got the exposure a little wrong.
I tested the Z5 with the 24-50mm kit lens, 35mm prime and 70-200mm f/2.8 S VR zoom and got great results with all lenses - although I preferred using the more traditional 35mm and 7-20mm over the 24-50mm kit lens which features a twisting lock feature, which is great for cutting down weight and size, but I personally think it’s a little bit faffy to use in the field.
Coping with compromises
So are there any negative points about the Z5? Well, yes, but given the price point this camera sells at, I think the best term is compromises rather than negatives.
The main issue is based around the burst rate speed, as while the Z6 a rapid 12 frames per second and the flagship Z7 follows behind with up to 9 frames per second, the Z5 only serves up 4.5 frames per second.
Does this make a difference in the field? Yes, especially if you are a professional sports or wildlife photographer. Does it stop you from getting great images? No, you just have to be a lot more considered with your timing. As you’d expect, the video features on the Z5 are a little more streamlined too.
While it’s impressive the Z5 can capture 4K video up to 30p in MP4 or MOV file formats and features jacks for headphones and an external microphone so that enhanced audio can be captured and monitored, the Z5 does miss Nikon’s N-Log colour profile technology. Worse still is the fact that the Z5 can shoot up to 60p in Full HD so the Z 5 misses out on the ability to shoot slow motion Full HD.
The tilting design of the LCD also means that this is more of a camera for making simpler movies or shooting B-roll, and certainly not a Vlogging camera. However, one area where the Z5 strikes back over its stablemates is battery life as the Z5 can offer 390 shots on a single charge compared to the Z7 (330 shots) and the Z6 (310).
There is no doubt that the Nikon is one of the best value cameras on the market and certainly succeeds in bringing something new and fresh to the full-frame mirrorless market.
As long as you don’t need the huge resolution of the Z7, those Nikon photographers looking to slide over from DSLRs to mirrorless will find plenty to love with the Z5 - although the maximum burst rate may mean the Z6 is the better option for sports and wildlife shooters. Speed issues aside, the Z5 is close to being the perfect all-rounder thanks to the combination of ease-of-use, excellent build quality and impressive image quality results.