As an unabashed proponent of the Nikon D850, specifically my own personal D850, as being the greatest DSLR to ever come off the assembly line, the prospect of ever actually trading in my beloved camera for a mirrorless option has always been met with a healthy dose of skepticism. So, today, having had both a Z 7II and a D850 in my possession for a couple of months, I thought I would try to definitively answer the question of which is the best Nikon on the market, or, more specifically, for me.
I would like to add at this early stage that you will be reading the third draft of this essay. My opinions didn’t change from draft to draft, but no matter how much I tried, I continually found it nearly impossible to try to cut down on its length. True, I am wordy by nature. But the fact of the matter is that after spending the last several months shooting both the new Nikon Z 7II and my classic Nikon D850, I’ve come to recognize them not only as different models but almost different tools altogether.
By the way, if you are just looking for a quick summary, hop to the end to look at the pros and cons list. It’s hard to really sum up the differences in a bulleted list, but I’ve made an attempt. If you are really considering purchasing one of these cameras, you might want to read on.
First off, I swear I’m not totally crazy. I do realize that both are cameras and there is more than one way to take a photograph. But I can’t help but feel as though shooting with the two creates drastically different experiences. And I think those experiences will determine which of these cameras will be right for you. I’m not talking about the learning curve going from one to the other. Nor am I referring to any of the technical specifications. I’m talking about how it feels to take a photograph with each. How does the electronic viewfinder fundamentally change my interaction with my subject? How quickly can I go from idea to execution?
At the risk of burying the lede, I can tell you right up front that both are extraordinary cameras. And if you are looking to invest in either system, you would be hard-pressed to find a better value on the market. So, if you’re looking for me to bash one or the other, you will be out of luck. Likewise, if you are looking to me to say that you have to trade in your DSLR to go mirrorless or visa versa, you will be equally disappointed. Yet, so much of my early drafts of this essay kept coming back time and time again to more fundamental debates about DSLRs versus mirrorless cameras that to try to avoid that debate when comparing the D850 to the Z 7II is nearly impossible. And trying to answer that debate with a short summary is fool’s gold. So, let's get deep.
For me, as I expect it is for you, the joy of photography is as much about the process of taking the picture as the end result. I absolutely love looking through the viewfinder and getting lost in a little private world that only I can see. I love the sound of a big heavy mirror clapping when I press the shutter button. With my camera serving as a portal, I’ve been able to make millions of micro connections with subjects, places, and things throughout the years. Sure, I love the result. But, more important to me is the process. That little moment of calm when you know you’ve snapped a picture at just the right moment.
I could give you a long list of tech specs comparing the curb appeal of each of these cameras and declaring a winner based on test data printed in the company brochure. But that’s not really what photography is about, is it? You're not picking a camera-based solely on what it can do technically speaking. If so, you could pick up just about any camera made in the last decade and feel pretty confident that it would be capable of taking a great picture. What’s more important is how that camera feels. And that subjective response is what makes it impossible to declare which camera will feel right for every photographer in the market.
I say all that not only wax poetic about our chosen art form, but to lead into what for me is the fundamental question for whether you are a D850 person or a Z 7II person. Even beyond those two cameras, the question extends further to the entire debate about DSLR versus mirrorless and knowing when or even if you need to make the switch.
Like I said, even though both DSLR and mirrorless cameras are capable of taking similar pictures (very similar in the case of the D850 and Z 7II which share the same basic sensor), I’ve come to regard each as completely different types of tools. Personally, I find the fundamental experience of taking pictures with a DSLR more akin to taking pictures with a film camera, while the process of taking pictures with a mirrorless camera feels more akin to taking pictures with a cell phone. This makes a certain type of chronological sense.
The DSLR or the film SLR feels very tactile and in the moment. I look through that big bright optical viewfinder and form a connection with my subject that feels immediate and urgent. In comparison, when I look into the electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera, with its exposure preview, digital contrast, and data overlays, I tend to feel more like I’m not on set at all. I feel as though I’m already behind my computer, opening up the file in Capture One, and deciding which areas are going to require a roundtrip through Photoshop. In this sense, reminds me that gains in technology and productivity sometimes come at the expense of simply enjoying the moment.
