After my initial thoughts article, I have now spent the past month shooting with the new Nikon Z 9 pretty much every day. A month may not be enough for a long-term review, but I’ve already found myself in an incredibly diverse set of situations, and while some question the existence of love at first sight, I must say this camera has been something special right out of the box.
A quick warning upfront. This is a long review. Very long. It’s long for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve spent the last month since I received my copy of the new Nikon Z 9 shooting with it pretty much every day in a lot of varied situations. I wanted to put it into pretty much every situation that I would personally see myself using it in to figure out where it’s strong and or weak. And two, this review will be long because what I’ve found is that Nikon has done so many things right with this camera that it’s going to take some time to cover them. Since you may be more interested in one aspect of the camera than another, you may also skip ahead to the section you are most interested in via the section headings. If you only wish to read the bullet points, there is a summary towards the end. But if you’re considering using the camera day-in and day-out in a professional setting and want to know if it’s worth the investment, get comfortable and read on.
If you’ve been following my articles over the last few years, you’ll know that I have always been somewhat on the fence about mirrorless cameras. While appreciating the technical advantages on paper, I had yet to find a mirrorless camera that brought me the same joy as shooting with a DSLR. Objectively speaking, I could understand the allure. But, at the end of the day, no matter which mirrorless camera I tried, I would inevitably end up returning to my Nikon D850. Sure, it might only have focus points in the center of the viewfinder. Sure, it might not have advanced video capabilities. But, at the end of the day, I was just happier with the work I produced using it versus the work I produced with any of the mirrorless systems I had tried to replace it with. That is a wholly subjective opinion based solely on how I felt about my work. But, since my objective as an artist is to create art, and not just to own the newest camera, the D850 has remained my own personal “flagship” since I bought it a few years back.
I’m not trying to restart the unnecessarily heated debate about DSLR versus mirrorless. I simply point that out as it will give context to both how I like to shoot and my ultimate feelings about the Z 9. What I love most about the D850 is that it gets out of my way and simply allows me to play. Looking through the big clear optical viewfinder allows me to connect with my subject on a personal level. There’s something about electronic viewfinders that I’ve always found distancing. Beyond the blackout issues, there is just something that has always felt artificial-looking through an EVF versus an optical viewfinder. Again, that is 100% personal preference and not meant to disparage those who prefer an EVF.
Over the years, I’ve purchased multiple cameras, both Nikons as well as other brands, that promised on paper to supplant my D850. But, while some did present clear advantages in some areas, each of the previous mirrorless cameras I tried always lacked at least one crucial thing that prevented me from really being able to completely make the conversion, until the new Nikon Z 9 arrived.
Now, you can probably gather from that last sentence that this is going to be a mostly positive review of the new system. We will get to a few things that I wish were different. But, suffice to say, if you’re looking for an article bashing the Z 9, this won’t be it. There are things I wish the Z 9 had, but most of them are fixable via firmware. Yet, even though I am a self-professed Nikonian, there are real practical reasons why I’ve fallen for this camera in such a short time beyond simple brand loyalty. And, after getting a chance to put this camera on the firing line in almost every situation that I would personally be using it in over the last month, I’m getting the firm sense that I’ve finally found a mirrorless camera that speaks my language.
The specs of the Z 9 turned heads upon its initial announcement. It’s able to shoot up to 30 fps at 45.7 megapixels or as high as a whopping 120 fps at 11 megapixels. This has incredible applications for photojournalists or action photographers who need to capture every millisecond of action.
But when I refer to speed as pertains to the Z 9, I am looking at the concept a little differently. Yes, being able to reel off rapid-fire frames is a great superpower to possess. But, personally, while I shoot a lot of athletes, I do so in the realm of commercial advertising rather than photojournalism. So, for my workflow, it’s rare that even the D850’s 7 fps isn’t plenty enough for my needs. That’s not to say that I haven’t been blown away by just how fast the 30 fps feels in the real world. One of the first test shoots I did with the Z 9 was to take it out to do some bird photography. More on that later, but let’s just say that I was at no shortage of frames to choose from when shooting frames at such a high pace.
Truth be told, I’ve needed to go into the camera’s settings to reduce the number of frames it shoots a second. I haven’t yet mastered the amount of pressure I need to apply to the shutter button to modulate my shooting speed. So, I’ve been ending up shooting rapid-fire bursts when I only need a handful of frames. It’s not the end of the world, but it does give me a lot more to have to sort through in editing. So, I actually “dumb down” the camera in a lot of circumstances to make it shoot slower so that I have less to review in post. That’s not the fault of the camera. It’s always better to start with more than less. I’m just still getting used to how fast this camera really can shoot.
