Review Nikon Z 9 (updated with results NX Studio 1.1.0!)
The Z 9 doesn’t track, it leads
The Nikon Z 9 is Nikons professional high speed camera, the successor of the venerable Nikon D6. The fact that Nikon is confident enough to offer a mirrorless replacement of its fastest DSLR is impressive. But this camera is not only better than the D6, it represents a completely new generation of mirrorless cameras.
Technology doesn’t evolve gradually. New inventions at first don’t seem to offer much of an advantage, often even on the contrary. I remember very clearly the moment when a colleague showed me a Minolta 7000 AF (MAXXUM 7000/α-7000). The year was 1986 and Minolta had just introduced the first complete system of autofocus cameras and lenses, which was a complete surprise to the market. I was surprised too – but I wasn’t impressed. At all. With my Nikon F3 and FM2 I was able to focus much faster and more precisely than my colleague.
Really, the first years of autofocus weren’t very memorable. Cameras only had one focus point, so you had to focus and reframe all the time and even when you didn’t have to do that, autofocus was slow. To beginners, who didn’t have experience in manual focusing, it was welcome. To pros, it was just a nuisance. But we all know that after approximately ten years autofocus cameras arrived at a point that they were often faster at focusing than even the most experienced photojournalist.
Around ten years later we saw the first digital cameras. They offered an image quality that was vastly inferior to silver halide images. Much less sharpness, much more noise, and no or very bad colors. But again, after approximately ten years digital became better than film: in 2004 you’d buy a DSLR for around $ 1.000,- that offered an image quality higher than 35mm film. The real change though happened in 2007. In that year the Nikon D3 was introduced.
The D3 solved the problems digital cameras still had. It introduced gapless microlenses that caught more light but also were able to catch oblique light rays from the wide angles from the film age and combined that with effective yet subtle on-sensor noise reduction. The combination of very high performance at high ISO values, unlimited use of wide angles, and very fast burst speeds opened a new photographic world. Digital had grown mature and enabled us now to capture almost any moment imaginable (pun intended).
One year after the Nikon D3, in 2008, the first commercially successful mirrorless camera was introduced: the Panasonic Lumix G1. Again; this camera couldn’t impress anybody who was seriously involved with photography. Just like with autofocus and digital, we had to wait ten years. In 2018, even Canon and Nikon strategically chose to make mirrorless their future. It still took a few years more to make a D3-moment happen. But I would even go farther and say, it is a Z 9-moment.
There are many parallels to the D3. The Z 9 is by far the fastest camera on the market with 120 fps and an unlimited buffer. It has a sensor that doesn’t force you to choose between low noise at high ISO and dynamic range and resolution at low ISO values. The camera is so fast you don’t have to make small files. The viewfinder is so clear and fast (and stays fast in all situations) that it surpasses DSLR viewfinders. Autofocus is so fast that it can capture anything that moves. (Ok, and then we don’t even talk about the video qualities, which are also without equal.)
So yes, it creates a D3-moment because it does everything a mirrorless pro camera should do in such a way that it creates new possibilities. But it does more. It brings deep learning to a new level, the level where that camera not only can recognize subjects if you tell the camera to do so but can do so on its own. That’s a paradigm shift.
The Nikon Z 9 is the first camera that really autofocuses. Other cameras can focus for you, but you first have to tell them what it is you want them to focus on. The new Nikon does that for you – if you wish. It’s the first camera that uses artificial intelligence in such a way that the photographer really can concentrate on the scene. It doesn’t make the photographer superfluous. Maybe even on the contrary.
Because the camera can take so many pictures in just a few moments, you need a photographer who is able to see what makes a great picture even more than before. That person has to pick the right position, the right lens, and of course the decisive moment. But then the camera that sees and thinks much faster than the photographer, will capture it. It’s the moment not only mirrorless, but photography gets mature. The Z 9 marks the beginning of a new era. This beginning is the Z 9-moment.
Tests, specs and more
The camera uses a sensor that looks very similar to the one in the Z 7. That alone is a brave decision because up until now the top cameras for photojournalists from Nikon and others used special sensors tuned to high ISO performance. Personally, I’m very happy with that decision, because the gains at very high ISO values of sensors like the one for the D6 were relatively small and the loss of dynamic range at low ISO was relatively large. It looks like the sensor offers the best of both worlds – as did, in fact, the sensor of the Z 7 (II).
Effective pixel count
We don’t see this large difference in the Sony A1, but the Canon R3 has a similar difference. Some journalists think that the stack would go to the expense of dynamic range and performance at high ISO. So I was very much interested in doing a test of the dynamic range and high ISO performance. During the years I have made many tests of dynamic range and noise, so I could compare it to other cameras. Thankfully, I was able to use a beta version of Nikon NX Studio.
