Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless is remarkably accomplished for a first-generation product, says Andy Westlake, and one of the best cameras the firm has ever made
Nikon Z7 Review: Autofocus
While the Z 7 uses a sensor with very similar specifications to the D850, the big difference is that it adds on-chip phase detection for autofocus. This enables a hybrid AF system that uses phase detection for speed followed by contrast detection to ensure the highest accuracy. In all, 493 focus points are selectable, covering 90% of the image area. This may trump the Sony A7R III’s 399 points, but isn’t the highest number on the market, with Canon offering a staggering 5655 focus points on its EOS R. But the difference is practically irrelevant, as with the Z 7 you can still position the focus point wherever in the frame you need it. With S lenses I found AF to be exceptionally fast, essentially silent, and consistently accurate.
It’s possible to select between four different focus area sizes, but most of the time I left the camera in its standard Single-point AF setting, which provides a relatively fine focus point that can be placed accurately on your subject even if you’re shooting through a complex foreground. The smaller Pinpoint mode gives the ultimate accuracy, but is rather slow to move the AF area around using the joystick. Meanwhile the two Wide-area modes are probably best reserved for moving subjects that can’t be reliably held under a single focus point.
Nikon also offers an Auto-area AF mode in which the camera will choose the focus point automatically. Here you can also enable face detection and subject tracking modes, with both working reasonably well. However this is one area where the Z 7 does lag behind both the D850, with its sophisticated 3D tracking AF, and the Sony A7R III’s incredibly capable eye-tracking focus. For example when shooting models using face detection, I found the camera did a perfectly good job of understanding and following their movements, but couldn’t consistently hold focus perfectly on their eyes. So if you shoot moving subjects a lot and need absolutely class-leading tracking capability, then it may be better to look elsewhere.
Nikon Z7 Review: Performance
The Z 7 may be the first model in a completely new line, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Instead it behaves exactly as we’d demand from £3400 Nikon. The camera starts up in a fraction of a second and thereafter responds instantly to control inputs from the buttons, dials and touchscreen. At no point does it ever get in the way of what you’re trying to do; indeed it’s a fine example of camera that feel’s like it’s been crafted and engineered to help you get the shot.
The matrix metering is generally pretty reliable, although I often preferred to dial it down a touch to be sure of not clipping highlights. Of course one of the great advantages of mirrorless is that this becomes a matter of judgement based on the viewfinder preview, rather than guesswork as it is with DSLRs. Auto white balance is typically Nikon; it’s very good at making whites appear pure white, if that’s what you need, but it’s not so great at producing a pleasing rendition of scenic shots on sunny days, giving JPEG images that are overly-cool for my tastes. Naturally you can address this by using a white balance preset instead.
With the Z 7 using a very similar sensor to the D850, it delivers images that are equally superb. At low ISOs that 45.7MP sensor captures oodles of detail and truly astonishing dynamic range, meaning that you can extract detail from deep into the shadows during raw processing, or via the Active D-Lighting control in-camera. Even at higher ISOs you can still underexpose to protect highlights and pull up extra detail later without being unduly swamped by noise. This level of malleability gives remarkable creative flexibility during raw processing, similar to what you’d get from the D850 or Sony A7R III.
I tested the Z 7 using both the 24-70mm f/4 S and 35mm f/1.8 S lenses, along with a selection of F-mount lenses via the FTZ adapter. Both of the native lenses are a good match to the cameras in terms of size and balance, as indeed is the upcoming 50mm f/1.8 S (which I was able to try during Nikon’s launch event).
They’re also superb optically; the whole point of the Z-mount is to be able to maintain sharpness into the corners of the frame even at large apertures, and the optics achieve this spectacularly. Don’t think for a moment that because these lenses have comparatively slow maximum apertures, they’re somehow inferior to f/1.4 primes or f/2.8 zooms for DSLRs, because in reality they’re every bit as good as anything I’ve used on a DSLR, if not better.
One key feature of the Z7 is its in-body image stabilisation, which works with almost every lens you can mount on the camera. Again, it’s remarkably effective for a first-generation version, helping you get sharp shots handheld under a much wider range of conditions. I found it routinely delivered at least 3 stops benefit, and sometimes rather more if you’re able to take several replicate shots. For example, with the 24-70mm f/4 zoom I was able to get sharp images at shutter speeds as slow as ½ sec at 70mm, and 1.3sec at wideangle, both of which count as at least five stops worth of stabilisation. This adds a considerable extra string to your bow for low-light work.