The process of designing a flagship digital camera is a closely guarded secret. But in a rare exception, some of the key people responsible for developing the Nikon Z9 sat down and explained some of the defining aspects that brought the camera to life.
Nikon brought together a group of engineers and people involved in the development of the camera and shared their ideas with PetaPixel. Because there are so many people involved in the development of a new camera, the statements below represent that entire group rather than just one individual.
In 2018, Nikon released the Z7 and Z6 full-frame mirrorless cameras. However, as professional demand for a flagship mirrorless model increased, it was recognized that further improvements in function and performance were needed to meet all demands from professional users.
“That meant the pressure was on – developing a true flagship model was of great importance both internally and externally,” says Nikon. “Everyone involved in the design and development of the Z9 felt they had a job to do.”
Nikon adds that one of the goals was to outperform the D6, a model that many believed represented the perfect DSLR.
“Indeed, the scale of the challenge and the timelines set to develop it have resulted in cooperation between Nikon departments on a scale never seen before.”
Start from nothing
“To develop a flagship model that would outperform not only the D6 but all competing models, we knew we had to start at the very beginning and not be bound by the premises of conventional technologies,” the company says.
For Nikon, the most challenging aspect of building the Z9 was considering the base specs it needed.
“Building a base for the camera took a long time because we started from scratch, even building the base construction from a completely new starting point. And the demands of the new image processing engines and flagship models are huge, so we – from day one – had to make some very tough decisions given the limited development timeframe.
Nikon says that throughout this process, what remained constant was the belief that it had to be designed from the user’s perspective, and all specifications and functions they adopted had to exceed the expectations of professional photographers. – expectations that had reached considerable heights thanks to Nikon’s competitors.
“To ensure we were exceeding photographers’ expectations, we needed them to continuously and thoroughly test the product throughout its development. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major sporting events normally used to evaluate camera operation and performance and take test shots have been canceled one after another, making it difficult evaluation under real-world conditions,” says Nikon.
But Nikon hasn’t let a global pandemic stop development of the Z9, and the company has taken steps to recreate those lost professional shooting environments.
“In response, we invited college athletes to serve as living role models in gymnasiums, ice rinks and other sports facilities. And we started lending the camera to photographers early in the product’s development, so their feedback could be taken into account while there was still time to tweak and improve it.
Nikon has previously shared how professional photographers were enlisted to help craft the Z9 from the start, including working directly with Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographers, from the very first abstract prototypes through to the camera. finished picture.
“Even with that in place, the detection of nine different subject types and the simultaneous detection of multiple subjects requiring CV processing, AF calculation and lens driver operation for each shot over time limited in 20 FPS high-speed continuous shooting, was a struggle,” Nikon reveals.
The company says every design decision made in the Z9 was made after careful consideration of the effect it would have on the camera and how it would be received by photographers.
“An important consideration was that an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which tracks the intended subject in real time, would be an absolute must for a professional flagship model. We worked with all departments to find a solution to achieve the most natural and pleasing viewfinder display,” says Nikon.
“We have surpassed the performance of optical viewfinders (OVFs) by bringing together the best of both worlds; the level of performance that would allow unrestricted display of OVFs, with all the benefits that an EVF has. Just as we did with the D6, we placed great importance on how people see, feel and experience the camera. We recognize that there are important factors in design and function that cannot always be measured quantitatively.
Nikon says another major point of consternation centered on the rear LCD screen.
“Once we chose the Z9 with an integrated vertical grip, we made the decision to equip the camera with a four-axis tilting monitor, as we felt it gave users more flexibility when framing. of their shots. However, we were aware that tilting monitors had a reputation for being unreliable, so we prioritized reliability early on in the development process to ensure ultimate satisfaction.
Eliminate physical shutter
“One of the most important decisions we made was to completely eliminate the mechanical shutter. There was a real reluctance to let go of one of the strengths Nikon had acquired over its history of technology development,” says Nikon.
“But the mechanical shutter was removed from the Z 9 because we were determined to give higher priority to other features for the user, and because we were ready to usher in a new era for ourselves.”
As part of this, Nikon fitted the camera with a Light Shield Curtain which helped reduce noise during long exposures and reduced the chance of dust and foreign matter adhering to the sensor.
“As for the shutter sound, although we chose something appropriate for each model, we were extremely careful about the audio data used for the Z9. Indeed, since the days of film cameras, we consider shutter sound to be an important aspect of photography; something that makes the shooting experience more enjoyable,” the company adds.
“Yet with the advent of digital cameras the noise of film feeding was eliminated, and then with mirrorless cameras the noise of mirror operation was eliminated. By not equipping the Z 9 mechanical shutter, all sound-producing mechanical parts are gone.
Going with this solid-state-like design left Nikon engineers wondering what sound would be best for the flagship.
“We tried a number of possibilities and decided that the sound data should replicate the sound of mirror and shutter operations, but then adjusted as needed. With early Z9 prototypes, the speaker was placed near the control panel on top of the camera,” Nikon explains.
“With actual shooting tests, however, we found that this position was not optimal because it was noticeably different from where sound is heard with conventional cameras. ‘shutter comes from the top of the camera, so although we are well advanced in the development of the camera, we suddenly moved the speaker to a position in the center of the camera body to better mimic the sound of a conventional mechanical shutter.
Ramp-up in the video department
Nikon says through the development of the camera it knew 8K resolution would be a must.
“We knew 8K would be the next step in the evolution of video. Nikon had an excellent reputation for photo imaging, but we had our work cut out to develop a camera that would also be the choice of videographers,” the company explains.
“We think this camera, as it shoots the highest quality video with a minimum number of people, is a real game changer for professional videographers. It meets video needs with powerful specs like than 8K30p in 23 degree Celsius environments, long time shooting up to 125 minutes, 4K 120p which can be shot in full screen, HLG and N-Log internal recording, and the world’s largest number of nine types of subject detection in video.
To get the camera to work with these specs, Nikon says it knew heat would have to be managed and that developing how to do that was of paramount importance and says it ran various dispersion simulations heat from the early stages of development.
“We were faced with the difficulty of equipping the camera with both the image stabilization (VR) mechanism and the means of heat dispersion. For context, dedicated video equipment typically uses cooling fans to disperse heat. As a flagship model, however, the Z9 should offer excellent drip resistance. Given this, we decided that it would be impossible to fit the camera with a cooling fan which requires an opening that lets in cooler air from outside,” the company explains.
“This made the Z9 the only model with an integrated vertical grip that provides sufficient heat-dispersion performance for video recording over long periods of time without using a cooling fan.”
The Z9 has more to offer
Nikon says what it has chosen to share here are just a few of the anecdotes from the Z9’s development cycle and only scratch the surface of the challenges, opportunities and solutions that were part of the Z9’s development. camera. The company says there were features it wanted to include in the camera at launch that were originally considered but didn’t meet the production deadline. But don’t worry: it plans to add them with firmware updates that allow the camera to improve over time.
The company has already done that once with a major firmware update that arguably could have made for a whole new camera.
“Ultimately, this is just the beginning of the story,” says Nikon.
“The huge amount of feedback we received encourages us to go even further. Our mindset is to never be satisfied with things as they are at any given time, and our vision is to continue to deliver products that exceed user expectations time and time again.