We’ve had to wait a little longer for the Nikon Z6 to arrive than the Nikon Z7, but it’s this camera that will perhaps have the broader appeal of Nikon’s two new full-frame mirrorless models, particularly among enthusiast photographers.
Nikon is adopting a two-pronged strategy similar to that employed by Sony when it launched the original Alpha A7R and A7, with the Nikon Z6 and Z7 sharing the same design and a pretty much identical spec sheet, but with three notable differences: resolution, autofocus and burst shooting speed.
While the Z7, with its densely populated 45.7MP sensor, is Nikon’s high-resolution offering, the Z6 is marketed as more of an all-round camera. However, with Sony already stealing a march with the brilliant Alpha A7 III, has Nikon turned up to the party a little late?
Nikon Z6: features
- 24.5MP full-frame CMOS sensor
- All-new lens mount
- 5-axis in-body image stabilization
As we’ve just touched on, while the Z7 has a 45.7MP resolution the Nikon Z6 features a back-illuminated 24.5MP full-frame sensor, which, while not offering quite the staggering resolving power of its sibling, delivers a pixel count that should satisfy most users. It also means the native ISO range is that bit broader, running from ISO100 to 51,200 (the Z7’s native ISO range is 64-25,600); this can be expanded to 50-204,800, matching the Alpha A7 III.
Like the Z7, the Z6 features Nikon’s new Z lens mount, with Nikon having dropped its long-established F mount for its new full-frame mirrorless cameras. The mount opening is 11mm wider than the F mount at 55mm, while the flange focal distance (the distance between the rear lens element and the sensor) is a very short 16mm.
Nikon believes the larger design and short flange distance will enable its lens engineers to design optics that surpass current F mount designs and make the most of the full-frame sensor, allowing light to easily reach the extreme corners of the sensor to ensure even brightness across the frame.
Launching with the Z6 and Z7 are the first three lenses in Nikon’s new S-Line range: a 24-70mm f/4 standard zoom, a 35mm f/1.8 wide-angle prime and a 50mm f/1.8 standard prime. The new mount diameter also allows for lenses with maximum apertures as fast as f/0.95, with a high-end manual-focus 58mm f/0.95 S Noct prime lens expected next year.
For existing Nikon DSLR users who are looking to make the switch to the new mirrorless cameras, or who want to shoot with one alongside their current Nikon DSLR kit, there’s a new FTZ mount adapter that will be compatible with approximately 360 Nikon lenses, 90 of which which will support the Z6’s full AF speed.
The Nikon Z6 features a 0.5-inch 3.6 million dot Quad-VGA electronic viewfinder (EVF) with an impressive magnification of 0.80x, which edges out the Sony Alpha A7 III’s 2.36-million dot and 0.78x display. The Z6 also uses Nikon’s own optics, which are claimed to deliver even greater clarity, while the EVF has a fast display rate of up to 60p.
Supplementing this is a large 3.2-inch tilt-angle touchscreen with a 2,100,000-dot resolution, while the Z6 also benefits from a compact top plate LCD displaying key shooting information.
While Nikon’s DSLRs use lens-based image stabilization (which Nikon calls Vibration Reduction), for its new mirrorless cameras it’s opted for an in-camera system, with the Z6 featuring a 5-axis system (roll, pitch, yaw and X and Y shift) that’s said to be effective for up to five stops. For those wanting to use their F-mount VR lenses on the Z6 via the mount FTZ adapter, the camera’s built-in VR system will adjust itself to support the lens-based system.
There’s also an electronic Vibration Reduction system (known as E-VR) that’s designed to reduce the impact of camera shake when shooting movies handheld. Speaking of movies, the Nikon Z6 can shoot 4K UHD video up to 30p, while there’s also the option to shoot Full HD video in 60p and 120p slow-motion footage in HD format.
Like other recent Nikon cameras, the Z6 features the company’s fairly clunky SnapBridge image transfer system. This uses a low-energy Bluetooth connection between the camera and your smart device (via the free app), with images downscaled to 2MP and transferred from camera to device as you shoot. If you’d rather get your hands on the high-res images, you can individually select them in-camera, with a Wi-Fi connection established if you opt for this method. Alternatively, the Z6 will offer an open Wi-Fi connection if you want to bypass SnapBridge.
While you might expect to find a couple of SD card slots on the Z6, Nikon has instead opted for a single XQD slot. This is quite a brave move, considering the limited availability of XQD cards, with only Sony versions currently available. The performance advantages are clear though, and Nikon’s hope is that once CFExpress cards (essentially an update to the XQD format, with the same physical connections, and with more manufacturer support) become more widely available, this will be the more future-proof solution.
The Nikon Z6 gets a new rechargeable Li-ion battery, the EN-EL15b, but the camera is also compatible with the EN-EL15a battery used in the likes of the D850; however unlike the older unit the EN-EL15b supports USB charging, and unlike the Z7, the Z6 won’t be supplied with an AC adapter, and will rely solely on USB charging. Disappointingly, Nikon only quotes a 310-shot battery life for the camera, which is 400 shots down on the Alpha A7 III‘s 710. However, the Z7 is quoted for 330 shots, but we’ve found that in real-world use we were more likely to get around 600 shots, so we’d expect it to be a similar story here.
