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

Nikon Z9

UPDATE: As of April 20, 2022, Nikon released a new firmware version 2.0 that changes a number of the values mentioned in this article. I will be testing and revising this article shortly, so check back for a new version.

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.

Specifically, 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 I dive in, it is essential to note that everything I describe here is for shooting RAW (NEF) files on your Nikon. JPEG images created in the camera use all of 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. If you choose Adobe Default, Lightroom will use Adobe’s default settings. The way Lightroom Classic renders the RAW file will be significantly different based on this choice since the profile, colors, sharpening, noise, and other settings will all be different.

Unlike Camera Settings, Adobe’s default settings are the same, regardless of the camera type, which may or may not be optimal for a particular camera. By setting their own Raw Defaults, Nikon offers suggestions for its RAW (NEF) files that may render RAW (NEF) files more optimally. Nikon’s own processing software, NX Studio, uses these embedded EXIF settings to set defaults for various sliders, and Lightroom and Camera Raw use them as well. The Nikon Z 9 will also vary certain default settings based on ISO sensitivity.

Advanced users can choose to use their own preset instead of Camera Settings or Adobe Default, giving them the ability to customize default settings in any way they like.

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.

Note, 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.

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

Keep in mind, Lightroom and Camera Raw will read specific default settings from RAW (NEF) files. The default settings will change how your RAW file is rendered initially but can be changed to whatever you like by adjusting the sliders in Lightroom or Camera Raw.

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 different values for Sharpening Amount. Here is an example:

TextureClaritySharpening Amount
Standard+40+2040
Neutral+20+1024
Portrait0024
Landscape+40+2056

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 Texture, Clarity, and Sharpening Amount will vary based on the camera’s decisions about the image content.

In addition, the Auto Picture Control will also change the Contrast and Saturation slider defaults. Once again, these defaults vary from image to image. This is the only Picture Control that varies the Contrast and Saturation sliders in Lightroom.

Sharpening

Sharpening – Amount

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

As an 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 ends up at 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 based on image content.

Intuitively these settings make sense. Bolder profiles have more sharpening applied, while flatter profiles apply less sharpening. And 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 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 for each setting: Off, Low, Normal, and High.

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: 9
  • High ISO NR Normal
    • Color: 10
  • High ISO NR High
    • Color: 10

This is one default setting that I think Nikon could improve. In Lightroom Classic, a Color Noise Reduction setting of 10 is adequate until about ISO 6400 with the Z 9. When ISO increases above 6400, a setting of 10 is too low, leaving some color noise in the image. Above ISO 6400, increasing the color noise setting to 15 or 20 will remove all color noise.

I have this same complaint about default color noise settings with my Nikon Z 7 and Z 7 II, both of which benefit from increasing the Color slider to remove color noise at higher ISO settings.

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 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.

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. 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.”