Nikon Z6 Video
Nikon Z6 Video Features, Specs & Analysis
The best video camera Nikon has ever made, but also just par for the course
by Jaron Schneider | Posted: 04/15/2019
It's been a few months since the Nikon Z6 was announced, and at the time it was released it looked extremely promising for video shooters. Let's face it: if you are a Nikon shooter, the odds are pretty high that your video shooting experience has been pretty lackluster to this point. Nikon's DSLRs have never really fully embraced video production, with a lack of features like focus peaking, poor autofocus performance, and an overall shortage of recording options. With the Z6, that seemed to change. With all those features now packaged into a small and lightweight body, yet still boasting a full-frame sensor and even adding N-Log, high bitrate recording options and 4:2:2 10-bit via an external HDMI recorder, it looked extremely promising.
And it is. The Nikon Z6 is without a doubt Nikon's best video shooting camera they have ever released. It's not close.
Simultaneously, the Z6 is sort of just... OK, when compared to the market it currently finds itself in.
Among a very competitive space, the compromises made in Nikon's first of two full-frame mirrorless cameras lands it squarely in the middle of the pack, with little that makes it feel like a unique video shooting experience, and with few rewards for choosing it over the long-standing competition. So while we should spend time praising the Z6 for everything it finally does right under the banner of Nikon, it is also important to recognize we cannot review these products in a vacuum.
Before we get into the shooting experience with the Z6, it is important to look at what the camera is capable of first and set those expectations. In that frame of reference, most of you reading this review will know what to expect, as Nikon did a great job marketing the Z6 as a video camera at launch.
The Nikon Z6 offers several resolution and frame rate options for the video shooter:
- 3840 x 2160 (4K UHD): 30p (progressive), 25p, 24p
- 1920 x 1080 (Full HD): 120p, 100p, 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p
- 1920 x 1080 (Full HD, Slow Motion); 30p 4x, 25p 4x, 24p 5x
(Actual frame rates for 120p, 100p, 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p and 24p are 119.88, 100, 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25 and 23.976 fps, respectively; quality selection available at all sizes except 3840 x 2160, 1920 x 1080 120p/100p and 1920 x 1080 slow-mo, when quality is fixed at ★ [high])
It should be noted that these video frame rates and resolutions are all captured in true full frame on the Z6, though a DX crop mode is also available (except for slow-mo which is FX only). Max recording time is 29 minutes and 59 seconds in all modes except Slow Motion which is limited to 3 minutes, though keep in mind playback time is multiplied by the speed-up factor.
While these are not standout, unique options for a modern hybrid camera, they do match up well against the most popular of the full frame video camera systems outside of Panasonic's latest offering in the form of the Lumix S1. Compared to Sony and Canon, they are either identical or superior. In the case of Sony, these look pretty similar. In the case of Canon... well, Canon has yet to figure out full frame video at all. Comparing anyone to Panasonic at this point is tough to do, as they are the only ones who seem to have figured out 4K 60p capture in a full frame camera, and even they have caveats with it on both the S1 and S1R. So while they push no boundaries with their specifications here, Nikon also hasn't let themselves fall behind by much either.
I mentioned N-Log a bit earlier, and it's excellent that Nikon chose to include it with the Z6. However, it's a shame that you cannot use it if you do not use an external recorder. I was at first confused about why Nikon would prevent it from being used with internal recordings, even if we were limited to 4:2:0 8-bit, but when I looked in the manual and saw the maximum bitrate, Nikon's decision to only allow N-Log in the 4:2:2 10-bit external recorder maximum made more sense.
For internal video recording, even with its exceptionally fast XQD memory card, the Z6 is only capable of recording video with a maximum bitrate of 144 Mbps, which theoretically should be enough to offer decent latitude in post. It's not outstanding, but it's much better than what Sony is offering with their A7 III and A7R III (more on that below).
To contrast this, the Canon 1DX II writes at 500 Mbps in 4K (24p, 25p and 30p) and a blazing 800 Mbps in 4Kp60 thanks to the speed of CFast (it does this without even having C-log as an option, which to this day still baffles me). The Canon EOS R writes 4K at a stellar 480 Mbps. The Panasonic GH5 writes at a wicked 400 Mbps in 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 internal, and that's to a regular SD card (though Panasonic does specify using a pretty fast SD card with a UHS Speed Class 3 rating).
