Hands-on with the new Nikon Z9
The Nikon Z9 has just been officially unveiled, and there is a lot to unpack in Nikon’s first truly ‘professional’ mirrorless interchangeable camera. We had the chance recently to shoot with a pre-production sample of the Z9, and we’ve prepared some initial impressions of its handling and performance. Click through this article to get an idea of how we feel about the Z9 so far, and an overview of its key features.
New stacked-CMOS sensor
The most important feature of the Z9 is a newly-developed 45.7MP stacked-CMOS sensor. And make no mistake: While the pixel count is the same as the sensor in the Z7, Z7 II and the D850, this is an all-new Nikon-developed chip, which offers serious performance improvements that translate through to several areas of the Z9’s feature set.
In sheer image quality terms, we expect the Z9 to offer broadly comparable results for still imaging as the Z7/II at most ISO sensitivity settings. Despite the all-electronic, fast readout shutter, our initial tests indicate that base ISO dynamic range trails the Z7 II by only a little less than a stop.
Speaking of Raw, the Z9 does away with uncompressed Raw entirely, replacing it (sensibly, in our opinion) with a choice of lossless compressed and two ‘high efficiency’ Raw options. According to Nikon, the new Raw options provide image quality equivalent to uncompressed Raw, in files that come in at only 1/3 of the size. Naturally there’s no such thing as a completely free lunch, so – again – this is something we’ll be testing.
The new sensor is treated with what Nikon calls a ‘worlds first’ combination of electro-conductive and fluorine coatings, to help prevent dust and grime from accumulating on its surface.
In a first for Nikon, the Z9 doesn’t have a mechanical shutter. This is an electronic shutter only camera, with an estimated (provisionally, by us) readout speed of ~1/270 second (~3.7ms) putting it in the same ballpark as the Sony A1. The minimum exposure duration is 1/32,000sec. As such, exposure is entirely silent, with the option of a simulated shutter sound, in three volume increments.
While we’ve seen shutterless cameras before in the full-frame world with the Sigma fp-series, Nikon claims that the power of the stacked-CMOS design means that even for high-speed work, there is no meaningful penalty to the E-shutter-only design, compared to cameras with traditional mechanical shutters. That means very little rolling shutter (panning verticals in panning shots, or distorted swinging golf clubs, for example), or banding under artificial light. The Z9 can capture full-resolution JPEGs at up to 30fps, and JPEG/RAWs at up to 20fps with a 1,000 image buffer. If you’re happy with 11MP JPEGs, stills capture is possible at a maximum framerate of 120fps. In other words the Z9 is a very, very fast camera – much faster than it could have been with a conventional mechanical shutter governing exposures.
Physically, the most obvious characteristic of the Z9 is its integrated grip. The Z9 is similar in size to the D6 in height and weight (150 x 149mm, or ~6 x 6″) but noticeably lighter, at 1,340g (2lb 15.3 oz.) Nikon claims that the Z9 is overall ‘20% smaller’ than the D6, presumably in terms of its relative volume.
Needless to say, the Z9 is a lot bigger, and a lot heavier, than the Z6 and Z7-series ILCs which came before it.
Another first for Nikon is a multi-angle articulating 3.2″ rear LCD, offering similar versatility to the displays we’ve seen on the likes of the Fujifilm X-T4 and recent GFX models. You can tilt the screen out, and down, and fold it for vertical and angled shooting and video. Unlike side-hinged designs though, you can’t fold the screen back on itself to protect the LCD.
4K and 8K video
The fast sensor doesn’t only provide a benefit for stills. The Z9 can also capture 4K and 8K video, with recording topping out at 8K/30p. There are some impressive video specs, including:
- 8K/30p capture and 4K-from-8K, with ProRes 422 HQ option
- 8K/60p, 12-bit 8K N-Raw and 4K ProRes RAW to be added with f/w
- Internal 10-bit N-Log and HLG capture
- 24-bit audio capture
4K capture is possible up to 120p. 4K24p and 4K30p are highly detailed, thanks to 8K oversampling, but suffer from slightly more rolling shutter (~14.3 ms) than the slightly less detailed 4K60p and 4K120p modes, which resort to pixel binning or line skipping to achieve the faster frame rates (with only ~4.8ms rolling shutter rates). Both rolling shutter figures are impressive, so it won’t be an issue for anything but very fast pans and moving subjects. Nikon is promising that over 2 hours of recording is possible at 8K/30p in normal temperatures, and in our limited use so far, the Z9 appears highly resistant to overheating issues, but this is something we’ll be testing with more rigor as soon as we can.
