How does the best get better? In a word: firmware.
Specifically the free Firmware 2.0 download available for the Z 9 if you bought your camera prior to May 1, 2022; after that date, all Z 9 cameras come with it installed.
Firmware 2.0 offers so many creative, imaginative and practical new and updated features—23 in all—that we’re tempted to say most manufacturers would have released a whole new camera.
As for our use of “best,” it's legit. The Z 9 is an award-winning camera and around Nikon USA headquarters, it's generally considered the best camera we’ve ever produced.
Raising the Bar
“Firmware” is not a word that usually grabs a lot of attention, but this time it will because…well, you’re here, reading this, and it’s likely you’ve seen Sole Dance and its accompanying behind-the-scenes video.
It’s also likely you’ll link up with the Firmware 2.0 page on the Nikon USA website to check out the new features the firmware brings to the Z 9. Features like in-camera 12-bit N-RAW capability, which provides incredible quality at half the size of equivalent ProRes RAW HQ files.
But the true significance of Firmware 2.0 goes way beyond a listing of features. In the real world of image-making, the firmware raises the performance bar and brings the Z 9 to the level of premier, high-end cine cameras. That’s why we put a firmware-updated Z 9 in the hands of Anthony Arendt, a director of photography with over 15 years of experience shooting everything from features to documentaries, commercials to web content, with total confidence that it would do the job, and maybe even exceed his expectations as he took on the dual roles of director and director of photography of Sole Dance.
...the Z 9 with Firmware 2.0 is a giant leap forward in the realm of mirrorless.
On the Job
In the behind-the-scenes video you hear Anthony say that the Z 9 with Firmware 2.0 is “a giant leap forward in the realm of mirrorless.” Anthony’s idea was to use dance with original music. “That was the starting point,” he says, “and I needed the technology to achieve [my goal for] the video. I was thinking, Let’s test the technology, challenge it and challenge ourselves to come up with ideas inside the overall dance concept.”
The technology to match and advance his ideas was certainly there, in the camera. "We were able to shoot 60p at 8k to show the beauty of slow motion at incredibly high resolution,” Anthony says, “and when we saw our results during early editing, we were blown away by the detail, smoothness and unparalleled richness of the tonal range—something I hadn’t seen in a mirrorless camera before."
In Anthony’s judgment, the biggest, most impressive benefit of 2.0 firmware is the N-RAW format. “It’s game changing,” he says. “Not only does N-RAW produce what I consider the best-in-class tonal range and color palette, it does it without the need for an external recorder, which for me is a giant step forward in the mirrorless world.”
It all comes down to practical matters. “If I need to keep the camera in a super-small profile for filming—let’s say, inside a car—I can do that and still maintain the best image integrity, and if I need an external battery, follow-focus, wireless video, a matte box and a monitor—no problem. Now I have the option to build to suit the shot requirements, again without sacrificing image integrity. And N-RAW being half the size of ProRes RAW is another huge advantage, both while shooting, where card space is extremely important, to editing, where half the hard-drive space is needed for downloading.”
The benefit of the N-RAW file doesn’t stop there, especially at post-production time when you’re the editor. “One of the innovations of N-RAW is that it comes with what’s called a proxy file—a smaller file that duplicates the [RAW] file at 1080, so when you go into editing, you can edit with the proxy files without touching the 8K files until you get to the color grade. That’s huge.”
All of these features, and the ease of controlling them, are storytelling resources for a filmmaker. “It’s not a technical thing you’re doing anymore,” he says. “It’s something that creatively is going to help you get to where you want to go. All these technical advances become paint brushes in the box.”
One of the paint brushes he cited is called Waveform Monitoring. Essentially it’s real-time exposure analysis. “If something is burning out, you see it burning out,” Anthony says. “What’s key is it’s going to tell you what’s going to be unrecoverable either in the highlights or the shadows in post.”
Anthony’s reaction to working with the Z 9 and Firmware 2.0 is all we hoped for. “The Z 9 is so good now, with the firmware 2.0, that if I were using it alongside a high-end cine camera, the footage would blend beautifully in the edit,” he says. ”It’s a game-changer for the mirrorless world. This is a fun place to be right now.”
At 16 a used Nikkormat was all that was needed for Anthony Arendt to get hooked on photography. He lived in Milan, Italy working in the fashion industry, attended the American College in Paris / Parsons School of Design and then began working on film and still photography sets. Anthony has taken on the roles of director, director of photography, still photographer and more.More articles by this contributor