Table of Contents
- Camera modes
- EVF / LCD
- The rest & the usuals
Note: I originally wrote this in early 2022, after a few months with the Z9, but I forgot to actually publish it! I realised this in November 2023, so I corrected that oversight after a quick update (e.g. I originally had a wishlist item for a “portrait-grip-less Z9 without any other changes”, which is basically the Z8 we did in fact get!).
What follows is a list of things I wish the Z9 had / could do better. I believe these are actually viable – I’m avoiding the common but perhaps unrealistic items like massively improve dynamic range or noise performance or whatever.
Better low-light autofocus
The Z9’s not bad, but it could be better – all cameras could – and in particular I’d love to see some of the caveats eliminated (like having to compromise between accurate exposure previews and autofocus performance).
Better red light autofocus
Purportedly (per chatter on the interwebs) mirrorless cameras typically only use green and/or blue sensels for autofocus, not red. I’m not sure how accurate that is – it’s a strange choice on the face of it, and at least partly false since you can focus on a purely red object – but it does partially track with the actual behaviour of the Z9 (and the Z7 before it), which is to really struggle to autofocus under predominately-red light or with purely red subjects.
This is particularly a problem underwater, and of course in conjunction with many low-light focus aids such as on some Speedlights and strobes.
For my typical subjects and subject matter it’s not a big deal, although in a way that just makes it even more prominent when I am in that situation.
Better subject recognition
This is a broad area, but any improvement in any direction would be good. Things like:
- Recognition of a wider range of subjects (particularly wildlife).
- More reliable detection of eyes (as opposed to e.g. ears & nostrils).
- “Iris” detection or whatever you want to call it – the ability to focus specifically on the iris rather than e.g. eyelashes.
- Better recognition of subject’s heads when they’re not closer to the camera than any other part of the subject.
All too often the animal is in a profile view, or even facing away from me but with their head / face / eyes still in view, and the Z9 very often loses the face and reverts to “centre of mass”, which is usually the animal’s side, or butt. The Z9 really needs to fixate on the head / face / eyes if those are anywhere in view, irrespective of their position relative to the body.
EVF eye tracking
I haven’t used the Canon R3 – and the reviews of its eye tracking are mixed, indicating it’s not quite there yet technically – but it’s clearly going in the right direction with its EVF eye tracking. This is clearly the superior way of selecting your subject / focus point placement.
Less fixation on detected subjects in 3D Tracking
If there’s a subject detected anywhere in the frame, the Z9 will always focus on it in 3D tracking mode, no matter where the focus point is. This is incredibly frustrating and hostile behaviour, especially while subject detection has so many false positives and doesn’t reliably prioritise the right part of the subject (e.g. ignoring the head in favour of the butt).
Instead, it should lock onto the detected subject only if I actually put the focus point over the subject detection box and then engage it. Otherwise, it should ignore detected subjects and focus on what I told it to.
It’s permissible if there’s leeway here, to allow for imperfect positioning of the focus point vs the subject, such as with rapidly-moving subjects. This could be something that’s configurable, to suit people’s differing tastes and needs for how “generous” the camera should be regarding precise placement.
No trade-off with correct exposure preview
All Nikon Z cameras to date – perhaps all mirrorless cameras? – force an unfortunate trade-off between autofocus performance and accurate exposure previews. I believe this is largely a false dichotomy.
The autofocus sensels are on the image sensor (as opposed to a completely separate sensor as most DSLRs) and their gain setting (ISO) seems to be tied to a sensor-wide value. Their performance relies on having a strong signal (i.e. enough light). Thus it’s important that the gain be as high as possible (without clipping). But that might not be what you want for the final exposure – perhaps you’re trying to preserve brighter tones elsewhere in the frame, for example. Thus your autofocus system might not be getting as much light as it’d like, and it performs poorly as a consequence.
The Z9 allows you to either see an accurate exposure preview – at the expense of poorer AF performance if your subject isn’t very bright – or inaccurate exposure (similar to the optical viewfinder experience).
