Autofocus and Tracking
This page of the Nikon Z9 review is written by Libor Vaicenbacher, a wildlife photographer on the Photography Life team. It has been updated for the Z9’s Software Version 3.0.
Few parameters in mirrorless cameras have been scrutinized as closely as autofocus performance. For years, it was one of the biggest points in favor of DSLRs in those countless “mirrorless vs DSLR” comparisons. That’s changed over time, but even today, plenty of mirrorless cameras have a reputation for unreliable focus.
It hurt Nikon’s case that they weren’t the first ones on the train. By the time that Nikon introduced its first generation Nikon Z6 and Z7 – whose autofocus tracking had somewhat clumsy wings – Sony was already on its third generation of the A7. More importantly, at least where sports and wildlife are concerned, Sony had already been selling the fast-focusing A9 for more than a year.
Then came Nikon’s next generation, the Z6 II and Z7 II. These cameras added a second EXPEED 6 processor, while also improving focus tracking and subject-recognition modes. And while the improvement was substantial for certain subjects (especially for following people’s faces), it wasn’t perfect. One big issue, at least for wildlife photographers, is that Nikon’s animal recognition was only limited to dogs and cats!
In the meantime, Canon and Sony both released mirrorless cameras with an emphasis on focus tracking capabilities. These included the Canon EOS R6, Canon EOS R5, and Sony A1. It wasn’t as though Nikon’s Z6 II or Z7 II were bad by any means, but sports and wildlife photographers were certainly looking at other brands in the search for greener pastures.
That brings us to the Nikon Z9. It’s got a brand new EXPEED 7 processor under the hood, along with several new continuous-focus modes (AF-C in Nikon’s parlance) not found on any previous Nikon Z camera. And, best of all, Nikon expanded their definition of an animal to include birds. Photographers and biologists alike can rejoice.
Alongside animals, the Z9 now also recognizes vehicles (including cars, motorbikes, and trains) as well as the usual face-tracking autofocus. Even though the Nikon Z9 doesn’t have a dedicated “eye AF” setting like some of its competitors, I clearly noticed that the camera was prioritizing my subject’s eye, and even placing a smaller green or white box over the eye when it successfully recognized one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In this section of the review, I’ll dive into the Nikon Z9’s focusing system in detail and compare its AF-C performance head-to-head against some of its biggest competitors, including the Nikon D6 and Sony A1.
Nikon Z9 AF-S Performance (Single Servo Autofocus)
So far, the Nikon Z cameras have focused extremely well in AF-S mode, with high accuracy, fast speeds, and good low-light performance. The Z9 takes things even further, especially in the realm of low-light AF-S focusing. I’ll detail the most important changes here.
1. New AF-S Options
Although the Nikon Z9 is mainly making headlines for its AF-C performance and autofocus tracking, it also adds some new features for AF-S photography compared to previous Nikon cameras.
One obvious difference is the list of AF area modes available when using AF-S: pinpoint, single point, wide area small, wide area large, wide area C1, wide area C2, and auto area. I marked the two new additions in bold: wide area C1 and C2. These are boxes whose size and shape you define for yourself in the Z9’s Photo Shooting menu. The C1 and C2 boxes can be any shape/size rectangle you want, up to the width or height of the entire image, and down to the width or height of the single-point AF box.
A smaller change is that Nikon increased the number of AF area boxes that are able to perform subject recognition in AF-S mode. Specifically, Nikon added this functionality to wide area C1, wide area C2, and wide area small. (It was already available on wide area large and auto area on the Z6 II and Z7 II.)
Finally, perhaps the most important new AF-S feature on the Z9 is the “starlight view” mode, which promises Nikon’s best low-light autofocus yet. I’ll cover that in more detail in a minute. The takeaway, though, is that the Z9 doesn’t just add autofocus features for AF-C aficionados, but also for landscape photographers and others who prefer AF-S.
2. AF-S Accuracy and Speed
The Nikon Z9’s focusing accuracy is as phenomenal as ever. It’s nothing new for Nikon Z, as we’ve been detailing since our earliest Z6 and Z7 reviews. All of these cameras have better focusing accuracy than any DSLR in phase-detect AF through the viewfinder. In fact, most DSLRs even have minor, low-level AF inaccuracies when using contrast-detect AF in live view (usually only detectable on a test chart and nothing to worry about). The Z9 – along with all other Z-series cameras so far – has no such inaccuracy.
