Nikon Zf Review: Hands-on First Look

With Nikon’s rich heritage in film photography, it’s no great surprise to find many of its users hankering after digital models that resemble classic 35mm SLRs. Previously, the firm’s attempts at delivering such cameras have been underwhelming, with the Df DSLR from 2013 being awkwardly bulky, and the mirrorless Zfc of 2021 undermined by the lack of matched lenses for its DX-format sensor. However, the new Nikon Zf looks to be an altogether more attractive proposition, and quite probably, one of the best Nikon cameras yet.

Nikon Zf at a glance:

  • $1999 / £2299 body-only
  • $2239 / £2519 with 40mm f/2 SE lens
  • $2599 / £2849 with 24-70mm f/4 zoom
  • 24.5MP full-frame sensor
  • ISO 100-64,000 (standard)
  • Up to 14fps continuous shooting
  • 3.69m-dot, 0.8x electronic viewfinder
  • 3.2in, fully articulated touchscreen
  • 4K 30p video; 4K 60p (1.5x crop); Full HD 120p
  • Like the Zfc, the new Zf’s design harks back to the classic Nikon FM film SLR (and its later successors such as the FM3A). But now, it packs a 24MP full-frame sensor along with all the firm’s latest imaging technology. As a result, it might just be the retro-styled camera that Nikon fans have wanted all along.

    Nikon Zf colour options

    The Zf will be available in a range of colours though Nikon’s online store. From left: Moss Green, Indigo Blue, Stone Gray, Sunset Orange, Sepia Brown, and Bordeaux Red. Credit: Nikon

    At $1999 / £2299 body-only, the Zf looks competitively priced against its most obvious rivals, the Canon EOS R6 Mark II ($2599 / £2779), Panasonic Lumix S5II ($1999 / £1999), and Sony Alpha A7 IV ($2499 / £2399). Unlike the Zfc, it will only come in a black finish, not silver. However, for those who’d like a degree of personalisation, it will be available with various attractively coloured leatherette coverings from Nikon’s online store, as shown above.

    Nikon Zf: Features

    Given its 24MP resolution, it might be tempting to assume that the Nikon Zf is just a prettified version of the existing Nikon Z6 II. But there’s rather more to it than that. Crucially, it gains the firm’s latest Expeed 7 processor, as used by the top-end Z8 and Z9. This brings a number of benefits, most notably subject detection autofocus.

    Nikon Zf in-hand with 40mm f/2 lens

    The Zf may look old-fashioned, but it’s packed full of the latest tech. Credit: Jon Devo/Amateur Photographer

    Like its siblings, the Z f can recognise and track people, animals (cats, dogs, and birds) and vehicles (cars, motorbikes, bicycles, trains, and airplanes). You can either specify a subject type manually, or let the camera choose between them automatically, which makes the system particularly easy to use.

    One notable new feature is that subject detection can also be used in manual focus mode, determining where the live view display will zoom into for checking focus. But this only works with lenses that have electronic contacts.

    Nikon Zf 24MP full-frame sensor

    Nikon has used a 24MP full-frame sensor, presumably similar to that in the Z6 II. Credit: Andy Westlake

    Elsewhere, the Zf boasts a very capable-looking spec sheet that belies its vintage looks. It offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-64,000, expandable up to ISO 204,800, and it can shoot at 7.8 frames per second with C-AF. There’s a further 14fps ‘extended’ mode without live view between frames, and even 30fps if you’re happy to shoot JPEG-only.

    When using the conventional autofocus system, this offers 273 points, with 89% x 96% frame coverage. Nikon claims the autofocus will work in extraordinarily low light levels equating to -10 EV, which almost sounds too dark to record much of an image.

    Nikon Zf rear controls

    The Zf’s rear controls are practically identical to the Zfc. Credit: Andy Westlake

    In-body image stabilisation (IBIS) is rated for 8 stops of shake reduction and has a new feature whereby it can be linked to the focus point. This could, in theory, provide better stabilisation for long exposures with off-centre subjects. It’s now possible to combine electronic and mechanical stabilisation in movie mode for increased effectiveness, too.