So, if I’m not referring to frames per second, then what do I mean by “speed”? Simply put, the Nikon Z 9 is the fastest and most easy-to-operate mirrorless camera I’ve ever held in terms of productivity. What I always loved about my D850 is that I could just pick the darn thing up and, with a bare minimum of fuss, have a great image in a matter of seconds. There was very little reason to go menu-diving. Everything I needed to get shooting quickly was within easy reach of a dial or some kind of physical setting. One of my common gripes with most mirrorless cameras is that to make the bodies smaller, most manufacturers moved more and more settings into the menu. So, you could make all the alterations you needed. But you had to go into the menu or memorize an assortment of custom function buttons to get to what you needed. Not that this is impossible, it just always felt slower than being able to simply pick up my D850, spin a dial, and play.
The Z 9 allows me to shoot and make changes at lightning speed. I don’t feel like there’s any mirrorless penalty in the speed of operation. It feels very much like a DSLR to me in that I can easily make changes on the fly and only have to go into the menu system in limited circumstances. The camera still has all the custom buttons you’ve come to expect on mirrorless cameras. But, so far, the only one I’ve set is to remap one of them to launch the My Menu page. I’ve put all the functions that I personally ever change there, from white balance to video frame rate. Mostly, this is a backup if I have a brain freeze and forget how to adjust something with a dial. For the most part, everything I need is right there on the outside of the camera and I find that going from an idea in my head to pressing the shutter button happens just as fast with the Z 9 as it did with my DSLR. As someone who values speed and efficiency over specs when it comes to cameras, this is a massive advantage.
This speed of operation extends to autofocus. While I’ve always said that the autofocus shortcomings of previous Nikon models such as the Z 6, Z 7, Z 6II, and Z 7II have been greatly overblown, I have always expressed certain reservations about the setup. In the previous Z cameras, it’s not that the cameras couldn’t focus. It’s just that I felt as though I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get there, such as having to dive into the menu system to designate what type of subjects I wanted to shoot for eye-AF. Again, it’s not the end of the world. I just found that personally, it was taking me a lot longer to get from idea to shot with mirrorless cameras than using my D850 where I very rarely needed to change my focus mode at all and was always ready to shoot anything at any given time.
The Z 9 fixes this in two ways. Over this month, I’d say I’ve shot at least 90 percent of the time in auto-area AF with auto subject detection. This is the mode that scans the whole frame, picks what it thinks you want in focus, then can figure out on its own if that thing is a person, an animal, or a car, and adjust itself accordingly. I’ve found that the Z 9 very rarely guesses wrong. And for the type of work that I do, which 90% of the time will include a human subject, the camera has a near 100% hit rate.
The times that it has struggled have tended to be in extreme low-light scenes, highly backlit situations, or when I have not properly set my exposure. I think all face and eye detection systems struggle in these scenarios, regardless of brand. So, it’s no surprise to see the same with the Z 9. In such circumstances though, I will generally just flip over to either a single point or a more dynamic area mode, and I’m right back in business.
The ability to make that switch quickly brings me to perhaps one of my favorite additions to the Z 9. On the front left side of the camera, there is this little mystery button without any labeling. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it would just be another custom button. But instead, it is a dedicated AF mode button that allows you to quickly toggle between your autofocus settings. It’s well placed and easy to reach, and I find it much quicker to change between focus modes on the Z 9 than on other mirrorless cameras.
As mentioned earlier, to put the autofocus of the Z 9 through a torture test, I brought it out to a wildlife preserve here in Southern California to do a little bird photography. I am a professional photographer, but, when it comes to birds, it is a pure hobby. I picked up bird photography as a hobby partly because it allowed me to practice my focusing skills. I’ve always said that if you can keep a bird in flight in focus, you can keep pretty much anything in focus. So I took the Z 9 out along with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens connected with the FTZ II adapter to try my luck. Combining the high frames per second with wide-area autofocus with auto subject detection, even I suddenly looked like a professional bird photographer. Well, maybe not a professional bird photographer, but at least less of a hack. My hit rate was through the roof in terms of focusing. I tried switching the subject detection to just birds to see if it would make a difference. But, honestly, I got a high hit rate in either permutation.
When I got home to review the thousands of images I shot over the day, I found very few focus issues, far better than I would have previously been able to achieve. The only problem was that with so many options in perfect focus and so many frames shot at 20 fps (I was using the lossless compressed mode), it took me forever to make my selects as I no longer had to worry much about instantly deleting all the out-of-focus ones.
I’ll discuss the video in a moment, but I will also add here that the camera’s autofocus performs equally as impressive in video. Most video professionals will generally use manual focus when shooting video, and I do the same. But, I have shot several scenes relying on the autofocus of the Z 9 over the month, and it has rarely let me down.
Nikon improved both the autofocus speed and the efficiency of changing between focusing modes. Both, in tandem, improve the overall operation of the camera and bring it up to a level where focusing is even faster than my DSLR and with added features that perform in the real world.
No Mechanical Shutter
I can’t say that I was one who has been exactly clamoring for a camera without a mechanical shutter. For one, I derive an odd level of enjoyment from hearing that loud thwack of a camera’s mechanical shutter and mirror flopping up and down when I shoot. There’s not a practical benefit to a louder camera. I just personally like the sound.
