Tips for New Z System Users

So, you just got your first Nikon mirrorless camera and are wondering where to start. 

Since so many of you new Z users are coming from Nikon DSLRs, I'm going to make that assumption and point out things that you need to pay attention to that might be different than you're used to. If you're coming from a competitor's system, you're really starting from scratch, and my first suggestion would be that you pick up one of my Complete Guides for the camera you bought.

  • Battery: it will seem that the drain on the main battery (EN-EL15) is higher initially than it is on DSLRs. That drain occurs because an internal clock battery has to be charged. I'm finding that it takes most people two or three charge cycles before they can correctly interpret their battery usage. If you're spending a lot of time in the menus while you learn the camera, it might even be higher than that. Don't panic. Give it a week of use and several main battery recharges before you try to evaluate battery performance. Meanwhile, any Nikon-made EN-EN15 will work in your Z5, Z6, Z6 II, Z7, or Z7 II. Third party batteries are still a little hit or miss.
  • SnapBridge: I generally recommend that you avoid setting up Smart device and other wireless transfer initially. The reason? It's too easy to set the camera so that Bluetooth is always on and draining the battery, and not noticing. Wait until you have the time to thoroughly read either Nikon's manual on SnapBridge, or the section on it in my books before trying to use it. Short answer: SETTINGS/Connect to smart device/Pairing should be Off unless you're actively using SnapBridge, and Send while off is dangerous, too. This isn't to say that SnapBridge isn't useful—in its current state it is very useful—but you have to pay close attention to how things are set if you don't want to wake up with empty batteries.
  • Display: the most common complaint is "the LCD doesn't seem to be working." This is virtually always because you accidentally pressed the Monitor Mode button |[]| and changed the viewing mode. Press that button until you see the display again and you've "fixed" your problem. Likewise, get used to pressing the DISP button to cycle through and see additional information. Finally, stay away from Continuous High (Extended) initially, as the viewfinder display changes when you use that, and it takes some getting used to.
  • Settings: the U1/U2/U3 positions on the Mode Dial and Save User Settings option only save PHOTO SHOOTING, MOVIE SHOOTING, and CUSTOM SETTINGS options (as well as exposure mode and current exposure settings). But they do not save Shooting Method (frame rate, self timer, etc.). The Save Menu Settings option saves the current state of the camera. This is one of the big sticking points that new-to-Nikon users often have, and User Settings don't work like Banks if you're coming from a higher end Nikon DSLR. Tip: If you have a Z5, Z6 II, or Z7 II, take one or more old, small capacity SD cards and save settings to them. This way you can restore the camera to what you want quickly by just inserting only the SD settings card and restoring. I have several SD cards with settings stored this way (and because settings files are unique, I can store the Z5, Z6 II, and Z7 II settings on the same card). 
  • Photo/Movie: a common issue is that some new users don't understand that camera customization is split. You have to define button/control changes for photos (Custom Setting #F1 and #F2) and movies (Custom Setting #G1 and #G2) separately. Since I use the switch around the DISP dial as a quick way to get to 16:9 aspect ratio, I have to make sure that I've got settings that are the same for both (though see final note in Settings, above). 
  • Firmware: it's highly likely that you'll need to perform firmware updates on your camera. Nikon updated pretty much everything in the October to December timeframe, and it's unlikely that a box sitting on your dealer's shelves has the latest camera firmware. But note also that the FTZ adapter and three of the Nikkor Z lenses have had firmware updates, too. Use Nikon's Download Center to check for updates for all your camera components.
  • Software: likewise, while you're at the Download Center make sure that you get the latest Nikon software (Capture NX-D, View NX-i, etc.). If you bought a Z6 II or Z7 II and try to use Nikon Transfer that isn't up to date, you can't see the second card slot in the camera when transferring to your computer, for example. 
  • Flash: three things. First, as far as I'm concerned only the SB-500 and SB-5000 are close to fully compatible with the Z cameras (they lack Autofocus Assist with flash, though). Nikon moved to a "Unified Flash Control" system in the D5 generation (and Zs) where menus are used to control flash, and older Speedlights don't support that. So you end up with grayed out menus on the Z cameras when you mount older flash units. Second, Apply settings to live view is cancelled when flash is active. Third, you can't set Silent photography when using flash. Those three things keep causing new Z users to stumble.
  • Filters: it seems that there are plenty of folk still trying to use UV, Skylight, or Clear filters on their lenses "as protection." Do yourself a favor: take the filters off and always use a lens hood. As I've written elsewhere (see the dslrbodies site), I'm not at all convinced that filters are actually protective except in a very few unique situations (e.g. gases from volcanic action, sea spray). But more importantly, I've yet to find any such filter, including some high cost ones, that doesn't reduce contrast and increase flare tendencies. The Z lenses are excellent or better. Don't make them worse!

All that said, the biggest stumbling block for most users is the autofocus system. While it's similar to the Nikon DSLR focus system, there are plenty of differences that can catch you unawares and cause grief. If you're going to spend time on studying anything, it should be the autofocus system. My advice has always to start with the simplest (AF-S, Single point) and work your way to the most complex (AF-C, Dynamic area; AF-C, Wide area; and AF-C, Subject tracking). In between we have Auto area (with Face and Eye detection turned on, whether in AF-S or AF-C). This advice is premised on: if you want to best understand how the system works, start with the mode you have the most control over (AF-S, Single point), work your way towards letting the camera do everything (Auto area with Face/Eye detect), then look at how you can override/control the camera when it is doing most of the work (AF-ON button use with AF-C and the modes where you control where focus is initiated).  

Finally, this: try the Auto position on the Mode Dial. Seriously. This puts the camera into "camera does everything" mode. You might find it illuminating (literally, in some cases). If the camera is doing a better job in Auto than you can do by manually controlling things, quite obviously you're not understanding something and need study and practice to get better results. That's always humbling, but that's also useful information. 

More than once in the field I've come across someone struggling. By making that one setting, everything improves for them, which tells me that they weren't fully understanding how to use their camera. Today's cameras are hugely complex and rich in features, customizations, and overrides. In the right hands with the right study and practice those are good things that allow for extraordinary control and precision. In the wrong hands without study and practice you get random results. 

If you find Auto worked better than your choices, then you have some work to do in learning your camera. My advice here is sort of the opposite of what I said with autofocus (start with full control, slowly automate): start with full automation and de-automate one thing at a time under you fully understand and can control it. Then de-automate another function. 

Congratulations on your new gear. You're going to find it is quite capable of excellent imagery, under almost any circumstance. But sometimes to get there you need to do some homework.

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