I spent several days creating images in nasty, cold conditions on Mount Washington and the mountains of New Hampshire to see how this new mirrorless camera would perform. There were some issues, but no major malfunctions or failures. Overall, I’d say it’s a step sideways from the D750 or D800, but not a big step up at this point.
The worst day I spent out this winter with my Nikon Z 6 so far was on March 6th in Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. The minimum temperature for the day on the summit was -19F with a high of -11F, coupled with an average wind speed of 56.8 mph. I’ve also been out with it on a few more days that the temperature was no warmer than -2F. I know these exact figures becasue there is a manned weather station not more than a 1/2 mile from where we were photographing. For this conversation, I’m going to call it wintery conditions, maybe bordering on gnarly or even epic winter conditions. On most of those days, it was snowing or at least blowing snow around. I photographed a range or winter sports, from ice climbing to back country skiing. I think that type of subject matter gives a true test of a camera's capabilities and will also show where it misses the mark.
My biggest concern with switching to a mirrorless camera was the weatherproofosity (that should be a real word). I’ve spent many days above tree-line during winter storms over the years to know that my Nikon DSLR system works and performs under cold, gnarly conditions with no problems. Were the weight savings of the Z 6 worth the switch? Could it work as well as the tried and true D800 and D750? Would the EVF work in bright snowy conditions? Did Nikon keep the same high standard for weatherproofing on the Z series as it has on the D series?
I’ll just go right down the list of issues that bothered me to some degree, starting from most impactful if you’re out shooting in the cold. The weirdest and most annoying is how the Electronic View Finder (EVF) behaves in cold temps. When shooting any moving subject, like a skier, the 3.6M-dot Quad-VGA EVF blurs like it would if you were shooting at a slow shutter speed. You can manage to keep the subject in frame, but it’s a distraction and is far from ideal. I don’t know the physics behind it, but I assume it has to do with getting electrons excited in really cold temps, similar to getting models excited to ski in really cold temps. Unrelated to cold temps, there is a time delay to activate the EVF, basically a black viewfinder for a few moments until it turns on. We all know great photography is capturing the right moment. Having to wait to see what’s in the EVF leaves a chance to miss a moment. It’s also disorienting when you pull the camera up to your face and you see a black screen. No lag at all on a traditional DSLR.
There was a lot of concern about battery life when mirrorless came out. Yes, the batteries do not last as long as they do in the D750 or D800. Kudos to Nikon for designing the Z 6 and Z 7 to be able to use the batteries from the D750 and D800 (EN-EL15), so when the Z 6 batteries run out, I have a pile of fully charged ones to use. Yes, batteries run out faster in the cold, but that is just something to deal with no matter what system you use. Pack them into an inside pocket, and they’ll last a bit longer on cold days. I did change the setting so the large LCD did not come on for image previews, which is weird to look through the viewfinder to preview an image. I assume it saved a bit of power. It also helps seeing the preview on those bright sunny days.
Snowy, cloudy white scenes are tough for any autofocus system to handle. I really hoped that the updated autofocus on the Z 6 would blow my mind, but it didn’t. It’s finicky and not any faster than the Nikon Advanced Multi-CAM 3500 II autofocus sensor module found in the D750. That was a disappointment. I am also using the FTZ adapter with the Nikkor 16-35mm f/4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and so maybe the adapter reduces the performance of the system? I’ll leave that on the table until I use a Z lens to eliminate the FTZ adapter.
I like the way the D800 feels in my hands. Obviously, the Z 6 is smaller and has a whole different body style, but it works well, even for larger hands with no bulky gloves on. Once the gloves go on, it’s a different story. All those customizable buttons become a bit close together. The Fn1 and Fn2 buttons get pressed all the time, and if you’re not familiar with their functions, you’ll be searching the menus trying to find what setting got changed. I have the back focus button activated, and it’s mightily close to the focus point locator stick/button. I have often found myself trying to find the focus indicator in the EVF, only to see it down in some random corner, hiding from me after my thumb pushed it there unknowingly. It’s easy enough to deactivate the stick/button, but it’s not really any better than the flat selector button for moving the focus indicator in previous bodies. I’ll adapt and overcome on that one. The switch/button that changes the Z 6 from stills to video is excellent and just in the right spot; there's no need to even take your eye from the EVF to find it, with or without a pair of oversize gloves. The push button inside the video/still selector button is great to rifle through a few options like level, mic level, and histogram.
Weatherproofosity: Yeah, I used that word again. Even with the FTZ adapter adding a second level of potential for leaking and problems, the Nikon Z 6 was solid. I’m a pretty good skier, but I wrecked a bunch of times and packed some serious snow into that body and had no issues. The cold didn’t create any loose connections or brittle seals. I spent a few days in the clouds and fog and still didn’t have any problems with weatherproofosity. Some of the lower-end lenses might create a problem, but I haven’t used any of them to provide any comment on the quality of sealing there.
It’s a tough call whether to shell out $2,000 on a new body or stick with your current DSLR. I’m honestly on the fence. My work is evolving and including more filming, so the investment in the Nikon Z system makes sense for me. It may not be for you, but thankfully, we all love to shoot different things and work in a variety of spaces. I hope some of these real, honest comments on the Z 6 help you if you’re looking at investing in a new camera body. This is by no means a complete in depth breakdown of the camera; I’ll follow up later in the spring or summer and add some more thoughts on it as issues come up.
I’m interested in hearing your experiences with the Z 6 in the cold this past winter and to see if they jive with what I’ve experienced.