Three Months With the Nikon Z 6II, Part Three of Three: Shooting a Commercial Campaign, Performance, and Final Analysis

Three Months With the Nikon Z 6II, Part Three of Three: Shooting a Commercial Campaign, Performance, and Final Analysis

In the first two parts of this three-part series, I discussed my initial impressions of the new Nikon Z 6II, a bit of casual shooting, as well as a fun trip to photograph some birds. Today, we will put the camera to a real test in a professional shooting situation to see how the camera might handle a commercial advertising campaign.

One of my colleagues, Cat, is starting a nutrition business with her product, Power Balls. They may look and taste a bit like donuts, but they are there to provide you energy for your workout and throughout the day. While most of my early days with the Nikon Z 6II were just shooting for fun, I thought it would be a good chance to test the camera out in all the areas which I am usually asked to shoot professionally: dynamic athletic photos, lifestyle, and portraiture. We’d be shooting towards the end of the day, so things would need to be lit, giving me a chance to look for any potential issues with regards to flash. I almost always have a 24-70mm attached to my camera when shooting in earnest. So, for this, I used mostly the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S. I also arranged to shoot a few shots with the Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S. Because I tend towards wider lenses as a matter of taste, I don’t often get to use an 85mm lens, but the bokeh on the f/1.8 S was really beautiful in my walkabout testing, so I wanted to use it for a few headshots to see how it would perform. Because the camera is a Nikon, it plays nicely with many of the other wireless triggers, speedlights, strobes, and so forth I use in my daily workflow with my D850.  

I chose to start the shoot with a fairly straightforward running shot: a simple shot panning with the subject as she ran at a moderate pace across the frame. I do this type of shot all the time, so it was important to know how well the autofocus would perform in tracking the subject. I started in auto-area AF with and without face detection. The camera did fairly well, although I did lose a few frames due to the camera opting to focus on the hedges behind the subject. I had a similar problem when photographing birds, so I was already aware that the camera’s focusing system seemed to have a thing for hedges. But overall, the hit rate was pretty decent. I then tried the same shot with the tracking box on the subject as she passed through the frame. That also provided acceptable results. I then tried my traditional approach using a dynamic area autofocus mode and moving the focus point to where I wanted her in the frame. Also a success. So far, so good.

The second setup was by far the easiest for the camera: a stationary subject. She would move around naturally during the shot as I don’t like for my shots to be overly posed. But she would remain seated the whole time. I used auto-area AF with human eye detection. I think the hit rate in that series was 100%. One thing that is instantly recognizable to Nikon shooters is the traditional Nikon color palette. Whether you are shooting with a D850, a D750, a Z 6, or a Z 6II, the files tend to play nicely together providing a consistent color base to work from.

The next setup caused the camera the most problems of any other setup that day. The sun was setting in the distance. The image wasn’t backlit, but because I placed my subject under an overhang, it left her a bit darker than the background. To add to the trouble, there were houses in the background. The closest is probably 30 yards away. More houses in the distance. To heap on even more pressure, I wanted the subject to be moving and doing something athletic. I didn’t want to go too crazy. I simply had her doing some high knees in place, but I wanted something where the camera would have to track her eyes in a constantly changing position. Again, this is my bread and butter, so I needed to know the camera can handle this type of shot.

I would say that this setup is where the camera struggled the most. In auto-area AF, the camera left the subject from time to time to focus on the background. The eye detection, spot-on when the subject was facing the camera, did lose the eye a bit when the subject turned profile. I suppose this is to be expected. I ended up switching into the traditional dynamic-area AF mode, and it seemed to do a better job of holding focus. This is a scenario where knowing when to switch from one autofocus mode to another will have a huge impact on your effectiveness with the system. But, once you find the right one, the focus should lock in.

I went to a single autofocus point for the fourth setup, which would be a wider shot with the subject much smaller in the frame. Then, I moved onto the fifth setup, the headshot, which I expected to be the easiest one for the camera to perform. And it was, for the most part. But this is the one moment during the shoot where the unexplainable refusal to focus situation I experienced with the bird in part two of this series, came up in real life.  

The setup was pretty straightforward. It was a headshot so her face would largely fill up the frame. I set the camera to auto-area AF with face and eye detection. The background would be a rather nondescript neutral wall, so I didn’t anticipate having many problems. It was night by this point, but the porch area where we were shooting was well illuminated by a practical light overhead. I’d be overpowering it with strobes for the shot itself, but it would be enough light to provide aid to acquire autofocus without having to test low light focusing capabilities. There wasn’t a lot of color contrast between subject and background, but I expected the clear visibility of face and eyes straight onto the camera to make it pretty clear what needed to be focused on. I used the 85mm for the shot and opened up the aperture to take advantage of the shallower depth of field. Then, I fired away.  

