The Nikon Z9’s ‘Pre-Release’ Feature Makes Lightning Triggers Obsolete

If you have ever attempted to capture lightning in the daylight, then you will know that it is almost impossible. By the time you press the shutter button, it’s gone. That’s why lightning triggers, while no guarantee of success, exist. But the addition of the new “Pre-release” feature in the Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera now makes those triggers obsolete. As I discovered last week, it is a guarantee of success.

I have been leading small-group trips for photography in the United States over the past half dozen years. Sedona, Arizona, with many great locations nearby, moderate summer weather, and a good chance for storms has been high on my list of “need to do a workshop there.” Last week I finally did, and it was as good as I’d hoped. It was Thursday’s thunderstorm that gave me a “Aha!” moment.

Among the many features added to the Nikon Z9 with the release of firmware 2.0, “Pre-release” was an eye-opener for action photographers. It allows you to wait until you see the action, then press the shutter button and capture the moments before you pressed. It really changes how you work, but it wasn’t until I was on my way to Sedona, and thinking about the possibility of lightning, that I realized I could take advantage of Pre-release for that.

While we saw some lightning that night while I was doing a demonstration on low-level lighting, it is quite easy to capture lightning in a time exposure. We finally had daylight lightning a few days later. That’s a lot tougher to shoot.

This was the night shoot, with low-level lighting (using LumeCubes), that I created up for my group the first night. The storm in the distance was a bonus, but when doing 15-second exposures, capturing lightning is pretty easy. I did turn on the intervalometer feature built into my camera so it would keep firing those long exposures with only . 5-second between shots. Nikon Z9, Manual exposure, Sunny white balance, ISO 200, 15-seconds at f/5. 6, Nikkor Z 24-200mm f/4-6. 3 VR lens at 54mm.

Returning to Sedona from another shoot for sunset, I took my group up to Airport Mesa, where there’s a nice overlook. Our goal was to photograph that last hour of sunlight on the mountains across from us, but a storm rolled in. While it blocked most of the sun, it also gave us a lightning show. And that’s when I turned on Pre-release.

When you do that, and press halfway down on the shutter button, the camera starts recording images at 30 frames-per-second in a continuous loop to internal memory (not the card). When you see action happen, then you push the shutter completely down and the camera records that last one second, half second, or one-third second of action from the loop onto the card (you choose the amount). In other words, it goes back in time to capture something that’s already happened. It made it easy to photograph lightning.

See it, then press the shutter button and you’ll have it. That’s as complicated as it gets as long as you turn on the Pre-release feature with the Z9. Although the lightning was brief, I managed to get a lot of photos. Nikon Z9, Aperture Priority, Sunny white balance, ISO 500, 1/60 at f/8, hand-held, in Matrix metering, -1.0 EV, Nikkor Z 24-200mm f/4-6. 3 VR lens at 65mm.

To do that, I kept the camera up to my eye, and each time I saw lightning pressed the shutter down fully. Each time, I got lightning photos. You will notice the plural. I would often end up with multiple lightning photos taken from the same flash. One time, I had 10 frames.

So what’s the catch? I can’t shoot RAW, as the camera automatically switches to JPEG, although still with the full-resolution 45-megapixels. There’s also an option to shoot at 120 frames-per-second, although at a reduced 11-megapixels. But still, wow.

From start to finish, I can see lightning in each image of this ten-frame sequence, which means that since the camera was shooting at 30 fps, the burst lasted for about a third of a second.

Of course, for now, lightning triggers still have a market, since there are very few cameras that can do this. But for those folks lucky enough to have a Nikon Z9, that’s one less accessory they’ll be tempted to buy.

About the author: Reed Hoffmann is a photographer and photography instructor who has been in the photo industry for decades and who has used every Nikon DSLR (and taught most of them). The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Follow along with Hoffmann’s latest workshops here. You can also find more of Hoffmann’s work and writing on his website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This article was also published here.

Image credits: Header lightning photo by Flash Dantz. Reed Hoffmann all other photos