Nikon Z6/Z7 Blog

As I’ve been doing with the DSLRs lately, I’m going to start a blog-style set of comments and updates for the new Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras. Eventually the useful information in these posts will be moved to my review and this blog removed.

Nikon Firmware Updates

With Nikon's recent announcement that they'll add Eye AF to the Z series cameras in a firmware update, I've gotten a lot of "wow, Nikon finally listened to you and is doing something different" emails. (Nikon also is added CFexpress support, while working with Atomos to provide ProRes Raw recording on any Ninja V hooked to the Z body HDMI port.)

No to the former (listen to me), yes to the latter (doing something different).

Nikon doesn't really have any choice but to upgrade the firmware on the Z6 and Z7 substantively. I'll outline the reasons:

  • The Z6 and Z7 aren't likely to get a Mark II version or significant hardware iteration for two years. 
  • Sony will iterate the A7R to Mark IV before Nikon updates their cameras. A A7S Mark III is also likely from Sony and could up the feature/performance game.
  • Nikon doesn't have feature parity with Sony yet, probably because the Z6 and Z7 were a bit rushed to get out. Sony's full frame sales were starting to eat into Nikon's, and the rumors of the R from Canon (and maybe even the S from Panasonic) almost certainly got to Nikon HQ. Thus, there are bits that don't feel finished on the Z series, and lot of what was done with the excellent D850 firmware base Nikon started with was in the way of simplification.

Thus, to finish up the initial offerings and to keep the Z marketing messages active, Nikon was always going to have do some significant firmware updates. 

I suggested a number of update suggestions in my Z7 review, but I keep finding more as I work through all the nuances while writing my book on the Z6 and Z7. The Z's really feel like they were premature births by about a month or two. 

Surprisingly, I'm not finding as many firmware bugs as I usually do with first Nikon releases. I chalk that up the fact that they were working from a good D850 base and simplifying most of the time. The Z6 and Z7 are really just missing some small features, shortcuts, and performance tweaks. The Help system is missing a bunch of entries, too. 

Nikon knows they need to make the Z's "right." They did a really good job of that out of the box, but no complex product ever quite ships as originally intended these days; there's always something you left off or didn't manage before the lock date hit you. 

I suppose it is possible that Nikon might roll with an "S" type update as they used to do many years ago (e.g. D70 to D70s, or even further back, N90 to N90s). But I'd expect any such change to be really small on the hardware side, and mostly firmware adjustments, so these could easily be rolled to the existing cameras, as well. Still, I consider an update any time in the next two years highly unlikely. 

Nikon has plenty of other things they need to do in their product lines without pushing more rapid iteration in the Z's. At this point in time the D3500, D5600, D7500, D500, D610, D750, and yes the D850 and D5 all need attention. They probably will drop at least some of those models (the D610 seems likely to drop), but any that continue on need engineering time now:

  • D6 likely in late 2019, early 2020
  • D860 due in late 2019
  • D750 is considerably overdue
  • D650 is considerably overdue
  • D510 is overdue
  • D7500 due in late 2019
  • D5700 would be due in 2019
  • D3600 would be due in 2020

Of course, Nikon could choose to lengthen their DSLR cycles while pushing mirrorless, but that's risky considering that DSLRs are still far outselling mirrorless and Nikon has no crop-sensor mirrorless products to point the DX users at, which is another project that must be moving forward within Nikon, too. There's a limit to what they can do hardware-design wise in a short period. 

What’s With the “Soft” Complaints?

I keep reading, and occasional get an email, that the 24-70mm is “soft.” 

Nope. Not even close. At f/4 (wide open) it’s one of the sharpest 24-70mm’s I’ve seen. It’s very close to the much more expensive 24-70mm f/2.8E that Nikon launched for DSLRs recently, which in itself is one of the best mid-range zooms on the market. 

So why the complaints?

Well, there aren’t a lot of hypotheses we can make:

  • It’s false postings/emails from people trying to belittle what Nikon’s one.
  • It’s really bad samples of the lens that are getting out. 
  • It’s the Z6’s anti-aliasing filter that’s confusing them.
  • It’s focus shift. 

I think all of the above are basically true. 

I don’t know what it is about the Sony fanboy self esteem, but they seem to think they have to belittle other products to make their choice seem better. There’s nothing wrong with the Sony products, though Sony’s 24-70mm f/4 is one of the weakest performers out there. In some areas, Sony does have a better product, in others, they don’t. Pretty much as things have always been for any of the Big Three camera/lens producers. 

