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Is the Autofocus on the Nikon Z7 a Disaster?

A matter of weeks ago, Nikon launched the Z7, and rumors started to circulate that the autofocus system was far from perfect. More reviews are coming in, and reports are not good.

Back in August, Tony and Chelsea Northrup explained that their experience with a pre-production model of the Z7 triggered some alarm bells. "They promised me my D850 in a mirrorless form, and that was not my experience," explained Chelsea, referring to her inability to use the autofocus to track Tony walking towards her. They acknowledged that this was not the final product and that the lighting was quite low, but this did not bode well.

Two weeks ago, Jared Polin shared his experiences shooting soccer and baseball, expressing similar concerns. It just simply wasn't as good as a DSLR. Again, Polin acknowledged that his immediate comparison was the D5, a much more expensive camera, so the test was perhaps a little unfair.

Screenshot from Jared Polin's Nikon Z7 autofocus review YouTube video.

A few days ago, DPReview updated their Z7 review with new information about the autofocus performance. (The review is marked as August 23, but it appears that the autofocus details have been recently updated.) The verdict is far from kind: "In short, the only thing consistent about the Z7's subject tracking performance is just how inconsistent it is."

In developing their new mirrorless system, Nikon removed 3D-Tracking, a part of their autofocusing system that made the D850 and the D5 so well-regarded for their ability to lock on to moving subjects. The system now used in the Z7 may be possible to fix through firmware updates, so one wonders if there were compromises made in order to get the mirrorless cameras to market on schedule.

In the coming weeks, Fstoppers writer Adam Ottke will be giving the Z7 an in-depth review, and he will no doubt be rigorous in his tests. Until then, if you've managed to get your hands on Nikon's latest offering, let us know in the comments how you're liking the autofocusing system.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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I returned mine primarily for the autofocus weaknesses. I need an all around camera and the Z7 is not up to the task.

Repeat after me, "Never buy 1st generation products." That goes for Apple, car manufacturers and many others. If you buy 1st gen products, you're gonna have a bad time.

Though, to be fair, if everyone followed that rule, there never would be second generation products.

My 2¢ is that it is ridiculous that Nikon didn't do enough QA to get something as critical as AF correct in the first gen but this isn't always the case. Look at the D800. First generation super high-resolution full frame. It was a phenomenal camera for its time. It took me 6 months to get one because there was so much demand and it was well worth it. First gen has its weaknesses, but my policy is to just not buy first gen at launch. You usually know within a week or two if the first gen is solid or not.

The D800 was a new iteration of the same formula. So much of the Z series is completely new. New mount, new lenses, new AF technology (at least new to Nikon). All things that require new machines, new training for staff to assemble, check tolerances, etc...

At least wait until the first firmware update and don't buy 1st gen if you're going to be up a creek if it's not 100% reliable.

Sony's on it's third iteration of the A7 and we're still seeing 1st gen problems like AF artifacts, weather sealing, overheating, weird color casts, etc...

Hmm, my D800 had shutter vibration that ruined many images, it went to Nikon twice. As to the auto focus not being right; that depends on your usage. I don't shoot sports with either the Sony a7iii or the D750, my D500 kicks both of their butts for speed.

I'm wondering how many photographers really want to shoot sports with a high rez camera when they have much better options out there.

And, my D800, which is my main camera, has worked great from day one.

My views are colored by the fact that I've been shooting seriously for over 45 years, 10 of that professionally. More than half of that was using manual focus. I even shot track in high school with a twin lens reflex. I shot a high school football game for out local paper with the Z7 last week, using the adaptor and the 70-200 f/4. No problems. But, maybe I'm just substituting skill for spray and pray.

If, like Jared, you want to follow just one soccer player through a crowd, then the camera may not be for you. Or you could use zone focus. Or, you could learn your camera well and wait for times when the subject is open. Otherwise autofocus is fast and accurate in decent light and fair in very low light for anything but a fast moving subject. If you look at Z7 reviews by working pros, then the word is nearly all very positive.

We have to remember that YouTube reviewers are not working photographers. Their livelihood is dependent on the most viewers and they are not above spreading controversy and click bait.

I did rent the Sony 7rIII for a couple of weeks last spring. I'm keeping my Z7, which I much prefer.

Comments from a working pro, worth a look. http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_3weeks

"...maybe I'm just substituting skill for spray and pray."

Thank you.

Valuable comments, Michael. The one thing I'd mention in response to your thoughts is the damning report from DPReview. Jared himself acknowledges that he's not an experienced sports shooter and many of the comments tell him that he's using the wrong AF mode (despite his choice being the one recommended by Nikon), so his experience is not to be taken as gospel. DPReview, however, is perhaps a different story.

