Nikon Z6 First Impressions - Alexander Becker

Nikon Z6 First Impressions

Nikon recently released their first two mirrorless cameras, the Nikon Z7 and the Z6. These cameras offer some advantages over their DSLR counterparts, both optically and ergonomically, as well as some stuff like silent shooting. In this blog post, I'll try to motivate why I tested one, what the pros and cons were, and ultimately what my decision was with the body. 

Motivation

Those familiar with my photography will know that although I'm not based in the rain forest or somewhere like the UK, I end up shooting in low light quite often. I like having as much shutter speed as possible, so high ISO is very important to me. I like shooting birds in flight, but I also do a lot of static work too.

"The low light problem"

Since this is so important to me, I should dwell on it a little. The way I view this problem (and ultimately what guided my decision on the Nikon Z6) is the reach-ISO performance-cost trade off. 

For wildlife photography, you generally want the most reach you can get. This may mean a 600mm f/4 prime or a crop body (with 1.5 focal length effective multiplier). However, the 600mm f/4 prime comes with a huge price tag, and the crop body comes will reduce low light performance. This is compounded by what lenses you have. My primary wildlife lens is the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. The constant f/5.6 aperture is nice, but it's slow. My recent Northern Harrier photos have been really pushing this reach-ISO performance-cost trade off to the edge in situations where I need high shutter speeds (and therefore high ISOs) on heavily overcast or rainy days, and still will need to crop in to fill the frame with a pleasing composition.

But I'm not always reach limited. I do a lot of passerine photography where I'm often using 400mm to 500mm. Additionally, I love photographing nesting seabirds where I often use my 300mm f/4 +/- 1.4 TC. So in those settings, the low light performance is generally as important as any reach limitations. 

So what to do?

Well it seems like a new body may be in order -- something with improved low light handling. Also, generally, I love the idea of a backup concept. Looking at the current Nikon offerings though leaves a bit of a dilemma. The Nikon D850 looks amazing, and in time I may pick one up, but currently, the high ISO is about the same as my D500. Also, the 47 MP of the D850, while super impressive and again, I might change my mind on this, is a lot. I don't often do big enough prints to justify that, and when I do, I'm very happy with the D500 output. 

That left a couple options.

First, the Nikon D5. This is probably the best DSLR on the market, but it comes with a huge price tag, and frankly is overkill with my current lenses. The, mythical Nikon D760 will probably come out at some point, but who knows. Hard to really judge something that doesn't exist yet. I'm sure it'll be great when it comes out, but for now...SOL. I very strongly considered the Nikon D4s. At 16 MP it's image quality is only marginally beaten by the newer D5, and it's high ISO is great. It can also be found on the used market for a nice price.

Then there is the Nikon Z6. I hadn't considered this as an option as I wasn't so sold on the mirrorless system, especially Nikon's first iteration of it. But as I looked at image samples I was struck by how the high ISO quality appeared. It was very fine grain (in the samples) that looked like it could be handled well. At 24 MP, that's enough of a boost of 16 (but not much over 20 IMO). Plus in theory it would have Nikon's newer autofocus (AF) system. 

I had read a lot about the issues in the AF system which I'll expand on here. But overall, I wasn't so concerned about them. There were a lot of folks using the Z6 for birds, basketball, and the review everyone was worried about I didn't think was particularly exhaustive (a guy riding a bike at the camera).

In the end, I figured why not try the Z6. I was able to get a great deal on an open body special with the FTZ adaptor. So what follows is my thoughts as I worked with the body, some very crude (read: not scientific!) tests, and ultimately my final 'decision' on the body.

Handling

The first thing I noticed was that this really is a solidly built camera. I didn't *really* expect it to feel like a toy, but I was happy nonetheless when it didn't. Built wise, I would say it's about as good as my D500. It's also much smaller than my D500 especially when I add the optional grip to the DSLR which is very convenient. The grip is deep so you can really grasp the camera which helps handling. I don't have the worlds biggest (bigly-ist?) hands so my pinky doesn't hang off the body as I've heard some other's mention.

Weather sealing visually appears great, and there's a LensRental video where they examine that by opening up the camera. I didn't do that of course, and I'm not gonna sit out in the rain with the body anyhow. I use rain covers as well, so I didn't really reach a conclusion on this, but things seem fine overall.

Controls

The controls are pretty similar to my D500. You have the ISO button in a place that makes sense and then two wheels. Nikon has made it so one of the Fn buttons changes the autofocus mode, which is 10,000 times better than having to press that weird button the D500/D850/D5 cameras, especially with a telephoto lens.

My biggest gripe about the camera right now is that I can't map the other Fn button to be single point autofocus AF-C. This is super useful if you're close to a subject and want to make sure the focus point is bang on the eye instead of grabbing the shoulder or something else as can happen with Dynamic or Wide mode. I use this mode on almost every 'near static' subject. So, why you can't do this, I have no idea, but it's annoying to say the least. You can map Fn to change to single if you turn the front wheel, but that's not really useful if you have an incoming bird or and really want to make sure you nail the face. Now to be fair, you can't do this on the D4S either, just the D5/D500/D850 series, but still.

