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Nikon Z9 long-term shooting experience

My personal Z9, complete with yellow identifying tape and RRS arca-style modular plate with adjustable L-bracket.

All photographs by Barnaby Britton

First, a confession, because I know it’s going to come up. I don’t need a Nikon Z9. I bought one because I wanted to (and because I don’t have a mortgage or any children). The Z9 was my ‘resigning from DPReview after 13 years’ gift to myself if you’d like to know. And if you didn’t know that I’d left DPReview, well, now you do.

Now that I’m not writing about cameras for a living, I’ve found to my delight that I actually have the time and desire to get out and take photographs. I’ve used the Z9 for several personal projects in the last six months, including a continuation of a low-light clam digging project on the Pacific coast, lots of portraits, and (totally new to me) even some amateur astrophotography. In every one of those environments, the camera has met or surpassed my expectations. When things went wrong, it was almost always because I’d messed something up – which is exactly what you’d hope for, in a camera designed for professional use.

Before the Z9, my last extensive, extended experience of a flagship Nikon interchangeable lens camera was the D3S, released in 2009. I’ve written about the D3S and its closely related predecessor the D3 a lot on DPReview. Here. Are. Links. After that, I owned a D810 for several years before switching to a Z7.

The Z9 is considerably bigger than the Z7 I’d been using previously, but it’s considerably more camera, in virtually every respect. For one thing, the large integrated grip houses a powerful EN-EL18d battery, which is good for thousands of shots on a single charge.

When I made the move to mirrorless in 2018, I more or less swore that I’d never go back to the days of big, heavy, integrated grip DSLRs. The Z7 was much criticized when it was released for offering less customization and fewer autofocus options than its DSLR near-equivalent the D850, but it was a lot lighter – a significant selling point, in my book. That, plus its superior ergonomics, its stunning sensor with cross-sensor autofocus coverage, its built-in image stabilization, and its detailed, immersive viewfinder made a convert out of me quickly.

I loved my Z7, and still do. It’s a photographer’s camera, and built like a blockhouse. But its limited setup options and zero provision for vertical controls in an ILC that cost over $3,000 always rankled a little bit. Credit to Nikon for improving both the Z6 and Z7 considerably via firmware in the years following their release, but firmware can’t add a vertical control grip, any more than it can remove a tacky exposure mode dial.

Enter the Z9

The Z7 II improved on the original Z7 in many respects, but it was obvious that Nikon would eventually release a truly professional-grade mirrorless ILC. And sure enough – after a bit of a wait, no doubt extended a little by a pesky global pandemic – we got the Z9.

The Z9, pictured alongside Nikon’s first professional SLR, the Nikon F. The F became an icon of mid-20th Century photojournalism, particularly in the Vietnam war-era 1960s and 70s.

Autofocus astounds

Although it offers essentially the same image quality as the 4-year-old Z7, the Z9 is the first Nikon camera in my opinion that can really make the most out of its resolution, thanks to its AF performance. Specifically, I find that I really can trust it to nail focus on eyes, with a remarkably high success rate, even when shooting at the long end of a slow telephoto or wide open on a fast prime lens. The Nikon Z9 just loves eyes. It can’t get enough of them. Big, small, side profile, animal or human, it almost doesn’t matter. And once it’s found an eye, it can generally be relied upon to quickly get it in focus and keep it there.

This little fella knew I was looking for him, so he only popped up above ground for a moment. But that was enough for the Z9’s Eye AF to lock on.

Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 S + 1.4X extender | ISO 1250 | 1/800 sec | F9.0

Just for fun, while house-sitting in Oregon for DPReview editor Dale Baskin, I spent an afternoon stalking a marmot outside his kitchen window. When the little critter finally popped into view, the Z9 nailed focus on its eye immediately, allowing me to rattle off a few shots before it went to ground.

When taking portraits with the Z7, I became used to employing a fairly traditional ‘move AF point, lock focus, take a picture’ method of shooting. Tempting as it was to activate face and eye-detection AF in continuous AF mode, the hit rate was too low to rely on. The Z9, on the other hand, can find and focus on eyes with uncanny accuracy, even when (like here) your subject might be backlit, wearing sunglasses, and in motion.

Nikkor Z 24-120mm F4 S | ISO 720 | 1/320 sec | F4.0 (grain added in DxO Film Pack 6)

My experience of shooting ‘sports and action’ may be limited, but a recent weekend spent with the new Nikkor Z 800mm F6.3 VR S provided an opportunity to try the Z9’s automatic subject detection and tracking prowess on, variously, high-performance jet fighters, low-performance seaplanes, and fairly average performance (I’m not an expert) geese. The experience was an enlightening one, and a salutary lesson in basic physics: No matter how good your camera and lens, distant objects shot on hot, hazy days will still look soft.

