The Winter 2019 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter is now available for download. If you’d like to sign up for the Newsletter just drop me an email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.

This issue includes an editorial entitled Skiing with the Bison, a review of the Nikon Z6, an article detailing my recent portfolio shoot in Yellowstone National Park, an editorial entitled Sold on Mirrorless, and much more.

The Michael Clark Photography Newsletter goes out to over 8,000 thousand photo editors, photographers and photo enthusiasts around the world. You can download the Winter 2019 issue on my website at:

http://files.michaelclarkphoto.com/winter_2019.pdf

If you’d like to check out back issues of the newsletter they are available here.

Please note that the newsletter is best viewed in the latest Adobe Acrobat reader which is available for free at www.adobe.com.

In just about every aspect, the Nikon Z6 is identical to the Z7 save for the sensor, which in the case of the Z6 is a 24.5 MP sensor instead of the Z7’s 45.7 MP sensor. Hence, for this review, I am not going to rehash everything discussed in my Nikon Z7 review. I will instead concentrate on how the Z6 is different than the Z7 and why for me it was the better choice given that I already have two stellar Nikon D850 camera bodies. I encourage folks that have not read my Nikon Z7 review to check it out as pretty much everything I said in that review is applicable to the Z6 as well.

In my Nikon Z7 review from a few months ago, I said that “I can see a lot of Nikon photographers adding a Z6 to their kit just for the video features alone. I will certainly be considering that here in the next few months when the Z6 is released.” Only a month later, I did just that. Since I already have two Nikon D850 camera bodies, adding a Z7 didn’t make sense. The Z6 seemed like a better option, mostly because it has better video capabilities. In reality, the Z6 just seems like a better value proposition and it allows me to jump into the Nikon mirrorless system and start acquiring Z-series lenses.

In this review, I honestly can’t really compare the Z6 to the Sony A7 III or the Canon EOS R because I have not tried them out. Because I have so much Nikon glass–and because I have so much familiarity with the Nikon system–it really just isn’t a wise option to switch up systems at this point. Luckily, Nikon again came through with a stellar camera, especially since it is their first foray into full-frame mirrorless. [Though to be honest, Nikon has been making mirrorless cameras for a decade or so starting way back when with the Nikon 1 system.]

Image Quality

The Z6 is the first camera I have bought in a long time that has an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor, which slightly blurs the image to avoid creating digital artifacts in the image. My main cameras the last six years or more have been the D800, D810 and D850 alongside my Hasselblad H5D, with the D800 being the only one of those that incorporated an anti-aliasing filter. Hence, it has been a while since I have looked at images from a camera with an anti-aliasing filter and the images from the Z6 seem a little softer than those from my other cameras, but that might also be because it has much lower resolution as well.

In my experience so far, the image quality from the Z6 is very good. It is not as stellar as the Z7, which has nearly twice the resolution and seems significantly sharper. I have found that turning the in-body-image-stabilization (IBIS) on and off, depending on your shutter speed, has a much bigger impact on image quality than it seemed to have with the Z7. In my testing, if I am shooting at or below 1/400th second I turn on the IBIS and if I am above 1/400th second I turn it off. Luckily it is relatively easy to turn the IBIS on or off without even moving your eye from the viewfinder. The Z6 image quality (from raw image files) also varies greatly depending on how closely you monitor several key settings in Lightroom, which I will discuss in more detail below.

24.5 megapixels is nothing to sneeze at. While it isn’t as profound as my D850 or the Z7, one can certainly make sizable prints from 24 MP images. Prints up to 30×45-inches are quite sharp even on close inspection. When resolution matters, and it often does for my work, I will reach for my trusty D850, but for those times when I need a lightweight camera and can get away with a lower resolution the Z6 is a great alternative.

I don’t photograph a lot of architecture, but recently a good friend of mine, Charlie Pinder–the former Director of Photography for Red Bull Photography–was in town and his passion is architecture. Hence, the above images are from some fun days cruising around Santa Fe, New Mexico exploring some of the more modern buildings. It turns out this was a great test to see how the Z6 handled a wide range of scenarios and to test out its dynamic range.

We also ventured out to one of Georgia O’Keefe’s favorite spots, Plaza Blanca (near Abiquiu, NM) and shot some landscapes as seen below. The first black and white image here is a good example showing the amazing dynamic range of Nikon’s cameras. For this image I exposed for the much brighter sky and let the landscape below go into deep dark shadows. When I pulled up the exposure slider and and opened up the shadows I was able to balance out the tones in the image with very little noise penalty. As with my D850 and the Z7, the Z6 has a very wide dynamic range.

Speaking of noise, the Z6 does extremely well all the way up to ISO 12,800. I wouldn’t hesitate to go to ISO 6400 and when I did the noise was not bad at all. I won’t bore you with image samples at High ISO. If you want to see how it stacks up visit DPreview’s excellent noise comparison tool. According to DPreview, the Z6 seems to have a fairly strong anti-aliasing filter, which explains my findings that the images appear a bit softer than I am used to and require just an extra kiss of sharpening in Lightroom to get the best image quality.

Overall, there are some quirks to getting the best image quality out of the Z6, but they are not difficult to master. I want to make sure the reader understands that the image quality issues I had with the camera–aside from figuring out when to use the IBIS–are mostly with Adobe’s software, not the camera. Let’s dive into dealing with the raw images in Lightroom.

Nikon Z6 Built-In Profile and Adobe Lightroom Classic CC

As noted above, I have found some strange behavior when viewing my Nikon Z6 images in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. First off, the Z6 profile that Adobe built is rather poor in terms of the default sharpening settings. All of my Z6 raw images appeared just a bit soft when viewed in Lightroom and ACR. Just to be clear, this is an issue with Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, not with the camera. If images are opened in Nikon’s Capture NX-D software they appear as you would expect. For a few days I was quite displeased with the camera and considered returning it thinking that the camera was a dud or Nikon severely missed the boat with this camera–then I noticed the default sharpening settings in Lightroom’s Develop module looked a little odd. A radius of 2.0 is huge and I would never use a radius that large in Photoshop’s Smart Sharpening or Unsharp Mask dialogs. Once I reconfigured the sharpening settings (as shown below) all of my Z6 images instantly snapped into focus, as can be seen in the image previews in the Detail dialogs below, and are now very sharp.

While working with many different types of images from the Z6 in Lightroom, I have found that the amount of sharpening–in this case “Capture Sharpening” for raw images–varies widely depending on the subject and how textured that subject happens to be as well as how large it is in the frame. So, basically when working with the Z6 you will have to pay attention to how much sharpening is applied when processing the raw images. [Note: if you only capture jpeg images then this can be overcome by applying the right amount of sharpening in-camera.] Hopefully Adobe can correct this issue in the Z6 camera profile or ignore the EXIF data from the camera and give us the true unadulterated raw image files to work with.

The Nikon Z6 raw image files come into Lightroom with built-in profiles which are then rendered in the Develop Module. There have been some white balance issues (see Adobe’s Help page here) and a few other bugs associated with the Nikon Z6 profile in Lightroom. I did not see any white balance issues when processing images from the Z7 so it appears that Adobe rushed out the Z6 profile, which is quite unfortunate. I am sure they will fix it with the next software update for Lightroom, but until then be sure to adjust the sharpening and noise reduction sliders as needed to get the best results.

Additionally, because Lightroom is reading the EXIF data and using Nikon’s built-in camera profile for the Z6 it does not allow you to actually use a specific profile correction for each lens by checking the box next to “Enable Profile Corrections” in the Lens Corrections dialog. When you do click that box, the make of the camera simply shows up as “Built-In” signaling that there is no Adobe profile for this and it is relying on Nikon’s own lens profiles. As an example the vignetting is removed according to the camera’s built-in profile, not using Adobe’s lens profile correction feature. And from what I am seeing, the Nikon profile is removing some of the vignetting but not all of it, which creates a tough situation where you have to go into the “Manual” section of the Lens Corrections dialog in Lightroom’s Develop module and manually remove it. I hope Lightroom can fix this and ignore Nikon’s built-in camera profile because this sets up a painful process to work up Nikon Z6 images.

Handling

The ergonomics of the Z6 are identical to the Z7, which is to say they are excellent. Interestingly, I did notice that the camera seems to start up significantly faster than the Z7 when I tested it a few months back–though perhaps this was fixed in the latest firmware update a while back on the Z7. With the Z7 I missed quite a few shots waiting for the camera to initialize and come to life. The Z6 seems to boot up nearly instantly, which is much nicer for trying to capture those off the cuff images that just happen in front of you. I could just have the camera on all the time when shooting but it doesn’t seem much different to turn it on versus waking it up from sleep. It still isn’t as instantaneous as my D850 but it is decently fast.

Now that I have used both the Z7 and the Z6 for a longer time, I am also noticing just how well the ergonomics and handling of this camera have been designed. With one button push, using the top button next to the lens mount (Fn1), I can rotate the rear dial and adjust the white balance without having to take my eye away from the viewfinder. Also, because of the EVF, as I change white balance settings I can see exactly how the image will be affected. And if I am even more concerned about accurate white balance, with both eyes open I can do a real world comparison to see if the color I am seeing with my left eye, which is looking at the real world, matches up with the color I am seeing with my right eye through the EVF.

Pushing the “i” button on the back of the camera with my eye in the EVF, I can very quickly turn the IBIS on or off as needed depending on my shutter speed. In fact, there are very few things you can’t accomplish with your eye firmly planted in the viewfinder. All in all, I continue to be impressed by the Z6 and the pains that Nikon has taken to make sure the ergonomics work for a wide variety of photographic situations. Honestly, the Z6 (and Z7 for that matter) feel about the same size as my legendary Nikon FM2 film camera except it has a much nicer grip, which the older film camera lacks.

My now ancient Nikon FM2 film camera (left), which I started out with over three decades ago, is just a hair smaller than the new Nikon Z6 as shown above. The Z6 is 12.7 millimeters taller than the FM2 and 7.6 millimeters shorter (width) than the FM2, making them roughly similar in size. Hence, now we are back to the smaller size of 35mm film cameras before the big pro camera bodies took over in the 90s. I realize for most people this comparison is irrelevant, but for those of us that shot film like I did for the first half of my career it is interesting to see we have come full circle in terms of camera size. Of course, the Z6 is a much more advanced camera than the FM2. I could not have even dreamed of such a camera when the FM2 came out way back in 1982.

Autofocus

Another area where the Z6 interface seems a bit faster is with moving the autofocus points. I am not sure if this is just because there are fewer AF points or it is a fact of the Z6 being a faster frame rate camera. Either way, moving and changing focus points is much quicker than in the Z7, and this is a welcome change considering that the AF points stretch out over nearly the entire viewfinder. In addition to the ease of moving AF points, it feels like the AF tracking is a bit more accurate and snappier than the Z7’s AF tracking abilities.