Andy, are the DPReview comments really "damning"? I read what they said about shooting zig-zagging bicyclists and dark rooms. It's not a D850. I have been using the Z7 for 3 weeks now (I come from D5's for sports and D850's for everything) and I like the Z7 a lot. I'm not going to use the Z7 for sports. But for just about everything else it's great. I'm just not seeing the negatives that these click bait headlines like the Jarrod picture above makes it seem. I mean really, thumbs down and the scowl for the Z7? The lenses are so sharp to the edges and this is the lens format I look forward to getting into more of. The video is outstanding, and autofocus in normally lit situations is terrific. Banding? turn the shadows up a million EV I suppose would show it's not my D850. But for all shadow recovery I have tried it's been great. There is some kind of funny business with these negative screaming headlines that I (and other owners) are not seeing. Don't shoot a game with the Z7. For me the choice would be the D5. Thanks and Viva La France my friend.(and the UK!)

I'm with Jim on this. I didn't find the DPReview take anywhere near damning.

And another hat tip to you for "substituting skill for spray and pray". Kudos. 😂

"We have to remember that YouTube reviewers are not working photographers."

Except many of them are, or have been for years.

The stock photography the Northrups shoot isn't the deadline driven work that most pros face. Other than that, most of the pros reviewing the Z7 like it. McNalley certainly does.

Is the Z7 a great sport camera? No. Is it good enough for the occasional sport shooting most of us do? Absolutely. I've already shot a football game with it and had plenty of keepers. As many as I might have gotten with the newer Sonys? Probably not. Enough for the assignment. Absolutely.

We need to remember that it is only cameras released in the last handful of years that are better. For nearly 200 years people have been making photos. 1826, I believe. For decades, pros have been getting great sports/birds in flight photos without the newest AF magic. It is nice to have, but far from essential.

I have mixed emotions about mine. Single point works well, as does Wide Area-Small. Definitely not to D850, D500 Group AF levels but very good. I didn’t use my D750 for sports shooting and wouldn’t use my Z7 for sports. Additionally, shooting video in Continuous AF works as well as my Sony A7iii, again, not sports video but stage and concert.

I will say without ANY doubt is that the color science of Nikon is much preferred over Sony for any of my work. Period. Want to buy an A7? 😀

Deleted my own comment.

... but ... nope never mind.

It’s a paperweight; exactly what was said when the specs came out and it underperformed at its own release party.

Go ahead and buy it for that price though. I’m sure someone will be happy with it.

Deleted my own comment.

We've done additional testing since, in a variety of real conditions, and our first impressions were right. It will focus on still subjects in good light, no problem. Moving subjects, low light, shallow depth of field, those all cause focus to be inconsistent. It's similar to a Sony a7R II; it's not useless, but it's a generation behind. It's definitely not a mirrorless D850, but it's the best mirrorless camera for Nikon lenses.

It would be helpful to know what lenses you had tested with and what was the failure rate under what lighting conditions and whether the lens failed or did not fail if mounted on a D850. What would also be helpful to know what the focusing speed difference between the 2 cameras. These types of analytics are very helpful in determining how to work with the Z7.

Put any camera in the hands of someone who shoots sports for a living and you will get a better idea of the capability of the camera - it appears that the Z7 did very well in a low light situation with a not-so-fast lens: http://syd-low.com/2018/10/nikon-z7-with-500mm-f-5-6e-pf-autofocus-example/

You really need to play a camera to it's strengths there's no Holy Grail out there for the professional photographer. Like Lenses we have different bodies for different tasks. I'm a film still photographer on action films and for me the D5 has been my magic wand since the day it arrived but on a film set it has one massive downfall, the slap of the mirror. For many of you that know the work I do you would be familiar with the big Aquatech sound blimps we use to dampen around 96% of the shutter noise. You would be surprised how loud that 4% noise is on an ultra quiet set and stuck inside the box we had zero control over anything in the middle of a take.
Shooting action it doesn't really matter as it has no chance of being heard but those quiet scenes were killers.
Since the day I began shooting on films I dreamed of a silent camera that gave me control over all my settings.
Today with the Z7 I have that! The ability to see live exposure and be able to change everything from focus modes, iso and file size through the viewfinder in the middle of a scene is groundbreaking for this old Nikon shooter, oh and I don't need my glasses to check frames anymore I can do all that through the evf.
The Z7 fits perfectly into my quiver of arrows and can do so many things that my D5's and D850's cant, edge to edge focus anyone? and my D5's and D850's can beat the Z7 in other specialised areas.
To sum it up you don't use a saw to hammer in a nail...
Both tools take an equal spot in the bag, it's just the Z7 is smaller and lighter and has opened up so many more opportunities for me on a film set taking my work to the next level, you have to be happy with that!

