Introduction

By the time you read this article, you'll surely have absorbed most of the news, specifications and in-depth analysis related to Nikon's new full-frame mirrorless cameras, the Z6 and Z7. And there's been quite a bit of coverage, to be sure. After all, this is Nikon's first new full-frame lens mount since 1959*.

But here in this piece, we're hoping to convey some of our reflections of the new system; how it feels in the hand, how it responds when you're out shooting. Not just what the customizations are, but how useful we find them. We weren't able to perform any of our standard tests on our pre-production Z7, but we came away with plenty of thoughts and hopes for the future. Let's dive in.

Hits

We all agreed that the Z7 feels great in the hand.

The build quality and hand-feel of the Z7 were met with universal praise from the staff. Editor Dan Bracaglia, who's been shooting with Nikon DSLRs for over a decade, said everything on the exterior of the Z7 - grip, buttons, switches - feels built to the same level as a D850. I'm inclined to agree; the grip matches the comfort of the D850, and despite weighing less than a D750 (the lightest full-frame DSLR on the market), it feels even more solid than that camera. And your fingers don't run off the bottom of the grip like some other mirrorless options. The top plate OLED is also much crisper and easier to read than the older LCD panels on DSLRs.

The viewfinder was likewise met with enthusiasm. The Quad VGA panel is bright and contrasty with a high refresh rate. Our Editorial Manager Wenmei Hill said that, in her opinion, it's the closest you can currently get to an optical finder. Senior Editor Barney Britton mentioned that he started to find the viewfinder in the D850 a bit fuzzy and cool in comparison. It was important for their existing DSLR users that Nikon got this right, and it looks like they have. Unlike many competitors, the viewfinder also doesn't drop in resolution during continuous focusing or burst shooting. That makes it a great viewfinder experience for anyone, not just users of optical viewfinders.

The viewfinder doesn't drop in resolution during focusing or burst shooting

The touchscreen interface, even on our pre-production model, was extremely polished and responsive. That you can interact with every aspect of the camera via its touchscreen - including the customizable 'i' menu - is encouraging, and genuinely useful.

One rift between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that persists even today simply concerns the cameras' startup times. DSLRs are still nigh instantaneous; when you flip the on switch and mash the shutter, the camera will fire a shot right then and there. The Z7 doesn't get to quite that level of responsiveness, but it also doesn't make you wait an age either. We'd say it's on par with the likes of an Olympus E-M1 II or Panasonic G9, while some of Sony's a7-series of cameras still takes noticeably longer to power on and and take an image.

Power-on time is an area where mirrorless cameras, including the Z7, continue to lag behind DSLRs.

Lastly, we were disappointed by the CIPA rating of 330 images for the EN-EL15b battery that powers the Z7. It's not a woefully bad score, but it's around the rating of Sony's 1st and 2nd gen a7-series cameras for which we regularly recommended carrying a second battery, while Sony's latest Z-series battery is rated for around 700 shots. All that said, Barney's actual experience with the Z7 put him at ease; over the course of a 12-hour shoot, he recorded 1500+ images and several 4K video clips before the battery warning kicked in at 10% remaining. He wouldn't be opposed to venturing out for a full day in a new city with one battery for the Z7. Not too shabby, but definitely something we'll be looking at in detail when we get a reviewable camera.

Misses

As a team, we also agreed on a few aspects - particularly regarding autofocus - of the Z7 that struck us as less-than-polished. And we should stress, the model we used was pre-production using non-final firmware, and there's always a chance that some of these can be addressed via firmware updates later on.

Single point

Dynamic

The AF area modes (excluding pinpoint) that the Z7 and Z6 offer. One thing we really liked was how bright, red and visible the AF points were in all area modes.

The first is a lack of any form of touchpad AF, which we found strange considering how otherwise impressive the touchscreen interface is. Sure, there's a joystick to move your AF area around, but we'd prefer Nikon give users the option to choose which method they prefer (plus, it's already incorporated on the D5600 for that camera's viewfinder autofocus system).

