There are no buttons on the left-hand side of the camera, but I prefer the controls to be on the right, frankly. Nikon did add two function buttons to the front of the camera, easily accessible between the grip and lens mount, much like you'll find on the D5 and D850.
Unlike the EOS R, which has an all-new separate control ring, the Nikon Z7 lets you repurpose the focus ring on the new lenses for aperture and exposure compensation. I like that idea -- it's an electronic, not mechanical control that goes unused in autofocus mode, and if you disable AF, the ring switches to manual focus mode automatically. That's a pretty smart move as it means there's one less lens ring to mistakenly grab.
I don't care for Nikon's menus, as the controls aren't laid out very logically, and you're forced to scroll through a long list of functions. Canon's EOS R, by contrast, breaks things into categories, which is helpful for both learning and using the system. To avoid diving into the menus on the Nikon Z7, you can use the "i" button, which lets you set up to 12 functions.
The Z7 has a mount with a slightly smaller 55mm diameter flange distance than the Canon EOS R's 58mm mount, but a much closer flange distance (16mm compared to 20mm). Sony's FE mount, meanwhile, is about 46mm.
What this means is that Nikon can, in theory, make fast lenses that are relatively compact, much as Canon did with the RF 50mm f/1.2 and the 28-70 f/2 lenses. So far, Nikon hasn't done that though, instead releasing three uninteresting lenses: the 24-70mm f/4 S, wide-angle 35mm f/1.8 S and standard 50mm f/1.8 prime. At least they're fairly cheap ($1,000, $850 and $600, respectively), but folks buying a $3,400 camera will probably be looking for better glass.
I tested the Z7 with the 24-70mm and 35mm lenses, and they were decent, but nothing more. By contrast, I got to try the EOS R with a better zoom (the 24-105mm f/4) and a much better prime, the 50mm f/1.2 model, which blew me away.
Nikon's Z-Mount lens roadmap
Still, better things are to come, and with the Z7, you're buying not just a camera but making a leap into an all-new system, too. Nikon will soon release the Nikkor 58mm Noct-Z with an insanely fast f/0.95 aperture. Sure, it's manual focus only and probably weighs a ton, but it will let Nikon flaunt the potential of that big mount. According to its roadmap, the company will release a variety of zooms and fast primes by 2020. At that point, it'll have 13 lenses in total -- by contrast, Sony currently has 29 lenses, not counting third-party models.
Should that not do it for you, Nikon has 90 aces up its sleeve in the form of its F-mount lenses. With the $250 FTZ F-Mount adapter, you can use every one of them with varying degrees of compatibility. You get full autofocus with AF‑S, AF‑I and AF‑P lenses, but not with older AF or AF-D models that rely on an external motor. You won't lose a pixel of quality, however, as the adapter gives you exactly the same optical specs you'd get with the D5, D850 and other full-frame Nikon DSLRs.
I tried several EF-S lenses out, including the 14-24mm f/2.8 and 28-70mm f/2.8 models. The performance seemed good to me, that is to say, they focused nearly as quickly, if not as quickly, as the native lenses. It's notable, however, that Canon offers not just one, but three adapters for its EF lenses, including a much cheaper $100 basic adapter and a very cool $400 model with a built-in neutral-density filter.
The brilliant 3.69-million-dot electronic OLED viewfinder, with 100 percent coverage and a 60 fps refresh rate, is one of the sharpest and clearest I've ever tried -- but for one flaw. In single-frame shooting, it edges the EVFs on the Sony A7R III and Canon EOS R, even though the electronics are the same. That's because Nikon treated the EVF optics as it would any lens, using anti-reflective aspherical lenses and a fluorine coating on the eyepiece window.
In continuous shooting mode, however, at 5.5 fps, the EVF often glitches out, not refreshing to show the next frame. That makes action shooting pretty tough, a theme that would continue throughout my testing. For regular shooting, however, I used the EVF for everything and loved it, often forgetting that the rear touchscreen even existed.
Speaking of, the touchscreen is pretty great. It not only lets you touch to focus, like Sony's A7R III, but you can run the entire menu and i-control system from it. It's fast and responsive and switches seamlessly to the EVF when you lift it to your eye. Unfortunately, it only tilts up or down, so vloggers won't be able to flip it around to see themselves. Too bad, because it's a pretty strong camera for video -- more on that in a bit.