We can’t discount bad samples, either. I’ve seen exactly one so far that was clearly a bad sample. I’m not sure how such lenses get out of the factory, but the one that I saw was obviously defective, and that was clear right from looking through it in the viewfinder. It was like your optician getting your eye prescription completely wrong: nothing looked right about the results from that sample.

The Z6’s AA filter is clearly stronger than the D750’s. I’m not sure why Nikon made that decision, but it certainly impacts how acuity is recorded in your data. Nikon had mostly made a transition to no low pass filtration (even the DX DSLRs dropped it) in the past few years, but now we have a strong AA filter back on the Z6.

But I’m betting that focus shift is the biggest culprit for many of those posts and emails, particularly on the Z7 with its higher resolution. 

A lot of you keep telling me this lens has no focus shift or that the Z cameras do a contrast detect step so there would never be a focus shift that went uncorrected. Nope on both cases. The 24-70mm has a minor focus shift, and it mostly occurs beyond f/5.6. Meanwhile, it’s become clear that the Z cameras don’t operate the same way as many of the previous mirrorless cameras from others, even in AF-S mode. The only time I can force (and verify) that a contrast detect step happens is with Pinpoint AF. Most of the rest of the time in AF-S the camera will simply rely on its phase detect observation and not do a contrast detect followup. In AF-C phase detect is all that’s done.

Why is this important? Because the lens never stops down below f/5.6 when obtaining autofocus. Remember I just wrote that the focus shift primarily occurs below that. So if you set f/11, focus at f/5.6, and no contrast detect is done to verify the focus point, guess what happens? You get slightly soft results. Enough so that you might think the lens isn’t a great performer. 

RAW Software that Supports Z6/Z7

Here's the current list as far as I know (if not indicated, requires most current version):

  • Nikon NX-D
  • Nikon View NX-i
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic CC 8.1 
  • ACR 11.1
  • Affinity Photo 1.6.7
  • Capture One 12
  • DxO PhotoLab 2.1 (Z7 only)
  • OnOne RAW 2019.1 

Z Software

It’s one of the most common questions I’m getting: “what software or converter understands Z6/Z7 files?” 

Simple answer: current Adobe products support the Z7, next update of the Adobe products will support the Z6. Nikon’s own software products are all updated to support both cameras.

On a Mac, here’s the good/bad news: the latest Pro Formats update on macOS supports the Z7 (not yet sure about Z6). The good news is that this means most of the Macintosh software products you can get through the App Store now support the Z7. For example, the latest version of RAW Power, an overlooked converter created by one of the former Aperture leads. The bad part of that news? Only the current macOS loads the necessary files, so you have to be on macOS Mojave. 

As I work my way through other recent software updates, I’ll let you know what I find out about compatibility.

Another Round of Tamron Updates

Tamron has updated the firmware for three more lenses to use with the FTZ adapter:

  • 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (model A041)
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (model A032)
  • 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD (model B028)

If you need instructions on how to update the firmware, see this Tamron support link.

Tamron Lens Updates

Tamron has announced firmware updates that allow the following three lenses to work with the Nikon Z6/Z7 with the FTZ adapter:

  • 17-35mm f/2.8-4 Di OSD (A037)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (A025)
  • 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (A022)

Nikon Z Lens Sets

We have, of course, only three native Z-mount lenses. That generally means that you're going to dip into the F-mount lenses via the FTZ adapter, pretty much no matter what you want to do. At least until we get some more Z lens releases.

So what's a Z shooter to do?

Here's a quick take on what I'm doing in the categories I'd tend to use the Z7 (and Z6):

