A Moment with the Nikon Z7

Nikon’s latest series of digital cameras—the Z series—is history in the making. Building a camera from scratch is no easy feat that requires countless hours of research, development, and testing. So when Nikon finally announced their Z 7 and Z 6 full frame mirrorless cameras to the world on August 23, 2018, the photography industry was watching closely. To announce something of this magnitude can only mean you are going all-in with mirrorless technology, and you are committed to building this new platform, without alienating their existing dSLR users.

Last month I was given the opportunity to test out a pre-production model of the Nikon Z 7—the camera that was just released today—September 27, 2018. It was an honour to be one of the very few photographers to be able to handle and see the camera, and to offer my thoughts on it to Nikon Canada.

Preproduction Nikon Z 7, 1/200 sec., f/8, ISO 64, 70-200mm f/2.8 at 70mm with the FTZ adaptor.

This blog post isn’t a review per se, since I wasn’t handling the final released version of the camera. I also won’t go too technical since there are already other posts that deal with the technical specifications of the camera—I hope to just offer some of my thoughts during my two days with it. The photos in this post are either JPGs, or lightly edited RAW files using the Nikon Capture NX-D software, which was released in mid September.

Once my production copy of the camera arrives and I have used it in the field, I will provide an update to this blog post.

Handling

I was told that when Nikon initially went out to produce a new mirrorless camera, they did a lot of research into what would make this the most ideal mirrorless camera. This resulted in a flange distance of 16mm (distance between the rear glass element of a lens to the sensor in the camera), and a mount diameter of 55mm. Everything else was built around these two specifications while trying to consider what made the most ideal mirrorless camera.

The preproduction Nikon Z 7 with the new 24-70 f/4.0 S line lens.

As a result, I feel Nikon did a great job with this. When I first picked up the camera, I immediately felt comfortable with it. It really did feel like a Nikon dSLR, just in a smaller form factor. My fingers were snug on the grip, and it just felt like I instinctively knew where to press to get the job done. Coming from a D800, the weight difference was substantial. I can only imagine the difference between the new mirrorless cameras and the D5s.

The 24-70mm f/4.0 S-line lens at the 70mm focal length. The protruding grip makes all the difference in comfort.

Handling mirrorless cameras from Sony and Fuji, I have always thought them to be very fragile—one single knock against the wall and I felt like something would get loose or even break. It felt like a very fragile piece of electronic that I would have had to take extra care in handling. However after holding the Z 7, I felt none of those feelings and was comfortable in treating it just like I would my dSLR (not to say I treat it badly!).

The grip on the Nikon Z 7 feels so comfortable in the hands.

There are two function buttons between the lens and the grip (seen below), which are completely customizable to perform what you want it to do. I did have to shift my grip slightly to be able to get to these buttons, but it’s not something I would be overly concerned with.

The front of the Nikon Z 7 mirrorless camera.

As for the overall button placements, they all felt fairly natural to me. There are a few key differences like the addition of the joystick and the buttons on the left of the monitor being replaced by the cluster of four buttons on the bottom of the camera. The buttons are all the same size as that on the dSLR, which adds to the natural feel to this. That joystick placement is new to me, so my thumb automatically went for the AF-ON button thinking it was the joystick. This will require some further training to get right.

The back of the Nikon Z 7 full frame mirrorless camera.

The new “i” button below the joystick displays a set of customizable menu options on the screen or viewfinder. It comes in handy when you need to make changes quickly. I do like the fact that the “i” button is customizable in that you can choose which options to see on screen.

When you press the “i” button, a set of customizable settings appears on the LCD screen or the viewfinder.

The Dial

The dial on the left of the camera is comparatively simplified. While I didn’t get a chance to use it, the User 1, 2, and 3 settings offer quick changes in different camera settings, replacing the somewhat confusing menu bank system of the D800 and beyond. I can definitely see myself using this feature, setting 1 to landscapes, 2 for event photography, and 3 for low-light scenarios.

The new info. screen on top is bright and clear. The dial on the left now has three user-defined preset settings.

I think the most important thing here is that you try out the camera for yourself in store, and see how you like the feel of this camera. If you’re already shooting with a Nikon dSLR, chances are, you’ll feel right at home with a Nikon mirrorless.

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

One of my main concerns if I were to move to a mirrorless camera was the electronic viewfinder (EVF). I am so dependent on the viewfinder—even with live view availability on my D800—that I wouldn’t want to feel uncomfortable while looking through it.

