Nikon Z8 Camera Review

I don’t like writing the same thing a different way, thus you’ll find a lot of the wording in this review has been repurposed from my Z9 review. I’ll do that where there is no difference between the cameras, so much of the review will read “familiar.”  

Before we get this review started, a preface. With both the Z9 and now the Z8, NikonUSA gave me early access to the camera. Given how close in features and performance the two cameras are, that means even early in the Z8’s life cycle, I’ve had over a year-and-a-half experience with virtually all of the Z8’s controls and capabilities. I’ve been diligently looking for differences from the Z9, but other than the obvious physical few, there aren’t many (the Z9 firmware C4.00 changed that by adding a significant feature the Z8 doesn’t have, though: Auto Capture). 

bythom z8 connectorside.jpg

What is It?

The Z9, is Nikon's "flagship" digital camera. The term flagship is generally assumed to mean "best and most capable." It also means "expensive." The Z9 is US$5500, and sits atop the Z System camera lineup. 

The Z8, however, is nearly everything that comprises the Z9, but at a far lower US$4000 price. We can also call it a flagship-level camera, thus everyone immediately wants to know what the differences are between the two cameras. 

Let’s start with the Z9 advantages:

  • The Z9 has a built-in vertical grip, complete will a second set of controls. The Z8 has an optional add-on vertical grip, the MB-N12, which somewhat duplicates that ability (ironically, it also makes for a combination that’s somewhat bigger than a Z9, with less battery capacity).
  • The Z9 uses the high capacity EN-EL18C battery, while the Z8 uses the lower capacity EN-EL15C battery. This really only has implications on how many images per charge, or how long a video, that you can create. Nothing else is affected.
  • The Z9 has a built-in GPS receiver. The Z8 requires an external GPS in order to put location information in the EXIF data of an image (your mobile phone and SnapBridge can do that, too, though the results aren't as precise as some people might want).
  • The Z9 has two CFe Type B card slots under a locking door, while the Z8 has one CFe Type B card slot and one SD UHS-II card slot under an easy-open door.
  • The Z9 has a PC Sync socket, but the Z8 doesn’t. Both have the same other flash capabilities, though.
  • The Z9 has a built-in Ethernet port. The Z8 does not, but can connect to Ethernet via a USB-to-Ethernet dongle.
  • A benefit of the extended body caused by including the vertical grip, the Z9 gains a row of extra buttons under the Rear LCD that the Z8 does not have (they are also not on the optional MB-N12 grip). In addition, the Z9 has an Fn3 button on the front of the camera and an Fn4 button on the back; the Z8 puts an Fn3 button on the back of the camera and is missing Fn4
  • Starting with firmware C4.00, the Z9 has a useful Auto Capture feature that the Z8 doesn’t, and added some button customizations that the Z8 doesn’t have.

The Z8 does have some additions that the Z9 doesn’t have:

  • The Z8 adds HEIF image support.
  • The Z8 adds a new Skin softening menu item.
  • The Z8 adds Portrait impression balance.
  • The Z8 calls out airplanes as a separate category from vehicles (though planes are still recognized as vehicles).

We also have a “what the” difference: the Z9 has a Release mode dial and button, but the Z8 just has the button. I don’t see that as a real difference, because most Z9 users long ago started just using the button, as it provides more quicker function than the dial. 

But other than the above things, a Z8 is essentially a downsized Z9 running close-to-Z9 firmware, and with the same performance characteristics. For US$1500 less. That makes the Z8 a powerful camera at a significant discount from what was already the lowest cost flagship (Nikon’s Z9 lists for considerably less than the Canon R3 or Sony A1). That’s correct: a Z8 might be said to have functionally at the same level as the Sony A1, but at a price that’s US$2500 (38%) less!

That Z8 price had to have sent shudders of concern through the Sony corporate offices. I've noted this in passing before, but Nikon has become the low-cost provider at almost every full frame product point. If nothing else, you can probably already guess that the Z8 is a value leader. 

Let’s drop into specifics.

Z9 image sensor

At the heart of the Z8 is an image sensor that appears derived from the D850 and Z7 family, but with extremely improved internal bandwidth capabilities, mostly enabled by the stacked sensor design, but perhaps with some tweaking of the BSI side, as well. Nikon has been mute about any technical details concerning the sensor (which is also used by the Z9). Close examination and testing tells me this is probably mostly the Z7 II BSI bits integrated with additional circuitry in the ADC and stacked portions, and for some reason (likely black level balancing) some extra unused photosites. 

Nikon did make a change in the read noise of this new image sensor—probably due to running faster transistors—and a change in the analog gain. But pixel level performance of the Z8/Z9 image sensor seems to suggest that it's the same photo diode on top, with a similar large well size to the D850/Z7 one. Also, the autofocus implementation on the sensor is the same as the Z7 II: every twelfth blue/green row of photosites plays the dual focus/image role, as before.

Everything in the Z8/Z9 image sensor that's different appears to be solely about improving the speed of moving data off the sensor. And in that process, there's been a simplification, too: it appears that the Z8/Z9 sensor only moves 14-bit data for still photography. There is no ADC circuit adjustment for producing other bit depths from the full image data for JPEG or NEF. The operating design of the Z8/Z9 image sensor is basically this: collect the data and move it off the top of the sensor stack as fast as possible, without producing much in the way of additional noise (speed = noise in most sensor designs). 

The ISO capabilities of the Z8 are 64-25600, with 32, 50, 51200, and 102400 available in Lo or Hi modes. The image sensor is dual gain, with the change point being ISO 500. (Other gain trigger points that mostly come up with video work exist.)

Coupled with the new, fast image sensor is the updated EXPEED7 image processor. Again, Nikon is being ridiculously mute about details. The most they've said is that it has 10x faster processing from previous generations. Okay. What's that mean? What was the processing power of the previous generation? (1/10th, apparently ;~). 

EXPEED has always been built around what today is the Socionext SoC (system on a chip), which is a descendent of the Fujitsu Milbeaut chip Nikon originally used. These chips are centered around ARM cores, much like your smartphone, with additional functionality powered by a built-in GPU and video CODEC, plus additional circuitry that Nikon and others have provided. Indeed, we know that inside the EXPEED7 that there's at least one additional new engine, licensed from intoPIX, which provides much of the high-end video and High efficiency NEF capabilities, as well as the functions that give us HEIF files. (We don't know how much additional integration has been done, or how small the EXPEED7 process size has dropped to. Socionext now offers as small as 6/7nm process size, putting it the Qualcomm SnapDragon range. My guess based upon discussion with those using variations of the chip, however, is that EXPEED is using the 12/16nm process that Socionext offers, and certainly no larger than 28nm due to the functions I know live in the EXPEED7 chip.)

Between the image sensor and the EXPEED7 chip are two data pipelines running at 120Hz (which is what generates the 120 fps maximum frame rate and the 120 fps focus data stream). The first pipeline goes to the usual image processing chain. The second goes to a new viewfinder and focus processing chain. 

All this speed and dual pipelines enables one of the key physical characteristics of the Z8 (and Z9 before it): a close to real-time, blackout-free viewfinder with no mechanical shutter needed. That's right, the Z8 doesn't have a mechanical shutter. Instead, you have electronic shutter speeds from 15 minutes to 1/32,000 second. Yes, you read those numbers correctly: 15 minutes to 1/32,000 second. Flash sync speed is only 1/200, however. 

The above paragraph drops us into a discussion about whether the Z8 is a “better” landscape camera than the D850. My assessment is that it is. If you use long exposures in your work, the extended shutter speeds become very useful.  Also, magnification in the Z8 viewfinder works far better and more usefully than magnification in Live View on the D850, as does focus peaking. The dual tilt of the Rear LCD is also quite useful if you do any vertical landscape work.

