Equipment Review: Nikon Z7

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.

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