Like the vast majority of the shoot, the shots were largely in focus. There was only one moment where the camera decided the back wall was far more entertaining and refused to focus on the face. Unlike the bird scenario, however, this problem sorted itself out relatively quickly. However, when reviewing the headshots later in Capture One, I did have to throw out more than I would have expected due to the focus being just a minor bit off. Nothing fatal. This camera can clearly handle the job of shooting a portrait. But I was expecting it to have a tad bit higher hit rate, given the size of the subject’s faces in the frame.

It should be said that, during my time with the Z 6II, I ran thousands of images through it, and only on three occasions did I run into a situation like that where the camera seemed determined not to focus. So, while I think it's important to mention it, it’s important to also mention that those incidents were the exception rather than the norm. Searching my mind for a similarity between those three instances, I noticed that all three instances featured subjects that were very close in color to their surroundings. I’m not an engineer and have no idea how the camera’s autofocus actually works from a technical standpoint. But, I’m thinking the fact that all three scenes were low in color contrast might suggest that with scenes like that, one might want to opt for single-point AF to help the camera better identify its subject. But, again, as I said, these were relatively rare hiccups and likely the type of thing that would get sorted out as one gets more comfortable with the system.

One more setup to wrap up the evening and the camera was back to a 100% hit rate. The subject was sitting still. It was a night scene, but she was sitting in an area illuminated by a series of Christmas lights hanging overhead. I think the brightness of the scene likely aided the autofocus system, and I can’t remember any misses in that last section.

I realize that much of today’s article focused on the camera’s autofocus system. I chose to go into detail mostly on the camera’s autofocus system, because for DSLR shooters so accustomed to Nikon’s world-class autofocus over the years, this is one of the main areas of improvement that will be a final decider on whether Nikon’s DSLR install base will be willing to switch to their mirrorless systems. My simplistic take would be that the Z 6II put up very respectable numbers. There was the occasional hiccup which I’ve noted, but in both casual and professional shooting circumstances, the camera provided a hit rate plenty high enough for it not to be a concern.  

Is it better at focusing than a DSLR? It’s hard for me to say objectively. Especially with the Z glass attached, the Z 6II focuses fast and silently. Objectively, the hit rate I got shooting the Z 6II was slightly behind but very comparable to my D850. The D850 number might be marginally higher, but I also have to take into account that I’ve been using it for so long that my own muscle memory might come into play in any comparison. I can say that I never experienced any of those rare random situations where the Z 6II refused to focus while shooting with my D850. That’s not to say the D850 was never out of focus, but rather that it tended to miss focus by millimeters rather than not focusing at all. Then again, my DSLR doesn’t have edge-to-edge focusing points either. And regardless of the handful of times when face and eye detect weren’t sufficient, it is a fact that the Z 6II at least has the option to use that mode, whereas my DSLR does not. So, your preference will depend heavily on what you shoot. I think if your income relies on shooting fast-moving sports and activities for a living, a DSLR with a bright big optical viewfinder is still hard to beat. But if you just occasionally shoot action, for 95% of users, the Z 6II’s hit rate would be more than adequate. If you don’t shoot action at all, the camera would have very few flaws preventing you from picking it up. 

I have also aimed this series of articles at existing Nikon DSLR users like myself, because, in my opinion, the Z 6II is not so much a required update for current Z 6 users as it is an improvement to the original Z 6 with features aimed more at easing the transition for existing DSLR users. In other words, as an owner of the original Z 6 with the most up-to-date firmware, I’m not sure you necessarily have to trade up to the Z 6II. You might want to. But I wouldn't say it's a requirement. The Z 6II is definitely an improved camera. The two card slots and, for me, more importantly, the ability to limit your face and eye detection to a specific area of the frame via wide-area AF modes, makes the camera clearly better than its predecessor. Also adding Blackmagic raw capability to ProRes RAW is a big advantage for video professionals working in a mixed equipment environment. For those Z 6 users wishing you had a battery grip or looking to take advantage of the Z 6II’s ability to shoot while being powered via USB, this camera is also a step forward. But, if you don’t need the second card slot or the battery grip, the camera is more of an incremental improvement.

