Nikon Z6 Camera Review

nikon z6:z7 button(2)

Nikon didn’t make this easy. Because the Z6 and Z7 share so much in design, features, layout, and more, I’ve opted to mostly copy my Z7 review and then change and augment only those things that are different on the Z6 (which isn’t as much as you'd think). 

Rather than pointing you first at the Z7 review and then having a short review here of the differences, and rather than trying to completely rewrite the same thoughts with different words, I decided that the approach of duplication with rewrite of specific areas that are different is the best approach. So pardon me if it seems like you’re seeing some deja vu here. You are. For those of you looking for shorthand on the feature differences, here's a table of most of them:

Z6 Z7
Sensor 24mp 45mp
Low Pass Filter Yes No
Max Frame Rate 12 fps 9 fps
Max Raw Buffer 43 23
Video no crop 4K cropped 4K
selectable AF points 273 493
Base ISO
100 64
Gain ISO point 800 400
14-bit raw sensor readout time 1/22 1/16
Manufacturer's price US$2000 US$3400

bythom nikon z6

What is It?
The Nikon Z6 is Nikon's thirteenth mirrorless camera. For those of you whose mouth just dropped, you're forgetting that Nikon began making mirrorless cameras in 2011 with the Nikon 1 (J1 and V1 models). If you've been reading reviews that claim the Z6 is one of the first Nikon mirrorless cameras, then you're either misreading (it probably said "first full frame mirrorless...") or the reviewer's credibility is in deep question.

Seriously, this makes a difference in how you evaluate what Nikon's done. The engineering team in Tokyo had seven years and twelve models to explore how a mirrorless camera should be put together, how it should work, and how it performs. And if you remember what I wrote back in 2011 on the site, Nikon put some of their top designers (D3 team) on the Nikon 1. They've done the same once again with the Z series cameras.

So we come to context: Nikon should know how to make an excellent mirrorless camera. They've had plenty of experience, and they've continued migrating their top DSLR designers over to help design these mirrorless cameras. 

It doesn't seem like those designers had their hands tied, either. Back with the Nikon 1, Nikon was one of the first to use phase detect autofocus on the sensor, and it was fast and accurate. But it was also clear that there were things that the engineering team weren't allowed to do with the Nikon 1. The Nikon 1 models apparently had to be something "different" than a DSLR. The Nikon 1 wasn't considered a feeder into anything; it was a stand-alone consumer product that shared virtually nothing with the long-line of Nikon DSLRs. Intentionally so.

This time around, the opposite is true. The Z6 cribs a great deal from the DSLR lineup, particularly the D850, which seems to have served as the primary base for the Z series. The Z6 also shares accessories with the DSLR lineup. Unlike the Nikon 1, the Z series is fully integrated into Nikon's long SLR/DSLR legacy. 

Indeed, before I get deeper into the details, I was initially struck by an unusual balancing act made by Nikon: there are many very familiar things in the Z6 that copy the DSLR designs, yet there are new things that don't. This shows not only in the obvious controls and physical feature differences you can see on the outside of the camera, but also in a tear down of the Z6: I see some things the same, some different. When I originally wrote this review I was hoping that the next Nikon DSLR learned from the new things that the Z6 and Z7 brought to the table. In many ways, they did. The D780, for example, operates pretty much exactly like a Z6 when it is used in Live View. 

Z7 Z6 back

So let's start with the Z6 basics.

The Z6 is a 24mp full frame (36x24mm) mirrorless camera. The image sensor itself appears to be similar to the one used in the Sony A7m3. In other words, it’s a BSI (backside illumination) Exmor-type design with the addition of phase detect photosite masking embedded in the microlens layer. Base ISO is 100, with the directly selectable range going to 25,600 (extendable with the HI settings to 204,800 equivalent).

On top of the image sensor we have a low pass filter, unlike the Z7. This filter steals a little acuity from edges and anti-aliases the data, but that also has the tendency to mask some of the photon noise, too. This isn’t a particularly aggressive AA filter as we used to have many years ago, but you need to know it’s there, as this makes the Z6 not quite a high resolution beast. Note that the aliasing is mostly on the long axis. It's not clear why Nikon made the aliasing asymmetrical, but the overall result is less overall aliasing than most regular AA filters.

The new Z mount is distinguished by the smallest flange distance to date from the main competitors (16mm compared to a more typical 18-20mm). Coupled with a very wide throat opening of 52mm (compared to Sony's narrow 43.6mm), Nikon can put larger lens elements closer to the sensor than anyone else with a full frame camera. They can also consider new optical designs where the entrance and exit pupils have more flexibility. 

Nikon has kept the lens release button in its usual position found on the DSLRs, and Z mount lenses twist onto the Z6 camera body exactly the same way F mount lenses twist onto Nikon DSLRs. Which is to say, for some, backwards ;~). Still, that's the level of detail and consideration that any Nikon DSLR user would want Nikon to be making for mirrorless cameras that complement the DSLRs. Zoom and focus rings also work the same way in Z-dom as they do in D-dom: zoom in with a twist to the right (across the top of the lens), zoom out to the left. 

So, other than the fact that the mount is bigger and closer to the sensor, the Z6 lens mount and lens attributes are recognizably Nikon to Nikon users. 

Of course, you can't mount a DSLR lens directly on the mirrorless Z6. For that Nikon has made an optional FTZ Adapter (F mount To Z mount, get it?). Another article on this site goes into the details about the FTZ adapter, so I won't elaborate much here. Suffice it to say that pretty much any manual focus Nikkor and any AF-S, AF-I, or AF-P autofocus Nikkor works much as you'd expect when mounted on a Z6 via the FTZ adapter. That's good news, because initially Nikon only had three initial Z mount lenses (24-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, and 50mm f/1.8). Even with the many additional lenses added since, there's still a paucity of lens choice in the Z mount that will take some time to go away. Most of you who pick up a Z6 after reading this review are going to be using at least some of your existing DSLR lenses via the FTZ for awhile.

You're probably wondering about the autofocus system at this point, as I just mentioned that most F-mount lenses work as expected on the Z6 with the FTZ adapter. 

Nikon uses rows of phase detect photosite masking on the Z6 sensor. The photosites on those rows can provide both focus and exposure information. Basically every twelfth row has this dual-function nature. Nikon claims 273 points for autofocus, but that's selectable single points using the camera controls. In reality, there are thousands of autofocus points in the camera, as is true of most mirrorless cameras using phase detect on sensor. One thing, though: none of these autofocus detection sites are cross-type, as you find in the DSLRs. That means that focus is more responsive to detail on one axis only (long axis). 

Focus performance with the latest firmware extends to -6EV with an f/2 lens attached. That's with the low light focus function enabled; normally it's -3.5EV. Those numbers are better than the Nikon D750, one of the best low-light focusing DSLRs to date. Indeed, I'd call them state-of-the-art numbers. However, note that differences between the AF-S and AF-C focus modes mean that you sometimes don't get that same level of low-light focus performance when shooting continuous AF-C. 

The thing about phase detect on the image sensor is that the precision with which the current focus position can be calculated is less than that in the DSLRs. That mostly has to do with geometry. That's why virtually all of mirrorless camera systems default to a followup contrast detect focus step after performing a phase detect step when they're set to what's known as single servo focus (AF-S in most cameras; it means that focus is only obtained once, and does not track the subject). The Z6 does not do this, though (except in Pinpoint AF mode). Somehow, Nikon has gotten the same level of accuracy without having to do the extra step (my guess is that they're building depth maps from multiple nearby sites to help them understand where focus should be).

In continuous servo (AF-C in Nikon parlance), the Z6 usually only performs a single phase detect focus operation. Note that whatever Autofocus Area Mode you pick in AF-C, far more than one underlying focus sensor (pixel) is being used to determine focus. That both helps and potentially hurts AF-C focus accuracy. I'll get to accuracy in the Performance section, below.

You should also know that the Z6 respects shooting aperture up to f/5.6. In other words, focus is performed at f/2.8 if you're set at f/2.8, at f/5.6 if you're set at f/5.6. When you set apertures of f/6.3 and smaller, the camera focuses with the lens set to f/5.6. The unique aspect of this is that the EVF shows DOF directly up to f/5.6. Beyond that, you need to invoke a programmed button or pull off the trick I note in my book to see exact DOF while shooting without resorting to defining a Depth of Field button.

The main worry of Nikon DSLR users considering a Z6 has tended to be focus speed. They needn't have worried. Phase detect is essentially instant—okay, there's lag in the electronics stream to account for, but that's minimal—so it really depends upon the performance of the focus motor in the lens as to whether the actual focus speed is good or not. The worry among DSLR users was that no other mirrorless camera with adapter has managed to achieve reasonable focus speed with existing F-mount Nikkors. 

