If you are looking for a camera that is solely for still photography and capturing fast action, the Nikon D6 is an excellent choice. While the new autofocus system is fast and reliable, the ISO is unrivaled, and the cutting-edge connectivity paired with clever software combine to create a powerful professional tool. However, its specifications are consistently outperformed by those of its two primary competitors – and the continued reliance on contrast AF for Live View (and, consequently, video) is a major source of frustration. For working professionals who are already a part of the Nikon ecosystem, this is a worthwhile upgrade; for those looking to purchase their first professional body, there are better options.
- Unfaltering stills AF
- CFexpress support
- Incredible ISO
- Lots of control dials and buttons
- Touch-sensitive screen
- Overkill for most photographers
- Live view focusing not great
- Poor video focusing
- Out-specced by rivals
Photographers who work in sports will appreciate the Nikon D6, the company’s latest flagship DSLR. The Nikon D6 is the company’s top-of-the-range full-frame professional DSLR, designed primarily for sports photographers. The camera has a full-frame sensor with a resolution of 20MP, a durable weather-sealed body, and a long battery life. A new autofocus system has been implemented, which is intended to provide better focus while also allowing for faster continuous shooting with AF. It is available for purchase for £6299 / $6495.
The Nikon D6 is up against a formidable opponent. While it competes in the full-frame professional camera space, its two main competitors are both 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 of the advantages of mirrorless shooting to the world of professional sports photography.
And, while both of those cameras were met with a flurry of excitement and enthusiasm from the industry (particularly the 1D X Mark III, which boasted a bewildering array of new technology), the Nikon D6 has received a more muted reception, owing to the camera’s relative lack of distinguishing new features when compared to the Nikon D5.
When compared to their competitors (as we did in our Olympic camera shootout), all three are unquestionably among the best professional cameras on the market today for professional sports shooters. However, when compared to their competitors, the results were not entirely favorable. Is that head-to-head comparison, on the other hand, telling the whole story? What does the D6 has to offer on its own terms – and how much does it truly improve on the D5 – is a question worth asking.
|Body type||Large SLR|
|Max resolution||5568 x 3712|
|Effective pixels||21 megapixels|
|Sensor size||Full frame (35.9 x 23.9 mm)|
|ISO||Auto, 100-102400 (expands to 50-3280000)|
|Lens mount||Nikon F|
|Focal length mult.||1×|
|Max shutter speed||1/8000 sec|
|Storage types||Dual XQD/CFexpress slots|
|USB||USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5 GBit/sec)|
|Weight (inc. batteries)||1270 g (2.80 lb / 44.80 oz)|
|Dimensions||160 x 163 x 92 mm (6.3 x 6.42 x 3.62″)|
Design and handling
There’s no getting around the fact that the Nikon D6 is a massive, rock-solid behemoth of a digital camera. Even though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t something you should consider for use as a travel or everyday camera. Because you have so much body space available, you have a plethora of buttons to give you quick access to everything you could possibly want to change – and you also have a second set of basic controls on the vertical grip, which makes it easier to shoot portrait format images as well as landscape format images.
Although this is not a camera that can be operated with one hand, the majority of the buttons and dials that are used to make common adjustments, such as changing the aperture or shutter speed, are located on the right-hand side of the camera. As a result, you can make quick adjustments with your right thumb and forefinger, while the other buttons are typically used for more in-depth adjustments or for image review.
An additional raised area on the camera’s top plate is located on the left-hand side and contains buttons for changing the shooting mode, adjusting the bracketing mode, and selecting an exposure compensation mode. There’s also a dial for selecting the drive mode, which allows you to switch between single shooting, continuous shooting, and the ‘quiet’ mode, among other things.
Furthermore, not only are there an excessive number of buttons, but there is also an excessive number of screens. There is, of course, the main screen (which is touch-sensitive), but there is also a top plate LCD screen and a secondary small LCD screen that is located just beneath the main screen. These secondary screens display important camera settings information and are useful for quickly determining how you’ve configured the camera when you need to know everything at a single glance.
One of the most appealing aspects of the D6 is how closely it resembles its predecessor, the D5, in terms of construction, shape, and handling. If you’re a professional (or a very dedicated enthusiast) with two of these beasts, switching between them is simple and quick, which can mean the difference between getting a shot and not.
We put the Nikon D6 through its paces by photographing a series of basketball games as well as some light birding. It performed admirably, whether we were chasing down frantic players hustling a ball around the court or capturing the twitches and chirps of birds while fishing.
However, while it should be noted that 14 frames per second is more than sufficient for capturing critical moments when photographing sports and wildlife, the fact remains that the Canon and Sony are both capable of 20 frames per second – which means they simply capture shots that the Nikon misses.
With its intelligent tracking and acquisition capabilities, Nikon’s new autofocus system is truly a marvel, allowing photographers to capture the kind of split-second images they need. It identifies subjects almost as quickly as you can point your camera at them, and, more importantly, it doesn’t lose track of them even when your view is obscured by something else.
When shooting through the courtside cage, or when other people pass in front of your targeted player, or when your bird decides to hide behind reeds or undergrowth, the D6’s autofocus system is fast, intelligent, and reliable enough to keep you locked onto your subject no matter what.
Despite the fact that it is difficult to empirically test, in our testing, it was able to compete with Sony’s widely praised autofocus (though we did miss Canon’s brilliant head tracking AF whenever a player turned his or her face away from the camera, which resulted in the camera’s focus gradually shifting to a second face in frame).
But even though it offers an improvement over its predecessor (which had 153 total points but only 99 cross-type and 55 selectable), the small cluster of cross-type AF points squished into the center of the frame is a real hindrance to creative freedom. Canon offers 191 points (including an incredible 3,869 in Live View) while Sony offers 693, making shooting with the D6 feel noticeably more restricted than with the D5.
