Just as children look forward to Christmas, many wildlife photographers in 2021 have also been focused on the end of the year. What’s causing all the buzz? It’s exactly the same as it is for the children: Wildlife photographers are looking forward to getting new toys.
Sony already had a gift for their users in the form of the A1 camera, which was announced back in January of 2021. Fans of Canon and Nikon have had to wait a bit longer but are now taking their first pre-orders for the Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 cameras.
Most copies of the Nikon Z9 have not shipped quite yet, but luckily one demo copy of the Z9 arrived in the heart of Europe a few weeks ago. I had a chance to test it recently and will take a closer look at it in this article.
Since my main photographic interest is bird photography, this first look will correspond to that genre. Don’t expect an in-depth review just yet, as you’re used to on Photography Life, but rather the first observations I’ve gathered during my brief time with the Z9 for photographing wildlife.
And what qualities make a camera a good choice for wildlife photography? The ideal camera should be…
Fast as a Peregrine Falcon
Few photographic genres put as much emphasis on the speed of the camera/photographer pair as wildlife photography. Perhaps only sports photographers could argue with me that they too need superfast cameras with the fastest lenses. But hand on heart, as breathtaking as it is to watch a human sprinter chasing an Olympic medal, they are only doing a light trot compared to animal athletes.
And what about motorsport? Yes, the speeds there are comparable to those of the fastest animals, but in the case of motorsports, the trajectory of movement is usually quite predictable. So if we want to give a camera’s speed a real challenge, we should look among those animal “champions,” and none are faster than birds of prey. It was on two such birds that I put the new camera’s capabilities to the test. A Eurasian Golden Eagle served as my model, and to get some international overlap, an American Harris Hawk also took part.
I use the word “speed” all the time, but what do I mean by that? It’s one thing for a bird to fly fast, but what about a camera?
First of all, it’s the autofocus speed and tracking capabilities. And this is the area where Nikon’s mirrorless cameras have been slightly behind the world’s top performers in recent years, such as Sony and more recently Canon.
In the (now historical) era of DSLRs, Nikon was on the leading edge with its focusing. But the situation changed somewhat with the Z system, i.e. mirrorless cameras. Although Nikon’s mirrorless cameras have dedicated modes for people, cat, and dog eye focusing, it’s not like I focus strictly on these three types of organisms. For bird photographers like me, what remained were the standard focusing modes (dynamic area, wide area or 3D-tracking), none of which worked quite convincingly.
In fact, I achieved significantly higher success rates for bird photography with my time-proven DSLR, the Nikon D500. Wherever I placed the focus point (usually the dynamic area), that’s where I focused, and the camera tracked it as it moved. Simple, reliable and mostly effective.
Cut to December 11, 2021. I’m holding the new Z9 in my hand for the first time. A Golden Eagle is flying straight at me at around 80 km/h (50 mph for my American friends). I raise my camera to my eye and aim. Not on the eye, as I’m used to, but… well, just on the eagle. The camera finds the eye by itself! It’s working! Well, okay, it doesn’t work 100%, but I throw out at most a few shots from each sequence that are a little out of focus. Plus, I have to take into account that I’m holding a pre-production sample with an adapted lens, the Nikon 500 mm f/5.6 AF-S PF.
Going back to the DSLR era, focusing was much more like shooting a moving target. You needed to hold the AF point on the animal’s head, ideally on the eye. If the bird in the viewfinder moved out of the focusing area formed by the main point and its closest mates (dynamic area), you’d no longer be focusing where you wanted. Even if you chose the slower 3D-tracking AF area mode to include all the available focus points, they’d still be centered in the viewfinder.
A general advantage of mirrorless cameras is that their focus points cover virtually the entire area of the viewfinder. And when those extra points work as they should, it’s seamless. I tested this on the Z9 with composing the birds near the edge of the frame. And their eyes remained as sharp as their eyes can be! I found it helped me be more of a photographer and less of a target shooter.
On the other hand, we can’t have unrealistic expectations of the Z9 either. It’s not like you can point your lens into a tangled thicket and the camera will find the animal as easily as the space invader in the movie Predator.
However, I found that the Z9’s customizable buttons helped in these situations. I set Animal Eye Recognition to a button near my index finger, 3D-Tracking at my thumb, and the old-fashioned Dynamic Area mode at my middle finger. I could then quickly select between this arsenal of modes depending on what my subject required.
One mode that surprised me was 3D-Tracking. In this mode, you select the initial focusing and the camera follows that part of the subject around the frame. I found that 3D-Tracking was sensitive to the eyes within the viewfinder, so if your subject’s eye is visible, it tends to stick with it. I never normally used the 3D-Tracking mode on a DSLR and always immediately reverted to Dynamic Area. But on my future Z9 (yes, I’m planning to buy one after doing this test) it will take up permanent residence as one of my main focus modes. The new rules of the game are compose, let the AF do its job, and wait for something interesting to happen. Wonderful!
So we’re in focus. Now we just want to capture the dynamic scene in front of us. My D500 can shoot at 10 frames per second (FPS). If I were to grab the mirror-equipped flagship, the D6, it would already be 14 FPS. The mirrorless Z6II and Z7II offer 10 and 9 fps respectively (at 14-bit RAW). And what about the Z9? Prepare yourself for the delete key on your keyboard to suffer a lot. A five-second sequence with the Z9’s 20 FPS shooting will write as many as 100 14-bit RAW photos to the card.
The competition (Canon R3 and Sony A1) can do even further, up to 30 FPS RAW files – albeit with some minor limitations in both cases. But if you don’t insist on the RAW format, the Z9 can also do 30 FPS in JPEG and up to 120 FPS in JPEG if you shoot 11-megapixel low resolution. And what is the point of such a high frame rate? A grazing deer or an owl sitting motionless on a branch don’t require such speed. But when photographing a flying bird of prey or a toucan coming to a nest, for example, every frame per second can be good.
Another part of “speed” to me is the camera’s viewfinder. Let’s leave aside the Z9’s resolution and brightness for now and focus purely on speed.
For casual shooting, I had nothing to complain about the display in the previous viewfinder of the Nikon Z6 and Z7. However, when shooting more action-packed scenes, I found myself somewhat lost in the jerky and slightly delayed reality when shooting at the maximum FPS. Yes, it’s something to get used to, but the optical viewfinder was a more pleasant alternative for me.
On the other hand, the Z9 viewfinder is exactly as it should be. Not only is it beautifully bright and with a resolution that I think is sufficient, but most importantly it is truly blackout-free.
If you’re concerned that you’ll miss the frenetic slapping of the mirror, it is actually possible to set flashing lines around the edges of the field of view. And if you’re concerned about missing the traditional sound of the mirror or shutter (since the Z9 has neither), you can simulate those, too, with the built-in speaker. But in time, I think many photographers will realize they don’t need to hear those sounds in order to time their photos properly.
And that brings me to another important feature of a high-end wildlife device. It should be…
Quiet as a Barn Owl
This owl can glide through the night so silently that its prey would never know. And the Z9 has a similar relationship with its “prey.”
If you’ve ever worked with a DSLR, you know what I’m referring to. “Do you take Jane…CLICK! CLICK!… to be your lawfully wedded wife?” …CLICK! CLICK!… “I do” …CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! CLICK!…
Now imagine there’s no mirror, no shutter, just absolute silence. I like that scenario much more, don’t you? And animals like it too. Unlike the bride, they often run away after the first “CLICK”!
The Nikon Z9 is the first camera of its kind to not only have no mirror, but also no mechanical shutter. It operates in complete silence, unless you choose in the menu for the speaker system to make clicking noises. (Other mirrorless cameras can also shoot in silence in electronic shutter mode, but many have electronic shutters with slow read speeds not intended for photographing fast action.)
There’s another added value of the Z9’s design: A non-existent shutter has a non-existent failure rate. All mechanical shutters will fail eventually and be an expensive repair when they do. This might not matter for landscape photographers who pride themselves on taking only the best few dozen photos, but wildlife photographers are a bit different!