Since I initially posted my Z6 and Z7 reviews, I've learned quite a bit about how the focus system on the Z cameras works.  One thing that catches many by surprise is the use of phase detect virtually all the time. One thing to note is that the Z cameras don't have to filter light through a partially silvered mirror before it gets to the focus sensors. That means those focus sensors are getting considerably more light on them, which impacts accuracy. There are also more individual sensors building the depth map for any given "focus area" the camera is looking at. It's not unintended that the Nikon engineers are basically quiet about how they achieve fast, precise focus using only on-sensor phase detect when others have tended to use a contrast step followup. There's a little "secret sauce" in the underlying decision making Nikon doesn't want to reveal.

I see no tangible difference in how AF-S lenses on the FTZ adapter work (yeah, a confusion of terms, that's not single servo, but a lens motor designation). I actually think AF-P lenses may work a little faster on the Z6 than they do on the DSLRs, but that "little" is so little that I can't really measure it, and you have an apples and oranges problem to deal with even trying to do such a test. Suffice it to say that Nikon DSLR AF-I, AF-S, and AF-P autofocus lenses mounted on an FTZ adapter pretty much keep their performance characteristics on the Z6.   

What's missing on the Z6 from autofocus are some of the traditional Nikon DSLR Autofocus Area Modes in AF-C and the ability to switch Autofocus Area Modes quickly. You can't assign AF-ON+AF Area Mode to anything, as you can on the D850 and other D5-generation DSLRs. There's no Group AF mode, nor size variations for the Dynamic AF mode. 

Meanwhile, manual focus lenses on the Z6 shine. That's because we have a plethora of "helpers" to help you nail focus. The full list—which requires a chipped lens—includes rangefinder focus distance display, the usual Nikon >o< focus indicator, the focus sensor indicator being used turning from red to green, the ability to magnify the display in the viewfinder, and focus peaking overlays. (Non-chipped lenses will lose the rangefinder and perhaps more depending upon how you've set the camera, but are still quite usable on the Z6.)

Even though I'm just outlining features, I'll say this right up front: if you're deep into using manual focus Nikkors that are chipped (basically AI-P and some third party lenses), the Z6 is the second best camera you can use them on (the Z7 is the best, because of the added resolution). No doubts about it. The chipped Voigtlander and Zeiss (ZF.2 and later) primes fit into this category, as well. You're simply going to get to correct focus visually faster and more accurately with your lens on the Z6 via FTZ adapter than you will with any other camera mounting those lenses. I'd even include the Sony A7 series in that. 

For a company that caters to legacy users, all those AI and AI-S manual focus Nikkor owners can relax: Nikon designed the Z6+FTZ adapter so that it can work with those lenses, though you'll probably need to set focus peaking to use them well. And, of course, all the owners of autofocus lenses with built-in focus motors (AF-I, AF-S, AF-P) can relax, too. I'm surprised and thrilled at how much compatibility Nikon has managed to retain while moving over into the mirrorless realm from DSLR. 

Unfortunately, if you have a screw-drive autofocus Nikkor—lenses that require a motor in the camera body to move the focus elements in the lens—you will lose autofocus if you mount it on the FTZ Adapter. It's entirely possible that someone, including Nikon, might eventually build an adapter that works for all those older screw-mount autofocus lenses, but I wouldn't hold my breath. That has power implications, among other things.

Since I just mentioned power, the Z6 uses the same basic battery as Nikon has used for the advanced small body DSLRs for some time: the EN-EL15. Yes, you can use your older EN-EL15 in the Z6. You can use your EN-EL15a, too. But the Z6 comes with a new variation of that battery, the EN-EL15b. 

While there isn't a change in power rating, there is one significant change in that new battery: it can be charged in camera (while Nikon supplies the EH-7P charger and cable to do this with the Z7, those do not come with the Z6, you have to buy those separately). The older batteries can't be charged this way, only the EN-EL15b. Unfortunately, even though you've got an AC power source plugged into the camera to charge the battery when you use the EH-7P, you can't operate the camera from that source. If you want an AC power source, unfortunately you have to use the usual suspect, an optional EP-5 driven dummy battery that cables through a small rubber door in the grip and is powered by an optional EH-5. 

If you just want "more power" because you're worried about how many shots you'll get or how long the video will run, Nikon makes an MB-N10 brick that bolts to the bottom of your camera that will hold a pair of EN-EL15b batteries. "Brick": I use a pejorative term here because the MB-N10 will not be the usual vertical grip extension. There are no controls, no shutter release, not much of anything other than a housing for two batteries and a dummy extension that goes into the normal battery slot for the camera.

Frankly, the power/grip situation is far from optimal. It almost seems like everything Nikon did other than use an EN-EL15 battery as the base is a complete afterthought. Given that mirrorless cameras have more power needs than DSLRs—particularly when you use them for video, which you'll want to do with the Z6—you have to wonder what Nikon was thinking. 

I glossed over a feature in the sensor description, above: on-sensor VR. The Z6 is Nikon's second ILC with on-sensor stabilization (the Z7 being the first). The implementation is robust, though it has a bit less physical movement capability than Sony's; Nikon's version powers down into a locked state rather than let the sensor platform dangle in space when in your bag. Nikon claims 5-stops CIPA from the on-sensor VR. Yes, the on-sensor VR works with manual focus lenses, too. As I wrote above, the Z6 is a Nikkor manual focus user's dream. 

Not all is perfect with that on-sensor VR, though. First, with video Nikon is claiming only a 2-stop improvement at the sensor, which can be improved to 5-stops via turning on an additional feature, Electronic VR (only works with video, as it moves the scan area). 

The other thing you need to be aware of is that if a Nikkor lens has VR and a switch to control that, that switch controls all VR, lens and sensor. If the lens doesn't have VR or no VR switch, then only the camera menu system controls VR operation. Third party lenses with stabilization, especially older ones, may not correctly interface with the camera's VR, though. I've seen several where the lens switch doesn't seem to be recognized by the camera.

It doesn't end there. In one of the biggest design dissonances in the DSLR to mirrorless transition, the type of VR is controlled by the lens, unless it isn't. If the lens has Off, On, and Sports modes in its switch, great, everything matches, and that switch does indeed set Off, On, and Sports modes. But if the lens has Off, On, and Active modes in its switch, oops. The switch only controls On and Off: there is no Active mode activation, apparently.

This, of course, is a simplification. Other simplifications abound in the Z6 design when compared to the higher-end DSLRs. First up is the removal of the Mode button and the inclusion of a Mode dial. This also removes the Bank settings from the menu and provides the U1, U2, and U3 user settings of the consumer Nikon DSLRs. One problem with that is that not all functions are actually saved in U1, U2, and U3. One primary one that isn't remembered: the drive function (self-timer, single shot, continuous shot, etc.). You can save your camera configuration to your memory card, but you can only do that once; Nikon still doesn't support multiple, named settings files. 

Another issue with the U1, U2, and U3 design is that you can't switch exposure modes ;~). This was one of the things that Nikon eventually addressed with extended banks in the pro cameras (having a user-defined exposure mode associated with a bank that can be overridden while shooting). While most shooters won't be upset by the simplifications inherent in the U1 type settings over banks, we do lose some flexibility in the camera with this design. 

Since the Z6 is slotted in the same basic position as the D750, which also uses a Mode dial and U1/U2/U3, I don't terribly mind the control simplifications; they seem more appropriate on the Z6 than on the Z7. 

Which brings me to the card slots. Oh, wait, slot. 

The Z6 gets one XQD slot. Nikon has already upgraded the slot to also support CFExpress cards in a firmware update. That doesn't speed up anything even using the faster CFExpress cards, as the Z6 slot is only two-lane PCIe and maxes out at somewhere around 250MBs. 

I know many of you will be disappointed that you need XQD or CFExpress cards to use the Z6, but I'm not at all disappointed by that. The XQD and Type CFExpress cards are the appropriate state-of-the-art card for a product such as the Z6. Indeed, because the buffer is somewhat limited (about 43 raw frames at 14-bit lossless raw), having the fastest current card technology in the camera means that you can actually shoot continuously at about 3 fps in many cases, even with the buffer full!

So XQD/CFExpress was probably the right choice. It’s a little less clearly so on the Z6 than on the Z7 because of who the camera is catering to. At the US$2000 price point of the Z6 there’s an argument that the Z6 should have used UHS-II SD cards, as they’re more appropriately priced and more likely to be owned by someone that might pick up a Z6 camera. 

