Three Months With The Nikon Z 6II, Part One of Three: Initial Thoughts, Ergonomics, Exploring Autofocus Modes

Three Months With The Nikon Z 6II, Part One of Three: Initial Thoughts, Ergonomics, Exploring Autofocus Modes

Today, I will begin a series of three lengthy and in-depth essays discussing my experience shooting with the new Nikon Z 6II over a three-month period.

As you will likely be able to find any number of spec reviews online, these articles will instead be more first-hand accounts of what it was like to use the camera, my process of learning about getting the most out of it, and how it performed in the field. The review will be broken into three parts. Today’s first part will discuss both general aspects of the camera and my experience getting familiarized with the camera in various casual shooting situations. Part two will center around taking the Z 6II out to do my new favorite hobby, bird, and wildlife photography. And the third and final part of the review will focus on professional work and how the camera performed when taken into a real-world campaign shoot. I’ll give brief summaries in each essay specific to the use case, with the overall final analysis being in part three. The Z 6II is a tool with many potential applications, and I spent a lot of time with the camera putting it into as many scenarios as possible. So, let’s get into it.

What a crazy time to be a photographer. When I first picked up a camera, it was a fully manual steel tank of a machine that my father had bought nearly 60 years ago upon his military deployment to Vietnam. Countless rolls of film have passed through it over the decades. Any number of lenses have been attached to it. And yet, just the other day, when I took it off the shelf and loaded up a roll of 35mm simply to see if it would disintegrate in my hands, the darn thing still worked as perfectly as the day it came off the assembly line.

Today, we live in a world where my Nikon D850, released just over three years ago, is considered by some to be ancient technology. Setting aside for a moment the fact that, like my dad’s old film camera, my D850 continues to run like a well-oiled machine, the march to mirrorless has taken over internet comment sections. Of course, going by objective numbers, DSLRs continue to rule the roost among professionals on set, but the increasing perks of mirrorless cameras continue to make them a competitive option.

Sony and Fuji have really owned the mirrorless game for years, with industry benchmarks Canon and Nikon dipping a toe in the mirrorless market in 2018. Because I am a lifelong Nikonian, it is the latter of those companies that drew most of my attention. Of course, as I said, I had only just bought my D850 in 2017 and actually didn’t receive it until early 2018. So, when the Z 6 and Z 7 were released, I wasn’t really in the market for a new camera in the short term, mirrorless or otherwise.

As time marched on and video became a larger part of my business, the D850, which I still maintain is the best DSLR ever made, had some limitations on the video front. So, when I saw a holiday sale in 2019 with a deeply discounted Z 6 body and FTZ adapter, I pounced. It very quickly became one of my favorite video tools, leading me to invest in Z-mount glass to get around the issue of focus breathing with the traditional F-mount lenses, which were built solely with still photography in mind. I’ll talk more about this later, but the Z glass was really the key for me in unlocking the potential of the Nikon mirrorless system. The difference the glass makes in both the user experience as well as end result can’t be overstated. But, as I said, I’ll return to that topic later in the review.

Now, before I get started, I think I should take a moment to put a disclaimer on the word “review.” This essay is not meant to be a typical camera review where I briefly repeat the manufacturer specs then give you a three-paragraph bulleted summary of things you probably could have learned from the brochure. If you’ve read any of my previous articles before, you’ll know that brevity is not my strong suit. I could, of course, reduce my thoughts to bullet points. But, as I personally appreciate a deeper dive into user experience to be superior to an overview of specs when making my own purchasing decisions, I wanted to offer you the same. Pretty much every camera released these days is miles ahead of the cameras I started my career with and more than capable of doing the job. What I personally want to know when looking at a review is what it’s like to work with a tool day in and day out. Where does it improve workflow? Where does it cause frustration? If I were to purchase it, will the cost of the investment be returned to me either through increased efficiency or sheer enjoyment? So, for those just wanting a quick summary, I will provide that at the end of part three. For those wanting a deeper dive, read on.

The original Z 6 is one tool that has definitely repaid its initial investment. Not expecting to use it as much more than as an occasional B camera for video, I have now used it as a primary video camera on dozens of professional assignments to shoot everything from interviews to commercials. And while it was purchased to provide video support to my D850, the Z 6 has also proven itself more than capable of handling stills when less resolution is required.

While I am increasingly starting to think that it might take a nuclear catastrophe to pry the D850 from my hands, I have enjoyed my time with the original Z 6 so much that when Nikon announced the second iterations of the Z 6 and Z 7, the Z 6II and Z 7II, I was genuinely intrigued. Despite my admitted reticence about electronic viewfinders, could the benefits of the mirrorless system outweigh the trouble of making that switch? Would the autofocus be able to keep up with the performance of the D850? What tasks would it be best suited for? And, on a purely subjective level, how often would I reach for it versus my D850, the original Z 6, or any of the other cameras that are strewn carelessly about my living room?

