Few cameras have been as hotly anticipated as the Nikon Z9. Of course, that’s partly due to Nikon’s own hype; their promotional campaign for the Nikon Z9 was the company’s strongest in years. But there’s also the fact that the Nikon Z lineup has long needed a pro-level, flagship camera. This comprehensive review of the Nikon Z9 shows that – with few exceptions – it meets that mark.
“Nikon is dying.” “Nikon is abandoning pros.” “Nikon lost my car keys.” All of these cries grew louder and louder as time passed in the mirrorless era. Those of us who have shot with Nikon for years knew that it wasn’t all that unusual: For better or worse, Nikon almost always waits a while between releasing flagship cameras, and your car keys are under your couch.
Even so, the Z9 was on the late side of the high-speed, high-resolution game. Canon’s EOS R5 (45 megapixels, 20 FPS) was announced in July 2020. Sony’s flagship A1 (50 megapixels, 30 FPS) was announced in January 2021. Nikon took the hint and revealed the Z9’s development in March 2021, but it wasn’t until October 2021 that they officially announced the Nikon Z9.
The Nikon Z9 is a flagship-level camera with an integrated grip and enough data transfer ports for any occasion. Even though the Z9 is geared toward sports and event photography pros, it has some features meant for almost everyone. There’s a 45-megapixel sensor, 20 FPS RAW shooting, and a 1000+ RAW image buffer. The Z9 sports Nikon’s best mirrorless autofocus yet, with subject-recognition capabilities that are best-in-class. For video shooters, the internal RAW video up to 8K 60p is eye-popping. In short, the camera is stacked with features.
Throughout this review, I’ll do a deep dive into the Nikon Z9’s feature set, specifications, image quality, and performance. I compiled this review with the help of Nasim Mansurov, Libor Vaicenbacher, and Ross Martin – three other members of the Photography Life team who have also tested the Z9 extensively. Between the four of us, I believe we’ve tested the Nikon Z9 in the most comprehensive manner you’ll find anywhere online, both in the field and in the lab. Half a dozen copies of the Nikon Z9 have passed through our hands and informed everything in this review.
This Nikon Z9 review is based on Firmware Version 3.0, which was released on October 26, 2022.
Nikon Z9 Review Timeline:
- August 23, 2022: Review published
- August 23, 2022: Corrected inaccuracies and typos; updated list of missing features on Overview page
- August 24, 2022: Updated star ratings to differentiate between AF performance with and without subject recognition
- August 30, 2022: Updated review for Z9 Firmware Version 2.11, which fixes an issue with Version 2.10 where the Z9 occasionally doesn’t respond to inputs
- September 16, 2022: Added real-world autofocus video screen capture from the Nikon Z9 for bird photography, with head-to-head screen capture against the Sony A1
- October 21, 2022: Updated the section on High Efficiency RAW to mention the new software support from companies like Capture One and ON1.
- November 13, 2022: Updated review for Z9 Firmware Version 3.0, which adds a variety of small features and autofocus improvements.
Nikon Z9 Specifications
|Sensor Type||Stacked CMOS|
|Sensor Resolution||45.7 megapixels|
|Sensor Size||35.9 × 23.9 mm full-frame sensor|
|In-Body Image Stabilization||Yes|
|Image Processor||EXPEED 7|
|Storage Media||Two CF Express B card slots with XQD backwards compatibility|
|Native ISO Sensitivity||ISO 64-25,600|
|Expanded ISO Sensitivity||ISO 32-102,400|
|Max Continuous Shooting Speed||20 FPS at full-resolution RAW;|
30 FPS at full-resolution JPEG;
120 FPS at 11-megapixel JPEG
|Blackout-Free Shooting||Yes, at all FPS speeds|
|Buffer Capacity: JPEG||Over 1000 frames (regardless of FPS)|
|Buffer: 20 FPS, High Efficiency Star RAW||Over 1000 frames|
|Buffer: 20 FPS, High Efficiency RAW||685 frames|
|Buffer: 20 FPS, Lossless Compressed RAW||79 frames|
|Buffer: 15 FPS, Lossless Compressed RAW||Over 1000 frames|
|Shutter Life||Effectively limitless|
|Shutter Readout Speed||About 3.7 milliseconds (1/270 second)|
|Shutter Speed Range||1/32,000 to 900 seconds|
|Focus System||493 points; 9-subject classification and deep learning algorithms; eye AF|
|Focusing Range (f/2, ISO 100, Firmware 3.0)1||-5.5 to 21.5 EV; -7.5 to 21.5 EV when Starlight View AF is enabled|
|Video Maximum Resolution||8.3K (8256 x 4644 pixels)|
|Slow Motion Video||8.3K at 60p N-RAW;|
4K at 120p, no crop;
1080p at 120p
|Video Quality||12-bit N-RAW (NEV);|
ProRes RAW 12-bit (MOV);
ProRes 4:2:2 10-bit (MOV);
H.265 10-bit (MOV);
H.265 8-bit (MOV);
H.264 8-bit (MP4)
|Rear LCD||3.2″ touchscreen, dual axis tilt, 2.1 million dots|
|Viewfinder||EVF, 100% coverage, 0.80× magnification, 3.69 million dots|
|Battery Life||700 photos|
|Weight (with Battery and Card)||1340 g (2.95 lbs)|
|Dimensions (Includes Viewfinder Protrusion)||149 × 149.5 × 90.5 mm (5.87 × 5.89 × 3.56 inches)|
|MSRP, Body Only||$5500 (check current price and availability)|
1 Firmware Version 3.0 improves the Z9’s low-light focusing by 0.5 stops compared to previous firmware versions. Also, Photography Life standardizes to an f/2 lens when reporting the EV range of any camera. By comparison, Nikon’s official specifications are based on an f/1.2 lens and Firmware Version 1.0.
