Skip to content

Nikon Z8, Z7II, & Z6II mirrorless digital camera auto focus – A critical review

My purpose for writing this critical review is to provide information about the Nikon Z8, Z7II, and Z6II focus technology so it may be most effectively employed in professional photography. I have read some unwarranted criticism of Z7II’s focus performance. I believe that an informed and practiced user will be incredibly pleased with the Z7II. This article is no substitute for Z cameras’ manuals that can be downloaded as a PDF file from Nikon’s website. For example: Nikon | Download center | Z 8 (nikonimglib.com)  

Shortcut to Z8 Autofocus

Shortcut to Z7II Autofocus

Z8, Z7II & Z6II Focus Modes

Do not confuse focus modes with focus area modes. Focus modes are found under: (Camera icon) Menu > PHOTO SHOOTING MENU > Focus Mode > Single AF, Continuous AF, or MF (Manual Focus).

1. AF-S, Single AF (or Single Servo AF): For stationary objects or moving objects if you desire a creative blur. Press AF-ON or shutter halfway to lock focus and a green framed “focus square” will appear. One blessing of Single servo is that you can acquire a focus over a particularly small area, hold the AF-ON button with a thumb, then recompose the shot as desired before pressing the shutter. Recompose, shoot! again, and again!! By the way, a “servo” is an electronic focusing motor inside your lens. Hopefully, this function is quiet enough not to be heard when reviewing the cinematography you created in Movie mode.

2. AF-C, Continuous AF (or Continuous Servo AF): Often used for moving subjects (more information below). One thing about Continuous AF, it’s going to keep refocusing unless you change it to Single AF or manual. It is relentless, ignoring the AF-ON button or the shutter. Continuous AF has only one goal in life…keep focusing when the subject (in tracking mode) or the camera moves!

3. AF-F, Full-time AF: Used for Movie mode (here we consider Photo mode shooting only not Movie mode).

4. MF, Manual Focus: Focus by turning your lens’ focus ring. Press the camera’s + or – button (lower right back) to zoom in and out as needed to perfect focusing. When switching to MF, be certain to select MF on the lens and in the camera (using Nikon’s i menu makes many camera options easy to find). The lower left of the LCD will display a small focus light. A steady green light ⬤ indicates a correct focus. A steady ▶ reveals that the focus point is in front of the subject, Steady ◀ indicates the focus point is behind the subject, and ▶ ◀ tells us the camera is unable to focus.

In sum, focus modes are easy. Choices range from manual focus, which we may use at a more leisurely pace, to sports action that requires a very responsive focus system to track rapidly moving athletes or racing vehicles. Obviously, certain autofocus area modes require continuous focusing for focus tracking to work as designed.

Do not confuse focus modes with Release Modes. All Z cameras allow us to choose a range of shutter releases when we press (or press and hold) the shutter button. For the cautious, Single frame is available. For a professional sports photographer something more powerful is needed. You may someday become a sports photographer at a basketball game snapping away at ten frames per second (fps) using Continuous High (extended) to keep up with the action. Continuous H with Continuous AF is how a photographer captures the slam dunk that won the basketball finals. Of course, as the camera’s memory buffer fills, the frame rate will drop. In passing, the Z8 can shoot up to 120 fps using its fully electronic shutter.

You may also use a Z camera’s i menu or the Release Mode/Self-Timer Button to choose shutter release options such as Single frame, Continuous L, or Continuous H, Continuous H (extended), or access the 2, 5, 10, 20 second delay timer by toggling (multi-selector or joystick if you please) down▼. You can find the Mode/Self-Timer button at the lower right of the Z7II or left of toggle switch on the Z8. I often use Continuous Low or High, because if one shot is worthy won’t three or more be better? Some photographers believe the “middle shot” in a sequence may be a tad sharper because the shutter button is not being pushed. If your camera is on a tripod, but you do not have a remote, a five second delay will snap the photo after shutter button vibrations diminish to nothingness like a boring day on the San Andreas fault.

