Nikon Z7 Camera Review

Review Version 1.0.1 (last update fixes typos, adds a few [bracket] comments to clarify)

Warning: Because this is Nikon's first foray into a truly top-level mirrorless camera, this review is going to be quite a long one. Relax, sit back, take your time going through all the detail.

Z7 w24-70 front

What is It?
The Nikon Z7 is Nikon's twelfth mirrorless camera. For those of you whose jaw just dropped, you're forgetting that Nikon began making mirrorless cameras in 2011 with the Nikon 1 (J1 and V1 models). If you've been reading reviews that claim the Z7 is the first Nikon mirrorless camera, then you're either misreading (it probably said "first full frame mirrorless...") or the reviewer's credibility is in deep question.

Seriously, this makes a difference in how you evaluate what Nikon's done. The engineering team in Tokyo has had seven years and eleven models to explore how a mirrorless camera should be put together, how it should work, and how it performs. And if you remember what I wrote back in 2011, Nikon put some of their top designers (from the D3 team) on the Nikon 1. They've done the same once again with the Z series cameras.

So we come to context: Nikon should know how to make an excellent mirrorless camera. They've had plenty of experience, and they've continued migrating their top DSLR designers over to help design these mirrorless cameras. 

It doesn't seem like those designers had their hands tied, either. Back with the Nikon 1, Nikon was one of the first to use phase detect autofocus on the sensor, and it was fast and accurate. But it was also clear that there were things that the engineering team weren't allowed to do with the Nikon 1. Specifically, the Nikon 1 series had to be something "different" than a DSLR. The Nikon 1 wasn't considered a feeder into anything; it was a stand-alone consumer product that shared virtually nothing with the long-line of Nikon DSLRs. Intentionally so.

This time around, the opposite is true. The Z7 cribs a great deal from the DSLR lineup, particularly the D850 with which it almost shares a sensor. The Z7 also shares accessories with the DSLR lineup. Unlike the Nikon 1, the Z series is fully integrated into Nikon's long SLR/DSLR legacy. Indeed, the Z series is the future of Nikon's long SLR/DSLR legacy.

Before I get too deep into details, I was initially struck by an unusual balancing act made by Nikon: there are many very familiar things in the Z7 that copy the DSLR designs, yet there are new things that don't. This shows not only in the obvious controls and physical feature differences you can see on the outside of the camera, but also in a tear down of the camera: I see some things the same, some different. I'm hoping that the next Nikon DSLR learns from the new things that the Z7 brought to the table, some of which are subtle (such as the thicker, more exposed Rear Command dial), and some of which are invisible to users (the way the sensor is aligned to the mount, which no longer uses shims). 

Z7 Z6 back

So let's start with the basics.

The Z7 is a 45mp full frame (36x24mm) mirrorless camera. The image sensor itself appears to be the one used in the Nikon D850 but with the addition of phase detect photosite rows embedded in the silicon (every twelfth row), plus a different microlens/Bayer filtration package up top. That microns change is needed to provide the proper light angles into the photosites now that they're up at the surface of the sensor and the rear element of the lens can be so close to the sensor. Base ISO remains 64, as with the D850.

Besides some modest sensor changes, the UVIR filter sitting above it seems different too. The initial filter layer is thinner than I've seen in previous Nikon designs, indeed thinner than in virtually all ILC I've studied at 1.1mm (Olympus goes the opposite way, having among the thickest filter above the sensor). I'm pretty sure the thinness has to do with how close a rear lens element might get to the sensor. Thus, I also expect Leica M lenses to perform well via adapter due to the thin filter glass, probably better than on previous mirrorless cameras (see also my comments about manual focus lenses, further on).

Which brings us to the lens mount. The new Z mount is distinguished by the smallest flange distance to date from the main competitors (16mm compared to a more typical 18-20mm). Coupled with a very wide throat opening of 52mm (compared to Sony's narrow 43.6mm), Nikon can put larger lens elements closer to the sensor than anyone else with a full frame camera. They can also consider new optical designs where the entrance and exit pupils have more flexibility because the edges of the light path isn't clipped on its way to the sensor. (See this article for more on lens mounts.)

A number of people get caught up on the aperture speed a closer, bigger mount might allow—apparently f/0.65 on the Z mount—but don't let yourself get drawn into that. The real benefit of the new mount is more freedom in optical designs, and we're already seeing the Nikkor designers taking advantage of that, even in kit lenses, as you'll see in my review of the 24-70mm f/4 S.

Nikon has kept the lens release button in its usual position found on the DSLRs, and Z mount lenses twist onto the Z7 camera body exactly the same way F mount lenses twist onto Nikon DSLRs. Which is to say, for some, backwards ;~). Still, that's the level of detail and consideration that any Nikon DSLR user would want Nikon to be doing in making mirrorless cameras that complement the DSLRs. Zoom and focus rings also work the same way in Z-dom as they do in D-dom: zoom in with a twist to the right (across the top of the lens), zoom out to the left. 

So, other than the fact that the mount is bigger and closer to the sensor, the Z7 lens mount and lens attributes are recognizably Nikon to Nikon users. 

Of course, you can't mount a DSLR lens directly on the mirrorless Z7. For that Nikon has made an optional FTZ Adapter (F mount To Z mount, get it?). Another article on this site goes into the details about the FTZ adapter, so I won't elaborate much here. Suffice it to say that pretty much any manual focus Nikkor and any AF-S, AF-I, or AF-P autofocus Nikkor works much as you'd expect when mounted on a Z7 via the FTZ adapter. That's good news, because initially Nikon only has three Z mount lenses (24-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, and 50mm f/1.8). Most of you who pick up a Z7 after reading this review are going to be using your existing DSLR lenses via the FTZ for awhile.

You're probably wondering about the autofocus system at this point, as I just mentioned that most F-mount lenses work as expected on the Z7 with the FTZ adapter. 

Nikon uses rows of phase detect photosites on the Z7 sensor. Those rows can also provide image data information, as well. Basically every twelfth row of pixels on the sensor has this dual-function nature. Nikon claims 493 points for autofocus, but that's selectable single points using the camera controls. In reality, there are thousands of autofocus points in the camera, as is true of most mirrorless cameras using phase detect on sensor. One thing, though: none of these autofocus detection sites are cross-type, as you find in the DSLRs. That means that focus is more responsive to detail on one axis only (long axis). 

Focus performance is said to extend to -3EV with an f/2 lens attached normally. That's comparable to the Nikon D750, one of the best low-light focusing DSLRs to date. 

The thing about phase detect on the image sensor is that the precision with which the current focus position can be calculated is somewhat less than that in the DSLRs. That mostly has to do with geometry and math involved. That's one reason why virtually all of mirrorless camera systems default to a followup contrast detect focus step after performing a phase detect step when they're set to what's known as single servo focus (AF-S in most cameras; it means that focus is only obtained once, and does not track the subject). The Z7 doesn't always seem to do that, though. (I and others have questions into Nikon about this. We can see, for example, that Autofocus Fine Tune works in all modes, which would imply that contrast detect isn't used. Nikon has remained terribly silent about information that would help us completely master the autofocus system, unfortunately. I continue to hound them for more information.)

The Z7 appears to only perform a single phase detect focus operation most of the time (certainly true of AF-C). Note that whatever Autofocus Area Mode you pick as an AF Area Mode other than Pinpoint, far more than one focus sensor is being used to determine focus. Even in Pinpoint, there are many photosites involved in the focus operation, just far fewer than in Single Point. That both helps and potential hurts focus accuracy. I'll get to accuracy in the Performance section, below.

The main worry of Nikon DSLR users considering a Z7 has tended to be focus speed. They needn't have worried. Phase detect is essentially instant—okay, there's lag in the electronics stream to account for, but that's minimal—so it really depends more upon the performance of the focus motor in the lens as to whether the actual focus speed is good or not. The worry among DSLR users was that no other mirrorless camera with adapter has managed to achieve reasonable focus speed with existing F-mount Nikkors. 

Well, Nikon has. I see no tangible difference in how the AF-S lenses work (yeah, a confusion of terms, that's not single servo, but a lens motor designation). I actually think AF-P lenses may work a little faster on the Z7 than they do on the DSLRs, but that "little" is so little that I can't really measure it, and you have an apples and oranges problem to deal with even trying to do such a test. Suffice it to say that Nikon DSLR autofocus lenses pretty much keep their performance characteristics on the Z7. Slow-to-focus lenses on a DSLR will still be slow on the Z7 with the FTZ adapter, while fast-to-focus lenses will still be fast.

What's missing on the Z7 from autofocus are some of the Autofocus Area Modes in AF-C and the ability to switch modes quickly. You can't assign AF-ON+AF Area Mode to anything, as you can on the D850. There's no Group AF mode, nor size variations on the Dynamic mode. 3D Tracking is sort of missing, with a terribly designed "Tracking" function added to Auto. More on what this means in the Performance section, below.

