“First off, you can't ask any questions… Yes or no: Are you available for a meeting on…”
It's one of those phone calls you hope — no, DREAM — of getting… A call with just the right air of secrecy and mystique, it makes you pause and say to yourself, “This has to be something exciting.” I received one of those calls earlier this year, marked a date on my calendar and waited.
The meeting came and went. I did a shoot, and then waited a little more. Now with the official launch of the Z 7 last month and the release of the camera just days away, I can finally reveal this dream project.
I am thrilled and humbled to say that I was one of a small number of photographers who was able to shoot with a pre-production Nikon Z 7 and produce images for the Nikon USA marketing launch campaign for the Z series of full-frame mirrorless cameras.
If you have been paying attention to the introduction of the new Z system, you know that it’s an extremely exciting time to be a Nikon shooter. The idea of a full-frame Nikon mirrorless camera is something that has captured the imagination of Nikon users around the world. The announcement of the Nikon Z 7 and Z6 makes real years of speculation and anticipation.
Here are my thoughts and impressions from my brief time spend shooting with the new full-frame mirrorless Nikon Z system.
I was just inducted as a Nikon Ambassador for Nikon USA in May of this year, 2018. As such, using the Z 7 was the first product launch I’ve been a part of since joining the ambassador program, and this was a true honor.
Over a dozen Nikon Ambassadors and pro photographers from North America were invited to test the Z 7 as part of this project, each with individual assignments. Here was a group of photographers with all kinds of specialties — there were photographers representing wildlife, landscape, travel, sports, fashion and more all included.
My assignment? Portraits. Now, I think of myself as a music photographer — I love photographing anything and everything related to music. Live music performances, backstage candids, and artist portraits. As such, I approached this assignment as a challenge to produce portraits in my style, as if I were creating editorial or promotional portraits of artists.
I work in the country music scene a lot these days, and I have some good friends who are touring musicians based out of Nashville. I called in some favors, booked an amazing studio, and in less than a week from when the prototype camera was put into my hands, I had two days to create some images. The goal was to keep this shoot as tight and lean as possible.
I was given the following gear:
- Nikon Z 7
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S
- Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S
All images created here were produced with a pre-production versions of the Nikon Z 7, 35mm f/1.8 Nikkor Z and 24-70mm f/4 Nikkor Z lenses, and a pre-production version of Nikon Capture NX-D supporting the Z 7's NEF files. As such, they should not be viewed as representative of the final production models and software.
Shooting Portraits with the Nikon Z 7
As I mentioned, I approached this series like I would a commission of singers, artists or musicians — of which most of these models are. Honestly, I can say that I have not been this excited about a camera release since Nikon's first full-frame camera, the Nikon D3.
Shooting portraits with the Z 7 was a joy. From the clarity of the EVF to the responsiveness of the AF system to the unparalleled edge-to-edge sharpness of the new S line lenses… the new Nikon Z system is a game changer for me.
All images in this post were shot over the two-day shoot I did in Nashville over two days in early August for Nikon USA. I shot in natural light and with SB-5000 speedlights using the WR-R10 radio tramsmitter for wireless control.
I have included the exposure details for all images. As you will see, I was mostly shooting wide open — almost exclusively. In the instances where I did stop down, I would attribute it to habit, or simply wanting a little more depth of field beyond max aperture. But I should stress just how good both the 35mm and 24-70mm S line lenses are wide open. If I had to do this shoot over again, I'd probably shoot wide open exclusively, knowing just how phenomenally these lenses perform at max aperture.
Body and Design
I used the Z 7 with the new 24-70mm f/4 and 35mm f/1.8 S line Nikkors over two 10-hour days, and working with them was a pure joy. The body of the Z 7 just feels like you want a Nikon to feel like. There's a density to the compact from that gives you the confidence that this is nothing but a pro camera. For me, it feels like the Z 7 has has the same build quality of a D850, just in a smaller form factor.
It’s hard to express in words, but the balance of this body design just feels right. As someone who absolutely loved the grip size of the Nikon D750, the Z 7 is a beautiful camera to use. For me, the grip hits that magical Goldilocks proportion — not too big, not too small, it’s just right.
