The (in progress) Nikon Z7 Review

Last Updated: 23 October

Last summer (2017), the President of Nikon confirmed what the world was dying to know.  Nikon was in development of a mirrorless full frame camera that would be released “soon.”  Almost instantly, additional specifications and details started to leak out across the Internet.  People eagerly waited for the announcement of what was going to be, without question, the modernization and one of the greatest revelations in digital photography since the design and mass production of cell phone cameras.

After much anticipation, on August 23, 2018, Nikon unveiled the new Z7 and Z6 full frame mirrorless digital cameras.  The wait was finally over.

The Nikon Z7 started shipping worldwide on 27 September — a month after the announcement.  Demand for this camera has been unprecedented, and many consumers will likely be waiting months before they get a chance to own their own model. It has been estimated that Nikon had 40,000 Z7 cameras available at the end of September, with nearly a quarter of those shipping to dealers in the United States.

Over the coming months, I will document my experience with the Z7 in an effort to provide as much information about the camera, shooting experience, and — most importantly — image output. This is not a “one and done” review; I will add to it regularly as I have new experiences with the camera. I truly believe a real review cannot be completed in just a few days — it takes months of continuous shooting — and so this review will reflect that philosophy. I can promise that I’ll cover as many topics as I can, barre one: video. I don’t shoot video, know little about video, and am woefully unequipped to discus video. As far as I’m concerned, the video features in this camera are merely in the way.

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A Quick Introduction: The Nikon Z7 and Z6

The primary difference between the Z7 and Z6 cameras is the resolution and shooting specs; the Z7 features a 45.7 megapixel sensor, while the Z6 features a 24.5 megapixel digital sensor.  Other differences include the number of autofocus points — which is almost twice as many on the Z7 (at 493 focus points) as on the Z6 (only 273 focus points).  There are also differences in the ISO.  The Z7’s ISO ranges from 64 to 25,612 while the Z6 ISO ranges from 100 to 51,200.  Finally, the Z6 can fire a few more frames per second than the Z7. The difference in frame rate is probably a factor of the image size and write speed to memory cards, vice a mechanical difference.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 represent a turning point, and will definitely become historical milestone in the evolution of digital photography.  Other companies may have released full frame mirrorless first, like Sony, Fuji, and Leica, but Nikon represents the largest company to yet produce a full frame mirrorless camera.  No matter what other companies have done before, the release of the Nikon Z7 and Z6 will go down in the history books as an important milestone in photography.  It will go down alongside inventions like instant film and, of course, the cell phone camera.

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Getting a Nikon Z: Pay Early

I pre-ordered my Nikon Z7 before it even had a name.  When I pre-ordered it with my local camera shop it was just called “the Nikon mirrorless camera that was coming soon.”  Weeks before was announced, I put my name down on the pre-order list, guaranteeing that I will get one of the first units to be delivered in the United States.  The day it was announced and the dealers had pricing information, I paid in full, cementing my place as one of the first to get my hands on the new release.

Because I pre-paid, I got one the day it was released in the United States. By my math, it is also one of the first 1,000 bodies delivered in the USA (more on that later).

The Nikon Z6 will start shipping soon, and I would encourage anyone waiting for that model to pre-pay in order to ensure they get one of the first ones.


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Why Mirrorless: The Future of Photography

As photographers, it’s easy to get high on tech specs.  So before we get wrapped up in the specifications of this particular camera, let’s generically discuss why mirrorless is important.  

Why this mirrorless camera thing is a big deal.  Why this camera, over all other cameras, is a huge turning point in the market. 

The first time I used a full frame mirrorless camera was when I shot the Leica SL in London.  Bringing that full frame electronic newsletter to my face instantly changed my perception on what I thought at the time was a trend — a photography fad.  But when I looked through that electronic viewfinder, I immediately understood the value of a mirrorless full frame camera, and simultaneously understood that I was holding the future. 

One of the problems with DSLR's is that you don't see exactly what you're shooting as you shoot.  There's a mirror that sits in front of the sensor and reflects light from the lens into a prism that you're looking into via the viewfinder.  The limitation here is that the camera can only display a limited amount of information to the photographer through a small heads up display built into that prism.  Furthermore, you are seeing a reflection of light through a mirror, not what the sensor will see. As a result, you are, in some regards, guessing what the sensor will capture based on your experience with that particular camera and the limited information available in the heads up display.

With mirrorless, you get the benefit of seeing exactly what you're photographing at the instant the camera takes the image.  You spend less time having to look at the rear LCD screen to review the exposure and the quality of your image, and spend more time actually composing and creating photographs. 

In other words, if your image is going to be underexposed, you can see that through the viewfinder before you take the image.  You no longer have to remove your face to look at the rear LCD screen or browse a menu — you just see it.

The other noteworthy advantage of a mirrorless full frame camera is that the flange distance between the lens and the sensor is significantly reduced. This sounds highly technical, but it’s worth understanding why a shortened flange distance is so valuable to a photographer.

Flange distance is the distance between the sensor and the front bayonet coupling, where the lens and camera body meet.  In most DSLR’s, the flange distance is somewhere in the range of 50-60mm; however, on a mirrorless full frame camera, that flange distance can be somewhere between 10-20mm.  The result of this greatly reduced flange distance is that light enters the camera with less reduction.

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If you have a longer flange distance, than the engineer that designs your camera lens has to bring in more light for the sensor by making larger optical elements, which translates into larger lenses with more weight and ultimately greater cost.  With a thinner flange distance, more light naturally comes into the camera sensor, allowing the same engineer to design a lens that is smaller, weighs less, and is (hopefully) less expensive. 

This also allows engineers to design lenses that would be pretty impractical on a full frame DSLR; for instance Nikon has already announced the development of lenses with an aperture of f/0.95.  The same lens on a DSLR would likely be so unwieldy and expensive that it will be impractical for a company like Nikon to even entertain building and designing it.

Of course mirrorless is not perfect.  The greatest drawback these days for a mirrorless camera is the battery life.  Because the viewfinder is electronic, the batteries are constantly having to provide electricity for the small LCD screen that you're looking at in the eyepiece. This drains batteries faster than they would in a comparable DSLR camera.  The good news; however, is that battery technology these days is very good.  Even if your mirrorless camera gets a fraction of the battery life that a DSLR might get, batteries are so affordable, they almost can be treated as a consumable.  Buying and carrying four or five batteries to have lots of spares and no fear of running out is really not a big deal.

So why is Nikon's release of the Z7 such a big deal? Why is the Internet and every blogger on YouTube suddenly going crazy when other companies have already released similar cameras?  Because Nikon represents the largest manufacturer to enter this market.  Companies like Sony, Fuji, and Leica — who all got into the market with a full frame mirrorless camera first — don’t have quite the following the company like Nikon or Canon has.


The FTZ Adapter: Keep Your Lenses & Go Mirrorless

If you are a current Nikon shooter and wanted to transition into a mirrorless camera you might have to sell more than you were willing to sell. You probably have a collection of lenses from Nikon that you would have to sell in order to buy another brand’s model.  But now Nikon can hope to sell a mirrorless camera to existing customers by allowing them to use the lenses they already have for their existing Nikon system.

