Nikon Z7 – the new Mirrorless camera

Well, courtesy of Calumet / WEX in Manchester I have now handled a pre-production Nikon mirrorless Z7, 24-70 and FTZ adapter with firmware v1.00 and battery EN-EL15B.

You might want to skip the next part, it is an introduction to some of the ‘internet concerns’. Skip to my hands-on experience.

Since it’s formal announcement there has, not surprisingly, been a lot of internet / social media chat about Nikon’s new series of ‘full frame’ mirror less cameras. Some of the posts were from people who had been at official Nikon launch days. As ever in these days of global audiences on the internet, many of the posts and comments were from people who just read the released specifications or even less. The result of this was the usual picking up on something, not understanding it or not having actually experienced it and then, quite often coming to an inaccurate conclusion. One of these concerns, and one that I share, is the single card slot. In the early days you had no choice, just one card slot. Then top end ‘professional models’ gained a second card slot. The purpose of this was to do one of: provide an in-camera backup of the files; allow for an overflow card ( very is full for fast moving activities like sport and catwalk shows ); enable raw files to one and JPEG to the other with the JPEGs going straight to the publication editors desk. In time a fourth option developed for SD card devices, EyeFi wireless cards to transmit the images to a computer or slate ( Apple called the iPad a tablet and that is now the generic name for such devices albeit lacking in accuracy, much like Adobe’s Photoshop ‘editing’ software ). Those of us who have been using 2 card slots and I do mean using, not just having the option, have definitely found it useful. For me this is particularly so since I have had several SD card failures. These cards were purchased from known ‘high street’ UK stores, not eBay, Amazon or anywhere else on the internet. It wasn’t until I’d had my first SD card fail that I considered how potentially vital that backup copy might be, particularly for Weddings et al. I’ve not had any other card types fail. In response some people pointed out that ‘in film days’ you didn’t have a backup. True, but the Wedding pro would have 15 or 16 images at most on a 120 roll film and more often 12. Therefore having one film go wrong, whilst it would still be a relatively high percentage of the total exposures, it was not hundreds, even thousands or even the whole event.

Similarly people would point to earlier ‘pro digital bodies’ with only one slot. Again, true. They were Compact Flash cards, more reliable and also smaller capacity than the SD cards of today. I still have one card of 32mb. Yes, that is mega, not giga.

Just because in the past people have ‘managed’ with a single card slot it does not mean that having dual slots is unnecessary. Context though, whilst the price of the Z6 and Z7 would put them beyond the basic ‘consumer’ models of the D3XXX, D5XXX etc series we do not yet know if these are intended as ‘prosumer’ or ‘pro’ bodies. If their target is not people who will, potentially lose their livelihood if a card fails, then it is not an error on Nikon’s part in that respect. Similarly, if dual card slots is an absolute necessary feature for you then just accept that the Z6 and Z7 are not for you.

Linked to the cards is the choice of format, XQD. I think that the only ‘standard’ camera manufacturer to use these is Nikon. Also, after the demise of Lexar, only Sony manufacture them. Whilst Delkin and a phoenix of Lexar are reputed to be manufacturing them, Delkin’s prices seem to be matching Sony’s monopoly pricing.

As you might realise, the card slots and types are definitely things that raised a lot of comments, including some from me. I use dual slots for backup at Weddings and Proms etc; for overflow at MMA / cage fighting events; EyeFi card when ‘in the field’ and I need to send the images to an iPad for others to review and at events where I’m printing onsite. I have become accustomed to the benefits of dual slots. Some of the complainers have probably never really made use of these options and some of the ‘stop complaining’ people have probably never done anything where they might reap the benefit of two card slots.

The other feature that took an initial hammering was battery life. The CIPA quote figure of just over 300 frames is low compared to Sony but similar to the real life figure that I can get for Fuji. Since the D800 Nikon has kept to the same battery shape for the D810, D750 and D850. With the D850 it became the EN-EL15a with an increased capacity. Now it is the 15b with further increased capacity and the option for in-camera charging. If you have a range of Nikon cameras then only needing one battery type is an advantage as long as the power is sufficient.

You might want to skip all of the above and start reading here.

OK, initial perambulation over. Apologies for that but I felt I needed to be clear about some of the concerns and baggage that the launch has had to handle.

I had a list of things that I wanted to check. I wasn’t too sure if they’d let me attach a non-Nikon flash and I knew that it was unlikely that we would be allowed to come away with any image files.

