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MARCH 2022

This month’s photography article is written by leader Charles Gangas about his experiences using the Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera in Uganda and Tanzania.

I was fortunate to get my Nikon Z9 in late December. Not only was this a very nice Christmas gift, but I had it in hand a little over two weeks before our African photo workshops. What was immediately apparent was how instantly familiar the camera felt to me as a Nikon shooter. With little exception, the dials and buttons were laid out in typical Nikon fashion, as were the menu items and programable features. And while the camera is slightly smaller than the D6 flagship it replaces, it fit my large hands very comfortably. I was also impressed with the feel and balance of the camera coupled with my long lens-the Nikon 500mm f/4, both with and without my 1.4 TC, which would be my primary lens kit on the trip. After a few weeks of experimenting here at home I felt comfortable that I had a good working knowledge of the camera for my upcoming workshops.

Now, after having spent six weeks using the Z9 in Africa I came away not only impressed with the performance of the camera, I was completely blown away! What led me to become so enthusiastic was, in large part, several features of the Z9 that stood out consistently; the auto focus system, the camera’s shooting speed, and the image quality rendered-not necessarily in that order. I’ll expand a bit below:

With respect to the Auto Focus system, the camera offers several new features. Anyone familiar with Nikon cameras in the DSLR era will be conversant with Dynamic Area AF Modes-which essentially offer you an array of focus points clustered together. Those features were brought over to the Z9, along with a few new options that Nikon describes as Wide-area AF (S), Wide-area AF (L), 3D Tracking AF, and Auto-area AF, all possessing advanced auto detection features. These allow you to select specific subjects to detect; People, Animals, Birds, Cars, Planes, and Trains. Essentially the camera offers an area within the sensor that detects the presence of a subject, and any object that’s detected within the area selected will be subject to focus-prioritizing closet subject in these modes.  Once the subject is in focus in the Auto Area Modes (the 4 listed above) it will track the back of the head, the side of the face, or the eye itself-depending upon the subject’s position. And in the case of trains, planes, and autos it will also detect key areas to acquire, lock, and track focus.

This flight shot was a good test of the flexibility of the autofocus system. I Initially acquired focus with the bird using Single Point AF. Once the bird flew beyond the tree branches, I released the Fn1 button-and as I have the programable buttons customized, focus automatically switched to Wide Area AF(L) which is my programmed default AF method and I tracked the bird handheld- keeping the subject in the focus area of the sensor.  Woodland Kingfisher Lake Mburu NP, Uganda, Nikon Z9/Nikon 500mm f/4. 1/4000s @ f/6.3 ISO I2800

The speed of the camera, both shutter and frame rate, is very impressive. The camera is capable of shooting 20 frames per second (fps) in full resolution at 45 megapixels RAW, or 30fps full resolution jpegs only, or 120fps at 11 megapixels jpeg only. Since the camera does not have a mechanical shutter it is capable of shooting at speeds of up to 1/32000s; yes, you read that correctly-1/32000th of a second! With all that speed one can place an extraordinary number of files on the card, so the Nikon engineers offered two features which I found quite useful-you can limit the number of frames per second you shoot, and the number of frames within a single burst of the shutter. These features are found within the menus and on camera with a push of a button. So, if you anticipate shooting birds in flight you can select very fast speeds and larger burst rates, or with static subjects you can dial either or both down-saving considerable space on your card and time in post.

This flycatcher was sallying about the back of my cabin, so using 3D Tracking AF mode I selected the subject by putting the main focus point on the bird, kept the back-button AF engaged, and let the camera track the bird. I also dialed in quite a bit of speed on the fly by just spinning the main command dial.  I find the best use of the 3D Tracking AF mode is photographing birds that are flying erratically such as swallows.  African Paradise Flycatcher, Rushaga Gorilla Camp, Uganda, Nikon Z9/ Nikon 500mm f/4. 1/12000s @ f/5.6 ISO 12800, Handheld

The next feature I’d like to discuss is IQ (image quality). With a 45 megapixel sensor you have a tremendous amount of flexibility with respect to crop and composition. As one who considers himself primarily an avian photographer, reach has always been an important factor for my type of photography. Given the choice, I have usually selected a crop sensor camera for reach-at the expense of sensor size. With the Z9 I no longer feel a full sensor camera is a disadvantage with smaller subjects-there are plenty of pixels in the rig to render even larger crops very successfully.

