Sony’s A7-series of full-frame mirrorless cameras have caused a stir but it’s taken until the 3rd generation for the cameras to deliver what people really want. Nikon, however, seems to have skipped the evolution stage and introduced two cameras that look set to hit the ground running. The Nikon Z 6 is the 24Mp all-rounder of the two cameras that have been announced and it has the build and feature set that should make it popular amongst enthusiast photographers.
Our in-depth testing of the Nikon Z 6 is underway and so far I’m very impressed with how it’s performing. I’ve also shot extensively with the Nikon Z 7 for its review and as it has a lot in common with the Z 6.
Nikon photographers who have been eagerly awaiting a full-frame mirrorless camera now have two options. The high-resolution Z7 or the all-rounder Nikon Z6. I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with both, but as mentioned earlier, this hands-on preview focuses on the Z6.
Like the Z7, the Z 6 uses the new Expeed 6 processing engine. However, in the Z6 it enables a maximum continuous shooting rate of 12fps. The sensitivity range is also ISO 100-51,200.
This is backed-up with a 273-point hybrid focusing system that uses phase and contrast detection. The imaging sensor is used for the focusing so there are pixels dedicated to the AF system. It means that the AF performance is the same whether you’re shooting using the viewfinder or the screen.
Viewfinder and Screens
Nikon is aiming to combine the benefits of an SLR with those of a mirrorless camera with the Z6 and Z7. This means that the viewfinder has to be bright and clear. With this in mind, there are Nikon optics in the electronic viewfinder (EVF).
Fluorine and anti-reflective coatings have been used to repel dirt and banish reflections. With 3.6million dots, it’s a high-resolution device and it shows 100% of the image with 0.8x magnification. That resolution is the same as the Sony A9’s viewfinder. It’s great to see it in a camera aimed at a wider audience.
The EVF’s refresh rate is 60fps. That should mean the image is smooth when following a moving subject. However, Fujifilm offers an even higher rate of 100fps with the X-T3’s EVF.
Nikon has plumped for a 3.2-inch 2,100,000-dot tilting touch-screen on the back on the Z 6. Unlike Sony, Nikon hasn’t limited the use of the touch-control, you can tap and swipe on the screen to navigate the menu, make setting selections, set the AF point and scroll through images.
There’s a small status LCD that shows key settings on the Z 6’s top-plate.
While designing its full-frame mirrorless cameras, Nikon has also developed a new lens mount. This isn’t a decision that has been taken lightly. However, it removes some of the restrictions that have so far been imposed on the optic and sensor engineers by the F mount.
The mount diameter jumps from the 47mm of the F mount to 55mm with the Z mount. That gives much more scope for letting light into the camera – and future cameras. Whereas the F mount limits the maximum aperture to f/1.4 or f/1.2 at the very most, the new mount makes f/0.95 lenses feasible. In fact, there’s already one in the pipeline.
Although the diameter of the mount may have been increased significantly, the flange depth has shrunk to just 16mm. That and teh lack of a mirror means that the Z6 is very slim – although there’s still a beefy grip.
Although there will only be three S-Line or Nikkor Z lenses available when the Nikon Z6 goes on sale, Nikon has revealed its roadmap. This shows six more lenses coming in 2019. In addition to the luxurious Nikkon Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct there will be optics that will be high on any enthusiast or pro photographer’s shopping list. The 85mm f/1.8 will appeal to portrait photographers, for example, while the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 have all-round appeal.
It will be interesting to see how big the f/2.8 lenses are. The 24-80mm f/4 is a nice size with the Z6 but a larger aperture will probably mean a larger lens. However, as the image below shows, the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR is impressively small. So Nikon has clearly been working on downsizing optics.
In another break from Nikon tradition, the Z6 has a 5-axis stabilisation system built in. This is claimed to give 5EV of shutter speed compensation.
Using in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) avoids having to put Nikon’s VR system in the S-line (or Nikkor Z) lenses. That should help keep size, weight and prices down.
As I mentioned earlier, the Nikon Z 6 has hybrid autofocusing. This is a change from Nikon’s DSLRs which use a dedicated phase detection sensor for shooting with the viewfinder and contrast detection focusing for Live View and video shooting.
The Z 6 has 273 AF points that cover around 90% of the sensor. As a result, you can focus on areas much closer to the edge of the frame than you can with a DSLR. This means you don’t have to use the focus-and-recompose technique. In addition, you can track subjects around more of the imaging frame.
