What's new and how it compares

While comparing the Z6's specs against the Z7 is nice and all, in reality shoppers will be considering the Sony a7 III and Canon EOS R, both of which are priced around the $2000 mark. While we were quite smitten with the a7 III, the same was not true for Canon's first full-frame mirrorless camera. There may be other users who want a full-frame Nikon, but aren't sure whether to get the D750 (which is quite the bargain these days) or the Z6.

Key takeaways:

  • New, shorter, larger mount provides flexibility for lens design
  • In-body image stabilization will work with any lens you mount
  • More powerful processor enables full-width, full-pixel readout at 4K
  • Continuous shooting at up to 12 fps, but with limited buffer, long write times and exposure locked on first shot
  • Electronic first curtain shutter mode is off by default (enable it to avoid shutter shock)

Z-mount

The Z6 and Z7 use the all new Z-mount, which is a dramatic departure from the F-mount that's been around for decades. It is a much shallower and wider mount and its 16mm flange-back distance between the mount and the sensor means that almost any lens can be adapted onto the camera.

The combination of this short depth and a 55mm mount diameter (25% wider than the current F-mount) gives the designers plenty of room to direct light to the corners of the sensors without being constrained by the mount's throat. Nikon says this will allow it to make lenses with apertures as wide as F0.95 and, indeed, it's already working on one.

Nikon also released an F-to-Z mount adapter that allows the use of F-mount lenses on the new cameras. This has a mechanical aperture lever built in, allowing full use of AF-S and AF-I lenses. Older AF-D lenses will offer auto exposure (but no autofocus) and AI lenses will have full metering. There's no aperture tab for use with 'AI' or older lenses, though, so the camera won't record an aperture value. On the plus side, older pre-AI lenses will mount perfectly well and work in stopped-down mode in aperture priority or manual exposure shooting.

Sadly, Nikon says that it won't be sharing the technical details of the mount with third-parties, preferring for now to protect sales of its own lenses (this isn't a surprise, the F mount wasn't open either, and Canon does the same with its EF and RF mounts). So, unlike Micro Four Thirds and Sony E-Mount, third-party makers will have to reverse-engineer the Z-mount in order to offer compatible optics.

New sensor

Behind the new mount is a 24.5MP BSI-CMOS sensor which while 'Nikon-designed' is almost certainly manufactured by Sony. The sensor has 273 PDAF points and, while not as pronounced as on the Z7, striping/banding may be seen in darker tones, limiting dynamic range, though this seeing this phenomenon in the real-world is unlikely.

Nikon says the on-sensor AF system is rated down to -2EV with an F2 lens attached, which is one stop lower than the Z7. If you put the camera into 'low light' mode, it supports light levels down to -4EV, though the AF speed and refresh rate of the EVF suffer as a result.

The Z6 can support continuous shooting at up to 5.5 frames per second if you want updated live view between shots. If you aren't trying to follow action and don't need live view, the Z6's 'High+' mode can shoot even faster. This mode allows full autofocus but locks the exposure settings after taking the first image. High+ shoots JPEGs and 12-bit Raws at 12 fps or 14-bit Raws at 9 fps.

Given the difference in resolution it's not surprising that the Z6 has a deeper buffer than the Z7. That said, the camera's buffer does fill up quickly for a camera in this class. The Z6 can capture 41 Fine quality JPEGs and 32 lossless compressed Raws (12 or 14-bit) at its top burst rate. The buffer is essentially bottomless if you drop down to 'regular' continuous high mode. Since Nikon's own D500 and D850 have bottomless buffers at any speed, we have to wonder if corners were cut on the Z6 and Z7. Also note that, even with fast XQD cards, it can take a while to clear the buffer and return to shooting at full speed.

Electronic and Electronic First Curtain shutter modes

The Z6 (and its Z7 stablemate) are the company's first full-frame cameras that really make silent shooting usable for a wide range of users. Previous cameras, such as the D5, D850 and D500 offered silent shooting once you are in Live View mode - with the caveat that, in Live View mode, the autofocus is very slow. The Z6, with its on-sensor phase detection system, fixes that.

We estimate the readout speed of this sensor at roughly 1/35 sec, which is about twice the speed of the Z7 and the Sony a7 III. It can be used with burst shooting but is likely to mean compression or elongation of moving subjects or rolling shutter artifacts (slanted verticals) while panning. You're also likely to experience banding in silent shooting under certain types of artificial light.

