Nikon Z7 Field Test Part I

Nikon steps into the full-frame mirrorless fray with what might be its most important camera ever

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 10/16/2018

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 28mm, f/11, 1.3s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Nikon is at a crossroads. Hot off the heels of their centennial celebration, the Japanese camera giant has been facing increasing pressure from not only its competition in the photo industry, but also from their own customers, to produce a full-frame mirrorless camera system. DSLR cameras have long reigned supreme in every market segment, from beginner and enthusiast photographers all the way up to full-time professionals. However, in recent years, more and more photographers have opted for mirrorless cameras as the technology has improved and the more compact cameras have become more capable, efficient and full-featured. DSLR sales have, relatively speaking, weakened. People are certainly still buying DSLR cameras, but Nikon can no longer ignore high-end mirrorless cameras because they're certainly the future of photography.

Enter the Nikon Z7. Nikon has pulled out all the stops with this camera. It features a 45.7-megapixel sensor, like the excellent Nikon D850 DSLR camera, nearly 500 phase-detect autofocus points, fast continuous shooting, 4K/30p video recording and much more. In nearly every measure, it's a professional-grade camera. Let's look at how the Nikon Z7 performs in the field and see if Nikon has started its new full-frame camera system off on the right foot.

When you look at the Nikon Z7, there are some common Nikon design elements, but what stands out the most is the new massive lens mount.

Key Features and Specifications

  • Compact and lightweight camera body
  • 45.7-megapixel image sensor
  • 493 on-sensor phase-detect autofocus points
  • Up to 9 frames per second continuous shooting
  • 0.5-inch OLED electronic viewfinder with 0.8x magnification
  • 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen
  • 330-shot battery life
  • Single XQD card slot
  • 4K/30p video recording
  • Built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
  • $3,400 USD for body only

Camera Body, Design and Handling

When you think of mirrorless cameras, one of the first things that comes to mind is "compact," followed closely by "lightweight." While there are many other aspects of a mirrorless camera beyond its size and weight worth considering, which I will discuss throughout this Field Test, the most immediately obvious advantage is the size of the camera. The Z7 is small by full-frame Nikon standards. It is a bit bigger than a Sony A7-series camera, but it is significantly smaller than a Nikon D850.

Looking closer at the size difference between the Z7 and the D850, the Z7 is not much narrower (around half an inch, or 12 millimeters), but the Z7 is shorter by nearly an inch (23mm) and is thinner by around 0.4 inches (11mm). Plus, the Z7 weighs about 12 ounces less (340 grams). When you take all this together, it's a considerable difference.

From left to right: Nikon D850, Nikon Z7 and Sony A7R III. This lineup shows off how the size of the Nikon Z7 compares to its DSLR sibling, the Nikon D850, and its full-frame mirrorless competition, the Sony A7R III. We can see that the Z7 is dramatically smaller than the D850, particularly with respect to its height. The Z7 is a bit bigger than the A7R III.

There are times when having a more compact camera comes at the cost of usability. However, with the Z7, it genuinely feels similar to a high-end Nikon DSLR camera. With a smaller body, there have been compromises. The buttons that run vertically down the left-hand side of the D850 have been removed or relocated and remaining buttons are smaller. There's no drive mode dial, it is now a button instead. But the key components remain and are as easy to use as ever. For example, there is still an autofocus point joystick, which feels and works the same as it does on the D850, and there are ISO and exposure compensation buttons on the top right near the shutter release. Speaking of the shutter release, I don't love the location, as I feel like it's a bit too high up on the camera, but others may disagree. The travel distance of the shutter release is excellent, though, which is ultimately the most important aspect of a shutter release.

When holding the camera, there is a bit less grip space on the back and the front grip is smaller, but it doesn't necessarily feel smaller in the hand. There's plenty of space to get a good, strong grip on the camera.

