It’s been a long wait, but now we can exhale: Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless Z series is ready to soothe the tempers of frustrated Nikonians. There isn’t a lot in the Z7 and Z6 to turn Sony A7 owners green with envy. But Nikon pros will have nothing to feel embarrassed about and for the most part should be happy with Nikon’s offering, which also seems solid enough to attract some newcomers. The wildcard? Canon, which is supposedly announcing a mirrorless full-frame next month. But as the unfashionable latecomer, it’s facing some stiff competition.

Nikon’s strategy follows Sony’s to a certain extent: two models, one high-end, one midrange. They have identical bodies differentiated predominantly by the sensor. The Z7 and Z6 differ in important ways: the Z7 has a 45.7-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, no blurring optical low-pass filter and slightly better tonal capture in bright light. Meanwhile the Z6 uses a 24.5MP BSI CMOS with an OLPF and has slightly better tonality in dim light. The resolution difference also means the Z7 has slower continuous-shooting performance — it’s processing a lot more data. They also have different autofocus-area density, probably because there are more on-chip phase detection sensors in a chip with more pixels.

In addition to the cameras, Nikon launched the first three lenses for the Z mount in conjunction with a new “S” designation for its premium lens models. They’re optimized for the new system: a 35mm f1.8 S, 50mm f1.8 S and a 24-70mm f4 S.

The Nikon Z7 will ship by the end of September, with the body selling for only $3,400 or $4,000 with the 24-70mm f4 lens. The Z6 won’t be ready until late November, its body selling for $2,000 and $2,600 for a kit with the same lens. We don’t have prices or availability for other regions, but those convert to about £2,600 or AU$4,760 and £3,100 or AU$5,450 for the Z7 and £1,550 or AU$2,720 and £2,010 or AU$3,500 for the Z6.

The 35mm ($850) and 24-70mm ($1,000) lenses, plus the $250 Mount Adapter FTZ will be available at the same time as the Z7, while the $600 50mm will follow by the end of October. If you buy the FTZ with one of the bodies before the end of the year, Nikon will shave $100 off the price.

While the Z7 seems the more interesting, the Z6 will probably be more popular — the price is much more approachable if you don’t need the high resolution, and most people probably don’t.

The skinny

The Z7 is basically a mirrorless adaptation of the excellent but burdensome Nikon D850, while the Z6 is an up-to-date prosumer full frame (the D610 and D750 are a bit old at this point). Nikon seems to have made a strong effort to make sure the system hits the ground running — the FTZ converter allows almost all of the F-mount lenses to work on the Zs, and is able to take advantage of the sensor-shift image stabilization and autofocus (if the lens supports it). That’s important because Nikon’s late to the game and doesn’t have the luxury to roll out new lenses slowly.

nikon-z-7-10

The FTZ Mount Adapter increases the flange distance so you can use F-mount lenses.

Lori Grunin/CNET

And the body’s designed to support the large DSLR lenses, with a huge grip for balanced handling. It also supports most of the existing accessories, including the batteries from the D850 and D7500, and has the same dust-and-weather resistant build quality as the D850, as well as the sturdy magnesium alloy construction. The viewfinder has a fluorine coating to help repel the various detritus that piles up against it.

Nikon also did a pretty good job future-proofing the series. The new, wide lens mount (one of the biggest in this class at 55mm), allows for superfast (wide aperture) lenses, one of the latest want-to-haves among a large niche of photographers. Nikon has a 58mm f0.95 in the works, along with a new coating to improve image quality.

The bodies incorporate a USB-C connection which supports charging rather than the dated USB 2.0 or humongous USB 3.1, as well as 802.11ac-standard Wi-Fi for faster, more stable wireless transfers. Though they ship with XQD card support, adding CF Express is just a matter of a forthcoming firmware update (the card slots for the two are the same).

The body design doesn’t scream “innovative,” but on first feel it does hit almost all the important checkboxes; it’s smaller and lighter than a comparable DSLR (don’t assume all mirrorless models are), roughly the size of the latest Sony A7 bodies. On first glance, I was hoping for more manual controls on top instead of the status LCD. With an EVF and a back LCD which both can convey the same information, top status displays frequently feel superfluous. I’ll know more after I get to shoot with it later Thursday.

As for video, the epiphanic joy the Nikon folks expressed when they realized how much better the mirrorless experience is for shooting video than a DSLR says it all. It’s sad that they’ve been missing out all these years. The Zs have all the essential video-shooting capabilities, such as 4K UHD/30p and 1080/120p for slow motion (on the Z7 in DX mode it uses a full-pixel readout), N-Log 10-bit HDMI out to a recorder simultaneously with 8-bit internal. There’s an N-Log display profile for on-camera playback, a headphone jack for monitoring audio output, time code support and manual focus peaking. It can also do 8K time-lapse movies.

