On paper, the Nikon Z 9 EVF doesn't seem groundbreaking. The specs, by themselves, are unassuming, in many ways. Moderate refresh rate and resolution — nothing truly new. But that's far from the whole truth — groundbreaking is exactly what it is.
In actually using the camera, the Nikon Z 9's EVF is a wholly new beast that defies convention. The praise of the Nikon Z 9's view has been made well known. This is an electronic viewfinder that is very much more than the sum of its parts. I would say that the Z 9 offers the best viewfinder experience of any camera I've used.
Traditional Viewfinder Experiences
Viewfinder blackout has been a constant of photography for all through-the-lens viewing experiences involving a mechanical shutter. With SLRs and DSLRs, there is viewfinder blackout as the mirror swings up to exposure the film/sensor.
With mirrorless cameras, viewfinder blackout is a common experience not because of a mirror assembly, but because of processor pipeline/bandwidth and the use of a mechanical shutter.
As the mechanical shutter closes, there's a loss of image light, just as with a SLR camera. In addition, writing the image to media and the associated image processing is prioritized over the live feed for the EVF. The experience is viewfinder blackout for a fraction of a second.
Nikon Z 9 EVF Specs
3.69 million dots
Viewfinder Refresh Rate
120 Hz or 60 Hz
Viewfinder Frame Coverage
100% horizontal, 100% vertical
Viewfinder Brightness Levels
Viewfinder Resolution Change When Focusing
Viewfinder Refresh Change When Focusing
Blackout-Free without Frame Substitution
Nikon's Z 9 EVF features the world's brightest Quad-VGA panel, which reaches a peak brightness of 3,000 nits. This top rating is brighter than many HDR TVs. For reference, the iPhone 13 Pro features 1200 nits brightness in HDR mode.
EVF brightness doesn't matter much for low light, where high display brightness isn't necessary. So why is EVF brightness important? For bright situations — think sunny midday sun — where your pupils are constricted to reduce light, viewing a dimmer EVF that doesn't match surrounding conditions provides a poor experience.
The brightness of the Z 9's display allows for a more natural, seamless experience with reality. The Z 9's very bright EVF allows for better viewing in a wider range of conditions.
In the past, mirrorless cameras achieve a “blackout-free” experience by show images that had just been recorded in place of the frames that were unavailable. It's a clever trick in theory, but one that is a little awkward in actual use. With this image replacement, you're seeing image that were created a fraction of a second in the past, instead of what's happening in front of you.
Nikon is calling the Z 9's viewfinder technology their Real-Live Viewfinder.
For the Nikon Z 9 EVF, Nikon's engineer's have developed a split image processing pipeline. This solves the issue of viewfinder blackout at multiple levels.
Dual Channel Processing
First, there are two image data channels — one for the EVF and one for still image capture. The dual EXPEED chips process both images simultaneously, so there's never a need to prioritize one stream over the other.
100% Electronic Shutter
In addition, the Z 9 features an entirely electronic shutter. There's no mechanical shutter component to cause a loss of light or interruption to the imaging experience. This is an advantage over not only other mirrorless cameras, but the optical viewfinders of DSLRs and SLRs for action.
Fastest Sensor Readout
With the Z 9, Nikon claims the world’s fastest sensor readout — 12x faster data readout than the Nikon Z 7II. This tech is partially what allows for Nikon to do away with the mechanical shutter. In addition, this blazing fast readout allows for very low latency — more on this in the next section.
Here's how Nikon explains how they achieve a blackout-free experience:
Lowest EVF Latency
One notable but less talked about considerations with EVFs is latency. Latency here means any lag between the real world scene you're viewing and the observation of that scene in the electronic viewfinder. With optical viewfinder, the latency is basically measured at the speed of light.
With digital displays and electronic viewfinders, latency is determined by various factors, including sensor readout and image processing.
Nikon already has boasted class-leading image readout from the sensor as well as fat pipes for image processing and double EXPEED processors to handle it all. All of this contributes to the lowest latency of the flagship mirrorless bodies.
More on latency here in this video, which showcases the difference in approaches, and highlights that resolution and potential refresh rates aren't everything when it comes to the best EVF experience.
Nikon's Approach to EVFs
It's clear that Nikon has taken a different approach than the rest of the market in the Z 9. Instead of hard numbers for resolution or refresh rate, I feel it's clear that Nikon has focused on the less tangible and less buzzy aspects that don't necessarily make for easy marketing.
Instead, Nikon has focused on a set of attributes that combine to offer what their engineers offer is the best experience in the real world, not just on paper.
Most uniform experience without stutter or lag
Blackout-free without frame substitution
In Nikon's marketing, there are very few asterisks or caveats. You get what you get, basically, in the most uncompromising way. I have always respected Nikon's engineering team for taking this approach because it means that the end result is often superior for the actual user, not just what sounds good for marketing.
Real World Use of the Z 9's EVF
While the Z 9 boasts modest resolution and refresh rate, in practice the viewfinder experience is the most immersive I've ever used.
The Details That Matter
Unlike other competitors, the resolution and refresh rates are entirely consistent with the Nikon Z 9 throughout the experience. Furthermore, the latency of the Z 9's EVF is the lowest of all flagship mirrorless cameras. In addition, there's no difference in the display performance when passively viewing compared to actively focusing. In addition, there's no lag or black frame that occurs with the start of a burst mode compared to other models.
Combined with the blackout-free shooting experience, lack of a visual difference in resolution or refresh rate, Nikon has unassumingly provided the best viewfinder experience available in my opinion.
Creating Transparent Tools
With the Z 9's EVF, there's nothing to take you out of the experience as a creator. There are no “gotchas” that remind you of the artifice at hand. For me, Nikon's set of small but very calculated decisions add up to be far more than the sum of their parts.
We intuitively understand that the best tools are the ones that are the most transparent. They just “fade away” in our hands without drawing attention to themselves and with the fewest mediations between us and our tasks. The Z 9's EVF is a clear expression of this philosophy.
I personally feel this viewfinder isn't just the best of any mirrorless camera to date, but it's the best viewfinder experience that I've had period. The continuous, bright viewfinder experience that is almost entirely devoid of any lag, visual jolts, or other ‘hiccups' seen in other mirrorless cameras. This makes the Z 9 the best viewfinder experience of all the cameras I've used, from SLRs to DSLR and now mirrorless.
What's most exciting about the Real-Live experience of the Nikon Z 9 EVF is that we will see this technology become not only even better in the coming years, but ubiquitous. The technology of today's flagships will be commonplace in even the entry level cameras of tomorrow. For me, that is incredibly exciting and one reason I'm all in on mirrorless.
Update: Z 9 Firmware 2.0 Notes with 120 FPS EVF
With the new version 2.0 firmware update, the EVF of the Z 9 gets even better. The new update enables a new high refresh rate of 120 FPS. This is a constant rate that does not lower situationally. There are no caveats or gotchas, other than an affect on battery life.
In practice, I've found that the increase to 120 FPS over the previous 60 FPS is a great improvement. The viewfinder experience is just that much smoother. For me personally, the increase to 120 Hz is not a night and day difference, but you can readily see the advantage.
The Z 9 already has excellent battery life, which for me is likely the only consideration for not using this high frame rate mode.
For me, this small but welcome improvement means that the best EVF experience just got even better. Again, the consistency of the experience between playback and shooting mode, the extremely low latency, the lack of a visual stutter when engaging autofocus and more — all of which are unique to the Z 9 and issues found with other EVF implementations — are why the Nikon Z 9 offers an exceptional performance in this regard. Hats off to the Nikon engineering team for this change among many others in the Z 9 firmware 2.0 update!