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The Nikon Z Cameras for Landscape Photography

I’ve now been using the Nikon Z7 for more than six months, and I’ve also tested the very similar Z6 extensively for our review at Photography Life. The takeaway in both cases is that, despite a few flaws, Nikon produced an excellent and surprisingly refined first-generation mirrorless camera. But the more I use the Z7, especially side by side with my older D800e, some of the mirrorless camera’s strengths really shine for my favorite genre – landscape photography.

I’ll start by saying that all cameras today have strengths and weaknesses, whether mirrorless or DSLR. Nearly every camera today is very good for certain uses, with about the price it deserves, too. If you take a $2000 DSLR or mirrorless from any brand, and use a generic 35mm f/1.8 lens, you’ll be able to take the same great photos with any of them.

So what makes the Z cameras so successful for landscape photography? It’s simply the case that their particular strengths intersect with this genre very well, and their weaknesses aren’t as important for it. Today, I wanted to write about some reasons why the Z cameras are so well-tuned for landscape photography, and why I’m excited to see where this system goes in the future. I also wanted to focus on a few things that have been overlooked in the back-and-forth of online discussions.

High-Quality Lenses

The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 is the sharpest 24-70mm lens we’ve ever tested at Photography Life. It’s sharper than the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 VR at all focal lengths, and that’s saying a lot – the F-mount lens is no slouch at all.

Sharpness isn’t everything, of course. Other factors matter for landscape photography, like the lens’s size and weight. In both of those respects, the same Z 24-70mm f/4 is a big success. It weighs just 500 grams, compared to 1067 for the 24-70mm f/2.8 VR.

The Z lens doesn’t have the same f/2.8 aperture, but that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day for landscapes and travel. And if you do need f/2.8, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 will start shipping within the next few days, and it weighs 805 grams. We have not yet tested that lens at Photography Life, but it seems reasonable to expect very good results.

It’s not just the zooms that are brilliant for the Z system, although that is probably more important for most landscape photographers. All the Z lenses we’ve tested so far have been exceptional. The 35mm f/1.8, for example, is sharpest in the center at f/2.8, beating out every F-mount lens aside from the $10,000 supertelephotos. Even if you don’t need that particular lens – I don’t, since the 24-70mm f/4 is plenty sharp for my needs – it’s a great sign for the next lenses in Nikon’s roadmap.

You may recall that the Nikon Z mount is larger than any other full-frame mount on the market, and it has the shortest flange distance as well. I don’t know if this is why the Z lenses have such insane image quality or not, but at a minimum it gives Nikon more leeway with certain lens designs. Regardless of the “why,” Nikon Z lenses are next-level without weighing too much, and that’s ideal for landscape photography.

Nikon Z7 and 24-70mm f4 Lens
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1.6 seconds, f/11.0

Live View and Focusing

The Z cameras have the best live view implementation of any Nikon camera. The closest competitor is the D850, but its performance is still short of the Z cameras in live view.

On one hand, although very few people are talking about it for some reason, the Z6 and Z7 have a 3×2 aspect ratio screen rather than 4×3. This matches the aspect ratio of your photos, making the LCD appear significantly larger than the screen on any Nikon DSLR. This means it is a genuine pleasure to compose photos with the Z cameras, especially if you’re a heavy live-view user (again, as landscape photographers often are).

Along with that, if you’re a live view shooter, you’ll find that the autofocus on the Z cameras is faster than that of any Nikon DSLR. Live view also focuses in lower light conditions because of the Low-Light AF mode. And perhaps most importantly, our testing of the Z7’s live view system amazed us with its consistent focus capabilities.

Normally, when testing lenses for sharpness at Photography Life, we simply cannot use autofocus to lock on precisely (even live view) because it’s not always perfect. Instead, we magnify live view 100% and focus manually, then take a series of shots while moving the camera forward or backward very slightly from image to image to correct for minor issues in our manual focus accuracy. We then extract sharpness data from all the shots and use the sharpest one in the results we publish. This process happens again for every aperture and then every focal length. A lot goes into focus testing!

In our tests of the Z6 and Z7, we amazingly found that the live view autofocus was so accurate that it matched the sharpest manual focus result essentially every time. Although we still went through the same testing routine as always, the Z cameras are so good that the numbers would have stayed almost identical if we just used autofocus instead. The live view AF accuracy is just that good – the best AF-S system on any Nikon camera so far.

Most of this isn’t relevant for something like sports or wildlife photography, but for landscapes, it’s incredible. I don’t need to switch to manual focus nearly as often now, saving time in the field without losing any sharpness. As a landscape photographer, I already used live view most of the time even with my D800e. The shooting experience is vastly better this time around, and even compared to the D850’s live view implementation, the Z cameras win out.

Nikon Z Cameras for Landscape Photography
NIKON Z7 + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 64, 1/6, f/11.0

Handling

The Z series cameras borrow strongly from Nikon DSLRs in their design and handling, including the same menu layout and very similar controls overall. Nikon moved a few buttons, but I find the new positions to be quite intuitive, just as good as their DSLR counterparts. The Z cameras continue with Nikon’s excellent ergonomics, so they’re comfortable and easy to handhold in much the same way as a Nikon DSLR.

In short – if you are a Nikon shooter, you’ll be happy to see that the Z cameras carry over almost everything they can from Nikon DSLRs. The Z6 and Z7 also weigh less, as you would expect when comparing mirrorless to DSLR in the first place. These are the lightest cameras on the market with Nikon’s professional-level handling, including the joystick found only on Nikon’s flagship DSLRs.

