Half a decade ago, a new kid named Sony made up a game called “full-frame mirrorless,” and has spent the last five years dunking on everybody else. At first, the cool kids thought this game was dumb and they were happy to let Sony play by itself. Then, as the game caught on, old veterans were suddenly scrambling to get in. Well, Nikon finally got in, and while its first effort isn’t perfect, it’s really pretty damn good.
As a refresher, a couple months ago Nikon announced its first full-frame mirrorless cameras: The 24.5 megapixel Z6 and the higher-end, 45.7 megapixel Z7. Both cameras use Nikon’s brand new Z Mount system and have lenses being made especially for them (just a few at launch, but more will be rolling out over the next few years). The Z7, which this is a review of, is made to compete directly with Sony’s 42.4 megapixel A7R III, and really, with Nikon’s own D850. It’s for pro (or aspiring pro) photographers for whom resolution is maximally important. Nikon sent me one along with its new Z Mount 24-70mm f/4 zoom lens, its 35mm f/1.8, and the FTZ converter, which allows you to use your older Nikon glass with the new system (I rented a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 to test it).
For those of you who don’t sprechen sie camera-nerd, when we say “full-frame” we’re talking about the size of the image sensor on a digital camera. Full-frame means it most closely resembles the size of 35mm film. Remember film? Ha! That was a test. Now the kids know you’re old. Anyway, pro photographers tend to opt for full-frame cameras because they let a lot of light in, and because they excel at achieving that coveted shallow depth-of-field (i.e. when your subject sharp but the background is beautifully blurry). This is Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, meaning, unlike a DLSR, it doesn’t have a mirror that flips up and back when you shoot. Canon just announced its first full-frame mirrorless as well. Basically, earlier this year Sony became the top seller of full-frame cameras, and the other big players finally realized they needed to hurry up and get with the future already.
Much of this review will involve me comparing the Z7 to the Sony A7R III, since it’s the most similar camera out there. In the interest of full disclosure, the A7R III has been my go-to camera for the last 8 months, when I purchased it with my own dang money after I reviewed it for Gizmodo. Before that, I shot with the original A7S (and a Canon 6D before that). So, while it’s fair to say that I’m used to Sony cameras, I went in this test fully ready for the Z7 to knock my socks off, and I made sure I gave it every chance to do so. And in many ways it did!
Let’s break with tradition and just jump right into some pretty pictures, shall we? Probably you came here wondering if this thing takes pretty pictures. Well, good news for everybody, it does! The following gallery contains edited photos. They were shot using the uncompressed, 14-bit RAW, and they come out of the camera looking a bit bland. If you’re shooting RAW is because you know you’re going to edit them later, so here are some shots from a quick spin through the U.S. Southwest, especially Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah (which our government is currently trying to turn into oilfields, and you can still do something about it!).
Like I said, generally, photos look good. The RAW files offer a lot of flexibility, and colors are generally pretty accurate, though the auto white-balance gets a little weird in low light situations. We’re going to take a deeper dive into the image quality in a minute, but first...
Let’s talk about the physical thing itself. The camera feels extremely well-built. It’s weather sealed, the buttons and wheels have a satisfying amount of click, and nothing rattles around in it. Like the A7R III, it has 5-axis optical image stabilization built into the camera body, which should help mitigate the effects of shaky hands. It also has a nice big grip on it, which Nikon fans will be happy to see. In fact, I’d say it very much feels like a Nikon, and people upgrading within its ecosystem will have minimal relearning to deal with. It even retains Nikon’s little top panel that displays your current settings, battery life, and how many shots remaining you have, but now it’s an OLED instead of crappy LCD. Handy!
While the body is a good deal smaller than the beefy Nikon D850, it’s still significantly larger than the Sony A7R III (5.3 x 4 x 2.7 inches for the Nikon vs 5 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches for the Sony). Much ado has been made about how superior Nikon’s larger grip is, and indeed, I prefer it, too! But, we’re talking about a difference of 0.2 inches. The Nikon is more comfortable, but only slightly, and not enough to balance out the added bulk of the Z7. The A7R III fits into backpacks easier, as well as things like hotel safes.
Where the Nikon really torches the Sony, though, is in the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the LCD touch panel. Both the Z7 and the A7R III have EVFs with 3.68 million dots (OLED) and so both are nice and sharp, but Nikon’s is brighter and clearer. It shows you full-resolution images in real-time (at 60fps) so you can really zero in on the details as you’re composing your shot. The Sony shows a lower-resolution version in real-time and only displays the full-res version after you’ve shot it. Weak. The larger LCDs are even more uneven. Nikon’s has 2.1 million dots to Sony’s 1.44 million, and it’s a difference you can see.
The biggest difference with the LCD panels is how the touchscreens work. Nikon’s is extremely well-implemented. Not only can you use it to select focal points (and even snap photos), but you can use touch throughout the menu system. That seems like a no-brainer, right? Yeah, Sony doesn’t let you do that. In fact, Sony’s whole implementation of the touchscreen is half-assed, and in the eight months that I’ve owned the A7R III, I’ve barely used it. With the Z7, I used it constantly to quickly change settings, and even to lock focus on a moving subject (more on that later).
