The Nikon Z7 generally handled tough outdoor lighting under harsh sunlight well in terms of color and exposure. We found skin tones a touch yellow in our \"Sunlit\" Portrait shot with auto white balance, though, so we preferred the more pinkish skin tones produced when using manual (custom) WB. Default contrast is quite high, so some highlights were clipped in the mannequin's shirt, some of the flowers and even in her nose, though deep shadows contain excellent detail and are relatively clean here at base ISO. The Z7 required +0.7 EV exposure compensation to keep the face and eyes reasonably bright, which is about average for this shot.
Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal detail loss due to noise suppression, as the darker areas of the mannequin's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though some begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. The hair is also virtually free from chroma noise, but some strands do show signs of the \"jaggies\" and other aliasing artifacts. Still, an excellent performance here. Noise-suppressionsystems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtlecontrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where theindividual strands are lost and an almost \"watercolor\" look appears.
Nikon Z7 images are very crisp and clean at ISOs 32 through 800, with almost no chrominance noise and just a touch of luminance noise becoming more visible in the shadows as ISO increases. ISO 1600 shows a bit more luminance noise than lower ISOs, but is still quite clean and detailed. ISO 3200 is probably the first sensitivity where there is noticeable luma noise and blurring due to noise reduction when viewed at 100% magnification, though noise is still very fine-grained and chroma noise is still very low. ISO 6400 shows stronger smudging with more visible luma noise and noise reduction artifacts, but fine detail is still pretty good and chroma noise is still well controlled. ISO 12,800 still offers good detail versus noise for such a high ISO, however luminance noise starts to look a little artificial. Image quality drops off rapidly at ISO 25,600 and above, with high luma noise, strong blurring and other noise reduction artifacts, as well as progressively stronger chroma noise in the form of yellow and purple blotching.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light testsHigh default contrast led to some blown highlights in default JPEGs. RAW files show excellent dynamic range, but banding is sometimes visible in deep shadows. Excellent low-light performance, capable of focusing in near darkness.
Sunlight. Surprisingly, the Nikon Z7 struggled a little with the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test, because of its somewhat high default contrast. We felt that the default and +0.3 EV exposures were too dim, while +1.0 EV blew too many highlights. The best overall exposure was +0.7 EV but it still led to some blown highlights in her shirt, flowers and even her nose. There are also some dark shadows at +0.7 EV, but detail in them is excellent and shadow noise is relatively low for the resolution. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon Z7's Active D-Lighting control set to its default of \"Off\", and enabling it would have likely preserved all highlights even at +0.7 EV. See below for how Active D-Lighting helps with hot highlights and dark shadows.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
PDAF banding in shadows. Faint bands or stripes that are darker than the surrounding area are sometimes visible in dark shadows (vertical in the crop here taken in portrait mode; they would obviously be horizontal in landscape mode), especially in NEF files after exposure is lifted significantly, an artifact related to the Z7 sensor's integrated PDAF pixels. The crop to the right was taken from the default exposure \"Sunlit\" Portrait (Z7OUTBAP0) NEF file converted in ACR with +3.0 EV exposure compensation applied. As you can see, there are faint vertical bands which will limit usable dynamic range in shadows to a degree. We think it's a fairly minor issue, though, and perhaps Nikon will reduce or eliminate them in a future firmware update (some raw converters such as Raw Therapee already have a PDAF lines filter as this is not unique to the Nikon Z series). But it's really up to you to decide whether it is a significant enough issue to be concerned about.
Active D-LightingActive D-Lighting attempts to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows in high-contrast situations, while maintaining moderate levels of contrast. The series of shots below show the effect of the various Active D-Lighting settings (Off (default), Low, Normal, High, Extra High and Auto) available on the Nikon Z7 on our high-contrast \"Sunlit\" Portrait scene.
As you can see from the thumbnail images and histograms above, Active D-Lighting boosted shadows and deeper midtones while highlights were maintained and even reduced at higher settings. As mentioned previously, the default ADL setting for the Z7 is Off, while in more consumer-oriented Nikons the default is Auto.
As you can see, the Z7's dynamic range (in orange above) is similar to that of the D850 (yellow), which isn't a surprise given they share very similar though not identical sensors. Peak dynamic range at the lowest ISO is nearly identical at 14.6 versus 14.8 EV for the D850, despite the very faint banding present in very dark shadows due to PDAF pixels. Interestingly, the Z7's dynamic range isn't as high as the D850's between ISO 100 and 400, trailing it by almost 3/4 EV at the ISO 200 setting. But from ISO 400 to 25,600, dynamic range is practically identical, however the Z7 falls behind the D850 again at the very high ISOs of 51,200 and 102,400.
Low-Light AF: In the lab, the Z7's hybrid autofocus system was able to focus on our legacy low-contrast AF target reliably down to only about -2.0 EV unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, but it was able to focus on our newer high-contrast target down to -6.4 EV which is very good. Using the Z7's Low-light AF mode improved those results dramatically, though, down to about -8.0 EV with our low-contrast target and to below -8.0 EV (the lower limit of our light meter) using the high-contrast target. Excellent results here. Note that unlike the D850, the Z7 does have a built-in AF illuminator which will allow it to focus in complete darkness as long as the subject is within range and has sufficient contrast.
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I generally work with raw files in Lightroom, but have seen the recommendation here (I tried to track down my original source, but couldn't find it) to shoot raw + jpeg instead. If you then use VERY bland jpeg settings (-2 highlights, -2 shadows, -2 noise reduction, PRO Neg Std film simulation), then your histogram becomes more reliable. To be clear, the jpeg images are throwaway images in this case -- the whole purpose is to give you a better feel for whether or not you've blown the highlights (the images will look really ugly, but you can always process your raw files in camera if you want to get a nice looking file out quickly). I made this setting my Q menu C1 setting, so I can quickly set my camera up.
If I want useable jpeg, I typically use either Velvia (for landscape) or Provia (for portrait) with highlights and shadows at +1, -2 noise reduction, +1 sharpness. Even if my intent is to make good jpegs though, I still shoot raw + jpeg.
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