Nikon Z7 Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera Review
Time will likely tell that 2018 was one of the most pivotal points in Nikon history. Their Z mount system is an all-new chapter for them, in what are undeniably some of the most exciting, promising, and yet uncertain times for camera makers and photographers alike.
The Nikon Z7 is, however, only one small step into the realm of mirrorless cameras, compared to what the competition is offering.
The All-New Nikon Full-Frame Mirrorless Z Mount
Make no mistake, the Z system itself is an absolutely giant leap forward for Nikon. The mount itself is so large, you could just about fit a medium format sensor inside it. (No, they’re not going to, though.) The mount has fully electronic communication, instead of the mechanical aperture control (or super oldschool autofocus screw) which I dare say ought to have been phased out starting in the 1990’s.
Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm f/4 S, 1/30 sec, f/5.6, ISO 64
The mount will prove to be an advantage to Nikon, as the lens Nikkor Z and/or S lens lineup expands. Instead of being one of the smallest-diameter mounts of all the major SLR brands, it is indeed now the largest. This will allow Nikon to expand in two directions: exotic lenses such as the imminent Nikon 58mm f/0.95, and compact, portable lenses such as the Nikon 14-30mm f/4.
It may be that eventually, both Canon and Sony find there are certain optical formulas which only Nikon can offer, both for elite and casual photographers.
Nikon Z7 Review
Okay, that’s enough fanboy-ing for me, for at least a month. I promise. Let’s review the Nikon Z7! The camera is amazing, of course, but there’s a lot to discuss, both good and bad. So, let’s get started.
Why is this so exciting? Because the Z7 is a $3,397 camera and the Z6 is a $1,997 camera. Historically, Nikon has differentiated between these two price ranges in significant ways. For example, the Nikon D850 and Nikon D750 have numerous buttons that are in completely different locations, and some functions and controls are completely absent from the D750.
The only significant difference between the Z6 and Z7 seems to be their sensors; the Z6 having 24 megapixels as well as slightly different autofocus and video capabilities as well. This is basically what Sony has been doing for three generations now, with the A7, A7R, and A7S series cameras.
Nikon Z7 Review: Pros
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 1/8 sec, f/10, ISO 64
There’s a lot to like about the Z7. It is more than just a portable D850. Its mirrorless features, especially the new mount, make it a whole different beast.
Here’s the real question: is the camera merely good enough to attract existing Nikon shooters, or is it actually good enough to tempt first-time buyers, or even switchers from Canon, Sony, and other brands?
My answer: The Z7 is impressive enough to earn the consideration of almost all photographers, pro or prosumer. However, there is progress yet to be made.
Nikon Z7 Image Quality
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S – 1/125 sec, f/10, ISO 64, 9-image Panorama
Nikon Z7 – 100% Crop, Fine-Radius USM Applied
The Nikon Z7 has a sensor that is seemingly the same as the Nikon D850, but with the addition of on-sensor autofocus. Indeed, if you’ll recall from my D850 review, the image quality of this sensor is just stunning.
The Nikon Z7‘s base ISO of 64 is ready for all types of photography which depend on incredible dynamic range, and clean smooth tones & colors. The Nikon Z7‘s 45 megapixels and lack of an AA (anti-aliasing) filter are fantastic for very large prints, and/or significant amounts of cropping.
The shadow recovery of the Z7 has to be seen to be believed. It’s jaw-dropping:
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 1.6 sec, f/11, ISO 64
100% Crop, Nikon Z7, Near-Black Shadows
Nikon Z7 Shadow Banding?
An assessment of the Nikon Z7‘s image quality would not be complete without speaking to the image samples which show a banding pattern in the shadows.
In short, I tried really hard to reveal it, but couldn’t find any practical-real-world conditions in which it became a problem. It only shows up in the deepest, darkest shadows that are already very noisy. If the D850 was any better, it’s not in my zone of acceptable noise levels, so it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll get far better image quality by just not being lazy, and bracketing a +2 or +3 exposure for those nearly clipped shadows.