I don’t know if what I said makes any sense. And I have no doubt that many readers will either shrug my words off as pure nonsense or, conversely, be spending time trying to parse them for some hidden slam against one camera or another. But, truthfully, there is no slight intended to either.
At first glance, one might read my description of shooting with the D850 and an optical viewfinder to be romantic. Whereas my description of the more calculated approach to using an electronic viewfinder might feel colder in comparison. The first experience taps into my heart. The second taps into my head. And, I guess that’s not a completely inaccurate appraisal. It’s also a good reminder of the intangible nature of the art form and the inability of a spec sheet to tell a complete story.
On paper, these two cameras are very similar and capable of essentially the same sort of things. So, in theory, with me being the only photographer in the equation, if I were to shoot them side by side for an extended time, I should find that I get similar results. The only real variable in my experiment was the camera. My subjects are the same. My aesthetic is still the same. I’m still fundamentally the same human being behind the camera. Yet, when shooting the two cameras side by side or in alternating shoots, I did find I was experiencing the shoots in different ways. Why?
During the time I’ve been evaluating these two cameras, I had the great pleasure to be interviewed for a podcast on photography with a fellow professional photographer. That interview, which will soon be released, was focused more on a different type of camera altogether, but also one that falls into the mirrorless category. During the interview, the host asked me how many images in my portfolio had been taken with the camera in question, so I very quickly went to my website and scratched a bit of math out on a nearby pad. Interestingly, despite having shot with a simply egregious number of different cameras and camera brands over the last couple of years, by far the largest share of the pictures in my portfolio had been shot with the D850. Beyond the fact that even though I have either owned or spent significant time using nine different mirrorless cameras in the last couple of years, even when factoring in the images I didn’t take with the D850, I realized that the vast majority of the entire pie was still consumed with pictures taken with cameras utilizing an optical viewfinder.
As I said earlier, your preference for DSLR versus mirrorless will depend entirely on you. But, for me, this kind of objective analysis of my own work was a clarifying moment. It’s not that the shots taken with optical viewfinders were technically superior. But they did seem to have that little something special that made my heart pump just a little harder. The shots that were shot with mirrorless cameras felt technically perfect, but, taken as a whole, seemed to lack some of the immediacies of their DSLR counterparts. That’s not about the camera. That’s about me and how my creative impulses were being influenced by the tool in my hand. Simply put, with the optical viewfinder, I was feeling the moment. With the electronic viewfinder, I was thinking the moment.
Now, I know many might be thinking" "this isn’t a camera review." This is a long speech about this guy’s personal feelings. And, you’re right. But I lay those things bare simply to reinforce the idea that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all camera, and your experience of shooting with a camera will not only affect how much you enjoy your job, but it can also have a very tangible effect on the end result.
There are also, of course, more practical reasons why one might prefer an optical viewfinder, especially for sports, action, and wildlife shooters. I am an advertising photographer and filmmaker. So, while I shoot a lot of fast-moving athletes, I don’t shoot from the sideline. But I do share several of the same technology needs as a sidelines sports shooter. Just with a few extra megapixels involved. I need fast autofocus. I need a bright and clear viewfinder to be able to track my subjects between shots and click the shutter at precisely the right moment. On a purely non-technical level, though I am not a documentarian, I often like to shoot like one. By this, I mean that I am not someone who spends hours setting up the perfect shot and carefully posing my subject down to the millimeter. Instead, I spend time creating the scenario and lighting, directing my subject to behave with as minimal intervention as is possible, then relying on my ability to keep up and snap at the picture at the right time. I prefer natural moments. So, while I can and will certainly ask for multiple takes of a specific action, I really like a camera that I can operate quickly enough to capture it the first time, even when I wasn’t expecting it.
