Why the Amazing Nikon Z9 Won Our Camera of the Year Award

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Every once in a while in tech you see the torch being passed from one technology to another – and that’s what I saw when I was handed the Nikon Z9 for the first time.

It wasn’t as obvious as some of the technological changes I’ve witnessed; the Z9 still looks like a huge DSLR from the 90s. But as soon as I started using the full frame flagship it was clear – the pro DSLR was dead and mirrorless power had kicked cameras into a new era.

Beyond all the major specs (45.7MP raw photos at 20fps, 8K/60p video, no mechanical shutter), part of the thrill of seeing the Z9 this first time around was a sense of surprise. Nikon is no outsider, but its mirrorless cameras have been overtaken by the Sony A1 and Canon EOS-R3. There were serious questions about whether it could bridge the technology gap. And then this historically slow and methodical company grabbed a jet pack and soared past the competition with the Z9.

The Nikon Z9 electronic shutter in action

(Image credit: Nikon)

Naturally, this isn’t the result of Nikon’s discovery of the camera equivalent of Biff’s Sports Almanac of Back to the Future 2. The Z9 is based on current mirrorless technology and the next year it may be overtaken again – by the long rumored Canon EOS R1maybe.

But for now, it’s the most powerful camera ever. And that’s because Nikon has managed to combine its traditional strengths with cutting-edge mirrorless power to create a well-deserved winner at our 2022 TechRadar Choice Awards sponsored by Sky Broadband.

Digital native

You can’t tell from the outside, but the Nikon Z9 is a bold change for professional cameras – it’s the first of its kind to not have a mechanical shutter. The physical curtain that for decades moved up and down to let light into the cameras has been completely abandoned.

Nikon didn’t have to, but it’s a statement of intent that shows the Z9 really is a step change for professional cameras. It also shows just how confident Nikon is in the readout speeds of the Z9’s 45.7MP stacked sensor. Electronic shutters have traditionally been prone to issues such as rolling shutter or reduced dynamic range, but the Z9 largely overcomes these to deliver a fully digital shooting experience.

The Nikon Z9 sensor protector

(Image credit: Nikon)

This shooting experience can also adapt to any situation, whether you’re taking photos or videos. For sports and wildlife, you get raw 20fps bursts and one of the most advanced autofocus systems I’ve seen on any camera. For landscape, portrait and studio photographers, there’s that 45.7MP resolution and Nikon’s increasingly impressive lineup of Z-mount lenses (enhanced this week by the arrival of the Nikkor Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S IS).

And then there is the video. The Nikon Z9 might be a big camera (weighing 1.34kg), but it’s actually quite small for an 8K/60p video workhorse. The fact that it can record 8K/60p raw video internally (in N-raw format) is really flexible. The benefit for most people is being able to crop into that 8K resolution for different 4K views of the same scene. The Z9 also shoots nice oversampled 4K video, which trumps the Sony A1. And as if to prove it’s a video company, Nikon also this week announced the new MC-N10 Remote Grip to allow filmmakers to remotely control the Z9.

What is the next step ?

No camera is perfect, even the Nikon Z9. It’s much bulkier and heavier than rivals like the Sony A1, and that electronic-only shutter can still create occasional banding issues in flickering light.

But the Z9 is a deserved winner of our camera of the year award. It just snuck into consideration for this year’s awards, as our window for contenders was July 2021 to September 2022. Since then, no camera has matched its power, boldness, or indeed, its element of surprise – like most camera fans, I didn’t expect Nikon to come back with such an emphatic statement of mirrorless strength.

Nikon Z9 camera on a handle

(Image credit: Nikon)

The question for most of us now is when will some of that power get to the cameras that we can actually afford? The Nikon was a little cheaper than expected at $5,499 / £5,299 / AU$8,999, but that’s still a used-car sized price. Hopefully in 2023 we’ll see the answer to that question, but for now the Nikon Z9 reigns as our camera of the year.

It’s the best mirrorless camera ever made, but also the one that amateur shooters should ultimately benefit from. Regardless of your brand loyalty, seeing a strong Nikon do battle against the might of Canon and Sony is a good thing for camera choice.

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