    Nikon has also included its first pixel-shift multi-shot mode. This has 4, 8, 16 and 32-shot options, which promise various combinations of improved pixel-level colour accuracy, higher 96MP resolution, and reduced noise. The camera must be mounted on a tripod and the final image generated on a computer using Nikon’s NX Studio software. Nikon has been coy about how the various modes work, but judging from the camera’s onscreen help, it seems likely to be as follows:

  • 4-shot: Full-colour sampling at each pixel location, by moving the sensor up, down, left and right by 1 pixel
  • 8-shot: As 4-shot, but repeated to reduce noise
  • 16-shot: 4x 4-shot sets, presumably offsetting the sensor by 1/2 pixel each time to achieve higher resolution
  • 32-shot: As 16-shot, but repeated to reduce noise
  • However, while multi-shot modes sound great on paper, they rarely work well with anything other than static still-life subjects. They tend to be the kind of feature you’ll use once to test how they work, then never touch again.

    Nikon Zf fully articulated screen

    The fully articulated screen can be set to face at almost any angle. Credit: Andy Westlake

    Another feature new to the Z f is an Advanced Auto exposure mode, which now incorporates deep learning technology. Nikon says this analyses the subject in front of the camera and adapts the settings accordingly, but it goes beyond the scene modes we’re used to seeing on other cameras. For example, with group portraits it should stop down the aperture to get sufficient DOF to cover all the faces. Likewise, with moving subjects it promises to tailor the shutter speed to get sharp results.

    Nikon Zf connector ports

    Nikon Zf connector ports: USB-C, headphone, microphone, and micro HDMI. Credit: Andy Westlake

    While the Zf is clearly primarily designed for still shooting, it also has a decent video specification. It can record 4K video at 30fps using the full sensor width, and at 60fps with a 1.5x crop. Meanwhile Full HD can be recorded at 120fps. There’s a choice of 8- or 10-bit colour, and Nikon claims extended recording times up to 125 minutes. Microphone and headphone sockets are built in, but understandably the HDMI port isn’t full-size and of the micro type instead.

    Nikon Zf: Key features

    Retro design: Nikon has included top-plate dials for shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation. However, none of Nikon’s lenses have clicked aperture rings.

    Storage: There are two card slots, one for UHS-II SD and, more unusually, a second for Micro SD. This should be a useful backup option, although it does risk limiting the camera’s burst shooting performance due to slower write speeds.

    Nikon Zf battery and cards

    The Zf uses Nikon’s standard EN-EL15-type battery, but unusually, includes a MicroSD card slot alongside a standard UHS-II SD. Credit: Andy Westlake

    Power: The camera uses Nikon’s familiar EN-EL15c battery, just like the Z6 II, Z7 II, and Z 8. It’s charged via the USB-C port.

    B&W mode: A top-plate switch gives quick access to black & white shooting, plus conventional photo and video modes. There are two new B&W picture controls, with the standard Monochrome option joined by Flat Monochrome and Deep Tone Monochrome. Nikon says the Flat option is ideal for further manipulation, while Deep Tone is akin to using a red filter with film. B&W mode is just like photo mode, except you can’t shoot in colour.

    Nikon Zf B&W switch

    The photo/video mode switch adds a third position for B&W shooting. Credit: Andy Westlake

    Articulated touchscreen: This is Nikon’s first full-frame model with a side-hinged, fully articulating touchscreen rather than a tilting unit.

    Viewfinder: A central electronic viewfinder completes the SLR-like design, with similar specs to that in the Z6 II (3.69m-dot and 0.8x magnification), and a classic 1970s ‘Nikon’ logo on the front.

    Nikon Zf: Build and Handling

    In terms of design and control layout, the Zf is near-identical to the Zfc. It has the same set of top-plate dials controlling shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation, plus an exposure mode switch to select between P, A, S, M, and Auto. The body is, however, scaled up in size to accommodate the full-frame sensor and IBIS mechanism. At around 144 x 103 x 49mm and 710g, it’s about the same height as the Z6 II but wider, as the battery has been turned around 90° to fit into the flat body.

