The Nikon Z-mount just turned two years old about a week ago, so, we’ve been looking back at the first couple years of the company’s full-frame mirrorless system. How has Nikon done so far?

There have been many comparisons to Sony’s full-frame mirrorless system, since Sony got started with “FE” nearly seven years ago, and they’ve made significant progress since then. Indeed, how do Sony’s third and fourth-generation cameras compare against Nikon’s first-gen cameras? They all have IBIS, they all have 4K video, face/eye AF, and there are different models with different resolutions for both systems… It’s a pretty close race!

But, nobody is considering how Nikon’s first venture into the full-frame mirrorless market is comparing to Sony’s original start with “FE”, nearly seven years ago. Sony’s full-frame mirrorless birthday is October 16.)

So, how did Sony do in their first year? Their second year? When you look at the timeline, honestly, in some ways Sony did terribly at first.

That is, Sony did terribly in terms of their range of offerings–the quality of full-frame bodies, and quantity/quality of lenses delivered. Of course, let’s be real, Sony did very well in terms of the initial popularity of their innovative, ground-breaking camera bodies, despite some of the crippling drawbacks that all early mirrorless cameras faced, such as abysmal battery life and inferior autofocus performance.

Nikon, meanwhile, has actually done pretty well with their first-generation camera bodies and lenses! Instead of needing to release “mark 2” versions of their first cameras barely 1 year after a crummy, prone-to-breaking mk1 generation, they built a rock-solid 1st-gen lineup with allegedly the best build quality of any mirrorless camera at the time, with a wider range of price points from $1,400 to $3,400. (The Z7 is now just $2,800, by the way)

[Related: 61 Megapixels Is Distracting From Sony’s Bigger Accomplishments]

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Nikon Z7, Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 S | 10 sec, f/1.8, ISO 4000

Plus, Nikon even provided those cameras with additional leaps forward in terms of autofocus via firmware updates, too, closing the gap between Nikon’s 1st-gen and Sony’s 3rd/4th-gen bodies.

Basically, in terms of passing elementary grade school, Nikon gets an A-, (they might’ve done even better if they’d gone with dual SD card slots in the Z6 and Z7, of course!) …while Sony got a C-, or maybe even a D+.

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FIeld backup | Using the Gnarbox 2.0 to back up XQD cards is quick and easy!

In terms of lenses, Nikon has given us a full set of (five) very impressive primes, ranging from 20mm to 85mm, all of which are incredibly sharp with a high-quality build. Plus, we have a trio of portable everyday zooms that are all very sharp and well-made, and a highly unique wide-angle zoom that accomplished the unprecedented feat of making 14mm portable while still accepting filters!

Last but not least, the flagship trio is (almost) here, the “holy trinity” of f/2.8 zooms. (2020 hasn’t exactly played fair, otherwise, we’d probably be publishing our reviews of the Z 70-200 2.8 and Z 14-24 2.8 right now!) Oh, and of course, the unicorn, the 58mm f/0.95, but that lens is closer to $10,000 than to the price of any other lenses, so it’s a bit of a unicorn…

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Pictured: Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 S, Nikon Z7 | Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S, Nikon Z6

So, while current Sony fans have every right to accuse Nikon of being “late to the game” (which we’ll discuss later) it does seem clear that Nikon is on a very good early trajectory.

What about Canon? They’ve also done a great job and have actually delivered nothing but full-frame mirrorless lenses for the last two years, (now totaling fifteen) although their selection is less evenly balanced between modest and exotic options, with more of the exotic high-end options, including eight lenses that are over $2,000. (Nikon has just four Z-mount lenses that cost over $2,000, out of their twelve total full-frame Z-mount lenses and two DX Z-mount lenses.) We’ll have to write another article overviewing Canon’s first 2 years soon too, since the RF mount is getting close to its 2nd birthday as well.

We’ll add up all the Sony and Nikon lenses later in this article, but for now, let’s reveal the ace up Nikon’s sleeve, their biggest secret weapon…

Sony Fans: Remember How You Sang Praise Of Adapters?

