Nikon’s Most Innovative Camera Is Awesome. Nikon z9 Review

The Nikon z9 has been the Nikonian’s most anticipated camera. And it brings with it a lot of great reasons why it was worth the wait. For years, I’ve been critical of Nikon not taking steps towards innovating or doing something different. But with the Nikon z9, they’re addressing that issue. More importantly, they’re providing professional photographers pretty much everything they need with this one camera. We spent two weeks with the Nikon z9 and received a lot of loaner gear to test it accordingly. And it’s really true, this is the best Nikon camera I’ve used in a long time.

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Too Long, Didn’t Read

The Nikon z9 is Nikon’s most innovative camera in years. It’s quite a workhorse with a fully electronic shutter, workable 3D tracking autofocus, and various autofocus scene detection features. It’s also very well weather-sealed and has incredible battery life. It trails behind Sony and Canon in some ways. But in other ways, it absolutely blows them out of the water. In my mind, it’s the first genuinely professional-feeling mirrorless camera that uses 35mm full-frame sensors.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • High Speed sync works to 1/8000 and possibly beyond
  • The Nikon z9 genuinely feels like the first serious camera for a professional photographer along with the Canon EOS R3.
  • Nikon’s absolute best autofocus
  • Once you get the hang of it and set everything up just the way you want, it’s an excellent camera.
  • Light up buttons are the absolute best thing.
  • Lots of customization options
  • Fast and quiet shooting
  • 3D tracking is great for animal photography.
  • Auto subject detection is quite good.
  • Nikon’s in-camera cropping feature is so wonderful to get more reach from your lenses.
  • The world’s first camera for photographers without a physical shutter.
  • I had zero camera shake issues. Anything pertaining to it would’ve been issues with using a slower shutter speed.
  • Rolling shutter is considerably eliminated, and it’s only visible if you pixel peep.
  • Pretty good tracking autofocus in low light!
  • The vertical grip is a nice addition.
  • Tons and tons of buttons that can do virtually everything

Cons

  • The AF illuminator dramatically slows down the autofocus.
  • I’ve surely seen better high ISO results.
  • Exposure preview setting has been completely changed.
  • Heavy, but that’s to be expected
  • Noise reduction is very strong.
  • I wish all the buttons lit up and not just a few. What about the buttons on top?
  • Animal autofocus is good but not as good as Canon or Sony.
  • Nikon still doesn’t have anything unique about their image quality that would make me want to buy it over Canon or Sony.
  • Pushing the shadows introduces a significant amount of noise even if you’re not looking at the image at 100%
  • Editing Nikon’s colors in mixed lighting is a nightmare I never want to go through again.
  • At this level, the in-camera multiple exposure feature should make the files into RAWs and not JPEGs.
  • 17×22 prints are a bit soft if you’re looking super close. You’ll also see grain at ISO 6400, unlike we’ve seen with a few others. But it’s acceptable.
  • Pricey, but not as expensive as competitors for sure.

Gear Used

We tested the Nikon z9 with the following gear:

Innovations

There’s a pretty extensive list here. But let’s tackle the innovations in the Nikon z9.

  • The first professional-grade camera meant for stills photography that doesn’t have a physical shutter. We know that Sigma has options, but they’re not really professional grade.
  • Nikon’s first camera to brings a shield down over the shutter. While the technology itself has been around for many years, it’s new to a Nikon.
  • Vehicle, animal, and human autofocus detection in one-camera. While the Canon EOS R3, Canon EOS R5, and Canon EOS R6 can do this, Nikon is the first to offer a truly automatic mode for it.
  • Nikon’s first good mirrorless camera to implement 3D tracking.
  • Nikon’s first mirrorless camera with illuminated buttons.
  • 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.
  • The first camera with an electronic shutter that can sync with a flash at any shutter speed.