Z8, Z7II & Z6II Focus area mode selection

The Nikon Z cameras have user friendly and sophisticated autofocus capability. AF-Area Modes selection is made using the i menu or hold Fn2 (function button number 2 is the lower button to the right of the lens mount, camera front) and rotate the Sub-command dial (that’s the dial on the front of the camera) to choose focus modes and Main command dial to choose Single, Continuous, or Manual Focus. Both Fn1 (white balance by default) and Fn2 may be reprogrammed to perform other tasks. See: Menu > CUSTOM SETTING MENU > f Controls (f1 Customize i menu or f2 Custom controls).

Return a focus point to the center of the frame by pressing the OK button. You may also select focus area modes under: Menu > PHOTO SHOOTING MENU > AF-area mode. Additional focus options are found under ✎ Menu > CUSTOM SETTING MENU > a Autofocus (more below). When using the auto focus options below, focus points may be toggled over a subject using the multi selector ◀ OK ▶ also ▼ ▲. The Sub-Selector button on the upper back of the camera (back is the eyepiece side) can also be used to move a focus point.

Z7II & Z6II AF-area modes

Some photographers suggest that you do not choose a focus mode where the boundaries of the focus area exceed those of your subject of interest.

1. [PIN], Pinpoint AF: For focus using “a selected spot in the frame.” Useful for static subjects and close-up photography (think macro). Pinpoint requires the menu selection: Menu > FOCUS SHOOTING MENU > Focus Mode > Single AF. It may be slower than Single-point AF. Pinpoint AF uses contrast detection AF and is four times smaller than Single-point AF.

2. [◻], Single-point AF: Focus using one selected focus point. Best for stationary subjects. Single-point AF is very functional on both Z8 and Z7II. It will isolate a specific area as your focus point for creative photography. In Single servo mode, press the shutter halfway, recompose and shoot…priceless! You may toggle ◀ OK ▶ also ▼ ▲ the focus point area is within a grid of 29 x 17, using all 493 focus points.

3. [-◻-], Dynamic-area AF: This uses one focus point but refocuses using surrounding focus points, “If the subject briefly leaves the selected point.” Requires a menu selection: Menu > FOCUS SHOOTING MENU > Focus Mode > Continuous AF. Some photographers suggest this is the fastest tracking option.

4. [WIDE-S], Wide-area AF (S): Camera focuses on a wider area than single-point. Focus priority is given to the closest subject. A wider area may be needed to properly define the subject. Here the focus area grid is 27 x 15.

5. [WIDE-L], Wide-area AF (L): As above but an even wider focus area is used in a 7 x 7 grid. 

6. [Wide-L with human face icon], Wide-area AF (L-people): This focus area opens with a large central red rectangle that defines the boundaries for detection of faces or eyes. Your focus point with a yellow border will appear around the subject’s face or around an eye. Toggle ◀ OK ▶ if desired from one eye to the other. When using AF-C (Auto Focus Continuous) the camera will display a lighter yellow border. If you choose AF-Single servo, a green border will be displayed to announce that a correct focus has been attained. This AF mode is an uncomplicated way to photograph portraits where complex tracking is not anticipated.

7. [Wide-L with cat face icon], WIDE-L, Wide-area AF (L-animals): As above but critters.

Subject tracking for AF 8, 9, and 10 below: Initiate Subject-tracking by pressing the toggle switch’s OK button. The red focus point or points will change to a square focusing reticle (white targeting symbol). Toggle the reticle ◀ OK ▶, ▲ , ▼ over your intended point of focus. Press and hold the AF-ON (upper right of camera) or press the OK button to begin tracking. A yellow focus box will appear (but green in Autofocus single servo). To reset press OK twice, once to reset the reticle and again center the focus point. To end a tracking session the “-/?” button. You may also zoom in or out using the – or + buttons if the eye you are following is small and or distant.

Note: if you are using the FOCUS SHOOTING MENU to change focus mode, scroll up rather than down as the Focus Mode submenu is at the bottom of the list and scrolling up will place you at the bottom of this menu.

8. [▬], Auto-area AF, “The camera detects and selects the focus area.” For faster action subjects when you do not have time to select a focus point. Face detection and tracking are included here.

9, [■ human face], Auto-area AF (people), When close to a person and/or in good light the camera instantly displays a yellow border over an eye and will track automatically throughout the entire frame else a face will be bordered. In a less accommodating lighting environment, you must initiate tracking manually as described above. If a person’s right eye is first detected, a yellow box and black toggle ☐ ▶ will appear, this will allow us to toggle to the left eye. A similar choice presents itself if a face is detected.