One of the things that I dislike when using D750 is that you cannot lock the shutter speed / aperture. On D700 & D800 I have a function button set to give me access to what, in quite a few situations, is an important feature. I quickly found the menu option in the same category as on my DSLRs. No issue there. I don’t know if it is still available to customise a function button, if not then it might be possible to customise the touchscreen info options to include it. I was just delighted to find it there that I did not explore those options. If it is only the sensor pixel count, along with related facets, and number of AF points that are the differences between the Z6 and the Z7 then, presumably, this will be on the Z6. I would not bank on it though until checked with that body.

The demonstrator hadn’t had long with the body and was not able to confirm the mode of the WiFi. If it can be set to send images in real-time in the way that a WT-X and EyeFi card does then that is one situation where I use the facility of 2 card slots resolved. If it needs the WT-7 in order to do that then it would be an additional expense of about £1000. Whilst the WT-7 is a much more powerful device, if you are just sending JPEGs sized for 9” by 6” prints over a distance of a few metres then you do not need the added range and speed. If the only built-in WiFi option is ‘pause, select images, transmit’ as on the D750 then it will not help.

The XQD cards are bigger than SD cards, both in terms of width and length. In keeping the body size down there really is not the space for two card slots. If people are going to insist on two card slots and Nikon provides them in a later model then those people are going to have to accept a bigger body.

My main interests in the mirrorless range are manual focus capability and the broader spread of focus points across the frame. My ideal focal length for portraits is 135mm. On film I was delighted with Nikon’s 135DC. On 6 & 10mp DX bodies it coped but not at F2. On higher pixel count FX bodies, nope. Fringing and sharpness wide open and a stop down were, to me, unusable. Similarly the rear element coatings were not designed for the amount of light reflected off the sensor. Blown white background images looked as though the front element was misted up. My options for a replacement were the manual focus Samyang and Zeiss lenses and the then new Sigma. I reasoned that, despite my not having a split image focus screen on any DSLR, my manual focusing was likely to be as accurate as Sigma’s AF. Using the ‘green focus confirmation dot has not been as swift as I’d like and, since the depth of field of the focusing system is more than that of the lens wide open, not fully reliable. Similarly judging if something is in focus by the image on the focusing screen can be a problem both due to the greater DoF and my wearing varifocal glasses.

Using my Zeiss Milvus 135mm on the Z7 with the FTZ adapter the focus peaking seemed to work well for its type. As usual, if someone wore glasses or the eye sockets were not lit then it did not show on the eyes but the glasses. Areas without defined edges or lines do not have anything for it to find. I was not using the focus points set to their smallest size and doing so might improve on this. Thankfully the colour of the peaking can be changed. If the colour set is close to the colour of what you are focusing on then it is, not surprisingly, hard to see. Maybe that can be set to another function button ?. I’ve only thought of this once back in Stoke-on-Trent so I cannot check if that is possible. Something that that I did try to find is a feature on the Fuji cameras. Pressing the thumbwheel in zooms the EVF to 100% on the Fujis. Whilst you can do this on the rear touchscreen of the Z7 in ‘live view’ mode I was not able to find the option in the general settings or for customising a function button. As soon as ‘moving away from the viewfinder, tapping  the screen, checking the focus, snap’ is used you are losing ‘the moment’ with the person you are photographing and likely to also be moving the camera and therefore losing focus again. It is a feature that might be available but, without a manual and without wanting to appear as though I was hogging the Z7, I was not able to find it. If it isn’t there and enough people want it the it might be possible in a firmware update.

After writing the above on the train home and as I walked back from the station I suddenly realised how my thinking was missing the obvious. I didn’t try the + magnifying button. On their DSLRs this is only for image review. When I got home I ‘phoned Manchester ( Calumet ) WEX, the Z7 was still there, it was tried and it worked. Given that on the ‘phone things can be lost in translation I’d like to try it for myself to be certain. It would be typical of Nikon to do something the simple way, so simple that I tried to over-complicate things. My previous experiences of mirrorless cameras has been the torture of Sony menus and the different style of Fuji. Do I feel stupid ?. No, just annoyed with myself for some tunnel vision.