It’s not all wine and roses on the hardware side, though. The Z7 only has one memory card slot, and it’s for XQD cards. You know how you can walk into any pharmacy in the developed world and grab an SD card? Yeah, not so much with XQD. When I received the Z7, I was in Albuquerque, NM, which is not a small town. I called three camera stores and none of them had XQD. The person I spoke to at Best Buy hadn’t even heard of them (luckily she was mistaken and they did have two cards in the store, which as it happens were made by Sony). XQD cards are fast (400+ megabytes/second read and write) and probably more future-proof, but if you’re traveling abroad and run out of storage, you’re almost certainly going to have to start deleting photos. Tougher to find card-readers for them, too, though thankfully the Z7 has a USB-C port, so direct data transfers are quick, and you can also use that port for charging the camera on the fly, which could really save your bacon on a long trek.
The larger problem with having only one slot is a lack of redundancy. Solid state memory cards fail sometimes. It sucks, but it’s not uncommon. Most pro cameras now have two card slots. With the A7R III my RAW files go to one card, while full-sized JPGs simultaneously go to the other card. Even if my RAW card fails, I’ve still got full-quality, totally usable JPGs as a backup. This feels like a big miss for the Nikon, especially for pros whose livelihoods depend on being able to deliver images at the end of the day.
Battery life is another problem. The Z7 is only rated to 330 shots (CIPA rating) if you’re using the EVF or 400 if you’re using the LCD (which most pros don’t), and that meant I was scrambling to get it to a charger in between shoots. Sony Alpha’s batteries used to truly suck, but that isn’t the case anymore. The A7R III gets 530 when shooting via EVF and 650 shots via LCD (sometimes more), which a very significant advantage. That makes a big difference in longer shoots or multi-day treks.
Okay, let’s look at some more pretty pictures. This gallery shows you some edited vs unedited shots.
Generally speaking, photos look very nice. Nikon’s ability to natively shoot as low as ISO 64 gives you some extra flexibility in bright outdoor environments (the Sony’s native ISO is 100, though it can kinda go down to ISO 50 with digital trickery). When you look at the (massive) full-sized images you see that they are sharp, colors are well balanced, and it has solid dynamic range. But there are some pretty surprising findings once you zoom in, both good and bad.
On the plus side, this camera lets a lot of light in. When shooting at the same settings as the A7R III the Z7’s image was brighter every single time. This translates to better high ISO performance, and yep, it’s better than the A7R III. When shooting in low-light at ISO 6,400 and 12,800 the Z7 had noticeably less noise and images were brighter as well. Even images shot at ISO 25,600 are very usable for most applications short of printing.
Unfortunately, it’s not a clean win in this department. The Sony has less noise at lower ISO settings, and this effectively impacts the dynamic range of the Z7. Say you’re shooting a scene with a lot of contrast, like a person backlit by a sunset. You adjust your settings so that the highlights are not blown-out, thinking you’ll just bring up the shadows later. The problem is that bringing up the shadows brings out a lot of noise, more than with the Sony. Worse, DPReview noticed a banding problem when bringing up the shadows (i.e. a stripe pattern). It’s not something you’d notice if you were just posting to social media, but at full-size (and even before that) it’s noticeable. DPReview thinks it’s due to the phase detection points on the image sensor, but it’s worth noting that Sony’s image sensor is built the same way yet it doesn’t suffer from that problem.
But here comes the biggest surprise of all. Nikon has built a reputation for making the sharpest shooting cameras around. It’s just a kinda known thing in the camera world. I was genuinely shocked to find that the Sony A7R III was sharper. Consistently. Across three different lenses. Now, we are talking a pretty slight difference, but it’s noticeable. Take a gander:
In the shot of the van, look how much more texture is visible in the curtain on the driver’s side window, and on the seal of the window, too. The same can be said of the lifeguard tower shot: the wood grain is way more clearly defined. Individual petals are a lot sharper on the flower pic, too. Frankly, this blew my mind. My expectations where that Nikon would mop the floor with Sony in this department. I did 13 different 1:1 comparison shots and used three different lenses for each camera, but the results were the same each time. Again, the difference is slight, but it seems Nikon’s new system has some work to do here. [NOTE: You are welcome to download the RAW files from a bunch of these tests so you can yell at us and tell us how wrong we are about everything and we’re clearly in the pocket of Steve Jobs and/or chemtrails. Click here to go to the burner Google Drive we made for this purpose.]
In better news, the Z7 finally feels like it can hold its own in the video department. Nikon was notoriously late to the game on the video front, but it does a solid job here. It can shoot 4K at 30fps and 1080p at 120fps (albeit only in the cropped Super 35 mode). Focus tracking is available in video mode and while it definitely isn’t perfect (it tends to momentarily lose subjects that are walking toward the camera) it generally works decently well, and you can change the speed at which it racks focus, so it can look nice and smooth. Picking the subject you want to track requires a couple more steps than it should, though (this is true in photo mode, as well).
