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Lightroom profile, sharpening, noise reduction, and lens profile raw defaults for Nikon Z 9 RAW (NEF) files

Nikon Z9

UPDATE: On April 20, 2022, Nikon released firmware version 2.0 for the Nikon Z 9. This article has been updated with new data from tests of firmware version 2.0.

If you are new to shooting with Nikon’s Z-series cameras and a user of Adobe Lightroom or Camera Raw, various default settings for RAW (NEF) files in Lightroom are affected by the settings you choose on the Nikon Z 9.

Depending on the Raw Defaults preference in Lightroom, the following settings on your Nikon Z 9 will impact default settings in Lightroom and Camera Raw:

  • Picture Control
  • High ISO Noise Reduction (High ISO NR)
  • Active D-Lighting
  • ISO
  • Auto Distortion Control

I first wrote about this when I purchased my Nikon Z 7 because I saw different settings for Lightroom sliders than I had seen on my DSLR cameras.

Before diving in, it is essential to note that everything I describe here is for shooting RAW (NEF) files on your Nikon. JPEG images created in-camera use these same camera settings, but the RAW file is processed in-camera, and the results are “baked in” to the finished JPEG image. Opening one of those JPEG images in Lightroom will not show the default slider values mentioned below.

Raw Defaults in Lightroom and Camera Raw

When using Lightroom Classic, Lightroom, or Camera Raw, a preference setting determines whether or not it reads default settings from the camera or uses a set of Adobe Default settings. In Lightroom Classic, this is located under Edit > Preferences > Presets > Raw Defaults.

If you choose Camera Settings, Lightroom Classic will read various default settings from the EXIF metadata embedded in the file. Lightroom will set a camera-matching color profile using those settings from the EXIF metadata and change the default slider values for things like sharpening, noise reduction, texture, and clarity.

If you choose Adobe Default, Lightroom will use Adobe’s default settings for the slider values and set the Profile to Adobe Color. Settings you choose in the camera will not affect Lightroom behavior.

Your choice in Raw Defaults significantly alters the way Lightroom Classic renders a RAW file. The colors and contrast of Adobe Color are quite different than the Nikon camera-matching profiles and Adobe Color is designed to render a “universal” color profile across camera types. There are also more subtle visual differences created by default values for texture, clarity, sharpening, and noise reduction.

Which Profile you select in Lightroom is primarily a creative choice. Generally, I recommend starting with a flatter Profile that does not have too much saturation and contrast. That gives you more latitude during the editing process where you can add contrast and saturation to your liking. I have always liked the colors and aesthetic qualities of the Nikon camera-matching profiles, not the Adobe profiles. However, this is a personal choice. I encourage you to compare them with your images and make your own decision.

By setting their Raw Defaults, Nikon offers suggestions for its RAW (NEF) files that may render RAW (NEF) files more optimally. The primary purpose of these EXIF settings is to instruct Nikon’s processing software, NX Studio, to set defaults for rendering RAW images. Lightroom and Camera Raw use them as well. The Nikon Z 9 will also vary specific default settings based on ISO sensitivity.

Advanced users can choose to use their own preset instead of Camera Settings or Adobe Default, allowing them to customize default settings in any way they like. You can get even fancier by setting Raw Defaults for different camera models or serial numbers.

Adobe Lightroom has the same preference setting under Edit > Preferences > Import > Raw Defaults. Camera Raw has the same preference settings found by clicking on the gear icon in the top right corner and choosing Raw Defaults.

Changing the Raw Defaults preferences in Lightroom Classic, Lightroom, or Camera Raw is a global change. Changing the preference for one application makes the same change in the other two applications. For example, if you set Raw Defaults to Camera Settings in Lightroom Classic, you’ll see the same preference applied automatically in Camera Raw and Lightroom.

Also, Raw Defaults are applied at the time of import only. Changing the Raw Defaults setting does not affect previously imported images. Only new imports will be affected by this preference setting.

The remainder of this article assumes that the Raw Defaults preference is set to “Camera Settings,” where Lightroom will read and use various default values from the EXIF metadata stored in the RAW (NEF) file.

Defaults can be changed

While Lightroom and Camera Raw will set default settings from RAW (NEF) files, nothing prevents you from changing these slider values to whatever you like while editing.

Picture Control

The Nikon Z 9 allows you to set the Picture Control to your liking. Picture Controls control the default colors and contrast applied to the RAW image data.

There are eight default Picture Controls: Auto, Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape, and Flat. Twenty creative Picture Controls are also available that apply strong and sometimes funky effects to your images.

Importing RAW (NEF) files into Lightroom will match the Picture Control set in-camera to a Camera Matching Profile. For example, the Neutral Picture Control becomes Camera Neutral for the Lightroom Profile. Adobe has Camera Matching profiles for each of the eight default Nikon Picture Controls and the 20 creative Picture Controls.

Choosing a Picture Control in-camera on the Z 9 affects more than just the Profile in Lightroom. It also sets a default value for the Texture and Clarity sliders and Sharpening Amount. Here is an example:

TextureClaritySharpening Amount
Standard+8+440
Neutral+4+224
Vivid+8+456
Monochrome+8+440
Portrait0024
Landscape+8+456
Flat008

Auto Picture Control is a special case

The Auto Picture Control on Nikon cameras behaves somewhat differently. The Auto Picture Control is based on Standard for still photos, but it automatically adjusts hues and tones based on image content.

When you import a RAW (NEF) file shot using the Auto Picture Control, Lightroom will interpret it as a Camera Standard profile. However, the default values for Contrast, Texture, Clarity, and Saturation will vary based on the camera’s decisions about the image content. In addition, the Auto Picture Control varies Sharpening and Luminance Noise Reduction based on image content. This is the only Picture Control that varies these sliders based on image content.

