The Nikon Z9 has arrived famously late to the pro mirrorless party. However, Nikon maintains that what some might see as tardiness enabled it to really take advantage of the benefits that a mirrorless design – and specifically the Z-mount, with the largest throat diameter and shortest flange distance of any full-frame system – is capable of.
And indeed, the wait has been worth it: the Nikon Z9 boasts features some truly ferocious specifications – some of which blow away those of both the Sony A1 and Canon EOS R3 (as does the price tag). However, both of these rivals have a notable head start on the Z9 – in the case of the A1, it’s almost a full year. So has Nikon done enough to deliver the best professional camera despite the handicap?
As it stands we’ve been hands-on with the Nikon Z9, and we’ve come away very impressed. However, we still need to put it through its paces in the field to see how it really fares against the A1 and R3 – not to mention the Sony A9 II and fellow 8K powerhouse, the Canon EOS R5.
We can, at least, confidently say that the Nikon Z9 outperforms both the Nikon D6 (which it replaces as the manufacturer’s new flagship camera) and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. So between this and the R3, it does rather feel that the best DSLRs' time is up as the premier tool of professionals.
So, how does the new Nikon flagship stack up against its rivals?
Nikon Z9: Specifications
Sensor: 45.7Mp back-side illuminated stacked sensor
Image Processor: Expeed 7
AF Points: 493 hybrid phase/contrast detect AF points
ISO range: 64 to 25,600 (exp. 32 to 102,400)
Stabilization: 5-axis, 5.5 stops (up to 6 stops with specific lenses)
Max shutter speed: 1/32,000 sec
Video: 8K up to 60p (via firmware update), 4K up to 120p • 8- or 10-bit H.265, 10-bit Apple ProRes 4:2:2 HQ (firmware), 12-bit in-camera ProRes RAW HQ (firmware)
Viewfinder: Super-bright OLED, 3.69m dots, 100% coverage
Memory cards: 2x CFexpress Type B
LCD: 3-inch bi-directional tilting touchscreen, 1.04m dots
Max burst: 20fps RAW (up to 1,000 buffer), 30fps hi-res JPEG, 120fps lo-res JPEG
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, USB-C, headphone jack, mic jack
Dimensions: 149 x 149.5 x 90.5mm
Weight: 1,340g with battery and memory card (1,160g body only)
Nikon Z9: Key features
Let’s start with a couple of the camera’s headline specs: the 120fps continuous shooting speed and 1/32,000 sec max shutter speed. These are possible because the Z9 does away with the conventional mechanical shutter altogether, replacing it with an all-electronic shutter.
This is not a new development, as the Sigma fp and Sigma fp L also eschewed a mechanical shutter – and all mirrorless cameras can shoot electronically (and, thus, silently). However, the stacked nature of the sensor – which sandwiches electronics into layers in order to deliver unheralded readout speeds – means that the rolling shutter phenomenon is virtually eliminated.
Given that this is pushing out 45.7MP of data, that’s an impressive feat. Though it should be noted that in some circumstances – notably under artificial lighting conditions – the lack of a mechanical shutter could prove problematic, as electronic shutters are prone to banding.
There are caveats, of course; the Sony A1 possess a higher resolution 50.1MP sensor, and the Canon EOS R3 shoots twice as fast at 1/64,000 sec. And as impressive as the 120fps burst sounds (literally – the simulated shutter noise has to be heard to be believed!) it is limited to 11MP images, though these are full-readout and uncropped.
The Z9 can shoot 30fps bursts, but only for JPGs; for RAW shooting, the camera is limited to “just” 20fps – which is still enormously impressive, but the A1 and R3 can both capture RAWs at 30fps. For reference, the more affordable Canon EOS R5 (and even more affordable Canon EOS R6, for that matter) can shoot RAWs at 20fps. However, the A1 and R5 are limited to 8K video at 30p – and are both subject to fairly austere recording limits.
The Nikon Z9, by comparison, can shoot at an astounding maximum resolution of 8K 60p. Admittedly we don’t yet know how long it can sustain recording at that resolution – and 60p will only be available via a firmware update coming “in 2022”. However, Nikon tells us that 8K 30p can be maintained for up to 125 minutes – significantly longer than that of its rivals.
It can also capture 4K up to 120fps, with 24-bit PCM audio, in a variety of codecs: 8- or 10-bit H.265, 10-bit Apple ProRes 4:2:2 HQ or 12-bit in-camera ProRes RAW HQ (the latter two, again, via the 2022 firmware).
Accordingly the camera boasts dual CFexpress Type B card slots, in order to handle those massive amounts of data without bottlenecking. The Z9 buffer will record over 1,000 images per burst, with Nikon claiming that internal testing had resulted in bursts of 5,000 images (notably, using a Delkin Devices CFexpress card, which the company recommended to us for premium performance).
As you would expect, the electronic viewfinder offers blackout-free shooting thanks to a dedicated readout from the sensor for an uninterrupted view of the action. In conjunction with the radically redesigned autofocus system, this means you should never miss a shot.
The new system is powered by Deep Learning AF, which makes the camera capable of nine kinds of simultaneous subject recognition: human eyes, faces, heads and upper-bodies; animal eyes, heads and bodies; and cars, planes, trains and motorbikes. While it has the same 493 AF points as the Nikon Z7 II, it has 5 times more auto-area AF points (to the tune of 405) – though this does pale next to the 4,779 AF points offered by the Canon EOS R3.
