Astounding Step Up

Courtesy Nikon

There are minimum requirements a flagship camera has to meet, which the Nikon Z9 easily surpasses:

  • A high-resolution full-frame sensor. 
  • Amazingly accurate and fast autofocus, especially when tracking eyes or small erratically moving subjects, and in low light. 
  • Dual media slots for simultaneous, split media type, or overflow recording.
  • Ability to accommodate CFExpress Type B and XQD media.
  • High-quality video recorded internally without overheating.
  • A high frame rate for stills.
  • Excellent battery capacity.
  • A built-in vertical grip or the ability to add one to the body. 
The back of a Nikon Z 9 camera showing the tilt display
Courtesy Nikon

In addition to exceeding those base parameters, it appears Nikon’s team really listened to photographers before they began designing the Z 9. They took note of what users like and dislike about previous Nikon Z and single-digit Nikon D series cameras, and then they went a step further and paid attention to what folks have had to say about competitive camera options as well.

Beyond ticking all the boxes for a flagship camera, there are more noteworthy features of the Z 9, such as the four-directional tilting frame mount for the high-resolution monitor, a high-resolution EVF, no blackout between frames, excellent weather sealing, a full-size HDMI port, and four programmable custom function buttons. (An added bonus: You can assign most other buttons to a function that’s different than their default settings.) For a big-bodied camera, it feels substantial and well-balanced while being lighter than it looks. Nikon has always made good ergonomics a point of pride, and the Z 9 is no exception.   

A man and woman couple, identified as centenarians, sit on the couch in their living room. He is kissing her cheek, and there are family photos on the wall behind them.
©Ellis Vener
I photographed these centenarians in their living room with two Flashpoint eVolv 200 flashes in a Photek SoftLighter 2 umbrella with diffuser. The exposure is 1/100 second at f/10, ISO 100.
OVERVIEW

Due to high demand for the camera, Nikon USA could lend me only an early production model Z 9 for two weeks. During that brief window, I shot just under 8,000 frames and almost no video in all sorts of lighting and weather conditions. I photographed skateboarders and BMX riders in good sunlight and under heavily overcast skies; three portrait sessions, one with flash and the others using available ambient light; wild birds at a feeder; and a local blues band in a dimly lit bar. I used five lenses: the Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S, 24-70mm f/2.8 S, 85mm f/1.8 S, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, and a Sigma F mount 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports lens with the original Nikon FTZ F to Z adapter. I used ISO settings from Lo 1.0 (ISO 32 equivalent) to Hi 2.0 (equivalent to ISO 102,400) and all of the various autofocus patterns and tracking capabilities. 

What impressed me most about the autofocus system in the Z 9 is how swiftly and reliably it locks on subjects, even if they’re moving erratically. No matter what direction a subject moved, it was rare that the camera lost track of where it needed to focus. Furthermore, in face/eye detection modes, the camera was almost unbelievably responsive at locking on the subject’s eyes. Of course, no autofocus system is 100% accurate. Still, during long 20 fps bursts, my rate of keeper images was crazy high, even while zooming to adjust the framing.

The downside of this combination of excellent autofocus performance and high frame rates is that it took me longer than usual to narrow down the selection from good to better to best. But even that downside has an upside: It made me more aware of how the tiniest differences can make or break a photo. 

Actions shot, black-and-white, young person on a skateboard caught at the moment the board is at the lip of a wall at a skate park
©Ellis Vener
This image was captured in a 20-frames-per-second sequence that used wide field human face autofocus tracking with a Nikkor Z 14-30mm F/4 S lens. The exposure is 1/6,400 second at f/8, ISO 12,800.
TESTING

Although the Japanese CIPA agency says the new EN-EL18d battery is good for 700 frames in the Z 9, for real-world photography that number is an absurdly low estimate. I got the battery to near-zero capacity just once, and that was after making nearly 4,000 frames outdoors in cold, damp weather. For most types of photography, the new EN-EL18d appears to be good for at least 2,000 frames, and for video work, at least two hours of recording. Suppose your power needs will exceed that of the internal battery? In that case, you can connect a PD type power bank to the USB-C port on the left edge of the body. The EN-EL18d battery can be recharged in the body with the same connection.

Older versions of the EN-EL18 series batteries can be used in the Z 9, but expect fewer shots or shorter run time. A last note on batteries: the EN-EL18d is not compatible with older MH-26 and MH-26a chargers, requiring the use of the included MH-33 charger, which is backward compatible with earlier EN-EL18 batteries. 

