We Review the Nikon Z 9 Mirrorless Camera

We Review the Nikon Z 9 Mirrorless Camera

Nikon allowed me to try out a preproduction model of the Nikon Z 9. This long-awaited camera turned out to be a marvel. During a fortnight, I came to appreciate this camera a lot. In this article, I'll tell you about my experience.

It was quite a surprise when Nikon asked me to review the new Nikon Z 9, or rather preview, since I was offered a pre-production model. I also received both the new Z 24-120mm f/4 S lens and the V 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S lens. During a couple of days, I focused on shooting sports, birds, and our dog catching a Frisbee.

Photographing my dog while playing with a Frisbee. (Z 100-400mm at 100mm, ISO 5,600, f/4.5, 1/1000 s)

A Very Familiar Camera Design

The design of the Nikon Z 9 holds no surprises. It looks and feels like the well-trusted predecessors, the Nikon D5 and Nikon D6, and it mostly handles in the same manner also. Although the camera doesn’t have a pentaprism and mirror, it weighs 1,340 grams, which is quite heavy for a mirrorless camera. Thanks to the built-in vertical grip with controls, shooting in both orientations is very comfortable. The fun fact is the Nikon Z 9 is smaller compared to the Nikon Z 6 II with a battery grip.

For those who use a the Nikon D5 or Nikon D6, the Nikon Z 9 will be familiar. 

The controls and menu structure are nearly identical compared to the Nikon D6, except for a few details. The Nikon Z 9 has a dedicated AF button on the side and the playback button has changed position. The menu offers the extra control settings for mirrorless cameras and the new AF system, of course. But the biggest difference compared to its predecessors is the 3.2-inch LCD screen. It can be titled over four axes, making it possible to rotate the screen for easy access when holding the camera in odd positions.

The new articulating screen has a great design. I like it a lot.

The Speed of the Nikon Z 9

There is a new 3,300 mAh battery to power the Nikon Z 9. It has the same dimensions as the ones for the Nikon D5 and D6. It’s downwards compatible, so if you upgrade from its predecessor, you can continue to use the older batteries. It's possible to charge the battery over the USB-C connection also. Although the new battery is said to last for 800 shots, it will allow you to shoot much more if you shoot bursts of 20, 30, or even 120 frames per second.

The new battery promises approximately 800 shot on one charge. Real life will often allow much more.

The images made with the Nikon Z 9 are stored on two XQD cards or CF-Express type B cards. These cards will offer enough speed to accept the enormous amount of data that is produced when shooting at maximum speed or if you use the camera for 8K video.

In compressed raw, JPEG, or the HEIF file format, the buffer can last for over 1,000 images per burst. But when I combined raw and JPEG, the number of images per burst dropped significantly. I used a Sandisk CF Express type B Extreme Pro 128 GB card with a write speed of 1,200 MB/s for my testing. Other cards may show different results.

Use a fast XQD or CF Express type B card for the best performance.

The New Autofocus System

The new autofocus system of the Nikon Z 9 is much improved compared to the other Nikon Z models. It works quickly and accurately. Of course, the camera has the eye and body detection commonly found on mirrorless cameras. It works for both humans and different kinds of animals.  An eye can be detected even from far away, and it sticks to it like a magnet. The camera can recognize up to nine different subjects, and you can switch between all of them by using the joystick.

A few pages from the AF menu. The Nikon Z 9 doesn't allow a lot of fine-tuning when it comes to AF settings.

Nikon made a good decision to add the 3D AF tracking also. The camera uses 90% of the frame for tracking. But you have to be aware that eye-AF is not a priority in 3D AF tracking. If it finds an eye, it will lock onto it, but when it's locked on another part, it will keep tracking that part. If eye detection is important, wide-field AF with Eye-AF can be a better choice. With the aforementioned AF button on the side of the camera, it’s easy to switch between the different AF possibilities.

The Nikon Z 9 will recognize up to nine subjects. Although 3D AF tracking works amazing, it will be difficult to get the AF on the right subject. For that, wide-field AF with eye-AF will do nicely.

There is also vehicle detection available. Unfortunately, I was time-limited and was not able to try this AF function in a real-life situation.

No Mechanical Shutter

Although it’s been done before, the Nikon Z 9 seems to be the first camera that successfully removed the mechanical shutter altogether. It’s thanks to the stacked 45.7-megapixel CMOS sensor with an incredible readout speed. I didn’t experience any rolling shutter effect at all, both with fast action, as in the few filming tests I did. The fast readout speed also offered a flash-sync speed of 1/200 sec, which is just as fast as ordinary mechanical shutters.

The stacked 45.7-megapixel sensor has a very fast readout speed. That's why the NIkon Z 9 doesn't have a mechanical shutter.

