High FPS, Buffer, and Memory Cards
Depending on the features you need, the Nikon Z9’s top shooting speed is either 20 FPS, 30 FPS, 60 FPS, or 120 FPS. At all of these speeds, the camera’s buffer is simply massive, although the 30, 60, and 120 FPS options are JPEG-only.
In this chapter of the review, I’ll cover everything you need to know about using the Nikon Z9 for high-FPS photography.
Nikon Z9 Buffer
The Nikon Z9’s buffer is nothing short of amazing. At 20 FPS, you can take a burst of RAW pictures for about a minute straight – more than 1000 photos – before the camera starts to slow down. That’s an improvement by leaps and bounds compared to almost everything else on the market today.
For many photographers reading this, 20 FPS will be the highest you’ll want to go. Whereas 30, 60, and 120 FPS are JPEG-only, the sole limitation at 20 FPS is that you have to shoot High Efficiency Star RAW in order to maximize your buffer. (You can still shoot Lossless Compressed RAW at 20 FPS, but the buffer fills up after only about 79 photos.)
As you’ll recall from the first page of this review, there aren’t any image quality issues with High Efficiency Star RAW, but there are some compatibility issues with some unusual RAW processing software. If you need to shoot Lossless Compressed in order to maintain this compatibility, you can get an unlimited buffer by lowering your burst rate to 15 FPS instead in the shooting/display menu.
30, 60, and 120 FPS Limitations
At 30 FPS, the Nikon Z9 switches to JPEG-only photography. Not just that, but the camera only lets you use Normal JPEG quality, not Fine or Fine Star. There are other, more minor limitations with the 30 FPS mode, most notably that flicker reduction cannot be enabled (same at 60 and 120 FPS). The good news is that the Z9 retains autofocus and auto exposure at this speed.
The 60 FPS option was added as of Firmware Version 3.0. It allows the Nikon Z9 to shoot 19-megapixel JPEGs and is DX-crop only. 19 megapixels is enough even for medium-sized prints, and the DX crop can be helpful for photographing something like distant birds. The other limitations are the same as at 30 FPS.
At 120 FPS, the Nikon Z9 is only capable of 11-megapixel JPEG photos, and there is no DX crop option. 11 megapixels is a bit more resolution than DCI 4K video, which is fine for the web and magazine-sized prints. Once again, the Z9 retains autofocus and auto exposure, which is critical toward making this a useful mode.
The 30, 60, and 120 FPS shooting modes can be surprisingly useful in certain cases, especially with pre-release burst enabled (more on that in a minute). However, they do have one huge bug at the moment: Auto ISO minimum shutter speed does not work when the Z9 is set to 30, 60, or 120 FPS.
Instead, the Nikon Z9 pays no attention to what you’ve chosen as your minimum shutter speed at 30, 60, and 120 FPS and seems to pick one at random. Since many sports and wildlife photographers shoot in aperture priority with Auto ISO and a desired minimum shutter speed, this can be a big limitation. You’ll need to switch to manual mode when using these high-FPS modes instead, at which point Auto ISO behaves like normal.
This is currently the most glaring bug on the Nikon Z9 and should be fixed as soon as possible.
Normally, I wouldn’t be especially excited about 30 FPS JPEGs (60 or 120 FPS low-resolution JPEGs) on a camera that can shoot 20 FPS RAW files with no limitations. But one particular mode on the Nikon Z9 changes that: pre-release burst.
This is a feature I’ve wanted to see on Nikon Z cameras for a while. When enabled, this setting causes the Nikon Z9 to record a constant stream of images as you half-press the shutter button. When you fully press the shutter button, it saves the buffered stream of images (up to one second) from before the moment you actually took the picture.
You can see while I call it a back-in-time buffer. Even though reaction time and anticipation are two of the most important skills a sports/wildlife photographer should know, there are cases where action happens faster than our ability to notice it (and cases where something completely unexpected happens that you couldn’t have timed). In cases like that, the Nikon Z9 is able to capture sharp, properly focused photos when few other cameras would have a chance.
I found this to be especially useful for macro photography, where I’ve always liked the idea of photographing bugs in flight but rarely managed to take any such photos. Bugs can fly out of the frame in a matter of milliseconds, long before you have enough time to react.
That was the case with the butterfly below. I took these in the 120 FPS JPEG mode, and it only took fifteen photos before part of the butterfly left the frame (AKA 0.13 seconds). Yet with the Z9, I got a full sequence of the flight, starting with these four images:
Those four images take place in the span of about three one-hundredths of a second. If I wanted to take anything like this with another camera, it would be down to pure luck, as my reaction time is way slower than that. It’s pretty exciting to be able to get photos like this at all.
That said, I don’t intend to shoot JPEGs very often, even the full-resolution ones at 30 FPS. I hope that Nikon adds pre-release burst to its RAW shooting modes, even if it’s limited to something like 15 or 10 FPS. That would take the Z9 to another level.