Nikon Z7 high ISO Image Quality
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 30 sec, f/4, ISO 12800
(This image is good enough for social media, but a large print would show noise)
So, let’s move on to the Nikon Z7‘s high ISO image quality. At high ISOs on all cameras there is increased noise, but there is also a loss of dynamic range.
Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24mm f/1.8 G, 15 sec, f/2, ISO 3200
Nikon Z7, ISO 3200, 100% Crop (with faint noise reduction and sharpening)
In the real world, though, I just ask myself two simple questions:
First, is the image quality “good enough” for what I shoot? From wedding photography to astro-landscape photography, the answer is yes, absolutely. But to be fair, my cameras have all been “good enough” for 5+ years.
Second, is the image quality significantly different from its predecessors? The answer to this question is, you guessed it, no. For 2-3 camera generations now, we’ve only really seen minor, incremental improvements to high ISO noise/DR.
My final verdict: image quality at all ISOs is already one reason why many photographers, myself included, choose Nikon, and the Z7 is merely a continuation of that earned trust.
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 1/8 sec, f/11, ISO 64, hand-held
Thank you, Nikon, for adopting IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilization) in both the Z7 and the Z6. I hope this feature remains universal to the whole Z system, especially since the Z-mount lenses aren’t stabilized. (Can we please call it IBVR? No? Okay, fine.)
It works really well! I didn’t do scientific tests, because you’re likely to get totally different results based on your hand-holding technique. Suffice it to say, it’s just as good as (or better than) modern lens-based stabilization.
Nikon Z7 Durability and Portability
Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm f/4 S, 1/5 sec, f/14, ISO 64
One of the things Nikon is known for, compared to the other major brands, is sheer durability. Their cameras can take a beating, whether it’s just the overall solid construction or the extensive weather sealing.
Yes, the Canon and Sony competitors may have some weather sealing, but based on the LensRentals blog tear-down of the Z7, it’s clear that the Nikon earns your strongest consideration if you are a foul-weather photographer who often shoots in the rain, snow, or anything else.
I must admit, as a landscape photographer and the owner of a D800E and D750, I was always jealous of the Sony A7R series and the fact that it offered all those megapixels in such a portable form factor. Well, the Z7 answers that landscape photography wish, and then some.
My verdict on durability & portability: Nikon is just really, really good at making cameras. Cameras that just work, and stand the test of time. The Z7 is a continuation of that tradition, and the new lens mount has got me drooling.
The only durability quibble I have is that the sensor is un-protected when changing lenses; I wish Nikon had closed the shutter whenever the camera was turned off, like Canon opted to do with the EOS R. If you never shoot stopped-down this might not be a problem, but I spend a lot of time at f/10-14.
Nikon Z7 Review: Cons
One thing I noticed a lot more of is this message. It’s not very helpful.
I could really use some more info on the “camera’s current state”, Nikon!
My first over-arching critique will be this: it’s a first-generation product. So, no matter how happy you might be with this generation, the second generation will likely offer enough improvements to tempt you to buy it, too!
Therefore, the Nikon Z7 will be most-liked by those who definitely have the “early adopter” gene. If you’re the type of photographer who prefers to buy a more polished second-generation product, then you already know what to do: Admire the Z7 for the milestone that it is, but secretly bide your time and keep an eye out for Z7 mk2 rumors.
Personally, I’m only in the “wait and see” category if I can’t afford to be in the “early adopter” category. I love playing with new camera equipment, obviously, and I’d buy it all if I could. I’m just itching to go out on some wilderness adventures with such a portable, practical kit as the Z7 and the new Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S!
With that being said, below are my specific issues with the Nikon Z7.
Single Memory Card Slot
Let’s get the main glaring omission out of the way first: the Z7 has a single XQD card slot, and the D850 has dual card slots. But, a Z7 is $3,397 without an adapter, and a D850 is $3,297. As a working pro, this does not compute.
In my honest opinion, though, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for almost all types of photographers except for maybe wedding photography, or some similar genres. Everybody else, calm down! You’ll be fine.