In a twist of good fortune, I was able to get my hands on a loaner unit of the Nikon Z 6II and jumped at the opportunity to put it through its paces. I was particularly excited because I would have the camera for a span of nearly three months which would give me an opportunity to really put it into a variety of situations that would allow me to look beyond the specs to see how effective of a tool the camera would be in my own real-world workflow.  

Speaking of my own personal workflow, it may be obvious but nonetheless bears repeating that my reaction to the system is based solely on my own use case. I am a professional advertising photographer. I shoot still and motion campaigns for large brands, mostly in the fitness, activewear, and lifestyle markets. My needs are for a system that is dependable and provides high-quality files for my clients. I need a camera with fast autofocus to keep up with my subjects, who are often moving at a rapid pace. And I need a camera that is fast in operation, both for efficiency on set and to keep up with my OCD’s tendency to push a day's worth of ideas through my brain in the span of a minute.  

I don’t shoot weddings or events (although I suspect those might be some of the Z 6II’s best use cases). I’m not a documentarian. I only shoot landscapes occasionally while hiking. I do shoot portraits as part of my work. I do shoot wildlife and birds as a hobby, though not professionally. My experience in astrophotography is limited to one photo I took on Christmas Eve of a particularly active sky over my backyard. I actually just had to Google whether astrophotography was one word or two. In other words, you’ll need to decipher how the camera will perform for you based on your own needs. But what follows is my experience with using it within my own workflow.

Much to my chagrin, fully integrating the camera into my workflow was a bit delayed. As a commercial photographer, Capture One is as fundamental a part of my photo process as cameras and lenses, and I had to wait for file support. This led me to hold off on shooting any serious jobs with the Z 6II when I first got it since I wouldn't be able to shoot tethered, which is routine on the majority of my jobs. There were workarounds, but since my objective was to use the loaner unit in the same way I would in my real workflow, I didn’t think it was fair to process the images in a different way than I would in real life. So, in the first initial few weeks, I limited use to shooting for fun while familiarizing myself with the system.

Image Quality

In actuality, this delay worked out just fine, as it allowed me to get a sense of the camera itself rather than try to overanalyze Z 6 vs Z 6II versus D850 versus medium format files side by side. I’ll save you having to read an entire overly detailed paragraph on image quality by simply saying that it’s a Nikon. I’ve had dozens of Nikon cameras over the years, and every single file I’ve shot with all of them has been of the highest technical quality, with amazing colors and a crazy dynamic range that allows for rather generous shadow and highlight recovery. The Z 6II doesn’t disappoint on any of these counts. Especially when paired with the Z-mount glass, the images hop right off the screen. So, if you are used to shooting with any other Nikon and like the files, you will love the files coming out of the Z 6II.

Ergonomics and Handling

As for ergonomics and handling, I’m one of the many DSLR shooters who don’t really mind the heavier weight but also wouldn’t exactly turn my nose up at a lighter camera either. Much to my surprise, most mirrorless cameras I’ve used in the past have actually ended up being a bit too small for my liking. They feel more like toys in the hand. Sure, DSLRs are heavier, but I miss the deeper grip and more substantial feel. This is one area where I feel as though Nikon is already ahead of the mirrorless competition. The Z cameras are smaller but don’t feel too small. Not in need of many changes, you’d have to break out a ruler to find the minuscule difference between the Z 6 and Z 6II bodies. Nikon got the sizing right the first time around, and I’m glad to see there isn’t a major change in the body type.

On My Future Wishlist

Two things I do wish they would have added in this iteration that didn’t quite make the cut would be backside-illuminated buttons and the ability to use your function keys or push in the joystick to immediately change and activate different focus modes. In the case of the first issue, I don’t shoot in the dark very often. But, when I do, the D850’s ability to light up its buttons with a quick flick of the on/off switch is a lifesaver. Also, a godsend on the D850 is the ability to assign function buttons and the joystick to a different focus mode. So, for instance, with the D850, my most used focus mode is Dynamic Area 25. But, by customizing my controls, I can immediately shift into Single Point autofocus and snap into focus just by pressing down on the joystick. Then, when I release the joystick, it jumps back into my base autofocus mode. This is massive because it means that I can jump back and forth between focus modes without ever going into menus or taking my eye off the viewfinder.

