The Nikon Z Cameras for Landscape Photography
I’ve now been using the Nikon Z7 for more than six months, and I’ve also tested the very similar Z6 extensively for our review at Photography Life. The takeaway in both cases is that, despite a few flaws, Nikon produced an excellent and surprisingly refined first-generation mirrorless camera. But the more I use the Z7, especially side by side with my older D800e, some of the mirrorless camera’s strengths really shine for my favorite genre – landscape photography.
I’ll start by saying that all cameras today have strengths and weaknesses, whether mirrorless or DSLR. Nearly every camera today is very good for certain uses, with about the price it deserves, too. If you take a $2000 DSLR or mirrorless from any brand, and use a generic 35mm f/1.8 lens, you’ll be able to take the same great photos with any of them.
So what makes the Z cameras so successful for landscape photography? It’s simply the case that their particular strengths intersect with this genre very well, and their weaknesses aren’t as important for it. Today, I wanted to write about some reasons why the Z cameras are so well-tuned for landscape photography, and why I’m excited to see where this system goes in the future. I also wanted to focus on a few things that have been overlooked in the back-and-forth of online discussions.
The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 is the sharpest 24-70mm lens we’ve ever tested at Photography Life. It’s sharper than the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 VR at all focal lengths, and that’s saying a lot – the F-mount lens is no slouch at all.
Sharpness isn’t everything, of course. Other factors matter for landscape photography, like the lens’s size and weight. In both of those respects, the same Z 24-70mm f/4 is a big success. It weighs just 500 grams, compared to 1067 for the 24-70mm f/2.8 VR.
The Z lens doesn’t have the same f/2.8 aperture, but that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day for landscapes and travel. And if you do need f/2.8, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 will start shipping within the next few days, and it weighs 805 grams. We have not yet tested that lens at Photography Life, but it seems reasonable to expect very good results.
It’s not just the zooms that are brilliant for the Z system, although that is probably more important for most landscape photographers. All the Z lenses we’ve tested so far have been exceptional. The 35mm f/1.8, for example, is sharpest in the center at f/2.8 , beating out every F-mount lens aside from the $10,000 supertelephotos. Even if you don’t need that particular lens – I don’t, since the 24-70mm f/4 is plenty sharp for my needs – it’s a great sign for the next lenses in Nikon’s roadmap.
You may recall that the Nikon Z mount is larger than any other full-frame mount on the market, and it has the shortest flange distance as well. I don’t know if this is why the Z lenses have such insane image quality or not, but at a minimum it gives Nikon more leeway with certain lens designs. Regardless of the “why,” Nikon Z lenses are next-level without weighing too much, and that’s ideal for landscape photography.
Live View and Focusing
The Z cameras have the best live view implementation of any Nikon camera. The closest competitor is the D850, but its performance is still short of the Z cameras in live view.
On one hand, although very few people are talking about it for some reason, the Z6 and Z7 have a 3×2 aspect ratio screen rather than 4×3. This matches the aspect ratio of your photos, making the LCD appear significantly larger than the screen on any Nikon DSLR. This means it is a genuine pleasure to compose photos with the Z cameras, especially if you’re a heavy live-view user (again, as landscape photographers often are).
Along with that, if you’re a live view shooter, you’ll find that the autofocus on the Z cameras is faster than that of any Nikon DSLR. Live view also focuses in lower light conditions because of the Low-Light AF mode. And perhaps most importantly, our testing of the Z7’s live view system amazed us with its consistent focus capabilities.
Normally, when testing lenses for sharpness at Photography Life, we simply cannot use autofocus to lock on precisely (even live view) because it’s not always perfect. Instead, we magnify live view 100% and focus manually, then take a series of shots while moving the camera forward or backward very slightly from image to image to correct for minor issues in our manual focus accuracy. We then extract sharpness data from all the shots and use the sharpest one in the results we publish. This process happens again for every aperture and then every focal length. A lot goes into focus testing!
In our tests of the Z6 and Z7, we amazingly found that the live view autofocus was so accurate that it matched the sharpest manual focus result essentially every time. Although we still went through the same testing routine as always, the Z cameras are so good that the numbers would have stayed almost identical if we just used autofocus instead. The live view AF accuracy is just that good – the best AF-S system on any Nikon camera so far.