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In order to offer this backward compatibility, Nikon developed an adapter (the FTZ adapter) that allows you to mount almost any existing F-mount lens to the Z7 or Z6 while still maintaining autofocus.  That means if you already own some unique lenses or lenses you really enjoy the character of, you don't need to part with those lenses as part of the admission into the mirrorless club.  This is incredibly well thought out by Nikon because they will be able to corner a large portion of their current DSLR owners and convince them to buy into this new digital technology.

Although Nikon is offering an adapter to make existing F-mount lenses compatible, they are also releasing a new series of lenses designed to maximize the advantages of the new lens mount. The new lens lineup, dubbed the “S-line” contains many of the benefits of previous Nikon lenses, such as nano crystal coated glass. 

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The S-Line of Lenses: A New Dawn

With the announcement of the Z7 and Z6, Nikon also announced the release of three new S-lenses and the development of several more coming soon. The current Nikon S lens lineup is as follows:

    • Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/4 (released September 2018)

    • Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 58mm f/0.95 Nocti (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 14-30 f/4 (expected 2019)

    • Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 24mm f/1.8 (expected 2020)

    • Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 (expected 2020)

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The announcement of twelve lenses for this system within the first two years is very remarkable. By comparison, Leica has only released a quarter as many lenses for their mirrorless full frame Leica SL camera, yet it has been on the market several years longer. The difference in lens releases is one of the main reasons this camera’s release will be such a big deal; outside of maybe Canon, no other manufacturer can compete with Nikon’s ability to develop and get new glass to market as quickly. 

Nikon was also teased that they will be developing additional Z camera bodies to meet the needs of other photographers — such as sports photographers — who may require a longer battery life, multiple memory card slots, and high frames per second shooting speed before transitioning from their DSLR bodies to mirrorless.

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Options: Expanding into Zeiss Lenses

I don’t want this to sound like I’m a hater, because I am not. But I don’t think Nikon makes the best lenses. They make fine lenses, but not the best. Fine. Acceptable.

Acceptable, for most. However, I am one of the few who really values good glass.

A good lens is more important than a good camera. The camera can only gather and process the light that the sensor receives. If the sensor gets imperfect light, then you get an imperfect image, and there is nothing the camera can do about it. In other words, the Nikon Z7 is as only as good as the glass you put in front of it.

Ever since I became a Leica shooter, I’ve been a very discerning photographer when it comes to lenses. I now prefer manual focus primes to zooms, and would rather not have to click buttons in Lightroom to “correct” an image by removing chromatic aberrations, distortions, etc. Remember, good light in = good image out.

For dSLRs, Zeiss makes some of the best lenses on the planet. So I have spent quite a bit of time shooting the Z7 with my Zeiss Milvus lenses in order to evaluate the results when I put the best possible glass in front of the Z7. Here are some of my results….

Bridge to Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban landscape in Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Exploring an old factory that once made components for World War II tanks. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Inside the old factory. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Abandoned control room of a former water pumping station on the river. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Urban decay. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.


Ergonomics: A Pleasantly Small and Comfortable Experience

Nikon engineers reportedly put great emphasis on the ergonomics and shooting experience they designed the Z7 and Z6.  The right hand grip hearkens back to other Nikon DSLR’s, but unique to this camera are new buttons, wheels, and joysticks enabling you to control camera menus while looking through the electronic viewfinder. The smaller size of this camera compared to most of the DSLRs is currently on the market is extremely advantageous. It will fit into smaller bags, be more discreet, and less intimidating looking than a DSLR body. 

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The Memory Card: The Future is XQD

One of the compromises that had to be made in order to accommodate the smaller body size of the Z7 is that Nikon included only one memory card slot. This fact caused many Internet bloggers to freak out at the announcement, and in many ways distracted reviewers from the camera and the benefits of the camera itself. Rather than talking about the benefits of an electronic viewfinder and the wonderful image quality this sensor will produce, people latched onto the single memory card, and the Internet has been on overdrive discussing this revelation ever sense. Therefore it is only logical that I too jump into the mix with my thoughts on the single memory card decision.

The Nikon Z7 and Z6 both utilize a memory card format called XQD. The XQD memory card is not new, although it's certainly not a mainstream formats (like SD) yet. In fact, when the Nikon D850 was released, it was very difficult to find XQD cards for sale. Thankfully additional manufacturers, including Nikon themselves, have entered the market and it is now possible to find XQD cards from a variety of manufacturers and a whole host of sizes. XQD cards cost quite a bit of money compared to cards like SD, but they are significantly more reliable. SD cards are prone to failure and routinely do fail. XQD cards, by comparison, have a very low failure rate. XQD cards also have a very high data transfer rate, and can read and write in excess of 400 Mb per second. When you're discussing a 45 megapixel sensor that read/write speed is absolutely critical.

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Personally, I think the hubbub surrounding the single memory card issue is being wildly overblown. People have become used to having two memory cards because manufacturers were compensating for the lack of reliability in SD formats by adding backup slots. As a result, consumers got trained on the idea that we need a backup. But you only need a backup if the primary is prone to failure. 

If we think back just a few years ago, when cameras all shot film, we were used to taking the risk that you could have a catastrophic failure and lose all of your images. The difference between film and a single memory card is that film can never be recovered.  No amount of money and no lab can bring film back once it's been destroyed. But if an XQD card did fail, for a reasonable fee, you could pay to have your images recovered. In my mind, the benefits of the faster read/write speed and the reliability that XQD memory cards have negates the “drawback” of having only one memory card slot. And anyone who feels so passionately that they require a backup better be carrying multiple camera bodies and redundant systems anyway.

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Image Quality: Unrivaled Dominance

Some users have dubbed the Z7 as the mirrorless D850, which is a compliment and nod to the exceptional image quality. Nikon raised the bar for dynamic range and sensor performance with the D850, and the Z7 has at least met, if not exceeded, the bar set by the D850.

I don’t shoot in a lab. I don’t own a white jacket or a clipboard. I am completely and utterly unqualified to tell you anything scientific about the performance of the sensor. What I can tell you, though, is how it responds to my real-world shooting.

The first day I owned the Z7, I went for a hike in a local National Park. It had been raining all week, but was finally a pleasant and sunny fall day. The heavy rain in the proceeding days meant that much of the trail was damp, which is actually great for pulling out color. Logs, trees, bark, and mosses are all more vibrant when they are just barely damp. Knowing this, I aimed the camera at a variety of naturally colorful subjects in an effort to explore the native color rendition and dynamic range of the camera.

To say I was impressed was an understatement, and I am editing these images with a version of Lightroom that doesn’t fully support the Z7 yet! Presumably, there may be incremental improvements to be had in the image quality when Adobe releases an update to Adobe Camera Raw to support the Z7 files.

Anyway, I barely touched the vibrance slider to get the results you see here. Most of the images were under exposed by -1/3 stop (using exposure compensation). Underexposing by a smidge can help preserve shadow detail for post production, so I almost always have the file slightly darker.

