It’s common knowledge that Nikon knocked it out of the park with their D850. As a long-term user of that camera, I can attest to its impressive performance in the areas that matter most to underwater photographers: image quality, autofocus accuracy and speed, and noise handling at higher ISOs. But add to that the 8256x5504-pixel sensor, the 7fps continuous shooting with AE/AF, and the very impressive 4K/30p video capture using the full sensor width, and you have a camera that many shooters deem the best DSLR in its class—or even the best full-frame DLSR money can buy.
Yet a lot has happened since I reviewed the D850 in January 2018. For starters, a little over half a year later, Nikon went “all in” on full-frame mirrorless with the release of the Z7—what looked, on paper at least, to be a thinly veiled effort to recreate the D850’s magic in mirrorless form. The video-centric Z6 dropped alongside it, and we only had to wait a month or so for Canon’s first foray into full-frame mirrorless. Since then, the “DSLR vs mirrorless debate” has become less polite discussion and more all-out conflict, and it’s become clear, with the gradual retiring of F-mount lenses and the steady influx of Z-mount replacements, that the D850 is a contender for Last Great DSLR.
The second-generation Z7 II with a native Z-mount lens: How well would it cope with sky-high ISO in Mexico’s spectacular underwater caverns—compared to the D850? (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon Z 14–30mm f/4 at 15mm, f/5.6, 1/30s, ISO 2500)
The Z7 turned out to be a decent first effort—with essentially the same sensor as the D850, it is capable of producing top-notch quality images—but as we discovered, it disappointed in some areas, including one that matters a lot to underwater photographers: autofocus. This “maddeningly unreliable” AF was apparently the big thing Nikon addressed in its Z7 II update, which added a second Expeed 6 chip to beef up image-processing duties and claimed improved focus acquisition, especially in low-light conditions. Unfortunately, the Z7 II arrived in the middle of the pandemic (in October 2020), many housing manufacturers have taken longer than usual to get their housings to market, and camera reviews, especially the diving-specific variety, have been slow to emerge.
All of which brings this D850 user to the present, having spent some quality time in the water with the Z7 II in Ikelite’s housing, which is compatible with both original and updated versions of the Z7 and Z6. Having recently taken up cave diving photography, I had the opportunity to really put the Z7 II through its paces and find out how it copes with the low-light and high-dynamic-range situations found in Mexico’s cenotes. I also headed to the Red Sea to test out the camera’s autofocus with colorful and often fast-moving fish. Did the Z7 II meet the challenge, and most crucially, how did it stack up against my trusty D850?
|Nikon Z7 II
||Ikelite Housing for Nikon Z7 II, Z6 II, Z7, Z6
The sensor in the Z7 II offers 46-megapixel images with stunning detail (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8, f/13, 1/200s, ISO 125)
1. Intuitive Camera, Easy-to-Use Housing
Mirrorless cameras like to boast that they are lighter and smaller than their DSLR counterparts, and getting a topside feel for the camera, I found the Z7 II was indeed nice to hold in the hand, with the half pound shaved off the D850 being quite appreciable. Still, it should be emphasized that this doesn’t really matter all that much underwater, as when we add a housing and lighting, these rigs are about the same size. If you’re an Ikelite user like me, you’ll hardly notice the difference, since their housings all fit a very similar mold, just with slight variations in control placement.
Like many people moving to a Nikon full-frame mirrorless camera, I made use of my tried-and-true F-mount lenses with Nikon’s FTZ mount adaptor, which the Ikelite housing is able to accommodate: the 105mm for macro, and both the 8–15mm fisheye and the (rectilinear) 16–35mm for wide angle. But I also wanted to test—and compare—some native glass, so I opted to bring the Nikon Z 14–30mm, another rectilinear lens that wouldn’t skew my speleothems—that’s stalagmites and stalagtites to you and me!—like the fisheye. I used both 8-inch and compact dome ports as well as a flat port for macro.
As with the D850, the Z7 II demands the very best glass, like Nikon’s excellent, and unique, 8–15mm fisheye (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 8–15mm f/3.5–4.5 at 15mm, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 200)
I also had the good fortune of being able to try out two of Ikelite’s new DS230 strobes. A step up from the DS161s, which are very popular among users of both Ikelite and non-Ikelite housings, the strobes look and feel the same, but they have even more power on-board: an impressive guide number of 32 versus the DS161’s guide number of 24. The DS161 and DS230 use the same rechargable battery packs, and you can get around 300 flashes per charge at high power and as many as 1,000 at lower power settings with the latter. The major difference I noticed with the DS230s was the color temperature. Slightly warmer, the light helps to saturate blue backgrounds and produce more vibrant, natural tones. (Check out my full set of images from the Red Sea shot with the DS230s.)
