Nikon Z5 Camera Review

The Z5 and Z6 share so much in design, features, layout, and more, you're going to find that this review mimics my Z6 review; I'm not going to change wording or order from that review where something is the same. I will be sure to point out differences, though, as there are some you need to be aware of.


What is It?
If you're familiar with the Z6, it's probably easier to just list the differences that resulted in the lower cost Z5. Here is everything I've found different:

  • The Z5's sensor is FSI (front side illuminated), not BSI (back side illuminated). An FSI sensor is cheaper (and quicker) to produce, but often has some limitations in terms of off-loading data quickly. You'll see that in the video specifications for the Z5, but also in the rolling shutter impacts. Also, the Z5 image sensor is not dual gain like the Z6's. 
  • Video is different: 4K is only available with a 1.7x crop; there's no 1080P/120, no raw video, and no N-Log 10-bit 4:2:2 output available. 
  • The bottom and back of the camera are not metal alloy, but composite. However, in the end the size, weight, and weather sealing remains pretty much the same as the Z6.
  • The maximum frame rate is only 4.5 fps. With Silent Photography, that drops to 2.5 fps. When setting Release Mode, the Z5 doesn't support the Front Command dial for the sub-options, you have to use an extra step to get to them. Maximum continuous release is 100 images (which is the buffer size).
  • The Mode dial moved from the left side of the camera (as you're using it) to the right, and no longer has a lock switch.
  • Focus shift shooting doesn't allow the creation of a Peaking Stack Image.
  • Deleted split-screen viewing.
  • Time-Lapse Movie works when something is plugged into the HDMI port (not on the Z6/Z7), and also gets the Focus Before Each Shot and Destination options (first seen in D780).
  • Multiple Exposure changes Keep All Images to Save Individual Images (NEF).
  • The Z5 adds Focus Before Each Shot and Options to Interval Timer Shooting (first seen in D780).
  • The Z5 uses SD cards, and has two slots for them, as well as Nikon's Role Played by Card in Slot 2 function.
  • The Rear LCD is only 1.04m dot. There is no top information LCD.
  • Added View Memory Card Info, Interval Timer Shooting, Time-lapse Movie, and Focus Shift Shooting to the i menu options.
  • Deleted Sync Release from function button setting possibilities, added ISO sensitivity to focus ring possibilities.
  • The Z5 ships with the larger capacity EN-EL15C battery, and it allows USB power delivery while shooting. It also has two extra menu options that deal with USB power and energy saving.

All told, that's not a lot of changes, and many will view the SD card use, dual slots, and USB power ones as being better. Put simply, the Z5 is much like a redesigned Z6 in which video wasn't emphasized as much, with a couple of small other changes that reduced cost. Even with discounts as I write this, the Z6 is US$400 more than the Z5. I'll just say up front that, unless you're heavy into video, it doesn't feel like you lost much by picking the Z5 over the Z6. 

But let's do the full monte here, and strip the Z5 down to all its details. Again, I'm not going to completely rewrite my Z6 review, but rather re-edit it for the Z5 differences.

The Nikon Z5 is Nikon's fourteenth mirrorless camera. So we have some context: Nikon should know how to make an excellent mirrorless camera. They've had plenty of experience, and they've continued migrating their top DSLR designers over to help design these mirrorless cameras. The difference here (from the Z6) is that Nikon is now tweaking the formula somewhat downward in order to produce a less expensive, entry-level model.

It doesn't seem like those designers had their hands tied, either. You'll find a couple of things on the Z5 that are better than on the Z6, too.

The Z5 cribs a great deal from the Z6, which itself cribbed a great deal from the DSLR lineup, particularly the D850, which seems to have served as the primary base for the Z series. The Z5 also shares accessories with the DSLR lineup. Unlike the Nikon 1, the Z5 is fully integrated into Nikon's long SLR/DSLR legacy. 

Before I get deeper into the details, I was initially struck by an unusual balancing act made by Nikon: there are many very familiar things in the Z5 that copy the DSLR designs, yet there are new things that don't. This shows not only in the obvious controls and physical feature differences you can see on the outside of the camera, but also in a partial tear down of the Z5: I see some things the same, some different.  

So let's start with the Z5 basics.

The Z5 is a 24mp full frame (36x24mm) mirrorless camera. The image sensor itself appears to be similar to the one (or the same underlying electronics) used in the Nikon D750. In other words, it’s a FSI (frontside illumination) Exmor-type design with the addition of phase detect photosite masking embedded in the microlens layer. Base ISO is 100, with the directly selectable range going to 25,600 (extendable with the HI settings to 204,800 equivalent).

On top of the image sensor we have a low pass filter. This filter steals a little acuity from edges and anti-aliases the data, but that also has the tendency to mask some of the photon noise, too. This isn’t a particularly aggressive AA filter as we used to have many years ago, but you need to know it’s there, as this makes the Z5 not quite a high resolution beast. Note that the aliasing is mostly on the long axis. It's not clear why Nikon made the aliasing asymmetrical, but the overall result is less overall aliasing than most regular AA filters.

The new Z mount is distinguished by the smallest flange distance to date from the main competitors (16mm compared to a more typical 18-20mm). Coupled with a very wide throat opening of 52mm (compared to Sony's narrow 43.6mm), Nikon can put larger lens elements closer to the sensor than anyone else with a full frame camera. They can also consider new optical designs where the entrance and exit pupils have more flexibility. 

Nikon has kept the lens release button in its usual position found on the DSLRs, and Z mount lenses twist onto the Z5 camera body exactly the same way F mount lenses twist onto Nikon DSLRs. Which is to say, for some, backwards ;~). Still, that's the level of detail and consideration that any Nikon DSLR user would want Nikon to be making for mirrorless cameras that complement the DSLRs. Zoom and focus rings also work the same way in Z-dom as they do in D-dom: zoom in with a twist to the right (across the top of the lens), zoom out to the left. 

So, other than the fact that the mount is bigger and closer to the sensor, the Z5 lens mount and lens attributes are recognizably Nikon to Nikon users. 

Of course, you can't mount a DSLR lens directly on the mirrorless Z5. For that Nikon has made an optional FTZ Adapter (F mount To Z mount, get it?). Another article on this site goes into the details about the FTZ adapter, so I won't elaborate much here. Suffice it to say that pretty much any manual focus Nikkor and any AF-S, AF-I, or AF-P autofocus Nikkor works much as you'd expect when mounted on a Z5 via the FTZ adapter. That's good news, because despite releasing lenses as they outlined on their original roadmap, Nikon is still playing catchup. As I write this, we have 14 released Z-mount lenses, with 10 more planned to be released in the next 15 months. Most of you who pick up a Z5 after reading this review are going to be using at least some of your existing DSLR lenses via the FTZ for awhile.

You're probably wondering about the autofocus system at this point, as I just mentioned that most F-mount lenses work as expected on the Z5 with the FTZ adapter. 

Nikon uses rows of phase detect photosite masking on the Z5 sensor. The photosites on those rows can provide both focus and exposure information. Basically every twelfth row has this dual-function nature. Nikon claims 273 points for autofocus, but that's selectable single points using the camera controls. In reality, there are thousands of autofocus points in the camera, as is true of most mirrorless cameras using phase detect on sensor. One thing, though: none of these autofocus detection sites are cross-type, as you find in the DSLRs. That means that focus is more responsive to detail on one axis only (long axis). 

