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MAARTECH | Tuesday August 20, 2019

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Nikon Z6 Review

Nikon Z6 Review

| On 05, Jun 2019

Hey photographers … if you’ve already seen or read my review of the mirrorless Nikon Z7, this is going to be a little bit of déjà vu.  The mirrorless Nikon Z6 is a nearly identical camera. But if you winced at the price of the Z7, you’ll probably smile at the price of the Z6.
And, like the Z6, it’s the electronic viewfinder with an OLED display that impresses – which if you’re coming from a DSLR – is going to be an important feature. The Z6 has came along to Hawaii. Holidays are always an opportunity for binge photography.

I do, mostly, shoot with the viewfinder. And this one is bright, crisp and clear with pure and natural colours. It shows me the image exactly as it will be taken, with a preview of the exposure, white balance and picture control colour setting.

Like the Z7, the Z6 uses a full frame sensor – but a lower resolution – 24.5 Mp instead of 45.7. Shooting with the Z6 feels fast – little or no shutter lag – the image I see as I press is the image I get. That’s a most appreciated detail.
I’m shooting with the 24-70 kit lens, and I’ve also borrowed the 35mm F1.8 prime. The EXIF for all the photos is on flickr – so you can tell which lens was used for which shot. Both lenses use the new, larger diameter Z mount. The Z6 weighs 585 grams (21 ounces), the 24-70 adds 500 grams (18 ounces) for a total just over a kilo (39 ounces).

Contents
In the body of the post, subheads are linked to the section of the video where this section is shown. I’ve produced several video featuring the Nikon Z6:
How to Focus the Nikon Z6
Best Video Settings for the Nikon Z6
Nikon Z7 vs Z6 – a detailed comparison

For a price check of the Z6, body only and with the 24-70 lens, the following affiliate links will take you to B&H Photo and Amazon. If you purchase using these links, you’ll pay the same low price, and I’ll get a small commission to support this site and my videos.
B&H link – Body
B&H link – Kit
Amazon link – Body
Amazon link – Kit

The Basics
It’s a nice size, with a simple, somewhat utilitarian design, The magnesium alloy body has black plastic accents and covers. The Nikon swoosh has moved to the side. The fit for my hand is superb, it’s contoured for a solid right hand hold, and a thumb grip feels exactly designed for me. My index finger falls perfectly on the on/off shutter button combination. It’s surrounded by a video record key, ISO and EV adjustment buttons, which are easy to find with my eye on the viewfinder. There’s a front dial under the shutter button,  and a back dial hangs out over the back right corner. They serve a variety of functions. 

The mode dial is on the left – it has a push to turn button, an unnecessary precaution. It’s a very simple layout – Auto, Program, Shutter and Aperture priority, Manual and three presets. The dual custom function keys, beside the lens on the right side feel innovative and useful. They’re directly under my third and fourth fingers, and after acquiring the motor skills with the Z7, combined with the right side keys, this provides the best single hand controls I’ve seen.

The viewfinder’s diopter adjusts using a pullout dial.  It adjusts enough for my prescription. On the other side, the monitor mode button selects the display, or switches automatically when the viewfinder senses an object.

The 3.2 million dot LCD swivels up and down but not forward. And thoughtfully, there’s enough clearance to do that even when it’s mounted on a tripod release plate.

This is a touch screen, for tap and snap, touch focus – as well as changing settings and using the menu.  There’s no option to use the screen as a touch pad while shooting with the viewfinder. The stills/video switch surrounds the display option button beside the viewfinder, and the AF button is a little further to the right. Below that, the focus position joystick, the I button and the control pad.

Controls, Buttons, Ports
Like the Z7, menu key is on the right, to access it easily with your eye on the viewfinder.  In fact, nearly all buttons are on the right side – which really makes sense – only play and delete are on the left side. 

The card door is on the right. It’s a single XQD slot. I find XQD cards more solid and reliable than SD, but they are more expensive.

The battery door is far away from the tripod mount, so changing batteries won’t require you to remove the quick release plate. A plethora of ports on the left side – and an HDMI cable clamp is included, that’s appreciated by those using external monitors or recorders. These covers are weather sealed, and kind of awkward.

Mic in, headphone out, USB-C and the slightly larger and more reliable HDMI mini, not micro port.

I’m not sure about the control panel display. While useful to see exposure settings, battery status and remaining card space – those are available on the other displays also.  Wouldn’t it be nice if battery status and available card space – were displayed when the camera is off? Sadly it goes blank.

