Partly as an experiment – and partly because I no longer have a copy of the Nikon Z9 – I recently took a lot of wildlife photos with my trusty Nikon Z7 for our upcoming Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 review. The Z7 isn’t widely known as a camera for fast wildlife photography, and that’s an understatement.
In particular, the Nikon Z7’s autofocus system has major limitations with subject recognition and tracking. Even though the camera’s AF speed and accuracy are actually impressive, the Z7 is pretty bad for following fast-moving subjects.
Or is it? Well, yes. Put the Z7 next to the Z9 (or next to a Canon EOS R5 or Sony A1) and it won’t be a pleasant comparison. Even against a lot of cheaper options, the Z7’s autofocus will usually be the weaker one. I’m not trying to say otherwise with this article.
But “bad” is relative. I finished my recent wildlife photography trip with some newfound respect for what the Z7’s autofocus system can do, even for fast subjects like birds in flight. Once I got the focusing system dialed in (basically just using Wide Area Large and AF-C) sharp photos were the norm.
You might think that I’m a few years late with this news; we already reviewed the Z7 ages ago. But I’m not writing this article about the Z7 specifically. Instead, I have a more general observation today: Your camera is capable of better autofocus than you think.
In other words, if the Nikon Z7 can focus on birds in flight, so can almost any camera. Newer and better focusing systems will always exist, but that’s no reason to feel disheartened by the gear you already have. If you work with your AF system rather than writing it off, you might be shocked at its capabilities.
Here’s one example that shocked me, with a small, fast subject against a chaotic background at ISO 9,000:
Another example, this time in an environment with hardly any light (note the ISO of 25,600 and the 1/125 shutter speed):
All of these photos are with an f/6.3 lens. I’m not feeding the AF system a lot of light here. (Hence the noise in these 100% crops – which haven’t gone through any special sharpening or noise reduction software.) Doesn’t seem to matter.
What about a bird flying directly toward me at high speed? Not a problem.
Here’s a case with some tiny, distant subjects (and a lot of stuff in the background for the AF system to lock onto):
And probably the biggest challenge of all, when something in the foreground was blocking the subject. The Z7’s lowly autofocus system still tracked the bird with no problem.
Thinking back on it, I could say something very similar about the focus system of entry-level DSLRs like Nikon’s cheapest D3400 or D3500. No, they don’t have high-end autofocus. Compared to something like a Nikon D500, it’s nowhere close to a fair fight. But if you master the AF system and understand its limits, you can still get sharp photos of almost any subject.
There are faster birds than the one in the photo above, but this still a bird in flight taken with the Nikon D3400… a camera with 11 autofocus points, one cross-type. It’s only state-of-the-art if you live in the 1990s. Yet the duck’s head is properly focused.
I didn’t do anything special to get the sharp photos you’re seeing in this article. I’m sure that experienced wildlife photographers would have managed a higher keeper rate than I did. But with over a 50% sharpness rate (depending on how extreme I crop it), I can hardly complain.
This isn’t my way of saying that the Nikon Z7 is secretly amazing for wildlife photography. It’s not; most cameras today would have done a better job. But that’s the point. Even though the the Z7 is famously near the bottom of the AF heap, it was still viable for a week of fast-paced wildlife photography.
If that’s all there is to “bad autofocus” in a modern camera, it’s a good time to be a photographer. Whatever gear you have, don’t feel limited by its performance – just go out and shoot! Something better will always exist, but that doesn’t make your current camera any less capable. A bit of effort and practice should be enough for it to shine.