Today, we jump into part two of my three-part series on my experience shooting for the past three months with the new Nikon Z 6II mirrorless camera. In part one, we went over ergonomics and first impressions, while in today’s episode, we will take the camera out into the field to visit the wildlife.
If you are up to date on your mid-2000s comedy references, you will, at some point, have likely heard the bit of sage wisdom: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” This was, of course, proclaimed unironically by the coach of a dodgeball team who then proceeded to heave one of the metal implements at an unsuspecting player. This is kind of how I feel about bird photography. If your autofocus can keep up with birds in flight, it can probably keep up with pretty much anything. In fact, while as I stated in the first part of this series I am definitely not a professional wildlife photographer, one of the main reasons I picked it up as a hobby was because I found it to be great practice for me in terms of autofocus. In my professional life, I photograph advertising campaigns usually featuring rapidly moving athletes. Trying to keep an erratically darting bird in the frame and in focus makes my actual job seem easy by comparison. We will take the Z 6II onto a professional set next week to see how it keeps up with an athlete during a commercial shoot. But, for this week's article, we will be seeing whether or not it can dodge a wrench.
Day One: Birds in Flight and Testing Various AF Modes
Today, I’ll talk about three scenarios. Where did I succeed? When was I less successful? And what did I learn? First up, I headed out to a local wildlife reserve here in Southern California. It’s a place I go as much to relax as to shoot, but it is always carefully patrolled by small battalions of winged creatures zipping around overhead. Again, I am not a pro wildlife photographer, so I wasn't really in search of portfolio images. Instead, my goal was to cycle through the various options the Nikon Z 6II has for autofocus to see which was most effective and whether the camera could keep up. I started out in Auto-area AF. But, I also shifted into dynamic-area AF, single point, and wide-area AF on occasion. Additionally, I tried animal eye detection both on and off. Nikon’s animal eye detection is meant for household pets, but I was curious to see if it would help me get the eyes of a bird in flight tack sharp.
A couple of things were immediately apparent. One, as you might expect, the smaller the bird was in the frame, the harder time the camera in Auto-area AF had of identifying it as the main subject and accurately tracking focus. I found this to be particularly difficult when shooting one area of the preserve that is surrounded by luxury homes in the distant background. While the houses are a bit away, the camera did occasionally ignore the bird in the foreground in favor of what it felt were more interesting houses in the background. I didn’t have a great deal of luck using the tracking box in Auto-area AF on the birds. They were just too fast for me to lock onto. But, I repeat, I shoot birds for fun, not professionally, so a dedicated wildlife shooter might have a better chance with that particular model for the subject. As for me, I spent more of my time experimenting with the other options.
Next, I tried the dynamic-area AF mode. This is usually the mode I choose when I shoot with my D850, so I wanted to see how the Z 6II would compare in terms of speed when using the same autofocus mode. It worked fairly well. Although I will say that shooting in dynamic-AF on my D850 felt a wee bit faster versus shooting the same model on the Z 6II. That is not a scientific opinion, and it may simply be because I'm so used to shooting with the other camera, but it felt that way during my initial try. At least in my initial try. More on that later. I also haven’t, as of yet, figured out how to shift from dynamic area 9 to 25 to 72 to 153 as you might on a DSLR or if such a change is even possible. So, if you can, and it’s something I’m missing, please do let me know in the comments.
Perhaps because I am so used to shooting with the optical viewfinder of a DSLR and have not yet fully gotten used to the bouncing boxes of electronic viewfinders, I wasn’t 100% confident while in the process of shooting that I was actually nailing my focus. I spent a large part of the drive home on that first day fairly convinced that I hadn’t been able to keep up at all. But when I finally got home and was able to look at the files in Capture One, I noticed that my hit rate was actually significantly higher than I thought it was, pretty darn good, to be exact, with a very high hit rate compared to previous trips to the same location. As I said, it might have just been me adjusting to using the EVF on the Z 6II versus the optical viewfinder on the D850, but I definitely was not expecting the results to be as good as they were. Not bad for my first try.
