Nikon Z9 review part 4: battery life, burst shooting, max synchro speed and image quality

Battery life

It’s no secret that DSLRs have an edge over any mirrorless cameras when it comes to battery life. Topside photographers aren’t really concerned: it will take them seconds to swap batteries, but obviously that doesn’t apply when the camera is sealed in a housing, underwater. 

Typically, I get over 900 shots from either my Nikon D500 or D810 DSLRs, before the battery drops below 20%. This is while using AF-C 3D most of the time, reviewing photos on the rear LCD regularly, with a screen brightness of -3. I am mentionining these settings because they do impact battery consumption.

With the Z9, here are the settings which I feel impact battery life, and how I have configured them:

  • Airplane mode: ON
  • Energy saving (photo mode): OFF. 
  • High FPS viewfinder display (d20): ON
  • Finder display size: Small
  • EVF brightness: -3 to Low1
  • Rear LCD brightness: 0 (neutral)
  • Auto EVF switch: OFF

I have logged my Z9 battery consumption on different shooting conditions but all busy dives, where I used continuous autofocus tracking most of the time (AF-C 3D, with animal recognition turned-on). Here are the details:

  • 2h20 of night diving (macro), 309 shots, 170 seconds of 4K/60p video => 33% battery use.
  • 3h50 of diving (mix of night plus day, macro), 340 shots=> 50% used
  • 3h47 of day diving (wide-angle), 400 shots + 100 seconds of 4K/60p video => 50% used
  • 3h15 day diving (macro), 375% => 47% used
  • 1h40 of fur seals diving (wide-angle), 1300 shots + 24 seconds of 4K/60p video, 29% used

Interestingly, while we usually refer to DSLR battery life in terms of number of shots taken, it seems the Z9 is more about duration of use, and I roughly expect to get 7 hours of diving, out of a fully charged Z9 battery.

All-in-one, the Z9 will comfortably last for a full day of shooting and possibly even two, depending on the duration of the dives. It took me 2 to 3 hours to recharge a half-depleted battery, so having a spare greatly simplifies end-of-day logistics.  

Burst shooting

When I visited the fur seals colony of Montague Island (NSW, Australia), there were two things I wanted to assess: (i) autofocus tracking and (ii) the Z9’s 20 Frames-per-Second (FPS) burst shooting capability (recording full resolution, 14-bits RAW files with lossless compression).

As underwater photographers, we rarely shoot high-speed bursts because we are limited by the recycle time of our strobes, but super-fast, erratic fur seals are definitely a subject where burst shooting makes a difference in capturing “the” shot. 

Due to bad weather, I could only spend 1h40 (one long dive) with the seals as opposed to the full 3 days initially planned, and I was looking to make the most of that opportunity.

I stayed near the surface in hope to shoot ambient light only, but there weren’t many close interactions where I had the sun on my back, properly lighting the seal.

A bit too many shadows to my taste, but the Z9’s metering system worked like a charm (ISO auto). DX mode, AF-C Auto-Area, 1/800, f/9, ISO 1400, 20 FPS, ambient light only. 

So I decided it was time to return to strobes, and check if the two Ikelite DS230 which I had brought with me lived up to their impressive specifications. What got me interested in those strobes was the power (213 Watts, 120 degrees beam) combined with a short recycle time, of only 1.2 seconds for a full blast. I hoped they could cope with some level of burst shooting, that would do justice to ecstatic seal pups.

It’s fair to say my expectations were exceeded: at 25% power and lower, I could shot short bursts of 0.5 second at 20 FPS, producing 10 shots that all received some strobe light. The strobes gradually produced less light, but I found that decrease to be smooth, and it’s even smoother at lower powers. I like this behavior better than seeing occasional black-outs, and the progressive light decrease suits pretty well a subject that is getting closer and closer.

When using strobes, I alternated between high speed bursts (20 FPS) and “low-speed bursts (which I had configured at 10 FPS), as I would more confidently shoot for a full second with the latter setting, and get more consistent exposures.

With 4 seals in the foreground and 5 in the background, burst shooting increases the odds to capture the moment when everything lines-up. FX mode 1/200, f/11, ISO 400, 20 FPS, 2x Ikelite DS230 strobes with dome diffusers. 

Back to camera performance, during my 1h40 minutes dive I ended-up shooting bursts, either at 20 or 10 FPS, sometimes for 1 or 2 seconds in a row, as I followed a seal swirling around me. Despite using a medium-range memory card, I never had to wait for the camera to catchup, courtesy of the Z9’s humongous buffer.

There is one negative in all that: my 64 GB card filled-up quicker than I thought, and I had to cut the dive short, after capturing 1300 images.

On that note, I want to thank Underwater Safaris, a photographer-friendly dive operator who know Montague Island like the back of their hand, for squeezing me on the boat at the last minute. 

Max synchro speed

When the Z9 got announced with a set of impressive specs, there was one disappointment: the maximum synchronization speed of only 1/200th, whereas the latest Nikon DSLRs offered 1/250th of second, a 0.3 stops difference.

This is an important spec for underwater photography as a higher speed makes it easier for our strobes to over-power the ambient light, and paint vibrant colors. 

During five weeks of shooting the Z9 in the south-east of Australia, the only time I wished I still had 1/250thwas my dive with the fur seals, as I was stayed close to the surface. Yet, I am still happy with how productive the dive was. If I was needing faster shutter speeds on a regular basis, I would consider installing an HSS-ready flash trigger in the housing.

Back to the seals, in DX mode I managed to use 1/250th without seeing any black bands darkening my picture. So, when using the Z9 instead of my D500 for fast-action shooting, I am not missing out on synchro speed.

Image quality

In terms of resolution, dynamic range and digital noise handling, the Nikon Z9 is hard to tell apart from the Nikon Z7II, the Nikon Z7 and the Nikon D850, meaning it offers some of the best image quality you can find in today’s cameras. Where the Z9 stands out is its ability to transfer these data very fast, sustaining autofocus functions and fast bursts, but that’s not the topic here. 

The high dynamic range of the Z9 sensor comes handy when dealing with a scene like this. The 4 fish species present in this image all have reflective scales, and I needed to pull back some shadows too. Nikon Z9 with 8-15mm fisheye, FTZII adaptor, Nauticam 140mm glass dome. 1/80th, F/13, ISO 320, 2x Retra Flash Pro.

In practical terms, I like the native ISO 64 setting, which is my preference when dealing with a highly contrasted scene, where I’ll need to recover shadows and/or highlights in post processing. In terms of noise, I configured the Auto-ISO to go up to ISO 6400 if necessary (when shooting seals in ambient light), which is how confident with this sensor’s ability to handle digital noise. Again, I could have said the same thing about a D850. 

I followed this seal as it swam around me, and didn’t have the best exposure parameters when it went up, in front of the sunball. Still, I am pretty happy with the appearance of the sunrays, despite the less-than-ideal Aperture and ISO settings. FX mode, 1/200, F/10, ISO 250.

Z9 review index:

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