How do you photograph a world where the sun never rises? Award winning National Geographic photographer and Nikon Ambassador Brian Skerry plunged into the Norwegian arctic to capture the landscape, wildlife, and people who brave the harsh polar winter. Skerry put the mirrorless Nikon Z 7 camera to the test as he followed orca through fjords, met local fishermen and reindeer herders, and trekked into moonlit forests. National Geographic interviewed Skerry to hear how the Z 7 met the challenge and share the images he brought home.
Q: You’ve been shooting professionally for decades, how did you feel about the Z 7?
A: On National Geographic assignments, I’ve always used big, high-end, flagship Nikon cameras because my results must be the absolute best. So I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from the Z 7, especially since I’ve had little experience with mirrorless cameras. I was instantly surprised at how professional it is. It’s so compact and lightweight, yet packs a powerful punch with fantastic dynamic range, great low light results, and extraordinary quality for both stills and video. I gave up nothing and gained the huge advantage of such an easy-to-hold size. All the ergonomics were the same as my other Nikon cameras, so I had no learning curve. But even if you’ve never held a Nikon camera, it’s very intuitive—all the buttons are in the right places.
Q: What moments really tested the camera’s capabilities?
A: During polar winter, you never really see the sun; you’re constantly starved for good light. Early morning on the fjords it was pitch black. Then I’d start seeing eerie purple-orange light and the black dorsal fins of whales moving through the water. In such low light, many cameras can’t capture what your eye actually sees, but the Z 7 delivered beautifully. The same was true one night when I shot a mountain stream by moonlight, deep in a national forest. It’s one thing to push high ISOs, but where it really came through was shooting high contrast scenes with many different F stops of range. I’d have brighter skies and snow-capped peaks, but very dark water in the foreground. The camera handled it all extraordinarily well.
Q: What features made the biggest difference?
A: The compact, lightweight size made the Z 7 so much fun to use—no chore to hold, so it was always right in the palm of my hand. That meant I never missed unanticipated, serendipitous moments. I also loved the big, bright electronic viewfinder, which was great for tracking wildlife in motion. Even at night I could see corner to corner, so composing scenes was easy.
The Z Mount 35mm f/1.8 S lens made beautiful portraits. It goes down to a very shallow depth of field, f/1.8, so I could create soft, blurred backgrounds. I met an incredible 80-year old indigenous Sami reindeer herder and the 35mm captured her fantastic face, bright clothing, and magical reindeer wonderfully against the winter landscape. The F Mount 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR zoom lens was vital for wildlife and landscape shots. I zoomed in on mountains and humpback whales one moment and then jumped on a dinghy to shoot portraits of fishermen with the 35mm. Using those lenses in tandem made a powerful combination. And the Mount Adapter FTZ also lets me use more than 300 other NIKKOR lenses.
Shot using a NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens.
Since the camera is silent, I could be totally unobtrusive. It’s much easier to get people to relax and be natural when they don’t hear a loud motor drive and mirror clicking. Portraits feel more intimate, but I’m also excited about using it with wildlife. Many times the sound of my mirror clicking scared animals away, especially shooting underwater. Being able to work stealthily will be an enormous advantage.
Q: How did the camera handle video?
A: The Z 7 video is superb. It not only shoots 4K, but also has built-in stabilization which was great as I bounced around on the boat. Even in regular HD video you can shoot at a very high frame rate—120 frames per second. That makes for great slow motion too. Because the camera is quite small, I was able to approach animals like reindeer in a more discreet way. And being able to use high-quality Nikon lenses resulted in clear, crisp motion. The NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens was perfect for beautifully isolating details of the reindeer’s face. All in all, really stunning video results.
Q: How can amateurs stretch their creativity?
A: Great photography is about your vision and ability to communicate visually. Since the Z 7 delivers so many tools in one compact package, I think it gives everyone permission to be more creative. You can push boundaries and begin to experiment with things other cameras don’t give you the latitude to try. With a camera this easy, intuitive, and fun to use, you’ll be inspired to shoot more, break a few rules, and take your work to the next level.
Q: What’s the future of photography look like to you?
A: It will be all about doing more with less. The days of showing up on assignment with 25 cases of equipment are over. Versatility will be everything, requiring cameras to be real multi-tasking powerhouses. To me, the Z 7 embodies that future. With this one camera you can head out, shoot anything, tackle the most challenging conditions, have fun, and produce an endless portfolio of work that stands the test of time.