But those words really apply to Z 6 users. For DSLR users who have not yet made the switch to mirrorless and are shooting with a body like a D750, for example, the Z 6II might be just what the doctor ordered. Having owned and loved the D750 myself, I can say there is very little that that camera cannot do. With that said, once you add the Z glass, I do find the Z 6II to be a better shooting experience in most cases and enough of a leap forward in technology to make it worth the investment. Especially when you consider that the price point of the Z 6II gives you more for less than most of the competition. Nikon has addressed the early concerns about issues such as the need for dual card slots and provided a machine that is very capable of excelling in every scenario upon which it might be called upon. The camera would be great for weddings, events, documentary work, and almost any other scenario you might require as a 24-megapixel workhorse. Its main strength is its versatility. It can do a little of everything. So, if your work requires you to quickly shift between scenarios, stills, and motion, portraits and events, or what have you, this camera is a solid all-rounder to get the job done.

Conclusion

So what should you take from those results? I guess the first thing to state clearly is that the autofocus on the Z 6II is firmly capable of handling the majority of subjects you might throw at it. The hiccups in autofocus that do occur are more down to your subject matter, your choice of focus mode, and your tolerance for occasional hiccups with emphasis on the word “occasional.” Aside from focus, it also delivers amazing ergonomics, unbeatable image quality, and a terrific value at the price point.

There are very few other quibbles I would have about the Z 6II. And all of those would be far outweighed by the positives. Throughout this review, I’ve tried to give you as much detail as possible about shooting with the Z 6II in real-world situations. I find the more info, the better for buyers who might be seriously considering investing in the new system. But, for those who just want the bullet points, as promised, here is your 30-second wrap up along with a few minor details that I would love for Nikon to address in the next version or with a potential Z 8 or Z 9.

Dislikes

  • The video is still only 8-bit internal. Shooting 10-bit or 12-bit ProRes RAW or Blackmagic raw requires the Atmos Ninja V.

  • Missing the buttons that light up on my D850. It’s not something I miss all the time. But when you need it, you need it.

  • Oh, and chalk this one up to 100% a personal wish. But I wish I could change what the front and rear dials do when changing autofocus by holding down the custom function button. You can assign the function key to shift autofocus modes, like I have mine set to the bottom front button. Once set, you have to hold it down with one finger then rotate the dial to change modes. The front changes between single point, auto-area, face detection, and so forth. The back changes between manual, single point, and continuous. For me personally, it’s hard to hold down the lower button while turning the front dial.  So, I’d rather the more important action be on the back dial.  Since I rarely change between AF-C, AF-S, and manual in the middle of a setup, but I do frequently change between auto-area AF and dynamic-area. I’d prefer to have that on the easier to reach dial while holding down the function button. In my case, that’s the back one. As I said, 100% personal, but I’d love to be able to reverse which dial does what after holding down the function button. That’s assuming there isn’t already a way to do it that I am just not aware of, which is entirely possible. 

  • Missing the ability to assign different buttons, like the joystick, for example, to activate different focusing modes. Especially important given that mirrorless cameras seem far more dependent on frequent focus mode changes. This could be a big advantage.

  • Occasional lapses in autofocus. If you’ve read this entire series, you’ll know it’s situational but thoroughly manageable. Still, it would be nice to see Nikon continue to develop the autofocus to eventually match the dependability of the DSLR line. They are, however, clearly headed in the right direction.

Likes

  • Z lenses! Truly, to me, this is the main reason to switch to mirrorless systems. Sharpness and speed are out of this world. But, perhaps most importantly for video shooters, the lack of focus breathing for video is a major advantage.

  • Video performance. Carrying on the Z 6’s tradition, Z 6 The Second continues to provide excellent video features for Nikon shooters. You can shoot pretty much anything with this camera if you know how to use it. And even if you don’t know how to use it, the built-in features make quickly doubling up on your scenes with both still and motion content a breeze.

  • Body design. I do usually prefer a heavier body, so I’m not at all bothered by larger DSLRs. But as mirrorless cameras go, no other brand did going small as well as Nikon. The cameras still feel very good in the hand and are very comfortable to use for long periods of time.

  • Edge to edge focusing points.

  • Snapbridge. I’ll admit that I never really used this feature much before. But setting it up and using it with the Z 6II was a much smoother experience than previous iterations.

  • Ability to have it plugged in while shooting. In a world of never-ending Zoom calls using your main camera as a webcam or shooting a long day on set without wanting to bring excess batteries, being able to shoot while plugged in is a major advancement.

  • A lot of value for the price point.