From a pure productivity standpoint, the D850 has a handful of advantages over the newer Z 7II. Specifically, I still find it much easier to change settings and modes on the D850 without having to dig into the camera’s menu system. This isn’t so complicated. The D850 simply has more buttons and dials available to be pushed or customized. The Z 7II sacrifices many of these extra buttons in the name of smaller body size. And as someone who isn’t nearly as young as he used to be, I don’t hate Nikon at all for lessening my load. But, this does mean I have to spend more time on menus. Remember our mirrorless camera and cell phone comparison earlier? Well, if you don’t mind scrolling menus and spending a healthy amount of time looking at screens, then this will be no problem at all. But since I personally try to look at screens as little as humanly possible, any extra buttons that make it so that I don’t have to go into a menu is worth the extra body mass for me.
But, even with that said, the buttons on the Z 7II are still more than adequate. The only thing I wish, which I mentioned in my review of the camera, is that there were more options to not only select but trigger the various autofocus modes without having to go into the menus. The Z 7II does offer the opportunity to hold down a function button, then use the scroll wheel to cycle through the various modes. But the D850 allows you to preset darn near every button on the right side of the camera body to trigger a different autofocus mode. So, you don’t actually have to change your base autofocus mode. You just have to learn the finger memory to hit the right button that corresponds to the focus mode you want to use. So, while literal focusing speed is comparable between the two cameras, the overall process of focusing on the Z 7II takes longer because I have to spend more time in menus setting it up between shots.
This time is further enhanced by the fact that, as I’ve learned over these months, mirrorless cameras take your selection of focus modes very seriously. Many early reviews of the original Z cameras took shots at the camera’s autofocus systems. But, what I’ve discovered is that the Z cameras are just as good as any on the market when used in the right focus mode. The only problem is that there is a pretty clear difference in performance when you mess up and choose the wrong one. So, if you are shooting portraits in auto-area AF with face detection, for instance, then your model changes in an instant and starts running around the studio doing something crazy but awesome, you are going to need to change into a more appropriate tracking or dynamic mode if you hope to get any of those shots in focus. The D850’s modes, on the other hand, are far more forgiving. If I am shooting the same model in a single point or maybe Dynamic 25 for example, then they take off running, as long as I keep the focus point over the subject, I am still pretty confident that I’m going to keep the subject in focus. Or, if they start climbing up the side of the wall and I suddenly decide I need to be in a different mode, both the mode change and AF activation are just one push of an alternate button away.
I guess the easiest way I can describe it is that the Z 7II focuses just as accurately, quickly, and as sharp as the D850. If anything, it’s sharper due to the amazing Z lenses which are so sharp they could cut glass. But, with that said, if I was in a situation where my camera was packed away in my bag, and something happened unexpectedly and I needed to just grab it, push down on the AF button without having time to change any settings and start shooting, I would still be pretty confident that the D850 would come through. The Z 7II would be just as accurate once you take a moment to select the right focus mode, but I would be less confident that I could just set the focus mode out of the box and be able to grab and shoot in any situation at the drop of a hat.
Of course, that is an extreme situation. The point is simply to illustrate the second strength the D850 brings to the table. It is simply faster in operation. This could be me getting used to the new camera. But I have worked with various Z cameras for a couple of years now, so I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the system. And, even after all that time, I still feel shooting with the DSLR allows me to move a lot quicker onset. Even a small detail like, for example, the fact that I can see them over and underexposure graph clearly on my top LCD when looking down at my D850, allowing me to change my exposure for a scene without actually lifting my eye to the camera, is an unexpectedly huge time-saver. Things like that are small, but they add up. And collectively, they save me time. And you know, those extra few milliseconds of reaction time could be the difference between capturing the perfect moment or just a moment a few seconds too late.
You might be reading this essay so far and think that I have already declared a clear winner. Unfortunately, for my own sanity, the choice between the two cameras is not quite that simple. I changed my mind so many times over the course of these last few months that one might have confused me for a shady politician. I mentioned earlier that the D850 appeals more to my heart whereas the Z 7II appealed more to my head. Well, it must be said that using your head isn’t exactly a bad thing.
My clients often are hiring me to provide both still and motion assets. Thankfully, I am in a position to have cameras dedicated to video alongside my primary still shooters. But, there are occasional surprises. So ,the ability to do both stills and video with the same device is a major benefit, even if I don’t always take advantage of the opportunity. And one area you won’t have to think too hard about in this debate is video performance. The Z 7II beats the D850 for video far and away.