There's also an electronic first curtain option that uses the electronic shutter to start the exposure and the mechanical one to end it. Doing so limits the minimum exposure duration to 1/2000 sec and the maximum ISO to 51,200. This is off by default but we think it's worth turning on (d5 in the Custom menu) to reduce the risk of shutter shock that can otherwise occur.

We're a little disappointed that electronic first curtain mode automatically doesn't revert to using the full mechanical shutter to give access to speeds from 1/2000 up to 1/8000 sec (you have to manually switch), but most people are unlikely to regularly need those shutter speeds.

In-body image stabilization

The move away from a 60 year-old lens mount has allowed Nikon to make room for in-body image stabilization. The Z6 offers five-axis correction for native lenses and is rated to 5 stops of correction, per CIPA standard testing.

With adapted lenses it drops to three axes of correction (pitch, yaw and roll). It doesn't attempt to combine its effect with that of adapted lenses that offer Vibration Reduction. Instead, it passes-off responsibility for pitch and yaw movements to a VR-enabled lens while continuing to offer roll stabilization. This means long lenses, which are difficult to stabilize using in-body stabilization, will still be well corrected.

Unusually, the stabilization system used in the Z6 mechanically locks when the camera is switched off, so there's no disconcerting sensation of the sensor bumping around if you run with the camera.

In Full HD (1080p) video mode there's an additional level of electronic stabilization that can be added on top of the in-body stabilizer, with a modest 1.1x crop applied.

Updated image processing

The Z6 features an Expeed 6 processor which, in addition to more processing power, brings a couple of additional functions compared to earlier generations. The most obvious of these is a 'Mid Range Sharpening' option that's been added to the Picture Control JPEG parameters. This is an additional algorithm that lets you tune the sharpening of edges independently of overall image sharpening.

The updated processing also adds 'diffraction compensation,' which essentially sets the camera's sharpening based on the selected aperture to compensate for the blurring effects of diffraction.

Video features

The Z6 offers the ability to shoot 4K video using the full width of the sensor, without any line-skipping. The camera has the ability to output a 10-bit 4:2:2 Log stream over HDMI or to simultaneously output and record non-Log 8-bit signals. It also gains the ability to shoot 1080 footage at 120 fps.

The video breakthrough that doesn't appear in the spec sheet is the use of the same on-sensor phase detection AF system and interface as in stills mode. This is likely to have a profound impact on what the camera is like for shooting video.

How it compares

Nikon Z6 Canon EOS R Sony a7 III Nikon D750
MSRP (body) $1999 $2299 $1999 $1999
Pixel count 25MP 30MP 24MP 24MP
Sensor tech BSI-CMOS CMOS BSI-CMOS CMOS
AF system On-sensor PDAF On-sensor PDAF (Dual Pixel) On-sensor PDAF Secondary sensor PDAF
Image stabilization 5-axis Lens only 5-axis Lens only
Maximum frame rate 12 fps
(12-bit Raw only)
8 fps 10 fps 6.5 fps
Viewfinder
res / mag
3.68M dots
/ 0.80x
3.68M dots
/ 0.76x
2.36M dots / 0.78x Optical / 0.70x
Rear screen 2.1M-dot tilting touchscreen 2.1M-dot fully articulated touchscreen 921k-dot tilting touchscreen 1.3M-dot tilting (non-touch)
Top-plate settings display Yes (OLED) Yes (OLED) None Yes (LCD)
Built-in flash No No No Yes
Video capture UHD 4K
(full sensor)
UHD 4K
(1.83x crop)
UHD 4K
(full sensor)
1080/60p
(full sensor)
Log modes N-Log (HDMI only)
10-bit
C-Log
8-bit (internal)
10-bit (HDMI)
S-Log 2 / 3 / HLG
8-bit
None
Memory cards Single XQD Single SD Dual SD Dual SD
Battery life (CIPA) 380 shots (LCD)
310 shots (EVF)
370 shots (LCD) 710 shots (LCD)
610 shots (EVF)
1230 (OVF)
USB-charging Yes Yes Yes No

When put up against its mirrorless peers the Z6 is at or near the top in most categories, at least in terms of spec. The internals are more Sony a7 III than Canon EOS R, while the opposite is true for the body and design (generally speaking). The Z6 is also a step up from the D750 in most respects (battery life being a major exception,) though some will bemoan the lack of a secondary memory card slot.