XQD today is capable of writing nearly as fast as the fastest CFast will ever reach, so blaming the rather modest bitrates on the type of card Nikon chose to go with is a poor scapegoat, especially seeing what Panasonic is able to do with an SD card. Additionally, the Panasonic S1, with its impending optional video upgrade, will write at 150 Mbps in 4:2:2 10-bit with internal recording Log profiles and can use the same XQD media as Nikon. 150 Mbps isn't obviously much faster than the Z6's 144 Mbps, but the hangup might be in the Z6's 4:2:0 8-bit color depth maximum.
What's worse is that the Full HD video writes at a piddling 56 Mbps in 50p/60p and an even worse 28 Mbps in 25p/24p; this is even in high-quality mode! The normal modes are an even worse 28 Mbps and 14 Mbps. The super slow motion video clips max out at 36 Mbps, which is also not great considering how many frames per second they need to be capturing.
These numbers are pretty similar to the Panasonic S1's Full HD performance before the video-specific firmware unlock (a paid upgrade, price still TBD) makes them much better, boosting Full HD capture to 100 Mbps (the same as is found in the GH5). So based on this we know better, higher-quality Full HD video is possible, but Nikon opted not to offer that to their Z6 camera.
As mentioned above, Sony is actually worse with regards to 4K capture, with both the A7R III and A7 III maxing out at 100 Mbps in 4K. It's good to see that Nikon made an improvement over Sony, albeit slight, but it's still a bit disappointing that it's not higher.
So going back to my commentary on the lack of internal N-Log, the low video bitrate of the camera coupled with only 4:2:0 8-bit internal recording makes Nikon's decision to leave it out of internal capture easier to understand. While Sony has no problem offering their S-Log profiles at those low settings, Nikon appears to have decided they were too low to give color graders enough legroom for meaningful post-production changes. This decision can be compared to the one Panasonic made with their S1 when they limited the 4Kp60 video capture to a crop, signaling that they did not believe that the full frame 4Kp60 capture was up to their standards.
With the limitations on internal recording and the availability of N-Log only when connected to an external recorder, it's pretty clear that Nikon wanted video shooters to focus on the camera's capabilities when connected to something like an Atomos HDMI recorder.
Using the Z6 for Video
I am going to start out here stating one thing I'm pretty confident with saying: if you're super serious about shooting video, you are going to want to always be shooting with an external recorder with the Nikon Z6. That's not to say the Standard profile 4:2:0 8-bit 4Kp24 video looks bad, but it's also not outstanding in any way either. It's fine. Just. Fine.
Before I get to N-Log and external video capture, let me go over the internal recording.
Looking at clips I captured both in extremely bright light and in the warm glow of a San Francisco sunrise, I found the resulting footage to be pretty contrasty overall. The camera tends to crush the blacks wherever it can, and while this can look very dramatic, it's not the most "cinematic" when combined with the overly saturated nature of the Nikon standard picture profile. Some contrast is good, but I want to be able to control when a shadow envelops a subject entirely, rather than what is happening here.
There are, however, both a "Neutral" and "Flat" picture option in the Z6 and both lighten the heaviness of the contrast slightly, with Flat doing the best job if you don't want to shoot in N-Log but still want to try and get some shadow detail. I will say that while these are certainly better than the near total-loss of detail that can occur in Standard profile, they really only help with actual shadows cast by subjects and objects, not really bringing out more detail in dark brown or black objects. So while these are better than Standard for keeping shadow detail overall, there are still situations where these profiles will err on the side of greater contrast.
If you like contrast and the dramatic effect it can give, then you'll likely enjoy all three of these profiles. Then again, you can always add contrast in post if you're shooting in N-Log. Most video shooters would likely prefer more options in post than getting it just one way in camera, which is why N-Log is likely going to be the popular pick here. More on that later.
