Hands-On First Look: Nikon Updates Z 7 and Z 6 with Eye AF While Improving Low-light & Burst Shooting

Exciting news for Nikon Z 7 and Z 6 owners. Nikon just released Firmware Version 2.0 for both cameras, bringing with it a bunch of tweaks and enhancements along with three sizeable upgrades:
  1. Eye-AF (aka Eye-Detection Autofocus) for still-image shooting
  2. Improved low-light AF performance
  3. Auto-exposure (AE) Tracking in Continuous High (extended) mode
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Nikon Z 7 and Nikon Z 6 Firmware Version 2.0 is available now over at Nikon's Download Center. And, if you'd like to know more, Steve's Digicams got an early look at the final Ver. 2.0 firmware on a loaner Z 6. We'll be updating our Z 7 and Z 6 reviews soon (we're also reviewing the new 24-70mm F/2.8 & 14-30mm F/4 Z lenses), but here are our hands-on first impressions of the new features:

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Eye-AF

What is Eye-AF?

Eye-Af is an extension of Face Detection software that locates a subject's eye or eyes, helping you achieve precise focus when shooting portraits. It's particularly helpful if you're trying to capture moving subjects, like models or children, that you can't tell to hold still. In theory, Eye-AF also puts an end to "focus and recompose" style shooting from the DSLR days when AF points were clustered closer to frame center.

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(Face Detection, AF-locked)

What does the Nikon Z 7 and Z 6 have in firmware Ver. 1.X?

Previous Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 camera bodies feature Face Detection only. While shooting video, I find Nikon's Face Detection exemplary, even when using fast glass. However, while shooting still images with primes like the 105mm F/1.4, 50mm F/1.8, and 35mm F1.8, Nikon's Face Detection is much more likely to hit a cheekbone or an eyebrow than the actual eye. As such, I've been telling folks to use single-point AF or Dynamic-area AF in Continous AF (AF-C) mode, or "pin" AF in Single AF (AF-S) mode because that's the camera's contrast detection mode, which is slower-but-more-accurate.

What does firmware Ver. 2.0 add?

Ver. 2.0 swaps out a4 in the cameras' Custom Setting Menu with "Auto-area AF face/eye detection," and you can now opt to have --
  • Face and eye detection on
  • Face detection on
  • or both off
Nikon-Eye-AF-a4-Custom-Setting-Menu.JPG
Basically, instead of a large yellow/green box hovering over a person's face, the camera now floats smaller yellow/green boxes over a person's eye. If the camera detects two eyes (or multiple faces), you can toggle between eyes using the multi-selector (joystick) or sub-selector buttons. Also, if your subject turns their head, the camera remembers and re-selects the same eye if they turn back into the frame.

Does Nikon's Eye-AF work and is it an improvement over Ver. 1.X Face Detection?

The new Eye-AF is definitely an improvement over Face Detection, but it's not perfect.

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Nikon Face Detection CROPPED -- Note how it focuses at the eyebrow.

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Nikon Eye-AF CROPPED -- Not perfect, but the eyelashes are in focus, not the brow or cheek.

Let's talk about the improvements first. When comparing a Nikon Z 6 shooting at F/1.8 using Face Detection to a different Z 6 shooting at F/1.8 using Eye-AF, Nikon's Face Detection is far less accurate. Yes, the face is in focus, but when you pixel-peep such a shallow depth-of-field, the eyes are usually soft. With the new software, the eyes are tack-sharp or just slightly off. In truth, most of my Eye-AF testing reveals lovely photos with sharp eyes and, if you're shooting at ~F/3.2 or above, you probably won't notice any flaws.

Yet, despite the overall improvement, if you zoom in to analyze your shots -- aka you peep on your pixels -- you'll still find soft irises and corneas, albeit slightly more accurate ones than before, on far too many shots. To be clear, I was able to get tack-sharp eyes with the new EyeAF, but this required absolute stillness and using AF-S mode rather than AF-C. Funny enough, my best results occurred while taking self-portraits with Nikon SnapBridge's remote camera feature, proving both that this algorithm can work well with the right conditions and that it works perfectly with their app.

Still, I'd like to see Nikon push their algorithm for more accuracy and reliability.

What's the best way to use Nikon's new Eye-AF?

I find Eye-AF, as a feature, most exciting when you're dealing with a moving subject. Let's say you find the perfect framing, and your model is dancing about, whirling and twirling, Eye AF should help you get that shot amidst the chaos. Alas, movement is where we found Nikon's EyeAF to be least reliable (it repeatedly missed a child on a swing, for example).

For me, Nikon's Eye-AF worked best when using AF-S, or when setting AF-C mode to Focus Priority (a1 in Custom Setting Menu) and having one's subject stay as still as possible.

If the subject moves too abruptly, or hair falls in front of the eye, the AF seems to get distracted and miss. In a sense, the yellow boxes find eyes, but they don't always calculate for the depth of the eye socket accurately, especially if something (partially) covers the eye.

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35mm @ F/1.8 - Even as I turn to the side, Nikon's Eye-AF found my eye and hit the focus,
but if you tilt your head downwards, it gets confused.

How does Nikon Eye-AF compare to other brands?

