The Burning Questions
The Nikon Z 7 is undeniably a professional tool. But does it have what it takes to bring countless photographers, especially pros, back into the Nikon camp? More to the point, will the Z-series put a big detour sign on future DSLR development from this manufacturer, perhaps stopping it dead in its tracks, as these new mirrorless cameras pave their own path? And will video shooters find in the Z 7 what they’ve been missing in the D850? Granted, the delay in the Z-series introduction may have weakened the initial foothold Nikon had hoped to gain, but time (and timely innovative product introductions, especially lenses) will tell if this icon in the world of photographic image-making will recapture the adoration of photo enthusiast and pro alike that this company once enjoyed.
First things first, however… How did the Nikon Z 7 fare in our real-world tests?
Even before that, allow me to add, for the most part, I am bypassing tech specs. You can read tech specs on Nikon’s website by clicking this link. Other reviews get bogged down in them. I won’t waste your time.
And Questions I Ask Myself
My go-to DSLR these days is the Nikon D500, so I naturally had to compare the new Z 7 with my D500. Of course, one key difference, aside from the mirror, is that the D500 sports the smaller APS-C sensor, compared with the full-frame sensor of the Z 7. But if sensor size were the only factor driving you to the Z-series, then you might consider the D850.
The D500 serves me well in my wildlife and bird photography, given the fast 10 fps. And, arguably, the cropped sensor proves beneficial in stretching the reach of my long zooms. And, yes, I also own a full-frame D610, which mostly sits idle these days (until I brought it out to compare with the Z 7, in terms of footprint and interface). But both the D500 and D610 DSLRs are a bit on the hefty and bulky side.
Still, the D500 is my go-to, and in testing the Z 7, my overriding thought was: Are the smaller size and weight of the Z 7 enough to sway my thinking toward mirrorless, notably the Z 7 (or any Z-series camera)? And are the newer technologies really relevant to what I photograph, notably wildlife, and my style of shooting? Will this camera benefit me, and, if so, how? Also, is it worth the price of admission and am I willing to replace a number of my lenses just to buy that ticket? Further, how much am I focused on shooting movies? This last factor could tip the scales for many photographers these days, though I'm currently on the fence when it comes to shooting video with a still camera. Read more by clicking this link.
Where Do I Get More Info? (click link)
How Much Is It?
Nikon Z 7 w/24-70mm kit lens: $3,999.95
Nikon Z 7 body only: $3,399.95
Nikon Z 7 – Initial Impressions
So, getting back to the Z 7. After attaching the 24-70mm kit lens, I hefted the combo in my right hand – and was not immediately struck by any weight advantage over my D500, even though the lenses for my D500 are notably bigger and heavier. But this is understandable, considering that the Z 7 is a ruggedized professional camera. It needs some of that heft to reassure you of its solid build. Oddly enough, however, that impression would change dramatically the first time I took this camera into the field, as I began to see the smaller size and weight of the Z 7 as a distinct advantage, at least when it came to the Z 7/kit lens combo.
I immediately found the grip more comfy on the Z 7, no doubt due to its more compact size and more ergonomic feel. But there’s a catch. The positioning of the shutter release button on the D500 (and D610) falls more naturally under my index finger than it does on the Z 7, where the shutter finger felt a bit contorted. Oddly enough, the same reason that makes the Z 7 more comfy to hold is the same reason for that contorted shooting finger: that more compact grip. Anyway, out in the field, this went entirely unnoticed as I started shooting. And to bring the point home further, on my first outing with the Z 7 and kit lens, I didn’t even bother to use a strap of any kind. I simply held the camera by the grip the entire time. So much ado about nothing? Perhaps… You’ll have to take the camera in hand to judge for yourself.
Nikon Z 7 - The Takeaway: Highly Recommended
With the look and feel of a pro 35mm-style camera, the Nikon Z 7 is an eminently capable digital camera, offering high-resolution still capture with a wide array of practical features and expanded video shooting, but with room to grow. Flawed in some respects and with a limited lens lineup to take advantage of the Z 7’s built-in image stabilization, smaller size and lighter weight, the Z 7 may not lead the field even among Nikon cameras, but the Z-series as a whole has the potential to overtake the competition provided several prudent improvements are implemented. Based on my observations, I can comfortably recommend the Nikon Z 7 mirrorless camera for pros and serious amateurs alike, if with a few reservations. It's a camera that will grow on you and with you.