Nikon z9 Tech Specs

The following tech specs are taken from the LensRentals listing

Aspect Ratio

1:1, 3:2, 16:9

Audio File Formats

AAC, Linear PCM

Audio Recording

Built-In Microphone (Stereo)
External Microphone Input (Stereo)

Autofocus Points

Phase Detection: 493

Autofocus Sensitivity

-8.5 to +20 EV

Battery

1x EN-EL18d Rechargeable Lithium-Ion, 10.8 VDC, 3300 mAh (Approx. 700 Shots)

Bit Depth

14-Bit

Brand

Nikon

Built-in Flash

No

Camera Type

Mirrorless

Connectivity

USB Type-C (USB 3.2 Gen 2), HDMI A (Full Size), RJ45, 3.5mm Headphone, 3.5mm Microphone, Nikon 10-Pin, PC Sync Socket

Continuous Shooting

Electronic Shutter
Up to 20 fps at 45.7 MP for up to 1000 Frames (RAW)
Up to 30 fps at 45.7 MP
Up to 120 fps at 11 MP

Crop Factor

None

Dedicated Flash System

iTTL

Dimensions

W x H x D: 5.9 × 5.9 × 3.6″

Diopter Adjustment

-4 to +3

Exposure Compensation

-5 to +5 EV (1/3, 1/2 EV Steps)

Exposure Modes

Aperture Priority, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority

External Flash Connection

Hot Shoe, PC Terminal

External Video-Recording Modes

UHD 8K (7680 × 4320) up to 29.97p
UHD 4K (3840 × 2160) up to 120p

Flash Compensation

-3 to +1 EV (1/3, 1/2 EV Steps)

Flash Modes

First-Curtain Sync, Off, Rear Sync, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync, Slow Sync/Red-Eye Reduction

Focus Modes

Continuous-Servo AF, Manual Focus, Single-Servo AF

Focus Type

Auto and Manual Focus

GPS

Yes

ISO Range

Auto, 64 to 25600 (Extended: 32 to 102400)

Image File Formats

JPEGRAW

Image Stabilization

Sensor-Shift, 5-Axis

Interval Recording

Yes

Item Type

Camera

Maximum Sync Speed

1/200 Second

Memory Card Slot

Dual Slot: CFexpress Type B / XQD

Metering Modes

Center-Weighted Average, Highlight Weighted, Matrix, Spot

Metering Range

-3 to 17 EV

Mfr. Model Number

1669

Monitor Resolution

2,100,000 Dot

Monitor Size

3.2″

Monitor Type

4-Axis Tilting Touchscreen LCD

Mount

Nikon Z

Operating Temperature

14 to 104°F

Sensor Dimensions

35.9 × 23.9mm

Sensor Resolution

Actual: 52.37 Megapixel
Effective: 45.7 Megapixel (8256 × 5504)

Sensor Size

Full Frame

Sensor Type

Full-Frame CMOS

Shutter Speed

Electronic Shutter
1/32000 to 30 Seconds
0 to 900 Seconds in Manual Mode
Bulb Mode

Video Encoding

NTSC/PAL

Video Recording Limit

Up to 125 Minutes for UHD 8K (7680 × 4320) at 29.97p (4:2:2 10-Bit)

Video Recording Modes

H.265 4:2:2 10-Bit
UHD 8K (7680 × 4320) at 23.976p/25p/29.97p
UHD 4K (3840 × 2160) at 23.976p/25p/29.97p/50p/59.94p/100p/119.88p

ProRes 422 HQ 4:2:2 10-Bit
UHD 4K (3840 × 2160) at 23.976p/25p/29.97p

H.265 4:2:0 8-Bit
UHD 4K (3840 × 2160) at 23.976p/25p/29.97p

H.264 4:2:0 8-Bit
UHD 4K (3840 × 2160) at 23.976p/25p/29.97p
Full HD (1920 × 1080) at 23.976p/25p/29.97p/50p/59.94p/100p/119.88p

Viewfinder Coverage

100%

Viewfinder Eye Point

21mm

Viewfinder Magnification

Approx. 0.8x

Viewfinder Resolution

3,690,000 Dot

Viewfinder Size

0.5″

Viewfinder Type

Electronic (OLED)

