With the release of the Z 7II and the specs running so close to those of my beloved D850, it makes sense that it’s the first of Nikon’s mirrorless cameras to really make me consider the switch. But what will happen when I get out of testing mode and put my feet to the fire in the real world?
In order to put the Z 7II to the test, I wanted to put it into a difficult real-world situation to figure out just how it would perform. Would it meet expectations? Would I find myself wishing I had brought my D850 instead? Would I love the experience with the Z 7II, but still want more? Previously, I had spent several months putting the smaller 24-megapixel Z 6II through its paces. Because my clients usually require higher resolution assets, I always knew that, between the two new Nikon Z cameras, it would be the 45-megapixel Z 7II that actually had a chance to make it into my camera bag. But, because the cameras are so similar aside from sensor size, I enjoyed the Z 6II as a way to really get used to the Z system, figure out focus modes, and work through any necessary adjustments. I did a commercial shoot with the Z 6II, and it passed with flying colors, but I was also careful to provide an even playing field. I didn’t throw it into the deep end. I more or less wanted to test it on a safer shoot where I could control more variables.
But, over the years, my D850 has been thrown into every situation imaginable and has never once asked for a quarter. In the studio or out in the desert, shooting rapidly moving athletes or stationary still life, I’ve simply been able to pull it out of the bag and get to work. If the Z 7II was going to be a real upgrade option for me, I needed to know that it could handle just about anything. I needed to know it could handle surprises.
So, to put the Z 7II to the test, I arranged a less predictable photo shoot. I’d be shooting outdoors in a tight window between rare rainstorms in Southern California. I’d be hiking to the location and only intended on taking the Z 7II, so if it decided to crap out, I would be out of luck. I’d be mixing a lot of flashes and natural light, so its ability to communicate with my strobes would be key. And we would be shooting in an area where we technically weren’t supposed to be, so I would be using the tried and true tactic of shooting at a rapid pace then moving before the permit police noticed us even being there. This wouldn’t be the hardest shoot I’d ever done, but there were enough variables in there that I knew I could cover many of the scenarios I would be tasked with shooting on a regular basis. So, I packed up the car with more gear than I really should have, considering I would still have to hike once I arrived, and I set off for work.
Of course, it should be said that this shoot almost never happened. As this was a loaner camera, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the entire shoot was nearly derailed in the days just before the shoot. Allow me to tell you a brief side story that illustrates one thing about the camera you might want to know.
A couple of days earlier, I had been sitting at the computer in my office, dutifully typing out correspondence, when I looked just beneath my desk to see the familiar sight of my dog, Archie, staring back at me. He had that look in his eye that every canine caregiver knows. That look that says, yes, I’m cute, but if you don’t take me outside right this instant, your hardwood floor is going to pay the consequences. So, I grabbed the Z 7II, which had been sitting on the desk beside me, and headed for the back door. I didn’t have any intention of photographing Archie when he went to relieve himself. But, I was also in the habit of taking the camera with me on my afternoon walkabouts, and I knew I’d be going for one as soon as Archie had finished defiling my lawn.
Before I could take him out, I needed to put Archie’s collar on. He’d gotten a bath earlier, and his naked neck made me nervous in the event he were to slip through the gate. So, I put the camera down on the kitchen counter and pushed it to the back. I’ve knocked more than one thing off the counter onto the floor before and didn’t want the camera to experience the same fateful drop.
Once the camera was secure atop the counter, I bent over to fasten the collar onto the puppy. Well, apparently, this level of attention was too much for the 12-inch tall canine, and he began leaping into the air. Sure enough, next thing I know, this 22-pound fur baby with an appetite for destruction was flying through the air in the general direction of the camera. The camera was pushed well back on the counter, so I didn’t really have any fear that it was in danger. He’s also barely a foot tall, so if the countertop is somewhere around the four-foot height, it simply had to be out of his reach, right? Right? Wrong.
While he couldn’t reach the camera, he was able to jump just high enough to take a one in a million opportunity to link his fingernail around the end of the neck strap, which was lying closer to the edge. In one horrifying moment, seeming to pass in slow motion, the entire camera came flying off of the counter, passed through my attempt for a diving catch, and smashed against the floor.
I looked down at the shattered glass on the floor and had to take a moment to decide what to do first. Did I start crying? Or did I strangle the dog? Thankfully, I was able to fight back my murderous impulse and pushed the dog into his crate. Partially to protect him from me. Partially to protect him from eating the shards of glass. I then nervously picked up the camera off the ground and flipped it on.
