Build Quality and Handling
Even at first glance, it’s clear that the Nikon Z9 is a professional camera. With the built-in grip, advanced vertical controls, and endless button layout, the Z9 doesn’t hide its true nature. In hand, the Nikon Z9 feels more like a DSLR than any Nikon Z camera so far.
But despite the camera’s heavy-duty construction, the Z9 still retains some important elements of the Z system. In particular, the camera’s button layout is a fascinating blend between the Nikon D6 and the Nikon Z6/Z7 series. Current Nikon Z photographers may still need some time to adjust to the Z9, but it will feel at least somewhat familiar.
In this section of the review, I’ll dive into the Nikon Z9’s construction, especially the build quality and handling considerations. Let’s start with a look at the Z9’s control layout.
The Nikon Z9’s rear control layout is very interesting, with a similar “right-side heavy” layout like other Nikon mirrorless cameras, but an extra row of buttons at the bottom very reminiscent of the Nikon D4/D5/D6 series.
One of the more surprising changes is that Nikon has moved the playback button from the top left (replacing it with the Fn4 button) to one of the four spaces beneath the direction pad. This change may take some time for you to get used to if you’re coming from one of Nikon’s many cameras with a top-left playback button. The good news is that you can assign Fn4 to playback if you need the familiarity.
There’s also the obvious addition of a second AF-On button and the extra command dial at the bottom right. These, of course, are for vertical shooting. They don’t respond to inputs when you’ve locked the vertical controls, and neither does the additional “i” button in the bottom row.
Another noteworthy change includes the dial at the top left of the camera, where you can switch between different release modes like Single, Self Timer, High Speed Continuous, and so on. I’m glad that this is now a dial rather than a button, if only because it means the self-timer will no longer reset when turning the camera on and off! That was one of my pet peeves with earlier Nikon Z cameras.
However, the final option on that dial behaves in an odd way. It’s meant to be a custom slot for your own choice of drive mode; this is also how you access the Z9’s high-speed 30, 60, and 120 FPS JPEG photography. But for some reason, your chosen drive mode here cannot be saved to the Z9’s menu banks, which would have made it a genuinely option on the dial. (For instance, you could have created a landscape menu bank with a 2 second self timer, and a wildlife menu bank with 20 FPS saved.) As it is, that mode on the dial is really only useful to access the 30, 60, and 120 FPS JPEG shooting, which is a waste of potential in my opinion.
Here’s the top layout of the Nikon Z9:
No real surprises in the top controls, although it is noteworthy that this is the first Nikon Z camera with a Mode button instead of a PSAM dial. This also means there is no U1/U2/U3 mode on the Nikon Z9, and you’ll need to use menu banks for a similar purpose instead.
The left-hand side of the camera with all the ports is next:
In order from top to bottom, and left to right, we have:
- Flash sync terminal
- 10-pin remote terminal
- Ethernet port
- Microphone jack
- Headphone jack
- HDMI port (standard size)
- USB port (USB-C, for charging, data transfer, and live USB power)
- Battery door
There’s also the large button to the left of the HDMI and USB ports. This is the focus mode button, which Nikon has finally brought to one of their Z-series cameras! (Previously, I would assign focus mode to the Record button because of its importance.) If you need to switch between AF-C and AF-S, as well as between AF area modes like 3D tracking, wide area, dynamic area, etc., this is a good way to do so quickly.
Moving on, here’s the image of the Z9 that I used earlier at the start of the review, which shows the three function buttons on the front of the camera as well as the vertical controls:
The vertical controls include a command dial in the front and back, along with an ISO button and a customizable button next to the shutter release. (I assign this customizable button to exposure compensation to mimic the horizontal controls.) The switch next to the vertical shutter release button may look like an on/off power switch, but it’s just the locking switch to enable or disable vertical controls.