The benefit of an electronic shutter is genuine silent shooting. This can also be a downside since you don’t have any audible feedback. Fortunately, Nikon decided to add a nice shutter sound, which sounds pleasant. If you prefer silent shooting, the Nikon Z 9 offers a couple of ways to take pictures, as indicated in the electronic viewfinder or LCD screen.

If you want the camera to be in silent mode, you can choose between a couple of indications in the LCD or EVF to show when a picture is taken.

Speaking of the electronic viewfinder, it has absolutely no blackout whatsoever. This way, you can keep track of your fast-moving subject without the risk of losing it. Although it only has 3.69 megapixels with a refresh rate of 60 fps, the resolution and frame rate don’t change when locking focus or during shooting. This way, it acts almost like a regular optical viewfinder.

The ISO Performance

The Nikon Z 9 has a base ISO setting of 64. You can raise the ISO to 25,600. With the expanded range, the camera allows the use of ISO 32 up to ISO 102,400. During an evening training of junior athletes, I needed the highest ISO levels for my shooting. I went up to ISO 25,600 with the Z 100-400mm at f/4.5-f/5.6 to allow fast enough shutter speeds.

A high-ISO shot shows a noise-free image, but the in-camera noise reduction will show some loss in detail. (Z 24-120mm at 46mm, ISO 12,800, f/4, 1/200 s)

Since I was shooting in-camera JPEGs (Lightroom Classic doesn’t recognize the NEF files from the Nikon Z 9 at this time), the camera used its built-in standard noise reduction. The result was a slight loss in detail when ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600 were used. Just remember, I used a pre-production model.

Although the NIkon Z 9 can go up to ISO 102,400, I wouldn't recommend it. At ISO 25,600 the noise reduction will lose detail. (Z 24-120mm at 24mm, ISO 25,600, f/4, 1/320 s)

My Conclusion After a Few Days of Intensive Use

A few days is just enough to get a first impression of a camera. On top of that, I got a pre-production model. But even during these few days, I got impressed by the performance of the Nikon Z 9. It handles well, and the autofocus system makes sure most shots are in focus.

The Eye-AF works amazingly well. It's better than any other Z-type camera.

When Eye-AF is used, it locks onto the subject even when it’s small in the frame, and it sticks to it. Unfortunately, there is little to tweak when it comes to how the autofocus system reacts. That could be improved, I think.

One thing is for sure: all the things that could be improved with the autofocus system of the Nikon Z 6II and Nikon Z 7II were improved. Better still, it’s more than improved. The Nikon Z 9 is an amazing camera, and at this moment, I think it’s one of the best sports, action, and wildlife cameras on the market.

It's lots of fun shooting with the Nikon Z 9. I am impressed with its performance. (Z 100-400mm at 170mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/500 s)

What I Liked

  • The autofocus finds eyes even when they’re very small in the frame
  • Speed and accuracy of the autofocus
  • Burst speed is incredible
  • 3D AF tracking
  • The camera can choose between human and animal Eye-AF
  • Fast sensor readout and no visible rolling shutter
  • EVF resolution and frame rate doesn't drop during AF and shooting
  • Despite its weight and size, the camera feels very comfortable
  • Well-designed, articulating LCD screen
  • Complete touchscreen functionality
  • Clear signal for when the image is taken, on-screen and audible as well
  • Sensor protection shutter when the camera is switched off
  • Well priced

What Could Be Improved

  • EVF doesn’t have the highest resolution and frame rate available
  • I do miss a dedicated PASM dial
  • Possibilities to fine-tune the AF system are scarce
  • Joystick is rather slow for moving the AF point
  • Custom buttons next to the lens are not well placed for vertical shooting

When multiple subjects are in the frame, the 3D AF tracking will not always find the wanted subject. But, switching over to wide-field with Eye-AF makes it much more flexible. Still, 3D AF tracking can be the better choice when you have to act fast. (Z 100-400mm at 400mm, ISO 2,800, f/5.6, 1/1,000 s)

About Video on the Nikon Z 9

Although I didn’t use the video functions of the Nikon Z 9, I do want to mention them. The camera allows a maximum resolution of 8K video. When switching to 4K, it will use the full sensor and downsamples the footage to 4K.

It is possible to shoot in 8-bit H.264 and H.265, or 10-bit H.265. If you like, 10-bit ProRes 422 HQ is available with HLG or N-log. The fast readout eliminates the rolling shutter effect almost completely.

A few of the film menu functions.

I can’t say anything more about the video capabilities, but it looks like the Nikon Z 9 is a very capable camera for both stills and video.