Still, I feel that Nikon made a good choice here. Use of XQD/CFExpress actually makes the camera a little more versatile than SD would have, at least for those that are tending to shoot raw files at the 12 fps max, or who shoot a lot of video. Why? Because an XQD/CFExpress card reader plugged into a fast port on your computer (USB 3 or faster) is going to get those images and files into the computer much, much faster.

I'm not going to go deep into the one slot versus dual slot "controversy" here. I know there are those that think this was a massive design flaw, but for most users at this price point, I don't think it's particularly important to flame the debate. XQD/CFExpress cards are the most reliable I've used to date, they perform better than SD cards in my experience, and it's rare that I miss not having the second slot. 

Onto those XQD or CFExpress cards you have the option of saving JPEG, TIFF, or NEF files, plus NEF files also can be saved in the Small and Medium sizes at 12-bit, as well, though I'm not sure why that is necessary on a 24mp camera that isn't exactly producing huge files to start with (12-bit Large is 22.5MB in file size, while 12-bit Small is 12.7MB but reduces the buffer size). 

Shutter lag is technically 65ms (the D850, for example, maxes out at 45ms). That's not bad at all: we used to have pro DSLRs that were worse. The problem, however, is that the EVF has a lag of 1/60 all on its own. Thus, you may see people reporting much longer shutter lag numbers, as they're adding in both lags together. Put a different way, a DSLR user doesn't have to adjust what they're seeing to reality: when they see that they should press the shutter release, they get a very brief delay before the shutter opens (again 45ms on the D850 in best case). 

The mirrorless user has to better anticipate the moment, as if they go solely by what they see in the viewfinder, by the time they press the shutter release another 20ms or more may have occurred. I don't see this as an issue on the Z6 as the "bundled lag" is still less than many consumer DSLRs. I'm just telling you that DSLR and mirrorless users that are trying to capture the same moment with a single press adjust when they do that to the circumstances slightly differently. Inherently, the shutter lag on the Z6 is in what I would call the pro realm, and not meaningfully different than many of the DSLRs.

You're probably wondering about the viewfinder. Nikon made big promises about having the "best" EVF on any camera, and for the most part, they've hit that mark, at least for the time at which the Z6 was introduced. The 3.69m dot half-inch LCD is basically a quad VGA monitor (1280 x 960) sitting behind some impressive Nikon glass for a very excellent eyepiece. That nets a 0.8x magnification with a 21mm eyepoint. With my rather thin glasses I have to strain to see all of the image area that magnification is so big. If you'd rather shoot without glasses, Nikon's provided a larger than usual -4 to +2 diopter adjustment, as well.

Overall, the EVF is indeed one of the most natural looking I've encountered. Nikon has graded the view well, and doesn't degrade to a lower resolution view as some EVFs do in certain situations. But it's still an EVF. That means that you'll sometimes see exposure or focus "pumping" that you wouldn't see in an optical viewfinder. In bright (but not extreme contrast) daylight scenes I would tend to agree with Nikon that this is the best EVF so far; I often forget I am using a mirrorless camera. 

As I noted above, there's a tiny bit of lag to the EVF—it's a 60Hz device—but unless you're shooting fast and erratic moving subjects you're probably not going to notice it. The bigger issue with the EVF is that it doesn't black out (except when switching from action to image review, where's there's a slight blackout between the two modes). 

Now normally no blackout would be a good thing. But the problem is generally that the display in between taking shots in continuous sequences is a static, non-updating one generated by the stream of taken photos. Sure it has no black-out. But it's a bit like looking at a slightly lagged slide show to reality, and this can cause you issues following fast and/or erratic action. In mechanical shutter at 5.5 fps the updating is slow; at faster fps the updating is faster (once per frame).

Indoors and particularly in low light, the EVF starts to show that's it an EVF. In particular, noise can start to show up in low light. Still, it's not the terrible contrast-crushed view that we had in many earlier mirrorless cameras.

Out back we get the usual 3.2" 2.1m dot touchscreen Nikon has been using lately. It's on a platform that allows tilting up a bit more than 90° and tilting down about 45°. The basic touchscreen interface is the same as the D850, which is to say, quite good, about as good as we've gotten from anyone. Navigating playback or menus is fast, and touch-to-focus-and-shoot works quite rapidly compared to some other implementations I've seen (starts with an S... ;~). 

What else should you know about the camera itself? Well, a lot. I'll try to stay as brief as I can be here, as I really want you to read the handling and performance sections of the review.

The Z6 does not have a built-in flash. It does have the regular Nikon hot shoe up top, and is compatible with all the recent CLS (i-TTL) Speedlights. One thing to note: flash sync speed is 1/200, not 1/250, and you can't shoot flash with the silent shutter (you can use electronic first curtain shutter, though). If you want to go radio wireless with flash, you'll need an SB-5000 and the WR-R10 transmitter, which plugs into the rectangular 10-pin slot at the bottom of the connector area and is pretty much out of your way. That same connector is used for wired remotes like the MC-DC2, and for other accessories such as the GP-1A GPS unit. Optical wireless remains the same as with the DSLRs. 

GPS data can also be obtained via SnapBridge from your smartphone, which these days is up to version 2.5.x and basically now workable, though not without some lingering faults. One interesting change is that SnapBridge now allows you to shoot raw files and still push over 2mp JPEGs to your smartphone (didn't I request that two years ago?). Nikon also added one somewhat useful thing to the Wi-Fi capabilities of the Z6 beyond SnapBridge: the ability to speak both AdHoc and Infrastructure modes, which gives you access to your computer via your router. The problem with this implementation is that it is slow and requires a Nikon software utility on your computer. When I say slow, I mean slower than your Wi-Fi is capable of, and almost slow enough not to be useful. Almost. 

Likewise, the USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed) connector on the camera doesn't seem to really move data at 5MBs. That's probably not the fault of the electronics, but more the fault of the camera OS driving the electronics. Fortunately, it is more than fast enough for studio-type tethered shooting.

There's been some confusion about frame rates with the Z6. With the mechanical shutter, you top out at 5.5 fps with a Live View update. To get the 12 fps you need to select High-Speed Continuous (Extended), which puts the camera into a slide show type of viewfinder update. Autofocus and exposure work as normal at the top frame rate (starting with firmware 2.0). 

I've already noted that the shutter has a flash sync of 1/200, but otherwise it is the usual 30 second to 1/8000 vertical-travel focal-plane shutter type. Because mirrorless cameras "double-clutch" the shutter—first they close while the sensor resets for shooting, then they open to start exposure, close to end exposure, and finally open again to restore live view—Nikon has also added an electronic front curtain shutter (EFCS) mode, which you'll pretty much want to use all the time for shutter speeds lower than 1/250 (otherwise too much shutter slap can impact the image). The 2.0 firmware includes an automated function that will do just that: shoot EFCS up to 1/250, and mechanical shutter above that. (Eek. Did Nikon use my early criticism and 1/250 suggestion as their update baseline? Some people believe that the changeover point should be user selectable. Personally, I'm fine with the 2.0 implementation, as is.)

Note that if you set EFCS directly—instead of the auto switchover—that puts some limitations on the camera (1/2000 maximum shutter speed, and ISO 25,600 maximum). 

Nikon has thrown in a few tidbits that require a lot more evaluation to fully understand, including automatic diffraction compensation. Coupled with a new mid-range sharpening control in the Picture Controls, Nikon is touting that they're now doing different three types of sharpening to create the final image—JPEGs and TIFF, obviously— and which deal with differences in the way our eyes respond to contrast in different areas. I can say that, after using the Z7 and now Z6 for quite some time, I am finding that the four controls that you can impact acuity with (Sharpening, Mid-range sharpening, Clarity, and Diffraction compensation) now allow me to dial in my JPEGs a little better than I had been able to do on earlier DSLRs. But you need to be careful: these controls interact, and you can get very "crunchy" results if you're not careful. I suggest you start with default Sharpening and Clarity, minor Mid-range sharpening, plus Diffraction compensation turned On. Season from there.

Overall size and weight of the Z6 is a bit like the D7500, a DSLR camera a whole class level down (in sensor size and more). To those that wonder: yes, there is an immediate and tangible difference in feel when moving from the D850 to the Z6: the Z6 feels lighter and nimbler. If you’re moving from a D750/D780 to the Z6, the difference is more minimal. By keeping the deep hand grip and traditional Nikon controls coupled with the usual Nikon high-end build quality, the Z6 still feels like a Nikon. 

One thing many DSLR users don't appreciate until it actually comes to packing time is just how the overall volume difference due to the missing mirror box really starts to add up with equivalent camera/lens sets. I have a number of small bags now that I can fit a basic Nikon Z kit into (body plus a couple of lenses and batteries), that would never accept an equivalent DSLR kit.

