I’ve gotten the great pleasure of getting to spend the last two weeks with Nikon’s brand new, Z8 mirrorless camera. Here are a few reasons why this might be the camera for you.
First off, I should mention that it has been surprisingly difficult to figure out how to write this review. Unlike many reviewers, I tend to try to write my reviews from the perspective of user experience. Less about the numerical specs. More about how the product actually performs in the field. Specs don’t really amount to much if they have no practical effect on your use case. So, rather than personally measure every 1/18th megapixel, spend hours photographing a brick wall to ascertain miniscule differences in sharpness, or putting my camera in the oven to see how quickly I can get it to overheat, I personally feel as though what I want to know as a camera buyer is whether or not this tool will make my job as a photographer easier or harder. Not that I begrudge a more mathematical evaluation of a camera. Those can be extremely useful as well. Rather, I just wanted to point out my own proclivities so you understand the basis of this review.
This is also an early review. And while two weeks is a decent amount of time to put a camera through its paces, it takes months to really uncover all the hidden benefits and curses of a particular system. So, I’ll still term this an early review rather than a long term one. Yet, having spent the last 18 months working the Nikon Z9 around the clock, and this camera having so much in common with the Z9, I feel pretty confident that I have a sense of how the Z8 will perform long term.
Actually it’s my experience with the Z9 that made this review harder to craft. The Z8 is basically a mirror of the Z9 cameras that I own, minus a bit of girth and a handful of features. So, it was those similarities that made it difficult for me to start my review. It’s so much like the Z9, that many of the points I’m about to make are the exact same ones you would have read in any of my many write-ups of the Z9 after using that camera daily for the last year and a half since its release. That camera has absolutely positively improved my workflow as a photographer and finally cured my gear acquisition syndrome. Well, as far as cameras are concerned at least. The Z8? Well, it’s more of the same. And, in this case, same is a really good thing.
Z8 Versus Z9
Because the cameras are so similar, it’s very easy to slip into a review of the Z8 by constantly referring to the Z9. But, I’ve already written that article. The short version of it being that if things like ruggedness, speed, battery life, and creating without limits or compromise are towards the top of your needs in a camera, as opposed to being “nice to haves,” then the Z9, despite its weight, might be the one for you. If you are going to be photographing in somewhat less extreme circumstances, shooting shorter clips rather than potentially two-hour-long 8K video takes, and want the ability to move around with a lighter weight body, the Z8 is probably going to be your jam.
But, I feel like for me to write an entire review on how the Z8 is a baby Z9 would only apply to a certain segment of readers. Truth be told, if you’re a photographer that genuinely needs a Z9, you probably don’t need to ask the question of whether you really need a Z9. If you’re the type of photographer who absolutely needs things like maximum battery life, zero overheating, and ethernet ports to do your job effectively, the choice between the two isn’t incredibly complicated.
But I suspect many of you reading this article will be either current Nikon DSLR holdouts finally considering mirrorless, users of other brands trying to decide whether or not to make the switch, or buyers who considered the Z9 but couldn’t quite commit to the price tag. At $5496.95, the Z9 may not even be a consideration for you. But you’d like to know if its little brother, the Z8, might be just what the doctor ordered. So, I’ll try to write today from the perspective of that buyer to give you some idea of what you’d be getting yourself into.
Z8 Sensor and Speed
The Z8 sports a 45.7-megapixel stacked CMOS sensor. That formation allows the camera to operate incredibly fast. Both in terms of autofocus and frames per second. For those of you shooting things like sports or wildlife, you know that speed isn’t a preference. It’s a requirement. And the Z8 will have you covered. Unlike in the DSLR days where something like the D6 was built to be markedly faster than something like the D850, in the Z system, the Z8 and Z9 share the same internal guts. So, during my testing, I didn’t notice any difference at all in terms of operational or focus speed between the two. Ditto to image quality. The Z8 actually includes the HEIF format, which the Z9 does not. Although, I suspect the next firmware update will even out that particular point, meaning it’s probably not going to be a deciding factor between the two.
If you are shooting something like the Z6II or Z7II, you will notice a massive upgrade in focus and operational speed with the Z8. So, if you are, for instance, a Z7 user who wants the megapixels, but wishes your camera would focus faster, this would be a great choice.
