Goodbye Nikon D800e, hello Z7ii. I had significant concerns about switching to mirrorless, but I took the plunge and changed cameras at the end of 2021. Before I explain my thoughts on the switch, here’s some context for my decision.
When I started out in photography I got quite excited by gear. I enjoyed buying new things and learning how to use them. Eventually this effect started to wear off and I learnt that in the grand scheme of things the camera you use is relatively unimportant. As long as you can control the camera and capture images in the way you want, you should be fine.
My first camera was a Nikon D70, followed two years later by a D200, three years later by a D700, and four years later by a D800e. While the advance of technology from camera to camera was important in these decisions, the photographs always came first. If the way I used the camera felt like anything but second nature, it would soon become a hindrance rather than a benefit.
Headline-grabbing developments like face detection, fast autofocus or improved write speeds were lauded for their benefits to genres such as portraiture, sport or nature, but they meant little to my work in landscape photography. I was mainly interested in quality and ease of use.
The Nikon D800e was a milestone in development because it offered a vast leap in quality, introducing 36.6 megapixels of resolution and over 14 stops of dynamic range. It meant I could print images larger and rely less on neutral density filters to control light. I stuck with it for almost 10 years – far longer than any of my previous cameras – ignoring the introduction of the Nikon D810 and D850 as I didn’t feel they offered sufficient innovation to warrant the cost. For a long time I ignored the introduction of mirrorless cameras, dismissing their drawbacks, until I started to see them being used by workshop clients. When I got to try examples like the Sony A7 or Canon M series I was impressed and I realised where some important advances could benefit me.
I eventually decided to switch to the Nikon Z7ii because I could see a benefit in the increased high ISO performance for astro and night sky photography, plus various incremental advances in technology that had been introduced since the D800e. I was also thinking ahead to the future, seeing that Nikon is clearly moving everything to its new Z mount, and that previous F mount lenses were being gradually discontinued.
So, here are my thoughts on my switch to mirrorless.
Optical viewfinders are wonderful for their simplicity; they narrow our field of vision to a rectangle into which we frame an image. No power is involved, just mechanics and optics. But what if you want to shoot at a different aspect ratio? What if you can’t tell if your shot is in focus? This is where the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) comes into its own.
Using an EVF is revolutionary. I’ve found the quality of the Z7ii’s EVF to be almost indistinguishable from that of an optical viewfinder. Where it really excels is the flexibility of the display: the ability to overlay camera data in-viewfinder, or to change its aspect ratio.
Functionality that has existed in the back screen LCD for years has been extended to the EVF. For example, within the EVF you can zoom in to check focus and depth of field. This is useful when working outdoors and it’s hard to see the LCD. Putting your eye to the EVF allows you to fill your entire vision with the camera’s view.
I found this useful when shooting a scene at dusk. If I’d been using an optical viewfinder I’d have found it tricky to judge focus, plus it was too dark for the camera’s autofocus to work. The EVF allowed me to view the scene clearer than with the naked eye; it was almost like having night vision.
You can also use the EVF to play back pictures already taken, which might not sound that exciting, but it is actually very useful! For example, the LCD is great for reviewing images but it’s hard to immerse yourself in the image fully and scrutinise sharpness. Viewed through the EVF, images are clear and bright.
Straying from the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio of SLR cameras can be liberating. Sometimes scenes don’t work in that format, so having the ability to switch ratios in-camera is useful. While this has been possible in liveview for some time, it’s not quite the same as having the ability in-EVF. There’s nothing like being able to look through the viewfinder and see a square or 5:4 view of the world.
This feature has encouraged me to experiment more frequently with different ratios. For example, this image of autumnal trees doesn’t work as well in 3:2 ratio as it does in square format. The change in aspect ratio helped me realise I needed to position myself further to the right in order to reduce the space between the trees.
On a similar theme, the white balance settings of the camera are reflected in the EVF. I found this useful for comparing the camera’s white balance to that of the real scene; if it was off slightly I’d tweak it on location rather than having to rely on my memory of the scene when I got back to process the images later. In the autumnal scene above, I found that a cloudy white balance was much more true-to-life than auto or daylight.
All of the LCD data such as histogram, levelling and even focus peaking data can be displayed in the EVF. One of the things that drew me to the Z7ii rather than the Z7 was the ability to switch to a clutter-free view by pressing one button, removing all shooting data and just showing the image.
Because the EVF shows exactly what the camera is capturing I feel a better connection to the pictures I’m taking. I’m able to judge them more accurately and it helps me get them right at the time of taking, rather than getting them home and fiddling around to correct them later.
Smaller and lighter kit is often cited as the main reason for switching to mirrorless. While I admit that it’s freeing to not carry as much weight, I wasn’t particularly bothered by it. Luckily I am physically fit and I felt that lugging a bit of weight around in my camera bag was a price worth paying for quality images. However, as well as saving weight there are other benefits to going mirrorless.
I use an RRS BH40 ballhead which is rated to hold 8.2kg of camera. The less weight I put on the head, the easier it is to maneuver and fix in position. Using my D800e with a 1.7 teleconverter plus 70-200mm zoom lens has at times introduced a bit of play in the head’s stability. Not that it couldn’t hold the weight, just that it wasn’t holding it quite as solidly as I’d like. Using the Z7ii has saved a couple of hundred grams which has helped even out the weight distribution of the camera when using longer lenses.
I’ve retained all of my Nikon f2.8 F mount lenses without purchasing any Z mount ones so far. The glass in these older lenses is top quality and works perfectly using Nikon’s FTZ mount adaptor. I have tested it with the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 non-VR, 70-200mm VR (first generation) and 300mm f4, all of which work in exactly the same way as they did on the D800e.
