The Z9 in Africa Blog

The following is a blog of my experience with a pre-production version of the Z9 in Africa in December 2021.

Day Twelve — Wrapping Up

Yes, I know I was gone for more than twelve days and used the camera for more than twelve days. Because of safari scheduling, my daily blog notes slowly fell out of sync with actual days ;~).

I've pretty much exhausted the safari portion of the trip. I won't be sharing images from the wedding portion, as I don't have the releases from 140 people that would be necessary ;~).

I will say this about the rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception: the Z9 performed pretty much as I wanted it to. Subject detection worked well, and when dealing with so many people, using the Wide-area AF modes with human detection was the preference, as it gave me back some control over who I wanted the camera to focus on (without having to constantly press the Direction pad to change boxes).

Some summary information I obtained during the trip that may be of use to you follows.

I took about 11,000 images with the Z9 on the safari portions of the trip, and my teaching assistant borrowed the camera to take another 1500 or so. Battery performance looked like this:

  • 57% 652 EN-EL18D
  • 33% 1176 EN-EL18C
  • 75% 772 EN-EL18C
  • 72% 519 EN-EL18C
  • 11% 2506 EN-EL18D
  • 36% 1536 EN-EL18C
  • 69% 1090 EN-EL18D
  • 21% 680 EN-EL18C
  • 47% 917 EN-EL18C
  • 78% 499 EN-EL18D
  • 42% 1902 EN-EL18D

I wasn't specifically trying to figure out how many images I could get per charge. Moreover, at times I was testing features such as GPS logging, which might distort the numbers some. There were also long sequences where the camera was on—Standby Timer set to infinity—that distort some of the numbers. At no time did I need to switch batteries, even though we out for four or five hours at a time. 

In terms of buffer, I used only Lossless Compressed NEF as a file format, and I hit the buffer maybe four times with the ProGrade Cobalt 325GB card, and even then only when I was pressing hard on photographing doing some form of AF follow test. Even in those buffer full moments, the camera was more "stuttering" than stopping. 

In my more normal photography style on safari, I doubt I would have ever hit the buffer. I'll have much more to say when I have a production Z9 to verify some numbers with, but if you use 10 fps or even 12 fps, you're not going to have buffer issues with the largest file size the camera can produce using fast CFe cards. At 20 fps you should get about four solid seconds with the Cobalt card worst case (and remember the High-Efficiency NEF formats would do better; I was reluctant to test those with a pre-production camera because I didn't have time to test how reliable they were before leaving for Africa, nor was I sure I could convert them reliably). 

The camera got bounced around off-road every day. And when I say off-road, I mean we spent a lot of time each day driving well off the rough two-track in each area; the areas I was in allow off-track exploration, and so we did just that. I did nothing special to protect the camera, it rained numerous times, and the camera was also subjected to small plane vibrations more than a half dozen times on the trip. It shows no wear. 

Now, on to two final bits: (1) what I didn't like about the camera; and (2) my wish list for changes to the camera.

These lists may get a bit long, but they don't reflect that the camera is poor. Just the opposite, the Z9 is a great camera, the best mirrorless camera Nikon has made to date, and arguably one of the best cameras you can buy at the moment. That doesn't make it "perfect." I see evidence of rushed engineering, and I also see that Nikon still hasn't clearly heard a number of things that we photographers have been asking for or would prefer.

What I Don't Like

  • The grip and hand position isn't optimal for me (I have medium-sized hands, though shortish fingers). I feel a bit stretched when holding the camera, but I quickly adjusted to that. My D6 grip feels slightly better.
  • The tilting LCD is fiddly and has a minimal amount of adjustment. You've got plenty of adjustment if you're holding the camera below you (flip up, or flip right), but when holding the camera above me I'd like more tilt.
  • The card slot door mechanism feels cheap for the rest of the build, and even having used the camera for a couple of weeks I was still fighting it when I was in a hurry. 
  • Likewise, the Shooting Method dial feels flimsy. The positions have indents, but those are awfully poor at telling you when you're set. It is absolutely possible to get the dial in an intermediary, non-indent position. 
  • We've got a lot of handling dissonance to talk about in my eventual review. Moving the PLAYBACK menu below the three primary ones we use makes sense, but not if you're using another Nikon body. Likewise, the playback button moving to the button quartet makes sense, but we again get dissonances when using multiple Nikon bodies. My second body on most of this trip was the Z50, and the button quartet in particular became a real pain for me (zoom in, menu, zoom out, playback versus i button, menu, playback, delete!). Even the Z7 II was different enough that I was stopping to think which button I needed to press. Expect Nikon to address this with future mirrorless models, but it's a pain point for those juggling current ones. It just shows that Nikon didn't think through the original Z UX enough prior to launch, as we're seeing lots of variation as the models change.
  • The autofocus system seems not fully developed. As good as it is—and it's really good—trying to take control from the system isn't as straightforward as it needs to be. Lots of small points here (some are in my Wish List, below). 
  • The matrix metering following the focus point needs to be tamped down (e.g., add an option to turn that behavior off).
  • Too many arbitrary or paternalistic changes (see Wish List, below). It doesn't feel like Nikon spent enough time talking to working photographers who push the system.

