Nikon Z6 Exposure
Nikon Z6 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Bright colors with about average mean hue accuracy.
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links above to compare ISOs, and click to load a larger version.|
Saturation. The Nikon Z6 pumps dark blues and dark reds a lot, lighter reds and greens are moderately pushed, while most other colors slightly boosted, but it undersaturates yellow and cyan tones slightly when using default settings. Overall, mean saturation is typical at 110.5% or 10.5% oversaturated at base ISO. The Z6's mean saturation is stable up to ISO 25,600, but gradually falls at higher ISOs to a minimum of 105.7% at the maximum extended ISO of 204,800. That's still quite good, though, as many cameras dial back saturation more significantly at higher ISOs to help manage chroma noise. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.
Skin tones. The Nikon Z6's rendering of Caucasian skin tones in "sunlit" outdoor lighting when using default Auto white balance was slightly on the warm, yellow side. Manual white balance on the other hand produced much more pinkish and healthy-looking skin tones, though they appear somewhat oversaturated. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Nikon Z6 produces a few color shifts relative to the accurate translation of colors in its images, as do almost all cameras. Cyan has a pronounced shift toward blue (we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors), reds are shifted slightly toward orange while dark orange and yellow are slightly shifted toward red. Mean "delta-C" color error at base ISO was 5.34 after correction for saturation, which is about average (lower numbers are better), and it remained below 6.0 across the ISO range which is pretty good. Note that the above results were obtained with custom white balance in simulated daylight. See the "Indoors, incandescent lighting" section below for how the Z6 performed in tungsten lighting. Hue is "what color" the color is.
| See full set of test images
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
The Z6 struggled a bit to produce a neutral color balance under incandescent lighting using presets or manual (custom) white balance. No exposure compensation required.
|Auto WB (Default)
|Auto WB (Keep White)
|Auto WB (Keep Warm)
Indoors, in typical incandescent lighting, color balance with the default Auto "Keep overall atmosphere" option was warm but not too bad (we've seen a lot warmer, and some users may prefer this look as being more representative of the actual lighting). The "Keep white" Auto white balance setting was pretty good but a bit cool and magenta, while the "Keep warm" option was very warm and orange as expected. The Incandescent setting was also quite warm but with more of a yellow/green tint. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which should match our lighting was fairly neutral, but with a slight green bias. Oddly, the Manual (Custom) white balance setting was almost as warm as the default Auto white balance, despite attempting to obtain better results several times. However, you can always tweak the color temperature or use the WB fine-tuning feature to better match your lighting. The Z6 required no exposure compensation for this shot while most cameras need about +0.3 EV, though the resulting image is a bit dim (however +0.3 EV was too bright and we don't adjust our lights for this shot). Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Vibrant color with good exposure outdoors, but high default contrast.
|Manual White Balance
The Nikon Z6 generally handled tough outdoor lighting under harsh sunlight well in terms of color and exposure. We found skin tones a touch yellow in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with auto white balance, though, so we preferred the more pinkish skin tones produced when using manual (custom) WB, however they appear a bit oversaturated. Default contrast is quite high, so some highlights were clipped in the mannequin's shirt, some of the flowers and even in her nose, though deep shadows contain excellent detail and are relatively clean here at base ISO. The Z6 required +0.7 EV exposure compensation to keep the face and eyes reasonably bright, which is about average for this shot.
~2,900 lines of strong detail.
|Strong detail to
~2,900 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
~2,900 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
~2,900 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
|Strong detail to
~2,900 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW
Our laboratory resolution chart reveals sharp, distinct line patterns up about 2,900 lines per picture height from both in-camera JPEG and ACR converted RAW files in both directions. The in-camera JPEG shows more obvious aliasing in the form of strong luminance moiré patterns starting at about 2,300 lines, though, however color moiré is well-controlled. The ACR conversion shows less obvious luminance moiré than the in-camera JPEGs, but color moiré patterns are quite evident, even at lower resolutions. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Very sharp images with excellent detail for the resolution, though with minor sharpening halos and aliasing artifacts. Minimal noise suppression artifacts at base ISO.
