Nikon is tipping its full-frame mirrorless camera system with two bodies and a trio of lenses. The Z 6 ($1,999.95) is the 24MP option, with 12fps burst shooting speed and a noticeably lower price tag separating it from its twin, the $3,399.95, 45.7MP Z 7. Its mirrorless design puts focus right on the sensor, so it offers a significantly wider area of focus coverage than an SLR, and while native lenses are a little scarce, an adapter adds compatibility with Nikkor SLR lenses. The Z 6 is a strong option for any photographer shopping for a full-frame camera, though we give preference to our Editors’ Choice, the Sony a7 III, a third-generation design that’s a bit more refined and has a larger lens library backing it.
Editors’ Note: This review has been updated to reflect changes made in the Firmware 3.0 update.
Twin Bodies, Different Capabilities
Nikon opted to use identical body designs for the Z 6 and Z 7—the same approach Sony uses with its similar pair of cameras, the 24MP a7 III and 42MP a7R III. It’s a plus for photographers who may utilize both a Z 6 and a Z 7—all of the buttons, controls, and the like will be in the same place, regardless of which you pick up.
The body measures 4.0 by 5.3 by 2.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.3 pounds loaded with a battery and XQD memory card. It is protected from dust and splashes, features a five-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS) system, and, perhaps most importantly, looks and feels like a Nikon, down to the narrow red stripe that accents the grip. From the outside, the only difference between it and the Z 7 is the model badge.
Nikon states that the Z 6 is built to the same standard as the Z 7, and it certainly feels like that’s the case. Roger Cicalia at Lensrentals took a Z 7 apart and found it to be one of the best-sealed cameras he’s seen, and he takes a lot of cameras apart for repair as part of his rental business. Lensrentals hasn’t yet taken a Z 6 apart to confirm that its internals are as robust.
Interface and Controls
The Z 6 is a little bit smaller and lighter than your typical SLR, and while its controls stray a bit from what Nikon has done in the past, handling is excellent. The handgrip is deeper than many mirrorless cameras, which gives it better fit in the hand, especially important when using longer, heavier telephoto glass.
Two programmable buttons are accessible on the front, positioned between the grip and lens mount. I like to use one to adjust focus settings—it works in conjunction with control dials to change between single and continuous tracking modes, or to change the active focus area. There are many functions to choose from—including esoteric but useful options like Highlight Weighted Metering, which prevents highlights from being blown out, handy when working in mixed lighting.
The Mode dial is up top, to the left of the raised hump that houses the EVF. The dial locks in place; you have to hold down the center post while turning it. I personally prefer post locks that can be toggled with a press, but I’d rather have a lock than no lock at all.
The hot shoe is where you’d expect it, centered behind the lens mount, on top of the raised EVF. The Z 6 works with all of the same Speedlight flashes used by its SLR family, but the camera doesn’t have a built-in flash. It does have an OLED information panel, just to the right of the EVF; it shows exposure settings, battery life, and memory card capacity in cool blue type.
There are two control dials—one flat at the rear of the top plate, the other integrated into the handgrip, just below the shutter release. The On/Off switch surrounds the shutter release and is flanked by Record, ISO, and EV buttons.
Play and Delete are on the rear, to the left of the eyecup. To the right there’s the toggle switch to change between still and video modes; the Display button is at its center. AF-ON rounds out the top row, and is joined below it (in a column) by the eight-way focus joystick, and the i button, which launches an on-screen menu of control options. We’ve seen similar menus on other cameras—Sony has one that’s just like it—and as with others, Nikon’s take is completely customizable, with 12 slots available for different functions.
Menus can be navigated via the touch LCD or using the four-way directional pad, which sits just below the i button. It has OK at its center, which is used to confirm settings and to toggle subject tracking (more on that later). A cluster of four buttons, below the d-pad, round out the rear controls—Plus and Minus for zooming in and out during image review, Menu, and the Drive/Self-Timer control.
Nikkor Z lenses include a control ring function. It’s set via the body, and in concept is a great idea—you can set it for aperture or EV control. But sensitivity is an issue. It is very difficult to make small adjustments, and too easy to make inadvertent ones. I’d like to see Nikon address this, as they are just too sensitive to be useful right now.
LCD and EVF
The 3.2-inch LCD is almost perfect. It’s bright, crisp (2.1 million dots), and offers excellent off-axis viewing. It’s quick to respond to touch, whether it be menu navigation, tapping to set a focus point, or swiping through photos during playback.
The display is mounted on a hinge, so it can tilt to face up or down, but doesn’t offer any sort of side-to-side articulation. Sony uses a similar design with its a7 III, but rival Canon offers a fully articulating, swing-out screen with its EOS RP and EOS R.
