Thoughts on the Nikon Z50 for Wildlife Photography

In an ideal world where money grows on trees I’d have a Nikon Z9 by now (or at the very least on order), but sadly it doesn’t! However, I’ve been working on a pine marten site in a local wood, plus I have badgers visiting the garden every night and I desperately needed a camera with a silent shutter. My full frame Nikon D850 has silent shutter on live view, which is what I’ve used before, but this is awkward and even with a loupe, far from ideal. Therefore I investigated the range of Nikon mirrorless cameras. The Z9 sounds amazing, but I don’t have a spare £5.5k sitting around, the Z6/7 mark II cameras don’t get the best reviews for wildlife or animal eye-tracking and therefore I felt they too were more expensive than I could afford for what they’d give me. My research finally brought me to the Z50. This is the only crop frame camera in the current collection and is described as a replacement for the D500. I wouldn’t agree with that (see below), but second hand it was a reasonable price and it did have the silent shutter I was looking for. Therefore I purchased it, plus an adapter so I could use my existing lenses, from MPB.

In my opinion Nikon is way behind the curve when it comes to mirrorless. I hear so many good things about the Canon R series, the Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and Sony cameras, but I wasn’t willing to switch brand as, on the whole, I’m very happy with my D850 and D500 models. It sounds as though the Z9 is the first model to have cracked the eye-tracking and although this isn’t something I feel a desperate need for, if I’m going to invest a decent chunk of money in a new full frame camera I want that to be as good as the system in the other makes of camera.

My initial impression on receiving the z50 was how small it is! I don’t think it would suit people with large hands, as reaching the function buttons would be a bit fiddly – I struggle a little bit. It’s certainly not a camera I could use with full fingered gloves on. The grip is good though and wouldn’t be an issue for most users.

It is very light as a result of the size and build – only 430g! The D500 in comparison is 787g. Given that I’m having rotator cuff shoulder problems right now, this has meant I’ve used it more than I had intended to, to reduce total weight.

I haven’t purchased any Z mount lenses as I’m very happy with the lens collection I currently own. I therefore picked up the FTZ adapter to allow me to use those. I’ve had no issue with this although, oddly, the silent shutter only works at f5.6 on my Nikkor 500mm pf5.6 lens. At other apertures it makes a slight noise. This doesn’t happen with the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 lens though. Two lenses I own don’t work with the adapter – the Tamron 150-600mm (gen 1) and my Tokina 100mm f2.8. Not really an issue as I rarely use the former and can use my other cameras with the latter.

A few negative things to note, all of which have been covered in other reviews:

  • The camera only has 1 card slot and it’s for the slower UH1 cards. It can take the UH2 but doesn’t take advantage of the increased capabilities so no point purchasing one of those for it.
  • It isn’t as weatherproof as many other Nikon camera bodies so care should be taken in inclement weather
  • Battery life is TERRIBLE! I believe all mirrorless cameras suffer a bit from this as the electronic viewfinder and other functions use much more battery power. However it is a bit of an issue as you can’t attach a battery pack nor charge whilst in use (the battery can be charged in camera with an old style USB cable but only when the camera is turned off). Using it for 2-3 hours I’m getting through 2 batteries. They are different ones from my other cameras so I’ve had to purchase 3 now plus a usb charger that I can use with a power-pack. Filming drains the batteries exceptionally quickly. It’s a pain! I have now sourced with some difficulty a dummy battery which can be plugged into a power-pack, it’s en route from China so if it helps/works I’ll update this blog.
  • It has far fewer menu options and tweaks than my DSLRs. For example on those I’ve switched off AF-S leaving only AF-C so I can’t change it accidentally. Not an option here.
  • It has eye-tracking, but it’s rubbish. Not worth using. Personally this isn’t something I’m desperate for, I have a decent hit rate without it using the group focus mode on the D500/850 cameras, but if I’m going to spend a few thousand on a mirrorless camera I want it to have this for the odd occasion it might prove useful.
  • It’s not brilliant at birds in flight/fast moving subjects as it takes a moment to find focus and doesn’t have a large buffer. Mind you, I’ve been spoilt by the D500 for this, it’s a fantastic camera for birds in flight.

I’ve had 2 small issues with the camera other than the noise with my 500mm lens at most apertures. One is that sometimes it loses focus and then makes a noise as it readjusts. Not a big deal but I could lose a shot plus the noise might distract my subject. Secondly the orange clasp that holds the battery in place isn’t protruding far enough to do its job. Fortunately shutting the lid allows the battery to work but it pops out as soon as I open it. I could send it back but I’ve decided to live with it for now.

On the whole I’ve been very impressed with the quality and sharpness. Images in lower light do need some noise reduction in post production, but other than that I can’t really fault it. The electronic view finder is excellent and allows me to make adjustments without having to check the images.

I primarily use manual with auto-iso set to a max of 6400. White balance is “natural light – auto”. AF-C, and spot focus. The focus modes are different from my DSLRs but there are quite a few options. There are two function buttons on the front of the camera on the right hand side. At the moment I have function 1 set to release mode and function 2 set to focus – one camera wheel selections between AF-C, AF-S etc, the other the focus mode (single point etc). It’s a bit fiddly to press them but works… just. I use the AE-L/AF-L button for back button focusing. Finally I have the screen turned off and only use the view finder in the hope this might save a bit of battery life.