Focus performance with the latest firmware extends to -3EV with an f/2 lens attached. That's with the low light focus function enabled; normally it's -2EV. Those numbers are basically the same as the Nikon D750. Note that this is one area of clear difference between the Z5 and  Z6: the Z6 goes to -6EV (-3.5EV normally). Note that differences between the AF-S and AF-C focus modes mean that you sometimes don't get that same level of low-light focus performance when shooting continuous AF-C with the Z5. I wouldn't call the Z5 a great low-light continuous action shooter, but it's also not bad, either (again, much like the D750). 

The thing about phase detect on the image sensor is that the precision with which the current focus position can be calculated is less than that in the DSLRs. That mostly has to do with geometry. That's why virtually all of mirrorless camera systems default to a followup contrast detect focus step after performing a phase detect step when they're set to what's known as single servo focus (AF-S in most cameras; it means that focus is only obtained once, and does not track the subject). The Z5 does not do this, though (except in Pinpoint AF mode or if Low Light AF has been enabled). Somehow, Nikon has gotten the same level of accuracy without having to do the extra step (my guess is that they're building depth maps from multiple nearby sites to help them understand where focus should be).

In continuous servo (AF-C in Nikon parlance), the Z5 usually only performs a single phase detect focus operation. Note that whatever Autofocus Area Mode you pick in AF-C, far more than one underlying focus sensor (pixel) is being used to determine focus. That both helps and potentially hurts AF-C focus accuracy. I'll get to accuracy in the Performance section, below.

You should also know that the Z5 respects shooting aperture up to f/5.6. In other words, focus is performed at f/2.8 if you're set at f/2.8, at f/5.6 if you're set at f/5.6. When you set apertures of f/6.3 and smaller, the camera focuses with the lens set to f/5.6. The unique aspect of this is that the EVF shows DOF directly up to f/5.6. Beyond that, you need to invoke a programmed button or pull off the trick I note in my book to see exact DOF while shooting without resorting to defining a Depth of Field button.

The main worry of Nikon DSLR users considering a Z5 has tended to be focus speed. They needn't have worried. Phase detect is essentially instant—okay, there's lag in the electronics stream to account for, but that's minimal—so it really depends upon the performance of the focus motor in the lens as to whether the actual focus speed is good or not. The worry among DSLR users was that no other mirrorless camera with adapter has managed to achieve reasonable focus speed with existing F-mount Nikkors. 

Since I initially posted my Z6 and Z7 reviews, I've learned quite a bit about how the focus system on the Z cameras works.  One thing that catches many by surprise is the use of phase detect virtually all the time. One thing to note is that the Z cameras don't have to filter light through a partially silvered mirror before it gets to the focus sensors. That means those focus sensors are getting considerably more light on them, which impacts accuracy. There are also more individual sensors building the depth map for any given "focus area" the camera is looking at. It's not unintended that the Nikon engineers are basically quiet about how they achieve fast, precise focus using only on-sensor phase detect when others have tended to use a contrast step followup. There's a little "secret sauce" in the underlying decision making Nikon doesn't want to reveal.

I see no tangible difference in how AF-S lenses on the FTZ adapter work (yeah, a confusion of terms, that's not single servo, but a lens motor designation). I actually think AF-P lenses may work a little faster on the Z5 than they do on my DSLRs, but that "little" is so little that I can't really measure it, and you have an apples and oranges problem to deal with even trying to do such a test. Suffice it to say that Nikon DSLR AF-I, AF-S, and AF-P autofocus lenses mounted on an FTZ adapter pretty much keep their performance characteristics on the Z5.   

What's missing on the Z5 from autofocus are some of the traditional Nikon DSLR Autofocus Area Modes in AF-C and the ability to switch Autofocus Area Modes quickly. You can't assign AF-ON+AF Area Mode to anything, as you can on the D850 and other D5-generation DSLRs. There's no Group AF mode, nor size variations for the Dynamic AF mode. 

Meanwhile, manual focus lenses on the Z5 shine. That's because we have a plethora of "helpers" to help you nail focus. The full list—which requires a chipped lens—includes rangefinder focus distance display, the usual Nikon >o< focus indicator, the focus sensor indicator being used turning from red to green, the ability to magnify the display in the viewfinder, and focus peaking overlays. (Non-chipped lenses will lose the rangefinder and perhaps more depending upon how you've set the camera, but are still quite usable on the Z5.)

Even though I'm just outlining features, I'll say this right up front: if you're deep into using manual focus Nikkors that are chipped (basically AI-P and some third party lenses), the Z5 is the third best camera you can use them on (the Z7 is the best, because of the added resolution; the Z6 is the second best because of the lower light capability). No doubts about it. The chipped Voigtlander and Zeiss (ZF.2 and later) primes fit into this category, as well. You're simply going to get to correct focus visually faster and more accurately with your lens on the Z5 via FTZ adapter than you will with any other camera mounting those lenses. I'd even include the Sony A7 series in that. 

For a company that caters to legacy users, all those AI and AI-S manual focus Nikkor owners can relax: Nikon designed the Z5+FTZ adapter so that it can work with those lenses, though you'll probably need to set focus peaking to use them well. And, of course, all the owners of autofocus lenses with built-in focus motors (AF-I, AF-S, AF-P) can relax, too. I'm surprised and thrilled at how much compatibility Nikon has managed to retain while moving over into the mirrorless realm from DSLR. 

Unfortunately, if you have a screw-drive autofocus Nikkor—lenses that require a motor in the camera body to move the focus elements in the lens—you will lose autofocus if you mount it on the FTZ Adapter. It's entirely possible that someone, including Nikon, might eventually build an adapter that works for all those older screw-mount autofocus lenses, but I wouldn't hold my breath. That has power implications, among other things. This is the one Achilles heel in the Z5's legacy support, and if you're an owner of many screw-drive lenses, you're not going to be happy.

Since I just mentioned power, the Z5 uses the same basic battery as Nikon has used for the advanced small body DSLRs for some time: the EN-EL15, this time in EN-EL15C version (more capacity). Yes, you can use your older EN-EL15 in the Z5. You can use your EN-EL15A and EN-EL15B, too. But the Z5 comes with a new variation of that battery, the EN-EL15C. Power increases from 1900 mAh to 2280 mAh in the C version.  

There's another significant change in that latest versions of the battery (B and C): they can be charged in camera (while Nikon supplies the EH-7P charger and cable to do this with the Z7, those do not come with the Z5, you have to buy those separately). The older batteries can't be charged this way, only the EN-EL15B and EN-EL15C. Moreover, the Z5 adds something over the Z6: if you've got an AC power source plugged into the camera to charge the battery, you can operate the camera from that source (there must be an EN-EL15B or EN-EL15C battery in the camera at the time. If you want a permanent AC power source, you can also use the usual suspect, an optional EP-5 driven dummy battery that cables through a small rubber door in the grip and is powered by an optional EH-5. 

If you just want "more power" because you're worried about how many shots you'll get or how long the video will run, Nikon makes an MB-N10 brick that bolts to the bottom of your camera that will hold a pair of EN-EL15B or EN-EL15C batteries. "Brick": I use a pejorative term here because the MB-N10 is not the usual vertical grip extension. There are no controls, no shutter release, not much of anything other than a housing for two batteries and a dummy extension that goes into the normal battery slot for the camera. 

I glossed over a feature in the sensor description, above: on-sensor VR. The Z5 is Nikon's third ILC with on-sensor stabilization (the Z6 and Z7 being the first two). The implementation is robust, though it has a bit less physical movement capability than Sony's; Nikon's version powers down into a locked state rather than let the sensor platform dangle in space when in your bag. Nikon claims 5-stops CIPA from the on-sensor VR. Yes, the on-sensor VR works with manual focus lenses, too. As I wrote above, the Z5 is a Nikkor manual focus user's dream (you need to enter the focal length of unshipped lenses in Non-CPU Lens Data for this to work right, though).