I’ve actually shot quite a bit of video with my D850, and it produces a pretty amazing file for basic video needs. If video is more of an afterthought for you or limited to less demanding subjects, the D850 will definitely be capable of handling the task. There are, however, technical limitations. For instance, you can’t do the raw video conversion you can do to the Z cameras that produce 12-bit color and ProRes RAW video recording. The D850 doesn’t put out a log signal, even when connected to an external recorder. So, if you are really filmmaking in earnest and want to take advantage of a higher bit rate, more dynamic range, and the ability to do a more aggressive color grade, the D850 might not be for you.
Even if you aren’t looking to shoot Braveheart II, the big caveat to shooting video with the D850 isn’t the video itself, but rather the autofocus system. Nikon DSLRs are world-class when it comes to autofocus for stills. As I peer through the viewfinder, I know that if I get my settings right and put that dot onto my subject, I am going to have an incredibly reliable hit rate when it comes to sharpness. In live view video, however, not so much. Add to that the fact that F-mount lenses were never built with video in mind and the combination of focus hunting with the lenses’ focus breathing can make for a very jarring experience.
Of course, all my cinematographer friends shudder at the mere mention of the word autofocus. And, if you are on a professional set, it is very likely that you will have a support crew including someone there dedicated to pulling focus manually. But, in the world of today, where even commercial shooters will occasionally find themselves shooting as one-man bands, or, heaven forbid, having the get in front of the camera themselves, having the option to let the camera handle focusing is a primary benefit. And, in my time with the Z 7II, it has proven itself very capable of handling a variety of focusing challenges with aplomb.
Nikon very smartly brought out the D780 last year, which sought to bridge a bit of that gap. It was a traditional DSLR when shot through the viewfinder, but turned into a Z 6 when using live view mode. In a way, this gave the best of both worlds. For still shooters partial to optical viewfinders over electronic ones, they could still shoot stills as they were accustomed. But, if they needed face and eye detection for video, they could simply use live view. I tested that camera and really enjoyed it. Had the D780 been the rumored higher megapixel D880, I suspect my bank account might already be a few thousand dollars lighter.
Of course, aside from video performance, there are other more subjective points of diversion. The D850, being a DSLR, is naturally a much heavier system. This system is heavier not only due to the heavier body but because of the F-mount zooms which tip the scales a bit more than their mirrorless brethren. When I hold the Z 7II with the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S versus my D850 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 for the F mount, the difference is, shall we say, noticeable. I don’t mind at all the Z 7II’s lighter weight. Especially because, while smaller, Nikon has developed optimal ergonomics that allow the mirrorless cameras to be smaller, without being too small. Mirrorless cameras from other brands have a tendency to feel like children’s toys in my hand. But the Z 7II provides a comfortable hold with just enough girth to feel substantial.
I’ve written about it before, but my favorite thing about the Z cameras so far has very little to do with the cameras themselves. Rather, the Z lenses developed to mount to the Z cameras are simply out of this world. Like most DSLR shooters dipping a toe in mirrorless, I started out shooting the original Z 6 with my traditional F glass mounted via the FTZ adapter. Due to the focus breathing issues I mentioned earlier, I ended up purchasing the Z 50mm f/1.8 and immediately fell in love with Z mount lenses. Not only are they uniformly sharp as a tack, but the Z lenses add an amount of customization that really improves my workflow.
Naturally, those are compliments for lens design. But, since the Z lenses aren’t backward compatible with DSLR bodies, that is something to consider as one would imagine future research and development dollars will be going towards mirrorless rather than updating decades worth of DSLR glass. So, while the two cameras share essentially the same sensor, the Z 7II allows you to put better glass in front of it, which should result in a sharper image in the end. So, for image quality, this total picture gives the Z 7II the win.
Those who love electronic viewfinders would likely put the EVF on the Z 7II here as a benefit. And, I will say that, when shooting in available light, the exposure preview does make me braver in experimenting with exposure levels and trying new things. So, I’m not blind to the benefits.
