The Nikon Z6 III’s Peak Dynamic Range Lags Far Behind its Predecessor’s

A Nikon camera with a large lens is displayed against a glittering gold background. The camera has a prominent Nikon logo and a Z series mark, indicating it is part of Nikon's Z series lineup. The lens reads "NIKKOR 24-70mm.

The Nikon Z6 III is an incredible camera with some novel features and pro-level performance. Among these new features is a “partially stacked” image sensor, which Nikon describes as the first of its kind. Early lab testing suggests that while this sensor may offer many benefits, it also incurs a dynamic range cost compared to the Z6 II.

Before diving into this story, which will refer to William Claff’s excellent work at Photons to Photos, it is worth noting that PetaPixel reached out to Nikon earlier this week to ask if the company had any concerns with Claff’s results, an explanation concerning the Z6 III’s dynamic range performance, or a comment on the benefits and costs of its new partially stacked image sensor design.

Nikon responded that initial feedback on Z6 III image quality has been fantastic. Further, Nikon says the Z6 III’s EXPEED 7 processor offers an image quality improvement over the Z6 II and its EXPEED 6 chip. As for specific questions concerning image sensor technology and dynamic range, Nikon has no comment.

On to the results: at the base ISO of 100, the Z6 II tops out at 11.26 EV, while the Z6 III peaks at 10.44. This 0.82 EV gap is rather interesting and doesn’t come with any benefit at higher ISOs — the sensor isn’t obviously tuned to give something up at low ISO in exchange for improvements at high ISO, which Nikon has a bit of history doing with the Nikon D5 and D6 compared to the D4.

A graph comparing the photographic dynamic range of two Nikon cameras, Z 6II (blue) and Z 6III (black). The X-axis represents ISO settings from 20 to 819200, while the Y-axis is the dynamic range in stops. Both lines trend downward as ISO increases.
Nikon Z6 II (blue) versus Nikon Z6 III (black) | Photons to Photos

That said, the gap between the Z6 II and Z6 III’s dynamic range does decrease as the ISO increases, essentially equalizing by ISO 800.

Although Nikon, understandably, isn’t interested in discussing how the move to a partially stacked sensor might impact dynamic range, there is another camera comparison in Nikon’s Z system that puts a typical CMOS sensor up against a stacked-type sensor — in this case, the 46-megapixel BSI-CMOS of the Z7 II versus the fully stacked 46-megapixel sensor of the Z8 and Z9.

A graph comparing the photographic dynamic range in log2(EV) of Nikon Z 7II and Nikon Z 9 cameras across various ISO settings from 50 to 3276800. The blue line represents the Nikon Z 7II and the black line represents the Nikon Z 9.
Nikon Z7 II (blue) versus Nikon Z9 (black) | Photons to Photos

While the Z7 II peaks at a very impressive 11.6 EV of dynamic range, the Z9 hits its high mark at 11.26 EV. This 0.34 EV difference is notably smaller than the one between the Z6 II and Z6 III, but there is a gap nonetheless.

A chart comparing various Nikon camera models, showing their Maximum PDR, Low Light ISO, and Low Light EV values. The Nikon Z 6II, Z 7II, and Z f rows are highlighted. The chart details performance metrics in low light conditions for each model.
The cameras mentioned in this story are highlighted in green. | Photons to Photos

While DxOMark tests its sensors differently than Claff, the Z7 II bests the Z9 for the former as well: 14.7 versus 14.4 EV. In fact, the Z7 II is up there with the best full-frame cameras on the market in terms of dynamic range. While there are plenty of reasons to opt for the Z8 or Z9 instead, for photographers exclusively, or at least primarily concerned with dynamic range, the Z7 II is a great option.

An intricate, twisted tree with moss-covered branches is surrounded by vibrant red and orange leaves, creating a canopy of autumn colors. The foliage forms a vivid tapestry, contrasting with the gnarled, dark branches.
As Chris Niccolls shows with his amazing Z6 III photos, the camera doesn’t lack for overall image quality.
A tranquil black-and-white photo of a small waterfall flowing over rocks surrounded by lush vegetation. The long exposure creates a silky effect on the water, emphasizing the contrast between the flowing stream and the static nature around it.
Here’s another of Niccolls’ shots from PetaPixel‘s Z6 III hands-on impressions.

And that’s important to mention here, too, because the Z6 III, as Nikon rightly notes, offers great overall image quality and is a powerful camera. Even if its peak dynamic range is worse, for reasons Nikon isn’t yet interested in elucidating, the Z6 III is better than its predecessor in nearly every possible way and is arguably the best overall camera in its class.

Image credits: Header photo created using an asset licensed via Depositphotos. Graphs and tables courtesy of Photons to Photos. Nikon Z6 III sample images shot by Chris Niccolls.