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Hands on: Nikon D6 review

We weren’t allowed to take any pictures with the new Nikon D6, but we’ve still got a lot to say!

Nikon D6 review
(Image: © Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

Our Verdict

So far we’ve only been able to look at a pre-production sample of the Nikon D6, and we were not allowed to take any sample images away with us. Our first impressions, though, are of a camera that’s so similar to the existing D5 that Nikon pros will be able to make a seamless switch. If its 14fps machine-gun clatter is too loud, its 10.5fps silent mode is almost as fast, and we look forward to trying out the brand new 105-point AF system in real-world shooting. Does the D6 have the firepower to meet the radically new Canon EOS-1D X Mark III head-on? On paper, maybe not, but in the real world it could be another story.

For

  • 14fps continuous shooting
  • 10.5fps in silent mode
  • Impressive-looking new AF system
  • Dual XQD/CFexpress card slots

Against

  • 4K video capped at 30fps
  • EOS-1D X III hits 16fps
  • No live view phase detect AF

The Nikon D6 has some big shoes to fill. In the world of professional sports photography, Canon and Nikon reign supreme (though with Sony in VERY close pursuit) and both companies have recently released new versions of their top cameras. Canon has the formidable EOS-1D X Mark III, and we’ve just been able to get our hands on its new Nikon rival.

These cameras are not designed for resolution, but for speed, durability and performance. Both have 20-megapixel sensors or thereabouts – low-ish by today’s standards but easily enough for press and sports photography – and this allows ultra-fast continuous shooting speeds and ultra-high ISO ranges.

They are expensive, specialized cameras – too specialized and expensive to figure highly in our list of the best DSLRs to buy, but both are amongst the best cameras for professionals.

We’ve already tested the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and found it extremely impressive. The Nikon D6’s development is just a few weeks behind, so although were were able to try out a pre-production model in Iceland while testing the new Nikon D780, we were not allowed to take any pictures because many of the features, including the image quality, are not yet final production quality.

But it was still long enough to get a feel for this new camera’s handling and controls and to get more information from Nikon on what’s new and exciting about its features.

Nikon D6 review

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

Specifications

Sensor: 20.8MP full-frame CMOS
Image processor: Expeed 6
Autofocus: Multi-CAM 37K 105-point phase detect, all cross-type, Live View contrast AF, all points selectable
ISO range: 100-102,400 (exp. 50-3,280,000)
Max image size: 5,568 x 3,712
Metering modes: 180k RGB sensor, Matrix, center weighted, spot, highlight weighted
Video: 4K UHD, 30/25/24p
Viewfinder: Optical pentaprism, 0.72x magnification, 100% coverage
Screen: 3.2-inch, 2359k-dot touchscreen
Memory card: 2x XQD/CFexpress
Max burst: Up to 14fps
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, wired LAN, GPS
Size: 160 x 163 x 92mm
Weight: 1,450g (including battery and memory cards)

Nikon D6 review

The rear display is touch sensitive but fixed, with no tilting or vari-angle mechanism. (Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

Key features

The camera sensor is usually the most exciting news in any new model, but this is actually where there’s been relatively little change in the Nikon D6. It still uses a 20.8-megapixel full frame CMOS sensor, though now it’s paired up with a more powerful EXPEED 6 image processor – although the ISO range remains the same as that of the Nikon D5.

Interestingly, the D6 does not have on-sensor phase detection AF – unlike its rival, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. This means that if you use it in live view, you’re reliant on slower contrast AF. To be fair, this is a camera built for viewfinder shooting, as evidenced by Nikon’s brand new 105-point Multi-CAM 37K autofocus system. 

On paper, this has fewer AF points than the 153-point AF system in its predecessor, the Nikon D5, but this time they are all selectable, all cross type, and all sensitive down to -4EV (-4.5EV for the center point). Despite the modest-sounding number of AF points, Nikon says this is its most powerful AF system yet, with 1.6x  higher density coverage  than the Nikon D5 and “unparalleled” tracking performance and “next level” subject acquisition.

This is helped by improvements to the camera’s scene recognition, powered by a 180k-dot RGB sensor which also operates the metering system. Nikon has also increased the range of Group Area AF patterns so that you can adapt to a greater range of subjects and avoid fixed obstacles you don’t want to focus on, such as the nets on tennis courts, for example.  

For more erratic subjects you can use the Auto-area AF or 3D tracking modes, and the D6 can give priority to your subject’s eyes in this mode, which Nikon says is a first for DSLRs. You can also choose the AF starting point in the Auto-area mode.

Nikon D6 review

The Nikon D6 has a new 105-point AF system. All the points are selectable, where of the 153 points in the D5, only 55 could be manually selected. (Image credit: Nikon)

Nikon D6 review

The Nikon D6 offers eye priority AF in its Auto-area AF and 3D tracking modes. (Image credit: Nikon)

Avid spec-spotters will have noted that the Nikon D6 can only hit 14fps where its deadly rival, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III can achieve 16fps in viewfinder shooting (20fps in live view). That’s a technical victory to the Canon, but in a real-world shoot-out, buffer capacity and autofocus tracking performance will have just as big an impact on your hit rate of successful shots. We don’t yet know the raw buffer capacity of the D6, but the D5 could capture 200 raw files without slowing, so we’re hoping for similar levels of endurance here.