The EVF is phenomenal. It’s one of the largest available, with a 0.8x magnification rating, and shows a smooth, lifelike view of the world thanks to OLED tech and a 3.69-million-dot resolution. It and the Z 7 offer the best EVFs we’ve seen in a mirrorless camera, edging out the pricier Sony a7R III. It’s worth noting that the Z 6’s EVF is sharper than the EVF Sony uses in the $2,000 a7 III.
Connectivity and Power
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are both included. Nikon calls the tech SnapBridge, and the camera works with a smartphone app to transfer 2MP JPGs automatically, in the background, to your phone. You can set the camera to transfer every photo you capture, or only the ones you tag. If you want to transfer a full 24MP file to your phone, you can do so manually over Wi-Fi. SnapBridge works with both Android and iOS devices.
The Z 6 uses the same battery as the Z 7, the dark gray EN-EL15b. It’s rated for 380 shots using the LCD, 310 shots using the EVF, or for about 85 minutes of video recording. The Z 6 supports in-camera charging over USB-C, so it’s easy enough to top off the battery while on the go using a power bank. Nikon also includes a standard wall charger.
The EN-EL15b features the same form factor as the older EN-EL15a (light gray) and EN-EL15 (black) batteries. You can use those to power the Z 6 too, or use the Z 6’s dark gray EN-EL15b to run a D500 or any of other cameras that have used variations of the battery in the past. You won’t be able to charge it in-camera, a feature currently restricted to the Z 6 and Z 7. Likewise, you can use one of the older batteries in the Z 6, but in-camera charging is disabled for anything but the EN-EL15b.
In addition to USB-C, the Z 6 has mini HDMI (with clean output), 3.5mm microphone and headphone connectors, and a proprietary accessory connector. There is no PC Sync, a mainstay of pro cameras for decades, so if you still use a wired connection to studio lights, the Z 6 may not be your top choice.
There is a single memory card slot, with support for the XQD and CFexpress formats, which share the same physical form factor. You will need to load Firmware 3.0 to use CFexpress. SanDisk and Sony offer CFexpress at this point, for a slight premium over XQD of similar capacity.
The single card slot is a potential issue for pros who prefer to shoot with two cards to create a real-time backup copy of photos. If you need the feature, the aging Nikon D750 has it, as does the Sony a7 III.
Autofocus and Speed
The Z 6 is tuned for speed. It powers on, focuses, and captures an image in about 1.4 seconds. Focus speed is very fast, 0.05-second. Burst capture is available at up to 9fps when shooting in 14-bit Raw format, or 12fps when opting for 12-bit Raw or JPG capture. This gives you some flexibility, with the option to set the camera for the fastest speed, with some compromise in image quality, or for the best results, at a still-speedy burst rate.
The Z 6 manages about 30 Raw+JPG, 40 Raw, or 45 JPG shots before its buffer fills. Thanks to the speed of XQD memory—I tested the camera with a 400MBps card—it only takes about five seconds to fully clear. If you don’t need to shoot at the fastest speed you can opt for a low-speed drive mode, configurable from 1 through 5fps.
See How We Test Digital Cameras
Autofocus coverage is placed on the sensor itself, which gives the Z 6 some real advantages over SLRs. For one, there’s no need to make calibration adjustments for certain lenses. More importantly, focus points are able to cover almost the entire surface area of the sensor—273 focus points deliver 90 percent coverage. This is in contrast to similar SLRs, like the Nikon D750, that group focus points in the central area of the frame.
There are different types of focus areas available. In AF-S mode you can opt for the wide area (with Face and Eye Detection for people and pets), a small Pinpoint setting, or three sizes of flexible spot. Switching to AF-C drops the Pinpoint option, but adds a new focus selection choice. Nikon calls it Dynamic-area AF Assist and it’s similar to the same function on its SLRs, or expanded flexible spot settings in other brands. It’s a manual point selection, the same as the camera’s smallest flexible spot, but is surrounded by an additional nine points. The rear eight-way joystick is used to move it around the frame, and pressing the stick in recenters it.
Face Detection was included at launch, and has been improved with firmware updates. With Firmware 3.0 loaded, the Z 6 can detect eyes and faces for both people and pets—dog and cats, specifically. The camera draws a yellow frame around detected faces and eyes, and the rear joystick switches between them if multiple subjects are detected.
You will need to tell the camera, via the menu, if you’re photographing pets. I didn’t test the feature with the Z 6, but did with the Z 7—both models share the same autofocus system. It netted solid results for humans, and was also able to keep pace with active house cats. Sometimes initial acquisition struggles if a pet is in profile, and you’re more likely to pick up false positive matches for faces if pet detection is enabled. But overall it works well.
Subject recognition and tracking is an option. You need to be set to the wide focus area to use it, however. To turn it on press OK, which adds a movable focus area box to the frame. Place it over your subject and the Z 6 will move the point along with the subject, as long as you’re able to keep it in frame. The tracking system can be thrown off if you lose track of the target, but it’s quick enough to reacquire it. With the Firmware 3.0 update you just need to tap the focus button again to search for a new subject.