As far as the overall "quality" of the footage goes, the Z6 produces nice looking video, in general. However, to me, it just doesn't seem to have the same level of sharp detail and clean color fidelity as what I've feel like I've seen out of other 4K hybrid cameras. Looking closely, though, it seems that a significant difference is that the Z6's default image sharpening maintains a much lighter touch than what I've come to expect, and certainly more so than when compared directly against the GH5, for example. The Z6 does offer pretty extensive control over its video image sharpening, though, with three separate controls governing how sharpening is applied. There's an overall "sharpening" setting, with a range of +9 to -9, and a default of +3, and a "mid-level sharpening" setting with a range of +6 to -6, with a default of +2. Finally, there's a "clarity" setting that seems to control local contrast somehow, with a range of +3 to -3, and a default of +1. Boosting "sharpening" and "mid-level sharpening" a little on the Z6 produces footage that looks more like the GH5's, and there's an extremely wide range between maximum and minimum settings.
ISO performance overall is rather excellent on the Z6. When shooting internally, your range is ISO 100 through High 2 (ISO 204800), and when shooting in N-Log through an external recorder it condenses to ISO 800 through ISO 51200. In both cases, and perhaps more in N-Log, the ISO performance is outstanding. Though 25600 and above are probably too noisy for high-level shooters, many Z6 owners are going to be very happy with the level of noise control exhibited by the Z6 both in N-Log and in Standard. Boy, have we come a long way with ISO performance, and the Z6 is one of the most impressive examples of this in a Nikon camera to date.
A quick note on battery life: I think it's pretty darn good. I shot extensively with the camera and never really worried about the battery dying on me. I would equate it to about what you would expect out of a Panasonic GH5.
Using the Z6 for video was, overall, a pretty par-for-the-course experience. I really do like the footage quality, and the options once you hook to an external recorder are great. But it also had a few niggling details that made it sort of annoying to use when compared to competing cameras. Many of these could easily be fixed with a firmware update, but until that happens, I found them annoying:
- The Z6 doesn't show the length of a current clip while recording, instead showing you how much time you have left on the card. I would prefer both, but really I need to know how long a clip is. So it counts down rather than up, and I would like this reversed or at least give me the option to show both.
- You cannot get a "clean" LCD when recording video. Though you do get one when connected to an external recorder, all the display options for the Z6 on the camera will always leave some overlay text or info on the monitor no matter what. You also cannot customize these screens to show only the information you are interested in.
- There is no exposure meter visible while shooting video, and I could not find a way to turn it on. So although the LCD is cluttered with information that you can't make go away, one of those bits of information isn't the most important thing for a video maker: exposure! This was extremely frustrating. This would hopefully be something we see fixed in a firmware update. (There is, however, an on-screen histogram that you can enable.)
- By default, the Z6 will auto shut itself off even when connected to an external recorder. The way to turn this off isn't super clear, especially if you only notice this after you've started shooting. Not having the external recorder override the Z6's standby timer is an annoying misstep, seeing as the Z6 already recognizes external recorders and can automatically switch to N-Log if you have the option enabled in the menus beforehand. This would yet another feature I hope to see in a future firmware update.
- Speaking of finding things in the menu, in my opinion, I found the menus to be very confusing. It's not as bad as what Sony has been putting out in their last few cameras, but it's a close second. Many features that should be next to each other are scattered throughout the convoluted menu, and it's very challenging to find anything specific. For example, all of the video capture settings are found in the video section (like file type, frame rate and quality) but HDMI out functions like N-Log and bit depth are located in the "wrench" section, two clicks deep. Additionally, the general layout feels odd, with the "pencil" category being a sort of catch-all for a wide variety of features they didn't put in either the camera or video section, leading to jumping back and forth between them when making initial setup choices with the Z6.
- The in-body image stabilization is better than nothing, but also not particularly good either. I think it beats Sony's by a hair, while Panasonic's is the best. (And Canon of course has only lens-based IS available.) When shooting hand-held, I felt like I still had to be very conscious of the stabilization and what it wanted to do and how I could move to make its job easier, rather than all of that the other way around. When walking, a side by side comparison of the GH5 vs the Z6 shows a huge gap in capability, as the Z6 looks only a little better than what you would expect with no stabilization, while the GH5 almost looks good enough to skip using a gimbal.
- A slight side note, but the focus-by-wire on both the 35mm f/1.8 and the 24-70mm f/4 felt only passable, not great. Especially on the 35mm, it can be hard to fine-tune a wide-open aperture to a specific focal distance since turning the focus ring the same speed did not result in the focal plane moving in tandem all the time. Sometimes a light turn would blast me well past the area I wanted to focus on, and sometimes much more turning was required to move the plane of focus just a little. Overall, the focusing experience felt inconsistent.