Similarly, the body size, to me, feels like it hits this perfect proportion. The Z 7 feels like a tool for professionals, while still keeping the compactness that mirrorless has long promised us.
Ergonomics and Controls
For me, one of the most striking things about the Z 7 is that this feels like a Nikon. This was one of my very first impressions of the camera — that it had the kind of “DNA” of what a Nikon camera feels like, from the grip to the functionality of the button layout, command dials, and so forth.
For me, the mark of a good tool is one that just gets out of the way. It becomes transparent. For me the Z 7 was just that kind of camera.
The button layout for the camera feels like an evolution of what I’m used to with the D850 and its predecessors. Nearly every button on the camera can be accessed using the right hand, from the command dials to the back-of-the-camera controls. A sweep of the thumb covers AF-ON, still vs movie mode, the AF sub-selector, the rear command dial, and D-pad.
It may sound like a simple thing, but the fact that the camera can be picked up with one hand, turned on, and all controls adjusted with the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the right hand — this is what we know as Nikon ergonomics. Not all cameras are setup like this. It sounds trivial if you are a Nikon shooter, but I mention it's something that easily taken for granted.
One thing to note for me, is that due to the smaller form factor, Nikon users will notice that some dedicated buttons we are used to having on our DSLRs are absent. These include most notably the AF selector (both mode and AF/MF).
However to make up for this, the Z 7 is arguably the most customizable Nikon camera I've ever used, with no less than six different controls can be configured with the Z 7 and S line lenses (5 controls if you are not using an S line lens with the control ring). This gives a huge amount of customization, and ensures that the user can setup the camera controls to best suit his/her needs. For me, this more than makes up for the decision to drop some dedicated buttons found on many Nikon DSLRs.
The Z 7 has essentially the exact same menu structure as my D850 and D500. If you know how to use your Nikon DSLR, you know exactly how to use and setup this camera. Because of this, I could setup this camera to my preferences and start shooting within minutes. Add in the touch-interface of the back LCD, and I'm able to zip through menu selections if I need to change a setting on the fly.
For me, the EVF of the Nikon Z 7 blew me away. I have never used a camera with an EVF with any depth, and coming from a DSLR, I loved the EVF of the Z 7. It feels massive, responsive, and super sharp.
The Nikon Z 7 features approximately 100% coverage, 0.8x magnification, and a 21mm eyepoint. What this adds up to is as someone who wears glasses is a great shooting experience. The 21mm eyepoint is even better than the 17mm eyepoint of the Nikon D850.
What these numbers mean in real use is that even wearing glasses and not having my eye right up to the viewfinder, I could see the full display of info while shooting and without having to move my eye.
As a user of DSLRs exclusively, I instantly fell in love with the Z 7’s EVF — the real-time, “what you see is what you get” feedback on exposure, and live-view display of the histogram. What’s more, I loved being able to access menu items or playback images without taking my eye from the viewfinder. I didn't feel like the transition from OVF to EVF had much of a learning curve in the least.
Overall, this is a great viewfinder. It's big, it's bright, and it's so good I often forgot it was an EVF instead an OVF.
However, for DSLR uses, there are still benefits of an optical VF. In very low light, for example, an OVF may provide a better experience than an EVF due to the fact that with an OVF, you're not dependent on the sensor and effectively using high ISO to display the image. Nothing specific to the Z 7, just a fact of life with an EVF.
Memory Card — XQD
The Nikon Z 7 features a single XQD slot. I’m a massive fan of XQD cards. I’ve been using them with my D500 and D850 for about half a year (yes, I am late to the party), and they blow away SD and CF as a format by a large margin. I wish I had made the switch from SD immediately when I purchased my two D850.
The single card slot is the one thing that critics have mentioned. Here are my thoughts on this: The superior performance and superior robustness of XQD over SD is enough for me not to think twice about this design decision. I’ll take one slot of the best memory format over two slower SD slots any day.
For me, one XQD slot is superior to two SD slots. I want the speed and I want the performance of XQD. If we get two XQD or CFExpress slots in the next generation, even better.
