The Nikon Z 9 Has Arrived: Here Are My First Impressions

The Nikon Z 9 Has Arrived: Here Are My First Impressions

It has arrived! I've got my hands on a production unit of the new Nikon Z 9 flagship mirrorless camera, and here are my initial thoughts.

This wasn’t supposed to be the camera for me. Not that it wasn’t always going to be awesome. Companies don’t deem certain cameras in their lineup “flagships” for nothing. And since I’ve been using Nikons since the beginning of my career, one might think that I would have owned multiple of the flagship bodies over the past couple of decades. But because the work I do lands in the world of advertising, where resolution trumps speed, my buying choices from Nikon have mostly centered on whichever camera could give me the most megapixels rather than the fastest frames per second. So, cameras like the D5, D6, and so forth were usually passed up in favor of high-resolution bodies like the D800 or D850.

As Nikon has begun to grow its mirrorless lineup in recent years, I’ve been one of many out there who have been silently waiting for the mythical Z 8. It doesn’t yet exist, nor do I have any knowledge that it soon will. But in the back of my mind, I always assumed the release of that camera to be the point at which my well-worn D850 might finally get a chance to ride off into the sunset.  

When the rumors of a pending Z 9 flagship were first announced, I didn’t think much about it. I expected it to follow the tradition of the DSLR flagships by being both more speed than I needed as well as likely beyond my price range. Well, once the camera was officially announced, it was clear that Nikon had continued the legacy of its flagship cameras by producing a camera that would instantly take its place at the head of the line. But, what I didn’t expect was that the new Z 9 would essentially be combining the high resolution of the D850 with the speed of its traditional machine gun adjacent bodies like the D6. What I didn’t expect is that they would release the camera at a price point well south of what I was expecting.

Suddenly, I had a decision to make. I wasn’t planning on spending the money on a new camera at that moment. But, on paper at least, this new camera scratched me so many places where I itched. It addressed my client’s resolution needs. Because I shoot advertising often centered around athletes or fast-moving subjects, the added shooting speed certainly would hurt my ability to capture peak action. And since the balance of my dual career as both a still photographer and director/cinematographer has shifted dramatically in recent years in favor of the latter, the enhanced video capabilities in the Z 9 promised to fit perfectly into my established workflow.

That workflow, by the way, was being carried out by a hodgepodge of different cameras that all had specific strengths and glaring weaknesses. One for video, one for stills. One for certain resolutions, one for certain shooting lengths, one for certain formats. It works, but it’s a bit cumbersome. Partly, this multi-camera approach is because I have different clients with different needs and expectations. Additionally, sometimes, you just need a specific type of camera, such as a medium format or a cinema camera with multiple connection points, and it’s simply impractical to expect a single mirrorless camera to fit the bill in every situation. Yet still, acknowledging that, due to my multiple roles, I will always be destined to carry more Pelican cases with me to set than I might like, the prospect of shedding even a little weight and focusing the bulk of my work around a single workhouse was exceedingly appealing.

So, I put in a preorder and started the wait. The Z 9 pictured in this essay is a loaner. I only have it for a couple of weeks. But one thing I have learned in all these years writing product reviews for Fstoppers, as well as spending way too much time and way too much money buying and breaking in every new camera that comes to market, is that, no matter what anyone tells you, it is simply not possible to do a comprehensive review of a camera you have only had for a couple of weeks. Anyone who says they can be trying to sell you a bill of goods. Regardless of if a camera is amazing or a total misfire, you really can’t know how a camera is going to hold up until you can escape the safety of a testing situation and find yourself unwillingly thrust into a few situations where your camera is pushed to its limits. You only know how good a camera is when situations around you start to get a little bad or at least a little complicated.

But since my own Z 9, purchased with my own money, should be on its way, I am going to be reviewing the Z 9 in stages rather than pretending to be able to give you a comprehensive review within a matter of days. I feel like, for people wishing to purchase the camera, more information is always going to be better than less. And because the Z 9 is a camera well suited for almost every shooting situation, I am planning to break up my analysis and focus it around specific real-world needs rather than simply rattle off a list of specs that you probably already know. This initial essay is just me sharing my initial thoughts and giving others out there who are on the preorder list a sneak peek.