Further, the Z7 has an excellent top display that, while smaller than the one found on the D850, features sharper text that's easier to read. The OLED display is neat for another reason, its brightness changes depending on the situation. If you are shooting in very low light, the text gets darker and therefore helps preserve night vision. If it's bright shooting, the display is brighter and easy to read, even in direct sunlight.

The Z7's command dials feel great, even though they do feel a bit different than I'm used to on Nikon's high-end DSLR cameras. They had to be moved a bit to compensate for the smaller body, but their usability and feel remains excellent. The amount of distance between each "click" is a bit less, which takes a little getting used to, but they work very well for quick and precise adjustments.

Looking at the top of the Nikon Z7, there are many similarities with a Nikon DSLR, including the arrangement of the buttons around the shutter release and a top deck display. Granted, the top deck display is OLED now instead of LCD, which is a nice improvement in terms of clarity and readability.

The rear display is very good as well. It is a 3.2-inch touchscreen with 2.1 million dots of resolution. It can tilt upward and downward, although I do wish it was a full tilt-swivel display. There were numerous occasions when I was working in portrait orientation on a tripod and wanted to be able to tilt the display to make it easier to see. With that said, the display is sharp and vibrant and works well even in bright lighting conditions. The touchscreen, itself, also works well. Unfortunately, the touchscreen cannot be used as an autofocus touchpad, which means you cannot use it to move the autofocus point while looking through the viewfinder as you can on some other cameras. I hope Nikon adds this feature down the road via firmware or at least includes it in future cameras because it is very useful. The dedicated AF joystick is fine and works well, but I think a touchpad could be faster in some situations.

Nikon's optical viewfinders on their DSLR cameras have long been excellent. They are very good, clear and work great when tracking fast subjects. On the other hand, generally speaking, electronic viewfinders have not always been great. They have, however, improved over the last few years within the industry and Nikon's new EVF for the Z7 is superb. It's big, bright and sharp. The EVF has 3.6 million dots and a 35mm-equivalent magnification of 0.8x. It includes Nikkor optics as well, which results in an excellent experience. It's one of the best EVFs out there right now.

The Z7's rear touchscreen can tilt up and down, which proves useful in the field.

Another nice aspect of the Z7 is that it offers dust and weather resistance, which Nikon states is the same degree of weather sealing as in a Nikon D850. It has a magnesium-alloy chassis and weather sealing throughout the body. It may be small, but that does not mean it isn't rugged and tough.

Overall, the Nikon Z7 looks and feels like a high-end Nikon camera and simply put, it's incredibly well-designed in general, and especially for a first-generation product. The touchscreen could be better utilized, and it'd be nice if the Z7 had dual card slots -- more on that later -- but it's a very good camera to use. It may be downsized, but its comfort and usability remain as high as ever.

Image Sensor and Image Quality

Technically, the Nikon Z7 uses a new sensor because it has 493 phase-detect autofocus points across its surface, something the 45.7-megapixel sensor in the D850 lacks. However, in practical terms, we are looking at basically the same imaging sensor as the D850. In this case, repetition is far from a bad thing as the D850 delivered excellent resolving power and image quality across a wide range of ISO sensitivities. The Z7 does not have an anti-aliasing filter, which helps the camera deliver images with excellent fine detail, but it also means that it can occasionally produce photos with odd artifacts and moiré. It's not really an issue with the type of photography I do, but for architectural photographers or those who photograph people -- at least ones wearing clothes with close repeating patterns, such as certain fabrics -- it could be an issue. Personally, I'll take the trade-offs of an AA-less sensor every time.

Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S, f/8, 0.5s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

In Field Test Part II, I will be taking a closer look at image quality, specifically with respect to processing raw files, dynamic range and file flexibility during editing. For this first Field Test, I will take a look at different types of images and see how the Z7 does producing images straight from the camera. Specifically, I want to take a look at image quality at different ISO settings using real-world images. I've shot a lot with a Nikon D850 and have owned a D800E since it was released, so I'm very familiar with Nikon's recent high-megapixel offerings.

