THERE ARE CAMERAS out there that tread the line between a professional tool and one that could equally appeal to an advanced hobbyist, there are consumer models that have pretensions to having ‘professional’ features and then there are cameras such as the Nikon D6, which are unashamedly pitched at hard working professionals who care less for the frivolous bells and whistles of lesser models and more about the fine margins that could, potentially, just make the difference between a good shot and a great one.

Being a model aimed at the professional it is, just like its predecessor the D5, geared towards giving the operator full control. The D6 boasts no fewer than twenty-seven buttons, two joysticks, one set of directional buttons and two pairs of dials. Some controls, such as the pairs of dials, are duplicated in the vertical grip, but not all. For example, the LiveView button and the i button are not duplicated but rather placed in locations easily reached from either the vertical grip or the normal grip. Meanwhile three buttons (aperture preview and two function buttons) are within fingertip reach on the front of the camera when it’s being held in the traditional ‘landscape’ orientation by the photographer.

Clearly the D6 is a long way from being a weekend camera you would carry around for fun. Rather it’s a heavy duty professional tool with particular appeal to those working in areas such as sports and news gathering.

It’s not especially pretty, it weighs a ton and costs a fortune and yet, for those that have the need for a robust, reliable camera that’s been designed specifically with the requirements of a relatively small niche audience firmly in mind, it’s a piece of kit that’s worth every penny.

So, what exactly is so special about the D6, and the model that it’s just superseded, the D5, and why should these cameras be so venerated in the business? To find out you might need to head for a windswept football ground on a rainy February evening, be up on a crowded vantage point surrounded by rivals when a moment of high action is taking place in front of you or be under

extreme pressure from a picture desk to get the killer shot back on their desk in time for the next edition. These are cameras that come with the potential to make or break your reputation, and it’s the tiny margins that so often make the difference and get you the shot that’s minutely better than the one the photographer with the marginally inferior kit is able to manage.

So, rather than put the D6 on the test bench and look at it from a reviewer’s perspective, it makes more sense to find  out what a seasoned working professional makes of it. Sports specialist Clive Mason fits the bill to perfection.

With a twenty-five year pedigree in his field –exactly the same time as Getty Images, the highly regarded agency where he works as a senior sports photographer, has been in business, by coincidence – he knows a thing or two about working under stress and the kit he chooses has to be totally able to deliver the goods in all conditions.

For someone such as Clive the question is not so much whether he should be working with a camera such as the D6 but whether the upgrades and improvements over the D5 are worth the trade up. Looking through the specifications of the new camera, some of the advances might appear to be relatively small, while the sensor resolution, at 21MP, stays the same and, to those who work in other genres of photography, sounds a touch on the low side.

To the specialist, however, that pixel count makes perfect sense – it’s the sweet spot between quality that’s plenty good enough for most end uses and a file that’s still small enough to be easily handled in the field – while small margins are what it’s all about. If the tiniest of upgrades lifts your work just that little bit higher than your rivals then the investment is seen to be entirely justifiable.

Take the increase in fps rate from the 12fps offered by the D5 to the 14fps the D6 now provides, for example. That doesn’t sound a lot, but this extra touch of speed can be crucial. “If you’re covering a ball sport such as tennis, for example, then it can be the difference between the ball hitting dead centre of the racquet or being just off,” says Clive. “I also cover a lot of Formula 1 and, naturally, this is a really high speed sport where it’s really important to get the helmet of the driver in sharp focus. I’m often shooting tightly framed at f/4 on a 600mm to get a narrow depth of field, and having the extra shooting speed is giving me more of a chance to get the frames that will ultimately be spot on perfect.”

Shooting still faster

It’s also worth noting that it’s possible to shoot still faster, but at a much reduced pixel count: 30fps at 8MP and 60fps when shooting in Live View, which could potentially help out on a specialised job where image resolution might not be quite so crucial, and it’s always useful to know that facility is in the locker if you’re a pro.

Another potentially even bigger difference between the D5 and the D6 revolves around the speed and accuracy of the on-board autofocus system and, again, while this hasn’t been reinvented exactly, there’s enough of a difference here to ensure that the serious professional will definitely be taking a closer look.

Compare the specifications for the two cameras and you’ll perhaps be surprised to notice that the D5 offers more focusing points, 153 points as opposed to 105. It’s not at all the backward step it might appear to be, of course, since the focus points on the D6 are all cross-type and so equally receptive, wherever they might happen to be in the viewfinder. This means that focusing is equally fast and responsive throughout the entire frame with none of the ‘dead zones’ that could be experienced when working with the D5. Fine margins again, but potentially crucial.