However, it is in Live View – and, consequently, video – that the camera’s autofocus truly fails to deliver results. Photographers who prefer to use the viewfinder will appreciate the D6’s rock-solid phase-detect autofocus system, which is especially useful when shooting in low light. When you switch to Live View, you’re stuck with the rudimentary contrast-detect AF, which is unfortunately borderline unusable for sporting events like shooting sports.
The autofocus failed us on every single one of the one-on-one basketball games in which we attempted to record a single ‘clean’ clip, despite our best efforts. Face detect would occasionally pick out faces in the background scenery, but would fail to pick out any of the four faces that were actually in the frame on other occasions.
During one game, the subject tracking would switch between players, even if they didn’t appear to be related in any way – this is not an exaggeration; at one point, it decided to target a shorter player with short hair when it was supposed to be following a taller player with dreadlocks.
It’s dangerous to use the rear screen for stills purposes, let alone video, due to the erratic and jittery nature of the focusing in Live View. This is especially true if you plan on shooting at 10.5 frames per second silently with the D6’s silent shooting mode enabled (which you will have to do if you want to use the D6’s silent shooting mode). It’s a long way from Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF, which was introduced in 2011.
The input screen, on the other hand, is something you should and can definitely use on the rear screen. The LCD has been upgraded to be touch-sensitive, allowing you to control the camera and settings with your fingertip – while also feeding into some of the most useful features, particularly for working professionals.
You can prioritize your most important shots in a transfer queue by simply flicking them up or down while viewing them, in addition to transferring, rating, protecting, and adding voice annotations to your images without pressing any buttons on your D6 camera. You can quickly move the 358th image from the bottom of the list to the top of the list if you’re uploading 400 images to a picture editor and you know that image 358 is the killer shot (complete with a voice tag, to provide a ready-made caption).
Like many high-end cameras, the D6 is more of an evolution of an existing model, with some interesting and useful tweaks, than it is a radical departure from the status quo.
In terms of the sensor, the D6 uses the same sensor as the D5, which means you’ll get a 20.8MP full-frame sensor with the D6. If you’re thinking that the resolution of this camera isn’t particularly impressive when compared to the resolution of some of Nikon’s other cameras, it’s worth considering who this camera is intended for.
In the opinion of many professionals, this pixel count represents a sweet spot,’ because it provides a high enough resolution to allow for reasonable cropping while also keeping file sizes to a palatable size and performing well in low light conditions. The large, billboard-sized images produced by cameras such as the Nikon D850 are not appropriate for sports photographers who are responsible for sending back a large number of images to the news desk on a daily basis.
While the sensor has remained unchanged, the D6’s processor has been enhanced, which results in improved performance in other areas of the camera. Another set of new enhancements pertains to focusing speed and frame rates, both of which are excellent news for photographers who specialize in action, wildlife, and sports.
The D6 can shoot at a rate of 14 frames per second, which is a 2fps improvement over its predecessor. 105-point, the all-cross-type focusing system is now available on the D6 camera. In addition to Eye AF, there are 3D Tracking and Auto Area AF modes. In fact, autofocus (AF) is unquestionably the D6’s strongest feature, with a significant amount of customization available in the main menu for those who want to get down to the specifics of their shooting style.
Wi-Fi and GPS are also built into the D6, which is a significant improvement over previous models. The D5 required an additional external module to accomplish this, but it is something that those who work on the road may consider a requirement. While an enthusiast might be content to wait until they got home before sharing their images on social media, in an age where images are shared online as quickly as possible to social media feeds, it’s a significant advantage for all types of shooters.
One more notable new feature is the support for CFExpress memory cards, which is certain to be a boon to professional photographers. The D6 has two card slots that can accept either XQD cards or CFExpress cards, with the latter being faster and therefore more appealing to professionals who need to get their shots in as quickly as possible. Additionally, having a faster card is advantageous when transferring your images to a computer or other secondary device.
While there is nothing wrong with the Nikon D6’s stills performance, it is important to consider that performance in the context of the two other competing cameras in this sector – and it is difficult to get overly excited about what the D6 is capable of in this context.
Both the Sony A9 II and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III shoot significantly more frames and have significantly more AF points than their predecessors – and, in the case of the Canon, have significantly more intelligent autofocus if your subjects are human beings (shooting basketball with the 1DX Mark III demonstrates just how good the head tracking is on the 1DX Mark III’s autofocus).
Considered entirely on its own merits, the Nikon D6 is a top-tier stills camera that is equally adept at capturing fast-moving action (be it sports or wildlife) and working at high ISO settings. While only a madman would attempt to shoot at the camera’s maximum ISO of 3.28 million, our lab data confirms that this is by far the best camera to use when shooting in low light conditions or when shooting in low contrast.
Even though its stills AF is on par with Sony’s in terms of godliness, the D6 fails miserably when it comes to autofocus in Live View. Contrast-detect autofocus is simply incapable of capturing the kind of images that this camera was intended to capture – and its limitations are accentuated even further by the excellent autofocus performance for still images. With its 1.7x crop, the potentially brilliant 4K video – complete with peaking, zebras, and timecoding – is rendered a colossal waste of an otherwise excellent production opportunity.
One could argue that a sports camera isn’t really purchased for the purpose of filming sports events. Professionals who only require a superb stills camera that is also equipped with the fastest connectivity and the most accurate autofocus will find much to appreciate in the D6. Existing D5 owners will also benefit from the improved performance, which will be evident virtually throughout the system. However, those who are not already invested in the Nikon ecosystem will see even better performance from either of the two competitors than they would from the Nikon system.