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What You Need to Know About Full-Frame Mirrorless Cameras: Nikon’s Z7 and Z6

How will new cameras from Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, and Panasonic impact video production?

Nikon unveiled its new Z System camera and lens family at an event in New York, where attendees learned about the company’s new full-frame mirrorless Z7 (45.7 effective megapixels, shipping end of September) and Z6 (24.5 effective megapixels going on sale end of November) and the first batch of Z mount lenses—a 24-70 f 4 zoom and the 35mm and 50mm f 1.8 primes—designed to make the most of the advantages the mirrorless design affords to portability and optical efficiency. 

The new product line represents a significant technical leap for Nikon which has been so strongly associated with DSLRs and there was palpable excitement at the Chelsea event as everyone was granted several hours with preproduction model Z7 cameras.

Nikon is certainly not the first to the table with a full-frame mirrorless hybrid offering. Sony’s cameras in that space have already gone through a number iterations, busting into more market segments once owned by Nikon and Canon as they do. Still photographers have embraced Sony’s smaller, lighter mirrorless systems. 

Features made possible with the absence of a reflex mirror system have enabled users to shoot silently for wildlife, movie sets, some sports and other events where shutter clicks are prohibited resulting in collateral market damage: the esteemed Jacobson Blimp company that made the custom encasements for motion picture set photographers closed).

On the heels of Nikon’s big announcement, Canon announced its EOS R full-frame CMOS camera that does a lot of what Nikon’s Z cameras does at a price point (MSRP) $2299 and resolution (30.3 megapixel) right in-between Nikon’s Z 6 and Z 7.

Knowing full well that it’s too late to excite prospective users with just the promise of a mirrorless hybrid camera, Nikon adopted the slogan “Mirrorless Reinvented” to launch the Z system, implying: They did mirrorless first but we’re doing it best.

Z System Overview

The Z7 and Z6 cameras offer a newly-designed CMOS sensor with backside illumination and Nikon’s newest image-processing engine, EXPEED 6. The lenses have been engineered to maximize the optical efficiency made possible when the reflex mirror mechanism is taken out of the equation. 

By reducing the flange distance (back of lens to sensor) from 46.5mm to 16mm and by opening the back from 47mm to 55mm, Nikon engineers and designers have created lenses that allow light to pass through to the sensor significantly more efficiently and reduce the light and sharpness edge falloff that would occur with DSLRs, especially in wide angels, and it enables the designing of lighter lenses and wider maximum aperture than previously possible. Nikon executives teased the upcoming release of the “fastest Nikkor lens ever”—a 58mm “Noct” lens that will open up to f 0.95, because… now they can.

At the event, Nikon engineers flown in from Japan promised that Z lenses on Z cameras can deliver the same image quality open all the way as at any stop in its range. (Photographers generally expect a lens to perform better stopped down a couple of stops than at maximum aperture.)

Nikon also needed to come out of the gate with an EVF that photographers would accept as commensurate with the clarity of an optical reflex system and so the viewfinder in these first mirrorless offerings have “quad-VGA” OLED eyepieces that might not be indistinguishable from the clear glass of an optical reflex finder but could at least meet, if not exceed, the expectations of competing EVFs. For photographers used to composing through a reflex viewfinder, an unimpressive electronic viewfinder would be an instant deal breaker.

The attenuated OLED back panel of the type Nikon D850 users have embraced, offers touch screen menus and also touch autofocus area selection, which can be configured in a number of ways. Video shooters have rarely used hybrid camera’s autofocus because it generally either breathes and looks indecisive or is it finds focus unsettlingly fast fast but Nikon Z cameras allow sophisticated controlling of the speed and smoothness of autofocus to make it feel more organic, more like cinematic rack focusing.

In addition, Nikon also expanded its VR (vibration reduction) options with five-axis image stabilization (sensor-based), digital and lens-based options — all if which can work independently or in unison, depending on camera/lens combo and desired result.

The Z bodies are built of magnesium alloy with all the weatherproof seals and O-rings found on their popular, prosumer D850 and the company has expanded wireless and Bluetooth options for controlling the camera and sending image files over the web.

Backwards Compatibility

While some other manufacturers have paid little attention to backward compatibility when overhauling a line of cameras (moving to autofocus or mirrorless lines, for example), Nikon has stood out in its continued support of existing optics and accessories. The Z system works with a slew of legacy remote control and flash units and, with the aid of the $250 FTZ adapter most of the F-mount lenses ever made will work with Z mount cameras, often (but not always) transferring additional lens functionality, exposure and focus control, to the Z mount camera. (Though it should be noted that Canon’s EOS R camera is adaptable to all EF and EF-S lenses, wonderful Nikon F-mount glass was shipping over a quarter century before EF came out.)

