Why the Nikon Z7 is My New Favorite Underwater Camera

Initial thoughts and photos from a weekend underwater with the Nikon Z7
By Nirupam Nigam

Be sure to check out our full Nikon Z7 underwater camera review - click here!

 

My weekend began with the pleasant surprise – there was a Nikon Z7 and Ikelite housing sitting at my doorstep, ready to be taken out diving! As one of the most significant camera releases of the year, I had high hopes for Nikon’s new flagship full-frame mirrorless camera. After the releases of the Canon EOSR and Panasonic S1/S1R full-frame mirrorless cameras, I admit my head is beginning to spin with all the new options, features, and dreams of an increasingly nitpicky community of photographers. With much controversy surrounding the release of the Nikon Z7 – like whether or not its performance could live up to other full-frame mirrorless cameras and the similarly priced Nikon D850 – I was itching to take it underwater. 

 

Topside Tests

This past weekend in Washington’s beautiful Olympic Peninsula was great for pushing the camera to the limits of its capability. I spent Saturday driving through forests, beaches, rain, hail, and sunshine. First I spent some time testing the Z7’s low light performance and low ISO capability with scenic rainforest waterfalls. Shortly afterward, I was fortunate to get a chance to test the autofocus capability with some elk. From there I went to a sunny sunset at the beach to test the Z7’s dynamic range. 

 

Underwater Tests

On Sunday I took the Nikon Z7 diving with an Ikelite Z7 Underwater Housing, dual Ikelite DS-161 strobes with a DL1 DS Link Nikon TTL converter, and an Ikelite 45 degree viewfinder. For wide-angle I shot with a Nikkor 8-15mm (circular) fisheye lens and a Ikelite compact dome port. For macro I shot with a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro lens and a Ikelite macro port. Both lenses are the original Nikon F-mount and not the new Z-mount lenses. Conditions were abysmal with 5-10 ft of snotty visibility and lackluster life in an anoxic Hood Canal…..perfect for testing a camera! Thankfully I forgot my focus light and really got to take the Z7 to the extremes of its lowlight potential. 

 

My final verdict? The Nikon Z7 might just be my new favorite camera! Here’s why:

 

What Performed Well

 

Image Quality

It quickly became clear to me that the image quality on the Z7 is just unstoppable. At first you might think that 45.7 MP is more than enough pixels in one camera. Well, I quickly realized that it was just the amount I needed. When you have these many megapixels on a full-frame sensor, your left with an almost unreasonable ability to crop your photo and produce a large, beautiful image of the most minute details. Take the image below of this black-eyed goby and a 100% crop of the same image. Even the color pigments in the skin are of the highest level of detail. Detail like this will open new world’s for macro photographers. It’s like having a portable microscope. 

 

I also like the auto white balance on this camera much better than the auto white balance on the Sony A7R III. I know white balance is a secondary thought for many people, but I found that with some of my photos with the A7R III, even post processing didn’t make the difference I desired. The Nikon Z7 produced accurate colors every time. 

 

Autofocus

The autofocus on the Z7 has been given quite a bad wrap on the internet. I think it’s unwarranted. Overall, I found the autofocus underwater to be better than the Sony A7R III and potentially slightly worse than the D850. And I personally thought that the different between the AF on the Z7 and D850 was so small, it could only make a difference in a 0.5% of the shots I took. What impressed me so much about the Nikon Z7’s autofocus was its performance in lowlight. I was 50 feet deep, with 5 ft of whale snot viz, at sunset, without a focus light, and the AF locked in quickly and easily on every shot. The only thing it struggled with was a small cave (also without a light)!

I do recommend using larger focus point options like the wide-s AF area if you are working with quicker subjects. There are so many autofocus points on the Nikon Z7 that it can take a while to hunt for the right point if you’re using a single AF point. On the flipside, it’s great to have 90% AF focus point coverage on the Z7. 

