Nikon Z7 Camera Hands-on Preview: Mirrorless Magic

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After years of speculating whether Nikon would actually make an advanced mirrorless camera, we finally have the answer in the new full-frame Z7 and Z6. While these aren’t Nikon’s first attempts at a mirrorless camera (that was the Nikon 1 series, which the company recently ended), they are the first serious entry into the space. For many, particularly Nikon shooters, it’s been a long time coming. Now Nikon users have a professional mirrorless option without defecting to Sony or Fujifilm.

In developing the Z-series, Nikon told Digital Trends that it had some things it needed to consider: the millions of Nikkor DSLR lenses already sold, the loyalty of its user base, and its brand. The Z cameras had to meet the same criteria as Nikon’s DSLRs — they had to feel like Nikons and be built like Nikons, the company told us — but in some ways, they even surpass them.

Perhaps Nikon is simply facing the reality that mirrorless is a growth segment and DSLRs are not. DSLRs still account for 70 percent of interchangeable lens cameras sold (versus 30 for mirrorless), but according to some recent stats, the DSLR market is shrinking. It also signals that one of the biggest DSLR makers is ready to fully commit to mirrorless (Canon, very likely, won’t be too far behind).

Nikon’s Z7 has been touted as the mirrorless equivalent of the highly lauded D850 (one of our favorite cameras, and certainly one of the most capable cameras on the market, DSLR or otherwise). So does it have the chops? While we can’t comment on performance right now (the camera we looked at during a pre-briefing and official product launch in Tokyo is a pre-production sample that we weren’t able to shoot with), we can look at the specs, how the camera feels, and what’s in store for the future. Here’s a first-look at Nikon’s exciting new camera.

(This preview is based on our time spent with the Z7, but the Z6 is a very similar camera. We noted the differences where applicable.)

Update on September 5, 2018: In our original article, we mistakenly said the Z6, like the Z7, has an optical low-pass filter. The Z6 does have an OLPF over the sensor, but the Z7 does not.

The specs

The Z7 and Z6 cameras are nearly identical with the exception of the sensor and a small handful of features. Again, the Z7 is the mirrorless counterpart to the D850. It’s built around a similar 45.7-megapixel, back-illuminated full-frame (Nikon FX format) sensor with no optical low-pass filter (OLPF), but the Z7’s is newly developed and specific to the mirrorless camera. The Z6, with its back-illuminated 24.5-megapixel FX sensor, is akin to the D750 DSLR — a more affordable entry into full-frame that would appeal to a wider audience, but it’s no slouch. Unlike like the D750, the Z6 keeps the OLPF.

The Z7 and Z6 are Nikon’s first interchangeable lens cameras to have five-axis image stabilization.

Both cameras introduce the new Expeed 6 image processor, which, according to Nikon, renders sharper images while reducing noise. The cameras also introduce a mid-range sharpening tool in the Picture Control settings that let you increase sharpness or softness. The Z7 and Z6 have an ISO range of 64-25,600 and 100-51,200, respectively. High-speed continuous shooting is up to 9 frames per second on the Z7 and 12 fps on the lower-resolution Z6.

The autofocus systems in both cameras cover 90-percent of the sensor, using 493 focal plane phase-detection focus points in the Z7 and 273 in the Z6; it’s a hybrid system that also uses contrast detection. With Z-mount lenses, Nikon says the AF systems in these two cameras provide faster, quieter, and more accurate focusing for both photos and videos.

The Z7 and Z6 are also Nikon’s first interchangeable lens cameras to have five-axis image stabilization (Vibration Reduction, or VR, in Nikon terms) built into the body. Nikon says the stabilization allows for a shutter speed up to 5 stops slower if used in conjunction with a VR lens.

Nikon Z7 Mirrorless Camera
Les Shu/Digital Trends

The electronic OLED viewfinder in both cameras has an impressive 3,690k-dot resolution and is fast and responsive, with full coverage of the sensor. A fluorine coating helps prevent dirt accumulating, and the EVF is designed for reduced chromatic aberration. Nikon says it’s comparable to its optical viewfinders, but with the benefits of an EVF, such as information displays and live view.