Tracking and continuous shooting go hand in hand. I netted very good results photographing an intramural ice hockey game, although I kept the drive mode set to its 5fps setting for the most part—9fps or 12fps seemed like overkill. At the highest burst rate it’s a bit trickier to keep up with moving subjects—almost every camera takes you out of the moment as an exposure is made. To date the only full-frame model we’ve seen with a truly seamless, live view of action when photographing stills is the high-end Sony a9, which uses a fully electronic shutter to capture action at 20fps.
Overall, I rate the Z 6’s autofocus and burst shooting performance just slightly behind the Sony a7 III, which takes some features a little further and does some things better than the Z 6. It shoots at 10fps, regardless of format, so it doesn’t manage the speeds the Z 6 does, but there is also a little bit less blackout when photographing action that fast.
The Z 6 uses a full-frame 24MP imager with a BSI CMOS design—very similar to the Sony a7 III. A BSI sensor rearranges the components compared with a traditional design. It puts circuitry behind light-sensitive components, which delivers an advantage in high-ISO image quality. Like most 24MP chips, the Z 6 does have an optical low pass filter (OLPF), which adds a little bit of blur in order to eliminate instances of false color patterns.
When shooting JPGs at default settings, the Z 6 keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 25600. There is some noise reduction used to get there, which not only wipes away grain, but also some detail. The Z 6 delivers images at ISO 800 that are as clean and crisp as at its native ISO 100 sensitivity.
We see slight smudging of detail starting at ISO 1600 and increasing modestly through ISO 6400. At ISO 12800 the smudges intensify and fine lines lose their crisp edges, and the look is similar at ISO 25600. Moving past those settings, to ISO 51200, results in images that are more blur than anything else; the story is the same at the top ISO 102400 and 204800 settings.
Photographers who want to take control of image processing have the option of working in Raw format. We’ve included two sets of Raw samples in the slideshow that goes with this review. The first is shot and processed using settings baked into the Raw image by the Z 6 itself and recognized by Adobe Lightroom. The second set is processed using the settings Adobe applies to other cameras by default, which puts the evaluation on more even footing with our other reviews.
At low ISO settings the differences between the two approaches to processing are negligible. The Adobe settings show more detail than Nikon’s settings starting at around ISO 6400, which is also the highest Raw setting at which the Z 6 shows little or no loss of quality.
Looking at the Adobe settings, grain is visible at ISO 12800, though details are still clear. The output is rough, but quite useable, at ISO 25600. At ISO 51200 grain is very heavy and rough; it’s the top setting at which I’d recommend using the Z 6 for serious work. ISO 102400 and 204800 are available when you absolutely need them, but don’t expect great image quality.
The Z 6 captures video at 1080p or 4K quality, using the full width of the sensor for either format. When shooting in 4K, that means a 6K signal is downsampled, a technique that nets superior video to others that utilize line skipping to get 4K footage from sensors that offer 6K resolution.
Standard frame rates are available—24, 25, or 30fps at 4K, and dropping to 1080p adds 50, 60, 100, or 120fps capture. There is also in-camera slow-motion, which rolls 1080p at 120fps, but saves the file at 24, 25, or 30fps for playback.
Pro features include a flat N-Log video profile that offers clean output and 10-bit quality over HDMI, a flat profile for H.264 recording to a memory card, and five-axis stabilization. The Z 6’s video capabilities are among the best in its class, comparing favorably with the Sony a7 III.
A Strong Debut
The Nikon Z 6 isn’t a perfect camera, but along with the Z 7, it represent a very strong first effort. The body feels polished and thought out, and it’s built to Nikon’s normally high standards. Image quality is right up there with the best competitors, and the sensor stabilization is a boon for any attached lens, and is especially effective for handheld video work.
That said, there are some growing pains to overcome. The Z 6’s autofocus seems a little speedier and responsive when compared with the high-resolution Z 7, but still isn’t quite as uncannily good as what Sony has put in its third-generation a7 family, or the Real Time Tracking system available in its a9 and a7R IV models.
If you’ve already got a big investment in F-mount lenses, the Z 6 is going to have more appeal than competitors. The FTZ lens adapter is a little pricey at $250, but adds compatibility with most Nikkor SLR lenses. It does drop autofocus for lenses without internal focus motors—the recent D780 is appealing for photographers with a stash of Nikkor AF and AF-D lenses.
There are other options out there, some of which may be more appealing to photographers who don’t have a long history with Nikon. Our favorite is the Sony a7 III, which is just a bit more polished all around, and is backed with a larger, more established native lens system. But I’m convinced the Z 6 will make many photographers very happy, while netting stunning images and video, for years to come.
The Bottom Line
The Nikon Z 6 is the company’s high-speed, full-frame camera with a 24MP sensor and a class-leading 12fps burst rate. It’s a strong debut thanks to excellent ergonomics, in-body stabilization, and 4K video.