Sports photographer and Getty Images’ Chief Photographer Matthias Hangst was one of the first to test the new Nikon D6 in the field. We caught up with him to discover his thoughts on its performance, and here's what he had to say.
When he first held the D6 it felt like an old friend. The performance upgrade in the D6 is housed in a body that handles like the D5, so you can pick it up and start shooting. For Matthias, that’s a positive thing: “It feels like a D5, so you don’t have to learn too many new things. Even with ergonomic improvements, the basic grip and the buttons feel familiar.”
Super-fast and flexible AF
But that’s where ‘business as usual’ stops. The D6 offers a radical upgrade in autofocus performance, with the AF engine now Nikon’s fastest yet. All 105 focus points are selectable and cross-type, giving 1.5x higher density coverage than the D5 – enabling you to focus faster and anticipate the action better. Group Area AF offers more custom settings for unparalleled tracking, and improved scene recognition delivers next-level subject acquisition.
After testing it out, Matthias told us: “This is a huge step forward. I don’t know how they did it, and I’m impressed. Out there in the field, it’s really working. I was shooting half a dozen different sports, and whatever I shot, the autofocus showed a massive improvement. And in Group Area AF there’s a wider range of groups you can select, so you can customise them much better. Plus there’s another big step forward in 3D tracking, together with face recognition.”
Custom settings for your style of shooting
As a big fan of customisation, he’s impressed with the new options in the D6, but is also aware that you have to work with them to get the best out of the camera. “This camera is a powerful tool, but you need to take the time to familiarise yourself with it to use all the great new functions. You can customise a lot. You can change different tracking options for the AF. You can build sets, save them as pre-sets and you just need to apply them for the sport you’re shooting. I think it makes sense because it gives you the full power of the camera. It’s all there to make life better, to make life easier. Before, if you set up a whole custom shoot bank it could be a bit tricky to swap around or to adjust a customised setting. This is much easier now, with fewer buttons to press, and easier access in the menu, so customisation is simpler. It’s a positive and a critical step forward from the D5.”
3D tracking was a feature Matthias used a lot for sports where there’s a clear separation between the subject and the background. “I think 3D is a great thing to work with, especially for rhythmic gymnastics. There are a lot of unexpected moves and changing direction. They jump, they run, they go down on the floor, up in the air, and there are plenty of props involved. There are so many things going on and not all of them are predictable. It’s really helpful to just focus on the general framing while the camera helps you track your subject.”
Image Quality Straight Out Of The Camera
And when there’s only one chance to get the shot, the D6 brings it home with extreme precision and speed – shooting at burst rates of up to 14 fps with full AF/AE, essential for sports photography. When you’re under pressure to deliver, file quality straight out of the camera is critical. The D6 delivers exceptionally clean images, with a new Auto White Balance algorithm giving superb colour accuracy and clearer skin tones.
When asked about the most noticeable improvements in the D6, for Matthias there was one clear winner: “It’s the image quality of the JPEGs straight out of the camera. There’s a new image processing engine, even though it’s the same sensor. Especially in the JPEGs there is another step forward around noise reduction, sharpness, brilliance of the frames, and quality. That is an impressive one. So just picking up the camera, shooting something with it and getting a JPEG on your laptop with exceptional image quality is impressive.”
And the AF and Auto White Balance were right up there too, in his estimation. “The next one is the autofocus, which needs thinking and customisation to get the best out of it. And there were significant improvements in AWB. To give you an example, we were shooting sailing in early morning light, which has a warm, yellow tone. The D5’s AWB would have brought all this colour down to a more neutral morning scenery, but the D6 understood that it was early morning light and gave us a yellow-red tone in the frame, which was what the human eye could see. It’s also giving us nuances in skin tones. Combined with the JPEG quality, the upgrade in AWB saves vital time in our workflow in sending quality images straight out of the camera.”
Faster workflow, happier clients
Speaking of workflow, every aspect needs to be considered in Matthias’ world of agency photography. It’s not just about getting a great shot. It’s about getting images out as quickly as possible. The D6’s Ethernet, Wi-Fi® and Bluetooth® connections offer transfer speeds that are among the fastest in the field. And they don’t slow down as you shoot, plus you can prioritise the images by sending them to the top of the transfer queue. “Prioritising is new. When we’ve got a goal coming in or a very important frame, we can prioritise it by flicking it up on the queue, with a special movement. General connectivity is better, as is functionality around sending and transmitting pictures.”
Testing workflow was vital, so Matthias’ D6 shoot had an editor on board to work through the shoot and transmission process from beginning to end. “Workflow is significant for us, and we’re seeing an improvement across the whole flow. Our aim is to create a perfect JPEG straight out of the camera. That’s what agencies need. Ideally, all the editor might need to do is crop or add a caption – so they don’t have to adjust colours, contrast or sharpening. That is an improvement, because every second we save is a second less to the client. At Getty Images, it’s one of our claims: we can deliver in under one minute to a client. We’re talking about 59 seconds or less. If you save another few seconds, that is a high percentage of 59 seconds. For us, it’s all about how quickly we can get out the perfect quality image to the client. So, the combined AWB and improved image quality is a big workflow step. Maybe not as much for me taking the picture, but getting the picture out and shifting it to the editor. That is really interesting.”
There was one other new feature that Matthias was surprised to find himself using so often: Wide Option for Single Point AF. “In the past you had the option of using a single AF point. Now, this AF point – mostly the central one for sports photographers – has a new Wide Option that you select in the menu. I used this very often. The thing is, it gives you great control over what the camera is doing, because it’s such a small limited area. It reduces in a positive way. I would even say this function gives you a new way of shooting.”
Finally, we asked Matthias to sum up his experience of the D6, and he told us: “It’s an impressive tool. It’s a great next step forward from a brilliant workhorse called the D5. I didn’t believe there was a way to push the autofocus to the next level. They did, which is great. It’s a lot about autofocus and image quality in the world of sports photography, and both main areas have been improved to another level. And that gives us new opportunities. The D6 is a great successor to the D5. They kept the spirit of the D5 and pushed it to the next level. And that’s what I think what we needed.”