The specifications above clearly indicate that the Nikon Z9 is a high-end camera – but that will really hit home in the list I’ll show you next.
What’s New on the Nikon Z9?
Good question! Below, I’ve compiled a list of features that are brand new to the Nikon Z9. Some of them are found on earlier Nikon DSLRs, but none are present in any previous Nikon Z mirrorless camera. Heads up, it’s a long list:
- EXPEED 7 processor
- Stacked, backside-illuminated CMOS sensor
- Built-in grip with vertical controls
- Flash mode button
- Bracketing button
- AF mode button
- Dedicated release mode dial for single, bulb, continuous low, continuous high, etc.
- Five programmable function buttons instead of two
- Two-button factory reset (BKT + exposure compensation buttons)
- Two-button memory card formatting (ISO + trash buttons)
- Ethernet port
- Flash sync terminal
- 10-pin remote terminal
- Anti-theft cable locking slot
- Built-in GPS
- Menu banks instead of U1/U2/U3
- “Recall shooting functions (hold)” for quick switching to a pre-defined camera setup
- Clutter-free live view DISP option
- Red-light dim LCD mode to preserve your vision in low light
- Dual-axis tilting LCD
- Glove-sensitive touchscreen mode
- 120 Hz viewfinder refresh rate
- Illuminated buttons
- Lack of mechanical shutter
- Dedicated sensor dust cover when changing lenses
- High frequency and finely-selectable flicker reduction for artificial light
- 20 FPS RAW shooting
- 30 FPS JPEG; 60 FPS 19-megapixel JPEG (DX crop); 120 FPS 11-megapixel JPEG
- Back-in-time buffer (Nikon calls it “Pre-Release Burst”) in 30, 60, and 120 FPS JPEG modes
- Blackout-free and slideshow-free shooting at maximum FPS
- 1000+ image buffer of RAW files
- New “high efficiency” and “high efficiency star” RAW compression algorithms
- 1/32,000 fastest shutter speed
- 8K video
- 4K 120p video
- RAW video options and in-camera N-Log
- High-res zoom option in video that maintains 4K video while zooming digitally
- Lowest-light autofocus yet with “starlight view”
- Bird subject detection autofocus
- Nine-subject autofocus recognition (people, dogs, cats, birds, cars, motorcycles, trains, planes, bicycles)
- Two customizable AF box sizes/aspect ratios
- True 3D tracking AF implementation
- EN-EL18 battery compatibility
All of these are firsts for a Nikon mirrorless camera – a simply massive number of new features, and I’m sure there are some that I missed. Either way, I’ve never felt the need to make a list like this in a review before.
Much of this review is dedicated to explaining these new features, how they work, and their pros and cons. I’ll start with an overview of which features on the Nikon Z9 matter the most to sports/wildlife photographers, event/broadcast photographers, landscape photographers, and portrait photographers.
The Nikon Z9 has something for almost everyone, but the most important new features depend on what type of photography you do. Here, I’ll go through some of the most popular genres and explain what the Z9 brings to the table.
1. Sports and Wildlife Photography
One word: autofocus. Mirrorless cameras can never fully replace DSLRs for sports/wildlife pros until their autofocus systems are sufficiently good at tracking fast-moving subjects.
Previous Nikon Z cameras, including the Z6 II and Z7 II, have better AF-C performance than is generally believed. Still, their autofocus tracking has some issues, particularly with small birds in flight and erratically-moving subjects against high-contrast backgrounds. Prior to the Z9, the Nikon Z series clearly lagged compared to expertly-focusing DSLRs like the Nikon D6 or even D850.