Jasin, complete agreement on all you said. I started using the Silent Shutter on set a couple of weeks ago. The Z7 goes everywhere in our kit now.

Silent shutter has been around for awhile...

It has. It's dead quiet on the Z.

The point is?

Yup and somebody else has an amazing autofocus system and lenses to go with it while shooting silent... hmmmm who might that be?

Fanboy or not, I’ve been shooting silent for years and all this yelling about how Nikon failed with this camera is actually 100% warranted.

They put out a camera that has all the flaws someone else got rid of but since it’s labeled a Nikon, it’s not a disappointment it’s “groundbreaking”... snore.

Eric, it's far from a paperweight or a snore. Does your Sony have better autofocus? Yes. Who cares. You like Sony so enjoy it but your declarations the the Z is a paperweight and "failed" are just silly. Peace.

You can produce images that are amazing with cameras decades old but when you’re a leading company, your consumer base asks for and expects a camera made to the highest level, you should be held accountable for your attempt to throttle technology.

Nikon has the technology and the money to produce a better camera than this. So does Canon. They both played the marketing game and it hurts to see people not calling them out on it.

We’ll all say, “I told you so” in a few months when they release the real camera in development next year. This paperweight is a filler camera designed not to perform but to rob Nikon users of funds... to fund their real project.

If you have a D850 and you bought this, a hobby of yours must be setting fire to money.

Oh it's YOUR lot to hold Nikon accountable. And it hurts YOU to not call them out on it. I got it now. And the Z was made to rob us of our funds. And you're gonna say you told us so when Nikon comes out with the next body. Just making sure I have it all straight. I will definitely be buying the next Nikon mirrorless for sure because I love the Z7. To your other needed point, I am fortunate to have worked hard and can buy whatever I wish. Including Sony, if I thought it would serve me better. You're very aggressive for no good reason. Enjoy your brand of camera without having to talk down to others. For context read the Walrus and the Carpenter.

It’s the consumer’s job to hold them accountable or they’ll just keep doing this.
I jumped from Canon because of this. Know anyone using the 6DM2 ? Give it two years and nobody will be using these either but you’ll sure as hell find a ton of D850s.
The D850 is money well spent.

Your Sony kit is also money well spent. If I loaned you my Z for a week you wouldn't switch to it, but you'd see how overblown the negative hype is. It's a very good camera and we Nikonians FINALLY have video with IBIS and good video autofocus. A good first effort. I look forward to what the next one will do. And loving the edge to edge sharpness of these 2 new Z format lenses. Peace. SF is a great town and you look like you're rocking it. Take care.

If they offered this same camera at a lower price, I’d say it’s a good deal. At the current price point it’s not holding its weight IMO. That is the biggest problem.
I don’t hate Nikon, I just expected more than a new mount when they touted they had “groundbreaking” new cameras.
Same with Canon.
Yes the negative hype is overblown but they made the same mistakes they were laughing at Sony for making. That allowed for the negative press to be overblown.

The camera doesn’t make the photographer and in the end of it all, any camera today can do the job.

Good luck to ya as well.

I've shot with just about every sony ff mirrorless camera, several fuji cameras and now the z7. I primarily shoots portraits and events. I have not had any issues with this camera regarding focus in bright or low light and every shoot I have had thus far has been with non-native nikon lenses using the adapter and the focus is just as fast as with my D3s or with the D850 I've borrowed. Are the sony ff mirrorless camera good - absolutely but I just didn't like the ergonomics or the fact that my fingers barely fit in between the lens and the grip so to each their own. But to say Nikon failed with this release is a little short-sighted...

It’s a fail because they promised “groundbreaking” technology... they delivered a body with a new mount.

No technological advancements, no new software improvements, and worse battery life. That is a failure.

If you own any Nikon camera above the 3300, this is a waste of money unless you’re just ready and willing to use adapters or buy all new glass.

That’s completely objective.

The mount is incredibly groundbreaking technology, the Sline will end up being top of the glass the only thing I miss is 3d focus but there are a multitude of advantages over my other systems.

Smaller form factor than the D850 w essentially same sensor and add IBIS that the D850 lacks and add the benefits of mirrorless over DSLR. Maybe not groundbreaking for the industry but certainly for Nikon. Plus the new mount will allow for much better glass to be produced. Plus the listed firmware upgrades for better eye focus. There’s a lot in the little body.