Another thing that the Z8 shares with the Z9 that I don’t feel gets nearly enough attention is the viewfinder. This is one of those areas where people quoting specs can drive me a bit crazy. Apparently the Nikon’s viewfinder doesn’t have the same resolution as some cameras from other brands. I say “apparently” because, from the perspective of someone actually using the tool, I believe this is one of those numbers that should have absolutely zilch to do with your purchasing decision. As a long time DSLR holdout, the main thing I always hated about mirrorless cameras was the EVF. All the exposure benefits gained by EVFs were always wasted on me because I couldn’t stand things like lag or blackout in the EVF when trying to keep up with my subjects. With the Z9, Nikon announced this dual flow system where the image you are seeing through your EVF is entirely separate from the image flowing to the camera sensor. The images you are seeing and the sensor are seeing are identical. But your view through the EVF is completely unobstructed as it has its own dedicated feed. The result is that looking through the EVF on a Z8 or Z9 is the closest you can come to looking through an optical viewfinder. Better even as the dedicated EVF feed never needs to blackout at all. It exists solely to feed you an unobstructed view. It is hands down the best EVF I’ve used on a mirrorless camera. And that includes the other brands whose EVFs may technically have more resolution. This is important for those of you who might be holding onto your DSLRs primarily due to the EVF problem. The Z8 has those problems licked and you can confidently know that you’ll have a bright and comfortable view of your scene.
Z8 Versus Z6/Z7/Z6II/Z7II
The choice between the Z8 and Z9, I think, comes down to a matter of preference and shooting needs. The choice between the Z8 and any other offerings in the Nikon line at the moment, seems a little more clear cut. Price, obviously, is an issue. Even though it is well priced for its category at $3996.95, the Z8 is still more expensive than its smaller siblings like the Z6II and Z7II. With the Z6II, there is obviously a resolution difference. But, the Z8 and Z7II have similar resolution specs. So one might want to know why they should be willing to invest more in the Z8. For me, at least, the advantages of the Z8 more than make up for the difference in price. If you are a working professional and shoot in environments where you can appreciate a sturdier body and spot-on autofocus performance, the Z8 will be a clear winner. Less of an advantage if you shoot slower moving subjects like landscapes. The Z8 is bigger than the Z6II/Z7II. I haven’t done this test myself. But I did hear that while the Z9 is 30% larger than the Z8, the Z8 is 30% larger than the Z6II/Z7II. So, if size is the primary driver of your purchasing decision, then the Z6II/Z7II may very well be a better choice. I personally own the original Z6 specifically because of its size. If I’m going on a walkabout or traveling on vacation and would rather not lug my Z9 through the streets of a new city, the Z6 is what gets the nod. With that said, the reason why the Z7 bodies never really fit as my daily drivers for my “serious” photography is because they were always just a little too small for my hand. My pinky finger would always end up dangling off of the bottom and I never found it quite comfortable enough of a hold when I was trying to get into “the zone” on a photoshoot. I found myself missing the healthy grip of my D850 and wanting the Z7 to be just a wee bit bigger. This, of course, is 100% subjective and relates to the size of my particular hands.
Z8 or DSLR Shooters
If you are coming from shooting with a DSLR, you will be right at home with the Z8. Holding it over the course of these last couple weeks, it has felt exactly the same as holding my old D850. Very comfortable in the hand. Good grip. No pinky slipping off the bottom. Perfectly sized for getting down to business in the studio.
As an evangelist for the D850 being the greatest DSLR ever made, you’ll never catch me trying to talk someone out of opting for that particular DSLR. But even I can admit that the Z8 is a quantifiable upgrade in terms of feature set and abilities. That’s not to say that you should sell off your D850. But, if you’ve been holding onto your money because you were waiting for a D850 replacement, this is it.
The other thing that I always missed from my D850 was autofocus performance. Yes, mirrorless offers you the opportunity to have focus points across the entire frame, as opposed to only in the center like a DSLR. But, for the first few years of mirrorless, I still found myself getting the best results out of my D850. This is actually an area where I can admit that other brands have had a lead on Nikon. Their focus systems may not necessarily be more accurate, but they were definitely faster. Then, along came the Z9, and suddenly Nikon was back in the game. Having used that camera for a year and a half, I can say the Z9 autofocus has been nothing short of amazing. Even better than my D850. And competitive with, if not better than, cameras from competing brands.
The Z8 takes the exact same autofocus system from the Z9. In my initial testing, I haven’t noticed anything separating the two in terms of focusing speed or accuracy. So that means that, if you purchase either the Z8 or Z9, you don’t have to worry about your autofocus being an issue. It is blazingly fast and will allow you to capture every moment you are quick enough to capture. (And a few more if you opt to use prerelease capture when shooting). To test out the camera, as is my practice, the first thing I do is take the camera into the backyard to try to see if it will keep up with Thunder Mutt, my dog, Archibald. Fast as a speeding bullet with black hair and dark eyes, cameras often have a hard time maintaining focus on him. But the Z8 kept up like a champ.
