Nikon Z6 Field Test Part I

Hard to find fault with this $2,000 full-frame mirrorless camera

by William Brawley | Posted 11/26/2018

Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF + FTZ Adapter: 500mm, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 450
Note: This image has been modified. Click for the original full-size image.

Introduction

Ah, behold the sportier, more affordable brother to the Z7! The new Nikon Z6 is practically identical to the Z7, particularly from the outside. The body design is the same, the weight is the same, the buttons and the controls are all identical between both cameras, too. It's on the inside where the big differences lie...

Instead of the Z7's impressively high-res 45.7-megapixel full-frame sensor, the Z6, rather, offers a more reasonable 24 megapixels of resolving power. For me, 24MP is more than enough resolution for detail-rich images and a decent amount of cropping potential. Unless you need to create massive photo print installations or produce images that require tons of super-fine detail, 24MP is plenty for most photographers. Plus, I enjoy the much more manageable, space-saving 24MP files compared to the 45+ MP images of higher-res cameras. I tend to shoot a lot of images, and with RAW enabled, all those files add up quickly! Furthermore, the Z6's 24MP sensor gives this camera a little performance boost when it comes to continuous shooting. Videographers will also enjoy the addition of full-pixel readout using the full sensor width for 4K video shooting (in other words, no pixel binning or line skipping, and no 4K crop!).

Having shot with the Z6 for only about a week now at this point, this first Field Test will cover more of my general shooting experience, including handling and usability, image quality and some initial impressions on performance and AF speed (having used both native and F-mount lenses).

Additional Field Tests are in the works, both for more in-depth performance testing, as well as a full video-centric Field Test from IR's resident video expert, Jaron Schneider.

OK, let's get started...

Handling & Ergonomics

As I mentioned, the design and hand-feel of the Z6 are the same as the Z7. If you're familiar with the Z7, or if you've already read Jeremy Gray's in-depth Z7 Field Test Part I, then you're all set to grab and use the Z6. From a usability standpoint, the two cameras should basically operate exactly the same.

Given the detailed nature of Jeremy's first Field Test on the Z7 with regard to handling, button layout and overall operability, I won't go into as much detail about using the Z6, as it's all extremely similar. However, I do want to talk about my experience shooting with this camera and how it compares to other cameras I've used and owned.

Right off the bat, I'm surprised and pleased by how small and compact the Z6 (and Z7) is, especially since it's a full-frame camera. Side-by-side, the Z6 is very similar in size to my Olympus E-M1 II, yet it obviously manages to have a significantly larger sensor in there. I'm rather impressed with how Nikon managed to create such a small camera with such a big sensor!

In the hand, the Z6 feels solid and very well built. Nothing is flimsy or plastic-y. It feels just as sturdy as a high-end Nikon DSLR. The large, contoured handgrip offers nice comfort and a very secure hold. The grip obviously isn't as large as the one on the D850, for example, but it's still deep and big enough for a full, comfortable grip. The Z6 is similar in size to the rival Sony A7 III, and the grip on the Z6 is slightly larger than the A7 III's and, to me, feels more comfortable. My pinky finger is less likely to wrap under the Z6's body like it does when holding the Sony, for instance.

For those familiar with Nikon's DSLRs, the layout of the controls on the Z6 is very similar, and there shouldn't be much of a learning curve when it comes to figuring out how to operate and how to customize the controls to your liking. Even as someone who's not super-accustomed to shooting Nikon cameras, I found the Z6 to be a pleasure to use and easy to operate. Controls and buttons are plentiful, easy to press and manipulate, and offer good tactile feedback. And despite the compact size of the body, the physical controls don't feel significantly miniaturized or cramped compared to larger DSLR counterparts. I especially love the easy-to-reach On/Off switch around the shutter release button (a classic Nikon control design), making it really fast to power the camera off and on as needed.

The joystick control is another one of my favorite controls on a camera. I love having immediate access to maneuvering the AF point. The lack of such a control, such as on the new Canon EOS R, is really frustrating for me. Thankfully, most higher-end cameras now offer a joystick control. And while the Z6 has a lot of individual AF points, there aren't that many, which makes the joystick control feel responsive, and it's really fast to move an AF point anywhere around the frame.