  • Travel kit. Real simple: 24-70mm f/4 S coupled with the 70-300mm AF-P on the FTZ. Nets you a really solid 24-300mm in a pretty small and easy to pack kit. The problem? No really wide angle capability. Temporary solution? Something like the Irix 11mm f/4 or 15mm f/2.4. Smallish, light, and you're probably going to be shooting things really wide where manual focus—particularly with the Z's excellent MF helpers—isn't going to be an issue.
  • Event shooting. Real simple: 35mm f/1.8 S, 50mm f/1.8 S, and 85mm f/1.8G on the FTZ. That nets you very excellent optics in the classic focal lengths, but has you changing lenses. A lot of event shooters shoot this way anyway, so no big deal. The problem? No f/2.8 zooms yet, and nothing wider than 35mm in primes. The Solution? The 20mm or 24mm f/1.8G on the FTZ. The f/2.8 zooms on the FTZ are just too massive, but the f/1.8G wide primes work quite well and are appropriately sized.
  • Landscape shooter. Real simple: 19mm f/4 PC-E on the FTZ on the Z7, backed up with the 24-70mm f/4 S. Surprised you, didn't I? ;~) Seriously, this is an insane combination. Let's start with the 24-70mm f/4: at landscape apertures this is the best kit lens we've ever seen for getting strong edge to edge results at 24mm, particularly on a 45mp body. Just watch out for the focus shift if you're stopping down beyond f/5.6. But that 19mm? Coupled with the manual focus tools it's relatively easy to move the focus plane visually once you've gotten some practice, and the lens is sharp, sharp, sharp. I'm in heaven.
  • Macro shooter. Ugh. The problem? Staying with Nikkors on the FTZ, you're stopped at 105mm. While that's a fine lens, it's restrictive in working distance. The older 70-180mm and 200mm Micro-Nikkors are screw drive, so don't autofocus on the Z's. Which means I'm back to manual focus for macro on my Z at the moment. I'm not sure there's a real good match for the Z's, even dipping into the third-party lenses. The Sigma's beyond 100mm are f/2.8, and large. The solution? None, really. You'll have to use short (60-105mm) macros with little working distance or manual focus.

Other lenses that seem appropriate to me on the FTZ (due to size, compatibility, etc.):

  • 8-15mm f/3.5E — the way you get either type of fisheye on the Z for the foreseeable future.
  • 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G — if you really want 18-24mm in a small package for that travel kit, you can make this work.
  • 28mm f/1.8G — I'm not a big fan of this lens due to the focus shift, but like the other f/1.8G's, it's a nice match in size with the Z's, even with the FTZ mounted. 
  • 300mm f/4E PF — just as handholdable as on the DSLRs, maybe more so. 
  • 500mm f/5.6E PF — probably the longest lens that truly makes any sense on the Z's. 

It isn't that you can't mount any of the other DSLR Nikkors on the FTZ and use them with your Z body, it's that you start to get into inappropriate weight/size combinations. If you have to mount your 70-200mm f/2.8E on the FTZ for some reason, sure, that works—I did it for a college football game—but you're starting to give up some of the advantages of the Z over a DSLR at that point. I'd much rather use that same 70-200mm f/2.8E on my D850 for that kind of shooting, for instance. 

This, of course, is the dilemma that Nikon's in with a new mount. The lenses that we get in 2019 don't actually help a lot with the above. The most useful addition will be the 14-30mm f/4, which will round out that travel kit nicely. The f/1.8 Z primes coming in 2019 really just get rid of the FTZ adapter and your f/1.8G primes; you'll lose a bit of size and weight in the mix, but you'll be buying new lenses. 

The 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 Z zooms coming in 2019 will give the event and pro shooter another choice, but I'm a little worried about how big/heavy they'll be. 

Personally, since I own both Nikon DSLR and mirrorless kits, I'm perfectly happy with what's available. The Z7 will tend to be my travel and landscape camera, the D5/D850 my event, sports, and wildlife cameras. The current lens set works quite well for me as a result. 

For those of you trying to just shoot with a Z6 or Z7—e.g. you gave up your Nikon DSLR to upgrade to mirrorless—things are likely more problematic at the moment. But give it time. It took Sony a few years to get their FE lens set filled out with enough options to satisfy most people. If Nikon meets their road map, we'll have 20 Z lenses by the end of 2021, and that is likely to get us to a very satisfactory point.

Some Quick PhotoPlus Expo Updates

From Sigma: four of their current lenses have significant issues with the FTZ adapter: 24-35mm f/2 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 85mm f/1.4 Art, and 800mm f/5.6. All but the latter lens will likely get firmware updates to address the problem that lens has. And additional five lenses cannot turn off in-camera stabilization and don't let the camera automatically power down: 17-50mm f/2.8, 17-70mm f/2.8-4, 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3, 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, 24-105mm f/4 Art.

There's a lot more detail, which Sigma should post to their Web site soon.