Many landscape photographers are also into-the-night photographers (and maybe even astrophotographers). For that, Starlight view and Warm display colors become tools to get things done you don’t have on the D850.

Moreover, USB Power Delivery means being able to create longer Interval shooting (or Time-lapse) sequences (though you’ll need a USB power source that’s bigger than the EN-EL15 capacity). 

The only real question is whether all these various small things that the Z8 provides over a D850 are enough to make someone decide to move from DSLR to mirrorless. The D850 is, after all, still a highly competitive camera even today.

The electronic shutter in the Z8 is very fast, though it still incorporates a rolling shutter. The Z8 and Z9 have the fastest electronic shutter so far in a still camera (it just edges out the Sony A1's electronic shutter). Nikon suggests that it is as fast as a mechanical shutter with a 1/250 flash sync speed (the speed at which a mechanical shutter moves from a full frame exposure to a slit scan exposure method). And indeed, in practice, that's exactly what I found. The actual scan I measure as 1/270 second (the Sony A1 is 1/250, and a Z5 at 14-bit is only 1/15!).  

However, note one thing about losing the mechanical shutter: artifacts can be caused by the loss of the physical shutter. A mechanical shutter sits in front of the focus plane, an electronic shutter is at the focus plane. This has a small, typically unlikely, but still possible, result where items moving/changing near the frequency of the shutter appear differently. For instance, FP Auto mode is now restricted to 1/8000 with an SB-5000 to keep from having line artifacts appear. Those wouldn't appear with a mechanical shutter (if it could do faster than 1/8000 second ;~) because of the edge of the mechanical shutter sitting so far forward of the image plane and creating a small blur because of that. But an “edge" will appear on the electronic shutter of a Z8 as a thin line where the external light and the electronic shutter aren't 100% synchronized. Some third party flash units also exhibit this problem at various aperture/shutter speed settings. The Z8 is actually accurately rendering what is happening in front of the camera, but you'll think it is an artifact ;~). 

Some LED lighting and displays also have timing issues that might intersect with the electronic shutter’s speed. Fortunately, Nikon has built High-frequency flicker reduction into the Z8, which allows you to set non-standard shutter speeds in as little as 1/96EV steps (normally we’re restricted to 1/3EV steps). Unfortunately, you’ll have to use trial and error to dial in the proper shutter speed in those situations.

Rolling shutter is not a big deal on the Z8; it’s basically unseen. There are still some limits to the electronic shutter, though. However, in practical use cases, you likely will never encounter them. 

I've long argued about Nikon's anemic marketing. I guess I have to be careful about what I wish for, because I've managed to in the preceding paragraphs provide arguably more technical detail than Nikon has. The Z8's launch was all about marketing, marketing, marketing, and the messages were simplified to “Ready. Action." Nikon marketing put very little meat on those bones, using adjectives and emotions more than facts and details.

Which brings us to another thing that Nikon is oversimplifying: subject detection autofocus that is "effortless." 

The Z8 can automatically detect and focus on humans (torso, face, eyes), animals (body, head, eyes), vehicles (body, front, detail), and airplanes (body, front, cockpit). Surprisingly, the engineers set the AF-area mode to Single point as default, which uses none of that ;~). Guess they didn't talk to marketing first. Marketing also calls this "scene detection," but it isn't actually detection of the scene, it's detection of a subject within a scene. 

You may note that each of the subjects the Z8 can detect—and yes, animals includes birds—has a hierarchy involved. You can see this at work at times as the camera figures out what to focus on (in an all-automatic mode). The Z8 may show a box on an animal's body, then narrow that to the face, then further narrow that to the eyes, and that can happen in a fraction of a second or instantly depending upon how confident the camera is in what it found. But the Z8 can also be less confident at times. I've seen plenty of examples in action where the camera will back off from the detail to a larger area (start with eyes but cycle back to head/face, for example), and that tends to be triggered by contrast/light changes. 

Nikon tweaked the autofocus capabilities that the Z8 uses several times during the Z9’s short history. They appear to have done another small tweak with the initial Z8 firmware. I suspect we’ll see Nikon continue to try to “tune” the subject detection in future firmware updates.

Automatic subject detection works in Auto-area AF and Wide-area AF (all four sizes). Meanwhile, Pinpoint, Single-point AF, and Dynamic-area AF (three sizes) all use more traditional direct phase detect methodologies for finding a focus point. A welcome addition is the return of 3D-tracking, which can combine subject detection with pattern/color matching. No more toggling into a tracking mode and back out, as on the previous mirrorless Nikons (other than the Z9). 

We also have the return of the AF-ON+AF-area mode and some new direct AF-area mode button-toggle options, so we now have a wide range of what's being called "hybrid focus" methods you can customize your camera to (hint: the one that made the YouTube rounds early on in the Z9 release cycle is not necessarily the one you want to use; I outline a number of options in my books on the Z8 and Z9). Coupled with the ability to reprogram the DISP button to a focus function, you can have as many as three autofocus control buttons at your right thumb tip (AF-ON, DISP, thumb stick press).

The focus system is (usually) being fed information at 120 fps, which means that at the top "normal" frame rate of 20 fps for still photography, the camera is getting six frames of focus data for every frame you take. That helps the Z8 perform excellent tracking on moving objects.

Since we're discussing frame rates for still photography, one of the "controversial" aspects of the Z8 and Z9 is that they “don't work at 30 fps, like the Sony A1 does." Well, they do, but only for JPEG files. And with none of the other limitations or footnotes you'll find in the A1 manual. Moreover, the Z8 will capture 19mp DX files at 60 fps, and full frame, reduced-size 11mp files at 120 fps, again with no focus, exposure, lens, or other limitations other than that they have to be JPEGs. Note that these three “fast” frame rates (30, 60, 120) also support pre-release capture, meaning that the camera can buffer up to a second’s worth of action prior to when you press the shutter release, and save those buffered images with the images created after the shutter release was pressed. The days of not getting the bird on a stick taking off are gone with the Z8 (and Z9). 

Since people keep asking me, I suspect that the JPEG-only limitation of the three top frame rates has to do with buffer depth versus data timing. Nikon hasn't added DRAM memory to the Z8 over the earlier cameras; I believe it still only has 2GB. Thus, in order to guarantee that what comes in can still get out (;~), Nikon has limited the 30 fps, 60 fps, and 120 fps rates to JPEG only (and yes, creating a NEF file takes longer, as the camera first has to create a JPEG to embed in the NEF file). 

You have more flexibility of frame rate than is suggested by the 20, 30, 60, and 120 numbers. At low continuous, you can choose 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 (actually 7.5), and 10 fps, and at high continuous you can choose 10, 12, 15, and 20 fps. Note that those numbers basically all divide into 120, so they are all blackout-free in the viewfinder, too. 

