The Nikon Z9 has superb autofocus & color but...

Is it enough for me to switch from Canon?

Nikon Z9
  • Value - 6.2/10
    6.2/10
  • Build Quality - 9.4/10
    9.4/10
  • Autofocus - 9/10
    9/10
  • Sensor Quality - 10/10
    10/10
  • Battery Life - 8/10
    8/10
8.5/10

Quick Summary

It’s a big deal for Nikon to finally have AF performance on par with the best bodies from other brands like Sony and Canon, but I’d recommend the Zf instead.

Pros

Impressive release from Nikon, with an overhauled AF system that finally meets, or surpasses their competitors like Sony and Canon.

Cons

Way too big and heavy – screen is difficult to articulate.

Just a quick foreword to note that even if you don’t shoot Nikon – I tried to write this review with insights that every photographer should find helpful when considering which camera system to purchase. Additionally, every image you see in this post, aside from the images of camera bodies, was made using the Nikon Z9. There are a select few raw files attached to this post if you’d like to download and try your editing on them yourself. Onto the review…

Soooooo I sent it back.

After nearly 10k clicks, 3 countries, and several jaw-dropping moments while editing, and a newfound love for my arm muscles… there were two major reasons I couldn’t use the Nikon system as my workhorse, but more on that in a bit.

STORYTIME

Nikon has a special place in my heart as a camera system. I sort of randomly fell into the Nikon camp during a backpacking trip through Europe about 20 years ago. It was my second trip abroad for the sole purpose of making photographs, and I had my first “serious” digital camera with me… a Sony Cybershot DSC-F707. I was traveling with a friend, and in our very first cab from the Dublin airport we had to stop to get cash out of the ATM because credit cards weren’t a thing in taxis yet (neither were smart phones). I got out to get cash and left my small camera side bag in the seat because I thought I’d be getting back in to continue on to our hostel.

Well, the driver said it was just one block away so we might as well just walk the rest of the way, which made sense. We got our bags from the trunk, and off he went… with my beloved Sony Cybershot sitting in the passenger seat.

Obviously, I never got that camera back. It’s funny to think that (in a way) I was so early to the Sony mirrorless world! It’s shocking to think how many aspects of that original camera cross over to how I prefer to shoot today. Sony really did get a lot right back then.

It took a few days, but once we landed in Amsterdam we were finally able to find a decent enough camera store that actually sold DSLR cameras. I was apprehensive about buying one because I was used to the flexibility of the optical digital/zoom combo, and the articulating camera body/lens of the Sony. Then I was handed a silver Nikon D50 to try out.

I absolutely loved the grip and feel, and decided to buy it for around $800-900 (I think) along with the 33mm-55mm (I think) kit lens that it came with.

I kept that exact same camera body and lens all the way through my hiring at the National Press Club as their staff photographer. I honestly didn’t even know what a prime lens was, or that you could buy a zoom lens that didn’t change aperture while you zoomed, when they hired me.

Oh, but I quickly learned. Though I was the staff photographer charged with building their photography services entirely from scratch… I had no photographer on staff to learn from.

Simply shooting shoulder to shoulder and observing DC freelancers was how I learned, and let me tell you… they are not the warm and inviting type. Especially when I roll up in the space with a D50 and kit lens.

(above) 24 mm_1-400 sec at f – 1.8_ISO 2000

But, I eventually figured out what would be best to get started with and allocated a Nikon D300, the holy trinity of zoom lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200), and was happily down the Nikon road until 2018 when they released their first mirrorless offerings.

Legacy patrons here will recall my disappointment w/ the first wave of Nikon cameras. I assumed that Canon’s eos-R was going to perform similarly to the Nikon Z series, but I could not have been more wrong. What started as an afterthought purchase of the eos-R became my full transition out of Nikon and into Canon.

Sorry Sony, but you were too late in the game with your professional lenses back in 2018.

This brings me to the WPPI trade show floor earlier this year. Nikon’s booth was pretty crowded, and they had a slew of Z9s to play with. Once I defamiliarized myself with the menus and configured the autofocus to work the way I wanted… I could tell this one was different.

THE BUILD

Of Course, It's Heavy

When it comes to their professional lenses, Nikon seems to have missed the memo about the advantages of mirrorless. I’m not sure if it’s an engineering problem based on the mount design or that the have different (higher?) optical standards compared to Sony and Canon, but the Nikon 50 1.2 is humongous. The Nikon 50 1.2 is so heavy that it’s comical. I watched nearly every person crack a smile whenever I’d pull the thing out of my sling bag.

But, what I eventually realized is that the weight of the 50 1.2 when combined with the Z9… didn’t bother me? More on that in a moment.

The Z9 is also a very heavy camera body, but that’s solvable with lighter lenses… or is it?

Along with the Z9 and 50 1.2, I picked up my old favorite the Nikon 58 1.4G. It’s so light I like to call it a “featherweight lens.” I figured it would be my preferred lens to shoot with, but to my surprise… I almost never used it.

Balance

It’s an often ignored and overlooked part of the shooting experience that has become increasingly important to me. Having a comfortable center of gravity with the camera in your hand is one of the most critical aspects of choosing gear. I’ve never had wrist pain, never even soreness, and I owe a lot of that to having a natural inclination toward working with gear that is well-balanced so that there’s never too much front-heavy weight or back-leaning weight.