A few points about Autofocus Performance
- Autofocus performance is OK, but not outstanding. It feels, as I said, kind of like a "on par" result. Not worst, not the best. Despite a ton of both phase and contrast detect autofocus points, the performance of the autofocus seemed slow and frequently inaccurate, though it's particularly sluggish when using N-Log. Nikon themselves even mention N-Log negatively affecting AF performance: "The camera may also have trouble focusing; this is not a malfunction."
- When you have a subject walking towards the camera, the camera was capable of following their movements very well without missing focus. When shooting something like a set piece or a scene you have complete control over, you should have no problem keeping your subject in focus using either internal recording or N-Log (the latter here being a very pleasant surprise given Nikon's statement about reduced AF performance in N-Log).
- When moving between two focus points in a frame, one close and another far, in both internal recording and N-Log the camera didn't do a good job. Tapping two focus points on the rear LCD resulted in the camera spending a moment to hunt right after shifting focus, a hallmark of contrast-based autofocus technology. This means that you can't rely on the autofocus to give you a smooth transition focus without it looking like obvious autofocus (this is a problem a camera like the A7 III or the S1 have managed to avoid). Additionally, the focus points on the rear of the camera don't feel particularly accurate. Even when tapping the same locations back and forth to select focus, the Z6 seemed to waver on where exactly it would try and pick up focus, and it wasn't always exactly where I tapped on the rear LCD. Sometimes it would be a bit to the right, or a bit to the left of the intended target. In a focusing case like this, I cannot recommend trusting the autofocus at all.
- Though serious video shooters will often be shooting with manual focus anyway, it was a bit unfortunate that I felt that the autofocus left a lot to be desired. A lot of hunting and missed points overall.
One of the major complaints about this camera when it was first announced was the single memory card slot. Personally, I don't care that much. Since I'm going to be using an external recorder anyway and my recorder only has one miniSSD slot, having just one XQD didn't feel all that different. I do wish, however, that the Z6 allowed me to capture video to the card at the same time as using an external recorder, but it cannot. That kind of brings up another issue, and that's how N-Log was implemented...
As far as the look and operability of N-Log goes, I've got nothing but good things to say about it. When comparing it to other Log profiles, I have to say it's the closest to Panasonic's V-Log, with the V-Log LUT working very well on N-Log footage. It's actually so close in quality that when looking at my external recorder at two shots I had, one done on my GH5 in V-Log and then repeated on the Z6 in N-Log, I really could not visually tell the difference. Seeing as I really like V-Log, this is nothing but praise.
|Un-graded: N-Log from Z6 vs. V-Log from GH5.
Frame grabs straight from Premiere Pro. Click for full-resolution.
|Graded: N-Log from Z6 vs. V-Log from GH5.
Frame grabs straight from Premiere Pro. Click for full-resolution.
My issues with N-Log have nothing to do with its quality, but rather with its implementation. Locking users out of N-Log unless an external recorder is attached is pretty frustrating, especially when you consider the HDMI port is a Mini HDMI (Type C), not full size (Type A). Mini HDMI isn't intrinsically bad, and does allow a manufacturer to save space by using it, but it's also less physically stable. Because it's so small, it can easily come loose during shooting. There is a reason Panasonic ditched it in lieu of a full-size HDMI going from the GH4 to the GH5. The Z6 does ship with an HDMI cable clamp included in the box to help alleviate this issue. For those like myself who find the Mini HDMI off-putting, it helps.
What's more, not being able to internally record N-Log feels like kind of a weird decision. Sony, despite not even allowing 4:2:2 10-bit external output on their modern cameras, does let users record S-Log even to the very low quality 4:2:0 8-bit. As long as you know the limitations, at least letting shooters determine their own levels of contrast and color saturation is really nice.
Locking users out of N-Log internally meant that even if the camera was capable, it's of course not possible to record on camera and through an external recorder simultaneously. Ideally, you would be able to do both so that you have your backup file, despite being limited to one XQD card in camera and a miniSSD on your recorder. But with this design, Nikon still hits shooters with the single-copy problem, which is a bit of a drag. It's not a deal breaker, but it's unfortunate.
