The highly debatable topic of what is the best camera is, at this moment, a relatively easy choice with the Nikon Z9. Yes, yes and yes, a choice like this is highly dependent on what one defines as “the best.” But if you were to gather the opinions of knowledgeable experts in the field of photography as to what is the best camera on the market today, the Nikon Z9 would win the day.
Put together a series of tests or spec sheet comparisons or personal opinions, and the Z9 is either going to be at the top or at the very least, near the top of each category. I can easily pick out a number of individual features where is not the best, but that’s not the point. Looking at the big picture, the Z9 is going to come out on top in most any competition. The Z9 is fantastic, likely the very best camera available today, and that means possibly the best camera ever, at least for this moment.
Now that I’ve placed the Z9 on the highest of pedestals, let’s see what this really means to the photographer using it.
In preparing my Nikon Z9: Complete Camera Guide I’ve gotten to know the camera very, very well. I’ve explored the menus looking for hidden gems, I’ve tested it in the studio, and I took it for a good old road trip. Yes, of course, it’s an enjoyable camera to use, with fantastic results. It might even be the “best” camera I’ve ever used, but that may not matter as much as you think it would.
Nikon Z 9, Nikor Z 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 @ 270MM | f/5.6 | 1/320 sec | ISO 125
A full bodied camera
The full-bodied shape with integrated vertical grip makes for a solid chunk of a camera. The extra real estate offers ample space for the buttons and dials, making for a comfortable work environment for your hands. When you are serious about shooting, it’s a tool that you’ll be happy to have with you. As I’ve mentioned previously about the Canon R3, both in class and the blog, a vertical grip is great for many reasons.
From my first days in photography, I’ve always thought that, ideally, one should never be held back by inferior gear. I don’t mind being bested by others with superior skills or knowledge, but getting left behind due to poor quality tools is down right frustrating. To be sure – there are very few things that the Z9 will hold you back from.
Nikon Z 9, nikkor Z 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 @ 400MM | f/5.6 | 1/800 sec | ISO 200
To be perfectly honest, the Z9 is more than I need on a regular basis. The desire for shooting 45 megapixel RAW images at a rate of 20 fps, is not currently in my “must have category.” Then again it’s not something most photographers would find regular use for. It is however one of those features that opens the door to new opportunities for those looking to push the envelope.
Nikon Z9 vs Sony A1
Perhaps the closest competitor to the Z9 is Sony’s flagship model the A1. Both are technical marvels coming at the same market with a different approach. The smaller body of the Sony A1 is highly desirable to the traveler in me. With new tours on the horizon, I’m not sure what system I’ll take with me on future tours, but the Z9 is not likely to be it.
I’d be happy to travel with the Z9 for a professional shoot where I’m getting paid for my photos. I’d of course want a back up, or two and a good collection of lenses, which likely means I also need a sherpa. This is fine with me if I’m being compensated, but it’s not how I travel when I’ve got other priorities.
Nikon Z 9, Nikkor Z 14-30mm F/4 @ 24MM | f/8 | 13 sec | ISO 64
For personal travels, and JGP photo tours, I want enough equipment to fit my needs and keep me happy. My photography tour of Bhutan in 2019 was with a couple of Fujifilm cameras (1.5x crop) and I couldn’t have been happier with the process or the results. Small enough to carry two cameras at a time meant less lens swapping, faster shooting and less schlepping of bags. As tour leader, personal photography is second on my list of priorities, followed by eating and sleeping. Free time for me to shoot comes and goes quickly between making sure everything is right for everyone else. Less gear and less fuss makes for quality quick photos.
Fujifilm X-T3, Fujifilm XF 50-140MM F/2.8 @ 90MM | f/2.8 | 1/400 sec | ISO 400
In theory the Z9 would capture superior images to the Fujifilm, but style and process must be factored in. The extra image quality is nice, but do I need it? I used a Fujifilm X-E1 and X-E2 (16MP) on my first Cuba photography tour and came back with many wonderful images, one of which which is printed at 24”x36” (610 x 914mm) and looks fantastic. The “extra” 29MP of the Z9 would certainly have helped, but I honestly can’t imagine being any happier with the image I did get.
Nikon Z9 vs OM System OM-1
This is not a comparison than I thought I’d be making – but let’s see where this takes us. Prior to shooting with the Z9 I was shooting a lot with the OM System OM-1 for my class on it. What the Z9 and OM-1 share in common is that they’re both flagship products from companies that are focused on photography. Both seem to come from project managers with the same plan, “let’s give it everything we’ve got.”
OM System OM-1, Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8 @ 62MM | f/4 | 1/250 sec | ISO 200
I’ve captured equally satisfying images from both cameras for my own needs. If I was competing with others, for a job or clients, I could see a strong case for the Z9. For my own personal creative endeavors, the OM-1 and its lightweight quality lenses simplify the shooting process.
Yes the Z9 will out-spec the OM-1 and will out perform it in a number of extreme cases; that’s expected with a 2.7:1 price ratio. In a straight up real world competition between the two, the better photos will likely come from the one with a better operator at the controls.
Nikon Z 9, Nikkor Z 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 @ 340MM | f/10 | 1/250 sec | ISO 100
The key to the right camera
I think the real key is finding the camera that fits your needs and style. This is a big part of the message I try to get across in my annual free Camera Buyer’s Guide. It’s not about determining the best camera, it’s finding the right one for you and how you use it. If you’re like me, and adaptable to several styles of shooting, you can get by with almost anything. For many people, finding the right camera first requires an understanding of how you partake in photography and what you value.
The perfect camera will likely be a moving target. As you grow and change as a photographer, and that’s the case if you’re doing it right, your needs and desires will also change. And as the photographic market evolves, your ideal camera will also be changing.
Does the Z9 make you a better photographer? Most likely not. It may challenge you, it may open up new opportunities, or provide you with a higher percentage of “keepers.” It won’t instantly transform you. If you can grow into it’s capabilities, it may lead to an improvement to your photography over time.
Working with the “best” is nice, but working with what’s right for you and your photography is more important.
Nikon Z 9, Nikkor Z 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 @ 170MM | f/11 | 1/15 sec | ISO 125
Can you buy skill?
I’m a member of many Facebook photography groups. I rarely post anything, but I love keeping watch for interesting topics. A recent post struck me rather strongly. A photo of a large collection of professional gear, worth about $25,000, and a question about what was going wrong and why the photographer wasn’t getting good photos of his son’s baseball games. The photo of the gear and the accompanying example photos from the baseball game made for an interesting juxtaposition.
I don’t know the real story of the person behind the post, but I’ve met similar people from my years in the camera store. It’s an age old story of money that can purchase tools but not skill. Facebook groups focused on a system, camera, or lens are great for troubleshooting specific issues. Crowdsourcing is highly effective at finding certain types of answers. However, developing a new skill is going to require time, effort, and accessing quality information; not likely easily acquired in fractionally small bits and pieces.
I’m not going to throw this individual completely under the bus. This post of theirs might have been only one of a hundred ways that they are working to improve their sports photography skills. But it brings to mind my time with the Z9.
Working with the best, didn’t make me a better photographer, but it didn’t hold me back either. The question of whether it challenged me to become better, or offered opportunities to improve is still outstanding. Perhaps I need more time in the field with the Z9. Yes, most definitely I’d like some more time with the Z9.
Nikon Z 9, Nikkor Z 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 @ 100MM | f/11 | 1/50 sec | ISO 64
Become part of John’s inner circle
Sign up for the newsletter here — it’s free.
Want to become a better photographer?
Check out John’s selection of photography and camera classes here.