Shooting modes

First, using an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was a bit weird, but this is very well done. It's clear and not too 'pixelated' if that makes sense. I love that you can see the histogram / exposure in real time, and see the options right on screen as you change them. You can shoot at about 5 FPS without lag, and go up to 11 FPS where you're seeing the old photo as the 'preview'. A bit weird, and it's not great for tracking, but for static objects it can work well.       

Image Quality

The image quality is (in my opinion!) awesome. The color rendering is great, low ISOs are clean and crisp, packed with detail, and the high ISOs aren't too shabby! At ISO ~ 6,400 the files are really impressive IMO. I'm usually pretty concerned about noise, but they look great without much processing. At ISO > 8,000, well I didn't get enough field experience to say, but I bet they would be useable.

Now here is another annoying thing. If you use Nikon's Capture NX-D to process your RAW files as I do, I'm pretty sure even when noise reduction (NR) is turned off it's still applying some NR. But what is very annoying is currently NX-D only offers you four options for NR -- Off, Low, Normal, High. What do these values mean? No idea. Can you handle Color vs Luminance Noise separately? NOPE! For me that is a bunch of BS. Why shoot in the RAW format if you can't control how the files look? I've contacted Nikon, but so far they have not been helpful. I've tried to explain the problem again to them, so we'll see if this is something that can get updated. This sounds like a minor thing but I really can't wrap my head around this firmware 'upgrade'.

Dynamic range was also well done in my opinion. I was able to pull up shadows and feel good about the noise levels. I don't mean to gloss over the Z6's awesome image quality, it's just that a lot has already been written about that and in some ways, possibly since Nikon makes awesome bodies, this is somewhat 'expected'. How spoiled are we these days!

Autofocus

Okay so this is the big one right? If you're reading this you've almost certainly seen some folks saying the continuous autofocus (AF-C) is crap, and you've maybe also seen some people saying it's actually pretty good. So what gives? Well, this is a tough nut to crack overall. I'll give my overall summary first and you can read more for details.

In my experience, for both static and moving subjects, the Z6 yields a high number of tack sharp shots. All good right? Not quite! Although many shots were sharp, I found general inconsistencies in the AF, meaning that while I had a high number of keepers, it was not as predictable as my D500.

Not the clear cut answer I (or you, the reader!) probably wanted right? To expand, what I can say so far is that the Z6 (and presumably Z7) AF-C system is different than the D500 (and presumably D850, and certainly D5) system. That sounds obvious but what I mean is that the analogies to various autofocus modes aren't exactly accurate. Nikon lists a Z-series to D850 comparative table here but I think it's a bit more subtle (and not as straightforward) as that. Dynamic mode is essentially D-9, which D500 users won't have -- instead having D-25, which is not a mode I would use for tracking outside of a slow moving walking mammal. Instead, I would use Group AF, which on the Z6 is Wide-S or Wide-L. However, my overall impressions is that Dynamic is better than Wide-S for tracking. Theres been some discussion from folks like Thom Hogan (who by the way has an excellent review out, so read that), stating that the focus system is not be using Closest Subject Proximity, i.e. not grabbing the closest object in the expanded focus mode.

Static subjects

Before going into tracking moving subjects, I wanted to mention I did get a number of 'jitters' focusing on near static subjects. Below is an example of what I mean. Upfront, I'll say this isn't scientific and also probably looks like a bad example due to possible atmospheric conditions (sun + snow!), but I had just taken a bunch of shots in this same field that weren't showing any atmospheric distortion. I also experienced this same jitter in multiple conditions over multiple days, so I can say at least on my copy, this was a genuine feature. This just gave a good example of the phenomenon more than anything.

These were two photos were taken in a burst 0.1 seconds apart. In the first photo, I'm just showing the scene with a subpanel showing where the focus point was. It really didn't change at all, although the scene moved slightly with the shutter.

Here I'm zooming in on two sections at 100% (one pixel captured by camera is shown on your screen as one pixel). First, looking at where the focus point is (e.g. Finn's head), you can see the one on the left is sharper than the second, substantially so. Looking down on the second row, you can see however that the snow / blades of grass is sharper on the right, indicating this is focus jitter. 

Again, I can't 100% rule out atmospheric distortion, but this occurred enough in so many situations with multiple lenses and focus modes, it feels like a feature of the camera. To support this, I had a chance with a pileated woodpecker where I observed the same thing. This was up in a tree about 10 feet up under some canopy so I highly doubt there were any atmospheric issues. And again with some cooperative seagulls. So I feel confident this is a genuine feature of my Z6. Here, I kept a high shutter speed to rule out motion blur, but yet a number of times two consecutive frames 0.1 seconds apart would show this same jitter.   

I will freely admit this is something DSLRs and various lenses do too, although I can't say I've seen it quite as often as I did with this body. I saw it on both my 200-500 and 300 PF as well.