Wish List

  1. Ability to change AF Subject detection options via button. You can kind of do this, using banks or Recall shooting functions, but this is very sub-optimal and uses up functions that I want more flexibility with. Also, allow subsets other than All. I can think of times when I want vehicle/human or human/animal, but not the third category. Of course, I suspect Nikon's response will be that eliminating one category wouldn't make any difference in performance. I'm going to respond by saying I'll bet I can find a situation where that isn't true.
  2. Need a Recall shooting functions (hold) option, as well, as per D6.
  3. However, both #1 and #2 bring up another issue: there are things hidden in Recall shooting functions that you'd want to assign to a button on their own. AF subject detection options, specific AF-Area modes, specific Metering modes, and more. This is a major miss by Nikon, and those options need to be added to button customization. 
  4. A subpoint to #3: there's no ability to change to a specific metering mode via a button (requires button+dial). The specific thing we want is spot metering available on a button, but it's gone. Bring it back, please. And give me both temporary and hold versions!
  5. Named Save/Load menu settings files. The Sony A1 has this, the Z9 needs it. Yes, banks are good, but the Z9 is an "all-around" camera. I want a settings file for safari, another for sports, another for events. Within those settings files I want to use the banks to better configure the camera for the type of photography I'm doing, not leaving them set for a type of photography I'm not doing at the moment (e.g. a bank for Sports, a bank for safari, etc.). Realistically, the whole Customizations/Banks/Settings construct needs a lot more thought and refinement. For example, why can't I save a bank to a named file? That would give me more banks to work with.
  6. We still have the silly setting file naming convention that comes from the 1980's, where one letter is what designates which camera the file is for. Gee guys, how is it that I'm supposed to remember NCSET010.BIN stands for Z9 (10 stands for 9?) and NCSET008.BIN stands for Z7 II (8 stands for 7?). This nonsense has to stop. If you don't see the solution, let me give you the example: Z9SET###.BIN gives us plenty of settings files. Heck even Z72SET##.BIN gives us plenty. So if we don't get #5, give us this, please.
  7. Speaking of banks, we still don't have the ability to combine SHOOTING and CUSTOM SETTING banks. There are times when I want SHOOTING bank A and CUSTOM SETTING bank C, and others when I want SHOOTING bank B and CUSTOM SETTING bank B. I can't immediately reconfigure the camera with one command for either case. Named settings files would partially solve this, but on-the-fly-via-button changes aren't possible across the entire customization set the way things stand. Of course, adding VIDEO RECORDING banks compounds the issue of combinatorial bank setting.
  8. The i menu is missing a whole bunch of potential options. Connect to Smartphone being just one of them (and which appears on other Z cameras).
  9. Not sure why Auto ISO sensitivity control has been removed from being a MY MENU option. Specifically, the issue isn't turning Auto ISO on and off, it's setting a new maximum or a minimum shutter speed as quick as possible. 
  10. We need a return of Group AF, with a consistent closest subject priority. Allowing user-chosen groups, ala the D6, would also be highly welcome. Dynamic-area AF is less useful on the Z9, and having three such options clutters up the AF-Area mode menu, which is problematic. Indeed, the whole hierarchy of AF-Area modes is now broken when you scatter in Small, Medium, Large options. Single-point, Dynamic, Wide Area, 3D, and Auto-area. Within Dynamic and Wide Area we have sub-choices for size/shape, but they're not sub-choices, they're choices. Changing this requires a rethink/rework of a lot of menus, but it needs to be done.
  11. The new On/Off quick set from the menus is nice, but I think Nikon could go further. For example, High ISO NR has only four obvious options. Why do I need to drop to another page to change the value? Why not right press to get to the next value (ala the On/Off options)? Color space only has two choices, why another menu page for that instead of a toggle? The On/Off menu option was a good choice, but not thought through entirely.
  12. Related to #9: items no longer have a > at the end to indicate that there are further options. Big UI mistake. I've already talked with two other photographers who weren't aware of this. It comes up in particular with Custom Setting #D8 (View mode (photo Lv). That's because the Adjust for ease of viewing option has a sub-menu! And within that sub-menu, the Custom option has another sub-menu! But neither sub-menu is indicated by anything on the display. Multiple examples of this abound throughout the UI. Bad, bad, bad.
  13. Where's Portrait impression balance? The II's have it, why didn't the Z9 get it? This is callous behavior on Nikon's part. A photographer with a Z7 II and Z9 simply can't make the images match without that function (assuming they use it, which people/event photographers should, otherwise it doesn't need to be there at all).
  14. Kill the Type A/B/C and Mode 1/2/3 naming before it gets out of control. Release timing indicator should have Dim Display, Four Border Reminder, Two Border Reminder as the named options. Virtual horizon type should have Cockpit Style and Edge Style options, and so on. 
  15. Bring back the 5:4 Image area.
  16. Let the camera record full frame for DX lenses. As I've pointed out many times, even a number of Nikon DX lenses cover the full frame.
  17. Right edge of on-screen histogram should be colored when hit. We can't tell the white edge of the frame from a white edge overexposure bar in most cases.
  18. Why can't we have Zebra patterns in still photography?
  19. Why is Custom monitor/viewfinder shooting display in the G Custom Settings for video, but in D for stills? 
  20. Custom Setting #D17, Custom monitor shooting display, simply doesn't go far enough in terms of customization. Moreover, you can't create another display option in addition to the ones Nikon gives you, you can only customize the five you get.
  21. The Drive button and Shooting Method dial seem redundant. If I can set everything via the button, why do I need the dial? In essence, Nikon seems to think that some users want to restrict the button to just the mode they're using. Perhaps. It doesn't really speed me up, though.
  22. And speaking of Shooting Method, why is it that the shutter sound is mostly the same at some different frame rates? Not a very good simulation.
  23. Likewise, why is it the camera can create JPEGs at 30 fps but not NEF? Yes, NEF data is one additional step EXPEED has to make, but I can't imagine that is anything other than a buffer issue (e.g., smaller buffer to do NEF at 30 fps). Even if the buffer were down to two seconds, I'd take it.
  24. Given that we can take long bursts of images easily, we need more ways to "evaluate/process" them in camera. If I mark a keeper in a burst, why can't I delete the rest of the burst? Why can't I delete a burst that didn't yield a useful image? We also need burst stacking (ala Sony), so that we can navigate between images faster by jumping from burst to burst.
  25. Speaking of which, if I turn off Connect to smart device, I can no longer mark an image Select for upload to smart device via the i button. Has Nikon actually seen what we sports/event photographers actually do? Many times we have to turn off the connectivity (congestion, battery use, etc.), but still want to mark which images will upload. 
  26. Silent photography (now Silent mode) has moved to the SETUP menu. Nikon needs to pick a lane.
  27. The Focus Mode button is not positioned well for vertical grip use, and there is no equivalent button in that hand position. Given the more limited number of buttons you can utilize in the vertical grip position, this is not optimal. Which of the few would I change to Focus Mode?
  28. NX Mobile Air needs to allow sharing to "normal" destinations as well as FTP ones. Badly needs this. I suppose you could add an option for Album Settings that is "Add to Camera Roll," but that's a workaround (and not present!). And why do I have to subscribe for additional albums that are stored on my phone (and server)? Just charge a one-time fee, not a monthly one, for feature embellishments. Also, NX Mobile Air doesn't work for raw files.
  29. Is Nikon ever going to do Pixel Shift? Apparently not. The Z9 was the camera (all-around camera) that would have most benefited from it. 
  30. In-camera Help has a number of typos and errors. Plus the usual number of "X function does X" meaningless help. Many new functions don't have help and should.