Continuing on the autofocus theme, we're all puzzled regarding the new autofocus implementation. Considering the relatively seamless transition from, say, the D850 to the Z7 in terms of menus and most of the direct controls, the AF system is less familiar. It's closer to the autofocus implementation in their DSLRs' Live View, rather than the much more familiar system through the optical viewfinder.

Barney said that he adapted to the new autofocus system quickly for his style of shooting

The autofocus tracking implementation is more cumbersome, and there's no provision to change your AF mode with a single button press (AF Area Mode + AF-On) as there is on Nikon's D5, D500 and D850 cameras. As our Science Editor Rishi Sanyal explains, this can make it difficult to adapt to fast-changing scenarios, like moving from a bouquet toss at a wedding to a candid portrait moments later.

Barney, on the other hand, said that he adapted to the new autofocus system quickly for his style of shooting (which didn't include fast action), but he was a little more concerned about stop-down focusing. The pre-production Z7 we used stops the lens down to the shooting aperture (down to a limit of F5.6) to give the user a live depth-of-field preview, but this also gives the autofocus system less light (and less phase separation) for the on-sensor PDAF system to work with. If you're shooting in dim conditions but don't want a paper-thin depth-of-field, you may experience slower autofocus or more hunting than you expect.

Just because you can shoot at F1.8 doesn't mean you'll always want to, even if the conditions are a bit dim.

In terms of handling, we miss the ease of the autofocus mode and area selector switch near the lens barrel on Nikon DSLRs, which is missing on the Z6 and Z7. And while we appreciate the Fn1 and Fn2 buttons between the grip and the lens mount, we do find them a bit difficult to press without shifting your hand uncomfortably.

Mixed blessings

There are also some aspects of the new Z7 that we appreciate – with some caveats.

The first is the completely silent shutter; this is incredibly valuable in quiet or sensitive settings, and being able to fire at full burst speed in silent shutter is a welcome addition. But due to the sensor's somewhat limited readout speed, rolling shutter is likely to be an issue, as is banding under artificial light.

While we like the move to XQD cards for the speed they offer, there's no denying they're more expensive and harder to find than good 'ol SD cards.

Likewise, when shooting 4K video, Nikon's added digital stabilization as an other method of reducing camera shake on top of in-body and lens stabilization. Unfortunately, while you might be tempted to turn it on for, say, walking while recording, it doesn't deal well with more jarring movements. It results in soft or blurred footage during the steps themselves, and we find it less distracting to have less stabilization with the IBIS system alone.

Lastly, the Z6 and Z7 are only offered with single XQD cards, which promise incredible read and write speeds as well as better durability when compared to conventional SD cards. But some users will likely be turned off by the lack of dual card slots, and we found the buffer on our pre-production Z7 to clear more slowly than we'd expect (it clears almost instantly on a D5 or D500 once you stop shooting). Additionally, XQD readers just aren't as ubiquitous as SD, and the cards themselves are more expensive.

Looking ahead

In looking toward the future of the new Z system, we have to say we're pleased by the lens roadmap that Nikon put out - more than one editor was hoping for a native 70-200mm lens sooner rather than later.

The combination of high resolution, expansive dynamic range, compact size, comfortable handling and great 4K video is hard to dismiss.

And most of the concerns we have - the lack of Touchpad AF, for example - we're hoping can be addressed in firmware, or at the very least, in the next Z-camera. We're curious whether Nikon has any plans for a D500-level APS-C interpretation for Z-mount, though the team has predicted that there's likely going to be a D5-level mirrorless coming around in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Overall, the combination of high resolution, expansive dynamic range, compact size, comfortable handling and great 4K video with intuitive and decisive autofocus is hard to dismiss. We're confident in saying that, as of now, the Z7 is Nikon's most well-rounded camera they've ever produced.


*This excludes the Nikonos mount on Nikon's early waterproof film cameras and an F-mount variation with the Nikonos R-UW mount.

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