Although as I say that, I realize that I do derive a certain practical benefit from the sound of a mechanical shutter and mirror flap. Most of my work is with models or other human subjects. Unless you are one of the rare people who enjoys being in front of a camera, most subjects, even professional models, are a bit uncomfortable in front of a camera. To get around this, it requires constant feedback and an effort on the part of the photographer to make them more comfortable (or less comfortable if that’s the vibe you’re going for). Because I am not someone who likes to talk a lot, rather than constantly saying “faster” or “slower,” I often use the sound of my camera shutter to set the rhythm of the model. If I need the model to pick up the pace, I’ll shoot faster. If I want them to slow down, I’ll be more methodical with my presses. Even though sometimes, this means I’m taking shots that I know won’t cut, by providing this audible feedback to my subjects, I am letting them know how quickly to change poses or when it’s time to try something new.
All of this is to say that I’m not someone who is ever going to shoot my camera in silent mode. There is certainly a use case for silent mode. It just doesn’t happen to apply to me personally. So, I appreciate that the Z 9 gives you the option to have a fake shutter sound with each press of the shutter so that my subjects have some concept of the rhythm at which I want to shoot. I have my own set to the loudest level, and, honestly, wouldn’t mind an even louder option being available if that’s something that can be changed via firmware.
The other thing I was curious about when hearing that Nikon was planning to eliminate the mechanical shutter was how this would work with my strobes. The majority of images I shoot use flash in one way or another. I’m not a speedlight person, so flash for me means a Profoto Air Remote and external third-party strobes. Historically speaking, I’ve never used an electronic shutter because the mechanical one is the only one that worked with strobes. So, how would this work now that the Z 9 has removed the mechanical shutter option?
People smarter than me and with more functional lab coats can explain the engineering feat required to have a processor fast enough to use an electronic shutter with strobes. I’m not that guy. All I care about is whether or not it will work in actual practice. Well, I don’t know how they did it, but I had zero issues with using flash with the electronic shutter. I tested the sync speed up to 1/8,000th of a second using high-speed sync, and it all worked without a hitch. The only real limitation was whether my strobes’ recycle time could keep up with the Z 9's shooting speed. Testing out the 30 fps along with my Profoto D2 heads, I was able to shoot 30 fps in Raw High-Efficiency Star with the D2s on a low power setting without issue. Once I increased the power of the strobes, and, as a result, lengthened the recycle time, I ran into some issues (on the strobe side, not the camera side). But, on the lower power setting, the Z 9 was a perfect match for my Profoto kit. And, of course, at sane shooting speeds, the camera and flash combination can do it all.
Another quick note on the Z 9’s electronic shutter: I hadn’t realized when I was doing the sync test that the Z 9’s shutter can go as fast as 1/32,000th of a second. I don’t personally need to shoot this fast all that often, but wow.
I should also mention another of my favorite pleasant surprises with the Z 9 that might not be a super big deal but is super appreciated. Mirrorless cameras give you the option to preview your exposure settings or not. You can instantly see what effect changing your aperture or shutter speed might have, for instance. The problem when shooting strobes is that the preview won’t be accurate. You are often trying to eliminate all ambient light when using strobes. So, an accurate exposure preview would just be a black screen. You get around this by going into a camera’s menu system and turning off the exposure preview. All pretty routine so far.
But what the Z 9 does that is super cool is that when I connected my Profoto Air Remote and turned it on, the camera automatically recognized that I was using strobes and switched out of exposure preview mode. When I turned off the Air Remote, it instantly returned to exposure preview mode without me needing to do anything. This is incredibly important because it’s very easy to turn off exposure preview to shoot flash, then forget you’ve turned it off when you start to take other photos. This takes that small decision out of my hands and again, allows me to shoot faster. Perhaps you are noticing a theme.
Zero Blackout and a Flexible Electronic Viewfinder
This one is right up there for the main reason why I’ve personally taken to the Z 9 more than any other mirrorless camera. The Z 9 has zero blackout between shots. As someone who shoots a lot of fast-moving subjects, I never knew how important blackout was until I purchased a Fuji GFX 100 a couple of years ago. That camera produces amazing files, but the blackout between shots continues to drive me nuts. It’s perfectly fine if you are shooting mostly still subjects or even posed portraits. But, if you have an erratically moving subject and you need to not only shoot them but track them between shots, having an extended blackout in the EVF is completely impractical. And, yes, there is technically a blackout with a DSLR as the mirror opens and closes. But, it happens so fast that I’ve honestly never noticed it. It was only with mirrorless cameras and blackout due to processing time where I realized how big an issue that was.
The Z 9 eliminates that problem by providing dual-stream technology. Essentially it’s like a video router sending one signal to the director’s monitor and another to the client’s monitor. But, in this case, the sensor itself is receiving one clean feed while the EVF is receiving its dedicated clean feed. Because the EVF’s feed isn’t impacted by what’s happening with the shutter or file processing, you have a clear view at all times. That means it’s not only as good as a DSLR but even better. I don’t even have to take my eye away from the subject if I don’t want to. This makes tracking a subject between shots a breeze and lets me focus on capturing the perfect moment.