Meanwhile, manual focus lenses on the Z7 shine. That's because the camera has a plethora of "helpers" to help you nail focus. The full list—which requires a chipped lens—includes rangefinder focus distance display, the usual Nikon >o< focus indicator, the focus sensor indicator being used turning from red to green, the ability to magnify the display in the viewfinder, and focus peaking overlays. (Non-chipped lenses will lose the rangefinder and perhaps more depending upon how you've set the camera, but are still quite usable on the Z7.)

Even though I'm just outlining features in this section, I'll say this right up front: if you're deep into using manual focus Nikkors that are chipped (basically AI-S or AI-P in the Nikkor line), the Z7 is the best camera you can use them on. Period. No doubts about it. The chipped Voigtlander and Zeiss (ZF.2 and later) primes fit into this category, as well. You're simply going to get to correct focus faster visually and more accurately with your lens on the Z7 via FTZ adapter than you will with any other camera mounting those lenses. I'd even include the Sony A7 series in that assessment, with any adapter I know of. 

As a company that caters to legacy users, all those manual focus Nikkor owners can relax: Nikon designed the Z7+FTZ adapter correctly for you. And, of course, all the owners of autofocus lenses with built-in focus motors (AF-I, AF-S, AF-P) can relax, too. I'm surprised and thrilled at how much compatibility Nikon has managed to retain while moving over into the mirrorless realm from DSLR. (It's entirely possible that someone, including Nikon, might build an adapter that works for all those older screw-mount autofocus lenses, but I wouldn't hold my breath. That has power implications, among other things.)

Since I just mentioned power, the Z7 uses the same basic battery as Nikon has used for the advanced small body DSLRs for some time: the EN-EL15. Yes, you can use your older EN-EL15 in the Z7. You can use your EN-EL15a, too. But the Z7 comes with a new variation of that battery, the EN-EL15b. 

While there isn't a change in power rating, there is one significant change in that new battery: it can be charged in camera (and Nikon supplies the EH-7P charger and cable to do this with the camera). The older batteries can't be charged this way, only the EN-EL15b. Unfortunately, even though you've got an AC power source plugged into the camera to charge the battery, you can't operate the camera from that source. I find that a penny-pinching on Nikon's part that doesn't seem to match the US$3400 retail price of the camera. I suspect Nikon will say something about worries about heat build-up or something similar as the reason they didn't do it. I'm sorry, but that would be a lame excuse for not building out the appropriate circuitry in camera.

If you want an AC power source, unfortunately you have to use the usual suspect, an EP-5 driven dummy battery that cables through a small rubber door in the grip. 

If you just want "more power" because you're worried about how many shots you'll get or how long the video will run, Nikon says they'll make an MB-N10 brick that bolts to the bottom of your camera that will hold a pair of EN-EL15b batteries. "Says they'll make...": as usual, Nikon can't manage to put out a useful accessory at the same time as the product that uses it. In this case they can't even tell you when it might appear or how much it will cost, which seems odd for something that only holds batteries. "Brick": I use a pejorative term here because the MB-N10 will not be the usual vertical grip extension. There are no controls, no shutter release, not much of anything other than a housing for two batteries and a dummy extension that goes into the normal battery slot for the camera.

Frankly, the power/grip situation is far from optimal. It almost seems like everything Nikon did other than use an EN-EL15 battery as the base is a complete afterthought in the power portion of the camera. Given that mirrorless cameras have more power needs than DSLRs—particularly when you use them for video, which you'll want to do with the Z7—you have to wonder what Nikon was thinking. 

I glossed over a feature in the sensor description, above: on-sensor VR. The Z7 is Nikon's first ILC with on-sensor stabilization. The implementation is robust, though it has a bit less physical movement capability than Sony's. Nikon's version powers down into a locked state rather than let the sensor platform dangle in space when in your bag, as with some other brands. Nikon claims 5-stops CIPA from the on-sensor VR, and backing up to all those manual focus lens users: yes, the on-sensor VR works with manual focus lenses, too. As I wrote above, the Z7 is a Nikkor manual focus user's dream. 

Not all is perfect with that on-sensor VR, though. First, with video Nikon is claiming only a 2-stop improvement at the sensor, which can be improved to 5-stops via turning on an additional feature, Electronic VR (only works with video, as it moves the capture area from the overscan area). 

The other thing you need to be aware of is that if a lens has VR and a switch to control that, that lens switch controls all VR, both in the lens and on the sensor. If the lens doesn't have VR, then only the camera menu system controls VR operation. 

Note: it appears that many people are thinking sensor VR doesn’t work because the menu system item is grayed out when a VR lens is mounted. Nope. Again, if the lens has a switch, the lens switch controls VR (and the menu items for it grays out if the lens switch is in the off position). If the lens doesn’t have VR, then the menu item becomes available. 

It doesn't end there. In one of the biggest design dissonances in the DSLR to mirrorless transition, the type of VR is controlled by the lens, unless it isn't. If the lens has Off, On, and Sports modes in its switch, great, everything matches, and that switch does indeed set Off, On, and Sports modes. But if the lens has Off, On, and Active modes in its switch, oops. The switch only controls On and Off: there is no Active mode activation, apparently.

This, of course, is a simplification. Other simplifications abound in the Z7 design when compared to the D850. First up is the removal of the Mode button and the inclusion of a Mode dial. This also removes the Bank settings from the menu and provides the U1, U2, and U3 user settings of the consumer Nikon DSLRs. One problem with that is that not all functions are actually saved in U1, U2, and U3. One primary one that isn't remembered: the drive function (self-timer, single shot, continuous shot, etc.). You can save your camera configuration to your memory card, but you can only do that once; Nikon still doesn't support multiple, named settings files. 

Another issue with the U1, U2, and U3 design is that you can't switch exposure modes while using these positions ;~). This was one of the things that Nikon eventually addressed with extended banks in the pro cameras (having a user-defined exposure mode associated with a bank that could be overridden while shooting). While most shooters won't be upset by the simplifications inherent in the U1 type settings over banks, we do lose flexibility in the camera with this design. 

I don't mind the control simplifications so much as I mind the complications caused by the simplifications. One result is that there's a stronger emphasis on menu settings. The PHOTO SHOOTING menu now has 33 functions on it, up from 28 on the D850, a camera that has still shooting abilities that the Z7 doesn't (including handling how multiple card slots work).

Which brings me to the card slots. Oh, wait, slot. 

The Z7 gets one XQD slot. Nikon has already indicated their intention to upgrade the slot to support CFExpress cards in a future firmware update, though I doubt that will speed up anything in the camera, as I'm pretty sure the Z7 slot is only two-lane PCIe and maxes out at somewhere near 250MBs. 

I know many of you will be disappointed that you need XQD cards to use the Z7, but I'm not at all disappointed by that. The XQD card is the appropriate state-of-the-art card for a product such as the Z7. Indeed, because the buffer is somewhat limited (about 20 raw frames), having the fastest current card technology in the camera means that you can actually shoot at about 3 fps in many cases, even with the buffer full!

No, XQD was the right choice.

About the one slot controversy, though: it surprises me how much emotional energy has been expended damning cameras for not having two slots (Nikon isn't the only one receiving ire), when at the moment there has actually only been one Nikon camera that has a truly reliable two slot configuration (the D5). 

Two slot cameras are a recent invention, and as is very usual in the camera industry with technology, the makers keep wimping out when they do give you two slots. The Sony A7 mismatched slots (one UHS-II, one UHS-I) provide some additional ability, but at a speed penalty. Ditto the D500 and D850. In fact, ditto most cameras with two slots. 

One recent commenter on the web wrote "two slots for backup are a ineluctable necessity for a professional wedding photographer." Really? Seems like a lot of wedding shooters I know are failing then, as they are ignoring a "necessity." 

Since switching solely to XQD cards (I do not use the second slot in my D500 and D850), I've not had a card failure. I can't say that for CompactFlash or Secure Digital, both of which have physical build issues compared to XQD. (Note that this doesn't mean XQD cards never fail, it's just that in both my experience and that of observing others using the Nikon bodies that have XQD, XQD card failures tend to be relatively rare.)

Moreover, there's the thing I wrote about on dslrbodies: all cards will eventually fail, so thinking you can just keep using your 10-year old Secure Digital cards forever is completely incorrect. Those of us who use preventive practices don't seem to have the same level of card issues that others keep reporting they do. That's not to say you won't experience an XQD card failure—I know of a couple, both where the photographer could recover the images, which means it might not even have been a card failure, per se—it's that I'd expect them less than I would with cards that have known mechanical issues (Compact Flash and Secure Digital). 

Adding redundancy—an additional card slot and card—may improve the overall mission failure rate, but it actually increases the total system failure rate. That's because in complex systems the failure rate is the sum of the individual failure rates of all components. Having separate XQD and SD write mechanisms, for instance, just means that they're exposed to different failures. 

So I'm not a big fan of the "must have dual slots, even if they're mismatched" idea. In fact, if they're mismatched, I'm generally against the idea completely. 

Note that I used the word "emotional" at the start of this discussion. People are making decisions mostly based upon emotion, not logic, testing, or analysis of failure. Those of us who have a more detached and scientific approach just aren't as convinced that two slots makes a definitive difference that will ultimately save your butt someday (probably because you keep reusing the same card forever). 

