Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera review – a wedding photographers perspective and hands on experience
The preamble to my ramble
What is this review? It’s purely my experience and thoughts from using the Nikon Z6 for one wedding season as part of a dual camera setup alongside the Nikon d850. I didn’t do any tests in controlled environments, just real world use, photographing weddings which involves photographing a lot of lovely, happy, unpredictable drunk people! :D If you are looking for a charts and numbers review, there are plenty of amazing (boring but useful) in-depth reviews out there – in which case, Google is your friend. All the images you see were taken on my Z6 using either the native Nikkor Z 35mm 1.8S lens or various F mount Nikon Lenses. All images are edited with my usual processing. Anyone looking for SOOC, like I said, head to Google. When I look for reviews myself I always like to see the images edited as opposed to SOOC. I want to know what the cameras and their files are capable of doing in the end result, and I can safely say the Z6 files are lovely – on a par IQ wise with a d750 – but a step up in a lot of respects. I edit 99% within Lightroom and 1% in Photoshop. I apply exposure, contrast, colour adjustments, sharpening and where needed, a little noise reduction. Nothing too fancy. Anyone interested enough to surprise me with any questions or want some raws from this review to play with, just let me know in the comments :)
From d750 to Sony a7iii, to a Z6 and d850 and a bit of a headache along the way. Changing/upgrading camera systems can be easy. If you’re upgrading in the sense of an actual incremental upgrade specs wise, it definitely is, but good ol’ Nikon have been taking their sweet, sweet time introducing a d750 successor. So the d750’s have been amazing – I was subject to two faulty shutter recalls over two separate bodies – but after a free fix from Nikon – everything else has been fine. However, after a good few years, the d750s had begun to show their age. With the impending max shutter life count fast approaching and mirrorless systems being released left, right, and centre, a new camera was definitely on the cards. I’m not brand loyal, I started with Pentax film cameras, went onto Pentax digital cameras and have since owned both Nikon and Canon cameras, settling on Nikon full frame simply due to pricing back at the time. Nikon and Canon were the big boys in the full frame DSLR market and Nikon was a bit cheaper. Anyway, years later and I’m well invested in the F mount system. I weighed up the pros and cons and even owned a Sony a7iii for a couple of months to check it out and compare. So in terms of what this review on the Nikon Z6 is going to be, it’s based on my experience of it (a whole wedding season) as an upgrade to the d750 and comparing it to the Sony a7iii – but only a little of the latter!
ERGONOMICS, USABILITY and USER EXPERIENCE (from my perspective)
Let’s just start off with one of the biggest reasons I went with the Nikon Z6. The d750 is a very comfortable camera to use. The Nikon got this spot on and I honestly never thought it would be an issue. When I got the a7iii (before the Z6), I just couldn’t get on with it. Despite it’s customisation options, I really didn’t like using it. Moving focus points around easily using a joystick was a big thing I enjoyed doing on the d750 and due to wanting to be able to do the same on the a7iii, I just could not get on with it. I also wasn’t keen on the menus, EVF and rear display. Getting around the menus wasn’t the easiest and the quality when looking through the EVF was quite annoying. I love a DSLR optical viewfinder experience and I did not enjoy going over to a mirrorless EVF. As soon as I picked up the Z6, I thought this is definitely a mirrorless experience I can get on with. Crisp, bright and clear with hard to notice and perfectly manageable EVF lag – it restored faith that going in the mirrorless direction was something that I could actually enjoy. And this was important to me, the Nikon d750’s, their layout and the UX has essentially become an extension of my arm and using them was a joy – the Nikon Z6 was no different – if you aren’t enjoying what you use, then what’s the point.
Chunky buttons and an awesome display on top – although come on Nikon, why didn’t you put what mode you’re in on the display – very useful when fumbling around doing photos at night!
