Thanks to Nikon Canada’s NPS dept. and our Nikon rep, I recently had the opportunity to spend a week with a Z7 II and a bunch of Z lenses, including the 24-70mm f/4, 20mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8. I used it on several occasions although I did not get out quite as much as I was hoping to. Most of you know that I am mostly a landscape / cityscape stills shooter, so this short review won’t be evaluating the Z7II’s autofocus tracking (I do not shoot sports and only very rarely photograph wildlife), nor its video capabilities since I have almost zero interest in shooting video. So this review will be a little one-sided unfortunately. My colleague Jason, who runs the Beau Photo rental dept. and does photograph wildlife frequently, would be a good person to ask about the Z7II’s AF tracking performance! For this review, I will be evaluating still image quality, dynamic range, IBIS performance and general ergonomics. Eventually I will also be providing somewhat more detailed reviews on the lenses I used but for this review, I will only briefly summarize my impressions of them. Raw NEF files from the Z7II were processed in Adobe Lightroom Classic v10.2. You can click on any image in this review and the larger original will open in a new window or tab.
For a sampling of images from my tests with the Z7II, see the following gallery that contains 63 photos in total, some taken along the White Rock Promenade, some from the UBC Botanical Gardens as well as a number from Simon Fraser University: Nikon Z7II Review Samples
Since I am a big fan of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns”, I will have three sections in this review, similar to other reviews I have done in the past…
- The Z7 II has great ergonomics overall and I’d say that anyone used to shooting a Nikon DSLR will have no problem getting acclimatized quickly. In addition, my impression is that Nikon cameras have relatively straightforward menu systems and ergonomics, so most people can adapt to them fairly easily I’d think.
- Excellent, very large, bright and sharp viewfinder. I found the viewfinder optics to be superb.
- Generally good button and dial feel, and good focus-point joystick responsiveness. The handgrip is very comfortable as well and control placement, like the AF-ON button, ISO button and AF-point joystick, is generally quite good.
- Exceptionally customizable playback view modes, a custom menu, two custom function buttons etc. Being able to fine tune exactly which display screens are displayed and switched through makes the image playback great!
- The solid feeling body really inspires confidence in its build quality.
- High resolution 45 megapixel sensor with great dynamic range and minimal noise at higher ISO settings. I was most impressed with the degree of highlight and shadow recoverability I had when shooting with the Z7II, especially at its base ISO of 64.
- Very effective IBIS, with the ability to handhold 1/2 second exposures with even a normal 50mm prime lens. Those small f/1.8 primes, coupled with superb in-body image-stabilization, meant I was able to capture tack sharp images even in challenging situations. It also meant I could often keep my ISO at lower settings, improving dynamic range and shadow detail.
- The ability to take super fast CFexpress cards or more modestly priced SD cards. If you already have a slew of SD cards, you can go right ahead and start shooting with the Z7II, but for the best performance, CFexpress cards do offer an advantage.
- I am actually repeating a “good” item here: the fact that there are two different card slots! This means customers need to use completely different cards, and possibly different card readers, if they want to use the “backup” feature where the camera records the same images to both cards. There is also a huge difference in speed for the CFexpress cards and SD cards, so for the best buffer clearing performance, presumably a single CFexpress would be the fastest and not having an SD card in the second slot to slow things down. Note that I only used SD and did not have a CFexpress card to test, and even with only a UHS-II SD card, the camera felt fine… but then I wasn’t rattling off a ton of images continuously either.
- No way of tilting the rear LCD screen sideways when shooting a vertical low or high angle image.
- I like having grid-lines in my viewfinder, to make it easier to accurately line up horizons, keep buildings level and such, but the lines were so distractingly thick and prominent on the Z7II, that I ended up turning them off. I wish there were an option to fine-tune how those lines are displayed. On the other hand, I actually found it a bit difficult to see the AF point at times, so for that, I would like to see the display a bit more prominent. Some additional end-user fine-tuning of the display would be helpful, making it easier for those with differing preferences to come up with an ideal configuration.
- Slightly awkward positioning of the front scroll wheel, at least for my hands.
- Small body means a number of buttons are clustered together fairly closely at the back of the camera.
- AF seemed surprisingly sluggish in low light at times with some lenses, although it did always lock focus accurately. Do note that I found out after my tests that the Z7II did not have the very latest firmware, which was supposed to improve low-light AF performance. I has assumed the body would come with the latest firmware, but I really should have double checked before testing it. Mea culpa.
- No accurate distance scale shown in the viewfinder, not even during manual focus. When in manual focus, there is a bar-graph with a flower icon (close focus) at the left end and an infinity symbol on the right end, and that’s it. That distance display feels like it might belong on a low-end P&S camera and not a pro level mirrorless! In all fairness though, the pro series lenses like the f/2.8 zooms and the 50mm f/1.2 for example, do have a very nice OLED distance and depth-of-field display on the lens barrel at least, so if you are using those, there is no “bad” in this case. However the lightweight f/1.8 primes that I like so much, do not.
