Bird Photography with the Nikon z9 Is Pretty Great

We’ve had the Nikon z9 for a little while now, and we’ve been actively testing it in the field. The camera, which is probably one of the most innovative on the market, has lots of potential. It’s mostly targeted at sports photographers and photojournalists, but I don’t doubt passionate photographers with deeper pockets might seriously consider it too. It’s a nice option for bird photography for sure. In fact, it does some things even better than its competitor, the Sony a1.

You can view this article and much more with minimal banner ads in our brand new app for iOS, iPadOS, and Android. And for $24.99/year, you can have a banner ad-free experience.

Gear Used for Bird Photography

The following gear was graciously loaned to us by LensRentals.

You, like me, are probably wondering, “But Chris, why didn’t you go for the 100-400mm instead?” I’ll tell you why! Nikon doesn’t have a production version available for journalists and it won’t be available from LensRentals for a little while. So instead, I used a feature on the Nikon z9 a lot of folks may scoff at but that I’ve always loved about higher-end Nikon cameras: in-camera cropping.

Some of you are probably reading that statement saying, “But Chris, you can crop later!” I don’t want to crop later. The staff and I are sick of the monotony of the photo industry trying to lock us into long shoots and even longer times behind a computer. If I know what I want in-camera, then I can frame it accordingly in the first place. Cropping later made a whole lot of sense many years ago when the only good autofocus point on a camera was the center focus point. But those days of dinosaur cameras are gone. The Nikon z9 has tons of autofocus points, 3D tracking, and different types of scene recognition with AI built into the camera. 

Trust me, it can find a bird in a scene in most cases. 

With all that said, the Nikon z9 has a lot going for it that makes it excellent for photographing birds. The 70-200mm becomes a 300mm on the longer end. We’ve used this a few times to get great photos of birds here in NYC. 

Autofocus on the Nikon z9

The Nikon z9 is one of the few cameras that can do human, animal/bird, and vehicle detection. At the moment of publishing, only camera offerings from Nikon and Canon can do this. The way Nikon does animal and bird tracking is our preferred method. When you select the animal scene detection setting on the Nikon z9, it will detect both animals and birds. Canon and Panasonic do it this way as well. Sony separates birds from animals, and in the heat of the moment, that can make things very annoying. Granted, Sony’s system is very accurate, but so too is Canon’s! With L lenses, I’ve almost never missed a shot using the Canon EOS R5. When I’ve put Canon’s lesser 100-400mm on it, it’s a different story. But that’s neither here nor there. We’re here to talk about Nikon.

The Nikon z9 can be summarized in a few ways:

  • It has an auto scene detection, which is best combined with either 3D tracking or auto detection of the focusing points. The latter is generally the fastest for both Canon and Sony.
  • If you want to do bird photography with the Nikon z9, these two modes are the only ones you’ll care about. 
  • Unfortunately, if you want to switch between auto-scene detection and animal-scene detection, you have to dig into the menus. With all its customizable buttons, you cannot assign it to the Nikon z9 easily. Instead you can set the Nikon z9 to AF-S, AF-C or Manual. These can be combined with the spot, area, and auto detection. 
  • If you press the “i” button on the back of the camera, then select the focusing type, you can choose animal pretty easily. But ideally, you should be able to do it without removing the camera’s viewfinder from you eye.
  • In auto scene detection, the Nikon z9 can be a tad finicky about detecting birds. Sometimes it was seeing a swinging bird feeder and thought that it should detect that.
  • I shot in continuous autofocus simply because that’s what every other camera system would basically have me do in a situation like this. Plus, I’m trying to track moving birds. It ended up working pretty well. 
  • The system can find the birds and even their eyes, but not as well as Canon and Sony can. 
  • When the birds are obscured by branches, the Nikon z9 has a tougher time. Sony can do a great job. And even the Canon EOS R with the 100-500mm did a phenomenal job. 
  • With 3D tracking, you’ll give a bit of assistance to the camera system. Then it will recognize that it’s shooting a bird, and it will usually lock onto the face or eyes. 
  • If you set the scene detection to animal autofocus, it will do a great job tracking them 90% of the time.

Granted, I don’t think I’m done with my tests yet. But there’s a lot to uncover here. First off, the Nikon z9 is far easier to use than Sony’s system. If I’m ever walking around a park and find an animal (no matter how many legs or wings), then Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic are surely more likely to capture it. With Sony, we’ve had to go through the pain of switching the focusing type. And in that time, you could miss a shot. 

Luckily, it’s easier with the Nikon z9, and the z9 is also more affordable than the Sony a1. But, it’s also heavier, has fewer third-party lens supports, etc. 

What I’m also very shocked by is how well-controlled rolling shutter is with the Nikon z9. When it came to trying to track moving subjects, I didn’t experience much rolling shutter. 

We’re still working on our full review, so stay tuned!

Chris Gampat

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