Nikon was a little late to the mirrorless game with its 1 system, and it wasn't what a lot of people expected (nor wanted). With relatively small 1-inch sensors and bodies that were a little too devoid of physical control, there just wasn't enough here to tempt the enthusiast away from either their DSLRs or rival mirrorless systems, and they quietly disappeared from Nikon's website.
The company's new Z system couldn't be more different. With a fresh lens mount that's been crafted with wide-aperture lens design in mind, and its first two models built around full-frame sensors, this is a system that many photographers had wanted from the start.
The more senior of the pair is the Nikon Z7, whose closest equivalent in the company's DSLR lineup is the hugely successful D850. With Sony's now on its ninth full-frame mirrorless camera, and Canon spoiling Nikon's fun quite recently with its own full-frame mirrorless EOS R model, the Z7 has been launched at a time where it won't get an easy ride. That said, many photographers have been waiting patiently to see what Nikon would end up doing, and, minor card slot debacle aside, the response from the photographic community had been overwhelmingly positive.
Nikon Z7: features
- 45.7MP BSI full-frame sensor
- 5-axis Vibration Reduction system
- 4K UHD video recording
The Z7 shares a 45.7MP (effective) pixel count with the company's still-popular D850 DSLR, and both sensors have a backside-illuminated (BSI) design to help with light capture, together with no anti-aliasing filter for better detail capture. The sensor in the Z7, however, is different; while we're not told quite how it compares in terms of performance, it contains 493 phase-detect AF pixels to help with focusing – more on this later.
There's also a new lens mount, which currently accepts three native lenses, but many more are promised over the next few years. The flange depth measures just 16mm and the diameter of the lens mount is a wide 55mm, which bodes well for high-quality lenses with wide apertures. Next year will, for example, welcome a NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct lens, which Nikon has made a lot of noise about since the launch of the Z system.
Images from the Z7 are output at a maximum resolution of 8256 x 5504 and tend to weigh around 17-31MB, depending on what it is you're capturing, ISO setting and so on. Opened up in Photoshop, these measure a hefty 130MB at default settings.
The Z7 can also be set to capture 14-bit Raw files, in either compressed, losslessly compressed or uncompressed formats, and you can also output TIFFs straight away if you need to.
One of the most significant changes between the Z7 and its DSLR cousins is that Vibration Reduction is located inside the camera, rather than in the lens. This system is said to be effective for up to five stops, and can work over five axes: roll, pitch, yaw and X an Y shift.
The main advantage of this VR system for the current Nikon user is that their older non-stabilised lenses can suddenly benefit from the equivalent technology inside the Z7. This is made possible through the optional FTZ adapter, which allows F-mount lenses to be mounted. Nikon assures owners that AF and auto-exposure will be maintained with around 90 or so lenses, and AF will be maintained for around 360 in total. And, if you happen to be using an optic with VR included, the two systems with join forces and work together.
4K video recording is offered only in the 4K UHD (3840×2160) flavour, rather than in both DCI 4K and UHD 4K, and footage can be captured at 30, 25 and 24p. If you're happy to apply a DX crop to footage – this may, after all, even be preferable depending on your subject, lens and so on – Nikon promises that you'll actually benefit from slightly crisper footage, as it will capture 5K-worth of information with full-pixel readout, before downsampling this to a 4K output.
As is now becoming standard on such cameras, 4K recording is supported by Full HD recording to a maximum 120/100p, which can respectively be output 5x and 4x slower, and the option to capture 4K-resolution (8.3MP) stills during recording has also made the cut.
Nikon has also chosen the Z7 to debut its own Log shooting function, dubbed N-Log, and this is bolstered by a raft of features such as zebra patterning, focus peaking, timecode. An electronic version of the company's Vibration Reduction can also be called upon to steady recordings, either on its own or in conjunction with the sensor-based system, and you can hook up both a microphone and set of headphones through ports at the camera's side for audio monitoring and recording respectively.
Burst shooting happens at a very respectable frame rate of 9fps, although this drops by one frame per second if you wish to use 14-bit Raw as your recording format. Switch to continuous focus and the camera can sustain speeds of up to 5.5fps, which once again drops a touch when using 14-bit Raw files to 5fps.
Nikon's decision to equip the Z7 with a single XQD card slot has proved to be something of a controversial move, both for the choice or format and the absence of a secondary slot, but the company is keen to stress the rigidity and performance advantages of these cards, and support for the CFExpress successor is also pegged for the future. This will potentially ready the system for the arrival of even higher megapixels sensors and video recording in formats beyond 4K.