At launch, the Z-series will support only XQD memory cards, a format that so far only Nikon has adopted in still cameras. However, Nikon will release support for CFexpress when that format is ready. CFexpress cards use the same form factor as XQD, so a simple firmware update is all that’s required to move to the new media. For now, there aren’t many manufacturers producing XQD cards, so this may be one drawback faced by early adopters of the Z series.

Other features include a silent shutter function, interval timer for 8K time-lapse movies (Z7 only), extended low-light metering range, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (SnapBridge), and support for DSLR accessories. A new Wi-Fi function lets you automatically transfer content to a computer wirelessly (with Nikon software installed).

The new Z-mount lets Nikon create better lenses that it simply couldn’t with the F-mount.

The Z7 and Z6 use the new EN-EL 15b battery, but it can also use the EN-EL 15a battery that’s used in the D850 and other Nikon DSLRs. However, Nikon didn’t give a battery rating, but it would have fewer shots than when used in a DSLR. Historically, the company’s DSLRs have had impressive power management, but mirrorless cameras put a constant strain on their batteries due to live view displays, so battery life is likely to be much less in Z6/Z7.

Nikon does say using the older EN-EL 15 battery will yield fewer shots per charge compared to the 15a or 15b. Nikon is also developing the MB-N10 Multi-Power Battery Pack that can hold two 15b batteries and will be compatible with both Z cameras.

New Z-mount and S-Line lenses

For the Z-series, Nikon has developed a new, larger lens mount called the Z-mount, which has some advantages over the current F-mount that’s been used for decades in the company’s DSLRs. The new Z-mount-compatible lens series is called the S-Line.

Before we talk about the Z-mount and S-Line lenses, the Z-series is compatible with all F-mount Nikkor lenses via the FTZ adapter (we assume it will also work with third-party F-mount lenses, but that hasn’t been confirmed). While it isn’t as convenient as using a lens with a native mount, current Nikon users will still have full use of their existing lenses, including the new, massive AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 E PF ED VR lens (see one of our images with this lens attached to a Z7, via the FTZ adapter). And, because the camera has built-in image stabilization, many of those lenses may actually work better on a Z camera for some situations. Priced at $250, the FTZ adapter is also weather sealed, giving it a premium quality of high-end Nikkor lenses.

According to Nikon, the company decided to pursue a new lens mount design because the F-mount was limiting. The larger diameter (55mm) of the Z-mount allowed Nikon to develop new lenses with apertures as fast as f/0.95 — a first for Nikkor lenses. In fact, Nikon is developing such a lens right now: the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Nocht Lens. An homage to the AI Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 lens from 1977, this premium, manual-focus prime lens is the flagship of the S-Line. Nikon says the new Nocht lens will deliver sharp images and beautiful bokeh. Availability or pricing have not been revealed, but it’s on Nikon’s Z lens roadmap for 2019.

Nikon has nine more Z lenses on its roadmap for 2019-2021, including a variety of both zooms and primes.

At launch, there will be three S-Line lenses: the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S ($1,000), Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S ($850), and a Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S ($600). The 24-70mm and 35mm lenses will be available on September 27, while the 50mm is scheduled for late October. All the lenses are built to the same Nikon standards as the DSLR lenses, including a Nano Crystal Coat layer to reduce ghosting and flaring. The 35mm and 50mm lenses have new motors that provide fast autofocusing and quiet operation, with optical designs that further reduce chromatic aberrations.

Nikon has nine more Z lenses on its roadmap for 2019-2021, including the aforementioned Nocht lens along with a variety of zooms and primes, like a 20mm f/1.8; 85mm f/1.8; 24-70mm f/2.8; 70-200mm f/2.8; 14-30mm f/4; 50mm f/1.2; 24mm f/1.8; and 14-24mm f/2.8. No other details have been announced, other than they will be part of the S-Line.

