Hands on with the Nikon Z 6

My name is Richard Wong and I’m a wedding photographer based in Auckland. I’ve been using a Nikon D800 as one of my main camera since 2012. After hundreds of weddings and events in the last 6 years, it’s really time for its retirement. I could replace it with a Nikon D850 which is in my opinion the best DSLR in the market right now. It is a great upgrade to my D800 in every single area. But I am also really excited about the brand new Z full frame mirrorless camera system because this is the first time since the F mount Nikon introduces a completely new full frame system and there are so many new features that come with the system.

But while I have lots of confidence in Nikon and their products, the new Z 6 and Z 7 cameras are the first products for a completely brand new system and undeniably there would be quite a bit of uncertainty in terms of design, performance and reliability.

Image by Richard Wong

So should I stick with the safer option and get the D850? Or should I replace my D800 with one of these brand new mirrorless camera from Nikon?

In the end I decided to go for the Z 6. After two months, I’ve shot a number of weddings and events using the Z 6 so let me share with you the pros and cons I found after shooting the Z 6 side by side with my Nikon DSLRs.

When I picked up the Z 6, the first thing I noticed is that the body design is very similar to Nikon DSLR. Even though the Z 6 is a bit smaller than my D800, it is still a very comfortable camera to hold even with a larger professional lens like the 70-200 f/2.8 attached. The Z 6 is easily the most comfortable full frame mirrorless camera I’ve ever used.

The layout of the buttons and controls are more similar to the Nikon D750 than the D850. You have a D750 style scene mode dial at top left, which suggested this is not Nikon's professional camera which usually have the three button mode dial instead. There are customizable front buttons between the lens mount and the grip. At the top of the grip you have the signature Nikon power switch. However unlike the DSLR which you can turn on the power switch and immediately able to take photos, there is a small delay before you can see the image and start taking photos when you power on the Z 6. It may only be half a second or so but it is noticeable when I’m shooting weddings and events. Apart from that, Nikon DSLR user should feel right at home when they pick up a Z 6.

As I already have (way too) many Nikon F mount lenses which covers everything I need to do my jobs, I ordered the Z 6 body only and use the FTZ adaptor to adapt my F mount lenses. The autofocus performance with the FTZ adaptor on the Z 6 is pretty decent. It may not be as good as the D850 or D5, but I would say it’s at least as good as my D800 or D750.

It’s fast, very accurate and consistent. With the autofocus point covering almost the whole frame all the way up to the corners and a face detection mode (at the time of writing this article, Nikon has announced eye autofocus will be coming in a future firmware update), I am doing a lot less focus then recompose and spend more time focus on framing and taking photos which is great when shooting events. On the down side, low light autofocus could be a bit better especially if you compare to the D850 or D5 but if you turn on the low light AF option (which is default to off), it dramatically improves the low light autofocus performance.

Image by Richard Wong

Overall if you are upgrading from a previous generation DSLR you will find the autofocus performance of the Z 6 at least as good if not better than your previous camera. That to me is the biggest relief as a lot of people including me was worried if the autofocus performance of the F mount lenses using the FTZ adaptor might be terrible. I’m so happy Nikon got it right. Nikon DSLR users could switch over to the new Z mount cameras seamlessly without having to get rid of their existing F mount lenses.

One thing that pretty much any Nikon DSLR does very well is it’s battery life. With any Nikon FX DSLR, one battery quite often could last almost a full day of wedding coverage.

Z 6’s CIPA battery rating is very low at 310 shots. Quite often I would take up to 1500 photos on each of my two cameras for a full day of wedding coverage. Does that mean I’ll need to prepare 5 batteries for a full day wedding? That would be a nightmare especially if I switch to two Z 6s as it means I’ll need to charge up 10 batteries before each wedding? I can't physically do that if I have to shoot two weddings on two continuous day!

Fortunately the real life battery life is a lot better than the CIPA rating suggested. The first wedding I did with the Z6, my first battery lasted about 7 hours and 1250 shots. It means two batteries should be enough for a full day of shooting. While not as good as the DSLR, it’s not terrible either.

You can also charge the Z 6 via the camera’s USB port which is great way to extend the battery life while travelling. However charging via USB is quite slow when compared to the normal way using a normal charger.

The reason Z 6’s battery life is nowhere as good as the DSLRs despite using virtually the same battery as some of Nikon’s Pro DSLR is that the camera has to power the electronic viewfinder (or the LCD screen which consumes almost just as much power) all the time when the camera is powered on.

