What happens when a non-vlogger takes a spin with Nikon’s new social media-focused Z 30 compact camera?
I don’t like social media. I'm sure I’ve made that painfully clear in any one of my many exhaustively long dissertations on the perils of a “content” focused world. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a complete Luddite. I totally understand the attraction and appeal of social media and the many social media adjacent applications that have sprouted up in the past several years, often providing serious competition to traditional media (at least in terms of watch hours if not always tangible profit). So, while I may have spent my life and career in pursuit of a more traditional understanding of filmmaking and photography as opposed to “content creation,” it would be shortsighted to suggest that our new digital landscape is merely a fad. After all, YouTube just turned 17 years old. It’ll be ready to go off to college soon. It’s worth taking seriously. And, for many, a side hustle as an influencer is more than just a hobby. It’s a legitimate career path.
Of the new media platforms, ranging from TikTok to Instagram to Twitter to the one where people watch other people play video games for some reason, YouTube is by far the most useful platform for me. While it is quite possible to spend too much time on YouTube, in lieu of doing actual work, I’d be lying if I said I don’t have my fair share of favorite channels and I may even have bought one, or two, or one hundred and two different photographic devices based on the advice of a content creator.
Because every business owner knows that one of the keys to sustainability is diversification, the concept of starting one’s own YouTube channel is an inevitability for many photographers. For most, it will remain an idea they never get around to actually executing. For some, it will become a passion that slowly overtakes their actual work behind the camera. For myself, like I suspect many a professional photographer, it became an idea that I dabbled with only to realize that creating a YouTube channel was taking way too much time away from creating what I deemed my “real work.” And thus, it’s never been a platform that I’ve pursued.
But while my own interest in the platform may have waned, the platform itself has not. The number of channels and amount of searchable content has only grown exponentially and shows no signs of slowing down. Occasionally, curious readers will ask why I don’t talk more about my own YouTube channel. There are two reasons for this. One, my original YouTube channel is something of a barren wasteland. Since switching my professional video work over to Vimeo a couple years ago, the bulk of content living on my YouTube channel has been there a while. Not that it’s bad. But I have done a poor job of keeping it up to date. Since the channel itself never had much of a focus to begin with, it’s more or less a combination of various video projects I’ve made over the years that needed to be on YouTube as a way to link to another site (like a Fstoppers article, for example), but there was never really a plan for what I wanted the channel to be.
Secondly, it does seem as though every photography channel on YouTube eventually slowly transforms simply into a gear review channel. And since the only thing I hate more than social media is our collective tendency to put technology over art, the idea of spending any more time than is absolutely necessary talking about gear was less than enticing. Yes, I realize that’s an odd thing to say given the title of this essay, but my point remains. It’s not the gear, it’s what you choose to do with it that’s important. And the last thing I wanted to do was devote my life to selling products as opposed to talking about the artform.
A few years ago, another idea dawned on me. Why not start a channel that is completely independent of my own filmmaking and photography? Why not start a channel about something else I am passionate about that wasn’t just a backdoor advertisement for my photography portfolio or director’s reel? As a business owner, there’s always a temptation to look at absolutely everything I do in life as an extension of my marketing efforts. So the idea of creating a channel that wasn’t about my own work seemed foreign to me. But there would be clear benefits.
For starters, there would be no feeling of the need to create art projects just to fill up the channel. That’s a good way to have the “art” that I love turn into “content.” It’s genuinely impossible to create enough “great” art at the pace required to grow a YouTube channel. You’ll inevitably end up just cranking stuff out to meet the metrics. And that’s not something I wanted to do. But if I didn’t have to create what I personally consider “great” work just for the YouTube channel on a conveyor belt basis, that would free me up to save my best work for my actual business as a commercial photographer and director/cinematographer. In that way, the channel could just be purely for fun. Its success or failure would be in no way related to my ability as an artist. If it worked, it worked. If it didn’t, it didn’t. But there would be no confusion between what I do for a living as a photographer/director and what I’m doing for fun on YouTube. I won’t be confused. Nor will potential clients.
