Thoughts on the Nikon Z6 and Z7

Last night Nikon announced their long awaited mirrorless camera system, which now includes the Nikon Z7 and Z6 models. This announcement and the month long lead up of teasers from Nikon constitutes one of the biggest product launches in the history of the company. Rightly so, the internet seemed to explode with coverage of the launch both before it happened and especially afterwards. Nikon is to be commended for producing what seem to be two phenomenal mirrorless cameras. These first two mirrorless cameras put Nikon right into the mix with Sony for top-end, full-frame professional grade mirrorless options. This is probably one of the most exciting product announcements I have seen from Nikon is a long, long time.

At this point, I have not even laid eyes on the camera, much less shot with it, so I hope you have explored the other thousand web pages and videos out there from folks that have actually used the camera. When the Nikon D810 was announced I posted a similar blog post as this one with my thoughts on the new camera, and in this blog post I thought I would share my thoughts on the Nikon Z system just from looking at the specs. Of course, as I learned with the D810, the specs of any camera is only a small part of the shooting experience. Hence, take everything I say here with a grain of salt. I have a Nikon Z7 on order through B&H and will hopefully have a full review for you here in a couple of months.

Of course, as we have all seen, the mirrorless hype is at a fever pitch right now. Before I get into my thoughts here I want to say that no new camera will make you a better photographer. It might make your life easier, but it won’t change how you see the world and how you choose to create images. Faster autofocus might allow you to get sharper images of fast moving subjects than ever before but there have always been workarounds. Here, I hope to cut through some of the hype and talk about mirrorless cameras in general as well as these new Nikons. I have been shooting with Nikon cameras for more than 35 years now–since I was 14 years old. I love my Nikons and they have been my go to camera for my entire career. I am biased when it comes to cameras so there is no getting over that. In the last few years I have had many offers to switch brands and move towards mirrorless cameras from other manufacturers. I have tested out, quite extensively I might add, many of the mirrorless offerings from other manufacturers and considered how they might fit into my existing kit. In every case so far, I found that none of them really worked for me as well as my Nikon DSLRs. In some cases the autofocus wasn’t up to par, in other cases the smaller camera bodies just didn’t feel right and in every case my Nikon D850 offers supreme image quality and the best autofocus I have seen from any camera on the market.

The Nikon Z7, as seen below, looks to be a Nikon D850 in mirrorless form. Without even seeing the camera there are a few things I can tell right off the bat. The ergonomics looks great. I love that Nikon didn’t go too small, and put a real grip on this camera. That is critical for me personally. Time will tell just how good the ergonomics are. Compared to my Nikon D850, using the Z7 will be an easy transition. the button layout is very similar and the controls are well placed. Nikon knows that their pros need a consistent layout to effectively move over to a new camera and it seems they delivered on that front here.

On thing I have realized with all mirrorless cameras is that the dream of a lighter camera is only that–a dream. Sure, the Z7 and Z6 are about 30% lighter than the D850 (330 grams to be exact), but the lenses will pretty much be the same size when comparing f/2.8 versions. When you add in the extra batteries you will have to carry, that weight difference evaporates quickly. The only real way to save weight when it comes to mirrorless cameras, over DSLRs, is to step down to a smaller sensor, like with the Fuji, Panasonic and Olympus mirrorless cameras. But stepping down in sensor size comes with an image quality penalty that I am not willing to make at this point.

With the announcement of the Z7 and Z6, Nikon went to great lengths to communicate why they designed such a huge lens mount. Not only was that lens mount created to accommodate the 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS) but it was also to allow for advanced lens designs, which they say will greatly improve image quality. The samples they offered up in the announcement seemed quite convincing but we will have to wait until more testing is done to see exactly what they mean. Nikon started out as a lens manufacturer, so they know a thing or two about lens designs. I have a feeling they have not gone to such great lengths without having done their homework.

Looking at the future lens line up that Nikon plans to create (see the lens road map below), it is obvious to me that Nikon is looking to create a mix of lenses; some of which are lighter, slower aperture lenses (f/1.8 or f/4) and also some stand-out, crazy-fast primes, like the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/0.95. I am sure at some point they will add faster f/1.4 and f/1.2 primes to the line up because the Z mount allows for that but it is obvious that they are starting out with lenses that are both sharp and also lightweight to go along with the smaller, lighter camera body. I don’t necessarily have any comment on this, though the 58mm Noct-Nikkor is very exciting. The lens road map has some exciting lenses on it but I hope Nikon expands this massively and gets the big three f/2.8 zooms (14-24, 24-70, and 70-200) out on the market as soon as possible. Those are the workhorse lenses for most pros. A fast 24mm and 85mm is also a top priority for most pros.