This is a challenge for every mirrorless camera manufacturers and they use various ways to help reduce the power consumption. For example, use a lower resolution panel or/and some manufacturers use a lower resolution EVF or choose to lower the display resolution during certain operations. But Nikon didn’t go down that path and they want to give their users the best electronic viewfinder experience even though it would increase the cost and also battery consumption. The result is that the Z 6 has arguably the best electronic viewfinder experience in the market. Not only the electronic viewfinder is large and high resolution, the update is very smooth and the resolution does not drop even when you are shooting photos in burst mode. If you have tried some earlier mirrorless cameras but dislike the electronic viewfinder, you really need to try the Z 6 yourself and I bet you will be impressed by it.

While the best optical viewfinder like the one on the D850 or D5 is also very big and nice, there are quite a few things only an electronic viewfinder can offer.

WYSIWYG - What you see is what you get. Unlike an optical viewfinder camera which gives you no preview of the actual exposure, colour... etc of the final photo until after the photo was shot, the electronic viewfinder of the Z 6 would render the preview showing you the actual exposure, white balance..etc so you’ll know what you image would look like before you took the shot. You can adjust the settings immediately and see how it affects the output in real time.

When shooting strong backlit scenes with a DSLR, your eyes are affected by the strong light source and therefore you can’t really see the detail of your backlit subject. With Z 6’s electronic viewfinder, since you could preview the actual exposure level, if you correctly expose your subject’s backit face, you will be able to see the details of the face very clearly.

When shooting at dark location, especially with a slower lens, the optical viewfinder could become very dark and it is hard for you to see what you are shooting or sometimes even the framing clearly. I didn’t fully aware how dark the optical viewfinder was when I was only shooting with a DSLR, but when I was shooting with a Z 6 and a DSLR side by side, it was really a day and night difference when I’m switching between the two cameras. The Z 6’s electronic viewfinder boost the scene brightness according to the exposure settings and that means even when shooting at a dark indoor venue, the electronic viewfinder displays everything bright and clear. At the same location when I switched to my DSLR, I immediately noticed how dark the optical viewfinder is, even if I was shooting with a fast f/2.8 zoom lens.

There are other benefits come with the electronic viewfinder. But to me, the ability to see an accurate preview of the output before the photo was taken no matter under what lighting situation is the biggest benefit. I no longer have to guess what my image would look like and this greatly improves the consistency of my photo. For a professional photographer, consistency is more important than anything else.

Image by Richard Wong

I’m not going to tell you how great Z 6’s picture quality is because this is something I fully expected and there was no surprise. However, I was quite surprised that Z 6’s video quality is also excellent. The full frame full sensor readout definitely makes the output video sharp and clean. Video focus tracking also works surprisingly well. With the ability to shoot external 10 bit 4:2:2 video and flat profile, the Z 6 is one of the best camera for video recording. Nikon have just announced ProRES RAW video output will be coming with an upcoming firmware update which makes it the first full frame hybrid camera to have RAW video output. Apart from the built-in preamp which could be a bit better, Nikon has really created a beast for serious film makers. Who would have thought that as Nikon is traditionally a company that is heavily photo centric and have never offered any serious video cameras before.

But with the Z 6, I could finally do both photo and video with just one camera and not have to sacrifice quality on either of them. Switching from shooting photo to video literally only requires me to flick the photo/video switch on the camera. This is a huge benefit and opens up a lot of possibility for photographers who also want to do a bit of video work or both at the same time.

Image by Richard Wong

Is the Z 6 perfect camera? I say no. There are a few things I want to see Nikon to improve in the future, some maybe achievable by firmware update some may not. Nikon’s DSLR cameras are still their more refined and polished products. However, after shooting with the Z 6 for a few months, I honestly feel it would be very hard for me to go back to the DSLR again. The edge to edge autofocus point with face/eye detection makes shooting events much easier. The ability to shoot both high quality photo and video using the same camera gave me option to do more kind of jobs. Most importantly the huge benefit of the EVF easily make me forget or forgive any shortcomings it may have when compared to their more mature DSLR cameras. I haven’t even talk about the new bigger Z mount which provide a much better and flexible platform for Nikon to create some killer lenses in the future.

If you are a Nikon user, you need to give the Z 6 a try and experience the future.


Richard Wong has enjoyed photography ever since he was a kid and is fascinated by imaging technology. His Masters degree research was focused on digital image processing topics, and like a lot of photographers, he's very interested in the latest (and also some of the older) camera gears as too.

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