And for the record, I love dual slots. I use the dual slots of my D850 for every shoot — XQD as the primary, and SD as the overflow. Not as backup. Same with my D750. This is always how I've shot my DSLRs with dual card slots, all the way back to the Nikon D3 with its dual CF slots.
I've had about two card failures in the last 14 years of shooting with DSLRs. Both of them were with corrupt CF cards. I ran data recovery on the cards and recovered all the files. It's a boring story, I know.
But back to XQD. Shooting with XQD is blazing fast, we all know that. But more than shooting with XQD, the thing I LOVE about them is that they download about twice as fast. When I’m shooting multiple cards and ingesting them on a shoot, this faster download speed means I can get to the edit all that much faster, and I love this.
As it has been announced that CFExpress cards, which also use the same PCI Express architecture and an identical form factor, will be backwards compatible with XQD, I feel quite confident about XQD and the Z 7 as being nicely forward looking. The Z 7 will be compatible with CFExpress with a firmware update, so Nikon has truly built a camera that is ready for the future.
Battery and Battery Performance
The Z 7 uses a new EN-EL15b battery, but it is compatible with the EN-EL15a batteries that the Nikon D850 and D8500 already use. For me, this is a huge benefit. Not only because this is a proven battery format, but I have about a dozen of these batteries that I already use for my kit. The fact that I can keep a single battery across the Z 7, D850, and D500 is a killer feature.
But battery performance in a mirrorless is always a huge question. I am happy to answer this in detail. I shot over two days for my assignment — two 10 hour days.
I went back to the files ingested for both days to review the exact number of frames made.
The first day, I shot 3087 frames using two batteries. In my first subject I shot 1367 frames alone, after which we shot for another couple hours. We swapped batteries sometime in the late afternoon and the first battery still had 2 bars of charge left. I'm not sure if we changed batteries after my second or third subject, but at a minimum, we made 2128 frames on the first battery, and at maximum 2679 frames.
The second day of shooting of the shoot, I shot 1834 frames. I shot the entire day using a single EN-EL15a battery. I grabbed a second battery as I was down to 2 bars in the last 20 minutes of the shoot, just in case. In that last bit of the shoot, we only shot 40 images, and changing out the battery didn't prove necessary.
So conservatively, I shot 2128 on day one and 1834 on day two. For both days of my shoot, I was using the EVF exclusively while shooting, but I did use the rear LCD for image review pretty regularly to show the subjects and crew the look I was getting. This is to say, I was shooting how I normally would — it just happened to be with a mirrorless camera.
- Day 1 frame count: 2128
- Day 2 frame count: 1834
- Average frame count: 1981
Across both days then, I averaged 1981 frames — and this isn't shooting until the battery was 100% flat, but only until it held 1-2 bars of charge. For me, this kind of real-world battery life is more than satisfactory. The fact that the Z 7 takes the ubiquitous EN-El15 battery makes this even better. I have a dozen of these batteries that I already use for my D850 and D500 bodies.
Autofocus. This is a massive test of any camera system, and I am happy to say that the AF system of the Z 7 is a beast. Personally, I found it as good as the Nikon D850 in my experience.
First off, experiencing the 90% AF coverage is like having the heavens open up, hearing trumpets blow, and being serenaded by angelic voices. I thought that the D500’s AF coverage was good (and for a DSLR, it is amazing). The Z 7 is better. This is no surprise, as mirrorless has long held an advantage as far as AF coverage.
With the new Nikon Z 7, I found myself actually composing my shots differently with the freedom of basically being able to put an AF point anywhere in the frame and getting snappy, responsive AF performance. If you look at the images in this post, you'd be hard pressed to find one that would cleanly fit into the AF spread of a traditional DSLR. Most of the points of focus are pushed toward the edges of the frame, and this is such a pleasurable thing about the Nikon Z 7.
Focus recompose? It’s a thing of the past. Precise, on-sensor AF performance? Delivered. As someone coming from the world of DSLRs, the AF coverage of the Z 7 is a revelation. The Z 7 delivers and it delivers properly.