But, if I wasn’t going to talk about my own work, what else is there to talk about? Yes, that’s an incredibly selfish thing to say out loud. But, as any woman unlucky enough to date me can tell you, talking about my own work is kind of what I do. There’s only one thing that I talk about more than my own work. And that is cinema.
I’ve intentionally used the word “cinema” as opposed to movies. I wanted to fully convey to you just how seriously I take the art form and how utterly pretentious I can be. But, pretentious or not, I spend hours every week carefully studying and breaking down the best and worst that Hollywood has had to offer, from silents to streaming. And more than one person a week is likely going to find themselves the unsolicited victim of one or more of my speeches about why The Godfather is really not a story about crime at all, but instead a deep dive into the psychological balance between fathers and sons. I figured, if I’m going to be rambling on about this anyway, why not do it in front of a camera and make a YouTube channel out of it?
My first attempt at starting what would come to be known as Moveable Canvas started three years ago. I know that it was three years ago because, up until a couple weeks ago, it had been three years since my last post. Putting together each episode proved to be too much of a time commitment, so I took a break. A very, very long break. But a lot has happened in the last three years. If you are reading this in 2022, I’ll not need to explain to you just how much can change in three years. And I found myself wondering again about ways to diversify my creative output. When I saw the press release about Nikon’s new compact camera, the Z 30, aimed at vloggers and social media content creators, I thought it might be a way to kill two birds with one stone. I could review the camera to see how effective it would be for creators, while at the same time using it to rekindle my nascent YouTube channel and see where it could go.
It is at this point in our story that I feel as though I need to bring back the chorus to remind you that I am not a content creator by nature. I am a perfectionist used to taking my sweet time to create individual art pieces meant to stand the test of time. The idea of creating content quickly is something I struggle with. So, it is not uncommon for me to break out an entire production van worth of gear just to make a single shot work for simple vlog content. But, I knew I didn’t want to do that this time. One of the main reasons I stopped making the Moveable Canvas episodes a couple years ago was that they just took too much time to produce. So, I knew, this time around, that if it was going to work, I would need to come up with a formula that allowed me to make the best YouTube videos possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Otherwise, I’d run the risk of the channel taking too much time away from my actual job and becoming a chore.
One thing that I instantly appreciated about the Z 30 was that it was relatively easy to use. It is small, light, and portable. With the Z 16-50mm kit lens attached (and retracted), the camera literally fits inside my jeans' pockets. This means that there’s no reason not to have the camera with you at all times. This is key to a vlogger or someone who is going to need to be able to record the events of their life at any given moment.
Now, to be fair, I still had very little interest in vlogging my daily activities. One, I simply don’t find it all that interesting watching other people live their lives when I could be out living my own. So, there’s a large part of me that finds it unfathomable that anybody would want to watch me live my life. Especially since such a large portion of it occurs with me in my sweatpants hopelessly fumbling with the remote control as I try to successfully navigate the Criterion Channel in the dark from the comfort of my couch while a 30-pound Min Pin mix stares back at me with shame in his eyes, embarrassed for me on my behalf.
I also never wanted to be one of “those people.” You know who I mean. Those people that you see walking through the bank or the grocery store with a camera always an arm’s length in front of their face with a lens pointed back at them, ignoring all accepted norms of social behavior to address an imaginary audience on the other side of the world. I realize this is a popular form of vlogging. And for you, just for you, I made a video in that type of format so that I could speak from experience for the purposes of this review (try not to laugh at me too hard). But I knew full well that my channel would be the kind I could create in my living room without my fellow citizens having to see me talking to myself in the street and wondering if I was in need of immediate medical care.
To me, one of the key things about the Z 30 was the ability to have the screen flip around so that I could see myself talking. Either in a vlogging situation or when doing my direct address film reviews for the channel. Most of my other cameras require me to rig a monitor in order to see myself. It’s not difficult, but since the idea is to do these videos in as little time as possible, every little advantage helps. So too does the front side tally light which lets me avoid the all too frequent mistake of taping an entire review only to realize you’ve forgotten to turn the camera on. I’m not saying that’s happened to me. I’m just not not saying that.
