The Z9 is Nikon’s top-of-the-line mirrorless camera. I bought this camera at retail price from regular retail channels and have been using it alongside my Sony and Canon systems for over four months. In that time, I have traveled to Europe with it three times, to Alaska and Southern California from my home in the Yukon. Although the Z9 doesn’t have a shutter, if it did, the shutter count would be over 50,000 by now. In short, I have used this camera extensively.
Most of my work with the Z9 has concentrated on wildlife photography, and I have generally found it to perform exceptionally. Image quality is stunning, high ISO performance is about as good as any other camera I have ever tested, and the camera’s excellent ergonomics have made it my go-to choice when selecting gear from my closet over the past few months. All that said, the Z9 is not without issues, and one issue, in particular, has driven me crazy to the point of writing this post.
The Z9’s autofocus system is very good, and Nikon deserves additional credit for the rapid improvements they have pushed out through firmware updates since the camera’s launch. At the time of writing this, I’m using firmware v3.01. Those who used the camera with firmware v1.0 would have been underwhelmed with the camera’s subject detection and tracking capabilities. Still, there’s no denying these have been improved dramatically with v2.0 and v3.0. Since the earlier days of the Z9, I have seen a wider variety of subjects detected and stickier tracking of selected subjects, particularly with the 3D tracking mode engaged and erratic subjects approaching the edge of the frame. All good things, but there is a problem.
A recent trip to California was heavily focussed on wildlife and bird photography and gave me many hours to use the Z9 for photographing birds in flight. During this trip, it became apparent that the Z9 has an autofocus Achilles heel: White birds.
Time and time again, the Z9 would fail to acquire focus on white birds in flight. I could place the bird at the center of the frame, and no matter how much of that frame it filled, whether it be a quarter, half, two-thirds, or more, the camera would hunt for focus or select the background. In some cases, I would have birds circling around me in a way that allowed me to track a single bird, nearly filling the frame, for ten seconds or more. Over and over again, those situations would result in ZERO in-focus images. With the camera so obviously failing to find focus, I would usually not press the shutter button.
For birds in flight and most other types of wildlife photography, I usually set the Z9 up with Wide-area AF (L) mode on the back button and 3D tracking assigned to the middle of the three custom buttons on the front of the camera. These two quickly accessible AF modes work for 90% of my shooting. After suffering so many miserable failures photographing white birds, I experimented with Auto-area AF, which, like Wide-area (L) and 3D Tracking, still allows the Z9’s subject detection feature to work, but the the results were not improved.
At a loss, I even experimented with the Z9’s “dumb” Dynamic-area AF modes. These are similar to the AF area modes seen on Nikon’s old DSLRs like the D4 and D5, and they do not use subject detection at all. I hoped that giving the camera a little less to think about (process) would produce a slightly better success rate with these white birds. To a point, I do think this helped, but the keeper rate was still terrible, and I have rarely felt more frustrated by an AF system’s total refusal to perform.
Some will try and jump to the camera’s defense and tell me that phase detection autofocus systems will struggle due to the extremely wide dynamic range within the frame while photographing white birds on a less-than-white background. But here’s the thing: I also had a Sony a1 with me, and it nailed the focus on the same birds in the same lighting situation every time.
One of the benefits of shooting with Canon, Sony, and Nikon systems is that I often get to make direct in-the-field comparisons. After four months of shooting the Sony a1 alongside the Nikon Z9, it’s clear that the Z9’s AF system falls behind the a1 in almost all situations. The a1 finds more subjects with its subject tracking, it finds the eye on more subjects, it hangs onto fast-moving subjects better within the frame, and it better predicts the movement of subjects temporarily covered by foreground objects. The Z9’s AF is no slouch, but the a1 is better.
Before all the Nikon users lose their minds, remember I’m a Nikon user too! In the last twelve months, I invested nearly $20,000 into my Nikon system, so I don’t take any pleasure in discovering this. It’s just a fact. Secondly, despite rating the Sony a1’s AF system as more capable than the Z9, this isn’t the be-all and end-all. Since owning the Z9, I have still chosen to use it more often than my Sony a1 because a) I love the image quality, b) it’s a much nicer camera ergonomically, and c) the Z9 AF system is still about 85% as good as the Sony a1. In most situations, it gets the job done.
It has to be said, though, that when photographing white birds, particularly when they are flying, the Nikon Z9 sucks. There’s no other way to put it. I eventually ended up with some in-focus shots of these white birds with the Z9, but it took me far longer than it should have, and I missed better images due to the autofocus failings. If a rare and fleeting moment had happened with a white bird in front of me, I’m sure I would have missed it with this camera, and that’s disappointing to discover.