Like the Z 7, the Z 6 has five AF point selection modes. However, the choice changes a little depending upon whether you are In Single AF (AF-S) or Continuous AF (AF-C) mode. In AF-S mode you have teh choice of Pinpoint AF, Single-point AF, Wide-area AF (Small), Wide-area AF (Large) and Auto-area AF.
Switch to AF-C mode and you’ll find Single-point AF, Dynamic-area AF, Wide-area AF (Small), Wide-area AF (Large) and Auto-area AF available.
In Auto-area AF, the camera attempts to detect the subject automatically. If you press the OK button a tracking point becomes visible. You can then move this over the subject and the camera will attempt to track it around the frame. This operates in both AF-S and AF-C mode but it only adjusts the focus in AF-C mode.
Like the Z7, the Z6 can record 4K UHD (3840 × 2160) video at 30p with full-frame readout. Slow motion lovers will also like the fact that Full HD footage can be recorded at up to 120p.
Footage recorded internally is in 8bit colour. However, if you connect an external recorder via the HDMI connection, it’s possible to record 10bit 4:2:2 colour with N-Log for better grading and colour matching.
Using N-Log and 10bit recording extends the tonal range to 12stop or 1,300% dynamic range.
There’s also Timecode, focus peaking and zebra display. It’s also possible to adjust both the focusing speed and tracking sensitivity across 7 steps. That’s useful when you have a moving subject or when you want to slow focsuing for a more cinematic appearance.
Memory, Power and Wi-Fi
While most manufacturers are going with SD cards and putting dual slots in their top-end mirrorless cameras, Nikon has gone for just one XQD card slot. There will also be a firmware upgrade to make it compatible with CFexpress cards.
That’s quite a brave decision, but it’s been made to keep the speed up and size down. A single card port is likely to be less of an issue for the Z6’s intended audience than it is for the Z7’s.
The Z6 has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity built in as part of the SnapBridge system. However, the Wi-Fi can be used directly if you prefer. A dedicated CPU is incorporated into the Z6 to help maintain the connection.
Alternatively, the Z6 is compatible with Nikon’s WT-7 wireless adapter.
Like the Z7, the Z6 uses a new EN-EL15b battery. However, it can also accept the D850’s EN-EL15a battery.
Build and Handling
Nikon has given the Z6 exactly the same form factor as the Z7. That means if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford both, you shouldn’t have any problems switching between the two.
I’ve only spent a couple of hours or so shooting with the Z 6 but I’ve shot extensively with the Z 7, so I can comment quietly fully on the handling
Both of Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless cameras feel solid and durable. And given that they have a magnesium alloy body and weatherproof seals, they should survive some serious use.
It’s clear that Nikon has put quite a bit of thought into the design and has done a great job of keeping the size down despite the huge lens mount.
Crucially, the grip is nice and deep so the camera feels really comfortable in your hand. They feel nicely balanced with the 24-70mm and 35mm lenses mounted. Even the new AF-S 500mm looks quite sensible on the Z6 – but then it is a surprisingly small lens for the focal length! Naturally, you have to give the lens a bit of support with your left hand, but the deep grip helps you keep it steady.
Although the Z6 is small for a full-framer and it has an extensive array of buttons and dials, there’s enough room for your fingers and thumbs.
The buttons on the back of the camera are all within easy reach – mostly by your left thumb and there’s a conveniently positioned mini-joystick for setting the AF point.
As soon as you pick-up the Z6 and start exploring the controls or dipping into the menus it’s apparent that it has a lot in common with cameras like the D850 and D750. However, the size reduction means that the button layout has been reconsidered. I think the control layout is one of the best I’ve come across on an interchangeable lens camera.
I love the fact that Nikon has allowed so much touch-control. You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to, but it’s there if you do. And it really speeds some aspects.
Pressing the ‘I’ for Info button, for instance, reveals a panel of 12 features that can be selected and adjusted with taps on the screen. If want you can use the physical controls but you have to press repeatedly to navigate over to the feature you want.
You can also customise this Info screen so you access the 12 features that you need most often.
The main menu options can also be selected by tapping the screen.
I’m pleased that Nikon has enabled the Auto ISO mode control via the ‘i’ menu. On DSLRs like the D850 it’s in the main menu and it can cause confusion when adjusting the exposure settings. Strangely, you still can’t access the Auto ISO options via the dedicated ISO button though.
Nikon has used a mode dial like the D750’s on the Z6. I much prefer this approach to the button and dial system of the D850. I think it’s quicker and easier to select the exposure mode that you want.
Across the top-plate and on the back of the camera you’ll find all the buttons that you’d expect. The AF-on button is conveniently placed for back-button focusing lovers.
