During the New Years holiday, my family and I went on a Disney cruise to the Caribbean. Throughout the holiday, I shot exclusively with the Nikon Z 6 and the 35mm f/1.8 S lens. I shot this combo both indoors and outdoors, as well as in a variety of different lighting conditions. I shot portraits, scenery, action shots, and video. All in all, I snapped plenty of photos to get a good feel of this combination.
Ergonomics and Layout
My first DSLR was a Nikon D50. Perhaps it's because it was my first real camera, but I've always enjoyed the way Nikon cameras feel in the hand. The Nikon Z 6 feels very much like other Nikon bodies. It has a nice comfortable grip with room for my pinky finger (something that other manufacturers haven't quite figured out yet). The control layout is ok, but nothing special. I much prefer the layout of the controls on the D850 to the Z6.
The Nikon layout and ergonomics are one of the main reasons that people love using Nikon bodies. Rather than going for a tried and true body style like their DLSRs, Nikon changed things slightly. Although similar, it is a different feel and layout than their pro DSLRs like the D850. Even thoough I prefer the feel of their DSLRs, the Z 6 does have a much nicer feel and layout than the competition. In comparison to the Sony a7/a9 series, the Z 6 is much nicer, but not quite as good as the Panasonic GH5/G9 cameras. Fuji's has it's own unique design that doesn't compare well to the the DSLR feel of the aforementioned cameras.
Regarding the menus, they are very Nikon like - both good and bad. The only real complaint I have is that the buttons aren't customizable enough for me. Specifically, I was wanting a protect/lock button during playback on the back of the camera. I tried, but I could not map that functionality to any of the rear buttons - only one of the front buttons that I was currently using for another function. Therefore, I had to change the settings on the back button that I was using to protect images when reviewing, and back again to the default setting when I was back to shooting. All in all - quite annoying.
The tilting screen and EVF are everything I would expect them to be in 2019 - great! A front swiveling LCD would be convenient for vlogging, but those swiveling LCDs have disadvantages too. Namely, they are awkward to use when shooting stills. Personally, I like tilting LCDs more for photography, but a front facing LCD option would also be quite useful.
Regarding the joystick and control pad, they work just fine too. I really have no complaints about the buttons other than the aforementioned lack of customizability.
Autofocus and Usability as of 1/13/2019
Nikon just announced some new autofocus and video features at CES 2019, but they are not available for end users at the the time of this writing. Therefore, I can only comment on my own personal shooting experience to date. One main feature they announced in an upcoming firmware revision is the ability to have eye detection with regards autofocus. I for one can’t wait for that addition!
Point to point autofocus is quite good, not as fast as micro 4/3 cameras like the Panasonic G9. I'd say it's on par with the Sony a7R III. It might not be as fast as a DSLR like the D850, but it’s nothing terrible. Compared to the Fuji X-T3, the Nikon feels more responsive than the Fuji. I’ll be writing more about the Fuji X-T3 in an upcoming review, but being an owner of the X-T3, I think there’s a lot of paid reviewer hype and bias around that camera.
One thing I really like about the autofocus of the Z 6 is that you can tap on the screen to focus and shoot where you would like. Other cameras have this feature too, but it seems well implemented on the Z 6. Mind you, not lighting fast like the G9, but definitely usable. I typically alternate between the single point autofocus and the face detect mode. With regards to face detect, I find that when I was shooting family and people in a vacation setting, I relied on two features to get the shots. Namely, continuous autofocus and the ability to shoot multiple frames per second. Even thought the face detection does a good job of getting shots in focus, I’m eager to see how they implement the eye detection in the upcoming future firmware.
Choice of XQD
XQD cards are definitely quicker, more durable, and better than SD cards, but it’s just annoying that there are not a lot of XQD manufacturers out there. Nor are there very many sales on these cards. Furthermore, there's wide acceptance of this newer card format either. Personally, after using and XQD card on both the D850 and now the Z 6, I prefer it to SD Cards.
One thing is for sure though, I would definitely go out and buy a separate XQD reader. The Z 6 when used as a USB card reader is painfully slow. I thought there was something wrong with my camera until I did a Bing search and found another posting about the Z 6’s USB-C ports abysmal performance (article here). In comparing the performance of the Z 6 via USB vs an XQD reader connected to my iPad Pro, the difference is noticeable and staggering.
My recommendation? Use the USB-C port for charging only - nothing else.
Let's Talk About Video Quality...
While the video quality might not be the highest bitrate of the hybrid cameras out there. Nor does it have the most creative profiles like Sony or Fuji, it does have a flat profile that works quite well. It is perhaps my favorite camera to use for video right now because of its ease of use, autofocus, and overall quality. The flat profile is easily graded, the autofocus is decent, it has in body image stabilization, and the new S lenses for the Z mount have fairly wide apertures. All in all, for video, it’s a well rounded package. It even has decent face detect and you can also tap on the subject that you want the autofocus to track with decent, but mixed results. Here are some video examples:
This first clip was shot on the deck of the 2019 New Years Eve Disney Magic Cruise on their sailing away party. It was during the late afternoon and the light was very good. In this video, the clip is straight out of the camera and shot in the flat picture profile. Uploaded directly to YouTube with no edits.
This second video was shot indoors in a low light environment during the countdown for New Years. Also shot using the flat picture profile.
This last video was shot at home, in my den, under terrible lighting conditions, but it did quite admirably. Also, I’m testing the audio quality, and color grading as well. I used the HDMI out to use my computer monitor as a front facing LCD to compensate for the lack of a front facing LCD. Audio was fed through to the camera by using a Zoom H6 as an XLR preamp for my Audio Technica BPHS1. I raised the audio volume slightly in post, but didn’t do any other alternations or enhancements to the audio. It was edited on my iPad using LumaFusion.
The Lens - Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S
Unfortunately, Nikon changed the exterior fit and finish of the Z lenses from their gold F mount counterparts. I really love the Nikon feel and look of their G lenses. They have a solid feel and construction and they are built to last. They have a unique quality to their design, and their lens hoods are some of the best constructed ones in the industry.
In contrast, the new S mount lenses (I currently own the 24-70mm f/4, 50mm f/1.8, and 35mm f/1.8) all look pretty bland. They’re functional, but not pretty. They are built solid enough though, and their lens hoods are also solid and attach well. I didn’t use manual focus at all during this trip, but the lenses are focus by wire which is great for video autofocus, but not for manual focus, die hards, or serious video pros. Although, focus by wire is becoming more of the norm.
Image quality wise, the combo is quite nice. I seem to remember when I used the 35mm f/1.4 G lens years ago that it really had some unique rendering qualities like excellent bokeh and pop. That was my first 35mm f/1.4 lens ever and I seem to have fond memories of it. I also really loved using a Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 for Leica M mount, but I think the sharpest and best 35mm lens I ever used. was Canon’s 35mm f/1.4L II lens. That less is probably the one thing I really miss about shooting Canon cameras. Regarding the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S lens, in comparison to those others, is a nice and clean rendering. It’s sharp enough, has pleasing bokeh, allows fairly close up shots, and works really well.
All in all, it’s really good, but not great. I hope Nikon comes out with a better, albeit more expensive, f/1.4 or faster 35mm lens with more contrast and pop. I realize these are all elusive and hard things to quantify, but there’s really nothing wrong with this lens, it’s just nothing special. The 35mm f/1.8 is good, nice, is well rounded for a variety of subjects, and it’s a good value. That being said, I’d gladly pay more for a Nikon Z lens equivalent of the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II.
All of the photos in this article have been edited using my iPad using Lightroom and VSCO. Let's take a look at some samples: