Nikon D6 DSLR, Hands on test.

 

Hi to you all from the RCWP bunker. I hope this post finds you all safe and well in this crazy time!

Earlier this year I was again fortunate enough to be afforded the opportunity to test out the new Nikon speed demon flagship, this time we are now up to the Nikon D6!

Of course the world is a strangely different place at the moment. At the time I was loaned the camera we were just entering the first easing of the initial national lockdown here in the UK. As you can imagine my options were limited for testing. With the in mind I headed out to my local go to water birds site and of course a falconry centre to test the AF with some fast moving raptors. As such this will be a roundup of my thoughts rather than an in depth review.

One area I was keen to initially test was the sensor performance. On paper this looked to be the same sensor as in the D5, in fact many of the "CLICK ME!!! CLICK ME!!!" embarrassingly desperate YouTube pundits (YouTube thumbnail of someone looking open mouth shocked anyone...?) were quick to up their view counts with some very disparaging comments on the specs when announced. Being of (somewhat) more sound mind and morals I like to try things in hand before shouting my mouth off. If you would like a refreshingly balanced view on how camera pundits & other formally good sites are lowering their standards of reporting at the moment, see the great roundup on the subject by Matt Irwin here. Well said Matt 👍🏻

Anyway..... how did it go?

Image quality is, as expected, fantastic. The D# cameras from Nikon always have two things at their forefront, operational speed and low light image quality. More on this below.

BUILD QUALITY

To be honest, nothing new here that I haven't already said about the D3, D3s, D4, D4s and D5, but that is a GREAT thing. The D# bodies are tank like and can take an amazing beating. Full metal framework and full coverage with rubber sealing on the ingress points. My cameras certainly get abused and have never broken or dramatically failed outside of a full wedge of wet sand being flipped into the open mount of a D3 by a cheeky seal (don't ask!). The main difference is the body is slightly taller by a few mm to accommodate the new (and welcome) GPS chip now built into the body. Sand, rain, snow, dust, badger poop. This camera will survive it all and keep coming (as long as the lens is on... ahem..)

SPEED

Fast, super fast. That's mainly what you need to know but I'll of course elaborate. The headline upgrade for the D6 is the all new AF system. Improving, somehow, on the D5's setup (the previous and until now AF raining champ) we have a new dedicated processor just for AF processing rather than sharing the imaging cpu. Whilst the number of sensor points is actually reduced from 153 to 105, each and every one of those points is now a cross type. Yes, every one! The new Multi-CAM 37k processor is faster and more capable and dealing with that data and it and the sensors are capable at functioning in even lower light. What this translates too is even better focus tracking and initial acquisition with more accurate focus even with shallow DOF settings.

I didn't have a D5 in the hand to compare in the same moment but I did have my D500 which is one of my all time fav cameras and shares the same AF system as the D5. The step up isn't a clear cut, night and day improvement, mostly to do with the best in class performance of the D500/5 system already and the subjectivity of testing these systems. The D6 however did bring back more hits on fast moving objects as well as slightly faster acquisition. The fact that, given the D5/500 still (in my opinion) held the AF crown for serious work years after release, means the D6 improving on this is pretty great and a bigger achievement than many think. Whilst frames per second doesn't quite match the latest breed of mirrorless, at 14fps with all the functions active that is plenty for me.

This camera is aimed at those who need it to respond without any delay, this includes the larger body that allows for a very ergonomic layout of buttons and controls that has been subtly honed over the last few iterations of the flagship models. This camera certainly does that and is the fastest unit I have used in terms of thought to capture speed. You could hold a western type shoot of duel with these to see has the fastest hands.

Buffer is basically limitless in all modes as well assuming you are using a decent XQD or CFexpress card. There is a cap at 200, put in intentionally to prevent accidental card exhaustion in your bag. Lifting your finger and planting it down again strait away gives you another non stop burst. How I would have loved this buffer a decade ago!

