The Nikon D6 faces a difficult challenge. Its two rivals in the full-frame professional camera space are absolute monsters, with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III being the most advanced camera we’ve ever used, and the Sony A9 II bringing all the benefits of mirrorless shooting into the pro sports sphere.
And, while both of those cameras were greeted with excitement and enthusiasm from the industry (particularly the 1D X Mark III, with its overwhelming array of new technology) response to the Nikon D6 has been tepid, given its comparative lack of standout new features compared to the Nikon D5.
While all three are obviously among the best professional cameras on the market today for pro sports shooters, when compared to its competitors (which we did, in our Olympic camera shootout) the results didn’t seem entirely favourable. Does that head-to-head comparison tell the full story, though? Taken on its own merits, what does the D6 have to offer – and how much will it truly improve on the D5?
Sensor: 20.8MP full-frame CMOS
Autofocus: Viewfinder: phase-detect AF with 105 focus points (all cross-type) • Live View: contrast-detect AF at all points in frame
ISO range: 100-102,400 (exp. 50-3,280,000)
Max image size: 5568 × 3712
Metering modes: Matrix, centre-weighted, spot (not available for the movie), highlight-weighted
Video: 4K (UltraHD) 30/25/24p • 1080p (FullHD) 60/50/30/25/24p
Memory card: 2x CFexpress (Type B) and XQD memory card
Max burst: 14fps
Connectivity: Wi-Fi (2.4 and 5GHz), Bluetooth, USB-C, HDMI mini, gigabit ethernet up to 1000BASE-T
Size: 160 x 163 x 92 mm
Weight: 1,270g body only • 1,450g with battery and two CFexpress cards
At first glance, it’s easy to see how many consumers were nonplussed by the Nikon D6’s specifications. However, there’s much more to this camera than is revealed by a spec sheer alone.
The first key selling point of the D6 is the improved continuous shooting speed of 14 frames per second – an improvement of 2fps over the D5. And while that might not sound a lot, anyone who has shot professional sports or wildlife will tell you that those ‘frames between the frames’ can be the difference between an award-winning cover shot and a missed opportunity.
That’s a significant improvement on the D5, but all those extra frames are no use if you don’t have an autofocus system that can keep up. Fortunately, the D6 has Nikon’s best-ever AF engine, powered by the new Multicam 37K sensor and 105 cross-point AF program, representing 1.6x greater density of coverage.
Adding to the autofocus system’s robustness may be the fact that eye AF is available in 3D tracking and Auto AF area modes. And you can further stack the subject acquisition deck in your favour with 17 customizable group area AF choices.
All of this services the same 20.8MP sensor from the D5, though it is bolstered by the all-new Expeed 6 imaging processor. Also new is support for CFexpress memory cards – and the manufacturer has finally got the knack of SanDisk’s Type B cards, which have been problematic on the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7. You can also use XQD cards if you have them, which are also compatible.
In terms of connectivity, which is where the rubber meets the road for working pros, the D6 has all the bases covered. It now offers built-in 5GHz Wi-Fi and GPS (both of which required external modules on the D5), with gigabit ethernet supporting 1000BASE-T – achieving a claimed 15% faster communication than its predecessor.
We tested the Nikon D6 shooting a series of basketball games as well as some light birding – and it performed brilliantly, whether following frantic players hustling a ball around the court or capturing the twitches and chirps of birds while fishing.
However, while it should be made clear that 14 frames per second are enough to capture crucial moments when shooting sports and wildlife, the fact remains that the Canon and Sony are both capable of 20fps – which means they simply get shots that the Nikon misses.
Nikon’s new autofocus system is a wonder, with the capacity of the kind of intelligent tracking and acquisition that you need in split-second situations. It recognizes subjects almost as fast as you can point your camera at them, and more importantly, it doesn’t lose them when your view is interrupted.
It doesn’t matter if it’s shooting through the courtside cage, or even if other people pass in front of your targeted player, or if your bird decides to hide behind reeds or even undergrowth; the D6’s AF is fast, intelligent and reliable enough to keep you locked onto your subject.
It’s difficult to empirically test, but in our testing, it held its own with Sony’s much-celebrated AF (though we did miss Canon’s brilliant head tracking AF whenever a player turned his face away from the camera, which resulted in focus gradually shifting to a second face in frame).
That said, while 105 cross-type AF points is a step up on its predecessor (which had 153 overall but only 99 cross-type and just 55 selectable), that little cluster of points squished into the centre of the frame does cramp your shooting style. With Canon offering 191 factors (with a whopping 3,869 in Live View) and Sony 693, shooting with the D6 does feel notably more restricted.
Where the camera’s autofocus lets itself down, though, is in Live View – and, hence, video. When shooting through the viewfinder, you have the benefit of the D6’s rock-solid phase-detect AF system. However, switch to Live to See and you’re stuck with primitive contrast-detect AF – and for shooting sport, unfortunately, it’s borderline unusable.
We made every effort to record a single ‘clean’ clip from several one-on-one basketball video games, but every single time the autofocus led to an issue. Face detect would sometimes find faces in the scenery, and other times refuse to pick out any of four faces actually in the framework.
Subject monitoring would change between players, even those who looked nothing alike – no exaggeration, at one point it decided that it should target a short gamer with a black shirt and short hair when it was supposed to be following a tall participant with a white shirt and dreadlocks.
The focusing in Live View is nervous, erratic, and hunts and pulses all over the place – making the video not fit for purpose, and making it hazardous to use the rear screen even for stills purposes (which you’ll need to do if you want to use the D6’s 10.5fps silent shooting). It’s a very long way from Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF.
Something you definitely can and should use the rear screen for, however, is input. The LCD is now touch-sensitive, giving you fingertip control over the digital camera and settings – and also feeding into some of the most useful features, especially for working pros.
In addition to being able to transfer, rate, protect and add voice annotations to your images without pressing any buttons, the D6 enables you to prioritize your most important photos in a transfer queue by simply clicking the images up or down while viewing. So if you’re uploading 400 images to a picture editor but you know that the 358th image is the killer shot, you can instantly send it to the top of the list (complete with a voice tag, to provide a ready-made caption).
Check Out: Best Nikon D6 Lenses
If you want a camera purely for stills, and capturing fast action, the Nikon D6 is a powerhouse. The new AF system is fast and reliable, the ISO is unrivalled, and the cutting edge connectivity paired with clever software make this a powerful pro tool. However, its specs are uniformly outgunned by its two main rivals – and the continued reliance on contrast AF for Live View (and, hence, video) is a big sore point. For working professionals already in the Nikon ecosystem, it’s a worthy upgrade; for those investing in their first pro body, there are superior options.