I believe it could do the best of both at only minor inconvenience to dynamic range accuracy – it can adjust the sensor’s ISO to suit the autofocus system, then digitally scale the exposure in the EVF to represent your exposure settings. This does potentially mean crushing the blacks or blowing the highlights in the EVF’s preview (no such issues with the actual photos) but that’s a minor inconvenience in comparison to the alternatives.
Making the ‘strength’ of this tuneable could also help suit every individual’s preferences (e.g. allow up to N stops of such internal adjustment).
Note that it could also in theory adjust the autofocus sensels independently to the imaging sensels used for the EVF / LCD image, and that would of course be the optimal solution. I’m just not sure how viable that is for technical reasons. I also suspect that as autofocus systems continue to evolve into scene- and subject-analysis systems, they’ll need essentially the entire image anyway.
Same autofocus in video mode as stills
This applies broadly – right now in video mode you have more limited options (e.g. no 3D tracking, only the less reliable “subject tracking”), you can’t use custom buttons at all for customised autofocus engagement, and you also have a way less performant autofocus system in general.
It’s baffling that there are these differences. The limitations on button configuration are just arbitrary. And I don’t know what camera resources they’re overloading between autofocus function & video recording, that preclude them both being used simultaneously, but they should stop it. Add more dedicated hardware. Do whatever it takes to make autofocus work identically whether you’re doing stills or video.
It’s clear Nikon pushed harder than ever to make the Z9 a good video camera, so it’s baffling why they didn’t address these flaws along with the boost to recording resolutions, bitrates, and formats.
To elaborate, autofocus in video mode on the Z9 is disappointing. It doesn’t work correctly a lot of the time – outright refusing to focus, or focusing stubbornly on the background no matter what you or your subject do, or just simply missing acceptable focus. Switch to stills mode and autofocus often works perfectly, in comparison. In fact it’s such a dramatic disparity that I sometimes switch to stills mode temporarily just to autofocus. Yes, it’s very frustrating and I miss critical moments, but the alternative is all-too-often that I can’t get anything in focus at all.
Manual focus should of course not be the ‘workaround’, but even aside from the principle of that, it’s just not possible to accurately manually focus while recording video when you have 8k video (~33 megapixels) in a 1.2-megapixel viewfinder. Even in 4k (~8 megapixels) it’s very challenging. Let-alone whether you’re skilled enough to track a moving subject anyway.
Motion-aware aperture priority
The camera should be able to set the shutter speed automatically based on actual subject & camera movement. e.g. if I’m photographing a bird that’s perched, essentially immobile, in limited light, the camera should automatically drop the shutter speed in order to lower the ISO and thus minimise noise. If the bird suddenly starts moving, it should instantly raise the shutter speed to whatever is necessary to freeze the bird’s motion.
In all of this it should understand what shutter speeds are viable given the degree of perceived movement involved – factoring in focal length and recent image stabilisation performance – and including the recent history of camera movement so that it adapts to different users and situations (e.g. buffeting winds, being on a moving platform, etc).
Some cameras – like GoPros – already do a limited variant of this whereby they end an exposure early when they detect significant camera movement. Especially in video mode where you can benefit from inter-frame noise reduction, this is what helps make GoPro footage look exceptionally-well stabilised while remaining surprisingly consistent in exposure and noise levels.
The degree of ‘freezing’ could be configurable along two dimensions:
- Strength. Different folks have different tolerances for blur, so being able to trade-off between pixel-perfect sharpness and noise is important.
- Subject-only vs whole scene. Maybe you want to freeze your subject but don’t care about the background, such as when panning for a bird in flight or moving vehicle. I expect this’d be what most people want most of the time. But sometimes you might really want to freeze the entire scene, even if you’re panning.
This is analogous to exposure compensation settings for use with flash.
Subject-aware shutter priority
I’m quite surprised we don’t already have this, on at least one camera somewhere.
I want the camera to adjust the aperture intelligently to account for the subject’s depth and focal distance. So that I can just set it to basically e.g. “whole head in focus”, and not worry about micro-managing the settings as the subject moves closer or further away.
It should handle multiple subjects too – e.g. for a group photo where people aren’t all neatly in the focus plane it should adjust the aperture to compensate.