With the Nikon Z9, though, Nikon has improved its mirrorless focus tracking capabilities considerably. There’s now a true 3D-tracking autofocus mode, much broader subject recognition, and a faster EXPEED 7 processor to handle the data feed. Birds have been added to the list of subjects that are recognized (along with bikes, cars, and other vehicles). And the autofocus system now has much better configurability, a dedicated AF mode button, and more customizable function buttons.
We’ll go into lots of detail about the Z9’s new focusing system on a later page of this review, including how it compares head-to-head against the Nikon Z7 II, Nikon D6, and Sony A1. But suffice to say that Nikon has created what is, in most respects, the company’s best autofocus system ever.
Another huge factor for sports and wildlife photographers is the Z9’s combination of a high frame rate with a massive buffer. With the appropriate CFExpress card, the Nikon Z9 can shoot over 1000 RAW images in sequence at 20 FPS – in other words, more than 50 seconds of continuous burst.
The frame rate can be bumped to 30 FPS if you don’t mind shooting JPEG. It can even go to 60 FPS or 120 FPS if you don’t mind shooting 19-megapixel and 11-megapixel JPEGs respectively. (For whatever reason, the 60 FPS option is DX crop only.) I expect that most wildlife photographers will stick to the 20 FPS RAW setting, but sports photographers who need to deliver quick pictures for web or broadcast publication may be perfectly content with the 30 FPS, 60 FPS, or 120 FPS modes.
Finally, in a first for Nikon, the Z9 has a back-in-time buffer when shooting 30, 60, or 120 FPS JPEGs. “Back-in-time buffer” is just what I like to call it; Nikon calls it “pre-release burst.” With this feature enabled, any time you hold the shutter button down halfway, the Z9 saves up to one second of JPEGs prior to the moment you fully press the shutter. This feature isn’t unique to Nikon – it’s also found in some Olympus and Fuji cameras, among others – but as you can imagine, it makes a huge difference in capturing moments that happen faster than the human reaction time.
2. Event/Broadcast Photography
The Z9 has all manner of features for event photographers, from an ethernet port to the impressively small file sizes when shooting high efficiency RAW. It’s a camera designed to churn out high volumes of properly-labeled photos and transmit them quickly to your workstation or broadcast network.
One look at the Nikon Z9’s network menu (below the setup menu) will give you a sense of the Z9’s capabilities in this regard. “Wired LAN”; “connect to smart device”; “connect to computer”; “connect to FTP server”; “connect to other cameras” – it’s just one after another. I say this only half in jest: You can pair the Z9 with practically anything that has internet access or a data transfer port. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could somehow pair it with my calculator.
Even if you don’t shoot for a broadcast network, you’ll still appreciate many of the Z9’s features for event photography. The long battery life, for instance, makes this perhaps the first Nikon Z camera that can be used for an entire wedding or music festival without needing to change batteries. If you need to shoot for long hours from the same spot, there’s also the option of live USB power – not the first Nikon Z camera with this feature, but still welcome.
Other features for event and broadcast photography include a voice memo option to label photos upon reviewing them, which creates a .wav file alongside the image. There’s also an anti-flicker mode that lets you fine-tune your shutter speed by tiny fractions of a stop, thus eliminating banding caused by artificial light. Finally, new as of Firmware Version 3.0 is file transfer via the FTPS protocol.
3. Landscape Photography
Cameras designed like the Nikon Z9 – the stacked CMOS sensor, the large size and weight, the integrated vertical grip – usually aren’t great landscape cameras. But the Nikon Z9 is an exception to the rule.
There’s no single feature that makes the Z9 such a capable performer for landscape photography, but it combines a lot of little things that go together well. For starters, the camera uses a 45-megapixel sensor with base ISO 64 – which was already a surprise for a Nikon flagship camera, since the Nikon D4/D5/D6 series never surpassed 20.8 megapixels.
Beyond the sensor, one of the Z9’s most notable features for landscape photography is the dual-axis tilting LCD. For vertical photography from a tripod, this is a very important feature that landscape photographers have been asking of Nikon for ages. It even goes against what a typical sports/wildlife/event photographer may prefer, because it adds more moving parts to the camera’s build.
The Z9 is the first Nikon camera with a dust curtain that engages when the camera is turned off. This helps prevent small particles of dust and debris from landing on the sensor when you change lenses. Since dust is more visible at narrow apertures like f/11 or f/16, this feature will be especially appreciated by landscape photographers and others who commonly use such narrow apertures (like macro photographers).
Beyond that, the Nikon Z9 has Nikon’s best astrophotography features of any camera yet. There’s the ultra-low-light focusing mode called “Starlight View” that allows the camera to autofocus on stars at night (more on that in the Focusing chapter of this review later). The camera also has a dim red light mode to lower the brightness of the LCD and preserve your vision at night. Likewise, photographers in cold conditions, including nighttime astrophotography, will find the glove-sensitive touchscreen option a welcome sight.
