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Nikon Z7 Hands-On Review: We Got a Production Model, and It’s Brilliant

It’s absolute pandemonium in the mirrorless world as we gear up for Photokina 2018 to be held in Cologne, Germany in a couple of weeks’ time. Ahead of the official launch, Nikon Singapore invited a round-table of journalists from eight publications to a closed-door hands-on session of their new Z7 full-frame mirrorless, which took place at the scenic Bayfront area in downtown Singapore. I was one of the lucky few to get my hands on this highly-anticipated machine.

The Nikon Z7 is the brand’s sophomore attempt at gaining a foothold in the mirrorless market. Following the unfortunate 1-series 1″ sensor interchangeable lens series of mirrorless cameras, many had feared that the mature brand might shy from another risky (yet necessary) venture into unfamiliar territory. Thus, despite the widespread hype surrounding the launch, I was not fully sold. To make matters worse, some initial reviews presented foreboding thoughts about  the performance of Nikon’s autofocus system on the Z7.

The excitement surrounding the system can be well understood. The last transition of equivalent magnitude was back in 1959, when Nikon’s first SLR, the Nikon F replaced the Nikon S rangefinder system launched in 1946. The next big transition came right before the turn of the century when the first DSLR, the Nikon D1 was released in 1999. Sure, the 1-series was Nikon’s first mirrorless camera system, but that had a silly 1-inch sensor that doesn’t count. This, the Z series, is history.

We finally got our hands on the cameras themselves, and I’ll lay the verdict right off the bat: the autofocus worked very convincingly. Not just that: the video and still functions are some of the best and most thoughtfully-implemented we’ve seen on a camera. The continuous shooting at 5.5fps wasn’t mind-blowing, the single XQD card slot was painful to swallow, but everything else worked as it should.

Much to the chagrin of photographers everywhere, the Nikon Z7 (and Z6) only have a single XQD slot. The relocated menu, drive and zoom buttons can be seen near the top of the photograph. Image: Ian Ling

Having been a Nikon user for most of my photography life, the Z7 felt natural in the hand. Despite its reduced weight, its form was instantaneously recognisable, and button layouts are almost exactly the same. Dials were where they belonged, and most buttons were placed where you would expect them to be placed. Notably, the menu and zoom buttons have migrated to the right, addressing accusations over the years of being a ‘two-handed camera’. The playback and delete button retains its traditional positions on the top left, and the mode dial is also left-handed, but that’s no big deal – you’ll hold your camera with both hands when you’ve got some downtime to review your images anyway.

Where the new button layout makes strides in effectiveness is the relocation of the drive mode. Located on the left as a locking collar around the mode dial on previous models, it required the use of the left hand to manipulate. Additionally, Nikon’s useful front function buttons located between the grip and lens mount have been enhanced on the Nikon Z7. With two customisable function buttons located further down the body, the Z7’s button layout spreads the controls more evenly between all the digits of your right hand, with only the pinky finger left for full-time grip duty.

I did find the two function buttons well-placed even for my diminutive hands, although I found them slightly spongy with plenty of side-to-side motion. I’m unsure if that’s by design, but I sure did prefer the more affirmative clicky interfaces on other Nikon models.

The Nikon D810 and the Nikon Z7 side-by-side. Image: Ian Ling

The other features we have come to love Nikon for are all on board. The trigger finger power switch collar around the power button feels right at home, enabling you to instantly whip your camera to the eye to capture the decisive moment. Yes – start-up time on the Z7 isn’t as fast as the company’s DSLRs, but it feels on par with Sony’s and Fujifilm’s current systems in the market today.

The exposure compensation button is placed under the last joint on my index finger, as is the case on practically all modern Nikon DSLRs. The zoom rings turn the right way, the new Z lens mount mounts the right way. The bold edgy grip is done exactly right – like how Nikon had done it on its previous mid-range full-frame bodies.

Underneath the beefy grip, the Nikon Z7 accepts the right batteries: the EN-EL15, the same one used, tried and tested on all its mid-to-top tier DSLRs. The Z7 was clearly targetted as a follow-up, or even a secondary camera for the professional photographer. The new EN-EL15b batteries provide the same energy (14Wh), voltage (7.0V) and capacity (1,900mAh), but adds the ability to be charged in-camera via the USB-C port. This means you can use your portable chargers in a pinch, especially if they are able to perform power delivery.

The venerable EN-EL15 (top, black) that has seen use on Nikon’s most prominent consumer DSLRs for almost a decade. The new EN-EL15b (bottom, grey) is similar, except that it allows for mobile charging via USB-C. Image: Ian Ling

Much has to be said for build quality. It definitely does not look or feel like its previous DSLRs, which would certainly be a disaster with the millions of dollars spent developing the new camera. With its magnesium alloy construction, the camera has no give in the grip, and feels solid all around. The battery is perpendicular to the rest of the body, and hidden away in the grip, which means there is sufficient clearance for tripod mounts, unlike the smaller Fujifilm and Olympus mirrorless cameras.