NIKON Z6 AUTOFOCUS vs SONY A7III AUTOFOCUS
Let’s get this out of the way – the Z6 autofocus is amazing – but, SONY IS BETTER. So after potential Sony fan boys reading the above about ergonomics etc and crying out – “Thats not Sony’s fault, it’s yours!” – I’m definitely conceding that autofocus for Sony is better – not night and day better – but definitely better. But this is where again, the issue of autofocus on the d750’s wasn’t the worst, it just struggled a little in low light and wasn’t dead on. I often had to stop down to narrower apertures of 2.8, 3.2 etc to get better results instead of shooting wide open, and I love to shoot wide open. Enter the Z6. It’s bloody good. And whilst I say Sony is better, that’s purely because I found the Sony a little more confident and snappy and with the Eye AF, top of the class. However, what I really didn’t like with the Sony is the way you move the focus points around (no point skipping and untactile joystick), and in that respect I found the Z6 is better (more on that later). So, yeah, Sony is better, but I never needed the AF performance of Sony, I just wanted something better and more accurate than the d750. With the Z6 I was also moving the focus point and controlling what I focus on much quicker, so whilst people may prefer Sony’s way of doing things, I prefer the Z6 and that’s Saul Goodman :)
Nikon Z6 Eye autofocus – this is where Sony again is better, much better. The Z6 Eye AF is decent but unlike the Sony’s where you can hold a button to engage, with Nikon you either have to do a few button presses, or you have to save it as a default focusing mode in a saveable user setup (U1,U2 etc). For me, I didn’t particularly like using Eye AF on the Sony so the poorer implementation in the Z6 really wasn’t a deal breaker. I do, however, like the fact that once Eye AF is engaged on the Z6, you can press left or right on the D Pad to switch between eyes or even people. Being able to do that whilst keeping your framing is pretty cool. Nothing that puts it ahead of Sony by any stretch, but still fun to do.
Firmware autofocus improvements
When first released, the Z6 and Z7 were received poorly, especially by initial YouTube testers regarding autofocus. From spending ages scouring the internet for reviews and hands on impression, the average view I could gather was that both the Z7 and Z6 were pretty poor and they were worse than a d750. A lot of the negative feedback was based solely around the cameras being released with no Eye AF, so they got absolutely slated – the internet cried. I wasn’t too fussed about Eye AF but impressions on normal AF-C and tracking were also pretty average. I immediately discounted them, and around this time was testing a Sony a7III with a view to buying a d850 if I couldn’t get on with it. After ultimately not liking the Sony, I got a d850 – and really liked it. Before considering getting a second one (I shoot dual bodies), I was still looking into news on the Z series and noticed a new firmware was about to be released. Prices had already started to go down for the Z series (maybe helped along by bad press?! – thanks YouTuber guys!) and I thought I can’t just ignore the price difference of the Z6 over a d850. The Z6 was way cheaper, so even though I thought I was set on a dual d850 good ol’ DSLR setup, I decided I needed to at least try a Z6. Especially with the newly touted firmware upgrades.
Shooting wide open and achieving spot on focus just isn’t a worry anymore
FW 2.0 for the win and BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO OLD LENSES
So, with the Z6 now in my hands, the testing began. I didn’t waste time using it with it’s initial firmware – the new firmware had been released a couple of days before my Z6 arrived – so I got it, charged it up and upgraded the firmware so I could start comparing the Z6 against the d850. Yeah, I was impressed. The Z6 in AF-C using single point focusing was nailing it every time (I don’t use tracking) and it was more accurate than my d850. Not only that, but some of my F mount lenses that had massive AF fine tuning issues (+20 on the d750 and fine tuning needed on my d850) were rejuvenated on the Z6. My oldest lens – the F mount 85mm 1.8 – was now tack sharp with no AF fine tuning at 1.8, and other lenses like my recently bought 58 1.4 (which has a notoriously shallow depth of field) was nailing it wide open at 1.4. This alone made me stop and think – I need to give this camera a good go. After all, the ergonomics and UX had me sold, but AF was something that had to be explored.
Z6 pictured with the native 35 1.8 then the F mount 85mm 1.8 next to it attached to the FTZ adapter
The sigma 135 1.8 has a large amount of compression and a narrow depth of field, so it rarely came out of the bag when I first bought it. It just missed way more than I would like on the d750 and I had to stop it down regularly. Things improved a little when trying it out on my d850, but things improved much more when mounting it on the Z6 with the FTZ adapter. It’s a beast of a lens so only came out occasionally for speeches, ceremony and the odd occasion I had more space for portraits, but after using it on the Z6, it went from being a neglected brick in my camera bag to becoming a very useful lens I bring along to all weddings.
The sigma 135 1.8 performs flawlessly on the Z6 wide open…sooo much better than my d750 and d850 – IBIS helps here too!
