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Nikon's Z7 and Z6 mirrorless cameras are a refined pleasure

After some hands-on time with NIkon's first full-frame mirrorless, we love it -- warts and all.

nikon-promo-hands-dog

Nikon's mirrorless cameras take some great photos.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Nikon may be very late to market with its pro and prosumer mirrorless cameras, but as far as I can tell from a few hours of shooting with the high-end Z7, Nikon's hits very close to the bullseye on the first try. The Z7 is basically a mirrorless adaptation of the excellent but burdensome Nikon D850, while the Z6 is an up-to-date prosumer full frame (the D610 and D750 are a bit old at this point).

However, despite the company's claim of "mirrorless reinvented," it's a pretty conventional example of the category; Nikon should have gone with "mirrorless refined." Because the refinements, from the pitch-perfect shutter to the we'll-make-it-as-big-as-we-want grip, are what make it a pleasure to use.

Nikon's strategy follows Sony's to a certain extent: two models, one expensive high-end, one more prosumer midrange. They have identical bodies differentiated predominantly by the sensor. The Z7 and Z6 differ in important ways: the Z7 has a 45.7-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, no blurring optical low-pass filter and slightly better tonal capture in bright light.

Meanwhile the Z6 uses a 24.5 megapixel BSI CMOS with an OLPF and has slightly better tonality in dim light. The resolution difference also means the Z7 has slower continuous-shooting performance -- it's processing a lot more data. They also have different autofocus-area density, probably because there are more on-chip phase detection sensors in a chip with more pixels.

While the Z7 is the more interesting, the Z6 will probably be more popular -- the price is much more approachable if you don't need the high resolution, and most people probably don't. But the Z7's 45-plus-megapixels come in really handy if you even only occasionally need to crop deep into a photo, want your photos to look terrific in the evolving 4K and 8K world, retouch down to the pixel for isolating hair or other fine details or work with high-end print publications.

In addition to the cameras, Nikon launched the first three lenses for the Z mount in conjunction with a new "S" designation for its premium lens models. They're optimized for the new system: a 35mm f1.8 S, 50mm f1.8 S and a 24-70mm f4 S.

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How much?

The Nikon Z7 will ship by the end of September in the US, with the body selling for $3,400 or $4,000 with the 24-70mm f4 lens. The Z6 won't be ready until late November, its body selling for $2,000 and $2,600 for a kit with the same lens. 

In the UK, the nominal prices are the same for the Z7 -- £3,400 for the body and £4,000 for the same kit -- which makes it more expensive there relative to the US. The Z6 costs £2,100 and £2,700, respectively, even more expensive relative to the US pricing. Australians don't have any official prices yet; the Z7 price converts to AU$4,760 and AU$5,450 for the body and kit, respectively, and AU$2,720 and AU$3,500 for the Z6 body and kit.

The 35mm ($850) and 24-70mm ($1,000) lenses, plus the $250 Mount Adapter FTZ will be available at the same time as the Z7, while the $600 50mm will follow by the end of October. If you buy the FTZ with one of the bodies before the end of the year, Nikon will shave $100 off the price.

The UK price for the 24-70mm f4 S is also £1,000, but Nikon hasn't revealed the prices for the other two lenses; given the pattern, they'll probably run £850 for the 35mm and £600 for the 50mm. The Australian conversions are about AU$1,160, AU$1,360 and AU$820.

While the Z6's price is roughly competitive with the Sony A7 III, the Z7 costs more than the A7R III, but with modern niceties like a USB-C connection for faster transfers and charging, as well as 5GHz Wi-Fi for faster, more stable wireless transfers. It also supports the faster-than-SD XQD cards -- ironic, since XQD is a Sony standard; adding CF Express is just a matter of a forthcoming firmware update (the card slots for the two are the same).

What about the image quality?

I can only base my judgement about photo quality on JPEGs straight from a preproduction version of the camera; the firmware was extremely early and the raw files completely inaccessible. That means we really have no conclusive information about its latitude for highlight and shadow recovery, color accuracy or tonal range; we also don't know if there's any in-camera correction adjusting for possible issues with the new lenses. But you can safely assume that anything good will still be good, or possibly better, when the camera finally ships. (With the samples, remember that browser rendering and scaling doesn't faithfully reproduce the original.)

 The color, highlight and shadow detail preservation is terrific. (1,920x1,080 crop from an ISO 12800 image taken using the 24-70mm f4 S lens.)

