As you know, I avoid too technology-driven topics in this blog, as I definitely give priority to nature 😉
However, having worked with SLR cameras for 15 years now, the switch to the mirrorless system is really a technical milestone, which also goes hand in hand with the renewal of my complete lens setup.
Since I've been asked a few times recently about the benefits and an interim conclusion, I'd like to answer that today in this blog article. Actually, I wanted to write a first conclusion only after about half a year, due to the complex Autofocus-System. But this camera offers many other interesting features that I no longer need to test out. Therefore, today follows an interim conclusion and I will update this article in half a year and then go into the topic of AF in a more differentiated way.
Why did I switch now?
Even though Sony has been focusing on the mirrorless system for years now and has come up with many innovations in this field, thus changing the industry permanently, the mirrorless systems also had many “troubles" in the first years - viewfinder blackout, battery life, AF performance, etc.
Things really took off around 2017, as the maturity of the autofocus on the Sony A9 at the time was really at a remarkable level and was being developed further in big steps. But even this camera still had drawbacks if you implement all genres of nature photography like me. Now I'm not a Sony fan anyway "for reasons" (...) and waited until Canon or Nikon put something on the market here that adequately replaces my high-resolution pro SLR with 46mp. I didn't care which of these two brands I would go for, I know both systems well and wanted to switch to native lenses anyway.
Canon made this step around mid-2020 with the R5/R6 and Nikon in December 2021 with the appearance of the Z9. I finally chose the Z9 because I was very satisfied with Nikon the last few years, although certainly the Canon and Sony system would have been just as performant.
Nikon brought out a mirrorless with the highest image quality much earlier, at the latest with the Z7(II). However, as a crossover nature photographer I need optimal AF (at least d850 level), so that was not yet an option for me, there were also other disadvantages. I was all the more pleased when I was able to pick up a Z9 in Düsseldorf on January 18.
Which setup did I choose?
- Nikon Z9 (main camera) Düsseldorf
- Nikon Z6II (as backup for traveling) Bochum
- Nikkor 14-24 / f2.8 Z Munich
- Nikkor 24-70 / f2.8 Z Dusseldorf
- Nikkor 70-200 / f2.8 Z Saarbrücken
- Nikkor 105 macro / f2.8 Z Berlin
- Nikkor 1.4 teleconverter Z Bochum
- Kirk LP-70 New York
- Sandisk Extreme Pro CF Express 512gb Dusseldorf
- Smallrig-L-Bracket Z9 Hong Kong
- 2 additional EN-EL 18d Amsterdam
So my overall equipment now looks like this:
My goodness, it was hard to get the stuff this time. Similar to Canon and Sony, there are very many products whose delivery time currently cannot be predicted at all, some wait months. Since I'm already giving the next workshop at the beginning of March, I really wanted to have everything together. Normally I would have bought these things from maybe 2 dealers.
As telephoto I still use the 600/4 FL, which I operate with an FTZII adapter. The native variant of this lens is not expected to be announced until later this year according to the Nikon roadmap.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages after switching?
"The Z9 has an outstanding readout speed compared to the d850" - you won't read such and similar technical advantages here. I'm interested in very practical issues and I'm comparing very specifically with my two d850 bodies, because that's the benchmark for me in nature photography, from landscapes to wildlife photography. Indeed, the d850 has been with me since November 2017 and has done a totally reliable job. If you take a look at today's ranking on DXOmark, you can see that Nikon did a pretty great job there six years ago in development in terms of image quality alone.
After only 3 weeks of using the Z9, I can only draw an interim conclusion. I think 14 of the equal following 16 points are safe, with 2 points I need more different photographic situations, and that is with the autofocus and the raw format. Some of the equally mentioned advantages also have more to do with the switch to mirrorless and less specifically with the Z9 versus, say, a Z7 II. Now here are the advantages over the d850 and every other DSLR I've owned:
1. Really don't need it often, and yet I was glad of it a few times even during the test sessions. Also, this one is better with virtually every flight shot. Even with my eagle owl series or the Sandwich Terns last year I could have used it already well.