|Click to enlarge4K/24p and 4K/30p footage shows far more detail than 4K/60p and 4K/120p footage, thanks to being oversampled from the full 8K pixels that span the full width of the sensor. 4K/60p and 4K/120p modes either pixel-bin or line-skip to still use the full width of the sensor, yet achieve faster readout rates.|
This shot shows off the mode controls cluster on the upper left of the Z9’s top plate, including the integrated advance mode dial where you can scroll between single and burst shooting modes and self-timer options. The ‘MODE’ button provides the means to switch between the various PASM modes. Also visible here are two buttons just to the left of the eyepiece – Lock (which prevents selected images from being accidentally deleted) and Delete. Delete does double-duty, alongside the ISO button, serving as a shortcut for formatting installed memory card/s.
Curiously, to the best of our knowledge, the Z9 is Nikon’s first ever professional digital camera not to feature a playback button at upper-left of the rear controls. According to Nikon, the decision to move playback to a position to the lower-right of the LCD screen was taken in order that the main shooting controls – including playback – should be clustered within the reach of the fingers on a single hand. Fortunately the Lock button is also a Fn button and can be reassigned to initiate playback, if desired.
The main upper-right controls are conventional, with a raised movie capture button sitting alongside ISO and exposure compensation, just behind the integrated on/off switch and shutter button. Just about the only area of unused space on the Z9 is to the right of the small upper LCD, which plays host merely to the sensor plane indicator symbol and the model name.
Backlit buttons and ‘Starlight’ mode
Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed in the previous slide that just beyond the ‘on’ mark on the on/off switch is a lightbulb icon. This triggers illumination both of the top information display, and several of the buttons on the top and rear of the camera, to make finding them easier in low light. This is a feature we loved in high-end Nikon DSLRs, and missed in the Z6 and Z7-series cameras.
The Z9 also features an ultra low-light ‘Starlight’ mode, which the company clams enables automatic focus down to -8.5EV (with an F1.2 lens).
Another view of the top left control cluster, showing the little lock button to prevent accidental rotation of the exposure mode wheel, and the monitor mode button on the side of the EVF hump. This toggles between activating the EVF and LCD, or ‘Auto’ which switches between them based on whether your eye is placed to the finder.
The EVF itself offers the same Quad-VGA 3.69m-dot resolution as the finder in the Z6/7 II, but brightness has been improved, to a maximum measured brightness of ~760 nits. Importantly, while the resolution figure might sound low compared to some competitors, the Z9’s finder resolution does not drop at any point, so you’ll see the same level of detail in the 60hz live view feed regardless of shooting speed or autofocus condition. In our opinion, this adds up to one of the best viewfinder experiences out there.
Vertical controls aren’t quite so extensive, but you still get front and rear control wheels, plus ISO and one custom button. The large rubber cap just behind this cluster of controls covers a Kensington security lock socket, for securing the Z9 in a pool of equipment at major events (or tradeshows, if we ever have those again).
Twin CFe / XQD slots
The Nikon Z9 offers two card slots, both identical, compatible with CFexpress (type B) and XQD cards. The slots can be set up in various ways, for overflow storage, backup, or separation of stills and movie files. Note the taped warning inside the card door – during sequential shooting of high-resolution stills and video, CFe cards can get a little toasty.
Hands-on with the new Nikon Z9
This shot – with the Z 50mm F1.2 S attached – gives an idea of the size of the Z9, which is defined in part by the massive battery pack in its base.
Here’s the battery, which packs a whopping 36Wh of capacity for a rated battery life (per CIPA) of between 700-770 images, depending on the balance of EVF/LCD use, and whether or not the camera is operated in Eco Mode. In normal use, when shooting stills, the Z9 can’t compete with the likes of the D5 and D6 for out-and-out stamina, but anecdotally, we’ve found that the CIPA figures are distinctly conservative for stills shooting, and in fact the Z9 is good for at least a couple of thousand exposures in burst shooting with moderate playback and image checking.
Note that the Z9 can be used with older EN-EL18-pattern batteries from previous Nikon DSLRs, and alongside the new ‘d’ variant, both ‘b’ and ‘c’ versions can also be charged in-camera over USB, and with the included MH-33 charger.
