Not long ago, in the world of professional flagship camera bodies, the space was ruled by low resolution machines that were speed demons and the top performers at high ISO lowlight photography.
For the professional photographers who needed high resolution for some work as well as speed and low light performance for other types of assignments, they’d have to purchase separate cameras such as a Nikon D850 and Nikon D5.
The Nikon Z9 attempts to put this conundrum to rest and is mostly successful at doing so which I’ll get into here in this review.
The Z9 is a Nikon camera that’s designed for working professional photographers as well as demanding enthusiasts in many different genres from sports and wildlife to portraits and events.
I will be looking at this impressive mirrorless flagship camera from the perspective of a wedding, portrait and event photographer.
Table of Contents
Nikon Z9 Specs
- Max resolution 8256 x 5504
- Image ratio w:h 1:1, 3:2, 16:9
- Effective pixels 46 megapixels
- Sensor photo detectors 52 megapixels
- Sensor size Full frame (35.9 x 23.9 mm)
- Sensor type Stacked CMOS
- Boosted ISO (minimum) 32
- Boosted ISO (maximum) 102400
- White balance presets 9
- Custom white balance Yes (6 slots)
- Image stabilization Sensor-shift
- Image stabilization notes Synchro VR with select lenses
- CIPA image stabilization rating 6 stop(s)
- All Electronic Shutter
- Dimensions (W x H x D) 5.9 x 5.9 x 3.6″ / 149 x 149.5 x 90.5 mm
- Weight 2.9 lb / 1340 g (Body with Battery and Memory)
- Accurate Machine Learning Autofocus
- Blazingly fast operations
- Robust and weather-sealed body
- High-Efficiency RAW modes
- Long battery life
- Not the best image quality at very high ISO’s
- Frequency tuning is missing for photo flicker reduction
- Heavy body
- Menu configurations differ from other Z cameras
- Missing some features in other Z cameras such as Portrait Impression Balance
- The two-axis tilting screen is awkward to use
Build & Appearance
I feel as though I could use the Z9 as a replacement hammer on various home improvement projects with no issues. It’s built solid and feels that way in hand.
It is technically a lighter camera than the previous gripped body, the Nikon D6, but this is still a heavy body. As a wedding shooter using two of these on each hip, it does take a toll. Luckily, my HoldFast MoneyMaker camera strap softens the load.
I like the shape of these DSLR styled bodies for their superior operational function, but I am a bit bored by the design.
I prefer the retro-styled cameras when it comes to how a camera looks but this is a camera built for speed, not only in frames per second but in the way that the user operates the camera.
I love the round eyecups that Nikon reserves for their pro-level bodies. The electronic viewfinder housed beneath it is not of the highest resolution at 3.6 million dots but Nikon has somehow made it large and beautiful, negating any disappointment over the relatively low numbered spec.
For the first time on a Nikon camera body (flagship or otherwise), the rear screen is a two-axis tilting one. Unfortunately, though, it’s awkward to operate and does not provide much tilt in any direction.
The back screen is sharp and bright and touch-enabled even in the menus.
The illuminated buttons are awesome for when I need to operate them on a dark dance floor during reception coverage. A flick of an on/off lever will turn this feature on and the buttons remain illuminated just enough for you to make adjustments and then auto shut off.
Ergonomics & Handling
I have medium-sized hands and the camera feels just about perfect to me. The joystick and AF ON button are perfectly located.
I especially love that I can shoot video at the flick of a switch, a necessity for hybrid photo/video coverage.
The camera accepts two CFExpress memory cards or XQD cards and they reside beneath a rather fiddly locking door on the side of the body. Your cards will definitely be safe, but you will have to get used to opening that door.
The playback button is now out of alignment with the other Z cameras but I have re-programmed the image protect button on the top left-hand side as playback into the spot I’ve been used to.
The camera world has its obsessions – high ISO, high megapixels and now, AI-based autofocus. I don’t know if the Nikon Z9 is the best on the market, but I can say I find its auto-focus to be incredible.
In the image above, my subject was turning from side to side giving me many different looks. This was a situation in which the all area mode with people detect on (it searches for eyes first, face and body after that) will work great.
Just compose your shot, get your exposure down and you can trust the camera to nail the focus.
However, in some situations (especially when multiple faces are in the scene) you are better off choosing wide area small or large where the algorithm is confined to within these boxes (or just outside of them I have found) so you can get focus on the correct set of eyes.
So it’s up to the user to do some work here as none of the camera systems, including the Nikon Z9, can read the photographer’s mind.
Many Nikon users are thrilled to have 3D AF tracking back and while I cannot speak first-hand about this mode, from all accounts it works excellently.
All of the traditional AF modes such as single point and dynamic area are available to you and do not forget manual focus with focus peaking enabled as a guide.
The low light autofocus on the Nikon Z9 is excellent and there’s even a Starlight AF mode that can make the camera focus at an astounding -8.5 EV, albeit with S-AF and not C-AF.
Essentially, if you have been concerned about the autofocus performance of Nikon’s mirrorless line of cameras, the Z9 will eliminate that. It has a modern, state of the art AF system and the major selling point of this camera.
Low Light Performance
High-resolution cameras have traditionally not had the best image quality at high ISO’s. The Z9 with its backside-illuminated stacked sensor has much better low light image quality than past efforts.
As someone who shot micro four-thirds cameras at weddings for years, I’m okay with a bit of noise and my clients never complained.