The Z6 also has a tilting, touchscreen rear display. Like the Z7, the Z6's rear display uses an up/down tilting design, rather a flip-out, vari-angle style. From a photographer's standpoint, I really prefer the simpler tilting design of the Z6's display. It's much easier, I find, to quickly adjust for shooting from low or high angles, and I can keep the camera profile smaller, without having a screen jutting out to the side. For video work, on the other hand, I can certainly see the appeal to a vari-angle, articulated screen, and especially one that flips completely forward. Given the Z6's video chops, I'm a bit surprised that Nikon opted for the tilting display on this camera (as well as on Z7, to be honest). However, as a fan of the tilting display style, I'm not complaining!

Like most modern mirrorless cameras, the rear display's touchscreen lets you easily tap to move the AF point. While I mostly shot using the viewfinder and thus the joystick to move to the AF points, I find it very handy to also have a touchscreen to adjust AF as needed. Tap-to-focus is pretty responsive, I found, but I wish there was a way to simply tap-to-move the AF point and not just tap-to-refocus, as I sometimes had to wait (just a brief moment, mind you) while the camera refocused where I tapped. Sometimes I just want to move the AF point, that's all.

The Z6, just like the Z7, is also fully touch-capable. In other words, in addition to tap-to-focus (and a touch shutter mode, which I never used) you can also interact with all on-screen menu items from the "i" menu, as well as fully navigate the menu system by tapping and swiping to scroll. The menus on the Z6 look just like they do on Nikon DSLRs -- they haven't been redesigned to be particularly touch-friendly. However, navigating by touch still works well in my experience. You can even swipe through images in Playback mode as well as pinch-to-zoom, just like on an iPhone. To me, full touch functionality, such as navigating menus, feels superfluous, as I instinctively use the physical directional control and OK button to navigate the camera's menus. But, for those who want touch controls, it's nice that the Z6 offers this functionality. For those who hate touch controls, however, you can disable it completely in the menus.

If I had to nit-pick and give a criticism to any of the buttons on the Z6, it would be to the two front-facing Fn1 and Fn2 buttons. Placed between the grip and lens mount, these thin buttons can be easy to press by accident by those with larger hands as there isn't a lot of space between the lens and grip. I didn't mis-press the buttons very often; however, I did simply forget they were there in the first place on many occasions (out of sight, out of mind). However, this is something you'd easily get used to as you use the camera more and more.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the EVF. Like many photographers, I enjoy a good viewfinder. Heck, I'll take any viewfinder over the lack of one any day. Thankfully, the electronic viewfinder on the Z6 is a gorgeous one. The OLED viewfinder is huge, offering a really bright, crisp and full view of your scene. Images appear vibrant, info text is sharp and there are no artifacts or tearing that can be seen on some lower-quality LCD-type EVFs. The refresh rate is also excellent, and I never experienced any lag or problems trying to track moving subjects. It's really a fantastic electronic viewfinder.

Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S: 24mm, f/4, 1/25s, ISO 500

Z-mount Lenses

Despite the full-frame format, the Nikon Z-mount lenses released so far (a 24-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.8) are surprisingly compact and very lightweight. They balance perfectly with the Z6; the 24-70mm and Z6 make an excellent single-lens travel combo that's versatile and won't weigh you down. Of course, being a full-frame camera, I expect larger, heavier Z-mount lenses in the future, such as f/2.8 zoom lenses. So while I couldn't try heavy, native Z-mount lenses, I had no issues shooting with bigger, heavier F-mount lenses using the FTZ adapter. For example, the Z6 mounted with the 105mm f/1.4E lens or the 70-200mm f/2.8E VR zoom worked beautifully. Yes, they are front-heavy, but not excessively so. Both of these lenses are hefty enough that I use them exclusively with two hands, so most of the lenses' weight is supported by my left hand and the overall balance is really nice. In the end, the Z6 body is smaller than, say, the D850, so naturally, big, heavy lenses are going to feel more unbalanced and more difficult to hold in one hand, but overall, the Z6 handled heavier adapted lenses quite well.