The interface on the Z 7 is somewhat different from that on my D500, and, in certain respects, closer to that found on my D610. Given the smaller footprint of the Z 7 and the interactive monitor, some things apparently had to go.
Clearly, the one thing my DSLRs lack is that touch-screen interface. (Well, there is a touch panel on the D500, but its use is limited in scope, definitely nothing like the Z 7. And, frankly, it’s a feature I never use, although, after being reminded of it, I may on occasion – if I remember.)
Returning to the Z 7. What may take a bit of getting used to is that touch-screen interface – at least for seasoned shooters like myself, although I do recognize that the recent crop of enthusiast cameras do have this feature, not to mention every smartphone and tablet on the planet, making it a familiar feature to many. Still, when you’re used to buttons that fall beneath your fingertips, suddenly having to change your entire mindset can be off-putting. But, again, that’s me.
Of necessity, some of the more familiar function buttons tend to be replaced once a touch-responsive display comes onto the scene. So, if you’re old-school, get used to life in the 21st Century. Initially, each time I picked up the camera, I would look for buttons that no longer existed. It was a learning curve, but a brief one.
The Z 7’s touch panel is not all-inclusive. What I wouldn’t give to have some function buttons back! One more thing worth noting: Despite an increasing familiarity with the touch screen, I still found myself searching the screen for the applicable icon. And sometimes I’d forget to hit “OK” on the screen or to alternately use the “OK” button to lock in my selection. Yes, the panel is user-customizable and, right off the top, there are at least one or two settings I would switch out.
Finally, we come to the EVF, or electronic viewfinder, which, as Nikon defines it, consists of a "1.27-cm/0.5-in. approx. 3690k-dot (Quad VGA) OLED." Interestingly, Nikon largely refers to this simply as the “viewfinder” and the LCD touch panel on back as the “monitor.” In actuality, each does double duty, alternating between viewfinder and monitor, depending on where your eye is at the time.
That said, with a DSLR, you’re used to an optical viewfinder that is constantly “on” – there’s no on-off switch. With an EVF, to preserve battery life, there is a momentary hesitation – if a very brief one – when you switch the camera on, or, when already switched on, when you put camera to eye, which awakens the camera from standby mode. In that fraction of a second, you’re blind to the scene in front of you. Not insurmountable obstacles by any stretch of the imagination, but yet another of those 21st Century technological “conveniences” one must get used to. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that if you snatch the camera up quickly, it comes alive (out of standby), and is at the ready.
Still, I’ve missed numerous shots due to the blacked-out EVF. And when you’re photographing wildlife, especially birds, or sports, a moment’s hesitation is once again a shot lost – and possibly the shot of the day. So, Nikon, please address this issue, with a setting that keeps the display on full-time and perhaps a longer-life battery that allows the display to remain in a ready/steady state akin to the optical viewfinder we’re familiar with.
But my pet peeves aside, the full-information viewfinder was a pleasure to work with. The image was crystal clear, with good contrast. Aside from the blackouts, I rarely, if ever, realized I was working with an EVF – the only giveaway being the full-information display. And one more thing…
I especially appreciated the electronic level gauge (Virtual horizon, in Nikon parlance), especially when photographing architecture, but even with my nature shots – I hate skewed horizon lines.
I rarely used the tilting monitor though, but do recall employing it briefly when photographing some butterflies, to get around awkward stances, and I even used the touch-focus feature.
I soon returned to the EVF, given, what I felt, was the more responsive nature of the AF (autofocusing) system when viewing through the finder. And I should add that images are more stabilized when shooting this way, than with a camera held by outstretched arms.
Another thing that bugged me with this camera, and this pet peeve solely revolves around the 24-70mm f/4 kit lens, is having to zoom the lens out to its “starting point” at 24mm. When fully retracted, the lens and camera are locked – and practically unusable. When you pull a camera out of the bag, each extra step means one potential picture that could have been.
That aside, I found zooming and manual focusing with this lens went smoothly, and there was no lens creep. Optical performance was more than acceptable, although color fringing was apparent but easily tackled in Capture One. Vignetting was mild enough not to prove a hindrance at or near maximum aperture. Barrel distortion was mild, if readily apparent, at 24mm, with very slight pincushion distortion rearing its head at 70mm (the only settings tested for distortion). Flare and ghosting appeared well controlled. So, all in all, yes, The Price Is Right. But if, instead, you want to play Let’s Make a Deal, then opt for the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens instead. But do keep in mind that a faster lens is bulkier and heavier, not to mention considerably pricier.