Below are a series of images I captured of my friend Charlie Pinder skiing straight towards the camera at 9 fps and pretty much every single image is sharp. To be clear, the AF tracking capabilities of the Z6 are still no where near as capable as those in my trusty Nikon D850 or the AF capabilities of the Sony A9 (especially with the new and forthcoming firmware upgrade). Hopefully Nikon can improve this functionality with a firmware update, but I was happily surprised at how well it did in my testing–as can be seen below.

I am happy to report that the Z6 works flawlessly with the FTZ adapter and all of my Nikkor F-mount lenses just as with the Z7. The adapter is easy to use and opens up a huge bevy of lenses (that I already own) for use with the Z6. Without the adapter, this system would be severely hampered. For those assignments where I want to travel just a hair lighter, I can see leaving one of my D850 bodies at home and taking the Z6 (and the FTZ adapter) as a backup to my main D850 workhorse.

 

 

In terms of customization, it very easy to change focusing modes on the Z6 by depressing the bottom front button near the lens mount (Fn2) and rotating either the rear dial or the front dial to adjust the focusing mode and AF point options. For my hands, these buttons are placed in a very easy to reach position–though I realize that may not be the case for everyone.

Video

I have done some testing of the video capabilities and must say I am quite impressed. The 4K footage coming out of the Z6 is as good or better than any other Nikon that I have seen. At high ISOs there is very little noise. The image quality is sharp and clean. Even wide open using the 24-70mm f/4 S lens, the AF tracking in video mode was bang on and tracked moving subjects or camera movements with ease. It did better than I could do focus pulling in manual mode. I have not done an entire video project with the camera as of yet, but I can easily see this rig, paired with an Atomos Ninja V external recorder to access the forthcoming raw video output, replacing the larger Red Digital Cinema Cameras we often work with when we are trying to go lighter. At the very least, the Z6 will give us an extra camera that can output fantastic video for use alongside the much more expensive Red Epic and Gemini cameras that we work with.

While this section is short, this will be one area that I plan to do a lot more testing. Stay tuned for a more in-depth blog post on the video capabilities of the Z6.

Firmware Updates

At the 2019 CES show that took place in January a few weeks ago, Nikon announced that they would be adding a few new features to the Z6 and Z7 via a firmware update. Namely, those new features are Eye AF, ProRes RAW video output to an Atomos Ninja V external recorder, and an update to allow for CFexpress cards to be used in both cameras. Nikon is not normally a company to make such impressive firmware updates like this so it was quite a surprise. When I heard about the raw video output–in full 4K mind you–I was floored. Nikon will be the first camera manufacturer to have a still and video camera (in the same body) that can output both raw stills and raw video.

The Eye AF feature will also be a great addition. I know Sony users swear by this feature so we will have to wait and see how it stacks up to Sony’s Eye AF. The ability to use CFexpress cards is also a huge leap forward for those looking to shoot fast action as it will massively expand the buffer and could even allow for internal raw video recording if Nikon wants to go that route.

This firmware update goes to show just how much Nikon believes in these cameras and how much effort they are putting into them to push these mirrorless bodies as far as possible. Who knows, perhaps Nikon can add more advanced AF modes to improve the AF tracking as well. If they did that then the Z series cameras would be pretty much the complete package.

New Lenses

Along with the CES firmware update announcement, Nikon also announced the new Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S Lens (shown below), which is very similar to the 24-70 f/4 S lens. Already, there are many groaning about the f/4 maximum aperture of this new lens but for those looking to go light and fast this is a great new addition to the lens lineup. If it is as sharp as the 24-70 f/4 S lens, which I have no doubt it will be, then it will be a great lens for landscapes, action sports and a lot of what I capture. Looking at my Lightroom catalog and filtering for my Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, I saw that in all the years I have owned the 14-24 I have only shot at apertures below f/4 (f/2.8, f/3.2, and  f/3.5) 15% of the time. Hence, an f/4 aperture for me is not the end of the world, especially since the Z6 is a low light monster in terms of low noise.

 

And not to be forgotten, Nikon will soon be releasing the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct lens. I realize it is manual focus, and a serious specialty lens, but man this is going to be a fun lens to shoot with–especially with focus peaking. I imagine it is going to be a hot rental item. I am certainly keen to try it out.

In all honesty, a huge part of why I bought the Z6 is to start building up a Nikon mirrorless (full frame) lens collection. Seeing how good the Z6 and Z7 camera bodies are I am not sure I will ever buy another DSLR or even any more DSLR lenses–though that new Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 PF lens is quite exciting. The future is mirrorless, and if Nikon can solve their AF tracking issues and get the AF up to par with the D850 and D5, then I can very well imagine selling off my DSLRs and committing to mirrorless cameras. I imagine this conversion to mirrorless is going to happen much sooner than a lot of us would guess–within the next few years.

Conclusion

In conclusion, just as with the Z7, the Z6 is a great new addition to the Nikon lineup and a stellar offering for photographers looking to jump into mirrorless. If you are a Nikon shooter, then the Z6 is a natural fit–especially if you are doing a lot of video. Seeing that this is Nikon’s first attempt at a full-frame mirrorless camera, they got a lot right with the Z series cameras. The ergonomics, EVF and overall feel of the camera is stellar. The weather sealing also seems top-notch. I shot with the Z6 in rain, snow and very cold conditions and it never missed a beat. The battery lasted just as long as I found with the Z7, which is to say I consistently got more than 1,000 shots per fully charged battery and even up to 1,500 images per fully charged battery in extremely cold weather.

The more I shoot with the Z6 the more I want to shoot with it. Going back to my D850 is going to be tough–though I still love its image quality. I will miss the Z6 EVF, the live histogram and the stellar IBIS that allows me to shoot handheld at 1/8th second (as shown in the image below) and still get sharp images. I never thought I would say that I will miss an EVF but for the first time ever I am saying it here. I have been an optical viewfinder guy forever so this is a huge statement.

I am very eager to see Nikon release new lenses for the Z series cameras. Right now I only have the 24-70mm f/4 S lens. I am eagerly awaiting the 70-200mm f/2.8 S and the 14-30mm f/4 S lenses to round out the kit with native Z-mount glass. I am dreaming of the day when I can go all mirrorless and still have wicked fast autofocus to shoot fast action. I can imagine having a few Nikon Z9 60-plus MP camera bodies in my bag along with a full bevy of Z-mount lenses and perhaps a 100 MP Hasselblad X2D and a lens or two with me–all of which weighs in at under 20 pounds total. We will get there someday…it might just take few years but we are well on our way.

At only 1,996.95 USD for the Z6 camera body it compares quite favorably to the Sony A7 III. While the Sony might have a leg up with faster AF and Eye AF modes, the Z6 has far superior ergonomics and an EVF that is much better than any other camera on the market. With all of the new mirrorless cameras announced over the last six months it is a very exciting time to be a photographer. There are so many great cameras on the market right now, it is quite a difficult decision for those looking to get a new camera. If you have the money, the Z6 is an excellent mirrorless camera.

My thanks to B&H Photo Video for loaning me the Z6 along with the 24-70mm f/4 S and the FTZ adapter. As of now, I have purchased the Z6 kit so it won’t be going back to B&H. That I kept this kit, and didn’t send it back, is the best indication of my thoughts on this camera. It will be going with me on most assignments now–right along with my Nikon D850 camera bodies. If you have recently purchased a Nikon Z-series mirrorless camera please share any tips or techniques in the comments below–and your thoughts on the system. Until next time…

  • Scott Straatmann - Great review! I am anxious to try out my first mirrorless and think the Z6 would be great with my D850 bodies as well. I noticed you said that under 1/400th you turn OFF IBIS and above you turn it on? I am confused as to why when using slower shutter speeds you’d turn it off? Again, great write up sir!

  • Michael Clark - Scott – Thanks for catching that. I just corrected that. Below 1/400th second I turn the IBIS on and above 1/400th second I turn it off. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Vince Pack - It was a bit of a relief to read your experience with somewhat soft images. I have yet to offload an image I consider really sharp using the 24-70/4, 50/1.4 ais, 70-200/2.8 VRII, or 500/4 AF-S. They’re all “ok” on the rear screen (until pixel peeping, which I never did with my D700 or D800), but kind of frustrating on the monitor. I’ll try the setting you recommend for Adobe and experiment from there. I’m also going to try Nikon’s software and compare how it handles to raw images.

    I also wonder about the AA filter. I’d far rather deal with an occasional moire in post than have a strong filter that compromises overall sharpness.

  • Michael Clark - Vince – Yes, they come in looking quite soft and adjusting the sharpening in Lightroom makes all the difference in the world.

  • Mark Kolodny - Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and informative review.

    With the current (Feb 2019) Z6 firmware, are you finding that, when shooting action in high frame rate AF-C, the two Wide AF area modes gnerally work best?

  • Johannes Siglär - Michael,
    Thanks for the great review. You said ‘the AF tracking capabilities of the Z6 are still no where near as capable as those in my trusty Nikon D850 or the AF capabilities of the Sony A9.’ But is the AF good enough for your type of action photography? Or will you primarily be using the video features of the camera?
    I’d love to get the Z6 for portrait photography but I’m still unsure whether the limtited AF capabilities could cause problems. (I’ll be shooting one ore two weddings, too.)
    Regards,
    Johannes

  • Michael Clark - The Z6 can track some subjects quite well as shown in that ski shot. It is just super fast erratic subjects that it might have trouble with. I am still experimenting with AF modes on the Z6. But my go to AF mode is the dynamic AF mode for AF-C.

  • Michael Clark - The D850, and the Nikon D5, still hav the best AF on the market as far as I know. The new AF update for the Sony A9 might surpass those but that is still yet to be figured out. For me it doesn’t matter as I don’t shoot with Sony. The AF on the Z6 is excellent, but for crazy fast sports work it might not be up to the task as well as the D850. For anything not moving crazy fast it is more than capable. For weddings you would have no issues at all with the AF. For portraiture it is totally fine, though I suppose that depends on what you are expecting. The new Eye AF feature to be released in May will hopefully allow it to focus on eyes at f/1.4. For that type of stuff I just click over to manual and use focus peaking when shooting portraits with my Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 on the Z6 (with the adapter). That is more accurate than even the 85mm wide open on my D850. We will see what the new firmware update brings on that front. Fingers crossed it is amazing!

2018 has been another stellar year. I have had some very successful assignments and photoshoots as well as some career highlights this year, like getting the chance to shoot big wave surfing with giant waves at Peahi (a.k.a. JAWS) and also shooting my first Instagram assignment for National Geographic’s @natgeotravel account. This year saw a wide variety of assignments, everything from big wave surfing to studio portraits. That variety is what keeps it interesting.

I know that these “Year in Review” blog posts are a dime a dozen – and I have seen a lot of them over the last few weeks – but I hope you find this blog post at least entertaining. If you have been following along this year then you have seen most of these already but there are a few new images here that haven’t been distributed far and wide just yet. Hence, without further ado, here are what I consider to be the best images I have created this past year and a few career highlights as well.