10, [■ cat face], Auto-area AF (animals), The camera will focus on dog or cat face or eyes. Toggle ◀ OK ▶ to move to a different face or eye. Seems just like number 9 above. For more distant shots you may wish to zoom/out in using the +/- buttons.

The Z8 adds a few options and can be quite different:

The Z8 uses Menu > PHOTO SHOOTING MENU > AF subject detection options to allow the user to select from a specific subject category for the priority during tracking. These include: Automatic, People, Animals, Vehicle (that is car, motorcycle, bicycle, or train), Airplanes, and Subject detection off. Without a thoughtful selection, relevant focus area modes may not perform tracking suitable for your needs. A focus point will be visible. Toggle ◀ OK ▶ to change the highlighted focus point to a different face or eye.

Z8 af-area modes

Some photographers suggest that you do not choose a focus mode where the boundaries of the focus area exceed those of your subject of interest.

The Z8 gets a big boost from firmware version 2.0 available on the Nikon website. There is now a “Birding” [Bird] Mode autofocus option for capturing the quick movements of our feathered friends. A subject specific motion and or distance detection trigger is also available. Other improvements increase functionality and versatility. I expect more will be released over time as the Z8’s super-fast processor very likely has a few surprises left even for the engineers.

1. [PIN], Pinpoint AF: Same as Z7II above. For focus on “a selected spot in the frame.” For static subjects and close-up photography (think macro). Pinpoint requires the menu selection: Menu > FOCUS SHOOTING MENU > Focus Mode > Single AF. This focus mode may be slower than Single-point AF.

2. [◻], Single-point AF: Same as Z7II above. Focus on one selected focus point. Best for stationary subjects. This grid is 29 x 17, using all 493 focus points.

3. [☐]S, 4. [☐]M, and 5. [☐]L, Dynamic-area AF: Similar to Z7II Dynamic-area but with S, M, and L options. Uses one focus point but refocuses using surrounding focus points “If the subject briefly leaves the selected point.” Requires a menu selection: Menu > FOCUS SHOOTING MENU > Focus Mode > Continuous AF. Unique to Z8: “S” More leisurely subject moving predictably such as runners or race cars on a track. “M” Subject is moving unpredictably as in sports action. “L” Subject is moving “quickly and cannot be easily framed in selected focus point” …”such as birds.” Obviously, these area modes are more specific than single-point AF.

6. [WIDE-S], Wide-area AF (S) and 7. [WIDE-L], Wide-area AF (L): Camera focuses on a wider area than single-point. Focus priority is given to the closest subject. As Single-point AF but camera focuses on a wider area. Focus points for “L” are larger than for “S”.

8. [W-C1], Wide-area AF (C1) and 9. [W-C2], Wide-area AF (C2): These focus area modes are useful for a photographer who can determine the size of the subject to “a fair degree of accuracy.” User is prompted to select from 20 size options from 1 x 1 to 19 x 11 by toggling. Toggle up or down for height and left or right for width.

10. [3D], 3D-tracking: The camera tracks your subject. Position focus point over your subject and initiate tracking by pressing AF-ON or pushing the shutter halfway. Reacquire any subject and press shutter halfway to continue. End tracking by releasing the button. You will need to be in Continuous AF focus mode. 3D-tracking uses a color recognition function that may fail if your scene contains a similar color matrix.

11. [-◉–], Subject-tracking AF: Similar to above but only available in Movie mode.

12. [▬], Auto-area AF, “The camera detects and selects the focus area.” For faster action when you do not have time to select a focus point. A bit less predictable than other more specific autofocus options.

Custom settings menu focus options

Below I have listed some Menu > CUSTOM SETTINDS MENU > Autofocus that may affect focus performance when using the Z8, Z7II or the Z6II. This is not even close to being a comprehensive listing of such options.

1. Priority Selection: Z8, Z7II, and Z6II cameras allow you to choose shutter release regardless of focus status or dependent upon acquiring focus. The Z8 allows you to prioritize focus for the first exposure then prioritize release for following exposures when using AF-Continuous.

2. Focus Points Used: You may reduce the number of focus points by one-half to speed focusing on all but Pinpoint area mode. However, this may compromise focus dependability with, I suspect, smaller or faster moving subjects.

