Nikon Z6 II for Landscape Photography
How much image quality can you get with the Z6 II in ideal conditions? That’s the question we’re answering on this page of the review.
After all, the Z6 II has a close competitor in the Z7 II, which is largely the same camera but with a higher resolution sensor (45 rather than 24 megapixels) and a lower base ISO (64 rather than 100). Is it worth spending an extra $1000 to get those benefits?
Frankly, for most photographers, the answer is no. The Z6 II doesn’t have the highest resolution on the market, but 24 megapixels is already a lot. You can get a 16 × 24 inch (0.4 × 0.6 meter) print from this camera at 250 PPI. If you use artificial intelligence upsampling algorithms like Adobe Super Resolution or Topaz Gigapixel AI to boost your resolution, even 24 × 36″ isn’t a stretch. Of course, you need to have good shot discipline, but it’s possible. Let’s take a closer look.
If you’re trying to decide between the 24 megapixel Z6 II or the higher resolution Z7 II, here’s a comparison between the level of detail you can expect to see with each under optimal conditions. Click for full size:
If you click the image on a desktop browser, these crops might be about 8 inches wide on your screen apiece. At that point, it’s like looking at a whopping 15 × 22.5 foot print! That’s 4.57 × 6.86 meters – simply massive, and much bigger than any typical printer can print. Granted, you don’t need to print 22 feet wide in order to tell that the 45-megapixel shot has more detail, but as the prints get smaller and smaller, the differences become increasingly subtle.
You also have to keep in mind the difference between megapixels and linear resolution. Although the Nikon Z7 II has about double the megapixels of the Z6 II (45 vs 24), the linear difference in resolution is much smaller. To be specific, the Z7 II has about 37% more pixels along the length and width dimensions than the Z6 II. As such, you can print 1.37× wider with the 45 megapixel camera, assuming perfect lenses and technique. That’s the difference between a 16 × 24″ print and a 22 × 33″ print. It’s not exactly earth-shattering, and in practice, it’ll likely be even less than that unless your technique is flawless – probably a 20 × 30″ print or so.
Is it worth spending the extra $1000 to be able to bump up one more print size? Even for a lot of landscape photographers, we’d say probably not. But it’s still impossible to deny that there are higher resolution cameras out there than the Nikon Z6 II, so if you’re after maximum levels of detail, you might want to look elsewhere. (A good option around this price point is the Sony A7R III, a previous generation 42-megapixel camera. It’s currently $2300 new, but sells used and refurbished for very competitive prices.)
Resolution is not the only factor in image quality that matters. Particularly for landscape photographers and architectural photographers working in high contrast environments, a camera’s dynamic range is also of utmost importance.
In high contrast environments, such as sunrise and sunset, you’ll often need to use negative exposure compensation and take photos that appear a bit too dark, in order to avoid clipping any highlights. You could take an HDR or image average to improve that shadow detail, but it’s not always something we think about or have time to do in the field. So, dynamic range/shadow recovery is a critical factor when choosing a camera for landscape photography.
How does the Nikon Z6 II compare? It’s pretty much in line with all the other 24-megapixel, full-frame cameras these days – which is to say, quite good.
Take a look at the comparison below. These are 100% crops from the Nikon Z6 II (on the left) versus the Canon EOS R6 (on the right). The Z6 II image is slightly downsampled to match resolution. The photos from both cameras were underexposed by five stops and boosted in Lightroom:
The Canon EOS R6 has perhaps a hair more noise (see the purple color swatch at the top), but the differences are so small as to be completely insignificant. The same is true when trying to recover images that have been overexposed by four stops:
There’s the slightest bit more color in the yellow swatch at the top with the Nikon Z6 II, but it’s hardly relevant. This is as close as you’re likely to see in two cameras from different manufacturers – and it’s excellent in both cases.
The Nikon Z6 II shares the same sensor and image quality as the previous generation Z6, so you can also see here for our side-by-side dynamic range tests of the Z6 versus the Sony A7 III, Canon EOS R, and Nikon Z7. In short, it’s a bit better than the Canon EOS R, practically identical to the Sony A7 III, and behind the Nikon Z7 / Z7 II by about 2/3 of a stop, which isn’t a surprise because of the Nikon Z7 II’s lower base ISO of 64.
Almost all full-frame cameras today have excellent dynamic range, and the Nikon Z6 II easily fits into the pack. The only cameras with meaningfully better dynamic range are those with a lower base ISO – specifically, the Nikon Z7, Z7 II, and D850 – and medium format cameras. The Nikon Z6 II’s dynamic range is indeed up to the task of landscape photography, including in high-contrast scenes.
AF-S Focusing Characteristics
Nikon’s Z-series cameras so far have been excellent for single-servo (AF-S) autofocus, and the Z6 II is no exception. Single-servo autofocus is fast and highly accurate with the Z6 II – even more accurate than Nikon’s DSLRs in live view.
As we’ve mentioned a few times before, the Z series is the first camera system we’ve used at Photography Life which allows us to use autofocus when testing lenses in the lab, at least with native Z lenses. On other camera systems, we need to switch to manual focus and use a macro rail to move the camera forward or backward centimeters or millimeters at a time in order to find the sharpest focus. It’s pretty amazing to use the Z cameras and lenses by comparison.
One annoying issue on the early Z-series cameras was that the focusing distance would reset to (roughly) infinity each time the camera was turned off and back on. The Z6 II fixes this by offering a “Save Focus Position” option in the Setup Menu. Nikon has also added this feature to its other Z-series cameras via a recent firmware update.