It’s similar to what I mentioned in the article about bounce flash. Though it’s counter-intuitive, whenever I have a flash in my hotshoe bouncing over my shoulder, I actually add weight to the camera body w/ a battery grip (if the body doesn’t happen to always have a grip built in). The top heaviness of the flash alone raises the center of gravity too high, and the battery grip lowers the center of gravity.

It’s also why I prefer regular camera straps as I can hold my camera high and over a crowded dance floor while pulling the strap back with my other hand, again creating a more comfortable center of gravity.

The overall build quality is… strong. The whole camera has a bit of a… spartan feel…? I’m not sure why I’m drawn to use that word, but it seems right.

Definition of Spar·tan: showing the indifference to comfort or luxury traditionally associated with ancient Sparta.

Yeah, that seems correct. It’s just a tank that works.

BATTERY LIFE

Noticeably not as good as my Canon R3, and I can tell you one reason why.

The brightness of the display screen. This is one of the 2 reasons I decided not to keep using the Z9, and won’t bother with the Z8.

When shooting in bright outdoor light, which happens ALL THE TIME, it can become difficult to actually see what’s happening on any flip-out screen. Even our iPhones are hard to see.

Canon and Sony (though Canon does an even better job) have a handy option to map a custom button to temporarily boost the brightness of the display screen so you can see what’s happening, without affecting any of the exposure settings. I use this constantly. It’s something I didn’t know I needed until I had it, and I absolutely will never go without it.

Nikon, doesn’t have that. Yes, you can go into the menu settings and turn up the brightness of the display, you can even make a custom menu shortcut to get there quicker, but that’s extremely cumbersome. I just boosted it and left it boosted, which is awful for battery life.

Even before doing that, I did notice the battery was draining faster than I was used to. I would recommend 5 batteries for an average wedding, with a sixth as a backup.

AUTOFOCUS

Simply Incredible

Better than the R3, no doubt. There’s a stickiness to it that I find extremely impressive and worlds away from every other mirrorless Nikon I’ve used. I’d say it’s easily on par with, or slightly better than any Sony I’ve ever used.

My sentiments are the same regarding the FTZII adapter and F mount lenses. They just sing with a zing in a way that DSLRs never did.

(above) 50 mm_1-4000 sec at f – 1.2_ISO 100

I have my Nikon configured exactly the same with I have my canon cameras. Always with a single starting focus point in the center upper third of the frame. When I half press shutter, AF begins and stays tracking whatever subject is under that focus point.

THE SENSOR

This is where I found it difficult to give up the camera

The Z9 and the Z8 use the same sensor, and my god… it’s a stunner.

(above) 50 mm_1-250 sec at f – 1.2_ISO 1000

I’m not particularly worried about dynamic range or high ISO performance anymore, but yes it does handle both… very well.

Here’s two images at an insanely high iso 32,000:

Here’s a massively underexposed image at ISO 50

Here’s a massively underexposed image at ISO 50

This is on purpose to see how much I can recover the shadows in post

Same image pushed +5 stops and zoomed to the darkest details

Same image pushed +5 stops and zoomed to the darkest details

That’s more bright than necessary, and still no problematic shadow noise

Where this sensor really shines is color and tone. It reminds exactly of my favorite looking sensor of all time the Nikon D5.

It’s just got that “thing”

It’s just got that “thing”

I’m using the exact same preset (Gainstage – workshop tier patrons get this download when they join at no additional cost) as I use on my Canon gear – entirely unmodified.

SILENT SHOOTING

Nikon took an interesting approach with this camera and got rid of the mechanical shutter curtain entirely. Your only options are compeltely silent shooting, or ayour choice of a few sound effects, which really are awful. The sounds they chose make the camera feel like a toy. I decided to just opt for 100% silence, and was rather surprised with out much I ended up liking it. I still think I prefer to have the slight vibration and sound of a mechanical shutter most of the time, but after shooting with the Nikon for so long, I have found myself using my Canon R3 for silent shooting much more than I ever used to.

The sound of the shutter is such an important part of the client dynamic. When clients can hear you reacting to their laughing, or reacting to any moment at all, it really dials up the positivity in the feedback loop that we all establish between ourselves and the people we’re photographing. The sound effect does create that same experieence for the client, but it feels incredibly cheap and unsatisfying to me while making the actual photos. Just my opinion.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So, that brings my to the final nail in the coffin for my personal reason to send to return the camera and stick with my Canon R3… the screen:

The rotation and angles of the screen are far too limited. It’s not at all flimsy or built poorly, it’s just built stupidly. The smooth flip out of the Canon and (many of the) Sony mirrorless screens are far suprior.

It’s a shame. The physical operation of a camera is such a critical part of any system, and for me Canon really nails that expereince better than any other camera manufactuere. I absolutely would prefer the AF and colors in the Z9, but time and time again it’s clear to me that you can never have it all.

If you currently shoot Nikon then 100% do whatever you can to pick up with Z9 or newly released Z8. In terms of autofocus… you will finally be where the rest of us have been for a while now. And, hang onto your F mount lenses because they will have new life breathed into them.

Here’s a random collection of other images made with the Nikon, and you can find some select RAW files for download over on my patreon!

Sam Hurd

Sam Hurd

Photographer
DC/NYC/Anywhere

Starting as a political news and celebrity portrait photographer in DC, Sam was instantly drawn to wedding photography as a space to promote more inventive ideas. Sam’s focus is on photographic techniques that are deceptively simple but have the potential to transform difficult or uninspiring shooting environments into one-of-a-kind opportunities for every photo made.

Most reviews, technical write-ups, and other photo nerd content is posted first, and exclusively, over on his patreon.