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One Year With the Nikon Z9

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After a year in my bag, it’s time for a recap of the first 12 months with the best camera I’ve ever owned.

Cameras are like relationships. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet a number of potential partners throughout your life. If you’re really lucky, you’ll meet someone who really “gets” you and is able to make your life better simply by them being around. Of course, the greater likelihood is that you’ll end up meeting a string of people who have most of what you’re looking for in a relationship, yet still lack two or three critical characteristics that keep them from being “the one.” Perhaps, you try to justify away these red flags. Maybe you feel like it’s better to have 51% of a good thing rather than holding out and running the risk of being alone. After all, nobody’s perfect, including ourselves, so to expect perfection from one’s mate is a fool’s errand. The best we can really hope for is someone who’s pros far outweigh the cons, and who make the world a better place to live.

But, sometimes, you get lucky.

I don’t want to give too much credit to a piece of technology. After all, it is just a tool at the end of the day. I was an artist before I bought the Z9. And I’ll be an artist long after this camera’s race has been run. But after engaging in what has felt at times like an excruciatingly long search over the last couple of years to find the right “partner” for my particular style of artistry, this last year spent with the Z9 has felt like I’ve finally found my way home.

This isn’t going to be a review so much as it will be an exploration of the many ways in which my somewhat knee-jerk decision to purchase the Z9 has paid off for me as a professional photographer and filmmaker. I won’t be retyping all the camera specs here. You can find that on a million and one different websites. Going back to my relationship analogy, great specs are kind of like initially seeing a potential mate and deciding whether you find them to be pretty or handsome. It’s important. But it’s hardly the whole picture. Far more important is what day-to-day life is like with them by your side. So, I’ll be talking far more about practicality than megapixels.

Nor is this essay an effort to get you to purchase a Z9. What I hope comes through in this essay is that the Z9 has proven to be the perfect fit for me. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the perfect fit for you. We all have our own unique set of needs, so what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily what’s good for the gander.

So, why has the Z9 been such a good fit for my workflow? Here are just a few of the ways my investment has paid off.

Streamlining My Equipment Needs

If you’ve ever read any of my previous articles, you are probably well aware that I am a long time Nikon-ian. From my very first digital camera, the Nikon D200, until today, my primary camera for still photography has always carried with it a Nikon badge. I’ve shot with pretty much every brand on the market. Partly, this is because, no matter how good a camera is, some jobs simply call for different tools. For instance, shooting a large-scale campaign which may require a medium format megapixel beast is impossible to keep in the family in the absence of a Nikon medium format option (although I’m finding medium format far less necessary these days).  

I also get a chance, because of my side hustle writing for this website, to test out pretty much every camera on the market that strikes my fancy. On more than one occasion, this has led to me falling in love with a camera or product from a non-Nikon source and adding it to my kit. So, I am far from immune to the charms of other brands and can genuinely see the benefits each brings to the table.

In addition to that, as my career has veered further and further back towards my origin as a filmmaker, my gear closet has also found itself overcrowded with more video first options in the form of larger cinema cameras or more video friendly options. Nikon is not nearly as established yet in the cinema world (although that has the potential to change with the Z9), so sometimes going with other brands is purely a matter of practicality.

All those things together meant that my gear closet was beginning to look like the United Nations of camera gear. A little of absolutely everything. This sounds fun in concept. But, in reality, it meant that I had to not only buy a bunch of different cameras, but also completely different sets of lenses, different sets of accessories, and learn entirely different menu systems from job to job. This was both expensive and a bit annoying.

Even with two Z9s now in hand, there are still jobs which require me to rent different camera systems. As a director and cinematographer, my jobs often predictably call for larger cinema cameras. And, as good as the Z9 is, some jobs simply need a bigger more dedicated system to fit with the needs of the production.

But what the Z9 has allowed me to do is to greatly cut down on the number of times I need to either rent additional gear or look outside of the Nikon ecosystem to accomplish the job at hand. Simply put, the Z9 can pretty much do everything. It’s got more than enough megapixels to handle 99% of my photography work. The autofocus in both still and video is amazing. This allows me to both cut down on time and often cut down on personnel on budgets with tight timetables and limited resources. 

It’s not a dedicated cinema camera, but, if we’re being honest, there is very little separating it from most cinema cameras in a similar price range. In fact, I have frequently been on jobs where I have a separate cinema camera system, but end up just using my Z9 instead because it was a more efficient tool for the job. When I do opt to rent a larger cinema camera system, it is often due to client expectations, the needs of my collaborators, or file requirements. But it’s rarely because the Z9 is incapable of doing the job at a very high level. So, on jobs where I am working solo or don’t have the budget to bring in an Alexa level system, I have absolutely no hesitation in shooting with the Z9.

