Nikon Z9: Flagship camera dispenses with the shutter

Nikon has been hyping the release of their new Z series flagship ‘Z9’ for weeks now. Much was already known about the specs of this camera – 8K 30 (at launch with 8K 60 coming in a firmware update in 2022), 4K 120, 45 megapixel stills, 20 fps shooting at full size, 120 fps shooting at 11 megapixel in JPEG. But the two details that were revealed today were the biggest – first, the Z9 doesn’t have a mechanical shutter. Now, all mirrorless cameras have the ability to shoot via an electronic shutter. But the Z9 is the first serious mirrorless camera to dispense with the mechanical shutter altogether.

One of the main reasons the mechanical shutter continues to live in most mirrorless cameras is something called “rolling shutter”. It’s a phenomena that occurs when shooting with an electronic shutter and the camera is panned while shooting, resulting in the contents being skewed during the pan. This is essentially due to the camera processor not being fast enough to process the data being fed from the shutter properly. Mitigating rolling shutter in stills and especially video is the holy grail on the path to eliminating the mechanical shutter. The benefit of dropping the mechanical shutter are immense. The mechanical shutter is one of the most fragile parts of the camera, and is one that usually has a rated lifespan of actuations before it becomes inoperable and needs to be replaced. So dropping the mechanical shutter should make the camera easier to manufacture and give it a longer lifespan.

The other detail that was a bit of a surprise was the price. $5499. While this is about $1000 more than the Sony Alpha A9 II, of which this camera will be competing with, it is also a more ‘pro’ offering in terms of body ergonomics and features. Most people (myself included), expected this camera to be a good $1000 more, since the D6 – which this camera is intended to replace – costs $6499. And it costs $500 less than the comparable Canon R3. So bravo to Nikon.

Time will tell if the Nikon Z9 will convince pro shooters to stay with Nikon. But if Nikon can manage to produce enough of these, I suspect they will have a hit with pro stills shooters and pro video shooters alike.

XQD vs CFExpress

Today, I’m going to talk about the differences (and similarities) of XQD and CFExpress.

Now, if you are a Nikon Z shooter or a Sony Camcorder shooter, you already know what XQD cards are. For the rest of you, XQD is a format, developed by Sony, that allows for high speed transfers – 1gb/s to 4gb/s  – and larger storage sizes – theoretically over 2TB (although the largest card you can buy at this time is 240GB).

XQD is designed for professional applications. The card itself is thicker and larger than an SD card, and it’s construction is generally sturdier and more robust as a result. The cards themselves are designed for fast read and write speeds, allowing you to clear the buffer of your camera quickly. For video, they are fast enough to write out full 4K 30 footage without any issues.

XQD cards are used in the Nikon Z6/Z7, D850, D500, D4s, D5, PhaseOne XF IQ4, and some Sony camcorders. 

The XQD format was developed by Sony, but you can find XQD cards manufactured by Sony, Nikon (which are most likely Sony cards rebranded), SanDisk, Delkin, and Prograde. XQD cards tend to be more expensive than SD cards, but that can generally be attributed to their more rugged design, faster speeds, and generally higher reliability than SD cards. 

Now, much has been made about the Nikon Z6/Z7 only having one XQD card slot, and while redundancy is an important tool in a professional setting, the higher quality and lower failure rate of XQD cards means that you shouldn’t need the extra card slot for reliability. Still, some people refuse to trust a camera that doesn’t offer a second card option for redundancy.

So what is CFExpress?

CFExpress is a card format that is physically the same size as XQD, and pin for pin compatible with XQD. Any device that uses XQD should be able to theoretically use CFExpress with a firmware update. CFExpress is not owned by an entity, like XQD is owned by Sony, so there isn’t the issue of licensing royalties that need to be paid when using CFExpress. CFExpress also uses two PCI lanes of PCI Express, which provides twice the throughput of XQD. 

CFExpress cards are just now hitting the market, with cards by Sony, ProGrade and SanDisk being available now, and cards from Delkin, Lexar and Wise coming soon.

So late in 2019, Nikon released the long promised firmware update to allow the Z6/Z7 to use CFExpress cards. The update however, only promised compatibility – for now – with the Sony cards. Additional manufacturer card support is promised in the future, as Nikon has time to test and certify these cards with the cameras. The Nikon D850, D500 and D4s and D5 are still promised the CFExpress update, which should be coming in the near future.

So the obvious question is – if I own a camera that supports XQD cards, and now it also supports CFExpress cards, is there any advantage to switching to CFExpress cards? 

And the answer, right now, is not really.

First of all, the prices for CFExpress cards vs similarly configured CFExpress are nearly identical. 

Second, while CFExpress cards are faster than XQD cards, the camera writing the actual data hasn’t changed, and it can only write that data so fast. So while CFExpress gives you more read/write headroom than XQD, don’t expect your camera to be able to utilize that speed. 

Another consideration in the switch from XQD to CFExpress is with any peripherals you use to read the cards. If you bought an XQD card reader to pull images in to your computer, don’t expect that XQD card reader to be able to read that CFExpress card. Sure, the manufacturer could theoretically provide a firmware update to make it compatible, but there has yet to be any XQD card reader that is getting this type of upgrade. Considering that most XQD card readers cost less than $50, I wouldn’t expect any of them to offer an upgrade path to CFExpress. Instead, they’re expecting that you will shell out another $50 or so for their CFExpress card reader. Such is the price of progress.

So in short, CFExpress is the future. Now that it has arrived, expect it to supplant XQD rather quickly, and when new cameras arrive that take advantage of it, expect it to offer even better read/write speeds than XQD. In existing cameras that have been upgraded to use CFExpress in addition to XQD cards, expect that you get another card options that will work just as well as XQD.

So if you are a XQD user, do you plan to update to CFExpress? Let me know down below in the comments.