Weight

2.9 lbs. (Body with Battery and Memory)
2.6 lbs. (Body Only)

White Balance

Auto, Cloudy, Color Temperature, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Preset Manual, Shade

Wireless

Bluetooth
Wi-Fi

Ergonomics

Taken from our first impressions blog post

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 to supply us with 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 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: 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 of the Nikon z9

Well, what do you think? We took the Nikon z9 out into NYC’s recent blizzard in the early morning. Specifically, we walked around with it for one mile, ensured that all the ports and doors to entry on the camera were sealed, and chose a weather-resistant lens. The Nikon z9 kept working in 12 degree weather with more snow coming down. The combo had little issue tracking subjects and any issues I would think had to do with the snow. The camera never slowed down for what it’s worth. And it if can survive the combination of freezing temperatures and snowfall, then I think it’s perfectly suited for professional use. 

Further, I continued to use the camera the next night for a gig. Truly, Nikon is giving you the top of the line regarding their build quality here. Stuff like this really makes me wonder why Nikon doesn’t try to give their cameras and lenses IP ratings.

Ease of Use

Nikon’s menus haven’t really been complicated for me. Do I forget stuff? Sure. But with the Nikon z9, I kept forgetting things because there were new additions and new placements. For example, setting effects are in menu d8. And rear-curtain flash should be in e9, but it’s instead on the flash button located on the top-right. 

However, one of the best things about the Nikon z9 is the illuminated buttons. In the dark, you can easily find anything and everything you need. Canon is the only other brand that does this with mirrorless cameras, and we don’t know why more brands aren’t following suit.

What’s more, Nikon’s menu system flows smoothly. I tried using it as a touch interface, and it did a pretty excellent job scrolling through. I think this has to do with the new Quad-VGA panel LCD screen. It’s a million times better than Sony’s interface, but not as good as Canon’s or Panasonic’s. 

Best of all, though, is the fact that you can do nearly everything without removing your eye from the viewfinder. I say “nearly everything” because there are two very annoying things that can’t be programmed to custom function buttons. First, you can’t set the camera’s exposure preview mode to be on/off to a specific button. This would help when you’re a wedding photographer moving from flash use to not using a flash. Instead, you’ll waste time digging through the menu getting to where you need to go. Sure, Nikon and others have a My Menu offering, but let me program it to a button to begin with.

For the record, Nikon does a MUCH BETTER job at providing an exposure preview with a hot shoe-connected flash most of the time. But it’s totally different when you’ve got a Profoto B10 connected via an Air-TTL transmitter. I’ve run into situations where I’d want my B10 somewhere in a room somewhere. But sometimes I’d want it turned off, and the flash preview isn’t the same as it is with a hot shoe flash.

The other oddity is that you can’t set the camera to cycle through scene intelligence. What I mean by that is that you have to go into the menu to tell the Nikon z9 to detect animals, humans, vehicles, or auto-select. For photojournalists, this can be annoying.

I think photographers should also keep in mind that, in some ways, the Nikon z9 is defying the rules of photography. For years, I’ve photographed holding my breath to ensure stability in a scene. But this doesn’t have a physical shutter and has image stabilization on the sensor. However, it’s still cumbersome, and that’s undoubtedly a factor. I’m incredibly steady. Years ago, I held the Olympus OMD EM1 Mk II for a 15-second exposure and got a result free of camera shake. With the Nikon z9, I struggled at two seconds and 24mm wide. So while theoretically, you shouldn’t have any issues with camera shake, you indeed can. 

Autofocus Performance of the Nikon z9

One of the big challenges I was interested in was how the Nikon z9 would track fast-moving subjects in low light. I looked for available concerts to do this test but couldn’t find anything. So instead, I photographed a burlesque show. There was some motion blur, but that’s because I was shooting at too slow of a shutter speed at times. When there wasn’t a user error, the Nikon z9 tracked the subjects perfectly fine. We’ll talk more about extreme low-light autofocus tracking later on in this section.