That many early adapters of mirrorless cameras have been using them for travel is the result of this downsizing. Amazingly, I can fit my small basic Z6 bag into my favorite laptop briefcase (the expensive but packed with excellence Waterfield Air Porter) and still have room for my laptop, tablet, headphones, chargers, accessories, and other travel gear. 

The Z6 body is said to have the same dust and drip resistance as the D850 (Nikon's words, not mine). My friend Roger Cicala has torn a Z7 down (the Z6 is virtually identically), and his observations mostly match mine: Nikon has put seals everywhere on the Z series. Moreover, even just doing a partial disassembly I noted the same thing as Roger: Nikon is using overlap as well as sealing in many areas. 

Now many are interpreting that to mean that you can get the Z6 really wet and not have issues. First, the camera will not survive submersion. There's also one very vulnerable ingress point: the card slot. As long as that door is closed, yes, the rubber gaskets and overlap will probably work fine. But note that the card slot is soldered directly to the main PC board. So if the door is open and water gets in, it can get right into the one place you absolutely don't want it. 

While I don't panic if my D850 gets wet and won't panic if my Z6 gets similarly wet, if you're going to be in inclement conditions use prophylactic practices, as I do. Be very careful when the card slot door is open or there is no lens/cap on the mount. 

Likewise, while those seals should lesson the chance of dust getting into the body, changing lenses and any air pumping action of zoom lenses will have a tendency to get dust onto the sensor. The in-camera sensor cleaning capability is weaker than we're used to on the DSLRs, too. It works, but only if used with regularity and only on modest dust. Z6 users should own a browser bulb (and one that is known not to have rubber preservatives in can blow out) and keep it with them. 

bythom z6 filmmaker's kit

Video capabilities of the Z6 are extensive, and should excite videographers. Nikon themselves offer the Z6 in a Filmmaker's Kit (see photo, above).

While no longer alone with this feature after similar launches from others, Nikon was the first to introduce a true full frame 4K with 10-bit uncompressed 4:2:2 off the HDMI port. Nikon even went so far as to work with Atomos to let the US$700 Ninja V external recorder [advertiser link] control the camera. That 10-bit data on the HDMI port can be saved in what Nikon calls N-Log, their version of the ubiquitous log-format videographers prefer for post-shoot color grading. With the Atomos Ninja V you also can see a view assist grading so you're looking at something more approaching what your graded footage will look like. 

Using the Atomos and N-Log you need to be a little careful not to overheat the camera, and autofocus performance for some reason suffers slightly. Still, for shorter takes using the kind of lens you'd normally use for video (e.g. manual focus), the results can be spectacular. But wait, there's more. With firmware 3.0 (and a trip to Nikon service stations), the Z6 can now produce 12-bit ProRes RAW footage coupled with the Atomos Ninja. I wish I could say that this was a great addition, but Nikon has chosen an odd method to form the raw data, which compromises the pixel integrity a bit compared to regular 10-bit. So there's the potential for gain (bit depth) coupled with the potential for loss (artifacts from the sizing method used). 

No one expected Nikon to up their video game, but with a little help from Atomos the Z6 has indeed done just that. 

At 4K, the Z6 shoots using the full frame—actually a very slight crop that uses the full data set—and does so at 30/25/24P. (This is trickier than you might think, as Nikon appears to do this slight crop via lens corrections, so the actual number of pixels being looked at varies to as low as 5700 across the frame, which is an almost 8% crop.) You can also set DX crop and get a full pixel readout 4K. Both those choices produce incredibly clear and rich 4K video. This puts the Z6 into rarified company in terms of 4K video signal integrity and what you can do with the data in downstream processing.

1080P users can shoot at 24/25/30/50/60/100 and even 120 fps, again using the full frame width. If that weren't enough, there's internal timecode capability, focus peaking, on-screen zebras, and a bunch more little video-oriented goodies. The MOVIE SHOOTING menu has 27 options in it, and the Live View selector switch invokes those when set to video, so it's quite easy to set the camera up one way for stills, another for video. 

Bit rates are probably the weakest spot on the Z6 video, as internally you max out at 144Mbps in 4K. That's a decent bit rate, and higher than on the Sony A7m3, but not spectacular (the GH5 does 400Mbps in 4K). For 1080P, the bit rates max out at 56Mbps (and require 50 or 60 fps to do so; 24 fps drops to 28Mbps). Slow motion tops out at 36Mbps. Generally, broadcast television wants at least 50Mbps for source material, preferably higher, as the signal you see on your screen has multiple downstream compresses that are added.

That said, I'd say that the video from the Z6 looks very good, and recorded on an Atomos Ninja, the Z6 can clearly compete with pro video cameras.

Video uses the same autofocus system as stills, and if you've complained about Live View, and thus video, autofocus performance on Nikon DSLRs, you're in for a big, important, and useful change shooting video with the Z6. Nikon now has probably the best follow focus I've seen out of any ILC camera doing video. Not that I tend to use that, but for casual use, it's very effective with minimal annoying hunts and misses. Do note that the autofocus performance does tend to get impacted if you are shooting N-Log to the external HDMI; apparently there's just too much processing going on for Nikon to keep the focus system running at the same refresh rate.

The Nikon Z6 is made in Sendai, Japan, with about three-quarters of the assembly done by automation according to Nikon. The camera lists for US$2000. 

Source of the review camera: purchased via NPS Priority Purchase

Nikon's page for the Z6

How's it Handle?
While the general consensus has been good about how the Z6 handles—many people write "it handles like a Nikon DSLR"—don't get too caught up in those easy assessments. They're somewhat wrong. I can find plenty of places where the Z6 does not handle like a Nikon DSLR. Whether those are important to you or not will depend a lot on how you shoot and what features you use. 

Gone, for instance, are the double-button shortcuts (Reset and Format). While I don't miss the former, the latter was a handy shortcut. Everyone's now going to want to consider setting up a customizable button to MyMenu and putting Format as the first thing on that menu. Otherwise you'll get into menu diving pretty quickly every time you want to reformat a card. Frankly, that was a mistake by Nikon. They could have used the ISO/Delete buttons the same as on the D850 as a short cut. I see no good reason why they took this feature out.

Other annoying "moved to menu" things abound, as well. 

Take bracketing, for instance. It's the 27th thing on the PHOTO SHOOTING menu (I kid you not). Moreover, the handy shortcut of using the Intervalometer to take a full bracket sequence with one shutter press is also gone. Nikon's going to say "just add bracketing to your i menu," but which of the other deeply buried menu items that also reside in the i menu are you going to give up? Metering? Picture Control? Image Quality? VR? Focus settings? WB?

Which brings me to the one semi-critical handling issue with the Z6: it just doesn't have enough customizable buttons for the sophisticated shooter. We've got FN1 (default is WB) and FN2 (default is Focus modes), AF-On (which you'll probably want to leave set to AF-On), the thumb stick button, and the red Record Movie button. That's not enough buttons (nor are there enough i menu positions) for all the things you're going to want to promote up to a higher level than a full menu dive. 

Which makes the Z6 a bit of a "slow" camera to work with compared to the best Nikon DSLRs. Yes, you can use MyMenu and the U1/U2/U3 settings to try to flesh things out, but you still have a finite number of slots for what seems like an infinite number of settings to control. You really need to think things through very carefully to maximize the customization of the camera, and I'll bet that even if you do that, you'll still wish you had more things you could assign. 

Tip: The camera does have a Drive button (frame rate, self timer), and that's duplicated up in the i menu defaults. So there's one thing you can consider replacing on the i menu.)

VR is something you'll need to come to grips with. Yes, the Z6 has on-sensor VR. But you can also mount lenses (currently via the FTZ adapter) that have VR. If the lens has the same VR controls as the camera (Off, Normal, Sport), then the VR setting is always controlled by the switch on the lens. If not, well, things get a bit more problematic. As far as I can tell, there's no way to set Active on the lens: you still get Normal. And if there's no VR on the lens, then the only way you can control the sensor VR is via the menu system. The good news is that all your non-VR lenses now have VR (on sensor). The bad news is that you have to pay attention to where you're controlling when VR is active or not. It's easy to turn off the VR in the camera, then mount a VR lens and control VR from there, then forget that you've left VR off in the camera when you mount another non-VR lens. 

Tip: VR can be assigned to a space on the i menu.

A somewhat bigger issue with the Z6 handling is the startup delay. Using any mirrorless camera is not quite as instantaneous as with a DSLR. That means you really don't want to have the camera off if you're doing anything that approaches spontaneous shooting. The good news is that the delay coming out of standby mode is pretty short. Still not quite as quick as the DSLRs, and just long enough that you could miss shots if you're quick on the draw. 