As for low-light performance, if it gets dark enough out, the Z6 II’s “Low Light AF” will start to engage. This feature uses longer shutter speeds to gather more light, creating a brighter image preview in order to help the autofocus system lock on in dark environments. The downside is that it can take quite a bit of time to focus when using the low-light AF feature, and the image preview becomes quite laggy as a result of the longer shutter speeds. Still, it beats not being able to autofocus at all.
In fact, the Nikon Z6 II has class-leading low-light autofocus capabilities, rated to focus down to -6 EV with an f/2 lens at ISO 100 (or -4.5 EV when Low Light AF is disabled). Side by side against the Nikon Z7 II, we did notice that the Z6 II kept focusing in darker and darker environments. Compared to the previous generation Z6, you can shoot in slightly dimmer conditions with the Z6 II before the Low Light AF engages – which is good, because it’s slower than the regular AF-S system – but both cameras have the same -6 EV focusing limit.
The Nikon Z6 II has plenty of other features tailored to landscape photography as well, such as focus shift shooting. With this feature enabled, the Z6 II automatically takes a series of images at different focusing distances from foreground to background. Then, in post-processing, you can combine the sharpest parts of each photo together in order to create a complete focus stack.
The Z6 II’s implementation of focus stacking isn’t perfect. One issue is that your focusing distance doesn’t reset after the stack, so you need to remember to reset it manually, or any subsequent stacks you take will have a blurry foreground. Another issue is with the “focus step width” setting. While it works perfectly fine for landscapes (for which we recommend a focus step width of about 3), macro photographers who hope to use this feature may be disappointed. When you’re at high magnifications, even a focus step width of 1 still leaves a bit too much room between photos and may not give you a sharp stack.
Along with focus stacking, there are a number of other features on the Z6 II that are geared toward landscape photographers. One of the big ones, as we mentioned earlier in this review, is the extended shutter speed capability of the Z6 II. Rather than limiting shutter speeds to 30 seconds, it’s possible with this camera to set up to 900 seconds in manual mode. For post-sunset photography or daytime photography with a strong neutral density filter, that’s a great option to have.
On top of that, the new timelapse features will also be useful for landscape photographers and hopefully result in more keepers overall. Not to mention that there are plenty of other improvements on the Z6 II that aren’t directly targeted at landscape photographers, but still make this a good landscape photography camera, such as the longer battery life and dual card slots. It’s a very good landscape camera overall.
There aren’t many landscape photography features missing from the Nikon Z6 II, aside from higher resolution or a lower base ISO. Looking at other cameras on the market, there are only a handful of areas that stand out as potential areas of improvement.
The biggest is a sensor-shift mode for high-resolution photography. Although it’s not found on many cameras at the moment, there are a few on the market – such as the Panasonic S1R and Sony A7r IV – which have this feature and allow you to capture four times as much resolution as normal. On the S1R, this means 187-megapixel images, and on the Sony A7r IV, a whopping 241 megapixels. Many photographers will never need this much resolution, but for special cases and unusually large prints, it’s a fun feature to have. On the Nikon Z6 II, you’d get about 96 megapixels with a sensor-shift mode, since it quadruples a photo’s total resolution.
Sensor shift can do more than just increase resolution; it can also track stars at night. On some Pentax cameras – the Pentax K-1, K-1 Mark II, and K-3 Mark II – this mode allows you to capture up to five minutes of exposure while following the movement of the stars. Like all star trackers, this means any foreground in your image will be blurry, but you could always take a second image with a sharp foreground and combine the two in post-processing. (It’s also useful for astrophotography-only images, like photographing the Orion Nebula or Andromeda Galaxy.)
Another helpful landscape photography feature found on a few cameras is buttons illumination. Although we always recommend learning to use your camera even with your eyes closed, illuminated buttons are admittedly helpful when you’re doing Milky Way photography. Some Pentax cameras – along with the Panasonic S1 and a few of Nikon’s DSLRs – have this option, and it would be nice to see in a future Z6 III or similar.
There are a few other features that could make the Z6 II a bit better for landscape photography, but most of them are more general things we’ve talked about already: dual-axis tilting LCD, even longer battery life, a better implementation of the clutter-free display, and so on. None of these are essential, but they would make the process smoother for a lot of landscape photographers.
Nikon Z6 II for Landscape Photography: Conclusion
The Nikon Z6 II is a tier below cameras like the Nikon Z7 II, Nikon D850, and Pentax GFX 100S for landscape photography, but it’s ahead of almost everything else on the market. 24 megapixels is enough for most reasonable print sizes, and the great dynamic range and exceptional autofocus accuracy round out the package. Plus, the Z6 II has access to an excellent lineup of Nikon Z lenses for landscape photography, as you’ll see later in this review.
The biggest feature that the Z6 II lacks for landscape photography, which some of its competitors offer, is a sensor-shift mode for ultra high-resolution images (and the corresponding star tracking feature found on a few of Pentax’s cameras). Given that the Z system already has IBIS, it’s probably a matter of time before sensor-shift makes its way into one of Nikon’s mirrorless cameras.
Even without this feature, we remain impressed by the Z6 II, including the changes Nikon has made since the previous generation Z6. The Z6 was already a great travel/landscape camera, but it’s encouraging to see improvements like extended long exposures, new timelapse features, and more general upgrades like dual card slots and a longer battery life.
On the next page of this review, we’ll take a look at the Z6 II’s performance for action photography such as sports and wildlife. From buffer size to AF-C performance, the Z6 II has some big pros and cons when photographing fast-moving subjects. So, click the menu below to go to the next page of this review, “Nikon Z6 II for Sports & Wildlife Photography.”
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