Clearly, the gods were on my side at that moment as the camera popped right on as if nothing had happened. I had my Z 50mm f/1.8 S mounted to it at the time and assumed that lens had officially shut its last frame. But I was doubly relieved to realize that the shattered glass on the floor didn’t come from either the lens or the camera, but rather the small, inexpensive UV filter I had mounted to the front of the lens. Not only had the camera survived the drop, but so did the lens. Neither any worse for wear.
Now, of course, this story is not meant to encourage you to drop your own cameras onto your hardwood floor. But, it did go a long way towards allaying any fears one might have that the Z cameras' smaller bodies might be any less durable than their much larger DSLR counterparts. The camera is clearly built to take a knock or two. The first test passed, and I hadn’t even left the house yet. Now, let’s put the dog back inside and head to set.
When I finally did reach my location, I brought only the Z 7II, a Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, a Z 85mm f/1.8 S prime, and a Profoto B10 Plus with an Air Remote. The B10 Plus has a cool feature where you are able to mount it to a normal tripod head in lieu of a light stand, so I gave serious consideration to how badly I wanted to have to carry my C-stand on my hike, especially knowing I would also be bringing a tripod to test video capabilities. But, in the end, I relented and brought the C-stand as well. Of course, carrying it was doing no favors to my torn rotator cuff, but the photographer in me won out over the lazy Chris sitting atop my injured shoulder. Because I wanted to do video, I also brought along my Atmos Ninja V. As the camera was a loaner, I didn’t have the full raw video conversion, but I did want to shoot 10-bit, which also requires the external monitor.
My model arrived, I packed all I could onto my back, and we headed off to the location. As I said earlier, due to the fact that we weren’t really authorized to be in the location, I knew we were going to have to move fast. Then again, it should be said that I am someone who likes to work fast anyway, so this has never been a major deterrent. I am less of a “let's take four hours getting set up for one shot” kind of guy and more of a “see it, shoot it, move on” kind of person. Not that I’m suggesting that is the right way to be. But, knowing my own inherent impatience, I find I operate best with a camera that can keep up with me. So, I made absolutely no effort to slow down on the Z 7II’s account.
Because I specialize in fitness and activewear, the shoot would involve movement and spontaneity. In my three-part Z 6II review, I went into a lot of depth about focus modes. As the two cameras are essentially the same in that regard, I won’t repeat all of that here. But, from a focusing perspective, the camera performed beautifully the whole day. I alternated between the wide-area auto AF with face and eye detection, and the dynamic-area mode and both worked well for the subject.
I triggered my flashes with the Profoto Air Remote. The sync speed of the Z 7II is only 1/200th (less than the 1/250th of my D850), so I needed to use High-Speed Sync on occasion and don’t recall any misfires. I’ll admit, while not a Sony shooter, the one tech spec about their new Alpha 1 which caught the majority of my attention was the promised 1/400th flash sync speed. I have no idea if it actually works in reality, but as someone who often has to control ambient light, a faster flash sync speed ranks up there for me with more megapixels or better autofocus. That’s a feature that would make my work significantly easier. But I digress.
From a lens perspective, the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 has proven to be my go-to lens for the Z system. The focal range is right for the type of work I do, and the much lighter profile of the Z version compared to the DSLR equivalent is much appreciated. I also took out the Z 85mm f/1.8. Usually, I don’t use 85mm as I find the narrow field of view too constricting. I use wide angle lenses primarily. But the Z 85mm f/1.8 provides really beautiful bokeh, and I’ve been finding myself looking for reasons to include it in more and more of my shoots.
In terms of handling, the camera did well. I knew this would be a tougher test than the one I did with the Z 6II for simply practical reasons. The camera would be going in and out of the bag more as we moved from location to location. There would be a lot of shifting light, requiring more turns of the dials to adjust exposure. I very quickly learned that one adjustment I’d made which helps when shooting casually, changing the focus ring to adjust ISO, was not at all appropriate when moving fast on set. I spent a good bit of time accidentally changing my exposure from shot to shot and being unable to figure out why. I quickly caught on, and it was entirely my fault, but it was good to know the camera was easily customizable to make things more seamless.
One thing that isn’t customizable and became a very minor issue was the back command dial. In casual shooting, I absolutely loved how big the dial was and how easily it turned to adjust the shutter speed. But on set, my big, clumsy fingers found the placement and size of the dial to be too much to ignore, and I kept accidentally changing my shutter speed and throwing off the sync of my flash. On my D850 the rear dial is still in the same relative area but much smaller. Also, ergonomically speaking, on the Z 7II, the dial is kind of combined with the top right back edge of the camera. So, it’s easier to accidentally turn when in the process of altering my hand position during a shot. This is 100% something I would get used to overtime, but I did lose a shot or two due to my own toes for thumbs.