Believe what you wish. If you think you absolutely need a two slot camera, then the Z7 isn't your choice, end of story. Yet realize that many of us will make the Z7 our choice and not be constantly chattering about how many shots we lost because of card failure. Reality is a bitch. You can be in constant fear of it, or you can embrace it. It seems strange that Nikon's choice of card slots is one of those things that will reveal which type of person you are, but it is. 

[That last line in the previous paragraph is the key one. After seeing a bunch of reaction to the review, I believe that line is as true as any I've written ;~). You're in Camp A or in Camp B, and whether a camera has one or two card slots seems to perfectly define the groups. I'm in Camp A. If you're in Camp B you're going to ignore everything I just wrote and complain anyway.]

Onto those cards you have the option of saving JPEG, TIFF, or NEF files, plus the NEF system inherents the Small and Medium raw sizes from the D850, as well. 

Shutter lag is technically 65ms (the D850 maxes out at 45ms). That's not bad at all: we used to have pro DSLRs that were worse. The problem, however, is that the EVF has a lag of near 1/60 all on its own. Thus, you may see people reporting much longer shutter lag numbers, as they're adding in both lags together. Put a different way, a DSLR user doesn't have to adjust what they're seeing to reality: when they see that they should press the shutter release, they get a very brief delay before the shutter opens (again 45ms on the D850 in best case). 

The mirrorless user has to better anticipate the moment, as if they go solely by what they see in the viewfinder, by the time they press the shutter release another 20ms or more may have occurred. I don't see this as an issue on the Z7 as the "bundled lag" is still less than many consumer DSLRs. I'm just telling you that DSLR and mirrorless users that are trying to capture the same moment with a single press adjust when they do that to the circumstances slightly differently. Inherently, the shutter lag on the Z7 is in what I would call the pro realm, and not meaningfully different than many of the DSLRs once you've adjusted to the EVF.

bythom US MT Kalispell TripleD Z7 56596

You don't get photos like this with a laggy camera. While I was set at 5 fps, this was actually the first shot in the sequence, timed to the snow leopard going full parkour off the tree.

You're probably wondering about that viewfinder. Nikon made big promises about having the "best" EVF on any camera, and for the most part, they've hit that mark. The 3.69m dot half-inch LCD is basically a quad VGA monitor (1280 x 960) sitting behind some impressive Nikon glass for a very excellent eyepiece. That nets a 0.8x magnification with a 21mm eyepoint. With my rather thin glasses I have to strain to see all of the image area that magnification is so big. If you'd rather shoot without glasses, Nikon's provided a larger than usual -4 to +2 diopter adjustment, as well.

Overall, the EVF is indeed one of the most natural looking I've encountered. Nikon has graded the view well, and doesn't degrade to a lower resolution view as some EVFs do in certain situations. But it's still an EVF. That means that you'll sometimes see exposure or focus "pumping" that you wouldn't see in an optical viewfinder. In bright (but not extreme contrast) daylight scenes I would tend to agree with Nikon that this is the best EVF so far; I often forgot I was using a mirrorless camera. 

As I noted above, there's a tiny bit of lag to the EVF—it's a 60Hz device—but unless you're shooting fast and erratic moving subjects you're probably not going to notice it. The bigger issue with the EVF is that it doesn't (normally) blackout. Now usually that would be a good thing. But the problem is generally that the display in between taking shots in continuous sequences at high speeds is a static, non-updating one. Sure it has no blackout. But it's a bit like looking at a slightly lagged slide show to reality, and this can cause you issues following fast and/or erratic action. In mechanical shutter at 5.5 fps the updating is a bit slow; at faster fps the updating is once per frame and starts to look like an old silent movie.

Indoors, and particularly in low light, the EVF starts to show that's it an EVF. Noise can start to show up in the viewfinder in low light. Still, it's not the terrible contrast-totally-crushed view that we had out of many earlier mirrorless cameras.

Out back we've got the usual 3.2" 2.1m dot touchscreen Nikon has been using lately. It's on a platform that allows tilting up a bit more than 90° and tilting down a bit less than 90°. The basic touchscreen interface is the same as the D850, which is to say, quite good, about as good as we've gotten from anyone. Navigating playback or menus is fast, and touch-to-focus-and-shoot works quite rapidly compared to some other implementations I've seen (starts with an S...). 

What else should you know about the camera itself? Well, a lot. I'll try to stay as brief as I can be here, as I really want you to read the handling and performance sections of the review ;~).

The Z7 does not have a built-in flash. It does have the regular Nikon hot shoe up top, and is compatible with all the recent CLS Speedlights. One thing to note: flash sync speed is 1/200, not 1/250, and you can't shoot flash with the silent shutter (you can use electronic first curtain shutter, though). If you want to go wireless with flash, you'll need an SB-5000 and the WR-R10 transmitter, which plugs into the rectangular 10-pin slot at the bottom of the connector area and is pretty much out of your way. That same connector is used for wired remotes like the MC-DC2, and for other accessories such as the GP-1A GPS unit. 

GPS data can also be obtained via SnapBridge from your smartphone, which these days is up to version 2.5.2 and basically now workable, though not without some lingering faults. One interesting change is that SnapBridge now allows you to shoot raw files and still push over 2mp JPEGs to your smartphone (didn't I request that two years ago?). Nikon also added one somewhat useful thing to the Wi-Fi capabilities of the Z7 beyond SnapBridge: the ability to speak both AdHoc and Infrastructure modes, which gives you access to your computer via your router. The problem with this implementation is that it is slow. Almost slow enough not to be useful. Almost. 

Likewise, the USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed) connector on the camera doesn't seem to really move data at 5MBs. That's probably not the fault of the electronics, but more the fault of the internal OS driving the electronics. Fortunately, it is fast enough for studio-type tethered shooting.

There's been some confusion about frame rates with the Z7. With the mechanical shutter, you top out at 5.5 fps with a Live View type update. To get the 9 fps you need to select High-Speed Continuous (Extended), which puts the camera in electronic shutter mode and a slide show type viewfinder update. It also means that the exposure will be set to the first image in the sequence (though the camera will continue to focus for subsequent images). 

bythom sports CU vs WSU Nov10 2018 Z726526

I followed this pass play all the way from the 28 yard line where the ball was received (above) to the celebration in the end zone right in front of me (below). Yep, I hit the buffer but kept shooting. The exposure was set on that bright sunny area you see above. But the celebration occurred in the shady part of the end zone in front of me. The image below has been recovered with a largish EV and Shadows boost in Adobe Raw Converter. Without those, the player is mostly a silhouette due to the exposure being held constant. The good news, of course, is that Nikon sensors can easily recover shadow detail.

bythom sports CU vs WSU Nov10 2018 Z726558


I've already noted that the shutter has a flash sync of 1/200, but otherwise it is the usual 30 second to 1/8000 vertical-travel focal-plane shutter type. Because mirrorless cameras "double-clutch" the shutter—first they close while the sensor resets for shooting, then they open to start exposure, close to end exposure, and finally open again to restore live view—Nikon has also added an electronic front curtain shutter (EFCS) mode, which you'll pretty much want to use all the time for shutter speeds lower than 1/250 (otherwise too much shutter slap can impact the image). 

Note that EFCS puts some limitations on the camera (1/2000 maximum shutter speed, and ISO 25,600 maximum). Nikon keeps EFCS off by default probably because of these limitations.

Nikon has thrown in a few tidbits that require a lot of more evaluation to fully understand, including automatic diffraction compensation. Coupled with a new mid-range sharpening control in the Picture Controls, Nikon is touting that they're now doing different three types of sharpening in the image (JPEGs and TIFF, obviously) that deal with differences in the way our eyes respond to contrast in different areas. 

Overall size and weight of the Z7 is a bit like the D7500, a DSLR camera a whole class level down (in sensor size and more). To those that wonder: yes, there is an immediate and tangible difference in feel when moving from the D850 to the Z7: the Z7 feels lighter and nimbler. Yet by keeping the deep hand grip and traditional Nikon controls coupled with the usual Nikon high-end build quality, it still feels like a Nikon. 

I've got a small custom 6x4x10" slightly padded bag that a friend made for me. Into that I can fit the Z7, the FTZ adapter, the 24-70mm f/4 lens and hood, the 35mm f/1.8 lens and hood, two extra EN-EL15b batteries, and my XQD card carrying case. 

One thing many DSLR users don't appreciate until it actually comes to packing time is just how the overall volume difference due to the missing mirror box really starts to add up with near equivalent camera/lens sets. 

That many early adapters of mirrorless cameras have been using them for travel is the result of this downsizing. As I noted, I can fit my Z7 special bag I just described above into my favorite laptop briefcase (the expensive but packed-with-excellence Waterfield Air Porter) and still have room for my laptop, tablet, headphones, chargers, accessories, and other travel gear. (If you're interested in purchasing such a Z7 bag, send me an email and I'll see if I can get my friend to do a limited production run.) 

The Z7 body is said to have the same dust and drip resistance as the D850 (Nikon's words, not mine). My friend Roger Cicala has torn a Z7 down, and his observations mostly match mine: Nikon has put seals everywhere. Moreover, even just doing a partial disassembly I noted the same thing as Roger: Nikon is using overlap as well as sealing in many areas. Weather protection is excellent.