So, why did Nikon only deliver a single XQD card slot? Some folks think there’s a conspiracy to keep selling D850‘s, but that is likely untrue since not only is the Z7 a more expensive camera, it may also be cheaper to make, thanks to the significant reduction in mechanical aspects, namely the AF-D motor, the spring-loaded aperture tab, and of course the mirror and all those other “guts”, from the phase-detect AF module to the Prism etc. In other words, here is a very good chance that Nikon is able to make more money on a Z7 than a D850, if they could only get the sales numbers to the same level.
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 1/4 sec, f/14, ISO 64
Personally, I think the reason Nikon went with just one memory card is simple: It was a major “data pipeline” decision they made as far back as 2-3 years ago when Sony was on its sixth (yes, sixth!) full-frame mirrorless camera with a single, relatively slow SD card slot. Nikon simply miscalculated how important dual card slots were to the majority of the market, especially with the future of wireless mobile device backup, which isn’t perfect yet but is getting close.
At the end of the day, the more common, practical drawback that people will actually face is the fact that XQD cards are very expensive. For example, I recently bought a Sandisk Extreme Pro 128GB SD card on sale for $39, (usually $49) …but a 120GB XQD card can cost $205, if it isn’t on sale for $155.
Autofocus A Good Start, But room for improvement
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 1/250 sec, f/4, ISO 64
A few years ago, Nikon patented something called “quad pixel autofocus” which gave me very high hopes. As the name implies, I thought Nikon was onto something that would be even better than Canon’s Dual-Pixel autofocus, and maybe also better than Sony’s hybrid autofocus.
However, if you’re hoping to match the action/sports focus tracking, or the reliability in pitch dark conditions that Nikon’s current-generation DSLRs offer, then the Z7 may not stack up against either its mirrored brother, the Nikon D850, or its mirrorless competitor, the Sony A7Riii.
By comparison, the Canon EOS R, when paired with the RF 50mm f/1.2, proved to offer the most uncanny low-light autofocus reliability I’ve ever seen, and Sony, on the other hand, has just announced a major AI-based improvement to its already superior Eye AF. So clearly, the competition isn’t standing still, and Nikon needs to continue working fast if they want to keep up.
My verdict: The Z7’s autofocus is great for most types of photography, but if you really like to track active, erratic subjects, or nail focus in pitch-dark conditions, there are better alternatives out there. However, I had no problem “making it work”, and it was a non-issue for landscape and other types of static photography, of course.
No More AF Microadjustment!
Before we move on, I hae a confession: I’m at a point in my photography career where I’m just sick of having to check all my DSLR bodies and lenses every month for front/back-focus. All mirrorless cameras use the sensor itself for all autofocus, so the woes of mirrored SLR autofocus are nonexistent.
To me, this is a practical, real-world advantage that makes the Z7 actually a lot more desirable in terms of AF reliability, despite the room for improvement. Therefore, I’d rather have a Z7 (or a Z6) in almost all lighting conditions.
EVF A Good Start, But Also Room For Improvement
The biggest difference between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR is the EVF, the electronic viewfinder. The Nikon Z7‘s EVF looks great, in fact, it has nearly 3.6 megapixels which puts it roughly on par with the Canon EOS R and the Sony A7Riii. (Also, better than the A7iii)
In practical use, however, the clarity and overall look of the image is not as beautiful as the Canon EOS R, which is my current favorite after a totally unscientific, “this one looks the best!” assessment.
More importantly, the shutter blackout is indeed an issue. It varies with your shooting mode and shutter settings, but it’s there, and it’s a bit unsettling compared to either the EOS R or the A7RIII.
Personally, I still love optical viewfinders, especially for travel, backpacking, and hiking. I can click photos all day long using the EVF, and barely put a dent in the battery life. So when I consider a mirrorless camera, the EVF needs to be awesome in order to tempt me.
I want an EVF that gives me the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) view of my final image, for creative and technical reasons, and also offers completely blackout-free operation. I also particularly like how long exposures are handled on some Olympus cameras- the image reveals itself on the sensor, in real-time, quite like how chemical prints appear during developing.