    Nikon Zf control dials

    Control dials on the camera are used for changing exposure settings, but Nikon’s Z lenses don’t have aperture rings. Credit: Andy Westlake

    The Z f is also noticeably better built than the Z fc, with a dust and drip-resistant magnesium alloy shell and chunky brass dials that click satisfyingly as they’re turned. A small finger grip on the front provides a more secure hold, but it’s a shame Nikon hasn’t added a thumb hook on the back. An ‘official’ extension grip will be available to improve handling with larger lenses, which is made by SmallRig and includes a built-in Arca-Swiss tripod plate, for a very reasonable £44.99.

    Nikon Zf with Smallrig handgrip

    The Nikon Zf fitted with the optional with Smallrig handgrip. Credit: Nikon / Amateur Photographer

    One small but welcome update is that the ISO dial now only locks into its new C position, which should make it much easier to use. When it’s set to C, you can change the ISO setting using onscreen controls, or use Auto ISO without having to dive into the menus (which was an irritation with the Z fc). Another nice new touch is that the shutter button is threaded for an old-fashioned screw-in cable release.

    Where the retro design arguably comes unstuck, though, is with regards to aperture setting. By default, this uses a dial on the front of the camera body, with the selected value shown on a small top-plate screen. This doesn’t exactly give a classic shooting experience in the same way as the superb Fujifilm X-T5; instead, it’s much like any other electronic camera. Alternatively, you could use the control dial found on Nikon’s Z lenses, but these don’t have click stops (and with the 40mm f/2 SE kit lens, this would mean using the focus ring).

    Nikon Zf ISO dial

    The ISO dial now only locks in its new C position, which can be used as a quick way to access Auto ISO. Credit: Andy Westlake

    I can’t help but feel the Zf would work best with compact primes that have dedicated clicked aperture rings, along the lines of Sigma’s lovely i-series optics. Unfortunately, these aren’t currently available in Z mount. However, for manual focus aficionados, Voigtlander’s Z-mount primes might just be the perfect answer.

    Unlike the Z6II, there’s no joystick on the back for setting the AF point, but there’s an 8-way d-pad instead that’s the next best thing. It’s just not quite as easy to hit the diagonal positions consistently. You can also use the touchscreen to move the focus area, both when using the screen and the viewfinder.

    Nikon Zf rear three-quarter view

    An 8-way d-pad on the back is used to move the focus area. Credit: Andy Westlake

    This isn’t all the touchscreen can be used for while shooting with the viewfinder, either. Via Nikon’s new Touch Control function, it’s possible to select between the subject’s eyes when using face detection, zoom into the image to check focus, or enable / disable the framing gridlines or electronic levels display. You can choose to use either all the screen for this, or any half or quarter.

    Nikon Zf: Initial Verdict

    I must admit I wasn’t much of a fan of the Zfc, but the Nikon Zf strikes me as being an altogether more desirable machine. It just feels so much more nicely made, and there’s a far wider range of full-frame Z-mount lenses available, too. What’s more, that full-frame sensor means that old F-mount SLR lenses can be used via the FTZ adapter, while providing exactly the same field of view as they did on film. As a result, the Z f isn’t just a pretty face, but promises to be a serious photographic tool.

    Nikon Zf in use

    The Zf’s attraction may not be entirely rational, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Credit: Jon Devo/Amateur Photographer

    This is the kind of camera that will appeal to photographers on an irrational level, just begging to be picked up and used. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially if it inspires you to go out and take more pictures. But there’s plenty of brains on board, too. Most obviously, the addition of subject detection should elevate its autofocus abilities usefully beyond the Z6 II.

    Even from a few hours with the Zf before it’s official launch, it’s clear that it’s by far the best of the firm’s attempts to date at making a traditionally styled digital model. Nikon fans are sure to love it.

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    Nikon Zf: Full Specifications

    Nikon Zf with 40mm f/2 SE lens

    Nikon Zf with 40mm f/2 SE lens. Credit: Andy Westlake

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