My Favorite Overlooked Perk of Nikon Z Lenses

My Favorite Overlooked Perk of Nikon Z Lenses

As I delve more into lens options for the Nikon Z system, I’ve found a small feature that pays big dividends.

As many of you may know, I am a diehard DSLR fan for still photography. But the video benefits of mirrorless cameras are undeniable. So recently, I have shifted the bulk of my motion production work to the Nikon Z 6. Because I already shoot stills with the D850, getting a Z 6 with the FTZ adapter simply made sense. I no longer have to carry around multiple kits with multiple sets of lenses and accessories — a good example of the practical benefit of the system being more important than the tech specs, not that the tech specs are anything to shake a stick at.

But while the FTZ adapter works great, it does have one major drawback. Because the F-mount glass was never built with video in mind, the focusing, while fast, is also loud. This means that if you are just looking to grab some quick B roll using the camera’s built-in microphone, you will more than likely hear the gears of the lens’ autofocus system on your audio track. If you are recording audio separately, which I tend to do, it’s not really a problem. But, it is somewhat annoying in situations where you have no choice and may be forced to choose between autofocus or clean audio.

To fix the problem, I waded into the Z mount lens system with the less expensive Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S. I’m one of those people who would shoot everything at 50mm if practical restrictions didn’t sometimes get in the way. So, my plan was to only get the 50mm since there was very little reason to add any more lenses. Immediately out of the box, my audio issue was solved. I also noticed that when acquiring focus in video, the native Z mount lens did a much better job of easing into the transition. It’s just my opinion, but when the native 50mm acquired focus, it felt much more like a focus puller racking focus rather than a still camera lens snapping to focus. The F-mount glass wasn’t exactly herky-jerky when mounted to the Z 6. It was plenty usable. But it just wasn’t quite as smooth. Additionally, the F-mount glass I was using suffered from focus breathing, which made focus transitions all the more noticeable.

I ended up enjoying the 50mm so much that I invested in my second choice lens range, the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S. Between that and a fast 50mm, I’m pretty much set for the things I like to shoot. When I reviewed a loaner Z 6 about a year ago, I had the f/4 kit lens, which I never fell in love with. Mostly, this was due to the unorthodox unlocking and extending you needed to do every time you used the lens. This made the lens compact for storage but always seemed like a nuisance to me in actual practice. So, after my positive experience with the 50mm f/1.8, I decided to go all in for the faster (and sadly more expensive) f/2.8.

I’m glad I did. Not only is it smaller and lighter than I expected. Compared to my D850 with the Nikkor AFS 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR attached, the combo of the Z 6 and its 24-70 f/2.8 comes in at half the weight. While it's unlikely I would even consider taking my D850 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 with me on a fun non-work-related vacation, the Z 6 and its counterpart make for a light enough combination to suit that particular job. But the lens itself also has an extra feature that probably seems small to many of you but is a real game-changer for my efficiency behind the lens.

With the development of mirrorless cameras, manufacturers have really been working hard to improve the many ways in which each user can customize their own experience. Truthfully, most of these features are lost on me. Because I’m old and get confused easily, I’m generally in the camp of the fewer buttons, the better. I can never remember what button I’ve assigned to what task. And, at the end of the day, I’d much rather you just make the aperture dial, shutter speed dials, and ISO easy to reach. I’ll figure out the rest when the time comes.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Nikon is that the cameras are well designed ergonomically and built for maximum efficiency. They have continued this tradition from their DSLRs into their mirrorless cameras. So, a DSLR shooter like myself can easily pick up one of the mirrorless bodies and shoot without relearning a significant amount of new finger memory. But there is one function that I’ve always wished was easier: changing the ISO.

Yes, there is a clearly marked ISO button atop Nikon cameras. Changing ISO is easy. Press down on that button with your index finger while spinning the back dial with your thumb. It’s not rocket science. But because it is so close to the movie record button and I have clumsy fingers, I always find myself paranoid that I am going to press the wrong button and end up changing the autofocus settings I have mapped to that button in stills (or starting a recording in the video) by accident. So, I end up having to remove my eye from the viewfinder each time I want to change ISO. Again, life is good when this is my biggest complaint, but I’ve always wondered if there was a better way. Enter the 24-70mm and the mysterious third ring.

