Try and try again: how the Nikon Z9 supports the sports photographer: Digital Photography Review


Shooting rugby is hard, but nothing like as hard as the people who play it.

Nikon Z9 | Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 S @ 400mm | 1/1000 sec | F5.6 | ISO 1400
Photo: Richard Butler

There’s a vast difference between going to a sports events with the intention of getting some photos, and going there to try to capture the key moments in the game.

Armed with a Nikon Z9, the Nikkor Z 400mm F2.8 TC and the Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6, and having spent the previous couple of home games building up some experience of shooting a match, that was the challenge I set myself.

In the process I hoped to build an impression of the degree to which the Z9 helped me, even though the determining factor was likely to be how much I’d learned about following the action. This article is about that experience, not an attempt to assess the Z9’s full potential.

I’ve come back with a sample gallery of images from the game, but I’ll primarily illustrate this piece with examples of where I fell short of my target. Overall, I have mixed feelings about my results, but with very positive impressions of the Z9.

The right tools for the job

It’s a try! You’ll have to take my word (and the celebration of the Seawolves player) for it, but the ball has just been grounded in this shot.

Nikon Z9 | Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 S @ 145mm | 1/1000 sec | F5.6 | ISO 1400
Photo: Richard Butler

It doesn’t really need saying that the Z9 is very well suited to sports shooting. Interestingly most of its AI-trained subject recognition tracking modes aren’t especially targeted towards sports (or, at least, sports that can’t be preceded by the word ‘motor’), but fast shooting and versatile autofocus are at the heart of what the camera was built for.

I was less confident in the lenses. The 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 gave a decent level of flexibility, allowing me to cover from near where I was standing out to about the half-way line. This meant the 400mm F2.8 TC let me cover action around the half-way line, or further beyond if I flipped the built-in 1.4x teleconverter into place. I very quickly concluded that the shorter zoom was more useful: the significant moments of the match were either going to be happening too nearby for the 400mm to be useable, or too far away, even with it in 560mm mode.

Of course most sports shooters would then have the option to crop-in on the action, which the Z9’s 45MP leaves plenty of scope for. But for this article and the sample gallery I’ve provided full-res images so that you can see the full picture, as it were.

In the end I had to accept that I was only going to be able to capture the action in ‘my’ half of the pitch. Which was a lesson in itself.

Autofocus

I experimented with a series of autofocus modes, quickly ruling-out the use of face detection because the player with the ball was rarely the face that the camera would choose to focus on. I also tried 3D Tracking with the subject-recognition modes turned off, and found that, while it followed the chosen subject well, it didn’t react quite fast enough to lock onto a subject that I was racing to keep the camera pointed at.

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I managed to anticipate and capture the moment a try was scored. Unfortunately I was still experimenting with 3D Tracking mode and, desperately stabbing at the AF-On button as I panned with the diving-then-sliding player, the camera locked firmly onto the padded goal posts, ensuring the key point of interest was out- of-focus. With a central AF point, I’d have got the shot.

In the end I reverted to using a small ‘dynamic’ AF point (a small AF point but with some consideration given to the area immediately surrounding it, if your subject is no longer precisely under the point). I was reassured to hear from professional sports photographer Mark Pain that this is also his preferred way of shooting.

In general the camera did extremely well with this setup, and required little further setup or configured. I got better results with the AF ‘Subject Motion’ setting on ‘erratic’ to react as the approaching stopped players, started, twisted and turned to avoid the on-rushing defenders, and got decent hit-rate overall.

I tried 3D Tracking… while it followed the chosen subject well, it didn’t react fast enough to lock onto a subject that I was racing to keep the camera pointed at.

I wasn’t able to match the ‘frame after frame, pin sharp’ levels of performance that Pain tells me he’s getting, but this is likely to be because I’m less experienced at anticipating and following the action, and hence am not keeping my AF point on the subject as well as he can.

Staying with the action

One of the things that’s really struck me, over the three games I shot, is the degree to which the Z9 does all it can to let you keep up with the action. As the company’s first pro-sports mirrorless model, it’s likely to be the first experience of shooting sports with an EVF for many D5 and D6 users, and the stated specification of the viewfinder (3.69M dots with 60Hz refresh) doesn’t appear especially compilation. But with virtually no lag and no blackout as you shoot, it might be better at letting you follow the action than a DSLR.

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The minimal viewfinder lag meant I was able to see and follow a disguised no-look pass out of the back of the hand of the LA player running right-to-left across this shot and react as quickly as any of the players. Sadly, my lack of experience/co-ordination meant I didn’t release and re-initiate tracking until image 7, but the camera had done all it could help, by that point.

But I was repeatedly struck by how well it let me follow the action. One moment in particular stood out to me: LA’s fly-half, Orene Ai’i, gave every impression that he was going to keep hold of the ball and run into the tackle of the fast-approaching defense. Instead, without breaking step (or eye-contact with the defender), he slipped the ball behind his back and into the path of team-mate Billy Meakes, running an opposing line. Both defenders took a moment to spot what had happened (Meakes also seemed a little surprised and had to work quickly to get control of the ball), but the Z9 gave me a fast enough preview to be able to react as fast as the defense was able to.

Viewfinder lag was short enough to let me read and follow a well-disguised, split-second change in direction

This happened near the start of the game, when I was still testing 3D tracking mode, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my reactions weren’t quick enough to pump the AF-On button to release and acquire a new focus target . But the viewfinder lag was short enough to let me read and follow a well-disguised, split-second change in direction. The camera did its job, even if I wasn’t able to do my part.

A work in progress

Lauina Futi reaches down to score the Seawolves’ consolation try, four minutes before the end of the game. But with a 100mm lens, my photo of the moment itself is a close-up of a man’s head and shoulder.

Nikon Z9 | Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 S @ 180mm | 1/1000 sec | F5.6 | ISO 1100
Photo: Richard Butler

So how do I rate my performance and that of the camera? To a degree, I felt like the Seattle Seawolves, who fought to stay in the game, scored two very good tries, but ultimately showed there’s work still to do.

Ultimately, I don’t feel I succeeded in capturing the key moments of the game: I was pointing at the action as a first try was scored, only to find I’d set the camera to track the goal post, instead of the player . I got the focus right for another, only to end up with a context-free photo of a mass of bodies under which I have to assure you the ball was grounded. For the final try of the match I managed to zoom out and keep pace with the Seawolves’ winger, only to find that, even fully backed-out, I was still too close to capture the crucial grounding.

Despite falling short, my performance kept improving and, with the Z9 and 100-400mm lens, I’m finding my place in a team that’s capable of winning. I was certainly the weak link, but the Nikon did everything it could to keep me in the game.


LA Giltinis Vs Seattle Seawolves sample gallery

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