DPR

Nikon Z9 review: a DSLR-like stills/video monster

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All images by DPReview

The Nikon Z9 is a 45.7MP full-frame pro sports mirrorless camera: a high speed, 8K-shooting statement of intent from one of the industry’s biggest players.

Nikon becomes the third brand to build a pro-grade mirrorless camera around a fast-readout, stacked CMOS sensor, and seems determined to show that has no intention of being an also-ran as the market moves to mirrorless.

The Z9 is the first camera in this class to abandon the mechanical shutter entirely and, particularly in terms of video, it’s by far Nikon’s most ambitious camera yet.

Key Specifications

  • 45.7MP Stacked CMOS sensor
  • 30 fps JPEG shooting
  • 20 fps Raw shooting (for over 1000 compressed Raws)
  • 120 fps JPEG shooting at 11MP resolution
  • 8K/30p capture and 4K/60p-from-8K, with ProRes 422 HQ option
  • 8K/60p in 12-bit N-Raw with 4.1K ProRes RAW option
  • Internal 10-bit N-Log and HLG capture
  • 3.69M dot OLED EVF with reduced lag and greater brightness
  • 2.1M dot rear LCD with multi-directional tilt
  • Twin CFexpress Type B card slots
  • Full-time electronic shutter camera
  • Sensor shield to protect sensor

The Nikon Z9 has a recommended price of $5500, body only.

This review includes the improvements and additions brought in firmware 2.0



What’s new

Stacked CMOS sensor

Nikon had said some time ago that the Z9 would be built around a Stacked CMOS sensor, with all the speed benefits that brings for burst rate, readout speed, AF updates and video performance. But that initial reveal didn’t make clear how ambitious a sensor it would turn out to be.

The sensor delivers the fastest readout rate of any full-frame camera we can think of, resulting in a flash sync of 1/200 sec (as fast as many mechanical shutters can manage). But, just as excitingly, it has precisely the same pixel count as the sensor used in the Z7 cameras, along with the same base ISO of 64. This makes it likely that the design of the photodiodes themselves is very similar, but with more sophisticated readout circuitry. Our early impressions indicate that dynamic range is just under a stop behind the Z7 II.

Autofocus

Just as ‘Stacked CMOS’ has become the key hardware change underpinning the latest generation of pro-grade mirrorless cameras, subject recognition algorithms trained by machine learning is proving to be the defining software advance.

The Z9 has been trained to recognize a similar range of subjects to that of the Canon EOS R3, with humans, animals and vehicles all capable of being prioritized by the camera. Like the Canon, the Nikon has been trained to recognize eyes, faces and torsos, so that it can maintain focus on the same person, and focus in on the most relevant detail. In terms of animals, the algorithm can recognize cats, dogs and birds, while the vehicles setting knows how to home-in on planes, trains, bicycles and motorbikes.

Nikon says the combination of the Stacked CMOS sensor and the faster data throughput of the Z mount allows the camera to process and communicate 120 AF calculations per second.

Auto
PeopleAnimalsVehiclesOff
EyesDogsPlanesTracks subjects based on distance and color.
FacesCatsTrains
TorsosBirds

Motorbikes / Bicycles

Unlike the comparable multi-subject systems from Olympus, Canon and Sony, the Nikon system doesn’t demand that you specify which type of subject you’re shooting. It provides an ‘Auto’ subject mode that will assess the scene for any of the types of subject it can recognize. There are individual People, Animal and Vehicles settings if you want to ensure the camera doesn’t pick the wrong subject, but for much of the time, it’s ready to track whatever you point it at. There’s also an ‘Off’ option to disengage the camera’s subject recognition system.

3D Tracking works in conjunction with the subject recognition system, drawing a gray box around recognized subjects near your AF point. The latest algorithms can detect eyes and faces that are smaller in the scene than any camera we’ve yet tested.

The other major addition to the Z9 is something we’ve asked for since Nikon first launched the Z series: the arrival of ‘3D Tracking’ on a mirrorless Nikon. The Z9’s implementation looks and behaves exactly like it did on the company’s DSLRs: presenting you with a small square box that will tenaciously track anything that’s underneath it when you initiate C-AF. The only differences you’re likely to experience are that the AF point can now range across the entire scene, rather than within the confines of a central AF array, and that it’s more dependable, now it’s underpinned by your choice of subject recognition. If you have subject recognition disabled, the system will still track your chosen subject using distance and color information.

Synchro VR

Unlike previous Z-series bodies, the Z9 gains the ability to combine its in-body stabilization with the stabilization in its VR lenses. Previously the camera would pass responsibility for pitch and yaw motion off to the lens, but the Z9 is able to use both systems in a synchronized fashion (as done by Panasonic, Olympus, Canon and Fujifilm).