As for focusing speed, the Z9’s AF-S performance is also excellent, but that’s been true of previous Nikon Z cameras, too. Side by side next to a Nikon Z6 II, for example, I find that the Z9’s AF-S performance is almost exactly the same speed in daylight conditions. That is to say, both of them are visually instantaneous, assuming your lens was already close to the correct focusing distance.
In dim indoor lighting, I noticed something about the Nikon Z9’s AF-S speed: Compared to the Z6 II, the Z9 actually took a hair longer to focus when both cameras were set to single-point AF area mode. Whereas the Z6 II would travel directly from “out of focus” to “in focus” (albeit more slowly than in bright daylight), the Z9 would do a small back-and-forth before settling on the right spot.
This behavior surprised me at first, but it’s not something to worry about. The cause is that the Nikon Z9’s single-point box is a bit smaller than the Z6 II’s single-point box. As a result, it works a bit more like the “pinpoint” AF area mode, including a small extra moment to ensure proper focus. It’s a tradeoff that lets you place the smaller focusing box more precisely on your subject. Even if this bothers you, the “issue” can be fixed by using a larger AF area mode box. For instance, with wide area small (or wide area C1/C2 with a small box size), the Z9 focuses without any back-and-forth in dim conditions, and does so a bit more quickly than the Z6 II.
A minor issue is that the Z9’s focusing system is only sensitive to horizontal detail, rather than both vertical and horizontal. If your subject is just a bunch of horizontal lines (think window blinds), the Z9’s focusing system may not be able to lock on. The number of real-world situations where this applies is extremely small for most photographers, unless you sell window blinds. If you notice it in the field, just tilt the Z9 slightly when focusing, and you’ll lock onto the subject just like usual.
3. Starlight View Focusing
Dim indoor conditions are one thing, but what about using autofocus on a moonless night, with only the light of stars?
So far, no Nikon Z camera could reliably perform this feat in my experience, although it’s occasionally possible with some cameras if you have an f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens and point at a bright star (or at the planet Venus). But the Nikon Z9 has a mode called Starlight View, so we had to put it to the test.
According to Nikon, Starlight View – found in the Shooting/Display menu, of all places – promises low-light autofocus down to -9 EV with an f/1.2 lens (which is improved as of Firmware Version 3.0; it used to be -8.5 EV). More on what EV means here. That’s a full 1.5 stops better than the previous best low-light Nikon camera, the Z6 II. The value of -9 EV implies very dark nighttime scenes with no artificial lights and little to no moonlight.
Can the Nikon Z9 really autofocus in such conditions? I leave the following image for you to judge. This is an unedited image exported from RAW in Lightroom, taken with the Nikon F-mount 20mm f/1.8. I focused the Nikon Z9 automatically via AF-S with Starlight View turned on (and a high ISO value of 12,800 to make the live view brighter).
Here’s a 100% crop of the same image:
In the photo above – taken by focusing in the center of the image at f/1.8 – the stars look extremely small and sharp. That’s quite impressive for autofocus at night! There is a bit of purple color fringing, suggesting that the image may be very slightly back-focused. However, on some lenses, slight purple fringing occurs even when the stars are at their sharpest. To me, this level of sharpness looks correct for f/1.8 and doesn’t leave significant room for improvement.
With an f/4 lens (specifically the 24-120mm f/4 at 24mm), AF-S was less reliable. While it occasionally locked onto very bright stars, the results were sometimes slightly out of focus, and other times it wouldn’t lock on at all. Still, autofocus at f/4 was within the realm of “possible,” which is good news for Milky Way photographers who use the Z9 with a lens like the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4. Likewise, autofocus on the stars at f/2.8 almost always worked flawlessly, especially with Firmware Version 3.0.
As much as I like the Starlight View feature, I noticed that it caused a couple of issues with the Z9, and I don’t recommend leaving it on all the time. For example, when Starlight View is enabled, the Nikon Z9 refuses to show your exposure brightening or darkening regardless of your settings (yes, even when “View Mode” in the menu is set to “Show effects of settings”). In other words, if you want to see your image getting brighter or darker as you change exposure compensation or adjust settings in Manual mode, you need to turn Starlight View off.
