The Z9 is a major technological leap and even levels the playing field with Sony in terms of its capabilities and construction. Although Nikon was late in delivering a professional-grade mirrorless system, its 120 frames per second (FPS), 8K video and impressive battery life make it worth the wait.
The Nikon Z9 is a far superior camera than the Sony A1 or Canon EOS R3, if you read the specifications sheet. It has a faster FPS shooting speed, 8k video capabilities, and a much lower price. The Z9 package is packed with many amazing features, so even though it falls short in high ISO shooting (compared with the R3) or resolution (compared to Alpha 1), these issues are negligible when you consider the total package.
The Z9 uses the EXPEED 7 processor to capture images and continuous view speeds unheard of before. There is virtually no rolling shutter distortion. This review has included a portion of it. I have confirmed its accuracy. These enhancements are complemented by an autofocus system that can track high-speed motion in sports such as hockey, hawks chasing their prey and cars speeding towards the camera.
Lensrentals provided some of the optics for this review. The complete list of available lenses from the company can be viewed at its website .
After getting to know the system and spending some time in the field with the Z 70 to 200mm f/2.8VRS and the Z Teleconverter it was quite painful. It brought a real tear to my eyes.
Before we get started, I’d like to mention that although I have tested the ProRes and 8K video functions of Z9 a few time, we tend to concentrate on still photography at . This review will be primarily focused on those features.
Design and usability
The Z9’s design is very similar to the D6 and D5 predecessors. The Z9 is heavier than the Z6 and weighs around 1,340 grams (or 2.95 pounds). It does not have a traditional mechanical shutter mechanism.
The built-in battery, vertical grip and tilt adjustment make the camera feel very comfortable in portrait and landscape orientations. You have access to all controls and buttons to allow you to capture natural images in each position. With a few exceptions, anyone who has used the Z mirrorless cameras, D5 or D6 will be familiar with the exact location of each control. The playback button is now located below the “MENU” button to make it easier to review images without looking away from the EVF.
The Z9’s improved 3.2-inch LCD screen can tilt across four-axis, making it possible to view shots from awkward angles. The new flexible mounts allow for the easy viewing of details and will also shift and change their positions as the orientation changes.
The Z9’s electronic shutter is unique in that it doesn’t have a physical shutter. Any sound you hear is artificial. The “shutter sound” can be disabled or enabled. Silent shooting is a great feature, especially in situations like live broadcasts and weddings. However, I envision a future in which a smart and dedicated fan can hack the shutter sounds to customize them and include the option of using nostalgic and historical camera clicks from Nikon. It could also be released as a firmware upgrade — fingers crossed.
The new feature of this flagship camera’s sensor screen shield is now available. It can be set up to automatically deploy when the power is off. This adds extra protection from dust and elements of the mirrorless sensor and is useful for changing lenses. This feature has been available for some time by Canon, but Nikon’s version feels stronger because it is a part that was specifically made for this purpose. It does not just use the mechanical shutter, which the Z9 does not. This is a very welcome addition for someone like me who shoots outdoors for action and environmental portraits. I hope it will be included in future versions of Nikon’s mirrorless range.
The 10-pin connection to the remote controller on the front of my camera body was a minor feature that I was excited about. This allows me to use my old intervalometers and makes it easy to keep the camera steady while still using the 400mm effective view when the teleconverter is connected.
It feels great in the hand, and it fits perfectly in my hands. The camera balance felt good no matter what orientation or lens the system was held in.
You can illuminate the buttons at the back and small display at the top by turning the on-switch up an additional notch. This will make it easier to locate everything in low light conditions. You can also choose a night mode to change the display’s brightness from normal to a more subdued state for “astro” viewing.
Let’s also talk about the camera’s speed. When I reviewed last year’s Alpha 1, it was amazing how you could just keep shooting and shoot in burst mode until your buffer fills up. The Z9 gave me the exact same feeling.