Not all is perfect with that on-sensor VR, though. First, with video Nikon is claiming only a 2-stop improvement at the sensor, which can be improved to 5-stops via turning on an additional feature, Electronic VR (only works with video, as it moves the scan area). 

The other thing you need to be aware of is that if a Nikkor lens has VR and a switch to control that, that switch controls all VR, lens and sensor. If the lens doesn't have VR or no VR switch, then only the camera menu system controls VR operation. Third party lenses with stabilization, especially older ones, may not correctly interface with the camera's VR, though. I've seen several where the lens switch doesn't seem to be recognized by the camera.

It doesn't end there. In one of the biggest design dissonances in the DSLR to mirrorless transition, the type of VR is controlled by the lens, unless it isn't. If the lens has Off, On, and Sports modes in its switch, great, everything matches, and that switch does indeed set Off, On, and Sports modes. But if the lens has Off, On, and Active modes in its switch, oops. The switch only controls On and Off: there is no Active mode activation, apparently.

This, of course, is a simplification. Other simplifications abound in the Z5 design when compared to the higher-end DSLRs. First up is the removal of the Mode button and the inclusion of a Mode dial. This also removes the Bank settings from the menu and provides the U1, U2, and U3 user settings of the consumer Nikon DSLRs. One problem with that is that not all functions are actually saved in U1, U2, and U3. One primary one that isn't remembered: the drive function (self-timer, single shot, continuous shot, etc.). You can save your camera configuration to your memory card, but you can only do that once and it doesn't include the U settings; Nikon also still doesn't support multiple, named settings files. 

Another issue with the U1, U2, and U3 design is that you can't switch exposure modes ;~). This was one of the things that Nikon eventually addressed with extended banks in the pro cameras (having a user-defined exposure mode associated with a bank that can be overridden while shooting). While most shooters won't be upset by the simplifications inherent in the U1 type settings over banks, we do lose some flexibility in the camera with this design. 

Since the Z5 is slotted in the same basic position as the D610/D750, which also use a Mode dial and U1/U2/U3, I don't terribly mind the control simplifications; they seem more appropriate on the Z5 than on the Z6 and Z7. 

Which brings me to the card slots.  

The Z5 gets two UHS II compatible SD slots. This kills two birds with one (dual) stone. First, the two slot bit quiets all the "oh, but it doesn't have two slots" complaints, which often come from people who aren't actually using or need two slots ;~). This was a viral blowup on social media when the Z6 and Z7 appeared with only one slot. Not this time, suckers. 

But much more important for an entry-level camera is that the Z5 is using SD cards, which are ubiquitous, somewhat less expensive, and which the targeted Z5 buyer probably already has. Do note that you really should use UHS-II cards in the Z5, though. In both slots, as the camera is only as fast as the slowest card that's installed. Otherwise continuous shooting and video performance may be compromised.

Shutter lag is technically the same as the Z6: 65ms (the D850, for example, maxes out at 45ms). That's not bad at all: we used to have pro DSLRs that were worse. The problem, however, is that the EVF has a lag of 1/60 all on its own. Thus, you may see people reporting much longer shutter lag numbers, as they're adding in both lags together. Put a different way, a DSLR user doesn't have to adjust what they're seeing to reality: when they see that they should press the shutter release, they get a very brief delay before the shutter opens (again 45ms on the D850 in best case). 

The mirrorless user has to better anticipate the moment, as if they go solely by what they see in the viewfinder, by the time they press the shutter release another 20ms or more may have occurred. I don't see this as an issue on the Z5 as the "bundled lag" is still less than many consumer DSLRs. I'm just telling you that DSLR and mirrorless users that are trying to capture the same moment with a single press adjust when they do that to the circumstances slightly differently. Inherently, the shutter lag on the Z5 is in what I would call the pro realm, and not meaningfully different than many of the DSLRs.

You're probably wondering about the viewfinder. Nikon made big promises about having the "best" EVF on any camera with the Z6 and Z7, and for the most part, they've hit that mark with the Z5, too, since it shares the same EVF. We've now seen higher resolution EVFs from other makers, but the Nikon one is quite well done. The 3.69m dot half-inch LCD is basically a quad VGA monitor (1280 x 960) sitting behind some impressive Nikon glass for a very excellent eyepiece. That nets a 0.8x magnification with a 21mm eyepoint. With my rather thin glasses I have to strain to see all of the image area that magnification is so big. If you'd rather shoot without glasses, Nikon's provided a larger than usual -4 to +2 diopter adjustment, as well.

Overall, the Z5 EVF is indeed one of the most natural looking I've encountered. Nikon has graded the view well, and doesn't degrade to a lower resolution view as some EVFs do in certain situations. But it's still an EVF. That means that you'll sometimes see exposure or focus "pumping" that you wouldn't see in an optical viewfinder. In bright (but not extreme contrast) daylight scenes I would tend to agree with Nikon that this is the best EVF so far; I often forget I am using a mirrorless camera. 

As I noted above, there's a tiny bit of lag to the EVF—it's a 60Hz device—but unless you're shooting fast and erratic moving subjects you're probably not going to notice it. At the camera's maximum 4.5 fps there's a brief blackout between images in the viewfinder.

Indoors and particularly in low light, the EVF starts to show that's it an EVF. In particular, noise can start to show up in low light. Still, it's not the terrible contrast-crushed view that we had in many earlier mirrorless cameras.

Out back we get the usual 3.2" touchscreen Nikon has been using lately, though with only 1.04m dots. The LCD is on a platform that allows tilting up a bit more than 90° and tilting down about 45°. The basic touchscreen interface is the same as the D850, which is to say, quite good, about as good as we've gotten from anyone. Navigating playback or menus is fast, and touch-to-focus-and-shoot works quite rapidly compared to some other implementations I've seen (starts with an S... ;~). 

What else should you know about the camera itself? Well, a lot. I'll try to stay as brief as I can be here, as I really want you to read the handling and performance sections of the review.

The Z5 does not have a built-in flash. It does have the regular Nikon hot shoe up top, and is compatible with all the recent CLS (i-TTL) Speedlights. One thing to note: flash sync speed is 1/200, not 1/250, and you can't shoot flash with the silent shutter (you can use electronic first curtain shutter, though). If you want to go radio wireless with flash, you'll need an SB-5000 and the WR-R10 transmitter, which plugs into the rectangular 10-pin slot at the bottom of the connector area and is pretty much out of your way. That same connector is used for wired remotes like the MC-DC2, and for other accessories such as the GP-1A GPS unit. Optical wireless remains the same as with the DSLRs. 

GPS data can also be obtained via SnapBridge from your smartphone, which these days is up to version 2.5.x and quite useful, though not without a few lingering faults. One interesting change is that SnapBridge now allows you to shoot raw files and still push over 2mp JPEGs to your smartphone (didn't I request that two years ago?). Nikon also added one somewhat useful thing to the Wi-Fi capabilities of the Z5 beyond SnapBridge: the ability to speak both AdHoc and Infrastructure modes, which gives you access to your computer via your router. The problem with this implementation is that it is slow and requires a Nikon software utility on your computer. When I say slow, I mean slower than your Wi-Fi is capable of, and almost slow enough not to be useful. Almost. 

Likewise, the USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed) connector on the camera doesn't seem to really move data at 5MBs. That's probably not the fault of the electronics, but more the fault of the camera OS driving the electronics. Fortunately, it is more than fast enough for studio-type tethered shooting.

