Nikon has finally officially announced their new flagship mirrorless camera, the Z 9. The long-rumored specs are now confirmed, and the promise of the system has exceeded expectations.
On paper, at least. I haven’t gotten a chance to hold the system in my own hands yet, so I’m not yet in a position to write a full review. But as someone who has gone from not planning on buying a new camera soon to a man whose finger is currently hovering over the preorder button, I wanted to check in to share some items from the launch event that stuck out to me the most and just why the Z 9, assuming these things work out in the real world, might just be one of the best values on the market.
Now, to start the article, I’ll share a short, seemingly unrelated story. For a moment, you might feel as though you’ve traded Fstoppers for ESPN, but stick with me, as I feel as though the theme of the story will further prove my point.
I am a huge soccer/football fan. Specifically, I am an FC Barcelona fanatic. No need to worry if you are a rival fan. This post won’t be bragging about how good we are. In fact, at the moment, we are not very good at all. Like really not good. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one is the loss of arguably the greatest player of all time unexpectedly at the beginning of the season. That doesn’t help. But there are a number of other problems I won’t go into here. Let’s just say that there are a few bright spots.
The one true bright spot is that quiet as it’s kept, we have another player who within the next three to four years could easily become the greatest player in the world. Ansu Fati has the athleticism, charm, and skill set to be great. But, at the moment, he’s only 18 years old. When the hopes of your billion-dollar franchise rest on the shoulders of someone who less than 12 months ago was legally termed a child, it usually doesn’t bode well for the wins and losses column.The other day, we were playing a huge do-or-die game in the Champions League. Ansu makes an amazing play to single-handedly steal the ball from the opposing goalie. He’s then in a position to make a choice. He can lay the ball off to his teammate for an easy goal. Or, he can try some sort of magical flip-up, backflip, bicycle-kick that, if successful, would be the type of goal they’d be replaying at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The kid went for the bicycle kick. The kid was unsuccessful. But, even in that failure, lies the reason why some players have the potential for greatness and some players can only really aim for very good.
Even though the movie didn’t come off, both his willingness to conceive the idea and more importantly, the bravery to attempt it in one of the most important moments of the season show that he was playing for keeps. He wasn’t playing just to be good enough. He was playing to be great. It may not have worked on that particular play. But his willingness to keep striving for greatness despite the odds is the thing that sets him apart from 99.9 percent of the players in the world. It’s one of those human traits that some competitors have and some will never have, regardless of how many hours they spend in training.
Nikon had a lot riding on the release of the Z 9. Though rumors of the company’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated by the Twitterverse, there’s no question that, in terms of industry perception, the company could use a big hit. The previous Z 6II and Z 7II cameras were excellent additions to the field and more than capable of keeping up with the competition. But, in a crowded field, they weren’t necessarily the cameras that were going to grab the competition by the neck, drag them out back in the alley, and beat the living daylights out of them. Nikon needed a camera that, returning to sports terms, would quiet the crowd — the type of player that could walk out onto the pitch in an opposing stadium and by the end of the game, the boos would turn to cheers of respect simply because the player’s skill set couldn’t be denied.
I feel like the Z 9 could be that player. At this point, I can only judge what’s on paper. But based on the official specs, the Z 9 should easily be the best mirrorless camera on the market by the time it hits shelves. And the reason Nikon has been successful is the same as why Ansu Fati has the potential to be great. They were willing to think outside of the box, swing for the fences, and take a chance to create something that was not simply good enough, but potentially great.
No Mechanical Shutter
As someone who almost never uses the electronic shutter, removing the mechanical one was not a feature high on my Christmas list. Aside from personally enjoying the loud clatter of a shutter mechanism, perhaps to an unhealthy degree, I don’t have anything against electronic shutters. It’s just that up until very recently, it was not practical to try and use them with flash. As I use the flash of some sort on the majority of my still shoots, electronic shutters are just something I never gave a great deal of thought to. Changing to mechanical-only mode has always been one of the first settings I change when taking a camera out of the box, then never return to that setting again.
But due to the new processing system in the Z 9, they can somehow achieve 1/200th of second flash sync with the electronic shutter. I am no tech guru, so I will not attempt to explain the science behind this. And I’m still curious to see how it works in the field and if there are any limitations. But if losing the mechanical shutter altogether can result in a faster camera that allows me to still accomplish the same tasks, I’m on board. Especially since that new sensor with a faster readout should also do wonders for things like rolling shutter and other issues.