The camera is capable of shooting at 20 FPS in RAW high-speed mode, and 10 FPS low. There are multiple options between these two modes. The camera can also capture 120 FPS in 11-megapixel JPEGS mode, making it a game changer when it comes to high-speed motion such as sports, wildlife and racing, for web-resolution images. It is now possible to capture up to 1,000 frames per burst using the most recent firmware without having to fill the buffer.
We’ve already mentioned battery life, but the method CIPA uses to calculate battery life for cameras must be overhauled. The 800 shots that they took to determine how long this new 3,300mAh battery would last per charge are woefully inaccurate. This might be the most incorrect rating.
The day I tested the autofocus system of the camera on cars, I shot over 1,200 frames in bursts and several other shots. At the end, the battery had a 88% charge. This battery life is far superior to any previous generation of mirrorless cameras by Nikon or any other manufacturer.
It would be an understatement to call the Z9’s autofocus system (AF) an upgrade from the previous generation Nikon cameras. There are many AF settings that can be customized and each one has recommendations depending on the subject being shot.
The Z9, like other Nikon cameras, has the eye and body detection autofocus for humans and animals. This is even possible from a great distance (as shown by the 400mm shots below of some hawks). Nikon claims that the camera’s AF system can identify up to nine subjects within a frame. This allows for quick switching between the eye focus and moving the joystick left or right to adjust the shot.
This functionality is not available when you use the 3D-AF tracking mode. It can lock onto the subject’s eyes, but it can also shift to other parts if it is moved around or blocked by another subject. The Z9 offers a wide range of tracking and AF modes. You can find more information in Nikon’s Sport AF suggestion guide.
The camera has an AF button at the side that allows you to quickly switch between AF modes if necessary. As part of this review, I took the camera to a charity hockey match, tried some bird watching, and tracked fast moving cars along a hill in Los Angeles. The camera produced impressive results in all circumstances.
To test the car tracking mode and burst fire RAW, I placed the camera on a tripod. Once a car has passed the bend, I fired the remote control by using the touch screen at the back of my camera. The trigger was held down until all the cars were out of frame. The GIF below was shot in low mode (10 FPS) for 241 frames at 400mm (70 to 200mm f/2.8 VRS with 2xTC) 1/320 atf/5.6 (and ISO 80 if you are interested).
Although I did mess around with some settings, it is obvious that the AF locks the incoming vehicle until it reaches the frame’s edge. Then an outgoing truck takes control. It follows the truck until it leaves the line of sight. Then it tracks the new incoming vehicle. It is possible to change the tracking speed to shift to a target or stay with it. These results impressed me greatly, even in extremely low-light situations like the hockey game, where I used an average ISO of 3,600 to 25,000.
The eye AF tracking speed was impressive, especially when compared with my previous Nikon mirrorless camera experiences. It also proved to be very accurate. Being a wearer of glasses and contacts, the autofocus in action situations is something I rely on. The Nikon Z 9 was the fastest and most precise autofocus system that I have ever tried.
One thing I can say about the Z9’s autofocus is that you will need to select certain modes in fast-paced environments to maximize its performance. The Sony Alpha 1 was smart enough to recognize what you want to focus on and then just go. These are minor settings changes and it is not a major issue. But that’s just me.
Another thing worth noting is that while most mirrorless cameras offer continuous shooting, the Nikon Z 9 does not have any blackouts when shooting in bursts. This puts it in an exclusive group of cameras capable of this. You can adjust the settings in the menu to make the display active and uninterrupted. This allows you to track the subject and ensure that framing is exactly how you want it to be during a shoot.
When used with compatible lenses, the Nikon Z9 has a 45-megapixel sensor that can be adjusted to compensate for vibrations up to six stops.
Here are some images of hawks I captured while photographing the sunset over Los Angeles. Each image contains a 400mm F/5.6 shot with Adobe Lightroom Classic auto adjustments and a 66% zoom crop, centered on the bird(s). The system was mounted on a Manfrotto tripod with a ball-head, so it was easy for it to follow the hawks around the area. However, this also made it more difficult for the camera to focus and stabilize my movement.