Having just received the camera this week, I can confirm a few things. One, it’s built like a tank. It just so happens that Los Angeles is currently receiving its semi-annual day of rain. And, while I still have no plans of running through raindrops with the Z 9, the solid weather-sealing evident when you hold the body gives me confidence that it will be able to handle many a thunderstorm or worse.

I am also absolutely loving the grip. I am not someone who has to have an integrated grip with my cameras. But this Z 9 grip fits my hand like a glove. As much as I enjoyed shooting with the Z 6 and Z 7 bodies, as well as their younger siblings, my own gargantuan hands always seemed to find a way to just be slightly too big to keep all five digits connected to their frames. As a result, my little pinky finger would always dangle off the bottom, which didn’t give me a sense of security considering no one has ever exactly referred to me as “not clumsy.” The Z 9, on the other hand, is something you could hold all day without worrying about losing your grip.

I have the Z 24-70 f/2.8 S attached, and it seems to be pretty much the perfect balance. My traditional setup has been a D850 with an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. I’ve always loved the images but never loved the weight dispersal. With the Z 9 and the Z 24-70 f/2.8 S, the camera feels far better balanced. It’s not that it’s significantly lighter overall necessarily. But, the taller body mixed with the shorter Z lens means the entire package feels more compact as opposed to the previous setup, which was more front-heavy. The Z 9 is no lightweight vlogging camera. But, it’s not built for that. It’s built for working professionals who need their gear to hold up under a multitude of situations. And the weight of the Z 9 gives you a sense of more control despite the additional girth compared to smaller models.

D850 on the left.  Z 9 on the right.

The buttons are well placed. If you’ve been shooting Nikon cameras for any amount of time, you will have no problem adjusting to the layout. As someone who is most used to shooting with DSLRs, I am very happy about the return of the elevated tactile mode dial allowing you to change through most key shooting settings without digging through menus. I am also a big fan of the dedicated focus mode button found on the lower left side of the camera. By pushing it in, then rotating the dials, you can easily shift between focus modes without taking your eye off of the viewfinder. Speaking of focus ability, as far as I can tell from chasing around my four-legged model, the new focus improvements are, in fact, all they have been hyped up to be. But, I will do more testing in real-world situations in future reviews to give a more detailed perspective.

Speaking of the viewfinder, I have always been one of those people who has kept returning to my DSLR in large part because I still preferred an optical viewfinder to an electronic one. All the other benefits of mirrorless cameras were often overshadowed by the simple fact that I found it difficult to deal with the blackout issues and lag time within even the best mirrorless cameras. The Z 9 is the first camera to have dual-stream technology, which eliminates this blackout. I will dig into how this performs more in a future article. But, on first impression, I am loving the viewfinder. Bright and clear. I think it might be the closest experience to shooting with an optical viewfinder that I’ve seen on a mirrorless camera. More to come on that.

On a much less publicized note, but no less appreciated, the fact that the Z 9 offers a full-sized HDMI port is huge for someone like me whose cameras will often find themselves as parts of more complicated video rigs requiring external monitoring systems. Those micro and mini HDMI jacks are just an accident waiting to happen, and the full-size HDMI port adds significant peace of mind.

I’ve already cycled through all of the video options. Internal raw recording, including ProRes RAW, is coming in a future firmware update. But, at the time of release, there are already far more internal recording options available than in previous Nikon models. And, thankfully, these are all codecs I would want to have in the majority of shooting situations. As someone who has spent what feels like months of my life over the last couple of years trying to talk my computer into processing H.265 files, the ability to shoot in the far easier on computers ProRes 422 HQ is an extremely welcomed addition. Again, though subtle, this change will do wonders for my time management, as it allows me to skip several steps in post-production as well as deliver far more manageable files to my clients.

