I feel like the luckiest boy in the world right now, sitting at my desk to write an article I’ve been looking forward to for weeks about a camera I’d been looking forward to for years. Luckier still because I actually have the camera. There’s a shiny new Nikon Z9 sitting next to me right now, with a Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S attached, just begging me to go out and shoot with it.
But I can’t, because I have to write this article. Also because it’s dumping with icy rain outside, and I’m all warm, and besides, my shoes still aren’t dry from yesterday.
In the Z9, Nikon has addressed almost all of our concerns about the Z6 and Z7-series models over the past three years, in a pro-oriented body
We’ve published a lot of articles about the Nikon Z9 recently (too many, if some of the commenters are to be believed) and most photographers haven’t even had their hands on one yet. So what’s all the fuss about? Simply put, it’s just a really good camera. It’s not perfect (that would be boring) but in the Z9, Nikon has addressed almost all of our concerns about the Z6 and Z7-series models over the past three years, in a pro-oriented body that came in far below the price-point that most of us expected.
In our Gear of the Year articles we write about the equipment that we’ve used and relied on most. That’s been tricky this year for me because honestly, while I’ve done a lot of photography, I’ve mostly been using cameras that I’ve already written about in previous years’ articles. I love the Ricoh GR IIIx for example, but I’ve already shared my thoughts with you about that, and I’d feel a bit odd praising (again) a camera that is so similar to a previous model.
The Z9, by contrast, really does feel ‘new’. Experienced Z-series or high-end Nikon DSLR shooters will find much that’s familiar of course, but this is no iterative release. I won’t waste virtual ink listing all of the new and innovative features in the Z9 (you’ll find a full breakdown of them here and here). Instead, I want to go into a little bit of detail about why it checks so many boxes for me.
First, some background: As anyone who has read my articles over the past decade or so will know, I have a background in theatre and live music performance photography. I haven’t shot any shows for a long time, but I still really enjoy working in low light, and I especially love the challenge of making photographs in really low light – light so low that your eyes tell you there’s nothing there.
This shot was taken earlier this year, before I had access to a Z9. My ‘core’ kit for the clam digging project for the past few winters has been a Nikon Z7, with 50mm and 85mm F1.8 S primes.
Nikon Z7 + Z 85mm F1.8 S | ISO 12,800 | 1/30sec | F1.8
I don’t mean long exposures on a tripod. That’s cheating!* I’m talking ‘high ISO, steady hands and a fast lens’ photography. Real seat-of-the-pants stuff, the kind of literal tough gig I used to enjoy in poorly-lit music venues in England, where a good camera can see more than the naked eye, if you know how to get the most out of it. There are amazing images to be made long after the sun has gone down, when most photographers (most sensible photographers) have gone home. And if it’s cold and wet and miserable when I’m still out shooting, so much the better. No pain, no gain and so on. Does it sound like I have a problem? Perhaps. Am I ready to talk about it? Absolutely not. Moving on…
For the past few winters I’ve been working on a low-light photo project on Washington’s Pacific coast. Every year, beaches up and down the coast open for razor clam digging. It’s controlled – you need a permit, there are quotas, and the digs only happen in certain pre-approved locations and on certain pre-posted days. And every winter, on a small number of those days, the low tide lines up more or less with sunset. On a mere handful of those days, the weather cooperates to create a really unique shooting environment where – for a precious few minutes – the weather is clear enough that the luminosity of the western sky reaches equilibrium with the reflected light from the wet sand at low tide, and you lose all sense of physical space. It’s like floating.
By the time I’m scratching out 1/10sec exposures at ISO 25,600 on the Z 50mm F1.8 S, I know it’s time for dinner.
I started the project on a whim, working with a first-generation Z7 and the Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 S. Then I added a Z 85mm F1.8 S to my collection, which is still my main lens for the project. I tried an adapted AF-D 135mm F2 DC for about five minutes, but quickly gave up on that idea (manual focus is too tricky in those conditions, and it has bags of LoCA wide open) and eventually I splurged on a Z 105mm F2.8 S.
Four winters in, my kit comprises all of the above, plus a Z 70-200mm F2.8 S. I typically start with the 70-200mm when there’s still some light, then work backwards down the focal lengths as it gets darker – 105mm, then 85mm, and by the time I’m scratching out 1/10sec exposures at ISO 25,600 on the Z 50mm F1.8 S, I know it’s time for dinner.
