Learn, Practice, and Master

As good as the Nikon Z9 is, I'm discovering something I haven't seen since the D1h/D1x appeared at the beginning of the century: a lot of people are in over their head. Put another way, I'm finding that I'm having to hand-hold quite a few folk through many things that probably should have been known before they bought into a high-level flagship camera. 

Exposure. Focus. Timing. Video. I keep getting what I'd regard as novice questions about advanced capabilities that center on those four things when it comes to the Z9. Moreover, I keep encountering people who buy a US$5500 camera and then cheap out on the things they put in front of it.

Ironically, I have to blame this on Nikon marketing. You remember, that very same group within Nikon I've been criticizing for decades for not doing a good enough job ;~). With the Z9, somehow Nikon has locked onto some marketing messages that are bringing consumers out of the woodwork to purchase a top-end camera. 

In particular, it's all the videos that show the focus system just locking onto a subject and holding it, whether it be a human, bird, or vehicle. Phrases like "Best. Fast. First." and "Unstoppable" set up an expectation that you just pick up the camera and get instant winning shots. Well, not really. I can't just get into a Toyota GR010 Hybrid and win Le Mans. It just might take a bit of study and practice first ;~). 

It's not as if the previous Z's are pathetic cameras that can't accomplish much. As I proved in 2019: I can go to Africa and come back with images that equal those of my best DSLRs, and that is using the original Z6 and Z7 with the original firmware. I've done so several times since, with newer Z's and newer firmware. Most recently I took a Z50 and Z9 into Botswana for over a month and, yes, the Z50 came back with plenty of photos that made my portfolio over the Z9. 

So we have to talk about expectations versus learning. To expect to get perfect photos without learning anything beforehand is just not going to work. And there's a lot of learning needed to fully master a Z9 and get everything out of it that it's capable of. I know that to be true because I'm still extracting more from the camera the more I use it. 

So first things first: removing a new camera out of its box, sticking a lens on it, and taking a few quick images is not going to win you any photo awards. Mastering and optimizing your use of said camera might. 

Here are just a few of the things I've been grappling with as thousands of Z9 users flood me with questions:

