Chillout-TGIF: Nikon Z7 and lenses – why this is a great system

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We continue our exploration of the digital mirrorless full frame format cameras. This week, we feature the photographer’s take on the Nikon Z7 and the extensive lens ecosystem.

The Nikon Z7… with and without steroids

Let me start by phrasing Peter Chong in his article about the Canon R5:

“As I am testing out more and more of the latest crop of full frame mirrorless cameras, I am beginning to find smaller and smaller differences between these cameras.…… The good thing is that you can not go wrong with any of these cameras. And the only advice I can give, having experienced all these camera systems is to try one out for yourself. The ergonomics, how it fits your hand. How do you prefer the menu system to be like, and the button layout. Think about the lenses you need for your style of photography. And pick the one most suited based on these criteria. Image quality, high ISO performance are all givens with these cameras”.

The Nikon Z-series can be included in this mix. So when the Chief Editor asked me if I would be willing to write something about my experience with the Nikon Z-series, I asked myself “what to write that has not been said already?”. Repeating all specs, button functions and menu items does not make a lot of sense. If you want to learn more about those, see the link to a Nikon Z7 review and settings in the overview of sources. Instead, I will focus on why I opted for the Nikon Z-system, how I use it and what I like and don’t like. Hopefully this helps you determine if the Nikon Z-system is right for you or not.

To put things into perspective, you should know that my main line of photographic activities relate to event and portrait photography as well as some watch photography, flower photography and travel photography. I shoot mainly in raw-format but prefer to limit post-processing as much as possible. I prefer prime lenses over zoom lenses. And my motto is “the smaller the lens the better”; I do not need razor-thin depth of field and I don’t shoot Concerts in difficult light circumstances. Therefore, fast lenses such as f2.8 zoom lenses and f1.4 prime lenses are not essential for me. Nevertheless, the Nikon 58mm 1.4G is still one of my favourite lenses because of its unique rendering.

Nikon D750 * 58mm 1.4G @ 1.4

Why I switched from DSLR to Mirrorless

When my trusted Nikon D750 was severely damaged in 2019, just after selling my D810, I had a choice to make: stick with the DSLR-line or switch to full-frame mirrorless. I decided to do the latter for the following reasons:
First and foremost because of the raving reviews of the Nikon S lenses, which are consistently rated higher than their F-line counterparts (see the the link to photographylife in sources). Since the lifecycle of lenses is longer than that of digital cameras, a future-proof set of lenses was a priority.

I wanted to use more manual-focus vintage lenses as well as non-Nikon manual-focus lenses, including Leica M lenses, to create the “special look” that cannot be created with the highly-corrected modern lenses with their modern coatings. Modern lenses are perfect for acquiring sharp photos with less vignetting, flare and chromatic aberration but often also lacking the bright 3D-look that some vintage lenses display. Examples are the Nikon Nokton 58mm 1.2, the Zeiss Sonnar ZM 50mm 1.5 Sonnar and the older Leica lenses.

The availability of in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) and the ability to shoot with a silent shutter when needed.

The larger Z-mount allows more light hitting the sensor compared to DSLR (90% compared to 65% according to a recent NikonRumors post). Although Nikon keeps developing DSLR cameras, the majority of R&D goes into their mirrorless products.

Nikon Z7 – 85mm PC-E @f13 – ISO 64 – 1/125s

Size and weight were less important to me. The size and weight of a Nikon Z6/35mm 1.8S lens does not really differ from the Nikon D750/Nikon 35mm 1.8G combo. The lenses are a major contributor to the total size and weight of full frame systems. Obviously, every size and weight difference helps when travel photography is your main type of photography.

Some words about the Nikon Z-series

The launch of the 24.5MP Nikon Z6 and the 45.7MP Z7 in August 2018 marked Nikon’s entry in the full-frame mirrorless camera market. It was critical to launch a system including lenses that could replace its DSLRs in the future. Nikon got a lot of things right from the start: a compact and light-weight solid-build quality magnesium-alloy body, great ergonomics, effective IBIS, weather sealing, then class-leading dynamic range high ISO-performance. While the Nikon Z7 features a higher Megapixel sensor , the Nikon Z6 provided better low-light and video capabilities.

Photo by Nikon

The new mirrorless system also came with a new lens mount, which was a huge step for the company because the company takes pride in making sure lenses could and can be used on future generations of cameras. However, the large 55mm inner diameter and very short 16mm flange distance makes it possible to make (relatively) smaller, lighter and optically better lenses compare to the Nikon F mount. For example, according to Nasim Mansurov of Photographylife, the (much) smaller and lighter Nikon Z 24-70mm f4 S lens is optically on par with the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8E VR lens. Weight savings will be most visible in ultra-wide angle lenses.