This is not a complete list. This is just the list that piled up with my contemporaneous notes while using the pre-production camera. I'm pretty sure I'll be adding to the list ;~). I also note that Brad Hill, who was testing a pre-production unit at the same time as I was, came up with a related set of firmware wishes, as well.

Day Eleven — Pairs

Okay, we've got mating lions (again). And pairs of mating lions (new). And it seems like everywhere I go I've got plenty to photograph. We're doing a lot less driving to find things, and much more setting up, anticipating, and following things. 

So I got a little bored (1000th lion shot, 1001st lion shot...). 

That led me to a new game: pairs. And how synchronized can I get them?

In between pursuing this game, I get distracted by a bird, but now I'm trying to make that bird photograph unique in some way:

If you want much more of this, then my upcoming Z9 in Africa talk on Monday will bring it to you.

I'm also a little bored with the focus system. Yes, it works much as described. No it isn't perfect (nor is Sony's). The focus system is good enough that I'm concentrating on different things now.

One thing I haven't mentioned (I think), is what I'm doing with files. 

Everything you've seen is (quickly processed) Lossless Compressed NEF images. I'm running those through the current version of Photoshop ACR on a 13" M1 MacBook Pro (16GB RAM, 1TB SSD). While I'm not supposed to talk about image quality on the pre-production camera, I'm going to verify the things I'm about to write on a production camera when I get back [I did]. 

First off, I've got a Z7 II with me, so I've been processing Z7 II files alongside Z9 files. As you might suspect from the similar pixel counts and Nikon's history with EXPEED, both Z7 II and Z9 files process very similarly through Photoshop. I do see a couple of differences, and they're likely Adobe issues in not getting everything fully calibrated for the Z9 yet. 

For instance, the White level is consistently set far too low. Indeed, I've been slowly working out my own "field calibration" for the Z9, and getting happier with the results as I do. Once I have this fully worked out on a shipping Z9 I'll probably add some commentary on the site about that. 

Overall, at the ISO values I'm often setting—typically ISO 1600 or 3200 due to lack of direct sun on these cloudy days—I'm finding the results easy to process and much like I expect from my D850 or Z7 II. Since this is a pre-production body, I won't go further than that at the moment, but I can see small hints of minor things that are better, minor things that aren't. Overall, I have no complaints about image quality. 

But one thing I keep noticing is that the matrix metering system is much more prone towards emphasizing what it finds under the focus sensor. That's with or without Matrix metering face detection active. Unfortunately, as birds (like the one above) flying through differing light you get varying exposure, which can result in blowing a highlight on the wing out in one frame and not in the next. 

More so than before, "shoot the light" is a mantra Z9 users are going to have to learn, otherwise they're going to find that they're doing a lot more post processing to correct exposure and tonal values than they're used to. I started in Aperture-preferred exposure mode with matrix metering, but I'm gravitating towards Manual exposure mode, and I really want a button shortcut to set spot metering temporarily, but the Keepers of the Cheese in Tokyo have unfortunately confiscated that one. Doh!

I've already got a long list of firmware changes I'd like to see (I'll reveal that at the end of the Africa trip), but this one is very high on the list, because nailing exposure is something I don't want to leave to EXPEED7; it gets it wrong too often when left to its automated ways. 

Meanwhile, despite always using Lossless Compressed NEF, I'm not having buffer issues. Of course, I'm primarily using a ProGrade Cobalt card in the camera, which helps. I also don't use 20 fps as much as you think. At 10/12 fps, the buffer is essentially endless, even with this largest file size the camera can create. At 15 fps, I sometimes get hiccups on really long sequences. It's only at 20 fps and a long sequence (>4 seconds, sometimes longer) that I even notice the buffer. [I'll be demonstrating buffer/focus interaction in my Monday talk, as in "there is virtually none."]

Wait, I hear a lion calling me...

Back to the photography...

[This blog is being written in breaks between safaris and naps ;~]

Day Ten — Thom Starts Dragging (the shutter)

Looking at my notes, I've got some catching up to do, so I'll get to today's excitement tomorrow. 

One thing that I haven't mentioned yet that every Z9 user should know is that "live view and blackout free viewfinder" has a limit. That limit is 1/8 second shutter speed. If you take a one second image, you're going to get one second of viewfinder blackout. 

I discovered this because I got into one of my experimenting modes. One thing I've been trying to get better at is dragging the shutter with motion. If the Z9 can follow focus well, if I can follow a specific point on the head perfectly, I should be able to get better slow shutter speed images that imply all the motion and urgency in a scene. Like this:

If anything, now I have the opposite problem I usually have. Whereas before I tended to have slightly out of focus heads with lots of motion in the body/background. Now my heads are snap in focus—thank you Sports VR and Z9 focus system—but I'm not getting enough blur. But if I drop down below 1/8 second, well, the viewfinder cuts out and I can't follow the subject well. Here's another example:

Of course, I'm making this even more difficult than usual by being ridiculously close to the subjects with a 500mm lens. The number of times you'll be able to fill a 500mm frame with a jackal in the wild is near zero, but this fellow was at a kill sparing with a hyena and oblivious to me. And with the vulture, for instance, I couldn't come close to holding framing well enough, so the focus system stuttered a bit trying to figure out what to do (I wasn't set on Erratic Subject motion for Focus tracking with lock-on, which probably hurt). Surprisingly, even though my framing on the vulture was left/right/up/down, the camera still managed to figure things out a few times. I've actually de-emphasized the sharpening on the vulture head a bit because it looks "wrong" to be tack sharp.