One thing I have learned so far in shooting mirrorless cameras is that I find myself changing the focus mode significantly more often when shooting mirrorless than I ever did with my DSLR. With my DSLRs, for the most part, I find I can shoot 95% of my shoots in the primary focus mode, and, as I said, if I need to switch for certain shots, I can easily press another pre-assigned button. But, generally speaking, I don’t find myself changing focusing modes on my D850 much during the actual photo session. This could just be a symptom of me getting used to the expanded menu of focus options the mirrorless cameras provide. But I did feel as though I was doing more dial-turning than usual to match the shooting situation with the right focus mode.

With that said, Nikon does deserve a pat on the back for making those changes between autofocus modes more seamless than on the original Z 6. Now, most autofocus functions, including turning face and eye detection, animal and human, off and on can be done by holding down a function button and rotating one of the dials. Adding face and eye detection to that dial turn sequence makes it easier when you need to quickly change from a wider view into a portrait. Alternatively, you can also pull up the menu and cycle through options as well, but this small change does improve efficiency over the previous model.

Autofocus is a big issue for someone like me who shoots rapidly moving subjects for a living. So, we’re going to get into that, deep into that, throughout these reviews. But, before leaving the topic of ergonomics, I think it’s important to mention one less obvious positive when it comes to the Z system. As I said, I don’t mind a larger body. My D850 is hardly dainty, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a brick in my hand either. It’s well-weighted and easy to carry around all day. That ease does reduce a bit, however, depending on which lenses I put on it. Due to the nature of my workflow, I find that the 24-70mm is pretty much locked onto my camera for 99% of my professional work. The F-mount 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is sharp, fast, and perfectly suited for what I shoot. But, at 1,070 grams, mostly front weighted, it is not exactly fun to carry. I love it because it produces great images. But the prospect of having to carry it is one of the primary reasons I use primes whenever possible.

Conversely, the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S comes in at only 805 grams. It’s only just shy of 300 grams less than its F-mount counterpart, but it makes a very big difference over the course of a long day, especially when paired with a lighter body. In actual practice, I find the weight of the Z mount 24-70mm to be comparable to many of my primes mounted on my DSLR. So, combining it with the Z 6II gives me a much more enjoyable shooting experience in combination versus my current setup. Both setups deliver excellent image quality. But pairing the Z 6II with Z mount glass forms a nicely portable package that you can handhold all day.

Chasing The Dog

With Capture One delaying me from using the camera on jobs requiring a fast turnaround in those initial weeks, my first tests of the Z 6II were carried out the old fashioned way, by annoying my dog, Archie, to no end by continuously following him around the house. Not only was this an opportunity to give Archie a sense that this was, in fact, his turn to lead me around on a leash, but it also gave me an opportunity to try out the Z 6II’s new animal eye detection system. Being primarily a DSLR shooter, the newly designed autofocus systems on mirrorless cameras can alternately be a source of amazement or frustration. So, I knew I might need some practice. While the new mirrorless focusing modes can sometimes make the impossible look simple, they can also occasionally make routine focusing situations seem harder than climbing Mount Everest, especially if you've chosen the wrong focusing mode. We’ll talk more about that shortly. But, at the moment, let’s get back to my causing a puppy emotional trauma by never letting him have a moment to himself.

I started out following Archie around with the Auto-Area AF mode and animal eye detection on. Having never used animal eye detect on any camera before, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect. Early results were promising if somewhat situational. For instance, during the rare times when the six-month-old Archie would sit still, and I was able to get close enough, the camera did quickly pick up on his eye. During the other 95% of the time when Archie was confusing my backyard for an Olympic track, the focus was a bit more hit and miss, and I found I needed to switch to alternate focusing modes. Now, there are a couple of caveats that I should mention. One, Archie is a smaller dog and I noticed that focusing speed increases the larger the subject is in the frame. And two, Archie is jet black with dark eyes. It makes him amazingly cute, but I think the general lack of contrast might make life more difficult for a face and eye detect system. Especially when he's at full speed.

This experience of canine chasing did also reinforce my earlier observation about using the Z focusing system. Unlike my DSLRs, which usually live in one of the Dynamic-area AF modes, I feel as though you will get the most out of the Z 6II when you are more fluid in changing between focusing modes. In Archie’s case, for example, I did see some improvement when using the new Wide-area AF (L-Animal) versus Auto-area AF. The Z 6II adds a feature over the original Z 6 by allowing you to limit your face and eye detection to a specific part of the frame rather than having the camera worry about scanning the entire image. The advantage of this in the real world would be a situation where you might be shooting a cluttered frame, like a group shot or shooting through heavy foreground elements, but want to make sure the camera focuses its attention on just one subject within a crowd. You can put the box on them, and it will only look for eyes within that area. 

