All images by DPReview
The Nikon Z9 is a 45.7MP full-frame pro sports mirrorless camera: a high speed, 8K-shooting statement of intent from one of the industry’s biggest players.
Nikon becomes the third brand to build a pro-grade mirrorless camera around a fast-readout, stacked CMOS sensor, and seems determined to show that has no intention of being an also-ran as the market moves to mirrorless.
The Z9 is the first camera in this class to abandon the mechanical shutter entirely and, particularly in terms of video, it’s by far Nikon’s most ambitious camera yet.
- 45.7MP Stacked CMOS sensor
- 30 fps JPEG shooting
- 20 fps Raw shooting (for over 1000 compressed Raws)
- 120 fps JPEG shooting at 11MP resolution
- 8K/30p capture and 4K-from-8K, with ProRes 422 HQ option
- 8K/60p, 12-bit 8K N-Raw and 4K ProRes RAW to be added with f/w
- Internal 10-bit N-Log and HLG capture
- 3.69M dot OLED EVF with reduced lag and greater brightness
- XM dot rear LCD with multi-directional tilt
- Twin CFexpress Type B card slots
- Full-time electronic shutter camera
- Sensor shield to protect sensor
The Nikon Z9 will be available before the end of 2021 (in the US, at least), with a recommended price of $5500, body only.
Stacked CMOS sensor
Nikon had said some time ago that the Z9 would be built around a Stacked CMOS sensor, with all the speed benefits that brings for burst rate, readout speed, AF updates and video performance. But that initial reveal didn’t make clear how ambitious a sensor it would turn out to be.
The sensor delivers the fastest readout rate of any full-frame camera we can think of, resulting in a flash sync of 1/200 sec (as fast as many mechanical shutters can manage). But, just as excitingly, it has precisely the same pixel count as the sensor used in the Z7 cameras, along with the same base ISO of 64. This makes it likely that the design of the photodiodes themselves is very similar, but with more sophisticated readout circuitry. Our early impressions indicate that dynamic range is just under a stop behind the Z7 II.
Just as ‘Stacked CMOS’ has become the key hardware change underpinning the latest generation of pro-grade mirrorless cameras, subject recognition algorithms trained by machine learning is proving to be the defining software advance.
The Z9 has been trained to recognize a similar range of subjects to that of the Canon EOS R3, with humans, animals and vehicles all capable of being prioritized by the camera. Like the Canon, the Nikon has been trained to recognize eyes, faces and torsos, so that it can maintain focus on the same person, and focus in on the most relevant detail. In terms of animals, the algorithm can recognize cats, dogs and birds, while the vehicles setting knows how to home-in on planes, trains, bicycles and motorbikes.
Nikon says the combination of the Stacked CMOS sensor and the faster data throughput of the Z mount allows the camera to process and communicate 120 AF calculations per second.
|Eyes||Dogs||Planes||Tracks subjects based on distance and color.|
|Torsos||Birds||Motorbikes / Bicycles|
Unlike the comparable multi-subject systems from Olympus, Canon and Sony, the Nikon system doesn’t demand that you specify which type of subject you’re shooting. It provides an ‘Auto’ subject mode that will assess the scene for any of the types of subject it can recognize. There are individual People, Animal and Vehicles settings if you want to ensure the camera doesn’t pick the wrong subject, but for much of the time, it’s ready to track whatever you point it at. There’s also an ‘Off’ option to disengage the camera’s subject recognition system.
|3D Tracking works in conjunction with the subject recognition system, drawing a gray box around recognized subjects near your AF point. The latest algorithms can detect eyes and faces that are smaller in the scene than any camera we’ve yet tested.|
The other major addition to the Z9 is something we’ve asked for since Nikon first launched the Z series: the arrival of ‘3D Tracking’ on a mirrorless Nikon. The Z9’s implementation looks and behaves exactly like it did on the company’s DSLRs: presenting you with a small square box that will tenaciously track anything that’s underneath it when you initiate C-AF. The only differences you’re likely to experience are that the AF point can now range across the entire scene, rather than within the confines of a central AF array, and that it’s more dependable, now it’s underpinned by your choice of subject recognition. If you have subject recognition disabled, the system will still track your chosen subject using distance and color information.
