When Good Hardware Is Held Back By Software

One of the beautiful things about this job is, more often than not, you get to play with some fantastic hardware. On the flipside, one of the disappointing parts is when that hardware is hampered by software.

Ahead of Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin (IFA), Nikon announced they were jumping into the mirrorless world of cameras. Nikon and Canon are the two largest manufacturers of DSLRs. But as the quality of mirrorless cameras improved, batteries lasted longer, autofocus speeds sharpened and more professional-level features were added, the major manufacturers couldn't rest on their laurels.

Small note: Because most people view things on phones, or don't have internet connections that will happily download multiple 40MB+ images in a heartbeat, everything in this article is compressed down to 1080p in JPEG.

Sony already fired a strong show across the bow with the Sony A9 last year. It's a fucking good camera, as you'd expect for anything that cost $7000 without a lens.

And that's the rough target market that the Z7 is aimed at. If you want the Z7 with a 24-70mm lens and an adapter for your existing F-mount Nikon glass: it'll cost you around $6500.

The first shot I took with the Nikon Z7, using a 50mm prime attached to the FTZ mount adapter. Still my favourite. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)
The day the Nikon Z7 arrived also happened to be the first hail I've seen around my area all year. Also turned out to be a good opportunity to pump up the shutter speed while testing the Z7's qualities in overcast scenarios. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

The review kit of the Nikon Z7 came with the body, an FTZ adapter for using Nikon's existing F-mount lenses, a 50mm f/1.8 that requires the adapter, and two native Z lenses: a 35mm f/1.8 prime, and the 24-70mm f/4 that serves as the basic "kit lens".

Part of the advantage of mirrorless cameras is the lower weight: it's why my stock camera is now the base Sony A7, instead of the Canon 7D that I've owned for several years. And because shooting with a prime lens is more interestingly creatively, and the lens itself was a little lighter, I used the 35mm for the majority of my time with the Z7.

Here's a shot that, even in compressed JPEG form, illustrates the difference between a high-end camera body and what you'd get at the lower end of the market. Taking shots inside of a cinema is one of the worst scenarios. You might as well be in pitch black: there's bugger all light, details are hard to make out, and it's an awful setting for photography generally.

Cameras compensate for this by bumping up the ISO and lowering the shutter speed. Lowering the shutter speed too far runs the risk of a blurry photo, however, so I manually shot this at 1/80 sec, resulting in an ISO of 16000.

And it's actually almost a usable shot. You wouldn't use this shot ordinarily, but not because the image is too noisy. Some light work in Lightroom or DXOMark would fix that entirely, and the performance between ISO 1000-6400 is outstanding as you'd expect for a $6000-plus camera.

I took the Z7 out in a range of other scenarios to get used to it, because hey: it's a damn expensive camera, and there was no way I wasn't going to have some fun with it. So venture out I did. Note that some of the photos below have been edited lightly for taste (the B&W editing was done in Lightroom, for instance, although you can do some of this directly through the Z7's onboard editing tools).

So, quite obviously, the Z7 is a neat piece of kit. Expensive, but bloody nice.

Unfortunately, you can't say the same for the software.

UX from hell.

One rule of thumb, whether you're shooting on your phone, an entry-level DSLR or a top-of-the-line mirrorless: shoot in RAW instead of JPEG/JPG. RAW files are a hell of a lot larger, but they also preserve more information, which means you'll be able to fix up images a lot better if you're in low light or there's some colours you want to correct later on.

Cameras and editing software will always do some kind of conversion to JPG eventually, though, because nobody wants to download 20/40/80MB files for a single image. And the Z7's original files are enormous. At 8256x4640, even the JPGs are between 18-26MB a piece, while the original NEF files ranged from 71MB to 90MB depending on how much detail was in the photo.

Now, that's fine. If you're buying even a mid-range DSLR/mirrorless camera, that's expected. Serious photographers prefer playing around with the original files so they can tweak them to taste.

So I copied the original files off the Z7 into a local folder, and proceeded to import all the files into Lightroom.

Except that didn't work.

Why is my Adobe subscription getting more expensive every year again?

