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[A Photographer’s Notes] First Impressions of the Nikon Z9 (spoiler, I LOVE It!)

“Even using an adaptor and my f-mount Nikon 105mm/1.4 lens I was able to walk away with WAY more sharp and in-focus images than with my D5. Very impressive.”

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Since the start of 2016 the Nikon D5 has been my go to camera for every aspect of my photography. I have taken it all around the globe and shot countless world class athletes with it. But all good things come to an end. 

After over 800,000 shots taken, I knew it was soon time to upgrade. And just my luck, in 2021 Nikon announced the new flagship mirrorless camera, the Nikon Z9!

Knowing I needed a replacement camera sooner than later, I preordered the Nikon Z9 with the hopes of receiving it before the end of 2021. But alas, the New Year came and went and I still didn’t have the camera in my hands. The reason for this was a combination of the global shortage of semiconductors and because there was a MASSIVE number of photographers trying to buy the camera all right when it came out. Some things just can’t be helped…

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Fast forward to the week of February 9, and out of the blue my pre-ordered Nikon Z9 was suddenly delivered to my house! I was told it would take 3-6 months before getting the camera so this was a very well received surprise.

Since then I have spent quite a bit of time playing with the camera, taking countless photos of my son, and even using it on a recent photoshoot in Osaka. 

In this article I would like to go over my first impressions of working with this new flagship camera, and give a few pointers and tips to anyone else who is thinking of buying one ー or has also been ever so lucky to have had it recently delivered. 

First Impressions

Upon opening the box and holding the Nikon Z9 for the first time I was pleasantly surprised by the weight and build quality of the camera. Just holding it in your hand you can feel the high quality of the build, and know it will last through whatever I can throw at it. Very impressive. 

One thing the Nikon Z9 has that my Nikon D5 did not is a fold out LCD screen on the back of the camera. 

I am always laying down on the ground when shooting and many times I really wished my D5 had this fold out screen, so I am super happy that Nikon has added this to the Z9. I am pretty sure this is the first flagship Nikon camera to have one of these flip out screens, and it was very needed in my opinion. 

Other than a slight design change and a few buttons that were  moved, the Nikon Z9 is similar enough to the Nikon D6 and D5 that it really took me no time at all to get up to speed and get out shooting. 

Changes from the D6 and D5

The playback button ーone button you use a lotー has been repositioned in the new model. It has been moved from the upper left side to the lower right. But if you really want it in the old location many of the buttons on the Nikon Z9 are programable. So with a little playing I am sure you can customize the camera to your every need. 

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For now I am leaving my new Z9 mostly in default mode. Naturally, that might change as time goes on. 

Another massive change over any previous Nikon camera is that the Z9 has no physical shutter mechanism. It is a purely electronic shutter only. I will talk more about this below, but one aspect of not having a physical shutter is that normally this would mean the sensor would always be exposed, especially when changing lenses. 

This could be quite dangerous for the sensor and potentially create the problem of excess dust/dirt attaching to the sensor when changing lenses. To combat this Nikon has introduced a shield that comes down to close off the sensor area when the Z9 is powered off. 

I am constantly changing my lenses when shooting so this is really helpful for me. Especially when shooting in the rain/snow, or a dirty/dusty environment. 

Please note though that to use this shield you must go into the camera’s menu and turn it on as it doesn’t seem to be on by default when first using the camera. 

Shutter Cues

Without a physical shutter mechanism, the Nikon Z9 is able to shoot with zero shutter noise if needed. At the same time, in the menu you can assign the loudness of the shutter or turn it off completely. 

I can think of two reasons I would turn the shutter noise to zero, and one where I think it would be better to hear some kind of shutter sound when shooting. 

One reason I would shut off the shutter sound is when I am out shooting in the street. To test the camera, I went out into Shinjuku and did a little street shooting. By shooting without any shutter noise at all I found that the people around me seemed more comfortable with my shooting as they assumed I was not taking any pictures at the time. 

The sound of my D5 is quite loud and people notice when you are shooting. But with the Z9 no one seemed to notice at all. 

A second reason to turn the shutter sound to zero is when working with a video crew. I often shoot alongside video crews filming interviews, and now that my camera can shoot silent I no longer have to wait until the end. I can just shoot during the interview. This will save a lot of time on these types of jobs. 

Now one type of shooting I do where I will probably turn the shutter sound back on is when shooting portraits. Oftentimes when shooting models or portraits, the subjects move and change positions with each shot. But if they can’t hear the shutter they won’t know when to move. 

Also, if there is no shutter sound I think people not used to being photographed will become quite self-conscious as they won’t know when or if a picture is being taken. For this reason I will be turning the shutter sounds back on when doing these kinds of shoots. 

Out Shooting

When out shooting with the camera I set my focus to the newly improved 3D continuous auto-focus mode. 

With this mode I can lock on to my subject and the camera will track the subject for me as it moves about my viewfinder. Using this to shoot my son running around on the beach I was very surprised at how well the camera was able to track his movement while keeping the focus on his eye. 

It will be interesting to see how well this works in a more chaotic environment, but for now I am happy with the results. Even using an adaptor and my f-mount Nikon 105mm/1.4 lens I was able to walk away with WAY more sharp and in-focus images than I was able to do with my D5. Very impressive again. 

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Another aspect of the Nikon Z9’s electronic shutter and amazing processing power is that I am able to shoot a whopping 20 images a second in RAW, and up to 120 images a second in low rez jpeg. This is crazy! 

Combine this with the amazing AF tracking and I am able to get so many more images that are in-focus compared to my Nikon D5 with the same lens. This really is a game changer for my photography and I can’t wait to utilize it on the job! 

After Shooting

After shooting and looking at the images on my computer I am super happy to say that the image quality this camera puts out is amazing. 

At 45.7 megapixels, the Nikon Z9 files are almost twice the size of the files I was getting out of the Nikon D5. One thing this allows me to do when editing is not worry when I need to crop an image. Even if cropping it to roughly half its size, it is still the same quality as I would have gotten from the Nikon D5. This is very helpful when shooting events where you can’t always get quite as close to the action as you would like. 

I am excited to see how far I can push these files when editing. There are times when you don’t get the exposure correct in camera and have to fix it after the photo shoot. In these instances the bigger the file, the more information, and the easier it should be to fix mis-exposed photos, or so I hope. 

All in all, after years of using the D5/D7, I am super happy so far with the improvements Nikon has made in the Z9. The build quality, fold out LCD, 100% electronic shutter, silent shooting, massive frames per second, and huge files are all things that will help me in my shooting in 2022 and beyond. 

Oh, and did I mention the Nikon Z9 has amazing video capabilities as well? But I think I will leave that for another article, haha. 

Jason Halayko is a professional photographer specializing in action sports and portrait photography. Follow him on Twitter (@jason_halayko), and on Instagram (@jason_halayko), and find his work here on JAPAN Forward

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