Nikon Z6 Review – A professional take on Nikon’s new camera.
A first nations dancer performs with the Canadian techno group A Tribe Called Red at the Squamish Constellation Festival. Photographed with the Nikon Z6 camera.
I’ll save everyone the of trouble of scrolling to the end of the review to get to the summary. I’ll say right off the start that Nikon has hit it out of the park with the Nikon Z6. While it’s not perfect, my only regret so far with the Nikon Z6 is that I didn’t buy two of them while they were on sale.
I’ve been a working photographer for nearly 30 years and I’ve used Nikon cameras throughout my career, which has been a mixture of newspaper photojournalism and commercial photography. Other than buying a lot of their products, I don’t have any professional relationship with Nikon. If I want to use one of their cameras, I have to go out and buy it. My main cameras for the last few years have been two Nikon D3s’s (that will tell you how disinclined I am to change out my equipment) for my newspaper work, along with a D800 for commercial photography. After years of hard service, my D3s’s are basically hopelessly worn out, so when Nikon ran a sale on the Nikon Z6, I grabbed up one, along with the 24-70mm f/4 kit lens and the PTZ adapter so I could use my existing Nikon lenses with the camera. Since July when I bought it, I’ve put about 40,000 frames on the camera, so I’ve really gotten know it.
In this review, you’re only going to see finished photos from my day-in/day-out work. If you want to see tripod mounted comparative shots of brick walls and old barns, go look somewhere else.
A detail shot from a rental house for a shoot for AirBnB. Shot with the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z 24-70mmm f/4 lens with a wide open f/4 aperture.
The Nikon Z6, along with the Nikon Z 24-70mm lens, is really a pleasure to use. Compared to my D3s with a 24-70mm f/2.8, it feels like a ping pong ball it’s so light and compact.
The Nikon Z6 is a radical departure from traditional SLR camera design (which Nikon pretty much wrote the book on back in the mid-1960’s), replacing the complicated SLR mirrorbox assembly with a solid state electronic view finder. Sony, with it’s long history of making professional video cameras, has been the leader in mirrorless cameras and the Nikon Z6 borrows a lot from the Sony cameras. Personally, I haven’t been a fan of the Sonys, I find them too boxy ad slab sided. They’re great cameras, but aesthetically they just don’t do it for me. The Nikon is all soft rubber and well designed curves and really fits well in your hand (and I have really big hands).
I’m used to the professional D series cameras where there’s a button on the back of the camera to do pretty much anything you’d ever need to do. The Nikon Z6 is about a third as large as one of my Nikon D3 cameras, so obviously they had to do away with most of the buttons, which have been replaced with a info menu button that gives you quick access to menu items like frame rate and auto focus mode. It takes a bit of getting used to, but works pretty well.
The digital viewfinder is the iconic symbol of mirrorless cameras. I’ve also been a videographer for years, so I’m used to looking through electronic viewfinders, but I have to say that the Nikon Z6 has hands down the best one I’ve ever seen.
A logger runs a custom high speed chainsaw during the Squamish Days Logger Sports Competition. I shot this at f/4 with the 24-70mm lens, and there’s still plenty of bokeh.
I picked up the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 kit lens that’s designed to work with the Z6, even though I already own a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8. So far I’m a big fan of the little kit lens. It’s very sharp at f/4 and I shoot it wide open almost all the time. The auto focus is fast and sure, as well as being very quiet. I’ve never been a fan of lenses with with big telescoping sections in them, but this feel well made and smooth. You can lock the front element into the body of the lens, which is a great feature for moving around, as it protects the lens from impacts when you’re carrying it, as well as making it supper easy to pack into a camera bag. I don’t have any hesitations about saying the Nikon Z 24-70mm lens is totally fine for whatever professional application you have.
My 17-35mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 work fairly well with the FPZ lens adapter. You can really hear the autofocus motors zipping back and forth, which I never noticed with the D3s’s, so I’m not sure what’s up with that. I can’t say that there’s any lack of autofocus performance with the FPZ, but you really feel like you’re shoe horning two different systems together. I was even able to use my mid-1980-‘s 28mm PC-Nikkor lens with the PFZ, so that’s pretty cool.
I’ve got my eye on the new Nikon Z 14-30mm, although I haven’t had a chance to try one out yet. I’d like a wider lens, and the big 14-24mm AF-S series lens has a massive exposed front element that’s just asking to get nicked or chipped when carrying over your shoulder, so it hasn’t really been an option for me.
As for the 70-200mm, it’s fine, but it dwarfs the Z6. I’ve been using it for portraits and it’s been great, but you really feel the lack of a battery grip to help stabilize the big lens.
Nikon has a Z version 24-70mm f/2.8, and is planning a 70-200mm f/2.8, but I have to say I’m not particularly interested in either lens. With the stellar low light performance and great electronic view under, the advantage you’re going to get from moving from f/4 to f/2.8, unless you’re shooting football games under stadium lighting or something like that, is probably negligible. I’ll probably hold off replacing the 70-200mm until Nikon makes a Z 70-200mm f/4 lens. Now I mainly use the AF-S 70-200 on my D3s.
A traditional First Nations smudging ceremony as part of the Cheakamus Centre Indigenous Youth Leadership Program graduation ceremony.
Apart from the view finder, the auto focus system is where the Nikon Z6 really veers away from the more traditional D-SLR cameras. If you’re in the dynamic area autofocus mode, it works similarly to a D-SLR camera, except rather than having a limited set of autofocus points in the centre of the view finder, you can put the autofocus sensor anywhere you want. I’ve found this is my go to autofocus mode for most things.
