Nikon Z 7
Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless is remarkably accomplished for a first-generation product, according to Andy Westlake, and one of the best cameras the firm has ever made
Nikon’s new full-frame mirrorless camera gets top marks from Andy Westlake
The late summer of 2018 has seen a complete transformation of the full-frame mirrorless market. In a sector that was until recently Sony’s near-exclusive playground, the big guns of Canon and Nikon have both muscled in on the action, introducing brand new systems and lens mounts.
In many respects, the two firms have done very similar things, making large- diameter, short back-focus mounts that are touted to allow extra lens- design flexibility compared to the narrower Sony E mount. Their cameras are also SLR-style models with chunky handgrips, plenty of external controls, large high-resolution viewfinders and articulated touchscreens.
The first camera in this upstart generation to reach our hands is the Nikon Z 7. This top- end, 45.7MP model is designed to go head-to- head with Sony’s highly regarded Alpha 7R III, with a remarkably similar configuration and specification. As a first- generation product, you might think it would struggle to match Sony’s design and technology, but you’d be wrong. Not only is the Z 7 a match for the Alpha 7R III, in many respects it equals or surpasses the D850, Nikon’s best- ever DSLR. Indeed after using it extensively for a couple of weeks, I think it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the Nikon Z 7 is one of the very best stills cameras ever made.
Before we find out why, though, let’s address the Z 7’s most controversial feature: its single XQD memory card slot. Some commenters are adamant that no serious photographer should consider a camera that can’t back up images to two cards. There’s a genuine point here for certain applications such as weddings, but
not every user needs this ability, and alternative backup methods are also available.
As for XQD, Nikon’s engineers are adamant that this fast, robust format future-proofs the Z system. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t provide much advantage over SD today. A 128GB XQD card will set you back £230, compared to £55 for a UHS- II SD, which effectively makes the camera considerably more expensive. Personally I think Nikon has made a mistake, but it should be considered an irritation rather than a deal-breaker.
In designing its new full-frame mirrorless system, Nikon has bowed to the inevitable and introduced a new lens mount. The fully electronic Z-mount has a 55mm internal diameter and 16mm flange distance from lens to sensor, affording extra freedom to optical designers. A set of 11 electronic contacts enables rapid data transfer for fast, silent autofocus.
Much like Sony when it launched its Alpha 7 system, Nikon is kicking off with twin bodies that share the same physical dimensions and design, but have different sensors and core specifications. The Z 7 is the higher-specced of the two, boasting a 45.7MP sensor with 493 phase detection AF points covering 90% of the frame area. Its standard sensitivity range of ISO 64-25,600 is expandable to ISO 32-102,400 equivalent, and with Nikon’s new EXPEED VI processing engine on board, it can shoot at up to 9 frames per second. Meanwhile the 24.5MP Z 6 will be a more affordable, general-purpose model.
Shutter speeds range from 30sec to 1/8000sec, with a flash sync of 1/200sec. An electronic first- curtain option is available which minimises the risk of image blur due to shutter shock, but reduces the highest speed to 1/2000sec. It’s also possible to set the camera to a silent mode which uses a fully electronic shutter, at which point the full range of speeds is available again, but with a risk of rollingshutter artefacts.
In a first for Nikon, 5-axis in-body stabilisation (IBIS) is built in, offering up to 5 stops of compensation for camera shake when shooting handheld. Compared to the usual pitch and yaw correction that’s provided by in-lens optical stabilisation, the IBIS can additionally correct for rotation around the lens axis, which is important when shooting long exposures or handheld video. It also corrects for left- right and up- down movements, which can have a significant impact when shooting close-ups. When you use an F-mount lens with VR, the in-body and in-lens systems work together, with the lens correcting for pitch and yaw and the IBIS dealing with rotation around the lens axis.
Additional photographic features include an Interval timer shooting mode, a Time-lapse movie setting that will make 4K or Full HD movies in- camera, and Focus shift shooting that facilitates stacking in order to achieve maximum image detail. This provides some handy extra abilities compared to the rather spartan Sony Alpha 7R III.
When it comes to video, 4K recording is available at 30 frames per second, alongside Full HD at up to 120fps. Peaking and zebra pattern displays can be used to judge focus and exposure, while VR and Active D- Lighting are both available in 4K UHD. The autofocus speed and
tracking sensitivity can be adjusted, and 10-bit footage output over HDMI using a flat N-log profile.