Unfortunately, the Z7 does still exhibit a fair amount of rolling shutter (aka “the Jell-O effect”) when panning; a common problem, but one which Sony has managed to solve on the A7R III. The start/stop record button is placed much more conveniently than Sony’s (which is buried near the EVF), but unfortunately, it only works if you manually flip the switch from photo mode to video, which I found annoying. Overall, I would say that the Z comes out net-positive on the video side, and it’s good to see Nikon taking it seriously.
How does it stack up when it comes to action, you ask? I’d give it a solid “not bad.” If you want to shoot full, 14-bit RAW photos while tracking autofocus and auto exposure in between each, it can only muster a measly 5.5 frames per second. If you’re content to only track focus then it goes up to 8fps, and if you’re cool with compressed 12-bit RAW then it’ll go as high as 9fps. The A7R III, though, can do 14-bit uncompressed RAW at 10fps, while tracking AF and AE. The Z7 also has a very small buffer, so it will jam after roughly two seconds of shooting (depending on your resolution), though the buffer will clear very quickly thanks to the speedy XQD card. The A7R III has a larger buffer (3+ seconds of uncompressed RAW or 7+ seconds of compressed before it jams), but it takes for freakin’ ever to clear to the SD card, and you can’t change some of the settings (or switch to video) while that’s happening, which can be frustrating.
The Z7 has a whopping 493 phase-detect autofocus points that cover 90-percent of the image sensor, compared to 399 phase detect points for the Sony, which doesn’t extend as far to the edges (though it also has 425 contrast-detect AF points, which helps even things out). On paper, it’s a clear win for the Nikon, and indeed, I found that in AF-S (single) mode, in good lighting, the Nikon was typically faster to lock focus on an object. Move to AF-C (continuous) and it’s a different story. The Nikon spent a lot of time hunting for focus, while the Sony was more decisive, especially in dimmer conditions. The Z7 has face detect, which works fairly well, though it did lose the subject somewhat regularly. It really doesn’t hold a candle to Sony’s Eye-AF, which focuses on the closest eyeball of a subject and works shockingly well, even at a very shallow depth of field.
What else? Nikon’s menu system is vastly better than Sony’s. It’s much more intuitive, and the ability to use the touchscreen to navigate through it makes it even easier to use. Sony’s makes me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer, though it does offer a bit more granular control with ways to customize the camera. Nikon’s button layout is very intuitive, but I wish its joystick had a little more click to it. I also missed Sony’s scroll-wheel on the back which I constantly use for quick ISO adjustments.
In terms of lenses, Sony has a clear lead here. If you buy Nikon’s FTZ converter you can use virtually all of the full-frame glass Nikon has made over the years, and usually with all of the electronic features intact. In fact, the camera’s in-body stabilization may make some of your old lenses even better than they were. I don’t love the ergonomics of the FTZ, though, which shifts the weight of the camera further forward and gets in the way of some tripod plates, which is why it has its own threaded hole. Practically, that’s going to make changing back and forth between native and adapted lenses kind of a pain. It’s also worth noting that Nikon is not currently sharing specs for the Z Mount system, which means that your favorite third-party lens maker (e.g. Sigma, Rokinon, etc.) will have to reverse-engineer a mount if they want to make lenses for the new Z cameras. That seems short-sighted on Nikon’s part, especially considering it only has three Z Mount lenses available currently.
It’s worth mentioning that, like most recent Nikon DSLRs, the Z7 has a built-in intervalometer which lets you take timelapses without the need for additional equipment. I love this and it’s crazy to me that Sony hasn’t integrated this yet. That said, I did have it fail on me once while attempting a series of long exposures for star trails. It was supposed to go for three hours but for an undetermined reason shut off after just twenty minutes. In speaking with Nikon reps, we weren’t able to get to the bottom of what happened. As far as I know, this is an isolated hiccup, and we can’t say for sure this feature has problems. I’m still fairly happy with how it turned out, though (note: that’s a composite of roughly 20 images). It also has a built-in time-lapse movie mode, which is another nice addition.
Overall, this is a very good first-effort in the full-frame mirrorless space from Nikon. No, it isn’t as good as the Sony A7R III, despite costing 400 bucks more ($3,400 vs $3,000), but realistically, Sony had a freakin’ five-year head start. What’s amazing is how close Nikon got to the Sony on its first attempt. For people who know they want to be/stay in the Nikon ecosystem, I might even recommend it over the D850, despite its shortcomings, but that’s because I’m a big believer in mirrorless. Basically, Nikon has stepped into the game ready to play, and I’d expect the mark II is going to make some serious waves.
- Excellent build quality, feels like a Nikon.
- Best EVF in class and the LCD touchscreen is well-implemented.
- Nice colors and low noise at high ISO, but not as sharp as the A7R III.
- Just one (XQD) card slot and disappointing battery life.