Nikon, meanwhile, not only released a 1.01 firmware update for the Z7, but bodies that came into this country this week already had it installed. Unfortunately, if you were wishing for a major update, this wasn't it, as it fixed only two clear bugs in the product (one of which I had found). 

On the show floor I had a couple of longish talks with NikonUSA product folk, mostly centered around the biggest weakness of the Z7 (AF-C focus consistency). From what I gather, Japan says that CSP is used in the Auto mode, but it clearly isn't. Not only do I have plenty of examples to disprove that, but readers have been sending me in many other examples that show the same thing. My comment to NikonUSA was essentially this: give us a fully predictable AF mode (e.g. Group, which is essentially a real CSP). Also give us back the way of switching AF-ON with AF Area Mode via customizable buttons. Together would solve a ton of problems and make for a far better camera, and both those things can be done in firmware. 

Update: I note several people on the Internet interpreting the above paragraph wrongly. For example: "I didn't get the impression that the Nikon reps were too interested in hearing what he had to say." That's incorrect. Nikon seemed to be genuinely interested in my comments. Moreover—I want to be careful to not put words in their mouths here—they seemed to indicate that they're well aware that continuous autofocus is the biggest weakness of the camera. The real question is whether my detailed comments and those of others are getting back to the right folk in Japan and whether there's an action plan to improve continuous autofocus. That I don't know, and at the moment there's no way to find that out. Hopefully, Japan will read my review when it appears, as I'll have a long discussion of this, and what's missing.

Curiously, Nikon's Ambassadors were stating some numbers that will probably look strange to you. They looked strange to me at first (disclosure: I haven't gotten to my video testing yet). Specifically, for Z7 video Nikon seems to be saying that there's a 2-stop on-sensor VR improvement, which can be coupled with a 3-stop electronic VR improvement. (The Nikon brochure mentions 5-stops on-sensor VR improvement in stills.) It took me a bit to wrap my head around this, as Nikon is also claiming "full frame" 4K and 1080P capture. 

Well, not really, apparently. The capture appears to be a binned 3840 x 2160 (on the Z7), which implies a 7680 x 4320 capture area (the sensor is 8256 x 5504). Aha, that gives us the ability to do the electronic VR (which moves the capture area with the camera movement). 

bythom photoplus zbar rx100

The bar is set...

NikonUSA also held an invite-only party at Tao Uptown on Thursday night. It was, to say the least, a strange event. I'm not sure what they were trying to accomplish other than having a party. If I were sponsoring a trade show party I'd have a real agenda and a clear way of understanding whether we met that agenda. 

bythom photoplus rx100

Three of the Nikon Ambassadors were there with lights and models shooting with Z7's (all in single servo mode I noted). But I'm not sure what the point of the model shoots was. Any camera that couldn't do what was being accomplished at the party really wouldn't be much of a camera, IMHO. Other than that, the NikonUSA staff tended to stick together (or with the Ambassadors), leaving the rest of us to mingle among ourselves (or not). 

Plenty more I'm still digesting, saving for other articles, or is just too far in advance to be saying anything about (e.g. Laowa's 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 being adapted directly for the Z mount sometime in the future).  

Are Adobe and Nikon Cooperating?

As I reported a month ago, the Z7 NEF files have some interesting new information in them, which line up with Adobe's converters. 

This shows up really clearly in the Detail panel in the Adobe converters:

bythom d850

This is a D850 NEF opened in ACR. You'll see that you get the "default" Detail settings Adobe uses. Now look at a Z7 NEF opened in ACR:

bythom z7

Quite different, isn't it? (And I've been writing for quite some time that you can take that Color slider and move it at least half the default value. Seems Nikon thinks the same.)

The question that is unanswered is how much of this is Nikon and how much is Adobe? My best guess is that Nikon asked Adobe how to specify new default information for NEF files and Adobe said "include these XMP values in the file." That's what it looks like to me. Which means that Nikon is delivering the values here; they're not from Adobe testing. 

The good news is that the Z7 NEFs look, at defaults, more like the embedded JPEG than they used to. And Nikon hasn't chosen terrible defaults, though I don't tend to use them.

What Happened to Closest Focus Priority?

Anyone that's attended one of my workshops knows that I like Group AF Area Mode (on the Nikon DSLRs). I use it often, though situationally. Group AF has one attribute to it that is incredibly important: closest subject priority (CSP).