Still, a photo is a photo – and the shots I’ve taken with pre-release burst couldn’t have been captured any other way (aside from Olympus/Fuji/etc. cameras that also have this feature). Hats off to Nikon for adding pre-release burst to the Z9 for the first time. If I could only request one feature to be added to this camera, it would be to expand pre-release burst to RAW files, too.
Nikon Z9 Viewfinder Blackout
I already discussed this in the prior section of the review, but for photographers who skipped ahead, I’ll recap a bit.
At fast burst rates like 20 FPS, a common concern with cameras today is the question of viewfinder blackout, where the EVF or LCD go black each time a picture is taken. A similar issue is when cameras only show a slideshow (usually delayed) of the high-FPS photos that you’re taking, rather than a truly live view of the action. Both of these issues can make it difficult to follow along with fast-moving subjects like birds in flight, leading to missed photos.
The Nikon Z9 does not have either of these particular issues. However, it does skip some frames in the EVF/LCD when you shoot a continuous burst of photos, making it seem like the camera is lagging or showing you a slideshow, even though it’s not.
Ultimately, you can track motion with the Z9 quite well in high-FPS situations, because there’s no blackout or significant lag. But the viewfinder experience isn’t totally smooth when you shoot a burst of photos, so it may be slightly tougher than normal to follow along with fast action. At 30 FPS JPEG bursts, the problem is at its most obvious, but still manageable.
Recommended Memory Cards
Depending on the memory card you use with the Nikon Z9, you’ll end up with a larger or smaller buffer. It may also become impossible to shoot 8K RAW video with a lower-speed card, so this is one area where it pays not to skimp.
Even though the Nikon Z9 is backwards compatible with XQD cards, the fastest cards that the camera supports are all CFExpress (Type B only). Last I checked, Nikon lists only the following cards as compatible with shooting 8K RAW video on the Nikon Z9:
- ProGrade Digital Cobalt 1700R (325 GB) – $800 for a two-pack on B&H
- ProGrade Digital Cobalt 1700R (650 GB) – $1386 for a two-pack on B&H
- Nikon MC-CF660G (660 GB) – $767 per card at B&H
If you want to guarantee that 8K RAW will work (and that your buffer will be as large as possible), those three options above are the ones with Nikon’s stamp of approval. However, other cards have come out in the meantime that also support 8K RAW video and massive buffer capacity on the Nikon Z9, some of which are even a bit faster, including:
- Angelbird AV Pro (XT or SX) – $480 for 330 GB, or $760 for 660 GB
- Delkin BLACK – $500 for 512 GB
- Lexar DIAMOND – $330 for 256 GB
- Lexar Professional – $270 for 256 GB
- Wise Advanced – $450 for 320 GB
I have not tested all of these cards personally, and they’re not arranged in any particular order in the list above. I can vouch that the slowest of those cards (the 256 GB Lexar Professional) could handle the Z9’s 8K 60p RAW video clips without a problem, although it dropped to about 12 FPS pretty quickly when shooting bursts of stills. (Granted, it kept going strong for more than 1500 RAW photos, at which point I was bored enough to stop the test.)
At the end of the day, broadly speaking, you get what you pay for with memory cards. The ones I’ve listed above are all capable of 8K RAW video, but for the best high-FPS photography performance, you should still pick one of the fastest cards of the bunch, with a good minimum sustained write speed.
Hot Memory Card Warning
A few times while shooting with the Nikon Z9 with the Lexar Professional card, I found myself with a bright icon on the screen that said “hot card.” Whoops! This most commonly happened while I was shooting large numbers of 30 FPS and 120 FPS JPEG bursts in hot, sunny conditions. However, it also happened when I transferred a large batch of over 5000 photos from the Z9 to my computer using the USB cable (which is only something I did because of a broken card reader).
It should be noted that the Z9 didn’t shut off when the warning appeared. It was just a warning. However, I didn’t want to damage my memory card, so I always took a break from photography and opened the memory card door when this happened.
If you shoot a lot of high FPS bursts, especially outdoors in hot conditions, just be aware of the potential for an overheated card, and perhaps try to be more judicious about your shooting. In case you do encounter the warning, it’s easy enough to fix by turning off the camera and letting the card cool down. Still, most cameras can’t write as much data as quickly as the Z9, so it’s an issue you may never have experienced with a previous camera.
The Nikon Z9 can shoot high-FPS bursts like nobody’s business, but if you want to maximize its performance, you still need to set it up properly. That includes things like shooting High Efficiency Star RAW rather than lossless compressed, as well as using the right memory card in order to maximize your buffer and frame rate.
Memory cards definitely aren’t an area to skimp on the Z9, and I’d consider the Lexar Professional card (with a max write speed of 1000 MB/s) to be the bare minimum of the ones I listed. You’d be better off with a card that supports a maximum write speed of 1500 MB/s or faster, and a minimum, sustained write speed of at least 500 MB/s.
I hope this section of the review gave you a good idea of where to start – and that the price for the Nikon Z9 isn’t just about buying the camera itself.
On the following page of this review, I’ll explain one of the most interesting design choices on the Nikon Z9: the lack of a mechanical shutter curtain. So, click the menu below to go to the next page, “Fully Electronic Shutter.”