FIRST WEDDING with the Nikon Z6 Camera
So the first wedding was a mixed bag – I enjoyed using it but came across a few things that made me sit on the fence a little. Whilst the grip and ergonomics are great, I found after a 12-hour wedding that once you mount the Z6 with a FTZ adapter, a 24-70 2.8 G lens and an on-camera flash, the balance was way out. The fact my little pinkie was underneath the body as opposed to on the grip, meant the whole setup was a little front heavy. Now granted, that’s to be expected, it just wasn’t as noticeable and was much more comfortable on my d750. I was also noticing in certain situations using single point focus, the camera could struggle. The main example being a person I was trying to focus on being stood in front a bright window, turning them into a silhouette. If the silhouette was large enough, you’d essentially have your focus point on something black – the Z6 didn’t like this at all. Another worry was battery life. The performance of the battery was way better than specs would suggest – (Nikon put a very conservative 310 shot battery life in the spec sheet for the Z6) – I got 1200 shots on my first charge. This was great news, but like any mirrorless camera vs a DSLR, the sensor and EVF being on most of the time takes up way more battery life than a DSLR does simply by being on. So I found that instead of using 1-2 batteries at a wedding, I used 3-4. This wasn’t a deal breaker but a little annoying, and something to add to my list of gripes that were starting to put me off. So all in all, teething problems, with comfort and grip being an issue, and the autofocus being a bit iffy, I decided I would settle on using a dual d850 setup. But, I didn’t want to give up on it just yet…
Perseverance and setting it up as my own
I didn’t sell the Z6, but decided to persevere. I joined the Nikon Z6 & Z7 owners Facebook group and did a LOT of reading, as well as posting my experience for feedback. If you are a Z series owner or thinking of getting one, this group is great. Cameras have their quirks and so do their owners, so finding people on a large group for help and tips who actually use the camera regularly is very useful – compared to just relying on the YouTube reviews!
The Grip –
To sort out the grip and comfort issues I ordered the SmallRig extension L plate
, did away with the side of the L plate only using the bottom part – done! No more problems and it’s now as comfy as my d750.
Autofocus settings – two words – Dynamic Area. If you are a focus and recompose or single point focus person then this mode really does help. I was reluctant at first as there is a similar mode on the Sony a7iii, and I often found that you never knew if the camera would focus on the centre point or the outer points. On the Z6, what I’ve found is that Dynamic Area gives near 95 percent preference to focusing what is in the centre point, but actually uses the outer points as references to improve the accuracy of what the centre point is focusing on. Because of the extra points and the dynamic area being bigger than just using single point focus alone, it means you have a nice chunky visible focus zone you can throw around the screen to quickly focus on things – it has to be tried out! There is also an option in the menus so you can move focus points quicker, so that when you press the joystick or d-pad, it skips every other point so you can move the focus area around the frame much quicker. Setting those two things up in the menu made acquiring accurate focus and moving the area around so much quicker.
Battery Life and 3rd Party Batteries – Unless you rely on transferring images via WiFi or Bluetooth, I recommend turning airplane mode on to save battery life. I’ve also set my power off delay settings so the camera goes into standby mode if I haven’t used it for 5 minutes. These two things aren’t massive, but it all adds up to help.
Official Nikon EN-EL15B (The one that comes with the camera) are the best batteries, but I’ve used plenty of the standard EN-EL15 (Non B) batteries and they work just fine, you just can’t charge them within the camera via USB, where as with the official B models you can. However –
I have found some amazing 3rd party batteries that work just fine and you can charge them in-camera! They arn’t even listed as B type replacements – amazing! For less than the cost of a single official B type battery, here you get two with an included USB charger that charges two at once. I’ve been using them all year and they work flawlessly. You may get slightly more battery life out of an official B type battery but for the price these are so worth it. Here’s the link: RavPower Nikon Batteries
‘i’ Menu – The ‘i’ menu is excellent – one thing the Z6 lacks is a second physical dial on top, so changing things like the drive mode etc requires you to enter the menus. The ‘i’ menu is customisable so you can select all your favourite settings and have them in one place.
LOW LIGHT – Z6 – Nikon Is King!
With the Firmware 2.0 update, the Z6 got upgraded from a low light focus rating of -2EV to -3.5EV. Upon release, the initial figure of only -2EV was pretty poor, especially considering the d750 was already better on the spec sheet at -3EV. The improvement to -3.5 was one of the reasons I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did. The autofocus system definitely has its quirks, and with it comes a solution in the menu settings that massively helps you focus in lower light situations, “D8 off” – more on this below.
D8 off Mode – give it a try!