Of the three function buttons on the front of the camera, Fn3 is the easiest to reach when shooting vertically. I recommend assigning it to duplicate Fn1, so that your muscle memory is the same both for horizontal and vertical photography. For me, this is “access top item in My Menu” so that I can quickly change ISO minimum shutter speed and other related settings, plus reach the entirety of My Menu within two clicks. But your mileage may vary.
Finally, you can see the large memory card door and the laptop-locking cable flap below it on the side of the camera. One of my few complaints about the Nikon Z9’s handling is that the memory card door is rather awkward to open. You need to slide the switch on the door downward while simultaneously sliding the door toward yourself, which isn’t a natural movement, and especially tough when wearing gloves. It’s not a big problem but could have been designed more ergonomically.
The only other handling issue I noticed isn’t related to the camera’s layout, but it still affected the Z9’s ease of operation when I used the camera in the field. Every once in a while during my testing, the Z9 slowed down in terms of overall responsiveness. The problem only appeared occasionally, maybe five or six times across all my time with the Z9 so far, and usually in cases where the camera was at risk of overheating. As of Firmware Version 3.0, the issue still occasionally appears. Thankfully, in my experience, I could fix the slowdown quickly by turning the Z9 off and back on again, but I think it’s still an issue worth mentioning.
The Nikon Z9 is built extremely well overall. It feels sturdier than previous Nikon Z cameras, which are far from tank-like (but do have very tight build tolerances). The only dinky-feeling control on the camera is the customizable button next to the vertical shutter release – the one that most people are likely to set for exposure compensation. It’s flush with the camera instead of bubbling out, and it’s completely unlabeled. Who knows why this button didn’t get the same treatment as the others.
In terms of weatherproofing, the copies of the Nikon Z9 we tested survived multiple snowstorms, downpours, dusty conditions, and a heat wave. The only conditions that ever gave it trouble were hot, sunny conditions when shooting long bursts of images, which is an obvious recipe for overheating. Even so, the Nikon Z9 never fully shut down but just occasionally slowed and gave a “hot memory card” warning. This was solved by opening the card door, turning the camera off, and waiting for about half a minute for the card to cool down.
What about internally? I admit I’m too squeamish to put a screwdriver to a $5500 camera, but the folks at Kolari Vision did a full teardown of the Nikon Z9 here. You should check out their article for a deep dive on the camera’s construction, but the takeaway is that it’s a well-built and surprisingly easy-to-repair camera. The only potential issue they noted is that the Z9’s lens mount, like that of other Nikon Z cameras, is screwed directly onto the Z9’s magnesium body with four screws. There’s no additional reinforcement that might be desirable on a camera frequently used with supertelephoto exotics.
I expect that it will never be an issue for more than a small handful of Z9 users, and Kolari Vision notes that this design is easier to repair than a heavily reinforced alternative. But photographers who are particularly aggressive with their gear – for instance, if you like to leave long lenses on the camera while it bounces around on the floor of a Jeep somewhere – should at least be aware of the risks to the lens mount.
On balance, I give the Nikon Z9’s construction excellent marks. It’s definitely built tougher than the Z6 II and Z7 II, both of which we rated 4.5/5 stars for their build quality. I’m inclined to give the Z9 a full 5/5 as a result, although I wouldn’t say it’s quite at the level of a Nikon D6.
Size and Weight
The elephant in the room is the Nikon Z9 itself. It’s a big, heavy camera that completely goes against the lightweight ethos of almost every other mirrorless camera on the market. At 1340 grams (2.95 pounds) with a battery and one memory card, the Nikon Z9 literally weighs as much as two Nikon Z7 II bodies combined.
Even compared to flagship DSLRs, the Nikon Z9 isn’t really any lighter. It weighs about 100 grams less than the most recent Nikon D6, for example, which might be noticeable if you take into account that Z-mount lenses are also slightly lighter on average. But 1340 grams is exactly the same as the earlier Nikon D4, which is hardly known for its lightweight design.
