Nikon Z 9 and Z 800 Review

So now it is 2021.  Nikon is behind again (sound familiar?).  Sony has launched their market disrupting flagship A1 in April, and Canon their flagship R3 end November.  I get an invitation to a pre-launch Nikon Z9 presentation and hands-on trial in mid-November.  After the demo I immediately walked over to a camera store and place a pre-order.  Lucky me, I picked up my Z9 on first day of availability, Dec 24 and the Z800 on its first day of availability, April 21.

With a stacked sensor, fast processor, and 45 megapixels, blackout free viewfinder, class leading video, cutting edge autofocus, and an industry first … shutterless operation, Nikon has a product which is more than competitive with anything on the market, and better than most.  There are so many innovative features Nikon has brought to market with the Z9, the best the Internet trolls could do was say Nikon must be desperate!

The first thing to say about the Z9 is that it is a sea change, especially with respect to autofocus. When mounted with any of your older f mount telephoto lenses, they all work better.  They all work well with teleconverters.  Focusing with lens and TC combinations darker than f5.6 or even f8 is no longer an issue as it could be in the DSLR era.  They don’t need fiddly calibration.  It is stunning, just mount any of your older lenses and you should be able to appreciate the difference right away.  In particular one of my favorite lens, the 500PF just works so well with the Z9.  Nikon sold a lot of 500PF lens, and I see in the community that lots of folks have upgraded to the Z9.

Autofocus is one of the most difficult topics to talk about because it is so hard to measure.  Several reviewers take pictures of their pet dog running around in the yard and say they got 98% in focus shots.  But this doesn’t tell me much.  I don’t take pictures of dogs running around in my yard (no yard).  I take pictures of small birds often in the dark and dense tropical rainforest. 

The Nikon D5 and D6 (I skipped the D6) were the best focusing cameras Nikon had made until the Z9.  The D500 was close.  But the Z9 is so much better it leaves the D5 and D500 trailing in the dust.  I can easily say that the Z9 and Z800 are the best bird photography combo I’ve ever used; and the Z9 and 500PF the best if you want something a bit more portable.  

Now for some comments on specific aspects of the system as it pertains to bird photography.

Z9 Overview.  The Z9 is hardly Nikon’s first mirrorless camera.  The Z7 and Z6 introduced back in 2018 were.  But neither excelled at bird photography.  And neither did the Canon R also introduced in 2018, it didn’t even have IBIS.  The Z9 is the industry’s first pro level high megapixel camera (true pro body and high megapixels).  The Sony A1 doesn’t have the body, and the Canon R3 doesn’t have the pixels.  Plus, it is a “do everything” camera, from landscape to action.

Z9 Sensor.  The sensor is clearly a Nikon design.  And it is Nikon’s first stacked sensor.  Not sure why Nikon took so long to get into stacked sensors, Sony had one in the A9 back in 2017.  Nikon has done some things differently than Sony has.  For one, the ISO tuning is different, and two, the read-out speed is fast enough to eliminate the need for a mechanical shutter.  For me, this is a pretty big deal.  Less to wear out, no vibration.  Sooner or later, every camera will be shutterless, and Nikon was first.

Z9 Noise Performance.  If you want a good comparative review of the noise performance of todays (and yesterdays) cameras, try Bill Claff’s website, link at the end of this article.  Basically, the Z9 has excellent noise performance, state of the art you could say.  However, noise performance isn’t the only factor contributing to action photography.  One big factor is color fidelity.  I have found in many prior Nikon cameras, as the ISO gets higher, color starts to drift.  Not so with the Z9, color holds true.  This means that when you denoise an image you don’t have to fiddle with the color.  I have processed and posted good images up to ISO36,000.  But one demerit point, Nikon in its effort to make the Z9 a “do everything” camera has tuned the ISO performance to give ISO64 the greatest dynamic range, at the slight cost of poorer high ISO performance.  I wish they hadn’t done that.  The Z9 is an action camera, who is going to lug a heavy pro body around to take landscape photos?

Z9 Viewfinder.  I was surprised at how much I liked the viewfinder.  I really like the optical viewfinder of the D5, but Z9 is the new pro body on the block.  The viewfinder does exactly what I want it to do, big bright, it lets me compose the image as I want.  And the eye relief is excellent.  I wear glasses, and this is the first Nikon camera that I feel comfortable looking through the viewfinder with glasses.  Now some will say (are these paid trolls) that the viewfinder is a deal breaker for them since it is not high enough resolution to critically review images for optimum sharpness.  The Nikon viewfinder is 3.69M dots, the Canon R3 is 5.76M dots, the Sony A1 is 9.44M dots.  While the Nikon is the lowest resolution viewfinder of the three, it does the job for me.  I don’t review images through the viewfinder for critical sharpness, I wait until I get home and review the images on my 32 inch, calibrated, 4K, 10bit monitor.  I come from the film era, where you reviewed your images a week or two later when you got your film back.  For me, chimping images is a waste of time, I would rather spend that time getting ready for the next shot.

