Nikon Z6 Real-world Review for Cinematography

This is my comprehensive, no-holds-barred real-world review of the Nikon Z6 (AmazonB&H) for cinematography:

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And, get bonus videos - How to expose and grade N-log, and How I have tweaked my favorite picture control for video - delivered to your inbox!

Why is the Nikon Z6 (and Z7) unique for video?

  1. RAW video via HDMI (coming in 2019)
  2. Great low light ability
  3. You can use Nikon Z, G and D lenses (AI)
  4. 10-bit 4:2:2 in 90% of full frame

The questions I’m going to answer in this review

  1. Is the Z6 capable of cinematic quality? And if so, what are the best settings for it?
  2. How good is N-Log?
  3. How good are the lenses, and what are the best lenses? After all, this is one of the major selling points for video.
  4. Finally, how it compares to the BMPCC4K, Sony a7line and Panasonic GH5 cameras.

This last month I’ve tested this camera to hell and back, so I’m not going to hold anything back. If you’re looking for definitive answers, then this is the review you must watch and read.

Build Quality and Buttons

The Nikon Z6 (AmazonB&H) is tough and has never given any problems so far. The buttons and dials feel solid, except for two issues:

  1. Rear/main dial is clunky and rough on your thumb. The D850 has a perfect dial, I wonder why they felt the need to change that.
  2. On/off switch might be triggered while trying to change aperture. This design is consistent with other Nikon cameras like the D850, though their bodies are different.

Unlike the Panasonic GH5 or Sony a7S II, there is no second rear control dial. This would have been cool for faster changes, especially ISO.

The Nikon Z6 uses an XQD card, and I found it to be reliable so far. It is expensive, but one has the relief of knowing this format is more professional than SD. Having said that, I haven’t had any issues with SD cards either!

One unique feature of the Nikon Z6 (AmazonB&H) is there’s a tripod registration hole for pin. Unfortunately no cage manufacturer has taken advantage of it yet, but that’s a thoughtful addition to the camera body.

What is not so thoughtful is the extra depth of the FTZ adapter, which you need if you want to adapt Nikon G and D lenses. If you want to have the camera with adapter level on a longer baseplate, you need a riser of some sort. I use Arca Swiss plates and these come in various heights, so just experiment with something until you feel it’s right.

The in-camera level is the worst I’ve seen. Unnecessarily complicated and not completely intuitive.

The Z6 records 8-bit 4:2:0 internally. The only picture control specifically designed for video is ‘Flat’, but because of the heavily compressed (144 Mbps) codec, it quickly falls apart. There is no Rec. 709 profile in the camera.

Finally, the LCD doesn’t have a clean feed and has limited movement. To make things worse, there’s a 21 ms lag on the LCD.

External recorder via HDMI

You get a clean feed via HDMI, but no overlays. And if you go to the menu for whatever reason, the recorder treats like a new clip, and the menu is output instead. There’s just no way to change any of this behavior in camera.

Via HDMI, you get the option of 8-bit or 10-bit. If you choose the latter, there’s a 10% crop (1.1 crop factor), regardless of whether you pick N-log or not.

You also get the option to choose a limited range (studio swing) or full range (0-109 IRE). Pick the latter. Always.

In 10-bit, you can’t output 1080p 100/120 fps. The highest is 60 fps.

The lag in HDMI is tremendous. I’ve measured about 34 ms or 9 frames (24 fps). That’s a lot, and will make it hard for focus pulling. I hope Nikon fixes this.

Also, if you’re not careful with your IRE ranges, the black range goes negative, be very careful.

Exposure tools, or the lack thereof

This is the worse aspect of this camera. It makes shooting consistent video next to impossible.

Zebras are in 8-bit code values, and are only useful for highlight overexposure. I wonder why we need two zebras in this case? Zebras start at code value 180, which is the equivalent of 75 IRE, so its only useful for highlight detail and nothing else. I really hope Nikon can give us IRE values.

Focus peaking is fine. You can also punch in to magnify the image for great manual focus, however, you can’t use peaking and zebras at the same time, and you can’t check focus while recording.

The lowest shutter speed is 1/25, so no strobe effects.

We’re not done yet. There’s no in-camera meter for video. It appears for photography, but disappears once you toggle on video mode.