Why, you may ask, didn’t some manufacturer decide to remove the mechanical shutter sooner? The reason is that conventional sensors suffer from image distortion (rolling shutter effect) when combining an electronic shutter with a fast-moving subject. This is because the camera does not read the entire scene as a whole, but in the same way as we read a book. That is, rather slowly from top to bottom. The difference is that when reading a book, the story at the bottom of the page does not change as we read. But the scene in front of the camera cannot be stopped. The result will then be, for example, a stampeding cheetah with crooked legs or a hovering hummingbird with wings in an arc. The stacked sensor in the Z9 can read the scene so quickly that I couldn’t conjure up the aforementioned deformities.
I found the Z9’s silence – combined with no rolling shutter – to be a great feature for the wildlife photos in this article. But there are other features that matter in a wildlife camera, too. One of the reasons I’ve stayed with my D500 so far has been its battery life. I just want my camera to be…
Persistent as a Bar-Tailed Godwit
The bar-tailed godwit is a record-holder among migratory birds. It managed to cover 12,000 km / 7500 miles in a single flight without a “recharge” during its journey from Alaska to New Zealand. Meanwhile, as a photographer, I’m satisfied if I can get through a single day of intense photography without recharging my camera! That was a challenge even for the Nikon D500.
In this case, the winners for photography have been the big flagship DSLRs like the Nikon D5 and D6. As for mirrorless cameras, during my last workshop in Ecuador, we had the Z6 II and Z7 II to test. They held up valiantly (and better than their specifications would suggest), but we still had to carry three batteries per camera.
I haven’t had a chance to observe the Z9’s behavior long-term, but I find the result of 65% battery after about 5000 shots and GPS permanently on very promising. Of course, I shot in quick bursts, which is relatively battery friendly. If I were to use the camera for landscape photography, for example, the ratio of power consumed per frame would be much less favorable.
So, the Z9 may not be as persistent as the Bar-tailed Godwit, but I can certainly imagine shooting all day with one battery. The pro DSLRs still hold the crown here, but the Z9 appears to last longer than my D500 on a single charge.
And that brings me to the next feature I look for in a wildlife camera. Many of the best photos of animals are taken in extreme weather conditions. A camera that I bring to such conditions should be…
Tough as an Emperor Penguin
Well, I wouldn’t work in minus 70 degrees Celsius like an emperor penguin, so I’m not really asking that of my camera. But I do expect it to operate in very cold conditions as well as be dragged through wet tropical vegetation.
I treat my gear fairly. I want it to withstand the same conditions as I do, and I try not to plunge it into the mud or otherwise physically torture it.
This is one area that really needs long-term testing to determine for sure. As it was, I used the Z9 in the snow and cold of the Czech Republic in December – which is to say, cold, but not emperor-penguin-level cold – and it kept working without a hiccup. Hopefully that remains true in conditions worse than this.
But the camera is first and foremost an artistic tool, so it should have…
Colors like Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise
The beautiful Wilson’s bird-of-paradise is more than just vibrant tones of red, blue, and yellow. It also has thousands of earthy shades of brown, grey, and green that our eyes are sensitive to – and that’s analogous to what I want to capture with my cameras.
When it comes to color, I’ve never complained about the Nikon palette, and I’ve always appreciated the high dynamic range. As for the Z9, I’m still waiting on my usual software to support the 14-bit lossless compressed RAW files I’ve captured. But my current impression is that the 45.7-megapixel quality here is not a revolution over the D850, Z7, or Z7 II. However, it is substantially better than the 20.8-megapixel Nikon D6.
Over the last 15 years or so, Nikon’s flagship cameras have had pretty timid resolution increases. That is no longer true. The Z9 manages to achieve high resolution and the high speeds of a flagship simultaneously. So, while I dare say the Z9 is no better than the Z7 II in image quality, the Z9’s high speed is more than enough to justify its new camera sensor design to me.