Initially, this ‘Sychro VR’ mode will only be available when using the Z MC 105mm F2.8 VR and the just-announced Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S, with Nikkor Z 70-200mm F2.8 VR S support coming after a pending FW update.

Burst shooting and pre-buffering

The 30fps and (11MP) 120fps modes have the option to start buffering images when you half-press the shutter. Up to one seconds’ worth of these images are retained when you fully press the shutter.

The Nikon Z9 can shoot bursts of JPEGs at up to 30 frames per second, putting it level with the likes of Sony’s a1 and the (lower resolution) Canon EOS R3. Or you can shoot 11MP images at 120 frames per second. Both these modes allow pre-buffering of up to one second of images prior to a full-press of the shutter.

However, if you want to shoot Raw, the maximum frame rate drops to a still considerable 20 frames per second and you lose the pre-buffer option. As you’d expect of a Stacked CMOS camera, there’s no blackout while the camera takes an image, so instead there’s a selection of display and audio indicators that you can engage to let you know when you’re shooting.

The camera’s buffer is deep enough to let the camera shoot at this rate for over 1000 frames, if you’re shooting JPEG or using the new HE Raw compression option. On which subject…

Raw compression options

To cope with the large number of large files the Z9 will so readily produce, Nikon has added two new Raw compression options. The default option is a lossless compression mode, but alongside this are two ‘High Efficiency’ compression options. The ‘HE*’ mode delivers files around 1/2 the size of the uncompressed data, and the more compressed ‘HE’ files are typically around 1/3rd the size.

The impact on image quality of this compression appears exceedingly subtle. There’s a measurable increase in noise in the deepest shadows but you’d only see it by directly comparing shots in which you try to exploit the camera’s full dynamic range.

Video

The fast readout sensor was always likely to help the Z9’s video performance but Nikon has clearly put a lot of effort into making sure it offers modes that are usable, rather than just looking good on the spec sheet. For instance, it becomes the first Nikon camera to be able to capture Log footage or Raw footage internally and the first to have a full-sized HDMI port.

The Z9 can shoot at up to 8K/30p, oversampled 4K (from 8K capture) at up to 60p or less-detailed 4K at up to 120p taken from the full width of the sensor (either binned or line-skipped). There’s also an 8K/60p option in the camera’s proprietary N-Raw format.

A broad range of capture formats are available, with a choice of 8- or 10-bit, H.264, H.265 or ProRes 422 HQ output as the gamma-encoded, ready-to-use options. The Z9 can also shoot up to 4.1K/60p ProRes Raw or up to 8.3K/60p in N-Raw, with a further options available for the APS-C/Super 35/DX crop region and an even smaller 2.3x crop.

Video rolling shutter rates
Video modeRolling shutter time
8K/30/24~14.3ms
4K/30/24 oversampled (from 8K)~14.3ms
4K/120/60 subsampled~4.8ms

Rolling shutter performance is not quite as impressive as when shooting stills, but even at full resolution the Z9 turns in some of the best readout speeds we’ve seen. It is slightly faster than its direct competition, the Sony a1 and Canon EOS R3, even while recording 8K and oversampled 4K video. If you are willing to sacrifice detail for a faster scan rate, you can record subsampled 4K/60p/120p and rolling shutter issues will be imperceptible unless there are strobes in your footage.

Nikon says the camera will be able to shoot its oversampled 4K/30 for more than 2 hours (at ‘normal’ temperatures). It also says the latency over HDMI has been halved, compared with the Z6 II and previous Nikon cameras, meaning it’s much more practical to monitor the camera’s output.

The Z9 also gains a video-specific settings display panel and a waveform monitor for assessing exposure.

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Body and controls

The Z9 has an angular design that’s consistent with the other Z cameras but has some details that will be familiar to users of the company’s DSLRs. Nikon hadn’t maintained the same level of ergonomic consistency that Canon likes to, in its high-end cameras, but the experience isn’t going to be utterly alien to existing D5 and D6 shooters.

The design change you’re most likely to notice, as an existing Nikon user, is the repositioning of the playback button from the top left to lower right of the camera body. If you find you can’t adapt, after a period of inadvertently pressing the wrong button, you can customize the ‘Protect’ button at the top left to be playback instead.

One thing the Z9 has in common with existing high-end Nikon DSLRs is that most of its buttons are back-lit, so can be illuminated when you’re trying to operate the camera in dark conditions, and need to quickly check your hand positioning on the body.

AF Button

It may not look the same as the one on your Nikon DSLR, but as soon as you pick up the Z9, you’ll find the AF mode button is exactly where you expect it to be.

