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  • Ed Dozier

Nikon Z9 ‘Bird’ Subject Detection: This is Golden!

I had heard a rumor that the Nikon Z9 “Bird” subject detection was usable for more than just birds. I have decided after my own testing that this is an understatement. You need this mode. Switch to this mode. Make sure you update your firmware to version 4.10 (or newer) to get this new option.

For every animal, bird, or insect I tried, this mode was either superior or equal to any other subject detection mode. Except...

BIF (bee in flight) not what you expected?

Here’s a caveat, though. The Bird subject detection mode is worthless for people (I know, they’re animals too). Use either the ‘Auto’ (generic) or ‘People’ subject detection mode for people. I found it kind of amusing how the bird-mode frequently refused to focus on the eye of a person. Artificial intelligence is funny that way.

For myself, I would rather use the “stupid” modes, such as dynamic-area or single-point autofocus for occasional people/landscape shots (assigned to different camera buttons), and just leave the subject detection mode almost permanently on “Bird”. If I were shooting sports (soccer, football, track, etc.) however, then I would of course switch to ‘People’ subject detection to cope with tracking rapidly-moving athletes.

For Nikon Z8 owners: too bad. Maybe next year Nikon will get around to this firmware upgrade.

‘i’ menu for quick autofocus-area and subject-detect selection

For quicker selection, I have set up my “i” menu to include the “AF-area mode”. This way, I use the back camera scroll wheel to select the AF-area mode, and the front camera scroll wheel to pick auto/people/animal/car/plane/bird. Subject detection is available when you use Wide-area AF(S)/Wide-area AF(L)/3D-tracking/Subject-tracking AF/Auto-area modes. The ‘i’ menu icon will show the latest AF-area mode selection type (3D in this case), but it doesn’t give you any hints about the subject type.

Quick front/rear camera wheel selection in the ‘i’ menu

The menu above shows that I have chosen ‘Bird’ subject detection and 3D-tracking AF-area mode.

Setting up autofocus area modes outside of the ‘i’ menu

Nikon doesn’t force you to set up the ‘i’ menu, of course. The regular menu-diving technique will also work perfectly fine to set up mode/subject combinations, after you navigate to the “AF-area mode” and the “AF subject detection options” in the “Photo Shooting Menu”. The little icon above shows that the present AF-area mode is ‘single-point’.

Picking subject detection mode outside of the ‘i’ menu

Available subject selections now include birds

Note that “Auto” above doesn’t mean “automobile”, but “generic” instead.

My own most-used AF-area mode: 3D-tracking

I definitely use the 3D-tracking mode the most, so I assigned that to my AF-ON button. Thankfully, bird-detection is allowed in this focus mode. I also like to use the custom wide-area AF, and bird-detect works there, too (assigned to another button).


Give this new ‘bird’ mode a try. If you photograph any kind of non-human animal, I bet you’ll like it. Artificial intelligence is quite fickle, though, so I’m sure there are animals that will fool this detection mode. Choice is a great thing, and multiple button assignments are, too.

I'll bet that each new firmware revision will alter the subject detection capabilities, because Nikon is training its AI with more and more subject samples.



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