Having previously spent a few months with the 24-megapixel Nikon Z 6II, today, we move to its bigger brother, and I will begin a series of essays on Nikon’s latest high-resolution entry into the mirrorless camera market, the new Nikon Z 7II.
So, it all comes down to this. As a professional photographer for nearing 20 years now, I have always had a Nikon in my bag as my primary shooter. Different jobs call for different tools. So, I’ve shot pretty much every brand and every format over the last few years, but Nikon has always been the brand I’ve actually owned and used for the vast majority of my stills work not requiring medium format. But, throughout that time, I have always shot on a DSLR with a big bright optical viewfinder and the resilience of a tank. And despite flirting with my fair share of mirrorless bodies, I have still yet to claim one as my primary weapon of choice.
A few years ago, when mirrorless cameras came along, I dipped a toe in the water like everyone else. But despite having owned multiple mirrorless cameras in the last few years, both Nikons and other brands, I still have yet to find one that really ever forced me to seriously consider giving up my DSLR. Over the years, however, mirrorless cameras have grown and even developed some benefits that are hard to ignore. With the love of my life, my Nikon D850, turning four years old, is now the time to finally make a switch?
At the risk of delaying your gratification, I will say that today is not the day I will answer the definitive question of how the new Z 7II compares to the now legendary D850. I am planning an entirely separate and likely rather lengthy exploration of those two cameras head to head in the coming weeks. But, for today’s article, I’d like to simply talk about the Z 7II. Straight out of the box. What do I like? What do I wish was different? And who is this camera made for?
I guess I can start with the answer to that last question first. It’s pretty much a camera for everybody. At least everyone for whom 45 megapixels is the ideal amount of resolution. For wedding and event shooters, documentary shooters, or those who get more benefit from smaller files than added definition, the 24 megapixels Z 6II is probably the go-to move. I’ve written a lot about how much resolution we need versus how much resolution we want in the past. But 24 megapixels is ample for the vast majority of photographers, so the choice between the Z 6II and Z 7II will largely be based on whether or not you are a photographer who falls into the high-resolution camp or the smaller file size camp.
Personally, I find 45 megapixels to be ideal for 95% of the things I need to shoot. I am a commercial advertising photographer. I shoot ad campaigns for activewear and lifestyle brands. Most of the images I shoot will end up in print in the form of a billboard, in-store display, or something similar. Additionally, my clients will often crop my images multiple ways throughout the usage cycle to account for the various formats where they will be placing their content. So, for me, 45 megapixels gives my clients megapixels to crop from and still retain enough detail to blow up the final image.
While my own focus is on active photography for advertising, having additional megapixels can also help in other genres. Wildlife photographers, for example, might not be able to get close enough to a little critter and need room to crop in the rest of the way. Product still life photographers who need to show every bit of detail and texture of a client’s product in the studio. Portrait photographers who want to create in-depth explorations of their subjects. Or a landscape photographer who photographs an epic canyon and wants to create an epic-sized print.
If you are a current Nikon DSLR shooter like myself, the first thing you will notice is that the sensor in the Z 7II is, for all intents and purposes, the same sensor that is present in my D850 or the Z 7. I’m no engineer. And I’m sure they’ve tweaked a thing or two. But, having shot the Z 7II and the D850 both over the last couple of months, I can say that the image quality between the two is virtually identical. And because it’s always been excellent in the previous bodies, that excellence in image quality continues with the Z 7II. At the end of the day, it is an amazing sensor with loads of dynamic range and beautiful color reproduction. So, sticking with it makes sense. There’s also an additional benefit to those who might be coming over from the D850 because the two cameras can essentially be used interchangeably, which helps to streamline your workflow if working with multiple systems. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be more than slightly intrigued by rumors of a 61- megapixel sensor being put into future Nikons, but having both the Z 7II and the D850 in my kit for a couple of months has highlighted the benefits of staying in the 45-megapixel range.