The Z9 tracked the Blue Angels display team fine (I shot with a 1.4X extender, just to make the camera’s life even harder), but while my shots are good enough for use online, close inspection provides a case study on the resolution-destroying effects of thermal distortion.

Air display teams are great to look at, but hard to photograph. I used an 800mm lens with 1.4X extender to get close to the Blue Angels during their recent appearance in Seattle, but the distance, and the hot, hazy air of a 90-degree day, really take a bite out of critical sharpness.

Nikkor Z 800mm F6.3 VR S + 1.4X extender | ISO 800 | 1/4000 sec | F9.0

Despite the challenging situation, the Z9 still did an excellent job of finding and tracking the planes, and while not all of them are critically sharp due to heat and haze, my shots are easily good enough for most uses, short of large prints.

Nikkor Z 800mm F6.3 VR S + 1.4X extender | ISO 2500 | 1/4000 sec | F9.0

The only situation on that sunny day that seemed to fox the Z9 was when the jets moved in front of the distant landscape, at which point the camera struggled to distinguish them against the low-contrast background. I experimented with 3D Tracking and Auto Area AF and found that both modes worked well, with 3D Tracking being generally a better choice when focusing on a single jet, and Auto Area AF more reliable for mixed formations.

The Z9’s autofocus system is trained to recognize multiple types of subjects, including airplanes. I smiled when shooting airliners leaving SeaTac when I saw the camera’s AF reticule identify the cockpit of this plane (in effect its ‘eyes’) as the ideal point of focus.

Nikkor Z 800mm F6.3 VR S | ISO 220 | 1/500 sec | F8.0

When shooting some larger and more sedate airliners leaving my local airport SeaTac that evening, I was struck by how, after identifying its target as a plane, the Z9 automatically narrowed the AF reticule and positioned it over the cockpit at the front of the aircraft – its ‘eyes’, in effect. Even more impressive considering the planes were moving away from me.

This autofocus prowess isn’t news, of course; it’s one of the main reasons why the Z9 has been out of stock since almost the day it was launched.

Other noteworthy improvements

Autofocus is definitely the biggest and most important improvement in the Z9 for me, but there are others. For starters, the battery life is insane, especially when shooting bursts. The day I shot the Blue Angels, I ended up capturing more than 9,000 images, but the Z9’s battery was still going strong, at 46% charge remaining.

Proof that if you’re shooting bursts, you can capture more than 9,000 photos on the Z9 and still have almost half of the battery capacity remaining.

The amount of customization possible over the Z9’s operation (expanded further in FW 2.0) is another very welcome upgrade over previous Z-series cameras, exceeding even what I was used to with the D3S and D810, and finally unlocking the full potential of an ‘everything by wire’ system. With 14 customizable control points on the camera body and a further six or more custom control options on high-end Z-series lenses, the Z9 is the most flexible camera that Nikon has ever created. How you set up your Z9 is of course a matter of personal preference, but if you’re anything like me, the first thing you’ll want to do is to remap the lock/Fn4 button to initiate playback, to match previous Nikon ILCs.

My shooting and custom settings banks

The first day I owned my Z9, I spent several hours with it on my couch, going through the menus, selecting and saving options, and learning what all the various settings meant. One of the first things I wanted to get to grips with was the shooting settings and custom settings banks. The Z9’s shooting and custom settings banks have been improved compared to earlier iterations (the most significant change is that AF modes are now counted as a ‘shooting’ setting).

If you’re anything like me, the first thing you’ll want to do is to remap the lock/Fn4 button to initiate playback, to match previous Nikon ILCs

I have the LAN/mic button on the rear of the camera assigned to select the shooting menu bank, and with that button depressed, I can quickly scroll through the four banks, A, B, C and D, with the rear command dial. I also have ‘shooting menu bank’ and ‘custom settings bank’ saved to the Z9’s ‘i’ menu, allowing me to change both from there. The most confusing aspect of the Z9’s shooting settings and custom settings banks is figuring out what distinguishes them, how to set them up, and how to use them in a complementary manner. Once they’re saved, recalling the banks is the work of seconds.

For now, I have shooting and custom settings banks A, B, C and D set up to complement one another. For the sake of space, I’ve listed only the most salient settings below.

