What the Z9 Needs to Satisfy

Surprisingly, the list of improvements the Z9 needs to meet pent-up expectations isn't as long as you'd expect, as the Z6 II and Z7 II are very good cameras. However to get D3/D4/D5/D6 and even some D500 and D850 users to give up their DSLR, or to get Z System users to move up, a number of key things must be part of the upcoming flagship Z9:

  • No viewfinder blackout, plus instant AF indicator updates. The biggest detriment to the current Z's is what happens in the viewfinder. For casual and static photography work, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the Z6 II and Z7 II viewfinders, but the minute you start bumping the frame rate up and/or begin tracking erratic and fast-moving subjects, the wheels start to come off, and the Sony A9 and A1 models suddenly look really good. Specially above 5.5 fps and in AF-C focus mode is where the Z6 II and Z7 II are weak and the Z9 needs to be strong. We need a no blackout viewfinder that refreshes at 120 Hz, and we need focus indicators that are instantaneous in update and confirm continuous autofocus performance. Anything less is going to be a marketing problem.
  • More customizable controls and more customization. The current Z's are a little button deprived, and Nikon's choices for customizations tend to be paternally minimal and out of sync with user requests. Instant AF Area mode choice is necessary, for one, but I don't think I'm alone in saying that I've got six button customizations I want to do with only four buttons I can assign them to on the current cameras, and some of those buttons have further limitations on what I can assign to them, so I can’t always put the function on the button I want it on. That's not "flagship" status to say the least. so the Z9 needs to fix that. Meanwhile, not only do I want to see the return of customizable banks, but I want to see Nikon expand that to Save/Load different Settings/Banks combos. My request for this now goes back 10 years, yet we still get a single settings file with an indecipherable file name. Finally, there are some small omissions that need to be addressed, such as the inability to lock the focus sensor in a position (the old L position on the Direction pad). 
  • "Competitor-matching features/performance" or better. The Sony A9, and now the A1 have set some marks for what's expected from a flagship mirrorless camera. 20 fps, 45mp, and 4K video seem like the low end of what's needed now, with 30 fps, 50mp+, and 8K video being more the "norm". Personally, I'd be happy with 14 fps mechanical shutter, 24-36mp, and 4K 120P, but reality is that "marketing numbers" will matter by the time the Z9 shows up at your dealer in late 2021. A lot of folk might stick "global shutter" in here, but none of the competitors actually have a true global shutter yet. We definitely need to see very fast rolling shutter at a minimum, but global shutter would be icing on the cake. Lower-than-competitor numbers aren't going to fly, and would just generate more fan-boy flames directed at Nikon. Everyone will be looking to see if a feature/number is better on the Canon R5 or Sony A1, and they shouldn't find that if Nikon wants to re-establish themselves as a top dog.
  • Incredible body and battery. This seems like a slam dunk given that the image Nikon provided with the Development Announcement is essentially a slightly scaled down D6. That should mean full metal frame, excellent sealing, and the EN-EL18 battery type with its already amazing capacity. But details will matter here, too. Backlit buttons, hardened glass over the Rear LCD, and similar small details are what we're looking for, and will be important to call these out in marketing. Sony's weak point is the build of the A's. They don't have anything like a D6. Nikon needs to flaunt that in a Z9.
  • Sophisticated, high-performance focus. The tendency has been towards "all automatic" autofocus systems (because that's what the non-pro—and even some pros—wants so they don't have to learn anything complex), but we've all been burned by Auto—or should I call him Otto?—at one time or another, and I don't see that changing any time soon. If I know how a focus system works and have enough options to configure it (and can change them instantly) I can get better-than-all-automatic focus pretty much every time. I'm not sure I need tons of new options, as Nikon supplied on the D6 with the new highly-configurable Groups, but I do need a handful of AF Area modes that each work differently and in ways that are known (i.e. Nikon will need better documentation). Couple all that with "fast" and I'm set, and so are you.
  • Small raw that works. You thought I was going to write "high ISO capability," didn't you? No, I'm pretty satisfied with high pixel count cameras up through the ISO values I normally work at. Moreover, the Canon R5, Nikon Z7 II, and Sony A1 are holding their own despite their 45mp+, at least in the ISO values most commonly used. Image sensors have gotten good enough that they're accurately recording photon randomness, and that's nearly the sole "noise" you're seeing today in a properly exposed and processed shot. But what I'm not satisfied with is when I don't need the full pixel count but also don't want to give up the ability to process raw. Nikon's gotten better at small and medium size raw files, but I want more. Pixel binned, we're talking 12mp. So small raw format has to do at least as good as that, I think. e.g. match the noise, increase the acuity, but produce 16-24mp sized files. 
  • 8K video. Yes, unfortunately there's no doubt that a flagship has to create 8K video on demand now, even if that's time limited, speed limited, and bit depth limited. Again, I'd rather have 4K 120P than 8K if we're going to boost internal bandwidth off the sensor, but the Japanese seem to want to get to other level capabilities in video before they're really a requirement of the market (I believe this to be driven by NHK's aggressive research, which is funded by television licenses in Japan). I suppose they think they're "future proofing" their products, but in reality the Japanese are making products today that probably won't hold up to full scrutiny if and when 8K really takes off. If Nikon implements the two-second JPEG burst in 8K—current Nikon cameras do 4K up to 30 fps for two seconds—that would be useful, though.

