Some Basic Z System Camera Advice

Since we’re still in a lull waiting for new camera bodies, the most common question I’ve been getting for the last many months has been about the differences between existing Z System models, and why you might choose one over another. I have some basic, simple advice on that.

DX Bodies
Nikon has three DX bodies, but they’re all built off the same electronic platform (image sensor, EXPEED6, etc.). Thus, the differences between them speak to outside physical attributes more than anything else. I’ll get to that more in a moment.

First, however, we need to talk about the reason why you’d currently choose a Nikon DX camera. My position has been the following pretty much since the Z50 first appeared: the Z DX line is a remarkably good carry-everywhere choice that’s light and small, particularly with the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR DX kit lens. So small and light that I consider the Z50 plus kit lens to be a pocket camera. As in jacket or vest pocket. Maybe really baggy cargo pants with a huge pocket. 

Models in Nikon’s current DX lineup are not the fastest crop sensor cameras, not the fastest focusing, not the ones with the most megapixels, and a host of other performance factors. However, these cameras use the D7200/D500 image sensor with a newer EXPEED and thus they can have better-than-D500 image quality in a much smaller package. Don’t care about package size? The DX line is not for you. Need better-than-D500 image quality? The current DX line is not for you.

As casual, jack-of-most-trade cameras, the trio of DX Z’s are arguably as good or better than anything else in their price range. 

So which of the three do you pick? In order:

  1. Z50 is what you get if you’re just looking for a small, all-around camera. Yes, I know it has slightly worse autofocus than the other two (emphasis on slightly), and yes I know it doesn’t have USB Power Delivery. But it has a solid EVF and a pop-up flash. Taking the time to master the Z50 nets you a really sophisticated camera that fits in your jacket pocket (or briefcase). The Z50 has taken over from my m4/3 cameras as my small go-everywhere camera, which should tell you something.
  2. Zfc is what you get if you have a bunch of old manual focus Nikkors laying around you still want to use, or if you just like old-school dials and something that looks like an old FN film SLR. The problem is that those dials aren’t absolute: they will end up lying to you, so you need to understand how the camera works even more than you do with the Z50’s more traditional button+dial interface. The Zfc is also a tad bigger than the Z50, doesn’t have a built-in flash, though it does have some additional AF-Area modes that help with focus performance. The Zfc is a nice street camera, and it looks good with some of the third-party lenses, including the autofocus Viltrox ones.
  3. Z30 is what you get if you really are trying to go as compact as possible, or if you’re doing more video. It’s a solid selfie/vlogging choice, but the LCD gets difficult to see in some lighting. 

I have all three. I rarely use my Zfc, as its interface is different and unique amongst the other Z cameras I use. I use the Z30 for video in my studio and streaming. I use my Z50 for my walk-around camera.

Until Nikon delivers some other DX body, I think you buy a Z50, and do so when it is on sale. Or if you don’t mind framing via Rear LCD and don’t need a built-in flash, you buy a Z30 instead, again when it is on sale. On sale both are good values. At full price, the value isn’t all there and you start to have to consider competitive products. 

FX Bodies
Nikon has made it easy with FX bodies: we’ve got a lineup of four models, from lowest cost and least featured to highest cost and most featured. The only confusion comes in the middle of the lineup where you have a pixel count choice and a generational choice. One thing that’s interesting in the current FX lineup is that Nikon has turned into the low-cost provider at virtually all the model points. That’s new (and welcome).

So which do you pick? 

  • Casual and cost-sensitive photographers should look seriously at the Z5. While it uses an older image sensor, which impacts its autofocus and video performance some, the Z5 is a remarkably well-featured camera at a remarkably low price. Indeed, the Z5 on sale is one of the reasons why the Z50 at list price is a problem: the value differential shifts to the somewhat bigger FX body. You get excellent 24mp still image quality—even a bit more dynamic range at base ISO—but slightly less reliable autofocus. Which is why I suggest it as a casual camera. The Z5 also makes an excellent body for infrared or other spectrum conversion. At the US$1000-1100 price that Nikon has tended to discount the camera to, the Z5 is one of the best bargains in all of photography. Coupled with a 24-70mm f/4 S lens, it’s reasonably small and light and highly capable of excellent imagery. Caveat: if a discounted original Z6 price comes anywhere close to the current Z5 price, get the original Z6.
  • If you’re looking for the best camera Nikon has to offer, the Z9 is really the only choice. The Z9 is the mirrorless flagship, and likely to remain that for some time. It’s enough of a flagship that I’ve now moved from my DSLR flagships to a pair of Z9s for my main work. It’s difficult to find another camera that’s better, and when you do, you’ll find that the other camera is only better at one or two things and may not be as good as the Z9 at others. The only downside to a Z9 in my book is that I have to be a bit more careful with exposure in low light, as noise can pile up with underexposure at high ISO values in ways that are difficult to deal with. Many of you, however, will be put off by the size and weight of the Z9, even though it’s smaller and lighter than a D6. The Z9 is a pro body, with a pro build, and a larger capacity battery, so you pay the size/weight penalty for all that entails.
  • Which leaves us with where I get most of my questions about Nikon's FX bodies: the middle. Z6, Z6 II, Z7, Z7 II. Let me state right up front, particularly for the Z6 II, that if you’re not 100% price conscious, get the II version of the pixel count you choose. Nikon made so many small, but useful, changes between the original and II versions that I’m pretty certain there’s at least one or two things that you’ll clearly appreciate in the II’s. Whether that’s being able to add a real vertical grip, the somewhat better and more flexible autofocus options, the extra card slot (SD), the USB Power Delivery, or one of the other two dozen tangible changes doesn’t matter; you’ll find something you like more in the II version, I’m pretty sure. There’s a singular exception to that: if you’re mostly a landscape or architectural photographer the original Z7 model is probably all you need, and since it’s often offered at steep discount, you should opt for a Z7 over a Z7 II. Other than that, pick the II model if you can afford it. The second part of the decision is 6 versus 7, or 24mp versus 45mp. Pick the Z6 II if you don’t have a specific need for 45mp. Why? Because the larger photosites drive the autofocus system a bit better, particularly in low light.

Another thing to consider: the Z5 is basically a 4 fps camera, the Z6/Z7 models are 5.5 fps, and only the Z9 delivers faster (up to 120 fps) frame rates reliably. While Nikon markets the Z6 II as 14 fps, that’s with a slide show in the viewfinder, and if there’s any need to move the camera to follow the action, both the autofocus system and your ability to compose suffer. 

If you’re a videographer and looking for best quality, there’s only two models you should consider: Z6 II and Z9. The former is a wickedly good 4K camera, the latter is a state-of-the-art 8K camera. 

That’s my current advice wrapped up in as tight an article as I dare. Obviously, nuances can and do come into play for some, and I welcome those questions. I’m just trying to set the stage for our discussion ;~).

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