Nikon Z5: The Best Entry-Level Mirrorless?

The Nikon Z5 was released this late summer and after some months of use, we’ve put together our thoughts on the camera. The announcement went a bit under the radar, as other big releases, like the Canon EOS R5 and R6, were announced around the same time.

After getting our hands on the Z5, we can tell you that it definitely should have gotten more press. It might in fact be the best entry-level mirrorless camera on the market.

In this article, we’ll cover the specs of the Z5 – where it shines and where it could improve. There are also a lot of comparable camera options available – the Sony A7c, the Canon EOS RP, and even the pricier Nikon Z6/Z6 II. The Z5 is actually very similar to the Z6 across many specifications but has some big differences that you’ll have to consider when deciding between the two. We’ll discuss the Z5 v. Z6 later in this article.


Nikon Z5 – $1,196.95
Key Features

  • 24.3MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor
  • EXPEED 6 Image Processor
  • UHD 4K and Full HD Video Recording
  • 3.6m-Dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder
  • 3.2″ 1.04m-Dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
  • 5-Axis Sensor-Shift Vibration Reduction
  • ISO 100-51200, Up to 4.5 fps Shooting
  • Built-In Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • Dual SD UHS-II Card Slots

The Nikon Z5 is an entry-level mirrorless camera and Nikon’s latest in the line of Z series cameras. It features a full-frame sensor and closely resembles the professional-grade Z6 and Z7. In my opinion, being able to get an extremely capable and feature-packed full-frame mirrorless camera for around $1,000 is a great deal.

The Z5 actually shares a lot of the same features and specifications as the Nikon Z6, which is priced at almost $800 more. They both use the same 273-point hybrid AF system, an EXPEED 6 processor, and the same OLED viewfinder. So, where’s the price discrepancy coming from? Well, the Nikon Z5 has watered down video features and a slower burst rate when compared to its big brother. We will touch more on the comparison between the two cameras later.

Sensor
The Z5 is primarily a stills camera and an excellent one. It has a 24.3-megapixel FSI CMOS sensor, I find that 24.3 MP is a nice ‘sweet spot’ for nature photography. It offers great dynamic range and noise handling, plenty of resolution for large prints, a little room to crop, and smaller file sizes.

The image quality is excellent and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant difference in quality between the Z5 and Z6 if you’re not doing some serious pixel peeping.

The sensor is FSI (frontside illumination) vs. BSI (backside illumination). Nikon’s higher-end mirrorless models have a BSI sensor, which allows for better noise handling and low light performance. The FSI sensor is cheaper to produce and more online with the sensor in the D750 than its other Z counterparts (which is still very good). ISO ranges from 100 to 51200, and like all Nikon cameras, noise handling is great.

The Z5 has in-body stabilization via a 5-axis sensor-shift Vibration Reduction (VR) mechanism that compensates for up to five stops of stabilization regardless of the lens in use. Something to definitely consider, as the Canon EOS RP, a similarly priced option, lacks IBIS.

Body
Take the Z5 and Z6 side by side and you’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference. But, there is a difference albeit slight. The Z5 lacks a top screen, which can be helpful to quickly see and adjust camera settings. The model dial has switched position, and the LCD is a lower resolution at 1.04-million dots versus 2.1 million on the Z6.

Everything else is in line with the Z6. The OLED viewfinder is the same and the body features a magnesium alloy chassis along with professional weather-sealing for harsh conditions. The mode dial move just takes a little getting used to if you’ve used a Z6 or Z7 and I didn’t mind not having the top LCD. The ergonomics for a $1,000 camera are outstanding and the camera feels good in the hands.

The Z5 has dual SD card slots, which is something the Z6 does not offer (the Z6 II will have dual slots though).

Autofocus & Burst
The Z5 focus system is very similar to the Z6, it also inherits a lot of the good from the D750 (remember similar sensor). Nikon uses phase-detect pixels on the sensor that can provide both focus and exposure information. The Z5 has 273 selectable points for autofocus, but there are thousands of points on the sensor via the phase detect sensor.

The Z5 focuses very well in good light, with results similar to the D750. It is not a great low light focusing camera though. Normal focus performance extends to -2 EV (extends to -3 EV) versus -3.5 EV on the Z6 (extends to -6 EV).

The benefit of the Z cameras is Nikon is committed to firmware updates and updates can be used to improve the AF performance.

The Z5 is a slow camera when it comes to burst rate. It can only 4.5fps, which is WAY below what other mirrorless cameras in the price range are capable of, and below the 12fps of the Z6. It’s interesting that Nikon couldn’t offer a better burst rate with the Z5.