Improved Autofocus System
Autofocus has been the biggest bugaboo for Nikon mirrorless cameras versus the competition, at least according to some, and Nikon knew they had to address it in their flagship camera. This is a professional camera to be used in literally all kinds of situations by experienced shooters used to using autofocus machines like the D5 and D6. Anything not up to that standard could spell major trouble for the brand. But, again, rather than just aiming for good enough, Nikon has aimed to create an even better autofocus system than their previous models.
Since I haven’t tried it myself yet, I can’t give a full review. But from the bits and pieces I’ve seen from other users who have touched the camera, it seems as though Nikon has succeeded wildly in this department. Personally, my own biggest gripe with the previous Z autofocus system wasn’t that it was inaccurate. It was simply that to get that accuracy required you to constantly return to the menu system to change to the right, very specific, focus modes. From the release materials, it seems as though Nikon has addressed this and even improved their eye/object tracking modes by allowing the camera to automatically recognize whether you are shooting people, pets, cars, motorbikes, or even an alien spacecraft. Okay, I might have added that last one myself. But the potential seems limitless.
Internal ProRes 4:2:2
While this camera will likely primarily be used for still shooters, the video upgrades to the Z 9 continue to show that Nikon means business in the realm of motion capture. The Z 6II and Z 7II have always been incredibly versatile video tools. I’ve shot many a motion job using the Z 6. And the options only grow when you attach an external monitor like the Atomos Ninja V to the original Z cameras and can access even more recording formats.
But the one hiccup I always had with using the Z cameras, or almost any other mirrorless camera, is that most of the best features tend to require external monitors. I have several external monitors, so that’s not a problem. But having to add more components to your rig decreases both stability and the value of shooting with a smaller camera in the first place.
Internally, the Z 9 can shoot 8K 4:2:2 10-bit up to 30 fps or 4K up to 120 fps in H.265. Coming soon via firmware updates, the camera should be able to shoot 8K at 60 fps. It will also be adding an internal N-Raw video format as well as potentially ProRes Raw video internally. But straight out of the box, my favorite new option is the ability to record ProRes 4:2:2 HQ 10-bit internally. As many benefits as there are to H.265, I don’t have the best history with playing it back on my computer. When working with H.265 under tight deadlines, I often end up having to transcode or use other workarounds to deliver to my clients. ProRes, on the other hand, plays like butter in almost every editing system. So, for videographers wanting to be able to turn footage around quickly with a minimum amount of post-production, this added format is a real game-changer.
Oh, and I should probably mention that 8K video can record for over two hours without overheating. Kind of a big deal.
Ability to Alter the 'Shutter' Sound
Okay, there is no shutter. So, technically, any sound coming out of the Z 9 would be artificial. But as someone who actively uses the sound of the shutter click to pace both myself and my models during photo shoots, shooting completely silently is not an as big advantage to me as it might be to some. Pressing down on a shutter and getting no feedback just seems weird to me. Not that it is weird. Personally, it just freaks me out. I want to hear some kind of audible confirmation. The rather loud machine-gun sound of the D5 and D6 cameras might have been my favorite feature. I realize I may be alone on this. And I do recognize the extreme benefits of a silent shooting mode. But for me, the Z 9 giving me the option to make the camera louder is, oddly enough, one of my favorite benefits.
There are, of course, many more benefits. I haven’t even begun to talk about the built-like-a-tank body. The built-in vertical grip will be a benefit to many (although I still tend to just tllt my hand in actual practice). While I shoot athletes and athletic people for a living, I do it mostly under controlled environments rather than from a sideline. So, I’m not one who personally needs 20 fps to get a shot. But I’m happy it’s there. And, for real photojournalists who positively need to capture that moment of peak action and whose news outlets don’t need the resolution, being able to shoot 11-megapixel JPEGs at 120 fps is simply mind-boggling.
I’ve focused most of this write-up on the items that were of most interest to me. But the Z 9 is the type of camera that has a little something for everyone. It’s built to be able to handle any professional task thrown its way. And Nikon seems to have come through in a big way. But perhaps, the biggest way in which they have delivered is on the price. At $5496.95, the value proposition of this camera simply crushes the competition. As someone who is generally more than happy with the feature set in the 800 series of cameras (D800, D850, etc.), I wasn’t seriously considering the Z 9. It tends to have more features than I need. And, based on the competitors' options, I was fully expecting the price of the Z 9 to come in at the $6,500 range. So, when it came in around $1,000 less than my expectations and delivered the specs that would solve issues specific to my own shooting needs, that turned my head. Pound for pound, it might very well be one of the best values on the market, especially if we are talking about the flagship body range.
By swinging for the fences, Nikon has dropped a major gauntlet on the camera market. On specs alone, it profiles as the best camera currently available for working photographers. I can’t wait to get my hands on one to test out if my theory is correct.