As a long-time Nikon photographer, when Nikon Canada asked if I’d be interested in test-driving their latest mirrorless full-frame Z-series cameras, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve only had the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7 cams for just over a week, but here are some initial thoughts on how the Z6 and Z7 cameras compare with my beloved, but ageing, Nikon D750’s.
WHAT IS IT?
The Nikon Z6 and Z7 are Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras. The removal of the mirror allows for silent shooting options, stabilized sensors, electronic viewfinders, shorter flange distances for more flexible optical design options, as well as a host of other things I’m sure I’m not even aware of. DSLR’s like the D750 was a great bridge from film to digital, but carry some of the burdens of film, like a jitter-inducing mirror slap, that is no longer required as the world of digital sensors and technology has progressed.
WHY IT MATTERS:
It was only a matter of time until Nikon had to move from legacy DSLR’s to mirrorless cameras, and the Z6 and Z7 are great options for those of us who have a lot of Nikon glass. With the excellent FTZ adapter, much of the existing Nikon lenses can be used almost-like native glass on both the Z6 and Z7. This means your investment of glass over the years doesn’t have to be replaced, and your trusted optics can continue to serve you well into the future.
WHO IT’S FOR:
Nikon shooters will want to take a close look at the Z6 and Z7 for both photography and video. For serious filmmakers, Nikon has upped the ante with professional options like (upcoming) 12-bit RAW output via HDMI, making the Z6 and Z7 serious video tools too.
WHY SHOULD YOU TRUST ME?
I’ve been a long-time Nikon photographer who also uses a Sony A7iii for video.
There are plenty of videos and articles going over the specs and details of each of these cameras, so I’ll stick to sharing my thoughts on the Z-series of cameras as a professional photographer and filmmaker.
As I’ve only had just over a week with the Z6 and Z7 cameras, this is not a full review. During my time with the Z6 and Z7 I’ve shot studio portraits, live events, sports and video with them, but prefer to have several months with a camera before passing judgement. I should also note Nikon has announced a firmware update that should improve the autofocus system which I’ll gripe about soon enough.
Design & Build
Nikon shooters will feel right at home when picking up the Z6 and Z7 cameras. Though the mirrorless body is narrower than any DSLR, the grip feels great in hand, and the materials offer the grip and ruggedness I’ve come to depend.
The new Z-mount is notably larger than Nikon’s F-mount. And though the bodies are lighter than their DSLR sisters, the equivalent lenses are notably more substantial, making it a wash for weight. The new Z-mount 35mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.8 lenses are hard to distinguish as they share the same length and filter size. They’re also notably larger than their F-mount cousins. If you travel with your kit, get ready to carry more glass.
The Nikon Z6 and Z7 bodies are built like tanks and inspire confidence in a way my Sony A73 does not. A nice example of this is found in the port covers: rubbery and sure when closed on the Nikons, and more plasticy and loose on the Sony.
Nikon Flash – still great after these years
Anyone who knows our photography knows we love to flash. So I was super happy when I slapped on my trusted SU800’s and controlled my SB900’s as if nothing has changed. I’m delighted they’ve made their entire flash system backwards compatible since professionals like me have come to invest and rely on their excellent system.
Auto Focus Coverage
One of my biggest complaints of the D750 was the central cluster of autofocus points. Thankfully, the Z6 has 273 AF points covering over 90% of the screen. This makes stills shooting so much better since I can leave the focus point and focus (pun intended) on getting my shot.
Electronic Viewfinder vs Optical Viewfinder
Losing the mirror means looking at an EVF vs glass. Thankfully, the EVF Nikon put in the Z6 and Z7 is excellent (way better than the Sony A7iii EVF which I avoid using as much as possible). It’s not as immediate as looking through an optical viewfinder, but the high-resolution screen also has many benefits over an OVF. You can see what you’ll be shooting before taking the shot and having the ability to review images, and change menu items in the EVF is a nice plus too. I also love EVF’s in low-light as they allow you to “see” in the dark better than an optical viewfinder can.
One tip I suggest: increasing the stanby timer so you don’t raise the camera to eye-level to see a blank screen. Having the EVF ready to view makes the shooting experinece much more pleasant.
Touch LCD screen
The Nikon Z6 and Z7 LCD screen is beautiful and responsive (much better than my A7iii). In our digital world, it’s nice that Nikon has included such a responsive touchscreen that works as you’d expect and doesn’t get in your way.