The main advantage of Ikelite strobes is their amazing TTL technology, which automatically chooses the perfect flash burst to be emitted for a given subject or scene in front of the camera. This was especially handy with limited time to try out an unfamiliar camera. I could use all my time getting used to the new system and playing with camera settings, and I didn’t have to worry about the strobes and getting optimum power, as it was all done for me. (I sometimes do shoot my strobes in manual for creative or artistic shots, but in normal use, the TTL helps keep things simple and delivers great results.)
Ikelite’s TTL system ensures you get the perfect pop of light to expose your subject every time (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 8–15mm f/3.5–4.5 at 15mm, f/10, 1/200s, ISO 200)
Overall, the Nikon Z7 II handled well, with the housing and strobes offering the benefits Ikelite shooters are accustomed to, including on-the-fly switching between TTL and manual flash exposure; a transparent back that allows users to double-check the integrity of the main O-ring; and clearly engraved control symbols—which won’t rub off—so you know which button does what. The shutter and AF-ON levers have a nice curved design, and if trigger extensions are added, they’re easy to reach when the (essential) right-hand quick release handle is attached.
Being a rectilinear lens, the Z-mount 14–30mm is a better choice for decorated caves with lots of straight lines, rather than the exaggerated distortion of the 8–15mm fisheye (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon Z 14–30mm f/4 at 14mm, f/7.1, 1/30s, ISO 3200)
2. Competent Autofocus, but with Caveats
By any measure, the D850 sets a very high bar for autofocus performance. As I noted in my D850 review, in the murky cargo holds of Truk Lagoon’s deep wrecks, it still managed to lock focus with next to no light, while the camera’s “3D Tracking Mode” could keep fast-moving sharks in focus in the viewfinder almost flawlessly.
The Phase Detect Autofocus subject tracking of the Z7 II wasn’t quite as proficient at keeping the Red Sea’s speedy reef fish in sharp focus, and I had to work harder to get satisfying macro shots of skittish anemonefish. After trying several AF settings, I settled on using single point autofocus and found that moving the point around, which was easily achieved through the Ikelite housing, helped to get more in-focus images. With wide-angle lenses, including the F-mount 8–15mm fisheye and the Z-mount 14–30mm rectilinear, autofocus was confident and snappy.
Performance aside, it’s worth pointing out that anyone used to composing images through a DSLR’s optical viewfinder will find it tough—as I did—to transition to the electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera. While the Z7 II’s EVF is a good example of its kind in terms of size, resolution, and dynamic range detail, it pales in comparison to the big, bright optical image of the D850. It might be my aging vision, but I found it all but impossible to discern critical focus or detail in the shadow and highlight areas with the Z7 II’s viewfinder and I resorted to using the LCD on the back panel to compose, and review, shots. Perhaps the extra distance from the eye to the eyepiece caused by the housing made it difficult to see the EVF properly or it may be that determining critical focus demands a whole new way of working, by making use of the focus peaking tool in the viewfinder (but that’s a discussion for another day). It’s also worth noting that both EVF and LCD make significant demands of the Z7 II’s battery: I’m used to doing four-plus dives on one charge with the D850, but with the Z7 II, I was changing out the battery at least every other dive and sometimes after each dive just to be on the safe side.
Anemonefish are always on the move and nailing a tack-sharp macro portrait was a little more challenging with the Z7 II compared to the D850 (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8, f/18, 1/200s, ISO 125)
With wide-angle scenes, the Z7 II’s autofocus system confidently locked onto subjects, even in Mexico’s dark caves (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon Z 14–30mm f/4 at 14mm, f/5.6, 1/30s, ISO 3200)
3. Insane High-ISO Capabilities
Underwater caves aren’t just incredibly challenging environments for photography; they’re also a very tough proposition for your camera. Even when you max out your aperture and reduce your shutter speed as low as you dare, it’s so dark that you’ll need to crank up your ISO to 2000 at least—and often beyond—to get anything approaching an image. At the same time, while the cavern walls may be pitch black, light beams—natural light streaming in from openings at the surface or artificial light from divers’ torches—will be very bright, demanding sensors with exceptional dynamic range.
Given the similarities in sensors in the D850 and Z7 II, I wasn’t surprised to note the malleability of the latter’s RAW files and see the excellent detail and control of noise in the resulting images. I was extremely impressed by how much detail could be brought back both into the underexposed cavern walls by increasing the shadows, and into the overexposed light beams by reducing the highlights. Under such extreme conditions, there is, of course, perceptible noise, but it’s generally not at the expense of detail until you reach really outlandish ISO values, and it can be managed to a great extent with some judicious noise reduction in Photoshop.