This is one of the "joys" of using a new, complex camera. There are literally thousands of things that are controllable, but getting the camera set so you can control them well is something that takes study. While you might think the above images are interesting/good, I consider this experiment a failure. I know I can do better with more practice and familiarity with what the camera will do. This is one of the reasons why I say "practice, practice, practice."

The warthog is a more typical failure: they don't often run parallel to you (or slightly towards you), so you get the receding butt view. 

Meanwhile, while I'm catching up, I notice there are some animals I've been photographing that I haven't mentioned, so here we go:

Elephant: The Z9 seems to understand that this is the subject, but the best I've gotten is body recognition, and sometimes not even that.

Monitor lizard: Same general problem as the elephant, though if the lizard fully shows the head in profile, the camera often picks up head/eye. 

Dragonfly: Surprisingly recognized, though I didn't have enough lens/closeness to get more than body recognition.

Day Nine — Moving On

Today's a transfer day. So a short safari in the morning, a short plane trip, unpacking, and then another safari in a new place in the afternoon. The new place? Little Vumbura. 

In the morning as I was sitting at a hyena den photographing the young ones trying to get into the Land Rover (or eat portions of it; they managed to chew a significant part of the fender well lining), I started further contemplating the AF-Area modes that Nikon gives us in the Z9. 

So, in AF-C we've got Single-point AF, three sizes of Dynamic-Area AF, two sizes of Wide-area AF, 3D-Tracking AF, and Auto-Area AF. The question is this: are those all necessary, and what do you use them for?

When I talk about autofocus to students, I sometimes talk about "reaction" versus "anticipation." If you're reacting to what's happening in the scene, you'll always be behind with your focusing. If you're anticipating, you'll be ahead of the focusing chore and ready to nail focus every time. Amateurs tend to not learn their focus systems, get into a react mode, and miss image after image because of that. Pros tend to learn their focus systems, always set for what they're anticipating, and thus are ready for what happens.

Like a DSLR, the very low latency lag of the Z9's EVF really means that you're seeing virtually the instant in front of the camera. On the Z6/Z7 and other Nikon mirrorless cameras there's just enough of an EVF lag that you have to gird yourself against getting into react mode. So, yes, I'm finding the Z9's EVF excellent, despite the fact that it has fewer pixels to it than the Sony A1 or Canon R3. Indeed, the smooth stream of pixels in the Z9 viewfinder is much better than the slightly jumpy and repeating frames of the Sony A1 viewfinder. Which means I can concentrate on that anticipation versus reaction thing without something getting in my way.

Which makes me wonder about the AF-Area modes. Dynamic area is the odd-man out this time. Given how good the subject recognition is for so many different subjects, exactly what subject are you going to take a photo of that allows you to move a single box to it, but needs the ability to move off that box when the subject suddenly moves?

I can't think of one. 

Which makes me wonder whether we need three Dynamic-area AF modes. 

There was a time when we need Dynamic area modes: back when we had to anticipate where the action would occur and get our focus cursor there before it happened. Along the way, though, Nikon has come up with better choices, and the Z9 has two of those. What it doesn't have is the third (Group-AF). What D5/D6 users will tell you—particularly the sports photographers—is that Group is a method that allows you to anticipate where you want the focus, and then the camera just manages the heavy lifting. In most sports, you're photographing with players coming towards you, and you are centering on a player, so having a closest subject priority in an area where you expect the action to occur just works most of the time. 

We don't have that on the Z9, and one place where I find it to be desired is when I anticipate wildlife coming out from behind veiling bushes or terrain. Group-AF would give me an instant focus, while Auto-area AF tends to need to recognize the full subject first before it does its magic.

But AF-C isn't the only part of the focus system that has a legacy holdover that doesn't work well. If you're in AF-C and set 3D-tracking AF, then flip to AF-S, guess what? You're still in 3D-tracking! Only the camera only focuses once, so there's no tracking! 

I understand why Nikon did this (to have the focus point retained during the switch), but I don't know why the camera doesn't just move to Single-point AF.

So here's the bottom line: Nikon is making changes to the focus system, but they haven't fully thought through the implications of all the focus system changes yet. There are modes we don't need, modes we do need, and they're not all optimized yet in the Z9.

Okay, let's get in the air...

And get back on land...

The rare elephant twins (Z50 image).

Sometimes you get strange bedfellows.

And finally, to answer the question of whether the Z9 really detects eyes, even if they're going away from you...

New animals: hyena, monitor lizard, baboons

Hyena: no problems detecting body, face, eye.

Monitor lizard: sometimes recognizes body.

Baboons: generally no trouble if they're facing you.

Day Eight — Follow the Dogs (Literally, and with Focus)

Today was my last full day in Chitabe, and it turned out to be eventful. Much of the day we spent trying to keep up with a pack of 15 wild dogs. We found them early on resting (and occasionally playing). But the variety of poses, lighting situations, and motion allowed me to assess how the Z9 was doing pretty thoroughly. In a word, excellent.

I know that a lot of you expect—partly from the marketing statements of both Sony and Nikon—that autofocus will hit "perfect" with the right camera. That's no closer to the truth today than it ever was. I've been spending these first few days using the Z9 much like most of you will: in Auto-area AF with subject detection set to Animals. It's the simplest way to get "really good" focus performance. Okay, maybe "really excellent." 

This freedom-from-controlling-focus enables you to pay more attention to the composition and your camera handling. But I'll caution you to think you're going to go out with any camera, set focus to some "all auto" mode, and get 100% keepers. It just doesn't work that way. 

What many of you are going to find is that you get more keepers than ever with a Z9 set in one of the auto focus modes where the camera does the heavy lifting. But you can do better, and I'll try to describe some of the ways you can do that coming up. What I'd say to most new-to-Z9 owners is, yes, play with the Auto-area AF mode and subject detection, and concentrate on getting your camera handling and composition nailed as you do. I've already noted one prominent YouTuber—who's not a wildlife photographer by any stretch of the imagination—trying to show what the camera is doing when he was too far from the subject (or not enough lens), and had poor camera handling (small subject careening all over the frame). The Z9 does indeed do quite okay in that scenario, but it can do better. Far better, as you'll probably see at some point in this blog (foreshadowing: I got one shot I've tried to get many times in the past, but failed at, with every camera I've used). 