For all the talk of how the original Z7’s autofocus falls apart in low light, I’m here to tell you: It’s not always as bad as all that. However, performance is very situation and subject-dependent. With a fast lens attached, as long as it can ‘bite’ onto something contrasty, the Z7 can generally be relied upon to deliver the goods. Fortunately, for my clam digging project, the headlamps and lanterns which provide such interesting lighting effects after dark are near-perfect autofocus targets. The Z7’s inbuilt stabilization, plus the excellent image quality of the ‘S’ range prime lenses when shot wide open means that with a bit of practice, it’s a surprisingly capable tool for low-light imaging. It’s also insanely well weather-sealed, which I’ve come to appreciate.
As capable as the Z7 has proven itself to be, for years I’ve been dying to see what a next-generation Z-series camera could do in that environment. My personal wishlist for nighttime, winter coastal photography was pretty short. In no particular order I wanted:
- Better low-light autofocus (I always want better low-light autofocus)
- A proper threaded remote release socket for a proper cable release (despite my dig at long exposures earlier I do occasionally play around with them and the plug-in cable release for the Z7 is horrible)
- Some kind of ‘dark’ GUI mode to maintain night-vision when shooting and menu-diving after dark
- A no-compromise silent shutter
- Backlit controls
- ‘Button press and scroll’ logic for changing exposure mode (as opposed to the Z7’s control dial, which is fiddly with gloves on)
- A mechanical sensor shield for lens changes in bad weather
As you can probably tell, a lot of my frustrations with the Z7 in low light weren’t related to the camera’s capabilities, but its usability. I wanted a camera that I could use – almost literally – with my eyes closed, and which didn’t require a lot of menu-diving or hunting for buttons in order to switch between shooting conditions.
The Z9 is that camera. It’s not perfect, like I said, but ergonomically, it’s a big leap forward from the Z7 in the kinds of conditions I like to work in. I don’t know how else to put it except that it just gets out of the way and lets me focus on photography.
That’s handling covered, but in terms of performance, the Z9 is – again – in a different league to the gear I was using before. I’m not seeing dramatic differences (so far) in image quality across ISO 64-25,600 compared to my Z7, but I’ve always been perfectly happy with results from the Z7 and its successor the Z7 II. The biggest and most obvious leap forward is autofocus performance. The Z9 is a beast, and as far as its capabilities for sports and action shooting are concerned, I can’t improve on my former coworker Carey’s comments in his shooting experience, published last month. So far in my work I’ve mostly been tackling static (ish) subjects in low light, and as such I’m barely scraping the surface of what the Z9 can do. Even so, the autofocus performance gains over previous Z-series cameras are obvious.
The Z9’s autofocus system is rated (in its standard range) down to -5EV with an F2 lens. If that’s hard to visualize, very roughly, -5EV is the kind of illumination provided by the aurora borealis. It’s pretty dark, is the point.
I will admit though that on my first low-light excursion with the Z9 I was a bit disappointed. It definitely felt better than the Z7 in the same kind of situation, but not that much better. I still experienced quite a bit of autofocus ‘hunting’ when contrast was low. My disappointment lasted until I realized that I hadn’t switched lenses and I was still shooting with the Z 70-200mm F2.8 S, well after dark, in the kind of lighting where normally I would have long ago put the slower lens away and switched to my F1.8 primes. Swapping the 70-200mm onto my Z7 confirmed that my initial impression of the Z9’s lackluster performance was way off – in the same conditions, the Z7 could hardly get an AF lock on anything.
That boost in autofocus reliability, plus the backlit controls and the anti-dazzle ‘RED’ GUI mode make the Z9 a pleasure, rather than a chore to shoot with in low light. A shielded sensor for rainy lens changes, and a 2000+ shot** battery are the icing on the cake. My next trip to the coast is coming up next week, on new year’s eve, and you’d better believe the Z9 will be joining me to welcome in 2022. Happy New Year!
* Calm down, I know it’s not really cheating. Shooting in color and converting to black and white afterwards, on the other hand – that is cheating, but that’s another article for another time.
** Don’t believe everything that you read in CIPA figures, which are based on a very specific testing methodology. The Z9’s rated battery life is rated for 700-740 exposures on a single charge, but after shooting 1,000 images in 4-5 hours on my last coastal trip, the Z9’s battery was still showing 80%. If you’re a stills photographer shooting bursts, you can expect thousands of pictures per charge.