Peahi (a.k.a. JAWS)
Maui, Hawaii, USA

For the last decade it has been a dream to capture big wave surfing at the legendary wave known as Peahi. On occasion, the waves are in excess of 70-feet tall at this surf break on the north shore of Maui. In previous winters, I missed a series of huge swells because of assignments I had already committed to. This past winter I watch Surfline and the Pacific ocean storms like a hawk waiting for a good swell. On January 14, a massive swell rolled in and I was able to get there and get on a jet ski to capture all the action. On this one day I shot over 9,000 images. Below are a few of my favorites from this exhilarating day. For the full story on this self-assignment check out my Spring 2018 Newsletter.

The image just below, of a giant empty wave, is perhaps the best image I have captured this entire year. The color and the arc of the wave shows a rare moment captured in the blink of an eye. This image was captured right at dawn and I knew it was special as soon as I saw it on the back of the camera. In fact, there are so many good images from this one day of shooting that I have am having a very hard time picking out just a few to show here.

Elinchrom Adventure School – Ouray Ice Park
Colorado, USA

In February, I had an assignment for Elinchrom and their distributor here in the USA, MAC Group, capturing ice climbing images in the Ouray Ice Park with world-class ice climber Dawn Glanc. For this assignment we went deep into the heart of the Ice Park where routes are rarely climbed. At this point, the images have not been released but I have gained permission to share the one image below. There are tons of great images we produced on this assignment and in addition to the still images we also created a series of long form behind the scenes videos as well for the Elinchrom Adventure School. Look for more on this assignment in early 2019.

Method Seven Sunglasses – Patriots Jet Team
Arizona, USA

In March, I was asked to capture images of the Patriots Jet Team, which is sponsored by Method Seven Sunglasses. The Patriots were performing at the Yuma Air Show in Yuma, Arizona. Hence they had limited time to give us but we were still able to get a wide variety of images for Method Seven to use. The Patriots Jet Team are the only civilian aerobatic jet team in the United States and most of the pilots are ex-Thunderbird or ex-Blue Angel pilots. Method Seven had seen my Hi-Sync images and wanted that look for their marketing materials. As can be seen below we were able to get a few lit portraits while the pilots were preparing for a test-flight the day before the show.

In addition to these stylized lit portraits we also got some pretty incredible images using GoPro cameras mounted on the jets, as can be seen below. For the full story on this assignment check out my Summer 2018 Newsletter.

Fly-Fishing in Missoula
Montana, USA

While teaching at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in April this year, I did a number of demonstration shoots for the students. For one of those I did an environmental portrait of our fly-fisherman on the last day of the shoot. These are fairly simple setups but I wanted to show the students how a high-end portrait could be made with just one strobe. My thanks to Brandon McMahon (top) and Jonathan Finch (bottom) for posing down and coming out to work with us on this shoot.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Colorado, USA

This summer, I spent a few days capturing landscape images in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, Colorado. Those posting regularly on Instagram probably realize that landscapes tend to do very well and get more likes than just about anything else. I confess that I have trouble at times keeping up with fresh new images to post–hence, often I run off and shoot landscapes for a few days to get some new Instagram fodder. This trip was one of those jaunts. Also, as a climber the Black Canyon is an amazing place and offers up some very serious, exposed climbing even for expert climbers.

For the shot below I spent two full days and nights shooting at a variety of overlooks and on a few different trails. What is incredible is that there are a few National Parks that have not been completely overrun yet and the Black Canyon is one of them. It is hard to get to and pretty severe in the winter, which might explain part of that. Also, hiking down into the Black Canyon is quite exposed and treacherous so it isn’t a place for casual hikers to explore. The image below captures a lot of the majesty of the Black Canyon. I am scheming to go back and do a big climbing shoot there so I hope to get back to the Black Canyon next spring or summer.

Telluride Aspens
Colorado, USA

On the same trip up to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison I spent a night in an Aspen forest just outside of Telluride and produced the image below. I don’t necessarily know if it belongs here in my top images from the year but this image exploded with likes when I loaded it up to my own Instagram account and also on the @natgeotravel Instagram account, where it got over 450,000 likes. Pointing a camera straight up in a forest of Aspens is nothing new, but while shooting long-exposure starscapes I thought I would play around with lightpainting the Aspens. Oddly enough, I didn’t even see the Batman logo until after I shot the first image and then I worked to emphasize it in this image and others. When I posted this image to Instagram it seemed like every other comment was “Batman.”

Cutting-Edge Lighting 
New Mexico, USA

I only teach a few workshops a year, but this image is another image created during a demo at a workshop entitled “Cutting-Edge Lighting Techniques,” which I will be teaching again in 2019 at the Santa Fe Workshops. For this demo I was working with my good friend Deollo Johnson, who is a dancer, martial artist and actor, and we were using both strobes and continuous lighting mixed together to create unusual portraits. This image is an example of a happy accident mixed with preparation and planning to get really creative. We had continuous lighting coming in from the right side of the image and a strobe on the left side. And during the long-exposure image we had Deollo move a little bit to create the motion blur seen here. The strobe meanwhile froze him on the left side of the image. It is times like this, when playing around with whacky lighting, that really makes photography fun–especially when you have an idea of what you want but don’t really know how it is going to look in the end.

#OneTrail Campaign
New Mexico, USA

In August I got an email from Tim Kemple and the folks at Camp 4 Collective asking if I was available and wanted to be a part of a giant Merrell campaign where 50 photographers would be shooting on the same day in all 50 states of the USA. It sounded intriguing and seemed like a cool project to be a part of. Luckily, I was available. The assignment was to capture hikers out on iconic trails in New Mexico and create a gallery of images showing a diverse cross-section of people hiking on Labor Day, a major holiday here in the USA. For this project, we chose Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I shot for an entire day with some friends who tagged along and also with the hundreds of hikers out in the canyon that day. Merrell, for their part, amazingly didn’t care if the hikers were wearing Merrell boots and there was very little, if any, logo placement in the campaign.

In the end, Merrell produced a two-page ad (see below) that showcased an image from each state. They also released the entire project online and created a #onetrail website as well. At the Fall/Winter Outdoor Retailer show they printed a good chunk of the images from each photographer and created a very cool gallery display. The release of this campaign was genius. Merrell released it the day before the mid-term elections here in the USA showing great sensibility in the diversity of the people in the images and also as a show of unity for our country, which has been greatly divided on many issues for decades. For more info on this campaign, check out my Fall 2018 Newsletter.

Uranium Capitol Speedway
New Mexico, USA

While testing out the new Nikon Z7 this fall, I spent an evening shooting stills at the Uranium Capitol Speedway near Grants, New Mexico. Some friends of mine were working on a video project and I got to tag along. It was a fun night trying to capture still images in extremely challenging conditions — i.e. fast paced action in dark, mixed lighting. The Z7 did incredibly well. Check out the full review of the Z7 on my blog.

This image was captured on the fly just before the driver pulled out and jumped onto the track. I could not have captured this image with my D850 because I only got a shot or two off before he pulled out and the Z7’s live histogram allowed me to dial in the exposure in these very challenging back lit lighting conditions–especially since I was shooting wide open at f/1.4 with an 85mm Nikkor lens.

2018 Communication Arts Photo Annual

To finish this off, one of the major highlights this year for me was seeing all the awards come in for the Lighting the Spirit assignment from last summer. The image below was chosen for inclusion in the Communication Arts Photo Annual and appeared in the August 2018 issue. This assignment, shot for Elinchrom and Red Bull Photography, pushed my work to an entirely new level and has changed the game for me both creatively and in terms of my career. And seeing images from this assignment garner awards from such prestigious competitions like the CA Photo Annual is supremely fulfilling. This image, and others from that assignment, also won awards in several photography competitions as well over the last eighteen months.

This fall has been filled with a variety of other exciting assignments but all of those images are still under embargo until the clients use them. I’ll share those images as soon as possible in the Newsletter or here on the blog.

This year has also been a year of transition–at least in terms of testing out a wide variety of new gear–like the Nikon Z7 and the Z6 that just arrived. The gear matters to some degree but in the end the gear is just a tool–an end to a means. Still, having great tools makes my job easier and as always I am on the never-ending search for tools that help me push my photography to the edge of the envelope technically.

So long 2018. My thanks to Elinchrom, MAC Group, Merrell, Method Seven and all of my other clients with whom I worked this year. As I said in the beginning, it has been an incredible year. Of course, there were a whole truckload of other excellent images from this year, but for some reason these have resonated the most for me. Thanks for taking the time to check out some of this years highlights. Feel free to comment on any of these images and tell me which one you think is the best of the best from this year. Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to you all. Here’s hoping your 2019 is filled with adventurous travels and amazing experiences!

  • Koko Hunt - Your photographs are stunningly amazing. Thank you for sharing these. I was happy to meet you this year at ASMP event and getting to know you and your work has been a truly inspiring experience.

  • MARY SERANTONI - wow.
    wow.
    wow.
    You are genius.
    My dream: One day, I’ll be sitting in your Santa Fe class.

    You were kind enough to assist us in selecting the NIKON D-850. I cannot thank you enough!

    – A Forever Diehard Fan.

  • Paul Puckett - Michael, your link was sent to me on FB from a photographer from Anacortes, Washington, Robert Lee Payne Jr. I love your photographic skills and love to study the “difficult” shots like the kayaker coming down the face of a waterfall.
    I will be spending more time with your photos. Thank you for sharing your skills with the rest of us!
    I have dabbled in photography for many years. I had to give it up for two reasons, Nikon came out with the digital about the time I retired, too rich for my budget, I always preferred Nikon because their glass was the best. Still have my N90S, a beautiful device but only good for a paper weight now. So sad.

  • Michael Clark - Thank you Mary!

The Fall 2018 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter is now available for download. If you’d like to sign up for the Newsletter just drop me an email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.

This issue includes an editorial introducing this issue of the Newsletter, a review of the Nikon Z7, an article detailing my recent assignment for Merrell, an editorial entitled The Instagram Game, and much more.

The Michael Clark Photography Newsletter goes out to over 8,000 thousand photo editors, photographers and photo enthusiasts around the world. You can download the Fall 2018 issue on my website at:

http://files.michaelclarkphoto.com/fall_2018.pdf

If you’d like to check out back issues of the newsletter they are available here.

Please note that the newsletter is best viewed in the latest Adobe Acrobat reader which is available for free at www.adobe.com.

Over the last three or four years, I have been watching the mirrorless market as it grows and matures. While teaching workshops, I have had the chance to play with quite a few different mirrorless cameras brought by participants. Every time I have picked up a mirrorless camera in the past my reaction was no, no, no. They just weren’t ready. They were no where near the performance of my Nikon DSLRs. Often it was the poor quality of the electronic viewfinder (EVF) that really turned me off. I admit to not really loving any EVF I have ever seen. Other times the autofocus was slow and clunky. In other cases the menus and ergonomics were a complete mess. Some of the cameras just seemed small and toy-like, with horrible ergonimics.