The first two are the ones you would expect. A fat, centrally located zoom ring to let you travel from 24mm to 70mm and anywhere in between. A slimmer ring sits at the front of the lens for you to manually focus. Then, there is a third ring, closest to the camera body, tucked just behind the customizable digital readout on the top of the lens. Out of the box, it is set to aperture. So, rather than changing your f-stop with the front dial on the camera body, you can instead turn the mystery ring as you might on older camera systems from the film days. But, it turns out that this dial is also highly customizable. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, I’m thinking you can guess what I’ve chosen to set it to.

Because my finger memory is so established to turn the front dial for aperture and the back dial for shutter speed, I have set my mystery lens ring to control ISO. Since I rarely change aperture settings or shutter speed within the same scene, I usually like to depend on changing ISO in order to gain proper exposure. While auto ISO is a great option, it has always posed two problems for me. One, it always seems to overexpose by just a little bit versus my personal preference. Two, if I’m shooting a model and I take 50 frames using auto ISO, there will oftentimes be micro-changes in exposure between shots. If the images have to match one another, this can often lead to me having to make micro-adjustments to each image in post. So, I choose to work in full manual and keep my exposure settings all be consistent throughout a set of images. 

This mystery dial makes setting that baseline exposure easier and quicker. Establish the depth of field (aperture) and how much I want the action to freeze (shutter speed), then simply turn the lens ring to get the exposure I want. With modern cameras being so much cleaner at higher ISOs versus their predecessors, I am far less concerned, within reason, with introducing noise than I used to be. And because the ring sits just within reach of where my left hand would be anyway when supporting the camera, making little adjustments on the fly is fluid and quick, while avoiding any risk of me accidentally pressing the wrong button when trying to hold down ISO.

Many of you may already be aware of this feature, but it's quickly becoming the thing I love most about my Z lenses. Yes, they are sharper. Yes, the focus is smoother. But this little practical usability feature is what is setting them apart for me. I even set up my fast 50 to operate in much the same way by changing the focus ring to adjust the aperture when in autofocus mode (it switches back to focusing when in manual).

I realize I’m making a big thing out of a small feature. But sometimes, it's the small details that count. My main requirement for a camera system is that it gets out of my way and allows me to translate the image in my head onto my sensor as quickly as possible. And this little feature has already saved me a great deal of time and headache and made me far more efficient as a photographer.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Curious as to why you went with a Z6 instead of a Z7 that would match your D850 on resolution.

For the video specs?

I could easily afford the Z7 but chose the Z6 as it is proven to have better high ISO noise performance, and I don't print bill-board sized prints so the file sizes are more manageable. I don't need to count individual peach fuzz hairs on everybody's faces. The larger pixel pitch of the Z6 is a real advantage. The video performance on the Z6 uses the full image sensor and is significantly better also.

Yes, for video. I still prefer shooting DSLRs for still work. And my D850 fits the bill. But the Z6 has far superior video capabilities. So, now the two work in tandem with the larger resolution D850 handling all still work and the Z6 doing video.

I enjoyed reading this, it was nice to hear an acclaimed pro amit to being a bit forgetful, or even a tad clumsy. And of course it's always comforting to listen to positive things about the Z6.

I stumbled on using the ring for ISO when flipping through the control ring settings. I let out an audible, "wait, no way..." and it was one of those nice moments. I agree with your enthusiasm.

It makes my life so much easier :-)

Do you ever accidentally turn the third ring and change the ISO? Does it have detents or is it freely turnable?

Not so far. It's got enough friction, that I haven't found turning it by accident to be a problem so far. I did worry about that. But so far, it hasn't been an issue.

Personally, i find that the ring is a little too sensitive. I tend to have it set to exposure compensation in 1/3 stops.

Nice article. Mine favorite lens will be the 70-200.... if it ever materializes and I’ll map it the the same as my 24-70 f2.8.

I'm looking forward to that one as well.

I find the article interesting .