Whether intrinsically or through e.g. lens profiles, it should account for curvature of field.
This could be flexible like Programmed Auto mode, where you could use a dial to adjust the depth of field if the camera’s selection doesn’t precisely suit your preferences (since you’ll be making trade-offs between in-focus subjects and background blur).
Automatic grip selection
I wish the camera could automatically detect which grip I’m using, so that I don’t need to micromanage it with a lock control.
Possibly this could be implemented through some kind of contact detection in the two grips, to tell which is being held? I know it can’t use camera orientation, since it’s not uncommon to use either of the grips when they’re not oriented vertically.
It of course needs to be very reliable (erring, if necessary, on the side of allowing use of the controls vs ignoring them), and work in a wide variety of situations. e.g. with or without gloves, whether the camera / hands are dry or wet, across a wide temperature range, with hands of various sizes, with hand-holds of various types, etc.
Delete & undo
Currently to delete you have to push the delete button twice, because it prompts you to make sure you want to perform the delete. This is nominally required because deletes are immediate and permanent.
The vast majority of the time, I do want to perform the delete. Very rarely is it a mistaken button press.
Doubling the button-presses required gets real old when you’re deleting thousands of photos (and while it’s faster to delete them on a computer, I prefer to do an initial cull in-camera to avoid wasting space on my computer and backups – plus if I’m travelling I may have limited card space and cannot wait until I’m back home).
It also doesn’t add much actual safety – it’s just hard-wired into my muscle memory to double-tap delete, and occasionally I’ll delete something I actually didn’t want to, as a result. So the current system is inefficient and doesn’t work as intended.
What it should instead do is follow user interface best practices dating back to the eighties (if not earlier) – make the delete operation undoable, and therefore not need confirmation every time.
This could be implemented in a variety of ways, each with slight differences in trade-offs. Even a rudimentary implementation, that only allows the most recent delete to be undone, would still be a huge improvement.
An even more robust system would likely not be much more work – e.g. move deleted photos to a separate ‘bin’ folder, just like on a computer. The camera could also make them auto-purge, so if the card is full it’ll start permanently deleting files from the bin as needed to recover space.
Consequently it’d be much safer – even against completely accidental delete button presses – and in-camera image review would involve about a third fewer button presses (currently two deletes plus left or right to move between images for comparison).
Note: how you perform the undo, I’m not sure about. The most common case would be undoing the most recent delete so there should be a way to do that which doesn’t completely interrupt your image review (i.e. no making you use the Menu button or otherwise switch away from the image you’re currently looking at). It could be simply by hitting the ‘i’ button and having an ‘Undo’ option in that menu.
Fix the portrait grip lock switch direction
It currently rotates opposite to the main power switch (on the landscape grip), which is weird and confusing. i.e. push the tab away from you to unlock the portrait controls, which on the landscape control turns the camera off. When I pick the camera up I should be able to use the exact same motion to enable the controls irrespective of which grip I’m holding.
I’d love something that goes even further and lets you actually turn the camera on from the portrait grip controls, but I don’t see a good way to do that (it would interfere with the function of selecting which grip you want to be active). Though this would be moot if the aforementioned automatic grip selection were supported.
It’s great that the Z9 returns the functionality that the D500 et al had years ago, of letting you assign AF-ON plus a specific focus area mode to many buttons. This is super essential for any camera in many circumstances – especially wildlife where you’re often dealing with obscured or unusual subjects. It was particularly remiss of Nikon to leave this out of all their prior Z-mount cameras, since they had such subpar autofocus systems.
However, it still has some limitations in terms of configurability. e.g. you can configure a button to turn subject detection on or off, but it has to be independent of actually engaging autofocus. And you can’t configure it to change the subject detection mode (e.g. from ‘All’ to ‘Animals’).
I almost didn’t call this out, except Canon proved with the R3 that you can shave a significant amount of weight with seemingly no downside. That would be appreciated – it’d be right in line with Nikon’s impressive improvements to their telephoto lenses to make them much lighter than their DSLR forebearers.