I have shot with Nikon cameras since I was 15 years old. I do confess to being biased. Nikon just knows how to make a kick-ass camera. They have hit it out of the park with every pro-caliber camera they have released since the D3 and D700 came out over a decade ago. The D800 series cameras have been my mainstay since 2012. First the D800 (along with a Nikon D4 for action), then the D810 and now I have a pair of D850 camera bodies–one with the MB-D18 battery grip, which allows me to shoot at 9 fps. As far as image quality, there is no other full-frame mirrorless or DSLR camera on the market that beats the Nikon D850 as far as I have seen.

Enter the Nikon Z7. Let’s just start this off with a reality check. The Z7 is not a mirrorless D850. It is a different camera, with different strengths and weaknesses, that just so happens to have a very similar imaging sensor. We will get into how it compares to the D850, but I just want to make it clear here at the start that I don’t see the Z7 replacing my D850 for a number of reasons. It is a great compliment to the D850 but it is not quite as versatile. More than anything, the Z7 might just be the best expedition camera I have ever used–and by that I mean a lightweight, high-resolution camera body with a very lightweight, sharp 24-70 f/4 S lens. Because I don’t see the Z7 replacing my venerable D850, a big part of my evaluation here in this review is to see how it could fit in with my existing kit.

There are a ton of reviews for the Nikon Z7 out there online. What makes this one any different? This review comes from the perspective of a working professional–and one who is very demanding of his gear and excessively critical of poor design. Sure, I have been using Nikon cameras and lenses for more than 35 years and I have been on the Nikon roster of photographers now and again, but here–as usual with all of my reviews–I will call it like I see it. If I try out a product and don’t like it then I don’t review it. Hence, just the fact that I am posting this review tells you I liked the Z7. It isn’t a perfect camera but then none are ever perfect (though the Nikon D850 is about as close as any camera has ever come in my opinion).

Buckle up your seatbelts, this is going to be a long review. There is a lot to cover.

Erognomics

The Z7 has by far the best ergonomics of any mirrorless camera I have used, save for the Hasselblad X1D. It feels like a Nikon, which is a high compliment. The grip is big enough, just barely. The grip is still not as nice as the one on the D5 or D850, whose grips fit my hand much better, but for a compact camera it feels just about right. My pinky does hang off the bottom just a bit, but I also have large hands. [I can palm a basketball for those that need a comparison.] Just as with my D850, I can adjust almost any critical setting with one hand and without pulling my eye away from the viewfinder. If I am getting nit-picky, the smaller form factor does make it harder to adjust the exposure compensation because that button is on the far top right side of the grip. Those folks with smaller hands probably won’t have that issue.

The camera is overall quite responsive. The touch screen on the back of the camera is gorgeous and reacts to input very quickly. Because of the smaller form factor, Nikon had to reduce the number of buttons on the camera body and move some of those settings into the menu system. Luckily, they created a new “i” button on the back of the camera which allows for very quick access to those functions that had their own button on corresponding DSLRs and it also adds access to a whole lot of other functions. The “i” button is also extremely customizable so you can set up the camera to access a whole host of different functions very quickly.

There is an approximately one and a half second start up time from when you turn the camera to the on position to when you actually see an image in the EVF or on the LCD. That is fairly annoying coming from an OVF camera like the D850 where it is instantaneous. I have definitely missed a few shots because of this. Even if you leave the camera on and don’t use it for a while, then put it up to your eye and wake it up by pushing the shutter release there is still a lag before you see an image in the EVF. I realize this is an issue with many mirrorless cameras, not just the Nikon Z7. Hopefully this can be overcome in future iterations.

As shown above, the layout of the buttons and the configuration of the Z7 is very similar to Nikon’s DSLRs. For those coming from a Nikon DSLR, the Z7 will be very familiar–and easy to transition over to. For a working pro, this is a huge deal as we have so much time with prior cameras–and so much familiarity with them–that having a similar layout means we can get to work right away and incorporate a new camera into our workflow without any impact on our creativity.

As I wrote about in my last blog post, entitled Random Thoughts on Mirrorless Camera Systems, while the small, lightweight form factor of the Z7 is great for some situations, it can be a hindrance in some ways as well. I highly suggest reading that last blog post for a wider perspective on mirrorless cameras. For expedition photography, where I am often hiking with huge packs and have to carry everything on my back, the Z7 is pretty much perfect. For other types of photography, where I am not as concerned with the size and weight of a camera, I can imagine a larger mirrorless camera with even better ergonomics. This isn’t a criticism of the Z7, just a hope that Nikon releases a variety of different mirrorless cameras with different form factors to suit those differing situations.

In that last blog post, I also brought up the issue of showing up on a huge assignment, where tens of thousands of dollars are on the line, with such a small camera. I am not sure how that smaller camera would go over with the client. In the end, all that matters are the images–and often for my assignments the client is not present. But, when a client is present, there is the “dog and pony” show that is all part of the process and significantly affects how the client (and the ad agency) perceives the photographer. I suppose when Nikon releases their f/2.8 lenses, which will be significantly larger, and a battery grip for the Z7, the camera will become larger overall and solve this perception issue.

The EVF

My biggest issue with mirrorless cameras is usually the electronic viewfinder (EVF). I haven’t really seen an EVF that I was impressed by, until now. The Z7 has the best EVF I have ever seen and I have seen EVFs from just about every manufacturer. I am not sure how Nikon did it but in use, the EVF looks very lifelike for the most part. If there is a time lag in the EVF it is so short that it is hard to detect. The specs on this EVF are no different than Sonys, and many other manufacturers EVFs, so it appears that Nikon created this special EVF via the optics in front of it. Regardless of how they pulled it off, the EVF built into the Z7 is something special and one of the main reasons for anyone to choose this camera over and above any other mirrorless offering. It is just that good. And you will have to look through the viewfinder yourself to see it.

Of course, even though the EVF is spectacular, there are some situations where it falls short of an optical viewfinder (OVF). In contrasty lighting situations, where the dynamic range of the scene is beyond what the EVF and the camera can capture, blown out highlights are visible in the EVF. On one level this is good because it shows you exactly which part of the scene is blown out. Underexposing the image can recover those highlights but also throw your subject into dark shadows, making it difficult to see what is happening in those parts of the image. This is just all part of the EVF experience.

In less contrasty lighting situations the EVF is not really that different from an optical viewfinder, but it does offer a lot more information. Having a live histogram visible in the viewfinder is incredibly useful. Since you are seeing exactly what the image will look like before pressing the shutter release, it is easy enough to adjust the settings to dial in the histogram and the exposure so that you get exactly what you want. This is one of the biggest advantages of mirrorless cameras.

During my testing, there was a situation where I noticed a significant color difference between the blue sky represented in the EVF and the real blue sky. In that instance I tried adjusting the white balance and the color settings but no matter what I tried I could not get the EVF to show accurate color. It was so far off that I switched to my D850. Those of you who read this blog or my e-books probably already know that I am pretty anal about color and getting the color in my images dialed in so this color issue was a surprise. So far, I have not run into this issue again but it is something to remember. The EVF is not showing you reality. It is showing you a version, it’s version, of what it thinks the camera is seeing. This is an issue with all mirrorless cameras. When working with a DSLR I know that I am seeing the true colors of the subject and scene through the viewfinder and I try to replicate those colors in post when working up the raw images files. It will be interesting to see if mirrorless is a hindrance in that respect or if it shifts the look and feel of my images–and how I work them up.

In normal release modes, the Z7 does have a very brief viewfinder blackout. I wouldn’t even call it a blackout. It looks like you just blinked and it is so fast that if you aren’t paying attention you might not even see it. In “Continuous H (extended)” there is no viewfinder blackout, but the images do come in with a staccato feel to them if the camera or subject are moving. When in Conitnuous H release mode (not extended), and while shooting at 5 fps, the viewfinder “blinking” still appears and the EVF has a very small time lag but it is so short that I don’t think it will really affect anything.

Overall, the EVF built into the Z7 is a major victory for Nikon. Being able to see such a crisp, clear and wicked sharp preview of your image goes a long way towards creating better images. I found that the instantaneous what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) image preview allowed me to experiment more with the exposure and camera settings to get just the image I wanted–when I had time to play around with settings. When trying to capture fast-paced action, the EVF–and the histogram in the viewfinder–allowed me to dial in the exposure faster than I could with a DSLR. There are huge benefits with EVFs and it is nice to see they have finally gotten to an acceptable level.

Image Quality

As you might suspect, the image quality generated by the Z7 is pretty amazing. Because it uses a similar sensor as that found in the Nikon D850, it is no surprise that the image quality is virtually identical to the D850. I will let others debate the differences in dynamic range, high ISO noise, and lines-per-inch resolution. From what I have seen, the Z7 offers phenomenal image quality.

In fact, for me there is one feature that allows the Z7 to have even better image quality than the D850 and that is the In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) built into the camera body. I will discuss the IBIS in more detail a little later in this review, but for my shaky caffeine-laden corpse the IBIS allows me to use slower shutter speeds than I have ever been able to pull off with my D800-series cameras. With my D850 I would normally shoot at shutter speeds 1/4x the focal length of the lens on the camera. With the Z7, I felt comfortable shooting at shutter speeds as slow as 1/125th second with just about any and every lens I own.

As you can see in the images below, I pushed the Z7 to the extreme edges of low-light photography. These images were captured at the Uranium Capitol Speedway just outside of Grants, New Mexico. Once the sun went down, I ended up shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 for the rest of the night to have a prayer at stopping motion. Once it got truly dark, I had to resort to motion blurs and panning the camera. The three images below were shot with the FTZ adapter and my trusty AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G lens. The camera did exceptionally well in this challenging environment. I kept swapping between my D850 and the Z7 at first then committed to the Z7 to see how it would do. In some situations, like the image just below, the live histogram allowed me to correctly expose for a very challenging lighting situation–and this would have been incredibly difficult or impossible to pull off with my DSLR given that I only got off three shots before the car pulled away.

Nikon Z7, FTZ Adapter, AF-S Nikkor 85 f/1.4 G, 1/125th second at f/1.4, ISO6400

Nikon Z7, FTZ Adapter, AF-S Nikkor 85 f/1.4 G, 1/80th second at f/1.4, ISO3200

Nikon Z7, FTZ Adapter, AF-S Nikkor 85 f/1.4 G, 1/40th second at f/1.8, ISO800

In less challenging lighting scenarios, and at lower ISO settings, the camera has the same stellar image quality as found in the D850 from my experience. It does seem at the moment that Adobe has not fully implemented the Z7 raw plug-in, and because of that the Z lenses don’t show up in the Lens Corrections panel, and the Z7 images seem to come in with more contrast than images from the D850. Regardless, no one is going to complain about the image quality.

One last note, when shooting landscapes I found the Focus Peaking built-in to the EVF to be incredibly useful so that you can see exactly what parts of the image will be in focus. In use, it is like a live depth of field preview. For landscape photography the Z7 is a home run.

