Nikon Z5 autofocus and video

The Z5 offers an animal-specific AF mode but we feel the standard face/eye detect works just fine for fuzzy friends. Converted in ACR.
ISO 900 | F2 | 1/250 sec | Z 50mm F1.8 S

The Z5 offers solid autofocus performance whether using traditional subject tracking, face/eye detect or simply a single AF point/area. In terms of video, 4K capture from the Z5 is heavily cropped (1080p is not) but users can still use the Z5 for casual handheld shooting thanks to effective image stabilization and good video AF.

  • Excellent AF performance (similar to Z6). Face and eye detect work with good reliability, and traditional subject tracking, in which the users determines what the camera follows, is also highly reliable
  • AF performance is lens dependent and the Z 24-50mm F4-6.3 kit lens can struggle with focus in very low light
  • AF points cover 90% of the frame with responsive AF joystick for placement
  • 4K video has a hefty 1.7x crop, reducing quality and making wide-angle shooting difficult
  • Decent quality uncropped 1080/60p, effective handheld IS and good video AF make the Z5 highly usable for casual (Full HD) video shooting

Autofocus – customize the Z5 for success

We recommend customizing the Fn1 button to act as a toggle between subject tracking and the camera's auto area AF mode with face and eye detect.

Out-of-box the Z5 could be better tuned to make the most of its autofocus features. Here's how we recommend setting it up for success:

  1. Head to the 'Custom Setting Menu' and select option 'f2', 'Custom controls'.
  2. Assign 'Subject tracking' to the 'Fn1' button.
  3. Turn on AF-C

And just like that, you're ready to rock and roll. By default, you should be in the 'Auto area mode' with face and eye detect turned on. In this mode the Z5 will select your subject and, generally speaking, it opts for the nearest and/or most central object if no face/eye is detected. This a great setup for casual photography, especially when documenting friends or family.

But what if you want to take more control and choose your own subject to lock focus on? Simply tap the 'Fn1' button and a subject tracking box appears, half press the shutter or hold AF-On to lock focus on whatever is beneath it. You can also use the joystick to move the subject tracking box around in the frame before locking focus. Letting go of either the shutter or AF-On will reset the box to the last spot you left it. And tapping 'Fn1' again toggles the camera back to the previous AF mode. Simple!

Alternatively, in the 'Auto area mode' you can tap the back of the screen to initiate tracking, but you'll have to to hit the 'ok' button to disengage it, rather than simply releasing the shutter/AF-on, which is hardly ideal.

Autofocus – Nikon Z5 AF-C and subject tracking performance

The Z5 aced both of our AF tests at its maximum burst rate of 4.5 fps. It had no trouble maintaining focus using a single point on our cyclist as they approached the camera. And when we added subject tracking into the equation, where the camera must both track our subject around the frame while also maintaining focus as they approach, the in-focus hit rate remained excellent (see below).

*This test was shot using the new Z 70-200mm F2.8 S, wide open at 200mm.

We did three runs of the subject tracking test and at no point did the camera fail to identify or entirely lose our subject, even if the occasional frame is front/back-focused. While these results impress, it's worth keeping in mind that our subject is fairly distinct from the background here, both in terms of distance and tone (that shirt!). And this type of distinction is not always the case in real-world shooting. Moreover, you may occasionally find the Z5's tracking trips up in scenes where the subject and elements of the background look similar.

Also worth noting: subject tracking is completely unreliable when using the entirely silent e-shutter mode and rolling shutter is, well, quite noticeable for moving subjects (see below).

Sweet wavy gravy! The e-shutter is probably not the best bet for moving subjects.

Autofocus - Nikon Z5 face and eye detect performance/behavior

Face and eye detect also work with good reliability (identical to the Z6), though the Z5 will occasionally front-focus on eyes, ever-so-slightly. But this is only noticeable at very shallow depths of field and to the most astute pixel-peepers.

When multiple faces/eyes are detected, an arrow will appear beside the currently detected face/eye indicating that a tap of the joystick in that direction will allow you to jump to a different subject. In practice, this UI works pretty well. But occasionally, by the time you've managed to tap the joystick in the appropriate direction, the camera no longer detects the additional face/eye (if say, the other person turns their head), so your input is ignored.

The Z5's reliable face/eye detect makes it simple to pick up the camera and capture moments like this, without having to futz moving AF points around.
Out-of-camera JPEG
ISO 900 | 1/320 | F4 | Z 24-50mm F4-6.3 @ 24mm

The Z5, like the Z6 and Z7, also has a pet/animal detection mode, but we've found that standard face and eye detect works just as well at locking focus on our fuzzy friends (we did not test in on birds or reptiles, sorry!).


Nikon Z5 video

The Nikon Z5 is pitched more as a still-focused camera than a stills/video hybrid. But it does have something to offer for the video-curious, including uncropped 1080p, headphone and microphone jacks, good video AF and good video stabilization.

So what's missing from its video toolkit? Most notably, high quality, uncropped 4K...

Video – footage quality

4K video from the Nikon Z5 comes with a heavy 1.7x crop, which makes it nearly impossible to get a truly wide angle field-of-view from the camera; even at 14mm (Nikon's widest native Z focal length) you're looking at a 24mm field-of-view. And if you're shooting with the Z 24-50mm kit lens, a 41mm equiv. is your widest 4k field-of-view. It also means you effectively have a smaller-sensor camera, so expect more noise in low light scenes.

And similar to our experience shooting the bike test using the e-shutter, you can expect quite noticeable rolling shutter in Z5 4K clips.

Still, 4K video quality looks better than that of the Canon EOS RP, which is also heavily cropped, but not nearly as detailed as the uncropped 4K from the Sony a7 III or Nikon Z6.

1080p video capture, which is uncropped, is a different story. It looks similar, in terms of detail capture, to the Z6 and better than the Full HD offering from the a7 III/EOS RP. The camera's 1080/60p also looks similarly decent by comparison. And rolling shutter is far less noticeable in full HD clips than it is in 4K.

Video – tools

A switch on the back of the camera allows users to easily toggle between video and still shooting mode. Users can also customize the function buttons and quick menu separately for each mode, which is handy. Exposure settings are also kept separate.

There are some basic video assist tools like highlight-clipping warnings and focus peaking, but no external Raw video capture, as offered on the Z6. That being said, the Z5 does offer excellent in-body image stabilization for handheld shooting, with the option of additional stability when using e-stabilization (at the cost of an additional crop). But even without e-stabilization, you should be able to get highly usable handheld clips.

Standard 3.5mm mic and headphone jacks can be found on the side of the camera body, and various audio monitoring and adjustment tools can be found in the Z5's menus. Video autofocus works quite well, especially when using face and eye detect. Standard subject tracking also works with good (though not great) reliability in video mode. And users can adjust video AF speed and tracking sensitivity from within the menus as well.