The Z7 has in-body stabilization (IBS), which Nikon calls vibration reduction (VR). That gives you stabilization on any lens you're using, even older manual-focus models, making low-light shooting and video a lot easier. Having a large mount helps stabilization as it gives the sensor more room to move to counteract shake. I found that it works really well for both video and photos in low light, even handheld down to 1/10th of a second. It also gives Nikon bragging rights over Canon, as the EOS R does not have IBS.
Unfortunately, it only has a single card slot, and it's an XQD model. While that gives you fast transfer speeds and shooting, you can't exactly pick those cards up at your local drugstore. Canon's EOS R also has only one slot, but at least it's SD UHS II, a more common and cheaper card format.
The speed of the XQD card is also crippled by a tiny buffer, so burst shooting is limited to just 18 full-quality RAW files. By contrast, the D850 has a huge buffer, letting you write to the same XQD card nearly as fast as you can shoot, without stopping. These cameras are around the same price, remember.
How's the battery life? Well, the new EN-EL15 battery, designed to be charged over USB, is limited to a mere 400 shots per charge by standard CIPA specs. However, I and other testers found it'll easily do more than that. I went out for an afternoon, took about 300 photos, and still had three-quarters of the battery left. If you really need to go all day, Nikon will offer a battery grip option sometime in the future.
Nikon's D850, with its 3D phase detection, is often cited as the quickest and most accurate autofocus (AF) system on the market. The Z7, unfortunately, doesn't quite follow in its footsteps, despite having a similar sensor.
It does have extremely wide AF coverage, with 493 points that cover 90 percent of the frame. Using single point, continuous autofocus (AF-C), tracking of still and slow-moving subjects is excellent -- I got a hit rate of at least 9 out of 10 shots in sharp focus.
Tracking quick-moving subjects is a different story, however. Unlike the D850 or other mirrorless models like Sony's A7R III, the Z7 tends to lose focus on moving subjects and switch to the static background. This seems to happen for no good reason, and it never picks them up again.
The same sort of thing happens with face tracking. It works fine if the subject doesn't move much, but often fails when it darts around, especially from afar. Note that the Z7 doesn't have eye-tracking autofocus, only face tracking. That means you might not get sharp autofocus on a subject's eyes when using a lens with a very shallow depth of field.
As I learned early on when first testing the Z6 and Z7 in London, it helps if the subject tracking locks on solidly first. That's done by selecting the person or object manually using the joystick or rear touchscreen, which can slow down your shooting. After that, it will often track them well, but it can still sometimes switch to another subject or the background.
The problem is exacerbated in low light. The Z7 has great low-light sensitivity, but the autofocus system tends to fall down below about -1 EV -- well below the -3 EV level of the APS-C Fujifilm X-T3, for instance. Next to the A7R III, which has roughly the same resolution, the Z7's not nearly as good. To make matters worse, even when you do get a red box locked on to your subject, it seems like the autofocus can't keep up for burst shooting. The Z7 doesn't even shoot all that quickly, hitting 5.5 fps with continuous AF mode enabled, while Sony's A7R III autofocuses more accurately all the way up to 10 fps. And as mentioned, the buffer is so small that you can't shoot continuously for longer than a couple of seconds.
Part of the problem with Nikon's autofocus seems to be processing speeds that are a tad slow. A DSLR like the D850 also has the advantage of a separate phase-detect sensor, which tends to help speed up autofocus for moving subjects.
That said, when shooting in single-shot autofocus or continuous mode with slow-moving subjects, it works great. And compared to a DSLR, you will get slightly sharper focus, since the phase-detect and contrast-detect pixels are on precisely the same plane as the sensor. Just be aware that the Z7 is probably not ideal for action or wildlife photography. You'd expect that for a 45.7-megapixel camera, but it does have to be mentioned. With similar specs, Sony's A7R III has much better continuous autofocus and costs about the same.
Despite those complaints, I liked shooting with the Nikon Z7 a lot. The classic layout meant I was more sure-handed using it right from the get-go and rarely messed up key settings when taking shots. The EVF was a joy to use, battery life excellent and I was pleased with the results once I got home. That's what counts, isn't it?
As with Canon's EOS R, Nikon's new Z-Mount has major benefits where it counts -- in image quality. Nikon has yet to take full advantage, with a rather tepid, albeit economical, range of lenses so far. Most of the pictures I took for this review were shot with the 24-70 f/4 zoom and 35mm f/1.8 prime. It might have been smart of Nikon to release a better, faster prime to start with in order to get better sample photos for the initial reviews.