Nikon 300mm f/4E PF + FTZ Adapter: 300mm, f/4, 1/2000s, ISO 400
Note: This image has been modified. Click for the original full-size image.

Image Quality

With a more reasonable 24-megapixel sensor, the Nikon Z6 isn't for the super pixel-peepers out there. However, based on the images I've shot so far, the Z6 is more than capable of capturing images with excellent fine detail. The overall image quality from this camera is fantastic, especially at lower ISOs. As I mentioned earlier, to me, the Z6 is all about balance. Twenty-four megapixels strikes an excellent balance of resolving power and manageable file sizes. I'm perfectly happy with the level of fine detail I was able to capture with this camera, and I was able to shoot all day without filling up a single XQD card.

Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S: 50mm f/1.8, 1/800s, ISO 100, +0.3EV

At this point, most of the shooting scenarios I've been in with the Z6 haven't required high ISOs: sunrise/morning wildlife shooting, daytime/outdoor portrait shooting with fast-aperture lenses, and general daytime photography. So far, I'm extremely impressed with the image quality from the Z6. In addition to excellent sharpness, I find the color reproduction from untouched JPEG images (at the default picture style) to be really nice and accurate, yet with a pleasing vibrancy that doesn't feel overly saturated.

Dynamic range performance, too, is quite nice, although I wasn't expecting anything less given Nikon's history of cameras with fantastic dynamic range. Even with high-contrast scenes, I found shadow tones to be deep and contrast-y without feeling overly "crushed" while at the same time, images retain lots of highlight detail. Even with straight-from-camera JPEGs, the Z6 often produced photos that I felt needed little or no editing to display excellent highlight and shadow detail.

Nikon 105mm f/1.4E + FTZ Adapter: 105mm, f/1.6, 1/8000s, ISO 125

For example, take a look at this image above. In this scene, the aircraft is entirely indoors, and while the image is pretty high contrast, there's still visible shadow detail if you look closely. The most striking thing, however, is the excellent detail in the sky. Instead of just over-exposing the sky to expose for the darker foreground properly, the Z6 managed to retain a ton of detail in the bright sky.

Higher ISOs - an initial look

As I mentioned, most of my shooting with the Z6 so far has been during the day, so I haven't needed higher ISOs all that much up to this point. I often enabled Auto ISO, setting other exposure parameters manually, and then letting the camera's ISO float as required. Shooting some early morning wildlife and birds-in-flight with the adapted 500mm f/5.6E PF and 300mm f/4E PF lenses, the camera still rarely climbed above ISO 1600.

Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF + FTZ Adapter: 500mm, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 1400

Nevertheless, I wanted to briefly mention some initial impressions on the Z6's high ISO performance. Nikon full-frame cameras (and even APS-C models), especially in recent years, have consistently displayed excellent quality when it comes to high ISO images. Based on some mid-range higher ISO images that I've shot so far, the image quality is, unsurprisingly, really nice from the Z6. Visible noise is barely noticeable in JPEG images with default noise reduction, and the little noise that I do see is very finely grained. The camera's processing does a great job of preserving fine detail while removing or reducing unsightly noise.

Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S: 70mm, f/4, 1/50s, ISO 51200, -0.3EV
100% Crop

Performance so far

Lastly, I want to touch on my initial impressions of the performance of the Nikon Z6. Most of the photo ops arranged during the Nikon press event in Florida revolved around portraiture and other static subjects, which weren't all that taxing on the Z6 in terms of AF or continuous burst shooting. However, thankfully, we did have a chance to try the Z6 at some wildlife photography -- one of my favorite photographic subjects. We had an early morning air-boat ride across classic Florida swampland, giving us an opportunity to photograph wading birds, raptors, alligators and birds-in-flight. Although this wasn't the most high-intensity stress test for the Z6's performance, it was still a fairly challenging shooting situation, with fast-moving, unpredictable subjects, and difficult autofocus scenarios in which birds and other animals were often partially obscured with foliage and tall, wetland grasses. Plus, given the lack of native Z-mount telephoto lenses, it was a great opportunity to test out C-AF performance with the FTZ adapter.

Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF + FTZ Adapter: 500mm, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 1000
Note: This image has been modified. Click for the original full-size image.