Sharpness. The Nikon Z6 produces sharp, detailed images at default settings, though edge enhancement artifacts are visible around high-contrast subjects, such as the sharpening halos around the lines and lettering in the crop above left. Default sharpening is a little high but still quite pleasing, and you can always turn it down or tweak other settings such as mid-range sharpening and clarity to taste. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal detail loss due to noise suppression at base ISO, as the darker areas of the mannequin's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though some begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. The hair is also virtually free from chroma noise, but some strands do show signs of the "jaggies" and other aliasing artifacts despite the camera having an optical low-pass filter. Still, a very good performance here. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
Shutter Shock. Like the Nikon Z7, the Z6's shutter mode defaults to fully mechanical, and this is unfortunate because like other mirrorless cameras we've tested in mechanical shutter mode (such as the Sony A7R III, Canon EOS R and various APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras), the Z6's mechanical first curtain shutter can cause some blurring due to "shutter shock" at certain shutter speeds. (Mirrorless cameras tend to suffer from shutter shock more than DSLRs, because their mechanical shutters need to close before opening again for the exposure. DSLRs start with a closed shutter (unless in live view mode) so they only need to open them at the start of the exposure which theoretically doesn't generate as much vibrations as closing the shutter and then immediately opening it again). Most other manufacturers default to Electronic Front Curtain Shutter (EFCS) these days to avoid blurring from shutter vibrations, however the Z6's EFCS mode limits the top shutter speed to 1/2000s and the top ISO to 25,600 so the Z6 defaults to mechanical shutter so as not to limit exposure settings.
When we reviewed the Z7, we said it needed an Auto Shutter mode that automatically switched between EFCS and fully mechanical shutter as needed to avoid shutter shock, and it appears that Nikon listened. Firmware v2.00 for the Z6/Z7 added an Auto Shutter mode among other improvements. We've briefly tested it on both the Z6 and Z7, and have determined that at shutter speeds of 1/250s and below Auto Shutter mode uses EFCS while higher shutter speeds use the fully mechanical shutter. While we did not investigate if the switch-over shutter speed varies with the lens used or when IBIS is enabled, etc., the new feature appears to work to prevent the effects of shutter shock as intended. So be sure to upgrade and use Auto Shutter mode if you want to "set and forget" to avoid shutter shock and still access the camera's full range of shutter speeds and sensitivity.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon Z6 does a great job at producing crisp images with lots of fine detail in its JPEGs. Let's see how a RAW conversion using our standard converter (Adobe Camera Raw) at base ISO compares:
In the table above, we compare an in-camera JPEG taken at base ISO using default noise reduction and sharpening (on the left) to the matching RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 9.1 via DNG Converter 11.1 using the default camera profile and noise reduction with some moderate unsharp mask sharpening applied in Photoshop (300%, radius of 0.3 pixels, and a threshold of 0).
Here, we can see that Adobe Camera Raw combined with moderate sharpening in Photoshop delivers slightly finer detail than the camera JPEG, with fewer sharpening halos around high-contrast edges. Noise is slightly more visible in the ACR conversion (default NR used), but is still very low. Contrast is much higher from the in-camera JPEG and colors are warmer and more saturated compared to the Adobe Standard profile used (especially reds and blues), though plenty of camera profiles are available in ACR including Vivid, Standard, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape and Flat.
Bottom line: The Nikon Z6's default JPEG processing produces great detail and crispness at base ISO when using default settings. Contrast and saturation are on the high side giving in-camera images a lot of "pop", but as is usually the case, you can extract additional detail with fewer sharpening artifacts when carefully processing RAW files.
ISO & Noise Performance
Very good high ISO performance.
|Noise Reduction = Default|
|ISO 50||ISO 100||ISO 200|
|ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1600|
|ISO 3200||ISO 6400||ISO 12,800|
|ISO 25,600||ISO 51,200||ISO 102,400|
Nikon Z6 images are very crisp and clean at ISOs 50 through 800, with almost no chrominance noise and just a touch of luminance noise becoming more visible in the shadows as ISO increases. ISO 1600 shows a bit of softening due to noise reduction but is still very clean and quite detailed. ISO 3200 is probably the first sensitivity where there is noticeable luma noise and blurring due to noise reduction when viewed at 100% magnification, though noise is still very fine-grained and chroma noise is still very low. ISO 6400 shows stronger smudging with more visible luma noise and noise reduction artifacts, but fine detail is still pretty good and chroma noise is still well controlled. ISO 12,800 still offers good detail versus noise for such a high ISO, however luminance noise starts to look a little artificial. Image quality drops off rapidly at ISO 25,600 and above, with high luma noise, strong blurring and other noise reduction artifacts, as well as progressively stronger chroma noise in the form of yellow and purple blotching.
Still, high ISO performance is very good for a full-frame camera, though detail retention isn't quite as good as some competing models at higher ISOs due to somewhat heavy-handed noise reduction. Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
High default contrast led to some blown highlights in default JPEGs. RAW files show excellent dynamic range, but banding is sometimes visible in deep shadows. Excellent low-light performance, capable of focusing in near darkness.
|+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV|
Sunlight. Surprisingly, the Nikon Z6 struggled a little with the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test, because of its somewhat high default contrast. We felt that the default and +0.3 EV exposures were too dim, while +1.0 EV blew too many highlights. The best overall exposure was +0.7 EV but it still led to some blown highlights in the mannequin's shirt, flowers and even her nose. There are also some dark shadows at +0.7 EV, but detail in them is excellent and shadow noise is relatively low for the resolution. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon Z6's Active D-Lighting control set to its default of "Off", and enabling it would have likely preserved most highlights even at +0.7 EV. See below for how Active D-Lighting helps with hot highlights and dark shadows.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
|100% crop of shadow area in ACR
converted ISO 100 NEF file with
+3.0 EV exposure boost applied.