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Pictured: Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS C (Sony FE), Nikon Z7, TechArt Sony E to Nikon Z Adapter

At this point, I know exactly what you’re thinking: “who cares about Sony’s first two years? That was five years ago now; what really matters to photographers today is just one thing: what options are there, right now?”

You’re right! Currently, Sony has a far more complete mirrorless system, both in terms of body performance and lens selection. So, why did I claim that Nikon has the best full-frame mirrorless system, just because they’re doing well in their first two years, while Sony still technically has a five-year lead?

Because, going back to those early years again, Sony users LOVED to talk about how ADAPTERS made their mount the most diverse and versatile of all. And now, Nikon is beating EVERYONE at that game.

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Nikon Z50, Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art, Nikon FTZ Adapter | 1/4000 sec, f/8, ISO 100

Interesting, indeed, that Sony fans are now quiet about the fact that Nikon’s full-frame Z-mount has not only a great native-on-native DSLR adapter situation but also, you can adapt Sony E-mount lenses to the Nikon Z-mount!

By Sony fans’ own logic, Nikon Z-mount is now the most diverse, versatile full-frame mount, in terms of lens selection. The bottom line is this: some Sony fans are all of a sudden talking about other full-frame mirrorless systems as if a lack of native lenses is a total deal-breaker. These people are forgetting their Sony “fandom” history.

Nikon now has one of the most fully-fledged full-frame lens arsenals in existence, period. You have literally millions of native-on-native DSLR Nikkors, plus a wide range of incredible third-party F-mount DSLR lenses from Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Rokinon/Samyang etc, …and now, the full range of Sony FE, and Tamron, Sigma, Tokina, Rokinon/Samyang, and other brands of E-mount lenses. This is, in one word, unprecedented.

[Related: Is Sony’s E-Mount “Too Small”? Let’s Put This Debate Out Of Its Misery]

Nikon Z-Mount Secret Weapon: TechArt Brings Sony E-Mount Lenses To Nikon Mirrorless

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Pictured: Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS C (Sony FE), Nikon Z7, TechArt Sony E to Nikon Z Adapter

It wasn’t actually Nikon, but a company called TechArt, that created this game-changing piece of the puzzle. They created this tiny little guy you see hiding in between our Z7 and the new Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN C.

Yes, that’s right, it’s a Sony E-mount to Nikon Z-Mount converter, complete with electronic communication conversion that allows autofocus. And, to our astonishment, it actually works! This means a few important things:

1.) All Of Sony E-Mount On Nikon Z-Mount

Indeed, all of those exotic, exciting new lenses that are (finally) arriving on the Sony E-mount, from the jaw-dropping Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM to the impressive and affordable Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3, are all “usable” on the Nikon Z mount.

Of course, I have to use quotes when I say “usable” because although the lenses are fully functional they are about the same as using a Metabones adapter for Sony–that is, the autofocus is definitely NOT ready for tracking birds in flight or professional athletes. Make no mistake, if you want to use E-mount lenses and get great autofocus, nothing matches a Sony a9-series, A7R IV, or A7S III, period.

Still, with that said, whenever I think about this I can’t help but remember all the excuses Sony fans used to make for how poor the autofocus on their Metabones adapters was… “Oh, now that we have focus peaking, you don’t even need autofocus; I just manual focus everything anyways!” Now that the tables have turned, it’s interesting that (some, thankfully very few) Sony fans are speaking so critically all of a sudden.

Plus, now that we’re adapting E-mount mirrorless lenses to the Nikon Z mount, we’re also gaining the benefit of avoiding the unnecessary weight and size of DSLR lenses, like early adopters of Sony had to put up with.

We’re currently reviewing the TechArt adapter with the amazing Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DN Art and Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DN Contemporary, and they’re performing amazingly well in most conditions! Stay tuned for our full review coming soon.