What most surprised me about the Nikon z9 was how heavily the jello effect of the rolling shutter was reduced. Is it there? It can be, but it’s incredibly subtle. You really have to pixel peep to find it. We found that when tracking a delivery guy on a vehicle. The Nikon z9 was able to lock onto him riding by. 

We offered a bit of insight into how the Nikon z9 works with birds over at this blog post, so we’re going to quote from it.

  • 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.

Overall though, my testing meant that I was shooting with the effects of exposure preview turned off. Personally, while I see its use, I think it also limits autofocus speed. The Nikon z9 can still acquire focus when the exposure is incredibly underexposed, but nowhere as quickly as when you turn off exposure preview effects. It’s visible for sure. 

With exposure preview turned off, photographing birds was super fun! I used a combination of AF-C, 3D tracking, automatic point selection, and auto-scene or animal-scene detection. It worked really well. Combine this with Nikon’s in-sensor cropping features, and you get more from your lenses. A 45MP sensor cropped to an APS-C sensor size still gives you a lot of details. That’s what I did, as those were the only lenses available to me.

With exposure preview enabled, the Nikon z9 needs help for sure. If you’re very underexposed, make no mistake, the camera can nail the autofocus even with 3D tracking on. But when you automatically let it select a subject, things can get tricky. If you’re trying to get the Nikon z9 to find a human in the dark, know that it’s possible. But they might be slightly out of focus. You’re better off turning on 3D tracking, but even then, it will only do a bit of a better job. For the record, I’m talking about having the exposure preview giving a scene that’s underexposed by more than five stops. Still, though, this is only useful if you’re not using a flash.

Metering

The Phoblographer’s metering tests are in accordance with the Sunny 16 rule. We typically use this because it helps street photographers out the most, and it’s an excellent standard to test. The Nikon z9 is using what we believe is a Sony sensor. They wouldn’t tell us about where it comes from, but they’ll gladly say they designed it. However, the metering is also in-line with what we get from Sony sensors. 

On January 31st, it was cloudy here in NYC. When I pointed the Nikon z9 at a sunny scene, it read at ISO 100 1/100th at f10. This lined up with another camera we tested. We got this reading because it was cloudy with the sun shining through the clouds. 

What’s more, the Nikon z9 said that the reading was a bit overexposed. This, again, lines up with what Sony sensors do. In practical terms, this basically just means that you can meter how you usually would’ve if you’ve come from a film background. If you shoot both film and digital, you’ll be all set here.

Image Quality

The Nikon z9 uses a sensor that makes me think it’s either the Sony a1’s or Sony a7r III’s. Nikon also has its own lenses of course and, for what it’s worth, Nikon’s glass is good if you’re looking for a clinical look. But it also doesn’t seem to go overboard the way that Sony’s lenses do. With natural lighting, the Nikon z9 can create beautiful photos. When a flash is introduced, things get more complex, particularly with mixed lighting. Sometimes you also don’t always have gels available. 

But let’s dive more into Nikon’s z9’s image quality.

JPEG Output

You might be wondering why I’m shooting JPEGs with a camera that’s nearly $6,000. Well, for starters, not everything requires a RAW file and editing when you get back to the studio or home. If you can get the shot in-camera and minimize the work you need to do, then do it. Work smarter, not harder (or something like that is how the saying goes). 

Regardless, I like the Nikon z9’s JPEG output. I set it to automatically port the images to my iPhone via Bluetooth. Any and all of those images were more than sufficient enough for social media sharing. Artists, photographers, and regular folks all loved the photos I posted online on my personal social feeds. 

RAW File Versatility

The Nikon z9 has overall good RAW file versatility if you work below ISO 3200 and with natural lighting. Things get more complicated if you start to push RAW files above ISO 6400. And when it comes to color editing, things can become complex. 

Overall though, the problem is that pushing the shadows will introduce way more noise than we’d prefer. This is typical of many Sony sensors above 36MP, with the exception of those in Sony’s actual cameras.

