Camera review: Nikon Z 6 System
Having had a Nikon Z 6 on loan for an extended period, I’m reluctant to return it. While no single camera is the perfect answer for every photographer in every situation, this one addresses many of my needs, and, I think, would probably address many of yours.
I was sorely tempted to purchase a Nikon D5 as my next upgrade, but its weight, cost, somewhat undersized 20.8-megapixel sensor, and sound level deterred me. The Nikon Z 6 solves these issues while providing nearly all the benefits of the D5.
When I unpacked the Z 6 and mounted the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens, the system felt right in my hand. Compact and light with a grippy raised extension for my thumb, it was everything I expected a mirrorless camera to be. It was when I was tracking birds with a handheld AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens with the FTZ adapter that I realized how well designed the Z 6 body is for a huge range of situations.
The Z 6, both with Z-series and F-series lenses, delivers outstanding image quality. Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but I swear the captures I made with my F-series lenses, even those dating back to the 1970s, look better from the Z 6 than they ever have before. Images from my old 16mm full-frame fisheye have never looked better.
Color is natural, with the slight Nikon bias to warm tones. Dynamic range is outstanding, even extending into the high ISOs. Exposure is biased to capturing highlight information, but the dynamic range leaves plenty of space to bring up noise-free shadow.
Image quality from the Z 6 raw files is impressive, especially when processed in Nikon Capture NX-D software. I think part of this has to do with the initial unavailability of software to process Z 6 raw files from Adobe, Capture One, Luminar, or DxO. I tested Nikon Capture NX-2 software a while back and felt it produced the highest-quality TIFF files from Nikon NRW raw files, but I disliked the workflow so much I settled on Capture One for my important work and Adobe software for everything else. My opinion hasn’t changed much.
Raw files from the Z 6 are visibly better after processing in Capture NX-D than in Adobe products, and they take less effort. Capture NX-D performs its magic when you first open the raw file. Most will look nearly perfect. Captures appear as good or better than they looked in camera. Noise is automatically reduced at all exposures, and the files look cleaner than manually reducing the luminance and color noise in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
Along with the Nikon Z 6, I was able to test the full complement of available Z-series lenses: the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S, and Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S. Each is compact and lightweight. Image quality is excellent. Particularly impressive is the image sharpness of the prime lenses at maximum aperture.
The 24-70mm I primarily used had one design feature I could live without. To keep the lens as compact as possible and to prevent lens creep during transport, Nikon designed it to retract into itself when not in use. When you turn the camera on, a warning reminds you to extend the lens for use. I’d prefer a slightly longer lens or no warning.
While I’m not a videographer, I did capture some video sequences. For video, the Z 6 is even more capable than the Z 7. The Z 6 offers full-frame uncropped 4K video downsampled from oversampled 6K, which is the best way to achieve the sharpest video. It’s also possible to capture 10-bit video to an external recorder through HDMI with Nikon N-Log output for extended dynamic range. The new Z lenses have silent autofocus and reduced focus shift when zooming. And in-body image stabilization makes handheld video an attractive possibility. My minimal video testing produced impressive results.
To Nikon’s credit, no new battery is required, although one is available. You can power the Z 6 with existing EN-EL 15/15a batteries from your D750, D800, etc. There’s a new EN-EL 15b battery that, coupled with the EH-7p AC charging adapter, allows you to charge the battery in camera. My battery-shaped AC power adapter from my D800 also works in the Z 6, another thoughtful carryover.
And battery life is an issue with the Z 6, as it is with all mirrorless cameras. While I achieved more than the specified 310 captures per charge, a 3-hour wedding and reception I photographed finished with just over 700 captures and two completely dead batteries. A two-hour ballet performance produced the same result. It’s not your DSLR battery performance. The upcoming Z-series battery grip will add a second battery along with additional weight and bulk.
BODY AND AF
There are fewer controls on the back of the body than on a Nikon DSLR, but they’re adequate and well placed. A single i button brings up a set of 12 customizable settings that provide quick access to appropriate options available for photo mode, movie mode, and playback.
The Multi Selector navigates menus (although the touchscreen is faster), and the Sub-selector joystick (a carryover from previous Nikons) is for selecting a focus point from the 273 available in Single-point AF mode, covering 90 percent of the frame. While there are fewer focus points in the Z 6 than the Z 7, it’s a pleasure to have the viewfinder so well covered, in contrast to the limited coverage on a DSLR. Pressing the Sub-selector locks focus, exposure, or both depending on the focus mode.