Making a welcome return on the Z9 is a dedicated AF mode button on lower left of the front of the camera. There’s no AF-C/AF-S/MF switch around it, but a combination of the AF button and two control dials means it’s possible to change AF drive mode and AF area mode quickly, in a way that Nikon’s DSLR shooters will be used to.

Like Nikon’s DSLRs, you have the option to assign AF area modes (with or without AF-On then being activated) to the camera’s Fn buttons, to provide quick access in fast-changing circumstances. You can’t assign different subject recognition modes to these combinations, though.

Matched CFexpress slots

The Z9’s high-speed features are supported by the presence of a pair of CFexpress Type B slots. These are backwards-compatible with any of the older XQD cards a the user might have, but the newer, faster cards are recommended to get the longest bursts and for maintaining the highest data rates the camera will put out.

Viewfinder

The Z9’s viewfinder can run around twice as bright as most previous OLED finders, achieving around 760 nits for a fully white display. There’s no more-lifelike HDR viewfinder mode to exploit this, though.

The viewfinder specs are the area in which the Z9 most obviously falls behind its competitors. It’s a 3.69M dot panel, which is relatively low resolution, compared with its immediate rivals. However, it does appear that Nikon makes full use of this resolution for the camera’s liveview, even while focusing continuously, rather than only utilizing the full detail level in playback. This means it gives a much better, and more consistent, experience than the bare specs imply.

The Z9 has extremely low viewfinder lag, making it very effective for following fast-moving action. Firmware 2.0 brings a 120 fps finder refreshment rate option, at the cost of faster battery burn.

Multi-directional rear LCD

With the Z9, Nikon has resisted the urge to simply fit a fully-articulating screen, and has opted instead for something that will be a better fit for some photographers. It’s essentially a conventional pull-out up/down tilting cradle, but which has then been fitted on another hinge that lets it tilt horizontally.

The result is a somewhere between the vertical/horizontal tilting screens we like so much on several Fujifilm and Panasonic models, and the rather more elaborate telescopic workbench design of the Pentax K-1.

The important thing is that it lets you tilt the screen up to face you, whether you’re shooting in the landscape or portrait orientation, and does so while keeping the screen centered over the optical axis, making it easier to frame your shots.

Sensor shield

The Z9’s electronic shutter is so fast that there’s no need for a mechanical one. Which, in turn, means the camera can have a dedicated sensor protector instead. The protective curtains come down when the Z9 is turned off.

The Nikon isn’t the first camera to cover its sensor when the camera is turned off, helping to protect it and keep dust off the sensor during lens changes, but it’s the first where the cover is solely designed for that purpose. So, although the mechanism looks like a closed shutter, it doesn’t have to be made using the super-light (low inertia), potentially fragile shutter blades.

Battery

The Z9 uses the EN-EL18d, the latest variant of the large battery used by previous pro-grade Nikons. It will work with all previous EN-EL18 batteries but can only charge the b, c and d versions in-camera, over USB and will deliver more shots with the EN-EL18d. The charger supplied with the Z9 also only supports the three more recent variants.

The z9 is rated as delivering 740 shots per charge if you use the rear LCD and 700 if you use the viewfinder. These figures jump to 770 and 740, respectively, if you use energy saving mode. As always these numbers are not directly representative of how many shots you’re likely to achieve, partly because the CIPA standard test demands more use of playback than most photographers do.

It’s only intensive shooting of stills and video together that are likely ever cause any concern for Z9 users in terms of battery life

This discrepancy is especially acute when shooting bursts, which represents the opposite extreme of using the camera and where the amount of image review time, per image, is near zero. To illustrate this, Nikon claims the Z9 is good for 5310 shots per charge when shooting bursts. Although Nikon doesn’t specify its test method, this figure corresponds much more closely to our initial experiences of shooting fast action with the Z9. So, while we wouldn’t take this number literally, either, it does highlight that CIPA numbers can seem unrealistically low.

The standard test numbers tend to be broadly comparable between cameras, though, with a camera rated at 700 shots per charge typically delivering twice as many shots as one rated at 350. We find it hard to imagine a shooting scenario that will exhaust a camera rated at over 700 shots per charge, so it’s only intensive shooting of stills and video together that are likely ever cause any concern for Z9 users.

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How it compares

The Z9 matches the Sony a1’s trick of delivering both speed and high resolution, so that’s the most immediate reference point. However, a fair chunk of its audience are likely to be existing D5 and D6 owners, seeing if the Z9 justifies a move to a world without mirrors.

It’s unlikely many people will be directly choosing between Canon’s 24MP R3 and the 45MP of the Z9, but we’ve included it here to show how each of the biggest brands’ current range-toppers compare. We’ve also included the smaller, less expensive Z7 II to illustrate where the Z9 fits, in relation.