In terms of actual use, I did find myself sticking in the full-frame Auto-area AF with human eye detection the majority of the time. When I needed more help tracking, I would activate the tracking box either through the Fn 1 button I customized for that purpose or via the function button on the lens I assigned to activate tracking. For sheer efficiency when needing to react to disparate situations in a fluid manner, I found this to be most effective when dealing with moving subjects. The other modes, like a single point or dynamic, were also effective, and I will delve more into those in the next two articles, but my objective in the initial testing was to find a base focus setup that would suit most of my needs and require me to change focus modes as little as possible. The Z 6II provided plenty of options in that regard. Which is best suited for you will depend on your workflow and shooting pace. Since many potential Z 6II buyers will be DSLR shooters like me considering the change, my 30-second synopsis of the Z 6II autofocus would be that it is fast and accurate, but that you will need to take a moment to learn the most effective focus mode for your subject. It may or may not be the same mode you are used to using with your DSLR. But, with a bit of adjustment, the autofocus modes are very effective.

Archie deciding to give the Z 6II's autofocus tracking a brief break

In completing what I’ll call phase one of my time with the Z 6II, which largely consisted of casual shooting around the house and taking the camera on my afternoon walkabouts to familiarize myself with the options, a couple of initial things jumped out at me right out of the box with regards to the casual shooting.

  • Solid ergonomics make for an easy transition for DSLR shooters who want a lighter body but still prefer a comfortable grip.
  • The camera continues its trend of adding awesome video performance in a very affordable package. I’ll get more into video in part two of my review.
  • Autofocus has improved slightly over the original. The first Z 6, following the most recent firmware update, I find to be a very capable machine for autofocus. But the Z 6II does add options like the Wide-area AF mode, which can help significantly in certain situations.
  • Two card slots. This is not something that affects me personally, but I think it will be a big advancement for shooters who rely on redundancy to capture once-in-a-lifetime moments.
  • Compliments to the amazing Z glass. I realize this is not a lens review, but I can’t help but mention that a great deal of the enjoyment of the system, any system, is improved by the native glass. Using the Z glass on the Z 6II really helps to unlock the potential.
  • A terrific all-around camera for most photographers. I will get into more specific professional use cases in the next couple of essays. But, at the price point, this camera should appeal to pros and advanced amateurs alike. The camera has a solid feature set that will allow for the vast majority of photographic applications. It would be a solid investment for someone looking for a comprehensive machine to explore a lot of different areas of photography and filmmaking.

Much of my initial testing of the camera was focused on finding the most efficient way to work with the camera. But of course, there's more to a camera aside from speed of operation. So, how did it do? Well, as if the adventure of trying to track a one foot tall, black on black, 20-pound sprinting fur missile wasn’t enough, the next adventure I took the Z 6II on was to head out to a local wildlife sanctuary to see if the camera could keep up with birds.

Tune in next week when I visit my local wildlife sanctuary to check in on our friends in the sky.

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13 Comments

Ben Coyte's picture

Aha. You are the one with the Z6ii. The rest of the planet were wondering where it got to. Who's turn is it next?

Christian Gold's picture

Sigh. What a useless comment.

Ben Coyte's picture

Simply a reference to how difficult it is to buy one since they are back ordered for months.

stuartcarver's picture

I think you might have hurt his feelings

Gary Mcclelland's picture

huh? my local camera store has plenty

Jan Holler's picture

Very interesting to read, thank you.

Ed C's picture

You could have converted to DNG and gotten C1P to work except for tethered. I wish I had realized that a touch earlier than I did but it doesn't matter now anyway.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Ed. I ended up figuring out a workaround with metadata. Thankfully C1 has solved the problem now.

Jamie Grove's picture

Great post and looking forward to the rest of the series. I also loved that pic of you getting your D850. 😄

I just got a Z6ii myself after shooting for six years with a D610. I shoot product stills for my retail business and I do a lot of event photography for fun. The D610 was a great all-around camera for my skill level and budget. It also forced me to learn how to shoot manual pretty much all of the time.

Getting the Z6ii was like being handed the keys to a spaceship, but one that was surprisingly familiar. I have a lot of F lenses, especially high-end macro lenses but I have to say that shooting with Z glass really is different. I won't be complaining about the F pics I take in the future but I will be getting more Z's.

Oh and sorry. I couldn't help myself...

Steve Powell's picture

Thank you, I enjoy your style of writing a review. I am having a hard time deciding between a Z5, Z6, or Z6ii.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

I haven't shot with the Z5 yet. But both the 6 and 6ii have been solid.