Nikon should be commended for its decades-long commitment to all the famously beautiful glass it’s sold over the decades. You can buy the Z mount optics to take full advantage of the mirrorless system but if you own Nikon F mount lenses or want to pick one up on eBay, you can still make excellent use of its optical performance.

Z System for Video Production

Nikon was early to the so-called “DSLR video revolution” of a decade ago and was first to allow a clean HDMI signal (minus viewfinder data) to go out to an external recorder. The market has shaken out in many ways in the ensuing decade, with personal devices taking over the lower end and more affordable cine style cameras from Sony, Canon, Blackmagic Design, and others coming at the DSLR filmmaker from the other direction.

These cameras offer an impressive amount of control over the autofocus settings, allowing the user to control the speed and smoothness of autofocus—always an issue for video shooters. Whether you preset the autofocus to dynamically lock on an object or face or select an area to focus on as you roll, via the back control panel or the touch screen, the camera will refocus without the lens either “breathing” indecisively or zapping into focus in an unnatural-looking fashion. For the majority of video shooters likely to want to continue to focus manually, the cameras offer a pro-style focus peaking option.

The HDMI-out spigot delivers a nice, fat 10-bit, 4:2:2 file to an external recorder. Nikon also offers a pseudo log feature (N-log) – something they haven’t done before – and true time code, making it more suitable for multicamera shoots and professional editorial work. The Z cameras offer a large variety of video resolutions, up to U(Ultra) HD (3840 × 2160 at 30p) and various over-cranked frame rates up to 120fps at 1080p.

Cinematographers and videographers can shoot in the full frame (FX) mode that uses the entire sensor or in the smaller DX mode, which obviously starts out with less picture information, but might, a Nikon technical expert tells us, provide a cleaner picture, as the DX readout does not involve compression, such as pixel binning or line skipping, on its way to becoming a movie file. Many people have also chosen to shoot video using the smaller sensor area also because it’s closer to the Super 35 image area and yields depth of field characteristics some find more cinematic.

In fact, for users intent on using their Z system primarily for video and who don’t expect to really benefit from using every bit of the Z7’s resolution to make large prints, the less expensive Z 6 might be the perfect choice.

The Mirrorless Camera Niche

Nikon has been a leader in the pro photography world since before it introduced its F-series SLRs in 1959 quickly took over as the leading pro photographer’s camera. Its move to autofocus and then to the DSLR were disruptive before that was a thing. And now, their obviously-well-thought-out entrée into full-frame mirrorless cameras is as much of a leap for the company as those previous developments were when they happened.

The question remaining is what impact it will have in a world with so many competitors, one of whom, Sony, has been in the same space with a number of cameras and a growing complement of lenses for several years.

Attendees at Nikon’s event certainly enjoyed picking the Z7 cameras up and testing them out with both Z- and F-mount glass. The body is solid, the setup familiar to anybody who’s ever used a Nikon DSLR. The Z lenses are very impressive, as are the F lenses with the adapter. The camera is programmable in many different well-thought-out configurations, with more real buttons and less need to hunt down menus nested inside menus to make it work. In other words, it looks and feels like a Nikon.

Nikon has hardcore devotees, as does Canon, who also just introduced the first four EOS R lenses–24-105mm f 4, 50mm f 1.2 and 28-70 f 2 and a 35 f 1.8 macro—designed specifically for the new system. The new R offers Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus with 5,655 AF points and up to 4K/30 video and an HDMI-out with 4:2:2 10-bit and Canon LOG. It has a tilting touchscreen LCD and touch autofocus.

Obviously, Canon and Nikon both realized concurrently that Sony was right in guessing that even the most devoted mid-to-high-end Nikon and Canon customer would trade their DSLRs in for a solid mirrorless system. Now the question will be if those attributes that drew so many image creators to Nikon and Canon in the first place will bring them back to their mirrorless cameras.

Conversation with Steve Heiner, Senior Technical Manager, Nikon

In a nutshell, what does this new Z System represent for Nikon?

We’ve been looking at mirrorless technology for a number of years and it was important that if we were going to offer a mirrorless camera, that we could do it so that it feels like a Nikon — built like a Nikon, as intuitive to use as a Nikon. We wanted an easy transition for people used to our DSLRs and we wanted to come out with a system of lenses and support material at the same time as the camera so people could make the most of the product right away.