I should probably point another thing out that's being described incorrectly on the Internet. You'll see comments such as "follows subjects to the edge of the frame and back." 

Not exactly. You'll note four red "corner" markers in Auto-area AF. Within the area defined by them, the camera is near flawless (assuming it correctly detected a subject). As you move outside that area—which is about one Single point box worth of area on each side—things get a little more complicated. Depending upon what is being tracked by the focus system, you may or may not lose detection briefly as something gets to the frame edge. Again, note my comment on improving your camera handling, above. Your subject really shouldn't be getting out into this no-man's focus land if you're holding the camera well and following your subject well. 

In the above photo, note that the front wild dog's eyes are above that no-man's focus land: the camera had no problem at all as long as I held to that. When the front dog was partially cut off and the eyes went "out of the box", the camera has to rethink what it's doing for focus. Sometimes it found the next dog, sometimes it struggled a bit to figure out what it wanted to do in this situation. 

3D-tracking AF does a little better at moving all the way to the edge for focus, but be careful about letting the area being tracked leave the frame. If it does, it may or may not recognize it when it comes back in frame, seemingly dependent partially upon how long it was out of frame.

Finally: As I watch people respond to the blog, I'm noticing people quoting things I didn't say. For instance "Nikon’s eye-AF is a little less reliable than Sony or Canon’s". The problem with spontaneously blogging in the wild is that I don't always have the time to get my wording so crystal clear that it can't be mis-interpreted. I'll have much more to say about this in my Zoom Presentation on Monday, and subsequently in my review and book for the Z9. But let me be perfectly clear here: neither Sony nor Nikon's all-automatic focus modes are without issues. Again, I'll speak to that on Monday, but I actually prefer the Z9 "lies" to the A1 "lies" in the focus system. I also find the Z9 easier to "correct" (override) in a number of situations. That said, both Sony and Nikon are using Machine Learning (ML) algorithms, so I expect both to improve over time as the ML gets tuned.

New Animals: wild dogs

Wild dogs: for the most part, no issues. On a few of the 15 dogs we were tracking, the focus system sometimes had a problem with a particular spot pattern.

Note that both the wild dogs tend to have dark eyes on a dark section of face. One thing I've noticed with the Sony A1 is that dark eye on dark head (bird, other animal) sometimes confuses it. That doesn't seem to be the case with the Z9.

Day Seven — Persistence Means What?

Just a reminder: all images shown are from a pre-production Z9. Today's photos are all with the Z9 and the 500mm f/5.6 PF.

So, one of the key settings it's taken me a bit of time to find and try to figure out is Custom Setting #A7, Focus point persistence. This badly named function is actually a slightly better but more complicated variation of what we do with AF-ON+AF Area mode

The way it works is this: Your normal AF-area mode works until you press and hold a button that has been assigned another AF-area mode (which was assigned with Custom Setting #F2). This gets us into three-finger control (back button focus is two-finger control), but if you get your camera holding settled so that one of the Fn1 to Fn3 buttons is handy, it's a little improvement. The thing I couldn't figure out at first is what Auto and Off meant for Focus point persistence. Auto means that the camera continues to use the focus point that was selected previously by your default AF-area mode. Off means that the camera switches to the default point for the alternate AF-area mode, which is typically the center position. 

This is the way you want to use 3D tracking with birds, I think. Let Auto-area AF find the bird, flip to 3D tracking. This is going to take far more testing to see what situations and what two focus modes I want to be moving between. Now all that's missing is one additional capability: I want a focus mode toggle button. But I want it with Focus point persistence. Note my use of the word "toggle". Nikon is still thinking that we want temporary override, and that's how AF-ON+AF Area mode and assigning AF-area mode to a button are currently configured. But sometimes I just want to switch and not have to keep a finger on a button.

In other words, there are times when I want to completely flip the focus behavior with a single button press, other times when I want to temporarily switch with a button press. Having the latter (with two options) is not quite doing it for me, but I can live with it.

So why is it important to be able to switch fast? Birds in Flight (BIF, e.g. above) is a good example. I don't think you want to start with the camera in 3D tracking with BIF. Why not? Because you have to get the focus sensor on the bird to start the tracking. Birds were coming at me from all angles and at fast speeds. Getting the box positioned on the bird to start tracking is slow, because it involves my reaction and control speed. Much better to let the camera find and acquire the bird in Auto-area AF, which the Z9 does reliably and fast, then switch to 3D tracking (with Focus point persistence at Auto so that 3D tracking inherits the focus point!). 

Okay, enough birds (I'm not a birder, so you're going to get as many mammals from me as birds ;~).

After a short torrential storm we just hunkered down for, we found the lions at a zebra kill.

So it was time to photograph wet lions!

Now normally after lions have made a kill and stuffed themselves, the plan is: (1) get some water, (2) nap. That's the lion's plan, not mine, just to be clear.

Not these lions. The rain had cooled things down enough that the lions decided it was play time. Can the Z9 keep the focus with multiple lions running helter skelter? 

The answer would be yes. 

New Animals: tortoise, more bird species

Tortoise: Much like the hippo, the Z9 detects the half round shape as something that’s probably the subject, but no, it wasn’t recognizing the face. 

Day Six — Birds in Flight

First thing this morning I found myself taking photos of birds in flight (BIF). The first sequence I shot was 58 images. Since I was a long ways away and we didn’t have enough light for much shutter speed, the results aren’t perfect, but focus seems to started and stayed consistently on the bird’s head.

Of course, this is bird against sky, the easiest of the focus system chores. We’ll get to bird against busy background soon enough.

With birds going away from you—why are you still holding down the shutter release?—the camera can no longer see the eye, but the Z9 is still staying focused on the bird, typically a wing or the body. If you have even a little bit of depth of field you’d probably find that to be good results, too. 

With an absurdly small Pied Kingfisher, the real test started. Facing me, good. Facing away from me, the tail feathers is where the Z9 focused.