Beyond that, Starlight View caused the camera to lag appreciably in dim conditions. It wasn’t a big issue for astrophotography, but it could be annoying if you’re doing other types of low-light photography (like portraits in a dim environment). So, I recommend adding Starlight View to “My Menu” for easy access if you’re a landscape photographer, but not leaving it on all the time.
Nikon Z9 AF-C Performance (Continuous Autofocus)
The continuous-focus capabilities of the Nikon Z9 are nothing short of amazing. AF-C performance and tracking capabilities are, without a doubt, two of the Z9’s biggest selling points. Nikon also (finally!) added an option for the AF-C focusing box to turn green when the subject is in focus, which greatly improves usability in my opinion.
However, the Nikon Z9’s continuous autofocus system isn’t magic and still requires practice in order to master. Beyond that, your success rate will depend upon a few factors that may be outside your control at times, including light levels, subject size, and the Z9’s own subject recognition capabilities. Let’s look at each of those factors individually.
1. Low Light Focusing, AF-C
Interesting moments in nature most often take place at the edges of the day, when the light is very attractive but scarce. It is these moments that cameras tend to differentiate themselves in continuous autofocus performance. So, how does the Nikon Z9 handle low light when the subject is moving?
When I first had the opportunity to test the Z9 in December 2021, I took it to the river in the center of Prague to photograph seagulls. Even then, with the original firmware, I was impressed by the Z9’s continuous focus. Despite using a 1.4x teleconverter on a 500mm f/5.6 lens, I was able to continuously focus on fast-flying seagulls, pigeons, ducks and swans. On most DSLRs, including my Nikon D500, this lens + teleconverter is only usable with the central focus point.
To test the latest Firmware Version 3.0, I tried photographing swans flying directly toward the camera in low light conditions. This firmware is said to have better animal-recognition capabilities, as well as greater focus accuracy.
Compared to previous firmware generations, even the fairly recent Version 2.11, I noticed some autofocus improvements. Using both 3D-tracking and Wide-area, I felt that the initial focus was a little faster and the AF point a little stickier. It also transitions from head to eye focusing with slightly more confidence.
As far as low-light performance, it’s no problem on the Z9. Even after sunset, I’m able to use Wide-Area AF (L) and detect fast-moving birds with no problem. The camera finally started to struggle with moving subjects once my exposure settings reached about 1/400 second, f/2.8, and ISO 25,600.
You can see that in the following real-world, screen-capture image of the Z9’s autofocus system, it kept focus on the duck in ISO 10,000 conditions against a similar-colored background. It even recognized and tracked its eye despite the low light:
As for tracking people’s faces, the camera is even better. Even in such dark conditions that needed ISO 51,200, the Z9 immediately found my wife’s eye and didn’t lose it when she ran up to me.
In real-life usage, the limiting factor on the Z9 in low light conditions isn’t focusing capabilities, but shooting at absurd ISO values. The Z9’s focusing system, including tracking, works down to conditions that are too dark to make much sense photographically.
2. AF-C on Small/Distant Subjects
The human eye is (so far) a more powerful tool than the Nikon Z9’s machine learning-equipped AF module. If a subject is too distant, or better yet, occupies too small area of the viewfinder, the Z9 may have trouble detecting it and focusing properly. In particular, if the subject is partially obscured by vegetation, it may be unidentifiable to the Z9. Moreover, if it is flying, you have a real UFO in front of you.
When testing continuous focus, I intentionally didn’t make it easy for the Z9 and chose Europe’s smallest bird, the European Goldcrest, as my test subject. This 5-gram bird is not only small, but also very agile when weaving through spruce branches.
When I manually created the largest possible focusing area in Wide-Area (C1), the camera had trouble detecting the Goldcrest, even with bird subject recognition enabled. However, when I reduced the focus area by activating Wide-area AF (Large), the success rate of detecting Goldcrest was significantly higher. Even though the bird filled a relatively small area of the viewfinder, the Z9 was able to find and hold its eye. With wide-area AF (Small), it found the bird’s eye within the AF box consistently.
However, when using Wide-Area AF (S or L), care must be taken to ensure that the subject does not move too far out of the defined focus area. Otherwise, the Z9 is likely to lose it completely. This is why, for some subjects, I still preferred to use 3D tracking or Wide-Area (C1/C2), despite their worse performance in low light and with finding small subjects like the Goldcrest.