In time I will switch to Z mount lenses to save weight and benefit from advances in lens development. The FTZ adaptor weighs 135g so that will shave a little extra from the weight of my kit.
The addition of the FTZ adaptor to the Z7ii impinges on space for a tripod mount or L-bracket. I have been using an L-bracket for many years so before getting the camera I made sure I would still be able to use one in conjunction with the FTZ adaptor. Thankfully 3 Legged Thing’s Zelda L-bracket is made with this concern in mind as it allows just enough clearance for the camera to be mounted on a tripod.
Over the years I’ve grown so used to the Nikon SLR series of bodies that I could operate most functions with my eyes closed. I’ve found that the Z7ii’s button layout bears similarities to the SLR models but they’re compressed into a smaller space. This hasn’t hampered my use of the camera so far, though I’m not able to operate them blindfolded just yet.
Mirror slap and shutter shock have been the bane of many of my early morning shoots, often when I’m using a telephoto lens and a shutter speed slower than 1/50s. I’d often struggle to get pin sharp shots at 200mm or above due to an effect called shutter shock.
In the Nikon D800 and earlier models the tiny movement of the shutter opening, regardless of whether or not the mirror was already up, was enough to cause vibration in the camera, resulting in a slightly blurred image. This problem was fixed with the introduction of Electronic Front Curtain Shutter (EFCS) in cameras since the D810 (the same applies to other manufacturers). EFCS triggers the start of the exposure electronically once the shutter is open, meaning there is no movement in the camera at the start of the exposure.
The results have been very satisfying, with some stunningly crisp shots taken at very long focal lengths. I can’t see how I could have achieved the same results with my D800e using slow shutter speeds.
Perhaps my main concern, and one that didn’t seem to be addressed anywhere in reviews, is how the dynamic range of mirrorless cameras affects liveview. Imagine this scenario: you are shooting a sunset over a beach and there is a high contrast range between the sky and the foreground. To the naked eye there is detail in the shadowy foreground and the bright sky – human eyes don’t experience such a thing as blown highlights! To the camera, with its dynamic range of 14 or so stops, something has to give; it isn’t capable of reproducing this contrast range on the LCD or in the EVF.
My quandary was this: with an optical viewfinder the scene appears as it would with the naked eye, whereas with an EVF the scene is reproduced digitally. The EVF is limited by the camera’s dynamic range, so some highlights or shadows that inform my choice of composition may be clipped. In other words, would I still be able to compose images when I couldn’t see all the detail?
So far, I’ve not found this limitation to be a problem; sometimes bright clouds will appear clipped but I can imagine what they’ll look like in the finished, processed image. I’ve realised that it isn’t imperative to see all the shadow and highlight detail at once because I can compose images comfortably without it.
I rank high ISO performance and resolution as low on my priority list compared to the other features I’ve mentioned. For most shots I use the lowest ISO to get best quality anyway. It’s taken for granted that every generation of cameras will have increased resolution and decreased noise.
For daytime landscape photography, especially when using a tripod, high ISO performance isn’t that important. However, it opens up interesting possibilities for capturing the night sky. At a rough guess I’d equate ISO 3200 on the Z7ii to ISO 1600 on the D800e. That’s at least an extra stop of light to play with, which can be used to increase the shutter speed or decrease the size of the aperture to get sharper shots. That can make all the difference between a usable and unusable photograph.
With an optical viewfinder and sparing use of the LCD, an SLR battery can last for weeks. Using the D800e I could maybe squeeze two weeks of photography out of a single battery charge because I almost exclusively used the viewfinder to compose images. On a mirrorless camera, you can’t use the EVF or the LCD without power, so batteries drain much faster.
There are a couple of reasons I feel this no longer poses a problem for me. For a long time I’ve used a small device called a Viewcatcher to help me find compositions. This is a piece of plastic with a variable size aperture through which you can frame scenes. It’s designed to help painters but I find it works well for all visual arts. The result is that I power the camera on for a short period to set up a shot and fine tune its framing – I’m economical with batteries.
However, if this approach seems like too much of a compromise, here’s my second reason: batteries are relatively light and I hardly ever need one to last for longer than a day or two. If I were away from power or trekking for days at a time, things might be different. But for the way I work, shorter battery life isn’t a hindrance.
With the Z7ii it’s also possible to charge the camera from a USB-C power source, such as a battery bank or car adaptor. That opens up lots of options for recharging on the go.
I could have easily carried on using the D800e for a while yet but having been on a few outings with the Z7ii I am pleased to have made the switch. I’ve been surprised by how changing aspect ratios in the EVF has influenced the pictures I’ve taken. The increase of technical features in the camera has, to my surprise, made me feel more in connection with the pictures I’m taking. I’m also getting better quality results.
If I was coming from a newer generation camera such as the D850, I’d probably have waited a while longer before upgrading, because the D850 shares many of the Z7ii’s benefits, such as EFCS, touchscreen LCD, improved ISO performance and higher resolution. However, the EVF and introduction of the Z mount were enough to convince me to change to mirrorless.
Nice to see that you’re enjoying your Z7II.
I can’t comment on what I think about my new Z5 (well, I could …) because it’s on its way back to Nikon.
It has a habit of randomly over-exposing images to the point of being almost all white. If I turn it off and back on, it works ok. Till the next time.
(There you are in the hide. Camera is switched off ‘cos it’s mirrorless and consumes battery. The sparrowhawk lands – and the Z5 takes an image of … pure white. Rats! Should’ve stuck to a reliable DSLR).
The Z5 seems like a nice camera. I like the ergonomics – it’s as good as an aps-c DSLR, especially with the 14-30 and 24-200. I like needing only 2 lenses for landscapes (you’ll think that when you’re my age).
I’ll have to see what Nikon says. I’ve had 6 Nikon digital cameras – 3 have had defects. They’d better come up with something.