Now many are interpreting that to mean that you can get the Z7 really wet and not have issues. First, the camera will not survive submersion. There's also one very vulnerable ingress point: the card slot. As long as that door is closed, yes, the rubber gaskets and overlap will probably work fine to keep water out of the camera. But note that the card slot is soldered directly to the main PC board. So if the door is open and water gets in, it can get right into the one place you absolutely don't want it. 

While I don't panic if my D850 gets wet and won't panic if my Z7 gets similarly wet, if you're going to be in inclement conditions use prophylactic practices, as I do. Be very careful when the card slot door is open or there is no lens/cap on the mount. 

Video capabilities of the Z7 are extensive, and should excite videographers. While no longer alone with this feature after the Photokina launches from others, Nikon was the first to introduce a full frame 4K with 10-bit uncompressed 4:2:2 off the HDMI port. Nikon even went so far as to work with Atomos to let the US$700 Ninja V external recorder [advertiser link] control the camera. That 10-bit data on the HDMI port can be saved in what Nikon calls N-Log, their version of the ubiquitous log-format videographers prefer for post-shoot color grading. With the Atomos Ninja V you also can see a view-assisted grading so you're looking at something more approaching what your final graded footage will look like. 

At 4K, the Z7 shoots full frame—actually a very slight crop that uses line skipping and row binning—and does so at 30/25/24P. You can also set DX crop and get an oversize full pixel readout for 4K (basically 5K downsized to 4K). 1080P users can shoot at 24/25/30/50/60/100 and even 120 fps. If that weren't enough, there's internal timecode capability, focus peaking, on-screen zebras, and a bunch more little video-oriented goodies. The MOVIE SHOOTING menu now has 27 options in it, so it's quite easy to set the camera up one way for stills, another for video. 

Video uses the same autofocus system as stills, and if you've complained about Live View, and thus video, autofocus performance on Nikon DSLRs, you're in for a big, important, and useful change shooting video with the Z7. 

The Nikon Z7 is made in Sendai, Japan, with about three-quarters of the assembly done by automation according to Nikon. The camera sells for US$3399. 

Source of the review camera: purchased via NPS Priority Purchase

Nikon's page for the Z7

How's it Handle?
While the general consensus has been good about how the Z7 handles—many people write "it handles like a Nikon DSLR"—don't get too caught up in those easy assessments. They're somewhat wrong. I can find plenty of places where the Z7 does not handle like a Nikon DSLR. Whether those are important to you or not will depend a lot on how you shoot and what features you use. 

Gone, for instance, are the double-button shortcuts (Reset and Format). While I don't miss the former, the latter was a handy shortcut. Everyone's now going to want to consider setting up a customizable button to MyMenu and putting Format as the first thing on that menu. Otherwise you'll get into menu diving pretty quickly every time you want to reformat a card. Frankly, this was a mistake by Nikon. They could have used the ISO/Delete buttons the same as on the D850 as a Format short cut. I see no good reason why they took this feature out.

Other annoying "moved to menu" things abound, as well. 

Take bracketing, for instance. It's the 27th thing on the PHOTO SHOOTING menu (I kid you not). Moreover, the handy shortcut of using the Intervalometer function to take a full bracket sequence with one shutter press is also gone. Nikon's going to say "just add bracketing to your i menu and program a function button to bracketing burst," but which of the deeply buried menu items that also reside in the i menu are you going to give up? Metering? Picture Control? Image Quality? VR? Focus settings? WB?

Which brings me to the one semi-critical handling issue with the Z7: it just doesn't have enough customizable buttons for the sophisticated shooter. We've got Fn1 (default WB) and Fn2 (default Focus modes), AF-On (which you'll probably want to leave set to AF-On), the thumbstick button, and the red Record Movie button. That's not enough buttons for all the things you're going to want to promote up to a higher level than a full menu dive. Nor are there enough i button function positions for everything I want to bring up quickly, given that I don't have a lot of customizable buttons.

Which makes the Z7 a bit of a "slow" camera to work with. Yes, you can use MyMenu and the U1/U2/U3 settings to try to flesh things out, but you still have a finite number of slots for what seems like an infinite number of settings to control. You really need to think things through very carefully to maximize the customization of the camera, and I'll bet that even if you do that, you'll still wish you had more things you could assign. This is quite different than the Sony philosophy, which has the opposite problem: there are 50+ pages of things I can assign to a larger number of programmable controls on the Sony cameras now.

Tip: The camera does have a Drive button (frame rate, self timer), and that's duplicated up in the i menu defaults. So there's one thing you should consider replacing on the i menu.

VR is something you'll need to come to grips with. Yes, the Z7 has on-sensor VR. But you can also mount lenses (currently via the FTZ adapter) that have VR. If the lens has the same VR controls as the camera (Off, Normal, Sport), then VR setting are always controlled by the switch on the lens. If not, well, things get a bit more problematic. As far as I can tell, there's no way to set Active on the lens: you still get Normal. And if there's no VR on the lens, then the only way you can control the sensor VR is via the menu system. The good news is that all your non-VR lenses now have VR (on sensor). The bad news is that you have to pay attention to where you're controlling when VR is on or not. It's easy to turn off the VR in the camera, then mount a VR lens and control VR from there, then forget that you've left VR off in the camera when you mount another non-VR lens. 

Tip: VR can be assigned to a space on the i menu.

A somewhat bigger issue with the Z7 handling is the startup delay. It originally took over a second for the camera to come active and be able to take a shot from the time you move the power switch position to On. The firmware updates have improved this noticeably, but it's still a bit longer than on a DSLR. That means you really don't want to have the camera off if you're doing anything that approaches spontaneous shooting. The good news is that the delay coming out of standby mode is short. Still not quite as quick as the DSLRs, but short enough that you shouldn't miss shots. 

Something that I'm not sure was the right decision is the availability of focus peaking and zebras. Unlike Sony, where you can pretty much select those things to appear in the EVF all the time, Nikon has put limits on both. Zebras are only available when you're shooting video, for some reason. Focus Peaking only works when you're manually focusing. That includes being in an autofocus mode and manually overriding the focus, and there's a bit of a gotcha if you're a back button focusing addict: you have to hold that button down while manually focusing to see peaking, which seems counterintuitive.

Something that some might find a handling issue is the charging of the battery via USB-C. The good news is that Nikon supplies the required charger. The bad news is that this works only with the EN-EL15b batteries, and only with the camera turned off. In other words, you can't charge your older batteries this way, nor can you do anything with the camera while the battery is charging. This seems like a big design miss on Nikon's part, to me. Particularly so given how much emphasis has been put on the video abilities. I want the USB connection to power the camera, period. That way I can put one of my big Omnicharge batteries on the job and shoot video for far, far longer.

You'll note that I've identified quite a few handling issues here. Virtually all of these are "down in the weeds" issues. For many of the more casual shooters, they're not going to be limitations. It's when you compared the Z7 against the D850 or the Sony A7Rm3 that the Z7 starts coming up a bit short in a number of handling areas (that said, Sony's small buttons and confusing menus are a bigger handling problem, in my opinion, which fortunately Nikon hasn't replicated in the Z7). 

What I wrote at the start of this section—that many think the Z7 handles like a Nikon—is basically true. You see the Nikon DNA in almost all the handling decisions, and it's relatively easy for a dedicated Nikon DSLR user to adjust to the Z7 quickly. But over time, that same user is likely to be asking Nikon for some changes. For example, Sony's focus peaking and zebras are more flexible and usable than Nikon's. Long term, we shouldn't be tolerating such lower level of capability in a US$3400 camera. 

Finally, it seems ironic that Nikon removed the DOF button on a camera (D7500) because Live View provides a perfectly acceptable rendering of what is and isn't out of focus (on the rear LCD), but then they make a camera like the Z7 that is basically always in Live View that requires a DOF button to see what is and isn't out of focus. 

Let me elaborate a bit: the Z7 normally uses the user-specified aperture up through f/5.6. So as long as you're shooting at f/1.8 to f/5.6, you're seeing the correct focus point and DOF in the viewfinder (and on the rear LCD). But the minute you go beyond that, say f/8 or f/11, you now need to have a customizable button to force the camera to stop down to show you DOF, and any lens focus shift—both the currently available Z lenses as I write this have a bit—is not addressed.

And then there are the weird, self goals: Multiple Exposure (ME) shooting can't result in an in-camera raw (as it does in the D850). Most everything else is the same with ME, but not this one small aspect. (Nikon does do one nice thing and display the previous frame as overlay in the viewfinder as you compose the additional shot, though.) The U1/U2/U3 settings don't actually remember all camera set parameters (again, they don't remember Release Mode among other things). 

Another simplification that doesn’t belong on this class of camera: removal of the channel highlights abilities. We only get the blinkies now for the luminance channel; there’s no way to see which channel is blowing out short of going to the RGB Histogram page, and the small channel histograms will have you looking closely to see what’s really going on.