Nikon Z9Sony a1Canon EOS R3Nikon D6Nikon Z7 II
MSRP at launch$5500$6500$6000$6500$3000
Sensor typeStacked CMOSStacked CMOSStacked CMOSFSI CMOSBSI CMOS
Pixel count45.7MP50.1MP24MP21MP45.7MP

Maximum frame rate
(Full res)

30 fps (JPEG)
20 fps
(Raw + JPEG)
30 fps (lossy Raw)
20 fps (lossless Raw)
30 fps (e-shutter)
12 fps (mech)
14 fps (viewfinder)10 fps
E-shutter rate1/270 s1/260 s1/200 sN/A~1/16 s
Image stabilizationIn body
(lens IS takes over pitch/yaw)1
In body
(lens IS takes over pitch/yaw)
In body (lens IS combines for pitch/yaw)In lens onlyIn body
(lens IS takes over pitch/yaw)
AF sensitivity2-5.0EV (-7.0 in Starlight AF mode)-4 EV-4.5 EV-4.5 EV (center)-3.0EV
HDR image format10-bit HLG HEIF10-bit PQ HEIF
Viewfinder3.68M-dot
0.80x
9.4M-dot
0.90x
5.76M-dot
0.76x
Optical
0.72x
3.68M-dot
0.80x
Viewfinder refresh rateup to 120 fpsup to 240 fps3up to 120 fpsN/A60 fps
Video8K/30p
4K/120p
(8K/60p Raw)
8K/30p
4K/120p (1.12x crop)
DCI 4K/120p
(6K/60p Raw)
4K/30p4K/60p
(1.08x crop)
Bit depth10-bit internal
(12-bit Raw internal)
10-bit internal
16-bit Raw over HDMI
10-bit internal
(12-bit internal Raw)
8-bit internal8-bit internal
10-bit over HDMI
Rear screen3.2″ 2.1M dot-dual tilt touchscreen3.0″ 1.44M- dot tilting touchscreen3.2″ 4.2M-dot fully articulated touchscreen3.2″ 2.36M-dot fixed touchscreen3.0″ 2.1M-dot tilting touchscreen
Media formats2x CFe Type B / XQD2x Dual CFe Type A / UHS-II SD1x CFe Type B
1x UHS-II SD
2x CFe Type B / XQD1x CFe Type B / XQD
1x UHS-II SD
Wi-Fi2.4GHz and 5GHz2.4GHz and MIMO 5GHz2.4GHz42.4GHz and 5GHz2.4GHz and 5GHz
GPS/ GlonassYesNoYesNoNo
EthernetYes 1000Base-TYes 1000 Base-TYes 1000 Base-TYes 1000 Base-TNo
Battery life (CIPA) LCD/VF5740 / 700530 / 430760 / 440– / 3850420 / 360
Weight1340g737g1015g1450g675g
Dimensions149 x 150 x 91mm129 x 97 x 81mm150 x 142 x 87mm160 x 163 x 92mm129 x 96 x 76mm

1‘Synchro VR’ which combines lens and in-body IS is initially available with the Z 105mm F2.8 S and the new Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6, with Z 70-200mm F2.8 S following via FW.
2Lowest light level at which phase-detect AF functions with an F2.0 lens. Canon and Nikon quote figures for F1.2 lenses, so we’ve adjusted by +1.5EV, for ease of comparison.
3 Viewfinder resolution and magnification reduced at 240 fps

4 5GHz and MIMO Wi-Fi available using WFT-E9 accessory

5 OVF and EVF battery figures are not directly comparable

The Nikon Z9’s specs very look strong, even compared to the most capable mirrorless cameras on the market. It can only shoot JPEG when matching the Sony a1 and Canon EOS R3 at their fastest rates, but that’s one of the few areas it falls behind. The 3.69M dot viewfinder could look disappointing on paper (much less so in the real world), but, while HDR photo capability would have be nice, the Z9’s video capabilities are significantly beyond those of its peers.

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DPReview’s analysis

Richard Butler

Even if you haven’t fully subscribed to the ‘the sky is falling’ theories about Nikon, it’s still fair to say that the Z9 is an important camera for the company. Its Z6 and Z7 models have been very good, and the Z5 provides a very affordable way into the Z system, but what’s been lacking is a real ‘halo’ product. The Z9 clearly plays that role: both to convince professional shooters that there’s a future for them in the Z mount, and also to provide a little sparkle that can shine down on the rest of the lineup.

The Z9’s screen works just as well for portrait or landscape-orientation shooting, but without the odd off-axis hinge of a fully-articulating display, that can make composition awkward.

