Nikon Z9 review: hands-on first look

October 28, 2021

Nikon Z 9



Price as Reviewed:

£5,299.00 (body only)

Nikon’s pro full-frame mirrorless combines high resolution with impressive speed. Andy Westlake takes a first look

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Nikon Z9 at a glance:

  • £5,299 body-only
  • 45.7MP full-frame stacked CMOS sensor
  • ISO 32-102,400 (extended)
  • 20fps continuous shooting in raw
  • 120fps shooting in 11MP (4K) JPEG
  • 3-way tilting touchscreen
  • 8K 30p video recording for up to 2 hours
  • 5-axis in-body stabilisation

This year, we’ve seen a series of pro-spec full-frame mirrorless cameras whose capabilities decisively surpass anything their DSLR predecessors could offer. Sony’s breath-taking Alpha 1 kicked things off in January, with its ability to shoot 50MP images at 30 frames per second. Then just a few weeks ago, Canon’s EOS R3 appeared offering 24MP at 30fps, but with game-changing eye-controlled autofocus for selecting a subject for tracking. Now it’s Nikon’s turn to reveal its hand, and in some respects, its new Z9 might just be the most impressive of all.

The Nikon Z9 is a professional high-speed, high-resolution full-frame mirrorless camera

In terms of headline specifications, the Z 9 uses a 45.7MP full-frame sensor that offers ISO 64-25,600 as standard, and ISO 32-102,400 extended. This means it doesn’t match the ultra-high values offered by the 20MP D6, which provides ISO 102,400 as standard and a staggering extended ISO 3,280,000. However, it can shoot at 20 frames per second with a 1000-frame buffer in raw format, increasing to 30fps if you switch to JPEG-only.

The Z9 merges aspects of Nikon’s DSLR and mirrorless camera layouts

Nikon has also included a mode derived from 4K video recording whereby 11MP images can be shot at a remarkable 120 frames per second, complete with continuous autofocus and tracking. Impressively, this is said to work with over 100 Nikon lenses, including F-mount DSLR lenses via the FTZ adapter, as well as native Z-mount optics.

Nikon Z9 45.7MP full-frame stacked CMOS sensor

Nikon’s Z9 is based around a new 45.7MP stacked CMOS sensor

Nikon has achieved these speeds by using a stacked CMOS sensor, which employs a memory layer beneath the light-sensitive pixels for ultra-fast readout. This design practically eliminates distortion from rolling-shutter effects, while also providing a blackout-free viewfinder feed during continuous shooting. The Sony Alpha 1 and Canon EOS R3 use similar technology, but the difference is that Nikon has decided to eliminate the physical shutter entirely, for the first time in this type of camera.

Nikon Z9 dual card slots

Nikon has fitted the Z9 with a pair of XQD/CFexpress Type B card slots, with the latter offering the best performance

That’s just the start. Nikon also claims that the Z 9 has its most advanced autofocus system ever, which employs AI-based subject recognition to detect and track focus on people, animals and vehicles, including cars, motorbikes, trains and planes. Alternatively, there are 493 manually-selectable autofocus points and a choice of 10 different AF-area modes.

Video specs are likewise very impressive. The Z 9 can record in 8K resolution at 30 fps and Nikon says it’ll keep going for hours without overheating. Alternatively, it can shoot 4K at up to 120fps using the full width of the sensor. There’s a choice of 8-bit or 10-bit colour, with efficient H.265 compression to keep file sizes down. More advanced video features are promised via future firmware updates, including raw 8K at 30p and 10-bit Apple ProRes 422 HQ support.

Nikon Z9 ports

On the side are ethernet and full-size HDMI ports, along with USB-C, microphone and headphone sockets

As befits a pro camera, extensive connectivity options are built in. There’s an RJ45 ethernet port and built-in high-speed Wi-Fi that supports sending images to a news desk via FTP. It’s also possible to connect the Z 9 to a smartphone via USB-C for transferring images over mobile data networks.

Nikon Z9 sensor shield

This shield protects the sensor when the camera is switched off. Despite appearances, it’s not a mechanical shutter.

Other notable features include a shutter shield that protects the sensor when the camera is switched off, new AI-based auto white balance algorithms, and a high efficiency raw file format that promises files one-third of the standard size without any loss of detail. Five-axis in-body stabilisation is also on board and rated for up to six stops of shake suppression.

Nikon Z9 key features

The camera uses the same EN-EL18 type battery as the D6 and D5 before it, but the ‘d’ variant can now be charged in camera via USB-C

  • Storage:  Nikon has fitted the Z 9 with dual slots for CFexpress Type B or XQD cards, with the former required for best performance
  • Power:  The Z 9 uses the same size battery as the D6 and D5 before it. But its new EN-EL18d variant now supports in-camera charging via the USB-C port
  • Screen:  The 3-way tilting rear screen can tilt 90 degrees upwards when shooting in portrait format, as well as up and down in landscape format
  • Shutter:  Exposure control is provided by a silent electronic shutter – there’s no mechanical shutter at all

Nikon Z9: Build and Handling

In design terms, from the front the Z 9 looks like a slightly shrunken version of Nikon’s professional D6 DSLR, with an integrated vertical grip and a viewfinder housing that’s styled to resemble the firm’s DSLRs much more than the previous Z models. In contrast to the Canon EOS R3, Nikon says its body is just as robust as the D6, thanks to a fully weather-sealed magnesium alloy shell. It certainly feels pretty bomb-proof in your hand.

Nikon claims that the Z9 has the world’s brightest electronic viewfinder

On the back, the layout is very much like the existing Z-series cameras such as the Z7 II, just with a duplicate set of controls for portrait-format shooting. There’s no space for a D6-style column of buttons to the left of the screen, so these have been rearranged to be readily accessed using your right thumb.

In particular, well-positioned ‘i’ buttons allow plenty of settings to be adjusted with the camera up to your eye. The rear buttons can also all be illuminated for shooting in the dark with a quick flick of the power switch.

The rear screen can now tilt upwards for waist-level shooting in portrait format

Like its siblings, the Z 9 boasts a large, high resolution electronic viewfinder, which Nikon claims is the world’s brightest. It’s backed up by a touchscreen which can now tilt upwards by 90° when shooting in portrait format, as well as tilting up and down when the camera is held in the landscape orientation.

This is a similar approach to several Panasonic and Fujifilm cameras, and we think that it’s the best screen design for stills shooters. It just can’t be set facing forwards.

Nikon Z9: First impressions

We’ll need to spend much longer with the Z 9 to get a proper feel for just what it can do, but it certainly gives the impression of being an extremely capable camera that offers a unique combination of high speed, high resolution and superb build quality and handling.

The Z9 takes many of the design features of Nikon’s pro DSLRs and translates them mirrorless

Nikon’s decision to do without a mechanical shutter entirely is an intriguing one, but with this sensor tech it may be a great way of reducing cost and complexity with no real drawbacks. We’re looking forward to putting the camera through its paces to find out.

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