Those coming up to the Z 7II from the original Z 7 or Z 6 will also enjoy the noticeable boost in focus speed. With the latest firmware upgrade, I never seem to have the same focusing issues with my Z 6 as were reported upon the camera’s initial release. But the Z 6II and Z 7II take this focusing speed even further due to the dual processors each camera has onboard. I am not a guy who does scientific tests to access minute changes in focus speed. I really only care about whether or not the camera can keep up in the real world in actual practice. And, over the course of the last couple of months, I didn’t run into any situations where the Z 7II’s focus speed wasn’t able to perform.
Staying in the realm of focus, the Z 7II has made two notable improvements that have practical real-world applications. First, they have added a wide-area AF mode that includes face and eye detection for both humans and animals. As a DSLR shooter who is used to moving my focus point up to the subject’s eye, I am still getting used to the idea of allowing my camera to spot the eye for me and obtain focus. It is taking some getting used to. But, in my tests, the camera did a great job of grabbing onto the face and tracking eyes in portrait situations. The new wide-area AF mode allows you to make the camera’s job easier by limiting the area within which it needs to look. So, for example, let's say you are shooting a group of staggered models, but you want your critical focus to be on the woman in the middle ground. Rather than relying on the camera to guess which model you want in focus, with the wide-area AF and human face and eye detection on, you can move the smaller box over the desired model and then let it find that model’s face and eyes while ignoring the other subjects. It sounds simple but can be a lifesaver when faced with a crowded scene.
Nikon has also incorporated all these additional modes into the rotation of the dial when selecting your autofocus mode. So, you can go from single point to wide-area AF with animal face and eye detection on through to auto-area AF with human detection all with the spin of a command dial (and the concurrent pressing of a function button). This makes moving between focus modes as well as turning eye detection on and off easier and more efficient than in the first models.
Coming from a camera like the D850, which provides dedicated dials and buttons for many of its functions, the slimmed-down outer options on the Z series cameras is noticeable. No doubt, many of the exterior dials and buttons you’d find on a camera like the D850 have been removed from the Z cameras to make the body smaller. And, to be honest, there are only a couple of those exterior options that I actually use in the field anyway. But they are a noticeable miss. As someone who hates going into my menus unless absolutely necessary, I do wish there were one or two more dedicated external buttons. But the simplification of the customizable control dial options addresses much of that, and this is a subtle improvement that makes a big difference.
With that said, I do wish there was a slightly more catch-all mode available that might integrate all the focus modes and make focusing even easier. I realize this flies in the face of my earlier comment about liking to maintain control over my focusing points. But I have shot with other mirrorless systems where I can stick the camera into some sort of “all” mode and it intelligently flips between single point, wide tracking, and face and eye detection on its own. This may or may not be an improvement were it to actually exist on the Z 7II. But one thing I have noticed in my time shooting the Z 7II is that I feel as though I spend more time changing focus modes than I did with my D850.
This might be a figment of my imagination and a result of me so consciously trying to put the camera through its paces. But it does seem like both the Z 6II and Z 7II are better optimized when you are more specific about which focus mode you are using for each subject, whereas, with my D850, I mostly pick a mode at the beginning of the shoot then forget about it. Even if I’m not in the ideal mode on my DSLR, for example, if I’ve been using dynamic to shoot action then want to move in for a portrait, it is still fairly easy to get fast and sharp autofocus without changing focusing modes and just altering the position of your focus point. The D850 also has the ability to assign different focus modes to different buttons to different focus modes to make things even quicker. But more on that when I get to the essay on the two cameras side-by-side. When shooting with the Z 7II, I’m definitely going to get the best portrait results in one of the auto-area AF modes with face and eye detection, but am also definitely going to need to change to either a tracking or dynamic mode to capture action consistently. This is fine, as each mode does what it is intended to. But, it does mean that a shooter like myself, who flips back and forth between portraits and action and tight closeups of product at the drop of a dime, has one more thing to think about before I press down on the shutter. No doubt, you would get used to which focus mode is which over time. But keeping in mind that, with the Z bodies, I am expected to change focus modes more often to match my subject, I’d like to be able to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Of course, that is only a small hurdle to overcome. The more important part of the equation is focus accuracy. And during the last couple of months, I have not run into any significant focus issues. I own a Z 6, not a Z 7, so I guess it’s not a complete apples to apples comparison, but the second generation Z cameras have felt a bit snappier in the focus department than their predecessors. If you are coming over from a DSLR, you will need to learn the various new mirrorless focusing modes as I mentioned. But, once you get the swing of things, you will find the autofocus to be ample for the majority of applications.
