”Nikon’s taken the entry-level full-frame segment by storm.”
After first releasing their mirrorless Z system with the pro-oriented Z6 and Z7 back in 2018, Nikon followed-up with the APS-C flagship Z50. But, until now, the options for a full-frame mirrorless product were solely the Z6 and Z7. And sadly, both of them are quite expensive. Thankfully, in 2020, the release of the Z5 aims to change that. The Z5 is Nikon’s fourth mirrorless camera slotted to sit directly above the Z50 and below the higher-end Z6. And it now becomes a second entry-point for new users into the Z system.
At first glance, it not only looks identical to the Z6, but it also borrows many of its high-end capabilities and specifications. While technically classified as an entry-level model, it ticks many boxes in the vein of a high-end camera. Yet, at launch, it’s currently the most affordable full-frame camera they’ve released to date. As such, it looks to be quite an attractive option for existing DSLR shooters or first timers wanting to jump into full-frame. And it’s a camera Nikon aims directly at budget users wanting a lower-cost full-frame option.
In price, it competes with Sony’s A7 Mark II and Canon’s EOS RP. But in features, it competes directly with Canon’s EOS R and Sony’s A7 Mark III. But, as only their fourth attempt at mirrorless, can they compete? Even more so in the entry-level full-frame segment? Let’s find out.
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Nikon Z5?
It features a 24.3MP CMOS sensor and the EXPEED 6 image processor. Nikon opted to use their conventional CMOS sensor with this camera, rather than implementing the Backside Illumination (BSI) structure found in the higher-end Z6. By design, BSI is quite costly to implement, so it makes sense to see this removed. Thankfully, the differences between conventional CMOS and BSI sensors are only apparent when zooming in 100% at higher sensitivities. And technically, a BSI sensor slightly increases a camera’s dynamic range.
Nevertheless, most users will not recognize any apparent differences between this camera and other higher-end Z system bodies. The sensor in this camera is likely from the D750, which was a strong performer. Not surprisingly, the image quality this camera delivers is excellent and on a high-level. It’s 14-bit NEF RAW images contain plenty of color data, dynamic range, and are quite sharp. Nikon refined their color-science with the Z6, and this camera follows suit with natural and pleasing rendering. And overall, the image quality is excellent for this price point.
The camera offers continuous speeds of 4.5 fps. While a bit on the slow side, it should be sufficient for most moderate moving sports and action. And this particular Continuous High setting maintains both autofocus, tracking, and auto-exposure.
It shoots 4K Ultra HD video up to 30 fps and 1080p Full HD video up to 60 fps to either the MOV or MP4 formats. And it supplies data rates of 144 Mbps and 56 Mbps for 4K and 1080p, respectively. The caveat here is that shooting in 4K results in a 1.7x crop into the frame, making it roughly the equivalent of shooting in the DX (APS-C) mode. This 1.7x crop factor is mostly standard in this segment, with Canon EOS RP having a similar limitation. Thankfully, recording in 1080p does so at full sensor width, without any crops. Otherwise, the video quality in itself is excellent. The footage is quite sharp, with plenty of dynamic range and natural colors.
It obtains Time Code, and you can adjust the settings via the menus when recording in the MOV format.
It obtains zebras for highlight clipping indication, and you can enable them during recording.
You can also capture still while recording, which doesn’t interrupt the video. However, you can only take one photo at a time, regardless of the continuous shooting mode and only up to 40 with each movie. These images cannot be retouched. And the camera records photos at the current dimensions and settings of the movie in the JPEG fine format, regardless of settings.
It obtains the Flat picture profile, which preserves details over a wider tonal range for more natural footage that lends itself for easier post-processing.
Like many cameras in this class, video recordings also limit at the industry-standard 29 minutes 59 seconds.
Low Light Performance
It features a native ISO range from ISO 100 to 51,200, further expandable to a high setting equivalent of ISO 102,400. Unlike the higher-end Z6, it doesn’t provide a second high setting that pushes the top end to ISO 204,800. Nevertheless, low light performance is good for the class. And users can expect usable images up to ISO 3,200 or 6,400 with minimal processing.
It obtains the same 273 point Hybrid phase-detect AF system from the Z6. This system melds both contrast and phase-detection to improve accuracy. But it also offers 90% frame coverage and AF support down to -4 EV. Nikon’s based this system on firmware v3.0, which brought about updated AF tracking, Face, and Eye-detect AF for humans and animals. And, overall, the focusing on this camera is excellent. The system is quite robust, accurate, and well implemented. Nikon made leaps and bounds over the last year to improve this system. And it’s quite competitive to Canon and Sony today.
The camera also offers focus magnification and peaking, if you prefer manually focusing.
It uses the EN-EL15c battery, which now provides the longest lifespan of the entire Z lineup. Nikon rates the battery to deliver 470 shots per charge when using the rear monitor and 120 minutes of video recording. These figures are excellent for the class and surpass the 350 shot industry-standard. It also represents a 52% improvement over the Z6, which only offers 310 shots in comparison.