I then shot three real-world projects with the camera as well. One all stills. One all video. And one a bit of a hybrid. The autofocus consistency only continued as I shot over the two weeks with human subjects. And, based on my experience with the identical autofocus on the Z9, I suspect that it will be an incredibly dependable autofocus system in the long run as well.
One thing that I’ve always said and I think is still accurate, even in 2023, is that the main reason to make the jump from DSLR to mirrorless is video. If you don’t shoot a lot of video or need great autofocus in video, then, honestly, your D850 is still going to serve you well for the foreseeable future. But, if you do have clients wanting you to produce motion assets for them along with the stills, mirrorless is the way to go.
With the Z9, Nikon took a huge step forward in terms of video performance. Aside from the video autofocus improvements, the Z9 brought a whole host of internal recording formats that are job requirements for professional filmmakers. For instance, things like being able to shoot internal 10-bit log, a staple for any serious filmmaker, were present in most competitors' cameras. Even those at a lower cost. Yet, the early Z6/Z7 cameras required the use of an external recorder to deliver this option. That’s not to say it was impossible. It just required another step. Being able to do that in camera without needing to add a separate device in the Z9 was a massive leap forward.
But Nikon didn’t stop there. They met and exceeded the competition by offering formats like ProRes 422 HQ internally and eventually 8K N-RAW video up to 60p. Suddenly the Z9 was not only offering the same options as the competition, they were besting them.
And yes, I just said that about the Z9. But, as you can probably pick up from today’s theme, the Z8 has exactly the same video options. This makes it an incredibly powerful video tool in the price range and a good choice for hybrid shooters. You can do a lot with the body alone without needing to add accessories. This is a massive boost in efficiency for Nikon shooters looking to ensure the best image quality.
The video specs are also, however, one place where the Z8 and Z9 start to separate a bit. While they can both record the same formats, the Z9 can do so for longer. First, because of the larger battery, the Z9 can simply run longer without running out of juice. I shot two short films with the Z8 this week to see how long it would take to quit, and am happy to say that battery life wasn’t an issue. I was easily able to shoot for a half production day without exhausting the battery. But, if you are shooting long from content, either long takes or unpredictably long interviews, for example, then opting for the Z9 will likely give you more peace of mind.
The Z9, in the last 18 months, has also never overheated on me. And I’ve pushed it hard. Really hard. Shooting 8K for extended periods of time without complaint. Part of the reason for that is that the larger body allows for better heat dissipation in the Z9. The Z8’s smaller body makes it more prone to overheating. I’m happy to say that in my practical real world testing, this was never an actual issue that held me back.
But, as someone who used to own the Canon R5, I am well aware of how overheating can be a massive limitation. So, I did my own testing, running the Z8 non-stop at 8K 24 fps to see how long it would take until the camera overheated. I’m not a lab technician, so I won’t promise you scientific results. But, I found that it took my Z8 about 90 minutes or so to get the “hot card” warning that precedes the full overheat. Again, if you need a camera that can record at 8K for longer uninterrupted periods, the Z9 might be a better option for you or perhaps a dedicated video camera. But, if you are only shooting shorter clips and scenes, more than likely in some flavor of 4K, as I imagine most of you will be doing, the Z8 should be able to run more than long enough for the majority of use cases prior to overheating. It never overheated when I was shooting video on set. I was shooting 8K at 24 fps, with the longest individual takes were around 5-6 minutes. Sure, I couldn’t have pushed the camera to 8K 60 fps and made sure it ran for hours at a time. But since that is not something I would often have reason to do in the real world, it didn’t feel the need to force it into a worst-case scenario just to make a point.
The only way I got it to overheat was by actively trying to make it overheat. So, I’m guessing most people are not going to take time while doing a real shoot to actively try and get their cameras to overheat. But, again, if you are the type of shooter who will often need to shoot longer takes and need to push a camera to its absolute limits, the Z9 is probably a better choice.
A couple things worth pointing out about the Z8 body that I really enjoy. Aside from the ergonomics, there are a few additions that will aid your life on the set. For one, I love the fact that they’ve included two separate USB C ports on the body. This allows you to concurrently charge the Z8 through USB power in one port, while still allowing you to do things like tether through the other USB port. So, imagine you are doing a long shoot and need to plug something in via USB, but don’t want to worry about battery power, the Z8 has taken care of that for you.
