Nikon Z6 II for Wildlife and Action Photography
Some of the Nikon Z6 II’s biggest feature improvements are in areas that matter to sports and wildlife photographers. For example, the Z6 II has a bigger buffer than the original Z6, and it also shoots at a higher number of frames per second. However, the Nikon Z cameras so far have struggled in autofocus tracking performance versus the competition, so it’s not all perfect.
In this section of the review, let’s take a look at how well the Nikon Z6 II works for photographing fast-moving subjects, from buffer capacity to AF-C performance.
The buffer on the Nikon Z6 II has been greatly improved compared to the Z6. The degree of improvement depends on which type of image you’re using, as you can see in the chart below:
|Nikon Z6 II||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||124|
|Nikon Z6||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||35|
|Nikon Z7 II||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||77|
|Nikon Z7||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||23|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||170|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||47|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||21|
|Nikon D750||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||25|
|Nikon D780||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||100|
|Nikon Z6 II||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||139|
|Nikon Z6||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||43|
|Nikon Z7 II||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||49|
|Nikon Z7||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||19|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||51|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||28|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||17|
|Nikon D750||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||15|
|Nikon D780||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||68|
|Nikon Z6 II||JPEG Fine (Large)||200|
|Nikon Z6||JPEG Fine (Large)||44|
|Nikon Z7 II||JPEG Fine (Large)||200|
|Nikon Z7||JPEG Fine (Large)||25|
|Nikon D850||JPEG Fine (Large)||200|
|Nikon D810||JPEG Fine (Large)||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||JPEG Fine (Large)||100|
|Nikon D750||JPEG Fine (Large)||100|
|Nikon D780||JPEG Fine (Large)||100|
It may seem surprising that our tests show a slightly larger buffer at 14-bit RAW rather than 12-bit RAW, but the reason is simple. At 12-bit RAW, the Nikon Z6 II can shoot 14 frames per second; at 14-bit RAW, that drops to 10 frames per second. So, the Z6 II is actually pushing less data per second when it’s at 14-bit RAW, despite the slightly larger files.
Regardless, the buffer is a huge improvement this time around. Even at the fastest frame rate of 14 FPS, you can shoot for about nine seconds before the camera slows down. By comparison, the prior Z6 could do so for only three seconds.
Note that Nikon did not publish detailed buffer specifications for the Z6 II, so some of these figures are based on our tests and may not perfectly match your results. Buffer capacity also depends on the speed of your memory card. You may get a smaller buffer than this if you’re using slower cards, or if you’re writing to the SD card instead of – or in addition to – the CF.
Frames Per Second
There’s been some confusion about how many frames the Nikon Z6 II – and the other Z cameras – can shoot per second, and what compromises you’ll run into at each frame rate. This chart should help clear up the confusion:
|Situation||Nikon Z6||Nikon Z6 II||Nikon Z7||Nikon Z7 II|
|*With older firmware on the Nikon Z6 and Z7, the maximum frame rate was only attainable without auto exposure or autofocus between shots. This limitation no longer exists on any of the cameras above, thanks to firmware updates. You can autofocus and use auto exposure without harming your FPS.|
|**These are the maximum attainable frame rates and may be impacted by things like your shutter speed or shutter type. For instance, the Nikon Z7 is about 1 FPS slower when using the electronic (silent) shutter rather than the mechanical shutter.|
|Camera is set to 12-bit RAW; continuous high (extended); single-point AF-C, manual focus, or AF-S||12 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 12 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||14 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 14 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||9 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 9 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||10 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 10 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat|
|Camera is set to 12-bit RAW; continuous high (extended); any other AF area mode||12 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 12 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||12 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 12 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||9 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 9 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||9 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 9 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat|
|Camera is set to 14-bit RAW; continuous high (extended); any AF mode||9 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 9 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||10 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 10 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||8 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 8 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat||9 FPS; EVF only refreshes at 9 FPS, therefore lagging somewhat|
|Camera is set to 12-bit or 14-bit RAW; continuous high; any AF mode||5.5 FPS; EVF refreshes as fast as usual, blacking out briefly each time a photo is taken||5.5 FPS; EVF refreshes as fast as usual, blacking out briefly each time a photo is taken||5.5 FPS; EVF refreshes as fast as usual, blacking out briefly each time a photo is taken||5.5 FPS; EVF refreshes as fast as usual, blacking out briefly each time a photo is taken|
As you can see, there are a few limitations if you want to get the maximum 14 FPS on the Nikon Z6 II. You need to be set to 12-bit RAW, and you can’t use any of the subject-tracking autofocus area modes (though AF-C is fine if it’s single-point). There is also a bit of lag at this frame rate, since the image in the EVF or live view only refreshes at 14 FPS rather than the usual 60 FPS. It’s like looking at a rapid slideshow of the images you’ve just taken. Although there’s no blackout in between images, the small bit of extra lag isn’t ideal for following fast action.
All in all, 14 FPS is no joke, even though it comes with those compromises. The 10 FPS mode is also still quite fast – certainly enough for most sports and wildlife scenarios. While cameras like the Canon EOS R6 or Sony A9 can shoot a bit faster, very few photographers will need more than this. As you’ll see in a moment, the Nikon Z6 II isn’t a perfect camera for photographing fast action, but it’s not for lack of frame rate.