Despite the hundreds of dollars that Adobe sucks out of my bank account each year, and the fact that Nikon's foray into mirrorless with the Z7 might actually be one of the most intriguing cameras the company has released in decades, nobody managed to get the two companies to talk together long enough so that the raw images from the Z7 might be directly usable in Lightroom or Photoshop. Just the two largest image editing programs on the planet.

So I started searching for a workaround. I thought I had the answer in a heartbeat: Adobe DNG Converter. It was a third party tool that lets you convert raw files from a range of camera manufacturers, and I'd heard some anecdotal mentions when the Z6 and Z7 originally launched of users converting files with success with the tool.

The fact that people have to resort to nonsense like this when a $6000-plus camera launches is beyond ridiculous. Image: LR Timelapse

But alas, I had no such luck. Adobe Camera Raw, which is built into Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and After Effects. (Lightroom supposedly uses the same engine as well.)

Not willing to batch edit the EXIF information of each photo just yet — particularly given that I wouldn't know what kind of detail I'd be losing by tricking programs into thinking the Z7 was actually something else — I went digging on Nikon's website.

The Nikon Australia website takes you through to the Nikon Download Centre. After switching through to the software tab, you're then presented with six different tools:

You can't view the product description for each program on that page, so you have to go into each link individually.

Wireless Transmitter Utility is designed for controlling Nikon communication units. It's basically an attachment that lets you transfer images from the camera through a wired network connection to a server or a computer.

It didn't sound like the software I needed. But what about Camera Control Pro 2? That's obviously something you could probably remotely shoot photos with — maybe there's some transferring involved as well.

But the product description page literally doesn't mention the core purpose of the software. There's notices about bugs, notes on supported cameras and patch notes, but nothing that actually says what the 1GB+ download is actually designed for.

A further click into the reference manual reveals that the software is designed to control cameras connected via "interface cables" or wireless transmitters. "Pictures can be downloaded to the computer or saved to the camera memory card and shared with applications such as ViewNX-i and Capture NX-D."

Right then, so not this tool. Capture NX-D mentioned processing RAW images, but nothing about sharing, while ViewNX-i says it's designed "to copy pictures". Except it also "can be used to fine-tune JPEG and TIFF images and convert RAW photos".

By this point, I'd spent over an hour just trying to convert a bunch of NEF files into a format another program might read. So I took a plunge on Capture NX-D, which fortunately was capable of doing what I actually wanted.

What the cute cat from before looked like, pre-edit.

Given that editing hundreds of photos using the Z7's touchscreen and controls wasn't practical, it was a relief to finally get a tool that would convert the NEF files into a more compatible format. It also helped highlight the difference between a supposedly raw image, and what happened after I converted the file to a 220MB 16-bit TIFF:

Click or press on the GIF to expand: the difference is better seen blown up.

The NEF original has a much softer look, which is partially because there's bugger all light. The camera had to use 25600 ISO to get even that amount of detail, and the automatic post-processing settings reduced noise to the point that the poor little feline looks out of focus.

So after another hour of processing all of the NEF files to TIFF monsters, I was finally able to start tweaking in Lightroom and Photoshop.

But what if you just wanted to push out a photo quickly on, say, your phone?

If there's anything where Nikon could use some consolidation, it's definitely on mobile. If you just want to quickly transfer a shot from the Z7 (or the cheaper 24MP Z6) then Snapbridge is the tool of choice. Wireless Mobile Utility was designed for use with older Nikon cameras, but it's been supplanted by Snapbridge since 2016.

Mind you, because of how the App Store is laid out, you won't see that initially on iOS. So I ended up downloading WMU, before realising that it wasn't what I wanted.

The app seems fairly straightforward: you connect over Wi-Fi, although it'll ask you to enable Bluetooth. There's a brief pairing process, but that doesn't take particularly long. Once your phone is recognised, you can hop into the app and transfer compressed versions (1080p, basically) of the RAW files onto your phone.

In theory, anyway.

What ended up happening in practice was an infuriating process of connecting the camera to my phone, seeing that the connection had been established, only to look at the app and watch it disconnect after a few seconds. I wondered whether this was an issue related to Auto Link, a function within Snapbridge that lets the camera sync with the phone and automatically transfer new photos.

But that worked twice over the course of a week, so I opted to rely on Wi-Fi transfer only. The Z7 struggled to maintain a connection with my LG G7, however, so I forgot the connection and started using Snapbridge through my iPhone.