2. The autofocus - especially the tracking / automatic detection of animal eyes. Finally! Is it perfect? No. Is it better than on my d850s? Yes. Whereas it didn't matter to me at all. The AF of the d850 was very good for me and I just waited until the AF of a mirrorless from Nikon was at least as good. Now, after the first 3 weeks, I would sum it up like this: In 50% of the situations so far the AF of the Z9 was better, in 30% of the cases it was equally good or equally bad, as always. And in another 20% of photographic situations, it was currently worse. However, the latter percentage already reduced successively in the last sessions. I think, here I still need more experience, in which situations or animal species I have to switch to "conventional" AF fields. Basically, this picture also potentially shifts in favor of the mirrorless with every AF firmware update anyway. What's also great is the really good control via Live View, so you can take positions where it's not even possible to look through the viewfinder - or where it's very tiring. In addition, in many situations I now need to concentrate less on setting the AF field, but rather focus on the correct image section
3. The digital viewfinder - finally using the advantages of a DSLM viewfinder blackout-free, without the previous disadvantages. In addition, a very clear viewfinder image, a clearly recognizable histogram in the viewfinder and the exposure compensation directly visible in the viewfinder. Coming from the d850, I am just thrilled. In addition, I can look at, for example, the image control in 100% view in the viewfinder, you can see the details much better than on the display. I have already read different opinions on this. The electric viewfinder excites me personally the most of all points.
4. The portrait folding display: hallelujah 🙌 since I've been using portrait format more and more again for a year and a half, it's great, since I regularly shoot very low and looking at the LiveView from above
5. The battery: is simply a blast and lasts longer than any of my past DSLR`s! I had always expected when switching to mirrorless that this point would actually become a disadvantage, as it still is with many camera models. I have 3 batteries (18d) and do not even think that the third is ever used
6. An upstream dust protection for the sensor - finally also with Nikon 👍I can not even say how often I had to clean my sensors in 15 years DSLR`s, because dust came on my lens again when changing lenses, especially on stormy beaches etc a big issue
7. The absence of vibrations - for me a very high relevance, especially with longer focal lengths and exposure times! The Z9 is the first camera without a mechanical shutter and that is just great
8. The larger AF field coverage: something I always missed on the d850 compared to a d500, especially relevant for animal shots without a very large image scale
9. The volume - absolutely silent and no more rattling mirror beats, at least if you want. Especially in animal photography, this is an almost priceless feature. Probably every wedding photographer will be happy about this development as well 😅.
10. Compatibility to the new native and more performant lenses and converters: again a big "finally"! Finally, for example, I can switch to the totally compact and lightweight Nikon 14-24 Z and thus use the smaller and also lighter 100mm filter system again, the lens alone weighs a little more than half of my previous UWW and the weight and size of my filter bag are also halved
Things that I find really good, but which I had not even “on the screen” when buying:
11. The distance of the viewfinder: it is a bit more protruding than on the Nikon d850. Since I look through the viewfinder very often, even in landscape photography, this is far more comfortable and I don't squeeze my eye and nose against the display anymore, the small extra distance makes a lot of difference from my point of view
12. Two CF Express memory slots: for me simply the best format - now I can use two 512s and don't have to worry about performance or backup memory - in the d850 only one card was the faster one (XQD vs. SD)
13. High efficiency* compression: a raw format with super image quality at 14bit and an almost halving of the storage space. Currently I couldn't see any noticeable disadvantages - I will probably use this format at least in wildlife photography, where I rarely have scenes with an extreme dynamic range.
14. the angled connector: for fans of the cable release, which includes me, this is great, as with the d850 it was always a fumble due to the small space, at least depending on the lens
15. "Live-composing" with double exposures: finally never overlay is displayed live in the viewfinder 👍
1. Highiso performance: yes, I know the technical reasons (switch to stacked sensor technology in favor of readout speed) and yet I find it disappointing after half a decade to have no real significant increase in highiso performance over the d850. It's not really a disadvantage, it's strictly speaking even minimally better (maybe a third of a stop), but my expectation here was different and my wish was for one stop improvement per half decade 😉 (in the range Iso3200-10,000)
By the way, the sharpness impression after import into Lightroom (unprocessed) is slightly higher than on the d850. If I equalize that and set the default sharpness from 40 to 20, for example, the iso performance is still a bit ahead compared to the d850
2. Higher weight: here you have to distinguish between
a. Wildlife photography: the difference is a few grams compared to my d850 with BG mandatory in this range. However, I rarely used my BG in the past and managed well without it. So I think it depends a lot on the photographer's preferences to what extent this point is a distinct disadvantage. Of course, I would prefer the same chassis with 1kg weight, as existing in other brands.
b. Everything else": here I actually did not need a BG - the difference is then 335g compared to my d850 without BG and is therefore noticeable. Unlike the dimensions (I do not care in my Tilopa, have enough space), the weight is already relevant for me. However, I hardly noticed it when I switched, since my backpack on the tours is now even lighter in total than with my previous setup (weight savings lenses, filters, holders, and accessories). In pure landscape photography with wide-angle lenses, I would still like a kind of Z7 III as a second body that has all the features of the Z9, because here I do not need the "chassis".
3. The price: certainly disadvantageous. But I think the multitude of technical innovations are worth the money, that was often different with past models with "facelift character". Nevertheless, a disadvantage, because otherwise I would have bought a second analog to the d850 at a later date. A Z6II now serves as a backup body, just in case of a defect or damage while traveling.