How is the speed? It's fast. It feels as fast or faster than my D850, which is saying something. There's no stutter, no hesitation — the Z 7 just locks on. The S line lenses that I used focused silently and quickly.
The Z 7 offers a pinpoint AF mode, which offers a very small AF point for super precise AF targeting. This was a MASSIVE feature when shooting portraiture for me, because I could put the AF point right on the eye of my subjects and nail focus. The only caveat is that the pinpoint AF mode uses contrast detection as opposed to the standard phased detection AF used for all other focus modes. In normal lighting, I found no difference between the two, but in low light the CDAF may suffer in speed compared to PDAF.
For me, the kicker was that even CDAF felt as fast as the D850's AF in most conditions.
The 45.7 megapixel resolution of the Z 7 matches that of the D850. Which is to say, the Z 7 delivers massive resolution and just gorgeous files. The D850 has spoiled me for image quality, and the Z 7 is no different.
While I was using pre-production software, I am extremely excited about the image quality I saw and worked with. The image quality seemed to meet or exceed that which I’m used to with my D850 cameras. I'm going to wait to reserve judgement until my pre-order arrives and we get full release software.
But suffice to say, if you know the image quality of the Nikon D850, the new Nikon Z 7 feels as good or better. Combined with the new S line glass, and I feel like this is a system that is really going to shine and show us the possibilities not possible with a traditional DSLR.
New S Line Lenses
For this assignment, I used the new 35mm f/1.8 S and 24-70mm f/4 S lenses. For many of these images, I was shooting wide open the entire time. To put it mildly, I was blown away by the optical performance of the two new Z-mount lenses.
The clarity — here meaning sharpness and contrast — of these lenses at maximum aperture across the entire frame is something that I have not experienced with conventional DSLR lenses.
Even with my focus point pushing toward the edge of the frame, the sharpness I'm seeing with the new lenses is just impressively good. I have never used lenses that have shown this kind of even sharpness and clarity across the full frame at max aperture like the new S line lenses perform on the Z 7. Let me repeat that sentiment: I have never shot with DSLR lenses that are capable of what I have seen with the new S line lenses for the Nikon Z mount. We are entering into new territory here.
The MTF charts that have been published for the S line lenses reflect my experiences with the new glass.
To me, the performance of the S line lenses and the new Z mount are something you just have to see to experience. The optical performance of this new Z series is truly its killer app, mark my words.
What's more, the autofocus performance of the New Z Nikkors is something as well. Not just the speed — they focus quickly. But they also focus silently. No whirring or vibrations. Just smooth, fast focus.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S line:
This 35mm really impressed me. This is a lens that I could shoot wide open all day — the only reason I saw to stop this lens down was for additional depth of field. Let that sink in. Yes, it's crazy. Yes, that is reason enough to put this new Z series into my bag. These new S line lenses will have photographers reevaluating their opinion about f/1.8 lenses, mark my words.
Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S line:
A 24-70mm is a workhorse of a focal range. My Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR is my go-to lens on my D850, and so I felt right at home shooting with the new Nikon 24-70mm f/4S. The compact size feels just right and balanced perfectly with the Nikon Z 7. Like the 35mm S line, I found this midrange zoom exceptionally sharp at max aperture. Again, I was shooting almost exclusively wide open, and only stopped down when using speedlights for additional depth of field. Gone are thoughts of, “Maybe I should stop down to improve the edges…” This lens delivers wide open in a big way.
Nikon Z Series Lens Roadmap
Nikon has released the following roadmap for the Z mount.
The Noct gets a lot of buzz, but for me, I am very excited to see a balance of f/2.8 zooms and fast primes. My bread and butter lenses are the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR and 70-200mm f/2.8E VR, with the 14-24mm f/2.8 rounding out the trio of lenses I use day in and day out.
I am thrilled to see that that S line versions of these exact lenses are being developed, not just to have duplicates of these for the Z mount, but because I'm confident that we will see that these new lenses are the best performing versions in this focal range that we have seen.