I haven’t extensively tested the Auto Picture Control to determine exactly how it calculates its default settings. However, the following appears to be true:

Low Contrast Scenes
  • Contrast increased
  • Texture increased
  • Clarity increased
  • Zero or decreased Saturation
  • Sharpening and Luminance noise reduction same as Standard
High Contrast Scenes
  • Contrast decreased
  • Texture increased more than low contrast scenes
  • Clarity increased more than low contrast scenes
  • Saturation increased
  • Sharpening increased slightly more than low contrast scenes
  • Slight decrease in Luminance noise reduction

Sharpening

Sharpening – Amount

Two settings control the default Sharpening Amount set by the Nikon Z 9. First, the Picture Control sets a Sharpening Amount. Then, as ISO increases, the Sharpening Amount is gradually reduced, starting at ISO 1000.

For example, the Standard Picture Control sets a Sharpening Amount of 40 between ISO 32-800. At ISO 1000, the amount is gradually reduced, and at ISO 25600 and above, it is lowered significantly to 10.

In contrast, the Flat Picture Control sets a Sharpening Amount of 8 between ISO 32-800. At ISO 1000, the amount is gradually reduced until ISO 25600 and above, where the Sharpening Amount is 3.

At base ISO 64, the Picture Controls set the following default Sharpening Amount:

  • Vivid: 56
  • Landscape: 56
  • Standard: 40
  • Monochrome: 40
  • Neutral: 24
  • Portrait: 24
  • Flat: 8

As I mentioned before, Auto Picture Control is a particular case. When the Auto Picture Control is selected, the camera will vary the default Sharpening Amount slightly based on image content.

Intuitively these settings make sense. Bolder profiles have more sharpening applied, while flatter profiles apply less sharpening. A landscape photo may benefit from increased sharpening, while a portrait may suffer from overly sharp skin blemishes. Also, as ISO is increased, digital noise increases, so it makes sense to gradually decrease the default amount of sharpening applied to the image at higher ISO values.

Sharpening – Radius

Nikon sets the Sharpening Radius to 2.0. Adobe’s default is 1.0. I have a landscape photographer friend who likes to complain incessantly about this setting, saying that a radius of 2.0 is too high. However, a radius of 2.0 can be excellent for many subjects like faces. As with all sharpening, the amount of sharpening and the sharpening radius have optimal settings based on the image content. While the default of 2.0 may be excellent for a portrait, a smaller Sharpening Radius might be more appropriate for a detail-filled landscape image.

Noise Reduction

Noise Reduction – Luminance

Changing the High ISO NR setting in the Z 9 will affect the default noise reduction applied in Lightroom. The amount of default Luminance noise reduction also increases based on ISO sensitivity. The higher the ISO, the more luminance noise reduction is applied.

Here is a chart that shows how Luminance Noise Reduction changes at varying ISO settings. There are four lines — one for each setting: Off, Low, Normal, and High.

Nikon Z9 - Lightroom luminance noise reduction defaults at varying ISO

Noise Reduction – Luminance Detail

Nikon Z 9 camera settings will set a new default for the Luminance Noise Reduction Detail slider of 75. Adobe’s default is 50.

Noise Reduction – Color

Changing the High ISO NR setting in the Z 9 will also affect the color noise reduction in Lightroom, as follows:

  • High ISO NR Off
    • Color: 7
  • High ISO NR Low
    • Color: 25
  • High ISO NR Normal
    • Color: 25
  • High ISO NR High
    • Color: 25

Nikon improved this setting in version 2.0 of the Z 9 firmware, providing a sensible default of 25, which is more than adequate color noise removal in most photos.

If you set High ISO NR to Off in the Z 9, the default Color noise reduction setting of 7 is too low for ISO 800 and above, so you will often need to increase it to remove color noise.

Active D-Lighting

Active D-Lighting is a setting on Nikon DSLR and mirrorless cameras for high-contrast scenes. It allows the photographer to protect from blown-out highlights.

When shooting a RAW (NEF) image, Active D-Lighting intentionally underexposes the image and then applies default settings to raise Exposure, reduce Highlights, and increase Shadows. Here is a table of how each Active D-Lighting setting affects these defaults

  • Active D-Lighting Off
    • No effect
  • Active D-Lighting Low
    • Exposure: No change
    • Highlights: -7
    • Shadows: +10
  • Active D-Lighting Normal
    • Exposure: +0.33
    • Highlights: -21
    • Shadows: +10
  • Active D-Lighting High
    • Exposure:+0.67
    • Highlights: -35
    • Shadows: +10
  • Active D-Lighting Extra High 1
    • Exposure: +1.0
    • Highlights: -49
    • Shadows: +10
  • Active D-Lighting Extra High 2
    • Exposure: +1.67
    • Highlights: -77
    • Shadows: +10

There is also an Active D-Lighting setting called Auto, where the camera chooses the level of Active D-Lighting based on the image’s content.

Active D-Lighting is particularly useful when shooting high-contrast scenes to JPEG in-camera. For RAW (NEF) files, I recommend leaving it turned off. Instead, expose high-contrast scenes as bright as possible, monitoring your histogram so that highlights are not blown out.

Lens Corrections

The Auto Distortion Control setting on the Nikon Z 9 controls whether lens profile corrections are enabled or disabled in Lightroom. When enabled, profile corrections remove lens distortions. The checkbox to Enable Profile Corrections in Lightroom or Camera Raw can still be toggled on and off, depending on if you want these distortion corrections applied.

However, a few Nikon lenses do not behave this way. For example, the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S and the new Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S automatically enable distortion correction, and the photographer cannot change it. In the Z 9, Auto Distortion Control is selected automatically, and the menu item is grayed out. On import, Lightroom provides a message saying that “this raw file contains a built-in lens profile.”