Where it gets really crazy is when you put it into the auto area mode. If nobody is in the frame, then the camera takes multiple AF samples from throughout the frame. This seems to work pretty well most of the time, but if someone puts their head down or turns away from the camera, there’s a pretty good chance the camera is going to lose focus and go wherever. As soon as you get a person in the frame, the autofocus curser shrinks and moves to the person’s face. Get closer and the curser shrinks again and goes to the person’s eyes. If you have two or three people, the focus will grab the person with the strongest features, but you can shift it using the little joystick on the back of the camera. Where you get problems is when you have a big group of people and the camera doesn’t know whose face to focus on. I find that there’s a better than average chance that it’s going to be the wrong face, so in that scenario it’s best to switch back to dynamic area AF and just manually set the autofocus point. I really like the auto area mode, but if I had a bride coming down the aisle of a crowded church, I’d definitely be using the dynamic auto focus mode.
Once you get used to it, the autofocus is deadly accurate. I rarely miss a shot because it’s out of focus anymore.
Low Light Photography
The Pride: Dark side of the Rainbow fashion and burlesque event at the Knotty Burl. Shot with the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 at ISO 6400 at 1/30th second exposure.
The Z6 has awesome low performance. From ISO 100 to 1600, there really isn’t that much difference in image noise. At ISO 3200, you start to get digital noise in the shadow and dark areas of the image, although you really need to look petty closely to see it. At ISO 6400, the noise starts to become noticeable, but it’s not unpleasant and I actually use that setting a lot. Noise starts to become an issue ISO 12,500, and gets really noticeable at ISO 25,000.
Once you hit ISO 52,000, things get really freaky. It’s like looking through a night vision scope with the electronic view finder.
Crowds at the Squamish Constellation Festival. This is a shot at ISO 52,000. It was so dark that I couldn’t walk around without a flashlight, so this pretty impressive.
Along with great high ISO performance, the in-camera vibration reduction system is a huge step up from the older in-lens style VR. I routinely shoot at 1/30th a second and very rarely if ever do I have issues with camera movement. At 1/15th and lower, it works most of the time. My Nikon 70-200mm has built in vibration reduction and the thing that’s always bugged me about it that you can feel the different lens elements moving around inside the lens. With the Z6, it’s totally quiet and seamless.
The other thing to keep in mind, I mainly use the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 lens, which is 2 1/2 stops slower than the Nikon Z f/1.8 prime lenses. With a f/1.8 lens, you could probably shoot in near total darkness.
A kayaker on the Upper Squamish River, near Whistler. Photographed with a Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at ISO 2500
Between the great high ISO and autofocus performance, the Nikon Z6 is a great camera for shooting sports. The autofocus in dynamic mode is sure and very rarely loses focus, even in dimly lit hockey arenas. The auto area focus mode struggles a bit, especially when you have a lot of elements, or when people are wearing helmets or face masks, so best to keep it in the dynamic auto focus mode.
A Vancouver Canucks alumni game in Squamish. Shot at ISO 6400.
While the buffer on the Z6 is only 15 frames (the same as the original Nikon D3, and you ran than out in about 1.5 seconds), with the XQD cards, the buffer gets replenished as fast as you can shoot. At the high FPS, which is 5.5 FPS but feel way faster, you can basically blast away indefinitely. I haven’t been able to run out the buffer once. There is a restricted super high frame rate, but I haven’t really felt the need for it.
One thing to keep in mind, you want to shut off the image review in the view finder feature. As soon as you take your finder off the shutter, the images start popping up in the viewfinder like crazy. It has the dual effect of making you lose track of the action because you can’t see through the viewfinder, and the strobe effect of all images will drive you schizoid in no time.
Chewy Date & Cashew Bar, photographed for the Green Moustache menu.
The Z6 is fine for most of the commercial work I do, mainly architectural and food photography. The 24MP chip has plenty of resolution for most uses, but if uber high resolution is what you’re after, there’s the nearly identical Nikon Z7 that has something like a 45MP sensor. With my 36MP D800, I found most of the time the files were actually too big for my clients, so I ended up having to provide a downsized set of images.
I use the built in Wi-Fi with my iPad for reviewing images with clients without having to physically tether the camera to a computer. I wish the Nikon software would allow you to make camera setting adjustments, but otherwise it’s fine.
I haven’t had a lot o time to play around with the video features, but it does take really gorgeous looking video, especially when you crank up the video frame rate to 120 FPS for super slow motion. You do need to fit it out with an external microphones and some kind of stabilizing rig to really get the most out of it. I’ll probably get more into shooting video later on, but so far the best I can tell you is that chainsaws look really cool in slow motion.
The Memory Card
In a departure for a professional camera, the Nikon Z6 has only one XQD card slot. It’s not an issue for me, I have two slots in all the D-SLR cameras I own and almost never use the second slot. You’d think from the hue and cry from the on-line photo community that Nikon had changed the colour of the camera to pink or something. Since moving to a 100% digital camera work flow in 2003, I’ve never had a camera card fail on me, and I’ve never lost a photo due to a camera failure, and that’s after shooting literally millions of photos. I always run top of the line cards, I always format the card after downloading the images, and if I think might possibly be some issue with the card, I chuck it and buy another one. After a year of use, I buy new ones, just to be on the safe side. Most of the stories I’ve heard of people losing images always seem include some off-brand made in Outer Mongolia card, or maybe they put the card through the washing machine and decided it was probably still okay to use.