 

Build

The most enticing thing about this camera is the build. It’s excellent. The weather sealing seemed tough enough in the variable weather conditions I experienced – no problems there. But the important thing for me was that the Z7 was much smaller and lighter than the D850 (675g vs 1005g). If I’m traveling or diving, the Z7 hands down wins every time. 

My biggest complaint with the Nikon D850 was always that it was just to big underwater. In a sense, my dive would be impeded by the effort of lugging the thing around. But the Nikon Z7 in the Ikelite housing was a breeze to handle, even from shore. I experienced excellent trim with the Ikelite housing as well – something that the company put a lot of thought into. 

 

Image Stabilization

Built-in 5-axis image stabilization. Who could beat that? The D850 can’t!

 

Usability

Except for the function buttons that are a little hard to access on the forward, right side of the camera, the button placement is very well thought out. I found myself have no issues with finding buttons or functions without reading any manuals. I very much enjoyed the “info” menu button that allowed quick access to a menu with all the quick settings that you might need in the spur of the morning.

Migrating from another Nikon system, I think this camera is very intuitive. In fact, I felt that the Z7 had the quickest learning curve of any camera I’ve picked up to date. But don’t take my word on that, of course. Everyone learns differently.

 

FTZ Adapter

The FTZ adapter allows for traditional Nikon F-mount lenses to be used with the Z-mount. It makes the set up a fair bit bulkier, but the capability of using a huge assortment of F-mount lenses is a lifesaver. There just aren’t any good Z-mount lenses out yet.

 

The Z-Mount?  

Theoretically the new Nikon Z-mount should be an improvement to the camera. It’s wider which allows for more light and the possibility of an ultra-fast f/0.95 lens. But this hasn’t happened yet…. As of today there are only three Z-mount lenses out and none of them are super appealing for underwater photography.

 

Video

I’ve heard the video is better than the Nikon D850. Overall the color rendering seems quite nice, but I really need to test the video function a bit more. The great feature on the Z7’s video is the auto focus full-time function. It outperforms the D850 and most other competing cameras. I had a little bit of trouble with this function in low light underwater, but overall, once you get the camera stable it works quite well. This camera has the potential to replace the Panasonic GH5 as a favorite for underwater video. 

 

Electronic View Finder (EVF)

I grew to love this piece of equipment. The ability to change settings, watch the resulting changes in exposure, and playback photos without taking your eye off the view finder is a godsend.

 

What Has Room to Be Improved

 

Image Quality

Don’t get me wrong, the image quality with the Z7 is amazing. One small complaint I had about the system was the level of noise. There’s definitely more noise than what is desirable, even at low ISOs (without using the NR function). However, this is entirely due to the fact that there are so many megapixels stuffed onto the sensor. Because the grain is so small, the noise is very easily removed in post processing. So this could even be seen as a positive for workability. 

 

Dynamic Range Performance

For the most part the low light performance with the Z7 was excellent. However, the dynamic range leaves a bit to be desired compared to the D850. In very low light situations, like diving in the Pacific Northwest, underexposed areas can have slight banding. This is due to the phase detection autofocus points. In most topside photography this wouldn’t be a problem. But in underwater photos with large dynamic range, it can be.

 

Autofocus

Unfortunately, Nikon did not migrate their 3D tracking Auto Focus mode from the D850 to the Z7. This was a great tool for a lot of both wide and macro photography. The Z7’s continuous mode doesn’t perform as well as hoped either. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still great. If I was really into shooting fast moving subjects, such as with a lot of pelagic animals, I might consider the Nikon D850. 

 

Lens Selection

As I mentioned before, lens selection for Z-mount lenses is limited to three lenses that have little underwater use. I’m optimistic for the future of these lenses, but for now I’m content to use F-mount lenses underwater with the FTZ adapter. 

 

Flash Sync Speed

The flash sync speed is only 1/200th which can make good sun ball shots a little harder. However, the native ISO is a low 64. So overall, it evens out. 