As a supertelephoto fan, and someone who often finds himself needing a longer focal length than initially anticipated, I went "big" from the get-go, or at least long. I grabbed the FTZ adapter and mounted the new 500mm f/5.6E Phase Fresnel F-mount lens. I put "big" in quotes because this 500mm lens is exactly the opposite. Despite the focal length, this lens is amazingly compact and perfectly usable on the Z6 and operated handheld. The PF lens design (and not-that-bright f/5.6 aperture, too) does wonders to make this a super-compact super-telephoto lens! (Side note: my colleague Jeremy Gray is in the process of Field Testing this 500mm f/5.6E lens right now, so keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks!)

Nikon 300mm f/4E PF + FTZ Adapter: 300mm, f/4, 1/2000s, ISO 100
Note: This image has been modified. Click for the original full-size image.

OK, back the Z6... Photographing wildlife with the Nikon Z6 and the 500mm f/5.6 lens was extremely enjoyable. Not only was the lens and camera combo both lightweight and comfortable to hold while zooming across the swamp in a boat, but the camera performed extremely well, with fast autofocus and accurate subject tracking performance. Most of the time, I set the Z6 to the "Dynamic-Area AF" point option, which gave me a user-selectable/movable single AF point that's then surrounded on all sides by helper AF points in case my subject moved out from under my primary AF point. Although I didn't necessarily track my "keeper rate," my sense is that the Z6 did very well at tracking moving subjects. Most of my images were in-focus unless I, myself, did a poor job at tracking my subject. I do plan to test the Z6's subject tracking further with different AF point modes and subjects, but from my experience so far, unless I messed up, the Z6 performed admirably. No complaints or frustrations from me in the field.

Nikon 300mm f/4E PF + FTZ Adapter: 300mm, f/4, 1/2000s, ISO 250
Note: This image has been modified. Click for the original full-size image.

In terms of AF speed, adapted F-mount lenses work extremely well. I never experienced any issues with focus accuracy or speed. Traditionally, adapting DSLR lenses onto mirrorless cameras comes with a noticeable drop in AF speed and performance, but with the Z6, this is definitely not the case, at least in my experience so far. With the 500mm lens, and any other F-mount lenses I grabbed, the Z6's AF speed felt fast and "DSLR-like" -- snappy, decisive and quick, without any visible hunting or wobbling. During the trip, I didn't have a Nikon DSLR along with me to compare AF speed, but back home, I did a quick comparison with the Z6 and the D850 and the 24-70mm f/2.8E VR lens. Doing a quick focus acquisition test, autofocusing between a close object and a distance one, I was hard-pressed to see any noticeable difference between AF speed of the Z6 and the D850.

Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S: 24mm, f/4, 1/25s, ISO 200

Summary

Overall, the Nikon Z6 is shaping up to be a very nice, all-around, enthusiast-grade mirrorless camera. Based on my experience thus far, I'm having a hard time finding any sizable criticism for the Z6. The image quality is fantastic, as is characteristic of modern Nikon cameras, and the build quality is superb. The camera feels great in the hand, offering lots of physical controls despite the smaller body design. For long-time Nikon shooters, the Z6's controls will feel familiar, which is by design. However, as someone who's not a "Nikonian," I still found the Z6 was easy to pick up and operate without much, if any, confusion.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 + FTZ Adapter: 85mm, f/1.8, 1/160s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

Now, if I had to nit-pick, then yes, the single XQD card slot can be annoying. For one, XQD cards aren't all that common yet and are still fairly expensive. Secondly, I can certainly understand wanting two memory card slots for backup security. For me, personally, my feeling is that if a camera has two slots, then great! But it's not a deal-breaker for me or the type of photography I shoot. Other than this, I'm struggling to find any serious fault with the Nikon Z6. The camera feels great, works great and produces great photographs. I honestly can't ask for much more.

Upcoming

But I'm not done yet! There's still much more to test with the Z6. In an upcoming Field Test, I'll explore its autofocus and performance features in more depth, as well as more closely examine higher ISO image quality. Sound off in the comments below if there's something specific you'd like me to test out on the camera!

 



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