Z9 Robustness.  The Z9 is a pro body, built to take an occasional knock, and weather sealed to take a bit of rain.  Both Nikon and Canon have a long history of building rugged pro bodies.  Can’t say the same thing for Sony, who have none.  And being a pro body, it comes with the big battery which is good for all day, or even several days.

Z9 Memory Set.  The Z9 can save and recall as many focal length distances as you wish, at least until you run out of function buttons to save them to.  I suppose this might be useful for shooting sports, I don’t find it too useful for birds.  But I do save the closest focal distance which can help when shooting close birds in case the camera locked on the background.  Unfortunately, the camera forgets whatever you have saved if you dismount the lens and body.  For me, for birds, a better implementation would be to have two predefined positions, closest focus, and infinity, and presumably the camera would know what these are and won’t forget if you dismount the body and camera.

Z9 Focus Options.  Now here is where things get interesting, and a lot of Internet chat is debated, and authors sell several e-guides to explain.  Broadly speaking you have 5 autofocus modes to choose from, and a few sub selections.  Single Point, Dynamic Area (S, M, L), Wide Area AF (S, L, C1, C2), 3D-Tracking and Auto-area AF.  They are all spelled out in the various Nikon manuals.  3D-Tracking and/or Auto-area AF sound like Manna from Heaven, but they just don’t work for little songbirds hiding in the rain forest.  So, I use the other three modes, toggling between one or the other depending on which works best.  I have them programmed on different function buttons, honestly it doesn’t matter which ones, it is just a matter of preference, but I’ll mention what I do.  I have Single Point on the Shutter-release button, I use this more often when I am really trying to dig the bird out from the weeds (or twigs).  Then I used Wide Area AF (Custom 1) on the back AF-ON button.  Wide Area AF allows two custom user programable area selections, it is a cool feature.  I use one programmable square larger vertically and horizontally than Wide Area AF Large.  This is my preferred focus mode with decent light and contrast and a bird perching or flying.  Of course, I have eye-AF set for animal and in good light the system is uncanny and picks up the eye readily.  And lastly, I used Dynamic Area Small.  This was my favorite focus mode on the D5.  I use this when the bird is in a bit of clutter, and Single Point isn’t getting it.  I have this on the “Sub-selector” button of the small joystick. Which function buttons you program for which functions is entirely user preference. Of course, in all modes I’ll use AF-C but that should be obvious, birds move.

Z9 Auto Focus Sensitivity.  The Z9 spec is -8.5 to +20 EV, the R3 is -7.5 to +20EV, the A1 is -4 to +20EV.  So, the Nikon is looking good for low light.

Z9 Recall Shooting Functions.  I don’t like the memory banks, or even have much use for them.  What most bird photographers want is some way to quickly capture a bird that was perching and has now taken flight.  Of course, the 120-fps pre-roll is one tool.  More importantly is Recall Shooting Functions, with one button press you can switch to a high-speed shutter and other parameters you’d want for birds in flight.  The only nit is that you cannot change from VR Normal to VR Sport using this function.  Too bad, it is software programmable anyway, hope Nikon includes this in the future.

Z9 Connectivity Options.  Finally, Nikon now includes true WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS, rather than nickel and diming you for add-ons.  Too bad, Google now requires software companies to pay for lookups to Google Maps.  It used to be that you could see a nice map view of all the places you had taken photographs, but no more, not with Google.

Z9 and Z800 Budget Choice.  A focal length of 800mm is very popular for bird photography.  There are lots of ways you can get there.  With budget and weight no object, you’d probably buy a 600mm f/4 lens and add a 1.4TC.  Over the years, I have owned two 600mm lenses, and one 500mm lens.  I guess 90% of the time a 1.4TC was “welded” onto the lens.  So not having f/4 is not much of a disadvantage.  Now the Z9 and Z800 is the most handholdable and affordable choice.  Of course, options exist from Sony and Canon for even lighter weight and lower cost.  One option from Nikon is the 500PF with a 1.7TC.  I’ve used it a lot, before the Z800 became available and it works great!

Z9 Memory Cards.  Get fast memory cards.  Nikon specs some insane number of raw captures with memory cards they recommend, but these cards are expensive.  I use a pair of Delkin Black CFExpress 150GB cards, which are a bit less, but just as fast.  Look for the minimum write speed spec, the Delkins have a minimum of 1530MB/s write speed.  Pay no attention to the maximum write speed.  I use Nikon’s new High Efficiency Raw format, I don’t see any difference to Lossless Compressed, and I do enjoy the smaller file sizes.