Still, though, I think my biggest problem has to do with how Nikon can render colors. My biggest challenge was shooting at my yoga studio. I photographed a class with the following parameters:

  • Daylight (one color of light) coming through the windows
  • Nearly tungsten colored light bulbs (another color of light)
  • White walls (another color)
  • Cream colored floors (yet another color)
  • Various skin tones, yoga mat colors, and wardrobe colors

Do you know how Youtubers usually use two or three colored LED panels at once? Try using five or more. Then keep in mind that using a flash adds more daylight-colored light. At first, I thought I figured out a solution by simply overpowering the light from the ceiling bulbs. But it wasn’t practical to do that and have a bright light in a yoga student’s face. It’s like doing an event and constantly shoving an LED in everyone’s face. 

So instead, I needed to opt for editing in Capture One, which does the best job it can. But on top of that, I either used RNI Films’ presets, desaturated the warmer channels, cooled the white balance down, or edited in some other creative way. Trust me, it was difficult. When I showed the photos to Reviews Editor Hillary Grigonis, she said, “Yikes.” Hillary moved away from Nikon to Fujifilm, partially because of Nikon’s colors. 

High ISO Output

ISO 6400 is very clean when you’re looking at the whole image. When you start to pixel peep, you’ll see more image noise than you will from other options on the market. However, you’ll also generally see less detail loss from the Nikon z9. 

In our printer tests, we used the Canon Prograf 1000 and Canson paper. We printed the above photo at 17×22. There was indeed image noise in the shadows and acceptable detail loss if looking closely. But at the same time, this only happened if you looked closely. If you moved back to the recommended viewing distance, you couldn’t find a single flaw with the photo.

For the record, I’ve seen cleaner RAW files from the Nikon z7, but that has slightly fewer megapixels.

Extra Image Samples

From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Unedited

Edited

Conclusions

Likes

  • Fantastic battery life that’s far better than the competition
  • Reliability
  • Buttons! Lots of them that are illuminated too!
  • Build quality
  • Low light autofocus
  • Nikon is attempting to make scene selection between animal, human, and vehicle even better.
  • Flash sync at any shutter speed
  • Electronic shutter with second curtain flash sync!
  • A pretty good menu system
  • I thought it would take me a while to get used to no shutter, but it didn’t
  • Image quality potential
  • Ambient lighting colors

Dislikes

  • It’s heavy
  • Pretty pricey at nearly $5,500
  • Nikon’s image quality is good, but they really need to work with third-party lens manufacturers to make their RAW files sing.
  • Heavier than I’d like it to be, which means handholding it at super long shutter speeds isn’t going to be possible
  • A few quibbles with the function buttons

The Nikon z9 has a lot going for it. It’s a fantastic camera for photojournalists, wildlife photographers, event photographers, portrait photographers who have precise lighting control, etc. The folks who will love it the most are probably wildlife photographers. But Nikon needs to bolster the lens selection for that market segment as of publishing this review. It’s 2022, and we don’t need any more of this “adapt an F-mount lens” nonsense. The best thing about this camera, practically speaking, is the autofocus. It’s the best attempt at sorting through the mishegas of making things easier. Sony separates animal and bird autofocus, which causes a host of problems. Canon makes you select human, animal/bird, or vehicle. Nikon lets you autoselect with varying degrees of success and what you’re looking for. 

More importantly, this is probably one of the most reliable cameras I’ve tested in the past few years. Sure, Canon mirrorless cameras can survive a whole lot. And we’ve indeed used them in a lot of snow. But something about the Nikon z9 seems almost akin to both Leica and Olympus’ level of durability. Maybe it’s the weight, but it feels so incredibly solid. 

Would I buy one? No. For the record, I think I’m all team Nikon z7 and z5 series. This is too big of a camera. But Nikon should bring this technology down to the next iteration of cameras it produces. If the Nikon z7 III doesn’t use Sony’s maddening over-60MP sensor and it boasts the tech in the z9, I’d probably buy it. But most of all, if the Nikon ZF (if it ever comes) has this and the retro ergonomics, then I’ll be totally sold.

The Nikon z9 receives five out of five stars. Want one? Check out LensRentals, Adorama and Amazon.

Chris Gampat

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