PDAF banding in shadows. Faint bands or stripes that are darker than the surrounding area are sometimes visible in dark shadows (vertical in the crop here taken in portrait mode; they would obviously be horizontal in landscape mode), especially in ACR-converted NEF files after exposure is lifted significantly, an artifact related to the Z6 sensor's integrated PDAF pixels. The crop to the right was taken from the default exposure "Sunlit" Portrait (Z6OUTBAP0) NEF file converted in ACR with +3.0 EV exposure compensation applied. As you can see, there are faint vertical bands which will limit usable dynamic range in shadows to a degree. We think it's a fairly minor issue, though, and perhaps Nikon will reduce or eliminate them in a future firmware update (some raw converters such as Raw Therapee already have a PDAF lines filter as this is not unique to the Nikon Z series). But it's really up to you to decide whether it is a significant enough issue to be concerned about. Please note that our lab shots were taken with firmware v1.00. It's possible newer firmware versions have already or will address this issue, though we didn't see it specifically mentioned in any of the release notes yet. We were however not able to replicate it with the same scene and settings using v2.00 firmware.
Active D-Lighting attempts to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows in high-contrast situations, while maintaining moderate levels of contrast. The series of shots below show the effect of the various Active D-Lighting settings (Off (default), Low, Normal, High, Extra High and Auto) available on the Nikon Z6 on our high-contrast "Sunlit" Portrait scene.
Note that Active D-Lighting is different from the Retouch menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images, though, Nikon very properly doesn't apply tonal adjustments like this to RAW file data. NEF files are however tagged so that Nikon software can automatically apply the effect when converted.)
"Sunlit" Portrait Active D-Lighting (0 EV)
Mouse over the links to see how the various levels of Active D-Lighting affects our "Sunlit" Portrait shot at default exposure, and click on any link to get to the full-res image. (Active D-Lighting's effect can be a little subtle in shots like those above, so we decided to use a mouse-over with matching histograms to better show how each setting compares.)
As you can see from the thumbnail images and histograms above, Active D-Lighting boosted shadows and deeper midtones while highlights were maintained and even reduced at higher settings. As mentioned previously, the default ADL setting for the Z6 is Off while in more consumer-oriented Nikons the default is Auto.
Like more recent Nikon DSLRs, the Z6 offers an in-camera high-dynamic-range imaging function. When enabled, the Z6 captures two images with one push of the shutter button -- one underexposed and one overexposed -- and combines them in-camera to produce a high-dynamic-range JPEG. (RAW format is not supported.) There are three exposure differentials available: 1, 2 and 3 EV, as well as an Auto option, and there are three Smoothing options: Low, Normal and High. You can also elect to do a series of HDR shots without having to re-enable the mode each time, or select a Single Photo option.
"Sunlit" Portrait HDR (0 EV)
Mouse over the links to see how the Auto, 1 EV, 2 EV and 3 EV levels of HDR with default Normal Smoothing compare. Click on a link to get to the full-res image.
As you can see, Auto produced an effect somewhere between 1 and 2 EV with this scene, but all four settings worked as expected without producing ugly "HDR halos" using the default smoothing setting. Obviously moving subjects should be avoided, as you can run into ghosting of moving objects in HDR shots. We think Nikon Z6's HDR feature is one of the better in-camera implementations, however you can most certainly do better by bracketing more exposures and combining the images yourself.
Dynamic Range (RAW mode)
While we once performed our own dynamic range measurements based on in-camera JPEGs as well as converted RAW images (when the camera was supported by Adobe Camera Raw), we've switched to using DxO Labs' results from their DxOMark website. As technology advanced, the dynamic range of modern high-end cameras in some cases exceeded the range of the Stouffer T4110 density scale that we used for our own measurements. DxO's approach based on RAW data before demosaicing is also more revealing, because it measures the fundamental dynamic range of the sensor, irrespective of whatever processing is applied to JPEGs, or to RAW data by off-the-shelf conversion software.
In the following, we use DxO's "Print" dynamic range results, which are scaled based on camera resolution. As the name suggests, this scaling corresponds to the situation in which you print at a given size, regardless of how many megapixels the camera might have. (In other words, if you've decided to make a 13x19 inch print, that's the size you're printing, whether the camera's resolution is 16 or 300 megapixels.) Also note that DxO Labs uses a signal-to-noise (SNR) threshold of 1 when defining the lower boundary of acceptable luminance noise in their dynamic range measurements, which corresponds to the "Low Quality" threshold of the Imatest software we used to use for this measurement.