Day Two: Birds That Don’t Like To Fly and Video Performance
My second attempt to photograph birds was a slightly more mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong. I still had a high hit rate. But this time, I did encounter an issue I had read about in previous reviews of the system, but up to that point, hadn’t dealt with. What made the issue even more vexing was that it occurred in what should have been a far less demanding situation. Whereas my first encounter with birds took place with them zipping around aimlessly overhead, shortly before New Years', filled with holiday cheer and a bit too much turkey, I took a leisurely stroll around the LA Arboretum to take in some landscapes. The grounds are littered with all kinds of birds, but most of these birds would rather walk than fly. This should make them fairly easy targets, as many of the birds are so used to people that they will literally sit down for you to take a picture.
Again, the results were promising. Alternating between Auto-area AF and dynamic-area AF, the images were reeling off crisp and fast. Upon entering an open field where there were large gaggles of birds strutting around the property as if they were going to square off like The Jets and The Sharks, I took advantage of the Z 6II’s easy video functions. With the flip of a switch, I entered motion mode just in time to capture a posse of feathered friends streaking across the frame “Reservoir Dogs” style. The full-time AF mode worked terrifically, picking up each bird as it passed by. One of the things I love most about both this iteration and the original Z cameras is how quickly one can jump back and forth between stills and motion without skipping a beat.
In fact, before finishing this story, I should probably pop in here for a moment to discuss the Z 6II’s video performance. As I’ve mentioned, the reason I owned the original Z 6 was largely as a video companion to my D850. The original Z 6 provides excellent video capabilities and that has only continued with the Z 6II. The autofocus is reliable. And the Z lenses are fast, silent, and don’t show any signs of the focus breathing prevalent in F-mount glass. Despite having a bevy of more expensive cameras to choose from for video projects, I have, on more than one occasion, chosen to shoot professional projects with the Z 6 or Z 6II simply for the form factor and excellent performance. They make for an excellent video choice. Especially for a Nikon stills photographer needing to also provide video and wanting both assets to maintain the same visual feel.
There is one big limitation which I’d love to see Nikon address with future updates. Specifically, the camera’s bit rate. It is both tops of the line and limiting at the same time. By allowing you to shoot 10-bit or even ProRes RAW or Blackmagic RAW via an external recorder, Nikon has given us a system that can really interact well with a top-of-the-line professional video workflow. But, the key part of that description is that those things are only available when tethered to an external recorder like the Atmos Ninja V. Internally, the camera only delivers 8-bit recording. Don’t get me wrong, for vlogging, short video clips, and lots of other stuff the 8-bit is great. But having done a number of side-by-side tests, at least in my own opinion, the 10-bit and 12-bit both deliver a far better result. Again, that’s my opinion. But it means that every time I want to shoot a video in earnest with the Z 6II, I tend to attach my Atmos. It works. But, remembering that one of the main advantages of mirrorless systems is the small form factor, once you mount a monitor you dissipate much of that advantage. Combined with the Atmos, the rig is still technically smaller than my Canon C200 cinema camera, for instance. But not that much smaller considering that the C200 and even some of the competing mirrorless systems allow you to shoot 10- or 12-bit raw video internally, eliminating the need to attach an external monitor. If you are working with a large crew on a larger set, this size difference is negligible. If you’re working solo trying to navigate just how much stuff can be physically stuffed inside a backpack, this might be a minor practical dilemma. Not a big issue, but 10-bit internal would be on my wishlist for future models.
Now, back to the arboretum. As I started walking off of the field, I came upon another solo bird. He had apparently just broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to spend the afternoon off in the corner sulking. But he had such great feather detail that I couldn't leave him alone. I kneeled down, framed him up, pressed down on the AF button, and, then, wait, what? Instead of focusing on the stationary bird a safe social distance of six feet away, the focus jumped straight to the background. The background, a fairly routine treeline, wasn’t all that interesting, but, for whatever reason, the camera locked onto it and wouldn’t let go. I tried focusing elsewhere then coming back to the bird so it could try again. But, every time it would ignore the large bird in the frame for the background. I tried changing between the adapted glass and a native Z mount lens but got the same result. Even swapping focus modes didn’t seem to make a difference. Perhaps it was due to the color scheme of the bird and the background is similar, but the autofocus just didn't want to acknowledge the bird's presence. Worried I was going to lose the shot if I started digging through menus, I quickly refocused manually, but couldn’t quite figure out why it was struggling so much with a relatively easy seeming scene, especially since it had been doing so well up to that point.