  • A: General photography
    • Raw: High efficiency*
    • Photo flicker reduction: On
    • Focus mode: AF-S / Single point
    • White balance: Natural light auto
    • Vibration reduction: On – normal
    • 30fps and 120fps release modes: Disabled
    • High fps viewfinder display: Off

  • B: Low-light photography
    • Raw: Lossless compression
    • Focus mode: AF-S / Single point
    • White balance: Daylight
    • Long exposure NR: On
    • Extended shutter speeds: On
    • Vibration reduction: On – normal
    • AF assist illuminator: Off
    • Warm display colors: Mode 2 (+3 brightness)
    • Starlight view: Assigned to Fn3
  • C: Macro / product photography
    • Raw: Lossless compression
    • Photo flicker reduction: On
    • Focus mode: MF + focus peaking
    • White balance: Flash
    • Vibration reduction: Off
    • AF assist illuminator: On
    • View mode: Adjust for ease of viewing
  • D: Sports and action / Portraiture
    • Raw: High efficiency*
    • Photo flicker reduction: On
    • Focus mode: AF-C / Auto-area AF
    • White balance: Natural light auto
    • Vibration reduction: On – normal
    • 30fps and 120fps release modes: Enabled
    • High fps viewfinder display: On

So, for example, when I know I want to shoot some product photography for DPReview, I switch both the shooting settings bank and the custom settings bank to ‘C’, and I’m all set. The biggest ‘gotcha’ is that if you’re shooting in a particular settings bank and you change one of the settings for whatever reason, this change will overwrite the originally saved setting in the bank. For this and other reasons, the implementation of the shooting / custom settings banks can be hard to master, but it’s a powerful feature when used correctly.

If you don’t need quite this level of flexibility, the ‘recall shooting functions’ (RSF) custom setting allows you to quickly recall up to 12 key settings at the press of a button (they can either activate while the button is held, or toggle on and off with the button). This might be all the customization most Z9 shooters ever need, for example allowing you to quickly enable 3D AF Tracking + 20fps, if required to capture some spontaneous action. You can’t, however, use RSF to recall focus mode, ie., AF-S or AF-C. Confused yet?

Adventures in astrophotography

As a fan of ultra low-light imaging, I jumped at the chance to shoot the Milky Way during a recent period of clear weather. I’ve attempted astrophotography many times, but never successfully. I know now that my previous failures had less to do with the equipment I was using, or even my technique, than with my incomplete knowledge of the night skies and poor preparation. Shooting alongside a friend who ventures out multiple times a month, has all the apps, watches all the forecasts, and knows all the good spots, was an eye-opener. The night we went out to capture the Milky Way, she did most of the hard work – I just followed instructions.

The Mount Rainier National Park, a little over two hours from Seattle, is a popular spot for astrophotography. I used the Z9’s ‘Starlight’ mode to compose and focus this shot of the Milky Way over Mount Rainier.

Nikkor Z 14-24mm F2.8 S | ISO 2000 | 10 sec | F2.8

The Z9 is a joy to use in very low light. The backlit buttons make it simple to access major controls, and two low-light ‘Warm display colors’ (d10) modes transform the GUI into a low-intensity ‘red on black’ interface to preserve night vision. The warm display modes aren’t a perfect experience (dark red/black on-screen text overlaid on a dark live-view image is very hard to read – something I hope Nikon can improve) but it does make a difference to viewing comfort in situations where preserving night vision is important.

At 2:00 am in the near complete darkness of Mount Rainier National Park, the Z9’s ‘Starlight’ mode (d9) also came into its own. In this mode, the refresh rate of the live view feed is greatly reduced, in order to provide maximum possible brightness for composition in extremely low light shooting conditions. Depending on the light levels, the resulting live view image can be pretty noisy, but I found it was clear enough that I could distinguish the outline of nearby trees and the distant Mount Rainier, allowing me to frame my shots accurately in real-time without trial and error exposures.

The Z9’s rear and top controls can be illuminated if required, for ease of handling in very low light. Button illumination can be activated on demand by pulling the on/off switch past the ‘on’ position, or you can turn it on by default, via a custom setting.

Starlight mode also engages super-high-sensitivity autofocus, enabling AF on the stars themselves. It’s slow and works best on lenses with a maximum aperture faster than F2.8 (and it seems to prefer native Nikon Z glass), but it does work. As an aside, I use Starlight mode frequently, even in good light, because it has the effect of boosting shadows and midtones in the live view image – something that really helps when composing images in contrasty conditions. In fact, I use Starlight mode so frequently that I have it assigned to the Fn3 button on the front of the Z9.