Photo by Nikon

The Nikon Z7 is the first professional Nikon camera body that has a PASM dial with three customisable user modes. I never felt the need to use the user banks of Nikon DSLR cameras due to to their limited functionality but these user modes are really handy when you’ve changed a variety of settings on the fly and want to go back to a ‘default’ status. Unfortunately it is not possible to add a label to these modes to quickly recognise the mode.
See “My Setup” for how I use the three modes. A full description of all buttons and their functions can be found in the Photography Life article mentioned under ‘sources’.

Photo_ iPhone 11 with Profoto B10 flash

The 45.7MP sensor, native ISO 64), the 1/8000s minimum shutter speed, the 0,8x viewfinder magnification, 493 focus points, weather-sealing and 5-axis IBIS makes the Nikon Z7 a very compelling tool for a variety of photographic genres. Having said so, it is not a speed monster like the Dx-series. The second generation versions are supposed to be in a higher league in that respect.

Crop of stack of 17 images – Nikon Z7 – 85mm PC-E @f8 – ISO 64 – 1/60s

Due to space constraints, the Nikon Z7 features only one card slot. The lack of two slots for storage cards is often mentioned as an important reason not to buy the first generation Nikon Z cameras. Although having two slots would have been nice, it was not a showstopper for me because of the reliability of XQD cards. By the way, I never experienced issues with SD-cards either. Changing storage cards every few years helps reducing the risk of card failure. Nevertheless, Nikon has listened to those needing 2 slots and implemented two slots in the second generation Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II.

Photo by Nikon

The main differences between the Nikon Z7 and Z6 are in sensor technology and resolution (45.7 vs 24.5), native lowest ISO (64 instead of 100), autofocus system (493 focus points vs 273) , continuous shooting speed (9FPS vs 12FPS in 12-bit raw) and – last but definitely not least – price. Photographylife writes that the Nikon Z7 is for architecture, landscape and studio work, whereas the Nikon Z6 is for video and for portrait, event, food, night and other types of photography where resolution is not the number one priority. This is what they say “unless you need 45 megapixels rather than 24, I recommend saving $1400 and buying the Z6. It’s hardly a downgrade, you get better 4K video quality, a faster frame rate, smaller file sizes and better high ISO performance” (see sources below). I agree with these generic remarks. 24MP is the “sweet spot” for most types of photography: plenty of resolution (prints up to 3 x 2 meters have been made of my shots taken with the 24MP D750). The larger pixel size of a 24MP full-frame sensor results – in my view – in clear, bright images with better noise handling.

Nikon Z7 – 85mm PC-E @f11 – ISO 64 – 1/125s

However, for flower and watch photography, having 40-45MP at one’s disposal is very useful because it allows shooting from further away and crop the images for showing details. The additional distance allows for better lighting the watch during the shoot.

Lilium -Stack of photos taken with Nikon Z7 and Nikon F 60mm 2.8G macro lens @ f8 – 1/60s – ISO 64

Therefore my ideal combination is a 24MP camera for event, travel and portrait photography and a high MP camera for watch, flower and macro photography. Obviously, a higher MP camera is also useful for very large landscape and architecture prints.

American Military Cemetery World War II – photo taken with Nikon Z7 and Nikon Z 35mm 1.8S lens @ f8 – 1/250s and ISO 64 – Processed with Capture One preset

Note: with respect to noise handling: Although the Z5 and Z6 handle noise better at higher ISO levels, downsampling images takes away a considerable part of the noise.

More Z-cameras

If you don’t need full-frame, the Nikon Z50 with its 20,9MP APS-C sensor is a very compelling option as weak, especially with the DX lenses announced. Although it does not offer image stabilisation, its small size and low weight makes it an ideal camera for travel. The larger depth-of-field makes it also more attractive for with photography. The camera features the Z-mount so all Z lenses can be used as well. See the link below for an extensive review of the Nikon Z50 camera.

Nikon has also launched the Nikon Z5 as an “entry-level” full-frame. Looking at the specs, that word does not justify what the camera offers. Although it does not have a top lcd display, it is a more limited fps rate and it does not have a BSI-sensor, the camera looks very compelling to me as and alternative for the Nikon Z6. The sensor is rumoured to be the one of the Nikon D750.

