Nikon Z6 nameplate

Nikon Z6 – first impressions

I’ve resisted mirrorless cameras for a long time, just like Canon and Nikon did. But as it, along with cellphone photography, becomes much more mainstream, the expectation of theatre audiences has become such that DSLR’s are not welcome in such venues any more. So, although I’ve cut back on this type of work anyway, I have found myself turning away a lot of gigs that require a mirrorless/silent camera. I’ve watched the improvement of Nikon’s Z series from the sidelines with a little interest, and the release of version three of their firmware for the camera, for me brought it into the very interesting stream. I’d just turned away another client wanting theatre photography, and thought, enough is enough. Keeping with Nikon is important to me, both from an ergonomics and a lens perspective. It’s not just the purchase of lenses either (though that is a factor), but mainly the need to share lenses between two bodies that I use simultaneously. I still want to be able to use my Nikon D500 where possible as a close up camera.

The key things holding me up from jumping on the bandwagon have been concerns over battery life and fatigue from using an electronic viewfinder (EVF). I don’t buy for the sake of it these days, but to fill a need. I feel that now I have this need for mirrorless tech.

As I approach the end of my first week with the Nikon Z6, I figured I’d give my first impressions. I picked the camera up on Monday, and had it basically figured out in time to do all shoots with it on Tuesday through Thursday. On Friday, I forced myself back to the D850 for all work assignments. I’ve taken just over 1,100 photos, over 11 assignments, as well as plenty of test shots, mostly of my doggie. It hasn’t all been sunshine and roses, but it has astounded me in a number of key areas. So lets dig in.

Firstly, autofocus is incredible. In different lighting scenarios, it has performed better than my D850 does. What they say about mirrorless not needing autofocus fine tuning, is true. Even my absolutely abysmal Nikon 50mm f/1.4 performs really well on the Z6, at f/1.4, with no messing with fine-tune. I have had one situation where it failed me – I did do a pre-show cheque presentation the other night, where it failed to focus at the critical time. I’d tested the scenario (shooting from the back of the concert hall) before the event, and thought I’d be fine but at the critical time it was unable to lock on to my subjects. I had other photos that meant this was not a total loss. I had the shots I needed (the actual cheque handover and speeches), but I would have liked to have got the posed shot I wanted. I need to be able to rely on this system, every time. One of the things I can do to improve this, is turn off image previews after shooting. While this didn’t cause the inability to focus, it did slow down my attempt to try again before it was too late.

I haven’t quite figured out Eye Autofocus, either for people or animals. It seems that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a real quick way to override it when it doesn’t work and that shows that Nikon understands how important it is to always be ready for the moment.

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is excellent. I haven’t used the camera on an extended shoot, like a formal announcement event where I would have my eye to the viewfinder virtually all the time, but for everything else, I do not find the EVF tiring or fatiguing like I thought I would. I don’t notice any significant lag… certainly nothing that causes me any problems. It looks natural, and being able to see what I’m shooting is great. I’m guessing this is one of the areas that has seen significant improvement in recent years. The last mirrorless camera I used (a Panasonic something from at least 10 years ago) had a terrible EVF, both in terms of resolution and lag, and it was like looking at a low resolution computer monitor. Terrible. When looking through the Z6 viewfinder, I don’t even think about it being electronic, so that has to be good.

Being able to accurately preview the depth of field, and exposure through both the viewfinder and in live preview is wonderful. Sure, it takes away some of the challenge of getting exposure right in camera like you have to with a DSLR, but it’s nice to not have to think too hard about it. And you can be much more precise over depth of field control. Sure, you have depth of field preview on a DSLR, but its not as easy to see as this is. Other overlaid information, such as a proper level are really nice to have. They can get in the way of seeing your subject, so its good that its easy to turn these things off, but also, they’re very good to have.

Low light performance is really great. Noise seems lower than every other body I’ve used. I suspect rather than being a significantly better sensor, the built in stabilization means I’m able to use slower shutter speeds (that’s a fact), resulting in a higher exposure. If this is correct, I’ll see less of an improvement in situations where movement is a factor in needing to keep shutter speeds up. Oh, I guess being able to use lenses wide open helps too – a wider aperture, again meaning a higher exposure. The Z6 has a similar “grain” like appearance to the D500, which means that its not objectionable, and I’m less likely to want to eradicate it at all costs. Being that the images are so sharp, there’s no need to amplify the noise through post process sharpening. So, sensor tech may not have changed all that much, but other factors are giving lower noise.