I was given the OK to attach my ProFoto A1 flash unit. For normal shutter speeds it worked fine. When I went into HSS I was not able to shorten the shutter speed above the 1/200 X-sync. FP mode had not been set. Quick dip into the menu and, there it was, just as on my Nikon DSLRs. Once set HSS was automatically engaged and the shutter speed enabled beyond 1/200. HSS is the one area where a Nikon SB900 etc does outperform the A1. In a non-comparable check the A1 maxed out at 1/1250, F4, 70mm at about 2 metres. This is with the HSS-boost mode on. Given that my previous tests have been a different background, 105mm lens at F1.4 I cannot draw any definitive conclusions apart from the fact that it works. From the numbers achieved I’d be inclined to think that it is on a par with what is achieved on Nikon DSLRs. The zoom head also adjusted when the 24-70 was zoomed. I forgot to check if the ‘flash ready’ indicator worked. However, it is rare for the ProFoto A1 to not be ready so,I have become used to not looking for it. Whilst a ProFoto firmware update might improve some timings you can use the Z7 & A1 as is. I’d intended to try the TTL-N as well but, alas, I put an Air Remote my bag !.

With no significantly moving objects in view, checking the acquisition and tracking of the AF was not possible. For general subjects the AF seemed smooth. Someone had their 500mm F4 with them and they seemed pleased with how that behaved on the FTZ converter. Moving the AF point around the frame was quick and easy with the joystick control. With the AF points being across the frame it is bye-bye to ‘focus and recompose’. Therefore the second of my 2 key reasons for looking at the camera has also been met.

There have been a lot of ‘social media / Internet’ comments about battery life. I do not know what the charge level was at the start but after nearly 2 hours of people trying various things it was still showing way more than half full. For quite a lot of the time it was in ‘high’ motor drive mode so someone taking one photo actually took several. During that time a few hundred were probably taken. Somehow I think that the 300+ rating is very conservative.

Something that wasn’t on my list of things to check was the shutter sound. With my having been used to the clatter of a Bronica’s mirror slap 35mm cameras and DSLRs are much quieter. However, there have been times at Weddings when I have been aware that others have been aware of me because of my DSLR shutter. The Z7 is, not surprisingly, much quieter, it is just the shutter, no mirror so it is to be expected.

The EVF ? Oh is that what the viewfinder is ?. Compared to others that I have used it did not feel like an EVF. It was good enough for me to not think of it as such but just gain the benefits of it being so.

Will I be getting one ?. I haven’t decided. It does seem as though it will enable me to confidently use my manual focus lenses, albeit not as swiftly as the traditional split image focusing screen. With the full frame spread of focus points eliminating the need for ‘focus and recompose’, that is also a plus. Also the much quieter shutter will also be useful, particularly at Churches where the Vicar has suffered at the hands of photographers not respecting the sanctity of the ceremony. Would it be a lightweight replacement for my D750 ?. For location work, yes, but will it handle the low-light sporting events in the way that the D750 does ?. Might I trade in my D750 ?. Will there be more featured models in the near future ?. Then there is the single card slot and the high cost of the XQD cards. Many questions to still work through.

If I do get one, will it be Z6 or Z7 ?. If the differences are just the sensor pixel count, frame rate and number of focus points, I might veer to the Z6. However, it might be that, like the D750, certain features on the more expensive models are missing. The locking of aperture / shutter settings might be one of these, focus stacking might be another. Until the full specifications, nay manuals, are available these are uncertainties.

Overall it looks pretty much like a Nikon. It handles as a Nikon does. Nikon fit F lenses will work with it using the FTZ adapter ( AF & AFD screw focus lenses are manual focus only ). Whilst some things will need getting used to ( like that + button to zoom in the EVF in manual focus ………) the most important and regularly used features are straight forward to a regular Nikon user. As you’d expect, a competent entry to this new market for Nikon. No single product is ideal for everyone and it might be that people are expecting too much. The FTZ adapter does mean that you do not need to buy any of the new lenses if you already have the F-fit lenses for your needs. Ah that brings me to one last point. In their advertising Nikon are making a lot about the wider lens throat getting ‘more light to the sensor’. In some ways that is misleading. Light levels that are ISO 100, 1/250th, F4 will still be that. What that larger throat does mean is that it is possible to make lenses that are less complex but still reduce the corner shading. It also allows for esoteric really fast lenses like the 58mm F0.95 lens that is in the pipeline. Film was very accommodating, it isn’t that fussy about the angle at which the light hit it, if it hit the film, that was it. Digital sensors are much narrower in their angle of acceptance such that the closer to the light rays are to being perpendicular to the sensor, the better. The wider lens throat enables that. It is not so much ‘more light’ as enabling a more evenly lit sensor.

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