What's new and how it compares

A big part of the story of this camera is how similar the Z7 is to the D850. Naturally though, there are significant areas where the two differ. Nikon has said that a lot of work went into making the Z7 familiar to existing Nikon users, but the company has also been busy with small refinements beneath the surface.

Key takeaways:

  • New, larger mount provides flexibility for lens design
  • In-body image stabilization will work with any lens you mount
  • More powerful processor enables full-pixel readout for an APS-C crop of the sensor while shooting 4K video
  • Continuous shooting at up to 9fps but with limited buffer and exposure locked
  • Electronic first curtain shutter mode is off by default. Enable it to avoid shutter shock

Z-mount

The biggest difference, besides the lack of mirror and optical viewfinder, is the adoption of a new Z-mount. This is a much shallower, much wider mount than the older F-mount, the dimensions of which were laid down in the 1950s. The Z7's short, 16mm flange-back distance between the mount and the sensor means that almost any lens to be adapted onto the camera.

Meanwhile, the combination of this short depth and a 55mm mount diameter (25% wider than the current F-mount) gives the designers plenty of room to direct light to the corners of the sensors without being constrained by the mount's throat. Nikon says this will allow it to make lenses with apertures as wide as F0.95 and, indeed, it's already working on one.

Unlike Micro Four Thirds and Sony E-Mount, third-party manufacturers will have to reverse-engineer the Z mount

Nikon also released an F-to-Z mount adapter that allows the use of F-mount lenses on the new cameras. This has a mechanical aperture lever built in, allowing full use of AF-S and AF-I lenses. Older AF-D lenses will offer auto exposure (but no autofocus) and AI lenses will have full metering. There's no aperture tab for use with 'AI' or older lenses, though, so the camera won't record an aperture value. On the plus side, older pre-Ai lenses will mount perfectly well and work in stopped-down aperture mode.

Sadly Nikon says that it won't be sharing the technical details of the mount with third-parties, preferring for now (like Canon) to protect sales of its own lenses. So, unlike Micro Four Thirds and Sony E-Mount, third-party makers will have to reverse-engineer the Z mount.

New sensor

Behind the new mount is a new, "Nikon designed" BSI CMOS sensor. It's clearly closely related to the chip in the D850, which itself appeared to include a mix of Nikon and Sony-developed technologies. The key thing is that the chip still offers a full ISO 64 mode but now gains on-sensor phase detection pixels. The only downside is the 493 AF points lead to some very slight sensor striping/banding, which limits usable dynamic range.

Nikon says the on-sensor AF system is rated down to -1EV with an F2 lens attached. This puts it well behind its own full-frame DSLRs and most of its mirrorless peers. Our testing does indeed confirm that the AF system starts to hunt noticeably around 0 or -1EV when shooting in AF-S, and gets worse if you stop the lens down.

The Z7 can support continuous shooting at up to 5.5 frames per second if you want updated live view between shots, though that live view experience is less than ideal. If you aren't trying to follow action and don't need live view, the Z7's 'High+' mode can shoot even faster. This mode allows full autofocus but locks the exposure settings after taking the first image. High+ shoots at 8 fps in 14-bit Raw or 9fps if you drop to 12-bit mode.

The Z7's buffer is unusually small for a camera at this level. It can shoot only 25 fine quality JPEGs, 23 12-bit Raws or 18 14-bit Raws at its top burst rate. The use of fast XQD media means the buffer clears reasonably quickly but you'll certainly notice when you hit its limit and the the shooting rate drops dramatically. In contrast, the D850 is able to write to an XQD card nearly as fast as photos are shot, providing an almost infinite buffer depth.

Electronic and Electronic First Curtain shutter modes

The camera's mirrorless design makes it easy to offer a fully silent electronic shutter mode. We estimate the readout speed of this sensor at roughly 1/15 sec: a rate comparable with the Sony a7R III. It can be used with burst shooting but is likely to mean compression or elongation of moving subjects or rolling shutter artifacts (slanted verticals) while panning. You're also likely to experience severe banding in silent shooting under certain types of artificial light.

There's also an electronic first curtain option that uses the electronic shutter to start the exposure and the mechanical one to end it. Doing so limits the minimum exposure duration to 1/2000 sec and the maximum ISO to 25,600. This is off by default but we think it's worth turning on (d5 in the Custom menu) to reduce the risk of shutter shock that can otherwise occur. It also comes with a slight risk of banding under certain types of lighting.

