Nikon Z6/Z7 Blog

As I’ve been doing with the DSLRs lately, I’m going to start a blog-style set of comments and updates for the new Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras. Eventually the useful information in these posts will be moved to my review and this blog removed.

Z Software

It’s one of the most common questions I’m getting: “what software or converter understands Z6/Z7 files?” 

Simple answer: current Adobe products support the Z7, next update of the Adobe products will support the Z6. Nikon’s own software products are all updated to support both cameras.

On a Mac, here’s the good/bad news: the latest Pro Formats update on macOS supports the Z7 (not yet sure about Z6). The good news is that this means most of the Macintosh software products you can get through the App Store now support the Z7. For example, the latest version of RAW Power, an overlooked converter created by one of the former Aperture leads. The bad part of that news? Only the current macOS loads the necessary files, so you have to be on macOS Mojave. 

As I work my way through other recent software updates, I’ll let you know what I find out about compatibility.

Another Round of Tamron Updates

Tamron has updated the firmware for three more lenses to use with the FTZ adapter:

  • 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (model A041)
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (model A032)
  • 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD (model B028)

If you need instructions on how to update the firmware, see this Tamron support link.

Tamron Lens Updates

Tamron has announced firmware updates that allow the following three lenses to work with the Nikon Z6/Z7 with the FTZ adapter:

  • 17-35mm f/2.8-4 Di OSD (A037)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (A025)
  • 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (A022)

Nikon Z Lens Sets

We have, of course, only three native Z-mount lenses. That generally means that you're going to dip into the F-mount lenses via the FTZ adapter, pretty much no matter what you want to do. At least until we get some more Z lens releases.

So what's a Z shooter to do?

Here's a quick take on what I'm doing in the categories I'd tend to use the Z7 (and Z6):

  • Travel kit. Real simple: 24-70mm f/4 S coupled with the 70-300mm AF-P on the FTZ. Nets you a really solid 24-300mm in a pretty small and easy to pack kit. The problem? No really wide angle capability. Temporary solution? Something like the Irix 11mm f/4 or 15mm f/2.4. Smallish, light, and you're probably going to be shooting things really wide where manual focus—particularly with the Z's excellent MF helpers—isn't going to be an issue.
  • Event shooting. Real simple: 35mm f/1.8 S, 50mm f/1.8 S, and 85mm f/1.8G on the FTZ. That nets you very excellent optics in the classic focal lengths, but has you changing lenses. A lot of event shooters shoot this way anyway, so no big deal. The problem? No f/2.8 zooms yet, and nothing wider than 35mm in primes. The Solution? The 20mm or 24mm f/1.8G on the FTZ. The f/2.8 zooms on the FTZ are just too massive, but the f/1.8G wide primes work quite well and are appropriately sized.
  • Landscape shooter. Real simple: 19mm f/4 PC-E on the FTZ on the Z7, backed up with the 24-70mm f/4 S. Surprised you, didn't I? ;~) Seriously, this is an insane combination. Let's start with the 24-70mm f/4: at landscape apertures this is the best kit lens we've ever seen for getting strong edge to edge results at 24mm, particularly on a 45mp body. Just watch out for the focus shift if you're stopping down beyond f/5.6. But that 19mm? Coupled with the manual focus tools it's relatively easy to move the focus plane visually once you've gotten some practice, and the lens is sharp, sharp, sharp. I'm in heaven.
  • Macro shooter. Ugh. The problem? Staying with Nikkors on the FTZ, you're stopped at 105mm. While that's a fine lens, it's restrictive in working distance. The older 70-180mm and 200mm Micro-Nikkors are screw drive, so don't autofocus on the Z's. Which means I'm back to manual focus for macro on my Z at the moment. I'm not sure there's a real good match for the Z's, even dipping into the third-party lenses. The Sigma's beyond 100mm are f/2.8, and large. The solution? None, really. You'll have to use short (60-105mm) macros with little working distance or manual focus.

Other lenses that seem appropriate to me on the FTZ (due to size, compatibility, etc.):

  • 8-15mm f/3.5E — the way you get either type of fisheye on the Z for the foreseeable future.
  • 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G — if you really want 18-24mm in a small package for that travel kit, you can make this work.
  • 28mm f/1.8G — I'm not a big fan of this lens due to the focus shift, but like the other f/1.8G's, it's a nice match in size with the Z's, even with the FTZ mounted. 
  • 300mm f/4E PF — just as handholdable as on the DSLRs, maybe more so. 
  • 500mm f/5.6E PF — probably the longest lens that truly makes any sense on the Z's. 