Lori Grunin/CNET

Bearing those caveats in mind, I was very impressed with the photos. Unsurprising, since you should expect the same as the D850, one of the best full-frame sensors today. High resolution allows high ISO-sensitivity photos to preserve sharpness better than they might otherwise as noise increases. But you can't throw pixels at tonal range: the real test of high ISO quality is how well renders colors and highlight and shadow detail. The Z7 excels.

At ISO 25600, there was some noise in the sky but it preserved the subtle dusk colors. (1,920x1,080 crop from an ISO 12800 image taken using the 24-70mm f4 S lens.)

Lori Grunin/CNET

Sharp! ISO 1000 shots are as sharp as ISO 200. (1,920 x 1,080 crop from an ISO 500 portrait-orientation image taken using the 105mm f1.4 lens at f2.)

Lori Grunin/CNET

Performance? Good question

Autofocus is accurate and while continuous AF can get distracted, overall there are more hits than misses, at least for the not-terribly-fast action we got to shoot. 

The Z7 focuses quickly and accurately, even wide open on small targets. (Cropped to 1,920x1,080, 35mm f1.8 S lens at f1.8, 1/640 sec, ISO 400)

Lori Grunin/CNET

My one performance wish: a bigger buffer. The continuous shooting isn't ready for NASCAR, but its 8 to 9fps is quite respectable and sufficient for midspeed action. However, the buffer only handles about 23 to 25 shots, and if you want to shoot raw+JPEG continuously (don't judge me), you're out of luck. In contrast, the Sony A7R III delivers three times the shots at a faster 10fps.

The new sensor-shift image stabilization seemed inconsistent; I got some perfect shots at 1/10 second, but ones with shake at 1/80 sec. The slow motion video showed some moire as well, which didn't appear in the regular 4K video -- that looks great, by the way. The metering seemed unpredictable, some times working as expected and other times underexposing. There was a lot of white in the scenes we were shooting, though, and it could easily have just missed the correct area to base the exposure on. But those problems may be limited to the preproduction models.

The metering-sensitivity specs in bright light look a bit low, maxing out at 17EV, and autofocus sensitivity only goes up to 19EV. Almost every modern camera can go up to 20EV. Bright sunlight is about 15 EV so it's probably an edge case, but for shooting water or winter sports it might become an issue. And along those lines, the flash sync speed is only 1/200 sec, which makes using flash to stop action suboptimal, though it does support Nikon's Auto FP sync which can compensate.  

Low-light, low-contrast autofocus wasn't great, but the Z7 has a specific mode for focusing under those conditions which I didn't get to try. 

Battery life suffers for backward compatibility

Nikon seems to have made a strong effort to make sure the Z system hits the ground running. It supports most of the existing accessories, and uses the same format batteries (just a generational update) as the D850 and D7500 -- and that's a potential problem. 

Mirrorless cameras would suck all the energy from the universe if they could. Nikon hasn't revealed the capacity of the EN-EL15b, but the 1,900MAh EN-EL15a battery that's in the D850 is rated for 1,840 shots; the Z7's is rated for a miserably insufficient 330 shots or 85 minutes of video. 

Sony took a lot of heat for the horrible battery life in the early A7 models, and the company hasn't yet completely overcome that perception; its most recent 2,280mAh battery is rated for 710 shots via the viewfinder, still not up to pro DSLR levels. You can use the older EL15 series batteries in the Z7, but they don't even last as long as the newer one.

Actual battery life usually exceeds the rated life, and in the couple of hours in which I took about 700 shots it didn't die on me, which improves on my early Sony experiences. But it remains that the D850 will last approximately three times the Z7. That's really why Nikon has a two-battery pack (MB-N10) in development, but there's no ETA attached to its release. The company says it will increase shots or movie recording time by 1.8x, but normally the rated increase is one-for-one; add another battery, get twice the life. Two batteries should deliver more.

Nikon should have developed new high-capacity batteries for the Z line. Battery life can be a deal killer for high-volume photographers and videographers. At the announcement, Nikon trotted out some of its Ambassadors who mentioned in passing that the battery life was OK but didn't really give any details.

Many lenses

The FTZ Mount Adapter allows almost all of the F-mount lenses to work on the Zs without compromise, and is able to take advantage of the sensor-shift image stabilization and autofocus (if the lens supports it). 