Something that I'm not sure was the right decision is the availability of focus peaking and zebras. Unlike Sony, where you can pretty much select those things to appear in the EVF all the time, Nikon has put limits on both. Zebras are only available when you're shooting video, for some reason. Focus Peaking only works when you're manually focusing. That normally includes being in an autofocus mode and manually overriding the focus, but there's a bit of a gotcha if you're a back button focusing addict: you have to hold that button down while manually focusing, which seems counterintuitive.

The arrival of the 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens produced another strange handling issue: how the focus and third ring are configured. There's a hidden Custom Setting #A13 that pops up when you mount a three-ring lens. But the wording and the interaction with the Custom Setting #F2 ring configuration is clumsy, confusing, and not well thought out. There shouldn't be an #A13, there should be a better handled #F2. 

Something that some might find a handling issue is the charging of the battery via USB-C. The bad news here is that this works only with the EN-EL15b batteries, and only with the camera turned off, and only if you buy the optional charger (the Z7 includes it; some, but not all, third party USB outlets will work). In other words, you can't charge your older batteries this way, nor can you do anything with the camera while the battery is charging, plus it's an extra cost option. This seems like a big design miss on Nikon's part. Particularly so given how much emphasis has been put on the video abilities. I want the USB connection to power the camera, period. That way I can put one of my big Omnicharge batteries on the job and shoot video for far, far longer.

You'll note that I've identified quite a few minor handling issues. Virtually all of these are "down in the weeds" issues, though. For many of the more casual shooters, they're not going to be limitations. It's when you compare the Z6 against the D780 or the Sony A7 Mark III that the Z6 starts coming up a bit short in a few handling areas (that said, Sony's buttons and menus present a bigger handling problem, which fortunately Nikon hasn't replicated in the Z6). 

What I wrote at the start of this section—that many think the Z6 handles like a Nikon—is basically true. You see the Nikon DNA in almost all the handling decisions, and it's relatively easy for a dedicated Nikon DSLR user to adjust to the Z6 quickly. But over time, that same user is likely to be asking Nikon for some changes. For example, Sony's focus peaking and zebras is more flexible and usable than Nikon's. Long term, we shouldn't be tolerating lower level of capabilities in a US$2000 camera, IMHO. 

Finally, it seems ironic that Nikon removed the DOF button on a camera (D7500) because Live View provides a perfectly acceptable rendering of what is and isn't out of focus (on the rear LCD), but then they make a camera that is basically always in Live View that requires a DOF button to see what is and isn't out of focus. 

Let me elaborate a bit: the Z6 normally uses the user-specified aperture for viewing up through f/5.6. So as long as you're shooting at f/1.8 to f/5.6, you're seeing the correct focus point and DOF in the viewfinder (and on the rear LCD). But the minute you go beyond that, say f/8 or f/11, you now need to have a customizable button to force the camera to stop down to show you DOF, and any lens focus shift—several Z lenses have some—is not addressed. (There's a trick I describe in my Complete Guide to the Z6 and Z7 that also gets you a quick DOF assessment. Indeed, there are a lot of small tricks available that address small shortcomings in the handling.)

And then there are the weird, self goals: Multiple Exposure (ME) shooting can't result in an in-camera raw (as it does in the D850). Most everything else is the same with ME, but not this one small aspect. (Nikon does do one nice thing and display the previous frame as overlay in the viewfinder as you compose the additional shot, though.) The U1/U2/U3 settings don't actually remember all camera set parameters (for instance, they don't remember Release Mode). 

Another simplification that didn't belong in this class of camera: removal of the channel highlights abilities. We only get the blinkies now for the luminance channel; there’s no way to see which channel is blowing out short of going to the RGB Histogram page, and the small channel histograms will have you looking closely to see what’s going on.

These smaller things taken together are what make those of us who review products say something like "this is a first generation camera." It shows in the handling details. Because final, finesse-level handling only comes with experience, any completely new platform like the Z6/Z7 mirrorless cameras is going to suffer some in its first generation. That's because the hardware and performance tuning were taking preference to get the camera out the door to the first customers. 

The reason that the Z6 works as a first generation mirrorless platform is because so much was brought over fairly directly from the DSLRs, particularly the D850. But it wasn't a complete transplant, and there are abundant small, rough edges because of that. 

One thing I'm not sure about is the ability to assign the focus ring on Z mount lenses to other functions (exposure, exposure compensation, aperture, etc.), or the third ring on the top end lenses. I believe Samsung was the first company to give us this function on an ILC—it was done first on a couple of compact cameras—and it's catching on with everyone now, but for a stills shooter I'm not sure the function adds value. That's because it's far too easy to accidentally move a fly-by-wire ring and cause a change when you might not want that change. 

For video shooters I can see some value here, particularly for adjusting exposure manually on the fly, but only when you want it to happen. The 24-70mm f/2.8 (and probably other future lenses) has a dedicated third ring that responds to the same customization, and this makes more sense, though you can currently only assign aperture or exposure compensation to that ring. Overall, I'd say the jury is out on how useful a multi-function focus ring is. 

Finally, there’s the issue of how the Z6 differs from the Z7. There are some odd choices Nikon has made. For instance, 5:4 crop isn’t available on the Z6 but is on the Z7. Diffraction compensation is available on the Z6 where it typically wouldn’t be needed (though it might compensate some for the AA filter).

I'm being very picky and detailed here, because these are the things Nikon has to correct to make a best-in-class camera that will drive the competition nuts and put customers into a nirvana state. Hopefully Nikon corporate sees and understands all that I've written in this section. Yes, the Z6 handles well and competently. It just isn't a home run. Maybe a triple off the wall. The camera business is now getting small enough and competitive enough that the home runs are what will still be around five years from now. 

That said, the Z6 does handle enough like a Nikon DSLR that it's immediately recognizable and an easy transition for any Nikon DSLR user. The primary differences are dictated by the mirrorless nature of the Z6, not random design choices. 

I can't say the same thing for the Canon R and RP: the Canon R feels like a hodge-podge of ideas not at all fleshed out, while the RP feels like it is missing features and handling compared to the Nikon Z6 and Sony A7 Mark III.  

So, Nikon basically nailed handling. Canon hasn't. Sony is still iterating many of their same handling errors three generations later. All that adds up to a Nikon win, in my book. Not a perfect win, but a clear one.

How's it Perform?
Battery: Like the Z7, the Z6 is hitting well above the CIPA numbers in my shooting. CIPA says 310 shots with the viewfinder only. Depending upon what and how I'm shooting, I've been getting between 500 and 1000 shots per charge. 

I would say to keep your screens off as much as possible, avoid leaving SnapBridge on if you're not using it, and minimize use of things like VR if you want to extend battery life, but I generally don't do those things and still get very reasonable shots-per-charge numbers. It's rare I get to a second battery in a day's worth of shooting, and I'm talking about covering events for hours. 

Video performance is a different deal. I've gotten as little as one hour performance from video shoots (with no external accessories, but with things like VR and autofocus turned on). I think if you're serious about using the Z6 as a video camera you're going to want to get an AC Adapter and/or the MB battery grip. Either that or you need to be in situations where you can change batteries without penalty (e.g. no continuous theater/music/dance performances). 

Even though the video side seems a little tight running from the EN-EL15b, I'd judge the "battery life issue" many were worried about to be mostly overblown. I bought two extras of the new version of the battery just in case; I've rarely dipped into a second battery in a day's work with either the Z6 or Z7, even shooting some bits of video, and never have had to resort to the third. 

Buffer: The good news is that the Z6 buffer is less restrictive than the Z7. JPEG shooters are always going to be somewhere near the 50-shot mark, which at 12 fps means a full four seconds before you hit the buffer. That was considered pro level just a generation or so of camera ago. 

Raw shooters have to pay a little attention to their settings, though. Apart from the Small and Medium sizes, which I don't see much value in, raw shooters are going to have a 33 to 43 frame buffer. That's ~3 seconds at 12 fps, which is still more than enough for most people. It's been rare that I've hit the raw buffer on my Z6, but I have done it a few times (not that it helped me get "the shot" ;~). 

Overall, the Z6 buffer isn't totally freeing, but nor is it very limiting. It's virtually a Goldilocks buffer. Like the Z7, my Z6 seems to max out at about 250MBs write performance to the XQD cards. That's enough to get the Goldilocks effect, and it didn't change for the better when Nikon added CFExpress support in firmware. Indeed, CFExpress cards before a little more erratically on the Z6 once the buffer fills. 

