Last week, we outlined the basics on the Nikon Z mirrorless digital camera format, and why it served Peter Nievaart so well, and continues to do so on a daily basis for his photography needs. We explore more with Peter this episode, with learnings and extended examples.
Further thoughts on the Nikon Z7
The Learning experience: why I upgraded from Z6 to Z7
I started shooting with the 24.5MP Nikon Z6 because the majority of my photography is event-related and I do not need the 45.7MP of the Nikon Z7. I quickly stumbled upon two problems. The first was the startup lag time of the system and the EVF. It made me miss moments during events. I almost decided to go back to the D750, which IMHO still is an ideal tool for shooting events. However, I found a workaround by pushing the shutter slightly while bringing the camera to my eye and to use the EVF-only display mode.
I switched to the Nikon Z7 to take advantage of its lower native ISO of 64 (instead of 100), its 1/8000s (instead of 1/4000s) minimum shutter speed and its abundance of pixels allowing for more aggressive cropping. In addition, I read on Sean Reid’s – subscription-based – site reidreviews.com that the Nikon Z7 is the third best option for using Leica rangefinder lenses (Leica M being the best, Leica SL/SL2 being second) due to the very short flange distance and thin filter stack in front of the sensor. If you are interested in thorough, independent reviews, especially if you use Leica or Fuji products, I can highly recommend Sean’s site. He is not paid by vendors to remain fully independent.
After one year of shooting more than 20,000 images with the Z-series, I am happy to made the switch. My main findings are:
- The Nikon Z cameras are functional and reliable work horses. They won’t win design prices but they do what they are developed for.
- The button layout is excellent. Changing the most important settings without taking your eye off the EVF is easy. I especially welcomed moving the ISO-button to the top; the Nikon D750’s ISO button was on the back left side, easily confusing it with the menu button during a shoot.
- The grip is deep and comfortable to hand-hold for a longer period although the gap between grip and lens is quite narrow compared to the DSLRs. So it not as as good as the D750/780/850 DSLRs but definitely good enough.The thumb rest contributes to comfort too. Please be aware that Photographylife experienced a rubber wear issue with 2 of their 6 cameras related to fingernails scratching the surface. I haven’t experienced such an issue yet. But be careful if you have long(er) fingernails.
I am pleased with the sharpness and rendering of the Nikon Z 1.8S lenses. 1.8 is more than enough for me, although having a 58mm 1.4 or 1.2 lens would be a great addition in the lens roadmap. I still regret selling the Nikon F 58mm 1.4G lens because of the magic it brought into an image compared to the more clinical 1.8G and 1.8S lenses.
My main issue with the current Z generation is a less-than-perfect-but-good-enough AF accuracy. I have experienced missed shots due to misfocusing. Probably I would not have mentioned it without examining the issue first (the system works fine for 90% of the images taken) , but others reported similar issues with face and eye detection, so I thought you should be aware. Although firmware 3.0 should have improved AF speed and accuracy, I haven’t thoroughly tested that. I am confident that the issue is solved in the second generation Z cameras.
When the Nikon Z series entered the market, a lot of discussion was going on about the banding or line pattern noise. This article concludes it is more or less a non-issue that occurs when you recover shadows by 5-6 stops:
What to say about the menu system? Well, it is useable but definitely not at the same level as Leica’s menu system. Many camera vendors seem to think that “more choices with less explanation is better” so becoming familiar with the menu and its options and settings is eventful. Fortunately, Photography Life and others offer great starting points for configuring the menus. I would definitely recommend using the user modes for your three most important types of photography. See my setup below as an example.
To find your most used settings quickly, you can assign functions to “My Menu”. This is my menu list:
- Format Memory Card
- Set Picture Control (for using custom color profiles)
- Focus shift shooting (stacking)
- Interval Timer shooting
- Flashrelated settings (sync speed, control, mode, compensation(
- Bracketing Mode
- Built-in AF assist illuminator on/off (for situations where you don’t want to disturb people)
- Flicker reduction shooting on/off
- Multiple Exposure
- JPEG-related settings: HDR, active D-lighting
- Non CPU lens data
- High ISO Noise reduction on/off
Using the focus shift/stack feature is helpful when you use a lens that is difficult to manually focus, such as the Nikon 60mm 2.8G micro lens. Focus stacking with the Z7 (and Z6) is trial and error. Before you start shooting, you define the total number of shots as well the focus step width. This can be tricky, as you would not know what this width is before starting. (Editor: This is similar to what is offered in the Fuji GFX systems in manual focus stacking mode). The rule of thumb is: the closer you focus and the wider your aperture, the smaller the step size.
For watch photography, my recommendation is to stick to a step size of 1. You also define the interval between shots, which is useful when you work with flash. It is also possible to use the “first frame exposure lock” when you shoot in auto-mode (e.g. auto ISO). Personally I set aperture, shutter speed and ISO manually during focus stacking. A less useful feature for watch photographers is the “peaking stack image’. Although it allows to see a black and white sharpness preview of the stacked images, you cannot zoom in so might as well check in post-processing. An annoying characteristic is that you start the focus stacking from the menu by selecting ‘start’. Triggering the shutter via the shutter button results in only one shot. So choose your nearest focus point before you select your settings and start. Be also aware that you need to stack the images in post-processing. The camera does not offer an option to do so. (Editor’s note: currently, other than the option offered by the Post Focus tool on Panasonic S1R which we consider to be still a work in progress. No other focus stacking feature offers an in-camera focus stack. Not even the very advanced Phase One XF IQ4).