3. Low-light AF: If “On,” is selected focus times may be slowed.

4. Built-in AF-Assist Illumination. Turn this off before entering a museum. The guards see it out of the corner of one eye and think you are using a flash. Also, this really, really affects your undercover work.

5. Focus Peaking: Focus peaking greatly assists manual focusing by highlighting the area that is in focus.

6. Focus Lock: Lock the focus on a subject by pressing the Sub-selector after locating the focus point over the subject. Then press the shutter. Sub-selector may also be used to toggle a focus point.

7. Restore Default Settings: You may restore default settings by highlighting (selecting) the menu section and pressing the camera’s trash can button. A series of “Are you sure?” choices will follow.

8. Focus tracking with lock on: Alter how swiftly the focus will reconfigure if interrupted by a passing object. Choices range from Quick to Delayed in 5 steps. In this panel, Z8 users may choose Steady or Erratic to refine the above choice. Step 5 is the least likely to acquire a different subject given movement within the scene.

9. AF Activation (and Out-of-Focus-Release): Choose “AF-ON only” if you wish the shutter button to be disabled and focus activated only when the AF-ON button is pushed. This is the so called “back-button focusing” which has its advocates. I chose Shutter/AF-ON to use both for focusing…your choice. Under the AF-ON Autofocus menu option, you may also toggle ▶ “Enabled” to allow the shutter to be released at any time regardless of focus.

10. Focus point wrap around: Sure, can be helpful.

Below I have listed some Menu > CUSTOM SETTINDS MENU > Metering/ Shooting display that I believe are useful and may affect overall performance when using the Z8, Z7II or the Z6II.

1. Continuous L or CL Release mode shooting speed: 1 to 5 fps (frames per second).

2. Max, continuous release: Up to 200 or more for Z8.

3. Shutter type (Z6II & Z7II), Options include: Auto, Mechanical shutter, or Electronic front-curtain shutter (EFCS). An Electronic front-curtain shutter eliminates “shutter shock” or vibration caused by a closing shutter curtain. Like a curtain call on Broadway, this will cause vibrations. EFCS takes advantage of light already on the sensor to eliminate half of the work done by a traditional mechanical shutter. There is nothing for shutter to open as the image is already open. The electronic component records the image on the sensor before the shutter curtain falls. Consequently, no vibration from the shutter can degrade image quality. The Z8 has a fully electronic shutter and faster processor (The Z8’s Expeed 7 processor is 10 times faster than the Z7II’s dual Expeed 6). This means that there is no shutter curtain at all…none. Data is read from the sensor very quickly.

4. Extended shutter speeds M: Manual mode change from 30/s to 900 seconds.

Notes:

Tracking may not work if your subject is the same color or brightness as the background, change size color or brightness, is too large or too small, moves quickly, or is covered by other objects.

Some users suggest you not select a focus mode where the boundaries of the focus area exceed those of your subject of interest.

Nikon posts firmware updates intermittently that may advance the autofocus function. Be certain to keep your firmware reasonably well updated. I may skip a few updates if they seem irrelevant to my needs. Look under, Menu > Setup menu > Firmware version to discover just how out of date your camera’s firmware may be. Not to worry as updates are cumulative. Updating firmware is not a task for the digitally timid. Read and follow the online instructions very carefully. Be certain to use a memory card that has been formatted in the camera: Menu > Setup menu > Format memory card. Save all your images to your computer or Poof! https://downloadcenter.nikonimglib.com/en/download/fw/513.html

Lastly, recall that there are additional “modes” to contemplate. A modern digital camera also has Metering modes and a Mode dial. Professionals often use the Mode dial to select Aperture priority, Shutter priority, or Manual mode for determining the desired exposure (the camera’s choice of exposure may not coincide with the photographer’s intent). Metering modes cause the camera’s light meter to use Matrix metering (the entire frame), Center-weighted metering (the central 12 mm of the frame or 13% of the total area of the sensor), Spot Metering (4 mm), or Highlight-weighted metering.

Much credit to Nikon Corporation ™ for my referencing and quoting portions of the Z8 & Z7II manuals. This article is intended for educational purposes and is provided free of any charge or for commercial purposes. There may be errors in the article. The article is provided as a critical review only and not a guide or reference.

To top of page.

.