Even more interesting is that those can all be silent speeds, as well. Indeed, the "shutter sound" of the Z8 is all electronic, imitating a mechanical shutter. It's sort of eerie to be taking images without the camera producing noise. Besides turning on the imitation shutter sound, you can also turn on an imitation blackout (don't worry, it doesn't ever fully black out, it really just briefly dims between frames), or two different edge line patterns in the viewfinder that show up as an image is taken. You can also have the shutter sound only applied to headphones. If you don't want the camera to even produce VR, focus, or aperture sounds, not that those are particularly detectable, you can put the Z8 in Silent mode, though this will have an impact on frame rates. Also, you can't use flash in Silent mode. However, note that if the camera times out with VR active, the locking of the VR sled under the sensor will make a noise.

bythom z8 weatherseal.jpg

Of course, one of the important aspects of the Z8 is the body itself. The Z8 uses a hybrid body approach. The front frame of the camera, to which the lens mount, VR sled, and image sensor are tied, is magnesium alloy. The rest of the camera frame is a carbon-fiber infused polymer called Sereebo. The result is a lower weight for a frame/shell that essentially is continuous underneath all surfaces, and as tough as metal. Nikon claims the Z8 is weather-sealed at the same level as the Z9. Basically all joints and gaps (for controls) have a seal behind them (yellow, above).

bythom z8 top.jpg

Working our way around the body, the top should look very familiar to Nikon users of recent top-end pro cameras: a button cluster to the left of the viewfinder, settings display to the right, and the now "standard" array of three buttons just behind the shutter release. The left-hand button cluster has changed a bit from the Z9: the flash button is replaced by a WB (white balance) button.

Close observers will note that the two-button quick commands (reset and format card) are back. Reset is performed via the two buttons that have a green dot next to them; Formatting uses the two buttons with red sub-labels of Format

The hot shoe above the viewfinder is, unfortunately, just a Nikon-proprietary hot shoe. There isn't a special digital connector at the front as Canon and Sony have now added to their top cameras. Don't despair, if you need powered XLR mics from the camera, the 3.5mm microphone jack can provide power, and Tascam has already produced an audio accessory that uses that capability.

bythom Z8 back.jpg

The back of the Z8 should look very familiar. It’s the Z6/Z7 simplification of buttons coupled with the Z9 placements. Nikon has managed to merge the old DSLR flagship controls with the Z System controls pioneered with the Z6/Z7. This throws some in a tizzy at first—"the playback button isn't where I expect it!"—however Nikon's provided ways to customize the camera that should deal with most of those that have the cheese-moving jitters. I'll have more comments in the handling section, coming up.

bythom z8 tiltscreen.jpg

The Z8 for some reason gets the two-axis tilting Rear LCD from the Z9. It's a bit awkward to use, and it doesn't have as much tilt in either direction as I'd like, but it does mean you can attempt the overhead or underhand photos horizontally or vertically while composing on the Rear LCD. The size and resolution of the Rear LCD is still a 3.2", 2.1m dot TFT panel.

The Z8 viewfinder gets a lot of flack by people who had never looked through it. At 3.69m dot (Quad VGA), this just “isn't enough dots" for some, apparently. I don't know. Try putting a Quad VGA monitor just in front of your eyeball and tell me that's not enough. Nikon opted for two specific quality points with the viewfinder: (1) once again they've put high-quality optical elements between the 1/2" OLED display and your eye; and (2) the viewfinder is running 60Hz (usually; it can also run 120Hz) in as close to real time as we've seen in an electronic display. I've not had an issue with the quality of the viewfinder, nor have I heard a complaint from others using it in normal conditions. It’s the same as the Z9 viewfinder, and you don’t hear those users complaining. 

In really low light, or with high magnifications (zoomed in), yes, things begin to break down some in the viewfinder, as they do for every EVF I've seen to date. But in general operation, the Z8 viewfinder experience is smooth and it's very easy to forget you're looking at a screen. Plus it's a bright screen (OLED). So bright that Nikon opted to add a mode in the Z8 to preserve night vision, by essentially dimming the display and using only red pixels. Indeed, for night work, such as astrophotography, the viewfinder of most DSLRs is typically useless, where the Z8’s is still functional.

You might have noticed that thin rubber eyecup on the viewfinder. It's thin for a reason, as the eye point has pushed back another 1mm from the Z6/Z7 models. Nikon has added a special viewfinder size function to help us glasses wearers, though. The eyecup is removable/replaceable (Hoodman, Zemlin, and a few others now have some different versions; see my Z8 accessory page). 

The Z8 is powered by the most recent variant of the traditional smaller battery, the EN-EL15C. Yes, you can use most older EN-EL15's in the Z8, but only B and C versions can be charged in the camera via USB. However, note that original EN-EL15’s (no letter) not labeled Lion20 will not work in the Z8. Nikon officially says the Z8 supports EN-EL15A, EN-EL14B, and EN-EL15C batteries. Also, most third party versions of the battery do not seem to work. Battery life is rated at 330 shots CIPA worst case, but as I've noted many times before, the worst case CIPA measurement is really a time measurement, not an image count measurement. Think two-and-a-half hours of continuous power while photographing (video drops that to more like 90 minutes).  

I mentioned USB power, so let's talk about that for a moment. The Z8 comes with the MH-25A charger, which is AC powered. Nikon does not supply a USB power source with the camera, though they offer the EH-8P as an option, and the camera comes with the correct cable for that. More interestingly, the Z8 has two USB ports. This means that you can be powering the camera via the bottom PD (power delivery) version of the port while sending images out through the upper connector (USB-C 3.2 Gen 2). If the camera is on, external USB power is used, if connected to the bottom connector. If the camera is off, external USB power recharges the battery in the camera.

That extra USB port can provide Ethernet connectivity when using a dongle (Nikon currently approves the Anker A8313 PowerExpand adapter [Amazon link; as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases]

If you need more power, there’s the MB-N12 Battery Pack, which is an add-on vertical grip with positions for two EN-EL15 batteries. Note one oddity: to charge batteries in the MB-N12 you have to plug your USB power source into the MB-N12, not the camera. 

While we're talking about connections, the Z8 has plenty, and for the most part, these are exactly what we want: USB-C 3.2 Gen 2, HDMI Type A (full size), plus headphone and microphone jacks. 

Inside the camera we have 802.11b/g/n/a/ac (2/5Mhz) Wi-Fi (though with less range than the old external WT-6) and Bluetooth 5.0 Low Energy. 

Coupled with all that connectivity is a new NETWORK menu that includes Connect to smart device, Connect to computer, Connect to FTP, and even Connect to other cameras. Prepare to geek out if you want to get down in the bowels of that menu and configure the Z8 to connect to your favorite whatever. It can be done. It just might take some setup trial and error.

On the front of the camera we have the traditional 10-pin circular connection, which supports legacy remote control options, including the WR-R11a wireless transmitter (and the older WR-R10 version). It also supports external GPS devices. Unlike previous cameras, Nikon now orients the 10-pin connector diagonally; it's a little easier to get to the lock-down rings now than it was on earlier cameras. 

Nikon made a big deal about the video capabilities of the Z9 when it was announced, and they basically doubled down with the Z8; other than recording times, the video abilities between the two cameras are the same. 

The basic video abilities include: 8K 24/25/30, 4K 24/25/30/50/60/100/120, and Full HD 24/25/30/50/60/100/120. On the Z8, the smaller battery means that you’re going to max out at 85 minutes of recording using just one EN-EL15C. 

Nikon has done some voodoo with the Z8 internals: in my testing at room temps, I haven’t really encountered any meaningful time limits or overheating issues recording 4K internally. Indeed, at the highest such quality levels, you’re almost certainly going to run out of storage space before you overheat the camera.

For the basic video options, the Z8 offers internal 10-bit recording, and three basic compressions (ProRes 4:2:2HQ, H.265, and H.264, though which are available depends upon frame size/frame rate you set). N-Log and HLG are available, as well (again, varies with frame size/frame rate as to what's available). 

Serious videographers will find that they can also record up to 8K/50/60, and with either Nikon RAW (.NEV files) or ProRes RAW (both at 12-bit). However, you do need to be a bit careful with raw recording, as you can overheat the camera in 8K with them. Of course, given how much data is being produced, you might actually run out of card space first. 