The photograph of the waterfall here demonstrates how much dynamic range is captured by the Z7 (be sure to click on it for a full-sized preview). There is still detail in the highlights where the sky and tree leaves meet, as well as great detail in the shadows of the rocks and tree bark. The whole thing is rather remarkable given how complex this scene is — normally I would use graduated neutral density filters to help the camera out, but this was shot without any assistance.

I have not explored much by way of high ISO shooting, and I doubt I’ll ever have much to say there. I really try very hard to avoid shooting above ISO 1600. I would rather use a tripod and take a longer exposure than raise my ISO. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point, but thus far I have no observations on the ISO performance.

Once again, I am reminded how much I appreciate the high resolution of the Z7’s sensor. I used a 200mm macro lens to photograph some bugs and flowers and was pleased to see how far I could crop and still preserve incredible detail in the file. Granted, some of this is attributed to the lens, but the high resolution sensor provides great opportunity to get the most out of uber sharp glass.

Thus far, I have found the metering, auto white balance, and auto focus to be very accurate, but will follow up with more information about those topics in a future update….


Color Rendition: Holy Vibrance Slider

The Nikon Z7 produces beautiful colors. Maybe even too beautiful.

I am used to playing with the vibrance slider in Lightroom in order to put some “pop” in the colors of an image taken with another camera, but the Z7 doesn’t need that. Straight from the camera, the images are bursting with color. They almost look Photoshopped in their RAW format.

I have actually found myself desaturating a few images because the colors were more vibrant than what I wanted. But that isn’t very common, and for landscape photographers, I can attest that the Z7 will preserve your shadow details while still giving you a nice rich blue sky.

Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia. Nikon Z7 with Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2.

Look closely at the above photograph. I took this photograph on an overcast afternoon in mid-October. The leaves were just starting to change, and the sun was getting lower on the horizon. This is what I got out of the camera. I cropped the photograph and sharpened it slightly, but that’s it. The rest is au natural. The detail and color preserved in the tree leaves and also in the clouds is absolutely unreal.

Here’s some more examples:

I actually desaturated the corners of the above photograph slightly. I had to, because I thought it otherwise could look “over processed” out of the camera!


Electronic Viewfinder: A Window To the World

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is arguably the heart and soul of a mirrorless camera. A bad EVF ruins the experience of shooting with a mirrorless camera, so it was critical that Nikon get this new component correct.

My previous experience shooting a mirrorless Leica SL taught me how important the EVF is for composition and previewing the image at the moment of capture. My “keeper rate” of images was much higher with the EVF than with a prism viewfinder, and I had high expectations from Nikon.

As far as I’m concerned, there are a few features that make or break a good EVF:

  • High resolution (so that you don’t see the pixelation of your image)

  • 100% frame coverage (so that you know exactly what you are getting when you click the shutter)

  • Dimmable (most EVFs are aggressively bright, so it’s important that I can dim it)

  • Comfortable (looking at a digital screen can cause eye strain, so it needs to be clear and comfortable)

  • Adjustable heads up display (where you can modify what information is available to you in the display while you shoot)

The Nikon Z7 checks all of these boxes. The viewfinder is responsive, sharp, and pleasant to use. There is minimal lag and only an aggressive shake will create any noticeable shuttering. It is fast to refresh after taking an image, and it seems to be pretty accurate in providing real-time feedback on the exposure.

Thus far, I have only positive things to say about the EVF; it works exactly as I have come to expect, and there has been no disappointment in the rendering of information on the display. I’ll update this section with more comprehensive feedback on the EVF after I’ve used it in more extreme conditions, but so far, so good!

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The Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

I had the same question as — based on the number of emails I’ve received on this topic would indicate — many others have about the Z7: “Can Nikon’s first mirrorless digital camera keep pace with the juggernaut D850”? And how does the Z7 hold up when compared to the established dominance of the Leica SL?

These head-to-head comparisons assume a lot about the definition of ‘better.’ Everyone wants to know which is better, camera X or Y. But the reality is that what is better for me may be worse for you, and I encourage you to read on with a grain of salt. A feature that I like and view as a pro might be a con in your shooting, so keep an open mind. And leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Now to my comparisons….know that I have owned all three of these cameras within the last year. I don’t review things I have only tried out in a demo. I am pulling this comparison from my personal use of cameras I purchased with my own cash.

Nikon Z7 vs Nikon D850

I sold the Leica SL in favor of the D850 because I was motivated by two things that the D850 had over the Leica SL. I quickly regretted that swap. While the D850 is a phenomenal camera, I missed the electronic viewfinder almost immediately. If you want to dig more into the comparison and pros and cons of the D850 vs Leica SL, check out my post where I compare those kings. Anyway, I never fell deeply in love with the D850, and I’m not infatuated with it (unlike so many other internet bloggers). It’s a good camera, don’t mistake me, but it’s just not a camera that speaks to me.

  • Image Quality: A wash.

    • Both produce spectacular results. Seriously. There’s a reason the labs are so in love with these sensors. I don’t test in a lab, but I have been nothing but impressed with the quality of the images both produce. The Z7 is reported to have marginally better dynamic range, but I don’t think it’s an appreciable difference.

  • Versatility: Nikon D850

    • The fact that the DSLR line has been on the market longer means there is more stuff available. More lenses. More after-market battery grips and do-hickeys. The Z7, while able to adapt to most F-mount lenses, looses some functionality with certain lenses. For instance, my macro lens doesn’t autofocus on the Z, but does on the D850. This isn’t a big deal to me, and the Z7 will quickly catch up in the market for availability of after market goodies. But, for now, we wait.

  • Shooting Experience: Nikon Z7

    • The Z7 has an electronic viewfinder. And I’m sorry to all you prism lovers, but electronic viewfinders are far superior. I also think the ergonomics and grip on the Z7 is better. Finally, the button placement on the Z7 and controls I think are a little better arranged. The D850 is very familiar — particularly for anyone who has experience with Nikon DSLRs — but the Z7 is refreshing in it’s modernity and form factor.

  • Size: Nikon Z7

    • No contest here. The Z7 is smaller in every dimension, and it’s lighter and easier to carry while traveling.

  • Autofocus: A wash.

    • Depending on which lens I am using, it waffles between the two cameras as to which is faster to focus. There are some lenses that are certainly faster on the D850, but the converse is also true. I would over an overall edge in focusing to the Z7 just because of the electronic viewfinder, and the versatility that affords in real-time evaluation of precise focus.

Overall, I give the Nikon Z7 a solid “better” over the D850, which mostly has to do with my shooting style. I am a landscape photographer….the trees and mountains aren’t moving. I can take my time to compose, focus, and create the image. For me, the benefits of a small, lightweight mirrorless camera far outweigh any cons this camera has, and the Z7 easily tops the D850 in my mind.