3. Subject Recognition Capabilities
The strongest argument that convinced me to buy the Nikon Z9 was the inclusion of birds in the range of what the Z9 can automatically recognize. Beyond that, Nikon says the Z9 can also find the eyes of dogs and cats, although the reality is that the camera’s algorithm has improved substantially. It’s safe to say that the Nikon Z9 can find the eyes of most mammals, not just small pets.
In particular, if you’re going to photograph standard mammals like deer, tigers, or elephants, the Nikon Z9 should have no trouble focusing their eyes. However, if you’re going to be photographing more bizarre creatures, like a Giant Anteater, Humpback Whale, or Lesser Blind Mole-Rat (you won’t find the eye either), then I wouldn’t bet too much on the automatic eye recognition.
My skepticism about the broadness of the Z9’s subject recognition is based on experience in the field. It seems that the Nikon Z9 does not have a degree in biology and, for example, the existence of reptiles was probably concealed from it by the engineers at Nikon. When I photographed some snakes with the Nikon Z9, subject recognition kept trying to follow the nostrils. Ultimately, I had to place the focus point on the eye manually and use standard 3D tracking autofocus, just like with a conventional DSLR.
Similarly, I found that the Nikon Z9’s autofocus could be fooled by an encounter with a less common bird. A standard-looking bird, such as a sparrow, pigeon, eagle, etc., is not a challenge for the Z9. However, when I filled the viewfinder with the head of a Palm Cockatoo with a crest, it was clear that this is not how the Z9 thinks of a bird.
When photographing the Palm Cockatoo above, the Z9’s focus point oscillated somewhere between the beak and the face. That said, when the Cockatoo perched on a distant branch, and the entire bird was in the viewfinder, the AF-C algorithm seemed to get the message. In that case, the Z9 recognized that it was indeed a bird, and subsequently placed the focus point correctly on the eye.
To me, this highlights one of the concerns with autofocus systems that rely heavily on subject recognition. These systems tend to work amazingly well – better than almost anything on the DSLR side – when the subject is indeed recognized. But for edge cases like the Palm Cockatoo (and reptiles in the Z9’s case), some cracks in the system start to show. It’s then that more general-purpose AF tracking systems, like the one found in the Nikon D6, start to look more appealing.
That said, I do think that subject recognition AF is the future. For example, on the Z9, I found that I was getting the best autofocus performance I’ve ever had with long-beaked bird species like pelicans, flamingos and cranes. With traditional DSLR autofocus algorithms, the AF system is more likely to grab the prominent beak instead of the eye, whereas the Z9 locked onto the eye almost every time.
Ultimately, the Z9’s subject-detection system works best when you help it along a bit. Don’t expect the camera to go from fully out-of-focus to spotting an animal in the thicket that you didn’t even see yourself. Even if you do notice a small bird in a tangle of branches, the Z9 may not be able to find it if the focusing box is too big. It’s in these situations that you should switch to a smaller focus area, such as 3D-tracking or Wide-Area (Small).
Although the Nikon Z9 probably won’t major in biology any time soon, I believe that future firmware releases will continue to improve the automatic subject recognition capabilities. The latest firmware Version 3.0 is proof of that. Autofocus is again a bit more snappy in the initial phase, and the focus point sticks better to the selected subject. It’s also better at recognizing subjects that are in more unusual poses, like a bird facing directly toward you instead of facing to the side.
How To Set the Nikon Z9 for Continuous Autofocus
The Nikon Z9 is a flagship camera, with correspondingly advanced controls. One of the biggest differences between consumer and professional-level cameras is the number of customizable buttons and menu options. The Z9 in particular has a huge range of autofocus-related choices to make. These may be confusing at first, but if you assign the right features, they will drastically improve your keeper rate when photographing fast action.
This isn’t a full guide, but I’ll briefly go through my top recommendations for the Z9’s autofocus system. First, as you probably already know if you’re considering a camera at this level, back-button focus is superior to half-pressing the shutter button. So, step one when you get your Z9 is to change “AF Activation” in the Focus menu to “OFF (AF-ON only.” Then, you’ll autofocus with the AF-On button instead of the shutter button.
