It’s now been about a year since I started using the Nikon Z cameras as my main system for photography. This article isn’t a review or a recommendation – instead, simply a bird’s-eye view of how I see the Z system now that the newness has worn off.
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The days when “better camera sensors” were responsible for most of the image quality gains in photography are over. Those days were probably over a while ago, about the time of the Nikon D800’s introduction.
Today, the biggest image quality frontiers involve lenses and software. With the Nikon Z system, both of those factors play a huge role.
Let’s start with camera lenses, an area that Nikon has truly excelled with the Z system. At the moment, you can buy the following ten lenses for Nikon Z:
- 24-70mm f/4 S
- 35mm f/1.8 S
- 50mm f/1.8 S
- 24-70mm f/2.8 S
- 14-30mm f/4 S
- 85mm f/1.8 S
- 24mm f/1.8 S
- 58mm f/0.95 S
- 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 (DX only)
- 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 (DX only)
It’s a who’s who of some of the best glass available today. The 24-70mm f/2.8 S is the sharpest 24-70mm we’ve ever tested (see here) – and the f/4 version isn’t far behind. The 35mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.8 handily beat the previous benchmark Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses. There’s not a dud in the bunch.
The roadmap through 2021 looks promising, too, with pancake lenses, supertelephoto zooms, more wide-angles, and so on. The most obvious lens that’s missing is a 70-200mm f/4, or some similar lightweight telephoto.
What makes the Z lenses so impressive is that Nikon managed to fit class-leading image quality into remarkably small and lightweight packages. Some of that is thanks to help from software corrections (see the next section below). And much of it, I suspect, is due to the large diameter and small flange distance of the Z mount. As we previously covered, the Z mount’s design allows for more flexibility in lens construction than any competing mount on the market today.
Overall, I’m comfortable saying that the Nikon Z system has better image quality than the Nikon F system. Sure, a handful of top-tier F-mount lenses are in the same league – the 28mm f/1.4, 17mm f/4 TS-E, Zeiss Otus glass, and so on. But on a lens-by-lens basis, the Z system is ahead. Not a single Z lens at the moment loses to its F-mount counterpart in image quality. Given that camera sensors seem to be approaching an image quality plateau, that’s no small factor to consider.
The other side of the modern image quality coin is software. I think we owe a lot of progress in this area to smartphone manufacturers, which need clever software “tricks” in order to counteract the big disadvantages of such tiny sensors.
Creative use of software and image blending has always been a good way to extend the native capabilities of a camera. Panoramas increase resolution, and HDR images capture more dynamic range – to name the obvious examples. But those are just the beginning.
How relevant is the Nikon Z system here? In the past, Nikon has always been hesitant to embrace software corrections to eke maximum quality from a camera. The Z cameras don’t change things entirely, but they’re stepping a bit more confidently in that direction.
One such feature is the low-light autofocus on the Z cameras. This mode uses longer shutter speeds to give bright image previews in ultra-low light, massively extending the cameras’ focusing capabilities. Still, there’s room for more; Nikon has not yet reached the practical upper limit of this technology. Imagine a camera that can autofocus on the stars by taking a series of high ISO, long shutter speed images, finding the sharpest, and locking the lens at that distance.
Another area where the Z system relies on software to overcome limits is in lens corrections – specifically distortion. For example, the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S kit lens has fairly high distortion, and also somewhat strong vignetting. Software like Lightroom applies image corrections automatically, which fixes the distortion and crops away much of the vignetting.
Not everyone is thrilled with lens designs that rely so heavily on post-processing corrections. Still, personally, I’ve come to appreciate them in time (though I do wish that Lightroom allowed us to turn corrections off if so desired). Every lens has compromises – but by compromising in directions that are easy to fix in post, Nikon has created one of the smallest, sharpest 24-70mm zooms on the market. I find it difficult to think of situations where that’s a disappointing result.
Lastly, Nikon embraces the software side of things with the Z cameras’ focus stacking feature. Focus stacking is ordinarily a very slow process involving a lot of manual effort. With modern cameras, though, it’s pretty close to seamless (though you still need to blend the result manually in post-processing). This feature isn’t unique to Nikon Z, but it’s still a point in the direction I’ve been discussing.