Like the D850, the Z7 has a native ISO range of 64 to 25,600. At ISO 64, the Z7 does a nice job of producing clean images with a lot of sharpness through the tonal range. The Z7, thanks to its new image processor, also has improved mid-range sharpening and you can see the effect of that in the image below. Notice that from the darker area on the left edge to the medium-bright areas and then finally the brightest sticks, there's a lot of detail to be found throughout. What impresses me the most about this particular example is not so much that there's a lot of fine detail, but that the edges of objects in the frame, particularly the diagonal ones, are smooth and clean. The image does not look over-processed to me. The sensor is being allowed to speak for itself and the internal processing, while powerful, is evenly and intelligently applied.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 57mm, f/11, 1/13s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 57mm, f/11, 1/13s, ISO 64.
100 percent crop. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

At higher ISOs, the situation remains pleasing. Consider the image below, which was captured with the good although not spectacularly sharp Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E F-mount lens. The image was shot at ISO 5600, which is a pretty high ISO for a 45.7-megapixel camera. There is a fair bit of noise throughout the image, but it's handled quite well by the camera and the overall quality of the image remains intact. There is nice color and contrast as well.

Adapted Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 5600.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
Adapted Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 5600.
100 percent crop. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Let's look at another image. In this case, we are looking at a very detailed scene captured with the impressive new native 24-70mm f/4 S lens. Below, I have included the full scene at ISO 64 and then 100 percent crops from straight-from-the-camera JPEG files shot at ISO 64 and ISO 25,600. At ISO 64, we see the scene in its best-possible form considering the equipment used. There is a lot of fine detail.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 50mm, f/11, 2s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 50mm, f/11, 2s, ISO 64.
100 percent crop. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 50mm, f/11, 1/200s, ISO 25600.
100 percent crop. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

There are three specific areas of the crop I want to address. First, the bright barnacles on the right edge of the frame. At ISO 64, nearly all of the highlight data is retained. At ISO 25,600, while some of the finer detail is obviously lost, the overall detail retention of the highlights are pretty similar.

Next, look at the snail near the middle of the frame. At ISO 64, you can distinguish many of the individual spirals and lines in its shell. You can practically count them. At ISO 25,600, not so much, in fact, you cannot tell that there are lines on the shell at all. The same story applies to the barnacles, where you can see many defined edges and lines in the ISO 64 file, you cannot see them nearly as well at a high ISO.

Finally, look at the top left corner, the dark seaweed in particular. Something interesting happens here. At ISO 64, there's not a lot of definition because the material is pretty smooth. The deep brownish green is captured very well, but there's only small patches of detail. Oddly enough, at ISO 25,600, we get a bit of false detail. The camera smooths out the noise, which is both color and luminance noise, and then tries to bring detail back. In this case, the detail was never really there to begin with, so we get a sort of rough texture in the high ISO file that should not be there.

Overall, I am very impressed with the high ISO capabilities of the Nikon Z7. If you look at the ISO 25,600 image in a smallish print, like 8 x 10, it doesn't look that different from the base ISO image of the same scene. Yes, there are absolutely qualitative differences, but they don't jump out at you until you really study the image. Even when you do look closely, the Z7 stands up nicely. I would have no qualms whatsoever shooting the Z7 at nearly any ISO speed if that's what the situation demanded. For highly-critical work, I might want to cap the ISO at 6400, which is how I have Auto ISO set up, but you can still capture nice images at faster ISO speeds.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 65mm, f/11, 0.8s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Before finishing up the image quality discussion, I want to briefly touch on colors. There's a lot of subjectivity involved in discussing colors. Our lab testing does a fantastic job of determining how much a camera saturates certain colors and how accurately colors are represented, but if you talk about colors with fellow photographers, people usually speak passionately about how a certain camera handles specific colors.