As soon as I looked through the viewfinder on the Z 7 though, I noticed its brightness and clarity. It was a great experience overall. What’s even better is the fact that you have so many different options for viewing additional information inside the viewfinder. You can even review images that you took, and change menu settings without having to remove your eye from the viewfinder.

The LCD screen on the back displays a lot of information, including a histogram.

An EVF, however, will never be the same as an optical viewfinder (OVF). There was a time when I panned quickly from left to right, and noticed a considerable lag of tall buildings as it curved its way through the viewfinder. However, an interesting note here is that when I saw a demonstration of the camera at an event a week later, I didn’t notice this lag as the photographer demoing the unit panned left to right.

All the information on the LCD screen can also be seen in the viewfinder.

The use of an EVF also requires a different way of thinking from an OVF. When I started taking photos at dawn, looking through the viewfinder gave me a pitch black image. At one point, I checked to see if I had the lens cap still on! I had forgotten that an EVF only shows the image with the current settings in place. So if I my settings didn’t reflect the low-light at dawn, I wouldn’t see any details. My OVF, however, would have at least shown me some things in the dark, allowing me to compose the shot immediately. It’s just something you need to get used to when using a mirrorless system.

Dual Card Slots vs. Single Card Slot

According to Nikon, the size of the body was created based on the flange distance and width of the new Z mount. All the features they wanted to put in this camera, needed to fit in this body size that was created to be an ideal size for a mirrorless camera. This in essence was one of their deciding factors in putting a single card slot in the camera.

The Z 7 comes with one single XQD memory card slot.

I’ve seen many sites arguing about this, and heard many people saying this was a mistake on Nikon to offer only a single card slot, but I personally don’t think it’s that big of an issue. My current camera, the D800, has dual SD card slots, but I have only ever used the second slot as an overflow. It has served me well over the last six years of using it, and I have no complaints.

Someone online made a very valid point regarding this (I don’t recall which site this was, but it was someone who had also used the preproduction model of the Z 7), that I thought was worth mentioning here. Files are most susceptible to corruption when they are written on to the memory card. If the writing speed is quick, this will reduce the chance of files getting corrupted. The reading and writing speeds of XQD and CFexpress (to be compatible in the future with a firmware upgrade) cards are so quick that it will more than likely reduce chances of any corruption, which is likely why there have been very few known cases of any XQD cards failing since its arrival to the market several years ago.

Battery life

During the first day of using the Z 7, my fully charged battery lasted about 600 shots. This, however, included some extensive time on the rear screen, scrolling around each menu item to see where things were. I also had the rear screen and viewfinder both operating, automatically switching between the two as I was shooting. I have a feeling that during normal use, and with the viewfinder only operating (as this is what I would rely on the most), I would be able to get a lot more shots out of a single charge. I have heard of others getting as much as 1600 shots in one charge, which is right up there with battery usage on a dSLR.

The EN-EL15 batteries that came with the D8xx series cameras are compatible with the Z 7, which makes this very convenient. There are slight differences between these batteries though:

  1. Only the EN-EL15b that comes with the Z 7 can be charged inside the camera via a USB cable—camera cannot be used at the same time.
  2. The EN-EL15 (Li-ion01) batteries that were purchased/came with cameras between 2011 and 2013 have lower power outputs than their current counterparts, so performance will be lower when put in the Z 7.
  3. The EN-EL15 (li-ion20) and EN-EL15a batteries that were purchased/came with cameras from 2013 onward have the same power output as the newer generation batteries, however, cannot be recharged within the body of the camera.

To find out which battery you have, check the underside of your battery and look for the model number.

See the official Nikon article here for a more detailed explanation.

Focusing

The Nikon Z 7 sports 493 focus points, covering 90% of the frame both vertically and horizontally. This is a much welcome addition to my comparatively paltry 51 focus points on the D800. Getting to each one of these points, though is another story. If you’re using the joystick, you’re able to move the focus area point by point. My only critique with this is, I wish the joystick was more responsive/quicker in moving from one side of the screen to the other. There is a little bit of a lag before the focal area starts moving a little faster—much like you have on your live-view focusing on a Nikon dSLR (but not as long of a lag as on my D800). If you want immediate focusing, you’re able to touch the LCD screen on the exact area you want to be in focus, and the camera will focus and optionally take the photo immediately afterward.

Because the Z 7 uses on-sensor phase-detect autofocusing (PDAF), it now has four different focusing modes, which are slightly different from what Nikon dSLR users are used to. The welcome addition to this is the new Pin-point focus selector, which really helps in nailing that focus point on someone’s eye. Gone are the days of d9, d25, etc., which have been replaced by the likes of Dynamic autofocus, Wide-S, and Wide L.