As a 4K video camera, the Z8 offers a superb range of choice and can do so with the full sensor (using oversampling). I can't imagine that anyone needing 4K is going to be disappointed with the capabilities or the results. Moreover, as many of you may have noticed from all the Z8 promotional videos making the rounds, you can also record externally either with clean 4K HDMI and N-Log/HLG, or with the camera's display overlays active. A really nice touch. 

Along with raw video, Nikon has added additional video features to the Z8 that you might not have expected, such as a waveform display. With the Z8 not only do we have peak level zebras available, but we also have mid-tone zebras, as well (useful for many broadcast settings, so you see that you're putting most of the signal into the best tonal range).  

bythom z8 cards.jpg

Image and video storage on the Z8 comprises two card slots: the top one can mount XQD or CFexpress Type B cards, the bottom one can mount SD (UHS II compatible) cards. All the usual dual-slot capabilities Nikon has had in the past are available, including JPEG primary — JPEG secondary (which allows you to create a full-sized JPEG and a small JPEG for pushing off the camera via SnapBridge or another connection very quickly). 

I'm sure some of you will point out other things I haven't mentioned about the Z8's specifications; there's a lot going on in this new camera. If one of those things turn out to be important to note, I'll add it in an update to the review.

The Nikon Z8 is made in Thailand, and sells for US$4000 (with a one year region specific warranty). Deliveries began May 25, 2023. As of the date this review is published, most new orders for the Z8 in the US now tend to get filled either from stock or within about a month from a reliable dealer.

Source of the reviewed camera: purchased via NPS Priority Purchase (disclaimer: NikonUSA leant me a production Z8 in the month prior to shipping my personal unit, which is why I was able to finish my book prior to the camera’s first shipments).

Nikon's Web page for the camera.

Thom's Complete Guide to the Nikon Z8 book. Almost 1300 pages of detailed information and suggestions.

Note: the first Z8 deliveries were subject to a Service Advisory related to the lens mount. Nikon will repair any affected camera, with no time limit on that repair at the moment. 

I’ve also been able to verify four cases of neckstrap lugs pulling out from the Z8 cameras (among about 30,000 cameras currently in the field). This issue, unfortunately, has gone through the Internet Amplification Effect, making it seem much more prevalent than it appears to be. Nikon is looking into whether this is an issue that needs redressing, but at the moment it feels much more like a very small number of cameras in the initial production prior to launch having a part installed incorrectly. Given that anyone buying a Z8 today would be getting something manufactured after Nikon was aware of the issue, that would imply that any new purchase shouldn’t have a strap lug issue because Nikon is looking for it during assembly. 

How's it Handle?

Those of you who've been following my work since forever are probably expecting me to write about cheese that's moved (it's a tongue in cheek reference to a seminal book). Oh boy was a lot of cheese moved by Nikon with the Z9, and that’s trickled over to the Z8. Buttons, menus, and icons all apparently decided on mass migration on the Z8/Z9 compared to where they were on Nikon's previous flagships and other Z cameras. 

For the most part, those migrations don’t bother me much. The Z System was already establishing a bit different “button culture” than the DSLR bodies, and the Z8 simply picks up and embellishes on that, though it will stomp on some of your fingers in a number of cases. Most of Nikon’s changes make sense, a few don’t. I will say this: a Z8/Z9 body combo makes more sense from a control standpoint than a Z8/Z7 II combo, and that’s because of control migration.

First up, we have the return of the Focus Mode button. However, it’s location is different. The new location is not at the lens mount, but much further back on the side of the body, in a diagonal cutout. This clearly impacts your hand position when using it. Whereas on the DSLRs your left thumb was often in a natural position to get to the Focus Mode button, that’s no longer true, I find my thumb not wanting to go so far back to find the button by feel. Ding the score -1.

The top button cluster to the left of the viewfinder as you’re photographing now has four buttons instead of three (+1), but the returning button positions have moved (-1) and the Metering and Flash button are now gone (completely, so -1), replaced by a Drive button I’ll get to later in this section, and a WB button (partial +). On the other side of the top of the Z8, though, the buttons have remained the same (Movie, ISO, Exposure Compensation).

Heading out back, the number one complaint I’ve heard is that the playback button became a protect button. Fortunately, it’s also programmable in playback to be…a playback button (+1). We no longer have an AE-AF lock button (-1). The rest of the back button changes are mostly tidying up positions and conforming to the other full frame Z cameras (arguably +1). 

On the front of the camera we have two Fn buttons (+1), but their positions feel odd to a lot of people (-1), including myself. My fingers have now grown used to their position, though. Both buttons have more options in customization than any camera other than the Z9 (+1).

If you’re adding up all the dings, we keep coming back to near zero! The button scenario was literally Nikon giveth and taketh. I wish they would have giveth a bit more and taketh a bit less, but I’ve learned to live with it, particularly after Nikon fixed and added a few things through firmware updates in the Z9 that have migrated to the Z8. And particularly because the Z8 and Z9 now have nearly the identical controls and layout. It’s very easy to set up both cameras the same and move back and forth between them without stumbling or getting confused. Note: firmware C4.00 for the Z9 added another complexity for someone also using a Z8: the Z9 has more buttons that are customizable, and more button customizations. However, for the most common use setups, I don’t think you’ll have a problem making your Z8 and Z9 match.

I dealt with the control changes from the Z7 II by changing what I customize and why. Here’s the downside to that: my Z8 no longer matches my Z7 II in control positions I use. I’ve written about how cognitive dissonances in controls are a bad thing. I first mentioned that almost 30 years ago, and I yelled so loud when Nikon moved the Exposure compensation button on the N80 that they put it back on the very next camera and have never moved it since (okay, it’s wiggled around a little ;~). For awhile in the DSLR era we were in a good place with very few cognitive dissonances when changing bodies. With the Z8/Z9 versus the Z6/Z7 models we’re back to dealing with Apples and Oranges, and recognizing which variety you have in your hand.

So you probably want some good news after that somewhat harsh paragraph. Okay, try this: Nikon finally heard us when it came to customizations, and even went a step further. First, we have more buttons that can be configured to almost any function, which gives us much more flexibility in setting up the camera for our style. Second, virtually all of the programmable buttons now have more options. Moreover, buttons can be programmed differently for composing versus playback. The net effect is that the Z8, like the Z9, is about the most customizable Z camera yet, by far, and very flexible in how you can configure it. Given how sophisticated the Z8 is and how many options it has, you’re going to (eventually) appreciate that. Of course, getting started is daunting. The configuration tables I had to develop for my book were, well, extensive. Even I have to look at them for awhile before figuring out what I think I should program to what. 

I noted earlier that Nikon went a step further, so I should explain. From Day One of the Z System I was loudly complaining about the removal of AF-ON+AF-area mode as a configuration option for the programmable buttons. I’ve kept that complaint up ever since, and have been joined by a chorus of other complainers. Well, it’s back on the Z8 (and Z9). But Nikon snuck in another option: AF-area mode. Yep, you can also instantly just switch AF-area mode via button. These two things bring about a range of “hybrid” autofocusing techniques that I describe more fully in my book. I won’t go into it here because, well, there are now a ton of options, and it takes a fair amount of text to convey everything that’s possible, particularly since I also suggest that you reprogram the DISP button to a focus function. 