For the caves, I switched from the 8–15mm fisheye lens to the Z-mount 14–30mm and F-mount 16–35mm (both almost always set to their widest focal length) because I find cave walls and the rock formations appear too distorted with the fisheye effect. I liked the results with both lenses, although I started to prefer the 14–30mm and couldn’t help but feel that I was getting a little sharper or faster focus without the FTZ adapter in the mix.
Top: Cave scenes are stunningly detailed with barely perceptible noise, even at ISO 2500. Bottom: Viewed at 100%, image detail is excellent (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon Z 14–30mm f/4 at 15mm, f/11, 1/50s, ISO 2500)
The RAW files out of the Z7 II are extremely malleable. Left: The unprocessed image is severely lacking in detail in both light and dark areas. Right: In post-processing, we can bring back lots of fine detail in the shadows as well as temper the blown-out highlights (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 16–35mm f/4 at 16mm, f/6.3, 1/60s, ISO 2500)
4. Big, Beautiful Images, Again and Again
Given how apparently similar their sensors, it’s no surprise that the images from the Z7 II are just as impressive as the D850’s. With a shade under 46 megapixels to play with, you can crop heavily, if needed; create poster-sized prints; or display them on your 8K TV—and still have plenty of pixels to spare. For me, it’s hard to fault the Z7 II’s images for sharpness, color vibrancy, or dynamic range detail. I loved the images from the Z7 II for all the same reasons I love those from my D850.
Coming from the D850, there are a couple of important points to note about the Z7 II. Firstly, the sensors in both cameras have a base ISO of 64, which allows you to preserve a little more dynamic range detail than the vast majority of full-frame cameras on the market, DSLR or mirrorless, which go no lower than ISO 100. That won’t help you in a pitch-dark underwater cave, but if you’re shooting sunbursts, you should see good detail preserved in the highlights. Secondly, flash sync speed tops out at 1/200s on the Z7 II. So, in situations where you’re balancing artificial light with bright ambient light, such as when capturing those sunballs, you won’t have quite the same latitude as with the D850, which has a maximum flash sync speed of 1/250s.
One final point is regarding continuous shooting speed. The additional processor in the Z7 II made it possible to triple the buffer size, allowing you to shoot up to 77 uncompressed 12-bit RAW images at 10fps—more than enough to capture fast action underwater. While that speed trumps the D850’s 7fps, keep in mind the Z7 II is using single-point AF, with AF/AE tracking, as opposed to the D850’s more effective “3D” tracking. Either way, it’s very handy that we have dual card slots (like the D850)—one SD and one CFexpress/XQD—so there are now two separate homes for those gigantic files.
Some corner softness is inevitable in wide-angle images, especially when shooting wide open, but the Z7 II’s ultra-high-resolution files give you the option of cropping generously if you wish (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon Z 14–30mm f/4 at 15mm, f/7.1, 1/30s, ISO 2500)
Burst shooting can increase your hit rate with fishy subjects that don’t want to stay still (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8, f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 125)
5. Final Thoughts
Faced with the difficult conditions found in Mexico’s submerged cave systems, the Z7 II rose to the challenge, producing detailed, punchy high-resolution images even at higher-than-usual ISO settings. Noise was well controlled and the RAW files preserved plenty of information to bring out the hidden shadow and highlight detail in post. In my Red Sea testing, the Z7 II churned out images with vibrant colors and excellent contrast, and even if I had to work a bit harder to get spot-on focus with trickier moving subjects, I didn’t experience the frustration that underwater photographers have reported with the original Z7’s performance.
Kudos to Nikon, then, for creating a more-responsive, more-usable all-around camera that is ready to take on any subject. If you’re upgrading from compact to full frame, the Z7 II should definitely be on your short list, while Ikelite’s housing, TTL system and strobes will ensure you start taking great pictures with minimal effort.
If you’re “moving up” from a DLSR, well, you may have to accept some harsh realities that may feel, at least initially, like a step down: The less-than-glorious view through the EVF, the less-self-assured autofocus, and the very-much-less-impressive battery life are all potential bugbears. Sooner or later, however, given the rate at which “old-mount” lenses are being discontinued, we’ll all have to live with such compromises and embrace the new tech. For now, I’ll hang onto my D850 for just a little while longer—at least until I can afford a Z9!
The Z7 II is a great all-around camera that is equally at home shooting colorful reefs and deep, dark caves (Nikon Z7 II, Nikon AF-S 16–35mm f/4 at 16mm, f/5, 1/40s, ISO 2500)
About the Reviewer: Brandi Mueller is an award-winning underwater photographer, writer, and obsessive traveler who tries to spend as much time underwater as possible. She is a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, and works as a dive instructor and boat captain, when not taking photos for fun or teaching photography.
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