Going Mirrorless with the Nikon Z9: #2 A Practical Review
Back in February I took delivery of the much anticipated Nikon Z9, and as it's my first foray into mirrorless cameras, I'm updating my journey to the 'other side'.
Since February I've put the Z9 through its paces in Kenya, the UK, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Alaska, photographing everything from badgers to cheetahs, penguins to bears, and some landscapes for good measure too!
Firstly I must say that I (almost) love this camera for safari photography. During my professional life I've always used Nikon's flagship DSLRs, and in (almost) all areas the Z9 out-performs any I've owned....
But it does seem to have one flaw...
Z9: What's To Love?
The enormous 46Mp resolution - on a par with the the D850 - allows serious cropping
Cropped image above, from the original below
10 and 20fps on continuous shooting are fabulous for charging cheetahs and birds in flight. There's even a 'buffer' feature in 30/120 mode which, with your shutter finger half way depressed, captures low resolution images for half a second or so before you finally press the shutter release all the way down, meaning you'll never - unless you're really not paying attention - miss a bird taking off again!
For video, frame rates of 120 and 240fps allow sublime slo-mo, though beware that your computer may have a meltdown trying to edit the 8k footage option that the Z9 offers.
What You See Is What You Get
I'm really enjoying the creativity that the electronic viewfinder facilitates. Both high and low key images (below) are a doddle, double exposure is a revelation and there are never any worries about spot-on exposure, as what you see in the viewfinder is true to the final image. In truth it feels a bit like cheating its so easy!
For video, not having to use the back screen with a loupe, and instead being able to see directly through the viewfinder is a major plus too.
Everything On The Outside
I'm a big fan of programming control buttons on the exterior of the camera, so I can easily recall specific settings, switch focus modes etc without having to take it away from my eye. So imagine my delight that Nikon have kept loads of programmable buttons on the outside of the body (in contrast the Canon R5 has virtually none). In a future article I'll go through the programmable button set-up I use for wildlife - for example panning settings are stored and accessible with one touch.
Much better than I was lead to believe, with a battery often lasting a full day, or only one change needed. Battery availability is still tricky at time of writing though.
I hadn't realised (or perhaps I should say admitted) how intrusive the mirror slap on some DSLRs can be, and how much it can startle wary wildlife. By contrast the silent shooting of the Z9 is a dream, although I do choose to have a very low purr on mine, having shot about 400 photos of the ground without realising!
I worried that the aim of making mirrorless cameras lighter might affect build quality, but I've subjected the Z9 to my usual onslaught of elements: lashing rain, sea spray, dung and dust... although I'm pleased to say I haven't dropped it!
The camera seems impressively impervious to water, mud and everything else that gets thrown at it with me on a day basis...it even survived being dragged through the dust by a young cheetah at Zimanga recently!
Z9: What's Not To Love?
Some folks have been disappointed that the Z9 is comparable in size and weight to high spec DSLR's but I like a good chunk of camera so that hasn't bothered me at all.
There's only one aspect that is letting the Z9 down for me, and unfortunately it's a big one: autofocus. While the eye detection is very impressive in many situations, I'm finding that the autofocus speed and sureness just doesn't compare to that of the D4s, D5 and even the D850 in other situations.
I've been disappointed and frustrated to find it hunting and missing in low light and low contrast conditions that the aforementioned DSLRs had no trouble with at all. I've updated the firmware and juggled between modes, areas etc but find it sometimes comes up short on this most vital aspect of wildlife and even landscape photography. For instance it took many attempts to get the Z9 to focus in these misty conditions in Alaska recently, whereas the D850 just locked on straight away.
It could be because I'm currently using the FTZII adaptor with my F-mount lenses, including the 400mm f2.8, though this really shouldn't be the case as Nikon are selling this as a fully compatible alternative to Z-mount lenses. I'm going to try out the Z-mount equivalent lens to see if it fares better... though at nearly £14,000 it will be a while before I can actually buy one!
While it's not a deal-breaker, it is definitely something to be aware of when thinking about this otherwise absolutely incredible camera, especially for wildlife that is active when the light is at its most rewarding but also its most challenging.