Personally, I mostly care about how a camera renders naturally-occurring colors. In this respect, I think that the Z7 does well. In the two images below, I am impressed by the Z7's rendition of reds, greens and blues. The reds are rich without being overly bright. The tone and brightness of the red is excellent and precisely how I saw the scene. The greens are dark and in control, although they might tend to be a bit yellower than I'd like. Blues are nice too, although perhaps tending a bit heavily toward cyan.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 52mm, f/16, 1.6s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
 
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 39mm, f/14, 2.5s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Overall, when viewing JPEG images from the Z7, the camera does a fantastic job in many respects. It produces sharp images at and near base ISO, it produces clean files at high ISO with good color and contrast and finally, it handles colors well, producing bright but controlled colors and tones.

Shooting Experience

Autofocus

With a new mirrorless camera system comes a new autofocus system. In the case of the Nikon Z7, we find a 493-point hybrid phase-detect/contrast-detect autofocus system. This is a considerable increase in autofocus points over the D850 but even more noticeable in real-world use is that the autofocus points cover around 90 percent of the image area both horizontally and vertically. This means that you can easily focus on a subject that is well away from the center portion of the frame, which means that focusing and recomposing is rarely necessary when shooting with the Z7. For me, this is a big deal. I regularly focus near the edge of the frame when shooting landscape images and focusing and recomposing is annoying, especially if I wanted to capture images for focus stacking, so the Z7 is a much more flexible tool than a DSLR camera like the D850 in that respect.

Adapted Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 2500.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Nikon has said that users should expect very similar autofocus speed and overall performance when using the Z7 as they get from the D850. It's definitely close in terms of speed, and I think that the Z7 is a very good focus performer. I'm not sure it's quite as fast in lower light as the D850, however, but the Z7 remains good in difficult focusing conditions.

Regarding autofocus accuracy, I found that the Z7 did a phenomenal job in most situations, particularly with its native lenses. With the Nikon D850, I had to perform autofocus fine tuning with nearly every lens I used. This is not an issue with the mirrorless Z7, which is a welcome change of pace. There's a lot of value in being able to attach a lens and not worry about tinkering with settings to get precise focus and very sharp images.

Adapted Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 1800.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

As I mentioned earlier, the camera offers touch autofocus via the rear display, but you cannot use the screen as an AF touchpad while using the EVF. The dedicated focus selector joystick works well, but it can be a bit slow to move through the Z7's many focus points. Further, there's no eye-detect autofocus, which will be a disappointment to portrait photographers.

These few negatives aside, the Z7's autofocus performance is excellent overall. To me, it performs as if Nikon has been making full-frame mirrorless cameras for a long time with how reliable and refined the focusing performance is on the Z7. There's still room for improvement and growth, as there always is, but the Z7 certainly meets my autofocus expectations in most situations. Reviewer's Note: I will discuss autofocus with the FTZ adapter in my next Field Test.

Performance

The Z7 includes a brand-new processor, the EXPEED 6. This is the latest generation of Nikon's in-house image processor, and it allows for a bit better sharpness, particularly in the mid-range, and lower noise levels. The EXPEED 6 allows the Z7 to capture full-resolution files at up to 9 frames per second. As it happens, this applies to 12-bit RAW files rather than 14-bit RAW files, which can be captured at a slightly slower 8 fps, which is still quick. Buffer depths hover around 20 frames in most cases, and the buffer clears in between 4.6 and 5.9 seconds per our lab tests. If you'd like the full details and numbers on the Z7's performance, click here.

Regarding shooting in the field, I found the Z7 to be plenty quick. Its continuous shooting speeds were ample for photographing wildlife, but the buffer depths do leave something to be desired, especially if you want to photograph a long bit of action. For example, if you are shooting at 9 frames per second, which allows for continuous autofocus but locks exposure at the first frame, that's under three seconds of continuous shooting. The buffer clears quickly, but the shallow buffer nonetheless means that the Z7 is not necessarily a great action camera for everyone.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 24mm, f/13, 4s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

One of the most talked about aspects of the Z7 has been that it has only a single XQD card slot. This has been lambasted for a few reasons. Without a second card slot, there's no redundancy in a workflow. If your card fails, that's it, you might have lost everything. For a working pro shooting a wedding, for example, this could be catastrophic. Further, XQD cards aren't that common and are expensive. Not many photographers, unless they owned a recent high-end Nikon DSLR, will have an assortment of XQD cards to use. XQD cards do offer great performance, at least, so they definitely have that going for them over SD cards.