F-mount support is important because Nikon's late to the game and doesn't have the luxury to roll out new lenses slowly. And while the new Nikkor Z lenses are quite good, most of the best Nikon glass as well as ultra wide-angle, telephoto and supertelephoto lenses will only be available in F mount for the near future. Nikon has an aggressive roadmap for lens releases, but the two essential staples for pros, a 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8, aren't coming out until next year.

Nikon

The new, wide lens mount (one of the biggest in this class at 55mm), allows for superfast (wide aperture) lenses, one of the latest want-to-haves among a large niche of photographers. Nikon has a 58mm f0.95 in the works, along with a new coating to improve image quality.  

The Z-mount lenses look and feel a lot simpler and more streamlined than the traditional Nikkor designs, but the primes seem a little big thanks to the mount. Unlike the F-mount models, these are designed to be quiet and smooth with video in mind, sporting electromagnetic diaphrams (for fast, silent exposure adjustment). They have the control ring popular on advanced compacts that can be used for manual focus or programmed for another function.

As promised, the new lenses are sharp, and the 24-70mm f4 has a retractable design that just works: You don't need to press buttons, just rotate. I like the way the body uses the AF-area box to indicate lock when you're manually focusing -- it has peaking, too, which can be obtrusive -- but I found the focus ring just a hair too loose on 35mm lens, so the indicator kept twitching in and out of focus.      

nikon-z7-with-long-lens

The Z7 plus the Mount Adapter works very well; even large lenses feel and operate naturally on the body.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The body's designed to support the large DSLR lenses, with a huge grip for balanced handling. I shot with the 85mm f1.4, 105mm f1.4, 250-560mm f5.6 and 300mm f4 and all felt "native," with no focus lag or miscues. That's great if you've already sunk a lot of money into Nikon lenses, but using humongous DSLR lenses defeats the purpose of using a smaller body (though it still saves you about three quarters of a pound). The same goes for accessories like flashes; the Z7 body is dwarfed by a even a midrange flash like the SB-5000.

The feels

The Z7 is comfortable to grip, the EVF is big, bright and well-designed, and the shutter mechanism is just right -- not too mushy, not too stiff and not too thunky.   

The body design is pretty typical of the category. It does hit a lot of the the important checkboxes, such as size; it's smaller and lighter than a comparable DSLR (don't assume all mirrorless models are), roughly the size of the latest Sony A7 bodies. On first glance, I was hoping for more manual controls on top instead of the status LCD. With an EVF and a back LCD which both can convey the same information, top status displays frequently feel superfluous. 

In fact, it doesn't have enough direct-access controls at all. There are two programmable function buttons between the lens and the grip, a location I always find awkward. Almost everything else requires hitting a button that brings up the electronic interface to navigate: metering, focus parameters, drive modes and so on. There's no separate exposure lock button. It just feels less streamlined than the prosumer D7500 with respect to controls. 

It has the same dust-and-weather resistant build quality as the D850, as well as the sturdy magnesium alloy construction. The viewfinder has a fluorine coating to help repel the various detritus that piles up against it. Unfortunately, it only has a single card slot. Meh.

As for video, the epiphanic joy the Nikon folks expressed when they realized how much better the mirrorless experience is for shooting video than a DSLR says it all. It's sad that they've been missing out all these years. The Zs have all the essential video-shooting capabilities, such as 4K UHD/30p and 1080/120p for slow motion (on the Z7 in DX mode it uses a full-pixel readout), N-Log 10-bit HDMI out to a recorder simultaneously with 8-bit internal. There's an N-Log display profile for on-camera playback, a headphone jack for monitoring audio output, time code support and manual focus peaking. It can also do 8K time-lapse movies.

And yet...

Despite all the nitpicks, I really, really like the Z7. It has some drawbacks, but fewer little irritations than the A7 models. It starts up fast and isn't constrained by Sony's annoying AVC-based file structure. The Nikon's shutter feels much more fluid and responsive than Sony's, and when you come down to it, most of your photography time is spent pressing the shutter. While it lacks many direct-access controls, some of Sony's are awkwardly placed. In general, it just gets out of the way more than most of the cameras I've used, in part because it doesn't incorrectly conflate an unobtrusive camera with a minimalist one. Plus, Nikon and Sony are more or less equal with respect to photo quality in this class.

The wildcard? Canon, which is supposedly announcing a mirrorless full-frame next month and is very good at camera-body design. But as the unfashionable latecomer, it's facing even stiffer competition than it was a month ago. 