Unlike previous Z-series bodies, the Z9 gains the ability to combine its in-body stabilization with the stabilization in its VR lenses. Previously the camera would pass responsibility for pitch and yaw motion off to the lens, but the Z9 is able to use both systems in a synchronized fashion (as done by Panasonic, Olympus, Canon and Fujifilm).
Initially, this ‘Sychro VR’ mode will only be available when using the Z MC 105mm F2.8 VR and the just-announced Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S, with Nikkor Z 70-200mm F2.8 VR S support coming after a pending FW update.
The Nikon Z9 can shoot bursts of JPEGs at up to 30 frames per second, putting it level with the likes of Sony’s a1 and the (lower resolution) Canon EOS R3. However, if you want to shoot Raw, the maximum frame rate drops to a still considerable 20 frames per second. As you’d expect of a Stacked CMOS camera, there’s no blackout while the camera takes an image, so instead there’s a selection of display and audio indicators that you can engage to let you know when you’re shooting.
The camera’s buffer is deep enough to let the camera shoot at this rate for over 1000 frames, if you’re shooting JPEG or using the new HE Raw compression option. On which subject…
Raw compression options
To cope with the large number of large files the Z9 will so readily produce, Nikon has added two new Raw compression options. The default option is a lossless compression mode, but alongside this are two ‘High Efficiency’ compression options. The ‘HE*’ mode delivers files around 1/2 the size of the uncompressed data, and the more compressed ‘HE’ files are typically around 1/3rd the size.
Nikon hasn’t given us any details of how the compression works, or where it might have impact on the files, so that’s something we’ll look at once we have Raw support.
The fast readout sensor was always likely to help the Z9’s video performance but Nikon has clearly put a lot of effort into making sure it offers modes that are usable, rather than just looking good on the spec sheet. For instance, it becomes the first Nikon camera to be able to capture Log footage internally.
At launch the camera will offer 8K/30p, oversampled 4K (from 8K capture) at up to 30p or less detailed 4K at up to 120p taken from the full width of the sensor (either binned or line-skipped). These capabilities will be expanded with a promised firmware update in 2022. At first, you’ll have the choice of 8 or 10-bit files with H.264, H.265 or vast, delivery-ready ProRes 422 HQ compression. But these options too will be expanded at a later date.
|Video rolling shutter rates|
|Video mode||Rolling shutter time|
|4K/30/24 oversampled (from 8K)||~14.3ms|
The firmware update will enable internal Raw video capture at up to 60p. Nikon says this will include a 12-bit 8K/60 option in a new, proprietary ‘N-Raw’ format or internal ProRes Raw HQ capture at up to 4K/60.
Nikon says the camera will be able to shoot its oversampled 4K/30 for more than 2 hours (at ‘normal’ temperatures). It also says the latency over HDMI has been halved, compared with the Z6 II and previous Nikon cameras, meaning it’s much more practical to monitor the camera’s output.
Body and controls
The Z9 has an angular design that’s consistent with the other Z cameras but has some details that will be familiar to users of the company’s DSLRs. Nikon hadn’t maintained the same level of ergonomic consistency that Canon likes to, in its high-end cameras, but the experience isn’t going to be utterly alien to existing D5 and D6 shooters.
The design change you’re most likely to notice, as an existing Nikon user, is the repositioning of the playback button from the top left to lower right of the camera body. If you find you can’t adapt, after a period of inadvertently pressing the wrong button, you can customize the ‘Protect’ button at the top left to be playback instead.
One thing the Z9 has in common with existing high-end Nikon DSLRs is that most of its buttons are back-lit, so can be illuminated when you’re trying to operate the camera in dark conditions, and need to quickly check your hand positioning on the body.
|It may not look the same as the one on your Nikon DSLR, but as soon as you pick up the Z9, you’ll find the AF mode button is exactly where you expect it to be.|
Making a welcome return on the Z9 is a dedicated AF mode button on lower left of the front of the camera. There’s no AF-C/AF-S/MF switch around it, but a combination of the AF button and two control dials means it’s possible to change AF drive mode and AF area mode quickly, in a way that Nikon’s DSLR shooters will be used to.
Like Nikon’s DSLRs, you have the option to assign AF area modes (with or without AF-On then being activated) to the camera’s Fn buttons, to provide quick access in fast-changing circumstances. You can’t assign different subject recognition modes to these combinations, though.
Matched CFexpress slots
The Z9’s high-speed features are supported by the presence of a pair of CFexpress Type B slots. These are backwards-compatible with any of the older XQD cards a the user might have, but the newer, faster cards are recommended to get the longest bursts and for maintaining the highest data rates the camera will put out.
|The Z9’s viewfinder can run around twice as bright as most previous OLED finders, achieving around 760 nits for a fully white display. There’s no more-lifelike HDR viewfinder mode to exploit this, though.|
The viewfinder specs are the area in which the Z9 most obviously falls behind its competitors. It’s a 3.69M dot panel, which is relatively low resolution, compared with its immediate rivals. However, it does appear that Nikon makes full use of this resolution for the camera’s liveview, even while focusing continuously, rather than only utilizing the full detail level in playback. This means it gives a much better, and more consistent, experience than the bare specs imply.
The company also stresses that it never uses frame interpolation to give the impression of faster refresh.
Multi-directional rear LCD
With the Z9, Nikon has resisted the urge to simply fit a fully-articulating screen, and has opted instead for something that will be a better fit for some photographers. It’s essentially a conventional pull-out up/down tilting cradle, but which has then been fitted on another hinge that lets it tilt horizontally.
The result is a somewhere between the vertical/horizontal tilting screens we like so much on several Fujifilm and Panasonic models, and the rather more elaborate telescopic workbench design of the Pentax K-1.
The important thing is that it lets you tilt the screen up to face you, whether you’re shooting in the landscape or portrait orientation, and does so while keeping the screen centered over the optical axis, making it easier to frame your shots.
|The Z9’s electronic shutter is so fast that there’s no need for a mechanical one. Which, in turn, means the camera can have a dedicated sensor protector instead. The protective curtains come down when the Z9 is turned off.|
The Nikon isn’t the first camera to cover its sensor when the camera is turned off, helping to protect it and keep dust off the sensor during lens changes, but it’s the first where the cover is solely designed for that purpose. So, although the mechanism looks like a closed shutter, it doesn’t have to be made using the super-light (low inertia), potentially fragile shutter blades.
The Z9 uses the EN-EL18d, the latest variant of the large battery used by previous pro-grade Nikons. It will work with all previous EN-EL18 batteries but can only charge the b, c and d versions in-camera, over USB and will deliver more shots with the EN-EL18d. The charger supplied with the Z9 also only supports the three more recent variants.
The z9 is rated as delivering 740 shots per charge if you use the rear LCD and 700 if you use the viewfinder. These figures jump to 770 and 740, respectively, if you use energy saving mode. As always these numbers are not directly representative of how many shots you’re likely to achieve, partly because the CIPA standard test demands more use of playback than most photographers do.
It’s only intensive shooting of stills and video together that are likely ever cause any concern for Z9 users in terms of battery life
This discrepancy is especially acute when shooting bursts, which represents the opposite extreme of using the camera and where the amount of image review time, per image, is near zero. To illustrate this, Nikon claims the Z9 is good for 5310 shots per charge when shooting bursts. Although Nikon doesn’t specify its test method, this figure corresponds much more closely to our initial experiences of shooting fast action with the Z9. So, while we wouldn’t take this number literally, either, it does highlight that CIPA numbers can seem unrealistically low.
The standard test numbers tend to be broadly comparable between cameras, though, with a camera rated at 700 shots per charge typically delivering twice as many shots as one rated at 350. We find it hard to imagine a shooting scenario that will exhaust a camera rated at over 700 shots per charge, so it’s only intensive shooting of stills and video together that are likely ever cause any concern for Z9 users.
How it compares
The Z9 matches the Sony a1’s trick of delivering both speed and high resolution, so that’s the most immediate reference point. However, a fair chunk of its audience are likely to be existing D5 and D6 owners, seeing if the Z9 justifies a move to a world without mirrors.