When the Pied was in the sky, the camera had no trouble figuring out he was the subject and focusing on the head (or tail feathers in the case of facing away). On his dive, two problems arose. First, me anticipating the dive (hey, I’m two years out of practice at that!), and more importantly: he dove through a busy background. Fairly consistently the Z9 lost him. Not always, but consistently. I suppose if we could have been closer and I had a gimbal head instead of handholding 500mm, the results might have been better. 

On the other hand, if there were more than one Pied in my frame, the Z9 picked the nearer one pretty consistently. 

I should point out that getting a Pied in full dive, let alone hitting the water and getting a fish, is a real test of the photographer as well as the camera. We adjusted our angle so that the Pieds were diving through a slightly less busy background. The Z9 did better, often holding the bird. But now I was having a problem with the water hit: other birds on the water were getting in my way!

With flocks of bird in flight, I saw the focus system jumping around a bit as they approached. Mostly I’d say that the Z9 would hang on the nearest bird, but there are some odd lapses where it went to another bird momentarily. Granted, these birds were fairly distant as I began the sequence, and as they approached I was starting to crop out some of the flock and adjust my composition. Still, it should be noted that the Z9 under detault Tracking Lock-On settings will sometimes jump to another bird in the group. I’m not yet sure if I can characterize when or why it does that, but, of course, you can adjust the tracking if this becomes a problem. 

Overall, I spent quite a bit of time at one pond where the bird activity was high. I had plenty of opportunities to photograph birds taking off and coming in for landings, chasing after fish, squabbling with one another, and just generally doing bird things. Overall, the Z9 made my job easier than it tended to be with the DSLRs, just doing the right thing quickly more often than not, but also allowing me to get in and override. 

Funny thing was, while sitting photographing the birds, another animal came along to give me some testing practice: lions. 

Let’s just say this: the Z9 has no trouble at all detecting lions, and going to their eyes (if they’re open). I suspect all of you with cats as pets will find the same thing, but the distinct brown color of the lions against all the green currently in the Botswana environment probably made it very easy for the Z9 to detect. Note that I wrote earlier that sometimes the Z9 would bounce between ear and eye on the leopard. That’s some of that animal’s natural camouflage confounding the system. No such thing happens with the lions.

Since I had three lions to play with, obviously there were groupings that happened. The natural tendency of the Z9 is to focus on the nearest lion when it’s seeing more than one. Sometimes you’ll get the “go to other eye” prompt at the side of the focus detect box, sometimes not. That part I haven’t figured out yet. 

Many of you have asked whether or not you can see focus confirmation in AF-C when you press the AF-ON button (or shutter release for those of you aren’t setting your camera right ;~). The answer is yes, but you have to turn that option on. 

Meanwhile, back at the BIFs, I’m noticing other things. No, maybe busy backgrounds aren’t as big a problem as they were with the Pied. With the big birds dipping down towards the ground and filling the frame—or at least filling more than a small number of pixels of the frame—if the camera was focused on the bird before the dip, it stayed on the bird while a busy background was scrolling by. I’d also say that the steadier you can keep the bird framed in that situation, the more you’ll get the right result. 

New Animals: egrets, kingfishers, eagles, kites, and a host of other birds, lion, jackal, hippo

Birds: No issues. Camera usually detects head or eyes if it sees a beak. No visible beak and it might go elsewhere on the bird. 

Lions: No issues. Eyes easily detected if open, otherwise it goes to the face. 

Jackal: No issues. Same as lion.

Hippo: Well, the Z9 knows about where the subject is, but no, it doesn’t seem to particularly recognize the hippo. You’ll get “side of body” type focus most of the time. I’ll have to spend some more time in close and head on to hippos to be sure.

Day Five — Testing Under Water

Hey, what happened to Day 4 and 5? Well, in order: COVID testing, flight, customs, flight, COVID testing, customs, dinner with friends. 

Today it was another (short) flight on a Cessna Commander to be dropped off at the Chitabe Airstrip, where it was time to jump in a Land Cruiser and see what the Z9 can actually do. Within minutes, I was at a Kudu kill site that had just happened and photographing the leopard that did the deed. Oh, and since it’s the rainy season here, it started to rain.

I hadn’t updated my FTZ firmware yet, so I started with the 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter mounted to it on the Z9. I’m fast gaining more respect for that combo (the 70-200mm f/2.8 and 1.4x are excellent). 

First image sequence? Turn around and photograph the Commander taking off. 

bythom int bots chatebe Dec21 Z9 00085crop

Didn’t have time to think about things, so the shutter speed is 1/4000 here and that freezes the propellers (normally you’d want something down around 1/250 so as to get some blur to them). As it turns out, this is a reasonably good test of rolling shutter effect, if any. As you can see, none: the propellers look correct. As Nikon has said, it appears that you can treat the Z9’s electronic shutter pretty much the same as the mechancial shutters you’ve been using. Obviously, when final cameras appear, I’ll drill down into the details. However, in the initial quick-and-dirty tests like this photo turned out to be, I’m not seeing anything I’m concerned about with the all-electronic shutter.

Next up, here are the first true wildlife results from my pre-production Z9:

Yes, I saw that all of you raised your hand wanting to ask questions. How many of you want to know about focus? Thought so.

I decided to do my testing backwards from my usual regimen. Instead of starting with Single-point AF and AF-S, I started at the other end of the progression I usually recommend people work through: I began with Auto-area AF and AF-C with all subjects detection enabled. That plane image? Auto-area AF and AF-C with all subjects detection enabled. The leopard photos? Same thing.

The reason why I started this way is I can almost guarantee that this is the way you’ll initially begin using your Z9. After all, Nikon has marketed the heck out of the focus detection system, and it’s one of the reasons you probably bought the camera. Can it really handle all the heavy lifting?

Within the first few hours of safari my conclusion is that the focus is everything that Nikon claims it is, and it’s nothing like what you’re expecting. That’s going to take a lot of explaining, which I’ll try to do over the next two days. 

Let’s start with the Cessna.

Nikon claims the focus system will pick up a plane and follow it. Yes, it did. I intentionally started the sequence with the plane out of the frame and letting it fly through my composition. I could bore you with the entire sequence, but it would show that the Z9 quickly found the object and followed it. You’ll see that in the viewfinder (foreshadowing: much more on that later). Score one for marketing. Oh, wait, engineering ;~).

