This year seems like it went by in a flash (although thinking back to some of the news headlines I'm still tempted to say 'good riddance'). In the photo industry, 2018 has definitely felt like a year of transitions: not least because this was the year that Canon and Nikon finally entered the full-frame mirrorless market, and in so doing began the slow process of moving beyond their respective legacy EF and F mounts.

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Appropriately, perhaps, I sold a lot of camera equipment this year too, including my long-serving/suffering DSLR and several lenses. It's always hard to say goodbye to gear, but there's no point keeping expensive cameras and lenses around if they're not getting used. The end result is that without a 'main' camera to reach for I've been feeling a little transitional myself. Of course I'm lucky that I can raid the DPReview gear cupboards when I need to, but more often than not I've been grabbing one of my old film cameras when I want to go out shooting. Sometimes I'll even remember to grab a roll of film, too.

But enough about me - let's talk about me!

My pick for Gear of the Year is the Nikon Z7, which is actually one of the few digital cameras released in the past 12 months that I've enjoyed spending any significant amount of time shooting with. That doesn't mean I'm writing about it by default, just because I can't think of anything else - far from it. For the kind of photography that I do, it's close to being the perfect camera.

When the light gets low, the Z7's autofocus system can start to struggle. Usually, though, if you can point it at a contrasty line or point of light (like the frames of the windows reflecting the sunset in this shot) it'll lock on just fine.

My preferred style of photography ("interesting boring" to quote a friend whose opinion I don't remember asking) rarely stresses any camera's continuous autofocus system. I actually shoot manual focus lenses much of the time, and I almost never need to fire off images faster than 1-2 frames per second. As such, two of the major shortcomings of the Z7 are pretty much irrelevant to me. I'd love a taller handgrip, but I'll take the Z7's rather short, stubby one for the sake of a smaller and lighter body. Ditto a single card slot.

Speaking as someone who lugged a D850 (my favorite camera of last year) up and down four mountains in a day in 90+ degree heat in Japan this August,* I can tell you that the Z7 is a very pleasant traveling companion by comparison. And shooting the production of a music video back in August, coming from a D810/D850 I was very impressed by how easy the Z7 was to get to grips with, too, even without an instruction manual (the camera was still strictly embargoed at the time and the manuals were still being translated).

It's only been very recently that electronic finders have started to compete with the best DSLRs in terms of sharpness and responsiveness

Jumping back to earlier in the summer, when Nikon first briefed us on its then-unnamed camera, it was clear that the company's engineers had set some pretty tough internal benchmarks for what became the Z7. One of those was image quality, and another was the viewfinder experience - both of which had to be comparable to the D850. I've never been particularly nostalgic about the optical viewfinders in DSLRs - the sooner they're replaced by good EVFs the better in my opinion. But note my use of the crucial word 'good' in that last sentence. It's only been very recently that electronic finders have started to compete with the best DSLRs. The Z7's EVF is one of the sharpest and most detailed out there. So sharp and detailed, in fact, that I often find myself forgetting that its electronic at all, except in really high-contrast situations.

Ruby Beach, on the Olympic Peninsular, a few hours' drive west from Seattle. Shot with the compact Z 24-70mm F4, this shot demonstrates the lens's high contrast and almost clinical sharpness.

Where I tend to run into the Z7's limitations, though, is with low-contrast subjects in subdued light when, even in AF-S mode, its autofocus system becomes... let's say... unpredictable. If you've ever used first-generation Nikon AF systems such as those found in the likes of the F/N90X and F4, you'll be familiar with the need to find a bright point of light or a contrasty line or something around the desired plane of focus for the AF system to lock onto. If you can't find one, good luck and happy hunting. Literally.

Fortunately, the Z7's EVF remains sharp and contrasty even in poor light, so if autofocus gives up completely I just pop it into magnified manual focus mode and do things the old fashioned way. The effort is usually worth it, especially with the 35mm F1.8, which - while it might not have the nicest bokeh around - is sharp enough for landscape work at F1.8.

Another shot taken with the 24-70mm, in Japan. At F13 (for the sunstar) diffraction is taking a bite out of critical sharpness.

In fact, Nikon appears to have designed all three of the new 'S' lenses for optimal sharpness, with admirable success. The result is images which are phenomenally detailed across the frame, but lack the pleasant bokeh of certain Nikon and third-party F-mount lenses. Of course, if you have a favorite F-mount lens that you want to use instead, there's an adapter for that.

Thanks to the built-in stabilization and wide, shallow dimensions of the Z mount, the Z7 has a lot of potential as a 46MP digital back

What I'm most looking forward to, though, is trying out the Z7 with my collection of older third-party primes. High quality adapters from the likes of Novoflex are slowly starting to become available, and thanks to the built-in stabilization and wide, shallow dimensions of the Z mount, the Z7 has a lot of potential as a 46MP digital back. I have a Leica M to Nikon Z adapter on order, and I can't wait to try out: there's an uncoated 1936 Leica 50mm Summar on my shelf just crying out for some love...

The Z7 pictured next to one of my personal cameras, a much-used mid-60s F. As you can see, the new Z mount is significantly larger than the old F mount, despite covering the same imaging area. This gives Nikon's optical engineers a lot more flexibility when designing certain kinds of lenses for the new mount.

Nikon could have played it safe with the Z7, but its engineers decided to aim for high-end and professional photographers and launch the Z7 with their best sensor. It was a risky decision, and I can completely understand why some of the photojournalists I've spoken to haven't taken to the Z7. Without a doubt, its autofocus isn't on a par with the D850 or D5, particularly in dull, low-contrast conditions. Speaking to wildfire photographer Stuart Palley recently, it's obvious that Nikon has some work to do before he'll feel comfortable leaving his DSLRs at home. But while the Z7 isn't quite the 'mirrorless D850' that we had hoped for, it's close enough for me. I think I might buy Stuart's.

Nikon Z7 Sample Gallery


* Impressed? I think I was trying to prove a point about how much of a pain DSLR photography can be at times, with the intention eventually of writing an article about it. I suppose this is that article. [Return to text]