Long Exposures with the Nikon Z7 Mirrorless Camera. Review by Richard Young
Whilst travelling through the Coromandel this spring, I had the opportunity to test out the brand new Nikon Z7 in the field. Fittingly, we headed to one of New Zealand’s most iconic beaches – Cathedral Cove – to put it to the test in a rough day for weather but one great for long exposures.
Setting up in the near dark, standing under the arch at Cathedral Cove before sunrise offered a great test for using the camera in low light. The layout of the controls felt very intuitive coming from a D850. There were a few buttons I had to search for, considering the first time I was using this camera, though I still managed to get the settings I wanted quickly. Now for getting a focus point in the low light - something I often find hard on other mirrorless cameras...
I was pleasantly surprised how easily the Z7 picked up an autofocus point after tapping on the edge of a very dimly lit arch with the touchscreen. The live view autofocus performed better than my D850 where I have to focus with the phase diction system through the viewfinder in low light.
I am a big fan of long exposure photography - and not just one or two seconds! My first shot this morning was a 6-minute exposure of the arch with some lovely subtle pre-dawn light, shot with 4 stop ND filter to get the exposure time I wanted. The resulting file was just as crisp as what I get from my D850, even though I cancelled the long exposure noise reduction, not wanting to wait the extra 6 minutes before getting next shot!
Build and Weather Proofing
The sun was now up and bathing the beach with some great warm morning light - though the sky in the South looked a little ominous. It was now time to capture some more dynamic long exposures of the waves racing up the beach and around a nicely shaped rock. Standing in the water I constantly had to move to dodge the largest waves and reposition the camera for the best angle. The camera was easy and quick to work with and has nice large dials to quickly change the shutter speeds between shots to capture the wave movement that I wanted. I did so whilst also switching between 4 and 6 stop ND filters along with a 2 stop graduated filter to hold back the exposures on the sky.
Suddenly the sky darkened above and the heavens opened. With the knowledge that the Z7 had the same weather sealing as my D850, I was not to worry about getting it a little wet in the rain and continued to shoot, thus capturing a nice rainbow that had formed on the other end of the beach which was still basking in sun! The camera (and myself) ended up a bit wet, but it was still worked on reliably as expected.
For any landscape photographer, the build of a camera is one of the most important features. When you use a camera outdoors on a daily basis they have to cope with the elements, including rain. I would not buy any camera that did not offer a good level of weatherproofing and I am glad that Nikon has made this a feature of the Z7.
I am a big fan of a good optical viewfinder and have never liked the idea of composing through an electronic one. However, the viewfinder offers a lovely crisp and sharp view which worked well in low light before sunrise and also with ND filters in front of the lens. It was nice to have the option to turn on exposure simulation in the viewfinder and not just shown this on the rear display.
I love shooting in a 4x5 format for my work and being able to change the viewfinder to show a 4x5 crop from the native 6x4 frame is a huge bonus. Some may say you can just crop it at home but it helps so much seeing the finished composition in the viewfinder, making sure you have given enough space each side of your subject.
I was keen to shoot with both the new 24-70mm lens and also my two favourite Nikon lenses: the 18-35mm and 70-200mm mounted with the FTZ adaptor. First of all, the 24-70mm. It feels nice and compact but is still well built. I also like the way that it compressed down for storage to keep the whole system compact. I mainly shot it at 24mm, this being my most used focal length for landscape photography. All the shots looked really sharp and held good resolution for the 45-megapixel sensor. Using the FTZ with my other two lenses worked really well and it was great to be able to utilise my existing lenses with the new mirrorless body - making it very versatile.
Conclusions for use in Landscape Photography
So what did feature did I miss the most from the D850? Probably not being able to show highlight clipping on the individual colour channels while looking at the RGB histogram in the Review mode. I use this a lot to check that I am not blowing out any of the highlights on the red channel while shooting sunrise/sunset, for example.
Another problem I had was not being able to set up my fn custom buttons with the same options as the D850. When moving from DSLR to Mirrorless, it would be beneficial to be able to select all the same custom button functions.
What else would I like to see for the Z7 system? A really nice compact 24mm prime lens, something about the same size as the old 24mm D. The 24mm focal length is my most used and this would make a really space conservative setup for both landscape photography and travelling.
So is the Z7 a contender for the mighty D850 as the go-to camera for landscape photography?
If you are looking for a camera that can produce the same high-resolution images as the D850 and want to save some weight in your backpack, then yes! For me is the main reason I would own this camera, as a lighter alternative to my D850 for when doing long hikes and while travelling. Combined with the 24-70mm lens it is a great lightweight setup. The Z7 and the 24-70mm combined with a D850 it makes a very adaptable two camera setup, allowing you to have the benefit of a DSLR and mirrorless system.
The things that most impressed me with the Z7 was its focusing ability in low light, build quality and functional layout the same as the Nikon DSLR's. One thing I think that makes it a great camera for the use in the outdoors is the weather sealing, something a lot of the other mirrorless cameras on the market do not offer. It was a long-awaited arrival for Nikon to bring out a full frame mirrorless camera and I am glad that the Z7 did not disappoint!
If you want to improve your Long Exposure Photography, why not join us on one of our 1-Day Workshops in Auckland and Wellington this summer. Get tuition and the chance to use some of the best gear out there with New Zealand Photography Workshops.
Richard Young is a full-time landscape and wildlife photographer based in Wellington. He has been guiding groups of photographers in New Zealand since 2010 and founded New Zealand Photography Workshops in 2013.