One week in Europe. One bag to pack. One camera to bring. Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless. A lot of ones and firsts leading up to my trip to Europe this past week but, like any other trip, I was caught debating which camera to bring, up until the last minute. Luckily for me, coinciding perfectly with my departure, we received a Nikon Z 7 for review two days before I was set to leave for England and Germany. I’d been eyeing this camera since its announcement last fall and, on paper and in my mind, it seemed like the perfect camera for traveling and the type of photography I like to do. So, without hesitation, I grabbed the Z 7 from the B&H offices and told everyone I’d be back in a week.
Most of my photography is done while I’m traveling, and one of the most valuable assets of a camera system, for me, is the ratio of performance to size. I’ve traveled in the past with full-frame systems, as well as much, much larger film systems, but I’m always looking to cut back on the size of my kit. At the same time, though, I’m not willing to sacrifice image quality for camera size. I also do my best to adhere to a strict one-bag philosophy when I travel. And that doesn’t mean one camera bag and one bag for clothes and everything else… it means one bag for everything—the camera and all of my clothes. Fortunately, full-frame mirrorless cameras have been the perfect match for my travel requirements, and the Z 7 was no exception. For this trip, I packed the Z 7 body, the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens, and the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens, along with two batteries, the charger, and two XQD cards. All of this, plus my clothes for the week, fit into my Domke F-2 backpack.
I arrived in London after a redeye, and spent my first day meeting with friends, seeing a couple of sights, and walking around Hackney. I had my entire bag on me for the day of walking. This was the first key to the Z 7 being particularly suitable for travel—it’s not a burden to carry as a walkaround camera. This first day I also spent shooting exclusively with the 50mm f/1.8. Carrying this setup around felt comfortable. The lens, while not the smallest, balances perfectly with the body and I typically just prefer working with a prime over a zoom. Some other revelations from the first day: I really enjoyed the EVF, I was impressed by the battery life, and getting the camera set up for shooting was a breeze, since I’m familiar with the menu system from my days of being a Nikon DSLR shooter.
But, most importantly, what struck me most after reviewing some images from the first day was the look and feel of the images. Even just judging from the camera’s LCD and from looking at files on my phone, there was a smoothness to the image files that felt familiar. Not surprisingly, it reminded me of when I had a chance to shoot with the D850 a while back. The Z 7 uses an updated version of that sensor, which is to say Nikon used one of the most appealing attributes of one of the most appealing cameras in the last few years. There’s no need to go into all of the technical aspects of this sensor but suffice it to say it continues to hold up with the Z 7 as it did with the D850. Especially when working at lower ISO values, there is a richness and saturation to the photos that is very filmic, but still sharp and cutting to feel contemporary, rather than nostalgic.
After just a day in London, I headed back to the airport and flew to Berlin for the next leg of my trip. Apparently, I brought the gray and rainy weather with me from London to Germany and was greeted by a cool mist after taking the train from Schönefeld to the city. I spent my first afternoon walking around the city center, taking in the history and admiring the mixture of architectural styles and monuments. While I had mentioned that one of my first takeaways of the Z 7 was the EVF, it was after a couple of days of using it that it became clearer (no pun intended) as to why I started to value it so much. The specifications of the finder—0.8x magnification, 3.6m-dot OLED—are impressive but they don’t necessarily scream noteworthy on paper.
Other high-end full-frame systems also sport similar high magnification over-3m-dot OLED finders. The implementation of the Nikon one, though, felt intuitive and seamless to use, especially for someone transitioning from an optical finder to an electronic one. The magnification spec, especially, makes shooting a very comfortable experience. The toggle button on the side of the viewfinder, to cycle between viewing modes, is also very practical for switching between the EVF and the rear LCD. In practice, I kept it on viewfinder priority, which would only turn on the viewfinder when raised to my eye. It would then shut off automatically between shots, helping to conserve battery life. I also never used the LCD for shooting, so it would always remain dark, but when I would press the play button to review images, they would automatically show up on the screen rather than the EVF. For me, this is exactly how I like it to function, since I’d prefer not to review my images in the EVF, but also do not want to shoot using the screen.
One thing that had been on my mind even before I took the Z 7 to review was the controversy over the use of a single XQD memory card slot, opposed to a dual slot of some kind, either SD or XQD. Considering the type of shooting I do (which is not all that unique), the use of a single card is not an issue for me. Even though I am traveling to shoot, and do not have immediate access or opportunity to reshoot something, I never felt uneasy about only having a single copy of my files. I can also decidedly say that I much prefer XQD to SD card types. The speed and more assuring form factor of XQD outweighs the benefits and commonness of SD in my mind, especially at the end of this trip when I had nearly 100GB of files to back up to my computer. I won’t argue that having two slots would certainly appeal to more and upset fewer, but I also feel that writing off an entire camera due to this seems a bit rash. Sure, it’s maybe not the most ideal configuration for weddings, sports, and other examples where you’ll never be able to reshoot, but I’d also say that this is maybe not the best camera for those subjects, based on a handful of other reasons. It’s not the card slot that’s limiting this camera from being a top sports camera.
On my final morning in Berlin, I made one last stop at the Puppentheater-Museum Berlin on the way to the airport. This was the first time I had used the Z 7 for interior shooting, and really the first time I was cognizant of making use of the sensor-shift Vibration Reduction system. The Z 7 and Z 6 are the first interchangeable-lens cameras to feature sensor-shift VR, and for me, it’s a welcomed change, compared to lens-based VR systems, especially if you’re a fan of manual focus lenses. Nikon claims this VR system compensates for up to five stops of shake. I don’t have a valid way of testing this, but I can say that images I made at around 1/15 and 1/30 of a second were noticeably sharper than using a camera system without VR. And this feels especially important with the high resolution of the Z 7’s sensor.
Back on a plane to London, and then on my way to a train from there. I was taking the Night Riviera sleeper train out to Cornwall, where I would spend a few days driving around the countryside and the dramatic west coast of England. When I woke up the next morning in blustery and misty Penzance, it seemed that the theme of my trip was to be gray skies and rainy conditions. From the train station, I picked up my rental car and drove back east along the coast. First stop of the day was the southernmost point of mainland England; Lizard Point. With wind gusts over 40 mph, and still raining, it was a very pleasant day to be out shooting.
Despite the weather, it was still a breathtaking place, with jagged cliffs, crashing waves, and small cottages perched on top of the rocks. Despite the rain, though, Cornwall became a very true test of the Z 7’s weather resistance. Not enough that it was just raining, but the wind was pushing the rain sideways, so moisture was hitting the camera at all angles. And the closer I got to the ocean, the more sea spray would be added to the moisture mix. I had read, before traveling, how the Z 7’s sealing was especially impressive, and in practical use I had to agree. Even down to the tiny details, like the EVF having a fluorine coating, I felt comfortable about using this camera in these miserable conditions.
Taking a break from the winds and rain, I found a café for Cornish cream tea before departing Lizard Point and heading north toward Tintagel. Relentless, the winds, rain, and fog didn’t let up as I moved north. With the conditions starting to get dark, too, this became a test for the ISO performance in addition to the VR system. Even though it was still daylight hours, the intense fog and gray conditions forced me to bump the sensitivity over ISO 1000 for a number of shots. Even while the Z 7 runs up to ISO 25600, for my own preferences I like to keep it at ISO 1600 or lower. Moving north of ISO 1600, some noise was present, but it was very usable, and color noise began to be more visible once you moved higher than ISO 6400. Coupled with the VR, this setup was up to the task of handling difficult lighting, since you can keep the ISO at a high but reasonable level and rely on the VR to make up the difference for working at slightly slower shutter speeds.
The difficult lighting conditions also resulted in being a test for the camera’s autofocus system, which was really the first time I noticed the camera expelling any effort at focusing over the course of my week abroad. Due to the dim and low-contrast nature of the light, focusing times were understandably a bit slower than when I wasn’t shrouded in fog and rain, but they were still nothing worth complaining about. One gripe I have with the autofocus, in direct comparison to something like the D850, is the inability to lock your focus-point selection. I prefer to work with single-point focus, and essentially 100% of the time I want my focus point to be in the middle since I am used to focusing and then recomposing. With DSLRs of the past, there has been a switch around the AF point selection D-pad to lock the point selection and prevent it from being bumped to a neighboring point. With the new joystick design, this feature is lost. On the plus side, you can configure the joystick or the OK button to reset the AF point to the center.
With my time in Cornwall coming to a quick end, I spent my last day driving back along the western coast, through St. Ives, back to Penzance to catch my train back to London. On the train ride back, I had time to go over some of the other features of the Z 7 that I had overlooked over the course of my week shooting. I used the Nikon SnapBridge app to check some of the images on my phone. Compared to previous versions, the app’s design has improved noticeably and offered quick and seamless connection over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for transferring files to my phone. Alternatively, this was also the first time I spent substantial time looking at the rear LCD screen of the camera, which is a shame because it’s actually a very nice screen at 3.2" with 2.1m dots, a tilting design, and touchscreen interface. I’m not a big LCD person, and usually don’t mind these specs, but the clarity of the screen and ease of touch controls were great for flipping through images. Other points worth mentioning include the top settings LCD, which is a pleasant carryover from DSLRs, and further contributed to my not needing to use the rear LCD all week. And finally, a critical spec for traveling: the battery life was impressive for a mirrorless camera. I love that the common EN-EL15 battery type is used (the same used in the D850, D750, D500, D7500, and several other models) and in my experience, I could comfortably get a full day’s shooting accomplished on a single battery. Even with the conservative rating of 330 shots per charge, I was shooting in cold, wet conditions for several hours each day and only needed a midday battery change once during the week.
Back in London, about to board my flight to the USA, I reflected on my time in Europe with the Nikon Z 7. I came into the week with high expectations for the camera. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Nikon, especially regarding the D800-series, and the Z 7 feels like a perfect follow-up to the D850. There are many notable differences between the two cameras, beyond the obvious DSLR versus mirrorless, but there are so many similarities, too. And most of the positives of the Z 7 stem from what makes the D850 such a good camera. The image quality, the handling and body design, and the EVF would be my top three takeaways from the week. Luckily, these are the top three attributes I look for in almost any camera system. I’m very impressed by Nikon’s freshman full-frame mirrorless; the Z 7 feels like a well-resolved camera, which is certainly due to Nikon’s history of perfecting the DSLR. I’m excited to see where the system goes next, and anxiously await the lens system growing to accommodate even more users’ needs.
Are you an early adopter to Nikon’s Z system? What are your thoughts on the company’s first foray into full-frame mirrorless? Are there any features that you applaud or that are deal breakers? And what are you hoping to see in the next cameras? Let us know your thoughts on all things Nikon Z in the space below.