Comparative specifications


Nikon D850 Nikon Z7 Nikon Z6 Sony A7 III Sony A7R III
Sensor effective resolution 45.7MP CMOS 14-bit 45.7MP BSI CMOS 14-bit 24.5MP BSI CMOS 14-bit 24.2MP Exmor RS CMOS 14-bit 42.4MP Exmor R CMOS 14-bit
Sensor size 35.9x23.9mm 35.9x23.9mm 35.9x23.9mm 35.8x23.8mm 35.8x23.9mm
OLPF No No Yes Yes No
Sensitivity range ISO 32 (exp)/64 - ISO 25600/ 51200 (exp) ISO 32 (exp)/64 - ISO 25600/ 102400(exp) ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 - ISO 25600/ 204800 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 25600/ ISO 204800 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 - ISO 30000/102400 (exp)
Continuous shooting 7fps 51 raw (9fps with battery grip) 9fps (8fps raw) 23 shots (12-bit) raw/25 JPEG 12fps (9fps raw)  10fps 177 JPEG 10fps 76 raw/76 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) Optical 100% coverage 0.75x/0.75x Electronic 100% coverage 3.7 million dots 0.5 in/1.3cm 0.8x/0.8x Electronic 100% coverage 3.7 million dots 0.5 in/1.3cm 0.8x/0.8x OLED EVF 0.5-inch 2.4 million dots 100% coverage 0.71x OLED EVF 0.5 in/1.3cm 3.7 million dots 100% coverage 0.78x
Hot Shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Autofocus 153-point 99 cross-type (15 cross-type to f8) Multi-CAM 20K Hybrid AF System 493 phase-detection, contrast n/a Hybrid AF System 273 phase-detection, contrast n/a 693-poing phase-detection AF; 25-area contrast AF 399-point phase-detection AF, 425-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity (at center point) -4 - 20 EV -1 - 19 EV (-4 EV with low-light AF) -2 - 19 EV (-4 EV with low-light AF) -3 - 20 EV -3 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync; auto FP sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync; auto FP sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Metering 180,000-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering III n/a n/a 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering sensitivity -3 - 20 EV -3 to 17 EV -4 to 17 EV n/a -3 - 20 EV
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p H.264 Quicktime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p; 1080/120p H.264 Quicktime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p; 1080/120p XAVC S 4K 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps; 1080/120p @ 100Mbps XAVC S 4K 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps; 1080/120p @ 100Mbps
Audio stereo; mic input; headphone jack stereo; mic input stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 29:59 min 29:59 min 29:59 min 29:59 min 29:59 min
Clean HDMI out Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
IS Optical Optical, Sensor shift 5-axis Optical, Sensor shift 5-axis Sensor shift 5-axis Sensor shift 5-axis
LCD 3.2 in/8cm Tilting touchscreen 2.4 million dots 3.2 in/8cm Tilting touchscreen 2.1 million dots 3.2 in/8cm Tilting touchscreen 2.1 million dots 3 in/7.5cm Tilting 921,600 dots plus extra set of white dots 3 in/7.5cm Tilting touchscreen 1.4 million dots
Memory slots 1 x SD, 1 x XQD 1 x XQD 1 x XQD 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC (1 x UHS-II)
Wireless connection Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth
Flash No No No No No
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 1,840 shots (1,900 mAh) 330 shots (1,900mAh) 310 shots (1,900mAh) 710 shots (LCD), 610 shots (VF) (2,280 mAh) 530 shots (VF); 650 shots (LCD) (2,280 mAh)
Size (WHD) 5.8x4.9x3.1 in 146x124x78.5mm 5.3×4×2.7 in 134×101×68mm 5.3×4×2.7 in 134×101×68mm 5x3.9x3 in 127x96x74mm 5x3.8x2.5 in 127x96x63mm
Body operating weight 32.3 oz (est.) 915 g (est.) 23.9 oz (est.) 675 g (est.) 23.9 oz (est.) 675 g (est.) 23 oz (est.) 650 g (est.) 22.3 oz (est.) 657 g (est.)
Mfr. price (body only) $3,300 $3,400, £3,400 $2,000, £2,100 $2,000 £2,000 AU$3,100 $3,000 £3,100 AU$4,400
Primary kit n/a $4,000, £4,000 (with Z 24-70 f4 S lens) $2,600, £2,700 (with Z 24-70 f4 S lens) $2,200 £2,200 (with 28-70mm lens) n/a
Release date September 2017 September 2018 September 2018 April 2018 November 2017

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