It’s unlikely many people will be directly choosing between Canon’s 24MP R3 and the 45MP of the Z9, but we’ve included it here to show how each of the biggest brands’ current range-toppers compare. We’ve also included the smaller, less expensive Z7 II to illustrate where the Z9 fits, in relation.
|Nikon Z9||Sony a1||Canon EOS R3||Nikon D6||Nikon Z7 II|
|MSRP at launch||$5500||$6500||$6000||$6500||$3000|
|Sensor type||Stacked CMOS||Stacked CMOS||Stacked CMOS||FSI CMOS||BSI CMOS|
|Maximum frame rate
|30 fps (JPEG)
(Raw + JPEG)
|30 fps (lossy Raw)
20 fps (lossless Raw)
|30 fps (e-shutter)
12 fps (mech)
|14 fps (viewfinder)||10 fps|
|E-shutter rate||1/270 s||1/260 s||1/200 s||N/A||~1/16 s|
|Image stabilization||In body
(lens IS takes over pitch/yaw)1
(lens IS takes over pitch/yaw)
|In body (lens IS combines for pitch/yaw)||In lens only||In body
(lens IS takes over pitch/yaw)
|AF sensitivity2||-5.0EV (-7.0 in Starlight AF mode)||-4 EV||-4.5 EV||-4.5 EV (center)||-3.0EV|
|HDR image format||–||10-bit HLG HEIF||10-bit PQ HEIF||–||–|
|Viewfinder refresh rate||60 fps||up to 240 fps3||up to 120 fps||N/A||60 fps|
(8K/60 via f/w)
4K/120p (1.12x crop)
|Bit depth||10-bit internal
(12-bit Raw internal via f/w)
16-bit Raw over HDMI
(12-bit internal Raw)
|8-bit internal||8-bit internal
10-bit over HDMI
|Rear screen||3.2″ 2.1M dot-dual tilt touchscreen||3.0″ 1.44M- dot tilting touchscreen||3.2″ 4.2M-dot fully articulated touchscreen||3.2″ 2.36M-dot fixed touchscreen||3.0″ 2.1M-dot tilting touchscreen|
|Media formats||2x CFe Type B / XQD||2x Dual CFe Type A / UHS-II SD||1x CFe Type B
1x UHS-II SD
|2x CFe Type B / XQD||1x CFe Type B / XQD
1x UHS-II SD
|Wi-Fi||2.4GHz and 5GHz||2.4GHz and MIMO 5GHz||2.4GHz4||2.4GHz and 5GHz||2.4GHz and 5GHz|
|Ethernet||Yes 1000Base-T||Yes 1000 Base-T||Yes 1000 Base-T||Yes 1000 Base-T||No|
|Battery life (CIPA) LCD/VF5||740 / 700||530 / 430||760 / 440||– / 3850||420 / 360|
|Dimensions||149 x 150 x 91mm||129 x 97 x 81mm||150 x 142 x 87mm||160 x 163 x 92mm||129 x 96 x 76mm|
1‘Synchro VR’ which combines lens and in-body IS is initially available with the Z 105mm F2.8 S and the new Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6, with Z 70-200mm F2.8 S following via FW.
2Lowest light level at which phase-detect AF functions with an F2.0 lens. Canon and Nikon quote figures for F1.2 lenses, so we’ve adjusted by +1.5EV, for ease of comparison.
3 Viewfinder resolution and magnification reduced at 240 fps
4 5GHz and MIMO Wi-Fi available using WFT-E9 accessory
5 OVF and EVF battery figures are not directly comparable
The Nikon Z9’s specs very look strong, even compared to the most capable mirrorless cameras on the market. It can only shoot JPEG when matching the Sony a1 and Canon EOS R3 at their fastest rates, but that’s one of the few areas it falls behind. The 3.69M dot, 60 fps viewfinder could look disappointing on paper (much less so in the real world), but, while HDR photo capability would have be nice, the Z9’s video capabilities are significantly beyond those of its peers.