2.) Third-Party Z-mount Lenses Can’t Be Too Far Away

Here’s an even more exciting thought: If TechArt can so easily figure out the Nikon Z-mount protocols and get not just aperture control to work but even autofocus, then, it can’t be too long until third-party lens makers also figure out the Z-mount protocols. When that happens, we’ll likely see a huge influx of fantastic lenses for the Z-mount.

3.) Could Canon RF Lenses Be Adapted To Z-mount, Too?

Don’t kid yourselves, Nikon fans, Canon L glass is legendary! (Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 L @ f/1.2)

It would require an adapter that is much wider than the E-mount one, to accommodate the 55mm and 54mm diameters of the Nikon Z and Canon RF mounts. However, it is theoretically possible to create an adapter for Canon RF lenses to be mounted on the Nikon Z, and there would be 4mm to do it instead of just 2mm, thanks to the 20mm RF flange distance versus Nikon’s 16mm Z flange distance. If this ever became a thing, it would be truly unprecedented, indeed.

Of course, this last possibility is a very long shot that will likely take years to appear, in fact, to date I don’t think an autofocus-capable adapter has ever appeared for mounting Nikon AF lenses on Canon’s EF mount. So, maybe the communication “translation” just can’t be done. I’m an optimist, though, so I’d wager we’ll see one within 3-5 years.

…What About Canon RF Mirrorless, Indeed?

Canon RF mirrorless lenses

Of course, Canon has been doing an impressive job of “playing catch up”, too. Their bodies now range from prosumer, with the $2,500 EOS R6, to flagship, with the $3,900 EOS R5. Their lens lineup is very impressive, as Canon L-glass always is.

Canon has the benefit of literally all their EF-mount lenses using the same autofocus and aperture communication protocol, unlike Nikon which lost compatibility with old AF-D and mechanical aperture lenses on the FTZ adapter.

Lastly, although their mirrorless mount’s physical measurements mean they’ll never be able to adapt other mirrorless lenses, they do have one additional advantage: the RF lens communication is largely based on EF lens communication, which is why we’re already seeing third-party lenses for RF that have autofocus.

Personally, I can see it going both ways- some photographers who like what Canon offers could be in for a real treat over the next few years as third parties start making tons of lenses for RF, however, other photographers who have less of a priority on top-tier professional autofocus performance might be more attracted to the Nikon mounts potentially unlimited lens selection…

Adapters Are A Flawed And Temporary Solution, Of Course

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To be fair, using adapters to pair up lenses and bodies that were never MEANT to communicate with each other is, to put it mildly, suboptimal. This has been well-documented among the more technical folks who did extensive testing with adapted Nikon and Canon lenses on Sony’s E-mount bodies.

One of the biggest drawbacks is that the lens’ autofocus will never work as well as a native or same-brand lens. This isn’t the case with same-brand adapters and same-brand lenses, but it’s definitely the case in our experience thus far with the TechArt adapter and E-mount lenses on our Nikon Z6 and Z7 here in the studio.

Here’s the bottom line: If you’re photographing action sports or wildlife in low light, a Sony a9 series is still the champion of mirrorless autofocus, and fully native options from Canon and Nikon are not far behind. As a wedding and portrait photographer, I would absolutely stick with native options, and I stand by my statement from the beginning of this year that the original A9 is still the best value around for wedding photographers.

Still, the world of photography is much, much larger than just action and speed.

If Nikon Is “Playing Catch Up,” They’re Winning That Game

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Nikon Z7, Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 S | 10 sec (x50+ meteors) f/1.8, ISO 6400

Today in 2020, there’s a lot to consider and debate when it comes to choosing the “best” full-frame mirrorless system. If you have to buy a camera system right now, and you want to keep it native, then Sony is in the lead, but it’s shrinking rapidly.

However, in terms of getting caught up, Nikon is winning the game. We already talked about why–their bodies and lenses are taking significant leaps forward, much bigger leaps than Sony’s early FE years.

But, for those who like facts and details, let’s actually list all of the lenses Sony made in the first two years of the FE mount, and compare it against the lenses that Nikon made in the first two years of the Z mount… Note that we’ll also add our experience/impressions of each lens.