I’ve heard some internet beefs about the resolution of the EVF compared to other brands. But, I’d say, in the real world, this makes zero difference. The Z 9 EVF is bright and a pleasure to use. I also appreciate that Nikon gives you the option to customize the information displayed inside the EVF to your heart’s desire. One benefit of mirrorless is that you can see all the information right there on the viewfinder. One downside to most mirrorless cameras is that they show me too much darn info in the viewfinder and it can take me out of the moment. The Z 9 allows you to only show what you want. This includes the option for a viewfinder completely void of overlays at all. For those of us who started shooting rangefinders, SLRs, or DSLRs and want as clear a view as possible, this is a major plus.
At the same time, if I’m shooting video and, for example, framing for 2.39:1, the Z 9 offers me the option of overlaying things like grid lines over my image in the viewfinder so that I can accurately compose for how I’m planning to crop the image in post. You can also pop up a histogram in the viewfinder to ensure you are properly exposed and not blowing highlights or crushing blacks. At the initial release, there is no built-in waveform monitor, but I’ve read that too is coming via a future firmware update.
Speaking of which, I’ll throw this out there just in case there’s someone from Nikon reading that can make this happen. I’d love to have a version of an exposure tool that I have on my C200. That camera shows me a waveform, but then also shows me a red spot on the waveform that instantly tells me what part of the waveform represents my subject. You can figure this out without the red spot. But the red spot makes it so much faster to identify where your subject is exposed on the scale. Perhaps there’s already a way to do this in the Z 9 that I haven’t figured out yet. But, if not, since the waveform monitor is still being developed, perhaps something like that can be included? Pretty please.
Also, though I’m not someone who shoots photos with the LCD screen, I do use it for video. And the Z 9 has that same feature as the previous Z cameras that keep the LCD screen from accidentally turning off (usually due to something getting close to the eyepiece) by simply pulling out the LCD screen a bit. The LCD is not a flip-around screen. But, then again, this is not a vlogging camera. You can vlog with it, but you’re more than likely going to want to use one of Nikon’s smaller cameras for that purpose. This camera is built for people behind the lens and it’s built like a tank.
ProRes HQ 4:2:2 10-Bit Internal and Functional 8K
By leaps and bounds, my most loved feature of the Z 9 is the ability to shoot ProRes HQ 4:2:2 internally. The Z 9 is an absolute beast in all areas of the video, so much so that I realized the other day that the Z 9 is both the best still camera I own as well as the best video camera, despite the fact that I own a couple of cinema cameras as well.
8K is the headline grabber. Much like the megapixel race on the still side, the higher the resolution, the larger the headline. But, of course, just like in the still world, resolution isn’t always everything. We like to talk about it on message boards, but in actual practical use, we often have far more resolution than we need already.
As someone whose business was derived about 70% from the video side last year, video production is an ever-growing focus for me when it comes to gear needs. With the D850 still being more than an adequate tool for stills, video production has been the main driving force for the majority of my camera purchases over the last couple of years. For larger commercial advertising, I still turn to larger cinema cameras like the Arri Alexa, as does 90% of the commercial world. But, for personal work, smaller budget productions, or as B-cams, my mirrorless cameras are often called upon to play real minutes in the game.
I own Canon cinema cameras for when I need bigger bodies. And purchased a Canon R5 to supplement the cinema cameras over the last year. This is not shot at Canon as that combination has done great for me. But the R5 does come with a couple of key setbacks which I think highlight just how big a leap forward the Z 9 represents.
First, let’s address 8K. It’s amazing. It is also, in 2022 at least, completely unnecessary for most projects. Many clients still request 1080p for the final deliverable. Those that want more are plenty fine with 4K. The main advantage of 8K is that you can crop drastically in post and still maintain a high-quality 4K final result. But, if you’ve planned out your shots in advance, 4K is more than adequate for the majority of situations. Again, not saying there’s no use case for 8K. It is specifically useful if you are someone who likes to pull stills from video. Simply saying that resolution isn’t always the biggest factor.
For instance, the Canon R5 has amazing 8K footage. It is truly beautiful. But, as has been well documented, the camera does overheat. Maybe not as bad as has been reported. But, I can tell you from experience, that once it happens the first time, you will find yourself very gunshy to use the R5 in 8K (or the 4K HQ) as your A camera in high-pressure client situations. Even if it’s not likely to overheat, it can, which means you have to think twice about using it. You can get around this problem by attaching the Atomos Ninja V+ which allows you to record 8K ProRes RAW to the external recorder. I’ve found, in this setup, that overheating isn’t an issue. However, needing to add the monitor both adds bulk to a camera package whose main advantage is its small size and, more importantly, it adds to the overall costs. The Z 9 body is currently $5,499. The R5 comes in cheaper at $3,899. But, if you factor in the $999 cost of the Ninja V+, your total cost to get dependable non-overheating 8K out of the R5 is now $4,898. It’s still cheaper overall, but the difference in cost is not so much considering the Z 9 is a top-of-the-line flagship and can do 8K internally for hours on end without overheating or requiring the mounting of external monitors. You can, of course, choose to mount an external monitor to the Z 9. But you don’t have to.