The D850 may be a more versatile camera today, but that will change in time. The Z system is brand new, and Nikon was pretty tight-lipped about the development, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lack of after-market accessories and 3rd party lens options. But that will change with time, and I imagine any benefit the D850 has in this regard today will be neutralized in a year or less.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL

This is where things get more complicated for me….I’ve established for myself that a mirrorless camera is far better than a prism DSLR. But when I compare two wonderful mirrorless cameras side-by-side, the evaluation get’s complicated.

The main reason I ever sold my Leica SL was because Leica was behind on the development of new lenses for the system, and I wanted a system where I could mount a 500mm super telephoto and then a 20mm wide angle. But I have always known the Leica glass is optically superior to that of Nikon, and now comparing two similar systems is very challenging.

  • Image Quality: Not sure yet!

    • I used the Leica SL for nearly two years. I published a book with it. I got to know that camera extremely well, and I knew what to expect from every image. I understood the limitations and strengths of the sensor, and when I needed to employ some creativity to capture the image I saw in my mind’s eye. Conversely, I have had the Nikon Z7 for a few weeks. The number of images I’ve taken with it number in the hundreds, compared to the tens of thousands. So I cannot definitively say that the Z7 is better than the SL (yet). However, the results I’ve seen thus far are very promising. The Z7 preserves fantastic shadow detail, has great tolerance for highlights, and has some of the most naturally vibrant colors I have seen in a camera. But until I’ve really pushed this camera to the edge, I can’t declare one of the cameras as better than the other in the image output.

  • Versatility: Nikon Z7

    • Ironically, the Z7 at it’s release was already more versatile than the Leica SL. Both companies released an adapter that allows for mounting of other system lenses on the mirrorless bodies, but Nikon has more lenses available, and therefore more versatility. Leica doesn’t offer long telephotos for nature photographers, nor do they have much selection in macro lenses. Nikon does; and their adapter permits more freedom of application for the Z7 on release day than the Leica SL has achieved in years of development.

  • Shooting Experience: Leica SL, by a hair

    • The Leica SL wasn’t perfect, and one of the most glaring flaws on that camera — the lack of ergonomics and harsh metal build — is actually one of the highlights of the Z7. However, the SL had much more customization, and the controls were a little better laid out and designed than those of the Z7. Nikon has opportunity to narrow that margin by offering firmware updates that permit different customization of the button controls, but until that happens, the SL has the edge in terms of experience. The SL had so many opportunities to customize the controls, that the camera became a natural extension of your brain, eyes, and hand. The Z7 has the potential to achieve that as well, with future software updates.

If I have to pick between the Z7 and SL today, it’s a tough call, but I probably pick the Z7. I’d make that choice based on the availability of lenses, cost, and that the image quality and shooting experience meet or have the potential to exceed that of the SL. Honestly, my attraction to the SL is probably driven more by emotion than anything else; I had a great run with that camera. It travelled around the world with me, and the artwork I made with the SL carries great emotional value. I haven’t had the Z7 long enough to bond with it in the same way.

You’re probably thinking that I talk and write about cameras as though they have feelings. Like that camera is more than just some metal and plastic and wires and circuits. To me, they are.

An effective camera is one that I bond with at a deeper level. Not that I have some sort of weird physical connection — but the connection like a painter has with his brushes and studio. When a camera has effectively become an extension of my eyes and brain, I can use it to capture the most beautiful sights on our planet. I think I’ll get there with the Z7. I think we’ll fall deeply in love, and that camera and I will forge a new bond. But it takes time, and I’m not there yet.

Nikon Z7 vs Leica SL vs Nikon D850

Now I know you want resolution. You read this far…. you don’t want to hear some soppy love story about a camera. You want the unvarnished truth about which is better. And I don’t want to disappoint you. So I’ll give you my personal rankings of these three cameras.

If you handed me a blank check and told me to purchase any of the three today, I would NOT pick the D850. Personally, I don’t see the benefits anymore. I’m all in on mirrorless.

I would buy the Z7. I see a ton of potential in this lineup. The lenses Nikon will release in the future; the promise of what is to come. It’s not a perfect camera yet, and the SL rivals it today. But the head room for the Z7 is much higher. Nikon is a bigger company with more money for R&D. There will be more strides and more innovation in the Z7. There will be more lenses for the Z7. The image quality probably matches or exceeds that of the Leica SL. Objectively, the Z7 today is a better place, and will almost certainly be the better choice in the long term.


Shooting Low and Slow: Hold Still

One of the often under appreciated benefits of a mirrorless camera is that you can effectively hand hold and get sharp images at slower shutter speeds than you can with a comparable DSLR.

In other words, I struggle to hand hold a sharp image at anything slower than 1/60th with the D850, but have no trouble hand holding at 1/20th on the Z7. I have pushed that a little further and - depending on the situation, my posture, and the scene, I’ve been known to sneak sharp images at 1/5th or slower.

What this means in practice is that you can use a lower ISO with the Z7 and achieve a better result. As good as sensors have become at shooting at higher ISOs, it’s still an indisputable fact that the best image will always come from a lower ISO. So if I can hand hold at night at ISO 400 vs ISO 1600, that’s a considerable improvement in image quality.


Adapting Beyond Nikon: Expand the Versatility

Nikon released the Z7 with the FTZ adapter, which allows Nikon F-mount lenses to me used on the Z7 and preserves full functionality on most modern lenses.

Almost immediately, the question became: “What else can we mount”?

The answer is almost anything. Sigma, Zeiss, Tamaron, etc all have made lenses for the Nikon F mount that can be adapted with the FTZ adapter with varying degrees of functionality. Likewise, 3rd party companies are developing adapters for mounting Canon, Hasselblad, Leica, Sony, and other lenses. In due time, there probably won’t be many lenses that can’t be attached to the Z7 in some way shape or form.

Personally, I’ll be investing in an adapter that will allow me to mount my Leica M-mount lenses from my Leica M10 onto the front of my Z7. I love manual focus lenses, and am excited by the prospect of using them on my Z7. There is already one adapter with a plastic mount on the market, but I’ll be waiting for the metal mounts….


Nikon Serial Numbers: Identify Yourself

Nikon seems to have stuck to their traditional serial numbering system for the Z-lineup of cameras.

The first digit of the serial number indicates the region the camera was for sale in, with the number 3 being for USA market cameras. Therefore, a serial number for a Z7 sold in the USA will have a serial number formatted as 3XXXXXX.

In my case, the serial number is 30009XX, representing a late-900’s serial number. It is my understanding that this means I have one of the first one thousand units delivered to the United States.

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Desired Upgrades and Improvements: Dear Nikon

There is no question that Nikon will be releasing several iterations of firmware for the Z7 in the coming months; such is the nature of a new product. There are inevitably bugs that weren’t found prior to the production software being released. These firmware updates also provide an opportunity for Nikon to upgrade a few features in the system, and so I will begin a list of “Dear Nikon” requests for future firmware updates:

  1. EVF Zoom Via Joystick: The joystick (located below the AF-ON button) has some user-customizable features, but there is one customization not included; the ability to zoom into the center of the EVF for precision focusing. As far as I can tell, the only way to zoom in on the viewfinder to check focus is via the + magnification glass button, which is toward the bottom of the body. Unfortunately, to reach that button, I have to contort my hand away from shooting position, so it’s very awkward to use. The Leica SL joystick allowed this feature, and I LOVED it — particularly for macro or telephoto shots. Nikon, please allow me to program the joystick click button as an alternate zoom button.