My verdict: I don’t know if I’d trust it for action sports, (yes, it may work, but it’d still be a compromise compared to a D5) …however I’d certainly enjoy the Z7 for many other types of photography.
An Open Shutter Equals A Dusty Sensor
One thing that I was hoping for was the ability to close the shutter whenever the camera is turned off, to protect the sensor from dust or worse. It’s not currently a feature on the Z7, but theoretically (I hope) it’s something that can be easily added via firmware.
Otherwise, I’m going to have to get in the habit of cleaning my sensor before every timelapse I shoot at f/5.6+. (Currently, Canon’s EOS R closes its shutter when turned off, so we know it is both possible and not a terrible idea.)
Battery Life & Charging
It’s almost worth it, though, for the benefits of the EVF and IBIS. Many long-time mirrorless shooters will agree that as long as battery life is at least decent, and not utterly abysmal, (I’m looking at you, NP-FW50!) …the benefits are totally worth it. Just pop a spare battery in your pocket, and you may do even better than you would have with a single EN-EL15a/b battery in a DSLR.
MIrrorless Battery Compatibility & Features, Compared
The Nikon Z7 is compatible with the following batteries: EN-EL15, ($49) EN-EL15a, ($55) and EN-EL15b. ($60) The Sony A7Riii and A7iii are only compatible with the NP-FZ100, a $78 battery. The Canon EOS R is compatible with the common LP-E6, and new LP-E6N, both which are around $60.
All of these batteries deliver very good performance; I could easily get 1-2K clicks out of any of them if I tried to conserve battery power.
The elephant in the room is this: Sony is the only system that lets you actually operate the camera directly from USB power while the camera is on. Nikon (and Canon) only let you charge the camera via USB while the camera is off.
For any long day of shooting, this is a huge win for Sony. All the video shooters I know (who use Sony) take advantage of this external power feature; just velcro a 10,000 or 20,000 mAh USB battery to your SmallRig, (or gaff-tape it to the leg of your tripod, if you’re classy like me) …and you can record video all day long, no problem. Compared to those ~$60 batteries, a good quality high-capacity USB battery runs just $30-40.
So, I really hope Nikon (and Canon) figure this out as soon as possible.
By the way, charging the Z7’s battery via USB is so slow, it’s not practical for use in the field. In my tests, it took 60 minutes to charge just 5-10% via a two-amp USB battery. Better results might be possible, but achieving them may involve buying a specific battery pack and cable. (If you have significantly different results, please comment below!)
New, Rearranged Ergonomics
And the grip and overall ergonomics feel great, thankfully. However, a few subtle changes did leave me frustrated, and I think Nikon could have done a better job of making the experience a little more familiar and smooth.
The “drive” mode dial is gone, (S, Cl, Ch, Q, etc.) and has been divided up among menu items on the touchscreen plus a new physical button that is rather inconveniently placed in the bottom-right corner of the back of the camera. Reaching this new drive mode button with my large-ish hands gives me a strong “beginner camera” sensation.
There is also no more dedicated WB button. This means that, as a Kelvin WB user, I can’t just hold down a WB button and crank the actual Kelvin number with my sub-command dial, like I’ve been doing for ~12 years on my Nikon DSLRs. Getting to the Kelvin adjustment while my eye is held to the EVF is nowhere near as effortless as it is on the latest Sony bodies, let alone the “touch dial” customization that I fell in love with on the Canon EOS R.
Nikon has put a lot more emphasis on the new quick menu that is available on the touchscreen, and it takes some getting used to. In some cases, when I’d rather not take my eye away from the viewfinder, Nikon’s functionality changes are a step back from what is so easy to do on a D850 or D750. Then again, in other ways it’s a lot more useful and nifty, especially considering that with a mirrorless camera there are just more functions to deal with, period, and like it has taken Sony a while to get to a good place with their interface and customization, it will likely take Nikon a few generations (hopefully less than 5 years, though) to deliver a truly second-nature interface.