Wireless connectivity is also on hand, both through a vanilla Wi-Fi connection and Bluetooth. Nikon's SnapBridge system can also be used, either working with Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) to keep the camera sending low-resolution images through to a smart devices, or you can transfer full-resolution images and videos through a standard Bluetooth connection. Remote operation of the camera from a smart device is also a possibility.
Build and handling
- Magnesium alloy in top, front and back covers
- Weather-resistance to D850 standard (at least)
- 200k-cycle mechanical shutter
The D850 is many things, but a looker it is not. With a deep grip and a viewfinder chamber that stands proud of the top plate, it appears most like the company's 1 V2 model, with a little Samsung NX and Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II influence thrown in on top.
Perhaps with the likes of Olympus's PEN range, Fujifilm's X series and more leftfield options from Leica we're spoilt for choice these days – but none of this should matter, as handling and operation should always trump mere looks.
And once you start using it, you can see just why Nikon has made the decisions it has. While things are a little different from the usual DSLR setup, Nikon has done a great job to maintain what's great about the models many are already familiar with, while also injecting something more unique to the Z series.
The model fits very nicely in the hand. The grip isn't quite as sculpted as on some other models such as the Pentax K-1 Mark II, but it still feels very comfortable in the hand. Those with larger hands may find their little finger just hangs a little off the bottom, but otherwise there's just about enough space. Plenty of rubber is used around the grip and backplate, and the hump on the side of the body that allows you to open the card compartment gives the thumb something to push against when holding the camera for extra security.
The Z7 makes use of magnesium alloy in its top, front and back covers for rigidity. It doesn't feel constructed to the same tank-like level as the D5, but then it's not necessarily being aimed at that same user, so this should come as no surprise. In any case, it feels solid enough in the hands, and attention to detail is high throughout.
The proximity of the camera's sensor to the front of the lens mount also means that the rear of the lens is somewhat shallow, and so are the corresponding rear lens caps. This makes them more awkward to remove from lenses, which may not be an issue right now, but potentially could be once you start to build up a collection.
The position of the power control around the shutter-release button allows you to turn the camera on instinctively as you pick it up, and the ISO, exposure compensation and movie-record buttons are all within easy reach of the index finger.
Exposure compensation and ISO are adjusted by holding the relevant controls down and turning the the large rear command dial, which happens easily enough; it's only when you switch between ISO and Auto ISO do you need to enlist the help of the your middle finger to turn the front command dial, which is a little awkward. Changes are displayed on the small LCD next to these controls, and these light up automatically for use in darker conditions.
The various buttons on the rear are all just as clearly labelled as they are on the company's most recent DSLRs. Some may prefer these to travel a little deeper into the body, but the camera responds well enough to even lighter presses. Only the drive mode button right down in the bottom-right-hand corner is a little more awkward, being recessed a little further into the back plate, potentially to prevent this from being keyed accidentally.
The AF joystick – officially known as the sub-selector – bears the same design as the equivalent control on the D850, and, thankfully, it's not positioned right where the left-eye-shooter's nose would naturally fall when using the viewfinder, as it is on so many other cameras. It moves well and responds just as easily to diagonal movements as it does to horizontal and vertical ones.
The LCD screen's slim profile helps to keep the thickness of the body down, and this peels away from the back of the camera with little effort when the bottom is lifted upwards. The display's slimness does make it a little more difficult to bring the top of the screen down from the camera for high-level shooting, something that's compounded by the bump on the left-hand side that's used to get purchase not being quite as salient as it could be. Over time, you would naturally probably grab the bottom to begin with anyway, regardless of where you ultimately wanted the screen positioned.
The NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S is, for now, the de facto kit lens, being the only zoom in the series that's not still under development. It features a collapsible construction, which means that it needs to be unlocked from its stowed position before each use, although this isn't anywhere near as annoying a process as it is on cheaper kit lenses. There's no catch of any kind, you just need to rotate the lens through the barrier at the 24mm setting.
You don't have to rotate the lens to its most compact position after every use, but doing so shortens it by around an inch, so you'll likely end up doing so anyway. With a length that's around the same as a standard packet of cigarettes and a 72mm filter diameter, it's very compact for a full-frame lens with a constant maximum aperture, although we shouldn't forget that this is still an f/4 lens. Quite how small Nikon manages to make its upcoming 24-70mm f/2.8 lens – ie the lens that many pros will want to keep on their cameras for general shooting – and thus the size advantage over an equivalent DSLR setup, remains to be seen.