… and The Ugly
In this case, ugly isn’t really all that bad either, rather these are points that I personally felt rather frustrated with (others may not be?), things that I imagine could actually be easily fixed in a future firmware update. None of them are really deal breakers…
- EVF and rear LCD don’t always accurately mirror what the final resulting shot will look like. I shoot with a Fujifilm system and unless I am using their special low contrast “Natural Live View” feature, when I play back an image, I always get exactly what I saw in the EVF as far as contrast, saturation etc. – no surprises. When I recently tested a Canon EOS R5, it was the same way… I do not recall ever being surprised at how an image was captured. With the Z7II, sometimes I felt I was getting an accurate preview, then a few minutes later I was again frustrated. I tried using auto brightness, then manually tweaking the EVF brightness, but no matter what I did, there were times when things just didn’t match what I had seen while shooting. Of course I did have “Apply Settings to Live View” switched on. If you are a DSLR user switching to Nikon mirrorless, this probably won’t be an issue since with a DSLR, you actually had no idea how the camera was metering through the viewfinder until you played back the image anyway! Note that many Sony cameras, especially previous generations, also had this issue although I think the latest bodies are much improved now.
- This next point is a further take on judging exposure in the EVF: just like Canon’s mirrorless bodies, with the Z7 II there is no way to see overexposed highlights directly in the EVF while shooting stills. When you are shooting video, the feature is available but for some reason, not when shooting stills. Both Sony and Fujifilm allow you to switch on an overexposed highlight warning, which is truly fantastic for nailing the exposure exactly how you want it! With Olympus mirrorless bodies, there are even a clipped highlight and clipped shadow warnings. One of the great things about mirrorless cameras is seeing exactly how the camera is going to expose your shot, especially when the conditions are challenging, and both the above complaint and this one, make that harder than it could be on the Z7II.
- Inconsistent control functionality. When you are in playback mode, zoomed in, you can turn the front scroll wheel to flip between images, but when zoomed out, when you turn the front wheel you get dumped back into shooting mode instead of switching between shots. There is no good reason why that control should behave differently when zoomed in or out of an image. Same goes for the focus point joystick: it would be great if you could use it to pan around a zoomed in image when in playback mode, but nope, the only way to do so is to use the 4-way controller (“D-pad”). If you nudge the AF point joystick, you are again dumped back into shooting mode. It would be great to be able to pan around diagonally with the joystick as well, making it quicker to examine specific areas of a played back image. You have no idea how often both those control quirks had me cursing!
So to reiterate, the “ugly” points above frustrated me greatly, and some of the “bad” points were a bit annoying, but for many other people, well I suspect they would be puzzled as to why I am complaining at all. It is mainly due to what I am used to with my existing camera gear, where the display is accurate with live clipping alerts, and the control functionality is consistent across modes etc. Again, these could be fairly easy things to fix in a future firmware update, but whether or not Nikon will do so, is anyone’s guess? None of these items are deal breakers though and if I were in the market for a full-frame mirrorless camera, the Nikon’s other strengths, image quality, general ergonomics and customizability, especially the fantastic lenses, would more than compensate for those points. For me, how much I enjoy working with a camera system is as much about lens quality and the resulting image quality, as it is about working with the camera itself, since quirks in ergonomics or even performance can often be gotten used to and overcome. So given how much I liked the lenses and how happy I was with the resulting images, for me the Nikon Z system was very enjoyable to work with indeed!
As of April 2021, Beau Photo Supplies sells the Z7II at a regular price of $3,999, and rents the Z7 II at $200 per day. The rental link just indicated also has some of Jason’s comments on using the Z7 II for wildlife photography.
Nikon Z Lens Notes
A few brief points about Nikon’s Nikkor Z series of lenses that I tested, the 24-70mm f/4, 20mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8. They all feel well made, and are fairly lightweight. None of the lenses had a digital focusing scale; that seems reserved for the pro-series f/2.8 zooms and really high end primes for the moment. The 24-70mm was especially compact, and has a retracted position with a wonderfully solid feeling detent. Quality was exceptional for a “kit zoom” and only really showed some weakness in the extreme corners (both sharpness and some vignetting) when compared to the excellent prime lenses. Otherwise the lens was sharp wide open with great contrast and it balanced very well on the light Z7 II body.
The 20mm f/1.8 was very flare resistant, seemed well corrected for aberrations but the extreme corners were a touch soft at times on the 45MP Z7 II. I felt the need to stop it down to f/11 to get consistent sharpness across the frame, but here I was already into diffraction induced softening on a high megapixel body. Optimal f-stop for sharpness, depth-of-field and lens aberrations notwithstanding, is less than f/8 for a camera like the Z7 II.
The other primes, the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm were very nearly without any issues though. They were all very sharp, even wide open, had decently smooth to excellent bokeh, sharpened up nicely everywhere in the frame when stopped down a little, had fast focusing and generally handled great.
Do note that these were all previously loaned out samples, so I cannot be sure if all 20mm and 24-70mm f/4 Nikkor Z lenses have the same minor issues? It could simply be the copies I was testing. Overall though, I very much enjoyed using these lenses since I am a big fan of high quality primes, especially those that have a slower f-stop which allows them to be smaller and lighter. For me, an f/1.8 lens is plenty fast enough for just about any scenario. The advantages of going to an f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens nowhere near makes up for the disadvantages in size, weight and cost! Watch for more detailed Nikkor Z lens comments in future lens review postings.
As a reminder, for a sampling of images from my tests with the Z7II, see the following gallery that contains 63 photos in total, some taken along the White Rock Promenade, some from the UBC Botanical Gardens as well as a number from Simon Fraser University: Nikon Z7II Review Samples