Having used the Z9 in some pretty demanding circumstances, it makes a very good impression in both regards. As a pro-grade sports camera, it appears to perform just as well on the sidelines as it does on paper. It offers a combination of resolution and speed that’s only previously been offered by Sony’s a1. Instead of simply borrow that camera’s sensor, the Z9 uses a chip that shares aspects of its design with the Nikon D850, and delivers excellent image quality, even though it pays a (very) slight price in terms of dynamic range in return for its impressive speed.

The camera’s Raw shooting rate of 20 frames per second is slower than the a1 or the lower-res EOS R3, but was still enough that two afternoons of shooting left me with 3100 Raw/JPEG pairs (170 Gb) to work through. And, if the action you’re shooting requires 30 fps, you can match the Sony and Canon’s top speed, if JPEGs are sufficient for your needs (which is likely to be the only practicable way of shooting in some circumstances). If you don’t mind 11MP JPEGs, the Z9 can even shoot at up to 120fps.

Video is easily accessed, using a dedicated switch, at which point the Z9 reveals itself as not only Nikon’s best video shooter, but probably the best-specced full-frame mirrorless stills/video camera on the market.

Another area where the Z9 looks extremely competitive is video, which is not something we always associate with Nikon. The last time Nikon led the market in video specs for ILCs was the D90, which offered HD video from an APS-C sensor, only to be outgunned by Canon’s full-frame, Full HD-shooting EOS 5D II, just a few weeks later. Since then it’s continued to improve both its support tools and core video specs, but nothing on the level of the Z9. The Z9 pushes the cinema camera lines of Canon and Sony to become one of the first mirrorless cameras capable of shooting 8K/60p Raw video.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S | ISO 64 | 1/640 sec | F5.0
Photo: Dale Baskin

The Z9 isn’t just about sheer grunt though: options such as internal ProRes HQ capture and internal Log capture suggest Nikon has been listening to the needs of videographers, rather than just pushing to deliver impressive looking spec figures. Promising a camera that can shoot 8K and 4K/60p is one thing: delivering one that can do so for over two hours suggests you want that feature to be usable. The announcement of a wired remote grip shows the company wants the Z9 to be a credible video contender.

The Z9’s AF tracking system is much faster and simpler to use than on previous Nikon mirrorless cameras, as well as being stickier and more dependable.

Nikkor Z 70-200mm F2.8 S | ISO 1400 | 1/2000 sec | F5.0
Photo: Richard Butler

Away from the raw specs, though, the thing that surprised all of us about the Z9 was just how DSLR-like it is. The viewfinder might not have the highest resolution, but it feels extremely responsive and consistent. This DSLR-like experience is helped greatly by the return of Nikon’s 3D AF Tracking: arguably the progenitor of modern AF tracking systems. Pre-placing your AF point and being confident that the camera will follow your subject around the scene is something we’ve increasingly come to take for granted, but Nikon’s DSLRs were the first to do it well. The Z9’s system is now backed-up by algorithms trained by machine learning, but you don’t really need to think about that when you’re using the camera: it just works like a D6 or D850 would, only more consistently and reliably.

The Nikon Z9 isn’t the first camera to do without a mechanical shutter, it’s not even the first full-frame mirrorless camera to try it, but it’s the first where you’re rarely going to notice its absence. There’s no equivalent of Canon’s High Frequency Anti-Flicker mode for moments where the shutter rate clashes with fast-flickering panels, though.

The Z9 isn’t the first mirrorless camera to do away with the mechanical shutter, but it’s the first to get away with it (in most situations). The ~1/270 sec rolling shutter is faster than some mechanical shutters, which has prompted Nikon to go one stage further than just removing the mirror. And yet, with little details such as the return of the AF mode button, the Z9 will feel immediately familiar to Nikon DSLR shooters.

And that brings us to the audience for this camera. There’s a general perception that camera prices are going up all the time (a perception not always borne-out by the facts), but the Z9 is priced lower than the D6 that it effectively replaces. It’s $1000 lower than the Sony a1’s launch price (more if you add the battery grip to match the form-factor), and $500 below Canon’s current mirrorless flagship. This still makes it considerably more expensive than the D850 was, but should help broaden its appeal beyond the pro sports market. After all, it delivers near-D850 image quality only much faster, with image stabilization, much better autofocus and with access to better lenses: it seems fair to assume some photographers will be willing to pay a premium for that.

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Image Quality

Our test scene is designed to simulate a variety of textures, colors and detail types you’ll encounter in the real world. It also has two illumination modes to see the effect of different lighting conditions.

The details levels on show from the Z9 are a fraction above those of the Z7 II, perhaps because the magnified live view has allowed slightly better focus, but also possibly as a result of the absence of any shutter shock (or mechanical shutter, for that matter). There’s enough moiré present to suggest there’s no AA filter, but this could also suggest the 85mm F1.8 is readily resolving higher frequencies than the sensor can correctly capture.

