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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.