Targeting filmmakers

Nikon has been attracting video shooters since the D500 and D5, but it has never offered the full range of professional video features found on many Sony and Panasonic cameras. 4K/30p is a given in the Z7 and Z6, but they also include 10-bit N-Log for wider dynamic range and better color — the first time Nikon has offered a logarithmic tone curve in its cameras. Nikon claims N-Log is good for 12 stops of dynamic range, which is quite good for a video mode. However, both 10-bit and N-Log are only available when recording to an external device over HDMI.

Also impressive is that 4K is recorded with full-pixel readout for sharper results. Focus peaking and timecode are also offered. These features are aimed at more advanced and professional videographers, but it’s clear who Nikon thinks these cameras are also great for. Perhaps the only “downer” is lack for support for 4K/60p, like Panasonic’s GH5. Full HD can be recorded up to 120 fps, however.

Look and feel

Both the Z7 and Z6 have magnesium-alloy bodies that are weather sealed, with a solid construction that’s equal to Nikon’s high-end DSLRs. They resemble their Nikon DSLR cousins, but have a more squarish design and are much more compact — roughly equivalent in size to a Nikon entry-level DSLR. When you pick one up, you’ll notice the weight; they may be smaller than high-end DSLRs, but by no means are they featherweights. Overall, these are well-built machines ready to tackle professional assignments.

Photographers will appreciate the substantial grip, which is very reminiscent of DSLRs — there’s even the iconic red stripe that’s present on all Nikon DSLRs. It provides a sturdy hold, which is something you won’t find on many mirrorless cameras without adding a grip accessory. On the top of the grip you’ll find shutter button, on/off switch, movie record button, ISO button, and exposure compensation button — all easily accessibly with your fingers while holding onto it. There is a command dial on the front of the grip.

It’s relatively minimalist on the top of the main camera body. There’s a mode dial, electronic viewfinder component, another control dial, and a bright, nicely sized OLED display that clearly shows the shooting parameters. This is a component that many photographers love about their DSLRs, and it’s great to see Nikon incorporate it into the Z-series. In fact, this is something you won’t find in most mirrorless cameras — even advanced models, like Sony’s A9 and A7-series. Sure, some users may rather have another settings dial, but we know this is a feature many photographers enjoy, and it’s clear Nikon sees this as important.

In the United States, the Nikon Z7 and Z6, body only, will sell for $3,400 and $2,000, respectively.

The rear layout of buttons should be familiar for any Nikon DSLR user. However, the buttons have been rearranged to make room for the large 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen display (2,100k-dot resolution) — a first for a Nikon interchangeable lens camera. Instead of a column of buttons along the left side of the display, like you would see with the D850, they’re all clustered to the right (two customizable function buttons are on the front). The screen tilts out to allow shooting at various heights, but it doesn’t flip out completely.

The Z-series retains Nikon’s menu system found in its high-end DSLRs — it’s one that’s fairly easy to navigate. Like the small OLED display, Nikon obviously sees these cameras appeal to existing Nikon users, so it’s bringing over features that said users will find familiar. However, it’s a camera that can be easily picked up by any experienced photographer.

On the left of the camera you’ll find ports for headphone, microphone, USB (Type C), HDMI, and remote. On the right is the XQD card slot — yes, it’s just a single slot, and this may be a slight drawback for some users.

What about image quality and performance?

We haven’t had the chance to shoot with either Z-series camera, but we will be using one of the cameras shortly, so we will update this section with additional details, including how it feels to use one all day, in a variety of environments. We expect the Z7 to deliver quality and performance on par, if not better, than the D850, but we will reserve judgement. In addition, Nikon informed us that we would be using pre-production units, so even after we get a chance to try a unit, we would still reserve our final verdicts for a full review.

Camera pricing and availability

The Z7 will be available worldwide on September 27. In the United States, the Z7 will sell for $3,400 body only, or $4,000 with the 24-70mm f/4 lens. The Z6 will come later, in November, for a very attractive body-only price of $2,000, or $2,600 with the same 24-70mm lens. The Z6 will definitely have more mass-market appeal with that pricing, especially anyone looking for a full-frame mirrorless camera.

On paper, both cameras are impressive, but we will have to wait and see if they can actually deliver performance to back up the specs.

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