Z800 Handhold-ability.  This was one of my most important criteria in selecting this lens.  It is the lightest weight of all the bright exotic telephoto lenses on the market, albeit sacrificing 1/3 stop of light (f/6.3).  Its design with the Fresnel element puts the weight towards the back end of the lens so it is very comfortable to hold and balances nicely in your hands.  Almost anyone who picks up the lens will notice how comfortable it is to hold.  Handholding any lens grants you the ability to quickly react to changing wildlife situations.  And handholding allows you to fit in with the ever-increasing number of photographers in the field.  I wish everyone who is medically able would handhold their camera rig and gone would be the day that some would put their tripod mounted rig down in the best spot for hours at a time.

Z800 Tripod Foot.  I’m not going to complain about the lack of Arca Swiss compatible groves in the foot, none of the big 3 camera manufactures have this, no idea why, but it is easy enough to buy an inexpensive adapter plate.  I like the supplied foot; it is padded, and I can comfortably carry the lens and body by the foot when rotated to the top.  I rarely use the lens mounted on a tripod, just three times so far in 6 months of ownership.  Once when photographing a bird coming repeatedly back to a predictable location (nest); and twice when photographing birds feeding on distant fruiting trees.  And none of those times with other photographers around so I wasn’t interfering with anyone.  I might also use a tripod for very low light situations, but so far, the excellent vibration reduction and high ISO capabilities have been sufficient.

Z800 Manual Focus Ring.  Nikon has included a nice big smooth focus ring.  This is apparently mechanically linked rather than focus by wire because it is accurate.  The problem is its location.  I prefer to handhold the lens with the tripod foot rotated up so I can hold the lens barrel further forward for better balance.  However, holding the lens barrel further forward, I can not reach the focus ring.  With the tripod foot rotated down and holding the lens by the tripod foot I can reach the focus ring, but now I cannot reach the “L-Fn2” buttons.  Of course, if you have mounted the lens on a tripod then you can easily reach both the focus ring the “L-Fn2” buttons, but the lens is marketed as a handholdable lens.  This design is baked into the lens unfortunately, I’d have to give this some slight minus marks.

Z800 L-Fn2 Buttons.  Four buttons arranged at 90 degrees apart around the forward lens barrel, that can be programmed to a wide range of tasks (but only one task, all four buttons act the same).  Very useful.  Thank you, Nikon, if you can reach them (see above).

Z800 Control Ring.  A new feature Nikon has introduced which can be programmed to adjust a limited set of options.  But unless the lens is mounted on a tripod, it is too easy to bump the Control Ring and get unwanted changes to your settings, so I have mine programmed to no operation.  Full minus marks for this one.

Z800 Memory Set Button.  Despite its label, the memory set button is just another programmable button that you can select for a wide variety of functions, but I think it is best left to memory set for focus distance.  This control you can reach (barely) with you right index finger (if you are right-handed).

Z800 L-Fn Button.  Another programmable button, it is set way too far back to reach if you are handholding the lens.  I have it set to Virtual Horizon so nothing bad happens if I accidentally bump it.

Z800 Focus Limit Switch.  Just a 2-position focus limiter, infinity to 10m or infinity to 5m.  Long gone are the days Nikon had a 3-position focus limiter with the third setting being for working with close distances.  Both Canon and Sony have this feature.  Minus marks for Nikon doing away with this.

Z800 Focus Mode Switch.  Just a basic auto focus or manual focus switch.  Gone is the A/m M/a M switch found in many prior Nikkors.  Same for the new 400TC.  Regardless of switch setting you can override auto focus by adjusting the focus ring.  This new design is fine with me.

Z800 Lens Hood.  Nikon had to save some cost somewhere, so this is just a functional plastic lens hood which attaches easily.  It’s not the carbon fibre hood found on the 400TC with black flocking on the interior of the hood.  For me, this is fine.

Z800 Front Cap.  A synthetic material cover with a fiddly draw string, I gave up on the draw string.

Z800 What is Missing.  The main thing that is missing (for me) is the lack of a physical switch to Set VR OFF, Sport, Normal as found on many prior Nikon lenses.  This is also missing in the new 400TC.  You can only set it via software from the Z9.  So, I have it as the top menu item on the i-menu.  Wish it were on a switch, some minus marks for lack of this feature.  The Z800 is also missing a couple of coatings that are on the 400TC, although I doubt this is going to make much difference.  It is also missing a lot of cost, it is about ½ price of most other high end lens alternatives, strong plus point.

Z800 Sharpness.  Not much to say here but that the Z800 is very sharp, but then it is also true with all other high-end computer designed long lenses are also very sharp.  The MTF charts are all available on-line, so far there is one Imatest result on-line (that I can find).  I expect a few more will follow.  I doubt any reviewer would be able to see the difference between high end exotic lenses.  This is no reason not to use the Z800 at maximum aperature.