Tracking moving subjects

Unfortunately, I also found irregularities in tracking moving subjects, furthering the idea that these AF modes aren't focusing on the closest object. I'll show three relatively comparable images that demonstrate what I mean. I didn't draw my results from these three images, but rather a bunch of different conditions (birds in flight, etc), so keep that in mind as well. In these samples, we have the AF point on the head of Finn moving at me, but the focus point is lagging. This is a systematic lag. I'm not sure how to best demonstrate this in photos, but I can say throughout many situations the AF would not land on the head (the closest point in the AF point), but rather the shoulder or foot. If this was user error (which at some points it probably is!), the AF point should slip off and grab something else completely. But no, the AF kept up with the subject, implying it's actually tracking. At this point I think I can say the Z6 AF tracks *very* well, it just doesn't track the way we expect.

The good

It *is* very possible to get tack sharp images of a moving subject. Here is one such example.

This focus point is on the head and things generally look pretty good. Maybe the far eye is marginally sharper than the near eye, but I'll take it. This is a tough shot to get too with the dog jumping. I will say in my testing and general shooting, I got a high number of these shots. 

But it's not all roses...

The bad

In the below image, the focus *should* be on the head assuming the AF is actually focusing on the closest thing. But as you can see, it isn't even on the body, but rather the foot. This whole series had the foot sharp. So the camera is tracking, but just...not where it's supposed to be.

Below is another shot where the AF point was on the head for the whole sequence, but the AF was consistently lagging and falling on the shoulder / body. Once again, tracking, but just not quite right.

The ugly

This shot (and sequence) had the focus point on the head the whole time, but yet it pretty much was just mush. This could be user error. But, I felt like this was happening much more frequently than on my D500. 

Now, maybe expecting the Z6 to hang with the D500 is foolish (and I wasn't fully expecting or wishing for that), but the AF irregularities are very odd and I really think do point to some inconsistent programming. 

These types of issues showed up in real world shooting too. This brant in splashing down is a good example of what I mean. While this photo is tack sharp, and shows amazing details and noise control, the sequence jittered in and out of focus in a way that was just generally unpredictable by looking at the focus point.

Lastly, the AF can't be as well tuned as the D500 (as well as D850 and D5), meaning you can't control tracking and AF blocking. This could explain some of these issues, but as others have pointed out this begs the question of why did Nikon not address this, or not just fix it. Of course mirrorless will have some limitations compared to DSLRs, especially in the first generation, but why not just roll out the same DSLR AF modes that are clearly so successful in the D500 series?

I will add a major AF caveat here -- me!

While I like to think I'm a pretty good action photographer, and I feel I have the body of work to back up those statements, my primary camera is a D500 and over the past 2-3 years that body is what I've honed my skills on. What I'm saying here is that I may be relying more on the camera than other people without even realizing it. For example, those folks I mentioned at the start using this body for basketball and birds with a lot of success are clearly doing something right, even if that means accepting a slightly low hit rate than with a D500, etc. So there is that bias in this review where while I didn't expect the Z6 to match the D500, it's totally possible that my in flight and action photography skills are more camera dependent than I would like. Gasp! 

The decision (dun dun dun....)

With all this said we have a camera that is 1) highly portable, 2) excellent low and high ISO image quality in an FX format, 3) new tech meaning some great new lenses on the horizon, 5) up to 11 FPS, 5) well built, but 6) inconsistent (at least to me) AF. So again we can ask this question: what to do?

In the end I decided the Z6 was not a good addition to my kit. It solved some of my problems, in particular high ISO quality and a second body, but the AF issues were a killer for me. For my dog running at me, well I can afford to miss some shots, and same with shorebirds. But when you talk about action, no one wants to miss a banking harrier, a bear walking through tall grasses, or even a bluebird flicking a berry. The idea that I couldn't build enough confidence in the system in these tests to risk missing those type of shots was enough for me. And this is the point I really want to drive home. I did get many beautiful in focus shots with this camera when doing the dog running test. But it just wasn't consistent enough *for me*. 

In some ways, now we are back to this reach-low light performance-cost issue. The best thing to do is, well, win the lottery and buy a D5 with a 400/500/600mm prime. But, until that happens, my best bet will be to keep my D500 but save more and add a used 500mm f/4 prime. This will effectively give me an extra stop of light, with the ability to add 1.4 X the reach and keep f/5.6. Of course I lose the back up camera option, and it will cost more than just a body alone, but for now this is likely the best bet.

Overall, this was not the outcome I wanted. I really wanted to love this camera, and in many ways I did. To reiterate, the weight, image quality, noise control, ergonomics (minus that Fn button!) were awesome. If I wasn't budget limited I would 100% have kept this body and picked up a bunch of S lens, but unfortunately I need to make the most of what I have. And right now that means a better lens. 

With that said, once Nikon gets the AF up to the D5/D500/D850 series, well consider me a Z-series convert, just not right now.