As you can see from the mere 16 photos that actually made it onto my phone, versus the hundreds I actually shot, getting photos across was a nightmare. Sheer stubbornness led me to keep swapping phones and trying combinations, but the same inconsistencies arose: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth would be enabled on the phone, I'd connect the phone to the camera's Wi-Fi, it'd connect, disconnect, and I'd repeat the process until Snapbridge could transfer the few photos I wanted.

Now this process will be fixed in time. But we're not talking a test run out of the gate here: Snapbridge has been built into Nikon cameras for the last few years, and the Z7 is Nikon's latest flagship. It's not unreasonable to expect a more seamless experience out of the gate.

And hey, maybe all of this is just coming from a perspective that the Z7 isn't marketed towards. Professional shooters may not even notice the troubleshooting required to convert the NEF files, or that added hump may just be an accepted part of their workflow. They're more likely to care about compatibility with the FTZ adapter, 493 autofocus points, 9fps shooting in JPEG and 12-bit RAW (8fps at 14-bit RAW), a single card slot instead of double, weather sealing, a quoted battery life of 330 shots, and so on.

And it's also not like Nikon are alone here. Sony's PlayMemories app is about as pleasing an experience as searching for a game on the PlayStation store. And a recent spin with an entry level Canon DSLR made me grateful I carry around two phones on a regular basis, as their app only functioned smoothly for me after switching to iOS.

So it's not like the software experience is perfect elsewhere. But some consolidation — and a better user experience overall — isn't too much to ask for. It's reminiscent of the problem I have with the Xbox One X: a wonderful piece of hardware, beset with a horrendous layout. And that was my main takeaway from the Z7, what is in most cases a joyous camera to play with. The hardware does just fine — but hot damn does the software need a rework.


Comments

    I love that the F-mount adaptor has to have the AF motor in it because of Nikon's continued insistence that AF motors should be in the body rather than the lens.

    I got an Olympus EM10 Mk II a couple of years ago and it was nice until its shutter started sticking. Thinking of going back to Canon for my next mirrorless body. The Sonys are nice, but the glass is too expensive compared to Canon.

      What about Fujifilm? They're a lot of fun to shoot with.

        I... forgot about them when I wrote the comment. I've heard good things about their recent cameras so will definitely keep them in mind.

    The Adobe software (like the open source dcraw) is relying on reverse engineering the file formats of the camera manufacturers. So if Nikon tweaked the format for their new camera, it isn't that surprising that third party software broke. I suspect the third party software will catch up some time after release when they've had a chance to examine what the new files look like.

    Of course, it doesn't have to be this way: we get by with royalty free industry standard formats for other image types. Credit goes to Adobe for trying to create a documented royalty free format for raw images (DNG), but without support from Canon, Nikon, and Sony, it's hard to see it become the standard.

    Nikon makes absolutely the stupidest decisions when it comes to software. It's the nintendo of cameras.

    I generally love the hardware layouts of nikons, all of the dials and buttons you need in the right spots, but holy crap they shiot themselves in the foot when it comes to hobbling their oen work.

    I have a couple of nikon 1's for fishing and compact birding, and you can see the way they dissected out software functionality like exposure bracketing just to keep the camera from being "too good". The V1 won't even let you turn off image review!

    The Z7 feels like it's being held back from going toe to toe with the d850, that it should only compete against mirrorless cameras, but every camera they make should allowed to be as good as it can be.

      It took a while, but eventually I got to really love the two function buttons that were located just next to the lens on the Z7.

      Funnily enough, however, it was surprisingly difficult to go through the menus to customise what those buttons should be. The default Sony menu layout was much faster for that, which isn't something I thought I'd ever say given the Sony camera menus might actually be the worst-designed in market.

        Is there such a thing as a camera with a menu system that isn't a mess to use? I've used Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic and a few others over the years and, while some are better than others, none are exactly paragons of usability.

          I was watching a youtube vid on wet plate collodion recently. The presenter was talking through options. Basically, collodion and large format cameras right through went from about three options to about five to eight when lenses with shutters came in. All the way through analogue those options remained around twenty (maximum) changes on the camera body, all of which were around the picture being taken. The current digital cameras have upward of 300 changes that can be made in menu and on body and majority have nothing to do with the image that is taken.

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