Here, we compare the Nikon Z6's dynamic range test results to its higher-resolution sibling's, the Z7, and to the Sony A7 Mark III's, which is arguably its closest rival.
As you can see, the Z6's dynamic range (in red above) doesn't quite match the Z7's peak (yellow), which isn't a surprise given the Z7's lower base ISO and its higher resolution (remember these results are normalized for the same print size so higher resolution cameras benefit from normalization more than lower res ones; when comparing "Screen" dynamic range, the Z6 actually performed slightly better at base ISO, and much better above ISO 400). Peak dynamic range at the lowest ISO was 14.3 stop versus 14.6 stops for the Z7. Interestingly, the Z6's dynamic range jumps between ISO 400 and 800 to be significantly better than the Z7's by over 1/2 stop, and remains significantly better at all higher ISOs.
The Sony A7 III's dynamic range (in orange above) tested insignificantly higher than the Z6's at base ISO but significantly higher at ISO 400 and again at ISOs 51,200 and 102,400, however it otherwise pretty much matched the Z6 except at ISOs 800 and 1600 where the Nikon performed up to about 1/2 a stop better.
Bottom line: Very good dynamic range for a full-frame camera, though not quite as good as some higher resolution models at low ISOs. Click here to visit the DxOMark page for the Nikon Z6 for more of their test results and additional comparisons.
Low-Light AF: In the lab, the Z6's hybrid autofocus system was able to focus on our legacy low-contrast AF target reliably down to about -3.4 EV unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, and it was able to focus on our newer high-contrast target down to -6.4 EV. Using the Z6's Low-light AF mode improved those result to -8.0 EV for our low-contrast target and to well below -8.0 EV (the limit or our test) with our high-contrast target. The Z6 has a built-in AF illuminator which will allow it to focus in complete darkness as long as the subject is within range and has sufficient contrast. (Note: Tested with firmware v2.00.)
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Mirrorless cameras like the Nikon Z6 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.
Impressive, high-quality 30 x 40-inch prints all the way up to ISO 800; Pleasing 11 x 14-inch prints at ISO 12,800; Usable 5 x 7-inch prints at ISO 51,200.
ISO 1600 prints begin to display some noticeable noise and their related effects. There's a bit more noise in the shadows now, with a minor drop in fine details. However, the overall print quality is still very good, and ISO 1600 easily makes excellent, large 24 x 36-inch prints. In fact, with careful post-processing, you might be able to get away with 30 x 40-inch prints here as well.
ISO 3200 images top-out with pleasing 20 x 30-inch prints. Despite the increasing ISO, noise remains very well controlled in terms of graininess. However, there's some noticeable softness, especially if you print larger sizes at this sensitivity.
ISO 6400 prints look great up to 13 x 19 inches, though a 16 x 20-inch print would work for less critical applications or with some post-processing. Higher-contrast detail remains strong, but we can now see noise is taking its toll on finer and lower-contrast details as well as coming across stronger in the shadow areas. Colors, however, still look great.
ISO 12,800 images work very nicely up to 11 x 14-inch prints. ISO noise and graininess surprisingly look very well controlled at this print size. Noise is certainly visible, especially in the shadows, but the NR processing does a nice job at retaining detail and controlling objectionable, grainy noise.
ISO 25,600 prints almost make it to 8 x 10 inches! Things are just a bit too soft for our liking, though. Stick with 5 x 7 inches here for critical prints, however for other applications, an 8 x 10 could work.
ISO 51,200 images just pass the mark for a 5 x 7-inch print. Noise is quite strong now, and combined with NR processing, makes for grainy, soft prints at anything larger.
ISO 102,400 and ISO 204,800 are both extended ISOs for the Z6 and unfortunately are too noisy and lacking in enough fine detail for pleasing, usable prints.
In spite of its run-of-the-mill 24-megapixel resolution, the full-frame Nikon Z6 has a solid, very respectable performance when it comes to print quality. Competing closely with other similarly priced cameras, the Z6 is easily capable of impressively large 30 x 40-inch prints at ISOs up to 800. Despite the sensitivity increase, noise remains very low and fine detail remains clean and crisp. Even as the ISO rises more dramatically, the Z6 offers well-controlled noise and balanced noise reduction processing that offers a pleasing amount of detail and low noise. At ISO 12,800, you can easily print up to 11 x 14 inches, and even all the way up the native ISO range at 51,200, the Z6 can print a nice 5 x 7-inch print. However, although the Z6 offers extended ISOs all the way up to 102,400 and 204,800, both of these sensitivity levels are too noisy for our tastes, offering images that are too soft and devoid of enough detail for usable, pleasing prints.
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon Z6 Photo Gallery .
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon Z6 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!