How Much of a D850 is the Z7?

This is the tricky part about the transition from DSLRs to mirrorless: things you expect cameras to do suddenly may not work quite as well as they used to. 

I've written that the D850 is the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can buy. Nothing in the recent mirrorless cameras, including the Z7, suggests to me that this is no longer true. The D850 is still the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can buy. So that brings up the question: where does the Z7 fall short of a D850? And does the Z7 excel at anything?

So let's try tackling that question by type of photography:

  • Landscape — Both are excellent. The D850 particularly so via Live View, the Z7 better by viewfinder (has to do with things like manually focusing with focus peaking active). For front country work, I don't see the size/weight difference being meaningful. The lighter weight and on-sensor VR on the Z7 would be more useful to backcountry shooters. Where the Z7 is let down a bit at the moment is in lens selection: you're going to be using lenses on adapters in all likelihood. 
  • Macro — Both are excellent. Virtually the same things apply as I just mentioned for Landscape. The Z7 does have a very slight advantage with focus stacking, as that feature has been improved slightly.
  • Portrait — Both are excellent. The Z7 has a small advantage in focus reliability for single servo use (AF-S), the D850 a slight advantage in focus reliability for continuous focus use (AF-C). Size/weight doesn't enter into the picture, and again the Z7 is likely to be used mostly with adapted lenses at the moment, negating some of its size/weight advantage.
  • Event — Here the Z7 may be the better choice, particularly if you like the 35mm f/1.8 lens and are shooting in AF-S mode. Plus the silent mode shooting and on-sensor VR helps. But it's still a close race, and I particularly like the ability to switch AF Area Modes fast on the D850 when doing this type of shooting via AF-ON+Area Mode, something you can't set with the Z7. That said, I think most event shooters would gravitate towards the Z7. 
  • Sports — The D850 is the better choice. You're in AF-C for focus, and that's the Z7's Achilles Heel. The "slide show" viewfinder at 9 fps on the Z7 may put some people off, too. No blackout, but it's definitely not something that feels "live." And then there's the buffer difference, which is almost an order of magnitude better on the D850 side.
  • Wildlife — The D850 is the better choice. Virtually the same things apply as I just mentioned for Sports, and particularly for birds in flight. 

I could go on with a much longer list—and may with my upcoming review—but here's the bottom line: both cameras can pretty much do any kind of shooting. Where the Z7 excels over the D850—primarily because of EVF tools, silent shooting, on-sensor VR, or the contrast detect step in AF-S focus—it's by a small margin. Where the D850 excels over the Z7—primarily when you need AF-C focus or large buffer—it's typically by a bigger margin. Couple that with an "always on" viewfinder, better battery life, additional controls, and dual card slots, and the D850 is still the more versatile camera, in my opinion.

The tough choice for me is that I also have a D5, which is still the best of the "fast shooter" cameras available (I'd put the current order: Nikon D5, Sony A9, Canon 1DxII based on my experiences with each). Thus, I'm more likely to shoot the things that the Z7 isn't great at with the D5 and not the D850. 

Either way I don't think there's a terrible choice of camera pairs for a professional: Z7 and D5, or D850 and D5. I can keep battery (via the MB grip) and cable equivalence with the latter combination, though. For an amateur who only wants one camera, that's where the D850 sits in the sweet spot for the moment. 

Thus, I'd write this: Nikon is beginning to open up a new world with the Z series. That world is not yet as versatile as the world we've been exposed to with the Nikon DSLRs. I suspect that new world will be more versatile in several years and a few iterations/additions. But not today. Today the D850 is still the all-around best ILC, and the D850/D5 combo is about as maximized to anything you might want to do as I can imagine. 

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