It's famously such a fine line between stupid and clever. And, for that matter, between a brilliant piece of product planning and a complete head-scratcher. History and sales figures may well prove me wrong, but I personally think that the Nikon Z5 makes perfect sense in a way the Z50 didn't. And that might make it the most interesting entry-level full frame camera.

I criticized Nikon when it launched the Z50, because I didn't recognize the Instagram-friendly camera the company claimed to have made. Instead I found a rather good enthusiast-friendly camera in a system with few obvious lens options. The Z5 looks a lot like a full-frame Z50, but the different audience that its higher price implies and the shift in sensor size makes all the difference.

A Z6/Z50 hybrid

Visually the Z5 looks like a Z6/Z50 hybrid, with the conventional mode dial from the Z50 grafted on in place of the Z6's top-panel LCD. You could describe it as a full-frame Z50 or a slightly simplified Z6 and you'd still be right.

It uses an older, front-side illuminated CMOS sensor, which is likely to mean it doesn't quite match its big brother in terms of image quality but the differences are likely to be small, except in very low light.

With its collapsible zoom and mode dial, the Z5 feels like a hybrid of the Z50 and Z6.

The Z5's viewfinder is the same resolution as the Z6's and its control layout is essentially the same. Its back panel is reinforced plastic, rather than magnesium alloy, but Nikon says the weather sealing is just as extensive and both the dimensions and weight are all-but identical.


Whereas an APS-C sensor leaves Z50 owners with the choice of a couple of variable aperture zooms (and the promise of an 18-140mm in the works), the move to full frame and slightly more lofty ambitions of the Z5 are much better fit for the Z-mount lenses currently available.

To make a broad generalization, I suspect the kinds of photographers (and, according to Nikon, non-photographers) willing to spend $1400 on a Z5 will be more likely to want and buy the well-priced, though still pricey, F1.8 primes the company has introduced. And, by dint of being full-frame, the focal lengths of those primes are more likely to be useful on this camera than the Z50.

The most complete entry-level

Even with its more modest video spec the Z5 isn't out-gunned by its entry-level peers. But you don't need to look through its higher-res viewfinder for the Z5 to look like the most interesting entry-level full-frame mirrorless camera. You get a similar perspective if you look at the other cameras' backstories.

The Sony a7 II was designed as a mid-range camera, but an aging mid-range camera isn't necessarily better than a modern entry-level one. The distinction is even more dramatic if you compare the higher-end a7R II (which has dropped to the Z5's launch price) the a7R II has a very good sensor but a very different shooting experience.

Sony has very much done its product development in the public realm: each model in the a7 series has been significantly better than its predecessor (first by adding stabilization, then by offering a larger battery, better AF and revised ergonomics). This leaves the now six-year-old a7 Mark II looking awkward: it's a very difficult camera to use as soon as you've seen or experienced the improvements introduced with the Mark III, no matter how keenly-priced it is.

So it's not the automatic bargain that getting a formerly $1700 for $1000 might appear to be. The areas in which it once excelled are at least matched by its entry-level peers and it hasn't gained any of the ergonomic or interface improvements that have subsequently been developed. So it's the only camera here without a touchscreen and it hasn't got the usability improvements of the Mark III. By contrast, the Z5 includes all the AF improvements that the Z6 has gained in firmware over the past two years.

The Canon EOS RP is a really likable camera and the least-expensive full-frame digital camera yet launched, but Nikon has provided a lot of camera for a launch price just $100 higher.

Canon approached things from the other direction with the EOS RP: building what software developers might describe as a minimum viable product: the bare basic specs to deliver a credible camera. The result is actually rather likable: it's not very fast at shooting, the video's not great and it uses a sensor that's never been considered particularly good, but the dials are in the right place, it's easy to use and it produces attractive images. Only the battery life really detracts from the day-to-day experience.

With the Z5 Nikon has clearly started with the Z6 (originally a $2000 camera) and found a way to to offer it with a launch price 1/3rd lower. You even get the twin card slots that internet commenters suddenly decided were essential when Canon and Nikon didn't include them on their mid-priced models (an argument that feels more convincing when it comes to the higher-end Z7).

So it's not the full-frame Digital Rebel that Canon made, nor is it the tired-looking ex-middleweight champ that Sony offers. It's not even comparable to the Z50, with its odd mixture of enthusiast-friendly experience and mass-market zooms. Instead the Z5 is a more affordable way to get most of a Z6, and it includes a great many of the improvements that Nikon has made on its Z-mount journey so far.

Now I just really hope it tests and shoots as well as it handles.