The Shoebill was one of our target birds on our tour in Uganda. I was able to visit the wetlands twice to attempt to photograph it, and was lucky we had excellent photo opportunities on both photo tours.  Here we were literally “stuck” in the swamp. Our guide and driver were both outside the boat pushing us-when we all looked up and saw this bird staring us down.  I used single point autofocus here as the auto modes likely would have grabbed the vegetation in front of the bird.  Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Swamp , Uganda Nikon Z9/ Nikon 500mm f/4, 1/1600s @ f/ 6.3 ISO 2800 Handheld

As cool as the previously mentioned features are (and the many more I haven’t expanded upon), there were some workarounds I found I had to employ to insure I got the shot at times. One of the issues we face as photographers is trying to acquire sharp focus when our subject is partially obscured. Even with the tremendous technologies developed and deployed in the Z9, I did find there were instances where the autofocus mode I was using wasn’t able to lock onto the subject’s face or head because there was a twig, leaf, branch, or other obstruction between the subject and the sensor. What to do?  That was the question I pondered as I was testing the camera on my deck as our winter birds were lifting huge quantities of sunflower seed from my feeders. My deck, it turned out, was a good place to work this problem out. As the finches and chickadees would come to the feeder they would depart with a seed and alight on the trees in my yard to consume their meal. Oftentimes the numerous branches would defeat my selected autofocus mode and I couldn’t focus on the birds. This is where I thought to use the programable features of the Z9 to seamlessly switch focus modes.

On one of our morning game drives we saw this Black-shouldered Kite. The challenge I had on this shot was to acquire sharp focus on the bird’s eye, and using my default autofocus setting (Wide Area AF(L)) the focus was locking onto the branches in front of the bird. Switching to Single Point AF using the Fn1 button that I programmed allowed me to aim right at the eye and get this result.  Lake Masek Tented Camp, Tanzania, Nikon Z9/ Nikon 500mm f/4 Nikon 1.4TC, 1/2500sf/6.3 ISO 1400.

Of course, photographing Mountain Gorillas is one of the highlights of any Uganda Photo Tour.  Here’s another instance where switching autofocus modes made the difference in getting sharp focus. I used Single Point AF to aim thru the leaves and branches and focus on the gorilla’s eyes.  Mountain Gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda, Nikon Z9/Nikon 70-200mm. 1/500s @ f/5.6 ISO 1100

I have used a similar setup to the programmable AF modes with my D500 to great effect. But in previous Nikon mirrorless models, setting up programmable custom AF buttons was not available. This is a big improvement over the previous Nikon mirrorless models.  Using two of the three programable buttons on the front of the camera, I programmed the Fn1 button to Single Point Auto Focus and the Fn2 button to 3D Tracking Auto Focus with Wide Area AF (L) set as my default autofocus mode. Without moving my eye from the viewfinder or taking my hand off the grip I can seamlessly and instantly change my focus mode to fine tune the focus on my intended target. If the subject is difficult to focus on I could use Single Point by pressing the Fn1 button, and if it moved to offer a cleaner look I could release the Fn1 button and the camera would revert to the Wide Area default-most often locking onto the eye or face. If the bird flew away, I could attempt to acquire focus by selecting the Fn2 button with my fourth finger, and now in 3D Tracking AF,track the subject inflight.

The Papyrus Gonolek is one of the beautiful target birds in Uganda.  I initially acquired good focus with spot AF when this bird was perched in the reeds.  After I acquired good focus I released the Fn1 button which switched me back to Wide-area AF (L).  The bird then took off and I was able to capture this flight shot.  Papyrus Gonolek, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, Nikon Z9/Nikon 500mm f/4, 1/2000s @ f/ 5.6 ISO 2200, Handheld

One other feature I should mention that I found was a real asset, and became quite valuable with my newly developed shooting style with the Z9, is the Electronic Viewfinder and how it renders the light in the scene-and on the subject. As you change shutter speed, aperture, or ISO the increase or decrease of light affecting the scene is viewable through the viewfinder. You no longer have to guess about your exposure-you see it in real time. Additionally-and this is very cool-you can elect to superimpose numerous visual aids onto the display. So, you can display the histogram, the level of the horizon, and a myriad of other features to customize your view and assist in your capture of the scene.

We had three encounters with Cheetahs while in Tanzania. This guy was on the prowl late one afternoon and I captured this image as he was moving across our path on the track. Using my default AF setting-Wide Area AF(L)-the camera immediately acquired the cat’s eye and easily tracked the subject as I pressed the shutter.  Cheetah, Ndutu Conservation Region, Tanzania, Nikon Z9/Nikon 500mm f/4/ 1.4TC, 1/1000s @ f/ 7.1 ISO 1600, Handheld.

I left Vermont for Africa wondering how well the camera would perform in the field. As it turned out it worked exceptionally well.  The camera performed flawlessly with everything I threw at it. In my view Nikon has really upped its game and become an equal player in today’s mirrorless marketplace. And while it has always been debatable as to what system has supremacy-Nikon has arrived with a sports and wildlife mirrorless camera that is extraordinary and competitive. The biggest takeaway for me with the Z9 is that the camera has improved my ability to put many more keepers on the card, and that alone was worth the wait.

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