I still say that if your job depends on shooting sports, wildlife, and fast-moving action, you may still find a traditional DSLR to be advantageous. This is not because the autofocus on the Z 7II isn’t capable of keeping up with those subjects. I just went out to do some bird photography with the Z 7II recently and got a nearly 100% hit rate. But as a lifelong DSLR shooter, I’ll admit that I still find it easier to track a moving subject and capture decisive moments with an optical viewfinder rather than an electronic one. So, for me, the switch from the optical viewfinder to the electronic one is a big one.
But that is 100% a personal preference and not a reflection on the quality of the Z 7II’s EVF which is among the best on the market. I found there to be very minimal blackout time while I was shooting with the camera. And, while my personal needs might be driven by the need to capture images of fast-moving athletes, I can say without hesitation that if your subjects don’t spend the majority of their sessions sprinting across the frame at full speed, the viewfinder’s refresh rate will be more than sufficient. Even if action is your specialty, the Z 7II proved itself more than capable of keeping up during some of the more demanding sessions when I put it to the test. In next week’s article, I will take you on set with me again to show you what happens when I really push the camera to its limits in a commercial shoot setting. But, for now, I can say that the Z 7II is perfectly capable of keeping up with the majority of motion subjects you will find in front of your lens.
From an ergonomic standpoint, the Z 7II is very comfortable to handhold over the course of a long day. This is especially true if you pair it with the lighter, sharper, and more silent Z lenses, which are the key to really unlocking the camera’s potential. I usually shot with the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S the majority of the time and found the balance between it and the Z 7II to be very comfortable. The camera is noticeably smaller than its DSLR counterpart. When you factor in the weight difference between the Z lenses and their F-mount predecessors, the overall package is a real treat for my increasingly arthritic hands.
One of the best compliments that I can pay the system is to say that if you are used to Nikons, you will feel right at home picking up a Z 7II. Of course, part of this has to do with the menu system which will be familiar to most Nikonians. Also, the top-notch image quality and dynamic range will feel very familiar to those of us who have grown accustomed to our Nikons providing us a certain look right out of the box.
One area where the Z 7II is an unequivocal upgrade is in the video department. In my time with the Z 7II, I have used it as my primary shooter for both stills and motion, and it hasn’t let me down in either regard. Of the two siblings, the 24-megapixel Z 6II is better known among filmmakers. There are all kinds of technical explanations for this that are far beyond my purview. But, in practical terms, the Z 7II provides a beautiful video file that can get the job done. The face and eye detection in video mode are smooth and accurate. I used it for everything from shooting a short film to serving as a webcam on seemingly endless zoom calls. And it never let me down. So, if you are in need of a single camera body to do multiple tasks on set, the Z 7II can definitely handle the workload.
In the coming weeks, I will be going more in-depth into the Z 7II and what it’s like to shoot with the camera in a real professional setting. I’ll try to give more case-specific examples of how the camera performs when the marching band starts to play. And, eventually, I will give you a full comparison of shooting the Z 7II versus a D850, and let you know if the Z 7II will be the next camera for me.
But I can say that at the current price point of $2,996, the camera is well worth the value. It provides a lot of punch in a small package. It is sturdy and able to handle a hard day’s work. And if you are someone who likes higher resolution sensors, needs the option to flip easily between stills and motion, and are looking for the most bang for your buck, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more valuable option.