More on the speed in a post next week with some tracking samples. Sign up to the newsletter or follow me on twitter, instagram or Facebook for updates.

IMAGE QUALITY

Great. The main area of quality for this machine is in low light performance and processing speed. This of course means less megapixels than the fine art camera of choice, the D850 (and now Z7/Z7 II). Whilst I certainly don't mind the 40+ megapixels of the slower cameras for a lot of work, the images out of the D6 are silky smooth, full of dynamic range and tak sharp when used with a decent lens. Whether it is simply the processing or (more likely) the sensor has undergone some hardware tweaks as well I don't know. But the low ISO dynamic range is improved over the D5 showing less noise when pumping up the shadows in Lightroom. The high ISO quality is second to none, reaching just ahead of the D5, which again was the class leader. It is not a huge jump ala D2X to D3 or D3 to D3s, but an improvement none the less.

Lucky chap that I was, I also had the opportunity to test the 120-300 f2.8. A pro lens in every sense including size, weight and cost. The lens paired really well with the bigger body and at the constant f2.8 light gathering really allowed the AF module to shine at its best as well as keeping bokeh fans happy at all focal lengths.

Grebes, Great Crested Grebes to be precise are some of my favourite animals to photograph close to home and with the backlit, misty light I love it often presents a challenge to AF systems. The D6 handled it all very, very well. Especially considering it wasn't in its primary wheelhouse, fast action. The colour tones/depth and range is fantastic with plenty of processing options in Lightroom (Lightroom classic, classic for the win). These images can (and will) go to my image agents and clients without issue.

See below for some of the highlights (and shadows... hah! Hilarious)...

QUICK ROUNDUP

So, a great camera all in all!

But, the landscape for cameras is changing yet again, with the rise of mirrorless is the D6 still relevant? Yes. It is a specific tool for a specific type of person. Personally for most of my work I have now switched to the Nikon Z mirrorless system for its advantages and when in my hands I don't really miss shots because of it and the image quality is fantastic as are the ergonomics and I LOVE the smaller travel weight I now have. The dedicated Z lenses are stellar and the system has a bright future, one I am sticking with. Maybe if I want to specialise in videos of small yellow boxes dancing around chasing after strange humans on a bikes cycling towards me down a street I might switch to another so called "better" brand but... ahem, I don't.

Until the true mirrorless D6 equivalent appears, for my money the DSLR cameras do in general outperform their mirrorless counterparts in the speed and responsiveness area (note FPS is only one small part of the equation that is less important than you think). It is undoubtably a mirrorless future and I am chomping at the bit to try whatever the new mirrorless, speed demon re-mortgaging required flagship will be. But until then I will shoot with a mirrorless for my main work and carry a high performance Nikon DSLR out in the field as well. On my most recent trip to Africa the Z7 got the most use by far but whenever a cheetah was about to do its thing, I still reached for the DSLR, they are just more confident cameras; for now. As well I have more muscle memory using them under pressure, again for now. Come 2022 when I head back out to the Masai Mara it may be a different story. I will be writing up my experiences with mirrorless out on safari later this month. If you need this camera, you will get it and it will work fantastically for you, it will not disappoint.

So, what's not to like? Well a few things, but none are a surprise or a "ball drop" by Nikon really. Firstly, noise (the sound kind, not the imaging kind). One thing I love about the Z7 is it is a truly quiet/silent camera. The advantages of this are obvious with wildlife photography. I have developed my field craft over the past years to allow for the click of a shutter and this limitation now being removed is quite refreshing. The D6 is by its very nature a comparativly loud camera. Secondly, if you are serious about video shooting, this probably isn't the camera for you. I am not a video shooter outside of some fun stuff out on the African plains nor am I an influencer by profession so not an issue for me. This camera is very much a thoroughbred stills camera and it knows it. Video is perfectly fine though and capable of professional results in the right hands, especially if you have a focus grip in your employ on set.

More on the D6 in a few days! Thanks for stopping by.

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