As for the autofocus system itself, I found that most of the time, I used Wide Area AF (C1 or C2) with a custom focus box size that I set to be quite large. You can see my preferred C2 box size in the screen captures I added throughout this section of the review. Beyond that, I keep “AF subject detection options” in the Photo Shooting menu set to Animal. I rarely photograph people and basically never photograph vehicles, but if you shoot a variety of subjects, Auto is fine here, too.
If the automatic subject recognition fails, I immediately press the Fn1 button, under which I’ve assigned 3D-tracking autofocus. This switches the camera from a general-purpose subject detection to a subject that I pick manually. However, as I’ve mentioned, 3D tracking can fail in difficult lighting conditions, at which point I switch to my “emergency break” – good old unintelligent Dynamic-Area AF, a carryover from DSLRs. I have this mode assigned to another custom button (in my case, the sub-selector center) for quick access.
Just like when holding the camera horizontally, I have similar buttons mapped for vertical grip. So again, a trio of AF-ON, Fn3 and the sub-selector center. I encourage you to set up your camera so that Fn1 and Fn3 map to each other, so that shooting vertically will be completely seamless.
As for my other menu settings, I keep AF-C priority selection to “release,” ficus tracking with lock-on to 3, subject motion to steady, and focus point wrap-around off. If you have any further questions about my autofocus setup, ask away in the comments section to this review, and I’ll get back to you!
Nikon Z9 Autofocus Competition
The Nikon Z9 certainly has great autofocus tracking performance, but how does it compare to other cameras on the market today?
Probably the closest competitor on the market to the Z9 at the moment is the Sony A1. However, current Nikon users may be more curious how much the Z9 improves upon the previous Z-series autofocus, as well as whether the Z9’s focusing can replace the Nikon D6. If any of those comparisons sound appealing to you, I have good news…
That’s right, I tested all of these cameras – the Nikon Z9, Sony A1, Nikon Z7 II, and Nikon D6 – side by side in the field! Let’s start with my impressions of the Sony A1 versus the Nikon Z9.
1. Sony A1 vs Nikon Z9 Autofocus
Like the Nikon Z9, the Sony A1 clearly belongs to the club of the best-focusing cameras today. Since I tested this camera directly against the Z9 side-by-side, I got to see the pros and cons of each camera in practice.
One difference between the Z9 and A1 is how granular the animal-detection focus is. Specifically, the Sony A1 requires you to select either automatic bird or automatic mammal eye detection, whereas the Z9 lumps it all under animal-detect. If you were using the Sony A1 on, say, an African safari where the two animal groups often change, I would recommend dedicating a button to switching the detection mode.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s our video comparison of the A1 and the Z9 in the field to show how their AF systems lock onto subjects in different situations. Note that this comparison was done before the most recent Firmware Version 3.0 that improved the Z9’s focusing to a small extent:
Let me go one-by-one through the situations I tested in the video and explain my thoughts.
- Ordinary subjects: Both cameras focus equally well here. Not much to say – subjects that don’t move too much aren’t a challenge for either camera.
- Moving subjects: Once again, both cameras shine, even with difficult, fast-moving subjects. No obvious winner here.
- Obscured subject: This gives each camera a harder time. The A1 can lose track of the subject completely when it’s partly blocked, and while that’s not as common on the Z9, it has a hard time pinpointing the subject’s eye when it’s slightly obscured.
- Low-light focusing: Back to familiar ground for our two competitors. Neither camera shows any issues in low-light conditions up to ISO 10,000 in this test.
- Switching subjects: The A1 rapidly switches to a new subject when the first one leaves the frame. The Z9 is a bit slower in this regard, because it tries to be “stickier” with regards to the prior subject. (This is behavior you can modify in the Z9’s autofocus settings menu.)
- Subject leaves the AF box: This is one area where the Sony A1 clearly has issues, and the Z9 performs well. If your subject goes outside the AF box, the Z9 recognizes that it’s still your subject and tracks it anyway. Granted, this has potential to cause problems in some situations, if the Z9 is wrong about what your subject is.
- Subject looking away: The A1 beats the Z9 here. When the subject’s eye is at an awkward angle to the camera, the A1 holds onto it more easily than the Z9.
- Small/dark/low-contrast eyes: On balance, the A1 did a better job pinpointing the eye in these situations, but it’s a pretty close contest.
