Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0

Started Jun 1, 2019 | Discussions
ericbowles
ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0
55

I just returned from nearly a week at and around Cape May.  I arrived May 16 - just in time to use the new firmware update for bird photos.   Cape May is one of the top 10 birding locations in North America.  I was leading a group part of the time, but did have a chance to shoot more than 4000 images with the Z6.  The high was 1714 images in one day on a single battery charge.

I previously had tested the Z6 with sandhill cranes and found the AF equivalent to the D810 - good but not as good as the D850 and D500 with a weakness in that Wide Modes did not support Closest Subject Priority properly

After the firmware update, I'd rate the Z6 AF performance as good or better than the D850 for fast moving subjects.  I had a D850 as a backup camera and tested it side by side for a little while, but I never had a reason to choose the D850 over the Z6 because of performance.  I prefer the Z6 and the EVF.

While a bit distant and cropped, terns in flight made a good, repeatable subject to test  the Z6 with teh Nikon 200-500.

My normal choice for birds in flight are the Wide AF modes. To the extent possible, I use Wide-Small, but will move to Wide Large if the bird is hard ot keep in the frame. The reason is Wide modes now incorporate closest subject priority - so as long as there is no obstruction, the subject has a very good chance of being in focus.

This was the kind of shot where Wide AF modes really worked - almost always picking up and maintianing focus on fast moving gulls.

On the ground, I use Wide Small some of the time, but also use Dynamic. Dynamic has a little bit of emphasis on closest subject, but really is useful because it is more precise. Wide modes often pick up the foreground or a nearby stick or pile of debris. Using Dynamic still lets me have a chance to track some motion - such as walking on the ground. The capture rate gets pretty low when they start to fly but it is still possible.

This yellow crowned night heron was at a rookery and easily photographed.  The preening behavior was a matter of timing.  This was using the Z6, 200-500, and 1.4 teleconverter.  The combination worked very well in good light - even for birds in flight.

Here is where Wide AF struggled.  For a few frames, the closest subject priority picked up the grasses in fornt of the bird.  But with Wide Small I was able to acquire focus eventually.  That's not the cameras fault - you just have to make choices.

For flocks the Wide Small and Large modes work well. I never once picked up the background while photographing a flock in flight. I prefer Wide Large, but Wide Small was fine.

Flocks are easy - but regardless of the size of the flock, I want focus on the birds nearer the camera.  The Z6 never missed by picking up the back of the flock, or the background.

I'm always using AFC for wildlife unless I have a perched subject with time to use Pinpoint AF and AFS.

I used the Z6 with the 105 f/2.8 macro to photgrpah some of the banding and research by New Jersey Fish and Wildlife.  They were banding red knots and ruddy turnstones.

I program my FN1 button to zoom to 50% and use it both before and after pressing the shutter release.

I used the 600 f/4 AFS VR, 200-500 f/5.6 with and without the TC14E III teleconverter, and the 300 f/4 AFS with the TC14E II teleconverter. All combinations worked for birds in flight - even the 200-500 + TC.

One of the area beaches had a nice group of oystercatchers and snowy plovers.  This was with the 200-500 and Z6 on a monopod in moderately overcast conditions.  I kept ISO levels below 1600, and noise was never a problem.

Overall it was a great week and the Z6 certainly exceeded expectations.  I have no reservations at all about using the Z6 for birds in flight or similar action.

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Eric Bowles
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tommiejeep
tommiejeep Veteran Member • Posts: 7,359
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0

Eric  thank you for the great images and sharing your AF settings.  I am just starting trying the various AF modes so bug help.  Hope I still have some birds about with Monsoon starting soon.

Cheers,

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Gabriele Sartori Veteran Member • Posts: 4,466
Finally an interesting post
10

The reason why I come here is to see posts like this one and learn something but they are fewer and fewer. Thank you very much !

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Regards
Gabriele
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michaeladawson Forum Pro • Posts: 14,890
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0

Nice images and examples of what the Z can do.

I was in Florida last month with the Z7 and 200-500mm just before the 2.0 firmware came out.  So I didn't get a chance to see how it improves things.  I was still struggling with BIF with the wide AF modes with the old firmware.

For still birds I found that the wide AF modes are too prone to lock on the front of the beak or the body of the bird (was shooting a lot of herons and egrets) so either I needed to stop down for DOF or switch to Dynamic or Single Point if I wanted the eye in focus.

Question for you... do you find the AF Tracking mode to just be too difficult to use when things are happening quickly?  That's what I found.  It was fine for tracking a heron walking on the beach (or willets, sanderlings, and turnstones).  But turning and seeing a bird flying in, I found it just too hard to get the tracking mode activated.

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Mike Dawson

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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0

michaeladawson wrote:

Nice images and examples of what the Z can do.