Display & Viewfinder
It obtains the same OLED electronic viewfinder as the Z6, which has a resolution of 3.69M dots, a 60 Hz refresh rate, and a large 0.8x magnification. At the time of release, this was among the best in the full-frame mirrorless segment. And today, while not industry-leading, it remains excellent. And the viewfinder is bright, clear, and sharp. Interestingly, you can also adjust its color balance, in addition to brightness.
The camera also obtains a similar 3.2-inch TFT touchscreen LCD as the Z6. But, the difference here comes in resolution. Instead of inheriting its 2.1M dot display, Nikon opted to use a 1.04M dots, a figure more in-line with the entry-level segment. Nevertheless, it does use the same tilting articulation. While videographers may be disappointed not to see a fully articulating LCD, still shooters will rejoice as it helps when composing at high or low angles. And overall, the viewing experience is excellent. The display provides good contrast, accurate colors, and is quite sharp. Since it’s a touchscreen, it also offers Nikon’s full suite of touch functionality. These include touch focus, touch shutter, pinch to zoom, navigating in playback, and full menu navigation. A bonus, you can also configure the rear displays color balance. Interesting touch.
It obtains Nikon’s standard user interface and menus featured on the Z range. And like it’s successors, the interface remains clear, organized, and easy to use. The menus are also well optimized for touch input, gestures, and swiping to change pages. Overall, the user interface is excellent, considering its complexity. Existing Nikon users and newcomers to the Z range will find them immediately intuitive and quickly mastered.
The camera obtains the My Menu, a custom menu where you can create and edit a list of up to 20 items. And this custom page saves time digging through various menus to find your most-used menu settings.
It also obtains the Custom Setting Menu, a single page to customize all of the camera’s physical and virtual options.
Some menu items have a Help icon when applicable, which describes the currently selected setting. This is quite a subtle addition, but one that will help new users understand various in-camera settings.
It features the same customizable iMenu as the Z6 and Z7, which offers quick and immediate access to 12 programmable user-defined parameters. This quick menu gives you access to all of your frequently-used settings on a single page. And you can customize this list for both photo and movie modes separately.
It has three custom user setting modes on the mode dial, U1-U3. These allow you to create three full shooting setups, which you can quickly recall at any moment.
The camera obtains the two custom function buttons (FN1 and FN2) located on the inside of the grip. These buttons are in the same position as the Z6 and provide nine customizable functions.
You can also rate pictures during Playback. And you can do side-by-side comparisons to compare images.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
In body design, ergonomics, and handling, this camera is nearly identical to the Z6. And it also uses a similar magnesium alloy construction for the top and front covers, which provides full weather sealing. But, at only 590g body alone, it remains reasonably lightweight for a full-frame camera. The only minor difference between it and the Z6 is the missing top-deck status LCD. As such, the Mode Dial positioning now moved to the right side of the camera. Nikon also opted to remove the rear magnesium cover, replacing it with plastic instead. But, functionally, the cameras are identical. And it remains equally durable and robust.
It also uses the same button layout as the Z6, the vast majority of which fall on the right side by the grip. And coupled with it’s large and comfortable grip, it delivers outstanding one-handed operation. Nikon’s known for strategic button placement and excellent ergonomics, and this camera follows suit.
It has a dedicated AF-ON button, useful for back-button focusing.
It has a dedicated AF joystick for quick and responsive AF point selection.
It has a dedicated video record button, conveniently placed by the shutter release for immediate access.
It has dual adjustment dials to control shutter speed and aperture.
It features 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS), and it’s now the best system Nikon offers. Nikon rates the camera for 5.0 stops (EV) of stabilization, which allows you to capture sharp images at 1/2 second shutter speeds. They’ve also equipped the camera with the Movie e-VR Mode, which adds electronic stabilization at an additional crop. Overall, the system performs quite well and does wonders to stabilize footage and remove handshake.
It has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity for wirelessly transferring images to smartphones or computers. You can also remotely control the camera via the SnapBridge app and geotag pictures. Nikon’s even equipped the camera with the new 5 GHz band, which offers faster transfer speeds than the standard 2.4 GHz alone.
Nikon listens to user feedback and has equipped the camera with Dual card slots. In this case, both supporting UHS-II speeds. These cards allow overflow storage, backup, and separate recording. And this addition ultimately becomes a distinct selling feature over rivals and their Z6, which all lack this option.
It has a microphone input, and you can change both the input sensitivity and enable an attenuator via the menus.
It has a headphone output, and you can control the volume via the menu.
It has a USB-C port, and it’s now the first Z system camera to support both USB charging and power delivery. With that, you can now shoot indefinitely once connected to a power source.
It has a mini-HDMI port, which is always preferred over the micro size.
It has a fully silent electronic shutter.
It obtains AF Fine-Tuning, so you can adjust the attached lens for precise focus when needed.