A lot has been said about how the Nikon Z7 is different from the Nikon D850. And there are differences, but the two cameras are much more similar than many people give them credit for. They have practically the same sensor and image quality, comparable frame rates, comparable video specifications, same ISO range, and so on.

Even the battery life on the Z6 and Z7 matches that of Nikon DSLRs for landscape photography. I’ll actually go out on a limb and say that the Z cameras are better than Nikon DSLRs in battery life if you mainly shoot in live view – again, meaning a lot of landscape photographers.

Just a couple days ago, I was shooting a scene with both my Nikon Z7 and Nikon D800e. I know the D800e is not up to the same battery life standards as the newest DSLRs, but even so, I went through three batteries with the D800e in the time it took a single Z7 battery to go down to 2/5 capacity! For further confirmation of this unexpected observation, note that the CIPA battery life ratings for the D850 and Z7 when used for video – an exclusively live view process – are 70 minutes and 85 minutes respectively.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think that today’s Nikon DSLRs are better cameras overall for the broadest range of needs. If you mainly focus by tracking subjects with AF-C autofocus, I would hold out for the next generation of Nikon mirrorless. The Z cameras are specialists rather than generalists – but in the direction they specialize, I have yet to see anything that beats them. That direction happens to overlap with the needs of many landscape photographers surprisingly well.

Nikon Z 24-70mm f4 S Sample Black and White Photo
NIKON Z7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 44mm, ISO 64, 1/100, f/9.0

Missing Lenses

To me, the biggest issue with the Z series at the moment (aside from the lack of a “no-distractions live view” display mode, a truly disappointing omission) is simply the lens lineup. Since the system is so new, it makes sense that there are only a handful of native lenses available right now. If those lenses don’t meet your needs, you may want to wait before jumping ship.

For example, I’ve said in the past that I use telephoto lenses for landscape photography almost as much as wide angles. At the moment, the only telephoto on Nikon’s roadmap beyond 85mm is a 70-200mm f/2.8, which is the right focal length but the wrong aperture. Until the Z system has a native 70-200mm f/4 or something similar, a lot of landscape photographers will end up adapting F-mount lenses for that purpose.

Nikon Z7 Landscape Telephoto
NIKON Z7 + 70-200mm f/4 @ 190mm, ISO 64, 0.6 seconds, f/16.0

However, the FTZ adapter is not a perfect solution. It adds enough size and weight that the Z cameras are on par with a lighter DSLR like the D750. And although the FTZ is an autofocus adapter, I’ve tested it quite a bit with the 70-200mm f/4 and was not completely impressed. FTZ-adapted lenses fail to lock onto very low-contrast subjects that native Z lenses handle without a problem. They also stop autofocusing in dark environments sooner than native lenses do.

In short, the Z cameras are meant to be used with native lenses, where they absolutely shine. But there aren’t enough native lenses yet. Beyond just the lightweight telephoto, a few more specialized needs have yet to be met. For example, for astrophotography, both the 20mm f/1.8 S and 14-24mm f/2.8 S are not arriving until some time in 2020.

Many photographers won’t have a problem with that. I’m happy enough with the 24-70mm f/4 at the moment that I’m willing to deal with the FTZ as needed. Of course, if you need a fully developed mirrorless system right now, Sony and Fuji are your only real options (unless Leica is more your style).

Even if the Z system can’t replace your full kit yet, though, you might consider the “switch slowly” route. The Z6 and Z7 both make excellent primary cameras with a DSLR as backup, or equally excellent backups/travel cameras to use in tandem with your main system. There’s no rule saying that you need to sell all your DSLR gear the moment you go mirrorless, and if you keep that in mind, the small lens lineup of Z system is easy enough to work around for now.

Conclusion

The Nikon Z cameras, at the moment, are not generalist devices. For the widest range of uses, I’d still vote for a DSLR today, or perhaps a Sony/Fuji mirrorless instead of Nikon. This is likely going to change as Nikon releases more and more Z lenses, but it will take the company at least a few years to have a large enough lineup for almost everyone.

That said, the Z cameras have some strengths that others on the market simply do not. For starters, I would argue that the image quality you can attain from them is equal to – or possibly better than – any other full-frame option on the market today. The AF-S capabilities on the Z6 and Z7 are second to none, and the same can be said of the cameras’ live view system itself. The Z cameras also have amazing handling, with surprisingly good battery life and a very intuitive control layout. They are really enjoyable cameras to use.

Switching to a new system always comes with a price, and if you’re thinking about getting a Z camera, I won’t unconditionally steer you in that direction. As always, you probably shouldn’t switch cameras if you’re happy with what you have right now, and the benefits of mirrorless – though great for landscape photographers – aren’t relevant to everyone.

But at a minimum, I want to emphasize that the Z series cameras have some impressive and unexpected benefits that some photographers have overlooked. They are far from the optimal cameras for everyone, but they’re very, very good in the areas where they specialize. For me, using even a modern DSLR for landscape photography now feels a bit off… like going back a generation in a laptop, with so many little things working slower that I didn’t recognize at the time. I doubt this is the impression that sports or wildlife photographers will have with the Z cameras, with work that depends so heavily on autofocus tracking. For a lot of landscapes, though, it’s as clear as day.

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