The shallower of the two rings around this lens's barrel is set for manual focusing at default, although this is not mechanically linked to anything inside the lens, and so it can have it function changed to aperture or exposure compensation (or to nothing). Both this and the NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens supplied for this review have this ring, although as these are declicked and very sensitive to adjustment, it's quite easy to jump a little too far ahead of where you want to be. On the other hand, being declicked makes them ideal for video recording, particularly when using the power aperture feature.
- Hybrid AF with 493 phase-detect AF points
- 90% vertical and horizontal coverage
- 435 phase-detect AF points during video recording
The camera's autofocus system can be alternated between single- and continuous-focus options when capturing images, and you can choose full-time AF when capturing movies. You can also set the camera to predictive focus tracking, should you want to maintain a lock on a subject. On top of the auto-area AF and single point patterns, you can also opt for a pinpoint option to home in on very fine subjects, together wide-area and dynamic patterns. Manual focus with focus peaking rounds this all off.
The focusing system makes use of both phase- and contrast-detect technologies, and these appear to work very well. In good light the camera often finds focus very promptly, though it's perhaps a fraction of a second behind the standard set by some other models right now.
In poor light, the camera readily deploys its green AF assist light and tends to find focus with little delay. While understandably slower when this light is disabled, it's actually fast enough for it to not make significant difference for static subjects. Only in very poor light with this light disabled does it sometimes fail to find focus at all.
Predictive focus tracking is another strength, particularly when you use this with the touchscreen, where you can specify where you want the camera to keep focus as you (or the subject) move. You just tap with your finger and a small yellow box adheres to the chosen subjects. This system works very well in practice, sticking with the subject even after the camera is jerked sharply, or if the lens is zoomed suddenly from one extreme of its focal range to the other. It can get confused if another subject passes between the camera and the subject, but you can instruct the camera to stick with the original subject for longer through the AF Tracking sensitivity option, should you feel the need to to so.
One very helpful touch is that pressing the OK button when playing back images – or immediately after capture if you have image-review activated – not only zooms immediately to a 100% view of the scene, but it does so at wherever you set the focus point. This shaves off time checking focus and sharpness, and will no doubt be particularly appreciated by portrait photographers.
At default, focus is pulled very smoothly and discretely during videos, although this can be quickened or slowed as you wish. There is a little noise from the camera as it refocuses, but this is really only audible in when shooting in silent conditions. (The same is true of silent shooting, which is very, very quiet, but not completely silent). The sound of the lens being zoomed is also easily picked up in recordings, although for more professional use you're likely to be using prime lenses and manually focusing anyway.
Face detection can also be used in videos, and this appears to work very well. The system sticks with the subject as moves around the scene, and even managed to focus back on a subject after temporarily losing it after as they turned around.
- 9fps burst shooting (8fps in 14-bit Raw)
- 3.69million-dot viewfinder
- 2.1million-dot tilting touchscreen
One disadvantage mirrorless cameras sometimes have over DSLRs is that they can be a little sluggish when powering up. The pause between the action of turning the camera on and everything waking up can mean you miss a critical moment, although the Z7 comes to life quickly, with the viewfinder active and the autofocus system ready for action with almost no delay.
The viewfinder boasts a 3.69million-dot OLED panel and a magnification of 0.8x, the former being what we now expect on such models and the latter being a fraction larger than what we tend to get here. There's the regular handful of exposure and shooting information lining the bottom of the display, and wealth of additional detail above it, from Picture Style, White Balance and to battery life and Vibration Reduction.
The 0.80x magnification and 21mm eyepoint is an excellent combination, with a large but comfortable view when you bring the camera up to where it naturally feels right. This is pretty much the limit of where you can still see the scene without looking around the viewfinder, although those who wear glasses may find the very edges of the eyecup start to encroach on the view.
The refresh rate is 60fps, which isn't quite the highest we're seeing on mirrorless models, but this doesn't appear to stop the camera from showing a very lifelike rendition of the scene in front of it. Together with its high resolution, details are nice and crisp, and it's easy to check focus, or review images post capture. Noise starts to dance around the scene in poor light, but the scene remains very visible. The only minor issue is that some fringing can be seen at the peripheries of the frame in some situations, typically when shooting high-contrast subjects, though this doesn't appear in images.