CSP was a Nikon innovation back in the film era. Whoever came up with it needs to be knighted (or whatever they do for distinguished contributors in Japan). Why? Because it adds a predictability to the system upon which you rely to make decisions for you. 

Think about it for a second: which picture have you taken recently where the focus point shouldn't have been on the thing nearest to you (and under the focus sensors being used)? You're probably going to have a difficult time finding an example. That's not to say they don't exist. When shooting sports with free-ranging players (and referees—Scott Kelby once wrote an entire article on how to get referees in focus ;~), we often get someone moving in front of the thing we want in focus. Of course, that's why Focus Tracking with Lock On timing was introduced by Nikon back on the F5: if that overlap is short or temporary, maybe it should be ignored (i.e. set a longer Lock On time). 

dpreview just published some additional Z7 focus testing, and the thing that their results show—as do mine—is that Nikon isn't really using CSP any more. That's a huge mistake. Moreover, in the bicycle test scenario dpreview uses, it's an immensely huge mistake (the background isn't changing much, but the object in the foreground obviously is). What are the chances that the background is what the user wants in focus?

And remember that we have an AF-ON button and back button focus techniques on these sophisticated cameras. If the background were important and the thing in front not, I'd have focused on the background with AF-ON and then released the button to leave focus on that background. Instead, I'm holding down AF-ON hoping that the camera will eventually figure out that thing moving in front is what I want in focus.

The thing about phase detect is that the camera knows that there's something up front, and that it's moving. Phase detect, by definition, gives the camera near/far information. 

In examining my initial thousands of Z7 photos, when the camera missed focus, it generally missed it by placing it behind the subject. CSP would have fixed that.

So, note to Nikon: add Group AF and it's CSP nature back to the mix in a firmware update, ASAP. It'll fix so many of the out-of-focus complaints you're going to get that you'd be surprised. Frankly, I'm gob-smacked that Nikon thinks they don't need CSP in at least one AF Area Mode on the camera.

Update: Some users have pointed out to me that Wide Area (Small and Large) uses CSP. Well, probably. But I've got examples that indicate that this isn't always true, and moreover the big boxed areas aren't as useful as the smaller Group diamond in terms of the photographer controlling what the camera might focus on. I'll try to elaborate on that in my upcoming review, but having a large rectangular area doing some quasi-CSP is not the same as having a tight area doing for-sure CSP.

I've now done some further quick testing, as the number of folk trying to tell me I'm wrong because of what Brad Hill wrote is getting long. I can say with some certainty that Wide Area doesn't use CSP, at least not the way Group does on the DSLRs. That's because I see a great deal of hunting at times in Wide Area. If Wide Area were prioritizing CSP the way Group does, then it would have instant snap to the close point, period. What appears to be happening is that CSP is one of the things the camera considers, but it is also doing a check to see how much of the box is close/far and making some sort of judgement call. 

So, we're not really getting CSP, in particular the P part (priority). Distance has some level of priority, but not absolute priority. And that means that you can't really trust it. I shot a lot of images with the various modes in the last two weeks and have examined them closely. Wide Area was not terribly reliable, and I see plenty that did not focus on the most forward element in the box. Trying to make sense of why that is will take some time, and maybe a discussion with Nikon. 

My point remains, however. Group mode on the D5 generation DSLRs is an absolute. It might not work for you in some situations, but it is 100% predictable and very fast. The Z7, no, we don't have something that's 100% predictable and very fast. Instead, we have something that's sort of predictable and not as fast as CSP would suggest it should be. 

This gets to Nikon design philosophy. Those brilliant—and I do mean brilliant—Nikon engineers often make assumptions and design towards lowest common denominator with the automated features. That discounts the "thinking photographer." As I've noted many times, with the D5 generation cameras I have them programmed so that I have back button focus with different area modes on both the AF-On and thumbstick buttons. This was a great change by Nikon and highly welcome, because it allows me to use my brain in evaluating what's in front of me and picking the best AF Area Mode for the job in real time. You can't do that on the Z7. Moreover, even if you could, the lack of true predictability in some of the modes means that you can only guess at what the camera will do. 

Let me be clear: I don't want to be guessing about what a US$3400 camera will do. Maybe you don't mind that, but I certainly do. This is a "miss" by the Nikon engineering team, and needs to be cleaned up.

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