The card door on the Z8 is going to come up in any Z8 handling complaint list: it’s the Z6/Z7 pull-back-and-release style. As many Z6/Z7 users can tell you, you’ll find yourself accidentally opening that door at times. It doesn’t overly bother me that the door accidentally opens ocassionally. However, it’s important to know that the card slots are soldered directly to the main electronics board in the camera. What that means is that, when the door is open, the inside of the camera is in danger if water is present (e.g. the door accidentally opens while it is drizzling). 

The funny thing is this: Nikon hasn’t gotten a card slot door “right” for at least a half a decade. The locking alternative they put on the Z9 has the opposite problem: most people find it too tough to open even when they’re paying attention. Is there a Card Slot Door School Nikon can send someone to? I hope so. This is getting embarrassing.

I’ve heard people complain about the lack of a Release Mode dial on the Z8 (the Z9 has one, as well as the Release Mode button it shares with the Z8). Personally, I’d like to go shake the hand of the person who made the decision to finally abandon the Release Mode dial. It’s been the bane of Nikon pros for a long time. The locking mechanism is fiddly (and difficult to find with gloves on), and it’s a slow way of making what we often need to be a fast change. I like the Release Mode button setting style of the Z8 better.

Finally, we have to talk about the “articulating” Rear LCD. I appreciate that Nikon decided to abandon the fixed Rear LCD of the previous flagship cameras, and the tilting Rear LCD on the consumer cameras. But the one thing I would have liked the most—the ability to flip the screen so that it faces the camera and is protected during travel—is not part of the design that Nikon came up with. Instead, we have a double-hinge mechanism with limited travel in the three directions we’d most like to move it, and too much travel in the other direction. 

I’ve seen some Nikon personnel holding Z8’s and Z9’s by the extended/tilted Rear LCD as if to assure everyone that it is robust enough for a high-end camera. We’ll see if they’re still doing that in another year or two (doubtful). So here we have another place where I have to assign -1 and +1 values, but they still result in a total of 0 “didn’t really add value” conclusion. 

I’m going to do something else in this review I don’t usually do, too: I recommend that you install one of those inexpensive glass protectors over the Z8’s Rear LCD. The Rear LCD is more vulnerable and not as toughened as on previous Nikon top-end cameras, in my opinion. Yanking on the tilt/tilt mechanism all the time isn’t going to help things. I’ll bet Nikon finds that they’re repairing a fair number of Rear LCDs over time. 

The problem with all these small handling glitches, particularly the physical ones, is that they make the Z8 feel a bit less robust than some previous top end Nikon cameras. The card door, adjusting LCD mechanism, and even some of the controls, such as the thumb stick, all feel cheap and somewhat flimsy. 

That all takes away from one big thing that the Z8 gets right: it just feels right in the hand. The hand position, grip-ability, and control locations are generally highly functional and comfortable. Heck, even my mom picked up the camera and had immediately had that comment. 

There’s something about the Z8 that just feels right when you use it. And once you’ve customized the controls and gotten used to them, the Z8 is going to do as you wish using only your fingertips.

Bottom line: You’re going to find handling differences, particularly from the DSLR models, but you’re going to adjust to them and like them. 

How's it Perform?

EVF: This is not usually a category that I have to include in my reviews, but Nikon’s marketing and a lot of Sony trolling made me do it. By that, I mean that Nikon has overpromised to reality. The promise Nikon marketing still makes is this: totally blackout free viewfinder that’s real time and has virtually no lag. The claim that Sony trolls make is that it it is too low in resolution and thus can’t be good. Both claims are wrong.

Nikon's promise of blackout free is absolutely true at shutter speeds of 1/250 and faster. At fast shutter speeds it is clear that Nikon has done something magical with the Z8: the Z8 sporting and wildlife photography experience at high shutter speeds is better than Canon’s or Sony’s, both of which jitter by skipping and replaying frames, and which can have more lag to reality at times. The Z8 is smooth and provides excellent timing response at high shutter speeds.

At shutter speeds lower than 1/250 things get difficult to describe. The EVF data stream that Nikon talks about being in parallel with the image side is actually in parallel with the autofocus and metering stream, not the actual image stream. But you’re sometimes no longer giving that stream 60 or 120 updates a second due to the image sensor being used for taking an image at shutter speeds below 1/250. Thus, occasionally at the longer shutter speeds you may see some blackout or more likely jump between EVF updates.

People keep asking me about how good do I find the Z8’s viewfinder, and they mostly center that question on the fact that the Z8 EVF has fewer dots and a slower maximum refresh rate than some of the competitors (caveat: many of the competitors have footnotes that take away those advantages in many circumstances). Let me be clear: the Z8 viewfinder has plenty of dots, and 60Hz is just fine for most users in terms of "smoothness”. But if you want it, you can set 120Hz and chew up your battery faster. Plus the Z8 EVF doesn’t lag. 

However, using the Z8 at slow shutter speeds is definitely different and noticeable in the viewfinder. I’d judge the Z8 EVF to be more like Sony’s A9 EVF in the lower than 1/250 shutter speeds that give you no blackout (only the A9 continues to jitter, skip, and repeat frames at all higher shutter speeds). I’d call this a “dirty” display below 1/250, because it doesn’t have the smoothness or total link to real time that you see once you’re using higher shutter speeds (which I'd call a "clean" display). At below 1/8 second, the Z8 is sometimes just like a DSLR: blackout for the entire length of the image capture. 

The fact that I can describe this but Nikon marketing cannot (or will not) should be embarrassing to them. Moreover, it has the consequence, once discovered by the potential customer, to make that customer doubt all the other claims Nikon makes. Thing is, Nikon has done better than Canon and Sony with the Z8 real-time EVF for most situations, in my judgement, but then is taking their claims too far. That will come back to haunt them. 

Buffer: Beware, a can of worms is about to be opened. If you don’t like worms, move on. 

Short version: avoid XQD and SD cards, and if buffer size is truly important to you, get CFexpress cards with the highest possible sustained throughput. 

Long version: The Z8 has a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality when it comes to the buffer. Let’s deal with the worst case scenario first: you only use Lossless compressed NEF. This generates the largest files the Z8 can create, and has the only substantive buffer restrictions you might encounter. 

With an XQD card and the Z8 set to 20 fps and Lossless compressed NEF you might get 30-40 images (or less on slower cards) before the buffer fills and the camera slows down, way down. Emphasis on "might." Substitute a CFexpress card and the minimum usually jumps to at least 60 images, while many will produce around 80 images before the buffer fills. On those latter cards, when the buffer fills the frame rate will drop, but probably only to between the 5-10 fps range while the buffer is full.  

The fastest card I’ve found to date is the Nextorage B1 Pro card (a new company formed a group of former Sony card engineers; how come the best cards seem to be coming from spin-out companies? ;~). The buffer hits about 90 images at my usual settings with my Nextorage card. 

40 images (XQD best) and 90 images (CFexpress best) might not seem like much on a 20 fps camera. That’s two seconds and nearly five seconds before the buffer fills. So you probably want some good news. Okay, try this: set the Z8 to 12 fps or 15 fps. At one of those frame rates you'll find that your Z8 will now seem to go on forever with any fast CFexpress card, as worst case tends to be in the many hundreds of images, and in one case I measured it at well over 1000 images and eventually gave up. Suddenly we’re between a half minute and full minute in buffer size! All I did was slow the camera's frame rate down a bit. 

But it gets better. Set High efficiency* and the usual buffer limit will lift to several hundred or more images with most CFexpress cards. Set High efficiency and the buffer will be essentially infinite. I’ll deal with these formats more in the image quality section, below.