The LCD screen's 2.1million dots also deliver a nice, crisp view of the the scene, and the touch functionality has been well implemented. The screen responds to light touches without any issue, and swiping through captured images only requires gentle swipes. There's also very little lag as you move around the image to check focus. Overall, there's little to fault here, although you can occasionally attract the attention of the viewfinder's eye sensor when using the touchscreen and temporarily interrupt its display.
If there's one thing that disappoints about the Z7's performance it's buffer depth. Switch to Raw and JPEG shooting at the very highest quality settings – so 14-bit Raw files and Fine JPEGs – and you'll find the camera can only maintain its 8fps burst speed for around 10-12 frames.
Switch to 12bit Raw shooting and you gain 1fps to the maximum 9fps, and you can capture around 18-19 frames at a consecutive speed, and this is the same number you get when you capture 14-bit Raw frames at 8fps without JPEGs. Fine-quality JPEGs without Raw files are captured at 9fps, but the camera can only manage around 25-26 of these before it starts to run our of breath and slows down. And this is all with focus locked to the first frame; continuous focus drops the frame rate to 5fps or 5.5fps, depending on your bit depth.
To the Z7's credit, the camera doesn't lock up and prevent the menus from being accessed as these are being sent to the memory card, which is a common problem after shooting bursts of images on other models. Nevertheless, this is still one area where models like the Sony A7R III and Panasonic G9 very much have the upper hand.
Bursts are typically written to the XQD card in a matter of a few seconds. The fact that you can't currently buy a 'bad' XQD card is also a blessing, and given how easy it is to snap the rear plastic dividers between the contacts on regular SD cards, the more streamlined design of XQD cards will no doubt be appreciated over time.
Using F-mount and third-party lenses on the Z7
Something many prospective Z-series owners will no doubt be interested in is the extent to which Nikon's F-mount and third-party lenses – i.e. any non-native lenses – can be used as seamlessly on the Z7 as they can on Nikon's DSLRs.
Nikon assures users that most modern NIKKOR lenses will be able to work with both auto-exposure and autofocus, but it does not comment on third-party lens compatibility as it does not officially recommend using third-party lenses at all. But the reality is that many people will.
The camera appears to work perfectly well with modern Nikon lenses such as the AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED and AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, with focusing speeds no different from when using them on a DSLR and no issues with auto-exposure to report. The size of the adapter also only adds a little extra length to such optics, so an optic like the 60mm lens is perfectly usable. Heavier optics, such as the 24-70mm lens, do create more of an imbalance.
The camera appeared to work perfectly well with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM|Art lens, although as a weighty lens on a relatively compact body, the same issue described above re-occurs. The camera also seems to play along well with the Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM, designed for DX-format cameras, immediately cropping the sensor areas to the DX format.
These two Sigma lenses are just a sliver of the total range of third-party options that you could potentially use with the Z7, and so it's possible that you may run into some difficulty with older or more exotic options. That said, perfectly good behaviour with these two relatively modern Sigma lenses is at least a good sign for those who may have their own third-party options with relatively up-to-date technology.
- ISO64-25,600 (expandable to ISO32-102,400)
- 8 Picture Controls and 20 Creative Picture Controls
- In-camera raw processing (now including diffraction compensation)
The Z7 provides matrix, center-weighted or highlight-weighted metering patterns, and the default option behaves predictably. Most scenes do not require any manual intervention, although there is a very slight bias towards underexpose in relatively flat scenes (such as in the image below). Adding +1/3EV in such scenes can open up shadows a little, although Active D-Lighting is also effective at delivering better balance.
The camera's attempt to retain detail in all areas means that scenes with larger brighter areas will often be underexposed a little, but this is easily remedied with either exposure compensation or Active D-Lighting, the latter on hand in four flavors and an Auto setting.
Dynamic range also appears strong. Low-ISO raw files that are underexposed by the full five stops allowed by exposure compensation can be bought back to usability in post processing, with just a scattering of noise to deal with. This is an extreme example, but certainly in situations in which you're forced to underexpose by a stop or two, you can regain very good level of detail from darker areas.