  2. Faster Joystick Tracking of AF Points: This will sound really stupid…. The joystick on the Leica SL was very responsive to movements of the AF points around the viewfinder. The Nikon Z7 joystick does not move the AF points with the same briskness, and I’d like to be able to speed it up. Please let it take less time for the focus cursor to move across the screen when I hold the joystick.

  3. More Friendly App Integration: Again, I am basing this on my experience with the Leica SL. The SL’s app and wifi integration was much cleaner, and there are too many cumbersome menus that aren’t well explained built into the Z7. Simplify this!

  4. Virtual Horizon Without the Whole Compass: I don’t understand why Nikon feels compelled to put this big compass thing (I know it’s not actually a compass, but I don’t know what else to call it) in the center of the frame with the virtual horizon line. Let me just have the line sans the extra stuff.

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Of course, I’ll also wish for some upgrades that are hardware, and that would have to wait for the next iteration of the camera before they could come to fruition. But it’s never too soon to ask! So here goes my initial list of requested future hardware upgrades:

  1. Built in GPS: Seriously, this technology has been super miniaturized, and it’s fun (and helpful) to see a map of all the photographs I’ve taken based on their geolocation metadata. No extra dongles, just put the GPS in body.

  2. A Slightly Taller Body: Nikon, I appreciate what you did to make this camera smaller and lighter than the D850; my camera bag appreciates it. However, the bottom of my pinky is just barely on the body, and it’d be nice to have a few extra millimeters to feel like my whole hand has a complete grip on the body.

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Must-Have Accessories: Pimp Your Z7

The dealer that sold you the camera would now love to convince you that you need to spend hundreds more in accessories to really get the most out of your camera. BS! But there are a few accessories I recommend for the Z7 to improve the experience:

  • Spare XQD cards

    • At the time of writing, the XQD format of card is still shockingly expensive, but that will change as more companies come to market. In the mean time, have one or two backup cards handy.

  • Spare batteries

    • You can use the EN-EL15A, EN-EL15B, or any of a number of 3rd party lenses. I think it’s worth paying a little more for the EN-EL15B battery, which allows for in-camera charging via USB.

  • Really Right Stuff L-Plate

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This is a living review; I will be updating it continuously in the coming weeks and months as I use the Z7 and can provide first-hand account and testimony of its performance. Until I have put the camera through its paces, I won’t be so irresponsible as to comment on every feature.

Mountain Ridge Sunset

I'll admit that my luck with spectacular sunsets seems to have run dry after my memorable sunset at Horseshoe Bend in December 2016. I have gone out in search of more sunsets than I care to remember since that incredible day, but nothing has come close to the wondrous pink and orange sky I saw that night.

A few weeks ago, we went to West Virginia, and again I searched for a sunset, though I didn't expect to rival the Horseshoe Bend experience. I have just been in such a long sunset drought that I was willing to take nearly anything! We hiked out to a rocky cliff that overlooks the mountain ridge and setup for the (hopeful) show. 

The sunset that night didn't come close to threatening the supremacy of Horseshoe Bend, but it had a characteristic that I found I loved. Instead of vibrant and exhilarating colors, this sunset was a soft glow that created a warm blue light throughout the mountain ridge. It was inviting...the sort of sunset that I could imagine watching from a rocking chair on the front porch of a country home. Looking out over this West Virginia landscape, I found myself humming the lyrics to the famous song "take me home, country roads, to the place, I call home....West Virginia."

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(Not) a Beautiful Photograph...

Look carefully at this photograph, because it is not beautiful.

I know of only two places in the United States where you can find rocks that are that brilliantly orange surrounded by pools of baby blue, turquoise, and teal water. One of them is Havasu Falls, which is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. The other is Douglas Falls outside the small town of Thomas, West Virginia. 

The vivid orange rocks and rainbow colored waters entice a swim.

Surely a landscape this beautiful carries some sort of mythical healing powers. Certainly this has to be one of the most tranquil places east of the Mississippi River?

There are few places on earth where these sorts of colors are "natural" -- I used a polarizing filter, some neutral density filters, and my Nikon D850 to capture the turquoise water and orange rocks.

Certainly not.

Douglas falls is beautiful, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Unlike Havasu Falls, where the beauty is natural, the beauty of Douglas Falls is not... the brilliant colors and tranquil scene are the result of pollution from coal mining. 

In the late 1890s, Thomas, West Virginia was home to the Davis Coal & Coke Company. In those days, there were over 500 beehive coke ovens burning in the town, which was setup entirely to support the mining operations. By the turn of the 20th century, the coal mines in the surrounding area produced over 4,000 tons of coal daily. The explosion of mining in Thomas was short-lived; by the outbreak of the first World War, advancements in refining methods meant that coke production in the beehive ovens had ceased, and by the 1950s, underground mining in the area ceased all together. The population of Thomas diminished, and the city today is a shell of it's former mining glory. 

Douglas Falls, as seen from the side. The rocks radiated a yellowish-orange that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

In just a few decades, the landscape was permanently altered. The harsh acid from the coke ovens has turned the rocks orange. A hundred years after much of the mining ceased, the waters of the river are still plagued by harsh acid. In the 1990s, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection established a reclamation effort to clean up exposed mining waste. The project created new drainage systems, restored destroyed wetlands, reseeded grasses, and re-countoured the hillsides around the river.  They hope this project will eventually return this habitat to it's natural state... but nearly thirty years after the cleanup project, the acids continue to wreck havoc on the landscape. 

The contrast of the brilliant orange with the turquoise blue and green waters was a spectacular sight to behold...for all the wrong reasons.

Some ferns grow out of the ground around the falls, where acids from the coal mining that occurred nearly a century ago has stained these rocks. Acids continue to leech into the landscape, despite a cleanup project in the 1990s.

As much as I love photographing beautiful scenes like this one, I would much prefer to photograph a landscape for it's natural beauty. While I love these photographs, there will always be a cringe associated with seeing them because I know their beauty came at a great cost.

Welcome Spring

I can't believe we're a week away from flipping the calendar to May, and here I am finally posting about spring. The fickle weather in Washington, DC has limited my photographic opportunities, but with two nice days in a row, I grabbed the camera and headed out to see the first signs of spring.

My destination this week was an old favorite - a site I haven't visited in years - Huntley Meadows. Located in the middle of the bustling suburbs outside Washington, DC, this is an unlikely location to find some of the best wetlands.... but unlikely can be good!

I started my day shooting 4x5 large format film (more to come on that in a future post). In other words, I was carrying the one camera that is basically useless for all types of wildlife photography! My goal was to focus on black and white abstracts, and every bird and mammal in the sanctuary must have gotten the memo. Never have there been so many wonderful photographic opportunities... clearly the wildlife knew I was without the right camera for the job. 