These smaller things taken together are what make those of us who review products say something like "this is a first generation camera." It shows in the handling details. Because final, finesse-level handling only comes with experience, any completely new platform like the Z6/Z7 mirrorless cameras are going to suffer some in their first generation. That's because the hardware and performance tuning were taking preference to get the camera out the door to the first customers. 

The reason that the Z7 works as a first generation mirrorless platform is because so much was brought over fairly directly from the DSLRs, particularly the D850. But it wasn't a complete transplant, and there are abundant rough edges because of that. 

One thing I'm not sure about that's new in handling is the ability to assign the focus ring on Z mount lenses to other functions (exposure, exposure compensation, aperture, etc.). I believe Samsung was the first company to give us this function on an ILC—it was done first on a couple of compact cameras—and it's catching on with everyone now, but for a stills shooter I'm not sure the function adds value. That's because it's too easy to accidentally move the ring and cause a change when you might not want that change. 

For video shooters I can see some value here, particularly for adjusting exposure manually on the fly, but only when you want it to happen. Overall, though, I'd say the jury is out on how useful a multi-function focus ring is. 

I'm being very picky and detailed here, because these are the things Nikon has to fix to make a best-in-class camera that will drive the competition nuts and put customers into a nirvana state. Hopefully Nikon corporate sees and understands all that I've written in this section. Yes, the Z7 handles well and competently. But it isn't close to a home run. The camera business is now getting small enough and competitive enough that the home runs are what will still be around five years from now. 

That said, the Z7 does handle enough like a Nikon DSLR that it's immediately recognizable and an easy transition for any Nikon DSLR user. The primary differences are dictated by the mirrorless nature of the Z7, not random design choices. 

While I'm still early in my evaluation of the Canon EOS R, I can't say the same thing for it: the Canon R feels like a hodge-podge of ideas not at all fleshed out. Compared to the similar Canon DSLR (5Dm4), there are additions, changes, and omissions on the R that look more like experimentation than a clear design philosophy. 

So, Nikon basically nailed handling. Canon hasn't. Sony is still iterating many of the same handling errors three generations later. That's a Nikon win, in my book. Not a perfect win, but a clear one.

How's it Perform?
Battery: My first four day-long shoots with the Z7 revealed the following: 

  • 623 shots, battery at 42%
  • 1675 shots, battery at 6% (camera shutdown immediately following)
  • 913 shots, battery at 22%
  • 1129 shots, battery at 50%

Conditions were a lot of continuous shooting in relatively cold conditions as I tried to figure out the autofocus system. Overall, for still shooting you're going to do far better than the 330 CIPA rating suggests. Compared to a D850 in the same conditions, my Z7 has been getting about half to two-thirds the number of shots doing the same shooting. As I continue to work with the Z7, I'm getting more and more comfortable with that statement (half to two-thirds the EN-EL15 shot capability compared to the D850). 

Of course, things change some when you slow way down. If you leave the camera on and only take a shot once in a while while also using the rear LCD a lot, the number will plummet, probably to somewhere in the 700 range based upon my early shooting. Accessories can pull down the battery, too (e.g. the wireless flash/remote trigger/GPS). You need to be aware of any accessory or setting that puts the camera into a battery-life-measured-in-hours mode. That includes things plugged into the remote connector, the USB connector, and the HDMI connector. It also includes any function that requires the camera's electronics to say active, such as SnapBridge. 

Overall, though, for still shooting the battery performance is completely acceptable, and some may even find it quite good (depends upon what camera you're coming from). 

Video performance is a slightly different deal. I've gotten less than one hour performance from the first few video shoots I've attempted (with no external accessories, but with things like VR and autofocus turned on). I think if you're serious about using the Z7 as a video camera you're going to want to get the AC Adapter and/or the MB battery grip whenever it appears. Either that or you need to be in situations where you can change batteries without penalty (e.g. no continuous theater/music/dance performances). 

Even though the video side seems a little tight running from the EN-EL15b, I'd judge the "battery life issue" many were worried about to be mostly non-existent. I bought two extras of the new version of the battery just in case; I've rarely dipped into a second battery in a day's work, even shooting some video, and never to the third. 

Buffer: Yes, the buffer is small (the camera tends to report r16, or a physical buffer of 16 images). The figures in the manual are proving out accurate in practice for raw files (19 to 23 lossless compressed, depending upon bit depth). That's a bit over two seconds of continuous shooting at the maximum frame rate (9 fps), about four seconds at the maximum mechanical shutter rate (5.5 fps). The JPEG buffer actually seems to be the one that's tight for me. The manual lists 25 shots for a Large JPEG Fine, and while I get a couple frames over that, this is one of the more restrictive cameras Nikon has made lately in terms of JPEGs in the buffer.

Having now tested a wide set of cards in my Z7—I've intentionally bought one of each type of XQD card along the way since the D4 started using them, though not at all sizes—I can say that my results are very similar to what's been reported elsewhere: the Z7 appears to top out near 250MBs with cards that are labeled 400MBs. My D5 has hit ~300MBs on some of those same cards. Put another way: the camera's card slot is almost certainly the limiting factor in how fast the camera performs. 

There are many who are making an assumption that when CFExpress firmware is added to the Z7, the camera will get faster (ProGrade has a 1GBs card in prototype). I do not subscribe to that theory and expect that any change to CFExpress won't have any significant impact on speed. History has proven that card slot speed is pretty much hard coded at a maximum by the camera makers, and given that we have underperformance to what the cards can already do, I'd say that the Z7 slot is likely limited somewhere near 250MBs. CFExpress as Nikon is likely to implement with the Z7 is still going to be two lane PCIe, just like XQD, so will be limited by the electronics of the camera to similar speeds, and won't reach the 1GBs some are hoping for.

If you want best performance in the Z7, you should use a Sony G Series, a Lexar 2933x series, or the new Nikon cards (I'm still waiting for a Delkin card to test, but given their 400MBs rating, I'd expect them to be similar to the Sony G). Simple as that. I was actually surprised at how poorly some of my older XQD cards did in the Z7. I stopped using my oldest Sony cards on a recent shoot because I was hitting full buffer and getting poor rollover rates (<1 shot a second once buffer was full; on the fast cards it was 3 fps). 

While Lossless Compressed writes at a slightly slower rate than Uncompressed (<5%), the full buffer clearance speed is faster by almost 20%, which can produce a continuing rate as high as 3.5 fps when the buffer is full (the file sizes are smaller with Lossless Compressed). 

So nothing is really going to change from my card recommendations with the D850, I think. If the buffer depth is important, shoot Lossless Compressed, and shoot at 12-bit if you're over ISO 400. If you're still struggling, consider 12-bit Compressed NEF. And only use a 400MBs write speed card in the camera.  

Do note that with a 400MBs card in the camera, you can shoot JPEGs at 3 fps pretty much continuously, up to the 200 maximum images limit of the camera. 

Connectivity: Let's start with the new stuff. You can use the supplied USB cable to get "fast" transfers from camera to computer. Only they're not all that fast. I fail to see the point of using a SuperSpeed (USB 3) port if you're going to limit the transfer speed to at 1/10th the speed the port is capable of (e.g. the Z7 is running under 30MBs in my tests with the fastest card I have). Basically, the Z7 is running at the speed of a USB 2.0 card reader. That's so 2001. 

Okay, how about that new camera-to-computer transfer via Wi-Fi? Well, it works. Still slower than my network, and by a long shot. In both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz modes I'm getting the same basic numbers, with the fastest transfers running a bit over 2MB/s. That's slower than just plugging the camera into that SuperSpeed USB port and shooting tethered, too. (This is one thing I need to look into more: Wi-Fi networks are notorious to get tuned properly for all devices connecting to them. But others have reported similar results to mine, so I'll go with them for now.)

I was hoping for better from Nikon when I saw they were supporting Infrastructure mode on 5Ghz. But we're still in the 30-40 second range per NEF file here, which isn't at all thrilling. 

Finally, a word about SnapBridge. In its current form, it's usable. Not great, but if you're looking for 2mp JPEGs to post to social media near directly from the camera, SnapBridge is now going to give you that capability. Be aware that this has battery life implications, though. Leaving SnapBridge always on and connected starts to net you battery life measured in hours, not shots.

Image Quality: I'm really tempted to just say "virtually identical to the D850" and be done with this section. I'm pretty sure that long-time readers of my work won't be satisfied with that, though. 

bythom sports CU vs WSU Nov10 2018 D524074

Black uniforms in shade sometimes had me pulling up shadows in images, but those images are just fine.

bythom sports CU vs WSU Nov10 2018 D524076 crop

Still, comparing against the D850 is a good starting point. The Z7 sensor appears to be the same underlying BSI sensor as in the D850, only with phase detect focus points added to it. In terms of overall performance, the Z7 sensor basically seems to be everything that we've come to love about the D850 sensor, including the dual gain bump at ISO 400. Lots of pixels, reasonably good low light performance, excellent dynamic range for low ISO work. Essentially state of the full frame art at base ISO (64).

But you've probably encountered comments about "banding." 

Don't get too hung up on that, as even when banding is present it takes a huge exposure boost (5+ stops) to begin to reveal it. Also, I can't reproduce it in a 12-bit NEF, and you should probably be shooting 12-bit for anything above ISO 400. Even in 14-bit NEF, the presence of that near black banding isn't assured. A number of us are still trying to figure out what is triggering it.

