The Z System Holiday Buying Primer

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Nikon has a full line of mirrorless cameras now, and a reasonably full lineup of lenses (at least out through 200mm). So it's probably time to put everything into proper context for potential holiday shoppers. As always, if you want more information, go to the appropriate camera reviews on this site. This article is more a simplified buying guide starting point.

Okay, let's start at the top, the Z9: I'm sure that if you haven't already ordered this camera you won't get one in the holiday season. Moreover, we have no flow of monthly shipments into the US yet that we could use to predict when you would get it if you ordered today. While the Z9 is getting great response at the moment, you either already ordered it, or you're going to wait (perhaps both ;~). As we get more information about shipping status I'll write an article specific to Z9 buying. 

That still leaves five potential FX and two DX cameras to consider this holiday season. So, starting at the bottom of the lineup and working my way up, here are some thoughts to keep in mind if you're considering a Nikon mirrorless holiday. (I'm not going to include prices in this overview, as there are likely to be short term adjustments and sales between now and the end of the year. The advertiser links at the bottom of the article will let you see B&H's current price.)

DX (Crop-sensor, APS-C size)

We'll start with DX:

  • Z50 — 20mp, 5fps, 4K30P, Recommended. This is entry point to Nikon mirrorless at the moment. Image quality is basically the same as the D7500 and D500, both regarded as excellent in their own right. You might note that 5fps mark: yes, you can boost to 10fps, but not without a significant viewfinder/focus liability. I suggest you consider the Z50 a 5fps camera, and you'll have no real issues. In terms of features, the Z50 sits somewhere between the D5600 and D7500 DSLRs, so it's a higher "entry level" than we see in the DSLRs. The Z50 is a solid camera, and not one to be avoided. Just be prepared to learn how to maximize its use.
  • Zfc — 20mp, 5fps, 4K30P. This camera is really a Z50 that was given a few updates and then also given a backwards-looking UX that includes looks, dials, and more that mimic the old film SLRs. From a still photography standpoint, three specific things stand out: (1) the Zfc doesn't include a built-in flash like the Z50 does; (2) the Zfc allows USB power and charging; and (3) the Zfc has a fully articulating Rear LCD instead of a tilting one. Yes, there was a slight improvement to the focus system, but I don't judge that as enough to choose a Zfc over a Z50, particularly after the latest firmware updates are installed. Like the Z50, the Zfc is a solid camera, just with a different personality.
  • DX lenses — 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR, 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR, 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR, all Recommended (last one is a bargain). There's not a dud in this bunch. Indeed, they're all better than the DSLR kit lenses (equivalents or near equivalent). Note that the Z50 comes in body, mid-range kit, and two-lens kit forms. That last one, with the 16-50mm and 50-250mm nets you a really good 24-375mm equivalent in two small, travel-friendly lenses, and Nikon offers a discount for buying it as a two-lens kit. The Zfc, meanwhile, can be obtained with the 28mm f/2.8 (FX) lens, or the 16-50mm DX lens. Yeah, I know it's cool to have an FM2 like camera with an AI-like prime on it, but you're going to want the 16-50mm kit lens, because otherwise you don't have VR. Nikon has added two more DX lenses to the Road Map, an 12-28mm wide-angle zoom, and a 24mm compact prime. Coupled with some of the small FX lenses now available, a DX user should soon have a small, but reasonable set of appropriate lenses to choose from.

Who should be considering these DX cameras? Let me break it into a few groups:

  1. Anyone coming from any of the consumer DX DSLRs other than the D500 and perhaps the D7500. Particularly those using any of the 18-xxx lenses as their primary or only lens. This group is going to get better video, better autofocus (once learned), excellent image quality, all with Nikon-familiar menus, controls, and settings. Not only that, but the basic camera kit will be smaller and lighter.
  2. Anyone entering the Nikon world for the first time who is price conscious. While neither the Z50 nor Zfc is a low-cost ILC, they are at the bottom of Nikon's lineup, and you can sample much of what's great about Nikon mirrorless without spending a fortune. 
  3. Anyone who wants a carry-around-all-the-time, or small backup or travel camera. I have a Z50 and Zfc. I use them all the time for odd jobs and casual travel because they're small, light, and highly competent. And more good news: one of the next DX lenses is a very small wide angle zoom to complete the kit set. If the 16-50mm lens wasn't so small collapsed, I might be tempted to travel with just the upcoming 12-28mm and 50-250mm and skip the focal range in between, which I rarely use, anyway. Tip: Once the wide angle DX zoom is available, the 12-28mm and 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR become a very compelling combination, too.

