Review: Nikon Z 5

Nikon markets its 24.3-megapixel Z 5 as an entry-level full-frame camera, but that’s an understatement. While the 24.5-megapixel Z 6 and Z 6II are more fully-featured, the Nikon Z 5 can hold its own, and it makes a fine choice for a second body. To see what it could do, I brought it along with my Z 6 while covering different editorial and commercial jobs. I had the Z 5 kit that includes the camera body, EN-EL15c battery and charger, and Nikkor Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3 zoom lens.

©Ellis Vener
Then-senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff hold boxes of food to give away at the 2020 Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless 50th Anniversary event Nov. 26, 2020. Photographed with Nikon Z 5 and Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens at 38mm. Exposure

The primary internal difference between the Z 6 models and the Z 5 is the type and resolution of the CMOS sensor. While both the Z 6 models use a 24.5-megapixel backside illuminated (BSI) CMOS, the Z 5 is built around a standard 24.3-megapixel CMOS. If you’re a JPEG-only photographer, the difference begins to show up as less noisy shadow detail once you go beyond the base ISO. There’s little difference in shadow detail among the three cameras between ISO 100 and 640, but the Z 6 models are better at ISO 800 and above. As with all digital cameras, this improvement of shadow detail separation comes at the expense of highlight detail at higher ISOs; as you increase the gain applied to the signal, fewer photons get counted. The BSI CMOS also makes the image processing pipeline faster.

In still camera mode the maximum ISO range of the Z 5 and Z 6 is identical (100-51,200) the Hi mode of the Z 5 goes up to the equivalent of 102,400, while the Z 6 can, in a pinch, be set for Hi 2 (ISO 204,800 equivalent). In movie mode, the Z 5 Auto ISO mode is capped at 25,600, while the Z 6 Auto ISO range goes from 100 to 51,200.

©Ellis Vener
Photographed with Nikon Z 5 (in DX crop mode) and Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens at 44mm

Another difference between the Z 5 and the Z 6 is the choice of recording media. Much criticism was directed at the Z 6, which sports a single XQD or CFExpress 2.0 Type B card slot. The Z 5 uses dual SD slots, which also accommodate SDHC, and SDXC media, the latter being nearly as fast as XQD and CFExpress media types. The Z 5 autofocus system speed and accuracy are on par with the original Z 6 and Z 7 models. For portrait, studio, journalism, and event work, the AF response is more than adequate, even when working with large-aperture lenses like the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 S.

©Ellis Vener
Taken with Nikon Z 5 and a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG HSM lens at 160mm, exposure 1/640 second at f/4, ISO 1600

Externally there are differences between the Z 5 and other full-frame Nikon Z bodies. The Z 5 lacks a top-deck LCD camera status panel, and the exposure mode control is on the right side of the electronic viewfinder hump; otherwise it handles just like the Z 6 and Z 7 cameras. The rear, top, and front buttons and dials are in the same positions. The right-side handgrip remains the same, with a curving inner edge for a more natural finger position. As on the higher-end models, the built-in monitor measures 3.2-inches and is mounted on a heavy-duty bi-directional hinge mechanism. However, the monitor is half the resolution of the one used on the Z 6 and Z 7 models—1.04 vs. 2.1 million dots. The Z 5’s electronic viewfinder (EVF), a 0.5 inch 3,690K-dot Quad VGA OLED, is identical to that in the Z 6, Z 7, Z 6II, and Z 7II cameras. Nikon’s EVF remains the best offered by a hybrid still/video camera.

For video shooters, the Z 5 can record in 4K (3840x2160 pixels) at 30, 25, and 24 fps, full HD (1920x1080 pixels) at 60, 50, 30, 25, and 24 fps. The chief limitation for video work is that only the central 58% of the full sensor area is active. This 1.7X crop factor is useful when you need a narrower angle view but limits ultra-wide angle use.

The simplified top deck makes for better ergonomics, but I wish Nikon had incorporated a lock on the dial that selects exposure mode. More than once, I found I had inadvertently switched modes. In practice, the rearrangement of the top deck controls is both handy and a little maddening. I would be lying if I said I don’t miss the top deck LED panel that’s been a staple of higher-end Nikon bodies since the N8008 of the late 1980s. The settings for ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, exposure bias, flash-mode, battery status, and more are all available in the EVF and on the rear LCD panel, but I’m accustomed to being able to glance down at the deck for that information.

Physically, the Z 5 body is only 0.2 ounces heavier and a mere 0.1 inch thicker than the Z 6 or Z 7. All full-frame Z cameras use the same viewfinder screen with 0.8X magnification of 100% of the sensor area, providing the best EVF experience available today.

The kit lens performed surprisingly well. It’s small, making it a good choice when you don’t want or need larger lenses and for using the camera on a stabilizing gimbal.

If you’re a Nikon Z shooter, the Z 5 is an excellent choice as a second camera, especially considering the $1,399.99 price. The Z 5 comes with an EN-EL15C battery, which can charge through the camera’s USB-C port. All Nikon EN-EL15 series batteries work in the Z 5, but only the EN-EL15b (dark gray) and EN-EL-15C (black) batteries can charge in-camera, and the newer batteries have a greater capacity as well. 

Ellis Vener is a contributing editor.

Measurements and analytic data from photonstophotos.net were used in researching this review.

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