The Bravest Move They’ve Ever Made: Nikon z9 First Impressions

Nikon has been known to try crazy and brave things every now and again. Years ago, they made the Nikon 1 series and used Ashton Kutcher to promote it. It was in baseball stadiums all around, and it was beating Sony’s NEX lineup in many ways. The current iteration of the brand that’s responsible for releasing the Nikon z9 feels like the Nikon I’ve known over the years. They’re trying things, and I believe that’s very important. What’s more, they’re also making some massive claims.

Nikon z9 Innovations and Tech Specs

  • This is one of the first cameras designed for photographers to not have a mechanical shutter. Instead, it has a fully electronic shutter that can do flash sync and all.
  • The Z9 is equipped with the world’s brightest Quad-VGA panel adjustable to 3000cd/m2 (nits)1, revealing the most subtle details in the shadows.
  • For work in low light, the new “starlight” mode enhances the camera’s ability to focus down to a faint   -8.5 EV, while illuminated buttons help astrophotographers and event or concert photographers change settings in the dark. 
  • Because of how many times the processor and sensor are reading the scene, Nikon is claiming there won’t be issues with banding and artificial lighting aside from LEDs. We have to test this.
  • Lots of scene recognition. Human faces, animal faces, bird faces, cars, trains, bikes, vehicles, and more. There are nine different things it recognized. 
  • The first Nikon mirrorless camera with a built-in vertical grip. It’s using the D6’s batteries. 
  • Nikon brought back the mode dial on the top right.
  • All the buttons light up, finally.
  • Voice recorder
  • Brand new 45.7MP full frame sensor with 5-axis image stabilization up to six-stops (depending on the lens)
  • Nikon is changing the way focusing works and the Nikon z9 has 3D tracking for autofocus with hybrid contrast and phase detection.
  • There’s a coating on the sensor that prevents dust and such.
  • There’s a hood that comes down to protect the sensor when the camera is off. As such, it’s not the shutter that’s being used.
  • Dual CFExpress B slots. No SD card slots. It can also take XQD cards.
  • Up to -4 and +3 diopter adjustment
  • 1/32,000 max shutter speed with an extension all the way to 900 seconds.
  • Flash sync at 1/200th but still does high-speed sync.
  • 20 frames per second
  • ISO 64-25,600
  • Kensington lock for photographers and stadiums to tether their camera down.
  • There’s now a deeper menu.
  • The availability of the cameras and lenses is now “within this year.”
  • New NEF RAW file types, there’s high-efficiency and high-efficiency compression
  • 8K 30p video is optimal and full pixel, and 4K is full pixel in 2.3x crop.
  • $5,499.95

Ergonomics

This is the Nikon z9. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think this is a Nikon DSLR. But it’s not. It’s mirrorless and it’s Nikon’s flagship camera. What you might notice first is the on/off switch. It’s the same as many other Nikon Z cameras, but it’s got the light-up option. This illuminates all the buttons. It’s what we’ve asked the industry for years but sadly never got. You could say Nikon is innovating in this way because it’s the first serious mirrorless camera with this feature. But it’s also technology from the old days. 

Around the grip, there are three custom function buttons. These are pretty standard for serious mirrorless cameras these days.

On the top of the Nikon z9 is a 3.2-inch LCD screen. There’s nothing new here per se. 

On the other side, you can find a very familiar dial. You can control various things here like bracketing, flash settings, the mode, and more. There’s also the drive mode control here.

Turn to the back of the Nikon z9, and you’ll spot a big LCD screen, the EVF, and a ton more buttons. Unlike the company’s DSLRs, this won’t have a cover to close up over the EVF. The screen flips out and to the sides (It will go towards the right side and not the left). It’s similar to the screen on some Fujifilm cameras we’ve tested.

In a fascinating move, the Nikon z9 won’t accept SD cards. We’re told it’s because it’s a professional camera. So instead, you’ll feed it dual CFExpress B cards. For the record, those cards are high-speed. But at the same time, the new MacBook Pros only support SD cards. You’ll probably need to carry a reader with you if you’re in the field, unless you port the images via USB-C.

Here’s the Kensington lock, which is used to clamp cameras down.