It contains a full-frame in a body smaller and lighter than a crop-sensor D7500, with the build touted to be on par as the D850.

Size-wise, it is noticeably larger and more curvaceous than the Sony A7 line of cameras. That’s inevitable, and understandable: Nikon has had to fit in plenty of legacy functionality and features. These are choices like retaining the old battery used on bulkier DSLRs, locating buttons and controls where they were located previously, and fitting in the 55mm (very large!) Z mount.

The legendary 85mm 1.4E, mounted on the Nikon Z via FTZ adapter. Image: Ian Ling.

After form comes function: every Nikon user would next be keen on knowing if their swathes of Nikon glass would be fully compatible with the new Z bodies. The answer is yes… but not entirely.

Lens compatibility is esoteric to say the least. Here’s our attempt at an explainer: all modern AF-S and AF-P lenses with internal focus motors (most G lenses) will work fully. AF and AF-D lenses, which are smaller, lighter, some featuring glossy plastic, meter fully, but can not autofocus. The Nikon reps say they’ve considered putting a motor into the adapters, but cannot promise compatibility with these lenses. That’s quite a shame, since these lenses represent some of the best value propositions in Nikon’s lineup due to their age and limited compatibility (they previously were also incompatible in terms of autofocus with Nikon’s lower range D5000 and D3000 series of DSLRs).

Older AI and AI-S lenses mount and meter, and the focus aids on board work brilliantly to ensure you nail focus. We were able to adjust intensity and colour of the zebra focus peaking highlights. Most notably, the brilliant full-coverage EVF made it a breeze to autofocus our legacy lenses. With IBIS on board, the Nikon Z7 is able to stabilise your old glass for your video applications where manual focus is a good tool to have. The lens elements within the EVF are Nikkor-built and fluorine coated to repel dirt, and works together with a 3.69M-dot OLED display to deliver maximum clarity and detail.

A great hearkening back to Steve McCurry: the Nikkor 105mm f2.5 Non-AI mounted via FTZ adapter. Image: Ian Ling

Nikon made a huge selection of lenses available. Of course, we indulged ourselves. Notably, there were only two AF-D lenses available due to their lack of autofocus compatibility.

The FTZ adapter itself slightly tapers to match one of the largest mirrorless mounts with one the smallest DSLR mount. A nodule at the bottom contains the brains required to operate autofocus and some degree of image stabilisation. Five-axis In-body Vibration Reduction in the Z7 works with the VR in the lenses to provide up to five stops of stabilisation, though it is reduced when a F-mount lens is mounted. Despite this, we managed to capture incredible footage with the 14-24mm trinity lens. We reduced the ISO and aperture in a dark part of the building, reaching a shutter speed of 1s.

Even with F-mount lenses, we were able to hand-hold the lens well below the reciprocity rule. Image: Fang Yuan for VR Zone

Shot at 14mm, the minimum shutter speed via reciprocal rule should be 1/14 (or 1/15 being the closest shutter speed), which means the Z7 was able to stabilise the F-mount lens to around 4 stops. This is not a scientific test, but in this situation, one second was the longest we were able to hand-hold this focal length, and that was without the proper posture with the camera held above the shoulders.

On these F-mount lenses, autofocus also worked great. We tested it on the trinity lenses: the 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 G lenses. There was no focus hunting, although the tracking for fast-moving subjects is definitely not as fast as Nikon’s DSLRs.

The Nikon Z7 in the foreground. Attached is the native Z 24-70mm f4 S Z-mount lens. Image: Ian Ling

Especially on native Z-mount lenses, the autofocus performed great, and we’ve got no idea where the AF complaints surrounding the launch in the US came from. Myself, I was used to the lackadaisical live-view autofocus on Nikon’s DSLRs, I had expected its mirrorless system to be as much of a pain to use – the mirrorless cameras are essentially DSLRs in live-view mode, correct?

Wrong. A thoroughly-revamped autofocus system meant that single point autofocus tracking, which gives 493 individual points, covered 90% of the image area. Nikon mumbles something about algorithms enhancing the performance of the autofocus, which ostensibly allows it to switch seamlessly between focal-plane phase-detection AF and the more pedestrian contrast-detect AF.

Notably, the native Z-mount 24-70mm f4 S and the Z-mount 35mm f1.8 S prime gave superior and snappy focus without any of the wobble I was used to coming from sub-par DSLR live-view autofocus. These lenses are also sealed against “dust and drips” but the telescoping/ex ending nature of the standard kit zoom lens makes me nervous, and I wouldn’t bring it to the Sahara or the Amazon.