If it seems like I am all praise at the moment without digging too deep into the shortcomings, it is because, as I mentioned earlier, my goal with today’s article is simply to give you first impressions out of the box. I truly do believe that Nikon has delivered a machine that will help streamline much of my workflow. Unless it becomes a medium format camera or an Arri Alexa overnight, there will likely still be times when I’ll need to use other cameras for certain jobs. And, because I write for this site, I will continue to try out different cameras for purposes of review. But, I’m setting myself a goal for the coming year.  

This goal is based on two factors. One, I’ve spent way, way, way too much money on cameras in recent years, and my credit card would like a vacation. And two, from what I’ve seen so far since opening this box, the Z 9 should be capable of handling pretty much anything I can throw at it from advertising to editorial, to casual shooting, to interviews, and filmmaking. So, the goal I’m setting for myself in the new year is to try to shoot everything with this one camera. Aside from projects where other specific rigs are required, I want to use this camera to shoot everything I can. Well, maybe not “this” camera, because it’s a loaner. But, once my own Z 9 arrives, it will go straight into the fight.

As I continue to put the Z 9 in situation after situation, I will then come back to you and write a little about how it performed. For those who read reviews just to find the negative things about a camera, I’m sure I will eventually find a thing or two to scoff at. But I think to really give you an in-depth review, one needs the time to do in-depth testing. So, get ready to hear a lot about the camera over the next year as I put it into every scenario I can think of. And probably a few that I can’t yet imagine.

With that said, if you have specific questions about the Z 9, or if there’s something you’d like me to test, feel free to drop a comment down below. If it’s within my ability to let you know the answer, I’d be more than happy to.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to get back to shooting with the Z 9. Looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Nice! I hope this beastie is a huge success. Sure does look like a dandy!

a wonderful tool for the studio/controlled environment photographer who wants to do it all

but to carry this around all day, you'll need to hire a caddy

It's under 3lbs.

I was at an ATP event in Toronto. I talked to a guy that was carrying THREE D5s and one had a 400 f2.8 attached. He was a LOT younger than me and as much as I like a hefty camera, it wasn't something I'd want to do, but you do what you gotta' do.

"Hey Mikey, hand me the 70-200 f2.8, will 'ya. Go head and get the 400 f2.8 ready for when we get over the next hill.", said no photographer to a caddy, ever. :D

"but to carry this around all day, you'll need to hire a caddy"


Haha. You must be new to photography… Pros have been using bigger/heavier cameras then this in the field for a very long time.

No caddy required. For people who think that way, a gym membership might help.

In my wedding shooter days I carried two Canon 1DmkIIs all day. Yes, I was tired but then we we also had to walk uphill everywhere in the snow and we didn't whine then. ;)

It is part of the job. One body? No, at least two. Watch him!

I too have been impressed by the Z9, however, in reality it gives me nothing that I don't already have with the first generation Z7 (I don't care about speed, or card slots). What I need and wanted was the "mythical Z8" would provide; a higher megapixel body. Well, I gave up waiting on the "Z8" and went with the Fuji GFX 100S instead (the blackout on this camera is really disconcerting).I will upgrade to the next generation Z7, so I'm not giving up on Nikon.

I have the original GFX 100. The blackout on the original is... :-(

I doubt it has changed much. I also don't like the slow write speed (you can hear the camera whirring); why they chose to continue to use SD instead of CFExpress I'll never know. I do like the camera other than that though.

After shooting A1 for the past 5 or 6 months it seems weird that things like blackout free EVF is still "new".

Happy for the Nikon faithful, Merry Christmas

Im not a Nikon user or fan particularly but I find it difficult to understand how a Sony user can feel some kind of superiority over one feature thats only been released on their fairly new flagship camera body a few months back... having a blackout free EVF is new. Just because Sony got it over the line first doesn't somehow make it old tech that everyone is catching up on, unless of course you think Nikon only started developing the Z9 3 months ago.

You mean a feature that was released on their fairly not new 4.5 years old a9?