There’s no Rec. 709 mode at all. The Neutral profile is closest to the real world, according to Nikon, but that’s for photos, in sRGB or Adobe RGB. Not in Rec. 709.

If you’re shooting Log, you get a View Assist in camera, but Nikon doesn’t tell us what you’re seeing. Is it a Log to 709 profile? Who knows? What makes it worse is the back LCD is unreliable. The colors are off, which I verified with a production level monitor.

Finally, there are no frame markers. Not even the standard 1.85 or 2.39 markers.

The audio preamp is poor. Not usable for professional work.

Rolling shutter exists, but has never been an issue for me.

In short, Nikon has gone out of their way to ensure you can’t shoot great video internally. You MUST use an external recorder.

What about image quality?

For cinematic results you must use an external recorder and record 10-bit 4:2:2. Since N-log is gradable, you might want to shoot that for the best image quality. You need to know how to expose. Nikon’s white papers on N-Log are not as clear as Sony’s or Panasonic’s.

Low light performance is mind-blowing. You can shoot at 25,000 ISO no problem. 51,000 is mostly unusable but there are certain situations where it might work.

You get 12-stops of DR, but only in N-Log. For the others I’ve measured between 10-11.5 stops.

Unfortunately, there’s moire and aliasing in N-log via HDMI.

Both Neutral and Flat give great results internally but you need to grade. Since the codecs are too thin, it makes more sense to find a better profile internally. I prefer the Portrait style. Please sign up for my newsletter if you would like to see how I’ve tweaked the Portrait picture control.

Is Prores RAW worth it?

Who knows?

You might get a 10% reduction in frame size with RAW, just like 10-bit.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, Prores RAW is supported in FCP X only. Given Blackmagic’s proximity to Apple, they might introduce it in Resolve, and I’m pretty sure Premiere Pro will have it at some point.

So lots of unanswered questions about RAW. We don’t even know if it will be true RAW, with WB capability, or whether it will be 10-bit or 12-bit, etc. So it’s really best not to buy this camera for future RAW. Buy it for what it is today.

What lenses to use for video with the Nikon Z6

The Nikon Z6 (AmazonB&H) has a new mount, called the Z mount. You can adapt existing Nikon G and D (AI) lenses to this via an optional FTZ adapter.

The new Nikon Z lenses are focus by wire, which makes it useless for follow focus. They don’t exhibit breathing (at least the one’s I’ve tested), but that’s Nikon sending mixed signals.

Autofocus is unreliable except for basic vlogging work or interview setups. The best way to focus on this camera is manually.

Positives of the new Z lenses:

  • Full aperture control, even with AI D lenses
  • AF/MF toggle on body
  • Best VR
  • No breathing
  • Lightweight
  • Great image quality

Negatives:

  • Manual follow focusing for video work impossible by design.
  • When you switch off the focus changes.

With older lenses, you can use manual focus, with the FTZ adapter. Focus punch-in and peaking is great for manual focus. For serious video shooters, this is the way to go.

Cine lenses come in the Nikon mount, so it’s a no brainer. You have cine lenses in all budget ranges – Samyang, Sigma Art, Zeiss CP.3, Supreme Primes, Arri Signature Primes, Cooke S7, etc.

Bottom line

What’s the bottom line?

Is the Nikon Z6 capable of cinematic video?

Yes. Definite yes.

How good is N-Log?

It is very good. In fact, you might want to forget about RAW and just stick to N-Log. You’ll have the advantage of using the exposure tools from the Atomos Shogun or Ninja – the waveform, false color, LUTs.

How does it compare to the BMPCC 4K, Panasonic GH5 and Sony a7-line?

Image quality is important. In my review of the BMPCC 4K, I said it has the best image quality, but it also has (in my experience) serious usability problems. This is why I cancelled my pre-order. The camera is too unreliable.

If you can’t get the best image quality when you want it, then what’s the point?

Among these four cameras, I place the BMPCC 4K at number 4. I still have hope Blackmagic design will improve their cameras one day.

At number 3, I place the Sony a7S II and a7 III. Sony has great usability features, probably better than Nikon all things considered, but Nikon has two things – better skin tones, and RAW. The new Sony a7S II will have to be killer to shake this up.

