On our last workshop we had three participants using the Z6. Hmmm, must be something good about that camera. And after using it on four continents in conditions from subzero winter blowing snow to rainforests in Tasmania, I can say there is a lot to like about this camera. I’ll state right up front that I really see mirrorless as a second system in addition to my DSLR system, neither one replaces the other. If you own a Nikon DSLR with a selection of lenses, you are probably happy and ready to go. I can’t say enough good things about the D850, and use it daily. But I am also carrying my Z6 on trips with me. Why? Because it does some really amazing things.
Let’s start with why most people got into mirrorless in the first place…because it is smaller. The photo above shows my two ‘walk around’ camera setups. On the right is a D850 with 24-120mm F4 attached, and on the left is the Z6 with 24-70mm F4. The D850 setup with lens weighs 3.57lbs, while the Z6 with lens weighs 2.59lbs. So in addition to being much smaller, the Z6 setup weighs one pound less. You get a little more range using the 24-120mm on the 850. One pound does make a difference if a camera is around your neck and you are walking all day long in the streets of a European city. And if I am hiking into the backcountry with a heavy pack, the Z6 is very appealing for the small size/weight.
What about performance? The Z6 has a full frame 24.5MP sensor that produces beautiful files with excellent high ISO performance. If you want low light performance, the Z6 is as good as it gets. The Z6 can shoot at 12FPS with full time auto exposure after the firmware update (Version 2.0). I bought the Z6 as a travel camera, and it suits that purpose well. 24.5MP is plenty of file size for most general shooting. Autofocus is improved with the firmware update, and now the Z6 focuses well in low contrast light and faster than it did before. That said, I still prefer the blazing fast autofocus of my D850 for action sports and fast moving wildlife.
The Z6 adds a lot of features that the Nikon DSLRs don’t have. First, the Z6 has 5-axis in-camera body stabilization. Instead of having VR built into the lens, it is in the body. The S lenses designed for mirrorless are smaller and lighter because they don’t have to incorporate VR into the build. After using in-camera body stabilization, I think it is as good and often better than VR on the DSLR lenses. And using the adapter, any DSLR lens you own that doesn’t have VR now will have stabilization when used on the Z6. This has been handy using primes like the 105mm F1.4.
A lot must be mentioned about the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Probably the biggest change for DSLR shooters is looking through an EVF viewfinder versus a mirror one on DSLRs. It takes some getting used to, and although being very fast, there is some start up time…but almost instantaneous. But the EVF gives mirrorless many of it advantages. Looking through the viewfinder you can see real time exposure. You can toggle between seeing a histogram or level in the viewfinder…huge advantages for the EVF. If you attach a dark ND filter, the viewfinder will adjust and brighten so you can focus and see your composition. There is 90 percent autofocus coverage in the viewfinder, meaning you can toggle the focus point to about anywhere you want in the viewfinder for those off-center compositions.
How does it handle? To really get an idea of how good the ergonomics of the Z6 and Z7 are, I went to a camera store and tried out every mirrorless on the market. Well, okay, not everyone, but I did try Canon, Sony, Fuji and Olympus. Nikon absolutely rules when it comes to building a beautiful ergonomic camera. True, I am a Nikon shooter, so everything felt intuitive and controls were where I expected them to be. But the deep grip and extended viewfinder are aspects none of the other cameras had, and I felt I could really get a solid hold on this camera. Honestly, I like a big camera in my hand, and this is one reason I love the D850 and D5. But the Z6 felt good in my hand. And in terms of dealing with the elements, the Z6 did fine in cold and rainy conditions…it seems well sealed as I would expect from Nikon.
If you are getting mirrorless, you are also considering the new S lenses designed for the Z system. It should be noted Nikon has an adapter to use your existing DSLR lenses, and this has worked seamlessly for me. But that said I wanted to use dedicated lenses and not worry about adapters. And here is the good news. The new S mirrorless lenses are outstanding. I have been astounded at how sharp these lenses are, and other reviewers have confirmed these new lenses are as sharp or sharper than their DSLR counterparts. You can buy the Z6 as a kit with the 24-70mm F4, a great value at $2400 (sale ends tomorrow!). This lens is very compact, and as a kit lens, you don’t expect the amazing edge to edge sharpness it produces. I have barely taken this lens off my Z6 since buying the kit, the images are stunning. Another lens that is really terrific is the 14-30mm F4. As sharp and sharper as the legendary 14-24mm F2.8, this compact lens is the perfect travel super wide angle. I can’t count the number of times I have been in a building interior or shooting down a spiral staircase and wished I had my 14-24mm F2.8. But it stayed home because it is a big lens, you can’t screw a filter onto it, and I would only use it a few times. With the F4 version, it is a pound lighter and much, much smaller. I have it in my camera bag every time I go out. Remember, though, that this is F4 versus F2.8. If you are shooting stars at night or the northern lights, that extra stop makes a big difference. A 2.8 version is slated to come out next year.
Here is one advantage of the Z6 that I really love. I can set the back adjustment ring on my lens to adjust exposure comp. So as I am looking through the viewfinder, and seeing my histogram in realtime, if I need to adjust exposure, I just twist the ring left or right and watch the change in the viewfinder. No more feeling around on the camera body while I try to find the exposure comp button; I just keep looking through the viewfinder for the entire time.
A few more things you should know about the Z6. These cameras have one card slot and use an XQD flash card. If you don’t own these, they are expensive and the only card this camera uses. But they are fast and reliable cards. One card slot doesn’t bother me, I normally use one card in my D850. Battery life is about half of what you get using a DSLR depending on how you use the camera. So plan on getting at least one extra battery. I found during a normal day of shooting the battery was almost gone. With a DSLR, it would be closer to half gone. If you are shooting heavily, then bring multiple extra batteries.
When digital cameras first came out, I was very reluctant to switch. I couldn’t part with my F5s….I loved Velvia slide film. When mirrorless came out, small size wasn’t the selling point for me. I still prefer a larger camera in my hand, and love how my D850w/grip balances when I am using longer telephotos. But what did catch my attention with mirrorless were some of the great technology features and stunning images quality with the new S lenses. In-camera stabilization, real time data in the EVF, full viewfinder autofocus coverage and a super wide angle lens (14-30mm) that I could attach a filter to really caught my attention. When Nikon comes out with a few more S lenses, this system will have everything I need for many of my shoots.
If you are thinking of buying a Z camera, the question will come up Z6 or Z7? The biggest difference is the Z7 has a 45MP sensor similar to the D850. And the Z7 is more expensive. If you need the larger file size, say for landscape shooting or cropping down those distant wildlife shots, then the Z7 may be a better choice. I’ll do a review of this camera soon. We use both the Z6 and Z7. Since we normally shoot D850s on most of our trips, the Z7 keeps our workflow similar in terms of file size. But the Z6 is also terrific, and the files are fantastic. And by the way, the Z6 has taken video shooters by storm, outperforming many other brands in terms of performance and capabilities.
We will have both cameras on our workshops. So if you are a Nikon user, and are coming on a trip with us, you can take a look at these cameras and see what you think. Try out the EVF viewfinder, and take some sample images to review. Then you can make your own decision on shooting mirrorless or DSLRs. In our case, we use both systems for different reasons, often on the same shoot.