The second half of 2018 will be remembered as a momentous time for the camera world because Canon and Nikon, two of the most storied companies in the industry, finally got serious about mirrorless cameras. They both launched new full-frame mirrorless cameras with equally new mount systems and lenses that both hope will carry them long into the future. Nikon launched the Z7 and Z6, a duo with specs clearly designed to challenge Sony’s Alpha A7R III and A7 III cameras. Canon released the EOS R with an impressive set of fast lenses to go along with it. It’s clear that both companies recognize mirrorless as the future of their prosumer camera products — even if these three cameras borrow more than a little from the companies’ DSLRs.
As they charge in, Nikon and Canon are hoping they can disrupt and chip away at Sony’s dominance of the full-frame mirrorless market. A generous head start now finds Sony on its third generation of professional mirrorless cameras that excel at both stills and 4K video. So the legacy camera makers have a lot to prove. After spending a good amount of time with all three cameras, I’m very impressed by these first swings. The Z6 and EOS R are upgrades for photo hobbyists and pros who want a well-rounded but familiar full-frame camera, while the Z7 is more suited to people who demand the amount of data and cropping flexibility that its high megapixel count can deliver. If you’ve got a Nikon D850 and want something lighter, it could make for a natural switch. But everyone else — assuming you know you want to go full frame — will be fine with the Z6 or EOS R, as they offer enough resolution for basically any scenario.
Canon and Nikon are each offering adapters that allow their existing glass — EF / EF-S in the case of Canon, and F-mount for Nikon — to be mounted onto their new mirrorless cameras. If you’ve already invested in either a Nikon or Canon loadout, your choice really comes down to deciding whether either first-generation camera meets your needs now, or if you should just stick with what you’ve got and wait for the eventual second wave. Diving in head-first to a completely new camera system can be daunting.
In terms of native glass, I find Canon’s lenses to be more exciting than Nikon’s at launch. The Canon f/4 24-105mm gives you more reach than Nikon’s f/4 24-70mm kit lens, though the Nikon lens is more compact. And the 50mm f/1.2 is a terrific demonstration of what’s capable with Canon’s large full-frame sensor combined with the short 20mm flange distance afforded by a mirrorless design. (The flange is measured between the sensor and the lens mount. For reference, the 5D Mark IV’s is 44mm.) Nikon has an even more efficient 16mm flange measurement, but for now, its fastest lenses are f/1.8 50mm and 35mm primes. The 35mm I tried was incredibly sharp, don’t get me wrong. Canon is also shipping an f/1.8 35mm prime. Nikon’s 24-70mm lens is perfectly capable and delivers great image output. But the company’s boldest plans for the Z cameras — like a manual focus f/0.95 58mm lens — are still in the “coming soon” column.
Both companies include Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity in their cameras for transferring your images to a smartphone or PC. And it works as advertised for the Z Series and EOS R; my shots made their way over quickly and without any failures. Ideally, I still want this syncing process to be a bit more effortless, but Canon and Nikon are pretty much offering the best experience they can working with what they’ve got.
Aside from their very different resolutions and far-apart prices, the 45.7-megapixel Z7 and 24.5-megapixel Z6 share a ton in common. For one, body design is identical between the two cameras (including dimensions, weight, and their durable, weather-sealed construction), and that’s a good thing. Nikon has done an excellent job with ergonomics and button placement. As someone with large hands, my pinky can still hang off the body depending on how I’m holding either camera, but the grip is deep enough to offer a secure grasp when that happens. The EVF extends out from the back of the camera far enough that your nose won’t be smushed up against the LCD. And the focus joystick, i button (where you’ll put all your most-used menu items) and dials are all within easy reach.
There are also two function buttons at the front of the camera between the grip and lens designed to be accessible with your index and middle fingers. Hitting these might take shifting your grip a bit, but I didn’t find their placement to be too annoying. On top of the camera is a small LCD for checking your settings, plus ISO and exposure comp. buttons, a video record button, plus mode and command dials.
Both cameras have a USB Type-C port, microphone input, headphone jack, HDMI output, and an accessory connector on the left, with the XQD card slot over on the right. The Z7 and Z6 only have one memory slot, and Canon’s EOS R also has just a single SD slot. Pro photographers have bemoaned this decision from both companies, as it makes these cameras a no-go for events or weddings where redundancy is mandatory. On the plus side for Nikon, XQD cards are rugged and should be dependable — but they’re also expensive and not yet as ubiquitous as SD cards. A second slot would’ve eased any worry over potential nightmare scenarios during a shoot.
Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless cameras each feature a 0.5-inch, 3.69 million-dot electronic viewfinder that’s big, sharp, and just plain fun to compose shots with. It gives an accurate preview of your image before snapping the shot. With a 60Hz refresh rate, this isn’t the fastest EVF around, but I didn’t have any complaints with it in use. The 3.2-inch rear LCD also does its job just fine: you can tap to focus using the display, but disappointingly, you cannot swipe around the LCD with your finger while looking through the viewfinder to adjust the focus point. This is something I’ve really come to like on the Fujifilm X-T3, and it can be even faster than thumbing around the joystick once you get it down. With both Nikons, the rear display can be angled up or down, but it doesn’t rotate to either side, nor can it flip out to face the front for vlogging.
The best thing about the Z7 and Z6 — and a distinct advantage they hold over the EOS R — is their in-body image stabilization. Nikon engineered both cameras with 5-axis stabilization at the sensor level, which means that any lens you attach to either of them will at least have that. If you have one of Nikon’s lenses with lens-based stabilization (Vibration Reduction, or VR, in Nikon’s parlance), the results will be even better since they work in conjunction. IBIS really made a difference in my day-to-day use of the Z7 and Z6. Even as a person with quaking, shaky hands after a couple cups of coffee, I could regularly get sharp images at 1/20th of a second. If your subject is moving, IBIS will only get you so far, but for static subjects, it’s an enormous help. All premium cameras should offer it, and since Sony does, that leaves Canon as the odd one out.
But the Z7 and Z6 also struggle in the same area: continuous autofocus. These cameras just can’t quite lock on to moving subjects as confidently as Nikon’s top DSLRs. This holds true whether you’re using single-point, dynamic area, wide area, or auto area AF.
Nikon Z7 ($3,399 body only | $3,999 with 24-70mm lens)
Who it’s for: landscape photographers and pros who want the most editing flexibility
The Z7 is a resolution beast. Its full-res images come out at a near medium format level 8256 x 5504 pixels, which affords a ton of flexibility for cropping in on a shot. If you’re a landscape photographer and value the sheer resolution, this easily comes out on top over the Z6 or the EOS R. You can zoom right in on a Z7 image (and then keep zooming), and things will stay tack sharp. There are 493 different hybrid phase / contrast-detect autofocus points at your disposal on the Z7, and they cover 90 percent of the frame, so forget about having to focus and then recompose a photo.
Beyond resolution, another advantage the Z7 has over the Z6 is base ISO: it’s 64 here versus 100 on the cheaper camera. For continuous shooting, the Z7 can do up to 9 fps in 12-bit RAW, but choosing this speed will lock exposure after the first frame of your burst, and the camera shows a preview of the shot you just took in between each frame. This prevents blackout, but could be distracting if you’re trying to track a moving person, vehicle, or animal. The standard 5.5 fps continuous shooting still feels plenty fast for my needs and offers autoexposure.
But 45.7 megapixels is still what I’d consider excessive for most photography purposes. You’re left with very large files (between 15 and 30MB for a JPEG and often over 60MB for each RAW), and those can quickly devour hard drives.
The Z7 can record 4K video using its full sensor, but the quality isn’t optimal if you do that. I rarely shoot video, but this explainer from Gerald Undone does a good job of laying out the downsides of the line skipping process that the Z7 does to capture full-frame 4K. You should go with the oversampled APS-C crop mode if you want to shoot sharper 4K on the Z7.
Nikon Z6 ($2,000 body only | $2,599 with 24-70mm lens)
Who it’s for: Nikon enthusiasts looking to make the switch to a general purpose full-frame mirrorless camera that’s excellent for both stills and 4K video
The Z6 is going to be the more appealing option for most people who have their eye on Nikon’s latest cameras. You get the same refined design, the same fantastic EVF, and the same helpful in-body stabilization. With the lower megapixel count, Nikon drops the autofocus points to 273, but they still span basically the entire frame and make it easy to lock onto a subject. The Z6’s native ISO stretches up to 51,200, which is above the Z7’s 25,600. I’ve found it to perform better in low light than the Z7, producing usable shots (for Instagram, anyway) at 12,800 and 25,600 ISO.
It’s also faster than the Z7 in burst mode. Continuous shooting can run up to 12 fps, but again, you’ll be locked into the exposure of your first frame. For AE, you’ll again have to drop down to 5.5 fps.
Hybrid shooters will definitely be drawn to the Z6’s video capabilities: it outputs 4K video by utilizing the entire sensor to capture data that’s equivalent to 6K, and then downsamples that output to 4K. There are no awkward crops to deal with, as you’ll read about with the Canon below. Again, I’m not much of a videographer, but the wide consensus is that this is Nikon’s best video camera yet. It can send out 10-bit 4:2:2 footage through the HDMI output, allowing for wider dynamic range and more choices in post.
Canon EOS R ($2,299 body only | $3,399 with 24-105mm lens)
Who it’s for: Canon enthusiasts looking to make the switch to a general purpose full-frame mirrorless camera with a focus on still photography
The 30.3-megapixel Canon EOS R sits between the Nikon models in a couple of areas. It is pricier than Nikon’s Z6 but still well below the Z7. It has more resolution than the Z6, but it doesn’t touch the Z7’s pixel-peeping abilities. Canon only has the one camera body, so it’s less of a direct challenge to Sony’s whole family of models, but that’s still very much what the company is competing against.