The primary reason for purchasing the camera was to photograph a pine marten I’ve been putting nuts out for in a wood. Pine martens are very aware of their surroundings and immediately notice if something is different. Add shutter noise to this then the chance of them sticking around is minimal. The silent shutter has worked a treat though. The marten is aware something is different, but can’t quite figure out what! I’ve recently discovered it’s a male pine marten and he isn’t very reliable. However he has been appearing before dark in the past week so I’ve been spending my evenings in my chair hide awaiting him. This is an image taken at 21:44 on the 22 June. It’s had a few exposure tweaks in lightroom but no noise reduction added, this is uncropped.

Nikon Z50, Tamron 70-200mm f2.8, Aperture f2.8, shutter 1/160, -0.3 exposure compensation, ISO 1800

I’m pleased with that! Here’s the same image cropped in to the marten

Even without adding noise reduction it’s pretty good I think.

Here’s a small selection of images of the marten which have been run through Topaz Denoise (v1) All taken after 9pm over two evenings (22nd and 23rd June) using the same camera/lens and settings.

I’ve also used the camera to photograph badgers at the Speyside Wildlife badger photography hide. These were taken after 8.30pm on an overcast evening in May. This first one has no noise reduction added

Nikon Z50/Tamron 70-200mm f2.8, aperture f2.8, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 6400. I was using a beanbag.

These next four have had noise reduction added.

So for low light mammals it has exceeded expectation. The files may not be of the quality of a professional full frame camera such as my D850, but they aren’t far off.

I’ve also used it with the same lens on Lunga when photographing the puffins. It was a really bright and sunny day which aren’t the best conditions for puffins. In this case I chose to narrow the aperture to show something of the background.

Nikon Z50/Tamron 70-200mm f2.8, aperture f16, shutter 1/640, iso 800. Hand-held on bright/sunny day.

I’ve paired the camera with my old Nikkor 300mm F4 lens too. I don’t have the pf version, nor one with VR, but I still love this lens and it works well with the Z50.

These were taken at f4 or F5, shutter speed 1/250 ISO 1250, hand-held in May.

For little birds I’ve used the camera with my 500pf 5.6 lens. This combination works well too. These are all cropped as taken at a distance, hand-held.

It worked well for shots of the stonechats through the gorse.

Nikon Z50/Nikkor 500mm pf5.6, Aperture f5.6, shutter 1/800 ISO110 hand-held.

I mentioned that the Z50 wasn’t great for flight shots, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Here’s an osprey I photographed a few days ago. Admittedly it wasn’t moving very fast, but this is a big crop.

Nikon Z50, Nikkor 500mm pf5.6. Aperture f8, shutter speed 1/1250, ISO 220. hand held.

Here are some eider ducks taken on the same day. The over-exposure was user error as I’d been photographing a little ringed plover on the beach!

Nikon Z50, Nikkor 500mm pf5.6. Aperture f5.6, shutter speed 1/3200, ISO 1000. hand held.

The final thing I want to cover is using the camera for filming. It’s one of the things that’s touted as being really good. Straight off I love being able to film using the view finder rather than the back screen. It makes such a difference. It’s possible to film hand-held as a result although with a long lens it’ll still be a tad wobbly. The only big issue is the battery life as noted above. It lasts for no time at all, so if you intend to do a lot of filming in one session have a few spare batteries and a charger with you. I tend to film using manual focus and the camera has zebras to show (approximately) what is in focus which really helps. I’ve found it very easy to use and the footage is excellent quality. This is a video I shot last week at my squirrel site using the Tamron 70-200mm lens and a monopod. I did no grading and it’s pretty good as is. (put the sound up to watch this as you’ll hear the bird song).

And here’s another from last night of Henry the badger. Same lens, on a tripod this time. Almost 10pm and a high iso.

So, would I recommend this camera? The answer is a qualified yes. Personally I wouldn’t be happy with the Z50 as my only camera body. I’m spoilt by also having the D850 and D500 both of which are excellent. However, if you’re a Nikon user (and don’t have large hands) and want to dip your toe into the world of mirrorless, then yes, I would definitely recommend. It’s an entry level camera for functionality and features, but the quality, weight and ease of use are excellent. Battery life could be much better but I think that’s an issue with all mirrorless cameras. I’m very happy to own it and and it has certainly served its purpose of allowing me to photograph noise-sensitive animals and I’ve found myself using it far more than I had expected to. 2nd hand it costs less than £600 (I purchased via MPB.com).

UPDATE AUGUST 2022

After a lot of online searching I finally found a dummy battery on AliExpress. It took a while to arrive and my existing battery packs weren’t new and/or powerful enough for it, but I bought a new one of those too, and now I can use the camera for considerably longer, especially when staying in one spot. It makes filming possible too without batteries dying super-fast.

I’ve been using this to photograph the garden badgers (Z50 + Tamron 70-200mm f2.8) from my garden hide.

I also decided to purchase the Z mount Nikkor 50-250mm lens. It feels very cheap but it’s incredibly light and the picture quality is hard to fault. It’ll make a great recce combo when I don’t want to carry heavy equipment with me. Here’s a photograph taken in Arbroath with the Z50 and this lens.

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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