There appears to be a (small) price to pay in terms of noise performance at higher ISOs, compared with both the Z7 II and its immediate rivals, but it’s only really visible in side-by-side comparisons, even at very high ISO settings.

JPEG color looks good, with warmish caucasian skin-tones, pinks that skew closer to orange than magenta, and solid (not-too-green) yellows. Sharpening is less subtle than on the Sony, meaning the a1 ends up looking a touch more detailed. And, likewise, noise reduction at high ISOs can’t retain as much detail as the Sony. Overall, the Z9 doesn’t fall too far behind the Z7 II and isn’t too far off the performance of the Sony a1.

Dynamic Range

The slightly higher noise level we saw results in a slight reduction in dynamic range, compared with the Z7 II (and hence, with the a1). If you underexpose, to protect highlights, then pull the dark regions of the image up, you’ll encounter a little more noise, if you really push to the camera’s dynamic range limits. It’s not a major difference in noise, especially if you can make use of the camera’s ISO 64 setting, rather than the a1’s base ISO of 100.

Raising the ISO gives a decent improvement in noise performance over what we see at base ISO. Particularly once the dual gain sensor moves to its higher conversion gain mode, above ISO 400. From ISO 500 upwards, there’s little benefit to raising ISO, which gives the option of using a low-light exposure but pinning your ISO at 500, to preserve highlights that might otherwise be amplified to clipping.



Raw compression

We shot the most extreme push in the camera’s three Raw compression modes to see if there was any impact on image quality. It appears there is some data loss in the deepest shadows if you engage the HE or HE* compression modes, but it only appears as an extremely slight increase in the noise floor, which is unlikely to have any impact on most photos.

Lossless Compression


Download Raw (45.7MB)

HE* Compression


Download Raw (30.0MB)

HE Compression


Download Raw (18.6MB)

These images were processed with noise reduction minimized. Having separately examined the highlights of a real-world scene, we couldn’t find any visible differences there, meaning it’s unlikely you’d ever notice a difference except by side-by-side comparison and measurement.

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Autofocus

Subject recognition (and tracking) is the big new addition to the Z9’s autofocus system, coming in addition to the face and eye detection, and the fine-grained, widespread AF array that give mirrorless cameras an inherent advantage over DSLRs. But this makes it easy to overlook the Z9’s greatest strength for a pro user: that it also near-perfectly replicates the D6’s autofocus modes, too.

In addition to the sophisticated subject-recognition systems, the Z9 replicates the AF modes of Nikon’s DSLRs in appearance, behavior and performance.

As with Nikon’s pro sports DSLRs, there are essentially only two AF parameters that need to be set: ‘Blocked shot AF response‘ time (how long the camera should wait before refocusing, if its view of your original subject is blocked: something that changes, sport-to-sport), and ‘Subject motion‘ which determines whether your subject will approach with a consistent speed that the camera can predict or with erratic changes in pace, to which the camera should be responsive.

We’ve been impressed with our use of the subject tracking modes, and by the images we’ve seen and the experiences we’ve heard of from wildlife photographers, pushing them harder than we can. But, as we found when we went to shoot rugby: sometimes the best ways are the old ways, and the Z9 excels there too.

The Z9’s dynamic area AF modes work exactly like their counterparts did on DSLRs, but with the advantage that they can be placed anywhere across the frame and deliver more consistent results (at between 40% and 115% faster than the D6’s through-the-viewfinder shooting, depending on whether you use the 20fps or 30fps mode). Alternatively you can create a custom Wide AF Zone size to match where you expect the action to occur in your scene.

The subject recognition modes work well, and for a lot of situations, the excellent 3D Tracking system will be the only mode you ever need (we hope Nikon is able to deliver something similar on more consumer-friendly models in the future), but even in the most demanding circumstances, the Z9 will do its job with minimal need for setup.

Wedding and event photographers, and photojournalists will appreciate how well 3D Tracking and the camera’s Face/Detection have been integrated (AF tracking and face-detection were separate features on previous Z-series cameras). Point the camera at some people and it’ll focus on the face nearest your chosen 3D Tracking AF target, letting you preemptively set up your composition. Once you initiate focus it’ll continue to follow the selected face, regardless of whether they look away from the camera, and won’t get distracted by other faces in your shot.

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Video performance

By Jordan Drake

The Z9 adds considerable video capabilities and does a good job of separating them from the stills mode: flick the camera’s mode switch from stills to video and you can choose a different exposure mode and exposure settings for video capture. There’s also pretty fine-grained control over which settings (WB, Picture Style, etc.) carry over from stills mode, and which diverge.

The Z9 is not just Nikon’s most capable video camera ever, it’s also one of the best-specced stills/video hybrids anyone’s yet introduced.