4. Raw format with double exposure: actually double exposures are a clear advantage, because the Z9 can show the overlay "live", as already described above. Currently, however, you cannot save the overlaid result as Raw (only the single images). Saving formats are currently JPG or TIF - this is a nogo for me and I hope for a firmware update here, I reported this to an NPS contact person
5. Crop mode: yes I know, technically the crop modes don't make sense, but I can use it for other reasons, but I would have to go too far. Here I miss the 1.2 crop mode of the d850, which I used regularly - unlike the 1.5 - this could also be solved with a simple software update.
For me, these "features" have a high relevance in total, I must admit that I am really excited.
However, I have to give a small warning for all those who still have to make such a switch. The first feeling and the first application (at home) has slain me a bit. I wasn't exactly euphoric at first, because I really enjoy photography when I can operate my work equipment blindly. With the Z9, on the other hand, so many things were new right away, starting with looking through the electric viewfinder and the different arrangement of buttons and new functions, that I needed a handful of living room sessions before I felt really good. Only then did I go out into nature. And there I had to spend a few hours with the autofocus. It was not immediately better than my d850 in 50% of the situations as I wrote before. So here you need a little patience.
Now I would like to show you a handful of pictures. Unlike other series, you'll see the full image first, followed by a detail of the image. Please keep in mind, these are just test images to give you an impression of sharpness and noise, they are only a few images I would include in my portfolio as they are.
I don't show them "raw", but deliberately processed - because I wanted to compare, for example, how the dynamics behave when lightening depths and when which colour noise arises. You see animal pictures in the higher iso range, because here the camera has to deliver. For still lifes and Iso 100, the Z7II would have done as well. These are deliberately pictures in the range Iso 800-Iso4000, because these are for me the most frequently used values, just Iso 1000-2000.
Attention. Since 1280px width, the images have to be enlarged first or the browser scaled to 100%, depending on the viewer.
- All images are taken with the efficient raw format High efficiency*
- All images are not denoised and not cropped
- All images are processed as follows - settings in Lightroom CC:
- Profile: Adobe Color (I've always used it)
- Sharpness: 25 (reduced from 40 to 25)
- Highlights each about -50, Depths +50
- Saturation between +10 and +20
- Gradient curve highlights +5, light midtones +10, dark midtones -5
- CA`s removed
- All other sliders untouched
- Export: Sharpening Monitor - Standard
This was my first test scene with the supertele. The weather was scary, but even in these difficult conditions I found the quality to be very good considering the circumstances.
Also taken on the first morning, also a difficult colour, but the noise in my eyes for Iso 3200 really usable and the details top.
These birds are not easy AF-wise, but with the eye tracking it worked very well. Here I looked from above on the display & tracked, finally it works reliably without looking through the viewfinder...
The high iso would not have been necessary here, however, I photographed before into a darker corner and the scene went very quickly.
I cut my teeth on this little rascal, but the light situation was very nice (this was this foggy Saturday morning at about -2° at the lake; because of the blue-gray color and the fog, the noise is noticeable at Iso 4000)
He was only there once for a few seconds and obviously wanted to support me with my Z9 test 😉
I have made some bird-in-flight-photos. Unfortunately with terrible backgrounds at the Ruhr Area lakes. This one is still the “one-eyed” one 😅. But for the tests I didn't want to go to the Nature Reserves, so I had a high flight frequency. This scene had impressed me - the geese fly really fast and the AF grabbed all over the way and tracked great. I deliberately chose this scene from the series, because the goose is actually already at the edge of the picture, in such situations the d850 sometimes likes to lose focus.
In similar scenes I still had some rejects, after all not 20 out of 20 frames per second were in the focus plane of the head. However, in the end, the Z9 still produced more sharp images in absolute numbers than the d850 could ever release per second.
In the very first morning light this great spotted woodpecker had a nice overview. Also here, a difficult background in terms of noise, which in my opinion stands well for Iso 2500.
Here I have briefly disturbed him at work - sorry!
The light was a bit harsher here and yet the dynamics even with this coot at high efficiency * was very good in my opinion.
For me personally, the increase in shutter speed is not really a relevant feature, but I wanted to try it out 😅
Here is a classic....
And last but not least; that’s the "noise" at very good light, for Iso 2500 details and noise are remarkable in my opinion.
So, I hope this "little insight” was interesting for you. One final remark: in my eyes, there are no pictures that you can't take with the d850, it is and remains a really strong camera. But with the Z9, a lot of things are more comfortable, faster and easier. This makes photography a little bit more fun for me and that's worth a lot.
I am now looking forward to the first sessions with beautiful light and wish you a good start of spring 👋