Connectivity: Let's start with the new stuff. You can use the supplied USB cable to get "fast" transfers from camera to computer. Only they're not all that fast. I fail to see the point of using a SuperSpeed (USB 3) port if you're going to limit the transfer speed to at 1/10th the speed the port is capable of (e.g. the Z6 is running about 30MBs in my tests with the fastest card I have). Basically, the Z6 is running at the maximum speed of a USB 2.0 card reader. That's so 2001. 

Okay, how about that new camera-to-computer transfer via Wi-Fi? Well, it works quite well on a Mac (a little less reliable on Windows). Still slower than my network, though, and by a long shot. In both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz modes I'm getting the same basic numbers, with the fastest transfers running a bit over 2.5MB/s. That's slower than just plugging the camera into that SuperSpeed USB port and shooting tethered, too. 

I was hoping for better from Nikon when I saw they were supporting Infrastructure mode on 5Ghz. But we're still in the 20-30 second range per NEF file here, which isn't at all thrilling. 

Finally, a word about SnapBridge. In its current form, it's very usable. Not perfect, but if you're looking for 2mp JPEGs to post to social media near directly from the camera, SnapBridge is now going to give you that capability without as much angst as before.

Image Quality: I'm really tempted to just say "virtually identical to the D750" and be done with this section. I'm pretty sure that long-time readers of my work won't be satisfied with that, though. 

bythom us pa philly lacrosse championships 32234

Not exactly the worst case scenario. But the ability to hold bright white under saturation with detail and still hold the same level of detail in deep, dark shadow is one of the things the current full frame 24mp sensors all do well. The Z6 is no exception.

Still, that's a good starting point. The Z6 sensor appears to be the same underlying BSI sensor as the Sony A7 Mark III, though with a different gain adjust point. Those current Sony 24mp full frame sensors all test out within a narrow range (Panasonic also uses one in the S1), with the primary difference between them in the few stops of ISO where they are making different gain adjust decisions (basically ISO 400-800). 

Frankly, if you take the older FSI Sony 24mp Exmor used in the D750 and other cameras and map it against the Z6 you won't find a huge differential. The Z6 and D750 are nearly identical in performance—which is to say excellent—from base ISO up to the gain point. At that ISO 800 point where the gain adjust has kicked in, the Z6 gets something between a one-third and one-half stop boost, which then pretty much stays consistent at the usable ISO values above that. (The later D780 basically matches the Z6.)

The Sony A7 Mark III manages perhaps a third of a stop more dynamic range than the Z6 at most ISO values: the two companies seem to have picked slightly different underlying parameters in the sensor tech, for unknown reasons. If I get into measurbating and nitpicking, I'd say my A7 Mark III had more pattern noise than my Z6, and it's easier to produce artifacts from the phase detect arrays on the A7 Mark III, but that's so nitpicky that it's not likely  to show up in anyone's images.

Whatever. The Z6 still has the best 24mp sensor performance we've seen yet from Nikon. Just not by as much as you'd think four years between sensors might generate.

Don't get hung up on the banding claims you might have seen elsewhere, either, as even when banding is present it takes a huge exposure boost (5+ stops) to reveal it. Also, I can't reproduce it in a 12-bit NEF, and you should probably be shooting 12-bit for anything above ISO 800. Even in 14-bit NEF, the presence of the banding in near-black values isn't assured. It also takes a very specific type of scene to trigger (typically one with very bright to very dark horizontal transition).


I took the darkest part of the coach's shirt in the above photo (left), pushed that more than six stops (right), and then blew the whole area up so that we should be looking at 4x view (depends upon your display size, as this site scales images to display). Yeah, I can pull noise out of black ;~). But not banding in this image. 

Of course, there's another type of banding we need to talk about, and that's what happens with all electronic shutters under frequency based lighting: you get bars (not bands) across your image where the exposure seems different. This is caused by the rolling nature of the electronic shutter. All non-global electronic shutters have this issue, which is to say virtually all mirrorless cameras to date that feature a silent (electronic) shutter capability.

The Z6 seems to be very close to the A7 series here, with a rolling shutter that's running at about 1/22 second (a little faster than the Z7's 1/15 second). If you see such bars in your image, switch out of silent mode. 

VR: It works. Pretty much as expected. Just remember that VR never stops subject motion, only motion of the camera/lens. 

One area where there is a bit of confusion is with tripods and shutter slap. If you leave the camera in the usual mechanical shutter mode and use longer exposures on anything less than an absolutely secure tripod support, VR doesn't seem to do a great job of correcting the low level vibration from the initial shutter opening. 

If you're counting on VR to let you take absurdly long shots, handheld or on a tripod, I'd strongly suggest that you select electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) or the all-electronic shutter. The new firmware has an Auto setting that's appropriate.

NEFs: Okay, we have to have a separate section here, because Nikon has made a change. The Z6 NEF format bundles along a bunch of XMP data, which is picked up automatically by the Adobe converters. This includes lens corrections, which the Adobe converters apply automatically (and don't allow you to override the lens corrections). 

I don't mind the new data coming along. Indeed, Nikon NEFs haven't looked this good in an Adobe converter since, well, forever. But I do mind not being able to manually override the lens corrections. 


It started with the Z7: Nikon's autofocus wasn't any good, the Internet said. Or was it just a few very visible people on the Internet being provocative? Because the pixels are bigger on the Z6, people have been expecting "better" autofocus on it over the Z7.

Yes, the Z6 does do better in really low light than the Z7—the pixels are larger, so the phase detect system is getting more light—but I'm not sure I can precisely measure it. Nikon's specifications suggest a one stop difference. Yeah, I think that's about right in my experience so far. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We've hit the Big Subject of interest here: autofocus. I've now read many dozens of reviews and thousands of comments about how the Z6 and Z7 autofocus perform, and I'll say that not many of those things I've read seem to agree with what I see after a prodigious amount of testing, including with the 2.x and 3.0 firmware.

First, there's what you're comparing the Z6 to. A DSLR? Other Mirrorless? Dedicated performance cameras? What?

Second, I'm noticing a huge volume of loose and inappropriate language in other reviews that makes the readers have to guess at what's actually meant. 

Third, I'm not sure that most of those writing about the Z6's autofocus performance have actually pushed it in every situation it might ever be used in, let alone try to understand how they might optimize the camera settings for that. 

So, let's get a few things stated right up front. Just like the Z7, with a Z6:

  • Focus is fast
  • Focus is accurate
  • Tracking fast and erratic moving subjects can present a problem, particularly if you use the wrong settings
  • Really low light will negatively impact all three of the above, though not as much on the Z6 as the Z7

I've seen a lot of writing that suggests that focus isn't fast on the Z6 (and Z7). I don't know what cameras those folks were using, but it isn't the ones I've been using. Whether with native Z lenses or AF-S F-mount lenses on the FTZ adapter, I'm not seeing any sluggishness to focus in normal situations on the Z6 (again, really low light can raise issues, but it does for other cameras, as well; more in a bit). 

I'm impressed by focus speed. The one thing I discovered in shooting moving wildlife and sports with the Z7 and now the Z6 is that focus acquisition speed is much like the Nikon DSLRs: reliable and fast. I haven't done as much sports shooting with the Z6 as the Z7, but this seems to still be true for that, too. Are the Z6 and Z7 as fast at that as the D5 or D6? Maybe not, though it's tough to measure accurately. Are they as fast as a D7500? Absolutely. I'd tend to put the Z6 and Z7 in the D500/D850 category in terms of speed acquiring focus under normal conditions.

What I see in focus acquisition is that the lens plays the biggest part (other than very low light). The 70-300mm AF-P lens on the Z6 is wicked fast to get to the focus point, the 200-500mm f/5.6E lens clearly and noticeably slower. Just like on the DSLRs. 

Native Z lenses seem faster than the fastest F-mount lenses, but that simply may be that Nikon is using a different motor strategy in the S line lenses (stepper motors, as in the AF-P lenses), not how fast the camera's autofocus logic is working. The 35mm f/1.8 S is noticeably faster to acquire focus than the 35mm f/1.8G on the adapter, for instance, but the 35mm f/1.8G wasn't what I'd call a fast acquisition lens on DSLRs, either.

Let me state it unequivocally: focus acquisition is fast and mostly dependent upon the amount of light available and the speed of the lens motor used. Just like on the DSLRs. 

Since a lot of you are thinking about the Z6 for low light work, you want me to quantify that "amount of light" bit. Okay. At f/2.8 and 1/15 second at ISO 1600 on lower contrast subjects (that's about EV3 with little detail to lock on) I don't see any slowing of acquisition, hunting, or slowing of following focus (that's about where I tend to see those things start to show up on the Z7). Again, this is with lower contrast subjects. Higher contrast subjects aren't an issue at all (though remember, that the Z6 is sensitive to detail only on the long axis). 