It isn't that you can't mount any of the other DSLR Nikkors on the FTZ and use them with your Z body, it's that you start to get into inappropriate weight/size combinations. If you have to mount your 70-200mm f/2.8E on the FTZ for some reason, sure, that works—I did it for a college football game—but you're starting to give up some of the advantages of the Z over a DSLR at that point. I'd much rather use that same 70-200mm f/2.8E on my D850 for that kind of shooting, for instance. 

This, of course, is the dilemma that Nikon's in with a new mount. The lenses that we get in 2019 don't actually help a lot with the above. The most useful addition will be the 14-30mm f/4, which will round out that travel kit nicely. The f/1.8 Z primes coming in 2019 really just get rid of the FTZ adapter and your f/1.8G primes; you'll lose a bit of size and weight in the mix, but you'll be buying new lenses. 

The 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 Z zooms coming in 2019 will give the event and pro shooter another choice, but I'm a little worried about how big/heavy they'll be. 

Personally, since I own both Nikon DSLR and mirrorless kits, I'm perfectly happy with what's available. The Z7 will tend to be my travel and landscape camera, the D5/D850 my event, sports, and wildlife cameras. The current lens set works quite well for me as a result. 

For those of you trying to just shoot with a Z6 or Z7—e.g. you gave up your Nikon DSLR to upgrade to mirrorless—things are likely more problematic at the moment. But give it time. It took Sony a few years to get their FE lens set filled out with enough options to satisfy most people. If Nikon meets their road map, we'll have 20 Z lenses by the end of 2021, and that is likely to get us to a very satisfactory point.

Some Quick PhotoPlus Expo Updates

From Sigma: four of their current lenses have significant issues with the FTZ adapter: 24-35mm f/2 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 85mm f/1.4 Art, and 800mm f/5.6. All but the latter lens will likely get firmware updates to address the problem that lens has. And additional five lenses cannot turn off in-camera stabilization and don't let the camera automatically power down: 17-50mm f/2.8, 17-70mm f/2.8-4, 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3, 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, 24-105mm f/4 Art.

There's a lot more detail, which Sigma should post to their Web site soon.

Nikon, meanwhile, not only released a 1.01 firmware update for the Z7, but bodies that came into this country this week already had it installed. Unfortunately, if you were wishing for a major update, this wasn't it, as it fixed only two clear bugs in the product (one of which I had found). 

On the show floor I had a couple of longish talks with NikonUSA product folk, mostly centered around the biggest weakness of the Z7 (AF-C focus consistency). From what I gather, Japan says that CSP is used in the Auto mode, but it clearly isn't. Not only do I have plenty of examples to disprove that, but readers have been sending me in many other examples that show the same thing. My comment to NikonUSA was essentially this: give us a fully predictable AF mode (e.g. Group, which is essentially a real CSP). Also give us back the way of switching AF-ON with AF Area Mode via customizable buttons. Together would solve a ton of problems and make for a far better camera, and both those things can be done in firmware. 

Update: I note several people on the Internet interpreting the above paragraph wrongly. For example: "I didn't get the impression that the Nikon reps were too interested in hearing what he had to say." That's incorrect. Nikon seemed to be genuinely interested in my comments. Moreover—I want to be careful to not put words in their mouths here—they seemed to indicate that they're well aware that continuous autofocus is the biggest weakness of the camera. The real question is whether my detailed comments and those of others are getting back to the right folk in Japan and whether there's an action plan to improve continuous autofocus. That I don't know, and at the moment there's no way to find that out. Hopefully, Japan will read my review when it appears, as I'll have a long discussion of this, and what's missing.

Curiously, Nikon's Ambassadors were stating some numbers that will probably look strange to you. They looked strange to me at first (disclosure: I haven't gotten to my video testing yet). Specifically, for Z7 video Nikon seems to be saying that there's a 2-stop on-sensor VR improvement, which can be coupled with a 3-stop electronic VR improvement. (The Nikon brochure mentions 5-stops on-sensor VR improvement in stills.) It took me a bit to wrap my head around this, as Nikon is also claiming "full frame" 4K and 1080P capture. 

Well, not really, apparently. The capture appears to be a binned 3840 x 2160 (on the Z7), which implies a 7680 x 4320 capture area (the sensor is 8256 x 5504). Aha, that gives us the ability to do the electronic VR (which moves the capture area with the camera movement). 

bythom photoplus zbar rx100

The bar is set...