If 14fps isn’t enough, the D6 also offers a Movie Live View (remarkably similar to Panasonic’s 4K Photo feature) that can capture 8-megapixel images at 30fps or 2-megapixel shots at 60fps. That’s some way short of the full-resolution Pro Capture mode of the cruelly underrated Olympus OM-D E-M1X, however.

There’s more to professional photography than frame rates and autofocus. Pros also need a streamlined workflow and fast image transfer to stay ahead of the pack, and Nikon has paid a lot of attention to this relatively unglamorous but essential aspect of its camera’s performance. As well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the D6 also offers a wired LAN connection (widely available to the press at large sporting venues) that supports the 1000BASE-T protocol, some 15% faster than D5.

If a wired LAN connection is not available, you can also use the optional Nikon WT-6 Wireless Transmitter, which has a range of up to 200m.

Nikon D6 review

Are your best shots too far down the transfer queue? You can move them up the queue with a single flick. (Image credit: Nikon)

As well as maximising transfer speeds, Nikon has made it easier to pick your best shots quickly. In playback mode you can filter shots by rating and transfer status, you can apply preset combinations of copyright, ratings and voice memos to images with a single flick, and you can flick to move key images up to the front of the transfer queue. 

Nikon D6 review

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

Build and handling

At first glance, the Nikon D6 is so similar to the D5 that only long-time D5 users would be likely to spot the differences. We were told that the angle of the shutter release has been ergonomically improved and that the rear screen is now sharper and easier to read, though it shares the same resolution and size as the screen on the Nikon D6.

Like Nikon’s previous pro-spec sports cameras, and the Canon equivalents, the D6 has a tall body with a big fat battery slung horizontally underneath. This takes Nikon’s latest EN-EL18c batteries and Nikon quotes a hugely impressive battery life of 3,580 shots with this cell. You can use older EN-EL18 and EN-EL18b batteries too, but they won’t offer the same life expectancy.

The taller grip allows room for an additional horizontal black-on-green LCD panel on the back of the camera and duplicate horizontal and vertical shooting controls. You don’t need a battery grip with this camera because it’s effectively already built in. 

Some may be wondering why pros still used DSLRs when mirrorless cameras now offer similar frame rates or better, but using the D6 at full speed demonstrates the advantages of an optical ‘finder, despite the brief viewfinder blackout between frames. A DSLR viewfinder gives a real-time, lag-free view of fast moving subjects which is essential for keeping them properly framed. With a couple of exceptions (notably the Sony A9 and A9 II), most mirrorless cameras have a tiny ‘lag’ which you won’t notice in normal shooting but can make fast panning shots very hard to track smoothly.

Nikon D6 review

It's still easier to follow fast-moving subjects with an optical viewfinder, despite the momentary blackout between frames. (Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

The clatter of the mechanical shutter is pretty intimidating for those nearby, but Nikon has redesigned the mirror system in this camera to give less ‘bounce’ and a more stable viewfinder image.

The viewfinder image has an OLED overlay that can show pitch and roll angles, but it also highlights the way the AF points are clustered towards the center of the frame. This is typical of DSLRs and fine for photographers who can keep their subjects towards the center, but if you want full frame coverage, that's where mirrorless cameras have the edge (rather literally).

The other physical difference to note over the D5 is that the D6 has twin XQD/CFexpress card slots. You could get the Nikon D5 in a twin-XQD card version, but not with the latest CFexpress compatibility.

Performance

Our camera was a pre-production sample so we can't offer anything useful about the image quality or AF performance. We can, however, reproduce a gallery of official sample images from Nikon.

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

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Nikon D6 sample images

Nikon D6 review

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

Early verdict

Since the Nikon D6 we tried was a pre-production sample, we can’t yet comment on the image quality or autofocus performance, but we can comment on the specifications and the overall handling.

The Nikon D6 does not seem quite the revolutionary step represented by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. However, we know from past experience that a camera’s professional reputation depends on how it performs in the field, not just a set of bullet points. We suspect that Canon may be winning the war of words, but that the real battle hasn’t yet started.

But the D6 does feel a beautifully-designed camera. Its smoothly contoured curves make it easy and comfortable to hold, and although this is a heavy camera, at nearly 1.5kg, body only, it doesn’t feel it. The control layout is pure Nikon – if you use another brand of camera, you’re going to have to spend a little time getting used to it. But if you’re a Nikon pro, it will be like picking up an old friend. 

Nikon has chosen an evolutionary approach with the Nikon D6, concentrating on small but important details as much as new technologies. That wouldn’t make much of a splash in the amateur world, but in the world of professional photography, it’s an approach that has served Nikon extremely well in the past.

Read more:

• These are the best cameras for professionals today
• We pick the best DSLRs you can buy
DSLR vs mirrorless: which is best?
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III review