Indeed, with ISO at 100 and f/2.8, it isn't until I get to low contrast subjects and exposures over 1 second that I see the Z6 even begin to struggle. With contrasty subjects, I actually found that the Z6 was handling down to significantly below EV0 much as it was in "regular" light. Indeed, it was finding focus when I was having a hard time seeing.

Yes, this is better than the Z7. The larger photosite size definitely is making the Z6 more reliable in low light than my Z7 is (and again, my Z7 wasn't really having issues in most situations).

Okay, how about focus accuracy? 

Over and over I've been impressed with the accuracy of the Z6 focus system with static or near static subjects. Assuming you know what the Autofocus Area mode you selected is going to do—don't worry, we'll get to that, as it's important to understanding the focus system—the Z6 just nails focus in those cases. With AF-S (single servo), it's mostly as you'd expect with the best of mirrorless, even though Nikon isn't typically doing a contrast detect step as some other companies do. 

Important aside: the 35mm and 24-70mm f/4 Z lenses have some clear focus shift in them. It's actually quite possible to get slightly inaccurate results at some small aperture settings if you don't realize this and don't know how the focus system actually works.  

I'm also reasonably impressed with AF-C (continuous servo) accuracy on near static and modestly moving subjects. I'd tend to say that the Z6 is a little more repeatably accurate with a focus move of a slower moving subject than the Nikon DSLRs are. 

So, for static or slow moving subjects the Z6 is as good as any other mirrorless camera, and probably better than a DSLR (just like the Sony A7 Mark III is). Landscape shooters should rejoice (though be aware that the Z6 only stops down to f/5.6 in the viewfinder unless you assign a Depth of Field button or use my DOF trick), so you're not seeing depth of field accurately at small apertures. But any static or near-static subject should be easily focused by the Z6 once you learn the various controls and modes.

You may wonder about eye detect autofocus (available in firmware 2.0 and later; previously we had only face detect, now we have both face and eye detect).

A couple of general things before we get to the Z6 and its firmware updates, though. 

First, all the "eye detect" (and face detect) capabilities you hear about tend to be in the "all automatic" focus mode. The camera is making all the decisions. You're handing off basically all responsibility to the camera.

Second, not a single "eye detect" system I know of actually consistently focuses on the eye. Say what? No, they all tend to pick up the thing of highest contrast in a rectangle they form around the eye. That tends to be either the eyebrow or the eyelash, which are both forward of the actual point you'd really want focus to be performed.

This is important to understand, because there's a difference between "good enough" and "right." It's true that many people struggle with achieving focus with human (or other) subjects. Getting the focus on the eyebrow is good enough for them. It's typically not for me. 

Now, with an 85mm lens at f/2.8 shooting a full head and shoulders shot you've typically got over an inch of depth of field. So hitting the eyelashes instead of the pupil looks fine to most people. Come in a little tighter and drop the aperture f/1.4, okay, the camera better not have focused on the eyelashes. 

The Sony A7 Mark III does a bit better at that last bit than the Nikon Z6 (or Z7 for that matter): Sony's eye detect uses a slightly smaller box than the Nikon, and that seems to be the difference. The Nikon definitely is picking up eyelashes in many scenarios I throw at it. The Sony sometimes gets the pupil in focus if it's big enough in the frame.

Most people are going to find what Nikon does with eye detect acceptable, but it isn't perfect. But there's another small thing that needs to be discussed: when the Z6 switches from face detect to eye detect and how it decides which person and eye it's going to focus on. Consider this image:

bythom facedetect

I'm just far enough away from the subjects that the camera has stayed on face detect. But which face? I encounter situations where the Nikon will jump from face to face, and I have yet to figure out what's driving that choice. In this particular instance, that's not going to be a big deal, as the distance to each subject isn't too different, but in the more scattered celebration that was going on at the Men's Lacrosse Championships, I kept finding that the camera was jumping around between faces in ways I couldn't predict. In a couple of cases, that meant lost shots.

I should point out that I was using this event as part of my testing. Normally, I would have been in a different focus mode and more controlling of where focus was being put.

What I'm trying to say is this: the thing we gained in firmware 2.0 and later was eye detect (we already had face detect). It works, but it might not work the way you think it does (or should). The way the Auto-area AF mode (which is where face and eye detect are done) works is like this:

  1. The camera picks a subject, generally one with lots of contrast, using unknown algorithms
  2. If a human is detected, the camera switches to face detection
  3. If the human is close enough so that the face is a very significant portion of the frame, the camera switches to eye detection

The tricky part is when there are multiple humans in the scene. In both steps #2 and #3, if you have more than two human subjects the autofocus detection tends to be a little jumpy and more difficult to predict where it's going to go. With only one or two human subjects, I find the focus system usable and fairly stable, though (and remember, with the auto detect, you can move from eye to eye with the Direction pad). It's when you start adding more subjects where I've found instances where the camera did the wrong thing.

So, where do we stand here?

  • I wouldn't use Auto-area AF for non-human situations. You've got better choices and should be exerting more control over what the camera is doing. If you want the camera to be picking subjects, at least narrow its choices down by using one of the Wide-area AF choices instead of the full frame.  (Exception: if you're into Subject Tracking, that mode does now work well enough to use in non-human situations with firmware 2.0 and later.)
  • For one or two human subjects, Auto-area AF works fine (as long as you don't mind the eyebrow or eyelash grabbing focus at times), and it normally does the right thing quickly. Telling the camera to switch to the other subject is simple, though it may fight you if the subjects are moving a lot.
  • For human subjects that are further away (typically they're not filling the frame) the face detect capability of the Auto-area AF works fine, except if you have three or more subjects, where the camera can sometimes jumps around and picks a subject you wouldn't have chosen.

How's this compare to the Sony A7 Mark III? Sony does a better job of picking non-human subjects in the auto-everything mode. It also skips face detection and goes right to the eyes even when the subject doesn't fill the frame. I'd also say that the Sony is more consistent when you have three or more people in the frame. So: the Sony is better, though perhaps not by as big a lead that Sony worshipers think their product has. 

I believe that if you understand both cameras well (Z6 and A7 Mark III), you should be able to get good and consistent results. You may be overriding the Z6's choices a bit more often than the Sony, though.

There is one aspect where the Sony is clearly better, though, and that's where the cameras get confused. The Sony doesn't get as confused as often and almost always snaps out of it instantly as soon as it gets unconfused. You may have seen the videos of autofocus tests where people pop in and of the frame, or faces get hidden briefly. The Sony A7 Mark III tends to handle those better than the Z6. 

Indeed, the Z6 has one flaw in the all automatic modes I don't like: it can get confused by bright, background contrast. When it does, it wants to keep focus on its choice, and not move back to a closer subject, even when there's no face/eye in the background and there is one closer. This is clearly a flaw in the logic. I don't understand why Nikon isn't always using closest subject priority in more of their focus modes, but it really needs to be there for face/eye detect, and doesn't seem to be. 

Finally: tracking fast-moving subjects. You've probably seen all kinds of opinions about this, and that started with the pre-release Z events Nikon put on for "opinion leaders" (apparently I'm not one of them; that's okay, I'll be a follower and actually set your expectations correctly ;~). 

The comments started all over the place right after the camera's introduction, and have continued to be all over the place many months and now years later. I won't hold it against you if you don't know whether or not a Z6 can follow a moving subject well. But I'm here to tell you that it can, but you'll have to study and master the autofocus system if you want consistent results. Nothing in 2.0 and later firmware has changed my opinion here. Nikon seems to only have touched Auto-area AF (face and eye detect), Subject Tracking, and Wide-area AF modes (with a bit more emphasis on closest subject), and you probably shouldn't be using those for fast motion. 

The 3D Tracking (Subject Tracking) option originally used was useless on the Z6 (and Z7). It was a mode within a mode, meaning that you have to select Auto-area AF mode, then press the OK button, then align the cursor on the subject you want to track, then start the focus (shutter release or AF-On button). If you want to track another subject, you have to go back to step 2. Your thumb is going to be getting a workout should you try this, particularly with back button focus enabled.

Fortunately, firmware 2.0 and later have fixed this, and now 3D Tracking works as you'd expect it to coming from a Nikon DSLR. This was a significant upgrade to the focusing capabilities of the Z6, and fixed issues that many of the all-automatic type shooters were experiencing.

Okay, so what about the other modes? 