I was talking about the performance level of these current generation cameras, which is what the OP is discussing. I don’t know what the A9 does as I don’t particularly care about camera spec wars the way some people do, but I’m fairly certain it will not be anywhere near the same level of the current gen, there will be some caveat in there somewhere, resolution loss etc.

There is nothing ‘old hat’ about what this Z9 is doing and people claim otherwise are not speaking with honest intentions.

It does blackout free EVF without a caveat as far as I'm aware.

Other cameras do it with a caveat, like Fujis, that's why I didn't mention them.

Maybe you are being overly sensitive here. I am just happy that Nikon is coming through so the faithful can now get the features they said I didn't need back in March. lol

Most of the "next gen" features Nikon and to some degree Canon users are raving about have long since been part of the Sony platform with the A9 release and forward releases. Its like Apple talked about iCloud newness when Google had been offering better for many years. The A9 still outperforms the Z9 in focus tracking and fps raw. I would have thought Nikon to leapfrog Sony's best (A1) with this release and its maybe on par if not still behind in some aspects - if we're talking specs and actual real world performance as a system. 20 year Nikon shooter and Sony convert.

Since you haven’t used the camera, it’s bold to claim to know how it works and compares to another camera. The people who have actually used them have referenced that the viewfinder system IS unique and has the first dual stream readout technology. Sony fanboyism gets old… I use whatever camera is the best tool for the job and that can be different brands for different things.

I have plenty of Nikon equipment. I am happy to see Nikon coming through with a winner. Boom down.

After shooting with a Nikon with lossless compressed RAW for 10+ years, it’s cute that Sony users think it’s a great new feature.

All my Nikon gear has been collecting dust since I bought the A1. Just sayin'

With all sincerity, I am glad that the Nikon is catching up with the Z9 I hope it brings great joy and success to everyone that has been waiting for it. i think it will...

Well, Nikon is barely, finally catching up to the top 2, Sony and Canon. :D

Great essay. I’ve had my Z9 for 24 hours and I agree, there is no way to do a full review in less than than a month or three. What a camera (so far).

Haven't put mine down yet :-)

Thank you for this excellent article, I currently own and z6 and a z6ii, I’m a wedding photographer, you think this camera is great for me? I’m very tempting to get one before my weddings season start! Thank you in advance.

Sell all previous Z bodies you own before their used retail value plummets and get the Z9. Its the first real mirrorless tech camera body Nikon has released.

I don't shoot weddings myself. But from all the testing I've done so far, I can see very little that the Z 9 wouldn't be a great fit for. Easily switch from still to video for weddings. Fast frame rates to capture key moments in the ceremony. As I said, I'm not a wedding shooter, but I think it would be great for that purpose.

Took me one day to fully "review" my first and last Sony.

Sounds like you aren't a fan. I've never used a Sony, so I don't know much other than general things about them.

I'm not an "anti-fan" Sony just isn't magic and a mirrorless, of any brand, still can't keep up with dslrs in many respects.

Yep, all brands have good and bad points.

I was tracking with you until this uninformed statement. And Nikon and Canon drug their heels to their own detriment not progressing their mirrorless platforms. If youre shooting under controlled lighting, still life subjects on a tripod, sure, dslrs still fit the bill.

Ok I'll bite Brent. I'm in south Florida.I'm my dad's caregiver but I can make time for you. Meet me here or in the Keys. Perfect excuse to avoid the cold of your miserable existence. Bring ANY mirrorless you want.I'll provide the videographer and my wife will pick the targets which will be warblers in trees. On 'ready set go!" we'll compete to see who can get the most in focus shots and both of us will shoot in mechanical shutter mode. It will be an all day event of me winning every time. My 7 fps will be less than your 12 fps or so. You'll have an almost double speed advantage but I'll wipe the floor with you EVERY SINGLE TIME. I'll even throw you a bone and use an old 7D. This challenge is open to ANYONE so don't be shy people. The results will be posted to YouTube and I'll let Alex here know when the video is up. This challenge is open to ANYONE not just you Brent. Bring it on you internet jockeys and put your money where your mouth is. After that I'll pick up my even older 40D and do it to you AGAIN just for laughs.