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 the 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 bring 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 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 on the most relevant detail. In terms of animals, the algorithm can recognize cats, dogs, and birds, while the vehicle 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 a 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.
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 ‘Synchro 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 an 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 the 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.
Making a welcome return on the Z9 is a dedicated AF mode button on the 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 backward-compatible with any of the older XQD cards 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 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 a faster refresh.
Multi-directional rear LCD
With the Z9, Nikon has resisted the temptation to simply fit a fully articulated display and opted for something that will suit some photographers better. It is essentially a conventional tilting cradle removable up / down, but which has then been placed on another hinge that allows it to tilt horizontally.
A result is a place between the tilting vertical/horizontal screens we like so much on various Fujifilm and Panasonic models, and the much more elaborate telescopic workbench design of the Pentax K-1.
The important thing is that it allows you to tilt the screen towards you, whether you are shooting in landscape or portrait orientation, and it does so while keeping the screen centered on the optical axis, making it easier to frame your shots.
The Nikon is not the first camera to cover its sensor when the camera is off, which helps protect it and keep dust off the sensor during lens changes, but it is the first where the cover is designed exclusively for that purpose. . Therefore, although the mechanism looks like a closed shutter, it does not have to be manufactured with the super-light (low inertia), potentially brittle shutter blades.
The Z9 uses the EN-EL18d, the latest variant of the large battery used by previous Nikon professionals. It will work with all previous EN-EL18 batteries, but you can only charge versions b, c, and d in the camera, via USB and will offer more shots with the EN-EL18d. The charger supplied with the Z9 is also only compatible with the three most recent variants.
The z9 is rated at 740 shots per charge if you use the rear LCD screen and 700 if you use the viewfinder. These figures jump to 770 and 740, respectively, if you use power-saving mode. As always, these numbers are not directly representative of the number of shots you are likely to get, in part because the CIPA standard test calls for more use of reproduction than most photographers.
This discrepancy is especially acute when shooting bursts, which represents the opposite extreme of camera use and where the amount of image review time, per image, is close to zero. To illustrate this, Nikon claims that the Z9 is good at 5,310 shots per charge when shooting bursts. Although Nikon does not 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.
However, the standard test numbers tend to be broadly comparable between cameras, with a camera rated at 700 shots per charge generally delivering twice as many shots as one rated at 350. We find it difficult to imagine a scenario of shot that will exhaust a camera rated at over 700 shots per charge, so it’s just the intensive shooting of still images and video together that is likely to cause Z9 users some concern.
How it compares
The Z9 matches Sony’s a1 trick of offering speed and high resolution, so that’s the most immediate benchmark. However, a good chunk of your audience is likely to be existing D5 and D6 owners, seeing if the Z9 justifies a move to a mirrorless world.
It’s unlikely that many people will directly choose between Canon’s 24MP R3 and the Z9’s 45MP, but we’ve included it here to show how each of the current range leaders from the biggest brands compares. We’ve also included the smaller, less expensive Z7 II to illustrate where the Z9 fits in, relative.
|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
|In body |
(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)
|DCI 4K/120p |
|Bit depth||10-bit internal |
(12-bit Raw internal via f/w)
|10-bit internal |
16-bit Raw over HDMI
|10-bit internal |
(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 seem solid, even compared to the most capable mirrorless cameras on the market. You can only shoot JPEGs when you match the Sony a1 and Canon EOS R3 at their fastest speeds, but that’s one of the few areas where it falls behind. The 3.69M-dot 60fps viewfinder might look disappointing on paper (much less in the real world), but while the HDR photographic capabilities would have been good, the Z9’s video capabilities are significantly beyond its pairs.
Even if you haven’t fully subscribed to the “sky is falling” theories about Nikon, it’s fair to say that the Z9 is an important camera for the company. Their Z6 and Z7 models have been very good, and the Z5 provides a very affordable way to get into the Z system, but what is missing is a true ‘halo’ product. The Z9 clearly plays that role: both to convince professional shooters that there is a future for them in the Z mount and to provide a bit of sparkle that can shine through the rest of the lineup.
Having used the Z9 in some rather demanding circumstances, it makes a very good impression on both counts. As a professional-grade sports camera, it seems to work just as well on the sidelines as it does on paper. It offers a combination of resolution and speed previously only offered by Sony’s a1. But, despite the popular assumption that the Z9 would simply borrow the sensor from that camera, there is the exciting prospect that the Z9 could offer professional sports speed with D850 image quality (still the high bar for the full-frame, in some aspects). We’ll know more when we can dig a little deeper into the Raws.
The camera’s raw shooting speed of 20 frames per second is slower than the lower resolution a1 or EOS R3, but it was enough for two afternoons of shooting to leave me with 3,100 Raw / JPEG pairs (170Gb) to work. And, if the action you’re shooting requires 30fps, you can match Sony and Canon’s top speed, if the JPEG files are sufficient for your needs (which is probably the only viable way to shoot in some circumstances). If you don’t mind 11MP JPEG files, the Z9 can even shoot up to 120fps.
Another area where the Z9 seems extremely competitive is video, which is not something we always associate with Nikon. The last time Nikon led the market in video specs for ILC was the D90, which offered HD video from an APS-C sensor, only to be surpassed by Canon’s full-frame full-HD shooting EOS 5D II, just a few. weeks later. . Since then, it has 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 still / video ILC to offer 8K / 60p, but after a firmware update, it may also be the first to offer internal ProRes RAW capture and 8K Raw video.
The Z9 isn’t all about a grunt though – options like ProRes HQ internal capture and internal record capture suggest that Nikon has been listening to the needs of videographers, rather than simply pushing to deliver looks spec figures. Awesome. Promising a camera that can shoot 8K / 30p is one thing: delivering one that can shoot for more than two hours suggests that you want that feature to be usable.
However, far from the raw specs, what surprised us all about the Z9 was how close it is to a DSLR. The viewer may not have the highest resolution or refresh rate, but it felt very responsive and consistent. This DSLR-like experience is greatly aided by the return of Nikon’s 3D AF tracking – arguably the progenitor of modern AF tracking systems. Pre-setting your AF point and making sure the camera will follow your subject around the scene is something we increasingly take for granted, but Nikon’s DSLRs were the first to get it right. The Z9’s system is now backed by machine learning-trained algorithms, but you don’t really need to think about that when 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 eliminate the mechanical shutter, but it’s the first to get away with it. The ~ 1/270 second rolling shutter is faster than some mechanical shutters, prompting Nikon to go a step further than simply removing the mirror. And yet, with little details like the return of the AF mode button, the Z9 will feel immediately familiar to Nikon DSLR shooters.
And that brings us to the audience of this chamber. There is a general perception that camera prices are going up all the time (a perception that is not always borne out by facts), but the Z9 is priced lower than the D6 that it effectively replaces. It’s $ 1000 lower than the Sony a1 launch price (more if you add the battery grip to match the form factor), and $ 500 less than Canon’s current mirrorless flagship. This still makes it considerably more expensive than the D850, but it should broaden its appeal. After all, if you can deliver image quality close to the D850 only much faster, with image stabilization, much better autofocus, and access to better lenses, it seems fair to assume that some photographers will be willing to pay more for that.