There's been some confusion about frame rates with the Z5, but it's really quite simple. With the mechanical shutter involved (first curtain electronic or not), the maximum frame rate is 4.5 fps. With silent shooting, that drops to 2.5 fps. Autofocus and exposure work as normal at the top frame rate.

To some, these frame rates will be disappointing, but remember this is an entry-level camera, not a performance camera. The Canon RP is a bit of a mess when it comes to maximum frame rate, as the footnotes keep kicking in, but it's actually slower in maximum frame rate than the Z5 with autofocus and exposure active.

I've already noted that the shutter has a flash sync of 1/200, but otherwise it is the usual 30 second to 1/8000 vertical-travel focal-plane shutter type. Because mirrorless cameras "double-clutch" the shutter—first they close while the sensor resets for shooting, then they open to start exposure, close to end exposure, and finally open again to restore live view—Nikon has also added an electronic front curtain shutter (EFCS) mode, which you'll pretty much want to use all the time for shutter speeds lower than 1/250 (otherwise too much shutter slap can impact the image). Custom Setting #D5 adds an automated function that will do just that: shoot EFCS up to 1/250, and mechanical shutter above that. 

Note that if you set EFCS directly—instead of the auto switchover—that puts some limitations on the camera (1/2000 maximum shutter speed, and ISO 25,600 maximum). 

Nikon has thrown in a few tidbits that require a lot more evaluation to fully understand, including automatic diffraction compensation. Coupled with a new mid-range sharpening control in the Picture Controls, Nikon is touting that they're now doing different three types of sharpening to create the final image—JPEGs obviously— and which deal with differences in the way our eyes respond to contrast in different areas. I can say that, after using the Nikon cameras with these functions for quite some time now, I am finding that the four controls that you can impact acuity with (Sharpening, Mid-range sharpening, Clarity, and Diffraction compensation) now allow me to dial in my JPEGs a little better than I had been able to do on earlier DSLRs. But you need to be careful: these controls interact, and you can get very "crunchy" results if you're not careful. I suggest you start with default Sharpening and Clarity, minor Mid-range sharpening, plus Diffraction compensation turned On. Season from there.

Overall size and weight of the Z5 is a bit like the D7500, a DSLR camera a whole class level down (in sensor size and more). To those that wonder: yes, there is an immediate and tangible difference in feel when moving from the D780 to the Z5: the Z5 feels lighter and nimbler. The difference between a Z5 and a D850 is even greater. By keeping the deep hand grip and traditional Nikon controls coupled with the usual Nikon high-end build quality, the Z5 still feels like a Nikon. 

One thing many DSLR users don't appreciate until it actually comes to packing time is just how the overall volume difference due to the missing mirror box really starts to add up with equivalent camera/lens sets. I have a number of small bags now that I can fit a basic Nikon Z5 kit into (body plus a couple of lenses and batteries), that would never accept an equivalent DSLR kit. Many early adapters of mirrorless cameras have been using them for travel because of this downsizing. Amazingly, I can fit my small basic Z5 bag into my favorite laptop briefcase (the expensive but packed with excellence Waterfield Air Porter) and still have room for my laptop, tablet, headphones, chargers, accessories, and other travel gear. 

Curiously, while the Z5 and Z6 look virtually identical from the outside—the loss of the top LCD and the moving of the Mode dial from top left to top right are the only truly visible differences—Nikon made some changes to the structure of the body. The Z6 uses magnesium alloy throughout, the Z5 uses the metal for the top, front, and sides. On the bottom and back of the Z5, Nikon has opted for a strong polycarbonate material. That said, the Z5 body is said to have the same dust and drip resistance as the higher end Z's (Nikon's words, not mine). Even just doing a partial disassembly I noted Nikon is using overlap as well as sealing in many areas. 

Now many are interpreting that to mean that you can get the Z5 really wet and not have issues. First, the camera will not survive submersion. There's also one very vulnerable ingress point: the card slots. As long as that door is closed, yes, the rubber gaskets and overlap will probably work fine. But note that the card slot is soldered directly to the main PC board. So if the door is open and water gets in, it can get right into the one place you absolutely don't want it. 

While I don't panic if my Z5 gets wet, if you're going to be in inclement conditions use prophylactic practices, as I do. Be very careful when the card slot door is open or there is no lens/cap on the mount. 

Likewise, while those seals should lesson the chance of dust getting into the body, changing lenses and any air pumping action of zoom lenses will have a tendency to get dust onto the sensor. The in-camera sensor cleaning capability is weaker than we're used to on the DSLRs, too. It works, but only if used with regularity and only on modest dust. Z5 users should own a browser bulb (and one that is known not to have rubber preservatives in can blow out) and keep it with them. 

Video capabilities of the Z5 are one area where it differs from the Z6. This almost certainly comes from the differences in sensor. Whereas the Z6 does full frame 4K downsampled from 6K and has N-Log, ProRes Raw, and other advanced capabilities, the top video mode on the Z5 is 4K at 30 fps taken from a 1.7x sensor crop. 1080P maxes out at 60 fps, but is created from the full frame (or DX frame area if you wish). 

Z5 users do get internal timecode capability, focus peaking, on-screen zebras, and a bunch more little video-oriented goodies. The MOVIE SHOOTING menu has 27 options in it, and the Live View selector switch invokes those when set to video, so it's quite easy to set the camera up one way for stills, another for video. 

Bit rates are probably the weakest spot on the Z5 video, as internally you max out at 144Mbps in 4K. That's a decent bit rate, and higher than on the Sony A7m3, but not spectacular (the GH5 does 400Mbps in 4K). For 1080P, the bit rates max out at 56Mbps (and require 50 or 60 fps to do so; 24 fps drops to 28Mbps). Generally, broadcast television wants at least 50Mbps for source material, preferably higher, as the signal you see on your screen has multiple downstream compresses that are added.

That said, I'd say that the video recorded internal on the Z5 looks good, it's just not the pro caliber stuff we're seeing on a few higher-end cameras these days. The biggest issue for most video users will be the 1.7x crop in 4K.

Video uses the same autofocus system as stills, and if you've complained about Live View, and thus video, autofocus performance on Nikon DSLRs, you're in for a big, important, and useful change shooting video with the Z5 (also shared by the Z6 and Z7). Nikon now has probably the best follow focus I've seen out of any ILC camera doing video. Not that I tend to use that, but for casual use, it's very effective with minimal annoying hunts and misses. Do note that the autofocus performance does tend to get impacted if you are shooting N-Log to the external HDMI; apparently there's just too much processing going on for Nikon to keep the focus system running at the same refresh rate.

The Nikon Z5 is made in Thailand. The camera lists for US$1400. 

Source of the review camera: purchased via NPS Priority Purchase. I cannot rule out that this camera was hand-picked. It arrived with a few extra shots on the shutter counter and the usual Set Language/Time/Date prompts bypassed, indications that someone had shot with the camera prior to shipping it. I checked with the dealer. It wasn't them ;~).

Nikon's page for the Z5

Thom's book for the Nikon Z5


How's it Handle?
While the general consensus has been good about how the Z5 handles—many people write "it handles like a Nikon DSLR"—don't get too caught up in those easy assessments. They're somewhat wrong. I can find plenty of places where the Z5 does not handle like a Nikon DSLR. Whether those are important to you or not will depend a lot on how you shoot and what features you use. 

