I know most reviewers like to take days, weeks, even months of using a camera before they do a review. I mean, how much can you really learn about a new camera in one day? Tons!!! I don’t need more time to give an initial review, I’m way too excited not to pass on a few observations right now! After shooting Nikon bodies for 40 years, it is just amazing to see how things have evolved to the Z9.
I just spent the last eight hours photographing all over Northern Colorado putting the Z9 through a variety of shooting scenarios. Let me just start by saying this…the Z9 is a quantum leap for Nikon. First, let’s talk about the body and button layout. I’ve been shooting the D6 and nearly every flagship camera Nikon has produced, my work needs the performance of these cameras. So I am happy to report grabbing onto the Z9 felt like coming home. And after using the Z7II for awhile, most of the mirrorless settings and modes were familiar..the learning curve was very quick. I am so happy Nikon came out with a vertical grip body. Yes, this does add some weight, but the Z9 is thinner, and has a deeper grip than the D5/6. The Z9 really felt smaller to me, but if you are coming from a standard body it will feel bigger to you. The vertical grip has all the autofocus and ISO buttons right at your finger tips. About the only significant change to button layout is the image review button is now on the right side. After a few moments of looking for this on the left, it started to make a lot of sense on the right side. I could just move my finger right down and review images very quickly…after a day of using the camera I like this button on the right side more than I did on the left side. And if you use Photo Mechanic and like to ‘lock’ images so they are already selected when you download your photos, you will be happy to hear there is an actual lock button on the camera. To lock images on the Z7II requires a few clicks to get to the ‘protect’ selection.
Now here is something you might not hear from other reviewers. I’m happy to report, similar to my D6, that there are enough physical buttons on the camera (deep menus drive me crazy…give me a button!) that I can shoot the Z9 using my Heat Company Mitts. I photograph a lot in cold, subzero temps, and my hands get cold wearing gloves. But wearing these mitts keeps my hands warm…I just have to be able to press buttons on my camera. No problem with the Z9…another advantage of having a vertical grip body large enough to have plenty of buttons to assign different functions. The ten pin port is also on the Z9…I always liked attaching my cable release to the screw in port much better than plugging it into the side of the camera when photographing aurora and stars at night. And by the way, the Z9 has all buttons illuminated, a real bonus photographing in the dark.
That vertical grip allows you to use a large battery, the En-El18d. After shooting on and off all day, my battery has only gone down one bar. Honestly, it feels similar to using my D6. Maybe a little faster on battery usage, but not much. I don’t shoot video, so I can’t speak to that. But I am so happy to have a mirrorless camera that has extended battery life. This is really going to help photographing in Alaska this winter. And by the way, the new charger is much smaller, easier to pack for a trip.
Two more points. First, the flash card door has a lock, so it never accidentally opens. And second, I changed lenses all day long in blowing wind…the Z9 has a dedicated sensor shield (not the shutter) that protects the sensor during lens switches. This is just brilliant, I imagine the other camera companies will follow this with future models.
Let’s talk about viewfinders and start up times. One thing I have never liked about any mirrorless camera is the amount of time it takes to start up…it was one reason I was holding onto my DSLRs. Even a half second seems like forever. And seeing many different brands of mirrorless cameras on workshops, even top cameras just don’t start up fast enough….until the Z9. Flick the switch, the camera is on. Done. No waiting around, even for a tiny moment. This is so handy when you are photographing wildlife and suddenly a scene develops and you need the camera ready to go right then. And then there is the viewfinder. I can honestly say this is the most DSLR like viewfinder I have ever experienced. The viewfinder is extremely bright, and the resolution is sharp. Even though the resolution is similar to other Z cameras, Nikon has put special effort into making this viewfinder exceptional. Combined with the fast start up, and I can honestly say now I don’t miss my optical viewfinder.
How about the shutter? 20FPS at full raw, a nice white border blinks on the edge of the frame to let you know you are taking photos…and you can choose silent shutter if your prefer. I set a silent shutter option in my ‘I’menu so I can switch quickly when I need to. But I like to hear the shutter noise…some habits die slowly. The Z9 can shoot full size jpegs at 30FPS, and even a much smaller file at 120 FPS. My initial thought is I will use 20FPS 90 percent of the time when I photograph fast action. 20FPS is plenty, even for most bird photos or kayakers paddling off waterfalls. I set my CL mode to 10 FPS…I use this a lot for wildlife other than birds.
Okay, here is the biggest eye opener. The autofocus is just amazing. The Z9 just tracks people, birds, cars….just like the promo videos show. I used a variety of lenses from the new 100-400mm S lens, the FTZ adapter with the 500mm PF and 600mm F4..and the autofocus was excellent. No issues using the FTZ adapter. I photographed erratic ring-billed gulls flying over a lake for hours, and I just couldn’t believe how well the camera tracked the subjects. I can tell you these gulls flew much more erratic than eagles at Chilkat Alaska or even hummingbirds in Arizona. I used both the 3D tracking mode and Auto which lets the camera select the subject…both worked fantastic with birds in flight. This will be a game changer for any Nikon photographer. Your birds in flight photos are going to be sharp. I brought my trusty D6 along, and while I love that camera, it just doesn’t have the predictive autofocus abilities of the Z9.
I was amazed to see how well the autofocus could find bird eyes. Even shooting through dense trees, the Z9 just locked right onto the eye of the bird. Can you imagine photographing bears or lions that are moving fast? I can’t wait!
What about people? I had my son skateboard at very fast speeds going past me, as well as do tricks. The eye auto detection just locked onto his eyes every time. Cars? No normal street car can even challenge the Z9. I tried it a few times, but this isn’t really what I photograph.
So I can keep gushing and gushing about this camera. What is not to like? At $5500, this camera is not cheap, although it is priced much lower than comparable flagship cameras from other brands. Some may not like the large size, but this is an advantage to me. To me this camera is such a great transition from my D6, but much more advanced. Cree and I each have one, and honestly I think I will trade in our remaining DSLRs and get a third. This camera is going to be a workhorse for us for many years. We just posted some new wildlife trips, check out our workshops here.