But, of course, this is where your use case comes in. For a large part of my work, probably 80%, I find myself using strobes. Since, as of yet, there is no EVF technology that can predict the final image based on where I’ve placed my strobes, the exposure preview in the EVF isn’t actually an accurate representation of my final exposure in those cases. In fact, I usually end up turning off exposure preview when using flash so it is literally a non-factor in 80% of my work. So, what I am left with is an EVF image subject to the contrast and resolution limitations of the camera rather than a clear view of the scene which will all suddenly be illuminated and look completely different for the split second it takes to make the exposure.
On a side note, I forgot to mention that the D850 has a slight edge over the Z 7II in controlling ambient light while using flash as its sync speed is 1/250th versus the Z 7II’s 1/200th. On another side note, wouldn’t it be cool if an EVF could show you a preview of the effects your flashes are going to have? Wow, now that might be a game-changer.
But, anyway, enough about OVFs and EVFs. As a recap, or just for those who might have skipped to the end for the cliff notes without the context, here a brief list of wins for each camera.
- Faster operation
- More dependable autofocus
- Quicker to change modes, especially autofocus
- Faster flash sync speed
- Optical viewfinder
- Video autofocus
- Video log and raw video output options
- Edge-to-edge focusing points
- Lighter body and lens combinations
- Better lenses
So, in the end, will I be selling my D850 and switching over entirely to the mirrorless Z 7II? Well, if you’ve read this far, you will not be surprised at all to learn that my response isn’t so black and white. The simple answer? No, I will not be selling my D850. Regardless of the fact that it is “old” technology, my little portfolio review experiment taught me that, feelings aside, I am measurably more effective as a still photographer when looking through an optical viewfinder, at least at the moment. The fact that this seems to hold true regardless of the mirrorless body I’m shooting with suggests that it’s not a preference specific to this D850 versus Z 7II debate, but rather something innate to me and how I react subconsciously to electronic viewfinders. So, this means nothing to you in terms of whether the newer cameras would be right for you. But it does mean something to me when deciding whether or not it makes sense to give up on the D850, which I find so perfect for my shooting style as to have dubbed it my “Magic Wand.” After all, what is more important? Having the latest technology or producing the desired result for your clients? I’d argue that, at least for a professional photographer, the latter wins that debate 100 times out of 100.
But, in saying that I won’t be selling my D850, that ignores another question. Will I be buying a Z 7II to go along with it? To that, I believe the answer is a yes.
Despite any reservations an old curmudgeon like me has about viewfinders, the Z 7II has proven to me over these past couple of months that it is more than capable of handling the type of work that I do. It even adds a lot of benefits to the party, especially on the video front, making it one of the most versatile tools one can have in his or her kit. With the added motion demands placed on still photographers these days, if put into a position where you could only have one camera with you, it makes sense to carry one also capable of shooting amazing moving images.
So, my current plan is to continue my waffling and simply have one of each in my bag. As a professional photographer, I always travel to set with two cameras anyway. Since the D850 and Z 7II have the same sensors, they can each easily serve as backups to the other. For jobs that don’t require as much strobe work and the subjects don’t move quite as fast, I’ll probably reach for the Z 7II. For subjects where it’s fast-moving action with strobes popping everywhere, I will likely reach for my D850. If I can only take one camera with me for some reason, I’ll probably go with the Z 7II because it also offers better video capabilities. Or, who knows, maybe sometimes I just miss hearing the heavy click of the D850’s mirror and it will be the first out of the bag.
Over the course of this comparison, you’ll notice that I have spoken very little about specs and a lot, perhaps too much, about feelings. The fact is that, in terms of specs, there is not a whole lot to separate these two cameras. There are two big differences, the optical viewfinder on the D850 versus the superior video performance of the Z 7II. But other than those areas, the two cameras are very comparable. There are little differences here and there, but nothing that is going to prevent you from accomplishing what you want to do with either camera.
So, whichever camera you choose, you will be making a wise investment. The D850 remains the best DSLR ever made. And the Z 7II is a more than worthy successor. Which is better for you will come down more to personal choice rather than technical shortcomings. Do you like optical viewfinders or electronic ones? How important is video to your work? What subjects do you shoot? How do you personally like to shoot those subjects? Describe your own personal experience when you go to set. How would you describe your ideal shooting scenario? Now, it’s just a question of which tool fits best into that environment.