The heart of the Z 9 is a 52.37-megapixel (45.7-megapixel effective resolution) 23.9x35.9mm stacked backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS array. The advantages are twofold. CMOS arrays are like cakes: From top to bottom, there are layers containing microlenses, Bayer color filters, wiring, the pixels, and the supporting substrate. This architecture means some light is blocked or reflected from reaching the pixels. In BSI CMOS arrays, the wiring layers are beneath the substrate, and a photon has about a 50% greater chance of striking an individual pixel. The more light a pixel receives, the better its signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). The better the SNR, the cleaner the photo regardless of exposure time, lighting, or ISO settings.

Late day sun backlights a skateboarder doing a board flip, shown from waist down
©Ellis Vener
Autofocus tracking kept up with the fast skateboarder moving away from me in strong backlight. Capturing at 20 fps let me choose the moment of action I wanted.
Three-quarter portrait of Hispanic man wearing a purple t-shirt
©Ellis Vener
With the Nikkor 85mm f/2.8 lens, the Nikon Z 9 is perfect for portraits.

Stacked BSI CMOS arrays take this idea further by moving more supporting hardware beneath the active pixel layer, gaining about 30% more light-gathering efficiency. The stacked BSI design is more energy-efficient and generates less waste (heat), speeds up the process of converting light energy (photons) into electrical energy (electrons), and is faster at moving data from the sensor to the pair of Expeed 7 processors that do the initial work of creating a digital image file. 

As with the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 series cameras, a robustly built, spring-tensioned frame supports the BSI CMOS. With the in-body image stabilization system on, tiny camera vibrations that would destroy sharpness are canceled. To do this, some of the computational horsepower provided by the Z 9’s twin Expeed 7 processors directs the frame to move, which counters small vibrations in five directions of roll, yaw, and pitch. 

The captured full-frame image measures 8,256x5,504 pixels. In the 24x16mm DX crop mode, maximum resolution drops to 5,408x 3,600 pixels (roughly 19.47 megapixels). The Z 9 can also be set to be used for 1:1 and 16:9 crop modes. Each format also has medium and small resolution options. 

The Z 9 has two more raw options for still and video photography, HE* and HE, where HE stands for high efficiency. The image quality of the HE*-compressed NEFs compares favorably in quality to the standard NEF files, according to Nikon. After trying HE* mode, I agree. For the Z 9, Nikon partnered with French company IntoPIX to license its proprietary TicoRAW format, making the Z 9 the first camera for the general market to use this technology. It’s also applied to the Z 9’s video recording, making the camera capable of internally recording just over two hours of 8K 10-bit video at a stretch without overheating. Hopefully, Nikon will extend its technology licensing agreements with IntoPIX not only for future cameras but also for future updates to Z 6II and Z 7II cameras.

Young woman with dark hair, head and shoulders portrait, posing next to decorative string lights
©Ellis Vener
You can see the rendition of ultrafine details in contrasty lighting in this portrait. I took advantage of the IBIS system to make a capture using the ambient light, exposing for 1/40 second at f/7.1, ISO 2500.

In my tests, the HE* files are about 20MB smaller than standard 14-bit lossless NEF files of the same complex subject and approximately 25 to 30MB smaller in images with large areas of similar tones and colors. Given that there is no evident loss of image quality between standard 14-bit lossless NEFs and HE* NEFS, the advantages of using the HE* option are obvious: smaller files require less time and storage capacity; to shorten transmission time via wireless or Ethernet tethering; and to maximize storage capacity when downloading.

When editing both types of standard 14-bit lossless NEFs and HE* NEFs in Adobe Lightroom Classic and Nikon Studio NX software, I could not see a qualitative difference between the two. Still, more thorough testing in more controlled circumstances is needed.

As of late January, Adobe has not yet updated Lightroom Classic or Adobe Camera Raw to support the Z 9 NEF formats fully. However, those programs can import and process them. Some photographers have reported dissatisfaction with the resulting color and contrast. Of more concern to me is how Lightroom handles high ISO noise. I could not find or make a setting in Lightroom Classic that satisfied me, but processing in Studio NX cleaned up the files very nicely. From my perspective, the problem with Studio NX is that it’s not designed for high-volume work. As long as I’m discussing software, Photo Mechanic 6 and Plus from Camera Bits had no problems adding metadata and importing standard and HE+ Z 9 NEF files. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

At $5,499.95, the Nikon Z 9 is not inexpensive, but it may be the best value in professional cameras today, depending on the range of assignments you do. Given the quality of images, the camera’s versatility, and its handling characteristics, the Z 9 is ideal for generalist photographers like me.

In early 2022, this is easily the best value in flagship cameras offered by any manufacturer. I liked it so much, I offered to pay Nikon full MSRP for the camera. My request was politely declined due to extremely high demand for the Z 9 from previously committed buyers and NPS members who were in line in front of me. After two weeks with the Z 9, I can’t blame photographers for being so eager to get their hands on it, and I commend Nikon for its customer commitment. 

Tags: nikon