Is there anything missing? For me, the prime selection looks great. I'd love to see a 105 or 135mm f/1.8 prime, simply because I love this focal length for portraiture. Beyond that, I'd love a compact f/2.8 rectilinear fisheye for the Z mount down the line. We'll have to see what 2021 holds for the Z mount, but overall, it's pretty exciting to see that Nikon is putting out the S line lenses that I personally use for my professional work.
Who Should Buy The Z 7?
So, who is the Z 7 intended for? In my opinion, the Z 7 is for anyone who will benefit for what it offers them. It's that simple. It's a tool, and being a photographer is very often about choosing the right tool for the job.
A 50mm f/1.4 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 both cover the 50mm focal length in very different ways and bring very different strengths to the table. This is exactly how I view the mirrorless Z 7 and a DSLR like the D850.
Look at your current kit. What are the holes? Do you need more robust video performance? Do you need silent shooting? Do you need to shoot wide open and have edge to edge sharpness? Do you need 90% AF coverage? Do you need a “baby D850” that is smaller, lighter, and won't give you the dreaded “camera claw” after shooting for a 10-hour day?
The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. The Z 7 and Z 6 are other tools. They are exceptional tools, but they are just tools. Pick the right tool for the job. Which leads us into how I'm going to use this camera.
How's it fit in my bag?
No hesitation, I have my pre-order in for the Z 7 and I am adding this camera, the 24-70mm f/4 S, 35mm f/1.8 S and 50mm f/1.8 S to my bag. How is it going to fit into my camera kit?
First off, as a tour photographer, I'm often shooting backstage candids. These are moments that not only happen in low light, but moments that where I want to be as unobtrusive as possible. Here, the discreet size, fast lenses, and the completely silent shutter of the Nikon Z 7 is going to let me disappear.
When photographing live music, I'm often using 3-4 lenses across three DSLR bodies. I use multiple bodies because the less I'm changing lenses, the more prepared I am to capture what comes in front of my lens. When using 2-4 camera bodies, the weight adds up, and quickly. The small form factor and light weight of the Z 7 would be a nice way to lighten my load and keep me more nimble. When shooting long events like a music festival where I may be shooting for 10 hours straight, any weight savings I can get, I will take.
In addition, I know that the 90% AF coverage is going to open up a lot of creative possibilities. Going back to the Nikon D850 after the Z 7, I missed the fast and fluid way I could compose and put my focus point nearly anywhere in the frame the way I could with the Nikon Z 7. I know that when I want maximum freedom to work quickly, the benefits of the Z 7 are really going to shine.
The new S line lens series. I cannot stress enough how impressed I was with the lenses I used. The 35mm and 24-70mm S line lenses I used offered superlative image quality. Sharpness, contrast, AF performance and more — these lenses offered it and more. Again, to me, the new lenses here are the killer app of Nikon's mirrorless system. Being able to shoot wide open and get the edge to edge sharpness that I witnessed is just something you have to see for yourself. It's a paradigm shift.
Nikkor lenses have a reputation for phenomenal performance. This is just a fact. But I have no hesitation (and neither do Nikon's engineers) when I say that the Z mount and these S line lenses are the future.
The new Z 7 is basically a mirrorless D850. I know I can shoot both side by side and get the same amazing image quality, even using the same lenses I use every day with my F mount Nikkors, and get identical image quality. For me, it's the best of both worlds. The new Z 7 a no-brainer to me. It's in the bag.
If I sound excited, it's because I am. Genuinely. The Z 7 has me more excited about its potential than just about any camera in recent memory — and this includes the D850, so that is saying something.
The excitement I feel with this product launch parallels when the Nikon D3 was announced. Nikon was not the first to the full-frame market, but when the Nikon D3 was came out, it was the best full-frame camera on the market, hands down. For me, the Z 7 represents just that same kind of feeling.
Big thank you to the whole team at Nikon USA for inviting me to participate on the launch campaign. It is truly an honor to be included in the small number of photographers who shot with the pre-production cameras and lenses for the Z series. I personally feel like the introduction of the Nikon Z series is something truly special — I can't wait to start shooting the Z 7 and these new S line lenses.
I'm putting my money where my mouth is: I've pre-ordered the Z 7 and all three new S line lenses.