Can Nikon make the Z system fast enough for sports with just a firmware update?
The original Nikon Z series failed to live up to the autofocus performance of the company’s DSLRs. But is autofocus performance an issue that can be fixed with a simple firmware update? You might be surprised. Last week, Nikon released a list of firmware updates for every single Z series camera. Chief among the list of improvements? A boost to the autofocus. As one of what feels like the last millennial with a DSLR, I hopefully grabbed my review sample Z6 II and downloaded firmware version 1.20. After photographing a soccer game and the dark corner of a closet, I was pleasantly surprised.
I’ve been a Nikon photographer for more than a decade. While I loved the images and ergonomics of the original Z series cameras, the autofocus performance didn’t deliver. As a wedding photographer, I needed a camera that could keep up on a dark dance floor, so I bought the Nikon D850 instead. The second-generation improved a little but still fell behind autofocus systems from Canon and Sony.
So what’s changing with the new firmware, and can a simple download really help the Z system compete?
Here’s what Nikon says changes with the new firmware for the Z 6 II. The list for the Z7 II looks similar, while first-generation Z bodies see a shorter list of updates, like saving the focus position.
- Nikon says the firmware update improves the focus point display performance when using face or eye detection and subject tracking in Live View.
- Face and eye detection also improve when using flash.
- Low light autofocus improves, but only when using Single AF mode.
- Nikon also corrected “unreliable” focus accuracy.
- Nikon fixed other bugs that would sometimes cause AF-C to slow the shutter response and inconsistent results when using custom picture controls with video.
To test the new firmware, I mounted the 70-200mm f2.8 Z lens onto the Z 6 II. It’s a lens with gorgeous color and bokeh, but the autofocus was so poor with the original firmware that I had to check and ensure that I was actually on continuous autofocus.
Shooting a kids’ soccer game, I was surprised that most shots were sharp. Only around twenty percent were soft. I conducted a second test of a person running towards me, a movement that’s harder to focus on than moving across the frame. Only two shots out of a burst of 15 were soft (until the runner became too close for the lens). In my original test without the firmware, I threw out half of these shots at a running pace.
Tickled, I took the Z6 II, the D850, and the Canon EOS R6 into a dark closet. The Z6 II actually focused faster than the D850 without a flash. Performance between the two was similar with a flash mounted on the D850 since the flash has an AF assist beam built into the mirrorless body. The Canon, however, felt like it locked focus the fastest out of the three.
Did Nikon just save the Z series with firmware?
The latest firmware update for the Nikon Z 6 II is stellar — if you own the camera, or the Z 7 II, you should download it. Seriously. Stop reading and go download the firmware.
But, the bigger question is, does firmware make the Z 6 II a good option for photographers looking to buy a new mirrorless body? The latest firmware makes the Z6 II competitive. But, it’s still not quite fast as Canon and Sony’s AF systems. Where the original Z6 was limping at the starting line, the Z 6 II is now just a few paces behind. It gives me hope for the future of the Z line, and that promised Z9.
While the details have changed, I stand my original recommendation for the Z6 II. It’s a good camera for portraits and landscapes, made better by the excellent quality from the Z lenses. It’s still not the best option for a sports photographer or a concert photographer regularly working in low light. But, with the new firmware, the Z6 II is a bit more flexible.
Nikon has given me a little spark of hope for the company’s future with just a firmware download. Will I end up switching brands when I’m ready to retire my D850? I think I just changed my answer from definitely to maybe. First, there are more cameras to test — including the Z7 II. We’ve updated our review of the Nikon z6 II, so go check it out!