Nikon uses rows of phase detect photosite masking on the Z5 sensor. The photosites on those rows can provide both focus and exposure information. Basically, every twelfth row has this dual-function nature. Nikon claims 273 points for autofocus, but that’s selectable single points using the camera controls. In reality, there are thousands of autofocus points in the camera, as is true of most mirrorless cameras using phase detect on the sensor. One thing, though: none of these autofocus detection sites are cross-type, as you find in the DSLRs. That means that focus is more responsive to detail on one axis only (long axis).

Video
In my opinion, the video features are a little disappointing. But, you can’t have it all in a $1,000 body. Nikon definitely placed the emphasis on stills, and the Z5 shines for still photography, but video leaves a lot to desire.

The Z 5 supports UHD 4K video recording at up to 30 fps and Full HD recording at up to 60 fps. The kicker is 4K video gets a massive 1.7x crop slapped on it. There are no modes above 60fps for super slow-motion video. It also cannot record 10-bit video, or N-Log/ProRes Raw, even when an external recorder is used.

I can’t figure out why, but it doesn’t have a fully articulating LCD (neither do the Z6/Z6 II). Other options do, and having that full articulation can make a huge difference when recording video.

The video quality is still good, and bit rates are similar to other cameras priced the same. I think the biggest deal for video is the 1.7x crop.

Z5 v. Z6

Camera Feature Nikon Z5 Nikon Z6
Price $1,169 $1,599
Sensor Resolution 24.3 MP 24.5 MP
Sensor Type FSI CMOS BSI CMOS
In-Body Image Stabilization 5-axis 5-axis
Image Size 6016 x 4016 6048 x 4024
Native ISO Range ISO 100-51,200 ISO 100-51,200
Image Processor EXPEED 6 EXPEED 6
EVF Type / Resolution OLED @ 3.69 Million Dots OLED @ 3.69 Million Dots
Storage Media 2x SD UHS II 1x XQD / CFexpress
Continuous Shooting Speed 4.5 FPS 12 FPS
Autofocus System 273-Point Hybrid PDAF 273-Point Hybrid PDAF
Low-Light Sensitivity -2 to +19 EV -3.5 to +19 EV
Video Resolution 4K @ up to 30p, 1080p @ up to 60p 4K @ up to 30p, 1080p @ up to 120p
Video Crop 1.7x Crop No Crop
LCD 3.2″ Tilt-Touch 1.04 MP 3.2″ Tilt-Touch 2.1 MP
Battery, Capacity (CIPA) EN-EL15c, 470 shots EN-EL15b, 380 shots
Weather Sealed Body Yes Yes
Weight (Camera Body Only) 590g 585g
Dimensions 134 x 100.5 x 69.5mm 134 x 100.5 x 67.5mm

 A lot of things are similar between these cameras. The OLED EVF, the general AF system, sensor capabilities for still photography, body design, and more.

There are key differences though, but are they worth it to you? At the time of writing, the Z5 can be had for around $1,200, while the Z6 is at $1,600, and the even better Z6 II at $2,000.

All cameras give you a great resolution that’s capable of capturing excellent images. I think the Z5 is a fantastic camera for those looking to upgrade from DX to FX, or those looking to dip into mirrorless.

The big differences are the Z5 has watered down video features with 4K recording at 1.7x crop and lack of 10-bit/Log recording (that’s like shooting RAW for video). Next, the Z6 can hit burst rates of 12fps, and it’s nice to have that speed for wildlife photography. The Z5 is super slow at 4.5fps. The Z6 cameras do have a better focusing system overall, with the biggest improvements happening in low light. But, that’s important, because as nature photographers we spend a lot of time photographing during low light periods.

Albeit minor, but the body is slightly different, with the top LCD going away and a lower resolution LCD on the Z5…that’s not a huge deal to me, although having a higher resolution LCD is nice.

Closing Thoughts
I think the Z5 is a fantastic camera for the price. For $1,200 you can get an awesome full-frame mirrorless camera for stills. I think if you’re a landscape photographer and video features don’t matter to you, save the money over the Z6 and get the Z5. Invest the extra money in nice glass. The Z5 offers incredible quality for stills, and I think it’s one of the best performing entry-level mirrorless cameras in that department. As I mentioned, the video is disappointing and that will make the Z6 cameras an easy choice for some.

If you’re a wildlife photographer, I think I’d steer clear. The $400 for the Z6 is worth it for the faster burst rate and AF system. The Z6 has also gotten firmware updates that have drastically improved its focusing capability for wildlife/fast-moving subjects.

I think another great option is the grab a Z6 and pair it with a backup Z5. That way, you have the video features and speed of the Z6 and a nice, super-capable body in the Z5 for everything else.

Overall, I’d recommend the camera and I’m considering picking one up as a backup to my Z7.

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin.  His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.

Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.

As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.

You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com


Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!

Video for the Wildlife Photographer
with Russell Graves

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time

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