Gone, for instance, are the double-button shortcuts (Reset and Format). While I don't miss the former, the latter was a handy shortcut. Everyone's now going to want to consider setting up a customizable button to MyMenu and putting Format as the first thing on that menu. Otherwise you'll get into menu diving pretty quickly every time you want to reformat a card. Frankly, that was a mistake by Nikon. They could have used the ISO/Delete buttons the same as on the D850 as a short cut. I see no good reason why they took this feature out.

Other annoying "moved to menu" things abound, as well. 

Take bracketing, for instance. It's the 28th thing on the PHOTO SHOOTING menu (I kid you not). Moreover, the handy shortcut of using the Intervalometer to take a full bracket sequence with one shutter press is also gone. Nikon's going to say "just add bracketing to your i menu," but which of the other deeply buried menu items that also reside in the i menu are you going to give up? Metering? Picture Control? Image Quality? VR? Focus settings? WB?

Which brings me to the one semi-critical handling issue with the Z5: it just doesn't have enough customizable buttons for the sophisticated shooter. We've got FN1 (default is WB) and FN2 (default is Focus modes), AF-On (which you'll probably want to leave set to AF-On), the thumb stick button, and the red Record Movie button. That's not enough buttons (nor are there enough i menu positions) for all the things you're going to want to promote up to a higher level than a full menu dive. 

Which makes the Z5 a bit of a "slow" camera to work with compared to the best Nikon DSLRs. Yes, you can use MyMenu and the U1/U2/U3 settings to try to flesh things out, but you still have a finite number of slots for what seems like an infinite number of settings to control. You really need to think things through very carefully to maximize the customization of the camera, and I'll bet that even if you do that, you'll still wish you had more things you could assign. 

Tip: The camera does have a Drive button (frame rate, self timer), and that's duplicated up in the i menu defaults. So there's one thing you can easily consider replacing on the i menu.)

VR is something you'll need to come to grips with. Yes, the Z5 has on-sensor VR. But you can also mount lenses (currently via the FTZ adapter) that have VR. If the lens has the same VR controls as the camera (Off, Normal, Sport), then the VR setting is always controlled by the switch on the lens. If not, well, things get a bit more problematic. As far as I can tell, there's no way to set Active on the lens: you still get Normal. And if there's no VR on the lens, then the only way you can control the sensor VR is via the menu system. The good news is that all your non-VR lenses now have VR (on sensor). The bad news is that you have to pay attention to where you're controlling when VR is active or not. It's easy to turn off the VR in the camera, then mount a VR lens and control VR from there, then forget that you've left VR off in the camera when you mount another non-VR lens. 

Tip: VR can be assigned to a space on the i menu.

A somewhat bigger issue with the Z5 handling is the startup delay. Using any mirrorless camera is not quite as instantaneous as with a DSLR. That means you really don't want to have the camera off if you're doing anything that approaches spontaneous shooting. The good news is that the delay coming out of standby mode is pretty short. Still not quite as quick as the DSLRs, and just long enough that you could miss shots if you're quick on the draw. 

Something that I'm not sure was the right decision is the availability of focus peaking and zebras. Unlike Sony, where you can pretty much select those things to appear in the EVF all the time, Nikon has put limits on both. Zebras are only available when you're shooting video, for some reason. Focus Peaking only works when you're manually focusing. That normally includes being in an autofocus mode and manually overriding the focus, but there's a bit of a gotcha if you're a back button focusing addict: you have to hold that button down while manually focusing, which seems counterintuitive.

The arrival of the 24-70mm f/2.8 S and 70-200mm f/2.8 S lenses produced another strange handling issue: how the focus and third ring are configured. There's a hidden Custom Setting #A13 that pops up when you mount a three-ring lens. But the wording and the interaction with the Custom Setting #F2 ring configuration is clumsy, confusing, and not well thought out. There shouldn't be an #A13, there should be a better handled #F2. 

The ability to run the camera from USB power is a nice touch, one that was missing on the Z6 and Z7 for some reason. Just make sure you have EN-EL15B or EN-EL15C batteries handy, though, as one is required to be in the camera when powering the camera via USB.

One thing that some might find a small problem is the Rear LCD. The reduced pixel count of the Rear LCD on the Z5 means that when you're in really low light the noise patterns are more visible, and make it a bit more difficult to use features like focus peaking. I don't see this as a big problem, but be aware that the Z5's Rear LCD is not nearly as good for fine level detail as the Z6's, and particularly in low light.

While the Mode dial moved from top left to top right and lost its locking mechanism, I don't find that an issue. I do miss the Top LCD for settings, but the move does mean that virtually all the controls for the Z5 are now in the grasp of your right hand. (Yeah, left-handers, I hear you.)

You'll note that I've identified quite a few minor handling issues. Virtually all of these are "down in the weeds" issues, though. For many of the more casual shooters, they're not going to be limitations. It's when you compare the Z5 against higher end competitors that the Z6 starts coming up a bit short in a few handling areas. But that's probably to be expected: this is Nikon's entry-level full frame camera, after all, not a professional body.

What I wrote at the start of this section—that many think the Z5 handles like a Nikon—is basically true. You see the Nikon DNA in almost all the handling decisions, and it's relatively easy for a dedicated Nikon DSLR user to adjust to the Z5 quickly. But over time, that same user is likely to be asking Nikon for some changes. For example, Sony's focus peaking and zebras are more flexible and usable than Nikon's.  

Finally, it seems ironic that Nikon removed the DOF button on a camera (D7500) because Live View provides a perfectly acceptable rendering of what is and isn't out of focus (on the Rear LCD), but then they make a camera that is basically always in Live View that sometimes requires a DOF button to see what is and isn't out of focus. 

Let me elaborate a bit: the Z5 normally uses the user-specified aperture for viewing up through f/5.6. So as long as you're shooting at f/1.8 to f/5.6, you're seeing the correct focus point and DOF in the viewfinder (and on the Rear LCD). But the minute you go beyond that, say f/8 or f/11, you now need to have a customizable button to force the camera to stop down to show you DOF, and any lens focus shift—several Z lenses have some—is not addressed. (There's a trick I describe in my Complete Guide to the Z5 that also gets you a quick DOF assessment. Indeed, there are a lot of small tricks available that address small shortcomings in the handling.)

I've tried to compile a full(-ish) list of all the differences between the Z5 and Z6 at the top of this review. It's worth going back and reviewing that at this point, as some of those things result in a slightly different "handling" of the camera.  

I'm being very picky and detailed here, because these are the things Nikon should probably address if they want to keep the Z5 at the top of the bottom heap (i.e. best of the entry full frames). Hopefully Nikon corporate sees and understands all that I've written in this section. Yes, the Z5 handles well and competently. It just isn't a home run. Like the Z6 and Z7 were, it's maybe a triple off the wall. The camera business is now getting small enough and competitive enough that the home runs are what will still be around five years from now. 

That said, the Z5 does handle enough like a Nikon DSLR that it's immediately recognizable and an easy transition for any Nikon DSLR user. The primary differences are dictated by the mirrorless nature of the Z5, not random design choices. 

I can't say the same thing for the Canon RP: the Canon RP feels like it is missing features and handling niceties compared to the Nikon Z5.  

So, Nikon basically nailed handling for an entry-level full frame camera. Canon hasn't. Sony doesn't have a low-cost competitor. All that adds up to a Nikon win, in my book. A clear win.

How's it Perform?
Battery: The good news is that the enhanced battery really does get the Z5 close to being an all-day camera for most people. But I never had a real issue with the lower-spec battery in the Z6, where I often got 600 or more shots a session. The Z5 will do better than that, for sure. 