The only limitation to keep in mind when shooting 8K 10-bit internally with the Z 9 is that you have to use the H.265 codec. This codec results in smaller files due to the way it compresses files. That’s great for storage. But, when it comes to editing the footage, my computer tends to completely implode due to the processing power required to uncompress the H.265 files. This was the big problem I’ve had with my R5. All the internal footage from that camera requires me to transcode and/or make proxies before I can edit it. This isn’t the end of the world. But it adds an extra step and extra time if I’m on a tight turnaround.
That’s the main reason why I feel like the big advantage of the Z 9 isn’t the 8K, but the ability to capture ProRes 4:2:2 HQ internally. ProRes simply sails through pretty much every computer on the planet. I’ve already shot three two-hour-plus interviews as well as a complete short film using the Z 9 shooting in ProRes 4:2:2 HQ and my computer hasn’t had so much as a hiccup when trying to play back the footage. Zero seconds spent on transcoding. And the footage looks amazing.
Interestingly, judging solely by the time remaining indicator when the Z 9 is loaded with empty cards, it seems as though the file size of ProRes HQ at 4K is roughly equivalent to the file size of H.265 at 8K. So, you’re not saving space shooting in ProRes HQ at 4K versus 8K. But you are saving time. A lot of time.
You are limited to 4K 60 fps with ProRes 4:2:2 HQ internal on the Z 9. But, this has not been a major limitation for my workflow. If opting for H.265 in 4K, you can get up to 120 fps. Although, just a quick note for those of you using timecode, 24 fps is 23.976 fps and 120 fps is 119.88 fps.
Nikon has already promised both ProRes RAW internal and a new Nikon version of raw video to come in a future firmware update. Selfishly, I’m hoping they also can include Blackmagic RAW internally as well since I do the majority of my postwork in Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio, which currently doesn’t support ProRes RAW. But I’m already spoiled for choice upon launch of the Z 9, so really that would just be icing on the cake.
Oh, mama, this thing can run a long time on the new EN-EL18d battery. One day I found myself rolling on about five hours straight of interview footage before the battery drained. I shot another 12-hour production day shooting an entire short film as well as a photo series on a single battery. Power consumption will change with your choice of formats as well as how often you turn it off and on. But, even for the most demanding video situations, I don’t see it is likely that you would need more than two batteries to make it through the day, maybe three if it’s a super long day with a lot of 8K. Also, when I am running a full rig being powered by a V-mount or Gold Mount setup, the Z 9’s ability to be charged via USB allows me to cable the camera straight into my V-mount sled with a USB power outlet versus having to figure out a dummy battery situation to power the entire system all day.
Again, your results will vary depending on what and how you shoot. But, in my circumstance, I would have no hesitation at all in going out without a backup battery if I were only planning to shoot stills. It’s sort of like my D850 where the battery will last for days in most cases. The Z 9 battery is more than enough for most needs. I do carry a backup. But rarely have I been called upon to use it.
I also appreciate the design of the battery charger. I don’t think that’s a sentence I’ve ever uttered in a camera review. But, in this case, it was surprisingly useful. The Z 9 can charge via USB. And the charger is made in such a way that it is capable of multiple configurations. If you plug it into the wall socket, then put the USB end directly into the Z 9 you can charge the battery in-camera or shoot while connected to AC power. If you plug the USB end into the charger base, you can charge the battery outside of the camera if you need to charge one while shooting with a second battery. If you don’t have the wall charger or the charger base, you can connect the Z 9 directly to a computer or USB power delivery system with a standard USB connection and charge it that way. This opens up all kinds of opportunities to travel light as well as ways to cover your butt if you forget to bring your charger on a job.
Yes. Just, yes. If you’re anything like me, you likely have a veritable armada of HDMI cables in various sizes and combinations from different cameras. Most mirrorless cameras, including previous Nikons, opt for micro or mini USB ports to keep their cameras small. But, if you shoot a lot of videos, and find your camera often rigged up as part of a system with multiple connections and cords, you’ll know how easy it is to rip out one of those undersized HDMI cables and either lose footage or do serious damage to your HDMI port. That’s not impossible with a full-size HDMI, but it is far more secure. Also, since my larger cinema camera all have full-sized HDMI outputs, this allows me to only need to bring one type of HDMI cable with me on most shoots. Small thing. Major plus.