The procedure I use is simple yet effective. I make a series of pictures of a Macbeth color card, starting from the right exposure measured with an incident light meter for the nominal ISO. I end up with a range from around + 3.5 to – 7. Then I process the RAWs using exposure compensation (above + 5 plus a curve) from mostly about plus 2.3 to approx. minus five, always taking care to process using middle grey to the same value.
For the saturation point of the sensor, I just look for the exposure where the lightest patch of a MacBeth color card still shows some detail, based on a standard picture control setting (gamma value). But to be sure I also check whether I can gain details by changing these settings.
To judge the minus five-point I compare the resulting noise visually with a set of already tested cameras and usually one reference camera used in parallel, just to be sure. In my opinion, lifting shadows beyond the point of minus five is rarely if ever necessary or advisable (in such a case HDR or luminosity mask are a better solution). Of course, there are visible details below minus five, but they are of no practical use.
Nikon NX Studio beta
Normally I use Adobe Camera RAW, since this software offers the largest dynamic range. At this moment Adobe Camera Raw doesn’t yet support the Z 9, but Nikon NX Studio beta does and I just compared the results from the Z 7II with the Z 9, using Nikon NX Studio.
Reprocessed the files with the final version, 1.1.0. Got exactly the same results.
I don’t measure noise, because i.m.o. all methods of quantizing noise lack a useful relation to the subjectively experienced noise. Instead, I just compare the results to those of other tested cameras and the reference camera visually. In this case, I just present you the results, so you can do the comparison yourself. But what I see, is that in most if not all patches noise is equal or even somewhat less than the Z 7II shows.
This is remarkable since in this test the Z 7 II even got about 0.25 stop more light. It’s very clear that there is no effect whatsoever of the stack and you can neither see any banding or other artifacts. For the results of high ISO test, I also got comparable results. Comparing was done only at ISO 3200 and 6400, but in the light of the similarity, I would be utterly surprised if the Z 9 would do worse than the Z 7II at any ISO value. All pictures have been processed with the same Nikon NX Studio beta *and again with final 1.1.0 * version, without using any noise reduction.
There are many people who tested autofocus capabilities and you can find those tests on the internet. I also was able to talk to Jarno Schurgers who tested the camera for a longer period of time and who was able to compare it to his D6. I can only second his opinion and the outcome of the most enthusiastic tests. I made almost 3500 pictures at 120 fps of breakdancer Joel Westerveld.
Nikon hired him for the Z 9 presentation, but I couldn’t think of a better and more difficult test subject – well in terms of speed, because the guy himself was very easy. I was very much impressed by the autofocus speed, but even more so by the fact that the camera switched to the hands of the dancer and the back of the head at moments the face was hidden and switched back in in a blink of an eye – of even faster.
Not only is the camera much faster than any camera I ever used before, but it also chose the right point to focus on in an unbelievably fast way. It made decisions I could have never made, simply because human vision only sees at a rate of about 15 frames per second and the camera at 120 fps!
Body and handling
The Z 9 feels exactly right. Admittedly, this is subjective, but you can also go by the fact that the A 9 is approx. 20% smaller than the D6. It feels very well balanced in combination with the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and 70-200mm f/2.8 Z lenses I used it with and with smaller lenses as well. Even though I was used to the Z 7 and Z 6 I immediately started to use the focus button at the left, which we know from the Nikon DSLRs. The camera has also other buttons we know from the D6 and of course, they are illuminated. If you’re used to e.g. a D5, you can just take the camera in your hand and start taking pictures. Actually, that’s what I did at the Nikon presentation, after changing some settings, that is.
Movements of the sensor are automatically locked if you switch the camera off, so the sensor alignment is protected against shocks. (The Z 6 and Z 7 (II) offer this feature as well, but Nikon never told us 😊) The extra weight and volume compared to other mirrorless cameras are reassuring. The large magnesium alloy body also is the secret behind the fast frame rates for video and photography: it absorbs the heat the sensors produce.
|Camera||Bps without rolling shutter||Endless Buffer||Video||Mega-|
|Z 9||120 jpg / 60 (Prores RAW) / 30 (jpg) / 20 (RAW)||yes||8k/60 p (RAW!)*|
|46||64-51.200||No||Automatic and simultaneous based on image recognition /people/animals/cars/planes/bicyles and motorcycles3 D|
|A 1||30 (RAW/jpg)||nee||8k/30 p HD/120 p||50||100-51.200||No, but sometimes slow||People/ (some) animals|
|R 3||30 (RAW/jpg)||no||4k/120 p HD/120 p||24||100-102.400||No, but sometimes slow||People/ (some) animals|