It Has Proven Itself Again and Again

I made a promise to myself in January of this year. I was not going to let a lack of money stop me from making art. I’ve always been on the productive side of the ledger when it comes to launching projects. I’m not someone who takes no for an answer. If I want to make something, I’m going to find a way to make it.

But, in prior years, increasing creative aspirations and chronic financial restrictions have often led to me having projects ready to go that I simply can’t execute because of the resources required. In January of this year, my resolution was to simply create my art, no matter what. This meant that, even if I didn’t have the money to rent the camera, lights, gear, etc. that I might like, I was just going to find a way, by hook or by crook, to get the projects done with whatever tools I had in hand. 

This has led me to use the Z9 on everything from commercial campaigns, to personal fine art projects, to commercial advertising, to narrative film productions. You name it, I’ve shot it with the Z9 in the past 12 months.

But it was more than simply getting the productions done. When several of the films I created screened theatrically in various festivals alongside other movies shot with the best cameras from Arri, RED, and Sony, not once did I get even the smallest comment about my footage not being able to stack up to those other projects. In fact, more than likely I would get comments on how good the films looked quickly followed by questions of what system I used to shoot them. More than one well-established filmmaker was more than a little surprised to learn that the image they were admiring had come off of a Nikon Z9 and not one of the industry stalwarts.

This is, of course, not to say that those higher priced systems aren’t the bee’s knees. I would be more than happy to wake up this Christmas with an Alexa Mini LF under my tree (or at least the money to buy one). But the experience has confirmed for me the well-worn adage: it’s not the gear, it’s the artist. By repeatedly playing side-by-side with the best in the business, both in the still and video world, the camera proved to me that the gear already in my bag could get the job done. The only limitation was me.

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It Keeps Getting Better

It is common practice these days for pretty much all camera manufacturers to put out their products in one form, then add different features over time through firmware. The amount of difference between original form and firmware-updated model varies by the product. But very few cameras I’ve owned have improved so much since the initial release as my Z9.

This would be one thing if the originally released Z9 had a lot of bugs that needed fixing. But truthfully this wasn’t the case. Version one was already giving me everything I needed and then some. When firmware 2.0 came along and brought with it not only the promised Nikon raw video format but also waveforms, critical to any filmmaker, I was in hog heaven. When version 3.0 came along and started offering things like power zoom functions as well as a better way to synchronize timecode, I pretty much didn’t know what else to say.

Not to say that the camera is perfect. No camera is perfect. But it’s definitely reaching the point now where I genuinely don’t know much else they could put into the camera that isn’t already there.

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It Has Saved Me Money

I realize this is an odd thing to say about a $5,500 camera, but this camera has actually saved me money. How exactly? Well, the easiest point of comparison is the Canon R5. I love the R5. I owned it for a couple years, and it shot a lot of great images and films for me. So, to be 100% clear, this is not meant as bashing of the R5. That camera is absolutely great. But since it was one of the cameras that I owned personally and used a great deal prior to getting my Z9, it makes for an apt comparison.

As I stated, the R5, which, at $3,900, comes in $1,600 cheaper than the Z9, was an amazing workhorse. But it had one major flaw. It overheated. Not a lot. But, it seemed as though it always overheated at the exact wrong moment. And, for me at least, it always seemed to overheat in situations where I didn’t expect heat to be a problem: shooting stills, on not-so-hot days. Again, it didn’t happen a lot. But it did happen, even after the latest firmware updates. So, I always had in the back of my mind that my camera might stop at any time. Even though this might not be the case. So, it gave me one more unnecessary thing to worry about on set.

This problem was fixable. If I mounted an external recorder for all things video, it seemed to solve the problem. But that causes two new problems. One, it took away the system’s size advantage, because I now had to account for the gangly monitor attached to the top (or rig it up completely). And two, this meant I had to spend a lot more money to purchase a monitor and the relevant accessories. I did find a way to get the R5 to suit my needs on demanding production days. But doing so virtually eliminated the convenience factors and costs factors suggested by the initially lower purchase price.

The Z9, in comparison, has everything I needed in one piece. Yes, it’s bigger and more expensive. But I don’t need to buy anything else, so the costs don’t multiply. It never overheats, even when shooting 8K for hours on end. And the battery life is phenomenal. I can shoot an entire day with one or two batteries on a normal video production (endlessly for stills). With most cameras, I would have to rig up a V-mount power solution which only further adds to subsequent costs. With the Z9, it’s pretty much set to go with limited interference.