I do not have any experience yet with the second generation Z6 II and Z7 II. However, several key ‘under the hood’ hardware and firmware differences are reported between the first and second generations of the Nikon Z6 and Z7:

  • The second generation bodies are 2mm deeper, allowing for an additional SD card slot in addition to the existing XQD cardslot.
  • The second generation features a newer processing engine, allowing for faster and more accurate autofocus as well as a higher frame rate (12fps instead of 10fps for the Z6 II and 10fps instead of 9fps for the Z7 II). According to Nikon this speed remains up to 200 JPEG fine or 112 12-bit RAW files (Z6 II) respectively 50 RAW (Z7 II). However, the key improvement is the larger buffer, allowing to shoot 77 RAW images with the Z7 II instead of 23 with the Z7. This is a major improvement for action photographers.
  • The minimum shutter speed is extended from 30 sec to 900sec, more than enough for long exposures with ND filters.
  • Video performance is improved as well.
  • See the link below for a full overview of differences.
XQD card slots on the Z6 and Z7.
Photo by Nikon

The Nikon Z lens availability and roadmap

Without a doubt, choosing a lens system is at least or more important than choosing a camera. The lifecycle of lenses is typically (much) longer than the lifecycle of cameras. Therefore, starting your quest with selecting a lens system is a good idea. To me, it made sense to stick to the Nikon system because of the compatibility.

The lens lineup.
Photo by Nikon

Despite Nikon’s commitment to launching as many lenses as possible, obviously the choice is still limited compared to the F-mount lens line. Therefore Nikon offers a F to Z mount for using Nikon F-mount lenses. This FTZ adapter allows photographers to use AI, AI-S, AF-D and AF-G lenses with their Z6 or Z7 (and now also Z50, Z5, Z6 II and Z7 II cameras). It should be noted that AF-D lenses can only be used with manual focus. The Nikon lenses of the 50s, 60s and 70s can also be used with the adapter. Other vendors provide a variety of adapters for using Leica lenses, Sony lenses, and Canon lenses. Please be aware that the 5-axis stabilisation is not active when you use the FTZ adapter with a non-stabilised lens. The 3-axis stabilisation is used instead gives you 2-3 stops instead of the reported 4-6 stops.

Nikon Z7 with FTZ adapter and 105mm 2.5 lens
Photo taken with iPhone 11 and Profoto B10

Nikon Z lenses are made of high quality plastic to keep weight down. Reviews rave about the quality of the Z lenses compared to the F lenses. Frankly, it depends on your type of photography and your desire for pixel-peeping to spot the differences in real-life photos. My line of work requires lenses in the 24-200mm (full frame equivalent) focal length range so I am basically covered except for a true macro lens, which is expected in 2021. The latest addition of Nikon Z lenses include f0.95 and f1.2 options as well as fast 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoomlenses for professionals. The recent 70-200mm is viewed as the best 70-200mm 2.8 lens that Nikon has produced.

Photo by Nikon

Currently I use the 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm 1.8 Z-mount lenses. For watch photography I use the Nikon F 85mm PC-E lens. For portrait, landscape, and flower photography the Zeiss APO 135mm f2 lens is a great option. The Nikon 105mm 2.5 AI lens of the late 70s is a wonderful lens for specific portrait shoots. You may wonder why I don’t use the Nikon F-mount 60mm and 105mm 2.8 lenses. Although the Image Quality of the 60mm is wonderful, manual focusing is a challenge. The 105mm 2.8 VR lens suffers from too much chromatic aberration in watch photography. So I am waiting for the new Z-mount macro lenses or will opt for the Voigtlander 60mm and 110mm macro lenses in Sony FE-mount, to be used with the Techart adapter.

Photo taken with Nikon Z7 and 85mm PC-E

Continued next week with more thoughts

Sources:

Nikon Z7 Review – Nasim Mansurov
https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-z7

Nikon Z vs Nikon F – What is the difference
Nasim Mansurov
https://photographylife.com/nikon-z-vs-nikon-f

Nikon Z6 vs Z7: which one to get
Spencer Cox
https://photographylife.com/nikon-z6-vs-z7

Nikon Z7 vs Z7 II:
https://photographylife.com/nikon-z7-vs-z7-ii

The Nikon Z50
https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-z50

The Nikon Z lens roadmap:
https://photographylife.com/nikon-z-lens-roadmap

Nikon Picture Control Editor:
https://nikonpc.com

Photography Life Setup:
Nasim Mansurov
https://photographylife.com/recommended-nikon-z7-settings

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