But be aware that Nikon played a little CIPA-stat game on everyone. Besides the larger battery capacity, the Z5 comes with Energy Saving set to Enable ;~). This lowers the EVF refresh rate to save power at times. You'll probably want to set Disable, instead. And that will have a small impact on your battery life. 

I would say to keep your screens off as much as possible, avoid leaving SnapBridge on if you're not using it, and minimize use of things like VR if you want to extend battery life, but I generally don't do those things and still get very reasonable shots-per-charge numbers. It's rare I get to a second battery in a day's worth of shooting, and I'm talking about covering events for hours. 

Video performance is a different deal. I've gotten as little as one hour performance from video shoots (with no external accessories, but with things like VR and autofocus turned on). I think if you're serious about using the Z6 as a video camera you're going to want to get an AC Adapter and/or the MB battery grip. Either that or you need to be in situations where you can change batteries without penalty (e.g. no continuous theater/music/dance performances). 

Even though the video side seems a little tight running from the EN-EL15C, I'd judge the "battery life issue" many were worried about to be mostly overblown. I'm a little surprised that video battery performance doesn't seem to be significantly better with the enhanced battery. That may be that the sensor uses more power in generating the video in the first place. 125 minutes was the max I could get out of an EN-EL15C on the Z5.

Buffer: I've got some bad news: don't believe Nikon's manual. Nikon lists the the buffer as 100 frames no matter what image quality you set. That simply isn't true. The worst case scenario occurs when you shoot 14-bit, lossless NEF and a JPEG Fine Optimal Quality simultaneously to two slots, at which point you can get as low as a 20 frame buffer. Note that really high ISO values and a few other settings may limit the buffer slightly. 

Of course, at 4.5 fps, we're still talking about four seconds of shooting, minimum. I don't find the buffer particularly constrained. If four seconds isn't enough, change to 12-bit NEF and you'll get closer to seven seconds (35 frames worst case) with two cards (NEF+JPEG Fine Optimal Quality). 

Connectivity: Let's start with the new stuff. You can use the supplied USB cable to get "fast" transfers from camera to computer. Only they're not all that fast. I fail to see the point of using a SuperSpeed (USB 3) port if you're going to limit the transfer speed to at 1/10th the speed the port is capable of (e.g. the Z5 is running about 30MBs in my tests with the fastest card I have). Basically, the Z5 is running at the maximum speed of a USB 2.0 card reader. That's so 2001. 

Okay, how about that new camera-to-computer transfer via Wi-Fi? Well, it works quite well on a Mac (a little less reliable on Windows). Still slower than my network, though, and by a long shot. In both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz modes I'm getting the same basic numbers, with the fastest transfers running a bit over 2.5MB/s. That's slower than just plugging the camera into that SuperSpeed USB port and shooting tethered, too. 

I was hoping for better from Nikon when I saw they were supporting Infrastructure mode on 5Ghz. But we're still in the 20-30 second range per NEF file here, which isn't at all thrilling. 

Finally, a word about SnapBridge. In its current form, it's very usable. Not perfect, but if you're looking for 2mp JPEGs to post to social media near directly from the camera, SnapBridge is now going to give you that capability without as much angst as before.

Image Quality: I'm really tempted to just say "virtually identical to the D750" and be done with this section. I'm pretty sure that long-time readers of my work won't be satisfied with that, though. 

High contrast scene, straight out of camera.

Same thing, with only minor adjustments in ACR. Note how the detail in the clouds started pulling in and the shadows started to open up. Let's open them some more:

That's a full two stop boost in ACR. I could have gone further. Much further.

Still, the D750 is a good starting point for image quality. The Z5 sensor appears to be the same underlying FSI sensor as the D750, though with some very minor differences. Sony-type 24mp full frame sensors all test out within a narrow range , with the primary difference between them at higher ISO values, where the dual gain sensors pull ahead by a half to two-thirds of a stop.

Nikon seems to have picked a gain adjustment on the Z5 that splits the difference on the Z6. Thus, at up to ISO 640 the Z5 is actually slightly better than the Z6, perhaps a third of a stop more dynamic range. At ISO 800 and above, the Z6 is the better camera, typically about a half stop better than the Z5. Moreover, Nikon is making slight adjustments to the raw DNs starting at ISO 2000 on the Z5. While that sounds bad, in practice it means that the Z5 is actually a bit better than the D750 visually at the higher ISO values (measurements don't seem to be different, but there's a clear visual difference the higher you boost the ISO on the Z5). Nikon makes a further adjustment, adding a slight amount of noise reduction above ISO 16000. Again, that makes the Z5 images look better than equivalent D750 images, though perhaps slightly "softer" than the Z6 at those same extreme ISO values.

Frankly, I don't much care. At the ISO values I'd tend to use (100 to 6400), the Z5 looks quite good, and if you do see noise it's typically easily handled. The EXPEED6 JPEGs look quite good even at up to ISO 12800 if you've set your sharpening and noise reduction levels properly. 

That said, if you're looking for every bit of dynamic range, here's the 401: 

  • At ISO 100-640: pick the Z5. You'll get a third of a stop better DR.
  • At ISO 800 and up: pick the Z6. You'll get a half stop better DR up to ISO 16000, at which the two are about the same, though the Z6 isn't invoking noise reduction like the Z5.

The other thing that always comes up with the phase detect on sensor cameras is banding. Yes, I can find banding in some 14-bit NEF images (and even in some JPEG images processed beyond death). When banding is present it takes a huge exposure boost in post processing to reveal it. Once again, I can't reproduce it in a 12-bit NEF, and you should probably be shooting 12-bit for anything above ISO 400 on the Z5. Even in 14-bit NEF, the presence of the banding in near-black values isn't assured. It also takes a very specific type of scene to trigger (typically one with very bright to very dark horizontal transition).

Of course, there's another type of banding we need to talk about, and that's what happens with all electronic shutters under frequency based lighting: you get bars (not bands) across your image where the exposure seems different. This is caused by the rolling nature of the electronic shutter. All non-global electronic shutters have this issue, which is to say virtually all mirrorless cameras to date that feature a silent (electronic) shutter capability.

The Z5 seems to be a bit worse than the Z6 here, with a rolling shutter that's running at about 1/15 second compared to the Z6's 1/22. If you see such bars in your image, switch out of silent mode. 

VR: It works. Pretty much as expected. Just remember that VR never stops subject motion, only motion of the camera/lens. 

One area where there is a bit of confusion is with tripods and shutter slap. If you leave the camera in the usual mechanical shutter mode and use longer exposures on anything less than an absolutely secure tripod support, VR doesn't seem to do a great job of correcting the low level vibration from the initial shutter opening. 

If you're counting on VR to let you take absurdly long shots, handheld or on a tripod, I'd strongly suggest that you select electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) or the all-electronic shutter. The default setting for shutters is an Auto setting that's appropriate, as it uses EFCS up to 1/250, mechanical above.

Autofocus

It started with the Z7: Nikon's autofocus wasn't any good, the Internet said. Or was it just a few very visible people on the Internet being provocative? Because the pixels are bigger on the Z6, people expected "better" autofocus on it over the Z7. And yes, the Z6 was better in really low light than the Z7—the pixels were larger, so the phase detect system was getting more light. 

Then came the firmware updates, which tended to make the focus complaints go away for the Z6 and Z7. The Z5 inherits the same autofocus system, but it's using a different sensor with different timings, so how does it do?

There's good news and not so good news. First the good: in decent light, the Z5 pretty much matches the Z6 and Z7 in focus performance. I wouldn't complain about that performance at all, and for an entry-level camera, it has remarkably good performance that can be relied upon. In decent light (or with a fast lens).