The biggest benefit of an electronic viewfinder is the exposure preview. But, because I would be using flash, the exposure preview is not really relevant. So, I shot the bulk of the day with the exposure preview turned off. The viewfinder on the Z 7II is bright and responsive. However, I’d be lying if I said I don’t still prefer optical viewfinders. I’ll write more about that in next week’s essay where I compare the Z 7II to my D850. But, long story short, I’m old, I shoot fast-moving subjects, and try as I might, I still say an optical viewfinder is better for sports and activities. Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t shoot sports and action with the Z 7II. I made sure to set up a running shot with the camera to test how framing and autofocus with the Z 7II compared to my DSLR. And, while, as I said, I do prefer the optical viewfinder for that purpose, the Z 7II viewfinder was still up for the task and performed well.
The one area where the Z 7II added a clear advantage to my workflow was on the video front. I currently own the original Z 6 with the raw conversion, which serves as my primary Nikon video creator. I’ve watched a million and one YouTube videos that explain why the video performance of the 24MP Z 6 is inherently better than that you’ll get on the Z 7 or Z 7II. Yet still, I couldn’t fully explain it to you. What I did want to do, however, on my test was to shoot a short film with the Z 7II to see for myself how it would perform.
The full-time AF in the video makes shooting video without a focus puller a cinch. I love the fact that the video brain of the camera remembers your settings when you go back to the still shooting and vice versa. I found the Z 7II connected to the Atmos to be a very manageable package. They communicated well with each other, and I even loaded up the new Nikon provided LUT for the camera onto the device to get a real-time preview of what my footage would look like in post.
On a side note, I do still think, however, that my pipe dream of being able to have to only take one camera on a hybrid shoot might forever be beyond my reach. This wasn’t due to the camera's performance, but instead the shoot itself reminding of the logistics. Because I was shooting video with the Atmos mounted in the camera’s hot shoe, that meant that I would need to mount the monitor and screw in the ND filter every time I switched to video. Then, when I switched back to stills, I would have to disconnect and unmount the monitor, unscrew the ND filter, and mount my Profoto Air Remote so that the camera could communicate with my strobes. Obviously, if I shot all the stills at once, then all the video at once, this wouldn’t matter. But since I was in go, go, go mode and shifting back and forth between the two with every shot, it was one more thing to slow me down. Again, this problem is both easily solvable and specific to my own set of needs. But, it did remind me of the benefits of bringing a camera to set which can stay permanently set up for video and another camera with nothing to do but stills. So, that’s less of a don’t buy the Z 7II comment and more of a buy the Z 7II plus a Z 6II kind of comment. Future wishlist for Z cameras on the video front? Perhaps built-in ND filters and the ability to do 10-bit internal N-log rather than requiring the use of the Atmos?
Despite the logistic wishlist, the video footage out of the Z 7II ended up looking great. We were shooting towards the end of the day with changing lighting conditions. And I did notice a bit more grain introduced into the video image as the sun went down. I think this is one of those things that is better with the Z 6II. But the noise wasn’t too egregious, and I likely wouldn’t have even noticed it were I not looking over the footage with a fine-toothed comb.
In terms of efficiency, I do think I am still able to move a bit quicker when shooting with my D850. That camera is more of a just pick it up and go tool, whereas the Z 7II requires a bit more thought to be given to focusing modes, turning viewfinder previews on and off, and other variables. But, the ability to shift between stills and video with the flip of a switch did make both shooting videos as well as matching up the color between stills and video in post a much smoother process.
Because the sensor is essentially the same as the one in my D850, the post-production process was very familiar. The files, as with all Nikon cameras, are a breeze to work with. Even the 4K video files didn’t slow down my computer as sometimes happens when shooting video with competitor’s mirrorless cameras.
All in all, I’d say shooting with the Z 7II was a very familiar experience for me as a longtime Nikon shooter. The camera feels and moves like a Nikon. It was able to keep up with everything I threw at it and handled its tasks with style. The minor hiccups I had while shooting was pretty much entirely a result of me getting used to the camera. And my biggest obstacle, the electronic viewfinder, is more of a personal issue I’ve had with all mirrorless cameras and not specific to the Z 7II.
So, with all that promise, will I be trading in my D850 and all my F-mount glass to trade up to the Z system? Well, you’ll have to read next week's article to know the answer.