I think overall, the problem of not having N-Log internal is that it's often extremely cumbersome to have an external recorder at all. The benefit of using these types of cameras (like the GH5, the 5D Mark IV, the S1, the A7R III) is that they are compact, easy to maneuver, and allow for hybrid photo/video shooting. So while N-Log is nice, it's often more cumbersome to get to it than to just try and deal with the overly-saturated, contrasty nature of internal recording on the Z6. And it's unfortunate that was a decision that I had to make, when devices like the Z6 by their very nature should be more flexible than this.
One last note: when shooting with N-Log, you are getting a slight crop on that full frame video. It is pretty slight and almost unnoticeable, but it's there. So when shooting in N-Log, it's not actually full frame anymore, but it is pretty close. It's difficult to come down too hard on Nikon for this one, as it was probably the only way they could handle the increased data as a result of N-Log.
What I liked:
- True full frame 4K video
- N-Log is a great log profile
- 4:2:2 10-bit external recording
- Very good ISO performance, and especially so when shooting in log
- Small, lightweight body with well-placed buttons
- Decent number of frame rate and recording options
What could use improvement
- Numerous choices, like not having the camera's standby power-off feature automatically get disabled when connected to an external recorder and the lack of a clean LCD view, feel like obvious oversights on what is expected with a modern video device.
- The menus are confusing. Not the worst on the market, mind you, but they came darn close.
- Autofocus struck me as unreliable overall, so I recommend always shooting manually. There is a weird delay in autofocus as well when connected to an external recorder.
- On-sensor stabilization is there, but one of the weakest iterations of the technology among competitors; it's just not very good. It looked at least as good as the competition when standing still in some cases, but does a pretty bad job when walking comes into play, with poor compensation for footfalls or vertical shaking. It's perhaps usable when standing still and hand-holding the camera, but is entirely inadequate when walking. Overall, it was inconsistent.
- There is no 4Kp60 in this camera at all, and considering you have to use an external recorder to get the best quality pro-level video, it seems like a missed opportunity. Even 60p with a crop is better than not having it at all. Sure, the only competitor who has it is Panasonic with the S1, but the other competitors like the A7 III and A7R III are much older, while the Z6 was released closer to the S1. We weren't happy not seeing it on Canon's EOS R, and we aren't happy it's missing here either.
- Relatively low megabit rate video internally, meaning 1080p video is significantly less sharp than 4K, and 4K footage has limited dynamic range in camera.
- You cannot record to the XQD card and use an external recorder at the same time.
So where do we stand with the Z6? Well, there are a host of small niggling details that should have been addressed with firmware before launch. Overall, the firmware feels at best untuned for a video shooter's expectations and at worst unfinished. There are extra steps across multiple functions that make the camera feel like it's fighting you instead of working with you. These issues could be fixed via a firmware update, but at the time of this review they are an annoyance I could not ignore.
Combine those firmware issues with no internal log recording and the "just OK" IBIS and autofocus, and you have a video camera that, while exhibiting excellent image quality, is just par for the course overall. Unfortunately, the Z6 doesn't seem to push any boundaries and though it's easily Nikon's best video camera, comparing it to the field yields a great many concessions based on the competition.
One could argue that this is a good choice for current Nikon shooters to finally have a Nikon-based camera system for video. At the time of this review, the FTZ mount adapter ships with the Z6 at no additional cost, which certainly helps sell the system and should convince many current Nikon owners to stay with the brand. For many current Nikon shooters, this will be a strong enough reason to make that Z6 purchase -- especially if you shoot both stills and video -- but if we are looking at just specs and features for video it becomes less clear. Including the FTZ adapter now is a great move from Nikon, and makes it easier to recommend to current Nikon DSLR owners. I said at the start of this review, the Z6 is Nikon's best video-capable camera to date, but even as that, it doesn't do enough to stand out in a very competitive crowd to make a compelling case to select it over the competition. This seems first and foremost a camera that gives existing Nikon shooters ample reasons to remain loyal to the brand, but at the same time isn't likely to pull people in from other platforms like Canon, Panasonic or Sony.
We understand that at the time of publication, the Nikon Z6 is slated to receive considerable performance enhancements from Nikon in the form of firmware updates. These updates will include features like RAW video and Eye-AF. While these are sure to be excellent additions, we reviewed the Z6 in its current form as purchasable in the first half of 2019, as some of these firmware updates have no firm timeline nor expected performance marks. When these updates are released, we will add to this review as needed.