The leopard was somewhat of a different story. Nikon makes the claim that the camera recognizes body, head, and eye, often in that order, of animals. I believe that’s driven by a great deal of shape detection in the Machine Learning behind the focus system. Why? Because shapes don’t account for spots, which are, of course, more shapes. In other words, shapes on a shape. 

Much of the time the Z9 did what you’d want it to: recognize a leopard, find the eyes, and put focus there. 

This particular leopard was nervous. It knew it couldn’t hold a kudu kill very long because it couldn’t drag that size animal up a tree. Thus, it ate, then went checking around for other predators, repeat. That led to a great deal of posing in a great number of positions, situations, and lighting. 

Sometimes the spots threw the focus system off course. On this particular animal, I saw the eye detection jump to the ears and back a number of times. Something about the ear pattern in particular light—mostly shaded light—had the camera seeing an “eye” up on the ear. More often than not, the focus was put on the eye, but since we were moving with the cat in and out of light (and off and on rain), I could see the camera back off and struggle at times to do the “perfect thing.” (Foreshadowing: there was another animal where this was worse.)

Now you might think that this is a bad thing and I’m about to go all Angry Photographer on Nikon.   

Nope. For a number of reasons.

First, the thing I immediately noticed is that I got a strong sense of what the camera was doing and how well it was doing it. Good light and normal animal, the focus tends to stay more locked on the smallest thing it detected (again: body, head, eye). If the camera was a slight bit indecisive, as in the eye/ear flopping, that was a signal for me to step in and do something to help it. I’m not going to get into what that might be yet, but the Z9 is armed with features that might help. We’ll get to those as we roll through my camera use.

Another think I noted is that if the focus was locked onto an eye and the animal walked behind brush that might obscure it, the default Tracking Lock-On setting was enough to hold focus briefly as the animal continued moving. However, if it stopped behind that trig, the focus system would eventually want to move. The “stickiness” of the Z9 was more than I’m used to on the Z’s, and I’ll need to spend more time figuring out how to tune that to best results.

As you’ll note from some of the details below, the camera isn’t perfect. You need to be prepared with another tactic to get focus, which I’ll get to tomorrow. Fortunately, Nikon has given us a number of ways to override or change the focus system.

Animals: ostrich, leopard, impala, eagle, kudu, warthog, giraffe

Ostrich: mostly detected body at distances they would allow; when facing and closer, did detect head.

Leopard: mostly detected eye, even at long distances, but sometimes would see something erroneous as eye temporarily. Locked onto body or head easily.

Impala: detected eye, even through thick bush.

Eagle: detected eye even at great distance.

Kudu: detected face, then eye.

Warthog: sometimes detected eye, though the camera sometimes got confused by the tusk, for some reason.

Giraffe: had a difficult time with the giraffe unless the face was towards the camera.

Day Two — Some Background

Full disclosure: As the Z9 teaser campaign began, I also began asking Nikon about the possibility of getting a pre-production unit to handle or test. I doubt I was in Nikon’s initial list of potential Z9 recipients, as I don’t publish statistics about my Web sites and Nikon has no idea of my reach. Nor do I use social media such as YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram, where subscriptions and followers can be easily determined. I do have a Twitter account I rarely post to, but have never tried to build that into a “following.” 

Thus, when Nikon’s marketing consultants work up a plan get the broadest reach from the limited units they have available to distribute, I don’t appear in the results. 

To Nikon’s credit, particularly NikonUSA, my initial request was positively received. The only real problem was my desire for a longer period with the camera coupled with the limited number of cameras in North America. That’s probably why I got the camera a little later than some, who only needed it for a two-day quick turnaround impressions video.

While I don’t intend to “review” the pre-production unit, I’ll offer observations and comments about as much as I can. By having a unit prior to my own appearing, I’ll also be developing a head start on the things I need to thoroughly test and wring out in order to write a full review (of the shipping camera) and my eventual Complete Guide to the Z9. 

I’m fairly meticulous about early camera use. There’s a long list of things I go through and evaluate. I’ve already pointed out to Nikon a couple of seemingly incorrect Help messages I found, for instance. 

Which brings me to one comment I hope Nikon takes positively: the engineers need to stop naming things Mode 1, Mode 2, and Type A, Type B. This popped up recently with the Z6 II/Z7 II firmware update and the awkwardly named Portrait Impression Balance function. Mode # really should User Selected Balance #, or some similar name (and the overall name probably should be Portrait Color Adjustment, or more to the point, Skin Tone Color Adjustment

The Z9 has several Mode/Type choices in its menus, but the problem here is that they’re not things you customize—where you’d have to remember that you put your customization for indoor lighting in #1, for example—but are rather pre-made choices by Nikon.

For example, this comes up in selecting how the viewfinder provides visual indicators of continuous photography (remember, the camera can be silent at 20 fps and the viewfinder is “live” all the time). The choices should be something like Simulate Blackout, 2-Edge Reminder, 4-Edge Reminder, and No Visual Reminder. Instead we get Type A, Type B, Type C, and Off. Nikon themselves realized this was going to be a problem, so they added automatically appearing help at the bottom of the display to tell you what each type means ;~). Keep the help, but rename the options and make the help reflect the option. For instance, 2-Edge Reminder as an option would have help that said “Lines are briefly turned on and off at the left and right edge of the frame as you photograph.”

People know that I’m all about “muscle memory.” I want things to become second nature as to my holding and controlling the camera. But there’s also such a thing as “cognitive dissonance.” When you get to that Custom Setting and see Type A, you either remember what it means—and note that there are other Mode/Type As in the camera’s menus you have to memorize, as well—or if you don’t remember you have to take the time to read the help. The Z9 is a performance camera. It should be minimizing our having to pay any attention to additional detail. So the Type/Mode construct needs to go.

Today is mostly about going through everything on the camera as well as playing with all the new settings to understand what they do. There’s a lot to go through. Moreover, there are many more combinations and permutations of settings that make sense on this camera than on, say, a Zfc. Even more than on a Z7 II. So I need some time to study and reflect on all of them. Tomorrow will be about trying to get an initial setup that works for me.