Oh, we know where it's occurring: it's centered around the phase detect pixel rows (it's not precisely the PD row data; it appears to be a processing that occurs due to something Nikon is doing after collecting data from the PD rows, which implies some sort of dual read system for those PD rows that has to be managed against adjacent rows using a different read mechanism). What's unclear is why the banding is so intermittent in appearance. I shot quite a few images before I found one that had this low lying defect in it (and even then, I was pushing the image way further than I'd ever do in real life). The real head-scratcher here is the intermittent nature of the problem.

I've tried a number of things users might do that would cause the banding to be clearly visible in their images: underexpose an image significantly (two or three stops), use Active D-Lighting set with maximum parameters, deep bracket sets, really push the Shadow processing in ACR, and so on. In none of these images would I say there's anything clearly visible when processed well. Better still, there's now a version of Raw Therapee that can process the banding out pretty decently if you should have an image where it boils up to visibility.

Put another way: after all those words I'd say just ignore anything you see written about banding. Shoot 12-bit if you're above ISO 400 (14-bit doesn't give you any additional useful data at high ISO values). If for some reason you eventually find an image with visible banding, process it with Raw Therapee, which has a way of dealing with the issue.

Of course, there's another type of banding we need to talk about, and that's what happens with all electronic shutters under frequency based lighting: you get slightly diagonal bars (not bands) across your image where the exposure seems different. This is caused by the rolling nature of the electronic shutter. All non-global electronic shutters have this issue, which is to say virtually all mirrorless cameras to date that feature a silent (electronic) shutter capability.

The Z7 seems to be very close to the A7 series here, with a rolling shutter that's running at about 1/15 second, nearly identical to the A7m3. If you see such bars in your image, switch to the mechanical shutter. 

VR: It works. Pretty much as expected. Just remember that VR never stops subject motion, only motion of the camera/lens. 

One area where there is a bit of confusion is with tripods and shutter slap. If you leave the camera in the usual mechanical shutter mode and use longer exposures on anything less than an absolutely secure tripod support, VR doesn't seem to do a great job of correcting the low level vibration from the initial shutter opening. 

If you're counting on VR to let you take absurdly long shots, handheld or on a tripod, I'd strongly suggest that you select electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) or the all-electronic shutter. 

NEFs: Okay, we have to have a separate section here for a change, because Nikon has made a change. The Z7 NEF format bundles along a bunch of XMP data, which is picked up automatically by the Adobe converters. This includes lens corrections, which the Adobe converters apply automatically (and don't allow you to override). 

You'll see the primary differences in three panels:

bythom z7 acr1

The Profile on the main panel will reflect what was set as a Picture Control on the camera. If you made additional contrast/clarity adjustments to the Picture Control, they'll also appear.

bythom 730

The Detail panel looks a lot different than Adobe's usual settings. This image was shot at ISO 450 (Auto ISO active) and you'll note it's already pulling in luminance noise reduction, though it's using far less color noise reduction than Adobe normally applies (something I've been complaining about for years).

bythom z7 acr3

You have no real control over lens corrections. Even if Enable Profile Corrections isn't checked, they are applied. If you do check it, you'll just see that what was applied is "built-in" (came from the camera file). 

I don't mind the new data coming along. Indeed, Nikon NEFs haven't looked this good in an Adobe converter since, well, forever. But I do mind not being able to manually override the lens corrections. 

Autofocus

It's rant time. Getting information about how the Z7 autofocus system actually is supposed to work from Nikon is like pulling teeth from a Cape Buffalo (in other words, don't try it unless you want to get hurt). I've got multiple specific questions into Nikon through multiple channels, and total radio silence coming back. Let me state this emphatically as I can: if you can't release appropriate information that will help customers understand and use your system correctly because you're afraid doing so will reveal proprietary information, you don't belong in the consumer product business

When you have a new approach that does new things in new ways, as with the Z7, it's incumbent upon you, the product's designer, to inform users of those new approaches and abilities, and how to optimize the use of them. If you get hammered in the press and in Internet fora by what you feel are inaccurate comments or conclusions about focus capability, it's your own fault if you didn't inform the press and users as to what you actually did and how it should be used optimally. 

Nikon has completely messed up with the Z autofocus system. Not in the execution of it, but in the documentation of it. The user manual is of little help. The product managers are of little help. The ability to reverse engineer what the camera is doing and how to optimize your shooting to it isn't something that customers should have to do. They're more likely to try the camera casually, find an objection, and not buy the camera

This isn't the first time Nikon has made this mistake. Nor is it the second. By my count it is the fourth time they've made changes to how autofocus works without actually doing a good job of documenting that in a way that the user can understand and act on. The problem is at Nikon...

Rant over.

Okay, we've hit the Big Subject of interest here. I've now read dozens of reviews and thousands of comments about how the Z7's autofocus performs, and I'll say that only one or two of those actually seem to agree with what I see after a prodigious amount of testing. 

First, there's what you're comparing the Z7 to. DSLR? Mirrorless? Dedicated performance cameras? What?

Second, I'm noticing a huge amount of loose and inappropriate language that make readers tend to have to guess at what's actually meant. 

Third, I'm not sure that most of those writing about the Z7's autofocus performance have actually pushed it in every situation it might ever be used in, let alone try to understand how they might optimize the camera settings for that. 

So, let's get a few things stated clearly right up front:

  • Focus is fast
  • Focus is accurate
  • Tracking fast moving subjects can be a problem
  • Really low light will affect all three of the above
  • Strongly backlit situations cause the camera to miss focus more often

I've seen a lot of writing that suggests that focus isn't fast on the Z7. I don't know what camera those folks were using, but it isn't the ones I've tested. Whether with native Z lenses or F-mount lenses on the FTZ adapter, I'm not seeing any sluggishness to focus in normal situations on the Z7 (again, really low light can raise issues, but it does for other cameras, as well). Note that I'm illustrating this article with wildlife movement and football images. Those subjects require a fast autofocus system.

I'm reasonably impressed by the Z7 focus speed. The one thing I discovered in shooting moving subjects with the Z7 is that focus acquisition speed is much like the Nikon DSLRs: reliable and fast. Is the Z7 as fast at that as the D5? No, though it's tough to measure accurately. Is it as fast as a D7500? Absolutely. 

What I see in focus acquisition is that the lens plays the biggest part (other than in very low light). The 70-300mm AF-P lens on the Z7 is wicked fast to get to the focus point, the 200-500mm f/5.6E lens clearly and noticeably slower. Just like on the DSLRs. 

Native Z lenses seem a little faster than the fastest F-mount lenses, but that simply may be that Nikon is using a different motor strategy in the S line lenses. The 35mm f/1.8 S is noticeably faster to acquire focus than the 35mm f/1.8G on the adapter, for instance, but the 35mm f/1.8G wasn't what I'd call a fast acquisition lens on DSLRs, either.

Let me state it unequivocally: focus acquisition is fast and mostly dependent upon the amount of light available, whether you have detail on the right axis of the subject, and the speed of the lens motor used. Just like on the DSLRs. 

Tip: Focus speed not fast enough for you? Turn off Custom Setting #D8 (Apply Settings to Live View). Yes, it makes a difference.

Okay, how about accurate? 

Over and over I've been impressed with the accuracy of the Z7 focus system with static or near static subjects. Assuming you know what the Autofocus Area mode you selected is going to do—don't worry, we'll get to that, as it's important to understanding the focus system—the Z7 just nails focus in those cases. With AF-S (single servo), it's mostly as you'd expect with mirrorless: accurate. 

Important aside: the 35mm and 24-70mm Z lenses have clear focus shift in them. It's actually quite possible to get inaccurate results if you don't realize this and don't know how the focus system actually works (e.g. it never uses an aperture above f/5.6 to focus). I'm pretty sure that some suggestions about inaccuracy by others derive from this. 

I'm also impressed with AF-C (continuous servo) accuracy on static or near-static subjects. In particular, Pinpoint mode is really quite precise. I'd tend to say that the Z7 is a little more repeatably accurate with a focus move to a static subject using AF-C than the Nikon DSLRs are. It's definitely more accurate with AF-S (single servo, not the lens type).

For static or near static subjects the Z7's focus accuracy is as good as any other mirrorless camera, and better than a DSLR (just like the Sony A7Rm3 is). Landscape shooters should rejoice (though again be aware that the Z7 only stops down to f/5.6 in the viewfinder unless you press a button you've programmed to Depth of Field Preview), so you're normally not seeing depth of field accurately at small apertures. But any static or near-static subject should be easily focused by the Z7 once you learn the various controls and modes.

How about faces (and eyes)? One of the common complaints in many of the initial posts about the Z7—many of which were by people who had never used the camera and were just comparing spec sheets—is that the Z7 doesn't have "eye detect," which the Sony Mark III's have.

My experience with both face detect and eye detect across multiple cameras is that it is wonderful when it works, problematic when it doesn't. The more you try to get DOF isolation, e.g. use fast apertures (particularly on longer focal length lenses), the worse the problem side becomes. 