The back-side illuminated nature of the new image sensor, which places the electronics behind the photosites, results in superior low light performance – and combined with the native ISO64-25,600 sensitivity (expandable to ISO32-102,400), the Z9 is a formidable low light performer. Though again, at the risk of being a broken record, the R3 offers a native ISO100-102,400 sensitivity (expandable to ISO50-204,800).
Nikon Z9: Build and handling
When it comes to styling, the Nikon Z9 looks very much like it’s cut from the same cloth as the Nikon D6 and its predecessors. It’s 20% smaller and 10% lighter than the D6, though it has the deep grip that pro DSLR users are used to, which extends around the bottom of the camera for comfortable shooting both horizontally and vertically, and with a duplicated shutter and other essential controls.
Other notable controls include a release mode dial, like on professional DSLRs, as well as a dedicated AF Mode button, rather than using up one of the Fn buttons, as was the case on the Nikon Z7. Talking of which, there are no less than four customizable Fn buttons, and 11 key buttons light up for low-light shooting (though this can be turned off). The i menu and ISO buttons can be easily accessed when shooting vertically.
The rear LCD has dual-axis tilt that can be tilted 90° horizontally or vertically, so high and low-angle shooting are equally achievable while shooting both horizontally and vertically – useful for shooting vertical content designed to be viewed on phones or billboards. In addition the info display now rotates when you hold the camera vertically, so you can easily read all the on-screen information. When peering through the viewfinder, it is the world's brightest at 3000-nits and has absolutely no lag or blackout, but still has the same 3.69 million-dot display as the Z 7/6 series.
The camera is built around a sturdy magnesium alloy chassis and is fully weather sealed to withstand extreme temperatures, humidity and dust, and it can be operated in temperatures down to -10ºC. Nikon says it's more rugged than the D6.
No mechanical shutter means no moving parts to go wrong (and no need to worry about increasing the shutter count as the camera is used). But while there’s no physical shutter, there is a built-in blind that comes down when the camera is turned off to cover the sensor when changing lenses, protecting it from the ingress of dust.
There are a pair of CFexpress Type B (or XQD) card slots, and the camera comes with built-in ethernet, for fast transfer of images directly to an FTP server. And when there’s no wired connection available, the camera boasts in-camera Wi-Fi FTP (with no need for separate transmitter), as well as 5G smartphone connectivity via USB-C. All connection options can now be controlled from a single menu tab.
Nikon Z9: Early verdict
One thing missing from the Z9 is the ability to produce medium- or low-resolution RAW files. But the camera features a new high-efficiency N-RAW format, with file sizes typically around 15MB rather than 50-60MB, while retaining the same level of detail as uncompressed RAW.
Nikon says that the Z9 has its most advanced AF system by far, and even surpassing the D6. Its 493 AF points mean that subject tracking is available across the entire frame and there are no less than 10 AF Area modes, along with 405 Auto Area AF points (five times more than on the Z7), with Deep Learning AF enabling the camera to detect and track up to nine distinct subjects.
The camera’s people detection system can switch between eyes, face and the upper body (a new feature for Z cameras), depending on subject distance, while the animal detection algorithms can track the usual cats, dogs and birds plus many other creatures, again detecting whole bodies, heads or eyes.
It’s also capable of vehicle detection – not only recognizing commonplace vehicles such as cars, motorbikes and planes – but in testing could also detect more unusual moving mechanical things, such as drones and even lawnmowers.
The system can track moving vehicles head-on, which AF systems traditionally struggle with, and the clever subtleties of the system mean that if a person gets out of vehicle the camera will switch tracking to them, for example, as well as recognizing previously tracked subjects that re-enter the frame and automatically switching back to them.
The Z9 is powered by a new EN-18 variant battery that can be charged via USB-C – and the camera can be used while charging. This battery has the same physical form factor as that used in the D6 and previous cameras, and older batteries can be used in the Z9. The battery lasts a long time for a mirrorless camera and, as it’s not used to fire the shutter, the number of shots isn’t really a factor in battery life. What affects it more is the length of time that the screens are used, or lens VR systems drawing power, but anecdotally it lasted more than 5,000 shots in the field.
Nikon Z9: Early verdict
Our time with the Nikon Z9 was fairly limited, and wasn't under ideal conditions, so we can't remark too much on the image quality or AF performance (at least, not on anything other than slow-moving human subjects).
However, the tech and pure horsepower is there – well, mostly. It's frustrating that key features like 8K 60p and the new N-RAW format won't be available until the release of a firmware update in 2022.
What's here already is incredibly impressive, though. The 120fps burst rate is simply unbelievable, even with the compromise of only capturing 11MP images, and the ability to record 8K 30p for 125 minutes is a real game-changer for filmmakers.
We need to put it through its paces shooting sports and wildlife to see how the AF system compares to its rivals, and we also want to get it in the lab to test the dynamic range and true resolving power of the new stacked sensor. Not to mention seeing how the lack of mechanical shutter affects real-world shooting when it comes to artificial lighting and rolling shutter.
Right now, though, we're impressed – very impressed. If the Z9 makes good on its many promises when we used it, this could be the professional camera to rule them all… and time looks like it's just been called on professional DSLRs.