After Canon: Loving the Nikon Z7 more than the Sony A7RIII

It’s been quite a journey in the world of photography. I started off with Canon and was a loyal user for 8 years. Then in 2017, I was excited (yes, ‘poisoned’) to Sony’s innovative push in its alpha series, eventually splurging on the new A7RIII full-frame mirrorless camera. But reality sank in and I couldn’t adapt to the new Sony. After I joined SPH’s Media Solutions Division as a senior photographer, both my personal Canon and Sony cameras saw less and less action as our work inventory consisted of Nikon D5 and multiple G lenses.  

Recently I was lucky enough to use the Nikon Z7, on loan courtesy of Nikon Singapore. I wanted to see how it compared with the latest hype that surrounded Sony’s A7r series. With the release of the new A7RIV, the bar has been raised even more. All these cameras provide stellar image quality, but having had first-hand experience with both the Z7 and A7RIII, I wanted to offer some real-world feedback on workflow and handling that might be more useful for you than the many scientific tests out there. 

But first, here are the final images from a couple of work shoots I did with the Z7:


Where the Nikon Z7 Beats the Sony A7r Series:  

1) Better Ergonomics

The Z7 is slightly larger in physical size (134 x 100.5 x 67.5 mm compared to 126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm), but it feels much better to hold, and well worth the payoff in compactness. It just feels natural. Bear in mind I do come from a background of DSLRs, from entry level to prosumer to full-bodied tanks like the Nikon D5 and Canon 1DX. The Sony A7RIII feels really cramp, even for my relatively small hands.


2) Better Viewfinder, Better LCD

Perhaps it’s just newer technology, but the Z7 electronic viewfinder has a more natural look, as though I was looking through an optical viewfinder. My A7RIII viewfinder appears more pixelated, and you could clearly tell you were looking at a television screen. Much less so with the Z7. 

3) Top Info Panel

For those who never used a DSLR, this might seem an odd criticism. After all, why do you need a top info panel when you can see settings either through the rear LCD or into the viewfinder. But longtime DSLR users will know how useful it can be. Firstly we don’t like having the rear LCD screen turned on unless we are reviewing photos. It’s a drain on the battery and while shooting, we use Live View (on the rear LCD) only when the situation necessitates it. 

For someone like myself who shoots lots of portraits, having the eye to the viewfinder all the time creates a sense of distance between you and the subject. They’ll be wondering “are you taking a photo?” and then awkwardness ensues when you are too busy reviewing the photo to even respond. 


4) Nikon Z7 Lets You Save Smaller RAW Files

Curse myself for not checking this beforehand, but after purchasing my A7rIII in 2017, I was stunned to find out that it only saved RAW files at the full 42 megapixels (mp) resolution. Even though it’s great to have ultra-high resolution for commercial and client work, it’s really not that necessary when we’re shooting for fun. My previous Canon cameras all allowed saving in small, medium and full resolution variants, even though the highest resolution was just 24mp. Thankfully, the Z7 also has that option, and just for that sole reason I would be picking up the Z7 way more than A7r camera.  


What I Didn’t Like in the Z7:

1) Single card slot 

Over my professional career, I’ve had memory cards die on me in the middle of a shoot. For some reason, be it card or camera error, the photos would not write onto it. Thankfully I could switch to the second slot (albeit having no more backup). Even though the XQD is a reliable memory card, I still don’t feel 100% comfortable to only have one slot - if that card/slot failed, I would be in big trouble. The A7RIII has 2 SD card slots. 

Perhaps the solution to this is to have two Z7s, with one as a backup. That would work, just bear in mind the extra expense.

2) No Optional Vertical Grip/Battery Pack

For the purposes of an extra battery or shooting vertical shots, the option of adding a vertical group would have been nice. Portraits make the bulk of my shoots, so I do plenty of vertical shots. The D5 is top notch for this, but would love to see it also possible with the Z7. Nikon has said this is in development (the MB-N10), but there hasn’t been any updates since.

 

Final Thoughts on How the Z Line can be Improved

  • There needs to be more third-party lens options (especially Sigma, Tamron) for the Z-mount. They are all offering lenses for Sony’s E-mount because of how popular the alpha cameras have become.  
  • Allow Nikon’s Capture NX-D software to convert the NEF raw files to DNG. It’s frustrating when your Adobe or Capture One software can’t read the latest NEF files and you’re out of options because Nikon won’t allow conversion to the universal DNG
  • Haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve read that the Eye-AF is not as responsive and accurate as Sony’s, Canon’s or Panasonic’s. It isn’t a big deal to me as I’m more accustomed to manually selecting focus points.



Always Hire a Specialist Photographer, not a Generalist

Look around us. 

Technology is becoming ever more accessible and affordable. High-resolution cameras, drone photography, and “blurred backgrounds” are all commonplace now. With that phone in your hand, you could take a technically decent photo that is “good enough” for most people. 

But you aren’t most people. If a specific vision is to be realised, only a specialist can do the best job. Why is that?

10,000 Hours

Specialists dedicate their time to a focused craft or genre, and common sense would indicate that they would be better skilled than a generalist. For example a portrait photographer who has learnt how to make a subject feel relaxed and also how best to light a human face, would be well placed to shoot a fashion campaign than someone who shoots landscapes, food, events, and by the way, portraits.