Of the other landscape-related features, I think the most useful is the built-in GPS. Only the Nikon D6 and – of all things – the Nikon D5300 have had this feature in previous Nikon DSLRs, and no Nikon Z camera has had it yet. Instead, you had to resort to GPS dongles or piggybacking onto your smartphone’s GPS if you wanted this feature. While not all landscape photographers will need a GPS, I personally find it very useful to remember some of the middle-of-nowhere landscapes that I visit. I kept the Z9’s GPS engaged at all times when using this camera, and I didn’t see any meaningful drain on the battery life because of it.
4. Portrait Photography
Most of the Nikon Z9’s new features aren’t targeted at portrait photographers, but they can still make a difference. For example, the longer battery life on the Nikon Z9 is welcome for all-day portrait shoots. The tether locking cable slot makes it easier to leave the Z9 in a studio environment overnight or while taking a lunch break. And, of course, the improved autofocus system – thanks in part to the faster EXPEED 7 processor – is welcome for almost every genre of photography. (Although prior Nikon Z cameras already had excellent autofocus for portraiture.)
In terms of flash capability, the Nikon Z9 maxes out at a pedestrian 1/200 sync speed, compared to most flagship cameras that sport at least a 1/250 second sync instead. That said, the camera does have high speed sync up to 1/8000 second if you’re using the appropriate flash. In a first for a Nikon mirrorless camera, the Z9 has a PC flash sync terminal for studio-based portrait photographers who use wired sync cables. As of Firmware Version 3.0, the Z9 has added a useful feature that lets you preview the background exposure prior to shooting with a flash.
Like other mirrorless cameras, the Nikon Z9 cannot trigger the autofocus assist lamp of most flash units. Nor would it do much good if it could, because those flash units emit red/infrared light that is easy for a DSLR’s phase detect system to pick up, but not very useful for most mirrorless AF systems. If the problem is to be solved, flash companies will need to release a flash with green or blue light AF assist lamps in the future. (Or, flash photographers will need to live with other, less obtrusive focusing methods in low light.)
Speaking of focusing, the Z9’s face detection capabilities are similar to prior Nikon Z cameras. When the Nikon Z9 is used in a face-detecting autofocus area mode, it prioritizes your subject’s nearest eye. Unlike some Sony cameras, the Z9 does not let you manually choose between closest versus furthest eye prioritization. However, I don’t see this as a meaningful problem, since you’ll almost always want to focus on the nearest eye anyway. (Even if you don’t, you can just choose a different AF tracking mode, like 3D tracking, and place the AF box over the subject’s further eye.)
Spencer: Fast action photographers are probably the truest audience that Nikon had in mind when designing the Z9, including sports and broadcast pros. Even so, Nikon has done a good job adding something for lots of different niches.
Nasim: Everyone knew that the “mirrorless D6” would appeal to sports photographers first and foremost, that’s no surprise. But it’s interesting that this is the first time since the D3X that Nikon has also prioritized non-action photographers with one of their flagships.
Spencer: “I am not the target audience for the Z9.” I think it’s true in my case, as a slow-paced landscape photographer. It’s also something I need to repeat to myself in moments of weakness! The Z9 is overkill for me, but I can’t deny that it has Nikon’s best landscape and astro features yet.
The RAW file options on the Nikon Z9 are surprising, and different from the options on Nikon’s other 45-megapixel cameras. Specifically, there are only three choices in the “RAW recording” menu. In order from largest to smallest files, we have: lossless compression, high efficiency star, and high efficiency. If you’re trying to change the Z9’s RAW image quality and file size, that’s it for your choices.
In other words, there is no sRAW or mRAW on the Nikon Z9. Nor is there the choice between 12-bit versus 14-bit recording. Whether you like it or not, every RAW photo you take with the Nikon Z9 is going to be 14-bit and 45 megapixels. (The obvious exception is if you crop to DX, 1:1, or 16:9 under the “Image area” menu option, which reduces the resolution – duh – but keeps the files 14-bit.)
If you’re worried about file size, you may actually be happier with the Z9 than a different 45-megapixel Nikon body. That’s because high efficiency star RAW and high efficiency RAW both reduce the Z9’s file size substantially. The Z9’s average RAW file sizes look like this:
- Lossless compression: 55.1 MB
- High efficiency star: 33.0 MB
- High efficiency: 22.0 MB
The file size of “lossless compressed” is as expected, but the two high efficiency RAW options are surprisingly small thanks to the TicoRAW high efficiency compression algorithm. (Nikon is fending off a lawsuit from RED for this, so be thankful for it.)