Still, none of this is necessarily a mark against the Nikon Z9, since it’s designed for an audience that will appreciate the built-in grip, dedicated vertical controls, and sprawling professional button layout. Not to mention that many of the Z9’s advanced connectivity options – including the full-sized HDMI port and ethernet port – just aren’t found in smaller cameras. The camera is big, but it’s big for a reason.
Overall, is the Z9 an acceptable size and weight? For professional usage, absolutely – just like the D4, D5, and D6 are. But if you want your camera to be as portable as possible, the short answer is that the Nikon Z9 probably isn’t the right choice for you. Instead, you’ll need to sacrifice some performance with the Nikon Z6 II or Z7 II, or wait for a future Nikon camera that fits the bill. (Or go with the Canon EOS R5 or Sony A1.)
If you’re on the fence about the Nikon Z9’s size and weight, I should point out that it’s not just the camera itself that you need to consider. The Z9 demands larger batteries, chargers, L-brackets, and bags. It’s important to realize that ahead of time and be prepared for what the Z9 entails, because your overall setup can balloon in size if you’re not careful. As appealing as the Z9’s features are, you’ve got to make sure you’d actually enjoy using the camera, or you’ll eventually dread taking it off the shelf and just sell it in the end.
One issue with the Z9’s design is that it doesn’t support an ordinary L-bracket to mount the camera vertically on a tripod – at least, not if you want access to the battery compartment. The focus mode button and the many ports also interfere with standard L-bracket designs.
Here’s how one manufacturer, SmallRig, designed their Z9 L-bracket in order to allow access to all the Z9’s ports and buttons:
Nothing against SmallRig, but that’s not a small rig. And this is still better than some of the alternatives: The L-brackets from other companies like Kirk, RRS, and Leofoto are designed similarly, or even a bit bigger.
The good news is that these L-brackets still allow access to the battery compartment, focus-mode button, and ports on the Z9. The bad news is that these L-brackets are more expensive than usual (at least from RRS and Kirk) and significantly larger and heavier, too.
How much heavier? It depends on the L-bracket company, but let’s take RRS for example. The lightest L-bracket they make for the Nikon Z7 II is 67 grams / 2.4 ounces. Meanwhile, their L-bracket for the Nikon Z9 weighs 210 grams / 7.4 ounces. The costs are $150 and $270 respectively. That’s triple the weight and almost double the price.
I’m sure that most photographers who buy the Z9 aren’t choosing it because they’re ultralight junkies, so maybe none of this matters to you. Still, it’s not ideal that the Z9’s L-bracket alone weighs about as much as the Z7 II’s L-bracket and a small lens like the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 put together.
It’s not that I blame Nikon; the Z9’s design is no different from the Canon EOS R3, Canon 1DX series, or previous Nikon DSLRs with integrated vertical grips and battery compartments on the left. Still, the Z9 is the first integrated-grip Nikon camera to target landscape photographers since the D3X. The number of people who use it with an L-bracket may be higher than usual, so I believe it’s important to point out the potential for concern.
The Nikon Z9 has the best handling of any Nikon Z camera yet, with a button for almost every possible need. Even more important is the advanced customizability on the Nikon Z9, including five dedicated function buttons and countless ways to reassign the Z9’s layout in the custom controls menu.
A built-in battery grip on a mirrorless camera may be a bit of a polarizing feature, since it completely eliminates the camera’s lightweight advantage. And it’s true that the Nikon Z9 is a large, heavy camera that roughly matches the Nikon D4, D5, and D6 in size and weight.
So, even though the Nikon Z9 is well-built and full of features – with ports, buttons, and dials galore – it’s not designed for everybody. For this camera to make sense, you need to be the type of photographer who switched from DSLR to mirrorless to gain features, not the type who switched in order to save weight. Or, alternatively, you’ll need to keep a smaller backup Nikon Z camera around when you need to travel light, like the Z6 II or Z7 II.
On the following page of this review, I’ve explained the changes that Nikon made to the Z9’s viewfinder and rear LCD. So, click below to go to the next page, “Viewfinder + Rear LCD,” or jump to any other page in this review.