So how's the Z7 work? Pretty well, actually. Face detect is a sub-mode to the Auto Area mode. The first thing you need to know is that face detect has to be turned on with Custom Setting #A4 (or off, if that's what you desire; in both my wildlife and football shooting I ended up turning it off, which seemed to help focus speed).  

bythom facedetect

Here's a very off center and not facing me example. The camera has correctly found the human face (yellow box at right). Note that this is fairly low light, but not really low light.

In general, face detect works well. It does tend to recognize some things as a face that it shouldn't (it did that on a bell of a brass instrument, on a balloon, and a few other round or elliptical items at rare times). If the camera sees more than one face, it will pick one and present an arrow, which is your indication that you should move the joystick to pick the next face that direction if you want that one instead. This is actually an interesting way of dealing with groups of people, and something I appreciated because of that.

But does it focus on the eyes? 

No. And in most cases that's perfectly fine. I suppose if I'm up close with a 105mm f/1.4 at f/1.4 the DOF could get me in trouble when the camera focuses on the brow, but frankly, I find that Sony's eye detect also often doesn't focus on the pupil of the eye where I want it, either. I've noted that a couple of other people I respect have reported that the Z7 is "more accurate" at getting proper face focus than the D850, and I'd tend to agree. Actually, I'd say it's more consistent on where it puts the focus, and where it puts the focus is okay for me in most cases.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: tracking moving subjects. Okay, maybe not elephant in the room, but rather a cheetah running past the room. You've probably seen all kinds of opinions about the Z7's focus tracking, and that started with the prerelease events Nikon put on for "opinion leaders" (apparently I'm not one of them; that's okay, I know I am even if Nikon doesn't ;~). 

The comments then and since have been all over the place. I won't hold it against you if you don't know whether or not a Z7 can follow a moving subject well. 

bythom sports CU vs WSU Nov10 2018 D524254

This is an example where lots of folk seem to the think the Z7 will fail. I'm following the running back (from left to right) and there's plenty of conflicting detail in the background that the Z7 could decide to focus on if it isn't tracking right. 

That looks in focus to me. I must be doing something wrong! 

And this is where we get into details Nikon won't talk about. I've noticed, for example, in that same situation as above, but with the far detail in bright sun while the near is in shade, the performance changes. When everything's evenly lit, the AF-C is somewhat reliable and does what I think it should. When the background is far brighter than the foreground, interesting things I can't completely explain happen. (Note that dpreview's bike test is dark foreground with bright background. Uh-oh.) 

My best guess is that it's a contrast issue. In a brightly lit area the camera is seeing more contrast, and thus more reliable focus information, and it sometimes defaults to what it thinks is more reliable information as opposed to its regular algorithm. When contrast is similar across the scene, my observation is that often closest subject distance is used in the auto modes; the camera does seem to be trying to use color/pattern to track, as well.

In my experience with the Sony cameras—particularly the A9, but even the Mark III A7 models—the viewfinder update is better at fast frame rates and you don't tend to wander off the subject and miss focus as I sometimes did with the Z7. Thus, I'd state clearly that for the type of sports shooting I was doing in these examples I'd rather have the A9 with its near perfect viewfinder and good focus system. But can I live with Nikon gave me? Yes. It's as good as what I could do with pre-D4 DSLRs for the most part, maybe better.

So the Z7 can track motion well, then?

No. 

Wait, what?

This is where it gets very tricky to describe accurately. I'll see if I can do a better job than others have. 

[A number of people have misinterpreted this section of the review. This is one of the problems with trying to cover such a complex product where confusing/conflicting terms trigger different things to different people. Note the following few paragraphs apply to a specific mode, 3D Tracking. Be sure to note when I transition to talking about other modes, as "tracking performance" will be different in different modes.]

3D Tracking is useless on the Z7, in my opinion. It's another mode within a mode, meaning you have to select Auto Area focus mode, then press the OK button, then align the cursor on the subject you want to track, then start the focus (shutter release or AF-On button). If you want to track another subject, you have to cancel tracking and go back to step 2. Your thumb is going to be getting a workout should you try this, particularly with back button focus enabled. 

Whoever "designed" this 3D Tracking mode needs to go to UX school. Because there is no usable UX (User Experience) in the way the Z7 does 3D Tracking. You simply can't do what's needed with fast moving subjects. And why this is different than how the DSLRs work I can't fathom. Well, I can. What Nikon did is take a shortcut: they mostly used their known-to-be-terrible video focus modes for AF-C focus mode design. (Ironically, the Z7's video continuous autofocus may be the best of the mirrorless bunch so far, though 3D Tracking is still too complex to set up in fast moving situations.)

3D Tracking is also highly variable in how well it does. This has to do with subject recognition. I'll give you an interesting example. I've got a yellow Nikon bag in my office. If I set tracking on it and recompose so that the bag is out of the frame and then come back so that it is, guess what? Yep, the camera re-finds the yellow bag and its distinctive color and patterning. Wow. That's what you want 3D Tracking to do, right?

But if you focus on the white light switch on the white wall in my office, then move the composition off it and come back, nope: 3D Tracking is lost in space and has no idea what the subject is. In fact, it sometimes loses the light switch even if it stays in frame as I recompose. And that's exactly the problem that makes 3D Tracking useless as a mode: unless you absolutely know that the camera sees a distinctive color/pattern from the rest of the scene, it's going to do some random things in tracking. When it does see a distinctive color/pattern, it's uncannily good. 

Unfortunately, the Z7 doesn't see such distinctions as well or as often as the D5 does. Couple that with the awkward UX, and I'll stick by my use of the word "unusable." 

Okay, so what about the other AF Area modes? 

Single point works decently and much like the DSLRs, but only if you can keep it on the subject (having 493 points doesn't actually help that, as you can't move focus position as fast as your subject moves most of the time). 

Dynamic Area (basically a very wide 9-point Dynamic also works much like the DSLRs though it looks too far away from the subject you really want tracked at times (i.e., that pattern needs to be tightened some, IMHO, or at least have an option for Small Dynamic). 

The Wide Area (small and large) modes supposedly perform Closest Subject Priority (CSP) according to Nikon product managers I've talked to, but I can easily demonstrate that they don't always do that (again, backgrounds can be a problem: just put a bright background behind the subject and there's a strong chance that the focus system will look to the background instead of the subject. So, not actually CSP). (Through two different channels I've put in a "strong" request to Nikon for a return of Group mode, which always uses CSP.

All AF-C Area modes have a common problem: they don't change the focus sensor indicator to show that focus was actually obtained: it stays red. That's a big issue that needs to be fixed, stat. Note what I said about 3D Tracking: how do I know the camera identified a "subject" (color/pattern/distance)? 

If you're getting the sense that I think that the Autofocus Area mode choices on the Z7 are a bit of a problem with tracking focus for moving subjects, you're absolutely right. They are the primary difference that means you'll have a tougher time getting correct sequences of focus on moving subjects compared to a Nikon DSLR (or a Sony mirrorless camera, for that matter). 

I'd tend to say that the AF-C Autofocus Area modes weren't the result of someone doing testing to get the best results. They seem to be more a last minute mishmash of things Nikon has previously done, without specifically testing to see that these are options that, together, actually solve all the user problems we might encounter with moving subjects. 

If you've been paying attention, I've obviously been getting in focus shots of fast moving subjects (animals and sports). These were all taken in AF-C. But not with 3D Tracking ;~), and generally with one of the smaller focus patterns. The lingering problem is that the Z7 isn't as predictable as the recent Nikon DSLRs in the modes that I find truly usable (basically Single, Dynamic, and Wide Area). Couple that with the potential of the viewfinder lag eventually having you not framing your subject on the autofocus sensors being used, and yes, you get sequences where some images are in focus and some aren't. 

The current Sony A7/A9 models don't have this problem. At least nowhere near the level the Z7 does. Thus, if you're considering the Z7 for moving subjects, I'd tend to send you to the Sony cameras instead, particularly the A9 as its no-lag, no-blackout viewfinder solves the framing problem 100%, and its high performance focus engine seems to work predictably and well.  

Curiously, I find that giving the Z7 "more" to look at (e.g. Wide Area Large versus Wide Area Small) sometimes makes a significant difference in getting better results with some moving subjects. I've noticed that a bit on the Sony cameras, too (larger detection area seems to give the camera more useful information). That said, most of the time I found myself using Dynamic and Wide Area Small as my go-to Autofocus Area modes for AF-C. Some of my success is just learning the things that might cause the system to get poorer results and avoiding them.

Adapted lenses: Any recent Nikkor lens (AF-S or AF-P) is not an issue at all. What you expect from the DSLRs is pretty much what you get from the Z7 and the FTZ. I can't see any meaningful difference in focus speed performance. A slower-to-focus lens on the DSLR (e.g. 200-500mm f/5.6) is still going to be slower-to-focus. A fast-to-focus lens on the DSLR (e.g. 400mm f/2.8) is still fast. Some lenses, such as the bargain 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P are astonishing good on the Z7+FTZ (and make for an excellent compact telephoto option). 