Personally, I find the single card slot issue to be a bit overblown. That is not to say it's not a concern, because it is, but a lot of the discussion about this issue feels overly dramatic. I've recorded a lot of images over the years to a variety of memory card types and brands and have never once had any type of failure. Perhaps I'm just lucky. With that said, I do understand the value of a second card slot, the security would be nice. If I were a wedding photographer or if I worked other events, I can see myself being a bit worried about the lack of a second card slot. I wish Nikon could've found a way to fit an SD card slot into the Z7 in addition to the XQD slot, but they didn't, and I don't think that should be a deal-breaker for most photographers.

Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S, f/1.8, 1/50ss, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Generally, the Z7 offers solid performance. It's fast, it can shoot action and it feels responsive in use. The battery life is rated for a somewhat low 330 shots when using the EVF -- 400 when using the rear display -- but I think that it has been significantly undersold by the rather rigorous CIPA testing standards. Everyone's mileage will vary, but in my workflow, the Z7's battery has performed surprisingly well and offered considerably more shots than the rating and better duration than I expected.

Metering

The Nikon Z7 offers matrix, center-weighted and spot metering options, with the lattermost metering mode being tied to the active autofocus point. The camera also offers highlight-weighted metering. In my experience, the matrix metering worked well in most situations and seemed comparable to the Nikon D850's metering performance. The Z7 might not underexpose as frequently as the D850, although I did still often utilize + 0.3 and +0.7 exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is easily accessed via a dedicated button near the shutter release, which is handy. White balance metering proved good as well. My preferred white balance with the Z7 is natural light auto because I most often am shooting outdoors, but the default WB Auto mode is good as well. The Z7 does not have a built-in flash, and its max flash sync is 1/200s, which will likely prove serviceable, although something a bit faster would certainly have been nice.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 70mm, f/11, 1/8s, ISO 64.
I performed a simple clone to remove debris from the frame. Other than that, it's a straight from the camera file. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Nikon Z7 Field Test Part I Summary

A very positive first impression of Nikon's new full-frame mirrorless camera

What I like so far:

  • Excellent design
  • Very good electronic viewfinder
  • Superb image quality
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 70mm, f/8, 1/25s, ISO 64.
I performed a simple clone to remove debris from the frame. Other than that, it's a straight from the camera file. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

What I don't like so far:

  • Touchscreen works well but seems underutilized
  • Buffer depths are good, but not great
  • The Z7 has only a single XQD card slot

There is a lot more to discuss about the Nikon Z7 in my next Field Test, but my first impressions of the camera are very positive overall. While much smaller than the Nikon D850, the Nikon Z7 is versatile and enjoyable to use. I had some concerns about how much shrinking the body might negatively impact usability and the quality of the physical controls, but these worries have nearly all been put to rest after extended time with the Nikon Z7. The grip feels great, the buttons are well-placed, the joystick works well and the electronic viewfinder is excellent. I think that the touchscreen remains underutilized and a tilt/swivel display would've been a welcome addition, but overall, it feels like a pro-level Nikon camera and it's a joy to use.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 70mm, f/16, 3s, ISO 64.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Regarding image quality and performance, there's a lot to like about the Z7. The 45.7-megapixel sensor delivers very good images with excellent detail and impressive dynamic range. The 493-point autofocus system is fast and decisive. Further, the EXPEED 6-powered camera can shoot at impressive speeds. That said, the buffer depths leave something to be desired, and the battery life, while better than the ratings in my usage, is still not as good as what you achieve with a Nikon DSLR.

In my next Field Test, I will look at the Z7's wireless functionality, image stabilization, video features and performance, the new lens system and 24-70mm kit lens plus I'll take a closer look at image quality.

 



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