Simply put, Sony is the current standard bearer for mirrorless AF systems. Sony Eye-AF feels like magic at times -- it's fast, super accurate, and seems to make fewer mistakes. Fujifilm Eye-AF does an excellent job as well and may be second best. Canon's is more hit or miss, though. It's not as good as Nikon at tracking eyes coming in and out of the frame (it seems to forget more), but it's able to capture a tack-sharp eye at F/1.2 with relative ease.

In a sense, Nikon's Eye-AF feels promising (again, it's limitations come at the highest apertures when you're pixel peeping to see the exact focal points), but Nikon has a bit more work ahead of them if they want to catch up to Sony. It's certainly within reach of Fuji and Canon's offerings.

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Pardon the silliness, but this is the inside of my closet in the dark.

You can't see anything at these exposure settings,
but the Z 6 100% locked focus before taking this.

Improved Low-Light Shooting

What are the Z 7 and Z 6 like to shoot in low-light now (Ver. 1.X)?

The Nikon Z 7 and Z 6 have both a Normal AF mode as well as a Low-Light AF mode that you can turn on via Custom Setting Menu a11. In Normal Mode, the Z 7's AF detection range goes as low as -1 EV, while the Z 6 goes as low as -3.5 EV. In Low-Light Mode, both cameras can focus at -4 EV.

In darker conditions, the Z 7 feels very sluggish, and it's almost impossible to use AF-C to capture a moving subject. The Z 6, with its larger pixels, fares better, but still stumbles as lights dim. In Low-Light Mode, however, when you have time to spare, it feels like both cameras see in the shadows. It may take a few seconds, but they can do it.

For context, most cameras fail when it gets dark enough, but the Z cameras seem to hunt a bit more than the Sony's we've tested, but outperform the Canon R and RP.

What does firmware Ver. 2.0 add?

In Normal Mode, the Z 7 can now focus down to -2 EV, while the Z 6 can focus at -3.5 EV. If you engage Low-Light Mode, the Z 7 remains locked at -4 EV, due to its smaller pixels, but the Z 6 can focus down to -6 EV, which is two stops darker than the camera can meter a scene. In a sense, the Z 6 can now see in the (near) dark.

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NIKKOR Z 24-70mm F2.8 - 70mm, F2.8, 1/320th, ISO 12,800, Normal Light Mode
It's A Small World, Disneyland

How does this translate in the real world?

Stay tuned for our Z 7 feedback (we didn't get an early look at that), but to be honest, the Z 6 feels pretty much the same. This camera can see what you can't and, with enough time, it will find focus. But, in terms of speed or feel, the Z 6 still stumbles a bit in the near dark when dealing with human/moving subjects. That said, the camera DOES find focus, it's just slow, and if you have your AF-C priority section set to "release" rather than "focus," you'll end up with some blurry shots. With patience and time, the Z 6 does a nice job.

Does it feel much different than before? I don't think so, but we'll do some more testing here.

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AE Tracking in Continuous High (Extended) Release Mode

What is AE Tracking?

Auto-Exposure Tracking refers to a camera's ability to adjust its exposure while you're shooting continuously (aka burst shooting). While not important all of the time, it's beneficial when you have a quick subject moving through variable lighting. Imagine a child running in and out of a tree's shadow, or a surfer riding a crashing wave that begins as dark blue water but ends in ultra-reflective foamy white.

In these scenarios, if you don't have AE Tracking enabled, you'll likely end up with a series of under over over-exposed photos.

What does the Nikon Z 7 and Z 6 have in firmware Ver. 1.X?

Previous Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 camera bodies can't shoot with AE Tracking in their fastest mode, aka Continous High (Extended), which means the Z 7 and Z 6 are limited to 5.5fps if you want to shoot with both AF and AE Tracking enabled.

On the surface, this is pretty good, especially for the high-resolution Z 7, but compared to the Sony competition, it's slow.

What does firmware Ver. 2.0 add?

AE Tracking is now available in Continuous High (Extended) release mode, which means the Z 6 can shoot up to 12fps with AF and AE tracking, and the Z 7 can fire off up to 9fps with AF and AE tracking, which put them more in league with Sony's offerings.

(To be fair, both the Sony and Nikon numbers drop if you want to shoot 14-bit RAW files.)

Does it work?

We have more testing to do (especially the Z 7), but yes! While I'd still rather shoot sports with a Nikon D850 or D500 -- they're more reliably accurate, in my humblest opinion -- the Nikon Z series bodies are now faster than ever and can rapidly capture and track moving subjects whether or not the lighting shifts. The Z 6, with Dynamic-area AF and AF-C engaged, coupled with the right zoom lens and aperture, is a weapon for things like birding and sports photography.

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50mm @ F/1.8 - click to download the full rez file (tack-sharp on the cornea)

Final First Impressions

Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 Firmware 2.0 is finally here and, overall, we're impressed. Eye-AF may not be perfect, but it's a step above Face Detection and an improvement. The Low-Light Shooting didn't feel drastically different to us right out of the box, and we'd love to see less hunting in dim conditions, but these cameras already see better than you or me. And adding AE Tracking to Continuous High (Extended) burst shootings makes both of these cameras stand (almost) shoulder-to-shoulder with the Sony A7R III and A7 III competitors, even if Sony retains an edge in accuracy and Eye-AF refinement.

We'll have more thoughts soon, and there's likely more work to be done, but we're impressed with Nikon's desire to improve the weakest areas of their first generation mirrorless bodies.