Connectivity
The Z6 has Bluetooth to connect to the free Nikon Snapbridge app, for synchronizing time and location with a smartphone and the camera. It transfers photos automatically – a feature we find useful while travelling – posting to Instagram while hydrating.

Shutter and Exposure
Image review is not on by default, it’s found on the playback menu. “On” displays on either the monitor or viewfinder. Monitor only doesn’t display a review image when shooting with the viewfinder.  The Z6 uses a full mechanical shutter – but there’s no explicit shutter control. Silent photograpy – the last photography menu option changes to electronic shutter. It is fully silent. Then in custom settings d5, an electronic front curtain control. These should be in one place. The fastest electronic shutter speed is 1/2000.

The Z6 has three JPEG sizes – 24, 13 and 6 megapixels. The size of RAW files can be set independently, useful if the JPEGs are for immediate social media use. In addition to uncompressed 24 bit TIFF, there are three quality settings – basic, normal and fine, each with a star variant to maximize quality. All of those can be combined with RAW. The 24-70 lens must be rotated out before it can be used.  Otherwise it’s a solid performer for this camera.  I think we can expect Nikon to eventually release a line of premium Z lenses.

Before setting the exposure, select the meter mode for the scene. Press the I key on the right side or press the I on-screen button. This overlay menu is touch navigable. In addition to the three standard meter modes,  matrix, centre weighted and spot, a very useful highlight mode, which makes sure that bright objects are never overexposed. In operation, I found I wanted to change meter modes frequently, usually to take advantage of highlight mode – so with custom setting F2 I assigned it to one of the function buttons on the right side of the lens mount. That simplified access for me – without repositioning my hand or eye.

The exposure mode dial is remarkably simple – push the lock button and turn to select. Program, the P setting, automates both the shutter and aperture. Adjust the ISO sensitivity by pressing the ISO key on top and turning the top dial. Automate this using the front dial – which switches in and out of auto mode. Program mode is flexible – turn the top dial – the main command dial – for other combinations that also provide a proper exposure. There’s no AE Lock button – press the joystick. AE-L appears bottom left. There’s a dedicated exposure compensation button, then press and turn either front or rear dial. Five stops up and down with a numerical readout at the bottom of the screen. There’s a custom button option b2, when “on” is selected, the rear dial adjusts EV without the need to hold the button – although now there’s no EV numerical display, just the meter screen right. With the “reset” option, the EV resets to 0 when the camera is powered off.

In shutter priority the rear dial selects the shutter speed from 1/8000 to 30 seconds. Or flash x200. In aperture priority, the front dial adjusts the iris. On the 24-70 lens the aperture opens to a constant F4 and closes to F22.

In manual both controls are available. The screen right scale now displays the exposure, to guide you to a properly exposed setting.

Manual enables a timer mode, which opens the shutter with the first press and closes it with the second, as well as bulb mode – the shutter stays open as long as the shutter is pressed. The viewfinder and the monitor display the image that will be taken. A custom setting D8 over-rides some settings, including colour picture control and white balance.

By default , the display shows the widest aperture, so this F22 image has a much deeper focus field than the preview. Assign one of the custom buttons to “preview”, then press it to see the actual focus result.

ISO can be set from 100 to 51,200. The extended mode adds 1 stop below … and 2 stops above. As the ISO increases, in camera JPEG images get increasingly mushy and the RAW files start to pick up colour noise.

I was happy with the images I took at 6400. The Auto ISO settings include a maximum both without and with flash, and a triggering shutter speed. I reset it to 6400.

Lightroom is effective for managing a large dynamic range, particularly from RAW files – but Nikon has two for in-camera settings. Active D lighting offers four dedicated as well as an auto mode. Although they should be adjacent, you’ll find the HDR mode a few screens down. In addition to auto, up to 3 stops of range can be set.  Other options enable it just for one shot, and to save the individual images as RAW files.

Compared to the reference image, there is some improvement – the ability to see details in the shaded areas using both Active D and HDR, which, even at three stops is free of the usual HDR effects.

Focus
The focus system is very straightforward. On the I menu, there’s Single, manual and continuous – where the camera continues to focus while the shutter is soft-pressed. And in video mode, full-time, which does the same thing without requiring the soft press. Soft press the shutter, or use the dedicated AF-on button to focus. Focus is fast and confident.