Ergonomics and Build Quality
When it comes to body size, I find the Z 9 to be a perfect fit for my hands. Naturally, this will vary depending on the size of your hands. I’ve always felt like the original Z camera were just a hair too small for my hands in most cases. My pinky finger would always dangle off the bottom. And, while this is not a massive problem, it did mean that the cameras were less comfortable for me to hold as opposed to my full-bodied DSLRs.
While the Z 9 does add weight, I find the added size to result in a much better hold. It’s not a light camera by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s well balanced. Just to give you an example, I was comparing the weight and weight distribution of my D850 with the F mount AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED attached to the Z 9 with the Z mount 24-70mm f/2.8 S attached. I didn’t put them on a scale but just holding them side-by-side, they were of comparable overall weight despite the Z 9 having a built-in grip. More noticeable was the fact that, when paired with the Z mount lens, the balance of the camera was better in the hand. The D850 combination was longer and more front-heavy. The Z 9 combination was the same weight, but more compact and not as prone to tip forward when my wrist got tired. It’s all personal preference, but I think the Z 9 balances very well with the newer lenses as you might expect.
It is an often overused phrase to say the Z 9 is built like a tank. But, honestly, there isn’t a more accurate way to say it. This thing is built tough. I have absolutely no hesitation about pulling it in and out of my case, rigging it in and out of a cage, or putting it in harm's way. In my most recent short film, the camera ended up on the business end of a garden hose (rather unintentionally) but never skipped a beat. This level of weather-sealing does mean that the card door which holds dual CF Express cards can be a bit of a puzzle to try and open. I still haven’t figured out how to do it single-handed yet. But if me needing to put a little more elbow grease into opening the card door means that I can keep shooting when it starts raining, I’d say that’s a fair tradeoff.
I also like that the nightlight buttons have returned. Like on the D850, a simple click of the on-off switch to the far position will result in lighted control dials, which can be key when shooting in darker situations.
I am not someone who usually shoots in situations I don’t at least has some measure of control over. I’m not a photojournalist. I’m a commercial advertising photographer who usually can light my set or at least pick the time of day that I shoot. But being able to crank up the ISO on the Z 9 has been a real joy.
Again, I do not do extensive scientific tests. But, I did do a rough side-by-side comparison of images shot with the Z 9 taken at a range of ISO values. What you deem “acceptable” will change based on your desired output and your work requirements. But, I will say that, as someone who rarely wants to shoot above ISO 64, I found everything up to ISO 12,800 to be pretty acceptable straight out of the camera. Add a little noise reduction in post and you might be able to push it further. As you might expect, ISO 25,600 is more of an emergency ISO as there was plenty of noise and some color shift. But, I'm guessing if you are shooting at that ISO, it's because it's a once-in-a-lifetime situation, lighting is not an option, and it's better to get an image than to worry about noise.
On my recent short film, I found myself shooting video in a daylit interior, a constant light interior, a high contrast sunny exterior, a low contrast magic hour exterior, and even a night scene lit only by fire. I dialed the ISO up and down as needed and had no problem whatsoever getting the footage to cut together in post. I did need to apply a bit of noise reduction in the night exterior shots which were shot with high ISOs, but the footage cleaned up easily. I would have no hesitation to crank the ISO again if necessary.
But, at the same time, Nikon continues to offer the ISO 64 option for when I’m shooting in a more controlled environment and want as little noise as possible. An incredible range for a variety of shooting situations.
Pros and Cons
For those of you who didn’t read my rather lengthy explanation above and just want the bullet points, this section is for you.
- Internal prores 4:2:2
- 8K that doesn’t overheat
- Excellent autofocus performance in both stills and video
- Autofocus mode knob
- New auto subject detection autofocus
- Sturdy build quality and weather-sealing
- Dual CF express/XQD card slots
- Battery life
- USB power supply
- Blackout-free viewfinder
- Ability to overlay aspect ratio
- Internal raw video formats (coming soon)
- Fast frames per second
- Full-size HDMI
- Zero overlay viewfinder option
- 1/32,000 s shutter speed option
- Solid performance in low light
- Size (could be pro or con)
- Card door a bit of a pain
- Could use an even louder simulated shutter sound option
One of my favorite directors is Sam Fuller, the mind behind such films as "Pickup on South Street," "Forty Guns," and "Shock Corridor." They used to say that Fuller wrote his screenplays with a machine gun instead of a typewriter. The ratta-tat-tat efficiency of his keystrokes leads to lean and effective storytelling. This is the best metaphor I can come up with for why I’ve instantly fallen in love with the Z 9. It is just so darn fast.
It doesn’t get in the way when I want to create. It provides the practical tools I need to do my job without the hurdles. Sure, things like internal ProRes, a long battery life, or a small focus mode knob on the side of the camera aren’t the type of things that make headlines. But they are the type of things that make me more efficient and effective in producing actual photographs and films. Add those small things to the headline specs like 8K that doesn't overheat and 120 fps still shooting, and you have a camera with very few limitations.
