Nikon’s cameras with base ISO 64 have historically had the best dynamic range on the market, short of medium format cameras. The Nikon Z9 is part of that club, along with cameras like the Nikon D810, D850, Z7, and Z7 II. However, unlike those four cameras, the Z9 has a stacked CMOS sensor design.
The Z9’s stacked sensor is intended to improve the camera’s readout speed, not necessarily improve its image quality. The Z9’s fast frame rate at high resolution (both stills and video) – plus the lack of rolling shutter issues – are features that would have been difficult to achieve with a standard CMOS sensor.
That said, the stacked sensor design could still plausibly have an impact on image quality. In theory, stacked sensors (which are an extension of backside-illuminated sensor technology) can be capable of increased light-gathering capabilities. However, some user reports have indicated the opposite in the past – that stacked CMOS sensors have a very slight penalty in noise and dynamic range compared to traditional sensors.
Luckily, it’s easy to test the accuracy of these claims. I compared the Nikon Z9’s dynamic range against that of my Nikon Z7, a camera which also has base ISO 64 but uses a traditional CMOS sensor design. (I used the Z7 instead of the Z7 II because it’s the camera I own, and it has identical dynamic range performance as the Z7 II, as shown in our tests.)
The Nikon Z7 and Z7 II famously have some of the best dynamic range of any full-frame camera on the market today. How do they compare to the Nikon Z9? These are 100% crops of a photo that was underexposed by five stops at base ISO 64, then recovered in Adobe Lightroom, with no noise reduction to the RAW image. The Z7 is on the top, and the Z9 is on the bottom. Click to see full size:
To my eye, the differences are extremely slight. If I squint, I can see very minor patches of additional noise on the Nikon Z9, particularly in the dark reds, greens, and yellows to the right of the cat figure. That said, it’s no more than 1/3 stop at the most, and it wouldn’t lead me to choose one of these cameras over the other, even as a landscape photographer who cares strongly about shadow recovery and dynamic range.
What about overexposure? Here are crops from the same subject exposed three stops over the meter’s recommendation, then recovered in Lightroom:
Amusingly, this time, it’s the opposite: The Z9 is ahead if you know where to look (tonal separation between the white patches near the top), but by no more than 1/3 stop. Given these two results, I’m comfortable saying that the Nikon Z9 is at the same level as the Nikon Z7 – and therefore the Z7 II – in dynamic range performance. However, the Z7 sensor gets a bit more out of the shadows, and the Z9 gets a bit more out of the highlights.
Some photographers may be interested in the cameras’ shadow recovery capabilities at higher ISO values. Here are crops of images that have been underexposed by four stops, then recovered in Lightroom with the same parameters, at every ISO stop from 100 to 6400. (Above that point, recovering a 4-stop underexposed image just gets you a mess of noise.) As before, the Z7 is on the top, and the Z9 is on the bottom. Starting with ISO 100:
At most of the ISO values, the Nikon Z9’s performance ranges from 1/3-stop worse than the Z7, to effectively identical. The only exception is at ISO 400 (right before the Z9’s dual gain sensor kicks in), where I’d say the Z9 is closer to a full stop worse than the Z7 at shadow recovery.
Overall, the Nikon Z9 has excellent dynamic range, just as we’ve come to expect from Nikon’s cameras with base ISO 64. Even though the stacked CMOS sensor worried some dynamic-range die-hards when it was announced, the reality isn’t an issue at all. These results – as with the Nikon D850, Z7, and Z7 II – are better than anything we’ve tested on a camera with base ISO 100 (albeit by no more than 1/2 stop most of the time).
Just to demonstrate how much shadow recovery this is in practice, here’s a real-world example photo from the Z9 at base ISO:
And this is how it looks with +5.0 exposure recovery and +40 shadow recovery in Lightroom (no sharpening or noise reduction applied):
Forget the fact that the fireworks no longer look like fireworks with that much brightening! Instead, consider the level of noise in the shadows. Personally, I find the noise pretty reasonable at this resolution, although you’ll definitely want to use noise reduction if you plan to make a large print.
Only once I further boost shadow recovery to +100 do I notice some obtrusive line-pattern noise in the deep shadows:
As a sanity check, remember that most of this photo was pitch black originally. If you find yourself doing this much shadow recovery, you’ve made a mistake somewhere along the way, and it wasn’t in your choice of camera :)
On the following page of the review, we’ll dive into the Nikon Z9’s most complex and important feature: its autofocus system. Click below to go to the next page, “Autofocus and Tracking.”