Still, other cameras on the market – Nikon’s mirrorless competitors as well as phones – show that there’s far more that can be done with the help of clever processing tricks. The high resolution sensor-shift mode on the Panasonic S1/S1R and Sony A7R IV is one example. Here’s a comparison from our Panasonic S1R review showing just how much better image quality can be with this mode enabled. “Before” is a regular shot, while “After” is high-resolution sensor shift:
Beyond that, one method that’s growing in popularity today is image stacking to reduce noise (i.e., rapidly taking many high ISO photos and averaging them together). It’s why I don’t mind having an f/4 lens for Milky Way photography rather than f/2.8 or wider – see our article on image stacking for astrophotography. It’s also why today’s phones are better than ever in low light conditions. I recently captured the following image handheld on an iPhone. Its image quality is not quite perfect, but I’ll emphasize again – this is handheld, on a phone, almost an hour after sunset (click to see larger, and look at the sky on the left to see stars):
My question is, why do dedicated cameras made by camera companies not have a similar feature?
Heck, my phone is now on par with handholding an aps-c DSLR in low light environments. Just think how much better the DSLR would be if it used a similar algorithm!
Going further, we’ve already seen phones pave the way for multi-sensor cameras and ultra-low base ISOs, both of which contribute to image quality improvements despite using tiny sensors. And those are just the beginning.
There’s been talk recently of sensors that can “count” when a pixel has overexposed, reset it, and keep exposing. This technology (which of course is also hardware-dependent) has the potential to dramatically improve dynamic range compared to our current limits. I don’t expect Nikon or any other camera company to implement this particular technology any time soon, but I bring it up to emphasize that there are many areas of improvement that remain, even if it seems like sensor quality is close to its maximum in the DSLR and mirrorless worlds.
So far, I’ve been ignoring the desktop side of things. But, arguably, that’s where the biggest image quality leaps in recent years have come from. Today’s artificial intelligence algorithms in post-processing software – including those which decrease noise, fix image blur, and upsample images – are amazing. The new AI processing tools look astonishing compared to the previous generations.
Could manufacturers like Nikon accelerate this future by sharing more information with post-processing companies? I suspect so. We’ve already seen this with color science. The otherwise much-maligned Nikon Capture NX software has a reputation for amazing colors, better than perhaps any other software on the market. Perhaps noise reduction and shadow recovering algorithms, among others, could benefit in a similar way.
All of this is to say that the Nikon Z system only scratches the surface in its potential for software corrections and associated features. Despite that, it’s better than almost every DSLR in this regard. The areas where Nikon does embrace software-based image quality improvements are already among the Z system’s best features.
If the Nikon Z cameras are to thrive in the future, they need to embrace the processes I’ve talked about above whenever possible – or else hope that none of the other camera manufacturers do.
One of the more controversial aspects of the Z cameras is their autofocus implementation. But if you’re under the impression that the Z system has bad autofocus, you probably haven’t gotten the whole story.
In practice, for AF-S (single-servo) autofocus, Nikon Z cameras are at the top of the market. As I’ve mentioned in a few reviews so far, this is the first camera system we’ve used at Photography Life that allows us to test lenses by autofocusing on our charts. With previous cameras, we always had to focus manually; even contrast-detect in live view was too imprecise. By comparison, it’s scary how small the tolerances are on the Z system’s autofocus (and how fast AF-S is – not quite the quickest we’ve ever seen, but no slouch either).
AF-C is a bit of a different story. It’s still fast, but it doesn’t track erratically-moving subjects as well as some other cameras on the market. The implementation is also very awkward, requiring an unconventional press of the center OK button in order to enable 3D tracking (and eliminating some tracking modes altogether). This has gotten more natural after a year, but it’s still not a smooth implementation.