What do you think about this camera? Do you think Nikon hit the jackpot with this camera? Please leave your opinion in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Great z indeed. So far on par with d6 or d5. What I haven't seen so far in a greater detail - the focus performance with face in a close proximity (1/5-1/8 of the frame) in a moving subject - to see the eye/eye lashes critical focusing hits.

[In compressed raw, JPEG, or the HEIF file format, the buffer can last for over 1,000 images per burst.]
I'm not sure the Z9 support the HEIF format. At least it will be the first time I've heard of it.
Care to share your insight?

About a half year ago, without warning, I noticed that I could no longer open my iPhone images in CS2 on my desktop. Oh no. The images turned out to be HEIC images instead of JPEG images. After some research, I figured out how to take JPEG images again with a settings change and found a free converter to turn my older HEIC images back into JPEG images. (The reason I use CS2 is that none of the latest Photoshop programs work on WIN 7 anymore.) Thanks Adobe.

I'm sorry to say this, but if you are still on Win7 then it is your own fault, not Adobe.
They really do not have to support ancient software.

Thanks God!

Yes, HEIF for the first time. As a matter of fact, the Nikon tech specifically asked me to mention it in my Dutch review :)

A great new camera from Nikon.

one and a quarter pounds heavier than a sony a1
that's almost another camera
and it has fewer than 1/3 as many available lenses in native format

for what?
if it's for "sports photography" - a high-speed shooter at the pro level might be interested

for half the price, the Sony A7rIV still has 'em all beat for image quality and dr

"it has fewer than 1/3 as many available lenses in native format". I wonder how many lenses REAL photographer the likes of Ansel Adams , Cartier Bresson ...ECT. used for their photography ...probably one or two

Selection of lenses - a lot easier to plan your "kit" if you can choose between weight and speed with greater precision; also, a lot easier to justify a "special" lens if it doesn't break the bank.

Cartier-Bresson shot with a 35mm leica - it weighed less than the difference between the A1 and the Nikon

And this list goes on and on 😂

The a7r4 is a great camera, as far as it having the best sensor in terms of image quality, dxo mark disagrees with you. The nikon z7ii (which is more or less the image quality expected from the z9) has a higher score. The dynamic range of these cameras is nearly identical. The extra res of the Sony is nice in some situations, but mostly unnecessary. Not trying to be a jerk, it’s just that you are overlooking Nikons image quality.

You lose a lot of credibility when you cite the much discredited DXOMark as support. Nonetheless, I have been rather disappointed with the IQ m A7r4 produces. No, it's not bad, but it suffers from a lot of noise that appears even at low ISO values. Moreover, There are very few instances for which I found the additional pixels to be of any benefit compared to the 42MP A7rIII. Yet, the better ergonomics and much improved EVF--I still struggle to find any improvement in the AF--make the rIV a better/preferred camera to the rIII. However, if I knew what I know now before I purchased--or even better, knew what Canon was soon to offer--I would have stuck with the A7rIII.

Dxomark is not infallible, I understand that. They are however, the industry standard when it comes to reviewing sensor performance and one of very few databases establishing quantifiable metrics for sensor comparison. They review sensors, not cameras. Since the above comment claimed better dynamic range, it is very likely that wherever they saw the spec for the a7r4’s dynamic range, got the dynamic range score from dxo. Making my citation 100% relevant. Thanks for your input.

I found the article somewhat underwhelming. So too,, the Nikon Z9. Isn’t it time for the exit from 35mm format and all the obsessive fussing over AF and burst shooting? How about something that finally gives a quality of image like a 4x5 view camera for contemplative fine art photography and not a hybrid movie camera for selling features.

Well, flagship models have always catered to the working pros who live and die on the altar of AF and FPS. The Z9 has delivered on that in spades and there will be no putting that genie back in the bottle.
As a fine-art landscape photographer myself, I have my system. A D700 and a D850 and a carefully curated stable of F-mount glass. The only things that evolve are my skills in mastering my equipment and my techniques in post.
At this stage of my life, I am not looking for another thing to spend even more money on when I have already found my sweet spot.

Why not go with the model that suits your needs? Surely, there's one out there for you.

I like the format, so I'll be staying with it. Wouldn't it be miserable if everything was the same?

To the Sony fanboy crowing about the weight remember you'll need to add a battery grip to that A1 for an accurate comparison. That makes the Sony barely 100g lighter then the Nikon. I'll take the robust build quality and Nikon colour science over Sony any day. The Z9 is not only better it's cheaper. Really a no brainer especially if you own Nikon legacy glass.

Not everyone wants a grip. A1 color is great.

Subjective for sure, the the A1 is about 4 rows behind the Nikon pro bodies for in hand feel.

You should have stopped at "Subjective" and left it at that.