Like the Z9, Nikon has also given the Z8 a full-size HDMI port. This is crucial in real production environments as the odds of those little mini-HDMI ports you find on many cameras breaking or complicating the process are pretty high.
For night shooters, you'll be happy to hear that the Z8 brings back the buttons that light up in the dark when activated. I always loved this on my D850.
The Z8 has two custom buttons on the front of the camera. These custom buttons can be programmed to do whatever you want. This is especially useful as the Z8 can also take advantage of the High-Res Zoom feature introduced in the Z9. This feature acts kind of like old camcorders used to, where you can zoom in and out (even with a prime lens) just by pushing the buttons. You may or may not use this feature in your own workflow. But it’s something that could be especially useful under certain circumstances.
The Z8 has a small button on the bottom left of the camera that allows you to quickly change your focus mode without needing to dive into the menu system. I find this very well placed and use it all the time.
Unlike the Z9, which has dual CFexpress cards, the Z8 has gone the way of many other options in the same price range by offering one CFexpress and one SD slot. The advantage of SD is that the cards are less expensive and can be found pretty much anywhere. So, if you are on a shoot in some far off desert location with one gas station for 200 miles and you need to get an SD card, there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to find one squeezed in between the Cheetos and Diet Coke. The same cannot be said for CFexpress.
On the other hand, if you are looking for ultimate speed and dependability, then CFexpress, despite the added price tag, is a much better option. Also, having both cards be the same type of card has its advantages. For one, you don’t have to worry about bringing different types of cards in your bag. You just have to invest in one media system. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a boon to efficiency. Secondly, having both cards be CFexpress avoids any bottleneck issues when shooting redundantly. The camera is only going to be as fast as the slowest card. So, if you have one CFexpress and one SD, and you are trying to shoot to both cards simultaneously, your speed will be limited. But if you have two CFexpress cards, then you can better take advantage of the full camera speed while still shooting redundantly.
The Z8 does not have a fully articulating LCD screen. Whether this is a positive or negative depends on your style. Having owned a couple cameras with fully articulating LCD screens, I can see the appeal. Turning the camera around on yourself, which can be a requirement these days, is significantly easier with a fully articulating LCD screen. Not having to drag out an external monitor or take a leap of faith that I’ll be in frame when shooting myself is a definite benefit. With that said, when I’m in back of the camera, as I am 99% of the time, I find the non-fully articulating screens like the one on the Z8 to be significantly better. I never shoot stills with the LCD to begin with. I’m old and predictably a viewfinder man. I do use the LCD when shooting video. But, again, I still prefer the screen to be behind the camera, directly in line with the lens, rather than having it off to the side as happens with a fully articulated screen. As I said, both setups have major benefits. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the Z8’s setup is a pro or a con.
Speaking of pros and cons, here is the TLDR breakdown of what you can expect from the Nikon Z8.
- Image quality
- Nikon colors
- Feels exactly like traditional DSLR in the hand
- Lighter than the Z9 while being more holdable than the Z6/Z7
- Blackout-free viewfinder
- Focus mode button on lower left
- Dual USB-C connections
- Endless video formats internally, including 8K N-RAW and internal ProRes 422 HQ
- High-Res Zoom capabilities
- Battery life (only as compared to Z9)
- Potential overheating, but only in extreme situations
- CFexpress/SD combo as opposed to Dual CFexpress
Whether you find things like fully articulating screens to be a positive or a negative is a matter of opinion. But it’s hard to see how the Nikon Z8 is anything but one of the best values on the camera market. The Z9 was already the best mirrorless camera I’ve ever used. The Z8 took 90% of what makes the Z9 wonderful and put it into a smaller, lighter, and less expensive body. If you’ve been sitting on the fence about switching to mirrorless, this is as bold an invitation as you are ever going to receive. If you are trying to decide between the Z8 and one of its siblings like the Z9, Z7II, or Z6II, hopefully you now have a better sense of which would be right for you. If you are trying to decide between Nikon and one of the competing brands, you are free to make your decision based on your needs as a photographer. With the Z9 and now the Z8, Nikon has bodies capable of doing everything the competition can do. And, in many cases, better. I’d even go so far as to say with the one-two combination of the Z8 and Z9, Nikon may very well have the most attractive combination of hybrid cameras for professionals currently on the market.