That parenthetical comment is where we start to see the not-so-great bit. Technically, the Z5 is capable of autofocus at -2EV. That would be something along the lines of a two second exposure at f/1.8. But the kit lens that comes with the Z5—and the other lens a lot of people will stick on this camera, the 24-200mm—might be f/6.3. Scale those numbers: suddenly we're an 0EV capable camera, best case.

That's not as good as the Z6, and the Z6 is more likely to be used with a faster lens to start with. 

Nikon seems to be aware of this, and they made the defaults for the Z5 set Low Light Autofocus to On. The problem with that is, with single servo focus set (AF-S), you may end up getting contrast detect followup steps that make the system look like it is hunting. 

I'm just going to cut to the chase here: in really low light, the Z5 will struggle in places the Z6 doesn't. If you inhibit the camera further by using a slow aperture lens (e.g. f/4-6.3), you may find that it takes a long time to find focus, particularly on low-contrast subjects. 

I'll give you an example. In my office at the moment, ISO 6400 and f/6.3 give me a 1/40 shutter speed. So fairly low light (probably close to 3EV). On plain white walls, no focus. On low detail grain in the door, struggle to focus. In high detail grain on the door and edges of the door, focus is near "normal."

The real issue for me, however, isn't AF-S. At least in AF-S the camera will tell me if it obtained focus. Like the Z6 and Z7, the Z5 doesn't update the focus sensor box to confirm focus when it finds it in AF-C mode. So I might not notice that focus wasn't quite achieved when I take a shot of that low-contrast detail in this low a light. 

I would say really low light is the Z5's Achilles heel with focus. That's because in reasonable light, particularly at faster apertures: 

  • Focus is fast
  • Focus is accurate
  • Tracking works and can be relied upon

Okay, how about focus accuracy? 

Over and over I've been impressed with the accuracy of the Z5 focus system with static or near static subjects with some contrast. Assuming you know what the Autofocus Area mode you selected is going to do—don't worry, we'll get to that, as it's important to understanding the focus system—the Z5 just nails focus in those cases. With AF-S (single servo), it's mostly as you'd expect with the best of mirrorless, even though Nikon isn't typically doing a contrast detect step as some other companies do. 

Important aside: the 35mm and 24-70mm f/4 Z lenses have some clear focus shift in them. It's actually quite possible to get slightly inaccurate results at some small aperture settings if you don't realize this and don't know how the focus system actually works.  

I'm also impressed with AF-C (continuous servo) accuracy on near static and modestly moving subjects. I'd tend to say that the Z5 is a little more repeatably accurate with a focus move of a slower moving subject than the Nikon DSLRs are. 

So, for static or slow moving subjects in reasonable light the Z5 is as good as any other mirrorless camera, and probably better than a DSLR. Landscape shooters should rejoice (though be aware that the Z5 only stops down to f/5.6 in the viewfinder unless you assign a Depth of Field button or use my DOF trick), so you're not seeing depth of field accurately at small apertures. But any static or near-static subject should be easily focused by the Z5 once you learn the various controls and modes.

You may wonder about eye detect autofocus.

First, all the "eye detect" (and face detect) capabilities you hear about tend to be in the "all automatic" focus mode. The camera is making all the decisions. You're handing off basically all responsibility to the camera. This is true of all makes at the moment.

Second, not a single "eye detect" system I know of actually consistently focuses on the pupil. Say what? No, most systems tend to pick up the thing of highest contrast in a rectangle they form around the eye. That tends to be either the eyebrow or the eyelash, which are both forward of the actual point you'd really want focus to be performed.

This is important to understand, because there's a difference between "good enough" and "right." It's true that many people struggle with achieving focus with human (or other) subjects. Getting the focus on the eyebrow is good enough for them. It's typically not for me. 

Now, with an 85mm lens at f/2.8 shooting a full head and shoulders shot you've typically got over an inch of depth of field. So hitting the eyelashes instead of the pupil looks fine to most people. Come in a little tighter and drop the aperture f/1.4, okay, the camera better not have focused on the eyelashes. 

The Sony A7 Mark III does a bit better at that last bit than the Nikon Z5: Sony's eye detect uses a slightly smaller box than the Nikon, and that seems to be the difference. The Nikon definitely is picking up eyelashes in many scenarios I throw at it. The Sony sometimes gets the pupil in focus if it's big enough in the frame.

Most people are going to find what Nikon does with eye detect acceptable, but it isn't perfect. But there's another small thing that needs to be discussed: when the Z5 switches from face detect to eye detect and how it decides which person and eye it's going to focus on. 

The way the Auto-area AF mode (which is where face and eye detect are done on the Z5) works is like this:

  1. The camera picks a subject, generally one with lots of contrast, using unknown algorithms
  2. If a human is detected, the camera switches to face detection
  3. If the human is close enough so that the face is a very significant portion of the frame, the camera switches to eye detection

The tricky part is when there are multiple humans in the scene. In both steps #2 and #3, if you have more than two human subjects the autofocus detection tends to be a little jumpy and more difficult to predict where it's going to go. With only one or two human subjects, I find the focus system usable and fairly stable, though (and remember, with the auto detect, you can move from eye to eye with the Direction pad). It's when you start adding more subjects where I've found instances where the camera did the wrong thing.

So, where do we stand here?

  • I probably wouldn't use Auto-area AF for non-human situations (I'd use Subject Tracking instead, if you want something near all-automatic). You've got better choices and should be exerting more control over what the camera is doing. If you want the camera to be picking subjects, at least narrow its choices down by using one of the Wide-area AF choices instead of the full frame.  
  • For one or two human subjects, Auto-area AF works fine (as long as you don't mind the eyebrow or eyelash grabbing focus at times), and it normally does the right thing quickly. Telling the camera to switch to the other subject is simple, though it may fight you if the subjects are moving a lot.
  • For human subjects that are further away (typically they're not filling the frame) the face detect capability of the Auto-area AF works fine, except if you have three or more subjects, where the camera can sometimes jumps around and picks a subject you wouldn't have chosen.

How's this compare to the Sony A7 Mark III? Sony does a better job of picking non-human subjects in the auto-everything mode. It also skips face detection and goes right to the eyes even when the subject doesn't fill the frame. I'd also say that the Sony is more consistent when you have three or more people in the frame. So: the Sony is better, though perhaps not by as big a lead that Sony worshipers think their product has. 

I believe that if you understand the Z5, you should be able to get good and consistent results. You may be overriding the Z5's choices a bit more often than the Sony, though. Moreover, you do need to be careful about really low light situations.

There is one aspect where the Sony is clearly better, though, and that's where the cameras get confused. The Sony doesn't get as confused as often and almost always snaps out of it instantly as soon as it gets unconfused. You may have seen the videos of autofocus tests where people pop in and of the frame, or faces get hidden briefly. The Sony A7 Mark III tends to handle those better than the Z5. But it's also a much more expensive camera. 

Indeed, the Z5 has one flaw in the all automatic modes I don't like: it can get confused by bright, background contrast. When it does, it wants to keep focus on its choice, and not move back to a closer subject, even when there's no face/eye in the background and there is one closer. This is clearly a flaw in the logic. I don't understand why Nikon isn't always using closest subject priority in more of their focus modes, but it really needs to be there for face/eye detect, and doesn't seem to be. 

Finally: tracking fast-moving subjects. You've probably seen all kinds of opinions about this, and that started with the pre-release Z events Nikon put on for "opinion leaders" (apparently I'm not one of them; that's okay, I'll be a follower and actually set your expectations correctly ;~). 