On the other side, you’ll find the door for all the ports. Plus, this is the battery compartment. Two big batteries fit in here.

And finally, here is the image sensor. It’s a mirrorless camera, and there is no shutter whatsoever.

Build Quality

The Nikon z9 is said to be just as durable as the Nikon D6. For lots of photographers using mirrorless cameras, that will be a relief. And for the record, Nikon’s cameras and lenses are durable despite us grilling them to let us know about weather sealing methods. I honestly have no doubt about how durable the Nikon z9 will be. What’s even more exciting is that you will probably worry about your sensor getting dirty a lot less. Again, in my years of using Nikon Z cameras, I’ve never encountered a dirty sensor. 

When photographers pair the Nikon z9 with the new S lens lineup that’s coming, I’m sure the combo will resist anything you throw at it within reason. Nikon doesn’t tend to play around with build quality, and the staff can universally say that in most regards.

Ease of Use

There are two camps for this thing. If you’re a veteran Nikon user of the higher-end DSLRs, then you’ll probably be right at home here. Things like the illuminated buttons, the multi-control dial on the top left, and even the way you mount the lens to the camera will feel just right (or left). Make no mistake, this is truly a professional camera. The closest thing you’ve got to an automatic mode is P for professional (or is it Program? ;)). Even the Sony a1 has an automatic mode. 

Nikon really does things differently than most of the industry. There are dedicated magnification buttons vs. using the exposure dials to zoom in and out, for one. But if you can wrap your head around it, it’s a much-improved system.

Autofocus on the Nikon z9

As we just stated, the Nikon z9 is using a much-improved system overall. I’m currently using the Nikon z6 II with the 40mm f2 Z lens, and I’m impressed with the augmented performance. The Nikon z9 takes that to a whole different level. The autofocus on the Nikon z9 will include tons of different vehicles and various animals that don’t live underwater.

We got to test a pre-production Nikon z9 in a closed office setting in NYC with Nikon. We mounted the 24-70mm f4 to it. And as our Nikon rep walked towards the camera, we tried to get it to track his face and eye. There’s good news and bad news about this. The good news is that it nailed his face. But getting his eye in focus for each and every frame? That didn’t happen. I’m willing to blame this on a few things. For starters, it could be the lens. In our 24-70mm f4 review, we wrote:

“While the autofocus performance of the Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f4 S is directly tied to the Z Mount camera body upon which you have the lens mounted, it almost always acquired focus during our testing (albeit slower than we would have liked at times). While the autofocus speed leaves a little something to be desired, it will do just fine if your subject is relatively stationary. When we tested the lens with something like face detection/tracking, we found it to be pretty slow. As a general statement, the entire z6 and z7 series of cameras are slow compared to their competition from Canon, Sony, etc.”

Just to be sure, I put the lens on the Nikon z6 II and found the same issue. Plus, the office isn’t anywhere near as bright as the outdoors in the middle of the day. The jury is still out here, but the pre-production Nikon z9 couldn’t perfectly keep up at 20 frames a second in our short test. By the way, I really have to get used to the electronic shutter sound. Since there’s no mechanical shutter, it’s all just recorded.

To be fair, I don’t see many people using the Z9 in an office setting and shooting continuously. But if the camera can’t handle low light autofocus situations well, many folks may be disappointed.

Image Quality

The version I played with was a pre-production Nikon z9. As such, I wasn’t allowed to put a card in there to bring images samples back. For the record, though, we’ve never had an issue with Nikon’s image quality. Even at ISO 6400, we’ve printed some immaculate images at 17×22 inches in our image quality tests before.

However, these are sample images Nikon provided to us.

First Impressions

I think the Nikon z9 is a brave move for the company. There’s no shutter, they brought back 3D tracking, they’re expanding the lens lineup, and they incorporated a ton of autofocus algorithms into it. But we still need to test a full-production version in the field. Reviews Editor Hillary Grigonis is a long-time Nikon shooter. But she also just moved to the Fujifilm X series. For sure, the Nikon z9 is too large and overkill for the work she does. Will she rate it highly, though? We’ll see how she handles the Nikon Z9!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.