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

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

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.

Fea­tures

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.

Aut­o­fo­cus

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.

Per­for­mance

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

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