Frustrated that the wildlife was practically posing in mockery of my camera predicament, I went back and got my Nikon D850 and Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens (modified to Nikon mount) and returned to see if I could get the last laugh. Indeed, I found many of the same subjects remained very cooperative. 

I may have taken 200 photographs of this blue heron through the course of the morning. He was incredibly friendly and got close enough that I had to start backing up!

I may have taken 200 photographs of this blue heron through the course of the morning. He was incredibly friendly and got close enough that I had to start backing up!

The natural camouflage is very well done; a number of folks walked past and never noticed the bird hiding in the bushes. Of course it helps to spot these guys when you have a 400mm lens....

The natural camouflage is very well done; a number of folks walked past and never noticed the bird hiding in the bushes. Of course it helps to spot these guys when you have a 400mm lens....

These guys have this funny jerky movement, so I had to shoot fast to get lucky and catch them mid-movement.

These guys have this funny jerky movement, so I had to shoot fast to get lucky and catch them mid-movement.

So focused. So attentive.

So focused. So attentive.

One of these sticks is not a stick.

One of these sticks is not a stick.

I wasn't the only one who looked outside and noticed spring had finally arrived.

I wasn't the only one who looked outside and noticed spring had finally arrived.

Cherry Blossoms in DC

I have lived in the Washington, DC area for nearly ten years, yet I had never gone out to photograph the annual Cherry Blossom bloom. The crowds intimidated me, and I don't like getting the same photograph as everyone else...

But I also knew it'd be criminal to live in the district this long and not photograph the blossoms! So I woke early this weekend and headed out in hopes of getting an image that was a little different.

My original goal was to get a nice sunrise, but heavy clouds dashed that hope immediately. Instead, I walked the perimeter of the tidal basin around the Jefferson Memorial in quest of some blossoms that would offer an interesting frame for the monument. Away from the crowds, I finally found this cluster of blossoms that framed the monument nicely.

To put my own unique spin on this quintessential DC image, I cropped the photograph to an extreme dimension. This allows the blossoms to dominate the frame and tell the story of this annual bloom.

If the weather cooperates, I'll hope to go out for one more stab at a good sunrise before the flowers drop....cross your fingers for some nice weather.

Washington's Moonrise

Sometimes it all comes together. Today was one of those days.

I had planned a very different photoshoot. But when side effects from the recent Nor'easter hampered my plans, I scrapped them. As luck would have it, tonight was a perfectly clear night, the moon was at 90%, and it was going to rise at 9pm over the National Mall in Washington, DC.

So I bundled up and headed out with the Nikon D850 in tow. Using my favorite app for photo planning - the Photographers Ephemeris - I planned my image of the Washington Monument to line up with the moon as it would ascend.

Some Photoshop magic was required to make this photograph. The moon's full size means it's extremely bright -- too bright. To make both the monument and moon visible, I captured them in separate exposures and combined them into the final product seen here.

Sometimes it all comes together.

Moonrise over the Washington Monument, March 2018

Moonrise over the Washington Monument, March 2018

Black & White Flower Silhouettes

Macro flower photography is one of my favorite disciplines to practice during the winter; cold temperatures, dreary weather, and naked trees make the landscapes less palatable for my normal ventures. With macro photography, I can often work indoors and with bright and vibrant flowers that make the frigid days feel a little brighter.

Longwood Gardens is one of the best places on the East Coast for enjoying flowers and plants, and their annual orchid festival is probably my favorite event of the year. It has been several years since I spent a day focused solely on macro flower photography, so I was excited to spend some time there recently.

Using my Nikon D850, a 200mm macro lens, external flash and diffuser, I created the following images. I purposefully used the flash to remove the background because I knew the final image would be printed in black and white. I wanted the prints to be borderline harsh, with strong contrast; I thought there would be some romance to having delicate and soft flowers reproduced with such strong effect.

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A Handful of Bridges in Prince William Forest

Winter can be cruel to photographers, so I'm spending the last days of fall capturing the remaining warmth and bright colors before the grey gloom of winter arrives.

Prince William Forest Park is one of the many national parks within a short drive of Washington, DC, but it is one often overshadowed by parks like Shenandoah, Great Falls, and Assateague. It has been a number of years since I've been to the park, so I grabbed my Nikon D850 and set out to see what sort of hidden gems I could find to mark the end of the fall season.

Prince William Forest has a number of small streams that snake through a lightly hilly forest. On this particular day, the park was relatively empty, and I came upon a few bridges that I thought were ideal for photography subjects.

I used my Nikon D850 and Nikon 24-70mm / 14-24mm lenses to capture these images. I am still getting used to this new camera, but find myself getting more comfortable with it by the day.

This tree next to the bridge was not that golden when I started walking around the bridge, but a beam of sunlight came through the forest canopy, lighting this tree up in a beautiful golden light

Over the river and through the woods

This single tree really stood out against the yellow leaves in the background

The wires on this suspension bridge create a nice composition element

I stood in the water (with good boots) to get a long exposure of the creek running under the bridge

Another bridge at the edge of the Prince William Forest scenic drive

A Familiar Friend

Whenever I get a new camera, I spend a few weeks getting oriented to the unfamiliar controls and system before embarking on any challenging shoots. As I go through this orientation, I like to revisit sites that I know as good trial grounds.

One of those places is Great Falls, which is on the Washington, DC / Virginia border. The falls are a great place for some spectacular long exposure photography. And most nights, the sky will give some nice pastel colors to reward a trip to the falls.

I have made a number of images at Great Falls before, but this one is very different. First, it was taken with a different camera system than the others. Second, my other images have had spectacular sunsets which made the process very easy - but this time the sun didn't cooperate. I had to do a lot of work to pull the colors out of the sky while preserving the detail in the rocks. Thankfully, the dynamic range of the D850 made this easier than I expected. 

It may not be the most spectacular sunset, but those don't happen every day. It's important to capture the world as it exists, and I think this image does a great job of depicting the world as it was on that night.

Getting Sharp: The Importance of Calibration

You have spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on camera gear, but are you really getting the best image possible with that lens and camera combination? Do you read reviews about sharp lenses, only to find your photographs never look as impressive as the ones you see online? If you have never calibrated your lenses, then there is a good chance that you are loosing the opportunity to get sharp images.

For instance, see the following photo of a bee pollinating this flower (click to enlarge):

A bee on a flower in an indoor garden in Pennsylvania. Shot with a Nikon D850 + Nikon 200mm f/4 micro lens that was calibrated with the camera.

What is Calibration? Do I Need to Calibrate?

If you have a dSLR camera with autofocus lenses, then you need to calibrate. It does not matter if your camera is only a day old - calibration is not a factor of camera age. Very simply, because your camera and lenses were not manufactured together, there is a slight error that almost certainly exists as the camera and lens communicate in the autofocus mechanism. This error varies lens-to-lens, but exists in virtually every single lens.

The result is that the camera and lens think they have achieved focus, but the resulting images will be out of focus when you look at it later. This is a byproduct of how light is bent around the mirror and prism in the dSLR body, with a different piece of light routed to a focusing element.