But don’t just take my word for it. Well-known author Malcolm Gladwell has mentioned the 10,000 hours guideline, whereby that would be the amount of time someone would need to invest in his/her craft to be an expert. 

The Best Work is Often the Most Complex

If I point my camera phone at a building or a person, snap, and there is a simple, unsophisticated photo. A slice of my life, but otherwise visually unappealing. 

But if I wanted a portrait with glamour lighting on the beach, with waves crashing behind me clearly visible and incredibly dramatic, could a generalist photographer pull it off? Maybe. 

However there is little time for trial and error when production budgets are on the clock. In situations like these, a specialist portrait photographer is all that you really need. A specialist portrait photographer would know immediately where to play the lights and how to angle the camera to get the most stunning waves.

Specialist Photographers have Greater Passion

Jack of all trade or master of one? Google started with being master of search, and now they’re in all sorts of fields (e-mail, social media, productivity). KFC began with their secret original recipe, and now they have modern flavours, burgers, and desserts. 

As a portrait photographer myself, I try to focus my work into what I’m most passionate about. Because if I become a generalist, I wouldn’t be caring as much for different genres apart from portraits. When you hire a specialised photographer, you know you’re getting all their heart, sweat and tears into your project. They want to succeed as much as you do, as it gives them great pride to see their work attached to your product or service. 


If your project involves people, and you’d like them to feel and look confident, glamorous, or even heroic, that’s the kind of photography I am passionate about. Together we can create some incredible portraits.


Why There Will Always be a Need for a Professional Photographer

People have been predicting the end of things since the beginning of time. Millenia ago people have been planning for the destruction of Earth or even the universe as we know it. Television was supposed to kill the radio, and internet is being touted as the harbinger of death for print. 

And with the smart phone, everyone is now a photographer.

Firstly I would contend that actually all of us have the makings of a photographer, because photography captures life, and everyone experiences life through our eyes and heart. This gives us the sense of what looks pleasing, and thus an idea of good photography composition.  

Secondly the smart phone is a tool that makes photography more accessible. Is that good? Definitely. Now people have the means to record daily their children growing up, or to capture a live event of which they may not have a means of remembering before. There’s another factor here that hasn’t received as much attention - artificial intelligence. 

It’s predicted (again) that artificial intelligence will render a good proportion of current jobs obsolete by 2030. Automatic procedures, and jobs wired deep with facts and processes are supposedly those most susceptible to influence from artificial intelligence. 

Can AI and the spread of smartphone cameras affect the livelihood of a professional photographer? Yes and no. Here’s why not:

1. Photography Still Needs to be Original.

If you were managing an advertising campaign that had to stand out beyond everything else, creating unique visuals would be a must. Otherwise why not just go to stock agencies and get images that many other companies are using? Artificial Intelligence can do that well. Input some parameters and keywords of what you’re looking for, and it will find great, beautiful photos for you to use. 

However creativity requires thinking outside of the box. Until we reach the singularity, AI cannot achieve that. Creative endeavours will continue to be safe from automation for at least a while longer.

2. Photography Requires Human Empathy

When photographing a person, you just can’t get a machine to do it. Well, actually there are already machines doing that, they’re called instant passport photo booths. Have you seen the expressions that come from those photos? 

Working with models and talent is not just about direction. If they can’t feel or imagine what you are telling them, then they’re not going to be able to perform to their highest standard. Can you imagine a photo booth machine directing a film set or photo production? No one would listen to it. 

3. Smartphones Will Always Have More Limitations than Professional Cameras

Technology improves at an exponential rate. Just 15 years ago a 128MB (yes megabyte) thumb drive was cutting edge and cost over $100. Today a 4GB capacity drive is considered too small. The same goes for smartphone cameras. Megapixel counts are going up, with dual cameras and large apertures being used. I’ve read reviews of the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2, and they are really impressive. 

But in that same time frame, professional cameras and lighting have improved tremendously. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are spitting highly detailed and crisp 50 megapixel images, and shooting 4K video as an afterthought. No night scene is impossible now, with ISO usable up to 25600. 15 years ago professionals would not dare go beyond ISO 800. 

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Now here’s what I start to worry, because some predictions do come true. Can a professional photographer become obsolete? Here’s how it might happen:

1. AI Grows Beyond our Imagination

So many top corporations are developing AI, and there are already useful applications in photography. For example in editing, AI can auto-correct not just exposure, but perhaps even cropping and colour toning. AI can remove watermarks and knows what to smoothen and what not to on a person’s face. If you think about it, technology is amazing but scary. It’s not inconceivable that AI can one day take a great photo (by itself) without instruction or parameters. 

I just read this article about AI merging photos into composites, and the results are amazing. Such a thing would be unheard of just two years ago, so you can already imagine what will become reality in the coming years.

2. Perceived Value of Photography Becomes Too Low

A professional photographer needs to make enough money to earn a living. However with the widespread penetration of smartphone cameras and AI, the public may start to perceive photography as a cheap skill without much value. 

Photographers would then be unable to earn enough because clients are unwilling to match the price needed to stay profitable. When that happens, there’ll be a market correction - either professional photographers stop existing as a vocation, or there’d be such a small number left who can take on the few clients that are willing to pay. 

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It’s an exciting time for photography, but it’s also tumultuous for us professionals. I’ve been shooting for 8 years now and there hasn’t been a time when my business felt safe in the long term. No matter where it will lead, I hope we will press on and stay optimistic.