The comments started all over the place right after the camera's introduction, and have continued to be all over the place many months and now years later. I won't hold it against you if you don't know whether or not a Z5 can follow a moving subject well. But I'm here to tell you that it can, but you'll have to study and master the autofocus system if you want consistent results. 

3D Tracking works as you'd expect it to coming from a Nikon DSLR, and perhaps better since it will cover the entire frame. This was a significant upgrade to the focusing capabilities of the Z6 with the firmware updates, all of which are incorporated in the Z5, and that fixed issues that many of the all-automatic type shooters were experiencing.

Okay, so what about the other modes? 

Single point works decently and much like the DSLRs, if you can keep it on the subject. Dynamic Area (basically a wide 9-point Dynamic) also works very much like the DSLRs, though it can look too far away from the subject you really want tracked at times (i.e., the pattern needs to be tightened some, as it's closer to the 25-point version on the DSLRs). 

The Wide-area (small and large) modes supposedly perform Closest Subject Priority (CSP) according to Nikon product managers I've talked to, but I can easily demonstrate that it doesn't always do that: just put a bright background behind the subject and there's a strong chance that the focus system will look to the background instead of the subject. 

If you're getting the sense that I think that the limited (and limiting) Autofocus Area modes on the Z5 are the big problem with tracking focus for fast and erratic moving subjects, you're absolutely right. They are the primary difference that means you'll have a tougher time getting correct sequences of focus on moving subjects compared to a Nikon DSLR (or a Sony mirrorless camera, for that matter). 

I'd tend to say that the AF-C Autofocus Area modes weren't the result of someone doing testing to get the best results. They seem to be more a last minute mishmash of things Nikon has previously done, without specifically testing to see that these options, taken together, actually solve all the user problems with moving subjects. 

If you've been paying attention, I've obviously been getting in focus shots of fast moving subjects (animals and sports) with both my Z6 and Z7, and now my Z5. These were all taken in AF-C. But to do so I had to study the new focus system and learn how to control it. 

Of course, the Z5 is an entry-level full frame camera, so perhaps we should talk about how it compares to its DSLR counterparts, such as the Canon 6D and the Nikon D610. Better. By far. Just not perfect.

Adapted lenses: Any recent Nikkor lens (AF-S or AF-P) is not an issue at all on the Z5. What you expect from the DSLRs is pretty much what you get from the Z5 and the FTZ. I can't see any meaningful difference in focus speed performance. A slower-to-focus lens on the DSLR (e.g. 200-500mm f/5.6) is still going to be slower-to-focus on a Z5. A fast-to-focus lens on the DSLR (e.g. 400mm f/2.8) is still fast on the Z5. Some lenses, such as the bargain 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P are astonishing good on the Z5+FTZ combo (and make for a compact telephoto option). 

Meanwhile, chipped MF lenses (e.g. AI-S, or the old Zeiss ZF.2 or the Voigtlander primes), also shine on the FTZ. These lenses may* give you rangefinder focus confirmation (focus area goes green when area in focus), focus peaking, and image magnification as useful focus tools. With older, non-chipped MF lenses you absolutely lose the rangefinder. All MF lenses seem to meter just fine (though you have to set Non-CPU Lens Data for non-chipped lenses), with the usual Nikon caveat that the lens be set to minimum aperture.

*Nikon disclaims this. But I've found many of my chipped lenses do seem to support it.

Third party lenses are a mixed bunch. The recent ones I still have all seem to work fine with the FTZ, but I've gotten reports and have been able to duplicate them via borrowing lenses, that a few older Sigma and Tamron lenses may have issues. Frankly, some older Sigmas have issues with Live View on modern Nikon DSLRs, too, so it's not surprising that such lenses would also have issues with a camera that's always in Live View. 

Final Words
The Z6 is one of my favorite cameras these days. It isn't a master of any trade—it won't beat my D500 or D6 at sports, it won't beat my D850 or Z7 at detail—but it's a really nice balance, and ready for anything I throw at it. With two exceptions, I'd say that the same applies to the Z5. That the Z5 is so close in specification to the Z6 would tend to indicate that on its own; that the two cameras are almost identical in controls and options sort of seals that.

The two exceptions are performance details that might be a little bit important for a few of you, so pay attention. First, there's the low light autofocus. Simply put, as the lights go way way down, the Z6 still is focusing when the Z5 stops. The second exception has to do with frame rate: if you really want a sports-capable camera, even the Z6's 5.5 fps mechanical shutter is a significant improvement over the Z5's 4.5 fps, but the addition of the 12 fps electronic shutter allows you to do things on the Z6 you can't on the Z5. 

Okay, I lied. There's a third exception: video. The Z6 may be the best video-capable ILC I own. It's right up there with the best with it's full frame 4K, N-Log, ProRes Raw, and other capabilities. The Z5? Not so much. The 1.7x crop for 4K is a bit disappointing (not the image quality, but the crop). And the Z5 is really a record-to-SD-card video camera. Most of you won't care about either of those things, though.

Thing is, Nikon gave us nearly all of a Z6, but at a bargain price (US$600 less at MSRP). I can live with that. So can most of you, I'll bet.

You might notice I haven't spoken about the 24-50mm f/4-6.3 lens. That's because, despite having ordered that at the same time as the body as an NPS Priority Purchase item, I was given no priority. As I write this review, I'm still waiting for my lens (NPS didn't allow you to order the body+lens kit, but only the body and lens separately). Pity. 

That said, I'm going to go out on a limb here. Most purchasers of this camera are going to want to use the 24-200mm. This provides a really competent almost-never-change-lenses full frame system. Sure, it doesn't make for a truly small, light kit. But frankly, if that's what you're after, I'd steer you towards the Z50 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3, which is incredibly small, yet still quite capable.

If you dip into low light shooting much, you're probably going to want to avoid the f/6.3 lenses, anyway. I'm not sure why Nikon doesn't offer the Z5 with the 24-70mm f/4 kit in the US (it does in many other countries, including Canada), but that makes for a better compromise for someone who does need their camera to shoot in low light from time to time.

Personally, I really like the Z5. It's not going to make me stop using the Z6, though, as I already have that camera and it's a bit more well-rounded for the extremes (fast subject bursts, low light shooting, and high-end video). 

Nikon themselves seem to be having trouble getting their marketing right for the Z5. The announcement-by-press-release didn't generate any excitement, and the "Expand your creative playground" they lead with is one of those vague, what does it mean, messages. Their second level message, "Your full frame mirrorless journey starts here" is a better choice, frankly. But it really ought to be something more like "Start you full frame mirrorless journey with a camera that performs close to the best." 

Because the Z5 pretty much does that. Other than the two performance liabilities I mention (low light focus and frame rate), Nikon hasn't gone about crippling the performance or feature set of the Z5. It's pretty much the feature set of the Z6 and D780, two very capable cameras. Interval shooting, focus stacking, time-lapse, multiple exposure, silent photography, deep customization, USB power delivery, and a host of other abilities are all there. I'd tend to say that the Z5 is one of the most complete, well-rounded "entry" cameras I've ever seen. The Z5 makes your D610 look like your father's Oldsmobile, and the D610 was a great entry camera for its day.

I've seen people complain about the US$1400 price. Given that the Canon RP started at that price and isn't nearly as good a camera, I'm not sure what the complaint really is. The Z5 is a pretty good value as it is for what it does. If you want it at a lower price, just wait, it'll eventually come down in price. But if you wait, you'll miss enjoying a very good camera while you do.

Thom's book for the Z5.

Recommended (2020)


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