I have shot thousands of frames over the last few weeks on a film I am working on in all number of conditions and environments, low light, loads of light, snow, dust, smoke day, night, exterior, studio you name it.
It's a shame you feel that way, how long have you been using your Z7 for Eric?
I would be happy to help you out with the settings and best focus modes for the conditions you are shooting in.

I used one in San Francisco for a day and didn’t like it at all. The photos came out well of course but that is because I know how to use a camera.
The ability to focus in low light and backlit situations is what drove me insane. Nikon’s AF is still behind both Canon and Sony.
The only tech I saw that would classify as a plus/advantage over my current A7Riii is the viewfinder but you’re also comparing a camera that is a year old to one that just released from a company that could have improved a lot more than just a viewfinder.

Oh sorry Eric, I thought you were talking from experience with the camera and you had one, my bad.
Yeah I think I would/could find many faults in a new system myself after only a few hours of using it.
I have been shooting onset all day in heavy smoke and the focus was tricked no more than any other camera in fact I was blown away by the tracking (similar to 3D) and the Face Rec.
As I said earlier I am more than happy to talk you through the settings.
Any camera can be tricked if we try but as photographers it's up to us to learn how to use the tool to our advantage that's the real skill these days or we would still be back in the manual focus era which incidentally the Z7 has all the tools with focus peaking and range finder to nail that.
For me the Z is taking my onset photography to another level and I am pretty happy with that!

A full day with one was enough to see that the A7Riii has all the features and more.

a friend of mine has Z7 and i played with it for whole day and didnt notice any AF problem at all... and i really like how it perform not only in taking photos but in video shooting

Having rented an X-T3 two weeks ago on a wedding, the camera was incredibly good at focusing. Am just wondering why the Z7 can’t do any better, especially since am planning to purchase one...

it focuses better or worse than d750/d810?

Using group AF on my 750 is quicker in low light, but... less accurate. It’s not enough to have me kick it to the side.

I think my D750 is faster, well, it FEELS faster but on a subjective note, I really don't notice any quantifiable difference. Haven't really made any particular test on this...

I have seen the various sides to the commentary on the Z7 since launch and find the points of view regarding AF to be 'appropriately biased'.

Those that find the Z7 AF to be good enough quantify this by highlighting, for example: -

a) the Z7's other great features
b) mirrorless abilities over DSLRs
c) not everyone is a sports photographer
d) that reviewers are not professional photographers
e) people need to learn more about the camera
f) you can still produce wonderful images
g) it is a first gen camera
... etc.

Those that find the Z7 AF to not be good enough quantify this by highlighting, for example: -

a) the Z7 is definitely missing AF features of the DSLRs and other mirrorless competition
b) regardless of who is reviewing the camera, there is a trend that points towards AF deficiencies
c) AF tracking is not good for energetic children, wide open aperture subject photography, or action photography
d) there is a decrease in performance in low-light
e) with Nikon's class-leading DSLR AF, it is surprising the mirrorless entries are missing the capabilities
... etc

So, if people on both sides of the equation can read the above, in actual fact, I can bet we could agree with most of both sets of points. We could in fact possibly summarize it as such: -

While the Z7 is very capable first gen camera, carries most of the advantages of mirrorless over DSLRs and is capable of producing wonderful images, and even when one learns the various camera features and does not mistake this for a sports camera, it is somewhat surprising to see what appears to be a growing acknowledgement, even from non-pro reviewers, that when one needs to shoot moving subjects, especially in low-light, the AF tracking capabilities are not on par with Nikon's DSLRs, or other leading mirrorless competition.

Some comments about the AF of the Z7:
- The level of performance is indeed not up to D5 and D850 level on moving subjects but it is still fairly decent in absolute terms, it is close to D810/D750 level in my book. As a result I didn't hesitate to pick up my D5 when I had to shoot a festival in dark conditions this Sunday (f2.8, 1/250, ISO6400~25600 - 95% of tack sharp images, simply incredible)
- I shot the Z7 with my 200mm f2.0 last night in a dark interior and it did a pretty decent job on a fast randomly moving child, I don't think my D850 would have been much better in fact (only the D5 can deal with such situations in my experience). I got best result with area AF that behaves pretty much like the group AF on the D850/D5.
- Overall, I believe that the Z7 and its AF works well as a generic camera and just love it for street shooting
- If I were to start from scratch today I would either go with an a7rIII or wait for Nikon to release their anticipated Z8/Z9 in 2019
- As a Nikon shooter, I find it complements really well my existing line up of lenses and I may end up selling my D850 and just keep the Z7 and D5 that seems like the perfect combination of compact all rounder and top notch AF/low ISO beast.

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