By comparison, mRAW on the Nikon D850 is 26 megapixels and about 30 MB on average. sRAW on the D850 is a mere 11 megapixels, and those files average about 22 MB.
This means that the Nikon has managed to approach mRAW file size territory with high efficiency star, and sRAW territory with high efficiency RAW! That’s very impressive for 45-megapixel, 14-bit files.
File size isn’t the only consideration among these three RAW file types. Of the bunch, high efficiency star (the middle option) has the biggest buffer: 1000 images at 20 FPS. Meanwhile, Nikon claims 685 images at 20 FPS for high efficiency, and a mere 79 images for lossless compression – though you can boost that dramatically by shooting 15 FPS instead of 20 FPS.
But what about image quality? Small file sizes are nice, but few photographers would use the new RAW options if they had major image quality penalties. If you take Nikon at their word, they claim that high efficiency star and lossless compressed RAW are “nearly identical” in image quality, whereas high efficiency star “produces higher-quality pictures than High Efficiency.”
That’s nice in theory, but I wanted to see how the three options truly compared side by side. Historically, the best way to see minor differences between Nikon’s RAW compression options has been to look at severely underexposed images at base ISO, after recovering them in post-processing. So, let’s do that here. These images are 100% crops (an excerpt 640 by 960 pixels in size) with no resizing on my part, underexposed by five stops and recovered in Lightroom. Whether you click these images or not, you’re viewing them at full size:
(For technical details, all three images were shot at base ISO 64, f/8, and 1/20 second with the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 lens at 50mm. Each image was deliberately underexposed by five stops and recovered with Lightroom’s Exposure slider. No noise reduction or sharpening were performed on these images. The 960-pixel crops were done in Lightroom and exported as JPEG images with “Limit File Size” set to 1000 KB in the sRGB color space.)
To my eye, all three images have the same image quality, both in terms of noise and level of detail. I see no better or worse performance from any of the three images above. This isn’t just true of the JPEG crops shown above, but also when viewing the RAW files directly in Lightroom.
I also wanted to test the differences with a real-world scene. I deliberately underexposed each of the following images by one stop, then recovered it in Lightroom in order to show the results of more typical shadow recovery with each RAW format. Here’s the full, unedited image:
And these are the corresponding crops after one stop of brightening:
Once again, I see no image quality differences whatsoever. For real-world scenes that require ordinary levels of post-processing like this, you are unlikely to ever see even the slightest image quality benefits to shooting Uncompressed RAW.
Finally, I wanted to test at ISO 6400, without any exposure recovery:
In this case, too, I don’t notice any image quality differences between the images even upon such close examination.
Ultimately, all of the Nikon Z9’s RAW compression options provide excellent photos. The only time I’ve been able to see differences between them is when shooting a hyper-exaggerated image that’s something like 10 stops underexposed, and recovering with the most aggressive tools in Photoshop. Under those circumstances, Uncompressed and High Efficiency Star still look the same to me, while High Efficiency has a bit more color noise and a stronger tint shift. Clearly, it’s nothing meaningful for real-world images; you can use any of the three formats without worry.
Instead, arguably the biggest reason to avoid the High Efficiency RAW files is that they’re not supported by all post-processing software. Thankfully, now that enough time has passed, most of the popular software supports the High Efficiency files without issue, including Lightroom, Capture One, and ON1.
Still, some more off-the-beaten-path software doesn’t currently support the Z9’s High Efficiency RAW files. In order to open the photos in those programs, you need to se Adobe’s DNG converter or export the image as a TIFF. That can negate the file size advantage of High Efficiency RAW.
Nasim: I think the answer for most photographers is just to shoot High Efficiency Star and not worry about anything else. The files are indistinguishable from Lossless Compressed RAW, they’re 2/3 the size, and they let you shoot 20 FPS with the biggest buffer.
Spencer: Keep in mind photographers who use niche software for RAW editing. They’ll need to use Lossless Compressed. At the moment, this is the situation with some of my astrophotography stacking software.
Nasim: Sure, but you just need to examine your own situation. Shoot High Efficiency Star if your software supports it, and otherwise shoot Lossless Compressed.
Spencer: Or pick JPEG and have all the support in the world. Make Ken Rockwell proud!
Nasim: Who are you, and what have you done with Spencer?
Metering and Exposure
The Nikon Z9 uses the same metering system as prior Nikon Z cameras – specifically, the TTL exposure metering system that uses the main image sensor for metering decisions. It’s not a system that we’ve really complained about in the past, but it’s starting to look a bit outdated on a camera that does almost everything else right. It’s time for Nikon to add some new customizability to matrix metering, or, better yet, implement a more consistent metering system that includes ETTR exposure for optimal data capture.
For instance, take the following landscape image. What exposure does Nikon’s matrix metering system recommend?