It’s baffling to me that there’s three customisable buttons next to the lens mount for the landscape grip, but none for the portrait grip; you can only reach one of the three buttons in portrait mode.
They should add another two buttons for the portrait grip, matching the relative positions of the landscape mode.
There’s still a challenge of button function, if they continue to share a button between the grips, since in landscape mode it’s under your pinky or ring finger while in portrait mode it’s under your index or pointer finger. Ideally the camera would switch automatically depending on which grip you’re actually using, iff there’s a reliable way for it to detect that. If not, it might be worth adjusting the button placements so that you have completely independent button sets between the two orientations (and at least mirror the settings between each set – though I wouldn’t object if they could also be customised independently).
It could be smaller without compromising ergonomics – maybe 10-20%. At least w.r.t. the grips. It barely makes the list, though, since the main way to make it substantially smaller is to remove the portrait grip, which arguably defeats the point of a top-line camera. That said, the Z8 (and the Sony Alpha 1 before it) have shown that there is a strong market for a flagship without built-in portrait grip.
Before I got the Z9 I was pretty sure a built-in portrait grip was not for me, though after getting used to the Z9 I’m now more on the fence. I’ve had detachable portrait grips for prior cameras, and I recognise that they just don’t feel as good as a built-in grip. They’re also heavier, and less robust.
EVF / LCD
I don’t know how it might work ergonomically – good placement of physical buttons is definitely the priority, and there’s only so much space available on a reasonably-sized camera – but it would be really nice if the LCD were substantially bigger. Compared to what we’re used to today with phones, camera LCDs are tiny.
It would need higher resolution to compensate. I’m not thrilled with the Z9’s LCD pixel density, but it’s okay. As long as the pixel density didn’t decrease, it’d be okay.
Though the Z9’s EVF latency appears to the best of any mirrorless camera to date (according to various test reports I’ve seen), there is still visible lag (even in 120Hz mode). It’s not a big deal by any stretch, and the vast majority of the time I don’t perceive it. It’s only if I’m moving really rapidly, especially if changing direction frequently. However, even if I don’t typically perceive it, I wonder if it’s nonetheless having a negative impact on my performance with the camera.
I doubt that higher refresh rates are the solution, at least not directly. The problem is the time it takes for photons hitting the sensor to be reflected in the EVF. It might be technologically impossible to reduce the delay entirely (even before you hit the physical limits), but I hope there’s still improvement possible.
Higher resolution EVF
This didn’t initially make my list, but after much use I do think the Z9 EVF is a tad soft. I can see the pixels, and I do find it’s a bit tricky to judge focus precisely (without digitally zooming in) – moreso than with an optical viewfinder.
Possibly related, I’m a bit mystified as to why image review in the EVF seems so blocky and pixelated compared to on the rear LCD, given the latter is objectively much lower resolution. It seemingly can’t be a hardware problem – perhaps a software error? Whatever it is, fixing it would essentially increase the resolution too, for image review.
Note also that I’m focused on the EVF specifically here. Curiously I don’t see the pixels on the LCD, or at least I never notice them. I think because the viewing distance is so much farther away. I certainly wouldn’t object to a higher pixel-density LCD too, but it’s not something I really need.
The rest & the usuals
None of these last few items are what I would call critical nor actually highlight. They tend to improve incrementally over time in any case. Those improvements are important and appreciated but not noteworthy unless there’s an unusually big leap.
Though admittedly it would be particularly good to at least match the state of the art w.r.t. image quality (or even of much older cameras like the D850).
- Less noise.
- Higher resolution. Though I don’t want to sacrifice anything for minor resolution gains – e.g. to go up to 60MP. For a major jump – e.g. to 100MP – I might be willing to trade off other aspects of performance.
- Better battery life when the camera is left on. As much as its start-up delay is relatively brief compared to most cameras, it’s still far from zero and in any case it costs time to locate & operate the power button every time I bring the camera to my eye.
- CFExpress 4.0 support, for at least a doubling in write speed (although the Z9 currently uses barely more than half the available write performance of CFExpress 2.0 anyway, so in fact there’s room for nearly a 4x improvement with current technology).