In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)

One of the best features built into the Z7 is IBIS. It is a revolution for those of us that haven’t been using mirrorless. It just stinking works. I was able to handhold the camera and get a sharp image at 1/6th second! Of course, an image shot on a tripod would be a bit sharper, but still the handheld image was impressively sharp considering the scenario. With my D850, as I noted above, I won’t go below a shutter speed of 1/500th second because it is dodgy trying to get sharp images at any shutter speed below that–at least for me–I drink way too much caffeine. With larger lenses on the D850, like the 70-200mm f/2.8, I won’t go below 1/1,000th second even with the vibration reduction (VR) turned on. Hence, in comparison, the IBIS technology in the Z7 opens up a lot of freedom when choosing the shutter speed and allows for choosing lower ISOs as well since a higher shutter speed isn’t required–resulting in better overall image quality because there is less noise in the final image. The images above from the dirt track are proof of this. Shooting handheld with a 1/40th or 1/80th second shutter speed on the D850 would not have turned out well but on the Z7 it was no problem.

There are some caveats though, as with everything. IBIS can actually detract from the image quality when used at higher shutter speeds, just as VR can. Jim Kasson did some testing with IBIS and recommends that photographers turn it off when shooting at shutter speeds above 1/1,000th second. I have seen this in my own testing where I forgot to turn it off and images shot at 1/2500 second or above seemed less sharp than they should have been. Of course, if you have the camera on a tripod be sure to turn off the IBIS as well so it doesn’t affect image quality.

IBIS is a critical feature on the Z series cameras that really helps separate mirrorless cameras from DSLRs. IBIS is also going to be critical if camera manufacturers hope to build cameras with more than 50 MP on a full frame chip as they will be very difficult to handhold and get sharp images. For many photographers, IBIS might be the best reason to add a mirrorless camera to their kit.

Autofocus

In my testing I have found that the autofocus on the Z7 is very good, but it is a step or two behind the Nikon D5 and D850. The Nikon D5 has what I consider to be the best AF of any camera currently on the market bar none. I think most sports photographers would back up that statement. The Canon 1DX Mark II also has great AF, but it isn’t quite as phenomenal as the Nikon D5. The Nikon D850 has the same AF as the D5 but with the higher resolution sensor it is not quite as accurate as it is on the faster D5. Still, the D850 has phenomenal AF both in AF-S single point mode and the AF-C tracking modes. The D5 and D850 set an extremely high bar; one that the Sony A9 doesn’t even reach. Because it isn’t as predictable or as fast as the autofocus in the D5 or D850, I would not reach for the Z7 when shooting fast-paced sports. I just can’t predict how well it will track moving subjects and nail the focus like I can with my trusty D850s. For any other genres of photography aside from sports, I would say the AF of the Z7 is more than capable–and more accurate for portraits than either the D5 or the D850.

Missing from the Z7 are the Group Area AF modes and the 3D Tracking AF mode. 3D Tracking on the D5 and D850 is a revelation so these are serious omissions on the Z7. The Z7 just has different AF modes that are new and take some getting used to. It still has the Dynamic AF mode, though it is not as customizable as it was on their DSLRs. I have found that the Dynamic AF mode (in AF-C) does not seem to track subjects as they move across the frame like it does on Nikon’s DSLRs. I am not sure why it doesn’t. In AF-C continuous autofocus mode, the camera can predict and track a subject relatively well if you keep the AF point on the subject, but that is quite limiting.

In the images below, you can see that the Z7 tracked the green go-cart through the frame but just as it exited the frame and moved away from my selected AF focus point it went out of focus. Amazingly, it held focus at the same distance and did lock onto a few of the dirt clods that flew into the air behind the green go-cart after it exited the frame. The Z7s AF did much better than I would have thought given some of the reviews I have seen online.

Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70 f/4 S, 1/500th second at f/4, ISO3200

For the night images at the dirt track, I did engage the “Low-light AF” setting to help the accuracy and speed of the AF in the super dark nighttime environment. Overall it did quite well and I experienced little if any hunting. I have seen some other mirrorless cameras struggle quite a bit in situations like that. In comparison, the D850 and D5 are pretty hard to beat in low light conditions, especially when using continuous AF and trying to track fast moving subjects at high frame rates.

The Z7 also has Face Detection in the Auto-AF mode. Face detection seems to work quite well though not as consistently as I would have hoped. If the subject is looking straight into camera then it works well. If they are not looking at the camera or if they turn away it seems to have difficulty reaquiring the face detection. I also had high hopes that the face detection AF could figure out where the eyes were and prioritize the focus on the eyes but that has not been my experience so far shooting with face detection when using large apertures like f/1.4 or f/1.8. When I tested this out with my 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor, sometimes it grabbed the eye and focuses on it, other times it focused on the nose, the forehead or other random spots. Hopefully Nikon can correct this behavior in future models or with a firmware update. I did find the pinpoint AF to be very good when shooting wide open at f/1.4.

Focus Peaking on the Z7 works exceptionally well, especially when trying to shoot wide open with fast primes like my Nikon 85mm f/1.4 or 24mm f/1.4 lenses. In one situation there was a dense screen in front of the subject that sent the AF system over the edge and I was forced to use the focus peaking. It resulted in a very high keeper rate even at f/1.4, which is troublesome for any DSLR to work with and get a high percentage of tack sharp eyes. The focus peaking in the Z7 is very well integrated and at the default levels it is very easy to use–plus it is faster than using autofocus in many cases since you don’t have to move any focus points around and can recompose quickly knowing that the eyes are still in focus. After getting used to it, I can see many situations that would be really easy to deal with using focus peaking and just turning of the AF.

Wrapping up this section, the Z7 has quite a variety of excellent AF modes. The camera locks on fairly quickly and has more accurate autofocus than any Nikon DSLR. Aside from fast-paced sports photography the autofocus is more than adequate for most photographers.

Frames Per Second: 12 bit vs. 14 bit

Generally, getting rid of the mirror opens up the possibility of faster frame rates because there is no mirror to flip out of the way. How fast a mirrorless camera can fire depends on the processing power of the camera more than anything else. As there are very few cameras on the market with 40-plus MP sensors, we are basically comparing the Z7 here to the Nikon D850 and the Sony A7RIII.

In the case of the Nikon Z7, it can get up to 9 fps in 12-bit mode and up to 5 fps with AF tracking in 14-bit mode. But there is a caveat here, as with most other mirrorless cameras as well. When shooting in “Continuous H (extended) mode,” which is the mode that accesses these highest frame rates, the EVF lags behind reality pretty severely, and the cameras ability to adjust autofocus and/or the auto-exposure may be severely impacted. In reality if you need to track a subject then using the extended release mode is probably not going to work out that well. Hence, these higher frame rates in extended mode may not be as useful as the specs lead us to believe. In reality, when tracking a moving subject, I would stick with the Continuous H mode, which allows for 5.5 fps in 12-bit mode and only 5 fps in 14-bit mode as shown in the chart below from the Z7 user manual.

The buffer depth on the Z7 is also quite limiting. In 12-bit mode, capturing Lossless Compressed raw images, you will get approximately 20 frames before the buffer fills up and slows down the camera. In 14-bit mode, capturing Lossless Compressed raw images, you will get approximately 19 frames before the buffer fills up and slows down the camera. In both cases that is just over two seconds of shooting. The Nikon D850 can capture up to 200 images before the buffer kicks in, when capturing Lossless Compressed raw images and shooting at 7 fps without the battery grip. With the MB-D18 battery grip, the D850 can capture around 40 to 50 images at 9 fps before the buffer fills up–and with full AF tracking and auto-exposure. Of course, all of these specs are with the fastest possible XQD memory cards. If slower memory cards are used then the performance will be massively impacted.

I find there is a considerable image quality difference between 12-bit and 14-bit image capture, which is especially visible when images are printed. I have no plans to ever go back to capturing images in 12-bit, especially when the D850 can capture 9 fps in 14-bit and with a larger buffer than the Z7. This is yet another area where the Nikon D850 massively outperforms the Z7. I think it is easy to state at this point in the review that Nikon did not set out to make an action camera when they designed the Z7. For their first camera out of the gate that makes total sense. The number of photographers really needing a top-end action camera is a very small percentage.

When blasting away on the Z7 at 5.5 fps with continuous AF, I definitely noticed that the longer I held down on the shutter release the more time lag I saw in the EVF. I suppose this is to be expected with mirrorless cameras, though there are a few that stand out–namely the Sony A9. All in all, the Z7 can deal with some action–and deal with it quite well–but for those times when I need speed, accurate focus tracking and be able to see what is happening with the subject I will stick with my D850 and the MB-D18 battery grip so I can see more clearly and in real time what is happening between frames. Having a mirrorless Nikon like the Sony A9 with zero EVF black out would be very useful–as long as their is no time lag in what you are seeing in the EVF.

Shutter Lag

As a sports photographer, timing a shot–especially when using strobes–is critical. In scenarios where you get only one shot, how fast the camera reacts is paramount to actually getting what you want. I have no way of testing shutter lag, but luckily Imaging Resource does. In their testing, they found that with full autofocus the Z7 shutter lag time was 0.215 seconds. In comparison, the D850 shutter lag time is 0.076 seconds. That means the Z7 is three times slower compared to the D850, which has to flip a mirror out of the way before capturing the image. If the Z7 is pre-focused and in manual focusing mode, the shutter lag drops to 0.065 seconds. When pre-focused, the Nikon D850 has a shutter lag of 0.045 seconds, which still beats the Z7.

In practice, I have not shot enough with the Z7 to see if this is an issue. While photographing the dirt races, shown above, I was blasting away at 5 fps for most of the night. I wasn’t necessarily trying to capture any one moment in time specifically so I didn’t notice any time lag. In reality, the Z7 is still pretty fast. But this is an issue to be aware of if you need to capture the height of the action–and it is an issue that has plagued mirrorless cameras since they first came on the scene.

Video

In terms of video, Nikon took a massive step with the Z7 to improve their video capabilities. I don’t do a whole lot of video work with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras–most of our video work is done on Red digital cinema cameras. Regardless, the Z7 (and the forthcoming Z6) open up a whole new era of high-end 4k recording for Nikon cameras. In my testing the video looks as good if not better than that coming out my D850. The AF in video mode is quite good, even in challenging situations. I love that we can control how smoothly the AF in video mode transitions from one subject to another. This brings the Z series cameras up to par with Canon’s dual-pixel AF technology.

10-bit N-log and 4K focus peaking are the two features that stand out to me. Sadly, to access the N-Log footage capture an external recording device is required. Just as with 14-bit still image capture, 10-bit video capture massively increases the dynamic range of the camera and gives a lot more room to work up the video in post-production. In my experience, any video capture device becomes a hub that everything else is attached to. There are certainly those times when you can go light and fast and still capture compelling content, but to get top-notch video footage you likely aren’t going to run and gun it. Hence, I find having an external recorder EVF attached to the camera is pretty standard workflow when capturing video. Regardless, a Z7 with all the accoutrements is still a hell of a lot lighter than a fully rigged out Red Helium 8K.

