There’s still a lot to like, but Nikon will fall behind the competition if it doesn’t fix some lingering issues.
It’s now been about a year since I started using the Nikon Z cameras as my main system for photography. This article isn’t a review or a recommendation – instead, simply a bird’s-eye view of how I see the Z system now that the newness has worn off.
The days when “better camera sensors” were responsible for most of the image quality gains in photography are over. Those days were probably over a while ago, about the time of the Nikon D800’s introduction.
Today, the biggest image quality frontiers involve lenses and software. With the Nikon Z system, both of those factors play a huge role.
Let’s start with camera lenses, an area that Nikon has truly excelled with the Z system. At the moment, you can buy the following ten lenses for Nikon Z:
- 24-70mm f/4 S
- 35mm f/1.8 S
- 50mm f/1.8 S
- 24-70mm f/2.8 S
- 14-30mm f/4 S
- 85mm f/1.8 S
- 24mm f/1.8 S
- 58mm f/0.95 S
- 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 (DX only)
- 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 (DX only)
It’s a who’s who of some of the best glass available today. The 24-70mm f/2.8 S is the sharpest 24-70mm we’ve ever tested (see here) – and the f/4 version isn’t far behind. The 35mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.8 handily beat the previous benchmark Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses. There’s not a dud in the bunch.
The roadmap through 2021 looks promising, too, with pancake lenses, supertelephoto zooms, more wide-angles, and so on. The most obvious lens that’s missing is a 70-200mm f/4, or some similar lightweight telephoto.
What makes the Z lenses so impressive is that Nikon managed to fit class-leading image quality into remarkably small and lightweight packages. Some of that is thanks to help from software corrections (see the next section below). And much of it, I suspect, is due to the large diameter and small flange distance of the Z mount. As we previously covered, the Z mount’s design allows for more flexibility in lens construction than any competing mount on the market today.
Overall, I’m comfortable saying that the Nikon Z system has better image quality than the Nikon F system. Sure, a handful of top-tier F-mount lenses are in the same league – the 28mm f/1.4, 17mm f/4 TS-E, Zeiss Otus glass, and so on. But on a lens-by-lens basis, the Z system is ahead. Not a single Z lens at the moment loses to its F-mount counterpart in image quality. Given that camera sensors seem to be approaching an image quality plateau, that’s no small factor to consider.
The other side of the modern image quality coin is software. I think we owe a lot of progress in this area to smartphone manufacturers, which need clever software “tricks” in order to counteract the big disadvantages of such tiny sensors.
Creative use of software and image blending has always been a good way to extend the native capabilities of a camera. Panoramas increase resolution, and HDR images capture more dynamic range – to name the obvious examples. But those are just the beginning.
How relevant is the Nikon Z system here? In the past, Nikon has always been hesitant to embrace software corrections to eke maximum quality from a camera. The Z cameras don’t change things entirely, but they’re stepping a bit more confidently in that direction.
One such feature is the low-light autofocus on the Z cameras. This mode uses longer shutter speeds to give bright image previews in ultra-low light, massively extending the cameras’ focusing capabilities. Still, there’s room for more; Nikon has not yet reached the practical upper limit of this technology. Imagine a camera that can autofocus on the stars by taking a series of high ISO, long shutter speed images, finding the sharpest, and locking the lens at that distance.
Another area where the Z system relies on software to overcome limits is in lens corrections – specifically distortion. For example, the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S kit lens has fairly high distortion, and also somewhat strong vignetting. Software like Lightroom applies image corrections automatically, which fixes the distortion and crops away much of the vignetting.
Not everyone is thrilled with lens designs that rely so heavily on post-processing corrections. Still, personally, I’ve come to appreciate them in time (though I do wish that Lightroom allowed us to turn corrections off if so desired). Every lens has compromises – but by compromising in directions that are easy to fix in post, Nikon has created one of the smallest, sharpest 24-70mm zooms on the market. I find it difficult to think of situations where that’s a disappointing result.
Lastly, Nikon embraces the software side of things with the Z cameras’ focus stacking feature. Focus stacking is ordinarily a very slow process involving a lot of manual effort. With modern cameras, though, it’s pretty close to seamless (though you still need to blend the result manually in post-processing). This feature isn’t unique to Nikon Z, but it’s still a point in the direction I’ve been discussing.
Still, other cameras on the market – Nikon’s mirrorless competitors as well as phones – show that there’s far more that can be done with the help of clever processing tricks. The high resolution sensor-shift mode on the Panasonic S1/S1R and Sony A7R IV is one example. Here’s a comparison from our Panasonic S1R review showing just how much better image quality can be with this mode enabled. “Before” is a regular shot, while “After” is high-resolution sensor shift: