The DSLR vs mirrorless consideration has never been a more seriously one for many photographers. Until recently, DSLRs have been the first choice for professionals due to their reliability and performance, but recent offerings have upended that convention.
As a lifelong Nikon shooter, I was insanely excited about the introduction of the Nikon Z mirrorless system. The compact form factor, autofocus capabilities and the promise of a next-generation platform for the most advanced optical performance combined with the quality and performance that Nikon is know for were all tantalizing.
But was mirrorless up to the rigors of concert photography? After all, shooting live music is intensely demanding on a camera system. As I like to say, concert photography is all about low light, fast action and high ISO. It demands exceptional performance from your gear — speed, responsiveness, and performance at every level.
After using the Nikon Z system extensively as a professional music photographer, I can definitively say that this mirrorless system is more than up to the challenges of live music photography. Here's my report on shooting mirrorless for concert photography.
The Nikon Z 7 may be mirrorless, but as soon as you pick it up, it feels like a Nikon. This may sound trivial, but Nikon users will know what I'm talking about. The button placement, the grip, the way you can access controls intuitively with a sweep of your fingers or thumb — these are the kind of ergonomic advantages that Nikon is known for among serious shooters.
The Z 7 (and Z 6, which features an identical body) will feel immediately familiar to users of the Nikon D850 or D750 and D780. Many features, from the ISO, movie recording, and +/- exposure compensation buttons and the dual front and back dials are present. Same too with the D-pad and mini joystick for faster AF point selection.
For me, the Nikon D750 is the perfect size for a DSLR. The D850 is the most perfect DSLR I've ever used in terms of performance and features, but it's handles slightly large for me. I love that the Z 7 is more in line with the size of the D750. Coming from the D850, the Z 7 still has a full grip, but in a slimmer and more compact form factor. For me, this is win-win.
In my opinion, one can always add a plate or a grip extension, but you simply can't strip down a larger camera to be smaller if and when you want it. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a D5 or D6-like mirrorless flagship with an integrated grip, but for now I am loving the smaller size of the Z 7 platform.
The customization of the Z 7 is the best I've seen. The D850 offered a ton of customization in various function buttons, but the Z 7 increases that level of customization to an even higher degree.
The main customizations I have for my Z 7 include setting the two function buttons to image playback and to review zoom at 1:1. This lets me very quickly review and zoom to check focus on images, which is valuable info for me as I shoot and check images off my list during an event.
In stills shooting mode, I have the movie record button set to toggle AF mode. Here, I also have my command dials reversed, so the back dial controls the AF point selector, while the front controls the focusing mode (AF-S / AF-C / MF).
In the studio using Nikon Speedlights, I'll set one of the function buttons to the top item of the My Menu setting, which in my setup is for remote flash control, allowing me to quickly set flash power and change active groupings with using the Nikon WR-R10 radio transmitter. Thanks to the EVF, I can change flash power to exactly my needs, toggle a flash on or off, and so forth, all with the camera still up to my eye and while still engaging my subjects. I LOVE this feature and it makes studio shooting extremely fluid.
Between these customizations, the Info button (which allows for quick access of almost all common functions) and the layout of the default controls, I have a huge level of control over every setting I need on an active basis. Overall, I absolutely love the control and handling of the Z 7.
Nikon Z Lenses For Concert Photography
The native Z mount glass that I've used for the Nikon Z 7 has been overwhelmingly the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 S line lens. This is Nikon's new midrange zoom and cut right to it, this is the best midrange zoom I've ever used.
The sharpness and contrast wide open is tremendous. The edge to edge sharpness — all with a level of clarity and lack of distortion — is something that I've never seen before in a zoom lens. It's even better than the Nikon 24-70mm f/4, which is actually a considerable statement because that lens, too, is really excellent.
The 24-70mm range is a staple of concert photography, and here the new S line f/2.8 version is my favorite yet. AF speed is extremely fast and confident — zero hunting, this lens just locks on even with fast moving subjects in low light.
Other lenses in my Z series kit include the 35mm f/1.8 S line and the 50mm f/1.8 S line primes. Both are equally impressive shot wide open. I find myself doing silly things with these lenses, like putting the focus point in the very corner of the frame and checking sharpness, just because the results are so uncommon to me. The images are always wickedly sharp, the kind of results that I'd expect stopped well down on a normal DSLR lens.
For me, the lenses of the Nikon Z system are the real “killer app” and a very loud reason to switch to Nikon's mirrorless system. The next gen optics and the very real benefits of a very short flange back distance (allowing the optics of the lens to be at a minimum distance from the sensor) create a level of optical performance that feels incredibly special to see first hand.
If you look at the MTF charts for all of Nikon's new glass, the differences are stark. In almost every instance, the contrast and resolving power are not only higher in the middle of the frame, they are also higher across the frame to the corners.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 S line is my most recent Z mount kit addition and it's honestly the best 70-200mm lens I've ever used. It improves on even the 70-200mm f/2.8E VR which had previously been the best iteration of that range, with the Z mount version bringing enhanced sharpness across the frame wide open.
After that, it's only the 14-24mm f/2.8 that I truly need to complete my trifecta of lenses for concert photography. I can easily shoot most regular concert shoots with these three lenses and create a dramatic range of imagery. Down the road, I'd love to see a 15 or 16mm fisheye and a compact 300mm f/4 like the current 300mm f/4E VR PF.
Performance of Using Adapted Lenses on the Nikon Z 7
The Nikon Z series has the ability to mount practically any F-mount lens via the FTZ adapter. This adapter provides the appropriate flange-to-mount distance between the lens and the sensor. With the F-mount, this distance is 46.5mm, while with the Z mount it's an extremely short 16mm — the FTZ adapter makes up for the 30.5mm difference (and of course the difference in the mounts themselves).
In my experience, the performance of native F-mount lenses on the Nikon Z 7 has been flawless with the FTZ adapter. Currently, I'm using the following F-mount lenses on my Z 7, all with flawless performance:
AF speed, AF accuracy and optical performance are all exactly identical to me moving between the Nikon D850 and the Nikon Z 7. These two cameras both use a 45.7 megapixel sensor that is extremely similar, so this is a very good basis for comparison.
The FTZ adapter does add a little length to any combination, but it's generally so small that it doesn't dramatically affect the balance or handling of any of the lenses. For what small differences there are in the balance is still small factor compared to the ability to use all my favorite F-mount lenses.
The AF performance of the Z 7 for live music photography has been tremendous. I absolutely love the 90% coverage. The extremely wide coverage has literally changed the way I shoot — this is not an exaggeration.
The Z 7 features 493 individual AF points that cover the frame right to the very corners and edges. If you're use to shooting a DSLR, the coverage that the Z 7 offers is a dramatic expansion that can't be understated if you compose in a way that pushes your subjects to the edges of the frame.
My most-used AF modes for concert photography are the Dynamic AF and Auto Area AF modes. Currently, I have the AF set to only use half of the available points, which speeds up point selection.
I've found that AF speed and precision has been nearly identical to the Nikon D850. I would have given the edge to the D850 at the Z 7's launch, but the v2.0 firmware update in May of 2019 made any difference practically nonexistent in my experience. Just recently, Nikon has released the v3.0 firmware which by some reports improves the AF performance even further.
Back to why I'm in love with the Z 7's AF.
When using DSLRs, I always utilized back-button AF — using the dedicated AF-ON button with my thumb as the only way to activate AF, rather than having AF tied to the shutter release. The reason is that even with the best autofocus point spreads on cameras like the D850, the area was still relatively small relative to the frame. The way I like to compose, even and especially for action, I'm often putting my focus point toward the top edges of the frame. To achieve the AF I wanted for my compositions, I would activate AF with the back-button using the closest AF point to my target and then recompose quickly for my final framing.
With the Nikon Z 7, I can compose exactly how I want in the frame with zero need to recompose. For me, this experience of achieving focus and composition was a real revelation.
For general shooting, I have really liked the Dynamic AF mode of the Z 7. This mode allows me to pick a single AF point and utilize the surrounding points for improved tracking and precision. What I like about this mode is that it gives me the precision of a single AF point with the security of a larger “hit” area of my target briefly moves off that AF point where continuous AF can still keep focus.
For individual performers, I've taken to using the Auto Area AF mode more recently. I have found that the camera excels at this mode when shooting with tighter framing on an individual, such as half-length shots of a musician with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. The eye AF and face detection features of the Auto Area AF mode perform extremely well here. The level of freedom that the Auto Area AF mode enables is really game changing and lets me focus on the action and the composition in a way that has never been possible before.
With the new firmware v3.0 update that has just been released, Nikon has tweaked the tracking mode of the Auto Area AF mode, making it's UI much closer to that of the 3D AF mode of the D850 and D750. 3D AF was my most favorite AF mode and I'm so excited to put it to use in its implementation in the Z 7 for events. For me, it's the best of both worlds — the precision of a single point with the range of tracking across 90% of the frame. In the update, the tracking mode now snaps back to the original starting point when I release the shutter fully. Previously, the point snapped back to the center of the frame when tracking was actively cancel.
As an aside, it's extremely cool to see Nikon making major updates like this with every large firmware jump.
Speed and Responsiveness
The Nikon Z 7 offers an high frame rate of 5.5 FPS in the standard mode, and a maximum of 9 FPS with AE locked. For action involving live music photography, I find this level of continuous speed a great option to have. I am always one to have my cameras in Continuous High shutter release mode because the speed is there when I want it, while I can also shoot a single frame just as easily.
One big contributing factor to the speed of the Z 7 is the use of XQD and CFExpress cards. I used XQD cards with the Nikon D850 and for me these were revolutionary. Not only are the read and write speeds in-camera much faster than even the best SD cards, the download time to computer is about half that with SD, making the ingest and editing process that much faster when it's time to get to work. As an event photographer, the faster download speed isn't just a benefit to me, it's a benefit if I have a dedicated photo editor pulling down files. They're able to download the cards faster, start on the edit, and return my cards faster because of the speed of XQD.
The overall responsiveness of the camera is excellent — the same level of reflexiveness as my DSLRs like the D850 in the feel of the shutter release and the EVF. More on the viewfinder next.
EVF — So Good You Forget About it
Going into using mirrorless, the quality of the viewfinder was a question for me. I'd always used optical viewfinders, but using the electronic viewfinder was a game changer for me. There are differences to be sure, but after a short time using the EVF I have come to prefer it for my photography.
There are a couple key reasons for the quality of the EVF. One is the display itself — the 3.6 million dot display of the viewfinder is so high in resolution, it's easy to forget you're looking at a display and not an optical display. The second is the optical component of the viewfinder — the assembly of lenses that allow for a crystal clear, distortion free and 100% coverage display. The quality of the EVF's optics shouldn't be discounted. Both of these elements combine with a real-time display to allow me to be immersed in the action of live music and capture those “rockstar” moments without compromise.
Moreover, the EVF offers benefits for low light, in being able to essentially give me enhanced reality and amplify dark scenes. Instead of being limited by the brightness of my glass, the EVF of the Z 7 allows me to literally see in the dark, almost giving me “night vision” in its ability to show me my exposure of the scene, not the scene's own relative brightness. For concerts and lower lighting, this is a huge benefit.
In addition, I love the real-time view of my exposure. I can immediately see the overall exposure of the scene as well as having a real-time histogram display. All of these things add up to creating a more fluid and responsive shooting experience with mirrorless and the Nikon Z 7.
The EVF lets me stay in the moment, reviewing image playback or go into the menu without taking my eye from the viewfinder. It might not sound like a dramatic change, but these little efficiencies are a huge benefit during something as fast moving as concert photography where one's constraints are constantly pushing you to the limits. If I'm photographing a concert as a press photographer and only have three songs to work, every moment counts in capturing those rockstar moments.
Low Light and High ISO Performance
The high ISO performance of the Nikon Z 7 is excellent, especially considering the very high resolution and the ability to downsample for a cleaner image. I find the Nikon Z 7 on par with the Nikon D850 in this regard. I am personally happy to use up to ISO 12800 for my client work and regularly use between ISO 1600 and 6400 with zero hesitation.
The color fidelity of Nikon's cameras even at high ISO is exceptional. Chroma noise is low and luminance noise is very fine at high ISO. All of these qualities give me confidence and the freedom to use the high resolution cameras I prefer like the Nikon Z 7 and D850, even when I work almost exclusively at high ISO.
What's more, in shooting RAW (my default 100% of the time), the file latitude for exposure adjustments is excellent. Many of Nikon's recent cameras like the Nikon D750 and D850 have been essentially ISO invariant, meaning that you'll get the same quality shooting at ISO 1600 natively as you would shooting at ISO 400 and adding +2 EV to the file in post. This detail is irrelevant if you nail your exposure 100% of the time, but if you're a mere mortal, this is a huge benefit. Even with the EVF, I will fine tune the exposure in post processing, adding up to +1 EV or sometimes even more. Because of the nature of the sensors and the way they respond to post processing, I never have to worry about ugly banding or unexpectedly nasty shadow noise if I do minor exposure compensation in post.
The image quality of the Nikon Z 7 is exceptional. I've touched on the high ISO performance, which for me is excellent and an easy move from the equally nice Nikon D850.
At low ISO, the resolution of the Z 7 really shines, and particularly in the studio. There, the 45.7 megapixel resolution of this camera gives gorgeous detail and plenty of it. The lack of an anti-aliasing filter on the Z 7 means no unwanted blurring at the sensor level, so the files from this camera are rich and as good as you want them.
I know what you're thinking. The Nikon Z 6 is the low light king, so why is this guy using the high resolution Z 7? As a professional music photographer, my concert photography work focuses on larger concerts with great production quality. I'm most often shooting in arenas and amphitheaters where I can shoot between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 with my f/2.8 glass and still come away with shutter speeds of 1/500 to 1/1000. In addition, my clients and especially my tour photography clients use my work in a commercial capacity, where an image might be blow up as a truck wrap for the next year's semi trucks or on a billboard.
Mirrorless Benefits for Concert Photography
For me, there are some very clear benefits of choosing mirrorless for concert photography, and these are the very reasons I've chosen two Nikon Z 7 as my main it for my live music work. Here are some summary points of why I've made the switch from DSLRs to mirrorless for my music photography.
Fluid Shooting Experience
The fluidity of shooting with the Nikon Z series is a huge selling point for me. It frankly feels strange to go back to using a DSLR after using the Nikon Z 7 almost exclusively since this camera's introduction in 2018. This fluid experience is a combination of the level of customization of the camera combined with the ability to use the EVF almost exclusively while I'm shooting — the need to use the rear display is non-existent. Image review and menu options can all be accessed with ease with the EVF, which allows me to keep the camera up to my eye, putting me in the best position to stay in the zone and capture the moments in front of my lens.
The Best New Glass
I'll say it again — the new Z-mount glass is the killer app for Nikon's mirrorless system. This is the reason for me to upgrade to mirrorless, knowing that I can take advantage of the best and most advanced optics and deliver exceptional image quality to my clients. Every new Z-mount lens I've used is wickedly sharp wide open and has superior wide-aperture performance across the frame to their F-mount counterparts thanks to the advantages of the very short flange-back distance of the new mount.
The Best F-mount Glass
While the new Z glass is superlative, I have a ton of F-mount glass and I love that I can use all my favorite lenses with ease with the FTZ adapter. Better yet, they behave exactly as the do on my Z 7 as they do on my D850 — perfect AF, perfect optical performance. This adapter removes what for me would otherwise be the biggest concern — switching to mirrorless doesn't mean giving up any of the lenses I already have.
The EVF makes me feel like I can see in the dark. The ability for the EVF to show me the exposure I want, just not the actual scene, is a huge bonus for anyone who works in low light. The brighter scene that the EVF gives me allows me to see details that I might otherwise miss and otherwise just see better. In addition, I love the “heads up display” of real-time info like a live histogram so I'm always aware of my exposure.
Compact and Lighter Bodies
I always shoot with two identical bodies for my concert photography. I love the fact that the Z 7 offers me a compact and light body and cuts down on the total weight of my kit. For festivals and shooting on tour where I'm shooting for an extended set, the benefits are significant even when it means shaving ounces off my kit.
Nikon is known for their ergonomics and their user interface (both in button layout and the digital menu interface) as being easy to use and extremely intuitive. The Nikon Z 7 takes the DNA of a Nikon camera and showcases it in a mirrorless form factor. What's more, they have increased the customization options to the point where I feel the Z 7 can be even more tailored to my exact preferences as a concert photographer.
Summary on the Nikon Z 7 for Music Photography
Overall, as a music photographer who shoots both concert photography and celebrity portraits and musician portraits, I feel like I'm in a position of wanting a do-it-all kind of camera. Just like the D850, the Z 7 fills that kind of Goldilocks sweet spots with the fantastic resolution and speed that I want for my work.
After shooting the Nikon Z 7 for over a year, I'm all in on this camera system. I'm switching out all my F mount lenses as soon as their Z mount versions are available.
Nikon's mirrorless system takes everything I love about Nikon — from their superior ergonomics and UI to color science and phenomenal optics — and takes it to another level of customization and performance. Nikon's Z system has me feeling like I can work more fluidly and effortless as a photographer. For me, that's always the best mark of the best tools.