There’s also the facility to set what’s known as ‘Wide Area AF,’ so that the size and shape of the focus area can be widened to include more of the scene. Sometimes when the subject is quite small in the frame it’s possible for the AF to miss its cue and to focus on the background instead, but by increasing the area that’s being scanned this potential issue is neatly sidestepped.

The ISO range that’s offered hasn’t been changed on the D6 – it’s still ISO 100-102,400, expandable to 50-328,000 – but, crucially, the performance of the camera at these ISO levels has been significantly improved, and this is an area that Clive believes is a really important upgrade.

“As a sports photographer you have to be able to cope with whatever the elements might throw at you,” he says, “and you could be finding yourself shooting rugby in the depths of winter, for example, in very low light levels. With the D5 I would never have ventured above ISO 3200 because of quality considerations, but when I was working with a pre-release sample of the D6 last year I was finding that frames I was shooting at ISO 6400 were insanely good and I was even happy with what I was achieving at ISO 12,800 when I ventured there. I would say that the camera performs at around one-and-a-half to two stops better than the D5, which is a big deal.”

Another feature that you might have to delve behind the headline specs to really appreciate the value of is the fact that the LED on the D6 now boasts a fully functioning touchscreen. This is great for swiping through images, of course, but the real benefit is only realised when you speak to someone like Clive who is constantly under pressure to get his best images back to base in the shortest time possible.

“The D6, like the D5 before it, takes the WT-6 Wireless Transmitter,” he says, “which is great for sending files through to Getty’s Ftp site while I’m at an event. However, there can be times when you’re sending images through on a continual basis and they’re queued up but then something really newsworthy happens and you want to prioritise that shot to get it back to base as soon as possible. The touchscreen on the D6 will now let you do that by flicking the shot upwards with your finger and it’s just a case of something being designed with the professional totally in mind.”

Ask Clive himself what he feels is one of the most useful features of the new camera, however, and he very quickly picks out the new AWB algorithm, which has been set up to deliver much more accurate colours and clearer skin tones. It’s not one of the stand out features that’s been especially highlighted in reviews so far, but to the professional it has the potential to make a big difference to the work being outputted.

“The fact is that, when you’re a working sports or news photographer, you’re inevitably shooting in JPEG,” says Clive. “That’s because you need the smaller files for transmitting and storage reasons, and there’s only a small amount of post you can carry out on a file from an ethical perspective if you’re a press photographer in any case. What this means is that your capacity to carry out a lot of work on your file is limited and so it’s really important that what comes out of the camera is close to what you want to be sending over.

“I’ve found that the white balance on the D6 with the new algorithm is so much more accurate and that’s been a huge help. I was shooting with the camera around the time of the early morning sunrise when there were some lovely warm colours around and these were all rendered exactly as I saw them, rather than there being any cold casts. In my experience so far the AWB seems to be almost foolproof, which is something I’m really happy about.”

Other upgrades from the D5 include the provision of two CF Express XQD card slots – required to handle some of the vast amounts of data the D6 is capable of generating – previously you could buy versions of the camera that either came with dual XQD or CF cards – a much longer maximum exposure time of 900 seconds up from 30 seconds, built-in GPS and Wi-Fi to enable images to be transferred to a mobile device if required and a maximum video recording time of 105 minutes, up from 29 minutes and 59 seconds.

More information:
www.nikon.co.uk

All images: Clive Mason/Getty Images

VERDICT

THIS IS BY NO MEANS a camera for everyone: the £6299 price tag will no doubt see to that. However, much like the Canon EOS 1DX III we looked at a couple of issues back, this is a flagship that’s designed with a specific market in mind and there’s a certain prestige attached to products such as these from the perspective of the big players, a declaration of their professional credentials.

If you’re a photographer shooting sports or news then a camera such as the D6 will do a fantastic job for you and, although many have prematurely declared the DSLR to be effectively dead in the water – which it’s not, of course – for this specialist audience there is simply no choice. I asked Clive about mirrorless and the fact is, for the moment at least, that DSLR technology at the very highest end of the market is miles ahead of mirrorless still, and there’s no question of this position being overturned anytime soon.

For a stunningly reliable warhorse of a camera – tales are legion of the weather these models can put up with should the need arise – the price tag is just something that comes with the territory and it could be said to be a reasonable cost for a tool that can earn you a living.

For those working in less challenging conditions – say weddings and portrait work – the camera would doubtless be too big, heavy and cumbersome to do the job required, but that’s just a case of picking horses for courses.

Is it worth trading up from a D5? Again, it’s down to the individual, but if you’re at the very top of your game and intending to stay there then every tiny advantage your camera can deliver for you will be gratefully received. In short the D6 is an instant classic and, for its chosen audience, buying one will be a complete no-brainer.

ABOVE: Clive picked out the new AWB algorithm as one of his favourite new features, and it was able to render this early morning shot spot on.

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