All in all, I would rate my experience with the Z 7 as very rewarding, though not mind-blowing. I can state it most succinctly in the following manner. You can read What I'd Like to See as things I didn't care for, but I’d prefer to view it as a glass half-full kind of situation, or, in this case, 80 to 90% full.
Nikon Z 7: What I Liked
Nikon Z 7: What I’d Like to See
The Nikon Z 7 stands to become a serious contender among professional and aspiring pro photographers, as well as serious amateurs. Granted, the high-res files can knock you for a loop once you’re done downloading them to your computer, making you wish you’d equipped the machine with a 2 TB SSD or had one humongous external RAID drive at the ready. But, then again, no one is making you shoot at 45MP. (By the way, this camera appears to build upon the same backside-illuminated image sensor as the D850.) Lower-res settings avail themselves, if you don’t mind giving up that added color depth. But, look at it this way, if you’re a bird photographer and your subject is way off in the distance, you can crop down and still get a very usable image from a 45MP file. (That said, the Z 7 makes it easy to get usable cropped images from the Medium RAW setting of 25.6MP as well.) Low-light shooting is another advantage, with well-developed denoising algorithms that let you shoot at ultra-high ISO settings without serious detriment. Just make sure you don’t underexpose, as boosting shadow detail will especially make that clean image noisy and limit the range of uses for the image. Handling, at the end of the day, was judged to be superb and the Z 7 experience overall a pleasurable one.
One of my greatest disappointments was finding out that not all of my Tamron lenses could be mated to the Z 7. Specifically, while the process is ongoing, via firmware updates to the lenses (this is strictly a function of the lenses at this juncture), only Tamron lenses that are compatible with Tamron's own accessory TAP-in Console can be firmware-updated. That means that many of my favorite lenses would have to be relegated to use with my DSLRs were I to adopt the Z system, or fodder for the sales bin. It should also be noted that separate firmware updates are required for the Z 7 and Z 6.
Sigma announced that current lenses have no issues working with Z-series cameras, noting some caveats. (Click here for the Sigma announcement.) A quick Internet search revealed that other companies have introduced or are introducing Z-compatible lenses. I personally would be wary of no-name brands. After all, why spend all that money on a top-tier camera only to use it with a cheap lens? I've known Tamron and Sigma for years and have worked with their optics and trust they'll deliver. I can't say the same for other non-OEM brands.
One point deserves special attention: the Z 7's ability to hold digital noise to a minimum at high ISO levels. The processing engine algorithms really come to the fore here in preserving RAW image quality. (Noise suppression in JPEGs is quite good, but something is inevitably lost in the translation.)
So, if your DSLR is starting to wear you down, you might consider selling it and replacing it with the Nikon Z 7. Especially if you already own Nikkor or compatible lenses that will work with the optional FTZ adapter.
Granted, I would have preferred more complete support of non-Z-series lenses (especially all my Tamrons), and, at the very least, a more complete lineup of new lenses for the new mirrorless system, but you have to start somewhere. At least I was able to use my favorite 150-600mm zoom for my bird photography with the Z 7 and FTZ.
Just be sure to buy two or three or four extra batteries. Or jury-rig a solar panel to the camera.* Just kidding, Nikon (although now that I think of it…).
*Tampering with the camera will void the warranty. So play it safe and buy those extra batteries. And make sure to buy only Nikon-branded batteries. I know they’re not cheap, but better safe than sorry. And, when storing batteries, be sure to use the protective plastic cap for added protection. Keeping it capped keeps it safe.
Note 1. Unless otherwise noted, all captures were in Nikon RAW (NEF) and processed in Capture One 12. A Brightness/Contrast adjustment may have been selectively applied in Adobe Photoshop CC.
Note 2. The following lenses were used with the Z 7 for this report: Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S kit lens (provided), and, with FTZ Mount Adapter, my own lenses: DX Nikkor 18-200mm (with VR) and Tamron 150-600mm G2 (with VC).
Note 3. Optical image stabilization was used in lenses equipped with this feature (namely, Nikon VR and Tamron VC), and proved beneficial. In-camera image stabilization was set to Sport mode (where applicable), simply because I often find myself panning with the action. Image stabilization on the lens, however, was set to normal mode.