The truth is that it depends. The exposure above (1/8 second in aperture priority mode) is what Nikon’s matrix meter suggested when I positioned the focusing box over the mountain. Meanwhile, the image below is what the matrix metering system produced when I simply repositioned the box over the foreground:
The second of the two images above (at 1/3 second) is actually a lot closer to the proper ETTR exposure, although some of the patches of snow on the mountain are a bit too far overexposed. More importantly, this is over a full stop brighter than the prior image, despite being the exact same scene and the same time of day.
As usual, Nikon is placing a heavy emphasis on the focusing box when choosing an exposure in matrix metering. I understand that Nikon wants the main subject (which usually aligns with the focus box) to be properly exposed. However, in lots of landscape photos, there is no obvious subject that deserves exposure priority over the rest of the scene.
That’s why there should either be a new matrix metering mode that is independent of focus point, or a menu option to allow you to change the weight given to the focus point on matrix metering recommendations. Alternatively, Nikon could use its newfound subject-recognition skills to automatically adjust the importance of the focus point when metering – placing more importance on the focus point when it’s a portrait and less when it’s a landscape, for example.
Luckily, you can improve the consistency of the Z9’s meter by using highlight-weighted metering combined with a positive exposure compensation – about +1.7 or +2.0 does the trick – which is what I recommend for landscape photographers. Still, you’ll probably switch back to matrix metering for subjects like wildlife or portraits, so it’s not perfect. (It also makes the lack of a dedicated metering mode button on the Nikon Z9 more noticeable.)
Again, most of this is nothing unique to the Nikon Z9, and it’s not a major issue at the end of the day. But it goes to show that there’s still room for improvement even in the age-old feature of metering.
Nasim: I’ve mostly given up on any camera company implementing a true ETTR exposure metering mode, but a photographer can hope.
Spencer: It’s been on my list for a while too, but Nikon’s highlight-weighted metering combined with exposure compensation is pretty close. I can’t fault the Z9’s metering most of the time.
Nasim: Nikon’s metering system has decades of development behind it and is definitely refined. But that means it’s exactly the type of thing that’s open to disruption from other companies if Nikon tries to rest on its laurels.
Long Exposures with the Z9
The Nikon Z9 is perhaps the best camera Nikon has ever made for shooting long exposures, including subjects like ocean waves with a strong ND filter or star trails at night.
Part of the Z9’s suitability for these subjects is due to the built-in extended shutter speeds in manual mode. Once you enable “Extended Shutter Speeds (M)” in the shooting/display menu, the Nikon Z9 can take long exposures at the following shutter speeds:
These are the same as the options on other Nikon cameras like the Z7 II. It’s a very useful feature, albeit a weird division of shutter speed options. For example, there’s no 45-second setting, and the other shutter speeds have inconsistent differences between them (some are 1/3 stop, others are 1/2 stop).
If you need more precision than this, the Z9 has “Bulb” and “Time” shutter speed settings, too. New to the Z9, Nikon now sets a stopwatch on the top LCD when you use “Time” exposures. Unfortunately, there is no option to illuminate the top LCD during these exposures, so it’s impossible to see the stopwatch in the dark unless you shine a light on it. Since many “Time” exposures are going to take place at night, this otherwise interesting feature is much less useful.
Beyond that, as you’ll see later in this review, the Nikon Z9 autofocuses in lower-light conditions than any previous Nikon Z camera, thanks to a new “Starlight View” mode in the Shooting/Display menu. Software Version 3.0 improves this even further. Milky Way photographers will appreciate the camera’s dim, red LCD mode that won’t ruin your vision at night, plus illuminated buttons to see what you’re doing more easily. (Granted, not all the useful buttons light up, including DISP, exposure compensation, and ISO.) All told, the Nikon Z9 is an excellent camera for astrophotography and other long exposures at night.
Nasim: It’s nice to see Nikon adding some features to the Z9 that aren’t just for sports and wildlife photographers. The Z series already has some great lenses for Milky Way photography like the Z 14-24mm f/2.8 and Z 20mm f/1.8, and the Z9 can make good use of them.
Spencer: I agree, aside from the minor complaints with the shutter speed options, non-illuminated stopwatch, and some buttons that don’t light up. The Z9’s astrophotography experience feels a bit disjointed between the great features and the unusual implementation in some cases.
Nasim: Sometimes little issues stand out more when a camera does almost everything else right.
A useful feature on the Nikon Z9 for sports and other event photography is the option to record voice memos when reviewing an image. The Z9 is not the first Nikon camera to have the voice memo functionality; both the Nikon Z6 and Z6 II have it as well (although, curiously, the Z7 and Z7 II do not).