But this faster processing does result in a bigger camera body than usual for a mirrorless camera. Remember, the best camera is the one you have with you. So, the optimal camera for wildlife photography shouldn’t be unnecessarily heavy, and instead should be…
Light as a Bee Hummingbird
Okay, I may have slightly exaggerated here. The Nikon Z9, at 1340 g / 3.0 lbs, actually weighs about the same as 750 bee hummingbirds!
Compared to its predecessor from the old era, the D6, it has lost 100 grams (a full 55 bee hummingbirds). But it’s still a heavy camera that you can feel on your neck.
With its built-in vertical grip, the Z9 has the build of a pro camera at first glance. I would definitely refrain from adjectives like compact or tiny, although it fits great in the hand. Sony bet on a different concept with the A1 and left the vertical grip as an optional accessory.
Personally, though, I like the monoblock more. What makes me think so? The beefier body forms a more balanced unit with the heavier telephoto lenses. The monoblock also gives a more robust and durable impression. I do occasionally put the camera down on wet ground, and I see the battery door or the contacts between the grip and the body as a possible gateway to moisture, dirt and thus problems.
But the main benefit is in vertical shooting, which is seamless on the Z9. The vertical shutter is accessible at any time, as are all the other controls. Have you ever tried to compose handheld in a portrait mode with a heavy lens? Without the vertical grip, it’s an agony with little chance of a good ending.
After reading everything above, you may have gotten the impression that I am uncritical of the new Z9. But it’s very hard to be critical of a camera into which Nikon has put the best of what it currently has available. It took some time for the developers to achieve this, but at the same time they were able to avoid the mistakes for which the Z6 and Z7 models have been criticized in the past.
It’s also a little easier to surpass the bar set by the competition than to set a completely new one. The Z9 is an amazing camera but is no doubt learning from the Sony A1 and the Canon EOS R5 (as well as the EOS R3). It is a classic example of healthy competition that all parties benefit from.
Is there any room left for criticism? The usual criticism associated with the top models of all brands is their price. Yes, it’s not low here either. But despite this, the Z9 isn’t as expensive as many expected, and it costs less than similar models from Canon and Sony. With a price of $5,497, it is actually $1,000 lower than the current price of its older sibling, the D6.
But the cost doesn’t end with the purchase of the camera. The huge amount of data flowing out of the Z9 in continuous shooting (not to mention 8K video) places unprecedented demands on memory cards. Did you think you had the fastest ones? With the Z9, you may have to rethink your opinion expensively. The difference between the “very fast” and “super fast” cards I used for the test was noticeable.
Another minor negative is for those who like to work with flash in daylight. The fastest shutter sync time on the Z9 is 1/200 second, which isn’t as fast as on most cameras of this level (which are usually 1/250 or 1/320 instead). I personally also find the protruding connectors a bit ergonomically inconvenient. They make the lens release button harder to reach for my index finger. I guess I’ll have to learn to release the lens in a different way. But that’s where my criticism ends for now.
So, what can I look forward to when it’s my turn in the long line of people interested in the Z9? I’m looking forward to a body that combines tremendous speed with superior image quality. It also finally has focusing at the level that the excellent Z system lenses deserve, especially sports-oriented lenses like the Z 70-200mm f/2.8. It’s also a top-notch camcorder if that’s your style.
Mainly, though, the Z9 is a camera body that puts Nikon back in the game, Hollywood style. It seemed as if Nikon’s hopes looked grim in the face of the competition. A few punches to the viewfinder, a knee kick to the screen, a left hook to the shutter release area. Competition everywhere you looked. But at the last moment, Nikon got up and struck back at everyone in what, based on my impressions, is a great comeback.
Editor’s note: Thank you to Libor for sending us his impressions of the Nikon Z9 for wildlife photography! He also shared with us some full-resolution RAW files that you can download, which we’ve uploaded to a Google Drive folder here. We’ve also added DNG versions of each image in case your software doesn’t currently support Nikon Z9 NEF files.