But it also gets worse. As you probably know from my previous writing, cameras are only as fast as the slowest card in use. The Z8 has two card slots, and the SD cards you stick in the bottom slot can be dramatically slower than a CFexpress card you put in the top slot. So when you use something like Backup for Secondary slot function suddenly the camera is only as fast as the SD slot. This can drop performance considerably, to the point where I generally don’t put a second card in the camera. If I need image backup, I use one CFexpress card to take all my photos, then put an SD card in the second slot and use Copy images.

I’m perfectly happy with the buffer performance of the Z8. (1) I rarely use long bursts of 20 fps. (2) I mitigate things by using the right card in the CFexpress slot. (3) I use only one CFexpress card in the camera while photographing.

If you’re into video, particularly 8K or 4K slow motion or raw video, you absolutely need fast sustained write CFexpress cards, ones that can do at least 800MBps sustained (not maximum speed). Such cards include the Angelbird Pro AV, Delkin Black, or ProGrade Cobalt ones.

Battery life: Ignore the CIPA rating. The CIPA battery rating was really developed for consumer cameras and very casual camera use. It really is a stress test for the amount of time the battery will last. That’s because the actual test is to take an image every 30 seconds, but the test essentially forces the camera to be “active” all the time between images. So the worst case 330 number from CIPA testing is really saying the Z8 can photograph for about two-and-a-half hours before exhausting the battery if you dribble out images. Nikon’s other battery statistic of 2280 images while taking bursts is sort of the opposite: it’s a least stress test. You’re likely to get something in between in actual use.

I’ve been tracking both my and several other photographers' battery usage statistics. I’ll do a quick and dirty analysis here and say that you should easily be getting 500 images and still have a little battery charge left for most uses. If you’re mostly doing burst-style photography, you’ll be getting higher numbers than 500. I’ve taken well into the thousands of images during my testing, but only in situations where I’ve been photographing action and using long bursts.  

Focus: Let me state right out front that there is no perfect autofocus system. No camera on the planet is going to 100% put focus where you want it 100% of the time. Moreover, as focus systems have gotten better, I've noticed more and more people complaining about the focus system when it's actual something else that's triggering their issue. So all those quotes, all those YouTube videos, and all that marketing that says "it just focuses right" are dead wrong. 

Focus systems are a tool that allow you to get the results you want easier. In that regard I believe I can safely say that the Z8 will help you do that better when compared to almost any previous Nikon camera other than the Z9. But if you think the Z8 is now effectively just a "point and shoot" camera, you'd probably be wrong, or at least you're likely to be eventually disappointed.

Let's start with automatic subject detection and humans. I can easily say that the Z8, and the Z9 before it, are the best Z System cameras to date at finding and focusing on human subjects. They're darned good at it, does it at a greater distance to the subject than previous cameras, and they dial into the pupils more accurately than before. The Z8 doesn't have any real problems tracking a human. But...

The issues you might have begin to come up with multiple people in the frame. The Z8 is going to pick one person to concentrate focus on, and it will also put a faint box on the others it sees (which you can activate as the new subject by using the Direction pad). Frankly, this starts to require a lot of user input in a number of situations (e.g. event photography). And my reacting and pressing the Direction pad is a "lag" that, in some cases (e.g. sports) puts me behind what's happening. 

Yes, you can narrow the area over which subject detection is done. I strongly suggest you do so, when you can. You do this by choosing Wide-area AF (small) or Wide-area AF (large) or by defining and selecting one of the two custom versions Wide-area AF (C1) and Wide-area AF (C2). I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most people using those modes don't understand them. The box you see in those modes is not a box in which the subject has to be completely contained. If you're using these modes you need to be aware that the subject detection can and will often occur outside the box. Put the box completely on someone's neck, for instance, and their eyes may be detected ;~). 

The larger variants of Wide-area are thus sometimes problematic if they can see parts of two subject's simultaneously. As I suggested with the Sony A1's automatic focus detection: if you're struggling to get the camera to focus on the subject you want, narrow what the camera can see. This is absolutely true with the Z8, as well. Of course, once you go completely narrow, you now have to start moving the focus box (or camera) to keep up with the subject. That's not "point and shoot”!

bythom US PA LittleLehigh 5-2023 Z8 6421.jpg

One thing I’ve noticed with the Sony A1 is that it often has issues of dark eye on dark bird head. The Z8 does not.

bythom US PA LittleLehigh 5-2023 Z8 6520.jpg

When multiple subjects come into the frame with subject detection, you need to be ready to either make choices or go narrower in detection area. It’s basically what I’ve been writing for a long time: make sure you know how the autofocus system works, and how you can nudge and control it to do what you want.

3D-tracking is back on the Z8, and when it's coupled with subject detection, it can be uncanny, at least until it isn’t ;~). The combination of subject, color, and pattern detection generally provides really good follow focus, even on fast or erratic motion. However, I've seen instances where for some reason it gets confused and begins to be off in its tracking. In sports, I've seen it jump to another part of a player, probably because of a light shift on the color of the uniform, or once even to another player. With animals—particularly ones that are not well recognized by the subject detection cases—I've seen it jump to another part of the animal or even the background. Beware of subjects that are the same color as the background, which is sometimes the case of birds in flight dipping below the horizon and having a natural clutter behind them instead of sky. 

I know I'll get pushback on this, but I personally prefer the guarantee of closest subject priority in Group AF on my D6 to any of the Z8 choices in certain situations. There's no such "certainty mode" on the Z8, as it has the same tendency as do all Nikon and Sony mirrorless cameras to lock onto bright, contrasty backgrounds when it gets confused. 

Finally, there's the question that even NikonUSA seems to be somewhat confused about: low light focus performance. In one seminar for NPS members in 2022, Nikon said that the Z6 was the best at focusing in low light (at the time they were comparing to the Z9, but this would also apply to the Z8). The problem with that answer is that apples are being compared to kumquats. 

Yes, sometimes the Z6 is the better low light camera than a Z8 in terms of focus. I'm talking about real low light levels, below 0EV. The reason has to do with having a bigger photosite than the Z8 (and Z7 and Z9 models). More area = more photons = more data for the focus system. But it's a little trickier than that. The real advantage the Z6 has is that the focus rows have more vertical area (short axis) than the Z7/Z8/Z9. What I think tends to happen in low light, particularly with low contrast areas, is that the Z6 simply finds something to grab hold of that the Z7/Z8/Z9 won't see as well. Maybe it finds a little short axis detail that the Z8 doesn't, and that's enough to lock on. Maybe it gets more useful data from the larger pixel size under the focus point. 

The kumquat stuck in the gears is that the Z6 doesn't have the focus horsepower that the Z8 has. If both cameras can see detail, the Z8 wins, simply because of EXPEED7 over EXPEED6. If Nikon were ever to stack the Z6 sensor and give it EXPEED7, they'd have a real winner in light where my eyes can't even focus. I'm not overly concerned about a Z8 in low light, though. I will try to make sure that it has areas of contrast to focus on, though. I could see in some pre-dawn situations, for instance, that the Z8 wasn't finding anything it could recognize to focus on, and I had to help it. Note that the subject detection mechanism doesn’t recognize an elephant, which is part of the issue if you’re trying to photography elephants at dawn.

Which brings me back to the added customizations that Nikon put back into the Z8: AF-ON+AF-area and AF-area itself. Everyone should be setting their Z8 up with some form of hybrid autofocus. By hybrid, I mean that the camera is normally set for one way of invoking focus (button and area), but you've got controls on the camera configured to immediately override that when you need it. 

