When the Sony Alpha 1 was announced, I remember being really impressed but not surprised. Sony had been the brand to beat and had been continuously pushing the envelope. What Sony did was impressive, but not shocking. The Nikon Z9 has shocked me.
Nikon, the company that had been in third place behind Sony and Canon in the full-frame mirrorless market (and it wasn’t a close third place), has not only caught back up but has outright passed them technologically by a considerable margin. My expectations for the Z9 were to at least compete, to just bring Nikon back up to par. That would have been good enough.
But the Z9 reads like a camera where “good enough” was not good enough. No, Nikon wanted to send a statement with the Z9 and that message has been received.
It’s hard to fathom how Nikon did this, given how slow it was to shift from DSLRs to mirrorless all while Sony was dedicating huge resources to developing its own expectation-shattering cameras. It felt like Sony was driving an F1 and Nikon a Honda Civic, and Sony got to have a head start as well. That kind of gap is monumentally difficult to make up ground on, let alone surpass, and yet here we are.
Not to mention that Nikon has been in the financial doldrums for the better part of two years. It wasn’t that long ago that the company was being written off as a failure, as a brand that was doomed to collapse. It had to aggressively change up its manufacturing strategy and move its camera manufacturing out of Japan while it also closed two lens factories. Nikon had to cut 20% of its international workforce in November of last year as it dealt with the one-two punch of falling demand and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, a study showed that Nikon held just 7.5% of the mirrorless camera market share. That’s abysmal for a brand that had been dominant in cameras for the decades prior. Nikon had cameras, but few were buying them. It’s not that Nikon was making bad cameras, it’s that there was nothing about the cameras that stood out or differentiated from the pack. Consumers would ask why they should buy Nikon when Sony or Canon offered the same, or better, features for the same price?
The first half of Nikon’s 2021 fiscal year showed only 380,000 interchangeable lens cameras, 120,000 compact cameras, and 610,000 lenses sold, down 52.5%, 76%, and 53%, respectively. The company had to come to terms with a historic $720 million loss. For some time, it has seemed as though the only news that came out of Nikon was bad.
And despite all of this hardship, Nikon has released what is without a doubt the most impressive camera that has ever been made. It is leaps and bounds more impressive technologically than anything from Sony or Canon and it comes in cheaper than both.
I urge you to read every detail on the Z9, because it’s almost comical how impressive this camera is.
Completely eliminating the mechanical shutter reads as extremely self-assured. While the Alpha 1 and the R3 don’t need to use one, both still have one. It speaks to how strongly Nikon believes it has all but eliminated rolling shutter thanks to what it says is the fastest sensor scan speed ever.
Nikon matches Sony with its 120 autofocus calculations a second but actually does more with them. 20 frames per second in RAW is one thing, but for the most extreme needs, 120 frames per second with 11-megapixel photos and full autofocus performance is bananas — no one comes remotely close to this capability.
It’s not just stills performance, though. Nikon, a company that has historically been reluctant to focus on video, blew the doors off with the Z9. Out of the box, it will support 8K 10-bit N-Log recording and also support multiple codecs including H.265 and ProRes 422 HQ10. Next year, a firmware update will unlock 60 frames per second in 8K and 12-bit ProRes RAW.
There are some features that didn’t need to be included, but are there anyway — as if to say “deal with it” or “because we can.” The Nikon Z9 camera oozes confidence that Nikon hasn’t had since the D3. The Z9 can give Nikon its swagger back.
Nikon, a company that has been seen as barely keeping itself afloat and was lagging behind Canon and Sony, has leaped ahead of both to a degree I never imagined possible given its previous position. It would have been one thing to see either Sony or Canon make the Z9, as that would have been impressive, but not unexpected. The fact that Nikon did it blows my mind.
I have gone on record to say that I believed Nikon would come back from its struggles, but I never imagined it would be this fast nor this resounding of a return.
Nikon and the Z9 are without question the comeback story of the decade in the camera industry. There is a new top dog, and for Nikon, it’s a return to a seat that the company has not occupied for some time. Canon and Sony will see what Nikon has done and have to work just that much harder. Sony won’t just sit idly by as Nikon surpasses them, and neither will Canon. The race is back on, and I could not be more excited.
Image credits: Elements of header photo licensed via Depositphotos.