The XQD memory card is also a big deal when it comes to video and allows the Z7 to record a higher bit-rate codec. When CF Express comes on the scene in late 2019, it will be interesting to see how the video options can be enhanced–i.e. raw video capture is already technically possible with XQD memory cards and perhaps it could be implemented with the new CF Express memory cards. Either way, it won’t be long before we see mirrorless full frame cameras able to capture raw 4K footage (with decent compression ratios).

Nikon Z Mirrorless Lenses

When the Z series mirrorless cameras were announced, Nikon spent a lot of time discussing the new lens mount with a larger diameter and a shorter flange distance. It was and is a very big deal. This is the first time ever, since 1959, that Nikon has completely changed the lens mount for their cameras. Over the years, Nikon has upgraded the old F-mount with more electronic contacts so they could adapt newer style lenses but they never actually changed the mount size or configuration. For Nikon users that have tons of old Nikkor glass this change is a big deal, both financially and in terms of how useful that older glass will be on the Z7. Nikon was obviously aware of this, and the FTZ Adapter (discussed below) is their solution but not all older Nikkor lenses will have full functionality on the Z7. Not all older Nikkor glass has full functionality on their current DSLRs either so the isn’t really a huge deal.

The big deal with the new lens mount is that it simplifies the lens designs and allows Nikon to deal with some major issues they faced when designing lenses for the smaller F-mount. Via DPReview: “The shorter flange-back distance allows Canon (and Nikon) to mount a large rear lens element much closer to the sensor, and the wide diameter means they can create lenses that don’t need to squeeze light through a narrow tunnel. Designing lenses that don’t have to make such dramatic adjustments to the course of the light passing through the lens allows lenses with fewer optical aberrations. It also gives the option to use fewer elements, which can make some lenses lighter.”

The new line of Nikon Z series lenses denoted by the “S-Line” moniker, which stands for “Superior,” have been touted by Nikon as “a new dimension in optical performance.” I have no doubts that they will be able to push these new lenses to a whole new level of performance because the optical path of the light will be much simpler than it had to be with the smaller F-mount lenses. Fewer lens elements means there is more light making it to the sensor no matter what the maximum lens aperture denoted on the lens itself. Hence, a 35mm f/1.8 S lens might actually allow more light to get to the sensor than the older Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4 lens because there are fewer lens elements and thereby fewer lens surfaces to reflect light back out of the front of the lens.

Higher resolving lenses are going to be a huge part of Nikon’s future–and have to be for them to release ever-higher megapixel camera bodies. At this point, the current F-mount Nikkor lenses are being pushed to the edge of their capabilities by the Nikon D850. In my estimation it will be difficult for those F-mount lenses to keep up with higher resolution sensors and a higher resolution sensor will require the camera to be held steadier and/or locked down a tripod to really get a meaningful increase in image resolution. So when Nikon says the Z mirrorless system is the future of the Nikon camera system, they really mean that in more ways than one. Having cameras with IBIS installed in the camera body and lenses that can resolve at a much higher level than their current line up are going to be key elements when they do announce camera bodies with 50-plus MP sensors.

I received the Nikon Z7 along with the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S lens. I did not get the 35mm f/1.8 S lens so all I have to test is the zoom and my comments here will relate only to that f/4 zoom. Also, note my assessment of the 24-70 f/4 S lens is only from testing this one sample so others might have slightly different experiences with their version of that lens.

I did a comparison of my trusty Nikkor AF-S 24-70 f/2.8 lens (on the Nikon D850) versus the newer Nikkor 24-70 f/4 S on the Z7 and found that at 70 mm these two lenses are fairly similar. The extreme corners are a bit softer on the 24-70 S lens but not by much. Both are very good good at f/5.6 up to f/11. The 24-70 f/4 S was sharper in the center at f/4 but otherwise there was not a huge difference. At 24mm there is a stark difference. The corners are much sharper on the 24-70 f/4 S lens (at 24mm) than the f/2.8 F-mount lens. Also, there is a noticeable amount of chromatic aberration (CA) in the f/2.8 F-mount lens while there is little to no CA on the 24-70 f/4 S lens. The lack of CA on the F/4 S lens is quite amazing actually.

At all zoom settings on the 24-70 f/4 S I did find there to be a significant amount of vignetting, much more than on my Nikkor AF-S 24-70 f/2.8. This is easily corrected in post-production but as of right now Adobe has not implemented the lens correction plug-in for the 24-70mm f/4 S lens in either Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. So to actually correct the vignetting you have to do it manually in the Lens Corrections. I am hoping this vignetting is a symptom of the 24-70 f/4 S and not an issue that will popup in all of the other S-Line lenses.

Additionally, I found that with the 24-70 f/4 S lens the very extreme corners and edges of the frame seem to drop off in sharpness quite rapidly compared to the rest of the frame. This has been reported by a number of other testers as well so it wasn’t just my copy of this lens. I also found that the lower left corner seemed to go soft more than the other corners, which leads me to believe the copy of the lens I have might have a slightly-decentered lens element as well. This might all sound a bit nit-picky but when Nikon touts these new lenses as “superior” and better than their older Nikkor F-mount versions that is quite a statement that needs to be investigated.

All in all, the 24-70 f/4 S lens is quite good and consistently sharp across the zoom range, which cannot be said to the same degree for the f/2.8 lens. The vignetting and corner softness is an issue to be aware of but it doesn’t negate the overall performance of this lens. Is the 24-70 f/4 S lens better than my f/2.8 AF-S F-mount lens? I would say that it is slightly better–especially on the wider end- but it is not enough that I would feel the urge to buy the camera just on image quality alone. The lack of CA in the 24-70 S lens is significant, but here again it is not enough for me to upgrade just on that alone. The 24-70 f/4 S is a great expedition lens and a perfect companion to the new Z series cameras in terms of size and weight.

What is very exciting about the new lens mount is where Nikon is going with this new system. The Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct Lens announced alongside the Z7 and Z6 (but not yet shipping) is a very exciting new lens–even if it is a manual focus lens. This lens is going to be giant–a real beast of a lens–and it is going to cost a small fortune. But, it might also help us realize the full potential of the new lens mount and hopefully offer breathtaking optical excellence. I think offering this new lens as a manual focusing lens is a good idea on Nikon’s part as f/0.95 is going to be touchy in terms of getting your subject in focus. The Focus Peaking built into the Z series cameras will be all but essential in focusing this beast. And since I have found the focus peaking to be very easy to use, that will really help to get the best out of this new lens. I imagine for most photographers, the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct Lens will be a lens that they rent rather than own.

Knowing that the Z series cameras are the future for Nikon and that mirrorless in general is the future of photography, I don’t plan on buying any more Nikon F-mount lenses. A few of my older F-mount lenses are starting to show signs of wear and tear and I will wait to replace those with the newer Z-mount versions when they became available. It will be very interesting to see what the new f/2.8 and f/1.2 Z-mount lenses look like and how they perform optically compared to the older F-mount options. Hopefully Nikon can release the Z-mount f/2.8 standard zooms, like the 24-70, 70-200 and a 14-24 equivalent, as soon as possible so that users can take advantage of native lenses on the new Z series cameras.

FTZ Adapter

The FTZ adapter (shown below) that came with the Z7 in the kit I ordered, allows for just about any F-mount Nikkor lens–or any Nikon F-mount compatible lens from a third party manufacturer–to fit onto the Nikon Z7. The FTZ is very well built and fits onto the Z7 lens mount with a snug, secure click. When an F-mount Nikkor lens is attached to the FTZ adapter there is no wiggle or wobble in the lens mount on wither end of the adapter. Both sides of the adapter also have gaskets to maintain a weatherproof seal at each mount interface, which is a very nice touch.

I have used just about all of my Nikkor F-mount lenses on the Z7 and they all work very well. I did notice that the autofocus is a touch slower when using the FTZ adapter–as compared to using those same lenses on my D850. It is very hard to quantify how much slower my F-mount lenses focused on the Z7 using the adapter. When shooting the above dirt racing images with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G lens on the FTZ adapter I have to say that lens focused very quickly and had very little issues focusing on the fast moving race cars, even in the incredibly dark conditions. Overall, I am very impressed with the FTZ adapter and until Nikon can release more Z series native lenses the adapter bridges the gap as far as lens options.

There have a been few reports of issues when trying to adapt tripod plates onto the bottom of the Nikon Z7 with the FTZ adapter mounted on it. This isn’t an issue with the adapter or the camera as far as I can tell. The FTZ adapter has a square part that drops down from the bottom of the adapter and can get in the way of the tripod plates. Adding to the issue, the tripod socket on the bottom the camera is not centered on the bottom and is located closer to the front of the camera than usual. Because the camera body itself is so thin, when using generic tripod plates (like the Really Right Stuff camera plates) the plate hits and/or blocks the adapter so that it cannot be removed. I am sure this issue will become a non-issue when companies like RRS and Kirk Photo release their camera plates for the Nikon Z7 and Z6.

Battery Life

Lots of hoopla has been made about the poor battery life given that CIPA rated the battery at only 310 shots per charge. After shooting with the camera for a month now, the reality is quite different. I got over 2,000 shots on one battery during a full 15-hour day of shooting on a recent assignment. I am not saying you will always get 2,000 images per full charge, but I would be surprised if I couldn’t average 1,000 images per full charge. It all depends on how you have the camera set up. I have it set up so that the EVF turns on when I put my eye to the viewfinder, otherwise the rear LCD is not on unless I switch to it and turn it on. I imagine this saves a fair bit of juice, but it also makes the camera respond similarly to a DSLR, which is what I am used to. I have no qualms with the battery life.

In video mode, the camera eats through the batteries quite a bit faster–as is usual with DSLRs as well. On my D850 I can go through one EN-EL15a battery in about 30 minutes when capturing 4K video. On the Z7 it eats through the EN-EL15b battery just a hair quicker at around 20 minutes or so.

Compared to the Nikon D850

Up to this point in the review, it might seem like I have been a bit harsh on the Z7, especially in these last few sections. The main camera I am comparing the Z7 to is the Nikon D850, which is probably the best DSLR ever created by human beings. Hence, the Z7 has a lot to live up to if it wants to match the D850. The big question for me–and for most Nikon photographers I am guessing–is how does the Z7 compare to the D850 and does it replace a D850? I can emphatically say right off the bat that the Z7 is not a D850 replacement for a number of reasons. The autofocus capabilities and frame rates of the D850 are superior to the Z7 in pretty much every way. For fast-paced action, the 3D Tracking AF mode of the D850 is much easier to use and much more accurate than any of the continuous autofocus modes built into the Z7. And in terms of bit-depth, I have no plans to go backwards to 12-bit image files just to get a faster burst rate. [Hell, I have not even owned my D850s for a full year yet so they are definitely not old and out-of-date.]