Even if you haven’t fully subscribed to the ‘the sky is falling’ theories about Nikon, it’s still fair to say that the Z9 is an important camera for the company. Its Z6 and Z7 models have been very good, and the Z5 provides a very affordable way into the Z system, but what’s been lacking is a real ‘halo’ product. The Z9 clearly plays that role: both to convince professional shooters that there’s a future for them in the Z mount, and also to provide a little sparkle that can shine down on the rest of the lineup.
|The Z9’s screen works just as well for portrait or landscape-orientation shooting, but without the odd off-axis hinge of a fully-articulating display, that can make composition awkward.|
Having used the Z9 in some pretty demanding circumstances, it makes a very good impression in both regards. As a pro-grade sports camera, it appears to perform just as well on the sidelines as it does on paper. It offers a combination of resolution and speed that’s previously only ever been offered by Sony’s a1. But, despite the popular assumption that the Z9 would simply borrow that camera’s sensor, there’s the exciting prospect that the Z9 could offer pro-sports speed with D850 image quality (still the high bar for full-frame, in some regards). We’ll know more when we can dig into the Raws a bit more.
The camera’s Raw shooting rate of 20 frames per second is slower than the a1 or the lower-res EOS R3, but was still enough that two afternoons of shooting left me with 3100 Raw/JPEG pairs (170 Gb) to work through. And, if the action you’re shooting requires 30 fps, you can match the Sony and Canon’s top speed, if JPEGs are sufficient for your needs (which is likely to be the only practicable way of shooting in some circumstances). If you don’t mind 11MP JPEGs, the Z9 can even shoot at up to 120fps.
|Video is easily accessed, using a dedicated switch, at which point the Z9 reveals itself as not only Nikon’s best video shooter, but probably the best-specced full-frame mirrorless stills/video camera on the market.|
Another area where the Z9 looks extremely competitive is video, which is not something we always associate with Nikon. The last time Nikon led the market in video specs for ILCs was the D90, which offered HD video from an APS-C sensor, only to be outgunned by Canon’s full-frame, Full HD-shooting EOS 5D II, just a few weeks later. Since then it’s continued to improve both its support tools and core video specs, but nothing on the level of the Z9. Not only is the Z9 the first stills/video ILC to offer 8K/60p, but after a firmware update, may also be the first to offer internal ProRes RAW capture and 8K Raw video.
|Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S | ISO 64 | 1/640 sec | F5.0
Photo: Dale Baskin
The Z9 isn’t just about sheer grunt though: options such as internal ProRes HQ capture and internal Log capture suggest Nikon has been listening to the needs of videographers, rather than just pushing to deliver impressive looking spec figures. Promising a camera that can shoot 8K/30p is one thing: delivering one that can do so for over two hours suggests you want that feature to be usable.
|The Z9’s AF tracking system is much faster and simpler to use than on previous Nikon mirrorless cameras, as well as being stickier and more dependable. Nikkor Z 70-200mm F2.8 S | ISO 1400 | 1/2000 sec | F5.0
Photo: Richard Butler
Away from the raw specs, though, the thing that surprised all of us about the Z9 was just how DSLR-like it is. The viewfinder might not have the highest resolution or refresh rate, but it felt very responsive and consistent. This DSLR-like experience is helped greatly by the return of Nikon’s 3D AF Tracking: arguably the progenitor of modern AF tracking systems. Pre-placing your AF point and being confident that the camera will then follow your subject around the scene is something we’ve increasingly come to take for granted, but Nikon’s DSLRs were the first to do it well. The Z9’s system is now backed-up by algorithms trained by machine learning, but you don’t really need to think about that when you’re using the camera: it just works like a D6 or D850 would, only more consistently and reliably.
The Z9 isn’t the first mirrorless camera to do away with the mechanical shutter, but it’s the first to get away with it. The ~1/270 sec rolling shutter is faster than some mechanical shutters, which has prompted Nikon to go one stage further than just removing the mirror. And yet, with little details such as the return of the AF mode button, the Z9 will feel immediately familiar to Nikon DSLR shooters.
And that brings us to the audience for this camera. There’s a general perception that camera prices are going up all the time (a perception not always borne-out by the facts), but the Z9 is priced lower than the D6 that it effectively replaces. It’s $1000 lower than the Sony a1’s launch price (more if you add the battery grip to match the form-factor), and $500 below Canon’s current mirrorless flagship. This still makes it considerably more expensive than the D850 was, but should broaden its appeal. After all, if can deliver near-D850 image quality only much faster, with image stabilization, much better autofocus and with access to better lenses, it seems fair to assume some photographers will be willing to pay a premium for that.
Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter/magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review). Please refrain from using them for any commercial purposes.