(Pocket-lint) – There was a moment not so long ago when the camera market stalled. Nikon, in particular, was affected and somewhat lost its way. Products were cancelled. Production struggled compared to the norm. Then, thankfully, the Japanese maker came back with a whole new camera system – its mirrorless Z series – and reaffirmed why it’s a force to be reckoned with.

But top-end cameras never come cheap, so while many will have baulked at the original Nikon Z7 and Z6‘s asking price, the step-down Z5 (on review here) is the company’s way to make its full-frame line-up that bit more affordable. But with Sony, Panasonic and Canon all fighting for space, just how well does the Z5 hold up?

Design & Lens Mount

  • Nikon Z mount (FX full-frame format)
  • Dual SD card slots (UHS-II compliant)
  • Dust & moisture sealed magnesium alloy body
  • Built-in electronic viewfinder (0.5in, 3,690k-dot OLED)
  • Tilt-angle mounted touchscreen (3.2in, 1,040k-dot LCD)

To look at you’d probably struggle to tell the difference between the Nikon Z6 and this Z5. The two cameras are more or less identical, except the Z5 is about 20 per cent cheaper.

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Just because it costs less cash doesn’t mean there’s any scrimping on the feature set. The body is (mostly) magnesium alloy and weather-sealed against dust and the elements. There’s a large-to-the-eye electronic OLED viewfinder with heaps of resolution. The rear LCD is touch-controllable and mounted on a tilt bracket. There’s two card slots, too, both of which are SD rather than the lesser used (and altogether pricier XQD type).

As we said of the Z6, the Z5 has a design that appears very much ‘mirrorless DSLR’ – which is what the masses had long been asking for. It’s got the main buttons and dials in the right places to make quick adjustments, although we’d like a secondary dial to make quicker yet adjustment for metering, burst, and some other settings (the reserve of even higher-end cameras, really).

Using the camera feels natural though: the joystick-like toggle to the rear is ideal for quick adjustments and positioned well should you be using the camera up to your eye; and that electronic viewfinder is such high quality that it often doesn’t seem like an electronic one at all.

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There are some slight changes we would make though. Although the 3.2-inch LCD screen is of ample quality (albeit not the very highest available) we’d like to see it vari-angle mounted instead – just as we said of the Z6.

Performance

  • 5-axis Vibration Reduction (VR) stabilisation system
  • 273-point Hybrid AF autofocus system
  • Face/Eye/Pet Detection options
  • Adjustable AF point size
  • Up to 4.5fps burst max
  • Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
  • USB charging

The autofocus system in the Z5 is also the very same as you’ll find in the Z6. We find it’s a little more varied and precise than what you’ll find from Canon’s EOS RP in the way it controls.

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Not only does the Nikon offer 273 autofocus areas – encompassing 90 per cent of the frame, making edge-to-edge focus simpler – you can adjust from auto to wide-area, single-area or pin-point focus.

We really love the pin-point option. With a full-frame sensor at your disposal it’s critical to get focus and aperture selection right – and this option helps keep things extra precise.

Like many of its competitors, the Z5 also offers face and eye detection – including those of dogs and cats. So it’s super easy to shoot your subjects, friends, family and pets. Sometimes the camera thinks it spies a face in among random textures, when it locks on and then doesn’t want to let go, but otherwise it’s very responsive at latching onto subjects. We have been impressed by this kind of system in the Panasonic Lumix S1, so it’s great to have here.

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Autofocus is generally capable, although we’ve found the single area mode to struggle a little more when it comes to lower light conditions. It doesn’t hunt excessively, but can simply fail to find focus at all sometimes. The multiple area focus options tend to find an alternative to latch onto instead, generally bypassing any contrast detecting issues in other modes.

Switch to continuous autofocus and things remain capable, but it’s here – i.e. with speed – that the Nikon Z5 displays it’s not the top-end camera on the market. Sony already offers some incredible subject tracking from its active focus system. And when it comes to burst shooting the Z5’s maximum 4.5 frames per second is lower than the Z6 and many other cameras in this class – showing it’s got a smaller buffer and being the ultimate key point of difference as to why it’s a more affordable camera overall.