Photographers who specialize in portraits or anything slower-moving than that (landscapes, architecture, etc.) shouldn’t have any issues with the Nikon Z system’s autofocus. However, for certain types of sports and wildlife photography, there’s plenty of room for improvement. The longer you use the camera, the more comfortable things like this will get – but even with practice, the AF-C implementation still doesn’t hold up against the best available today.
Every first-generation camera has issues, but they’re generally the sorts of things you’ll get used to over time. That’s one reason why I recommend sticking with your camera for as long as possible; it just becomes quicker and more seamless to use over time. That said, I’ll mention some of these issues that still stand out to me with the Z system after a year of use – though I won’t spend too much time here because they’re already pretty common knowledge.
For starters, the single card slot on the Z6 and Z7 got a lot of attention when these cameras came out. Dual slots would be a great addition to the second generation of Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless, but a single slot isn’t all that annoying in practice. (Just be disciplined about carrying extra cards and backing up full cards quickly). This definitely is less obtrusive to me now than it was at first.
One issue that has become worse over time is the oversensitive eye detection sensor on the Z6 and Z7’s viewfinder. The more time you spend in dusty environments, the more likely these cameras are to think your eye is constantly at the viewfinder. That ruins a nice feature of mirrorless cameras – seamless transitions between live view and the EVF when you hold the camera up to your eye. Cleaning the eye sensor helps a bit, but the problem flares up again before too long.
Another issue that has grown worse over time is image dust. That’s no surprise – dust gradually builds up on any camera sensor – but it has happened a bit more quickly with mirrorless than with my DSLRs. It’s not too hard to clean (actually a bit easier than with a DSLR), but it does make me wish for the sensor-protection feature found on the Canon EOS R.
Last is my least favorite thing about the Z cameras. When you shoot in live view, the image data – shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. – covers your image at the bottom in fairly large characters. There is no display option to turn these off (even though they’re redundant with the information on the Z6’s and Z7’s top LCD display)! For careful composition, it’s a nightmare. Has this gotten less obtrusive over the past year? Hardly. My ridiculous workaround at the moment is to review my photos constantly in order to see a proper display.
Where Does the Z System Stand?
I don’t want to mince words or equivocate that there is no real “best” mirrorless camera company today. As I see it, the Nikon Z mirrorless system is behind that of Sony at the moment, while ahead of the competing systems from Canon and Panasonic.
Of course, that depends on your needs. There’s a reason why I’m shooting with the Z system rather than Sony. And why someone who needs a 28-70mm f/2 should go with Canon, or who prefers a heftier build quality should consider Panasonic. But that’s how I think Nikon Z stands at the moment, having used all four systems in question.
There are a few ways Nikon can keep its position or continue gaining on Sony. For starters, Nikon needs to improve the AF-C autofocus on the Z system, especially the UI of autofocus tracking. Its AF-S system is exceptional, but that won’t win over photographers who mainly photograph moving subjects.
Nikon also needs to utilize more software-dependent features to stretch the limits of the Z series as far as possible. What if the Z cameras could autofocus on the stars using longer shutter speed previews? What if Nikon used smartphone-type algorithms in low light to average out noise in handheld images? If Nikon doesn’t do it, another company will.
Indeed, other companies already have – Apple, Google, Samsung – and they’re selling extraordinary levels of cameras as a result. (Think of the iPhone 11, which beat sales predictions, and whose main improvements over its predecessor almost all involve the camera.) I shudder to think how Nikon, Canon, or Sony would fare against a full-frame Apple mirrorless camera.
Lastly, Nikon should iron out the features complaints and bugs in the Z system that people have talked about over the past year. Dual memory card slots are part of that, and hopefully something we’ll see in the next generation of Z cameras. The same goes for a better, less sensitive viewfinder eye sensor. And (finally, mercifully) offering a live view display option that hides all shooting data and just shows the image.
The Nikon Z system is awesome – and I believe underrated. It has some of the best lenses on the market, amazing AF-S autofocus capabilities, great weight/quality balance, and well thought-out handling. After a year of use, that’s only become clearer; I’m very happy with the system and have no regrets about switching from a DSLR. But if Nikon wants to convince more customers like me, they still have plenty more work to do.