- Cases of Failure: Neither camera is perfect. The Sony’s AF sometimes got stuck on a branch in the foreground, and didn’t do as well locking onto the correct subject in busy environments. On the other hand, the Z9 got confused by a bird’s eye when it faced an odd direction, or if the bird had an unusual shape.
In terms of tracking the subject around the frame, I believe that the A1’s “Tracking” autofocus did a slightly better job sticking to the fastest-moving and most erratic subjects compared to the Nikon Z9’s 3D Tracking mode. But for dimmer and lower-contrast subjects, the Nikon Z9 caught up and both cameras performed about the same. In low light conditions, the advantage was slightly in Nikon’s corner.
Ultimately, I don’t think that the difference in focusing performance is enough to make one camera better than the other, even as of Firmware 3.0 on the Z9. Instead, both cameras have their own strengths and weaknesses. I would definitely choose between the A1 and Z9 on other considerations instead.
2. Nikon Z9 vs Z7 II Autofocus
I admit that this is the least fair comparison of the bunch, and not just because the Z7 II is more of a landscape and travel-oriented camera. To be specific, the Z7 II’s focus tracking system doesn’t have built-in bird subject recognition. With sports or portrait photography, the testing would have been closer.
In this case, the Nikon Z7 II definitely didn’t recognize birds with its subject-detection system, so I had to rely on the “DSLR-style” modes of dynamic-area AF and wide-area AF. The Z7 II does have an option for auto subject tracking (found by pressing the center OK button in Auto Area AF), but I didn’t find that it worked well for fast-moving subjects. The Nikon Z7 II is hardly impossible to use for wildlife photography, even birds, but you need to be careful about placing the focusing box in the roughly correct area from the start. In other words, it requires more skill from the photographer!
That said, I found that the Nikon Z9 still focused better than the Z7 II even on “easy” subjects, like a slow-moving duck in the water. With a long lens that had minimal depth of field, like a 400mm f/2.8, I found that focus would be slightly off of the duck’s eye with the Z7 II in many cases no matter what AF setup I used. The Nikon Z9 had no such issues, thanks to the eye detection.
From my previous experience with the Nikon Z7 II, it also occasionally struggles with being more interested in the background than in a flying bird. I never noticed this issue on the Z9 even before Firmware 3.0, which Nikon says is even less likely to focus on the background by accident. In short, the Nikon Z9 definitely comes out ahead in this comparison.
3. Nikon Z9 vs D6 Autofocus
A closer and probably more interesting comparison is the Nikon Z9 versus the Nikon D6. This isn’t just a comparison of different AF generations – it’s a difference of two worlds. The Nikon D6 is perhaps the best-focusing DSLR ever, and the Z9 might just be the best-focusing mirrorless camera today.
At the surface level, one of the obvious differences is that the Nikon D6’s AF module operates with 105 cross-type focus points, which are concentrated in a relatively small area of the viewfinder. Meanwhile, the Nikon Z9’s focusing system stretches across about 90% of the frame (both horizontally and vertically), and can track a subject through the whole thing. This is definitely an advantage for the Nikon Z9.
As for autofocus performance itself, the D6 doesn’t have nearly the same subject-recognition capabilities as the Z9. It does have face detection and tracking, but no animal detection at all. Instead, the Nikon D6 focuses on general-purpose autofocus capabilities. It doesn’t matter whether the subject you’re tracking is a bird, a fish, or an astronaut sprinting; the Nikon D6 can track all of them equally well. In my experience, the Z9 would do better with the bird and worse with the other two subjects.
Because the Nikon D6 uses a phase-detect autofocus system through the viewfinder, whereas the Z9 has a hybrid phase/contrast-detect system, the Z9 is more likely to have pixel-level precision in its autofocus, compared to the D6. You can (and should) calibrate your lenses on the Nikon D6 in order to minimize slight focus errors with phase detection, and this fixes most of the problem. However, the Nikon D6’s lens calibration cannot be calibrated for different focal lengths or focusing distances, so you might end up with slight calibration issues overall. It’s not a significant problem, but with fast aperture lenses like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, you may notice these minor errors occasionally.
In the end, if I had to choose, I’d give the focusing nod to the Nikon Z9. However, if you regularly photograph subjects outside the Z9’s subject-recognition list, the D6 will give you better general-purpose autofocus performance. So, it all depends on what you photograph.