Day One — First Impressions

Let me be frank up front. Testing comes first. Documenting to the world comes second. Thus, I'll tease this first impression and go silent until Christmas.

First up, thanks to NikonUSA for providing a Z9 pre-production body to run through its paces. As usual, all the pre-production disclaimers apply. I don't know if the firmware is really 1.0 or not, and Nikon has asked me not to share raw files or to reveal any lab testing to determine specific numbers on image quality aspects. With that in mind, it's time to begin.

So, what did I get? Answer: a white box that appears to be the finished Z9 boxing, but without any printing, and missing a number of materials that are likely to ship with the finished product. Inside the box was a Z9, the MH-33 and EH-7P charger combo. 

So let's deal with that charger first: the MH-33 charger doesn't plug have an AC socket or cable: it has a USB-C connector only. Thus, it has to be powered with a USB PD capable wall wart, of which the EH-7P is Nikon's version. This also means that you don't need an AC adapter to continuously power the camera: you can simply plug the EH-7P directly into the camera, if needed. 

I don't know if I like this approach to charging or not. Probably like, but I need to be using it for a bit, I think. Because I'm based out of vehicles, on sidelines, or in the middle of nowhere and have no AC plug nearby, I've long moved towards USB type chargers, because I can run them off of 12v in vehicles and via large watt-hour capacity batteries I carry. That's the future for all of us, I'm pretty sure, but the Z9 is the first pro camera I've seen committed to that future. I did verify that the MH-33 can charge the D6 EN-EL18C battery, by the way. Haven't tried a B version, though Nikon says that should work. Original EN-EL18's and the A version won't charge on the MH-33. 

Next up, a first impression. 

Given that the Z9 is smaller than the D6 I often use, I was interested in how the configurable controls work when handling the camera. I don't have large hands, so your mileage may vary, but the primary thing I immediately noticed is that when holding the camera in the horizontal position, my finger positions were slightly off. By that, I mean that my middle finger was directly on the top of the Fn1 button, my ring finger on Fn2, and my pinkie on Fn3. Normally, my middle finger has to move some to get onto the Fn1 on the smaller cameras, while my hand position on the D6 is typically ring finger on Fn1, which makes things one finger off for me on the Z9.

However, moving to the vertical grip, Fn3, which is the only one of the buttons you're likely to easily access, was exactly under my middle finger, which is closer to what I’m used to on the D6. I'm sure that all this slight finger repositioning will eventually become second nature to me, but right now it's something I'm very conscious of as I move from the D6 to the Z9.

Something I wasn't expecting is this: subject recognition now works in both Wide-area AF modes (S and L). That's another small change that opens up new capabilities when trying to control the camera in situations where it might be detecting a lot of different subjects, but you want to tell it which one to concentrate on. I'm not going to get into the autofocus aspects of the Z9 for awhile, but I will repeat my philosophy about autofocus in general: it's fine to have the camera do the heavy lifting, but you want to be able to quickly jump in and focus (pardon the pun) or redirect what the system is doing. This is why I advocate for AF-ON+AF Area Mode button options. You always want to be able to jump in and change what the camera is doing based upon the situation that pops up in front of you.

Nikon had told me earlier that you couldn't turn subjection recognition on or off via a button. They're wrong. As Brad Hill has also noted, there's a way to do that, though it involves dedicating Recall Shooting Functions to this. I'll give you an example of where that might be something you want to do: a team wins the championship trophy and a player suddenly thrusts this forward towards your camera. You probably want the trophy in focus, but if the player is in the frame and human subject detection is on, the trophy will likely be right up front and out of focus. Press the button you assigned Recall Shooting Functions to (with Subject Recognition Off) and if you're in one of the two Wide-area AF modes focus should move to the closest thing (the trophy). 

Which brings me to a "kudos". Kudos to Nikon for finally realizing they shouldn't be so paternalistic on button assignments. On at least one recent Nikon camera, Fn3 could only be assigned to something like six things. Why, I have no idea. Three of those were things I'd never use, so basically this meant that one function button really had to be relegated to a couple of things I "might" use (as opposed to "do" use). 

On the Z9 we have six function buttons that can be programmed to pretty much any of the settings you'd expect or need. This is going to take a great deal of thought as to what goes where—again, remember that Fn1 and Fn2 aren't available on the vertical grip, though there's an extra button just behind the shutter release that can serve that function—as the combinations and permutations are now well into the billions. Another tidbit on customization: it hasn't really been mentioned elsewhere, but you can customize the voice annotation and QUAL buttons below the Rear LCD. I don't change Image Quality/Size often, so suddenly I have another customizable button with a lot of options to consider.

I spent the first hours with the Z9 doing a lot of random exploring and quick-and-dirty testing. The camera came to me with a 51% charged battery and 875 shots on that battery. I quickly took the battery down to 40%, but in so doing I had taken 3000+ "photos" (mostly of nothing interesting). 

Which brings me to a quick buffer comment. With a ProGrade Cobalt card in the camera, I was curious about buffer performance, given all the mysterious variations that had been reported prior. At 20 fps and Lossless Compressed, I got about 80 frames (4 seconds) before first hiccup, but the camera kept working at a high rate even at buffer full, just not smoothly. Dialed down to 15 fps the number went up to somewhere around 300 frames (20 seconds). Dialed down to 12 fps, the buffer became essentially infinite. The r indicator (buffer remaining) just stuck on r018 and stayed there. 

Now I don't report that as any absolute test number—and remember, this is a pre-production camera—but merely a quick casual observation. I need to try to figure out how I'll be using the camera, and this quick-and-dirty test told me something useful: that Shooting Method button up on the top button cluster is going to get used. I'll likely standardize on 12 or 15 fps, but quickly dial in 20 fps for things I want more frame choices for fast action. 

That's it for today's first impressions. Tomorrow I'm off into the field, and probably starting my Internet silent time. So consider today a tease for what's upcoming…

Update: Okay, first impression became first.1 impression: fixed reference to finger positions on Fn buttons.

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