To go with the Z 7, Nikon has initially released three native Z-mount lenses. The 24-70mm f/4 S and 35mm f/1.8 S are available immediately for £999 and £849 respectively, while the 50mm f/1.8 S (£599) will go on sale in a month or two.
Build and handling
In terms of design, the Z 7 will look instantly familiar to Nikon users. The control setup is reminiscent of the firm’s high- end DSLRs, with twin electronic dials and a joystick for moving the focus point, along with familiar buttons for ISO, exposure compensation and AF- ON. The firm has clearly thought hard about how to position these controls around the smaller body, as they’re all perfectly positioned within easy reach of your forefinger or thumb. As a result, new owners will be able to pick up the camera and make the switch to mirrorless pretty much seamlessly.
Unlike Sony, Nikon hasn’t been fearful of making the body large enough to be comfortable to use, so has added a really good-sized handgrip that should provide decent purchase even when you’re using heavy lenses. This doesn’t add too much extra bulk: the Z 7 is just 7mm wider and 5mm taller than the Alpha 7R III. Build quality is everything we’ve come to expect from Nikon, with the body employing a robust magnesium alloy shell that’s claimed to be weathersealed to the same standard as the D850.
The Z 7’s default control setup is perfectly logical, giving fingertip access to all of the most important settings. However, the camera is also highly customisable, so you can reconfigure it to match your personal preferences. It’s possible to tailor the functions of the dials, or reassign the lens’s manual focus ring to control aperture or exposure compensation. Many of the buttons can be reconfigured too, including two useful function buttons beside the lens. The camera can even be configured independently for stills and video.
In a first for Nikon, the onscreen i-menu can be customised, and it’s also touch-sensitive. In fact the touchscreen is superbly integrated into the camera’s controls, as you can use it to change most settings or specify the focus area when shooting with the LCD. You can’t use the touchscreen to move the AF area when shooting with the viewfinder, but the joystick works so well that I’m not sure why you’d want to. Double tapping the screen in playback jumps to a 100% magnified view, which is useful for checking sharpness. Overall the Z 7 is one of the best-handling mirrorless cameras on the market, and a clear step above the Sony Alpha 7R III.
Viewfinder and screen
When it comes to composing your images, the Z 7 includes a stunning 3.6-million- dot EVF with a huge 0.8x magnification. With high- quality optics that give a clear view right into the corner, even if you wear glasses, it’s one of the best I’ve ever used. Indeed it’s noticeably superior to even the A7R III’s excellent finder in a side-by-side comparison. What’s more, the EVF eyepiece protrudes far enough back that you won’t get nose marks on the screen.
As expected, the finder does a good job of previewing how your images will come out, not just in terms of composition but also exposure, white balance and colour. Unlike the optical viewfinder of a DSLR, it can also show a truly accurate depth of field preview at both large and small apertures. A range of additional information can be displayed, including a live histogram and electronic level.
On the back you’ll find a superb high-resolution 2.1m- dot touchscreen that can tilt 90° up and 45° down. It’s impressively slim, but like all tilt- only units it becomes useless the moment you rotate the camera to portrait format. In this respect it’s inferior to either the fully articulated screen employed by the EOS R, or the superb dual-hinged design that Fujifilm uses on its high- end cameras such as the X-T3.
A proximity sensor above the viewfinder can be used to automatically switch between the EVF and LCD. It’s not disabled when the screen is tilted, but it’s not overly sensitive so it won’t usually turn off the LCD during waist-level shooting. If you normally shoot with the viewfinder, it’s possible to set the LCD to show
a clearly-laid out status display either as black text on a white background, or vice versa.
While the Z 7 uses a very similar sensor to the D850, it adds on- chip phase detection for autofocus. This enables a hybrid AF system that uses phase detection for speed followed by contrast detection to ensure the highest accuracy. In all, 493 focus points are selectable, covering 90% of the image area. This may trump the Sony Alpha 7R III’s 399 points, but isn’t the highest number on the market, with Canon offering a staggering 5,655 focus points on its EOS R. But the difference is practically irrelevant, as with the Z 7 you can still place the focus point wherever in the frame you need it. With S lenses I found AF to be exceptionally fast, essentially silent, and consistently accurate.