The Electronic Viewfinder is bright and does not show noticeable lag time between making the shot and seeing the scene again. Manually focusing with an EVF is much easier than focusing with a DSLR Optical Viewfinder. You can use focus peaking to acquire initial focus and use the magnification function for precise focusing. Disadvantages of using an EVF is the limited dynamic range if the image displayed and the slight lag time in starting the EVF.
Using the FTZ adapter with a tripod requires some planning. Unless you use a special plate, You have to mount the tripod on the FTZ-adapter’s socket. When using a generic tripod plate and mounting it to the lens, the FTZ adapter hits the tripod plate. This implies taking the camera off the tripod when you change from a Nikon Z-mount lens to an F-mount lens and vice versa. So think about the order of using lenses before you do a shoot with a tripod.
There is an abundance of adapters available to use a variety of non-Nikon-mount lenses with the Nikon Z-series. However, don’t expect full electronic communication between camera and lens out-of-the-box. I use the manual-focus Zeiss Milvus 135mm f2 lens with the FTZ adapter. Electronic communication works fine as long as you set the aperture to its minimum (maximum value). Aperture is controlled via the aperture control ring/button on the camera.
I configured the AF-ON button for back-focus. The main advantage of using back focus is that you don’t need to use a button/switch to switch between single point and continuous focus. Single point focusing is done by pushing the AF-ON button once while continuous focusing is done by pushing and holding the AF-ON button. Be aware that you need to set the default AF-mode to Continuous Focus. I use the front function buttons for quickly switching between metering modes and magnification.
I use the “user menus” as default menus for three types of photography:
- Standard mode: auto ISO, raw format, matrix metering, automatic shutter selection (mechanical or electronic), single release mode, single point AF-mode, vibration reduction ON, auto white balance,
- Tripod mode: ISO 64, raw format, matrix metering, automatic shutter type, single release mode, single point AF-mode, vibration reduction ON, auto white balance, 3sec delay
- JPEG only mode:. auto ISO, JPEG format, matrix metering, automatic shutter selection, single release mode, auto-area AF-mode, vibration reduction ON, auto white balance.
You can enhance your ”jpeg experience” by using the online Nikon Picture Control Editor (see link below) to use film profiles.
My EVF displays metering mode, exposure settings and histogram. This is more reliable than trusting the WYSIWYG screen itself due to its limited dynamic range. Obviously, the EVF is not capable to mimic the clean look of OVF but it performs well. One person reported an issue that dust prevented the camera from switching between EVF and LCD.
I switched off the touch screen. I might be doing something wrong but I took too many useless shots because I accidentally touched the LCD.
I use the Fn1 button on the front to quickly set the metering mode. Fn2 is used for magnification when I focus manually.
Watch photography with the Nikon Z-SERIES
The resolution, lack of an anti-aliasing filter as well as the availability of the focus stacking and magnification functions make the Nikon Z7 an ideal camera for watch photography. Yes, it will take more time, preparation and post-processing than watch photography with a MFT system, but the image quality is impressive.
Nevertheless, the 24MP Z6 does a good job too:
The Nikon Z5 is rumoured to have the same sensor as the Nikon D750. Herewith an example watch shot taken with the D750 that is the Z5 rumoured to share the sensor with (although the processing software is different):
There are a couple of things to be aware of:
The shallow depth-of-field related to the size of the sensor requires focus stacking when you want to show some depth instead of the regular frontal photos of front- and back-side. The true character of a watch can only be illustrated by shooting from various angles. The abundance of megapixels comes to rescue to a certain extent because of the cropping opportunities.
Using the automatic focus stacking function requires some experimentation with distance between watch and camera and in setting the focus step width. When you shoot at 1:1 and f5.6 (assuming this Is the optimal aperture for getting the sharpest results with the least chromatic aberration), the depth-of-field is so small that the focus step width may not be enough or that the processing software cannot stitch properly. Using a focus rail or manual focusing may be the solution.
Another is the storage capacity and processing power of your computer as well as the stacking software used. I use Photoshop, Affinity Photo and ZereneStacker and the stack-processing time as well as the quality of the stacking result varies considerably. Photoshop does a pretty good job with watches. It seems to do an even better job with the Nikon Z7. Affinity and ZereneStacker work well with flowers and nature. Both Photoshop and Affinity Photo are able to work with raw files, although Photoshop does a better raw-conversion IMHO. Zerene Stacker needs TIFF files.
Retouching is another attention area with high-megapixel cameras. Every dust particle, irregularity and blemish is visible. So take some time for cleaning in advance and be prepared to repair the final stacked image.
Other types of photography
Herewith some photos of other types of photos taken with the Nikon Z-series without much comment:
Ever since Adobe switched to a subscription-based pricing module for Lightroom and Photoshop, I thought about switching to other software. I now use Capture One as my main raw converter and editor. Adobe’s Camera Raw converter results in pretty flat images out of the box, while Capture One directly gives more ‘bite’. The former is fine when you want complete control. The latter if you don’t have much time for post-processing and you have a lot if images to process. Currently I use Photoshop for touching up a limited set of images that are worth spending time on, especially removing blemishes, dust particles, and other ‘irregularities’. I am sure Affinity Photo will be able to do the same but I need to spend some time to learn its features in these areas. Furthermore, I use specialised software (Topaz Sharpen, Topaz Mask, NIK Silver Efex, DxO Viewpoint and Filmpack) for specific purposes. I may also use Luminar and PerfectlyClear occasionally to create a specific preset-based look. Currently I am also looking into using DxO Photolab for raw processing.