I hope I didn't hurt your feelings. I though it prudent to explain, but I guess you have thin skin when it comes to Sony cameras. It's just my opinion. It's not right or wrong, it's my OPINION.

Hurt my feelings? haha that's funny.

I shoot mostly Canon but I recently got an A1 to shoot one particular lens. My right hand hurts. Whoever designs Sony camera bodies likely has hands with only 4 fingers (or a kid). Also, since I can’t hold this camera with my entire hand - I always have a feeling that I’m gonna drop it. IMHO it must be used with a vertical grip, otherwise it’s just a very weird shooting experience.

I wear size 10 gloves (XL) and have no problem shooting an A1 all day. In all fairness I normally have a 200-600mm lens attached and my left hand carries the weight. Also I don't palm any camera so maybe it just fits some better than others..

Good! It works for you. Canon works for me. Not right, not wrong. We like what we like. It's really that simple.

oof no way, Sony files are flat and boring. You have to work on them. but that said sony files have a metric butt load of editing latitude. it's pretty amazing what you can do with sony files.

I have only ever owned one Sony and the files are great, imho. I had no problems moving from a D850 to A1.
I'm not a pro just a hobbyist but more excited with the Sony at this point.

As a D850 shooter, I can see that the Z9 is a monster accomplishment.
I am confused about battery-life projections. Shooting at 20fps would theoretically drain the battery in 40 seconds if shooting sports based on an 800 exposure capacity.
Unless I am missing something, in going mirrorless; the metric for measuring battery-life has to be redefined or you need to have multiple batteries at the ready or be tethered to a power source.
Just like it has totally cast aside the concept of "shutter clicks" in measuring wear and tear on used equipment.

Shutter cycles does not apply because there is no shutter. No moving parts to wear out.

Maybe the new standard will be "Capture" or "Read-Write Cycles" off the sensor.

Battery life doesn't really work like that when shooting in bursts (long or short). For instance, on my Sony a7iii, the battery is rated at 710 shots, but, I can get well over 2500 shots if I shoot mostly at 10fps. I only shot this way when I first got it, then quickly stopped when having to cull through of basically duplicate images.

On top of that, the ratings are typically underrated anyway. For instance today, I shot 679 frames and still had 67% left when I started at 83%.

The EVF is what eats up more power not electronic shutter

I didn't say anything of the sort. I was basically saying you can't use the theory:

20fps x 40 seconds = limited to 800 shot battery capacity.

I was just pointing out what eats the battery. I didn't disagree with you

Ah, I see. :)

"The Nikon Z 9 will recognize up to nine subjects...." this statement should be qualified by Categories. Even more importantly, anyone who has tested the Z9 even briefly on a range of subjects should be fully aware this is first camera with Automatic Subject Recognition, which selects the subject independently of the target category being assigned ponderously via menu settings.

Configuring the modern Nikon AF systems is no trivial exercise (F-DSLR or Z-MILC). It will take reviewers of the caliber and experience of a Brad Hill, Thom Hogan, Steve Perry etc to confirm what settings work when and where etc.

The Z9 appears it will be a fantastic upgrade to a D850 or Z7ii. With respect to focussing and FPS the camera will be an upgrade over the D5 & 6; but I expect it will not match the high ISO IQ and shadow recovery capabilities of the D5/6. Seems the bean counters at Nikon are angling to improve profit margin in the high MP market and perhaps still seeking to squeeze out a few more years of D6 sales.

3lb+ to record light image on postage stamp sized sensor

Nothing exceeds like excess

This camera seems to be a mixture of Nikon's past and present! In order to move forward, Nikon has to let go of the big, heavy bodies in pro level cameras and work towards improving chip electrical consumption, data processing and portability. It will be interesting to see whether people will move to this camera or the Z7 from their D-810/850 bodies, or will it allure only the D5/D6 consumers. I don't really think that any present Nikon user who doesn't own the D5/6 will opt for this.

I don't agree about the big heavy bodies. I find these bodies have an amazing ergonomics that can't be matched by a smaller body.
It's funny actually. Many photographers with small size camera bodies use a battery grip or even extensions to make the body bigger.

Ayup! Nikon and Canon were smart to stay close to their in hand ergonomics. They didn't want to chase their faithful away. I applaud that train of thought.

After seeing how this camera performs on the recently released photonstophotos.net charts compared to the D5 and D6 a lot of folks using those older DSLRs might consider holding on to them. The Z9 is more of an expensive upgrade to Z7ii and D850 than a replacement for the D5/D6.

Every once in awhile a model comes along that will become an iconic standard of sorts.
I believe the Z9 will be the "Les Paul" of mirrorless cameras...

Guitars are part of the ethos or image of the performer. In studio, you have no idea what they used for actual recording
nobody gives a crap what camera you use - they just want to see the result