Unfortunately, this error probably exists in every lens you own.... even if you have one lens that is perfect, another could be off by a huge factor. So you need to calibrate each lens with each camera individually.

Examples of Calibrated vs Non-calibrated Lens

To help illustrate this, lets look at two photographs I took in a nearby forest. These aren't the best photographs ever in terms of composition, but they do a fine job illustrating the importance of calibration. These photos were taken with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 85mm f/1.4 art lens. The Sigma 85mm lens is considered the sharpest lens ever tested by DxO Labs, so the photos taken with it should blow my mind, right?

The following images shot at f/1.4 with the focus on the scar on the tree bark:

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Notice a difference between the image on the left vs right? The one on the left hardly seems sharp.... especially since it supposedly came from the sharpest lens ever tested?! I took several shots and can confirm they all looked like this - clearly out of focus on the area where I was aiming.

Now let's look at the rightimage, with the lens calibration programed into the camera. For this particular lens, the calibration factor was +20. The result here is clearly better. The bark is nice and sharp, with lots of detail. This looks more like the performance from the sharpest lens ever tested....

Here is one more view, side by side, of the two images cropped in on the focus area.

The non-calibrated image

The non-calibrated image

With lens calibration activated

With lens calibration activated

Bottom line: As you can see from the above images, calibration has a huge impact on the sharpness of your photos. And if you are shelling out the big bucks for camera and lenses, then you should be prepared to spend another $100(ish) to calibrate them.

Lens Align & Focus Tune

The Lens Align target. It is best arranged with a neutral background. I used a cheap $8 tripod to hold the Lens Align.

Without question, the top product on the market for calibrating your own lenses is the Lens Align Focus Calibration System and Focus Tune Software. Designed by Michael Tapes, it's easiest and recommended to buy both products together as you will get the best results by using both.

Lens Align

The Lens Align Focus Calibration System is a set of precision manufactured targets that you use to measure optimal sharpness and identify front/back focus alignment issues. The target includes a vertical front panel of calibration targets and a horizontal "ruler" with geometric designs that the Focus Tune software can read. While it's possible to buy and use the Lens Align without Focus Tune, it really doesn't make much sense.

Focus Tune

The Focus Tune software accompanies the Lens Align, and you really can't use the software without the target. The software will help evaluate the sharpness of each image and will measure the front/back focus, helping you identify the best focus adjustment for the lens.

Basic Calibration How-To

For starters, you need to have the Lens Align target, a good tripod for your camera, a cheap tripod for your Lens Align target, and - ideally - the Focus Tune software. You also need to make sure your camera will permit lens calibration / lens alignment adjustments. 

A comprehensive set of instructions is found in this YouTube video - the below directions are designed to give a basic overview of using the system.

The Focus Tune software with all of the images imported and the neon green target set.

  1. Setup your camera, lens to be adjusted, and Lens Align. Use a tripod for the camera and Lens Align. A cheap tripod works best for the target, while you need a sturdy tripod for the camera.

  2. Align the camera and target according to the specifications of the lens (see instructions).

  3. Set the camera to JPEG fine, low ISO (400 or below), and the maximum aperture of the lens (f/1.4, f/2,8, etc)

  4. Shoot a series of five images at the following focus tune adjustments: -20, -15, -10, -5, 0, 5, 10, 15, 20. Defocus the lens between each shot so that the camera has to refocus.

  5. Use Focus Tune to find the cluster of images that is sharpest, then shoot another set of images to refine the setting. For instance, if the sharpest images appeared around 10-15, shoot another series of fives images at adjustment value 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

  6. Use Focus Tune to find the sharpest images and identify the value for that particular lens.

  7. Although the camera should remember each setting for the lens in the internal memory, it's a good idea to write them down

  8. Rinse and repeat with each lens!

Sounds easy enough - and it really is! Taking 30 minutes to watch the video instructions will equip you with all the details for the process, but it is really straight forward. Once I knew what I was doing, it took no more than 20 minutes per lens to complete.

But what about zoom lenses? Personally, I calibrated a zoom lens at the focal lengths that will get the most use. For instance, I calibrated my 24-70mm lens at 50mm. A quick test showed that the setting identified for 50mm was also good for other focal lengths. Likewise, if you are using a teleconverter, you should calibrate the lens with and without the teleconverter as you may get different values for each. 

Refining Focus with Focus Tune

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

The Focus Tune software really is pretty incredible, and a good buy for anyone calibrating their lenses. In a matter of a few clicks, the software will read each image, evaluate it for sharpness and front/back focus, then will generate a chart and table with focus values. The ideal is to get focus values close to 0. Negative numbers denote front focus, while positive numbers are back focus. 

Looking at the graph on the right, we can see that I had the Nikon D850 setup with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens. The clusters I imaged were all front focused, and badly so (as you noticed from the earlier tree bark photos). 

Only the last cluster of images (shot with a focus adjustment of +20 in camera), were remotely close to in focus. 

It takes a little trial and error with testing different values, but Focus Tune does a great job of helping you jump directly to the best results so that you can find the optimum value for each lens. 

Don't be intimidated if you aren't a math major - Michael Tapes makes some great how-to videos to orient you to the whole process.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Finalizing the Calibration

Once you have completed the whole process, you will have values ranging between -20 and +20 that represent the lens calibration that needs to be dialed into your particular camera. I would also recommend writing these values down, because they could drift over time, and it is good to know where you started.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

For reference, these are the values that each of my lenses needed. What you'll see is that every lens required some adjustment - which is why calibration is so important.

  • Nikon 14-24mm: +1

  • Nikon 24-70mm: +14

  • Nikon 70-200mm: +12

  • Nikon 70-200mm w/1.4 Tele: +8

  • Nikon 300mm: +6

  • Nikon 300mm w/1.4 Tele: +6

  • Sigma 85mm Art: +20

In closing, I hope this blog has helped you understand what lens calibration is, why it is so important, and provided a brief introduction into the process. 

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

At the Corner of Color and History

With a weekend of beautiful weather, fall color, and a new Nikon D850, I set out to capture some of the wonderful sights in the area. One of my favorite go-to's for a great shot is Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. This small city, which is also part of the National Park System, sits at the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Harper's Ferry is incredibly picturesque, but my favorite spot is on top of the Maryland Heights overlook. It has been several years since I've hiked the 2.5 mile trail to the overlook of the town, so we set out with the dog for a hike and a view.

The trail to the overlook has the following profile: uphill, followed by extreme uphill, then a stretch of straight uphill with a tease as though it will go back downhill before going uphill..... In other words, by the time I reached the top, I was more focused on my jello legs than I was on the photography.

Thankfully the view brought me back to the task at hand quickly, and I took the following images before the knee-breaking downhill journey. 

This was also my first serious outing with the new Nikon D850, and a chance for me to see how it held up in real-world landscape shooting. So far so good! There are certainly some notable differences between the D850 and Leica SL, but I'm leaning to embrace my new camera.

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Why I am Divorcing the Leica SL... It Was a Fun Fling!