The Z6 is awesome for low light situations. With high ISO image quality and excellent autofocus for the conditions, I now have a camera I’m very happy to use. With the d750, it was very good anyway but when the light was very low, it really was a lot of hit and miss, especially miss when it comes to really low light. The Z6 improves the hit rate so much more and I now find myself using the Z6 in the evening for candids – even ‘off the cuff’ requested group photos are far less of a worry when your flash is too far away to quickly grab. One thing that really helps is putting the camera in “D8 off” mode – by putting it in this mode it somehow makes the autofocus system work night and day better…literally! That’s because, this setting no longer gives you your actual exposure, but just lights everything up and turns whatever dark scene you have in front of you into a really bright scene. So you may be seeing the incorrect exposure, but because the sensors ISO is getting ramped up to show you what is going on, it seems to dramatically help the Z6 focus in really low light conditions. You may think this is a bit of a pain because you can’t see your final exposure, but if you have no need for the video record button like me, then you can map it, so hold-pressing it gives you an exposure preview and (importantly during the day) depth of field preview.
NIKON Z6 – HIGH ISO PERFORMANCE
Really simple – it’s excellent – without doing boring tests it’s around 1.5 stops better than a d750, which was always excellent and a little bit better than the d850 (but that has nearly twice the megapixels). As well as good noise control, the colours and contrast are very good. Like I said, I didn’t do any tests but based on looking at my delivered images at ISO 6400 and above in Lightroom – the number has more than doubled.
Nikon Z6 – ISO 10,000, 1/250, F1.8 – Nikon 85mm 1.8G – exposure also upped by +0.90 in post
Nikon z6 – Z 35mm 1.8S – ISO 8000, 1/100, F1.8 – exposure also upped by +1.90 in post
Nikon Z6 – ISO 6400, 1/125, F1.8 – 85mm 1.8 G – exposure also upped by +1.20 in post
Nikon Z6 – ISO 6400, 1/200, F1.4, Sigma 24mm 1.4
The elephant in the room – Single Memory Card Slot
Ok, this was probably one of the most talked about and trolled things when the Nikon Z cameras were announced. I won’t talk too much about this, but there are plenty of photographers who worry far too much about this kind of thing – yet the rest of their practices are not on a par. Poor back up workflow, no spare memory cards and importantly no backup camera. When I used my d750’s I had far more problems using two SD cards. If one didn’t work, or threw up an error, I would faff around taking it out and putting it in to see which card was playing up. I’ve never had a single problem with memory cards, it’s always been the camera bodies themselves or lenses. I’ve either had lock ups/camera freezes, auto focus problems, lenses breaking – usually always hardware issues, and over the years I’ve just brought backup cameras and lenses. So far, the Z6 has had zero problems and the XQD cards are a newer, faster, more reliable technology. I’ve spent a year working with both the Z6 and d850 and nothing bad has happened at all. Also it’s important to note, that I’m not entirely haphazard and have had the best of both worlds as the d850 has two card slots. Don’t get me wrong if the Nikon Z6 had two cards slots, that would be a lot better but with a rock solid backup system at home and making sure I have spares of everything, I’d have to be really, really unlucky for catastrophic card failure (and by that I mean not even salvageable in recovery software), and that seems about as likely as there being a fire at my office – even then I store my memory cards in a fire proof safe!
CONCLUSION – A SEASON ON
So what do I think after a season on and how did it compare to the d750 and d850 for me? It’s awesome. Fun to use with a mirrorless experience that comes close in the viewfinder to the real thing. A workhorse of a camera that focuses amazingly well and outputs outstanding files. For me, it’s A LOT better for weddings than the d750 and is worth the upgrade (especially if your d750 is starting to get a little jaded). Is it better than the d850? That’s a lot tougher. I started to use them at the same time together so I could compare them quite quickly. The d850 just felt right going from the d750, if a little heavier. It’s controls and menus are a tad different but everything was quite familiar. The Z6 took a little bit longer to get used to, but once I set it up as my own it was turning out to be the better camera. Autofocus on the Z6 is more accurate by a long shot than the d750 and slightly better than the d850. Similarly, for lower light and using the “D8 off” night mode (I’m now dubbing it) on the Z6, it is better too – wayyy better than the d750 and a little better than the d850. The d850 of course has it’s own pros over the Z6 too, including a bigger more robust body, dual card slots and more megapixels. But for my needs I’ve been preferring what the Z6 gives me, better autofocus and better image quality and smaller file sizes. If I already had two d850’s I’d be hard pressed at the moment to consider replacing them with Z6’s, but having shot both side by side through a season, I’m giving good consideration to replacing my single d850 with another Z6. What’s stopping me? Rumours of a d750 upgrade or a new Z series upgrade. A d750, upgraded to 1/8000 shutter speed, better low light and noise performance and mirrorless speed live view autofocus would do very nicely indeed. With rumours of new cameras on the horizon – I think I’ll stick with the best of both worlds at the moment.