Clive Mason was one of the first in the world to get hands-on with the Nikon D6 during testing, and is now working with it day-to-day. We talked to him to find out what it was like to trial the new pro camera and how it’s performing with a variety of sports.
As a senior sports photographer for Getty Images since the agency began 25 years ago, Clive Mason knows a thing or two about cameras. That made him an ideal choice to test our flagship pro camera, the Nikon D6. His first impression was excitement at the image quality straight out of camera, and that has been confirmed by his continued work with it. “Straight out of the box, it was just zinging. I thought, ‘I’ll replicate the settings from the D5 for a little sharpening’, and it was way too much. You don’t need anywhere near that because it is literally just out of the box mind-blowingly good.”
Facing the elements – sailing through
Although Clive covers all sports, he’s become Getty Images’ go-to man for Olympic sailing regattas – often shooting pre-Olympic stock images as well as events during the Games – so that became his focus on the test shoot. He was impressed with the Auto White Balance and how it now captures even greater nuances in the delicate golden tones of early morning light, and also how well autofocus lock-on performed. “Focus-wise, the focus tracking lock-on is key. With the water splashing up, you need to make sure it stays on the face. I was shooting Nacra 17 Class sailing, which is an Olympic category, so it’s all about the athlete, and their face. It’s not necessarily about the boat. The idea is to try and always have the athlete in focus. Even if the boat is going away from you, the athlete is always the sharp point.”
But it was the robust weather-sealing that was the big surprise. “Part of the test was to see how much of a soaking it would take. It coped better than I did. It got wetter in three or four minutes than I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a camera get that wet and still perform. It was properly, properly wet. None of us want to get our camera wet, but we all get caught out. When that happens, it really is a game-changer, because it’s just going to keep on going when other cameras would have given up the ghost. That’s exciting.”
Working with the D6
Unlike news photographers, Clive’s sports photography work is more seasonal. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of many of the big events he would normally cover, but there was a window of opportunity for shooting before lockdown came and he made the most of it. “I’ve been using it two or three times a week and it’s been amazing. The autofocus is so much quicker, the colours straight out of camera – without any tweaks, without any little bits of this or that, without huge amounts of anything – are absolutely on it. People have even commented on my social feed about it, saying ‘the colours look amazing’. That’s the new D6 for you.”
It also has features that are changing the way he shoots some sports. “Across the different sports, the 3D face tracking on football and rugby has instantly changed the way I shoot football. I’ve done three games with it now and it’s extraordinary. You don’t always want it on, but by setting it in the custom controls you’ve got a little lens button that turns it straight back to single point, then you wait, and then you’re back on 3D-tracking. That is going to significantly affect the way I shoot football and rugby. There’s a couple of frames I did at a Chelsea game and they were all done with 3D face tracking. The whole sequence is extraordinary. It’s full-frame on a 400mm lens and you’re not worrying about where the cursor is, so you can come straight onto the composition and make sure the heads and feet are in and everything is there. The colours are there, the AF’s there, face tracking’s there. It is absolutely just bang-on. It’s amazing.”
Customisation for unexpected moments
The improved ease of switching custom settings gives the edge for decisive moments. Clive finds the one-touch customised settings button to be particularly valuable in shooting motorsport. “If I’m shooting a pan at 1/8 sec and that car crashes, I can press a button and the shutter speed instantly goes to 1/2000 sec at f/4, Auto ISO, and the AF on – and I’ve locked in the shot. It used to be fiddly to go into the menu to do it, and you could lose the shot. As quick and as knowledgeable as you are, you’re still going to get caught out. So that has changed dramatically.”
And it makes life easier when Clive needs to shoot a variety of images at the same event, in a limited time. “If I’m shooting Formula 1 and I need, let’s say, a shot that is more static – where the sponsors are all visible on the car – then I think I need a slower one of it too, I can just reverse that setting. I can change that setting to 1/15 sec at f/22, so when the car comes into view, I can just press that button. Then with the next car I’m still getting a nice, solid stock shot. It just gives you flexibility. They’ve refined it and made it even better. It really is a lifesaver now.”