Noise levels appear well controlled, no doubt helped by the back-illuminated design of the sensor. At the lowest native ISO settings, noise is barely perceptible in flat areas (blue skies, for example). Mid-range four-figure ISO settings show this to have a fine texture that's not too destructive to image details, and while this becomes more prominent at ISO 6400, plenty of detail remains. Default in-camera noise reduction for JPEGs isn't too destructive, even at higher settings like ISO25,600, although those used to seeing noise-reduced images will notice this at work.
Default color output from the Z7 is pleasing. The Standard Picture Control does well to depict the scene as it appears in real life, and mirrors what we've come to expect from the company's DSLRs. The same Vivid, Flat, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral and Auto options we've seen before are now complemented with 20 Creative Picture Controls, which include commonly seen styles such as Toy and Bleached together with options such as Sunday (?) and Denim (below).
The camera's Auto White Balance system is reliable, although Nikon’s tendency to neutralise more subtle tones can be apparent at times. Yes, you can shift to one of the alternative auto white balance settings, but these do not appear to do much in natural light, as they’re more for scenes lit with warmer sources. Performance under mixed artificial lighting appears sound, with repeated exposes not deviating from each other.
The sensor-based Vibration Reduction system also appears to work well. As with any such system, the benefit you see depends very much on how away the subject is, your focal length and so on, but most images captured show the system to be delivering a good 2-3-stop advantage. Close-up, it's possible to still get sharp images at around 1/10sec when at the 70mm end, which is around three stops slower. For more distant subjects, it's possible to get acceptable sharpness at shutter speeds as low as 0.5sec (which equates to five stops), but not consistently. 1/4sec is a more reliable option here.
4K video footage appears nice and crisp, and the benefits of using both the sensor-based and electronic VR are easy to see when compared with footage shot using neither. A little rolling shutter is present when shooting at wide-angle, and this becomes more pronounced at longer focal lengths, but this isn't too badly controlled overall. Slow-motion footage (below) is also nicely detailed and free of obvious artefacts, although testing conditions such as low and artificial lighting can introduce noise and banding.
Nikon has made it clear how important a launch the Z7 is, and it certainly feels like a camera that will be one day looked back as the start of something significant.
By cutting its losses with its 1 Series and focusing on building a new future-proof system from scratch, it has done exactly what many people had hoped it would pull off. Gone are the small 1-inch sensors, the slippery bodies and the over-reliance on touchscreen operation. Where the 1 system disappointed, the Z system – at least so far – has triumphed.
And what a triumph it is. As a first-generation camera we should expect the odd hiccup, but the Z7 has been crafted with consideration and it behaves far better than we should expect. A solid sensor, combined with effective image stabilisation that's conveniently located in the body, together with a beautiful EVF, excellent handling, very competent AF performance and great response throughout form the bones of what make this camera such a pleasure to use. It’s not the most elegantly designed camera of its kind, but you soon see past this once you start using it, as you appreciate that these decisions bode very well for handing and operation.
With a relatively shallow burst depth, however, it’s not the best choice for sports photographers, despite the dexterity of the predictive tracking and continuous AF system. The 330-shot battery is pretty average for such a model too, and while it's worth remembering that CIPA ratings do not accurately reflect what you can achieve in everyday use, this is still quite behind the 650 and 710-shot ratings that Sony’s A7R III and A7 III models currently enjoy. The convenience of USB charging takes some of the sting out of this, but you might want to grab an extra battery anyway.
It’s also difficult to ignore that, for all its many merits, it all comes a price. At least if we overlook the more niche options from the likes of Hasselblad and Leica, the Z7 is currently the second priciest mirrorless camera on the market, with only the Sony A9 above it. We should, of course, expect a camera of this calibre to arrive with a lofty price tag, and as it's still on pre-order (at the time of writing), there hasn't been a chance for its price to settle in the market. Then again, it’s considerably more expensive than the similar Z6 that’s shortly due to be with us, and also the Canon’s EOS R, which may not have quite the same charms but does at least maintain a number of its own advantages.
Furthermore, while the choice of XQD cards may well prove to a good one in the long run, just one of these relatively modest 32GB cards and a reader will currently set you back three figures. You’re paying for quality, but boy are you paying for it.
Even with these minuses against it, it's hard not to be impressed. This isn't camera aimed at the sports photographer, nor the mass market, but it probably won't be long before we see the range expand to include models that will tempt a broader audience. And some, dare we speculate, may even have two card slots. Whichever direction Nikon chooses for the Z system, the company should feel incredibly proud of what it’s managed to achieve here. This really is an exceptional way to kick off a new system.