Nikon explains why the Z9 doesn’t have a mechanical shutter – and why this is significant.

Nikon explains why the Z9 doesn't have a mechanical shutter - and why this is significant.

The Nikon Z9 is the company’s most powerful camera yet, fighting for full-frame mirrorless camera supremacy with the Canon EOS R3 and Sony A1. It’s a camera with everything: a 45.7MP stacked sensor, 20fps bursts with continuous 3D tracking AF and an unlimited JPEG buffer, as well as 8K video capture. The Z9, however, lacks one feature: a mechanical shutter.

We’re particularly interested by the Z9’s exclusive dependence on an electronic shutter, despite its glitz and glam. Other mirrorless and DSLR cameras (with the exception of video-focused versions like the Sigma FP) all have both mechanical and electronic shutters. Is this a brilliant and forward-thinking design decision, or a potentially disastrous blunder?

To find out, we chatted with Nikon product specialist Dirk Jasper and asked him why Nikon is so confident in the Z9’s innovative technology, as well as what it implies for the future of shutter design and cameras.

Let’s deconstruct what camera shutters are for and why most cameras pair them with an electronic shutter before we find out if the Z9 truly is the beginning of the end for mechanical shutters.

Mechanical vs Electronic

More on those ‘technologies’ later, but first, let’s look at the mechanical and electronic shutters’ respective strengths. A mechanical shutter, as its name implies, has moving parts and hence has limited performance.

As observed with the Canon EOS 1DX Mark III, its shutter speeds max out at 1/8000sec, while frame rates appear to have peaked at 16fps. During shutter-action, there is also an audible sound and vibration, as well as a shutter-action life expectancy. Only the most impulsive photographers are likely to damage a shutter and require a pricey repair.

With faster maximum shutter speeds up to 1/32,000sec and lightning-fast frame rates like the 120fps seen in cameras like the Z9, an electronic shutter outperforms a mechanical shutter. The shutter movement is also vibration-free and may be silent, making it ideal for landscape, street, and wedding photographers. Doesn’t that all sound promising? It isn’t entirely a one-way street, especially when it comes to slowing down high-speed traffic.

Unlike a mechanical shutter, which freezes the entire image at once, an electronic shutter’reads’ image data line by line onto the sensor, a process that has been proven to take roughly 1/200sec and is also known as ‘rolling shutter.’ Rolling shutter can have a negative impact on any action performed at a faster speed. You may have seen action graphics of warped golf clubs in flight, oval-shaped balls in flight, and rotating bent airplane propellers, for example.

When employing flash or under high-frequency ‘flickering’ artificial lighting, rolling shutters can suffer from an unsightly phenomenon known as ‘banding’ (light-dark-light-dark).

Curtain Raiser

What is a mechanical shutter, exactly? It shields the picture sensor and opens to accept the light and makes your photographs in digital cameras.

There are two primary types of mechanical shutters: focal plane and leaf, which were first employed in film cameras, later DSLRs, and mirrorless devices. Leaf shutters are a circular arrangement of overlapping blades with the less ‘aggressive’ shutter action of the two, whereas focal plane shutters have two metal ‘curtains’ that allow and exclude light.

Most cameras include an electronic shutter, which does not have any moving parts and instead ‘turns on and off to take images. This shutter can be used for photos as well as videos. Most digital cameras have had both mechanical and electronic shutters up until now, but the Nikon Z9 is the first professional camera to use exclusively electronic shutters. So, why has Nikon gone to such lengths?

Because it can, is the obvious response. As Dirk Jasper put it, “The Z9’s sensor and supporting processing via Expeed 7 make it possible to have a mirrorless camera without a mechanical shutter for the first time. We may enable technologies that aren’t achievable with a mechanical curtain in front of the sensor by removing the shutter “he stated There’s a little more to it than that, as always.

Why now?

Most cameras allow you to select the appropriate shutter for your particular shooting situation. Is it better to freeze the activity or use a flash? Mechanical is the way to go! If you’re shooting landscapes, you’ll want your camera to be as steady as possible. It’s all about the electronic shutter! But, given that the Nikon Z9 is an action camera with a completely electronic shutter, what has changed?

It’s partly about speed, as you might imagine. The Z9’s new 45.7MP’stacked’ CMOS sensor, Expeed 7 engine, and support for high-performance CFexpress Type B memory cards are credited by Nikon.

“The sensor’s read-out speed is the most important issue here,” Dirk says. “The processing engine must then support managing a high data flow at high speeds, ensuring that all information is digitized and stored on a performant memory card at a scale that ensures the system keeps up with the speed of new data coming in, whether it’s high frame-rate shooting or high-resolution video recording.”

Nikon claims that the Nikon Z9’s scan rate is about 12 times faster than the Nikon Z7 II. This means it has around a twelfth of the rolling shutter distortion of the Z 7II. Its layered sensor packs some major punch.

If the Z7 II has a standard rolling shutter speed, then 12x that speed effectively eliminates the possibility of rolling shutter distortion in the Z9. The early indications are encouraging. We utilized the Nikon Z9 in a number of high-speed circumstances during our complete evaluation (coming soon) and have yet to witness a rolling shutter.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some minor teething issues. “We’ve had a few unusual reports of mild banding under very precise situations,” Dirk Jasper adds. “We’re working on ways to automatically counter these effects, and we’ll aim to fix them with a firmware update. A simple tweak in shutter speed can readily eliminate these effects “Added he.

Shutter priorities

Even if it isn’t used, Nikon might have kept a mechanical shutter in the Z9 as a backup. However, eliminating it has the added benefit of being simple and long-lasting.

“A mechanical element is always a restriction by design and also a potential breaking point,” explains Dirk Jasper. “For higher-end cameras, Nikon always communicated the life expectancy of the shutter as part of the product information. By removing the shutter, we also remove a piece of the system that can be a life-limiting factor for the device and needs expensive repair and re-adjustment in case of failure.”

So, does this mean that all cameras will soon go electronic-only? Not necessarily. Dirk gives us a glimpse. “At Nikon, we have always lived a philosophy of what we call ‘technology transfer’. All new technology will eventually trickle down through our line-up as long as it is feasible and also possible to implement in terms of cost.”

But it’s likely to remain a high-end feature for now. “Other than with firmware driven changes, the use of a purely mechanical shutter in cameras is definitely connected to processing power and the sensor hardware, which come at a cost,” he explains. “Therefore scaling factors induced by production cost will definitely impact how much we will be able to have this spread to more models in the future.”

As a result, it appears that only the most costly flagship cameras can afford to provide us with a mechanical shutter-‘less’ design for the time being. But one thing is certain: the Z9’s additional power lays the possibility for radical camera design improvements.

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