Voice memos only work on photos that you’re actively reviewing. You can’t record a memo for a photo at the same moment that you’re taking it. Once you’ve recorded the memo, it’s saved on your card in the format “DSC_1234.WAV.” The string of numbers corresponds to the file name of the associated photo (in this case, for example, DSC_1234.NEF).
You can’t record voice memos for video files. Interestingly, you also can’t record voice memos for still images if the photo/video switch on the back of the camera is merely set to video mode. So if you find that the voice memo button isn’t working, that’s probably why.
Nasim: When I would photograph weddings, I always had to pay careful attention to who’s who in my photos. It would have been easier if my camera at the time had the voice memo option.
Spencer: That’s going to be one of the most popular uses, but I’d say it’s a useful feature even for something like landscape photography. I use my Z6 to photograph the Milky Way, and I periodically record memos about dark frames and the number of photos in an upcoming image stack. I wish Nikon would add the memo feature to the Z7 lineup, though.
The Nikon Z9 has better battery life than any other Nikon Z camera yet. To me, it all but eliminates the complaint that mirrorless falls short of DSLR battery life.
The official CIPA numbers don’t tell the same story, though. They show the Nikon Z9 as getting 740 shots per charge via the rear LCD, or 700 shots per charge via the electronic viewfinder. This falls short of most DSLRs. For instance, the Nikon D850 gets 1840 shots per charge according to CIPA, and the Nikon D6 gets a whopping 3580!
What explains the difference? It’s largely due to CIPA’s testing standards, which specify a 30-second interval between photos, with the camera remaining active the whole time. It’s mostly this active time – not the photos themselves – that depletes the Z9’s battery to CIPA’s stated figures. Essentially, they’re saying the Z9 can be left on and active for about six hours straight, taking a photo every so often, before the battery dies.
In our team’s usage at Photography Life, it took about 2500 real-world photos or two full days of wildlife photography to drain the Nikon Z9’s battery on average. I personally never got close to that as a landscape photographer, where a full day of photography tended to drain about one bar of my Z9’s battery. On the other hand, if you shoot lots of 20+ FPS bursts with the Z9, you could probably get well over 2500 images before the battery dies. (Nikon specifies more than 5000 per charge if you take one long sequence of photos, but that’s a best-case scenario.)
The Z9 has an energy saving mode if you need it in a pinch, which bumps up the CIPA figures ever so slightly from 740 to 770 shots per charge (rear LCD). You can also adjust various menu settings to improve your battery life further, such as turning off the GPS and lowering the brightness on your LCD.
In practice, I didn’t find any of these battery-saving changes to be necessary on the Nikon Z9. Even with features like GPS enabled, the Z9 easily lasted a day of photography in our testing, both for wildlife and landscape photography. Only if you constantly transfer all your images wirelessly, or shoot hours of video on end, might you run into a pinch. But that’s true of any Nikon camera, including DSLRs. Overall, thanks to the EN-EL18d’s massive capacity (about 1.7x the EN-EL15b, for comparison), the Z9 won’t give you battery anxiety.
Libor: As far as battery life goes, here’s how I see it. Unlike the Nikon Z6 and Z7 series, the Z9 finally has a battery that I can shoot on pretty much all day. I’ll probably buy a second battery at some point, but I am rarely going to need it.
Nasim: That’s the key hurdle that camera companies needed to cross with mirrorless. If one battery takes you through the day, then you can recharge it at night, and battery life is no longer a problem.
Spencer: In discussions like this, I always try to point out that DSLRs have always had lousy battery life if you use them in live view. The Z9 easily beats almost every DSLR if you stick to the rear LCD on both. Shooting mirrorless has actually improved my battery life on average, even before the Z9.
Libor: As someone in the opposite situation, who only ever uses the OVF and EVF, I still think the Z9’s battery life is fantastic and outperforms most DSLRs in practice, which until recently was a dream.
Nasim: I’m not really complaining, but keep in mind, the Z9 only manages this feat because the EN-EL18d is like two EN-EL15 batteries put together! It’s not a small battery or a small camera.
With the Z9, Nikon has chosen to add native GPS capabilities to one of their Z-series cameras for the first time. (Previously the D5300 and D6 DSLR had native GPS capabilities.) This may be due to the Z9’s high-capacity battery, or maybe just because they’re trying to throw everything they can at this camera. Either way, it’s a welcome sight.
To adjust the Nikon Z9’s GPS settings, go to the “Location data” option in the setup menu. There you can turn the GPS on and off, automatically set the camera’s internal clock, create a timed location log, and see your current position. If you don’t care about making location logs, just turning the GPS broadly to “on” is all you need to do to embed latitude and longitude information into your Nikon Z9 files.