Meanwhile, chipped MF lenses (e.g. AI-S, or the old Zeiss ZF.2 or the Voigtlander primes), also shine on the FTZ. These lenses may* give you rangefinder focus confirmation (focus area goes green when area in focus), focus peaking, and image magnification as useful focus tools. With older, non-chipped MF lenses you absolutely lose the rangefinder. All MF lenses seem to meter just fine (though you have to set Non-CPU Lens Data for non-chipped lenses), with the usual Nikon caveat that the lens be set to minimum aperture.

*Nikon disclaims this. But I've found some of my chipped lenses do seem to support it.

Third party lenses are a mixed bunch. The recent ones I still have all seem to work fine with the FTZ, but I've gotten reports and have been able to duplicate them via borrowing, that a few older Sigma lenses may have issues. Frankly, some older Sigma have issues with Live View on modern Nikon DSLRs, too, so it's not surprising that such lenses would also have issues with a camera that's always in Live View. Note that both Sigma and Tamron are in the process of making firmware updates for their recent lenses with the FTZ adapter, so check their Web sites for more details.

Video: I've looked at a lot of video from the Z7 now, more so than I usually do for my reviews, and both my own video and that of other shooters. Let's just say it: this is Nikon's best video implementation yet [foreshadowing: the Z6 is even better], and it effectively raises Nikon into strong consideration if you're one of those that want a still camera that can shoot video. Heck, shoot 4K 10-bit video recorded externally and the Z7 becomes a remarkably good dedicated video camera, as well. The DX crop 4K on the Z7 is as good as I've seen for 4K to date (slight oversampling). The FX crop 4K is nearly as good, but I can see some aliasing/artifacts due to the line skipping and row binning. 

Even the autofocus is good for a video camera; Nikon has mostly gotten away from their slow-and-overshoot tendencies with focus, and continuous autofocus is nowhere near as jittery as on previous cameras, or even competitor models. Indeed, I'd judge the Z7's autofocus for video to be better than Sony's, which was a big surprise.

A word of warning, though: Z mount lenses aren't really good for video other than autofocus. You're going to want old MF Nikkors on the FTZ adapter, I think, if you want to control focus position. The reason for this has to do with the focus-by-wire aspect of the Z mount lenses. You can't make predictable and repeatable manual focus pulls. 

Final Words
Nikon got a lot right with the Z7 and only a few things wrong. Yes, there are a number of small details in the weeds that need tuning/fixing/snipping. The biggest liabilities for most users will likely be two: (1) the limited buffer; and (2) the not-quite-state-of-the-art continuous autofocus area modes. In both those things, the Sony A7/A9 cameras are better, and that's the primary competition Nikon needed to respond to. 

Many shooters can live with both those things, though. In particular, landscape, travel, and casual photography do not require more than the Z7 provides in buffer and focus. So, many shooters are going to be quite pleased with the Z7. Indeed, a landscape shooter might prefer the Z7 over the D850. 

Event shooters, sports shooters, birds in flight photographers, they're all going to have more issues with #1 and #2, to the point where another camera might be a better choice. Indeed, for those shooters the D850 itself may be the right choice. 

The buffer isn't going to change via firmware, but the autofocus system can. Thus, I'd implore Nikon to do some quick work to improve the options we already have, and perhaps add one or two (a true CSP mode, like Group, comes to mind). The 3D Tracking focus method as implemented is mostly unusable for continuously moving subjects, and I don't understand why a camera at this level should have that limitation.

Meanwhile, all the other complaints you've heard about the Nikon mirrorless system are mostly just noise. Banding, battery life, EVF versus optical quality, fewer buttons to customize, lack of built-in flash, single card slot, no-screwdrive autofocus on the FTZ, and so on, are more minor annoyances that can usually be ignored or worked around. The Z7 is a smaller, more lithe camera than the full frame DSLRs, and that has to amount to something in my book. 

The Nikon ergonomic DNA has been fairly carefully retained in this full frame camera body that's the size of the D7500, and it shows. Long-time readers know that I rarely applaud Nikon UI changes, but most of what they've done on the Z7 compared to the D850 is actually welcome and caused by the differences between a DSLR and mirrorless camera. I'm one to give credit where it's due: Nikon did a good job on the Z7 overall design approach. They made a Nikon camera that operates like a Nikon camera, and the changes they made will feel natural very quickly, as they tend to be dictated by the mirrorless "features". 

That's not to say there aren't nits I could pick. The Z7 is a first generation camera, and there are places where that shows, as I've pointed out. The simplification of controls and customization also put some limits on the camera compared to the D850 many would consider as an alternative. A really solid UI/performance review by Nikon that resulted in a firmware update to address what they can would go a long way to making a really good camera a great one. I don't hold out a lot of hope there, though, as Nikon hasn't operated that way in the past (they generally save what they learn for the next model). Still, that means we still have a really good camera. 

That said, the D850 is still a better well-rounded camera than the Z7. If your needs are all over the board—e.g. you shoot landscapes and sports, people and animals—the D850 is still the best all-around interchangeable lens camera I've encountered. The Sony A7Rm3 is probably still second, though the Z7 is snuggled up reasonably close in third. 

For those who already have Nikkor (F-mount) lenses, the transition from DSLR to mirrorless would be less expensive and less frustrating by just sticking with Nikon than going to an A7 model. Many of you have read my articles about leaking and sampling from one brand to another; Nikon probably staunched the flow from Nikon DSLR to Sony mirrorless with the Z6 and Z7 and Z lens announcements. 

So what benefits would you really gain from the Z7 over the D850?

  • Smaller/lighter body (and potentially smaller/lighter equivalent lens sets)
  • WYSIWYG viewfinder with large magnification/diopter range (though with a few minor liabilities)
  • Silent shooting, when required
  • Better and more consistent focus accuracy in non-moving subject situations
  • On-sensor VR stabilizes (virtually) every lens you mount
  • Excellent manual focus aids for older MF lenses (including on-sensor VR)
  • Control simplification/consolidation

Compared to the Sony A7Rm3, the Nikon Z7 doesn't match the continuous autofocus performance of the Sony, but it also doesn't have the Sony's handling issues, particularly in winter use with light gloves on. If you're into video, I'd also say that the Z7's 4K video is somewhat better than Sony's, which was surprising. The rest? We'd be quibbling to try to ferret out meaningful differences. I do like the Z7 sensor's output a bit more than the A7Rm3's, for instance, but frankly they're both darned good in the lower ISO ranges. 

What it comes down to is this: if you've got Nikon F-mount lenses, the Z7 [foreshadowing: and Z6] is the best choice you have right now in transitioning from DSLR to mirrorless. It's surprisingly seamless for everything but screwdrive autofocus lenses. If you're starting from scratch, the Sony A7/A9 series and FE lens set offer more system choices right now, though. 

It's not at all difficult to recommend the Z7. Again, it's a really good camera. That recommendation has a little bit of conditionality to it, though. If you really push your camera's buffer and autofocus system in continuous shooting, the Z7 will put some limits on what you can achieve. 

On the other hand, if you're looking for an all-around full frame camera with the benefits that mirrorless systems offer, the Z7 does a better job of that than I think any of us expected. For a first generation full frame mirrorless camera, Nikon managed to make a solid product that is good enough to give even the dedicated DSLR user some second thoughts. 

Thom's wish list for future Z7 firmware/updates:

  1. Even faster camera startup (improved with first firmware updates, but can we get more?)
  2. A group AF mode in AF-C that guarantees CSP.
  3. Focus/subject confirmation in all AF-C Area modes.
  4. More control/reporting of the aperture actually in use during live view (e.g. true DOF preview).
  5. AF-ON+AF Area Mode assignments for AF-ON and thumbstick button press.
  6. Fix 3D tracking method to be usable.
  7. Add thumb drag on rear LCD to position focus cursor.
  8. Focus peaking and zebra stripes simultaneously, for stills and video, and during autofocus if desired.
  9. Viewfinder histogram shouldn't have white boundaries and white data (hard to see slight overexposure).
  10. Restore channel highlights ability.
  11. Add ability to uniquely name our saved settings files.
  12. Restore ability to select FX Image Area for DX lenses.
  13. Restore two-button Format option.
  14. Restore Multiple Exposure saved as NEF.
  15. Add multiple i button scenarios, changeable by finger swipe outside the button area.

A word on buying the Z7 with the 24-70mm f/4 kit lens: as a few others have written, at US$600 (the implied kit price), this is a no-brainer. While you may see some on the net picking nits over small things, the 24-70mm f/4 S is an extraordinarily good kit lens. You won't find another lens of that capability at that price, and it completely smokes the Sony 24-70mm f/4. Most Nikon DSLR users buying the Z7 should be getting the Z7+FTZ+24-70mm kit [advertiser link]. Yes, that puts you up over US$4100, but if you try to piecemeal your way into the system you're going to spend more to get the same level of quality. Note that you can't get a D850 with any mid-range zoom that's as good at this price. That should tell you something.

Recommended (with minor reservations for some uses)

Thom's Complete Guide to the Nikon Z6 and Z7 is coming soon. Because I've chosen to cover the two cameras together, it's taking me a bit more time to lock down all the descriptions of details.

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