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Interview: Sports photographer Mark Pain on the new Nikon Z9

Australia’s Gretel Bueta fights for the ball with England’s Layla Guscoth at the Copper Box Arena in London.

Nikon Z9 + AF-S 400mm F2.8G ED VR
1/2000sec | F2.8 | ISO 5000

Professional sports photographer Mark Pain has been using a Nikon Z9 for some time, inside some of the biggest venues in the UK. We caught up with him recently to get his opinion and insights into Nikon’s most important pro camera for at least a decade.

All images by Mark Pain, shot using the Nikon Z9 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm F2.8G ED VR (via FTZ adapter). Used with permission.

Can you give us some background on your experience of shooting with the Nikon system?

I’ve been a Nikon user since I was a teenager, but I switched to Canon for a few years before the D3 came out, when I switched back. I decided to switch on the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Before the Z9, I hadn’t used any Nikon mirrorless camera professionally. The Z6 and Z7 didn’t really fit with what I wanted or needed. A couple of years ago I was loaned some sony equipment to try, and I could see the difference. At the moment in my bag I’ve got a D5 and a D6, so now I have the Z9 I’m directly comparing it to those DSLRs.

My lenses are relatively old. My workhorse 400mm F2.8 is eight years old and still as sharp as ever, and my 70-200mm is five years old, for example. I was really keen to see how well the new camera would work with my old lenses using the [FTZ] adapter. And I must say that so far it’s been fantastic. There is no drop in AF speed whatsoever when using my older 400mm 2.8 on the Z9 with the new FTZ Mk II adaptor. If anything the lens seems to achieve focus even faster.

The Z9 is Nikon’s first true flagship mirrorless camera, and offers a combination of speed and performance which eclipses previous Z-system options. One of the innovations employed in the Z9 is a full-time, fully-electronic shutter, which enables super-fast frame-rates, but can create issues in some situations where LED display boards appear in images.

What were you hoping for from the Z9?

The short answer is nothing. Big purchases have to be justifiable for working photographers. Normally we don’t like too much change too quickly with a Pro camera. I don’t just go out and buy stuff just because it’s out there. I was 99% happy with the cameras I already had, so professionally I had no reason to change.

But I was excited by the new autofocus modes, and I wanted to see whether Nikon had managed to match what Sony can do. I’ve not used a Canon camera for ten years, so Sony’s a9 and a9 II were my only point of comparison, and I wanted to see whether Nikon were able to ‘Nikonify’ what for me are still rather uncomfortable [Sony] cameras to use.

Ceri Storer of DMP Durham Sharks at the line out against Saracens – Womens’ Premier 15s Rugby.

Shot at 120fps (11MP) | 1/2000sec | F2.8 | ISO 5000

How does the Z9 compare in terms of performance against your DSLRs?

I think it’s revolutionary, in terms of 3D tracking with face detection. It’s a stunning improvement over the D5 and D6. With sport of course, it’s horses for courses, and i’m discovering that even with the the best systems, it’s all very well if you’ve only got two or three faces in the frame, but as soon as you shoot rugby or a fast-moving sport like netball, you can’t always rely on it. So yes there are massive improvements, but as a working photographer I’m not getting many more photos in focus than I would with my DSLRs. Technically though, it’s incredible, and for anyone without my amount of experience, it will definitely help them. So far I’ve only used it in human face and eye priority mode, and the way it sticks to heads and eyes is absolutely brilliant.

With the Z9 you get almost complete autofocus coverage, across the frame. Is that useful to you?

Not really, because every part of my experience and learning as a photographer is geared towards keeping my subject in the frame, as centrally as possible. I would argue that the two most important factors for sports photographers are making sure you’re using the right focal length, and being able to keep your subject within the central 2/3 of the frame. Very rarely is my subject at the extreme edges of the frame.

Saracens Women’s Ella Wyrwas scores a try during the match against DMP Durham Sharks – Womens’ Premier 15s Rugby.

Shot at 120fps (11MP) | 1/2000sec | F2.8 | ISO 5000

The camera is only as good as what you ask it to do. They don’t learn, like humans do. It still amazes me how few professional sports photographers ever change the tracking speed of their AF, for example. None of us can keep our subject in the middle of the frame all the time, but I change my AF tracking speed depending on what I’m shooting, so that if I know either that the camera is likely to get it wrong, or my subject is likely to temporarily leave the middle of the frame, I just turn the tracking speed down a notch so that it doesn’t try to go hunting for something else. For example I was shooting a kayaking event at an Olympic Games, and I knew that my subject was about to momentarily go underwater, so the autofocus would lose his eyes. I just knocked the tracking sensitivity down to slow, and when he went underwater for that moment, the AF didn’t jump off to his hands, or water droplets flying up or whatever else.

Did you find there was a learning curve with the Z9? How quickly did you feel familiar?

Incredibly quickly, much quicker than I thought. I found it surprisingly easy to use, and the transition from the D5 and D6 was minimal. After one football match I was happy using it. I didn’t have any issues with the viewfinder, I got used to it instantly. I can’t imagine an electronic viewfinder ever being better than an optical viewfinder for the work that I do, but it’s certainly the best I’ve used, and it’s extremely usable in every situation I’ve encountered so far. I was surprised how good it was and how little it bothered me, and that’s a big compliment.

Actually, because I only have one Z9, I was using my D5 and D6 alongside it, and when I picked one of them up after shooting with the Z9, the optical viewfinders seemed a bit old-fashioned and a bit yellow.