100% crop of my dog, shot with an exposure of 1/40th second at f/3.2, and an ISO of 11,400.
Click on this image to see full size. This is a 100% crop of an image taken in my basement with just a stand lamp as illumination, approx 10ft away. Exposure was 1/40th sec at f/3.2. ISO was 11,400. Image was processed with default sharpening, and no noise reduction, in Lightroom. This is essentially an out of camera raw.

Overall ergonomics are not quite as good as my D850, and requiring a little too much menu diving, but the Z6 does have a single button quick access menu which helps a lot. While it takes a bit of configuring for personal taste, and a bit of getting used to, it’s a good solution to deal with the lack of real estate for nice sized buttons. You can’t put everything in the quick access menu though.

Photo showing the grip of the Z6
The grip of the Z6.

The grip is great, allowing one handed holding for most lenses, except perhaps long telephotos. It’s a typically Nikon deep grip that’s very comfortable and the thumb grip on the back is also well sized for comfortable use. The camera is small compared to those I’ve used to this point but the grip and overall feel mean its not uncomfortably small.

Photo of the Z6 with the D500 for size comparison.
Z6 on the left, D500 on the right. Shot with a Google Pixel 3 in case you’re wondering why its so bad.

Buttons are in good places, and I love that the two function buttons on the front of the camera are a little closer together than on other cameras I’ve used. Once you get used to the layout, everything is reachable without removing the eye from the viewfinder.

Mode dial on the Nikon Z6
Mode dial on the Z6

I feel that the dial on the top left of the camera, which simply selects the exposure mode is inefficient use of space on a camera with such a small footprint. In spite of my fat fingers and thumbs, I’d have preferred a more functional dial/button set up like I have on the left side of my D850 and D500 (see below).

Mode dial on my D500. And my D850 has one the same.

I understand why Nikon would go for the approach they did though – this is a pro-sumer model, not a professional model, and the dial would be much more familiar to users of consumer and pro-sumer models that they would likely be upgrading from.

Though not strictly ergonomics, this is a good place to talk about overall build and material quality. It feels like a Nikon. Fabulous quality, sturdy, and every bit as good as my D500 and D850, both of which are intended for heavy use.

Nikon’s connectivity app is called Snapbridge. I don’t use it a whole lot, but I did pair the Z6 to my phone. It was very quick and easy, and I think Nikon has responded to the criticism of Snapbridge in early iterations. This is not news to me – even though I don’t use it much, I have found it to be very usable in the last two years or so with my D850 and D500. I notice on importing images to Lightroom since I’ve paired with Snapbridge, that GPS information is recorded in the raw file on the Z6. This was a pleasant surprise.

Lexar XQD Card
The somewhat unpopular Lexar XQD card

Memory cards – well this was a hot topic when the Z6 was released, both as the Z6 has only one card slot (meaning no ability to backup while shooting), and the fact that it uses the not-so-popular XQD cards. Such cards are expensive, and there isn’t much choice of manufacturer like there are with other card technologies. I have an XQD card that I bought for my D500, so I didn’t need to buy a card for the Z6, and the one card slot doesn’t bother me. There are lots of things that could go wrong in a camera, and I feel that for things that can’t be rescheduled, shooting with two cameras is a much safer option. SD cards are much more popular with the masses, and that has resulted in built in card slots in many computers. Anything else requires an external card reader, and that is a bit of an inconvenience. Not the end of the world though, and it is a fact that the XQD cards are more durable than the somewhat flimsy SD cards.

I haven’t really had much experience with battery life, but it seems very good. I wanted to start using the camera as soon as I bought it, so I had some old batteries charged up and ready to go. These have a lower capacity than the battery that came with the camera, but still has given very good battery life. I would expect that typically I will get around 800+ photos per charge, and likely more like 1,000. This isn’t as good as my DSLR’s, but isn’t that far off.

I think that basically covers my initial impressions. I love the camera, and I do wonder why I waited so long to jump on the mirrorless bandwagon. It isn’t perfect, but has so far way exceeded my expectations. In particular, autofocus is considerably better than I was expecting, especially in low light, and the electronic viewfinder is also significantly better than I was expecting.