I was in Florida last month with the Z7 and 200-500mm just before the 2.0 firmware came out. So I didn't get a chance to see how it improves things. I was still struggling with BIF with the wide AF modes with the old firmware.

For still birds I found that the wide AF modes are too prone to lock on the front of the beak or the body of the bird (was shooting a lot of herons and egrets) so either I needed to stop down for DOF or switch to Dynamic or Single Point if I wanted the eye in focus.

Question for you... do you find the AF Tracking mode to just be too difficult to use when things are happening quickly? That's what I found. It was fine for tracking a heron walking on the beach (or willets, sanderlings, and turnstones). But turning and seeing a bird flying in, I found it just too hard to get the tracking mode activated.

I've never found AF tracking to be particularly useful for bird photography.  As you point out, it's fine when the background is constant and you are tracking a slow moving subject across the frame, but for flight it's not useful.  It's hard enough to keep the birds in the frame when they are moving rapidly.

I find the same thing about the wide modes.  The reason to not use the Wide modes is because you are picking up foreground elements.  Otherwise they are remarkably good for flying subjects.  Wide Small offers greater precision - and that's why it is my starting point rather than Wide Large.

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Eric Bowles
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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0

tommiejeep wrote:

Eric thank you for the great images and sharing your AF settings. I am just starting trying the various AF modes so bug help. Hope I still have some birds about with Monsoon starting soon.

Cheers,

Thanks, Tom - always good to hear from you.  I'm sure you'll really like the new modes after the update.

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Eric Bowles
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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0
1

One correction to the caption of the last image.  Editing does not seem to work.  The birds with the oystercatcher were piping plovers and semipalmated plovers - not snowy.  About 25% of the oystercatchers were banded and will be reported accordingly.

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Eric Bowles
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JimKasson
JimKasson Forum Pro • Posts: 31,445
Editing
2

ericbowles wrote:

One correction to the caption of the last image. Editing does not seem to work.

You can't edit a post once it has received a reply. You can, however, ask a mod to edit it for you.

Jim

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JimKasson
JimKasson Forum Pro • Posts: 31,445
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0
3

This is a great contribution to the forum.

Thanks,

Jim

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D200_4me
D200_4me Veteran Member • Posts: 4,740
Closest Subject

"I use Wide-Small, but will move to Wide Large if the bird is hard to keep in the frame. The reason is Wide modes now incorporate closest subject priority"

Was there a mention of this in the firmware notes or did you just happen to notice it behaves that way after the update?

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A Owens Veteran Member • Posts: 3,504
Z6 v Z7
1

Very interesting post. It leaves me wondering about the relative effectiveness of the Z6 and Z7 AF systems for this type of shooting. Any insights from those who have both cameras?

ghostfox_1 Forum Member • Posts: 90
Re: Closest Subject
3

Obviously not the OP, but I've noticed it works a little better, though I'm not sure how they changed it. It seemed for me to lock on to a group of flying geese and keep that focus even when panning over trees/brush this morning in iffy light. So there might be multiple unlisted changes that have been made. Or we're just getting better at working with the new cameras.

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copyfall Regular Member • Posts: 322
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0
1

ericbowles wrote:

I just returned from nearly a week at and around Cape May. I arrived May 16 - just in time to use the new firmware update for bird photos. Cape May is one of the top 10 birding locations in North America. I was leading a group part of the time, but did have a chance to shoot more than 4000 images with the Z6. The high was 1714 images in one day on a single battery charge.

I previously had tested the Z6 with sandhill cranes and found the AF equivalent to the D810 - good but not as good as the D850 and D500 with a weakness in that Wide Modes did not support Closest Subject Priority properly.

According to following post Z7 did not have CSP.

https://www.sansmirror.com/cameras/camera-database/nikon-z-mirrorless-cameras/nikon-z6z7-blog/what-happened-to-closest.html

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maljo@inreach.com Veteran Member • Posts: 7,980
Very good news!
1

Thanks for posting.

maljo

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Geomaticsman Senior Member • Posts: 2,934
Re: Z6 v Z7

A Owens wrote:

Very interesting post. It leaves me wondering about the relative effectiveness of the Z6 and Z7 AF systems for this type of shooting. Any insights from those who have both cameras?

Yes, I'd be interested in this too. Since the release of the Z6 I've read a couple of comments from Z6 owners that suggested AF-C performance is somewhat better than the Z7. Since the two cameras appear to be similar save for the sensor, I assume any differences in AF performance is due to better low light sensitivity and especially due the fact the smaller file size frees up processor power for other duties such as AF. So perhaps the firmware update has move the Z6's AF-C performance just that much further as compared to the Z7. FWIW my initial "seat of the pants" experience shooting my Z7 with 2.0 firmware was that any AF-C performance improvement *in challenging conditions* was insignificant.