NikonUSA also held an invite-only party at Tao Uptown on Thursday night. It was, to say the least, a strange event. I'm not sure what they were trying to accomplish other than having a party. If I were sponsoring a trade show party I'd have a real agenda and a clear way of understanding whether we met that agenda. 

bythom photoplus rx100

Three of the Nikon Ambassadors were there with lights and models shooting with Z7's (all in single servo mode I noted). But I'm not sure what the point of the model shoots was. Any camera that couldn't do what was being accomplished at the party really wouldn't be much of a camera, IMHO. Other than that, the NikonUSA staff tended to stick together (or with the Ambassadors), leaving the rest of us to mingle among ourselves (or not). 

Plenty more I'm still digesting, saving for other articles, or is just too far in advance to be saying anything about (e.g. Laowa's 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 being adapted directly for the Z mount sometime in the future).  

Are Adobe and Nikon Cooperating?

As I reported a month ago, the Z7 NEF files have some interesting new information in them, which line up with Adobe's converters. 

This shows up really clearly in the Detail panel in the Adobe converters:

bythom d850

This is a D850 NEF opened in ACR. You'll see that you get the "default" Detail settings Adobe uses. Now look at a Z7 NEF opened in ACR:

bythom z7

Quite different, isn't it? (And I've been writing for quite some time that you can take that Color slider and move it at least half the default value. Seems Nikon thinks the same.)

The question that is unanswered is how much of this is Nikon and how much is Adobe? My best guess is that Nikon asked Adobe how to specify new default information for NEF files and Adobe said "include these XMP values in the file." That's what it looks like to me. Which means that Nikon is delivering the values here; they're not from Adobe testing. 

The good news is that the Z7 NEFs look, at defaults, more like the embedded JPEG than they used to. And Nikon hasn't chosen terrible defaults, though I don't tend to use them.

What Happened to Closest Focus Priority?

Anyone that's attended one of my workshops knows that I like Group AF Area Mode (on the Nikon DSLRs). I use it often, though situationally. Group AF has one attribute to it that is incredibly important: closest subject priority (CSP).

CSP was a Nikon innovation back in the film era. Whoever came up with it needs to be knighted (or whatever they do for distinguished contributors in Japan). Why? Because it adds a predictability to the system upon which you rely to make decisions for you. 

Think about it for a second: which picture have you taken recently where the focus point shouldn't have been on the thing nearest to you (and under the focus sensors being used)? You're probably going to have a difficult time finding an example. That's not to say they don't exist. When shooting sports with free-ranging players (and referees—Scott Kelby once wrote an entire article on how to get referees in focus ;~), we often get someone moving in front of the thing we want in focus. Of course, that's why Focus Tracking with Lock On timing was introduced by Nikon back on the F5: if that overlap is short or temporary, maybe it should be ignored (i.e. set a longer Lock On time). 

dpreview just published some additional Z7 focus testing, and the thing that their results show—as do mine—is that Nikon isn't really using CSP any more. That's a huge mistake. Moreover, in the bicycle test scenario dpreview uses, it's an immensely huge mistake (the background isn't changing much, but the object in the foreground obviously is). What are the chances that the background is what the user wants in focus?

And remember that we have an AF-ON button and back button focus techniques on these sophisticated cameras. If the background were important and the thing in front not, I'd have focused on the background with AF-ON and then released the button to leave focus on that background. Instead, I'm holding down AF-ON hoping that the camera will eventually figure out that thing moving in front is what I want in focus.

The thing about phase detect is that the camera knows that there's something up front, and that it's moving. Phase detect, by definition, gives the camera near/far information. 

In examining my initial thousands of Z7 photos, when the camera missed focus, it generally missed it by placing it behind the subject. CSP would have fixed that.

So, note to Nikon: add Group AF and it's CSP nature back to the mix in a firmware update, ASAP. It'll fix so many of the out-of-focus complaints you're going to get that you'd be surprised. Frankly, I'm gob-smacked that Nikon thinks they don't need CSP in at least one AF Area Mode on the camera.

Update: Some users have pointed out to me that Wide Area (Small and Large) uses CSP. Well, probably. But I've got examples that indicate that this isn't always true, and moreover the big boxed areas aren't as useful as the smaller Group diamond in terms of the photographer controlling what the camera might focus on. I'll try to elaborate on that in my upcoming review, but having a large rectangular area doing some quasi-CSP is not the same as having a tight area doing for-sure CSP.