As shown above, the Z7 is significantly lighter and smaller than my D850. I do see how it would be a better option in some scenarios, especially when I have to carry a lot of outdoor gear and want a lighter setup–and don’t need fast frame rates or top-end autofocus capabilities. The silent shooting mode built into the Z7 also makes it quite useful in some circumstances where camera noise would disturb the situation. Technically the D850 also has a silent shooting mode but it is not nearly as advanced as the Z7’s silent mode and still requires the mirror being moved out of position, which is not silent.

The Z7 is a different camera than the D850 and has different strengths and weaknesses as well. Because of that I can definitely see adding a Z7 (and/or a Z6) to the quiver but I won’t be trading in either of my D850s for a Z7. I can definitely see that Nikon has consciously designed the Z7 (and the Z6) to excel in some ways beyond their DSLRs but not overtake the dominant features of their top-end DSLRs. That makes total sense since they are one of the few mirrorless camera manufacturers (aside from Canon) that also make DSLRs. It will be very interesting to see what the future Z series cameras look like and how they compare.

For those that are not sports photographers, and for whom the autofocus in the Z7 is more than adequate, then the Z7 might be a much more appealing camera than the D850. For portrait, wedding, landscape and pretty much any genre other than sports, the Z7 is a stellar camera that can accommodate all their needs. For video, both the Z7 and especially the Z6 seem like much better options for high-end video capture. I can see a lot of Nikon photographers adding a Z6 to their kit just for the video features alone. I will certainly be considering that here in the next few months when the Z6 is released.

XQD Memory Card

There is only one memory card slot in the Z7. Everyone went crazy about that. My Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi only has one memory card slot. It doesn’t really matter to me. When I shoot action with my D850, I always shoot to just one XQD card as shooting to two cards would slow the camera down. I have had SD cards fail but the images are always recoverable in my experience. I know those photographing weddings and events “where it will never happen again” get all bent out of shape about this. As an adventure photographer a lot of what I shoot will never happen again and not the exact same way ever. I think the issue for a lot of card failures is photographers buying cheap memory cards and then abusing them to no end. If you use good practices with your memory cards and buy the top-end cards then card failures are so rare that you won’t even think about it. Most pros I know typically buy faster memory cards when they upgrade their cameras so they end up refreshing their memory card stock every few years if not sooner, which certainly helps as well.

I do applaud Nikon for choosing the XQD memory cards, which in my experience are a billion times better than any other card type. If you ask me, every camera should be using XQD memory cards. They are just the best cards on the market, and they are the fastest. I wish my Hasselblad used them. I have never (knock on wood) had an XQD memory card get corrupted. The XQD cards are the perfect size and they are tough. There are also no pins or any exposed parts that you have to worry about getting bent or beat up. For those that want a fast workflow, the XQD cards download much, much faster than the average SD or CF card. And the fact that the Z7 will have updated firmware here at some point allowing it to use CFexpress cards next year is very exciting as those will be even faster than XQD cards. Hopefully Nikon will bring out more pro-oriented cameras in the future with slightly larger mirrorless bodies and dual card slots but for now the single memory card slot is fine for me.

Multiple Exposures

The way in which Nikon has integrated the multiple exposure feature into the Nikon Z7 is quite ingenious. When you turn it on and capture the first exposure, it shows an overlay of that first exposure while you shoot the second exposure so that you can line them up just as you want–and see the effect that the exposure settings will have on the overall image. Capturing multiple exposures has never been–at least as far as I have ever seen–this easy or exciting. This feature opens up a whole new world of creative options and honestly, it is one of the most exciting features on the Z7. As can be seen below, I spent an afternoon capturing a few double exposure images around Santa Fe, New Mexico testing out this feature and had a blast seeing what I could come up with.

The only downside to the Z7 multiple exposure system is that it outputs a JPEG file when you create the multiple exposure image and there is no way to change the file format settings for the output image as far as I can tell–and I scoured the user manual to see if there was a way to change it. The Z7 does save the separate images used to create the multiple exposure image as individual images in whatever file format the camera is set to so you could go into Photoshop and re-create the combined image, but it would be great if Nikon can change this to output a raw image file or at the very least a TIFF file instead of a JPEG. Nonetheless, this is still an exciting feature and one that really allows the photographer to create images that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to create without this built in visualization technique.

Conclusion

Considering this is the longest review I have ever written for any camera, it won’t take long to wrap this up. I have pretty much said just about anything and everything I can say about this new camera. The Z7 is a stellar offering, especially considering it is Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera. Sure, there are somethings I would like to see improved upon in future iterations but as far as a first offering, the Z7 leaves very little to be desired for the average photographer.

One thing that is probably crystal clear by now if you have read through this entire review is that the Z7 was not designed to be a full-on sports camera. Sure it can still be used as such, but Nikon has other cameras that are much better suited to that role, namely the D5, D500 and D850 in their DSLR lineup. I hope that they come out with a mirrorless full-frame offering in the future that can match their venerable D5 and D850–and I have not doubt that they will at some point. I know the Z7 is touted as being a pro-caliber body–and it is–but it seems like Nikon has also left some room for a faster, more advanced mirrorless camera to slot in just above the Z7. Time will tell.

For those of us with a large quiver of F-mount Nikkor lenses, if we want to stay current with cutting-edge technology, what is scary to think about is that we will have to replace pretty much every F-mount lens and all our camera gear at some point over the next few years after taking decades to build up our systems. This won’t be happening overnight but as the used lens market starts filling up with older F-mount Nikkor lenses the prices we can sell those lenses for will drop precipitously.

I have no doubt that the advantages of mirrorless systems (and EVFs) will continue to separate them from the DSLR equivalents as time marches on. It has certainly been very exciting to test out the Z7. At this point, as I wrap up this review, I am still on the fence as to whether I will purchase the Z7 or wait for the Z6. I will be diving into the mirrorless waters one way or the other, it is just a matter of deciding which option is a better addition to my current kit.

One thing that is very clear to me, now that pretty much all of the camera manufacturers have announced their mirrorless offerings, is that I won’t be changing systems. Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras are much more compelling than any other brands offerings–and I can see them rapidly improving this already impressive first generation Z-series camera. More than just the cameras, I can see them creating some very exciting lenses for this system that sets a new high-bar in optical design and image quality.

My thanks to B&H Photo and Video for sending me this camera to test out. For more information, and to order the Nikon Z7 (along with the FTZ adapter) click on the following links: Z7 with FTZ adapter and 24-70 f/4 S lens and Z7 camera body with FTZ adapter.

  • Tony Bonanno - Great in-depth review Michael! I received the Z7 along with the FTZ adapter and 24-70S lens when released. It is not a replacement for my D850 or D5, but overall I think it is an EXCELLENT piece of gear. I intend to put it to a lot of use, often alongside the 850 or D5, and often solo on it’s own. My sample with the 24-70 is incredibly sharop and really nails the focus everytime (still, not action)..

    Thanks again for the review..

    Tony

  • Gosh1 - Excellent Review! Thank you for all the hardwork and rational assessment.
    I’m also keeping my D850…. but I do agree the Z7 is an excellent camera all considered.

    BUT Nikon messed up seriously on options to customize the control buttons. They have chucked out major +ves of their top DSLRs. Two irritating glitches:-

    1. Unlike the Trifecta of the D500/D5/D850 the AF performance is hamstrung by the inability to assign different AF settings (ie AFC + single-point) to a Fn button. So you cannot toggle from Group to a Single-Point. This is a showstopper IME and not only shooting action but any portrait.

    2. The Image Protect function cannot be set to kick in only when in Playback mode. Nikon caused this problem by killing off the Image-Protect button (yet there is enough space top left, rear above Playback & Delete);

    I found last week’s firmware upgrade a BIG disappointment that these bugs\lost functions have been ignored by Nikon.

    If Nikon make a mature revamp an upgrade of the firmware a MOST URGENT priority, then they will set a new precedent in customer relations. I would advise prospective buyers to hold back to see if the Z6 has improved customization.

  • Bill B - Michael,

    Great review. Thanks for taking the time and effort to write that up. The Nikon Mirrorless Cameras are certainly getting all the love right now.

    Have you had a chance to shoot with the 500 f5.6 PFE lens? I’ve shot a bunch of surfing, soccer, scenics with it and it is awesome. Razor sharp, crazy light weight and compact. My new travel lens for sure as it can fit in my carry on and not attract a ton of attention.

    Appreciate your newsletter too!
    Bill

  • Michael Clark - Bill – I have not shot with that new 500mm PFE. I love the 300 and take it with me just about everywhere. I wish they made that in a Z mount. Not sure I want to buy any F-mount lenses anymore.

  • Bob Towery - Very nice and practical review. This is my first Nikon and I am enjoying it. Easier for me since I don’t have other Nikon bodies to compare to.

  • Klaus - Hello Michael,

    Do you happen to know whether the combination of the latest manual focus Zeiss Milvus lenses and the Z7 body provide for the full functionality?

    Thx and cheers
    Klaus

  • Michael Clark - Klaus – I have not tried them Zeiss Milvus lenses on the Z7 but I don’t see why they wouldn’t work just fine–especially since they are manual focus lenses.

  • 2018: Year in Review » Michael Clark Photography - […] — i.e. fast paced action in dark, mixed lighting. The Z7 did incredibly well. Check out the full review of the Z7 on my […]

  • Equipment Review: Nikon Z6 » Michael Clark Photography - […] 45.7 MP sensor. Hence, for this review, I am not going to rehash everything discussed in my Nikon Z7 review. I will instead concentrate on how the Z6 is different than the Z7 and why for me it was the better […]

To get the ball rolling for the fall holiday season, I am happy to announce a 25% off sale on all of my fine art prints until December 31st, 2018. How this works is very simple, just take 25% off my standard fine art print pricing, which can be found here, and contact me to order the print.

All of my images are available as Fine Art Prints. You can see which of my images are in the Limited Edition category on my website. Any images that are not shown on the Limited Edition page are considered Open Edition prints. Please note that these prices do not include shipping. If you have any questions about print sizes or available images please don’t hesitate to contact me. I will work with you to make sure the final print is the best it can possibly be and will look great mounted on your wall.

These archival prints are painstakingly created by yours truly on some of the finest papers available. I do not outsource printing to a third party printer because I want to have tight control over the quality of the final print, and I have not found a third party printer that can achieve the same level of quality that I can produce here in my office. The prints are made on Epson printers using a variety of papers including both fine art matte papers and baryta photographic papers. The printer and paper combination is chosen specifically for each image so that image will be rendered with the highest possible resolution and the widest color gamut. Our main papers are Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, Ilford Gold Cotton Textured and Ilford Fine Art Smooth papers.

Below are a few sample prints that I have made in the last few months to give you an idea of just how stunning these turn out when framed up.

Please contact me with any questions or if you would like to look at a wider range of images than are featured on my website.