Nice to have, but not necessary:

  • More dynamic range. The current cameras have plenty of dynamic range. Indeed, more than you're going to output. I actually find myself more dealing with compression/movement of dynamic range in the shadows and highlights than I do trying to get more dynamic range these days. Still, improvements are improvements, and shouldn't be dismissed. A cleaner raw data set is always welcome, so if we can squeeze a bit more dynamic range out of the image sensor and save that in an accurate 16-bits, I'm not going to complain. I just don't see it as necessary for the success of the Z9. (On the other hand, it's likely that the Z9 will have better-than-D6 dynamic range at the low ISO end.)
  • Voice annotation. I still don't see why Nikon hasn't done more with this on the D6: voice annotation is very useful for event, photojournalism, and sports photographers. With built-in microphones and speakers, this one is a no-brainer to do, but it's generally been done minimally when it is done. 
  • Updated flash. The Sony A1 allows faster flash sync plus flash sync with silent shutter, so that's a performance benchmark that people will look at (see above). But the real problem is that Nikon has mostly neglected their Speedlight system since the D5 first appeared. We now have a hodgepodge of flash units that do or don't conform to the latest camera menu system, that can't provide AF Assist lighting for the mirrorless cameras, and which have "last decade" abilities. Nikon will point to the Chinese knockoffs as having savaged the Speedlight business, but sorry Nikon, the problem is you: you didn't innovate and lead with the flash system, so you got passed by the cloners, who did. So, Nikon ought to make another stab at the business or cooperate with a third party. Either is fine with me, and either would be nice to have show up with the flagship.
  • Better communication. The D6 added SnapBridge, so I expect a Z9 will have that, too. But that's not "better," it's just what's expected now. Nikon really needs to invest more in the FTP side of things, both via Wi-Fi and Ethernet: if I'm going to take lots of photos with lots of pixels, I need to get those off the camera fast for my clients. The current D6 capabilities are okay, but somewhat cumbersome to set up, and the camera doesn't push data into them as fast as it should. Citius, Altius, Fortius please.
  • Tilting/Swivel LCD. Here's the thing about flexible parts: they often break under heavy use. If Nikon can make a moveable LCD that can endure near torture by us ham-handed photographers, great, add it please. But if not, I'd rather just have even more hardened glass over a fixed LCD.
  • The DTZ adapter. We had a long period where Nikon produced a lot of screw-driven autofocus lenses (basically up to the D1 launch). Many of those lenses are just fine optically and still in Nikon users' gear closets. But they just don't fit into the Z world particularly well. Now it may be that Nikon didn't want to compromise focus and battery performance with an adapter  providing the big muscle for focus with the initial Z cameras, but the Z9 is a flagship, has a big battery, and really needs to step up and put those lenses back to work. At least that's what some think. I'm less concerned about this item, but it would be nice to have.

One final bit also has to do with lenses. Nikon, of course, has arguably the best f/2.8 zoom trio of anyone in the full frame arena with the Z-mount 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70mm-200mm, and those are going to appeal to the group that buys the Z9. But Nikon's going to need to do a lot more, and quickly. Yes, the upcoming 400mm and 600mm exotics will be part of the answer, but not all of it. I think we're going to need to know more about Nikon's f/1.2 (and faster) prime plans, we need a wider focal range for the mid-range zoom, and we really need a sub 14mm solution plus more >70mm solutions (e.g. 105mm f/1.4 would be nice). Part of announcing a flagship is showing off what it can do, and lenses are going to be a big part of that, so Nikon will need a clear Lens Road Map for 2022-2023 that backs up the "flagship."

So what's your over/under point for the upcoming flagship? What does it absolutely have to have, and what is just a nice addition?

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