Of course you do give up things when you are used to shooting with Nikon’s top of the line camera, the Z 9, and you now find yourself shooting with the entry level model. But, as I’ve said many a time before, the best camera is the one that is right for the job in front of you. The Z 30 does lack things like RAW video recording, 10-bit log, and many of the other creature comforts I need for my professional filmmaking work, but this was going to be for YouTube. And, quite honestly, much of that is simply overkill for the content I would need to produce. There are two simple rules to filmmaking that have stood true since the beginning of time and will outlive us all. Light well and get your exposure right in camera. If you do both of those things, you’ll find the need to have all the fancy bells and whistles that make things easier to adjust in post all of the sudden seem not so important. And, after using the camera in both deliberately lit situations and grab-and-go vlogging scenarios, I never found myself complaining about image quality. This included some pretty low light scenarios which I will detail momentarily.
Of course, the target market for the Z 30 is the content creation community. Some of these are photographers. But, more than likely, the person buying a camera like the Z 30 is someone who wants to start a social media channel but may not yet know all the techniques that go behind making a great image. They are beauty consultants, car reviewers, or any number of other things. Their camera is the last thing they consider. They aren’t choosing between a Z 9 and a Z 30. They are picking up the Z 30 because they want something better than their phone. But they also likely don’t have quite the skills yet to always know the best settings. They just want to press the record button and have it work.
So, to that end, I tried to use the camera as close as possible to the way it was set when I took it out of the box. As someone who has been making films for almost three decades now, I totally have the knowledge to “upgrade” my footage by knowing what settings to use. But, I intentionally tried to put myself in the shoes of a new user who wouldn’t always have access to the best supporting tools or the knowledge of how to use them.
For instance, on my “vlogging” day, I took the camera to the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles. My original intention was to take it on vacation with me to visit my parents, but when a doggy day care situation derailed my trip, I wanted to simulate the type of travel activity that I might have done were I to be on a trip. As a cinephile, the Academy Museum is also my official happy place. And a perfect fit for a channel that talks about the history of motion pictures. So, I slid the Z 30 in my pocket and headed out the door.
Visiting the museum would mean bright exteriors followed by dark interiors. Oftentimes cramped display areas mixed with more expansive showcases. I only had one lens with me. The kit 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3. Variable aperture lenses tend to stop down quickly, so I would also need to shoot at high ISO on many occasions. I didn’t bring any extra lighting or lens filtration. Again, I was trying to simulate the most basic scenario a content creator might find themselves in while out for the day with just the camera.
One thing that I did wish I had overruled myself on in my effort to give the most natural review possible was that I didn’t bring along an external microphone on the trip. The Z 30 actually has an excellent built-in stereo microphone that does a great job of capturing rich audio. But, not to get too technical, if you’ve ever recorded dialogue you know that it’s best to have some sort of shotgun mic as close to the subject as possible. Obviously, I wasn’t going to have a boom operator following me around the museum. But some sort of external mini shotgun mic running into the camera’s mic jack would have been beneficial. Especially since I’d forgotten that LA’s historic LACMA museum, right next door, was undergoing construction. A stereo mic not only picks up your voice, but everything around it. So I was having to battle to make sure the camera was hearing my voice clearly in a recording environment that would have been tricky even with a boom mic. An easily fixable scenario. But it was probably good that I didn’t bring the external mic as it gives you a better reference point for what audio straight out of camera would sound like.