4. Nikon Z9 vs Other Cameras for Autofocus
When I tested the Nikon Z9 in the field, I had the Nikon Z7 II, Nikon D6, and Sony A1 on hand for head-to-head comparisons. However, those are certainly not the only cameras that wildlife photographers may be considering. On the DSLR side, there are the older Nikon D4 and D5 series cameras, plus the Canon 1DX Mark III. On the mirrorless side, there is the Canon EOS R5, EOS R6, EOS R3, Sony A9, and Sony A9 II, as well as the Nikon Z6 II. Canon is also working on an EOS R1 that is likely to be a close direct competitor to the Nikon Z9.
I would like to test more of these cameras side-by-side against the Nikon Z9 in the future, especially the eventual Canon EOS R1. However, the short answer is that the Nikon Z9 holds its own against the best AF on the market today, including from all these cameras so far. Where applicable, you can read our review of those various cameras below, and extrapolate the Z9’s performance by comparison:
- Canon EOS R5 review
- Canon EOS R6 review
- Nikon Z6 II review
- Sony A9 review
- Nikon D4s review
- Nikon D4 review
Recommended Lenses to Maximize Z9 AF-C Performance
Although the Nikon Z9 will continuously focus with almost any Nikon AF lens (no support for screw-drive AF-D lenses, as detailed here), it will perform best with native Nikon Z lenses, which are equipped with a stepping motor. Older Nikon DSLR lenses fitted with the Silent Wave Motor usually work very well too, but not quite perfectly.
To be specific, when I photographed a kingfisher sitting on a branch just a few steps from my blind, the Z9’s AF-C had no problem automatically detecting its eye. Still, I noticed that a number of my photos were slightly out of focus, when they shouldn’t have been. It seemed to be because the motor on my Nikon AF-S 200-400mm f/4G was oscillating between two focusing positions, when the optimal focus was right in the middle. Rather than focusing smoothly, it was jumping focusing between two discreet distances.
I should emphasize that the problem was small and only noticeable because the Z9 otherwise does such a pixel-perfect job of focusing on a subject’s eye. I also noticed it to a greater extent with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II compared to the other AF-S lenses I’ve used on the Nikon Z9, such as the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF VR, Nikon 400mm f/2.8G ED VR and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR.
More importantly than this minor issue, keep in mind a fact about autofocus: it’s a dual effort between camera and lens. Although the Z9 is certainly usable with older lenses and adapters, it will focus better with more modern glass. Just as the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR wasn’t a champion of continuous autofocus speed on DSLRs, neither is it on Z9. You’ll have the best user experience with lenses that are designed for fast focusing speeds, like most of Nikon’s exotic supertelephoto primes, as well as native Z-series lenses with the newer focusing motors. Third party lenses could be hit and miss, and the Z9 may show their focusing flaws more easily than any Nikon camera you’ve used before.
The Nikon Z9’s remarkable autofocus performance lives up to the hype and shows that mirrorless autofocus is just as capable as DSLR autofocus. That’s true both for AF-S focusing (where the Z9 works in lower light conditions than any prior Nikon camera) and AF-C (where the Z9 is roughly tied for the best focusing camera on the market today).
There’s still room for improvement on the Nikon Z9’s focusing system, of course – most of all in terms of the subject recognition database. The Z9 does an outstanding job with people’s faces, birds, cats, and dogs. It usually does an excellent job for other common mammals. But for more obscure subjects, you’ll need to fall back on the Z9’s more general-purpose focusing modes (especially 3D-Tracking and Dynamic-Area AF). Those modes are solid, but a clear step down from the performance of subject recognition when it engages.
Luckily, Nikon has seemed very committed to improving the Z9’s focusing performance via firmware updates. Firmware Version 3.0 is already an improvement over the various 2.0 firmwares, which were improvements over the 1.0 firmwares. Whether or not we see the subject recognition database expand, it’s quite likely that the Z9 will improve its tracking capabilities going forward in one way or another.
Even if Version 3.0 is somehow the camera’s last update ever, I’m willing to say it: The Nikon Z9 matches or beats the autofocus capabilities of any camera on the market today, and it is Nikon’s best-focusing camera ever.
Next up, we’ll cover the Nikon Z9’s performance for video, followed by specifications comparisons against the Z9’s competitors, and then our verdict. So, click the menu below to jump to the next page of this review, “Video Performance.”