All in all, these are minor complaints, but they’re areas where Nikon could certainly improve. Nikon made a valiant effort to offer familiarity to us older folks who have Nikon DSLR ergonomics ingrained in our muscle memory, as well as such modern advantages as a touchscreen quick menu, and numerous custom function buttons.
Then again, the custom function buttons aren’t totally unlimited in their available options, and the touchscreen can’t control your AF point while it’s off (while your eye is to the EVF) such as can be done on the latest Sonys and the EOS R.
The familiar Nikon AF point joystick is great, but we now have 493 AF points to work with, and the touchscreen really does make controlling them an effortless matter.
If Nikon wishes to fully embrace both past and future generations of photographers, both diversity, and abundance, of features will be critical.
The Nikon Z7‘s Mirrorless Competition
So, let’s recap, and collect some of the important details about how the Nikon Z7 compares against the other full-frame mirrorless options out there.
There’s no mistaking, the Sony A7Riii offers a tempting alternative. It’s got dual SD card slots, an advanced AF system, (which will become even more advanced in the spring of 2019!) and a complete arsenal of native lenses, both name-brand and third-party. The list of differences between these two cameras, especially when considering both photo and video modes, is so great it could fill a whole comparison article. So, suffice it to say, if you try the Sony A7Riii and like it, you’ll be joining quite a few of my friends, from landscape photographers to portrait photographers.
On the other hand, there’s the Canon EOS R, at closer to $2K which is decidedly a more prosumer/beginner full-frame camera body, which competes against the Nikon Z6, or the Sony A7iii. So, it is in a very different class from the Z7. The Z7’s dynamic range and resolution beat the EOS R at lower ISO’s, but at higher ISO’s the difference is negligible.
The EOS R has that beautiful viewfinder, and the touch-sensitive control dial which I like even though most others don’t, plus those truly impressive RF lenses. Oh, and the fully-articulated LCD screen, if you’re a vlogger. However, the EOS R lacks both IBIS and a 2nd card slot. Compared to the Sony A7iii which has both, that’s a tough proposition to even an amateur, let alone a working pro.
My verdict: Only the Sony A7Riii is really in the same class as the Nikon Z7, while the other cameras are left to compete amongst themselves. Both the Z7 and the A7RIII make solid choices, depending on the type of photography you do, and what you’re looking for in the system as a whole.
The Nikon Z7‘s DSLR Competition
Really, the only DSLR that the Z7 can be compared against is, of course, the Nikon D850.
The Z7 differs from the D850 in so many ways, and yet it is very similar in some of the ways that matter most. Image quality is essentially the same. Durability might be the same too. But the Z7 will offer a host of advantages, most notably the new lens mount, but also the portability and other benefits that come with a mirrorless system, from the EVF to the IBIS.
If you already have a D850, you have to really want these benefits of mirrorless. If you have a Nikon much older than the D850 or D810, then you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re in the mood to be an early adopter or not.
Nikon Z7 Review | Conclusion
Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 6 sec, f/10, ISO 64
Here’s my final verdict on the all-around ease of use, features, and advantages plus weaknesses of the Nikon Z7:
Nikon, maybe slowly but surely, is trying to “do mirrorless right”. Indeed, Nikon is not a brand for impatient people, but they do deliver great cameras (and incredible lenses) when they finally do. They don’t always get every cutting-edge bell and whistle perfect the first time, but they do always have a few tricks up their sleeves.
And thus, my assessment of the Nikon Z7 is quite similar to what I’ve felt about Nikon for nearly seven years now, since the D800 and D800E first came out: The Z7 is a high-resolution champ, built rock-solid and reliable, and although it’s not the most high-speed or the most feature-packed mirrorless camera on the market, it’s a great choice nonetheless.
The Z7 is a giant leap for Nikon, and it’s given me reason enough to see what happens next. If you’ve got ~$3,547-$3,997 ready, and don’t mind the relatively minor quirks of a first-generation product, I highly recommend checking out this camera. As with any major decision that involves a whole new system, I would highly recommend holding the camera and taking it for a quick spin, but I bet you’ll like it.