Still, even without being able to whirr off dozens of image a second, the Z5’s in-body image stabilisation is a clear benefit. Having that added assurance that hand-held shots will be extra sharp at even fairly low shutter speeds is highly reassuring – and you can see it in the results.

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Battery life is reasonable overall. Like the other Z series cameras you should be able to shoot a bundle – 300-400 shots – before the cell will deplete. Even then, thanks to USB charging, you can (slowly) recharge it out in the field with an external pack if you so wish.

Image Quality

  • 24.3 million pixel full-frame CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100 to 51,200 sensitivity (expands to 102,400)
  • Video capture: 4K at 30/25/24p (1.7x crop); Full HD (1080p) at 60/50/30/25/24p (no crop)

As the Z5 sits below the Z6 you’d probably expect lower grade image quality. That’s a half truth, though, as it’s only with much higher resolution images that you might see the Z6’s benefit. In terms of resolution the two cameras are more or less the same.

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Point being: the Z5 really excels with its image quality. Although for this review we’ve only had the collapsible 24-50mm f/4-6.3 lens which, while certainly small and suited to this kind of body, does have aperture limitations.

That said the Z mount is yours for the taking. If you want a faster, sharper and more accomplished lens then take your pick. And the kind of resolve you’ll get from the best of the Z mount is nothing short of breath-taking from what we’ve seen in the past. The Z5 can tap into all of that – if you’ve got the spare cash to invest in more glass anyway.

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The quality isn’t just down to pixel-peeping judgement, mind, as the shallow depth-of-field possibilities that a full-frame sensor offers open up a whole world of possibilities. The sensor’s extra size just enhances that melty blurred background look.

Equally impressive is how the ISO sensitivity holds up. The lowest ISO 100 delivers pristine shots with a good amount of dynamic range that holds up even through to ISO 800.

The higher ISO sensitivities still hold a fantastic amount of detail. You’ll inevitably see more grain from ISO 1600 up to ISO 6400, but it’s not a major bother. Go beyond this and the older Z6 has the upper hand, but only by a whisker.

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When it comes to video the Z5 isn’t as top-of-the-tree as some of the competition out there. Yes, it can capture 4K video, which is great, but the crop factor is rather high (at 1.7x). And when Panasonic has the S5 to compete, we suspect videographers will be lining up elsewhere from a moving image perspective. Not to mention the Sony A7S III (which can shoot 4K at 120fps).

Verdict

After the camera industry stalled for quite some time, it’s now in a renaissance period. Nikon’s Z series cameras and new lens mount – which arrived about the same time as Canon’s EOS R – has once more shown the kind of heights the brand can reach. And the even more affordable Z5 shows off this full-frame potential in real style.

However, this new period is also a competitive one – especially when it comes to video capture. And with new cameras from Panasonic (Lumix S5), Sony (A7S III), Canon (EOS R5), the Nikon Z5 shows its video shortcomings. Not that it’s unimpressive, it’s just outclassed in this regard. We’d also like to see continuous autofocus and low-light shooting improvements, and a vari-angle mounted LCD screen would be an added bonus.

When it comes to stills, though, the Z5 is a star. As mirrorless cameras go the Nikon is easy to use, has a wonderful viewfinder, introduces improved autofocus features, and feels pitched to the correct kind of audience (the dual SD cards rather than XQD card being one example of this user friendliness). That all adds up to what’s arguably the best entry-level full-frame camera you can buy.

Also consider

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Canon EOS RP

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There’s little doubt that the future of Canon’s advanced amateur and pro market lies in the R series, and the RP offers an affordable route into the system. However, it’s the battery life and 4K video performance that is likely to put users off. For stills shooters not looking to take hundreds of images a day, though, this is unlikely to affect you.

Writing by Mike Lowe.





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