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Shooting experience: The Nikon Z9 is the most DSLR-like mirrorless we’ve ever seen

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Introduction

Is a 60fps viewfinder refresh rate good enough for shooting peak action? When paired with blackout-free shooting, yes. Processed and cropped in Nikon Studio NX.
1/3200 sec | F2.8 | ISO 100 | Nikon Z 14-24mm F2.8 S @ 24mm

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the new Nikon Z9, and for good reason: it’s the first truly pro-level Nikon mirrorless camera, and from our initial impressions at least, it packs quite the punch. There’s the super-fast sensor, the shutterless design, the return to 3D Tracking autofocus glory and compromise-free 8K video capture. Based on specifications alone, there’s a lot to unpack.

Among those specifications are those concerning the electronic viewfinder on the Z9. The EVF is key to the experience of using any DSLR-style mirrorless ILC and with that in mind, I want to dispel some of the dismay that’s been surrounding its relatively pedestrian 3.69M-dot resolution and 60fps refresh rate from the perspective of someone who spent two days shooting fast action with it.

Simply put, the Z9 offers one of the best viewfinder experiences of any camera on the market. In some ways, it’s the most DSLR-like experience in the mirrorless camera universe, while also providing an experience a cut above even the likes of the Sony a1 with its nominally higher-resolution 9.44M-dot electronic finder.

More than meets the eye

As with many cameras these days, the Z9’s electronic viewfinder specifications don’t tell you the whole story.

Like a good optical finder, the Z9’s EVF is basically transparent. It offers what is possibly the most natural-looking electronic viewfinder I’ve yet seen, showing its full resolution regardless of what the camera is doing (focusing, shooting, in playback, and so on). You basically forget it’s an electronic viewfinder while still benefitting from all the advantages that it brings over an optical one.

Blackout-free shooting with the electronic-only shutter obviously helps here, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen it: Sony first offered that in a full-frame camera back in 2017 with the release of the a9. But there’s more to it than that. Sony has recently upped the ante with the 9.44M-dot finders in its a7S III and a1 cameras, and in some scenarios, like playback, they look fantastic. But when I used the Sony a1 after the Nikon Z9 for actual shooting, I was underwhelmed.

That’s because the Sony drops in resolution while you’re focusing, regardless of what your display quality settings are. And when you’ve stopped focusing, the resolution rises again and the sensor stabilizer seems to hiccup and do a bit of a reset.

The uninterrupted, uncluttered experience of the Z9’s viewfinder allowed me to follow the action, even at ‘just’ 60fps. Processed and cropped in Nikon Studio NX.
1/2000 sec | F4.8 | ISO 900 | Nikon Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 @ 170mm

With the Z9, what you see when you first look through it is what you get. No resolution changes, no hiccups, no jolting. Just a smooth experience that allows for better focus (pun intended). Same resolution, same frame-rate, all the time.

There are even advantages when compared against the Canon EOS R3’s electronic viewfinder as well. While the R3’s ‘OVF Simulation‘ mode takes better advantage of the HDR-capabilities of the viewfinder panel than the Z9 does (despite the Nikon’s panel being capable of even brighter output), some of us found its UI to be a bit cluttered.

Basically, if the EOS R3 sees a face in the scene, it draws a gray box around it. And if there are lots of faces, well, there are now lots of boxes floating around over them. On the Nikon, you only see identified faces or eyes when they reach a certain proximity to your starting AF point. In other words, when it’s the face the camera will actually focus on, as opposed to also showing you all the faces it won’t focus on. It’s a cleaner visual experience.

Other DSLR-like qualities

Strobe work without a mechanical shutter? No problem. Processed and cropped in Nikon Studio NX.
1/160 sec | F9 | ISO 64 | Nikon Z 24-70mm F2.8 @ 70mm

While I find the EVF experience to be one of the standout features of the Z9, there are other aspects to it that give it the feeling of a high-end DSLR. Back when I reviewed the Nikon D5, I said it often feels like the camera “is waiting for you, the squishy biomass behind the viewfinder, to catch up.” That feeling of being immediately at the ready is something that took a long time for mirrorless cameras to embody, and I’d argue that it’s only really the latest crop of high-end sports models – the Canon EOS R3, Sony a1, and now, Nikon Z9 – that have finally nailed it.

Part of it is that it feels like camera manufacturers have, for the most part, gotten their user interface design and responsiveness up to snuff. The return of Nikon’s 3D AF Tracking certainly helps here. Half press the shutter and the camera immediately and tenaciously tracks whatever you want it to, just like a D6. No need to mess around with an additional function button like previous Z-series cameras.

Lots of dedicated buttons and dials mix with new customizability options to make the Z9 easy to take control over.

The Z9 also expands on customization options that were present in the company’s DSLRs but conspicuously missing from its mirrorless models – namely, the ability to assign different AF area modes plus AF activation to different buttons. In other words, I can have continuous 3D Tracking when I half-press the shutter, but if I want, can switch to single AF with a single point when I hit AF-ON. Whether or not you need this functionality is of course up to you, but for some users, it’s a powerful way of quickly adapting to changing scenarios.

The decision to make the Z9 a double-grip camera also gave Nikon a chance to include an enormous EN-EL18d battery, which provides a CIPA rating of 700-770 images. That might not sound all that impressive, but if you’re shooting heavy bursts, expect to get a lot more than that. One of our editors crested 5000 images over the course of a couple of hours of shooting and the camera still showed the battery at half capacity.

Finally, I appreciate the plethora of dedicated buttons and dials on the Z9. Sure, it’s nice to have more of the customization options I want, but it’s also nice to have some options – like drive mode, for example – grouped together on a specific dial in a well-thought-out place. No need to menu dive for it, it’s just something you’ll memorize and its operation will quickly become second nature.

The wrap

Not everyone needs 45MP, but I’ve found that while shooting the Nikon Z9 (as well as the Sony a1), I appreciated having all that resolution for quieter moments and cropping.
ISO 100 | 1/125 sec | F8 | Nikon Z MC 105mm F2.8

Of course, we have plenty of testing still to do with a full-production Z9 before we can score it, and as its still early days, time will tell if this is truly another ‘D3 Moment‘ for Nikon. But the Nikon Z9 has addressed nearly all of the quibbles we had with the company’s already-good Z-series cameras, and it finally feels like there’s some (well, a lot) of that D5 and D6 DSLR magic within it.

Is the Z9 the best sports camera on the market today? Again, time and testing will tell. But I think it’s safe to say that the Z9 is Nikon’s best camera yet (of any type), and we’re hopeful that it’s also a preview of what’s still to come.


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