The giant NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct-Nikkor will surely be an extremely expensive lens. Note that it is also a manual focus lens, which will lean hard on the focus peaking feature built into the Z7 and Z6 to be used effectively. At f/0.95 the depth of field is going to be ridiculously shallow–half the width of an eyelash. Not many folks will have a need for such an expensive and heavy beast but it sure is a wild lens to consider. I am guessing it will be quite popular for rental houses. The expensive nature of the f/0.95 Noct lens is probably why Nikon has a 50mm f/1.2 on their lens road map as well. 

The reality is that it will take years for Nikon to build out the S-line of lenses for the Z series cameras. In the mean time, the FTZ adapter (shown above) will allow any existing AF-S Nikkor lens to be used on the Z-series cameras with no penalty in AF speed or accuracy from what I am hearing online and from those photographers that have used it. That means there are a ton of lenses that can be used with the Z7 and Z6 right off the bat and all of my current F-mount Nikkor lenses can be used on both Nikon’s DSLRs as well as the Z series mirrorless cameras with equal performance. That is quite exciting and a huge deal for all Nikon photographers. The FTZ adapter also makes the Z-series camera system the most robust mirrorless system ever announced–at least up to this point–if indeed the adapter offers the same performance for my AF-S lenses on the new mirrorless cameras. And because of the huge lens mount, you can be guaranteed that a whole slew of adapters will be announced to allow third party lenses to be used on the Z-series cameras. At this point, we still don’t know how third party DSLR lenses (like those from Zeiss, Sigma and Tamron) will fair on the FTZ adapter but I would be surprised if they are compromised in any way.

The specs for both the Z7 and Z6 are pretty incredible — and importantly, they match up quite well to the Sony A7R III and A7 III. The pricing of the Z7 and Z6 also match up closely to the Sony cameras as well. The stand out specs for me are the new autofocus system with 493 AF points that cover 90% of the frame, the 45.7 MP sensors, the 5-axis IBIS stabilization, the smaller, lighter form factor and the fact that the FTZ adapter will allow my F-mount Nikons to perform just as they do on my D850. There is also a silent shooting mode, which I know for many is a very exciting feature. I don’t know that it is something I actually need but I am sure in some situations it will come in handy.

One of the sticking points for me with all mirrorless cameras, from any and all manufacturers, has always been the electronic viewfinder (EVF). I have yet to find one that I really want to look through all day while shooting. I have definitely found that I enjoy optical viewfinders much more than any EVF–including the supposedly amazing one in the Leica SL. This will certainly be a key aspect of the Z7 I want to look at. Several folks have already talked about how crisp and clear the Z7 viewfinder is, even though it is approximately the same resolution as the Sony A7R III EVF. I am guessing the lenses they put in front of that EVF make a big difference. Fingers crossed it is spectacular.

The new larger lens mount is also very exciting. I have no doubt that Nikon can take their Z lenses to a whole new level of optical quality and that will be very, very important if they hope to announce cameras with a resolution higher than 50 MP. I think they are setting themselves up to go well beyond 50 MP with the Z-series cameras. In order to handhold a 35mm digital camera that has 60-plus MP, the lenses will have to surpass any that Nikon currently makes and the 5-axis IBIS will also be mandatory to get sharp images handheld. I think this is the real reason that they went with the huge lens mount. The larger lens mount might also offer the option of slightly expanding the size of the sensor by a few millimeters each way to deal with noise issues that would be created by packing that many pixels onto a sensor. I have no idea if a slightly larger sensor was part of their thinking or not but it would make sense.

There are a few specs that left a lot of folks wanting with these new cameras. The biggest one is that that there is only one memory card slot. I applaud Nikon for using XQD cards as those are the best memory cards on the market by far in my opinion. But, most of us have gotten used to having two memory cards in the camera and writing images to both cards simultaneously. Many folks online have said that this is a deal breaker for them using these new Z-series cameras professionally. I am not sure I would go that far, but it is a curious decision on Nikon’s part. I would have rather seen two card slots and a slightly larger camera body than just the one card slot.

As a side note, my Hasselblad H5D-50c, which cost more than my car, only has one memory card slot and I certainly consider that a professional grade camera. I often shoot in the field with it and rarely shoot tethered. It doesn’t bother me that it only has one card slot. Also, when shooting fast-paced sports, like big wave surfing, I set up my D850 to only shoot to the XQD card because shooting to both cards would slow the camera down and fill up the buffer faster. I have not ever had an XQD card failure. The only memory card failure I have ever had was with SD cards. Hence if the Z7 only had one SD memory card slot then I might be a little worried, but with XQD it seems pretty solid.