At number 2, the Nikon Z6. I’m really excited to see if the RAW will be as promising as they say it will, and what compromises will be made. But still, it will be a ground-breaking feature nevertheless.

At number 1, still unshakeable, is the Panasonic GH5. I’ve made a video about 50 reasons why the GH5 is better than the BMPCC4K, so check it out. Bottom line is, if you are serious about cinematography, and want to earn money from it, the GH5 can do more kinds of projects with cinematic image quality. The package is unbeatable. And some of you keep asking me about the GH5S. I’m sorry, the GH5s isn’t on my radar, and I wouldn’t use it when the GH5 is just this awesome.

So you might have a valid question. If the GH5 is king, why bother with the Nikon Z6? Here are some good reasons:

  1. RAW video!
  2. The full frame (or at least 90% of full frame) look
  3. Better low light ability

Where the Nikon Z6 falls behind is in usability. You can use this camera to record internally, if you want to output straight to YouTube or whatever. But Nikon has gone out of their way to remove any useful exposure or color tools from this camera – no meter, no waveforms, no video specific picture profiles, useless Zebra, and so on. They obviously want video shooters to use an external recorder for video work. For the best image quality, you MUST use an external recorder to get the right exposure tools. Now whether that makes financial or practical sense is totally up to you.

Paired with an external recorder, the Nikon Z6 (AmazonB&H) is one hell of a beast, and I look forward to using my Z6 with the newer lenses. I’m sure things will just keep on improving from here.

That’s it for my review! If you want to learn how to expose N-log, sign up for my newsletter by clicking the link below.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my camera settings and 7 cinematic custom picture controls for the Nikon Z6. Setup your camera for cinematography, ready to shoot.

And, get bonus videos - How to expose and grade N-log, and How I have tweaked my favorite picture control for video - delivered to your inbox!

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10 Comments

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  1. Thank you for your videos and comments. I have a Nikon D850 and a Panasonic AG-DVX200. I just traded in the camcorder for the Z6 and took it to Hong Kong to test while on business. I missed a lot of onboard tools (waveform, zebra, GOOD audio and others). This is a camera that I do like however. I can find work-a-rounds for what it lacks, but the potential is great and I like the weight and size. I have worked with ALL the professional cameras as I was in the motion picture and television industry for over 35 years before retiring. I started with Panavision and Arriflex, as a 1st AC then Operator. Then moved my career to video and jumped to sound and camera rigger as a core crew member for CBS 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. For a retired “has been” this is a camera for me. It works great with my primes, Atomos and my primes. I DO hate the Z lens focus system as you commented and unless I am traveling with one lens and shooting stills, I know that when I shoot video, my “kit” will have a lot of extras. I look forward to the information you share with us and as Nikon releases firmware updates. If you have any recommendations on dealing with ADA shooters, that would be great. As the biz has taken its toll on me “I am now on canes”. Best G

    1. You’re welcome. I don’t have any experience with it, I’m afraid, but simplifying cameras and lenses can’t hurt. Also, you might be able to hire a local assistant through Fiverr or Upwork.

  2. Good review my dude! I keep telling people… The GH5 is just King right now. The closest competitor is the A7III. But it misses the video features that would put it at the top in exchange for killer low light and af. What we like about your reviews are the fact that they are practical man. Great work. Just one more thing… I did some work on HLG to see if it could replace Vlog-L… Uhhh maybe… Possibly. I think it would be great if you tested the GH5’s HLG file against the NLOG and VLOG-L. I bet you’ll find greater highlight recovery with the HLG files… Maybe 2-3 fstops worth. ?

  3. Not seeing where to register but add me to your subscription list! I’ll be shooting the play (hinted at with my faux commercial on website) over the next year and the Z6 Kit was my choice with which to shoot… “by hook or crook”

  4. Excellent review Sureesh…. I had no doubt in my mind that we could make a feature film on a shoe string budget using the Z6 and the Z mount series lenses right from the word go.
    It s great to see people like you being optistimistic.
    Please consider a professional course on film making using the Z6
    Let’s not forget that the second gen Z series will come. And we ll get nearer the output we get from more expensive cameras.
    Please also advise how we could use your paid consultancy for Indie Cinema for proper theatre release and film festivals….
    Thanks once again for the deep knowledge you have imparted.
    Keep up the great work.
    You have our support.