The Nikon Z9 Has a Problem for Bird Photographers

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.

The Nikon Z9 can be a competent performer with some birds, but it has an Achilles heel.

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.

Nikon Z9 + Z 800mm lens. 1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 1400.
Pelican beak details in flight. Nikon Z9 + Z 800mm lens. 1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 1600.

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.

Not a shot in this sequence was in focus.

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.

Nope. That’s a fail.

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.

Nope again.
Nope, nope, nope. I would have had thousands of examples, except it was so obvious that most of the shots were completely out of focus I never pressed the shutter button.

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.

Even gulls with black wing tips and speckled feathers usually defeated the Z9’s autofocus system, with simple shots like this ring-billed gull feeling like pure luck when there were finally in focus. Nikon Z9 + Z 800mm. 1/5000, ISO 1100, f/6.3.

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.

This shot of royal terns in southern California was far harder to get than it should have been. Nikon Z9 + Nikon Z 800mm. 1/5000, iso 1250, f/6.3.
Royal tern. Nikon Z9 + Nikon Z 800mm. 1/3200, iso 640, f/6.3.

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.

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Professional photographer based in Yukon, Canada, and founder of Shutter Muse. His editorial work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as Nike, Apple, Adobe and Red Bull.

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6 thoughts on “The Nikon Z9 Has a Problem for Bird Photographers”

  1. I find it interesting that you think the Z9 ergonomics are better. Many I talk to feel opposite, that the Sony A1 +grip still feels better in their hands, along with better button placement and superior customizablity.
    I will also note that Mark Smith Photography has also made similar comments about the Z9 AF being inferior to both the Sony A1 and Canons latest R5/R3. Right now I’d say the A1 +600GM are still king when it comes to birding/wildlife. Getting the job done for $20k doesn’t seem like a good investment to me… I’d expect a lot more. But that’s me

    • Ergonomics will always be something of a personal thing. Hand size and finger length play into these things, and we’re all different there. While I agree that button customization is better on the a1, this is also something Nikon has worked on through the v2 and v3 firmware updates. You can customize a lot more than you used to be able to on the Z9. The three custom buttons on the front of the Z9 are also a huge bonus. You can assign three different AF modes to these buttons if you want. The Sony a1 has zero buttons on that part of the camera. To me, the Z9 feels right in my hand. The Sony a1 isn’t bad in this regard; I just happen to prefer the size and shape of the Z9, as well as the fact that it has way more buttons.

      As for “getting the job done” perhaps you have taken this statement more negatively than was intended. When you buy a professional tool for a professional job, you hope it gets the job done with no fuss. The Z9 does, in all but a small number of niche cases. Most shots are in focus, full of detail, with good dynamic range, and exhibiting low noise. I’m not sure what “expect a lot more” can look like when a camera can tick all those boxes on most days, so I think perhaps my turn of phrase was poorly chosen. I certainly don’t want people who are heavily invested in the Nikon system to think the Z9 is no good suddenly. It’s a great camera! That said, I agree the gold standard for birds and wildlife is still the Sony a1 and 600mm GM. I was also testing the new a7R V in California, and Sony’s new AI AF system is otherwordly. When that comes to an a1 II, it will blow people away.

    • Not really. But here’s the thing: If I wanted to show you videos that made the AF look flawless with white birds, I could do that. It would take me a long time to get one, but give me half an hour and enough white birds flying around, and eventually, the camera would lock on, and I’d get a shot that made it look like the AF was flawless. Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest problems with the internet and to a large extent, content from many YouTubers. It’s incredibly easy to make things look better than they are, simply by only showing the “good bits”. So that’s one potential explanation.

      Another potential explanation is that the Z9’w bird detection is simply better with owls for some reason. The camera doesn’t treat all birds the same. It’s great with eagles, good with pelicans but poor with swans, where the long-necked profile seems to confuse it. That’s something the Sony a9 II used to struggle with too, so it’s not uncommon. All that is to say that it could also simply be an issue with small white birds, and not just white birds.

      Thirdly, there are undoubtedly lighting situations where this issue will be better and worse. It seemed to be particularly bad when the birds were in full sun. Of course, it can then be a combination of all these things. All I can do is report my findings honestly.

  2. Have experienced a similar problem, not a completely white bird but a rather light coloured short eared owl head on. Often not a problem, but when flying low over contrasty grass and with contrasty trees in the background in low sunlight (from behind), the AF seemed to struggle a lot. Had to lower the lens and focus on the grass below and then up on the owl again. Experimented with Dynamic Area modes, 3D, and the usual Wide-Area modes but half the time without the expected quick focus acquiring. To me the problem is white or almost white birds in combination with complicated backgrounds. A darker bird or a brown hare in the same surroundings and lighting didn’t give focus problems to me.


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