Meanwhile, the Z9’s extended shutter speeds allow for exposure times of up to 15 minutes in duration, without an intervalometer – great for wide-field astrophotography. And let’s not forget, the 4-axis tilting touch screen can flip out for vertical compositions as well as horizontal, to help nail those Instagram-worthy Milky Way shots. As with so many aspects of the Z9’s ergonomics and feature set, neither long in-camera exposure times nor an articulated screen is unique to the Z9, but both are welcome additions compared to previous generations of Nikon ILCs. Needless to say, the Z9’s massive battery is more than capable of powering a full night’s photography in moderate temperatures.

A vertical shot of the same scene, using a longer focal length to draw more attention to Mount Rainier. The little lights on the side of the mountain are climbers, aiming to summit before dawn.

Nikkor Z 35mm F1.8 S | ISO 3200 | 13 sec | F1.8

I’m pretty happy with the results of my first proper astrophotography excursion, and I learned a lot. I shot the Z9 alongside my long-serving Z7, and while I captured decent images on both, the Z9 proved itself much more versatile and was by far the more enjoyable camera to use. The biggest mistake I made was to somehow – and I still don’t know how – accidentally shoot the entire night in the high-efficiency Raw format – the most compressed of the three Raw formats available on the Z9. The good news is that DPReview’s testing has proven that the image quality penalty is negligible, but I’m still kicking myself, if only because my preferred noise-reduction workflow involves DXO Pure Raw 2, which doesn’t (yet) recognize the Z9’s HE Raw files.

The silver lining of that stupid mistake is that I’m much more confident now with the idea of shooting in HE Raw mode – I won’t shoot astrophotography in HE Raw again, but for sports and action shooters who shoot a lot of bursts and want Raw but also want to conserve card space, it’s a no-brainer.

The shortest video section you’ll ever read on DPReview

A major part of the Z9’s feature set is, of course, video. While I don’t shoot video for my personal work, I did use a Z9 as part of a commercial video shoot earlier this summer in Berlin, where it fit right in alongside a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, capturing 4K coverage on busy (and hot) 12-hour days without missing a beat. Our director on that shoot has nothing but good things to say about the Z9, and DPRTV’s very own Jordan Drake waxed lyrical about it in this video and again here. They’re the experts, not me.

Requests, annoyances and final thoughts

So what don’t I like about the Z9? Honestly, not much, but I do have some requests. With the recent astrophotography experience fresh in my mind, I really wish that the chosen Raw file compression mode was clearly indicated somewhere in the Z9’s top-level UI, rather than being buried in the image quality section of the menu system. I wish the protective blinds over the sensor could be activated automatically when a lens is removed, rather than only when the camera is powered off. I wish that the annular lock/on switch on the vertical grip could be reversed to match the main switch so that I don’t keep turning the vertical controls off when I want to turn them on (why Nikon, why?).

The film-era Nikon F4S had a vertical grip, with a secondary shutter button and an annular lock/on switch around it with the same rotational logic as the switch around the main shutter button. For some reason, by the time the F5 (and the ergonomically similar D1/H, pictured here on the right) was released, the rotational logic of the vertical control switch had been reversed. Even after almost 30 years in which to get used to the change, I still find myself locking the Z9’s vertical controls when I want to turn them on.

I also wish that the ‘warm’ mode GUI could be tweaked to make the on-screen text more legible. I’d really love a higher-resolution EVF, but that’s not the kind of thing that can be added in firmware. I would, though, like to see the Z9’s shooting banks and custom settings banks rationalized even further, and I’d also prefer the interval shooting section of the menu to be written in plain English, rather than its current form where (as with many cameras) it resembles a question on a high school math test. Finally, I’d prefer a D6-style catch to open the memory card door, rather than the ‘push down and pull’ lock of the Z9. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever open the Z9’s card door by accident, I sometimes struggle to open it deliberately, especially when wearing gloves or in the dark.

The Z9 is one hell of a camera

In the final analysis, though, these are minor complaints. The Z9 is one hell of a camera, and the fact that they’re still so hard to find says at least as much about the Z9’s desirability as it does about any lingering supply chain issues. There was a lot of pent-up demand for the Z9 from both Z6 and Z7 owners who had been patiently waiting for an autofocus upgrade, and D850 and D5/6 shooters who had avoided ‘going mirrorless’ until Nikon could offer them a camera with equivalent or better AF. I was lucky to pick up my Z9 in January – some prospective owners are still in line. Make friends with your local camera store, if you’re lucky enough to still have one nearby.

For me, like most amateurs, $5,500 is a lot of money to spend on a camera. Despite the financial pain though, I do not regret my purchase. The Z9 might be big, it might be heavy, and maybe it is more than I need, but it’s a camera that delights me and makes me want to go out and take pictures. Who can put a price on that?

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