AF-C Focusing Performance
Nikon has come a long way in improving continuous autofocus on its mirrorless cameras since the launch of the system. A number of firmware updates have been introduced to add features such as Eye AF, Animal Eye AF, faster AF tracking, and improved focusing speed. However, Nikon warned that further improvements to the original Z6 and Z7 would not be possible due to processor limitations. With the release of the Z6 II and Z7 II, Nikon doubled up on the processors, going from a single EXPEED 6 architecture to dual processors. This does two things: It improves autofocus performance with the current firmware, and it opens up opportunities for further firmware improvements in the future.
Is the difference in AF speed between the original Z6 / Z7 and the new Z6 II and Z7 II noticeable? Yes, it certainly is. For complex shooting environments with multiple subjects, or for erratically moving subjects, the power of an extra processor certainly makes a difference. For photographing people and doing things like Eye AF, the Nikon Z6 II is as good as the best cameras out there. It does an amazing job at recognizing subjects from distance, and once it recognizes faces, it immediately starts tracking them, allowing one to switch between different faces with ease. Once subjects are close enough, it switches to Eye AF, which also works really well.
With the Z6 II and Z7 II, Nikon also added the new “Wide-Area AF” modes for humans and animals. The difference is that the Z6 II can now track eyes and faces within a much smaller region of the image, rather than only being possible in the Auto Area mode that scans the entire frame. It works great and is pretty intuitive, although it does come at the expense of a more cluttered AF menu. We wish Nikon put human and animal AF as a sub-menu to different AF modes, so that it simplifies focus mode selection. Other than that, we have no complaints about using the Z6 II for photographing people and pets.
However, as good as the Nikon Z6 II is for photographing subjects with obvious eyes, it has a ways to go when photographing other fast-moving subjects, especially when compared to the AF systems from Sony and Canon. We tried to use the Z6 II for photographing birds in flight, and it was not the ideal experience. The camera constantly hesitated or tried to focus on the background. We did not have any problems focusing on perched birds, but after trying out the Canon EOS R6 that has excellent bird AF, the Nikon Z6 II just seemed outdated in comparison.
In the images below, for example, the Z6 II started focusing on the background after the first image in the sequence:
It did the same in this case even though the birds weren’t moving fast, most likely because of the backlight:
Another pain is simply the focus system’s implementation in the first place. Nikon’s advanced DSLRs all have several options for multi-point dynamic area modes (such as 9-point, 25-point, and 72-point), while the Z6 II only has 9-point. These are some of the most useful AF area modes for photographing action with a Nikon DSLR, so it’s a shame they don’t appear on the Z6 II. Beyond that, there isn’t a dedicated AF mode button, so you either need to assign it to a custom button (taking up valuable real estate) or access it via the menu.
As of firmware 1.20, one issue has thankfully been improved: In the past, the AF box over your subject would lag behind fast subjects, making it hard to tell if the Z6 II was properly tracking autofocus or not. This wasn’t a problem with the focusing itself, which could be tracking the subject properly, but with the display box showing where you were focused. Nikon has dramatically improved the display box’s responsiveness with firmware 1.20, which makes it easier to understand if you’re focused correctly or not. However, Nikon did not improve the overall AF tracking capabilities with firmware version 1.20. Even in low light, we couldn’t detect a difference in how well the Z6 II tracked fast-moving subjects compared to the prior firmware version.
Overall, while we are happy to see the improvements to eye-detect and pet eye-detect AF area modes, Nikon still has room to improve their mirrorless autofocus. Using this camera side by side against the Canon EOS R6, we got more keepers with the Canon for photographing small and erratic subjects, while the two cameras performed about the same for standard wildlife photography. Of course, practice and familiarity with the autofocus area modes can go a long way toward helping you take great photos with the Z6 II, even of some very fast subjects.
Other Action Photography Features
The factors above are the most important for photographing sports and wildlife, but they’re not the only ones that matter. For instance, one major improvement with the Nikon Z6 II is the option of a vertical control grip. The MB-N11 is a fully-featured vertical grip, not the “no controls” MB-N10 that was honestly pretty useless for the previous-generation Z6. The new grip is currently $400 at B&H, although it’s only a matter of time before third-party options start appearing at a lower price. Note that the MB-N11 grip only works on the Z6 II (and Z7 II), not the earlier Z6, which doesn’t have the necessary connections.
Action photographers also tend to care about the telephoto lens lineup of their camera system, which is an area where the Z system currently struggles. While it’s reasonably easy to adapt Nikon’s excellent F-mount telephotos via the FTZ adapter, the native Z lens lineup still has a lot of gaps in the longer focal lengths. Nikon’s Z lens roadmap suggests that this will be fixed before long, but until then, it remains an issue.
Other than that, the sports and wildlife features that matter to most photographers are just generic things like battery life and build quality, which we covered earlier in this review.
Overall, we would not say that the Nikon Z6 II is geared toward action photography, whether sports or wildlife. However, it does manage to meaningfully improve over its predecessor, especially in terms of the much greater buffer capacity. Nikon still needs to work on getting the AF-C tracking performance to be on par with that of other action cameras on the market, such as the Sony A9 or Canon EOS R6. But for photographers who mainly photograph landscapes and only occasionally photograph something like wildlife on the side – or who stick with larger wildlife subjects – the Z6 II should be good enough to meet your needs. It also excels at autofocus on people’s faces, so it’s a great choice for portraiture.
The next page of this review covers the Z6 II’s performance in low light, including high ISO tests and IBIS performance. So, click below to go to the next page of this review, “Nikon Z6 II for Low Light Photography.”
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