The Z9 provides video options for a range of workflows. 8-bit footage in either MP4 or MOV wrappers is a good choice if you use the standard profiles and don’t plan to grade the footage heavily. N-Log capture (for preserving grading flexibility) is available in a choice of 10-bit H.265 or ProRes 422HQ. H.265 creates small files but is relatively taxing for most computers to edit, whereas ProRes 422 HQ produces monstrous files but is seemingly effortless to edit on modern hardware. The H.265 mode also lets you shoot HLG footage for playback on HDR TVs.

The ability to capture 10-bit Log footage internally means you no longer need an external recorder. You can view a corrected preview when shooting Log, but can’t upload your own LUTs if you want to see an approximation of your intended grading.

A waveform display (with a choice of two sizes) lets you understand how tones are distributed in your scene, and helps set exposure, particularly for Log and Raw shooting.

If all these options aren’t enough for you, internal raw video capture is available in two additional options. The proprietary N-Raw format is the only way to record full resolution 8.3K raw video at up to 60p. It’s currently supported by DaVinci Resolve and Edius. For Final Cut Pro, Premiere and Avid users, there is also the option to record ProRes RAW video in 4.1K up to 120p.

Full-widthSuper35 / DX crop (1.5x)2.3x crop
12-bit N-Raw
  • 8.3K/60p
  • 4.1K/120p
  • 5.3K/60p
  • 3.8K/120p
12-bit ProRes RAW
  • 4.1K/60p
  • 5.4K/60p
  • 3.8K/60p

10-bit ProRes 422 HQ
(SDR/N-Log)

  • UHD 4K/60p (from 8K)
  • UHD 4K/60p
10-bit H.265
(SDR/HLG/N-Log)
  • UHD 8K/30p
  • UHD 4K/120p (sub-sampled)
  • UHD 4K/60p (from 8K)
  • UHD 4K/60p
  • UHD 4K/120p
8-bit H.264
(SDR)
  • UHD 8K/30p
  • UHD 4K/120p (sub-sampled)
  • UHD 4K/60p (from 8K)
  • UHD 4K/60p
  • UHD 4K/120p

Video Autofocus

The Z9 marks Nikon’s largest jump forward in video AF. The autofocus interface in video mode is largely the same as stills, so there is no need to learn two different autofocus systems. With the 3D Tracking system you can either use the touchscreen to select a subject to track, or put the AF box on your chosen target and press the AF on button. This means you can shoot using the EVF, unlike many competing systems that require use of the touchscreen to initiate tracking.

We’ve tested the Z9 with a variety of subjects, from fast action to talking heads, and we’ve been consistently impressed with the results. Autofocus is not infallible, and was occasionally confused while filming rugby, with a bunch of players wearing the same colors piling on top of each other. But that’s beyond what we’d expect it to work for, and when filming people, animals and birds, accuracy was excellent. Continuous AF also remains available in all the high frame rate record modes. While the Sony a1 and Canon EOS R3 also have state-of-the-art video AF, the interface and consistency of the Z9 make it our favorite video autofocus system currently available.

Video Quality

8K capture is one the major headline features of the Z9, and we were not disappointed with the lab results. Z9 8K is very detailed, and Nikon’s more aggressive sharpening means the results look considerably crisper than the Sony a1’s 8K Capture. It’s when shooting the Z9’s 4K oversampled modes (4K up to 60p) that it really pulls ahead of Sony’s offering. If you don’t want the file sizes or computing power that 8K requires, you can shoot oversampled 4K with the Z9 and still get enormous benefits from the 8K sensor. However, if you shoot 4K/120p or the subsampled 4K/60p, that advantage disappears, with the Z9 and a1 capturing similar levels of detail.

If you utilize DX or Super35 cinema lenses, you’ll be happy to know that the Z9 delivers excellent image quality in its 1.5x crop mode. Again, the Nikon has more sharpening applied than the Sony a1’s comparable mode, but resolved detail is similar. It’s much less detailed than the oversampled full-frame footage and there’ll be a noise cost from using a smaller sensor region, too.

Stabilization

The in body image stabilization of the Z9 is a huge benefit for video shooters. In the standard mode we were very impressed with the stability of static shots while handholding, even at longer focal lengths. There’s a pleasant ‘floaty’ look to the movement, and very little jittering. However, when walking with the camera or making sudden pans or tilts, it can exhibit a ‘grab-and-release’ jerkiness. Fortunately, Nikon also has a ’Sport’ mode which expects, and doesn’t try to correct for, panning. We’ve found Sport mode significantly reduces the jumpiness of the image when reframing a subject or walking with the camera, so we’d recommend it for most situations. While not comparable smoothness to a gimbal, it’s effective at eliminating the distracting jitters often seen in handheld video.