As a lover of DSLRs and specifically my D850 which I plan to keep until my final days, I think the biggest compliment I can give the Z 9 is that it is the most DSLR-like shooting experience I’ve ever had with a mirrorless camera. If you already love mirrorless, that might not mean much to you. But, if you are like me and have always preferred the optical viewfinder and shooting speed of a DSLR, this is quite possibly the mirrorless camera you've been waiting for. It allows you to be creative. And it gets out of the way.
As someone who has always had the Nikon’s that were a step below the "flagships" (the D850 instead of the D5 for example), I wasn’t 100% sure that I even needed the Z 9 versus one of the smaller models. I jumped on the preorder list more as a precaution. Knowing the way the global chip shortage has affected all manufacturers, I predicted it might take me a while to get my Z 9 anyway. So, I preordered it when it was announced, just to be in line, half thinking that I might cancel the order before it arrived. As it turns out, I was able to get an early copy and boy howdy am I glad I placed my order. Now realizing that the Z 9 is both my best still camera and my best video camera, the only regret I have is that I didn’t order two. I am very happy with my investment.
As always Chris your articles are a joy to read.
I have to say that your experience with the Z9 is spot on to mine and the only thing I cannot understand is why the 9 is not making more headlines. It truly is a revolutionary technological jump forward in so many ways.
Unlike you, I have decided to let my D850s go, something that I vowed would NEVER happen pre Z9. There is just no reason not to fully ditch the DSLRs now that the Z9 is here.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
In answer to you question regarding why the Z9 isn't making more headlines, here are a few reasons:
(1) Nikon fell behind other manufacturers in terms of initial entry into mirrorless cameras (as did Canon). This left the field open to Sony, Fuji, etc.
(2) A late arrival to the mirrorless party gave other companies the opportunity to promote their cameras and build brand recognition and loyalty (fanboys and girls). Nikon just isn't "cool" like Sony appears to be.
(3) There are more third-party lens manufacturers making lenses for the other brands. This means fewer lens choices for Nikon owners. Additionally, when lens reviews come out they are often tested on other camera brands which means those camera manufacturers get publicity while Nikon remains unmentioned.
(4) Various YouTube personalities and photography commentators have make a sport out of bashing Nikon, particularly for the mirrorless cameras having what some say is sub-par autofocus and in the case of the Z7, only one card slot. Some, it could be argued, appear to want Nikon to fail as a company. Pushing other brands must be in their best interest as they do it blatantly.
I've had similar thoughts about selling my D850. Just can't seem to let it go :-)
I know! The 850 is so damn good but.... the 9 kills it in every way. 😎
Thank you again Chris for this nice article. I do have a question.....years ago, when mirrorless was busting a move, so many were saying that DSLRs would eventually phase out and so many were giving reason for this as the weight. Yes, mirrorless was definitely lighter back then. But is that still true today? I have read specs in many different brands and have noticed that the weight between the two have gotten closer. Have you looked at that at all? Also, the lenses surely can play a part in this as well. Anyway, just curious. The 9 looks great but don't think i will get one. I have all I need. Besides, my son-in-law is getting one so.....well you can guess where the 9 will reside...yes?? Keep up the good work
I definitely don't think weight is as big an advantage as it seemed like it would be when mirrorless was introduced. Once you slap on a lens and other accessories, it does feel a bit lighter, but not so much lighter that I would make the switch to mirrorless for weight alone. It's more a matter of if you feel you need the added feature set. Specifically the video features.
The Z9 is a fabulous camera. Thank you for your review. I follow Joe McNally and he's posted Z9 images and that's all I needed. Thanks again.
Got mine yesterday. Did you notice the magic that happens when you go from ISO3200 to ISO4000? That put a big smile on my face coming from shooting on my RED over the last 5 years. I honestly think, however, that ISO3200 and anything above ISO10000 gets a bit too noisy for me. If this upcoming RAW upgrade is any good, might be time to sell the RED. This Z9 is beast mode.
Oooh. No, I hadn't noticed. I'm going to need to test that out. I was considering getting a Komodo this year. But I've now shot so much video footage that I'm happy with out of the Z 9 that I'm wondering if I even need a separate cinema camera for many applications.
The geek inside me says "yes" to getting a Z 9, but the landscape and travel photographer in me says "what for". This really doesn't have anything my Z 7 doesn't have. I wanted more resolution, so I went for the GFX 100S (like you the blackout drives me nuts), and will wait for a higher resolution Z model.
The only caveat I can see is if you started getting paid for your work. Being a firm believer that a pro should do all that he/she can to ensure a good finished product, the Z7 has one card slot which isn't the best insurance against a card failure. I know card failures are rare, but they do happen. I had one failure, but it was in a 5DIII and the CF card was fine, so no data lost.
I understand that, but the CFExpress cards are pretty bullet proof. Granted, not 100%, but enough that I have no concerns. Eventually, when the mythical Z8 or Z7 III comes out, I'll upgrade the Z7. I generally skip intermediate releases, unless they introduce something radical which I can see as a benefit.