 

Battery Life

The battery life isn’t great. With normal usage I think I would be fine using the camera for two dives, and maybe even a third. It’s definitely a good idea to have a spare battery with this camera.

 

Single Card Slot

I have mixed feelings about a single XQD card slot. XQD cards are expensive, though they are quicker at processing photos. So this is a progressive move, but it would be nice to have an SD card slot as well, like with the D850.

 

Thoughts on Ikelite’s Z6/Z7 Housing

Overall, I think the Ikelite 200DL housing for the Nikon Z6 and Z7 is a very capable piece of equipment. The dives that I took it on included a small climb down to the site and a long(ish) surface swim. It definitely was less exhausting to walk and swim with than if I had a Nikon D850 with any of the current available housings. But it is still a relatively large and heavy set up, so it can help to have a handle or lanyard to grab on to. 

Underwater, all the controls are there, and I didn’t feel like I had to search for any dial, button, or knob at any time. It was very intuitive to use from set up to the dive to taking it apart. The on-off switch can be a bit difficult to use, but with the Z7 I usually turn it on before I put it into the housing. Then I just leave it on and let it sleep (which really doesn’t seem to waste any battery). It is also important to change the ISO control button or add it to the “info” menu on the camera so that you don’t have to press the iso button and dial at the same time underwater.

Ikelite worked hard to get the trim right on this camera. Underwater, even with strobes, it's nearly neutral and I really didn't feel like I needed floats. On top of this, Ikelite has introduced a trim weight rail that enables the housing to be perfectly neutrally buoyant with their larger dome - a great option for underwater video.

 

Ikelite DL1 DS Link Nikon TTL Converter

With the Ikelite housing, I used the Ikelite DL1 DS Link TTL converter which was attached to both Ikelite DS-160s and the camera’s hotshoe. I was surprised with how efficient and accurate the TTL really was. Combined with the DS-161s ultra-fast recycle times, I highly recommend using the TTL converter if you’re going to do any burst shooting underwater.

 

Ikelite Viewfinder with Nikon Z7’s EVF

 I used an Ikelite 45 degree magnified viewfinder that worked with the electronic viewfinder on the Z7. It was an interesting experience changing all my settings and reviewing my photos without taking my eye off the viewfinder. This really makes it possible to do a whole dive with your eye on the viewfinder, shooting photos. In some ways, I’d prefer to enjoy the dive as well every now and then without a viewfinder. But if you’re shooting in a high-pressure situation, the EVF with the 45 degree viewfinder is perfect for making that quick settings change in the heat of the moment. 

 

Should I invest in the Nikon Z Series?

Overall, I think camera ecosystem is worth the investment. As manufacturers have slowly begun to focus on very high-end mirrorless set ups, full-frame mirrorless systems are where much of the innovation in photography will likely be. With an FTZ adapter, Nikon has introduced a nice way to transition high quality F-mount glass options to the new system of Z-mount glass. With potential for f/0.95 speed lenses, Nikon has set itself up for success, even if it isn’t here yet. If you are an underwater photographer looking for the very best, I don’t think you could go wrong with this camera. If you are a professional underwater photographer looking for a smaller system, this could be it. If you are an amateur looking to upgrade, I think this should be a serious consideration as you will have the best tools at your disposable for a light build. But if you’re on a bit of a budget, I would look at the Nikon Z6 which has a lot of the same specs with a smaller sensor size of 24.5 MP for a much smaller price. Would I switch from the D850 to the Nikon Z7? Probably not – they’re a bit too similar of a camera at a similar price point.

 

Conclusion

Overall, I was blown away by the performance of this camera – both topside and underwater. It’s smooth ergonomics and usability opens up access to spectacular low light performance, image quality, image stabilization, video, and autofocus. I went into this weekend skeptical of the camera’s performance from the reviews I read online. But I truly believe the Nikon Z7 is the start of a new generation of cameras that will put anything made in the last decade to shame. The images speak for themselves. This is my new favorite camera.    

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

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