Nikon Z6: build and handling
- Same level of weather sealing as the D850
- Large and comfy handgrip
- Familiar control layout
Any concerns that this might impact on the handling are dispelled as soon as you pick the Z6 up, though. The camera fits nicely in the hand, thanks to the large and comfy handgrip. As we found with the Z7, those with larger hands may find that their little finger hangs just a little off the bottom of the Z6, but it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
While the Z6 may be more compact than a Nikon DSLR, this doesn’t mean Nikon has skimped on the build quality. There’s plenty of quality textured rubber around the grip and backplate, and a comfortable thumb rest, while the Z6 features magnesium alloy in its top, front and back covers just like the Z7. This makes the camera feel very rigid, while Nikon also boasts that the Z6 features the same level of weather-sealing as the D850. All this combines to create a very solid and well-made camera.
For those thinking of swapping from their Nikon DSLR, the transition to the Z6 should be seamless thanks to the familiar controls and button placement.
There’s the same on/off switch around the shutter-release button, while there are dedicated buttons for movie recording, ISO and exposure compensation. To adjust the ISO or dial in exposure compensation, you simply press down on the desired button and then use the rear command dial to make the change. Any adjustments will be displayed on the small LCD on the top plate.
While the control layout at the rear is slightly different to that on a Nikon DSLR, the various buttons are clearly labelled and easy to find, while the Z6 also sports the same joystick control as the D850; formally known as the sub-selector, this is weighted nicely, and offers easy control of AF area selection. The only minor disappointment here is the rather ‘Coolpix’-like four-way control pad.
Nikon’s philosophy of making its mirrorless cameras similar to its DSLRs in terms of handling has carried over to the Z6’s user interface, with the various sub-menus running along the left-hand side of the display.
And while Nikon users will certainly feel right at home with the Z6, this accessibility is extended to those coming into Nikon’s ecosystem for the first time – the Z6 is certainly a camera Nikon newbies should be easily be able to get to grips with.
Nikon Z6: autofocus
- 273-point AF system
- 90% frame coverage
- Hybrid AF system
The autofocus system is one of the key areas where the Nikon Z6 and Z7 part company. While the Z7 features a 493-point phase-detect hybrid autofocus system, the Z6 features a slightly more modest (but still impressive) 273-point phase-detect hybrid system.
Coverage is across 90% of the frame, which viewed in isolation looks to be very comprehensive, but it’s slightly lacking compared with the Sony Alpha A7 III’s 693-point AF system, which offers 93% coverage.
The Z6’s Single AF mode features a choice of Auto-area, Wide-area (with either small or large focusing areas) and Single-point modes, or Pin-point if you want to be really precise with your focusing.
For general shooting, the Z6’s Single AF (AF-S) mode does a very good job. We found that we used Single-point mode the most here, with the aforementioned joystick making it quick to move the AF point round the frame, but the Z6’s Wide-area mode can also be very versatile when you’re wandering around with the camera.
Focusing is very quick, only slowing a touch when light levels drop. This is when the AF assist beam springs into action to help you acquire focus, although this can be turned of if desired.
It’s probably fair to say that the Z6’s continuous focusing performance can’t quite match the heady heights of Sony’s Alpha A7 III, with its highly impressive 693-point AF system, but it’s still very good.
When you switch over to Continuous AF mode on the Z6 you’ll find that there’s now an additional Dynamic AF focusing mode that you can select. This is primarily designed for focus tracking, and you can tailor how many additional points support the active AF point, while you can also adjust the tracking sensitivity and other focusing parameters. Additionally, you might prefer to use the Z6’s Auto-area AF mode to pick and track your subject.
In our tests, focus tracking worked very well, even when tracking subjects moving towards us, and it puts in a solid performance all round.
We did miss Sony’s EyeAF mode a little when it came to shooting portraits – having the option to simply hit a function button and have the camera instantly lock on to your subject’s eye is a real bonus on the Alpha A7 III, but given how easy it is to use the Nikon Z6’s AF system in general, the absence of that feature shouldn’t hamper you too much.
Nikon Z6: performance
- 12fps burst shooting speed
- EVF is large and bright
- Touchscreen works well
Along with resolution and focusing, the other key difference between the Z7 and Z6 is burst shooting speed. While the Z7 is capable of 9fps, the Z6 is that bit quicker at 12fps – that’s also a touch quicker than the Alpha A7 III’s 10fps, and matches Nikon’s flagship D5 DSLR.