I've now done some further quick testing, as the number of folk trying to tell me I'm wrong because of what Brad Hill wrote is getting long. I can say with some certainty that Wide Area doesn't use CSP, at least not the way Group does on the DSLRs. That's because I see a great deal of hunting at times in Wide Area. If Wide Area were prioritizing CSP the way Group does, then it would have instant snap to the close point, period. What appears to be happening is that CSP is one of the things the camera considers, but it is also doing a check to see how much of the box is close/far and making some sort of judgement call. 

So, we're not really getting CSP, in particular the P part (priority). Distance has some level of priority, but not absolute priority. And that means that you can't really trust it. I shot a lot of images with the various modes in the last two weeks and have examined them closely. Wide Area was not terribly reliable, and I see plenty that did not focus on the most forward element in the box. Trying to make sense of why that is will take some time, and maybe a discussion with Nikon. 

My point remains, however. Group mode on the D5 generation DSLRs is an absolute. It might not work for you in some situations, but it is 100% predictable and very fast. The Z7, no, we don't have something that's 100% predictable and very fast. Instead, we have something that's sort of predictable and not as fast as CSP would suggest it should be. 

This gets to Nikon design philosophy. Those brilliant—and I do mean brilliant—Nikon engineers often make assumptions and design towards lowest common denominator with the automated features. That discounts the "thinking photographer." As I've noted many times, with the D5 generation cameras I have them programmed so that I have back button focus with different area modes on both the AF-On and thumbstick buttons. This was a great change by Nikon and highly welcome, because it allows me to use my brain in evaluating what's in front of me and picking the best AF Area Mode for the job in real time. You can't do that on the Z7. Moreover, even if you could, the lack of true predictability in some of the modes means that you can only guess at what the camera will do. 

Let me be clear: I don't want to be guessing about what a US$3400 camera will do. Maybe you don't mind that, but I certainly do. This is a "miss" by the Nikon engineering team, and needs to be cleaned up.

The Z7 EVF

Nikon made a big deal about how good the EVF on the Z6/Z7 would be, and indeed, it is very good. But I continue to get a lot of questions about just how good is it really.

Well, first things first: if you don't get too out of control with the WYSIWYG nature of the EVF—in other words, aren't increasing saturation, contrast, or using a janky Picture Control—I find the EVF very natural in good outdoor light. I didn't particularly notice that the view wasn't optical other than the fact that there is a small amount of latency (lag), which I measure at a bit more than 20ms (that's 0.02 second). This implies that the EVF speed is about 60Hz, by the way. 

Where the EVF starts to show its electronic nature is in low light indoors (or night scenes outdoors). That's because the camera will apply what it needs to in terms of a temporary ISO boost to show you what the exposure might look like (assuming you're not in manual exposure mode). The exposure in my office at the moment (gray rainy day, only ambient light through semi-transparent blinds) is ISO 3200 at 1/16 and f/4. At those settings, two things start to happen. 

First, you'll see noise. It's generally very small and not at all obnoxious due to the high resolution of the EVF, but it's there and noticeable. 

Second, if you've set a good exposure, in low light that exposure is brighter in the viewfinder than your normal vision (using the defaults), and depending upon how you have Picture Controls and White Balance set, may be showing you color and linearity that's different than your eyes are producing when not looking through the camera.

Curiously, I find that a manual exposure of about two stops under almost matches the EVF (in Auto) to the scene in my office. But I can't set the EVF manually to match (e.g. -5 isn't two stops, apparently). When I do match the EVF exposure to the actual scene before my eyes, once again the EVF does a remarkably good job of keeping the linearity correct. 

Frankly, the Sony A7Rm3 EVF is way noisier (with larger noise patterns) and worse in natural linearity and color rendition than the Nikon Z7 in the exact same conditions. Moreover, it's been my experience outdoors in good daylight that the Sony EVFs look more like EVFs than what your eye normally sees optically, something I can't say about the Nikon.

My initial conclusion about the Z7 EVF, therefore, is that Nikon has done a very good job with their implementation. It's not perfect, but it's far easier to forget you're using an EVF on the Z7 than it is on the A7Rm3, in my experience. Someone was paying attention to the emotional/subjective experience at Nikon, and it shows. 

XQD Cards

Nikon Rumors just basically reposted what Camera Memory Speed published about XQD cards in the Z7. 

Having now tested a wide set of cards in my Z7—I intentionally bought one of each type of XQD card along the way since the D4 started using them, though not at all sizes—I can say that my results are very similar to Camera Memory Speed's: the Z7 appears to top out near 245MBs with cards that are labeled 400MBs. My D5 has hit ~300MBs on some of those same cards. Put another way: the camera's card slot is almost certainly the limiting factor in how fast the camera performs. 