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FX (full frame sensor size)

Moving on to FX, we have five choices (six with the Z9). Here’s the way I look at it:

  • Z5 — 24mp, 4.5fps, 4K30P, Recommended. Nikon’s full frame entry camera is pretty well specified, and has excellent image quality. People were surprised when it was released, because it had pretty much all the Z6 features, added a couple of things that went into the Z6 II (e.g. USB Power Delivery), and used the long-established and well-proven D750 image sensor as its base. The image sensor basically is the limiter here, as it can’t be run as fast as the newer image sensors, is FSI (front side illuminated), and doesn’t have dual gain. That means that the Z5 is a little less good in really low light (note the adjective: really), can’t produce high frame rates, and the focus system also doesn’t perform as well in low light conditions as the higher models. Still, this is an excellent camera, what I argue is the best entry point to full frame in mirrorless at the moment. For casual photographers, the Z5 is a great camera that’s all you probably really need. Note that from November 19 through 30th, Nikon has a special US$400 discount on this camera, making it a bargain.
  • Z6 — 24mp, 5.5 fps (12fps), 4K30P, Recommended. We’ve had a number of firmware updates that have pushed this camera into a really solid base camera. It’s definitely a clear step up from the Z5, especially in video, but a step below the Z6 II, and Nikon has been putting its price right in the middle, too. 
  • Z7 — 45mp, 5.5 fps (9fps), 4K30P, Recommended. Like the Z6, firmware updates have improved the original model quite a bit. While still not quite a mirrorless D850—focus and frame rate lag a bit—it comes awfully close, and for landscape, event, and casual photographers, that’s good enough. 
  • Z6 II — 24mp, 5.5 fps (14fps), 4K60P, Recommended. We get an extra processor over the Z6, and that makes some clear differences in terms of top focus performance, video capabilities, and buffer performance (not that the Z6 is a slouch). Some other things that make a II model preferable over the original: real vertical grip is available, USB Power Delivery is supported, plus you get dual card slots.
  • Z7 II — 45mp, 5.5 fps (10fps), 4K60P, Recommended. Like the Z6 II, the extra processor bumps the focus, video, and buffer performance. Some other things that make a II model preferable over the original: real vertical grip is available, USB Power Delivery is supported, plus you get dual card slots.
  • Z9 —  45mp, 20 fps, 8K60P, Not yet reviewed. You won’t be able to get this camera this holiday season unless you’ve already ordered it, and probably you’d have to be a NPS member, too. So I won’t say anything other than Nikon now has a top-of-the-line mirrorless camera.

You probably noted the fps mentions don’t seem to correspond to what you’ve heard. The numbers I list first are absolute, no compromises. The numbers in parenthesis have visual compromise in the viewfinder and I tend to suggest you avoid them. 

Another way to look at the Nikon full frame mirrorless lineup is to consider DSLR equivalence. Not exact equivalence, but where these models live in Nikon’s idea of the FX world:

  • D600/D610 —> Z5. And the Z5 is a far better camera, too.
  • D750 —> Z6. Again, many would say that the Z6 is a better camera, partly because of the sensor-based VR and excellent video capabilities. But in terms of features and performance, you’re in a similar class.
  • D800/D810/D850 —> Z7. Many, including me, speak of the Z7 as falling just short of the D850 in terms of a few things, but certainly not in terms of image quality or even feature set. 
  • D6 —> Z9. Everyone’s still evaluating just what this means, but the early evidence suggests that the Z9 goes beyond where the D6 does in plenty of ways, though perhaps not in pixel performance at really high ISO values. 

But there’s another aspect to consider besides the camera body. Think also of the base set of lenses you’re going to put on them. Here’s my quick advice:

  • Z5 — 24-50mm f/4-6.3 makes for a great keep-it-small carry kit, the 24-70mm f/4 S is a top line mid-range zoom that isn’t too big, but the 24-200mm f/4-6.3 is the lens I suspect most Z5 users would gravitate to, given that this makes for a highly competent one-lens solution.
  • Z6/Z6 II — You’re probably looking for more flexibility, so add the 14-30mm f/4 to whatever “kit” lens you choose. 
  • Z7/Z7 II — I’m going to suggest that you start by looking at the f/2.8 S trio. Why? Because you’ve selected Nikon highest resolving cameras, and if you want that much performance, you have to remember that “resolution” is a chained equation. Put a poor lens on a great sensor and you don’t get as good of performance as you do by putting a great lens on a great sensor. True, Nikon doesn’t have any poor lenses in the Z mount. None. Nada. Zilch. But yes, you can see the difference between the very good ones (e.g. 24-70mm f/4) and the great ones (24-70mm f/2.8). Don’t wimp out. If you go for the top end cameras, put the top end lenses on them as soon as you can. 

That’s it. As always, if you have specific questions, drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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