The Nikon Z7 with kit Z Mount 24-70 f4 S lens. Image: Ian Ling

Video is where it’s at. We had no idea where Nikon pulled this one out from, and it caught us by surprise. With 4K UHD recording (3840 x 2160p)at 30fps, the Nikon Z7 (and the Z6) has no crop factor. You use the whole full-frame sensor! Ow, Canon. Full-pixel readout in 4K in DX crop mode is also possible, enhancing sharpness.

In FHD, the Z7 and Z6 are also able to output 120fps footage for slow motion, and Active D-Lighting , electronic VR (vibration reduction), and focus peaking is available while recording.

Nikon has also debuted the N-Log profile on the Z-series, which can be delivered by 10-bit colour HDMI output for maximum colour depth and 12-stop,  1,300% dynamic range. Timecode support makes it easier for externally-recorded audio to be synced with the video track. There’s also additional electronic stabilisation to complement the physical Vibration Reduction in the body and on  the lens.

On the camera itself, several design features have been implemented with video in mind. The touch-sensitive tilting display allows for convenient and stable hand-held shooting even from low or high angles. Video and stills settings are saved separately and accessed by the flip of a switch, making multi-role productions like for weddings and events more natural and seamless.

The new S-Line series of Z-mount lenses also feature a programmable ring that allows users to smoothly adjust parameters such as focus and aperture stop.

Even in video, face recognition autofocus performed splendidly. Image: Daniel Adipranoto

Last, the image quality. While much has been said (by Nikon themselves, of course) about the advantages their Z-mount offers in terms of image quality and lens design possibilities, it must be said that the output impressed from the get-go. Without any teething problems as a first iteration, the out of camera JPEGs look stunning. Skin tones are pleasing and very natural, fine details like hair are rendered well, and the micro-contrast most apparent on fabrics and highly-detailed surfaces.

The two S-Line lenses that were launched alongside the Z7 were important reasons why we felt the system was successful. The 24-70mm lens is diminutive – smaller than its Sony equivalent, and are definitely dwarfed by its DSLR counterparts. As a constant f-stop, stabilised, and standard zoom range lens, the 24-70mm coupled with the Z series of mirrorless cameras pose a very enticing package for a wide variety of travellers.

Landscape photographers will appreciate its weight and full-frame sensor for image quality in low light. Videographers will appreciate the hardware conveniences, along with the impressive array of capabilities all in a small package. There isn’t a need to bring along heavy and bulky gimbals: in most use cases, hand-held footage is stable enough. Street photographers will appreciate the smaller, more discrete form factor whose angular chassis more closely resembles quaint film SLRs of yore. Completely-silent operation and a whisper-quiet shutter would be sufficient to make them go weak at the knees, but that might just be me.

But like most things in life, it’s not all good.

Single. XQD. Nikon just had to make its user base cringe at the 11th hour. XQD cards are still expensive, especially as a simple storage medium. Yes, they’re fast and the Z7’s paltry 5.5fps continuous shooting fills up the buffer of the XQD card we were given within 25 shots. The full readout from the 45.7-megapixel sensor (JPEG only) tears through memory quickly, and the necessity is understood. But couldn’t we get a second SD card slot like on the D850?

Having a single card slot also makes it difficult for wedding and event photographers to adopt the Nikon Z7 as their prime shooter. While XQD card failures are not well documented, shooting the event of one’s lifetime means many would rather stick to dual-slot bodies like Sony or Fujifilm instead. Thankfully, Canon’s got a single slot too.

Battery life isn’t good, but neither is the competition. We used the camera for video and stills and it chewed through about 20% within 30 mins. A battery grip would be very useful, but is currently still under development and will be launched as the MB-N10. In the varied lighting of the location we were shooting in, we found that the LCD did not adjust automatically, requiring tactical shielding for legibility.

There’s also no GPS on board, which means you won’t be able to group your photos by locale, which might be a headache for avid travellers.

All in, the Nikon Z7 deeply impressed us with its form, function, and output. The stigma associated with various specific features on a Nikon seemed to disappear – it seemed like it was a completely new camera by a completely new brand. Autofocus worked, well. Stabilisation, worked, well. Video features are incredible. I had not felt so upon its launch, but the Nikon Z7 is an immediate competitor to the A7 series of cameras right from the get-go. There are only two lenses right now, but the FTZ adapter transforms it into a full-fledged system, albeit bulkier.

The camera will retail body only at USD 3,397 (SGD 4,675) and in a kit with the 24-70 f4 kit lens at USD3,997 (SGD5,501). The FTZ adapter will increase the cost of a bundle by USD150 (SGD206).

Pricing and availability in Singapore have yet to be announced. Prices in SGD are converted using exchange rates at the time of publishing.

Ian Ling
http://uncommontragedy.com
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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