20 months after the launch of Nikon’s first foray into the full-frame mirrorless world, it’s now time to take stock of what’s to love about the Z, or D.
After being personally acquainted with the D series DSLRs for 7 years, the Z’s introduction was a refreshing update that capitalized on groundbreaking innovations. At the same time, it retained many familiar elements that make the camera feel like a friend you never knew you had.
I’ve been an early adopter of the Z — in fact, I acquired the first few sets of the Z 6 and Z 7 when they were made available in Singapore weeks after launch. Since then, their prices have dropped significantly (about 25% to 30%).
Hence, their price points are on par (and in some cases, cheaper) than Nikon’s DSLR offerings with similar specifications. Take the D780 and D850 for example. They cost $2,300 and $3,000, respectively, while the Z 6 and Z 7 currently cost $1,800 and $2,800, respectively.
With the once differentiating factor of cost set aside, that leaves us with the raw specifications to compare, as the quality of photos is rather subjective.
Z Series Mirrorless Advantages
Silent shutter: Enables a truly discreet photographing experience (compared with the DSLR’s ‘quiet mode’, which merely dampens the shutter sound). Essential help when photographing sensitive situations like events, nature and street photography without distracting/alerting subjects. Vibrations due to shutter actuations are eliminated in long exposures, which proves useful when steadiness is of utmost priority.
Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) for real-time exposure preview of an image. Many have griped about the EVF being difficult to get accustomed to, but it’s magical. Especially in poorly lit situations, the guesswork of how exposure would affect an image is eliminated. Whatever you see in the viewfinder is what the final image will be. Focus peaking is also included so you won’t have to leave the viewfinder to look at live view on the screen again.
Overall lightweight Z ecosystem. The Z series cameras and lenses are lightweight and have a remarkably small form factor for greater portability. A simple comparison shows the Z cameras to be at least 30% lighter than their D counterparts, and that’s enhanced by a smaller overall footprint in size. Where I once would fit a D850 with 2 G lenses, I can fit a Z 7 with 3 Z lenses.
The ability to use XQD and CF express cards. I’ve never looked back after experiencing the blazing read/write capabilities of these cards. While they’re being implemented progressively in newer D DSLRs, the older models lack the revolutionary speeds of 400MB/s to 1200MB/s. Most SD cards max out at 100MB/s and that’s a very long time to transfer. When using the continuous high mode, writing memory fast would never be more necessary and these high-performance rates facilitate the clearing of the buffer more efficiently.
Superior autofocus capabilities while shooting video. The time of Nikon cameras not being able to do continual autofocus smoothly is over. The autofocusing is just as swift as in stills mode and has a supreme edge over the current D systems which hunt in sharp unpleasant jerks. For seamless continuous focus, I had to push and pull focus manually even on AF lenses. With the Z, that task is offloaded to the camera and it does a great job at keeping up.
Built-in 3-axis image stabilization (IBIS): In essence, this adds VR to any non-VR lens, even the manual focus AI-S ones! Elevates the Nikkor f/1.4 primes as undisputed kings of low light photography while complimenting the capabilities of lenses with built-in VR and brings the effective power to 5-axis stabilization. Either way, it’s a formidable addition that’s useful in all situations.
In-camera charging via USB C. Enables continuous shooting, power bank charging, less hassle with a physical charger. No more desperately hunting for power sockets; any ubiquitous USB port will suffice.
The first three points are inherent advantages of mirrorless cameras in general, while points the following 4 points are being progressively introduced in D DSLRs, equalizing their level playing field with the Zs.
D Series DSLR Advantages
Mechanical shutter: There is nothing more satisfying than to hear the iconic shutter click go ‘ge-rak’ on Nikon’s flagship / professional DSLRs. It breathes superiority, exudes confidence, and projects professionalism. Where the Z’s comes across significantly more muted (on the mechanical shutter), the D’s is unabashedly bold and commands attention.
Optical viewfinder (OVF) greatly conserves battery life. Still missing the days I could go without recharging the D750. I could take out 1,300 frames leisurely on a single charge with conservative battery usage, but the Z’s EVF draws quite a fair bit of power, enough to whittle this down to some 700 shots. Low tech solutions to high power consumption problems can be effective!
Backward autofocus compatibility with D lenses. This is one of the largest reasons why many still love D DSLRs. The Zs lack a screw-driven autofocus system, and that renders such lenses mountable without focusing support.
Dual memory card slots, for now. I can’t emphasize how useful the separation of photographs and videos in storage is. Or the ability to use the second slot for backup and overflow memory. This simplifies the transferring of files to workstations, where you won’t want different types of media mixed together. Sure, sorting is just one click away but dividing them makes the process more clear cut. And as for backups and overflow, there isn’t any substitute to it when operating with 1 slot.
Ultimately, innovation can be a lonely place. In the process of introducing something revolutionary, there will be customers who still prefer the traditional classical products with their niche capabilities. For the mass market, however, the array of features mirrorless promises to bring is irresistible. Preference lends heavier weight whichever models pack greater features, and it seems that mirrorless is leading this race.
I do see a future advancing towards mirrorless cameras, and it’s only a matter of time the DSLRs yield to its unstoppable force. We’ve seen how film has been relegated to the tool of photography purists, hipsters and aficionados – ceasing as a commercially viable product to bring Nikon into the future. Unwittingly, even most members within these groups tout camera-enabled smartphones which are themselves mirrorless in nature. That is the most endearing proof of mirrorless’ ability to pack maximum quality into a minimal footprint and cost.
Innovative creativity can never satisfy one’s customers a hundred percent. Granted Nikon’s grand rapid roadmap of introducing new Z lenses, sometimes in unprecedented configurations — such as the 14-30mm f/4 and the 58mm f/0.95 — it becomes evident that they aren’t willing to let this moment pass without fully realising its potentials.
In the long term, streamlining the product lineup to focus on one system would be most sustainable. The future is 22 alphabet letters beyond the letter D.
About the author: Klaus Tan, better known as Chuttersnap, is a photographer based in Singapore. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Yihong’s work on his Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This article was also published at Nikon Rumors.