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Nikon Z9 review: A versatile camera with solid 8K video recording

With Sony and Canon dominating headlines, Nikon has been the forgotten company in the mirrorless race. That’s set to change, though, with the launch of the 45.7-megapixel Z9. It’s an innovative professional camera that offers awesome speed, incredible detail and outstanding 8K video capabilities.

Nikon is breaking some new ground with this camera, too. It’s the first mirrorless model with no mechanical shutter, relying instead on a fast sensor to minimize the jello effect that can happen with an electronic shutter.

Nikon Z9

Pros

  • Fast shooting speeds
  • high resolution
  • reliable autofocus
  • good handling
  • no-compromise 8K video.

Cons

  • No flip-out display
  • high price
  • key features not yet available

The Z9 is not without some flaws, though. It’s quite heavy compared to rival models like Sony’s A1 and the lack of a fully articulating screen makes it a hard sell for videographers. At $5,500 for the body only, it’s quite expensive — let’s see how it measures up to the competition.

Design and handling

The Z9 is, honestly, a chunky camera. It weighs around 1,340 grams, or just 60 grams less than Nikon’s D6 DSLR. By contrast, the Canon EOS R3 weighs 1,015 grams and Sony’s A1 is a mere 737 grams. A camera that heavy can be fatiguing but then again, many professional photographers prefer big, heavy cameras for stability.

The large size meant Nikon could include a nice big grip that imparts a feeling of security, particularly with a big lens attached. Like Canon’s EOS R3, you can rotate it 90 degrees and get matching controls and a grip, allowing for easy operation in portrait mode.

The Z9 has a generous array of manual controls, but I’m not a big fan of the layout. The AF button is positioned on the left side next to the lens, which I find awkward. The top display also takes up space that could’ve been used for more buttons. On the plus side, it has a large number of programmable buttons, so you can set it up the way you like. If you’re a longtime Nikon user, you might enjoy the layout more than I did.

Gallery: Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera review | 21 Photos

Gallery: Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera review | 21 Photos

Compared to Sony and Panasonic’s latest cameras, the menu system is a bit too complicated. Rather than dividing things into subcategories, you have to scroll down for a while on certain menus to find what you need. Your best bet to avoid any hassle is to program the custom menus and buttons to do what you need.

With 2.09 million dots, the 3.2-inch touchscreen is relatively sharp and bright, but there are a few drawbacks. As mentioned, it only tilts up and out to the right, so self-shooting or vlogging is impossible unless you have an external display. Sony’s A1 also lacked a fully articulating display, but Canon has finally included one in its professional EOS R3 model.

The EVF’s resolution is a bit disappointing for a camera this expensive, at just 3.69 million dots, compared to 9.44 million on the Sony A1. Considering the high-res sensor, that seems like a miss. On the plus side, it uses “Dual-Stream” tech to send data to the sensor and EVF simultaneously. As a result, you get blackout-free performance during all shooting, and according to Nikon, that comes with zero frame skipping or repeating. That’s likely a light dig at some Sony cameras, which drop the EVF resolution under certain shooting conditions.

Nikon has gone all-in on CFexpress for the Z9, with two CFexpress and no SD card slots. This is smart for a couple of reasons. There’s no compromise on speed for burst shooting or video, which is crucial for high frame rates required for ProRes HQ and, down the road, RAW video. It also means that professional shooters can record to two cards at once for a backup, with no compromise on speed. The downside, of course, is that CFexpress and XQD cards are much more expensive than SD cards.

Other features include a huge EN-EL18D battery that delivers a solid 740 shots on a charge and over two hours of 4K video, as well as backward compatibility with D6 and other Nikon pro DSLR batteries. It also comes with a USB-C 3.2 slot for both transfers and storage, mic and headphone jacks, an Ethernet port for remote shooting and a full-sized HDMI jack. While the Z9 doesn’t have a mechanical shutter, it does have a cover to protect the sensor when you change lenses.

Performance

Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera review

Steve Dent/Engadget

The Z9 is Nikon’s fastest mirrorless camera to date. You can shoot up to 20 RAW frames per second at full resolution, 30 JPEGs or a blindingly-fast 120 JPEGS per second at a lower11-MP resolution. Again, all of those speeds are in electronic shutter mode, because there’s no mechanical shutter. You can, of course, shoot in silent mode, or activate a simulated shutter sound if you really need to hear that “click.”

That’s fast, but I managed just 40 lossless RAW photos with a very fast CFexpress card before the buffer filled. If you’re fine using the lossy “high-efficiency” modes, however, you can shoot anywhere from 70 to nearly infinite photos without stopping.

The hybrid phase-detect autofocus is a big improvement over the last model, too. Nikon has brought 3D tracking over from its DSLRs, but it’s far better in the Z9 because it has 493 AF tracking points, far more than the others have.

It delivers very reliable subject tracking most of the time. Normally, you just set the tracking point on an athlete or other fast-moving subject, and the AF will keep them in focus. Occasionally, it will drop the subject and focus on the background or something else, particularly with birds or other fast objects. In general, it works as well or nearly as well as the subject-tracking AF on Sony’s latest A1 and A7 IV models.

Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera review

Steve Dent/Engadget

The new face, eye, vehicle and animal detection is incredibly fast and accurate as well, even if the subject is a good distance away. In fact, the Z9 can recognize nine types of subjects automatically: human eyes, faces, heads and upper bodies; animal eyes, heads and bodies; and cars, planes, trains and motorbikes. I didn’t have a chance to test all of those, but for several different subjects, even at high burst speeds, most of my shots were in focus.

With no mechanical shutter, fast readout speeds are key to reducing skew and other issues. Happily, the Z9’s stacked, backside-illuminated CMOS sensor is up to the job. I never saw any rolling shutter unless I really whipped the camera around. So even for sports or bird photography, you’re not likely to see any issues.

At the same time, the 5-axis in-body stabilization reduces blurry shots due to camera movement or hand shake. The six stops of shake reduction are well below the Canon EOS R3’s 8 stops, however.

Image quality

Gallery: Nikon Z9 review sample images | 34 Photos

Gallery: Nikon Z9 review sample images | 34 Photos

With 45.7 megapixels on tap, the Z9 delivers sharp images with very high dynamic range. In fact, next to all rivals, it’s second only to Nikon’s own Z7 II, which is the current dynamic range champion and packs a similar sensor. All RAW images are now captured with 14-bit color depth, giving you plenty of room to tweak them in Adobe Lightroom or Nikon’s NX Studio.

Color accuracy is better than I’ve seen on previous models, possibly thanks to the Nikon Z9’s new Expeed 7 processor that brings improvements to white balance. However, skin tones aren’t quite as warm as with Canon’s R3 or R5. JPEG images look nice straight out of the camera, though they can be slightly over-sharpened with the default settings.

The Z9 has a wide ISO range of 64-25,600, expandable to 32-102,400. The low 64 setting is nice to have in bright sunlight if you want to avoid completely closing down the iris (which can hurt image quality). It performs pretty well in low-light, too. Grain is well-controlled up to about ISO 6,400, and shots are usable at ISO 12,800. Beyond that, noise starts to get distracting. The Z9 is about the same as Canon’s R5 in that regard, but not up to the level of Sony’s A7R IV or A1.