ISO 110 | 1/60 sec | F4 | Shot using the Nikon Z 24-70mm F4 S lens at 24mm
Photo by Carey Rose

In-body image stabilization

The move away from a 60 year-old lens mount has allowed Nikon to make room for in-body image stabilization. The Z7 offers five-axis correction for native lenses and is rated to 5 stops of correction, per CIPA standard testing.

With adapted lenses it drops to 3-axes of correction (pitch, yaw and roll). It doesn't attempt to combine its effect with that of adapted lenses that offer VR. Instead is passes-off responsibility for pitch and yaw movements to a VR-enabled lens while continuing to offer roll stabilization. This means long lenses, which are difficult to stabilize using in-body stabilization, will still be well corrected.

In-body stabilization provides confidence when shooting hand-held at slower shutter speeds.Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 12,800 | 1/50 sec | F4 | Shot using the Nikon Z 24-70mm F4 S lens at 24mm

Unusually, the stabilization system used in the Z7 mechanically locks when the camera is switched off, so there's no disconcerting sensation of the sensor bumping around if you run with the camera.

In 1080 video mode there's an additional level of electronic stabilization that can be added on top of the in-body stabilizer, with a 1.1x crop applied.

Updated image processing

The Z7 features an Expeed 6 processor which, in addition to more processing power, brings a couple of additional functions. The most obvious of these is a 'Mid Range Sharpening' option that's been added to the Picture Control JPEG parameters. This is an additional algorithm that lets you tune the sharpening of edges independently of overall image sharpening.

The updated processing also adds 'diffraction compensation,' which essentially sets the camera's sharpening based on the selected aperture.

Video features

Video features take a small step forward from the D850, with the ability to shoot 4K video both from the full width of the sensor (but with vertical line skipping) or using all the pixels in a APS-C/Super 35 sized cropped region. New in the Z7 is the ability to output a 10-bit 4:2:2 Log stream over HDMI or to simultaneously output and record an 8-bit signal. It also gains the ability to shoot 1080 footage at 120 fps.

The video breakthrough that doesn't appear in the spec sheet is the use of the same on-sensor phase detection AF system and interface as in stills mode. This is likely to have a profound impact on what the camera is like for shooting video with, for non-videographers.

How it compares

From left to right: The Nikon D850, Nikon Z7 and Sony a7R III.
Nikon Z7 Nikon D850 Sony a7R III
MSRP $3400 $3300 $3200
Pixel count 45.7MP 45.7MP 42.4MP
Sensor tech BSI CMOS BSI CMOS BSI CMOS
Mount diameter / depth 55mm /
16mm
44mm /
46.5mm
46.1mm /
18mm
AF system On-sensor PDAF Secondary sensor PDAF On-sensor PDAF
Image stabilization In-body 5 axis (5EV) In-lens only In-body 5 axis
(5.5EV)
Maximum frame rate 9 fps
(12-bit, AE locked)
7 fps 10 fps
Viewfinder
res / mag
3.68M dots
/ 0.8x
Optical
/ 0.75x
3.68M dots
/ 0.78x
Rear screen 2.1M-dot tilting touchscreen 2.36M-dot tilting touchscreen 1.44M-dot tilting touchscreen
Top-plate settings display Yes (OLED) Yes (LCD) No
Video capture UHD 4K Full width
/ Super35 crop
UHD 4K Full width UHD 4K Full width
/ Super35 crop
Log modes N-Log (HDMI only)
10-bit
None S-Log 2 / 3 / HLG
8-bit
Battery life (CIPA) 400 / 330
(LCD / EVF)
1,840 650 / 530
(LCD / EVF)
USB-charging? Yes No Yes

The Z7 uses a 2.1M-dot rear screen, rather than the 2.36M-dot panel on the D850 but its live view ends up being the same resolution: the D850's has a 4:3 aspect ratio whereas the Z7's matches the proportions of its 3:2 sensor. The upshot is that both use a 1024 x 680 pixel region to show their preview, but the D850 has a settings strip below the bottom of the display.

The Z7 uses an updated version of the D850's battery, dubbed the EN-EL15b. The CIPA rating is on the low side, but of course CIPA ratings are only part of the story - we'll delve more into the battery on the following page.