In addition to the tilting 3.2-inch screen on the back of the camera, there’s a status screen on the top-plate to show key settings. It’s a nice touch that adds to the high-end feel. It even adapts the lighting conditions so you’re not dazzled.
The main screen is very responsive to touch and there’s plenty of detail visible. It can also be tilted up or down to give an easier view at high or low shooting angles. Thanks to the small size and weight of the camera, it’s easy to hold the Z6 steady while looking at the screen and shooting video.
As you’d expect you can set the AF point and trip the shutter with taps on the screen if you want. Unfortunately, there’s no trackpad option to use the screen while you’re looking in the viewfinder though.
If you think you don’t like electronic viewfinders, you need to look at the 3.6million-dot EVF in the Z6. It’s great. Aside from the fact that you can see how changing exposure or colour settings impacts upon the image, the view is very natural. And if you follow a moving subject, there’s no lag or tearing. It’s as close to an optical finder as you can get while still having the benefits of an electronic finder.
I’ve shot with the Z6 but the camera wasn’t a final production sample so I haven’t been able to keep any of the images.
However, I could examine them on the main screen and in the electronic viewfinder. At the lower sensitivity settings there’s lots of detail visible and if you push up to the highest native value, ISO 51,200 there’s still plenty of it on show. Noise doesn’t seem to be much of an issue either. Going beyond the native settings into the expansion values introduces some noise and smudginess, but I’ve seen much worse.
With the Automatic or Standard Picture Control mode selected along with one of the Auto White balance settings, the Z6 coped well with the mixed lighting of the launch venue. The Matrix metering also took everything in its stride.
I can’t wait to get outside shooting with the camera to find out how it handles everyday shooting scenarios.
Nikon is pitching the Z 6 as an all-rounder, which means it needs an autofocus system that can cope with a wide range of subjects and conditions. After shooting with the Z 7, I was already reasonably confident about the Z 6’s autofocus (AF) system. And now I’ve been able to photograph a football match with the Z 6, I’m even more impressed.
The conditions at the match were perfect, low sun giving a nice warm glow and good contrast. And the Z 6 responded well, getting everything I pointed it at sharp. It also proved extremely good at keeping the subject under the active AF area sharp.
As the match progressed and the sun began to set, the light became more challenging yet the Z 6 kept up well. This is especially impressive as I was shooting with the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED mounted via an FTZ adaptor. The majority of images were shot at the 400mm end where the maximum aperture is f/5.6.
As I also had the Nikon Z 7 with me, I was able to compare its performance in the same conditions. Its AF system good but the Z 6’s is just a bit snappier. Also had the Sony A7 III with me, although this benefited from an f/2.8 lens, and the Z 6 compared very well indeed.
Follow the link to browse and download full resolution images.
Here’s a small selection of sample images from the Nikon Z 6, follow the link to browse and download full resolution images
By giving the Z6 and Z7 the same specification (with the exception of anything pertaining to their pixel count) and identical build and handling, Nikon has given users a real choice without compromise. You can have the lower price and lower resolution for better low-light performance and faster continuous shooting without having to miss out on the weather-sealing.
The Z6 is a great price for a full-frame camera with so many features. There’s lots of testing to be done before I can pass the verdict in full, but at the moment, I think that it looks like the camera that many Nikon photographers have been holding out for. It combines the handling that you expect from a Nikon DSLR with some great mirrorless camera advantages. The electronic viewfinder is superb. Obviously, I want to test it further, but it seems very good indeed, coming as close to an optical viewfinder as you could wish for.
Sony A7 III
Many photographers have been waiting for Nikon to reveal its hand before deciding on a mirrorless camera. The Z 6 goes head-to-head with the Sony A7 III, with both offering a 24Mp full-frame sensor and a collection of advanced features.
Following my experience with the Nikon Z7, which has the same build and control layout as the Z6, I think Nikon has done a better job with the handling of the Z6. The Sony A7 III and a Z6 both have touch-screens for example, but Nikon has made much better use of the technology than Sony.
The difference between the sensors may mean that the Z6’s AF performance is better than the Z7’s. However, at the moment I suspect that Sony has a slight edge in this area.
Follow the link below for further thoughts on how they compare:
Canon EOS R
The Canon EOS R is Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera. It has a 30.3Mp sensor, which means it should resolve a fraction more detail than the Nikon Z6, but there’s unlikely to be a great deal in it. The Canon camera also has a 5,655-position AF system that works impressively well in low light.
Canon introduced some interesting handling features with the EOS R, some of which have been better received than others. The customisable lens ring, is generally popular, for example, but the M-Fn bar on the back of the camera is dividing opinion.