For instance, you normally use Back Button Focus with Wide-area (Large) and Subject Detection. But at the press of another button you can do a lot of things: switch AF-area mode, or cancel Subject Detection, for instance (the latter is a kludge that involves Recall settings, but it can be done). Some wildlife photographers early on discovered that not using Back Button Focus, but to leave the shutter release set to Auto-area AF, and then program the AF-ON button to AF-ON+AF-area (3D-tracking) gave them better and more consistent results.

There are literally dozens of ways you can configure the focus system to have a split personality like that, which is why I complained so loudly to Nikon when they removed AF-ON+AF-area as a button customization on the earlier Z models. The Z8 now joins the D5, D6, and Z9 (and a lesser degree D850/D500) in being able to change focus decision making on demand. 

Image Quality: tl;dr: mostly think Z7 II. 

On the surface, most seem to think that Nikon took the D850/Z7/Z7 II image sensor and just stacked it. Nope. The Z8 clearly has a unique version of the image sensor (shared with the Z9), and we're still all scratching our heads about how a 52.37mp sensor becomes a 45.7mp one. I have a theory, though I can't prove it. 

That's because the extra photosites that don't show up in the image data are used as black reference. A lot of black reference. These pixels are masked from light and provide a great deal of information about low level pattern and noise potential. The thing that makes me say that is that the one aspect of image quality I see that's clearly changed from the Z7/Z7 II is long exposure noise. Nikon's still doing their usual things in the background, but the results are different. A 15-minute exposure on my Z8 simply doesn't show amp noise, hot pixels, or FPN the way my Z7 II does. Not that there aren't hot pixels, but they are remarkably restrained, and I couldn't find any measurable amp noise, which tends to push images magenta. And not that there isn't fixed pattern noise, but again, like the D6 it is remarkably constrained. I believe that Nikon has added extra non-light pixels on every row that gives them the ability to detect how the image sensor is changing with long exposure and heat. 

Landscape photographers using strong ND filters and astrophotographers are the primary beneficiaries of the good long exposure tendencies of the Z8. For landscape, still life, and macro photography I have no reservations about the Z8's image quality. For astrophotography, it's also quite good for a standard camera with no filtration alteration. 

At high ISO values, the Z8 is very Z7 II-like, though it doesn't tend towards magenta at extremely high ISO values like the Z7 II and some other previous Nikon bodies do. 

bythom US PA LittleLehigh 5-2023 Z8 6632.jpg

The usual indictment of the Z8/Z9 sensor is that it doesn’t have as much dynamic range as the Z7 II (or fill-in-the-blank competitor). This image demonstrates that this is mostly over measurebating. I’ve pulled the highlights down just enough to show that there’s plenty more information in the sunlit white feathers, and shadows up just enough to show that there’s detail in the in-shadow black side of the head. I could do more, but then I’d have to be juggling all the mid-tone values too, in order to keep the sense of a sunlit area versus a shaded area. In my use of the Z8, I’m just not finding that dynamic range is a limiting factor in my work.

I will say a couple of things I've discovered about getting the best possible image quality out of a Z8. Don't underexpose if you can avoid it. It's not that you can't pull up dark detail, it's that Adobe converters aren't particularly optimized for the Z8 (even though Adobe now says they are). I've found, for instance, that I often have to move much of the exposure upwards for a Z8 NEF using Adobe’s default rendering. If you underexpose significantly, this becomes a slider balancing issue. You'll ultimately have a bit more trouble getting the dark shadows positioned where you want them without crunching the tonal curve. It shouldn't be that way, but something about the way Adobe is approaching the Z8 conversions and the resulting tonal curve seems incorrect to me. I can make conversions work the way I want them to, but only by not underexposing and by using a bunch of small preset changes in the conversion.

Ultimately, the Z8 is very much like a Z7 II in image quality. I'm very comfortable running it out to ISO 1600. My typical base setting is ISO 500 if I don't use ISO 64. ISO 64 = 11+ stops usable dynamic range, while 500 = nearly 9 stops usable range, and 1600 = is still almost 8 stops usable range. That's more than slide film. I have no issues with those numbers for any work, large or small, cropped or full frame. I'm also not afraid of ISO 3200 or 6400. With care in exposure and perhaps some gentle post production, they also work quite well, though I'm losing dynamic range that will force me to make some exposure decisions in highly contrasty light. Above that, I only go in a pinch, just like with my D850 or Z7 II, though again, the Z8 doesn't tend to color drift like those other two do at 12800 and above.

Which brings us to the last image quality subject to deal with: quality choices other than Lossless compressed NEF. Let's deal with JPEG first: I have to say that Nikon sure manages to make good looking JPEGs, even if you crank up the compression (but be careful of using extremes in the Picture Control parameters). In my testing, an optimal quality JPEG Fine was about 20MBs in size, while a size priority JPEG Basic was 3.5MBs, but I'd be darned if I could find much to distinguish between them at actual pixel view. Yes, the latter will tend to block up or product mosquito artifacts at times, but at 45MP I'm doubtful that you'll notice that until you make a print that isn’t getting at least 300 dpi. 

As usual, there's nothing at all to complain about in Nikon's JPEG in-camera rendering. It's excellent, and has been since the early days of DSLRs.

The Z8 added HEIF, and did so in a confusing fashion. It isn’t a specific thing you set in Image quality. Instead, a new Tone mode control determines whether you’ll capture a JPEG (Tone mode = SDR) or HEIF (Tone mode = HLG). Some of you might recognize HLG as a video setting. Indeed, HEIF is using the H.265 video codec built into the camera to create a hybrid log gamma image. But that image is also saved in a video color space (BT.2020; basically similar to what some know as P3, but with more extension into the greens). Moreover, only three Picture Controls are allowed with HEIF (Standard, Monochrome, and Flat), and your “base ISO” now becomes 400 (because the image sensor itself is using a different path for charge being converted to a final DN [digital number]). “Base ISO” is in parens here because there’s not really a change that impacts the shadows in terms of noise.

That’s a lot of grief built into just wanting to use a different file format. There’s some method to Nikon’s madness, though. The primary application of 10-bit HEIF these days is to get matching stills for video productions. You can now effectively do that with the Z8 by setting your camera’s still and video settings to complementary HLG values (e.g. HEIF and H.265 set identically). 

Like JPEG, when the camera is “HEIF mode” you have the choice between optimal or size priority, and fine, normal, and basic compression. This all gets confusing very fast. And remember you can also set the camera to produce NEF+JPEG/HEIF! I’ve already sent a message to Nikon about how they set all this up in a way that causes confusion and keeps you from making quick changes, and how they could have done it much more elegantly using the current menu hierarchies. We’ll see if they do anything about it. 

Unfortunately, not very many people will even try HEIF because of the way things currently work. Which is too bad. You may have noted that videographers have long been working with 10-bit H.265 compressions and producing Hollywood-quality HDR output from that data. To do so, they “grade” the footage in post processing. Well, you can do the same thing with HEIF out of the Z8: the 10-bit Standard and Flat files both post process very well. More importantly, the 10-bit Standard HEIF, displayed as is on an HDR-capable monitor that understands what it’s getting, looks excellent: the shadows and mid tones are intact, and the highlights are extended. But few people are using HDR-capable displays at the moment (and mostly those are doing video production). (Aside: Nikon and Sony use HLG tone form for their HEIF images, while Canon uses a PQ tone form.)

While most Z8 users are not going to be using HEIF, there is a related function in the camera they probably will be using: High efficiency NEF, which comes in two forms. This is really PicoRAW, a third party proprietary format created by intoPIX. Moreover, PicoRAW is basically a high quality H.265 complete single frame when you peel off the skin. EXPEED7 has the hardware coding in it to do this form of compression, and is wicked fast in doing so. To the point where that 80 frame buffer on some cards suddenly becomes a 1000+ frame one. 