  • The dreaded UV filter. You just bought a US$5500 camera and you stuck a US$10 off-brand UV filter on the front? First of all, a UV filter isn't needed on digital cameras; they all have a UV filter sitting over the image sensor. Second, I've not seen a single UV filter that doesn't compromise image results in some way, even expensive filters do this. But the cheap ones are notorious for severe veiling flare and destruction of acuity. Both those will affect an autofocus system, too. And let's remember that the entire Z-mount lens set Nikon has produced to date is at an image quality and acuity level pretty much not reached by any but the most expensive and recent DSLR lenses. Putting a Z-mount 50mm Nikkor on any Z camera is a bit like going to the optometrist and getting a new and correct glasses prescription when compared to any 50mm lens Nikon ever made for the F-mount. Why would you want to take any of that sharpness and contrast away? This problem isn't restricted to just UV filters. I've seen cheap polarizers and low-cost ND filters take away much of what Z9 users paid to get, too. Ditch the filters as you start to learn how to maximize your use of a Z9.
  • Exposure. Someone just shared a bird image with me they thought the Z9 should have gotten right, but didn't. The bird in question was 1% of the frame, and severely underexposed. Yeah, that's not likely to produce a sharp, usable image. One of the things I keep having to point out to people who find the Z9's (or any Z's, or even any Sony Alpha's) focus system lacking is if you don't give the focus sensor area enough exposure, things go south fast. That's particularly true with low contrast or dark subjects (think crow in dark shade). If the exposure under the focus sensor is in the bottom couple of stops the camera is recording, I'll bet the focus system isn't snapping to attention for you. Double that if a dark, underexposed bird is sitting in a complex and dark foliage or in front of a bright, detailed background. 
  • Exposure Redux. "The Z9 is too noisy." Nope. You underexposed and then pixel peeped. You also probably didn't use a decent noise reduction technique. Oh, wait, you also set Auto ISO with a max of 51200 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/2500? This brings up one of the key problems I've been dealing with: an over reliance on automated features. If you want optimal results—the best possible pixel values for your photo in every way—you're going to have to exert some control over what the camera is doing. Did you know that the matrix metering of the Z9 over-emphasizes what's under the focus position being used? And how does that intersect with the Auto ISO settings you just set? Did you know that the Auto Picture Control that's the default automatically tries to adjust contrast in a scene, further impacting exposure? All those "auto" controls add up to "close, but not what you wanted." 
  • Lens. Yes, the FTZ adapter means you can use your old F-mount lenses. No, it doesn't necessarily mean you should (or that you shouldn't). Of the current 26 available Z-mount lenses, the number of Z-mount lenses that are worse than their closest equivalent F-mount is...wait for it...wait for it...zero. Yes, zero. I've published reviews of 21 of those Z-mount lenses, and will be adding to that shortly, so, yes, I know of which I just wrote. In some cases, the difference isn't even close (see my comment on 50mm lenses, above). But on top of the lens quality differential, we have another mount in the way and older motors to deal with if you put a DSLR lens on your mirrorless body. While I've not yet decided to AF Fine Tune any Z-mount lens—because I haven't found any to be "off"—I can't say the same thing for DSLR lenses on the FTZ adapter. My experience is that the older the F-mount lens, the more likely it will need AF Fine Tuning when used on an FTZ. Many years ago, when AF Fine Tuning first became available, I wrote about something I noticed with the F-mount Nikkors: they didn't follow an expected bell curve in terms of where they positioned focus. I would see one sample of a lens that needed -10 and the next sample I'd test was at +3. As I plotted the results out for multiple samples, the "curve" of results was broad, not centered on 0, and unpredictable. Many of you are trying to use those lenses on an FTZ, and you really need to look at whether they need AF Fine Tuning. Some time in the teens Nikon suddenly started producing new F-mount lenses with more predictability in terms of AF Fine Tuning. It's clear that someone had woken them up and pointed out that there was something wrong with their production tolerances and Q&A testing. FWIW, I've had enough experience with four Z-mount Nikkors to plot reasonable tuning results: centered on zero, really narrow bell curve, and highly predictable across samples.
  • AF-Area modes. Most of Nikon's marketing examples are all "Auto-area AF, see it just works." In my experience, close examination shows that isn't the way to get the best set of focused pixels exactly where you want them. The popular YouTube variant is "Auto-area AF on the shutter release, 3D-tracking on the AF-ON button." Okay, generally better results in most cases, but still not best possible practice. Some of you may have noticed that I didn't give the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S lens a Highly Recommended rating because of handling. Specifically, handling where it comes to optimize the focus capabilities of the combined camera and lens. The best focus practice on a Z9 is a hybrid area mode approach coupled with Back Button Focus coupled with manual override with Focus Peaking coupled with occasional magnification for verification. All of which can be done easily with the Z9 and 100-400mm without changing hand position or having to slow down, but not on a 400mm f/2.8 that has more on-lens controls! If Auto-area AF is a kazoo where the notes just sort of come out somewhat right as you hum, my technique is a six-string Spanish guitar dance that requires precision and practice to pull off. 
  • Old computers. If you bought your computer back when 6mp and 12mp images were de rigueur and you never bothered to keep your memory, storage, and software up to date, you're going to have to dip back into your wallet and spend some more money. You need new cards, a new card reader at a minimum, and 45mp stills and 8K video start chewing up storage space quickly. Photoshop CS4 isn't going to understand Z9 NEF, let alone High Efficiency NEF. 4MB of RAM with no state-of-the-art GPU isn't going to edit 8k video. Let's be clear: a US$5500 camera (and expensive lenses) just don't play well with a US$200 Chromebook or a vintage PC signed personally by Bill Gates and running Windows 98. 

I could go on with my list, but the generalization is what I really want to emphasize today: take the time to learn, practice, and master what your sophisticated equipment can do. Support it with the right accessories. If you don't, you won't get optimal results and you'll wonder why you're not seeing "Best" out of your US$5500 purchase. 

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