In single focus, four sizes are available. Wide – large and small, single point and pin point. Using the joystick or the control circle, single point can be positioned on a 21×13 grid which covers nearly the entire screen with 273 points.

Pinpoint, covers a slightly smaller area has a lot more points. The manual claims it’s a little slower. Very accurate though. If that feels like too many points to work with – custom setting A5 jumps over every other point for faster navigation. Of course, there is the touch screen to select any point quickly. That works well in video mode as a rack focus while recording – although the transition is not quite as smooth as I’d like.

Auto area is the fully auto mode. This mode includes object tracking, so I set up my Playmobil train. And switched to continuous mode, as demonstrated in the video.

Press OK  for the selection square, press OK again to track the object. Which it does. However, it doesn’t focus. Even when I press the AF-On button. In burst mode, it does focus while shooting. With custom setting a1 on focus, it audible slows the burst. I set a3 to quick, but no improvement.

There are two ways to get to manual focus, either using a switch on the lens, or using the I menu. I recommend the menu. With manual focus on-screen indicators appear bottom left. When the circle appears, you’re in focus. The magnify buttons can be used to punch in for an expanded view. I’ll demonstrate peaking when we talk about video.

There’s a dedicated AF-On button for back focus, you’ll have to use the custom setting menu option A7 to select AF-On only to disable the shutter autofocus. I much prefer when manual focus deselects the shutter AF and AF on works in manual mode.

Focus bracket, or focus shift to use the Nikon term, can be used to create a series of images with changes in focus. This can be used either to make sure you have a sharp image of an object that’s difficult to focus, or to create a focus stack. It takes a few trials, for the scene in the video, I needed to take 25 images with a step width of eight to achieve the depth of field I wanted. With 0 interval the shots are continuous. Then start. Although you hear the shutter click, there is no screen display while shooting. Reviewing the images shows the focus progress – afterwards you can take them to Photoshop to create the stacked image.

White Balance and Colour
The I menu has white balance presets – more than the usual. There are three variations of auto, each of which include colour shift options. A second auto for natural light, and then the standard set – but even here fluorescent has five variations. The Kelvin settings are more precise than most, and there are five custom presets. Capturing a custom preset is straightforward. Press and hold the OK button to enter preset capture mode, position the square over a neutral white reference and press OK again to capture.

With white balance set, select a colour profile – Nikon calls these Picture Controls. There are a variety of presets to choose from, including neutral and flat, which would be useful for video to be colour graded – and then an Easter Egg feature – 20 different effect modes which may or may not appeal to you. All of these also have sub controls to customize the adjustments to your taste. And again, Nikon offers more control than most – three types of sharpening as well as contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. The adjustments are relatively meaningful. Of course, these settings are applied only to JPEG files, so you’ll always have a clean RAW version.

Stabilization and Drive (Easter Egg)
Nikon says the Z6 and lens combination offers 5 axis stabilization. There’s a menu setting – vibration reduction – with three settings. Normal, sport and off. In the video the sample demonstrate handheld shooting while framing with the LCD, not the viewfinder, first with off you’ll see my natural shakiness. Switch to DX crop and the shaking is pretty obvious. Turn vibration reduction On and you might think I’m using a tripod. Then I started snapping and was able to shoot without blur to one half second – that’s about five stops from the one sixtieth I feel is my minimum. The manual says sports mode is when both you and your subject are moving.

From the dedicated drive mode button set a 2 to 20 second timer. Use custom setting c2 to select 1-9 shots and an inter-shot delay up to 3 seconds. That should enable you to get in the shot and make sure everyone’s eyes are open. At D4, if all you need is a shutter delay, that can be set from .2 to 3 seconds, but isn’t as easily activated or disabled.

There are continuous low – 1-5 frames per second, and high, which is rated for 5.5 images per second. Using manual exposure and focus settings, and saving fine star jpegs, in the bottom right, the remaining frames switches to buffer status when I start shooting.  The Z6 records 5 and a half images per second continuously until it runs into the irrational 200 image limit.  Using extended high, it captures 11 images per second, but the buffer fills in four seconds, then slows to about 7 per second. Many viewers have tried to rationalize the irrational limitation of 200 images in burst mode. But only Nikon enforces this limit. In the next Zed camera, let’s ask for a larger buffer and no limitation. And those who want 200 will have the option to select it.

In a camera that expects me to create focus stacks and panoramas manually, I don’t expect to find multiple exposure, one of the easier tasks to do in post. Should you decide to use it, Nikon provides more capability than the competition. Choose to take one or a series, with from two to ten images. Four overlay modes, the ability to save the individual images and overlay to see the images as you proceed. Then I discovered an easter egg. When you combine multiple exposure with continuous, the images are taken at burst speed, creating an interesting superimposed action series.

The interval timer is also full-featured. With a start time and date, interval lengths from one half second up to 24 hours, up to ten thousand minus one intervals, with up to 9 shots each and the ability to create a dedicated folder for the images. Shooting starts from the menu, not with the shutter. There’s no display – unless you press the menu button. Press OK to pause, and then use the menu to restart or quit.

Oddly found on the stills menu, and not available when an external monitor is connected, there’s also a time lapse movie mode – again with a full set of features – including output up to 4K 30 frames. There is no display or countdown while a time-lapse is happening, except for the chevrons on the control panel. To pause or interrupt a time lapse, press menu to display the interval timer settings.

Video
Although most DSLR cameras aren’t well-suited for video, the mirrorless Z6 is. Just turn the selector.  No crop in video mode. Video mode has an independent menu, and many of the settings, like white balance and picture control can either be the same as photo or independent. That also applies to the shutter, aperture, ISO and meter mode.  Switching between video and stills, each retains their own settings. I wish all cameras did that.

However, when you switch to video, the exposure meter, screen right disappears, I wish it didn’t do that. Custom settings G1 and G2 customize the I menu and the control keys for video. In video mode, image area selects either FX – the full sensor or DX for a 1.5 crop, useful to extend your zoom.

Press the red button to record. Recordings are limited by card space or 30 minutes. Resolutions up to 16×9 or UHD 4K with frame rates up to 30 are available. In HD1080, 120 and 60 are supported, as well as three slo motion modes. Note that 120 frames and the slo mo modes force the DX crop. In HD, there are two quality settings, which equate to data rates. The 4K data rate is about 120 Mbits. At HD high quality is 50 Mbits, while normal records at 25 Mbits. The five times slow is also 25 Mbits. Both MOV and MP4 are available – both use the H.264 video codec. The difference is audio – MOV uses PCM, MP4 uses AAC.

It would be nice if the shutter button would start and stop video recording, but I should note that custom setting G3 configures the OK button as record start stop. And for all the things that Nikon did right for video mode, they didn’t go all in – there are a lot of essential features missing or incompletely implemented.

The good – there’s a fairly extensive time code function. There’s focus peaking for manual focus – configured on custom setting d10. There are four colour options and three sensitivity settings. But it has to be turned off to access the limited zebra function – G6, highlight display, using RGB instead of the more standard waveform values. 224 is about 100%. Both of those can be assigned to the I menu, focus peaking to a custom button.

Another handy customization is power aperture open and close – which can be assigned to the function buttons beside the lens.

In general, cameras with an HDMI output have a setting to select whether the output is a clean, recordable feed or includes the menu and screen overlays. That’s not available here – in video mode, only a clean feed is available. That means most of the video section of the video is recorded from the LCD screen. And the HDMI options – most of which apply specifically to video, have been relegated to the setup menu. The HDMI output follows the movie menu frame size frame rate setting. These options can lower but not raise the resolution. So when frame size is set to 4K, you can use this setting to force it to HD. But not the reverse. In the advanced options, the output data depth can be set at either 8 or 10 bits. Using ten bit for external recordings prevents some size and rate options from recording internally. Not sure why this might be an issue when the Z6 uses XQD cards. Note that if you do plan to use an external recorder, set C3, the power off delay, standby timer to no limit.

Also available only for external recording is Nikon’s NLog format. This also over-rides the ability to record internally. That’s unfortunate. NLOG will force the ISO to 800, so I’m using the same ISO for NLOG Off.

In the video I demonstrate a 10 bit external recording of the DSC Labs XYLA chart. I closed the aperture to F22, so only the leftmost rectangle is showing the 224 highlight alert. Judging both by eye and the waveform,  8 stops are visible. Switching to NLOG, the brightest rectangle is at 60% on the waveform, enabling me to open the iris to F6.3 – revealing eleven stops. Even with ISO 800, the darkest areas are free of noise. And this is the same result as the Z7. The view assist setting changes the response of the LCD so that it doesn’t look washed out while using NLog.

The same vibration reduction for stills is also available, with an independent setting, for video.