For even more stability, electronic VR can be activated. This applies a small crop, and the corresponding loss of image quality. At higher frame rates where motion blur is less likely to be a concern, the electronic VR can create very stable footage, even while walking with the camera.

Jordan

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Conclusion

What we likeWhat we don’t
  • Impressive image quality in Raw and JPEG
  • 20 fps shooting with full AF
  • Capable and easy-to-configure AF system
  • Responsive viewfinder with near-zero lag and no blackout
  • Behaves and feels like a D-series DSLR
  • Useful range of video modes
  • 10-bit and Raw video options
  • Waveform display for setting video exposure
  • Reliable and consistent AF in video
  • Can shoot for >2hrs in most demanding video modes
  • USB charging is useful
  • Stepped e-shutter creates banding with fast-flickering displays
  • No quick way to adjust Auto ISO min shutter speed
  • JPEG-only when matching peers’ 30 fps
  • Larger and heavier than direct rivals
  • Customization options are extensive but don’t give access to every feature
  • No 10-bit / HDR stills capability

The Z9 is Nikon’s first pro-level mirrorless camera, which means it has to be as usable and dependable as the D5s and D6s it’s likely to replace. The result is the most DSLR-like mirrorless camera we’ve ever used.

The shape and layout of the camera will be immediately familiar to D6 users, as will the menu system, but what’s most impressive is how much the Z9 feels like a DSLR. The AF system operates and looks very much like the D6’s. The artificial shutter sound is convincing enough that you forget it’s just a sound-effect. But it’s the Z9’s viewfinder that most contributes to the experience: even before the 120fps mode was added, the Z9’s viewfinder was incredibly responsive, meaning you never notice any lag and quickly find yourself just focused on getting the shot. D-series shooters will be able to use the Z9 without missing a beat, which is half the battle won.

There’s only a tiny noise cost in the deep shadows to pay for the Z9’s impressive speed, so its images are essentially a match for those of the Z7 II / D850, making them among the best we’ve tested.

Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S @ 70mm | F8.0 | 1/60 sec | ISO 64
Photo: Richard Butler

The Z9 then builds on this with the benefits that a mirrorless design can bring. No mirror and the Stacked CMOS sensor means the Z9 can shoot faster than a mirror mechanism can maintain. The AF coverage extends across more of the frame and in finer increments, allowing precise eye detection and custom AF zone shapes, while the use of the main image data for AF allows a level of subject recognition that a DSLR couldn’t offer. In addition, the Z9 delivers video capabilities to rival more cinema-focused cameras.

Image quality is excellent, with the tiny dent in dynamic range, compared with the D850 or Sony a1, not making any appreciable real-world difference. There appear to be few downsides to the new Raw compression options, either, which is hugely valuable when you’re capturing twenty 45MP images every second. Autofocus is also frankly phenomenal: combining Nikon’s easy-to-configure usability with speed and performance to match the best we’ve ever seen.

45MP gives plenty of scope to crop. 20fps gives plenty of moments to choose from.

Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-6.3 S @ 350mm | F5.6 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 1400
Photo: Richard Butler

That 20fps limit on Raw capture means the Z9 gives up something to Sony’s a1 in terms of outright performance (though there is a JPEG-only 30fps mode, with a pre-buffering option, if you wish), but that’s about the only spec point on which the Z9 doesn’t excel.

The reliance on electronic shutter means there can be odd interactions with high frequency displays, resulting in image banding. This isn’t something that is likely to be fixable, either in the camera’s firmware nor in the images, and hence will probably be the biggest area of concern for professional sports shooters and their clients.

In every other respect, the Z9 is a triumph. There will be some people who advocate for a the small body (and optional grip) of the Sony a1, but the Z9 is a smaller and lighter camera than the ones it replaces, while remaining familiar to users coming from them. Ultimately, the Z9’s primary job is to provide a more capable camera for professionals committed to the Nikon system, and it succeeds completely in that role. It’s perhaps the most complete camera we’ve ever used.

Scoring

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category. Click here to learn about what these numbers mean.

Nikon Z9
Category: Professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Connectivity
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Nikon Z9 is perhaps the most complete camera we’ve ever tested. It shoots excellent 45MP images at up to 30fps (20 with Raw), it captures 8K video in everything from 8-bit MP4s to 12-bit N-Raw. Its autofocus system is both powerful and easy to use and works well for both stills and video. It’s larger and heavier than some of its rivals, which make it less well suited to some applications, but overall it combines the best of a DSLR and a video camera in a single body.

Good for
Sports, photojournalism, wedding and events, video

Not so good for
Travel photography where size and weight are critical.
94%
Overall score


Sample Gallery

Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter/magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review). Please refrain from using them for any commercial purposes.

Nikon Z9 rugby samples gallery

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