It is official. The paperwork has been filed. As of last week, I became the owner of a Nikon D850, and my divorce with the Leica SL is complete.

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By my estimation, I shot roughly 20,000 images with the Leica SL during our relationship - so it was certainly a serious relationship, but one that cannot continue. 

There were three major driving reasons behind my decision to ditch Leica and return to Nikon:

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

As I have previously chronicled, I have had several service and reliability issues with my Leica cameras. The most recent one, which caused my Leica SL 24-90mm lens to suffer a fatal failure during a trip to Yellowstone National Park soured me permanently.

I understand no camera is immune from breakages, but the failure rate I encountered with my Leica gear far surpassed any issues from any other company. As a professional, I cannot tolerate that level of performance.

Compounding the service issue is the length of time needed for service to be performed. In the case of my SL and lens - they left for the factory in Germany nearly 6 weeks ago, but by Leica's estimation, I probably won't get them back from repair until early 2018. I cannot be without a camera for 4 months - particularly not one that costs as much as the SL.

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

I was an early adopter of the SL, which carries some risks. One of those risks was that Leica would not release additional lenses for the system with the frequency needed to support the development of the SL line. 

By my analysis, that risk became reality. Leica is woefully behind the curve on the SL lens releases.

I recently met a gentleman who had been part of a Leica SL focus group sponsored by Leica. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with Leica, so he couldn't share the details of his conversation, but the gist was that Leica was trying to find their way with the future of the SL line. It was also suggested that some of the invitees Leica brought to this focus group were people who didn't use this camera all that often. In other words, Leica is seeking advice on how to sustain the system from people who aren't frequent users - that isn't a recipe for success.

The Market Beat the Leica SL

Leica has a long production schedule, but they didn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the industry, and they are being usurped. Nikon is probably releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with a high resolution (~50 megapixel) sensor in the next year...and they just released a D850 that has received mind-blowing reviews.

Using companies like DXOmark, which conducts laboratory testing of sensors, I evaluated my Leica SL to the Nikon D850. In these results, it is clear that the D850 totally surpasses the Leica SL, offering several stops more dynamic range, better ISO performance, and more lens options at a fraction of the price.

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

For a small company like Leica to have been successful with the SL, they needed to stay very engaged with their customers and needed to continue to produce lenses and upgrades to keep me interested. They squandered that opportunity. Instead, Leica has focused on their M line, which is probably a better business decision for them.

Now what?

Photography is about so much more than the gear and equipment. But the gear and equipment play an important role in photography.

For instance, I love macro photography, but had not shot any macro work since becoming an SL owner. Why? Because the equipment needed to shoot macro photographs was either unavailable, too expensive, or a combination thereof. I don't want a camera to dictate the types of images I can or cannot make - I want to explore my creative whims! A system that is more mature and offers more flexibility is better for the type of images I want to create.

With the release of the D850, I have decided to return to Nikon. Those people who visit my website and admire my work probably won't notice the change; good photographers can make a great image with any camera. 

Five Things To Know Before Buying the D850

The internet is ablaze with excitement over the Nikon D850; dealers cannot keep them in stock and incredible reviews are fueling a buying craze that has the camera industry in a whirl.

But before you pull out your credit card, there are five things you should know before buying a D850….

1.       A great sensor is only as good as the glass in front of it

I see this on the internet all the time - a photographer attributes too much value to the camera and disproportionately invests in cameras vs lenses. For instance, I recently met a photographer at a trade show who had a D850 and was looking to purchase an 18-400mm all-in-one zoom lens for his camera. The lenses he was looking at were sub-par quality, slow, and not of the same caliber as the D850. Yet he was confused why his photos were not as sharp as others on the internet.

I would recommend having twice as much money invested in lenses as you have in a camera body; the lenses will outlast your camera and a poor lens will only degrade the quality of the image. 

Nikon publishes a list of recommended lenses for the D850. Of course they only recommend Nikon brand lenses, but if you study the list closely, you'll notice they are suggesting lenses with the quality needed to take advantage of the resolving power of the D850. There are no cheap all-in-one lenses on that list for a reason.

Personally, I will be using the following lenses with my D850 in order to maximize the quality of images this camera can make:

  • Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II
  • Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4 E PF ED VR N AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 200mm f/4 D Micro ED IF
  • Canon 400mm f/2.8 FD L * (Modified to Nikon mount)
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art for Nikon

If your wallet can't stomach the idea of buying all of these lenses, I'd recommend looking at buying used lenses from KEH. Buy good glass - even if it's used!

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

2.       You most likely need to buy a lot of new memory cards

The XQD memory card format used in the D850 is not extremely common - and while you might have a pile of SD memory cards laying around, it might be time to invest in new memory cards. Again, this is an area where quality matters. A cheap memory card won't have the same write speeds as a quality card, which again impacts the performance of the camera. As of late October 2017, a 128GB quality card cost around $200 each, and holds approximately 1,000 RAW images. Be prepared to drop a few hundred more dollars on cards (and a card reader)!

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

3.       You probably need to calibrate your lenses

Have you ever calibrated a camera lens? Do you even know what that means?

Let's say you buy a D850 and mount your old Nikon 24-70mm lens to it. That specific combination of lens and camera were not calibrated by Nikon at the factory, so it's possible there is a minor error in the focusing. If that is the case, then the area you focus on won't be as sharp as it could be...defeating the value of the high resolution sensor.

I have been calibrating all of my lenses to the D850 and would say it is more essential with the extra resolution of the D850 than it might be with other bodies. In some cases, my lenses were seriously mis-calibrated and would have given me flat and less-sharp results. If you want to take advantage of every pixel, then you'll want each image to be as clear and sharp as possible! 

A calibration kit with software costs approximately $125.

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

4.       If you want a D850, order from a local dealer

The wait list with major companies is months long, but a local smaller dealer will probably be able to get a camera faster. I was able to get my D850 within 3 weeks of joining a waitlist, and had two dealers get one in stock at the same time.

In other words, if you want to see a D850 this year, order locally.

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

5.       Nikon will probably introduce a mirrorless full frame camera with the same sensor within a year

All of the rumors point to Nikon releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with the same high resolution D850 sensor within the next year. While we don't know much about this camera, if mirrorless appeals to you, then it might be worth waiting. There are no guarantees with these rumors, but I think the assessment is accurate. Before you drop $3k on a new camera, make sure you're not going to suffer buyers remorse in a few months!

A New Chapter: The Nikon D850

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@ScenicTraversePhoto), might have noticed a day ago when I posted a picture of the Nikon D850 box....

After a visit to the Photo Plus Expo in New York on Thursday, I decided it was time to make the switch back to Nikon. I have loved the Leica experience, and I'll still use Leica's for street photography, but my needs as a landscape photographer will be better met by this new system.

In the coming week I'll share some updates to detail the decision, but for now, I'm excited to take the camera out shooting! Given the super high resolution of the D850, I have also invested in a lens calibration system so I can get the maximum detail out of the sensor, and I'll also share some updates about the calibration process. Stay tuned for new and exciting things!