There are many who are making an assumption that when CFExpress firmware is added to the Z7, it will get faster (ProGrade has a 1GBs card in prototype). I do not subscribe to that theory and expect that CFExpress won't have much impact on speed, if any. History has proven that card slot speed is pretty much hard coded at a maximum by the camera makers, and given that we have underperformance to what the cards can already do, I'd say that the Z7 slot is likely limited somewhere near 250MBs. CFExpress as Nikon is likely to implement with the Z7 is still going to be two lane PCIe, just like XQD, so will be limited by the electronics of the camera to similar speeds.

If you want best performance in the Z7, you need to use a Sony G Series, a Lexar 2933x series, or the new Nikon cards (I'm still waiting for a Delkin card to test, but given their 400MBs rating, I'd expect it to be similar to the Sony G). Simple as that. I was actually surprised at how poorly some of my older XQD cards did in the Z7. I actually stopped using my oldest Sony cards on a recent shoot because I was hitting full buffer and getting poor rollover rates (<1 shot a second once buffer was full; on the fast cards it was over 3 fps). 

Camera Memory Speed found something else I can confirm: while Lossless Compressed writes slightly slower than Uncompressed (<5%), the full buffer clearance speed is faster by almost 20% and produces about 3.5 fps when the buffer is full (the file sizes are smaller). 

So nothing is really going to change from my card recommendations with the D850, I think. 

Well, okay, possibly one thing: I can't reliably track continuous focus on the Z7 as I can on the D850 (let alone the D5), so I'm actually pulling off the shutter release earlier most of the time. Thus, the most important aspect to me on a Z7 is actually buffer empty time. On the Sony G Series cards, that is running a little less than 5 seconds for me. On my slowest older cards, that is running about 10 seconds. Why is this important? Because you generally don't want to start a new sequence with a less than empty buffer.

One thing I note that isn't getting a lot of attention: the D5 with it's USB 3.0 connection is delivering images to your computer at almost twice the speed that the USB 3.0 Z7 provides (neither are particularly fast as a card reader, though). This is yet another example of the camera makers only giving lip service to current state-of-the-art computing standards. They just don't want to use the more expensive supporting parts necessary to provide full capability, and/or are introducing more overhead in the serial transfer chain. In theory, we should get close to 400MBs transfer speeds out of USB 3.0 (as we do from some card readers). Don't use your Z7 as a card reader other than last resort.

What are the Z7 Advantages?

Compared to a D850, here are things where the Z7 is arguably better:

  • Smaller and lighter (though once you start putting long and heavy telephoto lenses on, the body advantage isn't so important)
  • The first S lenses are indeed superior optically to equivalent F-mount lenses (e.g. 35mm f/1.8 S versus 35mm f/1.8G)
  • WSIWYG finder (great for black and white shooting)
  • Silent/No slap mode (and overall the camera is a bit quieter in mechanical modes, too)
  • Live histogram (though not at same time as some other things, like virtual horizon)
  • Focus peaking in viewfinder (but only in MF or in manual override of autofocus)
  • Easier to focus manual focus lenses, by far, due to peaking, rangefinder, and magnification abilities
  • New Diffraction Compensation control (not fully tested by me yet; working on it)
  • On sensor VR works (but buried in menu if no lens switch)
  • New focus peaking shot review for Focus Shift Photography
  • Timecode for video available
  • 10-bit 4K video with N-Log available on HDMI slot (though you'll overheat camera at some point)
  • Better video autofocus, by far
  • Ability to offload images via Wi-Fi in both AdHoc and Infrastructure modes (still testing)
  • New i-menu that's customizable (D850's is fixed and different format)
  • (Arguable) Use of U1, U2, and U3 to configure camera quickly
  • (Arguable) Strange and as yet unexplained application of different defaults in Adobe conversion programs

And some disadvantages, where the D850 would be arguably better:

  • No ability to override automatic DX crop mode (some DX lenses can cover full FX frame)
  • Smaller buffer
  • No second card slot (for Raw+JPEG, backup, or overflow)
  • Buried Metering Mode, Picture Control, Qual in the menus
  • Likewise, Focus control buried in menus (or needs to be promoted to a customizable control, using up one of the fewer ones available)
  • No two-button reset or format
  • Nikon does not recommend user sensor cleaning
  • Worse battery performance
  • Poor ability to control continuous autofocus options, particularly tracking
  • Slightly fewer Retouch options

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