Another issue for me is the frame rates. Sure, the Z7 can get up to 9 fps and the Z6 can get up to 12 fps but they both can only achieve those frame rates in 12-bit mode. In 14-bit mode, the Z7 is limited to 5.5 fps and the Z6 is limited to 9 fps. The buffers are also a bit limiting. It has been many years since I have shot in 12-bit mode and I have no plans to ever shoot in 12-bit again as it is a pretty significant difference in image quality when compared to 14-bit, especially when making prints. Hence, for my work, the Z7 might be an addition to my workhorse D850 but it would never take it’s place fully. As a side note here, the Sony offerings (A7R III and A9) suffer from this same issue. Their top-end fps ratings are all in 12-bit mode and are significantly slower when shooting in 14-bit. As far as frame rates go, I could care less about a 20 fps burst rate. That only adds to the crazy number of images shot and extends the editing time massively. If I can’t get the image I want with 9 to 11 fps then it isn’t the camera that is the issue.

One of the other oddities I found in the specs is that the flash sync speed has dropped to 1/200th second on both the Z6 and Z7, down from 1/250th second on most every other Nikon camera in recent memory. It isn’t a huge deal as most of use are using Hi-Sync (HS) or High Speed Sync (Has) strobes these days but it is a curious difference. Because of the IBIS stabilization, the 1/200th second flash sync speed doesn’t matter as much as it did on the D850.

Battery life is also a big issue for mirrorless cameras. The upside is that the Z-series cameras have a similar battery to the Nikon D850 batteries so you can use the ones you have. Also, the new EN-EL15b battery can be charged via USB, which is a great option. On the down side, it only gets 330 shots per charge but I have heard that a few folks online have gotten much better battery life than that so we’ll have to wait and see. Nikon has also announced a battery grip, which they will release here at some point. The grip will hold two additional batteries and triple the battery longevity. Sadly, it does not increase the frame rate in 14-bit mode as with the Nikon D850 battery grip.

For many, the video features of these new mirrorless cameras were the main spec they really wanted to see improved upon over the Nikon DSLR cameras. I think they will be quite satisfied as the video specs look pretty fantastic. Full frame 4K UHD footage, 4:2:0 output in camera and 4:2:2 10-bit output via HDMI to an external 4K recorder as well as what seems to be excellent autofocus during video recording. The Z6 might actually be the better of the two for video as it will have less noise and doesn’t use pixel binning when shooting full-frame. Otherwise, the video specs are pretty much the same on both cameras. I know some have said online that Nikon blew it by not offering a RAW video codec. That might be possible but the camera would surely suffer from overheating issues. There is a reason the Red Digital Cinema cameras are so huge and have giant slots for venting. There is also a new N-Log video codec that offers an even flatter picture profile than the “Flat” profile available in the menu. To access the N-Log profile you will have to use an external 4k recorder.

Below are a series of images of the Z7, showing it from various angles. The weather sealing (also shown below) is said to be on par with Nikon’s top-end DSLRs, which is a nice touch as well. All in all it is a smart looking camera with well-laid out controls.

Not only did Nikon announce their new mirrorless system but they also announced the AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens that looks incredible! This is a phase fresnel lens that is considerably shorter and lighter than any of Nikon’s other super telephoto lenses. I have the 300mm PF lens that came out a few years ago and I love that lens. The 500mm version looks like the perfect surfing photography lens. This lens is only slightly larger than the Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens and it will cost one-third the price of the AF-S 500mm f/4 version. Add in that with the FTZ adapter, it will work perfectly with the new Nikon Z7 and Z6 cameras and you have one heck of a lightweight super telephoto lens option. For my work, this lens might be just as exciting as the announcement of the Z7!

In conclusion, the new Nikon Z7 and Z6 mirrorless cameras look pretty sweet. Nikon has pretty much hit it out of the park with all of their recent camera launches so I am sure these will be no different. They have come into the mirrorless market at a very high level–matching or exceeding what is already out there. For those adopting this camera I think the biggest differences will be the IBIS stabilization and the video features. I suppose the big questions are will I be adding one to my kit and do I see it replacing my D850s? I will have to use the Z7 before I will know if it is something I will add to my kit. As I said in the beginning, specs are only a small part of a cameras allure. At this point, I do not see the Z7 replacing either of my two D850 camera bodies. The main reason for this is the 14-bit high frame rate of the D850 (9 fps with the battery grip) compared to the slower 14-bit frame rate of the Z7 (5.5fps). If anything, I could see adding the Z7 to my existing kit and choosing it for those times when I want a slightly lighter, smaller camera to take into the field. I do believe that mirrorless is the future of photography and most if not all of us at some point will be working with mirrorless cameras, but we aren’t there yet. For most pros, it will be a long transition period. I am all about being on the cutting-edge of technology, but I also need gear that I can trust to deliver under pressure every time I head out the door.

Congratulations to Nikon on the launch of their new mirrorless system – and all of their new products! I hope to get my hands on one of these new cameras as soon as they are available. Stay tuned for a full review. For more info on the Nikon Z7 and Z6 head to the Nikon website.

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