Oh, yeah. For landscapes especially, that 102MP sensor is hard to beat.
Really liked your video. And, I appreciate that it wasn't inundated with slo-mo's.
I've had my Z9 for just over a week. It is my first mirrorless camera from any brand. Moved from D810, which I love. About a year ago I started photographing birds and after a few months seriously considered buying a Cannon R5. Since I've been shooting with Nikon for several decades "jumping ship" and buying all new lenses did not make sense. I waited for a D850 replacement in the $4,000 range and was pleasantly surprised when I saw the specs on the Z9 and even more surprised after my very first shoot and the quality and focus ability of the camera.
Thank you for your review - while rather long, I read the entire review and it just reconfirms I made the right decision. It also inspired me to explore doing video as well. Thanks again.
The Z 9 is awesome for bird photography.
Your article wasn't *that* long! And I enjoyed every word. I've been in the Nikon ecosystem for decades, but most recently began indulging in bird photography. As such, I've been lusting after the Sony A1 since its specs were first rumored. Nikon just didn't have a competitive product - until now. I've always enjoyed Nikon ergonomics, and it's a relief they are maintained in the A9.
Of course, there's still the bother of switching to z mounts to fully appreciate the new platform. But photography will always be at the intersection of that bottomless pit of desire and budget/practicality...
Jeffrey, think of Z glass not as a switch but as a huge upgrade. The new technology and big close flange all work together to deliver lenses that are, across the board, a major step forward. And you can still use your S optics with the FTZII so it is a win win.
Thanks, Julian. In a nutshell, that's what I meant by "fully appreciate the new platform". Unfortunately, while I'm excited about the potential of the z lenses, Nikon has yet to produce an S series super telephoto. I'm hoping the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S drops soon, as this would be the only lens in the entire z lineup with sufficient reach and, assumably, speed for bird photography. I'm looking forward to reading some reviews on its release.
I completely agree that both the throat diameter and flange distance can be game-changers. But I'm also disappointed that, with a specs like the z9, so many early-release lenses are more suited toward studio and landscape work (even macro) where 30 fps is inconsequential. In the birding and performance sports universes, super zooms are a requirement and more fps is almost always better.
That's the only barrier to entry for me. And I'll bet my bottom dollar that once Nikon completes the z lineup with super-zooms, a whole new market sector will open up for z9 sales.
Bottomless pit of desire and budget. I'm going to use that :-)
Hi Chris - very good article about your experience with the Z9. Thanks for reporting after you have had time to learn the camera and give it a thorough workout.
Hi Chris. Is the Z9 EVF any less "artificial-looking" than others? After bringing up that concern in the intro, I don't think you said anything about whether the Z9 is an improvement in that regard.
I think so, but, like Paul said, it's probably subjective. I think the lack of blackout, plus the ability to have a completely info free EVF helps me personally. So for me, yes, it feels less artificial. But, I think it would be something you'd have to test for yourself.
I feel inspired to really play with all the functionality!! :)
It's really nice to read a review that isn't filled with technical jargon and/or specs but actual hand-on experience. Most reviews cover the photo side, but don't touch the video, so you added another dimension I normally don't read about.
This camera in Not a one trick pony and the sooner people realize the versatility, the sooner we can make all camera companies better to meet our growing needs.
Thanks Spencer. There really are a lot of tools in the camera to play with :-)
looks like a great camera for those who need it
once you show up with a Z-9, folks assume you're getting paid to be there
For those who are into photography for the love of it, a smaller rig might well be a better choice.
Thanks for the great, well thought out, and thorough article. I just got my Z9 3 days ago, and I’m coming from using my D850’s just like you. The focusing system is what tipped me over to get the Z9. And having the bright viewfinder no matter the lighting conditions that I’m photographing.
I do still find that the small amount of strobing or stuttering that I see in the EVF when panning the camera is distracting… i.e., outside tracking birds in flight or a subject moving rapidly. I thought the 120fps refresh would make that less noticeable. Do you have any issues with the EVF?
Not so much with the Z 9. I've had problems with almost every other EVF I've ever tried. LOL. I still prefer an OVF. That was actually my main stumbling block in going to mirrorless. But, compared to other mirrorless systems, I prefer the Z9s EVF. Because I shoot fast moving subject a lot, having no lag was the biggest thing for me.
I am not retiring my d850 just yet either . That saying I just purchased a Z9 and am waiting impatiently for its arrival today.
I shoot live music and mostly video. Long days long shoots when shooting festivals. I need a beast mode camera(s) . I have been using two Sony a7siii’s , a Nikon d850,810 and 500. I’ll retire one of theses cameras most likely. I go out to Atomos monitor /recorders with the dslrs and shoot ProRes HQ4:22 it’s an upscaled 8bit file . Shoot internal on the a7siii’s usually.
Now the Z9 gets me into a step up in my video and photography autofocus accuracy over the d850 but about the same quality in photo files . I’m pumped!!!
You'll love it :-)