Obviously, there are technical advantages you get when you give up the optical reflex viewfinder. Can you touch on the top few of those?

When you significantly reduce the flange distance–the space between the end of the lens and the sensor – you can get light to the sensor more efficiently and you can build smaller, lighter lenses than you’d need for a DSLR at the same focal length and maximum aperture. In addition, we also increased the interior opening from 47mm to 55mm. So with the Z system, we essentially get 100 percent more light from the scene through to the sensor than you would at the same aperture with a DSLR.

Nikon wanted to build a system that maximizes those advantages from the start. We can support faster lenses than you could on the F system. That’s how we could make the f 0.95 NOCT lens we’re excited about and will be introducing soon. Also, with the new specifications, we can increase performance right up to the outer edges of the sensor, even on very wide lenses, and this allows for optics that are just as sharp at maximum aperture as closed down a few stops.

The so-called DSLR revolution for video has subsided quite a bit from the heyday of about a decade ago. So was video a key concern in designing the Z system?

Very much so. Let me give you a few examples: Autofocus in this kind of hybrid camera has generally not been all that useful for video. In the past it could be indecisive and sort of “breathe” in a distracting way or, with our Hybrid AF System 493 phase detection (273 for Z-6) autofocus system, it can refocus extremely quickly, which is great for still shooters but is very unnatural looking in video. We’ve added a feature in the Z-7 and Z-6 that allows you to adjust the speed that the lens “finds” focus and I encourage video shooters to test that out because I think it will surprise them how much it looks like a “cinematic” rack focus. And we also have a very impressive EVF with true 4K peaking to assist those who want to focus manually.

These cameras output timecode, which is something I think a lot of people have wanted for editorial purposes or to help when covering live events with multiple cameras. And, if you’re recording externally via the HDMI-out port, the Z cameras output a true 10-bit, 4:2:2 file. We’ve also developed our own N-log format. We’ve had a flat profile on many of our DSLRs but with N-Log maximizes the dynamic range of the sensor. So this is a very capable tool for shooting video.

Tell us more about the Z system lenses. How are they different from the newer F-mount optics?

In addition to being smaller and lighter for the same focal length/maximum aperture, the Z series lenses have a control ring that can be used as a focus ring or it can be programmed to adjust aperture settings or exposure compensation. They are very flexible and have options that might be particularly useful for shooting stills or for video or both, whatever the user’s comfortable with.

Specifically, we currently offer the 24-70 f4, which is the kit lens for the Z7 and Z6 cameras, and two primes—35mm 1.8 and 50mm 1.8. These lenses are designed with stepping motors to be extremely quiet with on-camera microphone in mind.

The Z system cameras also add to VR [vibration reduction] capabilities. You can make use of the lenses’ mechanical VR, the camera’s [sensor-based] VR and for video there’s also an electronic VR that motion tracks out the VR through processing.

One thing that impressed me about Nikon way back when autofocus came in and now with mirrorless cameras is the company’s commitment to backward compatibility. That’s a rarity in this business, to say the least. Do you want to comment on that?

Certainly. There are over 100 million Nikkor lenses in the world and we want to support all those customers who have bought Nikkor lenses since 1959 to be able to move forward with us.

Obviously, lenses that weren’t designed for features like auto focus or aperture won’t get those features on a new camera but they will still work with the FTZ adapter without any degradation of quality. A Z lens won’t work on an F mount camera – it would be physically impossible to get the correct flange distance on any camera with a reflex mirror – but most all the F mount lenses will work with the Z mount cameras.

Does the Z system portend the end stage of Nikon DSLRs?

Absolutely not! We just introduced our redesigned D3500 entry-level DSLR so we’re definitely committed those customers. I can say that 70% of Nikon’s market is made up of DSLR shooters and we want the Z system to complement their existing gear seamlessly. Photographers shooting wildlife or street photography or weddings or any of the things people have used Nikon for – they will love the lighter equipment, the low-light capabilities, the silent mode and, of course the image quality of this 45.7-megapixel (24.5 for the Z 6) sensor. We envision people carrying a DSLR and a mirrorless Nikon together in their bag. The menus, the layout and the feel are all very similar.

We also see people loving all the video capabilities. And with the trend for so long being towards “content creators” doing both video and still work concurrently, we think the Z series is a great addition to our DSLR lineup.