Nikon Learn & Explore

Understanding AF in the Z Series Mirrorless Cameras

Keith Ladzinski photo of a man's profile, on the edge of the frame.

© Keith Ladzinski

In many instances a photograph works best with the subject off center. Because the Z series cameras offer so many focus points, photographers can now place the AF point where the subject is, instead of having to center the subject to focus, hold the shutter button halfway and then re-compose.

The AF System in the Nikon new Z series mirrorless camera is inherently different than what is found in Nikon DSLRs. Why? Well, when using autofocus through the optical viewfinder, DSLRs use phase detect autofocus whereby the camera utilizes a separate autofocus sensor in the camera body. For DSLR Live View photography—contrast detect is used on the imaging sensor. The Z series cameras utilize phase detect autofocus placed directly on the imaging sensor and contrast detect autofocus (which is used when the camera deems it necessary to switch).

  • The Z 7 features 493 AF points, of which 435 are used for video.
  • The Z 6 features 273 AF points, of which 231 are used for video.

Another difference between the two camera systems is that some of the focus modes in a DSLR are different from those found in the Z system mirrorless cameras. Therefore, we’ve created a handy guide to help you become more familiar with the Z series’ Autofocus modes and when to use them—we’ve written extensively on using DSLR AF over the years.

Photo of mountains with a man walking on the top of a hill in the foreground, with a AF point, a red box, over his figure.

The Z 7 offers 493 AF points for still photography—using single point AF, and placing it over the subject, there's no need to focus and recompose because the AF points cover almost the entire scene.

Photo of a man in a forest with a AF point shown by a small red box, over his face.

The Z 7 offers 435 AF points for video (16:9)—making it easy to use single point AF for focusing on a stationary subject.

AF Area Modes in the Z series mirrorless cameras:

  • Pinpoint AF – use this mode for stationary subjects; focusing on a selected spot within the frame.

  • Single Point AF (AF-S) – use this mode when accurate focus is crucial, for stationary subjects

  • Dynamic Area AF (AF-C) – use this mode for stationary or moving subjects where their exact position in the frame is less precise.

  • Wide Area AF (S) – for photographing stationary or moving subjects; moving subjects that are hard to keep framed using a single point. Use this for areas wider than Single Point AF.

  • Wide Area AF (L) – for capturing stationary or moving subjects; moving subjects that are hard to keep framed using a single point. Use this for areas wider than Wide Area AF (S).

  • Auto Area AF – (with face detection deactivated) should be used when shooting stationary and moving subjects where faces are not the priority.

  • Auto Area AF – (using subject tracking) is used when photographing moving subjects (including Face Detection during portraits).

In both Nikon DSLR and Nikon mirrorless systems AF-S is used for stationary subjects, AF-C for moving subjects. They each include AF-F for video and MF (Manual Focus) when you, as the photographer want full manual control of the focus when shooting either stills or video.  Z system cameras also offer AF-C for video shooting as well.

Because the Z series cameras feature an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) you can actually use the viewfinder to compose and shoot video, unlike when using a DSLR and the only way to shoot video is via Live View.

To capture video, you can use Single Point AF, Wide Area (S) or Wide Area (L) or Auto Area AF as well as AF-F or AF-C.

In the attached guide, you’ll find full explanations of what each of the focus modes are designed for and what the suggested mode is, for the type of photography subjects you want to capture, how the modes work and what the compatible DSLR mode would be. We’ve also put together an easy to view chart showing which AF modes are appropriate for popular types of subjects.

Z series autofocus guides

Download a PDF of the Z 7 Autofocus Guide here.
Download a PDF of the Z 6 Autofocus Guide here.

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