It obtains Nikon’s full and extensive suite of in-camera editing via the Retouch Menu. In this menu, you can process RAW images, resize, trim movies, straighten, and more. Like the Z6, this in-camera editing functionality goes far above rivals in options and flexibility. And it removes much of the need for post-processing using a computer.
The camera has 20 Creative picture controls, which you can apply to add flair to images.
It has built-in Multi-Exposures. And it can combine up to ten RAW images into a single render in-camera.
It has built-in HDR to preserve details in both highlights and shadows by combining two images.
It has a built-in intervalometer for time-lapses, with plenty of customization over the start time, interval, number of shots, and exposure smoothing. And it’s the first camera to create timelapse movies in-camera and save full-resolution stills simultaneously. This option delivers more flexibility in post-processing to combine the high-resolution 24MP files and have the lower quality MP4 in-camera video on hand.
It obtains the Focus Shift Shooting Mode, which takes up to 300 images while advancing the focus with each shot. This is an excellent addition for macro and product photographers. But, it doesn’t stack these images in-camera. For that, you’ll need post-processing software.
It has a 1.5x APS-C (DX) Mode, which you can use to extend the attached lens’s reach.
It has Image Comment, which allows you to add a short comment to the images’ metadata, which you can view in post-processing.
It has Flicker Reduction, which reduces the effect of a flickering light source such as fluorescent lights.
It obtains several lens correction options. These include Auto Distortion control, reducing barrel distortion and pin-cushioning, Diffraction Compensation, and Vignette control.
It has a large selection of Auto Bracketing sets, including Auto Exposure (AE), Flash, Active D-Lighting, and White Balance.
Unlike higher-end Z system cameras, it doesn’t obtain advanced video features such as N-log, 1080p 120 fps, 10-bit 4:2:2, or 12-bit RAW recording. For these features, look at Nikon’s Z6 instead.
It lacks Eye-AF for both humans and animals when recording video. Instead, the camera only offers Face Detection.
It lacks the top status LCD from the higher-end Z cameras.
It lacks a built-in pop-up flash.
Unlike the Z6, there’s no lock on the Mode Dial.
Is this a good beginner camera?
Given its launch pricing, it makes an excellent beginner’s camera and a strong alternative to Nikon’s Z50. Even more so, if you want a budget full-frame camera with far superior capabilities, ergonomics, and features. Yet, it remains equally easy to use. For the price, you get many pro-level features, and it’s a solid option for long-term growth and development.
Is this a good camera for you?
This camera is an excellent option for still shooters, particularly event photographers or journalists. It has excellent imaging performance and ergonomics. Plus, it’s tough to find IBIS and dual card slots at this price point.
This camera is also an excellent option for current DSLR shooters who want an upgrade, particularly for current D610 owners. In capabilities, it sits right below the D750 and is the mirrorless equivalent of the D610. And it’s the perfect way to access Nikon’s Z system glass, which has progressively improved and mostly outpaces their standard Nikkor counterparts.
This camera is also the ideal choice for users looking to upgrade to their first full-frame camera. To date, it’s the most affordable new full-frame camera, and it offers a substantial feature set for this price.
This camera is an excellent choice for those wanting a second body or backup camera, particularly if you’re already invested in the Z system. Nikon’s done well to have all accessories and batteries translate to this new camera. So there minimal added costs.
For videographers, this camera’s adequate, but better options exist. It’s clear Nikon aims this primarily at photographers, and as a photography centric tool. But it’s slightly handicapped as a hybrid or advanced video camera. With the heavy crop in 4K, lack of 120 fps, vari-angle screen, and log profiles, it’s not the strongest choice for budding cinematographers. Consider saving for the Z6 instead unless you only shoot video casually.
For sports, wildlife, and photojournalists, this camera isn’t ideal. With a burst rate of only 4.5 fps, it’s not the fastest camera. While this is a similar burst rate as its competitors, it does castrate this camera to slower-moving subjects.
In the end, Nikon’s Z5 is their most affordable full-frame camera to date. But it’s a home run release on their part. In many ways, it’s the more affordable Z6, where the two cameras are mostly identical minus a few high-end video features. As such, it’s an excellent entry-point into full-frame and Nikon’s Z system. Compared to its closest rivals, it’s undoubtedly the best option to date. The Z5 provides a far more refined and sophisticated feature set, with minimal compromises. And it stands as the current leader of the budget full-frame class. Its only real competitor is the Z6, which can sometimes be found at a similar price on the used market. And the Z6 does offer some helpful advantages that make it the superior choice for hybrid shooters. Nevertheless, for most users, this camera is the more persuasive option. And, as a package, it offers immense value for money.
Nikon’s Z5 is a home run release, and as their most affordable full-frame camera to date, they’ve excelled. It’s the budget-friendly alternative to the higher-end Z6, but one that does so with minimal compromises. And given the competition in this segment, it currently stands as the camera to beat. And it’s now the best option for those wanting full-frame on a budget.