 

Over the past year or more, in anticipation of this time–where Nikon, Canon and everyone else would jump on the mirrorless train–I have been testing out and thinking a lot–too much really–about the equipment I use and what the future holds. It has been clear for a while now, at least to me, that mirrorless cameras are the future of photography. There are a number of reasons for this but chief among them is that to take 35mm full-frame sensors beyond 50 megapixels and have the ability to get sharp handheld images the mirror has to be removed. The mirror causes way too much vibration. The mirror also doesn’t allow for In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS), which is key for getting sharp images at reasonable shutter speeds with super-high resolution sensors. Additionally, the DSLR lenses, at least those in the Nikon and Canon ecosystems, are not able to deal with the higher resolution demands of 50-plus MP sensors–or at least they would not deal with it well. Hence, both Nikon and Canon have created larger lens mounts to allow them to create next-generation higher resolving lenses.

It is only a matter of time until mirrorless cameras mature to where they will be the clear favorite over DSLRs for all genres. For many genres, mirrorless is already a clear favorite. I don’t know that we are there just yet for fast-paced sports photographers like myself, but we aren’t far off. For working professionals, to stay competitive and even improve our photography, pushing the envelope not only with our skills but also with the available technology is tantamount for staying relevant–at least in the adventure spots genre I inhabit. While testing the Nikon Z7 over the last few weeks (stay tuned for my full review), it has got me thinking a lot about how it or any mirrorless camera will be used in tandem with my DSLRs and medium format digital cameras. It has also got me thinking about the giant expense coming soon to replace my entire DSLR kit, that I have built up over decades, with a full-fledged mirrorless kit.

A mirrorless camera changes how you shoot. Because there are both an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a rear LCD, and both are showing the exact same image, I find that I shoot much more often from the hip than I would with a DSLR. I also find myself fine-tuning the image in-camera more than I would with a DSLR. With a DSLR, I am primarily just trying to record image data with a pleasing composition and a satisfactory exposure. I worry about tweaking the final image in the post-processing. With the mirrorless, I am comparing how the subject looks at a normal exposure–or with an underexposed or overexposed look. I can also see immediately if underexposing the image brings color back into the sky or darkens my subject too much. The live histogram is perhaps the best thing about mirrorless and it is something I have been asking for in DSLRs for more than a decade.

Mirrorless cameras offer some serious advantages in terms of speed and ease of use. The live preview image and histogram in the EVF allow you to dial in the exposure exactly as you want without having to shoot an image and then check the LCD as with a DSLR–and then have to shoot another image with new settings, and check it again and so on. Instead, with a mirrorless camera, you can see how the exposure affects the image in real time by looking through the viewfinder and changing settings to dial in the look and feel of the image exactly as you want. This is referred to as “what you see is what you get” or with the acronym WYSIWYG. This massively speeds up the entire process of getting the exposure just where you want it. Going back to my D850 was tough after getting used to this on the Z7. I can see now why DSLRs would seem quite clunky to those that have only used mirrorless cameras. Also, having a built in loupe, i.e. the EVF, to review images even in bright sunlight is a huge bonus, especially if you are using flash or strobes.

Having a live preview of what the image will look like allows for a more artistic decision making process as to how you want the final image to look–at least before raw processing. I would even say, it gets the image farther towards the final look in camera and in some cases speeds up the post-processing workflow. With the live preview in the EVF providing WYSIWYG, you can see that the image is better dark, or maybe you really want those highlights to blow out. Being able to see and compare the differences in the EVF or on the back LCD live allows for an immediate decision making process that is difficult to duplicate on a DSLR–or at the very least it would take a lot longer to work out on a DSLR.

So far, I can easily say the Nikon Z7 is the best mirrorless camera that I have worked with as far as ergonomics, image quality, EVF and overall build. There might be other mirrorless cameras out there with faster autofocus, like the Sony A9, but none of them that I have worked with have the complete feel I have been looking for until I picked up the Nikon Z7. In any case, this blog post isn’t about any one camera but more generally about mirrorless cameras versus DSLRs, which have been the mainstay for the last fifteen years or more. In my experience, once I start shooting with a mirrorless camera, switching to the DSLR feels slow and clunky–unless I need the wicked fast 3D AF Tracking in the Nikon D850. Once the manufacturers can dial in the AF speed and consistency for fast moving sports I think DSLRs will slowly fade out.

While using the tiny Z7 camera body with the 24-70 f/4 S on a recent assignment, I had a discussion with my video crew about showing up with such a small, lightweight camera on a big assignment where you would be charging the client tens of thousands of dollars. The video crew by the way was lugging around a full Red digital cinema camera with five honking huge cine-prime lenses, which made the comparison that much more relevant. Everyone who passed by us was blown away by the video rig and said nothing of the Z7 because it looks like any other consumer camera to the general public. I realize the final images are all that counts, but on some jobs the size of the camera matters in terms of the client, and the subject, feeling like they are working with a top-end photographer. Hence, this discussion about camera size.

In terms of size, Sony and Fuji seemed to have come out with the smallest and lightest MILC offerings. They dictated the form factor and for years hyped the small, lightweight nature of these cameras. Then reality hit the masses when they realized you can’t bend the laws of physics. If you want an f/2.8 lens on a full-frame camera it will be the same size on a mirrorless as it would be on a DSLR and in most cases it might even be slightly larger to account for the shorter flange distance. Hence, that slightly lighter mirrorless camera body isn’t really that much lighter overall. Further, when you take into account the poor battery life of most mirrorless cameras when compared to equivalent DSLRs, and the need to take a few more extra batteries, that weight savings evaporates very quickly. Now that the weight advantage of mirrorless is well understood as a myth, save for when using f/4 and lighter lenses, if we are going to shoot with f/2.8 and faster lenses, like those announced with the Canon EOS R, what is the point of a small form factor for the camera?

It is nice to have a camera that is smaller for expeditions and when weight is a huge concern–and I am all for that–but for a lot of jobs, having a larger camera that is mirrorless (a.l.a. the Leica SL – but not that heavy) might be nice. A larger mirrorless camera body can have more buttons and dials and better ergonomics, like the D850, and still be a mirrorless camera with all the advantages therein. It would also balance better on the larger f/2.8 lenses and it could have larger batteries to overcome the battery life issue. Interestingly, there are now a variety of mirrorless camera sizes on the market. Sony and Fuji are perhaps the smallest, Nikon is a bit larger, Canon opted for an even slightly larger body and then the Leica SL is perhaps the largest full-frame mirrorless option. I don’t think we have yet figured out what size is the best overall size for mirrorless cameras.

My hope is that going forward we can have both smaller and larger mirrorless offerings. A small form-factor full frame mirrorless camera, like the Nikon Z7 or Sony A7RIII, is a great option. I hope that in the future we continue to have these smaller MILC options and a slightly larger mirrorless option with better ergonomics–and the same lens mount. Of course, for the current crop of mirrorless cameras a battery grip can certainly go a long way to making the cameras appear slightly larger and on a lot of assignments, where weight isn’t a concern, I would definitely attach a battery grip to my mirrorless camera if for nothing else than for the appearance of bringing a larger style camera to the assignment. But I hope the camera companies see the benefit of a slightly larger mirrorless camera body. As an example, the size of the Hasselblad X1D is just about perfect.

One question I hear from a lot of photographers is why do we need these super high-resolution cameras? For the working pro, it may be that they need the resolution for huge prints, but those making huge prints are pretty rare. The real reason for super high-resolution cameras is due to higher resolution monitors (think Apple 5K Retina Displays) and the strange crop and aspect ratios associated with modern digital advertising. While teaching at a recent photography workshop for Summit Workshops, Scott Wilson, who is the Managing Director at Sandbox Motion, showed us a slide with all the various crops pulled from one still image for a clients online adverting needs–including web banners (both horizontal and vertical), Instagram, Instagram stories, Facebook, website homepage images, and other various crops. As shown below, I have had similar requests from recent clients to crop images for various online uses. When cropping an image so massively, if you aren’t using a fairly high-resolution camera (i.e. 40-plus MP), then the resulting crops have very little resolution, which can come back to bite you if a cropped image is displayed on a high-resolution monitor. The image below is an example of how the image might be cropped to a variety of different sizes and an aspect ratios. This is the new reality of modern advertising photography.

As with any camera system, there are advantages and disadvantages with mirrorless cameras–as it stands right now. Mirrorless has a distinct advantage in terms of the lack of vibration, better optimized lens options, WYSIWYG, live histograms, live focus peaking and a very intuitive interface. The downside, at least for right now, is slightly slower autofocus for those of us trying to capture fast-moving subjects. For pretty much any photographer that doesn’t need the ultimate in autofocus technology mirrorless is there–it is good enough. For the rest of us, it is just another tool in the bag. Regardless, it is a very exciting time to be a photographer.

  • Martim Vidigal - Hi Michael,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the Mirrorless world.
    Since Nikon and Canon entered the full frame Mirrorless focusing most of their marketing on the lens mount itself I have been wondering what are the advantages of having a bigger diameter mount like Nikon vs the Sony smaller mount diameter.
    In 1987 Canon introduced the EF mount with a much bigger diameter than Nikon and Nikon was still able to build awesome lenses on pair with Canon.
    Do you know what are the advantages of the bigger diameter lens mount?

    Cheers

  • Michael Clark - Martim – Hello. There are quite a few benefits to a larger lens mount, and especially with such a short flange distance like the Z series Nikons and R series Canons. First it simplifies the lens design pretty seriously, allowing lenses to be built with fewer elements, which means more light reaches the sensor (i.e. fewer lens surface interfaces). Second, you can also collimate the light so it is striking the sensor straight on instead of being bent at radical angles. This reduces Chromatic Aberration and also allows for much sharper rendering in the corners than previously. Thirds, it allows for using IBIS to it’s full potential. Fourth, in the case of the Nikon, it might mean that we are using the center of the lens more – i.e. the best part of the optics. With the Z7 I have not really seen any CA at all, which is pretty phenomenal. I will discuss this more in my actual review. This covers the basics of a larger lens mount. I am sure there is a lot I don’t know. Nikon released a very extensive PDF all about the reasoning behind the larger lens mount.

  • Equipment Review: Nikon Z7 » Michael Clark Photography - […] I wrote about in my last blog post, entitled Random Thoughts on Mirrorless Camera Systems, while the small, lightweight form factor of the Z7 is great for some situations, it can be a […]

  • Tony Bonanno - Excellent thoughts about mirrorless Michael! I totally agree that the future will be (or should be) a range of mirrorless cameras incorporating the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of mirrorless. I’m very pleased with the Z7, but already thinking about a Z850 :-).

  • Wilbur Norman - Many Thanks for the article. As a long-time (mostly) Leica user I am clearly not in the telephoto or ‘need for speed’ lane. As such, I now cannot imagine having to use those big, long-lens units of my youth! (Especially as most Leica lenses are basically miniaturized.)

    At Photokina a few weeks ago the crowds of people around the mirrorless stands were many bodies deep. Probably 75% of them were carrying DSLR cameras so it was possible to see, first-hand, the enormous interest in mirrorless. I did persevere and got to fondle the Nikon Z7. Very nice!

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