Overcoming low light challenges
There’s no bigger lighting challenge for a sports photographer than dealing with the varying quality of light in rugby grounds and football stadiums. “If you live in Northern Europe, you’ll spend four months of the year in deep, dark football or rugby grounds. Rugby grounds can be particularly difficult, as many league grounds are poorly lit. In football it’s less so, as the big-league grounds like Bundesliga and Premier League are pretty much all LED-lit now. But if you shoot rugby, some of the grounds are shocking, so high ISO performance is a gamechanger for a lot of people who work in really dark stadiums. Looking at ISO 6400 now on the D6, you would think it was ISO 2000 on a D5. It is so much better. We even pushed it to ISO 12800 in testing and it was still incredibly good. It wasn’t as sharp, but ISO 12800 on the D6 is better than ISO 6400 was on the D5.”
Better AF performance with fewer focus points
How did the autofocus performance improve in the D6 with fewer focus points than the D5? Clive explains:
“The AF is, I would say, significantly quicker. When I’m shooting motor sport, there are areas that I want to put the car in. Imagine the whole frame, and I want to get the focus in a small area. It’s not that we use autofocus 100% of the time, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to just put the car where the AF sensors weren’t necessarily as responsive before. With the new 105 cross-type all-selectable AF points, they’re all performing at 100%, whereas before there were some dead areas. While the D6 technically has fewer AF points, now they all work 100% as well as the centre one does.
What used to happen in low light is if you moved off the centre focus point – maybe by one or two points, and you were working in low light – sometimes the autofocus system couldn’t find the subject, so the camera wouldn’t be able to lock on to it. Now it’s on it every time. Wherever that cursor is in the frame, it just picks it up straight away, every time – no matter how poor the light is. What you can say now is that you have greater performance and better coverage with fewer points. That’s exactly what it is. It’s significantly better.”
Favourite upgrades in the D6
Isolating favourite features is never easy, but Clive has a few standouts. First up is file quality straight out of camera. “We need to touch on the quality of the file, because it is significantly better than the competition. When you’re filing from an event the picture desk will go, ‘Wow, that’s really sharp’. They can tell. Basically, the quality of the D5 files was brilliant, but these are another step up again in improvements. You can keep zooming in and in, it’s just an insane quality. And very, very sharp. It’s what we’re all after.”
Auto White Balance gets an honourable mention too. “I’m from the agency background where speed is of the essence. It has to look great straight out of the camera. I’ve always spent time fine-tuning and making sure I get the camera to replicate the colours as closely as possible. The AWB in the D6 is great. I haven’t really had to fine tune this. The colour’s great, the skin tones are perfect. It’s incredibly accurate.”
Making workflow a priority
Of course, for an agency photographer, it’s all about workflow. “The D6 workflow is as good as it was with the D5, with the added bonus of the prioritisation on the image transfer. So, for instance, we’re all sending remotely now, whether it’s with a cable straight into the camera or via the WT-6 wireless transmitter. What we can do with that system now is we can use a swipe-up process. If you’ve got 11 or 12 images lined up and while they’re sending, another goal’s gone in for instance, you can swipe up and it puts that image straight to the front of the queue. Nikon’s always been well ahead of the game on transmission, and this new system of prioritisation is going to help us enormously. It gets the image where it needs to go to that much quicker.”
Asked to sum up his experience with the D6, Clive told us:
“The whole thing feels much more like a well-oiled machine now. It’s a lot smoother because they’ve changed the construction of the mirror box. The mirror now has much less bounce, so it’s quieter and smoother and feels significantly quicker and more responsive. It’s impressive.
On the whole, it’s just a nicer tool. You’ve taken a rough diamond and you’ve polished it and now it’s beautiful. I can’t necessarily isolate one aspect. What I can tell you is that to use, it’s a blindingly good tool. I’ve been totally impressed with it in the situations I’ve used it in.”
Find out more about the new Nikon D6 at https://www.nikon.co.uk/en_GB/product/digital-cameras/slr/professional/d6.