Comparative specifications

Nikon D850 Nikon Z7 Nikon Z6 Sony A7 III Sony A7R III
Sensor effective resolution 45.7MP CMOS 14-bit 45.7MP BSI CMOS 14-bit 24.5MP BSI CMOS 14-bit 24.2MP Exmor RS CMOS 14-bit 42.4MP Exmor R CMOS 14-bit
Sensor size 35.9mm x 23.9mm 35.9mm x 23.9mm 35.9mm x 23.9mm 35.8mm x 23.8mm 35.8mm x 23.9mm
OLPF No No Yes Yes No
Sensitivity range ISO 32 (exp)/64 – ISO 25600/ 51200 (exp) ISO 32 (exp)/64 – ISO 25600/ 102400(exp) ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 – ISO 25600/ 204800 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/ ISO 100 – ISO 25600/ ISO 204800 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 – ISO 30000/102400 (exp)
Continuous shooting 7fps 51 raw (9fps with battery grip) 9fps (8fps raw) 23 shots (12-bit) raw/25 JPEG 12fps (9fps raw)  10fps 177 JPEG 10fps 76 raw/76 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) Optical 100% coverage 0.75x/0.75x Electronic 100% coverage 3.7 million dots 0.5 in/1.3cm 0.8x/0.8x Electronic 100% coverage 3.7 million dots 0.5 in/1.3cm 0.8x/0.8x OLED EVF 0.5-inch 2.4 million dots 100% coverage 0.71x OLED EVF 0.5 in/1.3cm 3.7 million dots 100% coverage 0.78x
Hot Shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Autofocus 153-point 99 cross-type (15 cross-type to f8) Multi-CAM 20K Hybrid AF System 493 phase-detection, contrast n/a Hybrid AF System 273 phase-detection, contrast n/a 693-poing phase-detection AF; 25-area contrast AF 399-point phase-detection AF, 425-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity (at center point) -4 – 20 EV -1 – 19 EV (-4 EV with low-light AF) -2 – 19 EV (-4 EV with low-light AF) -3 – 20 EV -3 – 20 EV
Shutter speed 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync; auto FP sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync; auto FP sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Metering 180,000-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering III n/a n/a 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering sensitivity -3 – 20 EV -3 to 17 EV -4 to 17 EV n/a -3 – 20 EV
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p H.264 Quicktime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p; 1080/120p H.264 Quicktime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p; 1080/120p XAVC S 4K 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps; 1080/120p @ 100Mbps XAVC S 4K 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps; 1080/120p @ 100Mbps
Audio stereo; mic input; headphone jack stereo; mic input stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 29:59 min 29:59 min 29:59 min 29:59 min 29:59 min
Clean HDMI out Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
IS Optical Optical, Sensor shift 5-axis Optical, Sensor shift 5-axis Sensor shift 5-axis Sensor shift 5-axis
LCD 3.2 in/8cm Tilting touchscreen 2.4 million dots 3.2 in/8cm Tilting touchscreen 2.1 million dots 3.2 in/8cm Tilting touchscreen 2.1 million dots 3 in/7.5cm Tilting 921,600 dots plus extra set of white dots 3 in/7.5cm Tilting touchscreen 1.4 million dots
Memory slots 1 x SD, 1 x XQD 1 x XQD 1 x XQD 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC (1 x UHS-II)
Wireless connection Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth
Flash No No No No No
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 1,840 shots (1,900 mAh) n/a (1,900mAh) n/a (1,900mAh) 710 shots (LCD), 610 shots (VF) 530 shots (VF); 650 shots (LCD) (2,280 mAh)
Size (WHD) 5.8 x 4.9 x 3.1 in 146 x 124 x 78.5mm 5.3 × 4 × 2.7 in 134 × 101 × 68mm 5.3 × 4 × 2.7 in 134 × 101 × 68mm 5 x 3.9 x 3 in 127 x 96 x 74mm 5 x 3.8 x 2.5 in 127 x 96 x 63mm
Body operating weight 32.3 oz (est.) 915 g (est.) 23.9 oz (est.) 675 g (est.) 23.9 oz (est.) 675 g (est.) 23 oz (est.) 650 g (est.) 22.3 oz (est.) 657 g (est.)
Mfr. price (body only) $3,300 $3,400 $2,000 $2,000 £2,000 AU$3,100 $3,000 £3,100 AU$4,400
Primary kit n/a $4,000 (with Z 24-70 f4 S lens) $2,600 (with Z 24-70 f4 S lens) $2,200 £2,200 (with 28-70mm lens) n/a
Release date September 2017 September 2018 September 2018 April 2018 November 2017

The new lenses look and feel a lot simpler and more streamlined than the traditional Nikkor designs, but the primes seem surprisingly big. Unlike the F-mount models, these are designed to be quiet and smooth with video in mind, sporting electromagnetic diaphrams (for fast, silent exposure adjustment). The two primes have nine-blade apertures for sweet bokeh (the 24-70mm f4 has seven blades), and all have the control ring popular on advanced compacts that can be used for manual focus or programmed for another function.

Nikon has an aggressive roadmap for lens releases, but the two essential staples for pros, a 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8, aren’t coming out until next year.

Nikon

Some unknowns remain

My biggest question is battery life. Nikon doesn’t mention it anywhere, and mirrorless cameras have notoriously miserable power profiles — it took Sony years to offer a longer-lasting battery with the A9. There’s a two-battery pack (MB-N10) in development, but no ETA attached to its release. The company says it will increase shots or movie recording time by 1.8x, but normally the rated increase is one-for-one; add another battery, get twice the life. Two batteries should deliver way more.

The metering sensitivity in bright light also looks a bit low, maxing out at 17EV, and autofocus sensitivity only goes up to 19EV. Almost every modern camera can go up to 20EV. Bright sunlight is about 15 EV so it’s probably an edge case, but for shooting water or winter sports it might become an issue. And along those lines, the flash sync speed is only 1/200 sec, which makes using flash to stop action suboptimal, though it does support Nikon’s Auto FP sync which can compensate.

Finally, it has a single card slot. Meh.

Check back for an update about my experiences shooting with the Z7 and some photo samples if I can swing it.

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