 Full-Frame Mirrorless Timelines: Nikon Versus Sony

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Nikon Z7, Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S | 1/5 sec, f/10, ISO 64

Sony’s “FE” (full-frame) camera body first came out in late 2013, and along with it, in the first 365 days, Sony announced a handful of lenses. The list of lenses is, in fact, interestingly similar to Nikon’s first year of Z-mount bodies and lenses…

Sony’s 1st Year of FE Lenses:

  • FE 28-70mm 3.5-5.6 OSS (terrible lens, cheap build, not sharp, $400)
  • FE 24-70mm f/4 (half-decent, well-built, not very sharp, $800)
  • FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS (very decent, well-built, kinda sharp, $1,400)
  • FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA (very good, very sharp, well built, $1,000)
  • FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA (decent, well-built, decently sharp, $800)
  • FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS (very good, specialty video lens, $2,500)
  • FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS (decent, well-built, decently sharp, $1,300)

Sony’s 2nd Year of FE Lenses:

  • FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (mediocre, cheap build, not very sharp, $800)
  • FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS (very good, well-built, very sharp, $1,100)
  • FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA (very good, well-built,  decently sharp, $1,600)
  • FE 28mm f/2 (mediocre, decent build, decent sharpness, $450)

To recap, that’s eleven lenses, some of which were great, but some of which were pretty bad, and almost no “flagship” type lenses. Sony would not debut their GM line until later, and their early ZA lenses were hit-or-miss in terms of performance, despite the Zeiss name and price tag…

Sony did not start delivering a full “holy trinity” of f/2.8 zooms to the FE mount until the third year after the E-mount became full-frame, with the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS, and it wasn’t complete until the fourth year, of “FE”, in 2017.

Nikon’s 1st Year Of Z Lenses:

  • Z 24-70mm f/4 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $1,000)
  • Z 50mm f/1.8 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $600)
  • Z 35mm f/1.8 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $850)
  • Z 85mm f/1.8 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $800)
  • Z 14-30mm f/4 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $1,300)
  • Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $2,300)

Nikon’s 2nd Year Of Z Lenses:

  • Z 24mm f/1.8 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $1,000)
  • Z 20mm f/1.8 S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $1,050)
  • Z 58mm f/0.95 S (UNICORN ALERT, well-built, very sharp, $8,000)
  • Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR (very good, well-built, very sharp, $900)
  • Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S (very good, well-built, very sharp, $2,600)
  • Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3 (pretty good, decent build, decent sharpness, $400)

To recap, that’s twelve lenses, though one is admittedly a “unicorn”. However, it is worth noting that among the bunch, all are very good or extremely high quality, many are downright flagship-grade in image quality and build quality, if not in f-stops or price tags. This seems to be in keeping with Nikon’s long-term marketing philosophy: deliver maximum value at all price points!

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Nikon Z7, Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, PolarPro ND8PL | 1/100 sec, f/4, ISO 64

Despite the major setbacks of 2020, Nikon has at least showcased a complete trinity of f/2.8 zooms, and so far our testing has shown that they are actually a tiny bit sharper than Sony’s GM counterparts. We might see our first “mk2” GM lenses soon!

[Related: Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S Review | The Future Of Pro Mirrorless Zooms Has Arrived]

Either way, the bottom line is, we have to ask yourselves, “is Nikon really doing that bad?” In another year or two, Nikon will have an almost fully-fledged mirrorless system, and it’s also likely that third-parties will be supporting the Z-mount, too. They have demonstrated that they’ve “still got it” when it comes to making high-quality, durable, high-performance camera bodies and lenses, and not just for one budget, but a relatively diverse price range. In the coming months, we know there are both new flagship and budget-friendly lenses coming, seemingly in equal measure if the roadmaps are to be believed.

In conclusion, if you’re at all curious about Nikon’s Z-mount system, give it a try! Those who are already familiar with Nikon’s interface will love it, and others who have a specific need and a specific budget can rest assured Nikon will continue to offer the best diversity and versatility around.