Z800 Teleconverters.  For me the 800PF works fine with the Z TC1.4.  Still good color, contrast, and sharpness.  It also works with the Z TC2.0, but there aren’t enough situations that I anticipate using this, so I didn’t add one to my kit.

Z800 Vibration Reduction.  Rated at 5 stops from lens alone, and 5.5 stops with the Z9, I find the VR to be very effective.  I can get a very high percentage of keepers at 1/50 second, and then less at lower shutter speeds.  According to reviews, this is on par with Canon, and better than Sony who doesn’t spec their long lens!  Nikon’s industry first in omitting the mechanical shutter also contributes to vibration free performance.  The D500 which was (and still is) a great camera, I often found the first shot in a series of shots was the sharpest, before the shutter vibration started to affect the subsequent shots.

Z800 Lens Bag.  This has been a staple of Nikon’s exotic lenses line since the introduction of 200-400VR in 2003.  It’s been able to house the 200-400VR, 500E, 600E, 400TC, and now the Z800.  With the Z800, both the Z9 camera body and mounted Z1.4TC and lens can readily fit in the camera bag, and it’s airplane ready.  It is very convenient to carry, but I wish it had two shoulder straps for longer hikes.  It has been so convenient that now Canon is buying this case from the same vendor (I imagine) and providing it with their newer lenses.

Z800 PF Flare.  All exotic lenses are subject to some flare if pointed into a light source, that’s why they all have a long lens hoods.  Fresnel lens, of which the Nikon Phase Fresnel and Canon Diffraction Optics are similar technology will also suffer from some loss of contrast when pointed into a bright light source.  It is the nature of the beast.  Nikon has done a good job to mitigate this, and I’ve not found this to be a serious issue when shooting birds in bad light, like we often must.

Z800 Minimum Focus Distance.  All prime lenses have a minimum focusing distance, with longer focal length lens have a longer minimum focusing distance.  Again, this is the nature of the beast, optics.  All except the Canon 800RF lens, which is based on a 400mm lens with a 2x TC built in.  This will create other issues, such as the MTF being better than the Canon.  Most bird photographers will go for a 600mm lens with 1.4TC (if they have the budget).  The Sony minimum focus distance is 4.5m, and Canon 4.2m, this is not that much different from the Z800 at 5m.  You just need to stand back a bit further. You will quickly adapt to that.

Nikon Phase Fresnel Line Up.  Nikon’s Fresnel lenses series, the 300PF, 500PF and Z800 have been very successful for them, and very popular with bird photographers.  Lightweight, excellent image quality, and nothing comparable from the competition.  It will be interesting to see whether Sony or Canon are forced by their customers to come up with something to match.  It is unfortunate that more Z800’s aren’t available for sale.  Nikon is having the same supply and demand issue they had with the 500PF, but eventually they will catch up with demand.  I would expect Nikon to continue adding to their Fresnel line up.  I will hold up my hand for a Z600 f/5.6.

Z Who Should Upgrade?  Good question!  If money is no object, and you want the best handholdable bird photography camera currently on the market, buy a set!  But money is not inconsequential.  If you already have a top-of-the-line Canon or Sony system, I think it is less likely you will be motivated to switch.  However, if you have an older system and are looking to upgrade, I suggest the Nikon should be one you consider.  But if you are already a Nikon user, the upgrade path is clear.  And if you have a 500PF lens laying around, you should snatch a Z9 straightaway!

Not Rocket Science.  There is so much marketing hyperbole in the camera business it can be hard to tell what is true or not.  Simply put, cameras are not rocket science.  This is not like the American space program when in 1969 America put a man on the moon and to date, no other nation has been able (or willing) to do so.  The Japanese camera companies all hire from the same talent pool (and likely hire from each other).  If one camera company comes out with a new feature, it is certain that the other camera companies can match that if the wish to.  The camera business will continue to be a game of leapfrog.  Nikon is not the biggest camera company nor in the enviable position of having the most brand recognition that they once had, but then neither is Ferrari the biggest car company, and yet they still make high performance cars.

What’s for the Future.  I’m sure Nikon will come out with a lighter weight body than the Z9 which will pair well with the Z800.  This will make an even more compelling portable bird photography setup.  But I didn’t want to wait.  Later, I may add some photos to this blog to illustrate some of the things I’ve discussed, but that’s for the future.

Some Z Reviews:

Natural Art Images: Brad Hill: Field Tests: 10 Days With the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 VR S

Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S review | Digital Camera World

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR Review – Performance | ePHOTOzine

Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S Review: In a Class of Its Own | PetaPixel

Nikon Z9 Review (

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