As we saw with the Z7, though, the buffer on the Nikon Z6 is quite modest, although it should still be more than satisfactory for most users. Using a 64GB Sony XQD card with both 400MB/s read and write speeds, we managed 35 raw files at 12fps (12-bit NEF files); the burst shooting speed drops to 9fps for 14-bit NEF files, with a slightly reduced buffer of 33 raw files. Things are a lot better if you drop down to 5fps, with 200 raw files captured at this rate.
Want to shoot silently? The Z6 has a quiet shooting mode that sees an electronic shutter take over from the Z6’s mechanical shutter for stills capture – the only slight annoyance is that this is buried down at the bottom of the Photo Shooting Menu, and isn’t an option in the Z6’s drive mode list.
If you’re making your first foray into using an electronic viewfinder (EVF), moving from an optical unit on a DSLR, any concerns you might have will be quickly dispelled.
Raise the camera to your eye and you’re greeted by a remarkably large and bright display. It really is excellent, with a decent cluster of shooting information around the perimeter of the screen, while the fast refresh rate means it has a very organic feel. Side-by-side, we reckon the quality of the Z6’s EVF just edges the Alpha A7 III’s.
The Z6’s 3.2-inch tilt-angle display is a touch bigger than the A7 III’s 3.0-inch display, while the higher resolution offered by the Z6’s screen (2.1m versus 920K dots), means the clarity and sharpness are that bit better too.
Nikon has also integrated a much wider degree of touchscreen control on the Z6 compared to Sony’s A7 III. While on the A7 III touch control is limited to focus selection, triggering the shutter (by tapping the screen), and reviewing images, the Z6 also offers control over navigation of the menu and settings, making it that bit more useful.
The Z6’s in-body image stabilization system is excellent, delivering sharp images at much slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible. Depending on your technique, we found we could shoot as slow as 1/8 sec and still come away with sharp shots. It’s also nice and easy to check focus – when reviewing images on the rear display simply double-tap the rear display and the Z6 will magnify the image, zooming in on the area you focused on.
As mentioned, while the official 310-shot battery life is disappointing, in real-world tests the stats are much better. Using a combination of the EVF and rear screen, along with a mixture of single shot and burst shooting, we captured 310 shots with 50% battery life still left.
Nikon Z6: image quality
- Excellent sharpness and detail
- Strong high ISO performance
- Dynamic range offers plenty of flexibility
Are 24.5 megapixels enough for you? That’s going to come down to what you shoot and how you plan to present your images, but for many the results from the Nikon Z6’s sensor will be more than hi-res enough.
Testing the Z6 with the excellent new 24-70mm f/4 and 35mm f/1.8 S-Line lenses, we were suitably impressed with the image quality. Metering is spot on, with a tendency to expose for the highlights to ensure detail isn’t blown out, while images look punchy and well saturated. Detail is also very good – more densely populated sensors certainly have the edge, but with quality optics on the front of the Z6 you can capture images rich in detail, and with excellent corner-to-corner sharpness.
The Z6 also performs incredibly well across the ISO range; results at ISO1600 stand up to close inspection, with very little apparent difference between them and images captured at ISO100. Push beyond ISO1600, and while fine detail starts to suffer slightly, with some smoothing evident in JPEG files, shooting at ISO3200 and ISO6400 will still deliver very useable and satisfactory results. Push further still, and if you’re prepared to spend a little time tweaking files in post-processing you can still come away with perfectly acceptable files at ISO12,800 at ISO25,600. We’d avoid going beyond those sensitivities unless absolutely necessary.
Dynamic range is also excellent, offering a huge amount of flexibility – it’s possible to recover considerable levels of what would otherwise be lost shadow detail. What’s especially impressive is that this flexibility isn’t restricted to the lower sensitivity range of the camera – its possible to recover this shadow detail even at ISO1600 and 3200, and while it tails off above that, you can still push files to a useful degree.
Nikon Z6: verdict
Nikon certainly hasn’t held back with the Z6, and any worries that it would miss the mark soon are dispelled as soon as you pick the camera up.
Offering polished handling, a robust build, excellent image quality from the 24.5MP sensor, a brilliant electronic viewfinder, and loads of nice little touches, the Nikon Z6 is an extremely nice camera to take pictures with.
The adoption of a new lens mount is a big move for Nikon, but if the two lenses we shot with are anything to go buy it’s one that will pay dividends in terms of improved optical performance as the lens range grows, while the optional FTZ mount adapter ensures that you’re not necessarily starting from scratch if you’ve already invested in a lot of Nikon glass.
The single XQD card slot is going to cause some division, while the buffer could be a little bit more capacious when you’re shooting raw files, but these are only minor marks against a very impressive camera.
While the Z7 may have stolen the headlines when the two cameras launched, in many ways the Nikon Z6 is our pick of the pair. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it’s the best all-round full-frame camera Nikon has made, and that’s including DSLRs like the much-loved D750.
Until now we’d have had little hesitation in recommending Sony’s Alpha A7 III if you were in the market for a well-specced full-frame camera at around the $2,000 / £2,000 price point – but the Nikon Z6 is in many ways the more compelling option.
Nikon Z6: competition
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