Single point works decently and much like the DSLRs, if you can keep it on the subject. Dynamic Area (basically a wide 9-point Dynamic) also works very much like the DSLRs, though it can look too far away from the subject you really want tracked at times (i.e., the pattern needs to be tightened some, as it's closer to the 25-point version on the DSLRs). 

The Wide-area (small and large) modes supposedly perform Closest Subject Priority (CSP) according to Nikon product managers I've talked to, but I can easily demonstrate that it doesn't always do that: just put a bright background behind the subject and there's a strong chance that the focus system will look to the background instead of the subject. Though the 2.0 and later firmware updates seems to have made the camera less prone to go to the background, I still find situations where it does. So, not true CSP. 

If you're getting the sense that I think that the limited (and limiting) Autofocus Area modes on the Z6 are the big problem with tracking focus for fast and erratic moving subjects, you're absolutely right. They are the primary difference that means you'll have a tougher time getting correct sequences of focus on moving subjects compared to a Nikon DSLR (or a Sony mirrorless camera, for that matter). 

I'd tend to say that the AF-C Autofocus Area modes weren't the result of someone doing testing to get the best results. They seem to be more a last minute mishmash of things Nikon has previously done, without specifically testing to see that these options, taken together, actually solve all the user problems with moving subjects. 

If you've been paying attention, I've obviously been getting in focus shots of fast moving subjects (animals and sports) with both my Z6 and Z7. These were all taken in AF-C. But not with 3D Tracking ;~). A lingering problem is that the Z cameras aren't as predictable as the recent Nikon DSLRs in the modes that I find the most usable (basically Dynamic and Wide Area). Couple that with the potential of the viewfinder lag in burst shooting eventually having you not framing your subject on the sensors you selected, and yes, you can get sequences where some images are in focus and some aren't. 

The current Sony A7/A9 models don't have this problem. At least nowhere near the level the Z6 does. (The A7/A9 have a different problem in that they "cheat" a bit on tracking sequences and think that DOF will cover you with small misses the system makes.) Thus, if you're considering the Z6 for moving subjects, I'd tend to send you to the Sony cameras instead, particularly the A9 as its no-lag, no-blackout viewfinder solves the framing problem 100%.  

Curiously, I find that giving the Z6 "more" to look at (e.g. Wide Area Large versus Wide Area Small) often makes a significant difference in getting better results on moving subjects. I've noticed that a bit on the Sony cameras, too (larger detection area seems to give the camera more useful information). That said, most of the time I found myself using Dynamic and Wide Area Small as my go-to Autofocus Area modes for AF-C. Some of my success is just learning the things that might cause the system to get poorer results.

Adapted lenses: Any recent Nikkor lens (AF-S or AF-P) is not an issue at all. What you expect from the DSLRs is pretty much what you get from the Z6 and the FTZ. I can't see any meaningful difference in focus speed performance. A slower-to-focus lens on the DSLR (e.g. 200-500mm f/5.6) is still going to be slower-to-focus on a Z6. A fast-to-focus lens on the DSLR (e.g. 400mm f/2.8) is still fast on the Z6. Some lenses, such as the bargain 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P are astonishing good on the Z6+FTZ combo (and make for a compact telephoto option). 

Meanwhile, chipped MF lenses (e.g. AI-S, or the old Zeiss ZF.2 or the Voigtlander primes), also shine on the FTZ. These lenses may* give you rangefinder focus confirmation (focus area goes green when area in focus), focus peaking, and image magnification as useful focus tools. With older, non-chipped MF lenses you absolutely lose the rangefinder. All MF lenses seem to meter just fine (though you have to set Non-CPU Lens Data for non-chipped lenses), with the usual Nikon caveat that the lens be set to minimum aperture.

*Nikon disclaims this. But I've found many of my chipped lenses do seem to support it.

Third party lenses are a mixed bunch. The recent ones I still have all seem to work fine with the FTZ, but I've gotten reports and have been able to duplicate them via borrowing lenses, that a few older Sigma and Tamron lenses may have issues. Frankly, some older Sigmas have issues with Live View on modern Nikon DSLRs, too, so it's not surprising that such lenses would also have issues with a camera that's always in Live View. 

Final Words
Nikon got a lot right with the Z6, only a few things wrong, but left a number of small details in the weeds that could use some tuning/fixing/snipping, just as with the Z7. Other than that, I find the Z6 to be a well-rounded camera that rarely gets in my way.

Meanwhile, all the other complaints you've heard about the Nikon mirrorless system are mostly just Internet noise. Banding, battery life, EVF versus optical quality, fewer buttons to customize, lack of built-in flash, single card slot, no-screwdrive autofocus on the FTZ, and so on; those are all more minor annoyances that can usually be ignored or worked around. The Z6 is a smaller, more lithe camera than the full frame DSLRs, and that has to amount to something in my book. 

The Nikon ergonomics have been fairly carefully retained in this full frame camera body that's the size of the D7500, and it shows. Long-time readers know that I rarely applaud Nikon UI changes, but most of what they've done on the Z6 is caused by the differences between a DSLR and mirrorless camera. I'm one to give credit where it's due: Nikon did an excellent job on the Z6 overall design approach. They made a Nikon camera that operates like a Nikon camera, and the changes they made will feel natural very quickly, as they tend to be dictated by the mirrorless "features".  

Moreover, the fact that the Z6 and Z7 are basically identical in features and UI is another plus in my book (even the lower cost Z50 is a hefty subset of the Z6/Z7 features/UI). I have no issues moving back and forth between the two.

That's not to say there aren't some nits I could pick. The Z6 is a first generation camera, and there are places where that shows, as I've already pointed out. The simplification of controls and customization isn't as problematic on the Z6 as it was on the Z7, though, because most would be comparing the Z6 to the D750 (and the Z7 to the D850). 

Indeed, things get really tricky when you try to compare a Z6 to a D750. The D750 has a built-in flash, and dual (SD) card slots, but in almost every other respect the Z6 is the better choice, I think. On the other hand, the D780 obtained all the extra stuff that the Z6 provides, making it a better choice. So, in terms of current Nikon 24mp full frame, the order from simplest to best goes D610, D750, Z6, D780.

I can live with the few bits and pieces of the Z6 that aren't perfect. Indeed, the Z6 has become a backup to my D5, if you can believe that. (And by the way: the 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens on the Z6 is brilliantly amazing. Event shooters be warned.)

For those who already have Nikkor (F-mount) lenses, the transition from DSLR to mirrorless will be less expensive and less frustrating by just sticking with Nikon than going to a Sony A7 model. Many of you have read my articles about leaking and sampling from one brand to another; Nikon probably staunched the flow from Nikon DSLR to Sony mirrorless with the Z6 and Z7 and Z lens announcements. 

Compared to the Sony A7 Mark III, the Nikon Z6 doesn't quite match the Sony's face/eye detect abilities, but it also doesn't have the Sony's handling issues, particularly in winter use with light gloves on. If you're into video, I'd also say that the Z6's 4K video is somewhat better than Sony's, which is a bit surprising. The rest? We'd be quibbling if we tried to ferret out meaningful differences. 

What it comes down to is this: if you've got Nikon F-mount lenses, the Z6 is the best choice you have right now in transitioning from DSLR to mirrorless at the lower cost full frame level. It's surprisingly seamless for everything but screwdrive autofocus lenses. If you're starting from scratch, the Sony A7 Mark III and FE lens set offer more choices right now, though. 

It's not at all difficult to recommend the Z6. Again, it's a really good camera. That recommendation has a tiny bit of conditionality to it, though, mostly for folk who shoot fast moving subjects. For a first generation full frame mirrorless camera, Nikon managed to make a solid product that is good enough to give even the dedicated DSLR user some second thoughts. 

A word on buying the Z6 with the kit lens: as others have written, at US$600 (the implied kit price), this is a no-brainer. While you may see some on the net picking nits over small things, the 24-70mm f/4 S is an extraordinarily good kit lens. You won't find another lens of that capability at that price. Most Nikon DSLR users buying the Z6 should be getting the Z6+FTZ+24-70mm kit [advertiser link]. Yes, that puts you at US$2750 (list price) but if you try to piecemeal your way into the system you're going to spend more to get the same level of quality. 

Over a year later: I didn't change much with this edited version of the review. The firmware updates made a few differences to things I wrote, but not substantively. A very good camera just became better. Both for stills (autofocus) and video (raw support). 

Thom's book for the Z6 and Z7.

Recommended (2019 to present) (and I should note it's also a "bargain" at the US$1600 price point it often is offered at). But what about the Z6 II? If you can afford it, it would be the preferred model now, but for most users the changes between the models aren't really significant. In general, I only suggest the Z6 II if you absolutely must have the best possible autofocus tracking of faster moving subjects.

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