Nikon launched its new full frame mirrorless line of cameras, called the Nikon Z. How well can the Nikon Z be used for 360 panoramic photos?
Background: Why DSLRs exist and why they will disappear
(Experienced photographers can skip this section)
When cameras were invented, people needed a way to frame their shots. The problem was that simply looking from behind a camera didn’t show the same view as would be captured by the lens, particularly if they used a lens that was other than with a normal field of view. TLRs (twin lens reflex cameras) were invented to add a second lens for its viewfinder. By using an identical second lens for the viewfinder, the photographer could get a much better idea of what the photo would look like.
But of course the view a few inches above the camera isn’t the same as what the camera will capture. SLRs used mirrors and prisms to redirect the light from the lens to the viewfinder, to enable photographers to “see” from behind the lens and get the exact same view as would be captured by the camera. WYSIWYG. Then when the photographer hits the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way (with the characteristic DSLR slapping sound) to allow light to resume its original path. The shutter opens, and the light goes into the film. With this new mechanism, a second lens was no longer needed.
Today, with digital cameras, you can get a live view of what the sensor will capture. The LCD shows exactly what the sensor sees. You don’t need mirrors and prisms. In fact, if you removed the mirrors and prisms, you could have a camera that was simpler to produce (with fewer moving parts) and would cost less to manufacture. You can see why manufacturers are moving from DSLRs to mirrorless, and why DSLRs will eventually disappear, just as SLRs made TLRs obsolete.
Mirrorless cameras have other advantages too. For example, with DSLRs, the focusing mechanism used the prisms from the viewfinder. This worked but they are errors, such as front- and back-focusing (hence the AF fine tuning in DSLRs). With mirrorless cameras, the focusing happens on the sensor itself, using contrast detection or phase detection. In theory, mirrorless cameras can therefore focus more accurately than DSLRs.
But are we giving up anything with mirrorless cameras? You do get much shorter battery life, for one thing. What about the amazing lenses that were designed for DSLRs? Do we have to abadon them? We’ll discuss that in the next section.
Key advantage of mirrorless for 360 photos
As I wrote previously, all things being equal, mirrorless cameras have a key advantage over DSLRs for 360 panoramas: lens compatibility. Mirrorless cameras have much shorter flange distances than DSLRs (the distance from the lens mount to the sensor plane), which means that they can use lenses from DSLRs but DSLRs cannot use mirrorless lenses.
Because of the wider compatibility of mirrorless cameras, Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras have become quite popular choices for 360 panoramas, even though I’m not really impressed by their native lens selection (for price vs. performance). I have a Sony a6000 and a Sony a7R, and I enjoy the fact that I can use lenses from my Nikon as well as inexpensive but high quality lenses from Samyang / Rokinon, including the Samyang 7.5mm for Micro Four Thirds.
Although adapted lenses often lose autofocus and aperture control, 360 panoramas use manual focus and manual exposure (and manual white balance), so the lack of autofocus or aperture control is not a problem for use with 360 panoramas. (You do lose EXIF data though.)
Another minor advantage is that mirrorless cameras are thinner and lighter, and therefore there’s a little bit more space for a lens to fit within a multi-row panoramic head.
In the case of Nikon Z, the flange distance is a very short 16mm — the shortest among full frame mirrorless cameras. This means Nikon Z cameras can theoretically use lenses from almost any DSLR, and even other mirrorless lenses, including lenses from Canon EF, Micro Four Thirds (19.25mm), Sony E-mount (18mm), Fuji X-mount (17.7mm), and of course Nikon F-mount.
Nikon Z cameras are fully compatible with Nikon F mount lenses with the use of the FTZ adapter, which will retain autofocus, aperture control, and stabilization for AF-S and AF-I lenses. For older AF-D and AF lenses with no built-in AF motor, you’ll be able to use them in all exposure and metering modes, but there will be no autofocus. For non-stabilized lenses, the Nikon Z can use its in-body image stabilization to stabilize in 3 axes (pitch, yaw, roll).
DP Review tested the AF-S Nikkor 35 1.8 with the Nikon Z 7 and found that it focused quickly and accurately even with continuous autofocus (although with some backfocus due to focus lag). In fact, DPR said the adapted 35 1.8 even more reliably than the native Z-mount 35 1.8.
With third party lenses, Nikon apparently did not share information for electronic compatibility so it will be a while before we see third party adapters with autofocus support. Nonetheless, we should see manual adapters soon enough.
Should you buy the Nikon Z for 360 panoramas and virtual tours?
If I are looking for a new DSLR or mirrorless camera for 360 photos or virtual tours, I probably would get the Nikon Z if I could afford it. Nikon’s sensors are frequently at or near the top of their category, and the lens selection for Nikon Z is unmatched when you consider third party lens options with adapters. But if you already have a Sony E-mount camera, IMHO the Nikon Z is not such a game changer (unless you want native compatibility with Nikon lenses). Sony sensors have similar performance to Nikon sensors (because Sony makes most of Nikon’s sensors) and Sony’s E-mount already has wide support among third parties.