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Garfield

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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Closest Subject
1

D200_4me wrote:

"I use Wide-Small, but will move to Wide Large if the bird is hard to keep in the frame. The reason is Wide modes now incorporate closest subject priority"

Was there a mention of this in the firmware notes or did you just happen to notice it behaves that way after the update?

I heard directly from Nikon at an NPS event during the pre-launch roadshow that Wide was supposed to use Closest Subject Priority like Group on the D850 and D5/D500.  But my testing in January showed a number of misses picked up the background.

I reported this to Nikon through NPS along with providing sample images.

I'm not at all surprised that this kind of improvement was included in the firmware update - and I expected it.  It was just such an obvious tweak to a new AF system to execute an exisitng capability on other systems.  But I did want to test and confirm the update was included.  With the volume of images I took, it was pretty obvious that the cameras fully embrace Closest Subject now.  Misses due to picking up the background were extremely uncommon.

Nikon - like most companies - does not disclose every change in firmware notes.  I'm sure there were a number of adjustments to the AF system and other performance improvements.  Apple and Adobe just give the generic "bug fixes" comment.

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Eric Bowles
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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0
3

copyfall wrote:

ericbowles wrote:

I just returned from nearly a week at and around Cape May. I arrived May 16 - just in time to use the new firmware update for bird photos. Cape May is one of the top 10 birding locations in North America. I was leading a group part of the time, but did have a chance to shoot more than 4000 images with the Z6. The high was 1714 images in one day on a single battery charge.

I previously had tested the Z6 with sandhill cranes and found the AF equivalent to the D810 - good but not as good as the D850 and D500 with a weakness in that Wide Modes did not support Closest Subject Priority properly.

According to following post Z7 did not have CSP.

https://www.sansmirror.com/cameras/camera-database/nikon-z-mirrorless-cameras/nikon-z6z7-blog/what-happened-to-closest.html

I read Thom's review earlier.  I think he means the lack of Closest Subject was a problem in execution - not that it had been consciously eliminated.

If you recall, Group AF was introduced with the D810 and was not very good.  By the time it got to the D5/D500, it was excellent.  Both the Z6 and Z7 were supposed to incorporate Closest Subject in the Wide modes.  I heard this directly from the head of NPS at the pre-launch road show.  I also communicated with them in January and reiterated what Thom said with sample images - that the cames were picking up the background in Wide modes when it should have been easy to follow the subject.

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Eric Bowles
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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Z6 v Z7
2

Geomaticsman wrote:

A Owens wrote:

Very interesting post. It leaves me wondering about the relative effectiveness of the Z6 and Z7 AF systems for this type of shooting. Any insights from those who have both cameras?

Yes, I'd be interested in this too. Since the release of the Z6 I've read a couple of comments from Z6 owners that suggested AF-C performance is somewhat better than the Z7. Since the two cameras appear to be similar save for the sensor, I assume any differences in AF performance is due to better low light sensitivity and especially due the fact the smaller file size frees up processor power for other duties such as AF. So perhaps the firmware update has move the Z6's AF-C performance just that much further as compared to the Z7. FWIW my initial "seat of the pants" experience shooting my Z7 with 2.0 firmware was that any AF-C performance improvement *in challenging conditions* was insignificant.

The Z7 has a higher resolution sensor with more AF points.  It's possible you could have more data to process, and performance is not quite as good for fast action.  But I don't know that to be the case.  The performance of the Z7 still should approach the D850 or better.

Technique for fast action is important, and even in the best of cases photgraphing fast moving birds is hard.  You'll notice I posted photos of flying gulls and terns - not a lot of single photos of red knots or other small birds.  I did test the Z6 on photgraphing swallows in flight, but it was with a 70-200 lens and they were quite distant.  I found that it was possible to photograph swallows and warblers in flight - something almost impossible three weeks earlier before the update.

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Eric Bowles
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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Z6 v Z7
3

A Owens wrote:

Very interesting post. It leaves me wondering about the relative effectiveness of the Z6 and Z7 AF systems for this type of shooting. Any insights from those who have both cameras?

I made a slightly longer response to a similar question, but the short answer is the Z7 should be quite good.  There may be a small difference in performance related to the number of AF sensors and amount of data to process.  I don't hink it's a show stopper by any means - probably just a minor drop in the hit rate.

I woould not hesitate to use a Z7 for the same images.  My philosophy is that a smaller sensor works well for high volume work like sports, birds, and events.  It was not based on AF or low light differences which are minor.

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Eric Bowles
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ericbowles
OP ericbowles Senior Member • Posts: 1,243
Re: Bird Photography with the Z6 and firmware 2.0

JimKasson wrote:

This is a great contribution to the forum.

Thanks,

Jim

Thanks, Jim

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Eric Bowles
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