I find the noise in the Nikon Z9 files a bit bothersome from ISO 8,000 to 12,800 and not acceptable above that. You may have different tastes.
Software programs like Topaz DeNoise can help with smoothing out noise in images although they can slow down the workflow for volume-based event photographers.
In the end, I feel the Nikon Z9 is really good at handling high ISO images but it’s not on par with previous flagships like the Nikon D5 I used to own.
A quick tip: Overexpose a bit when shooting really high ISO’s and bring the exposure down in post. I have found this a great technique for controlling noise in images without resorting to software.
The dynamic range of the Nikon Z9 is simply superb. I’ve been able to get more out of highlights and shadows than any camera I’ve owned previously.
This is an area where the Z9 bests previous flagship bodies for sure.
The 45MP pixel sensor provides an insane amount of detail and a ton of room to crop an image.
The above image of the couple in front of the barn had to be shot with only available light due to rain and high winds and recovering shadows of the barn and details in the sky was no problem at all.
Nikon Z9 Sample Images
Here are some sample images using a Nikon Z9.
As a wedding and portrait photographer, I don’t need the 20 FPS RAW performance (30 FPS in JPEG and 120 FPS in 11 megapixel JPEG) that the Nikon Z9 provides.
However, where I do benefit from the speed of this camera is all of the other non-headline perks such as turn-on time, the snappiness of performance and the ability to jump from a burst of stills to 4K (or even 8K) video capture and back with no lag.
Please note, that the CF Express memory cards are key to fulfilling the promises of these high frame rates and the fast buffer the Z9 offers.
One of the other reasons I like gripped camera bodies like this one is that I do not have to worry about charging batteries in the middle of wedding coverage.
I’ve gotten through a 10-hour wedding shoot with no change in battery except when it’s been cold and I had to shoot outside quite a bit.
Other Useful Features
As a wedding shooter who brings back many images onto the computer, I swore I would NEVER shoot with a high megapixel camera for the file sizes alone. However, what sold me on the Nikon Z9 is the High-Efficiency RAW modes.
This feature is not the small and medium RAW files of the past. The camera defaults to 14 bit lossless RAW and the High-Efficiency Star mode, which keeps this same high quality and resolution but cuts the file size in half.
I cannot tell any quality difference but yet the file sizes are that of a 24-megapixel camera. This is the mode I shoot weddings with and my computer performance and storage have not taken any hit.
The High Efficiency (without a star) mode cuts the file sizes even further, but Nikon says there is some quality loss.
For sports shooters, these High-Efficiency modes will get you an even higher buffer rate.
These High-Efficiency RAW modes are a feature that is unique to the Nikon Z9 as of this writing and something the venerable camera company has not talked up enough.
Another unique feature for sports and wildlife shooters is the ability to shoot 120 FPS as 11-megapixel JPEGS.
This may seem over the top but can make a difference in certain genres and with software like Topaz Labs Gigapixel AI, these relative low-resolution images can easily be blown up to large print size.
The Nikon Z9 has no mechanical shutter. Say what? For me this is a great thing for the following reasons – no shutter slap causing vibration and with a base ISO of 64 I can slap on the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 lens and shoot wide open outside with crazy high shutter speeds.
Nikon claims there is no effective rolling shutter due to the fast readout speed of this sensor and banding is kept to a minimum.
Alternatives to the Nikon Z9
The other full-frame mirrorless flagship cameras are the Sony A1 and Canon R3. Both appear to be great alternatives to the Nikon Z9 but the Sony A1 is more closely aligned with the Nikon.
The Sony A1 is also a high resolution, fast frame rate camera at 50 megapixels. It is a much smaller body as it has no integrated grip. Like the Z9, it is highly touted for its AF capabilities. It is also $1,000 higher in price and adding a grip will increase that even further.
The Canon R3 is an integrated grip flagship body with terrific autofocus. It comes in at a $500 premium over the Z9 and is lower in resolution at 24 megapixels.
As a wedding and event shooter, the R3 is the most compelling of the competition because of its integrated grip but yet lighter bodyweight and presumingly able to produce cleaner images at high ISO’s due to the lower resolution sensor.
In other words, it’s a mirrorless version of a traditional flagship camera. If you’re already invested in Canon lenses, the R3 would be a wise choice, but for a Nikon shooter, the Z9 is an excellent option.
Value for Money
It’s rare that price is listed as one of the pros of a camera these days, especially a professional grade body. At about $5,500, the Nikon Z9 is less than the competitors and $1,000 lower than Nikon’s previous flagship body, the Nikon D6.
While not cheap, there is no doubt that the Nikon Z9 is priced aggressively and is great value for all of the cutting edge tech within it.
Nikon Z9 Review | Conclusion
The Nikon Z9 is a professional grade camera aimed at multiple genres of sports, wildlife, landscape, weddings and events, portraits and more.
No camera is perfect and for me, the compromise is a bit of noise at very high ISO’s (for me, ISO 8,000 and up needs software clean up) but all of the other features make up for this.
Would I trade the Nikon Z9 for a mythical Z9s (lower resolution, low light tuned flagship) with the rest of the Z9 features intact? I think I probably would.
However, if you are not stuck sometimes like me at a very dark church that does not allow flash, then the Z9 will excel in every other situation.
Don’t get me wrong though, the Nikon Z9 is very good in low light image quality. However, for extreme scenarios, their Nikon Z6II is a tad better in this regard as is their previous flagship DSLR, the D6.
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