Review: the Nikon Z9 and Nauticam NA-Z9 housing

A shorter version of this review was first published in DivePhotoGuide in June 2023.

This detailed review has been split into six parts for ease of reading:

The test rig: Nikon Z9 in Nauticam NA-Z9 housing with dual Ikelite DS230 strobes

Prelude

My first underwater experience with a mirrorless camera dates back to 2013. 

This was the year I became a dad, and I thought it was urgent to make room for nappies, by cutting down on size and weight, which was the promise of adopting a mirrorless body. Other promises included “excellent image quality”, “great autofocus”, and this was enough to see me wholeheartedly sell the DSLR (a Nikon D7000), its lenses, housing, and ports. A couple of shallow tropical dives later, I knew I had made the right choice as the camera performed really well under clear, sunny conditions.

Back home, my photo-buddy/wife Lena and I took the new camera for its first temperate dive, and couldn’t believe what the autofocus was doing. With a macro lens, the camera stubbornly preferred floating particles instead of the fish behind. Admittedly, the visibility was average, there were lots of these particles in the water column, but the harsh reality was: our DSLR would have nailed the focus, we knew it. Needless to say, I went to sell the mirrorless setup, completed the round-trip to DSLR-land at great cost, and have had a baggage allowance issue ever since.

We have been shooting Nikon DSLRs ever since, while I kept a distant eye on the progress of mirrorless technology. Each year, I have read new mirrorless cameras getting praised for delivering “fast” and “accurate” autofocus, but I couldn’t find any convincing testing done in low-light, low-viz temperate diving conditions. 

Think about it: low-light, low-contrast and limited colors are all ingredients for a camera’s worst nightmare, when it comes to focusing. Add moving subjects, a moving photographer, and it’s evident that temperate diving offers some of the most difficult conditions you can throw at a camera. 

I didn’t want to live stuck in the past either: camera manufacturers have stopped investing in DSLRs and are putting all their R&D efforts in mirrorless technology, so there is meant to be a day when a mirrorless body becomes the best choice, for underwater photography, in temperate diving conditions.

Red-Fingered Anglerfish

(Nikon Z9, Nikon Z 105mm f/2.8, one Backscatter Mini-Flash 1 and OS-1 snoot, f/20, 1/200s, ISO 100

Introduction

One camera that got me particularly interested is the Nikon Z9, for the praise it received from topside wildlife photographer since its 3.0 firmware update. I became wondering if the day had come: would the Z9 outperform our trusty Nikon D500 and D810 DSLRs, in Sydney’s temperate waters? 

I want to thank Nikon Australia and Nauticam for the opportunity to try for myself, by lending me the camera, lenses, housings and ports for several weeks of testing.

In this review, I will share my experience with the Z9 and its Nauticam NA-Z9 housing, in the three areas which are traditional DSLRs strong-holds:

  • Autofocus performance
  • Viewfinder experience
  • Battery life

I will also cover burst shooting, maximum sync speed and image quality, as I have received questions on those while testing the camera.

Finally, I will give an overview of the Nauticam NA-Z9 housing, discussing how I have customized it to my needs and I’ll discuss a small but game-changing (vs DSLRs) control: the video switch.

Before jumping-in, I also want to thank The Underwater Club’s Members for sharing their thoughts and questions on the Z9, in our forums and during our last monthly meet-up. These have inspired me to conduct extra testing, resulting in a more in-depth review.

Nikon Z9 review index:

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