For landscape, night sky, macro, and other scenarios where a tripod is needed, the Z 6 provides an even cooler capture method. With the image visible on the 3.2-inch, 2,100K-dot tilting TFT touchscreen monitor, touch the point where you want focus, and the capture is made by lifting your finger. Very slick.
The 0.5-inch 3,690K-dot OLED is one of the best I’ve seen in an electronic viewfinder, but it doesn’t have the immediacy of an optical viewfinder. In low-light levels and with rapidly moving subjects, and even when panning quickly, there’s noticeable hesitation that makes you aware of the difference.
In low light you’ll also notice the camera hunting for focus. While autofocus at normal light levels is quick and precise, once the light falls to the level that’s typical of weddings, receptions, or dim events the system requires a few seconds to achieve focus. This is offset by the brightness of the image in the electronic viewfinder compared to the far darker view of a DSLR, but I found it annoying.
The thing I disliked about the Z 6 compared to my DSLRs is that if you want to see a review image in the viewfinder or on the monitor, you must tap the shutter-release button before being able to make your next capture. I reached out to Nikon to see if this could be changed with settings and tried their suggestions, but it did not work for me. Results differ by mode, but none allow you to compose in the viewfinder, see the last capture on the monitor or viewfinder, and allow another capture without tapping the shutter-release button again.
Nikon has managed to get other features totally right. I do a lot of concert photography for classical music organizations, and with the Nikon Z 6, I have no need for my 40-year-old Jacobsen sound blimp. Silent mode on the Z 6 is truly silent. And Nikon thought it through so completely that the flash hot shoe is disabled in silent mode, eliminating any possibility of an inadvertent flash of light.
A manual mode feature that appeals to me as a night sky photographer is a sliding scale visible in the viewfinder or monitor that shows when you’ve achieved infinity focus. No more hunting around and hoping that you’re really focused on the Milky Way.
A huge advantage of the Nikon Z cameras over the Canon R is the availability of 5-axis in-camera image stabilization. With any of the Z lenses I tested (24-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8), I could capture images 100 percent of the time at 1/8 second. With the FTZ adapter and newer Nikkor IS lenses, you still have three-axis image stabilization. This was immediately apparent when hand holding that 200-500mm Nikkor, photographing wild birds from a moving airboat. Image stability was excellent, and captures were in perfect focus.
A feature I never thought I’d use turns out to be another surprise winner. I ignored the Auto ISO sensitivity setting in the shooting menu of the D5 because I arrogantly felt I needed to control the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. With fast-paced action, changing lighting conditions, and the desire to expose at 1/3,200 second at f/8 for fast-changing action, I quickly learned that Auto ISO sensitivity delivers perfect exposures while allowing me to worry about tracking the action, not the camera settings. Of course, this wouldn’t work if the camera couldn’t deliver nearly noise-free images at all ISO settings. I tested the Z 6 up to its max ISO of 204,800, and I would not need to make any excuses to a client for images captured at ISO 12,800 and processed in Nikon NX-D software (more on this later).
MEDIA AND BUFFER
Canon and Nikon mirrorless camera critics are worked up about not having two card slots, but I don’t see it that way. I have both Lexar and Sony XQD cards and both have been 100-percent reliable. Then again, so have all of my CF cards and all but one of my SD cards, which failed in an immediately detectable way. I have had far more data losses from computer and computer hard drive failures than camera storage media.
Yes, the buffer is limited. If you’re a sports photographer or if this is a real issue for you, get the D5. But if you’re a sports photographer looking for a backup camera or two, you won’t go far wrong with a Z 6.
MORE ON CAPTURE NX-D
Capture NX-D uses all the EXIF information from the camera to apply noise reduction, sharpening, lens corrections, etc., to the image before presenting it for viewing. And Capture NX-D still has the Control Points technology that Nikon licensed from Nik Software years ago for local corrections. With a much-improved look and workflow, all that Capture NX-D lacks are some more highlight and shadow sliders, but I’ve found ways to overcome this. Capture NX-D still needs some tweaking, but it’s worth a look if you’re shooting raw files with a Nikon digital, mirrorless, or DSLR camera.
The mirrorless evolution is upon us and there is no going back. There are certainly advantages to smaller and lighter bodies as well as lens design for mirrorless systems. Whether you have a lifetime investment in Nikkor lenses or are just looking for your first professional-level digital camera, the Nikon Z 6, priced at $1,996.95 for the body, deserves serious examination.
Stan Sholik is a writer and photographer in San Clemente, California.