  • It’s a Nikon. Simply put, the files and color science you are used to from previous Nikons don’t get lost here. The files are beautiful with plenty of latitudes to be pushed and pulled when necessary. I didn’t see one shot that didn’t live up to the quality we’ve all grown to love.

I didn’t include the viewfinder, because that could be a plus or minus depending on your taste. Because of what I shoot, I still tend to prefer an optical viewfinder versus an electronic one. But, as electronic viewfinders go, the Z 6II has a beautiful viewfinder with limited lag that didn’t prevent me from capturing the action as some other mirrorless EVFs have. If you do prefer EVFs, you will find a lot to like here.

I also didn’t mention the tilt LCD. There is some debate over whether or not cameras should have fully articulating flip screens ideal for vlogging or tilt up and down screens more useful when behind the camera. As I don’t do a great deal of vlogging, I can’t say this is of utmost importance to me. I do, however, occasionally tape myself so I can understand why it might be nice. Whether it’s a pro or con is up to your use case.

At the end of the day, I guess everything is really up to one’s use case. I’ve broken up this essay into three parts because I wanted to focus on using the camera in various situations as I am aware that users will be purchasing it for various reasons. That’s the reason why there is no such thing as a perfect camera. We all have different needs. I haven’t compared the Z 6II to the Sony or Canon offerings. I’ve heard good things about their autofocus speed, however, all I can say is that, while I can’t directly compare them, that I never found the Nikon Z 6II’s autofocus speed to be at all prohibitive. I also have enjoyed shooting with Nikon for so long that I trust them to continually improve their system, autofocus and otherwise. With the Z 6II, they have only further proved my point. Not intended to change the world of technology, what they have instead chosen to do is build a machine that addresses the needs of their professional photographer install base. They’ve listened to some of the complaints about the Z line’s first iterations and built upon a solid foundation of a new generation of cameras that takes yet another leap forward. I can’t tell you for sure whether or not the camera is the right choice for you. But, I am confident that if you do decide to purchase the Z 6II, one thing you won’t be is disappointed.

Log in or register to post comments

18 Comments

Julian Ray's picture

Thank you so much Christopher for sharing your experience with the Z6ii in an informative, non-inflammatory, click bate free way.
I have to say that in my nearly 2 years of using the Z system I whole heartedly agree with your assessments.
As much as I love the Z6.... my hand always reaches for the D850 or D5 first.... but every time I go to grab, that reflex grows slower and slower.
Cannot wait to see what is next from Nikon!
Thanks!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks for reading. Am definitely looking forward to seeing what they release throughout the year.

Yin Ze's picture

I shoot with Sony a7riv and a9. Still miss the Nikon colors when processed through Capture One. I almost switched to Z6 from D810 couple of years ago but glad I got sony despite the skin tones on the Sony because of a9 silent shutter. I shoot lit portraits with Nikon and Sony a7riv and the Nikon looks so much better that I want to get 850 when it comes back down to $2500. The 810 and 850 are workhorses and I hope Nikon gets closer to 850 with Z6-iii and z7-iii.

JP dJ's picture

The D850 is great, yes. After 45 years with Nikon F-mount and Nikon pro-grade kit, I migrated to Z 7 and Z 1.8S primes. The Z glass is much better. The camera is smaller and that is in part taken away by the lenses that have more elements, but the camera is also lighter. For most kinds of photography, most use cases if you like, the Z 7 cameras - I replaced it by the Z 7ii late November - are great. When Nikon launched the Z system, I felt it was too immature and trusting their improvements I jumped over when they released firmware 2. Firmware 3 made a really big step ahead.

If I have problems then it is first because I treat a Z still like and old F2 or Hasselblad 500 series. With the D camera, I could easily use one AF point to focus, recompose and shoot.
The D850 has a sophisticated AF system, but in terms of "computer vision" it is rather limited. My feeling about the Z series is that Nikon have tried to reuse the D850 AF algorithms that rely on very limited image details instead of using proper AI computer vision that can tell us what it is looking at and through that description allows to control the autofocus focus. With the second Expeed in series ii there is enough processing power to do this very well.

Between the Z 7 series and D800 series starting with the E, there is one important "feature" that is lacking: the "low pass filter" that I call "fuzzy filter". That fuzzy filter disperses light across photosites as a way to help make raw processing easier. In raw processing a process called deBayerization needs to invent RGB color for each photosite scan value registered by the camera - this deBayerization then leads to mosaicking that again needs to be removed. The low pass filter makes this easier with its dispersion. A principle already used long time ago in turning scanning electron microscope data into images. You could call it hardware anti-aliasing. This requires Lightroom to work differently. And the Z 7 (ii) firmware needs to do its JPEG conversion differently. The result should be sharper.