While we are on the topic of audio, one downside to the camera, which I suspect could be easily fixed via firmware, is that when you flip the camera into selfie mode (the LCD screen flipped all the way around to face the same direction as the lens), you no longer see the audio levels on the LCD. Perhaps I missed something. If you have the camera and know of a way to pull this off, let me know in the comments. But, again trying to stick as close to “straight out of the box” settings as possible, it did seem odd that you wouldn’t be able to see audio levels in selfie mode when you can see the levels when standing behind the camera. Especially since this is the type of camera that will spend a great deal of its life in selfie mode. The camera also lacks a headphone jack. This kind of makes sense, actually. It is primarily going to be used with the holder of the camera being the one on camera (and probably not wanting to be wearing headphones on screen). If the shooter is behind the camera, one might want to monitor the audio with headphones. But, I guess they are thinking that the typical user for this camera will be okay with just trusting the camera to record usable audio without review.
The good news is that, despite not being able to see my levels, once I got the footage back to edit, I didn’t notice any problems with the clarity in my direct addresses to the camera. The camera definitely picks up wind noise and ambient noise, but the audio was totally acceptable for the format of the vlog. I would suggest an external mic. But, this was going to be for YouTube, not a theatre with Dolby Surround Sound. So, it did a more than adequate job capturing me speaking in front of the camera.
The picture quality was also terrific. Shooting inside under some dimly lit museum situations with a variable aperture lens that stops down to f/6.3 in certain circumstances, the camera was really pushing the limits of high ISO to get an exposure. But, even using Auto ISO and letting the camera meter handle the darkness on its own, I was happy with the footage it collected. There were no unacceptable noise levels. And the camera’s autofocus had very little trouble. The only times shots were out of focus were when I accidentally bumped the focus ring on the 16-50mm kit lens and mistakenly disabled the autofocus all together. That’s user error though and not the fault of the camera.
For the film review, which was shot in my living room and under far more controllable circumstances, the camera held up great. Knowing I’d have a little less latitude for pushing and pulling exposure in post (8-bit vs 10/12-bit), I took a little extra care to make sure I was lit how I wanted. And, for the review video, I did record audio externally as I would with almost any camera. But, the footage from the Z 30 in a controlled environment looked just as good as many other cameras I’ve shot that are triple the price. If I were considering the Z 30 for this type of shooting in a controlled environment, image quality wouldn’t be a problem whatsoever. In both interior and exterior situations, it held up like a champ.
While I’m still young enough to consider vlogging, I’m afraid I’m not young enough to consider taking stills without a viewfinder. Okay, I’m kidding. Kind of. But the type of user who would be interested in the Z 30 is most likely a video first creator. They are also most likely very used to using the screen of their smartphone to capture both stills and video. In short, they are probably not old curmudgeons like me who make purchasing decisions based on whether I can press my dusty spectacles against the back of a rubber eyepiece. Also, let’s not forget that, should you want a viewfinder, Nikon has two other similarly priced offerings in the Z fc and the Z 50 that would be more than happy to oblige. The image quality in stills is also pretty much identical to those two cameras. More than enough for an enthusiast or to capture some kick butt thumbnails for your video content. The lack of viewfinder here does two things. One, it makes the device smaller and pocketable. Two, it keeps the costs down. Both of these are critical to a user who is upgrading from a phone and looking to have a high-quality device on them at all times to capture their lives in the best way possible.
So how capable was the Z 30 at being able to help me reignite my YouTube channel? I’d say very. I’ve already posted multiple videos created with the Z 30 to the channel alongside other videos created with far more complex systems, and the new footage doesn’t look at all out of place. While I would definitely spring for the external microphone or, better yet, the full creator’s kit, this is absolutely the right tool for a content creator who wants to record their own life in a variety of situations. Public and private. It is 100% the type of device that can go anywhere and do anything required for social media. It’s perfect for those just entering photography/videography or those who have no interest in photography but just need a camera that will make you look good with very little effort.
- Small (fits in a pocket)
- Great picture quality
- Easy to use
- No viewfinder
- No audio levels In selfie mode
- No log profile
As for the channel, will it live on? We’ll see. I’ve had a blast making these videos with the Z 30 and I’m looking forward to creating more. Hopefully, I can keep up the pace to produce one per week. Or, at least more than one every three years. But, having a camera that requires very little fuss to get a result is a major advantage.