The new autofocus settings on the Nikon Z 7.

Because I was more focused on landscape imagery during my time with the Z 7, I did very little testing of face detection autofocus (achieved through the Auto-Area focus mode). From my time with it, I do recall that it was able to track the face that I locked on, quite well, however, if the face was obstructed for a split second, the focus would be lost. If I remember correctly, there is a menu setting that allows you to select how long this obstruction can last before the focus is lost—I left this at its default. Overall, I didn’t have any issues with my focusing and found it to be quite responsive and quick, even when I was using the FTZ adaptor.

We lose out on some dSLR favourite focusing modes like 3D tracking, but we gain in other areas like pin-point auto focus and face-tracking. These new modes may require some time getting used to, but hopefully with that time, we will grow to like it just as we did the modes for dSLRs.

FTZ Adaptor

The FTZ adaptor is what allows Nikon’s F-mount lenses to be used on their new Z-mount cameras. It’s created to be an extension to the mirrorless cameras and because of this, feels solid and reliable. Even with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on the mirrorless, it didn’t feel like the adaptor was even on the camera. There is no glass within the FTZ adaptor so there really is no image quality loss that I was able to see. The bottom of the adapter has a 3/8″ thread to allow for a tripod plate attachment. One problem I might see here is that because this thread is so close to the thread on the bottom of the mirrorless camera itself, having tripod plates attached to both of these threads at the same time may hit each other, potentially causing a problem—unless you’re using a plate with a very small footprint.

If you look at the photo below, you’ll see my tripod plate connected to the bottom of the mirrorless camera. When it’s inserted into my tripod, the base of the FTZ adaptor sits a mere few CMs away from the tripod itself—not to mention the plate almost hitting the protruded section of the FTZ adaptor. Why is this an issue? This means I’m unable to already have a tripod mount on both the mirrorless camera and the FTZ adaptor at the same time.

The FTZ adaptor that connects the Z 7 and Z 6 camera bodies to any F-mount lens. Notice how the tripod plate on the body is very close to the protrusion of the FTZ adaptor.

As a photographer who loves to take landscapes, I have a tripod plate attached to my camera at all times so I can easily attach it to my tripod on demand. My L-bracket on my D800 is on my camera 100% of the time. I anticipate a plate or an L-bracket to be on my mirrorless camera too. But if I were to use the FTZ adaptor, I would only be able to attach one tripod plate to either one of these threads, possibly throwing off the balance of the system on the tripod itself (the weight of the lens and the FTZ adaptor could be too front-heavy) if I were to leave the plate on the camera.

The Nikon Z 7 with the FTZ adaptor and an F-mount 70-200mm f/2.8 lens attached feels solid in the hand.

This is more of a nuisance than anything since long lenses tend to have their own tripod threads. The only lens I would be worried about with this FTZ configuration would be my 14-24mm f/2.8, which has an ND adaptor ring on it, making it even heavier at the front.

The protruding eyepiece on the Nikon Z 7 is the kind of small detail that Nikon has carefully thought of. It makes a world of difference believe it or not.

If you have any Nikon glass, it will be a wise choice to get the FTZ adaptor as well. Considering you can get this discounted by about CAD$130 when you buy it with the camera (before the end of October 2018), there’s even more of a reason to get it.

In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)

I have always wanted in-body image stabilization (IBIS) in my camera, so this is a very welcome addition to the mirrorless system. It makes so much sense too as it now allows for smaller form factors in lenses, and adds vibration reduction capabilities to non-VR lenses.

The IBIS is a five-axis stabilization system, and works in conjunction with all of your lenses. Connecting a VR lens to the camera simply means you get an additional three axis of stabilization to what your lens already offers. You don’t need to turn off the VR on your lens to use it on the Z 7 as the two “magically” understands each other.

Even if you add the FTZ adaptor, the IBIS works seamlessly with all of your lenses.

Final Thoughts

After two days of using it and seeing the images coming out of it, I can comfortably say that I really do like this new system and the benefits it offers. The wider Z-mount means more lens variations are possible in the future, and the mirrorless technology means silent shooting, viewfinder options, and so much more in a solidly built body that I can handle like a normal dSLR.

It is truly an exciting time for photographers with so many options to choose from now. I firmly believe that while cameras may simply be a tool to get the job done, there’s no denying that the latest technology in these systems can offer substantial benefits in improving one’s workflow…and who wouldn’t want that?!

Additional Photos

The gallery contains additional photos taken with the preproduction Nikon Z 7. With the exception of the first two photos, all other photos are unedited JPGs taken straight from the camera and simply resized for the web.

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