As to autofocus, part of the problem is how to understand Nikon's AF menus. After I bought Steve Perry's guide and had patiently read the first 70 pages of over 400 I "got it".
Nikon has been praised for ergonomics (plainly called usability) but the AF menu structure stinks. In part because setting specializations of generic choices are in another chapter. In part because the naming is not intuitive. So while I do not need AF, auto WB, automatic exposure for excellent shots, I see the added value of AF as well as "Highlight weighted exposure" and want to use them. As Christopher Malcolm writes, the Z cameras are great for pros - people earning a living with photography who need to look at earn-back time.

As to the firmware development, I would expect improvement of menu structure, especially w.r.t. AF, improved support for depth of field shots so I can easily determine front and back depth borders of the sharp zone. Nikon may feel I have focus stepping, but that needs a tripod and subject that does not move or a lot of corrections in Photoshop. I need the old-fashioned approach that the Hasselblad/Zeiss lenses gave me.
But the first thing to get up to date is "computer vision AI" - its building block algorithms are more than 30 years old now. No, I do not need that for most of the work I did 40 years ago already, but I do want a couple new possibilities.

Jamie Grove's picture

Great conclusion, Christopher. I spent the last week doing my bread and butter shots (product photography and macro stacks). Camera performed great in these settings. I do have one question though.... WHY NO PICTURES OF THE POWER BALLS? You can't talk about delicious donuts and not share pictures. So cruel!

Jamie Grove's picture

Ok, I see she's eating them in that last pic but come on! :D

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Haha. If I got close enough to shoot product shots of the power balls, I would probably have eaten them instead of snapping the picture :-)

Mike Ditz's picture

Do you think the AF failures are operator error (new to you camera) or camera error?
I'd think that by 2021 good and accurate AF should be a given...

Christopher Malcolm's picture

There is definitely a learning curve on my end in adjusting to the autofocus modes with the Z cameras versus the DSLRs. By the end of my time with the camera, I was definitely improving with the AF. I still say the DSLR AF, right now, seems to be easier for me and faster to work with. BUT, the focus on the Z cameras is plenty capable. So, I don't think it would be a deterrent to anyone looking into the system.

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you Christopher. I once owned a lens with occasional AF hiccups. It happened every now and then - no big deal, I thought. Until one day a very nice shot was slightly out of focus. I never relied on that lens again. I'd rather have a camera whose (AF) shortcomings I know about than a camera with occasional AF hiccups that I can't control. Nevertheless I am sure mirrorless' AF will sooner than later be equal (or better) to that of DSLRs of today.
After reading your three fine articles, it seems clear to me that I should give the Z system a try. Thanks again, great work!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Jan. Definitely worth giving it a try to see if you might like it. Look forward to hearing more about your results.

Scott Poupard's picture

Great series. Thanks for putting it together. As to your "Dislikes" number 3 where you want to be able to change the roles of the main command dial and sub-command dial when choosing AF mode and AF area, you can do that...at least you can on my Z5. I assume you can on the Z6II. Look for "Customize Command Dials" (f5 on the Z5), "Change Main/Sub." Turn the "Autofocus setting" to ON. Hope this works for you.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you, Scott! I'll try that.

John Kane's picture

Went from the D610 to the Z6 (ver 1) and the focusing system was totally different, but after a couple of firmware updates, it is WAY better than the DSLR focusing was, and I literally NEVER miss a shot due to focus now. The Mark II version appears to be even better. The Z series lenses are remarkable, and I'll never look back. Love the improved grip option and 2-slot capacity of the Mark II and I look forward to staying in the Nikon Z line for some time to come. Thanks for the fantastic and candid review.

R S's picture

That shot of the woman running past the hedge, why is it not labelled as a composite? I cannot believe that is a genuine photo - she's floating without casting any shadow, yet her left leg is casting a strong shadow over her right leg. Sorry, but it doesn't look genuine.

Gil Aegerter's picture

Doesn't look like a composite to me. The ambient light is flat. The added lighting is low and in front of her, so it wouldn't cast a shadow.

Mike Ditz's picture

It looks kind of composity to me because how the strobe was balanced with ambient...She looks a little floaty but may because of the donuts!

R S's picture

A little floaty? It looks like she was cut out and glued into the photo. The lighting looks all wrong - with highlights on her back, shadows over her legs, and no shadows on the ground. It's hard to believe it's genuine. If it was, it's not a good image. The rest are much better, but that one jars.