Besides power and monitoring, the camera’s ability to record multiple internal formats also gives it a major advantage. For my own films, I prefer the Nikon raw video format. But some clients are using editing systems or workflows which make that impractical. Fortunately, since day one, the camera has been able to record ProRes 4:2:2 internally. So there is a ready-made format for clients where you are simply going to shoot it, hand it off, and go on about your life without having to worry about compatibility issues. And again, all this comes without having to buy any additional accessories.

Ultimately, the camera saved me the most money because it afforded me the opportunity to sell off many of my other cameras. Because the camera is so capable of doing everything that I personally require to do my job, I no longer needed to travel to set with so many disparate systems. So, I could sell off the R5 and turn it into more Z glass for the Z9. I even sold off an older cinema camera because I no longer needed it for run and gun jobs. That’s not to say I don’t still rent other systems when the job calls for it. But it does limit the number of cameras I need to personally own and maintain. I may still choose to use or keep a different system. But now, it’s a choice to keep them, rather than a requirement imposed due to something lacking in my main system.

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What About Stills?

If you aren’t someone who cares about video, you might have found my essay to this point a bit heavy on the filmmaking discussion. Since that’s a big part of what I do, it’s hard for me to avoid that part of the conversation. But it also seems that the discussion of why the Nikon Z9 is great for stills is a far shorter explanation. It’s a Nikon.

As I said, I’ve been using Nikon cameras for my still photography for twenty years. It’s safe to say that I like the image that their cameras produce. My decision to move on from the greatest DSLR ever made, the Nikon D850, had absolutely zero to do with image quality. Rather, I needed better video production capabilities in the same body as my still shooter.

But, just in case you get the idea that I no longer am using the Z9 to shoot stills, think again. In the last 12 months I’ve shot more award-winning still images than ever before. This is not to say that the images were better because of the camera. But my enjoyment and ease with shooting this particular camera allowed me to be more comfortable and creative. For both personal and professional purposes, I haven’t felt the need or desire to pick up any other cameras when choosing to take pictures in earnest. I did purchase a Z fc for portability and fashion choices. But, the Z9 is simply a no-brainer when money is on the line.

More than individual specs and even practical advantages like autofocus speed, the Z9 has proven itself to be efficient and dependable as a still shooter. It fits perfectly in my hand. This might differ for you depending on your hand size. But, for me, the larger body is exactly what I wanted and feels incredibly comfortable over a long shoot. The aforementioned autofocus speed is a big upgrade in my opinion. Although I can’t say focus has ever really been a problem for me with previous Nikon systems. But, because the Z9 makes focusing so easy, it frees me up to focus on creativity as I can trust the camera to hold focus where I need it.

I won’t drone on too much about stills simply because the answer is straight and to the point. It gets the job done like a Nikon should. It does it dependably and without complaint. It gets out of the way and just lets you be creative. And, after all, isn’t that what we ultimately want out of our tools of the trade?  

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Can The Camera Still Get Better?

Of course the Z9 can get better. I’m not 100% sure how. But Nikon has surprised me so much to this point that I can’t wait to see what they do next. I think most of the ways in which Nikon can improve aren’t the type of things that can be addressed via firmware and might be more a matter of building out the surrounding system. Being a filmmaker, I personally would love to see a big body cinema camera from Nikon that would have the same basic imaging capabilities but in a form factor a little more common to film production sets. Maybe call it a ZV9 or something like that. Likewise, they could do a smaller low-light beast version similar to something like Sony’s a7S III. Neither of those options would replace the Z9, but rather complement it and help build out the system.

With the current Z9, I would like to see the addition of false color in a future firmware update for exposure in video. I’d also like to see them continue to increase their timecode options via Bluetooth. They addressed this a bit in the last firmware update. Would like to see them continue in that direction. With the MC-N10 grip accessory, I see they are starting to add more accessories. This too will be key to growing the system.

As you can probably gather from the above monologue, I am really happy with my decision to purchase the Z9 a year ago. Truthfully, when I first placed the order, I wasn’t 100% sure that I even needed the camera and everything it had to offer. It was more of an impulse buy for later reconsideration. But, after having mine for a year now (and purchasing a second one almost immediately), I truly have found a camera that I expect to be my workhorse for many years to come. No more need for constantly watching camera reviews in search of something that can help me do my job better. I’ve found what I need. And that is the most valuable thing of all.

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