Unlike HEIF (which is High Efficiency Image Format), High efficiency NEF is truly raw data, not final white balanced nor tone managed data. Nikon is cleverly imposing one of the best video codecs onto a raw data stream to produce a quality still image. 

I’ve evaluated these formats on the Z9, and they’re the same on the Z8: my conclusion far is that with High efficiency* you get a bit of extra noise in the deepest shadows, but no other observable changes. That means that if you have a raw converter program that can handle the format, there’s virtually no significant visual penalty to do so and a huge benefit from a vastly increased buffer size. The benefits of High efficiency* are real: smaller file size, huge buffer, with little or no visual impact on final image. 

Because High Efficiency is really a compression controlled by a third party (intoPIX), that means that raw converters are dependent upon the PicoRAW SDK from intoPIX, for which it took some time to provide Apple Silicon routines. As I write this review, Nikon NX Studio, Adobe ACR/Lightroom, DxO Photo Lab, Capture One 22, and On1 RAW, all directly support the High Efficiency file NEF files. Because Apple provides support for the format in macOS Ventura and the current iPadOS, some third party developers using the Apple-provided routines may eventually be able to do so (e.g. Affinity Photo 2 uses the Apple routines), but they haven’t been updated yet for the Z8 as I write this. 

I use the High efficiency formats when I need the buffer space, otherwise I stick to Lossless compressed NEF, which produces the cleanest data set out of the camera.

Overall, image quality on the Z8 is top notch. Landscape photographers may grumble that there’s a bit more noise (less dynamic range) at base ISO, but anyone that uses ISO 500 and higher is going to find the results out of the Z8 are essentially state-of-the-art for 45mp. 

Final Words

I’ve been tough on Nikon in a few places in this review. The reality is that this was mostly nit-picking. If Nikon set their sights on producing the best possible all-around camera at an aggressive price, they can consider it mission accomplished. 

The two things that give most people pause are: (1) battery life; (2) mis-matched card slots. If you’re not complaining about Z6/Z7 battery life, you’re not going to complain about Z8 battery life. If you’re not complaining about Z6 II/Z7 II/D500/D850 mismatched card slots, you’re not going to complain about the card use in the Z8. If you are going to complain about those two things, it’s really a small adjustment in your use that will get you around the “problem.” 

Nikon seems to want to market the Z8 two ways: (1) as a hybrid still/video champion; and (2) as the logical candidate for D850 users to update to. #1 is a win: mission accomplished. #2 is a misfire: D850 users are stubbornly clinging to a few myths about their camera, and Nikon’s marketing does nothing to debunk those myths. 

Let me repeat something I keep hearing from Z9 and now Z8 buyers: “wow, that EVF is better than I thought. I see what the advantage is now.” A Z8 viewfinder displays more—or less, your choice—information than a D850, shows you what your settings actually look like, has viewfinder tools that the D850 will never get (magnification and focus peaking, for example), and is clear, sizable, and blackout free. On pretty much every other “the D850 is better” argument, I can give you a similar list of where the Z8 is actually the better choice. 

However, the real pushback that the D850 user has isn’t vested in features or performance; it’s simply a balk at price paid for gain achieved. 

Used D850’s these days fetch far less than US$2000 in resale (and less in trade), but let me be generous: to upgrade from a D850 to a Z8 is at least US$2500 for the camera (cost minus trade), probably US$200 in useful parts (plates, etc.), another US$200 to get at least one fast CFe card, US$100 for an FTZ adapter, and then the thing that would really make the Z8 sing over the D850: new lenses. At almost every direct comparison point to date outside of the telephoto lenses, the Z-mount version of a lens is clearly and significantly better than the F-mount one. 

Thus, for that D850 user to get “full benefit” of migrating to mirrorless, they’re faced with a many thousand dollar proposition. Even D800 and D810 users, who would be getting some other clear benefits in upgrading to a Z8, will face the same problem. (Simple partial solution: Nikon needs to offer an aggressive F-for-Z rebate program, which would provide an extra incentive to trade in D8xx gear for Z8 gear.)

Against the competition, the Z8 looks pretty good. Canon (temporarily?) lowered their price for the R5, which has a somewhat difficult time matching the Z8 at the US$4000 price point. Sony doesn’t really have a direct competitor: the Z8 straddles the A7 Mark IV to A1 really nicely, while the A7R Mark V is a bit of a different camera. In terms of all-around competence, I’d currently place the competitors for all-around camera at #1 Z8, #2 Canon R5 or Sony A1, and #3 Sony A7 Mark V, though it’s a very competitive race.

The Z8 still has some things that could be improved. Nikon’s been going backwards with Multiple exposure, yet it would be very easy to turn that function into something much more useful. Likewise, the Z8 doesn’t have pixel shift, though I’m not as keen a fan of that as some, as it really is a situation specific function that has a lot of foibles in the way most companies have implemented it. There’s still no live raw exposure help (real raw histograms, zebra stripes, anything). 

With two Z9’s in my sports bag, the question is whether a Z8 replaces one of those, and do I replace the Z9 with the Z8 for general use? My answer so far is a strong lean to yes. Some of that is just age: less bulk and weight is just easier for me to deal with now, and I give up very little using a Z8 instead of a Z9. I do have to bring more batteries with me, though, which negates some of the weight advantage.

As I’ve written several times, the Z9 is about the best camera you can buy, if not the best. But the Z8 is ridiculously close to a Z9 at a far lower price. Thus it’s not difficult to say:

Highly Recommended (2023 to present)

Bonus coverage: So, you like what Nikon is doing with this new sensor and processor. You have two choices to obtain it, though: Z8 and Z9. How do you decide between the two? The price differential is US$1500, so what justifies paying the higher Z9 price? 

A few things, actually. First and foremost is how strenuously you’re using the camera. The larger battery in the Z9 is a day(s)-long power source for almost any photographic situation I’ve been in. On safari, I’m taking a lot of images, and often using GPS to log my movement, and I’m not having to change batteries during the day. With the Z8, without GPS, I am. In “heated” situations (constant action sports, highly productive wildlife scenarios), I don’t want to be switching batteries, as I may miss the action. 

I’d also say that if you’re considering putting the MB-N12 on your Z8, you probably should have bought a Z9. Yes, I know, you can take it off and go lighter at times. But in my experience, most users that put a vertical grip attachment on their Nikon body aren’t taking it on and off. It goes on and stays on. The MB-N12 gives you more power, sure, but still not as much as the Z9 in actual use. Moreover, the Z9 body is the usual “built as good as they come”, while a Z8 with an MB-N12 has vulnerabilities and not as rugged. 

The third thing to consider is cards. That second slot being SD in the Z8 has performance implications if you use it. If you’re photographing action a lot and using two cards, the Z9 simply is the better choice, as it won’t be slowing to the lower SD speeds to do something. 

Finally it’s also now unclear whether the Z8 will stay matched to the Z9 in feature set. When the Z9 C4.00 firmware was announced with Auto Capture, at least two Nikon subsidiaries said “the Z8 will get this feature in a firmware update.” Those statements have been rescinded (physically edited out of the material they were in). Does this mean that Nikon has changed its mind and will let the Z8 remain a subset of the Z9? Unknown until it is known ;~). 

No matter what your final choice might be, you’re getting a remarkably capable camera. The primary benefit of Nikon’s new stacked image sensor and the way they handle it (viewfinder, focus, etc.) is essentially the same in both cameras.

Finally: if you’re interested in how the Z8 performs underwater, see this review: 

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