Consequently, some shots were not sharp enough to show the animals. However, I believe this was due to user error. This happened early in my learning of the AF modes on Z9. It is important to mention this for transparency.
RAW files from Z9 provide some of my best images with a Nikon mirrorless camera. The only problem is Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom Classic, Photoshop and Capture One. You can read more about that below.
Low Noise and High ISO
The Nikon Z9’s high ISO performance has been my favorite camera, even my old Sony system for nightlife photography. Even a quick export from the camera directly to my smartphone with Nikon’s Snapbridge app revealed that images taken at 10,000 ISO or higher are easier than any other image I have seen.
However, there are still some issues. The Nikon NEF raw files for the Z9 have a very different color profile than Nikon wants. Comparing files between Adobe and Nikon NX Studio software wouldn’t have been a regular part of my testing. But PetaPixel before this review, a high ISO article was posted by Reed Hoffmann and revealed a striking difference in RAW handling between both apps.
Hoffmann noticed an issue with Adobe’s NEF file processing. The noise and distortion felt worse than if the files were processed through Nikon’s NX Studio software. This was brought to my attention by Mr. Hoffmann. I tried it myself and was amazed at the results.
Below is an example image of Harley at 25,600 ISO. I used only the profile of the 70-200mm VRS lens to apply the exposure and brightness. Every other control was disabled.ISO 25600 RAW Nikon NXISO 25600 Adobe Lightroom RAWNoise and Colors presented with Adobe Lightroom Classic (RAW)Nikon NX Studio Noise and Colors RAW
It is evident that the Nikon NX Studio software interprets NEF color profiles more accurately than the real thing. The images also have a lot less noise and grain.
These findings have been shared with Adobe. We hope that Adobe will improve their ACR profile before most people can get their hands on Z9. However, until that time, if your ISO Z9 files are high, it is worth taking the time to process them in NX studio before moving them to Photoshop or another app for further processing.
Here are more high-iso images that were processed using Adobe Lightroom Classic. Click to see the larger resolution.Z9 at 2,000 ISOZ9 at 2,000 ISOZ9 at 10,000 ISOZ9 at 10,000 ISOZ9 at 20,000 ISO
The Z9 makes other cameras feel like antiques
The Z9 is by far the most addictive camera I have ever used. Like most of my friends who are photographers, returning to shoot with my Z6 II feels a bit like going back in time ten years to shoot with an antique. While there are many things right about any Nikon Z camera, the Z9 is something I will never forget. Everything else feels insufficient.
It has incredible buffer and burst firing capacities and pairs with the fastest autofocus system I’ve ever seen. When the Z9 is used with native Z glass, I am referring to the results. While the FTZ or F mount glass works better than other Z systems, the performance of native glass is simply mind-blowing.
The Eye-AF is fast and accurate for pets and people, even though the subjects may be very small. Once the system has detected an eye or face it wants to lock onto, it will follow them until they are completely out of frame or blocked by another subject.
Rent this system if you already own Nikon glass, FTZ mounts, or any other Z system camera or lens. This is the best system to rent for wildlife and action photography. Professional wildlife and sport photographers will benefit the most from the camera’s incredible connectivity options, which allow for quick file delivery and on-site uploads for publications that require images as they happen. However, the Z9 provided me with the comfort I needed. I have never felt more at ease shooting Nikon than I did with the Z9 in my hand.
Although there are some minor things that could be improved or adjusted while shooting, the Alpha 1 is truly one of my favorite systems for action, sport, and wildlife.
What are the Alternatives?
There are very few true competitors to Z9. If you prefer to keep up with the latest in mirrorless, the $6,896 Sony Alpha 1 (with a grip) and the $5,999 higher-resolution Canon EOSR3 are both options. The $6,499 EOS 1DX Mark III DSLR is a great option but it’s not very competitive.
Should You Buy It
Yes. The Nikon Z 9 system is the best Nikon has ever produced.