I moved onto the next location in the park and was quickly met with a similar scenario. I guess the camera was just in a mood at the point. I saw a single piece of fruit hanging down from the tree in an interesting way. Actually, it wasn’t all that interesting as I discovered later when looking at the picture. But wanting to test out the bokeh of my lens, I pointed the camera at the fruit, all by it’s lonesome in the foreground, and pressed down on the AF button. Again, it kept everything in focus except the leaf I was pointing at. No big deal, I thought. I’m probably in the wrong focus mode. But even going down to single point autofocus and placing it directly on the meaty part of the fruit in the foreground didn’t seem to work. The camera simply refused to focus on it, forcing me again to manually focus. Both problem scenes had clearly identifiable subjects, but there was not a great deal of color contrast between the subject and the background. So, perhaps that makes it more difficult for the camera's autofocus system?
Don’t worry, I won’t give you any more missed autofocus stories from my day at the arboretum. Mainly, I won’t give you any more such stories because those were the only two stories like that from the whole day. The rest of the time, the autofocus worked perfectly. It was so good the rest of the time that one might even wonder if those two hiccups were worth mentioning. But, as I will get to next week when I talk about finally taking the camera onto the set to shoot some advertising images in a real-world scenario, incidents like that, though rare, can affect your workflow, so I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge them, even if the camera performed perfectly in every other situation that day.
Day Three: Finding My Happy Place and A Cameo Appearance
Speaking of performing perfectly, I’ve mentioned in this article and in last week’s article that the vast majority of focus issues with this, or any camera really, can often be solved by choosing the right focus mode. For some of us who aren’t used too frequently changing focus modes, this can be a learning curve. But, once you find the ones that work for you, you can unlock a camera’s true potential.
To illustrate this point, I will slide in a bit of a preview. As of writing this essay, I have already sent back my Z 6II loaner to its rightful owner and am in the process of trying out the Z 7II. That camera will get its own series of articles. But, because it and the Z 6II are essentially identical other than sensor size, I thought a brief mention of my bird autofocus test with that camera might be appropriate to include here since I had learned even more about the Z autofocus system, which would apply to both.
Yesterday, I took the Z 7II back out to the same nature preserve where I took the Z 6II for my initial test. This time out, I decided to spend the entire day in single-point AF while in AF-C. I’d tried all the larger, more dynamic modes with the Z 6II. I was curious to know what would happen if I went with a single point. Well, what happened was a near 100% hit rate with tack-sharp birds' eyes, even in flight. It was clearly more of a challenge to keep the smaller single point on the birds as they zipped past. But I was astonished by how well the camera kept up. This pointed out two things. One, the more you practice, the better you will get. And two, the camera is more than capable of keeping up. I’ll dig deeper into that day as well as how I accidentally discovered the amazing speed of my Z lenses when I finish my Z 7II evaluation. I’m only just beginning to explore that camera. But, as it and the Z 6II share the same base capabilities, it was a worthwhile test, and I thought the success of it was worth mentioning here, as you should be able to get similar results from the smaller sibling.
All in all, I can say that the camera was very effective on my trips out to shoot wildlife and birds. The vast majority of hiccups were easily fixed by changing my autofocus mode. In terms of frame rate, I found the speed of the Z 6II’s high-speed burst to be more than adequate. I’m not someone who sprays and prays, keeping my finger pressed to the shutter and hoping for the best, but I never had any trouble running into buffer issues or feeling I missed a moment due to shooting speed. The viewfinder was plenty big and bright with a fast enough refresh rate to be able to track the birds. In the Z line, the Z 7II might be preferable for wildlife simply due to its larger megapixels providing more cropping potential. But if you have the proper technique and the proper lens, the Z 6II is a very effective wildlife tool.
Of course, while I spent these first two articles as well as most of the early days with the camera familiarizing myself with it by shooting non-critical subjects like wildlife, pet photos, and even my afternoon walkabout, the real question was always going to be how the camera would perform when put to the test on a real set. My early trials were a good chance to put the camera through an autofocus stress test and learn about the ins and outs, but advertising images are how I afford to feed both myself and my gear addiction. So, how would it perform?
Tune in next week for the final part of my series on the Z 6II and a look at how it performs on the real set of a professional job.