This is a view of the main I/O ports on the side of the Z9, which includes a large wired LAN socket for shooting at large events, where a stable wired connection is more practical than wireless image transfer. Note the full-size HDMI port, which has a screw-thread for a locking clip.
AF mode button
And what’s this, next to the rubber doors for the ports? This little knobbly button represents the welcome return of direct control over AF modes in a high-end Nikon body, in a place exactly where a Nikon photographer would expect to find it. It looks like a joystick, but this is in fact a simple button, which replicates the same control on the D6 and D850. When this button is pushed in, you can scroll between AF modes and AF area modes using the front and rear control dials respectively.
And if you don’t wish to scroll through AF modes and area modes, and simply directly engage them instead, the Z9 finally sees the return of one of our favorite features on recent Nikon DSLRs: the ability to assign custom buttons to ‘AF area mode + AF-ON’ in order to switch to and engage any AF area mode, instantly. This means 3D Tracking could be your default focus mode engaged by the shutter button, while AF-ON or a Fn button could be assigned to instantly engage Single Point or Auto Area AF for those moments you don’t want subject tracking AF. When the action is quick and you don’t have the time to fumble with buttons and dials, this way of working can be revolutionary.
The return of 3D AF Tracking
Speaking of subject tracking, the Z9 sees the welcome return of another feature – 3D AF Tracking. The Z6 and Z7-series cameras’ autofocus has never been spectacular, and couldn’t match the D5/6 for reliability or speed, but the Z9 is a quantum leap compared to previous Nikon Z-series cameras, and offers major improvements compared to high-end Nikon DSLRs, too.
For one thing, tracking is now possible over 90% of the entire image area, using data captured and processed 120fps. Subject detection is now integrated into 3D AF Tracking, and the Z9 uses machine learning-trained algorithms to detect humans, animals and automobiles (with control available over how they’re prioritized, including an ‘auto’ mode). The system is intelligent enough to switch between eye, face, head, body tracking as necessary to maintain focus on your subject even if it looks or walks away. A preference for faces and eyes means that even if you’re a bit sloppy in your initial AF point placement, placing it on your subject’s shoulder for example, the Z9 will intelligently jump to the subject’s eye when you initiate focus. It doesn’t blindly do so though – it considers the separation between these features, so that it doesn’t inadvertently focus on the eye had the photographer intended to focus on the shoulder. And you always have the option to turn the subject recognition portion of 3D Tracking off, to track objects using color and distance information only.
From our initial shooting, the accuracy and speed of the system is quite simply spectacular, and at least competitive with the previous best-in-class cameras for mirrorless, the Sony a1 and a9 II. Low light AF is rated down to -5EV with an F2 lens, which is slightly better than some of its peers. And we’ve also found that the Z9 can detect eyes, faces and features in the frame far smaller than any other comparable camera we’ve tested. Our only reservation with regard to AF at this point is around the speeds of the focus motors in most Z-mount lenses, which tend to be slower than the fastest linear motors we tend to see in modern mirrorless lenses, and even smaller than some older ring-type motors. The good news is that we’ve seen some improvements in focus speeds on recent Z-mount lenses, so we expect this will be less and less of a concern moving forward.
‘But Barney – I thought you said the Nikon Z9 doesn’t have a shutter?’ It doesn’t – but you’re not imagining things. The sturdy metal curtains covering the sensor in this shot are a simple protective barrier which is activated when the camera is powered off, to help protect the sensor from dust or damage when changing lenses.
Meanwhile, stabilizing the shutter is a multi-axis in-body stabilization system, which Nikon claims offers up to six stops of correction using ‘Synchro VR’, available (for now) only with the Z 70-200mm F2.8 VR S, (after a pending firmware update), the Z MC 105mm F2.8 VR S and the just-announced Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S.
Final thoughts and availability
Here’s a closer look at the protective curtains, and the three Fn buttons on the front of the Z9, within finger-tip reach when shooting horizontally. They’re not replicated for vertical shooting, but with the camera held in the portrait orientation, Fn3 falls roughly where Fn1 does when shooting in landscape format.
The Z9 is being introduced at an MSRP of $5,500 ($1,000 less than the introductory price of the D6), and is available for pre-order now, with shipping expected to begin before the end of this year. We’ve got a lot more content on the Z9 coming, and in the meantime, as always, let us know what you think in the comments.