The EOS R strikes a smart middle ground between the overkill megapixel-monster Z7 and the Z6’s 24-megapixel sensor. Canon packs an absurd 5,655 manually selectable dual-pixel autofocus points into it, so you’ll save time tapping the screen to focus instead of scrolling through all those points with buttons. The AF points cover 100 percent of the frame vertically and 88 percent horizontally, so like the Nikons, you can drop the focus point pretty much anywhere. It also has eye detection, which is something that the Z7 and Z6 both lack. (For now, they’ve just got face detection, though Nikon has said eye focus is coming in a software update.) The EOS R’s burst shooting tops out at 8 fps (or 5 fps with continuous autofocus).
The R uses a new RF mount, and Canon is selling several different adapters to fit its existing EF and EF-S lenses. Aside from a simple, single-purpose adapter that just lets you mount an older lens to the R, there’s another that includes a dial you can customize to change whatever setting you want (say, ISO), a third that features drop-in neutral density filters or a circular polarizer. The EVF has the same 3.69 million-dot resolution as the Z series, but the magnification is slightly less at 0.76x versus 0.80x.
The EOS R definitely feels the most DSLR-like to me in hand. The grip is deeper than Nikon’s, which I like a lot, and my pinky doesn’t do the awkward hang off. Truth be told, though all three of these cameras measure a bit smaller and weigh less than a pro-level DSLR, the difference isn’t earth-shattering, which is due in no small part to the size of their lenses; they dwarf the lenses in smaller-format mirrorless systems.
Unfortunately, the EOS R has to contend with two big misses on Canon’s part. The first is its lack of in-body stabilization. Canon has plenty of lenses that offer their own stabilization, but there are just as many that lack it. The superb 50mm f/1.2 RF-mount lens doesn’t have any IS to speak of, though the 35mm f/1.8 and 24-105 f/4 both do. All of Canon’s RF lenses have a new control ring that can be configured to adjust a range of settings as you turn it. I came to like setting this to ISO, but you can also pick exposure compensation, aperture, or shutter speed.
The second thing I can’t fully get behind with this camera is the multifunction bar on the back where a focus thumbstick would normally be. You can configure it to change settings with a swipe or by tapping either side, but I never found a way of using it that felt natural or became second nature. It feels underdeveloped, but thankfully, you can always turn it off and customize other buttons (including the main D-pad) to handle focus selection. Unlike Nikon, Canon does let you drag a finger on the touchscreen when peering through the EVF to move the focus point around. Every camera with a touch display should have this feature. I found the EOS R to focus reliably and quickly, thanks in part to Canon’s dual-pixel AF system. It’s also strong in dim conditions, focusing as low as -6EV if you’re using the f/1.2 lens. The EOS R faithfully reproduces the appealing skin tones and color science that have become Canon’s signature.
One tiny thing I love: Canon gave the EOS R a clever protection system for its big full-frame sensor. Whenever the camera is off, the shutter closes and covers it up. This keeps things clean and reduces the odds of dust getting on the sensor when you’re swapping lenses. It’s something I wish my Fujifilm and other mirrorless cameras would do — at least optionally — even if it adds a bit of wear to the shutter mechanism.
Its 3.15-inch rear display can flip out and face forward, which makes this camera a great match for vloggers — unless they’re looking to record in 4K, that is. 4K video is recorded at a severe 1.8x crop that cuts in close enough to limit your wide-angle shot options. If you’re satisfied with filming in 1080p, you don’t have to worry about any of this. But “soft” seems to be the word people are using to describe the EOS R’s video at the moment.
These cameras represent a completely new path for both Canon and Nikon, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they come with flaws. But they still manage to impress as a first try from each company. Each has its own upside, and surprisingly hold their own against Sony, for the most part. If you combined the best aspects of the Z series with the EOS R, you’d have a near-perfect camera. As they stand now, I can recommend each of them if you’ve already invested in their respective systems. If you’re new to photography or are tied to another system, it can’t hurt to hold off and see what improvements will come with firmware updates. Nikon needs to bring its continuous autofocus up to par, and Canon needs to figure out how to make that touchpad a little more intuitive.
It has taken a long time — too long — for Canon and Nikon to get serious about full-frame mirrorless cameras. Small quibbles and iffy design choices aside, the EOS R, Z7, and Z6 are all good signs of where the industry is headed. Sony’s commanding lead isn’t going to dissuade the industry’s renowned giants from giving high-end mirrorless cameras their all. I’m already excited to see how these three will improve over time and what comes next.
Product photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales | Sample images by Chris Welch
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