And there’s also an electronic VR setting. In the video, you’ll see some impressive results for in-camera stabilization.

To evaluate the Z6’s susceptibility to rolling shutter, I turned both vibration reduction and electronic vr off  – just so they’re not trying to compensate. With 4K video mode, the Z6 shows quite a bit of bending as I pan back and forth. Then switching to HD 1080, no so much – so if you need a fast pan …

Face detection is enabled on custom setting A4, and works with auto area autofocus continuous in stills and full time in video. I found it works well. Now, it does feel a little bit like cheating to use a F1.8 lens for my one candle test shot. But, it is all part of the Nikon Z system. So shutter 1/60th, F1.8, I captured a custom white balance as the Kelvin setting only goes down to 2500, and a candlelight setting is typically around 1800.

I’m using the flat colour profile. This is ISO 6400 – you’ll see some noise in the bottom left, let’s see what 12.8 looks like … well, noisier and on to the maximum of 51.2, which while noisy has not introduced a colour shift.

There are not many cameras that can take stills – watch the bottom right –  without interrupting a video recording, but the Z6 can. Just press the shutter button. The touch shutter doesn’t work in video mode. The only limitation – these images are 16×9 video aspect 8 Mp images, even smaller than small JPEGs.

Lens
The Nikkor 24-70 F4 S is a solid feeling unit, tipping the scales at 500 grams (18ounces). The filter diameter is 72mm. Not sure what S represents – but I suspect it’s a generic stabilization badge. It’s a constant F4 to F22. Closest focus 30 cm (12 in), and if you can work at that distance, the bokeh is quite pleasant. With custom setting F2, it’s easy to overlook the last control  – which selects the function of the lenses focus ring – it can adjust focus, aperture or exposure compensation – nice! In manual focus, it reverts to focus. G2 has independently settings for video  – the selection here is called power aperture – the adjustments are nicely smooth.

And I guess we can expect all Z lenses to be a good size, this one weighs 370 grams (13oz). There’s a auto/manual focus switch and a focus ring – and this is a full frame FX lens. Filter diameter is 62mm. Opens to F1.8, closes to F16. Closest focus is 25cm (10in) It also supports the ability to use the focus ring for aperture and EV.

Only Nikon provides both a playback and a retouch menu. The playback menu includes settings for the playback display options – to view photo details – but I’m not sure why these aren’t on by default. The retouch menu, in addition to the usual like crop, resize and red-eye removal includes distortion control to adjust the effects of wide angle lenses and perspective control to adjust the keystone effect. You could easily overlook image overlay which creates a multi-exposure image from two photos. It’s not as full featured as the photo mode version, but still useful. Then there’s an extensive RAW processing module, which includes the ability to set image quality, adjust the exposure value, select another picture control option, or adjust the ActiveD lighting to modify the dynamic range. This is as good as it gets.

Menu
Even if you’re not familiar with Nikon’s menu system, it’s logical and well laid out. One issue I have is that the scrolling list on some of the tabs is getting a little long. There are a few settings that aren’t where they should be. The help feature, while not available for all settings, is useful. But the generic message for a setting that’s not available isn’t. And I’m still not sure what makes a setting qualify as a custom setting as opposed to a setup. Like power off delay – that’s a setup feature. HDMI is video.

Customization makes it easy to get to your most used features, either with custom buttons or via the I menu. And, if you prefer, you can use My menu to create a custom page of settings.

The manual – and there are two available for download – both a user manual and a reference manual – also doesn’t list the exclusions for some settings and features. I did not use the user settings, I think it’s because I can’t remember which settings I assigned, but also because they can’t be explicitly configured.

For a mirrorless camera, battery life is better than average. I shot a lot while we were travelling, but never ran out of power in a day. A battery charger is provided. The camera can be powered or charged using the USB port

Conclusion
Nikon has clearly invested the Z6 with excellent quality and good usability engineering – once I had the controls customized, I quickly felt at home, able to make adjustments easily.
With the exception of burst speed and buffer, stills features feel complete, but there is room for more capability in the video configurations.

If you’re wondering about the Z7 – it’s so similar that watching my Z6 to Z7 comparison video is enough – that will show you everything you need to know. For those who need to know, the Z6 says “Made in Japan”. I expect Nikon’s quality control to be the same wherever the camera is made.

If you have questions or comments, I enjoy interacting with you, so post your relevant questions and civil comments below. And if this video helps, I’d love to have you as a subscriber – thanks!

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