The Z9 is absolutely Nikon. I reprogrammed a couple of buttons, for instance the image protect button on the left of the viewfinder I reprogrammed to be playback, but once I’d set it up, I found it very easy to use. In terms of images, from everything I’ve shot so far, I’ve not gone much above ISO 5,000, but it’s at least as good as the D6.

Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger puts in a tackle against Tottenham Hotspur’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg . Some fine black lines are visible in the out of focus light blue LED advertising boards in the background.

1/2000sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

The Z9 features a fully-electronic shutter, rather than a mechanical or hybrid shutter. I know you’ve had some issues with the dreaded ‘LED banding’ on advertising screens – can you talk me through it?

To date, I’ve shot about ten professional jobs with the Z9, covering four different sports, indoors and outdoors, and it’s been an issue – I won’t call it a problem, as such – in about half of the places I’ve been to.

There are two things that are concerning to me – concerning with a small ‘c’. One is that the effect changes from venue to venue, I assume because the LED boards themselves are different [editor’s note – exposure time is another potential variable].

The other thing that’s annoying is that even when the LED board is out of focus in the background, the banding is always pin sharp. So it looks like someone’s taken a ruler and a pencil and drawn a line over that soft blurry part of the image.

It’s pretty much impossible now to shoot professional sports without those advertising boards in the frame – that’s why they’re there, to be seen by TV cameras and in photos. In my world, there are always LED boards in the background. Also, at a lot of indoor sporting events now they’ll bring the team out through a sort of LED arch with the sponsor logos on it. And of course if you’re there working for that sponsor, you need that logo clearly visible in the image. Even for news photographers for example at a political conference, where a party leader stands up in front of an LED display board, with a message on it. Sometimes you’d want that message to be part of your picture.

Adama Traore of Wolves brings the ball under control during the Premier League match at Brentford. Some faint ‘banding’ lines are visible in the yellow LED advertising board in the background.

1/2000sec | F2.8 | ISO 3200

Would the LED banding issue affect your ability to sell pictures to a client?

No, probably not, and I need to emphasize that this is an issue that won’t affect 99% of people considering buying a Z9. I’ll make the switch to being full mirrorless, I think everyone will, but what I’ll probably do [for now] is that if I know I’m being paid by a sponsor to shoot an event, and there are LED boards, I’ll bring a DSLR along as well, alongside my Z9. If I’m shooting for company ‘X’ I want company ‘X’s logo to look perfect in the images.

But in the real world, would anyone notice the issue if they were viewing one of my pictures on a news website on their phone or an iPad? I doubt it. Put it this way, probably nine out of ten of my fellow photographers who I’ve shown the pictures to didn’t care. It’s not a big factor in terms of my long term thinking about the usability of the technology, I’d just like to see it being worked on. I would hope that within a few months there will be some kind of fix.

Harry Kane takes a free kick during the Premier League match at the New Tottenham Stadium. Some blue horizontal lines are visible in the white LED ad board in the background.

Shot at 120fps (11MP) | 1/1000sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

Aside from the banding issue, is there anything about the Z9 that you’d like to see changed or improved?

The camera is absolutely stunning. It is more usable by far than some of its competitors that I’ve shot with. From my point of view as a working professional though, the file sizes are way too big. As a sports photographer I don’t need all those pixels. I still shoot Raw most of the time, which isn’t very common in the sports world anymore, and the new compression options save on card space, but they still open in Photoshop at 130MB, regardless of the compression mode. That’s still a huge image size, twice the size of files from my D6. It’s a pain for my workflow. Currently the only way I can reduce the output resolution is to shoot in DX crop mode, which isn’t always ideal. I want a Z9 ‘lite’.

Everything else about it is incredible. The 3D AF tracking is sensational, it’s got more processing power, it’s amazing. There’s not a lot I can fault about it, honestly. It’s the modern D3. As a working professional I could go and buy two Z9s tomorrow and I’d be confident that I wouldn’t need to buy another camera until they break. And that’s what we love, as professionals.

Mark Pain is a multi-award winning sports photographer who has worked in the UK for over thirty years, becoming Chief Sports Photographer for the Mail On Sunday newspaper. He mainly shoots Premier League football and has covered five Olympic Games, many football and Rugby World Cups, Ryder Cups as well as multiple World Championships in most other sports. He was recently awarded Gold in the World Sports Photography Awards 2021.

You can see more of his work at his website, and on Instagram: @mpsportsphoto

What is LED banding?

LED displays flicker and refresh at very high speeds, which means that if they are included in a photograph, there’s a good chance the LEDs will turn off and on during your exposure – even during the shortest of exposures.

If this happens, dark, perfectly horizontal ‘bands’ will appear in the affected area/s of the image. These bands will be more noticeable at short shutter speeds, where the very brief ‘off’ parts of the LED cycle make up a larger proportion of the total exposure time.

In principle, the electronic shutter of the Z9 should be no more prone to this issue than most mechanical shutters, since its rolling shutter rate is comparable. However, (like the stacked sensors in Sony’s recent a9 and a1 models) it reads out groups of lines at the same time, rather than reading one after another. This means the readout proceeds as a series of steps, rather than a continuous progression. If the LED display is cycled ‘off’ as one of these groups is being read, a dark band will be registered across the whole group, rather than just on one or two lines (where it might be less noticeable). This creates wider and more hard-edged ‘banding’ than you might see with a mechanical shutter, which progresses continuously across the sensor.

Is there a fix?

Maybe. Canon’s EOS R3 has a feature that attempts to measure this high-frequency flicker, then fine-tunes its shutter speed to one that will minimize the flicker effect. We’ve not yet tried it with an LED signage board that makes up only a small part of the image, but a similar approach is probably Nikon’s best hope if it decides to address the problem.