One tip: by default, the camera is set to focus and take a picture wherever you touch. Before I realized this, I thought the camera was taking random photos and was frustrated because my focus point was always moving to the bottom left corner. It turns out I cradle my camera funny and touch the back screen with my thumb! I turned this feature off and am much happier 🙂
Battery – the same, but better … And worse
I’m glad Nikon chose to stick to the same batter as my D750’s as I have thousands of dollars invested in Nikon batteries! The only difference to the new “b” batteries is they can be charged in-camera via USB-C when the camera is off. The bad news is, it’s the same battery as the D750. That tiny battery has to run the new EVF and touchscreen, meaning you’ll be changing batteries more often. Here the Sony A7iii has Nikon beat.
Memory: XQD single slot
The Z6 and Z7 cameras have a single XQD slot which, with the upcoming firmware update, will also accept the new CFexpress standard. Sadly this means my TB’s of SD cards won’t work, and I’ll have to invest in some fast, but expensive, XQD cards. But one of the benefits of this new format is a high-speed buffer, meaning you can shoot sports without caring about waiting for your buffer to clear.
Nikon’s upcoming firware update will also make the memory slot compatible with the new CFExpress standard which, theoretically, will allow even faster speeds for higher video bitrates and RAW buffering.
A Word about Single Memory Slot and “Professional” use
I’m going to rant about how some think a camera is not “professional” because it only has one card slot. Why stop at 2? Why not have 3, 4, or 5 card slots? Because an extra memory slot is NOT a backup. A separate camera is a backup. If a corruption happens before writing to both cards, you will not have a backup. This happened to me with the A7iii, and, though a firmware update fixed this bug, the entire camera locked up and would not write an image to either of its 2 SD cards. If you shoot professionally and can’t easily do a re-shoot, have enough backup cameras to ensure you can complete the job.
Shooting with the Z6 vs D750
Deciding which camera is more fun to shoot with is a tough call, as I know Nikon has an upcoming firmware update which improves and adds eye-AF to the Z6 and Z7. But in real-world use, I had mixed results when shooting photos. When shooting stills, I prefer to use the back button focus method where the shutter only take the picture and does not engage the AF system. With the D750 I use the centre AF point (and not 3D tracking), and focus and recompose. At times the Nikon Z6 and Z7 felt like an old friend, and the excellent AF point coverage was a joy to use. At other times, I found the AF to hunt a bit more and tracking of moving subjects not to be as reliable as I’d expect. More time is needed with these cameras to truly understand if it was my user error or a systemic issue, but I also trust the firmware will improve the AF experience as well.
I still use my D750’s in my video studio, but lack of video autofocus is a significant omission on an admittedly photo-centric camera. Thankfully the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cams have resolutions and specs to make many videographers happy.
I hate to harp on the weak AF since the upcoming firmware update is supposed to address this issue, but the full-time autofocus is not excellent when shooting video. It’s better than the non-existent video AF of the D750, but that’s not saying much. The Sony A73, on the other hand, has very good video AF and, importantly, believable racking focus. We’ll have to wait and see if the upcoming firware update improves the full-time video auto focus to a point where it is usable.
On the brighter side, I am very impressed by Nikon’s nod to professionals by making 10-bit (and soon 12-bit) RAW output via the HDMI. This makes a fully kitted out Nikon Z6 a real video power-house capable of capturing massive dynamic range and great colour. Those needing to capture RAW video data will likely also be used to manually pulling focus so the poor video auto-focus will be less of an issue on more professionally rigged shoots.
The colour and dynamic range of both stills and video are gorgeous and what I expect from Nikon. The videos required less tweaking in post compared to my Sony A7iii footage and I love Nikon rendering of skintones straight out of camera. RAW photos were easily pushed to find shadow detail and retain highlights as expected, but I’d need more time to shoot and discover the limits of what’s possible with these new cameras. Two thumbs up for the amazing image quality of both stills and video out of the camera.
WRAPPING UP (for now)
I’ve enjoyed my time with the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7 and am impressed with how familiar they feel out of the box. Nikon has done a wonderful job at making them a great bridge for DSLR shooters who want to join the mirrorless wave. In some ways the experience of shooting stills is superior to both the D750 and Sony A73, and image quality of both stills and videos is exceptional. For video, however, the poor full-time auto focus is definitely the Z6’s weakness. Though I have to return my loaner units, I welcome another opportunity to push these cameras to their limits after the release of the promised firmware update to see how improved the AF system is and to see if they’re worthy of an upgrade.