It’s possible to select between four different focus area sizes, but most of the time I left the camera in its standard Single-point AF setting, which provides a relatively fine focus point that can be placed accurately on your subject even if you’re shooting through a complex foreground. The smaller Pinpoint mode gives the ultimate accuracy, but is slow to move the focus area around using the joystick. Meanwhile the two Wide-area modes are best reserved for moving subjects that can’t be held under a single focus point.
Nikon also offers an Auto-area AF mode in which the camera will choose the focus point automatically. Here you can enable face detection and subject tracking modes, with both working reasonably well. But this is one area where the Z 7 does lag behind both the D850, with its sophisticated 3D tracking AF, and the Sony Alpha 7R III’s incredibly capable eye-tracking focus. For example, when shooting models using face detection, I found the camera did a perfectly good job of understanding and following their movements, but couldn’t consistently focus right on their eyes. So if you shoot moving subjects a lot and need absolutely class-leading tracking capability, it may be better to look elsewhere.
The Z 7 may be the first model in a completely new line, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Instead it behaves exactly as we’d demand from a £3,400 Nikon. The camera starts up in a fraction of a second and thereafter responds instantly to control inputs, whether from the buttons, dials or touchscreen. At no point does it ever get in the way of what you’re trying to do; indeed it’s a fine example of camera that feels like it’s been carefully engineered to help you get the shot.
The matrix metering is generally pretty reliable, although I often preferred to dial it down a touch to be sure of not clipping highlights. Of course, one of the great advantages of mirrorless is that this becomes a matter of judgement based on the viewfinder preview, rather than guesswork as it is with DSLRs. Auto white balance is typically Nikon; it’s very good at making white highlights appear neutral, if that’s what you need, but it’s not so great at producing a pleasing rendition of scenic shots on sunny days, giving JPEG images that are overly cool for my tastes. Naturally you can address this by using a white balance preset instead.
With the Z 7 using a very similar sensor to the D850, it delivers images that are equally superb. At low ISOs that 45.7MP sensor captures oodles of detail and truly astonishing dynamic range, meaning that you can extract detail from deep into the shadows during raw processing, or via the Active D- Lighting control in- camera. Even at higher ISOs you can still underexpose to protect highlights and pull up extra detail later without being unduly swamped by noise. This level of malleability gives remarkable flexibility during raw processing.
I tested the Z 7 using both the 24-70mm f/4 S and 35mm f/1.8 S lenses, along with a selection of F-mount lenses via the FTZ adapter. Both of the native lenses are a good match to the camera in terms of size and balance, as indeed is the upcoming 50mm f/1.8 S. They’re also superb optically; the whole point of the Z-mount is to be able to maintain sharpness into the corners of the frame even at large apertures, and the optics achieve this spectacularly. Don’t think for a moment that because these lenses have comparatively slow maximum apertures, they’re somehow inferior to f/1.4 primes or f/2.8 zooms for DSLRs.
One key feature of the Z 7 is its in-body image stabilisation, which should work with almost any lens. Again, it’s remarkably effective for a first- generation version, helping you get sharper shots handheld under a wide range of conditions. I found that it routinely delivered at least 3 stops benefit, and often more if you’re able to take several replicate shots. For example, with the 24-70mm f/4 zoom I was able to get sharp images at shutter speeds as slow as 0.5sec at 70mm and 1.3sec at wideangle, both of which count as at least 5 stops of stabilisation. This adds a considerable extra string to your bow for low-light work. However it’s important to understand that all IBIS systems get increasingly ineffective with longer lenses, so don’t bank on using it to stabilise telephotos longer than about 300mm.
Here the Z 7’s image stabilisation and incredibly malleable raw files gave a result very few other cameras could match Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S at 41mm, 1.3sec at f/8, ISO 64
Nikon’s face detection works very well, just as long as your model isn’t moving too fast 24-70mm f/4 S at 70mm, 1/160sec at f/4, ISO 800
The Z 7 works really well with old manual-focus lenses, thanks to well-implemented focus aids and in-body image stabilisation Tamron SP 300mm f/5.6, 1/125sec at f/5.6, ISO 1000
The sensor’s exceptionally low noise allowed me to recover this shot from an inadvertent 1.7 stop underexposure 24-70mm f/4 S at 38mm 1/40sec at f/5.6, ISO 720