In terms of battery life, even with the GPS on all day, I had no issue using the Z9 for a full day of shooting without a spare battery. It seems to draw very little power, although note that the GPS can remain active and create logs even when the camera is turned off, if the battery remains charged. So, it can be a constant (albeit very low-level) drain over time. For what it’s worth, I never bothered to turn mine off.
The Nikon Z9 is the first Z-series camera to have menu banks, a divisive feature carried over from Nikon’s highest-end DSLRs. Menu banks are an alternative to the U1/U2/U3 modes that many of the other Nikon Z cameras have.
I’ve written a detailed article describing the Nikon Z9’s menu banks (which are split into “Photo Shooting Menu” and “Custom Settings Menu” banks), found here. Aside from just the menu banks, that article also covers my general recommended settings for the Nikon Z9, so I recommend reading it if you’re a new Nikon Z9 user.
Something interesting about the Nikon Z9 – added in Firmware Version 2.0 – is an option in the the custom controls menu called “Recall Shooting Functions (Hold).” Essentially, it lets you revert the Z9 to a pre-chosen state, such as quickly switching the Z9 to a group of settings for action photography. This option behaves as it did on the Nikon D6, but it’s not entirely intuitive to set up, so I recommend Nikon’s article on this topic.
The Nikon Z9, as with other Nikon cameras in the past, doesn’t do a perfect job implementing the menu bank options. There’s no way to lock a menu bank, for example, and some settings still can’t be saved to the bank even when you’ve selected the “extended menu banks” option in the menu (like the camera’s drive mode, or anything in the Setup menu). Still, after some time using the camera, most photographers will be able to make peace with the menu banks even if they never grow to love them.
Nasim: I wish Nikon had gone with the more intuitive U1/U2/U3 options that every photographer seems to like better anyway.
Spencer: Menu banks have always been a bit awkward, but they’re not terrible. I think the hardest part is remembering how you’ve set things differently for each bank.
Nasim: For me, the hardest part is remembering to reset the darn things because they don’t have a way to lock in your preferences!
Spencer: I like to use slots C and D as backups for my settings in A and B. I don’t need more than two menu banks for my photography, and this way I have an easy way to reset A and B back to my preferences.
Nasim: That’s fine, if you don’t mind losing half your menu banks…
For some of the Nikon Z9’s most important features, I’ve dedicated a full page later in this review. That includes:
- Viewfinder and LCD
- High FPS shooting and buffer
- The fully electronic shutter
- Focusing and tracking
- Video features
Later in this review, you’ll also find detailed ISO tests, dynamic range tests, and specifications comparisons against the Z9’s competitors. And, of course, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have in the Reader Comments section at the end of this review.
The Z9 clearly has an excellent feature set, but this page wouldn’t be complete without looking at what’s missing. Here are some of the noteworthy omissions and issues on the Z9:
- No sensor-shift mode for higher resolution photography
- No exposure delay mode (self-timer only, which is limited to 2, 5, 10, and 20 seconds of delay and cannot be assigned to a custom button)
- No back-in-time buffer for RAW photos (only for 30, 60, and 120 FPS JPEG)
- No dedicated metering mode button
- No in-camera, multiple-exposure RAW option
- No U1/U2/U3 modes or lockable menu banks
- Menu banks don’t recall some settings, like your Custom Release Mode choice (AKA the furthest-right option on the release mode dial)
- No 4:5 aspect ratio crop
- No touchscreen AF control when looking through the viewfinder
- No option to automatically magnify the focus point when manually focusing
- No RGB histogram in live view
- No obvious highlight clipping signs in live view (like overexposure zebras – which are only found in video mode – or the histogram edge changing color when clipped)
- No native histogram based on RAW data (only possible to manually add via unwieldy UniWB method)
- Cannot trigger the AF assist lamp on most external flash heads – nor use their infrared beam for focusing even if it could
- Cannot add “minimum shutter speed” to My Menu (though “ISO sensitivity settings” can be added, which contains the “minimum shutter speed” option)
- Inconsistent labeling and minor typos in the menu and elsewhere, compiled in a list by Thom Hogan at the bottom of his review
- Only English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese available for US version of the Z9
Most of these issues are not new for the Nikon Z9 and are found on other cameras in the Z-series lineup, too (and plenty of non-Nikon cameras). Nevertheless, depending on your requirements, they’re all things you may notice and wish the Z9 did differently.
Beyond that, there’s room on the Z9 (or the eventual Z9 II) for some more advanced features that could take it to the next level. In my article on features that more cameras need, I described features already found on some cameras today – in other words, the technology already exists – but still missing on many cameras, including the Nikon Z9 in some cases.
Now that I’ve covered the Nikon Z9’s features in detail, the next page of this review will cover the camera’s build quality and handling considerations. So, click the dropdown menu below to jump to the second page of this review, “Build Quality + Handling.”