Nikon Z8 hands-on

Hands on with the new Nikon Z8

It’s here! Almost five years after its creation of the mirrorless Z mount, Nikon has released the Z8, the long-awaited true ‘spiritual successor’ (Nikon’s words) to its popular D850 DSLR.

Unsurprisingly, the Z8 packs in a lot more functions than its mirrored forebear of six years ago, and for a higher price. So what does $4,000 buy you in Nikon land these days, and how does the Z8 stack up against the Z7 II and the flagship Z9? Read on to find out.

Meet the new sensor – same as the old sensor

At the heart of the Z8 is a very familiar, very important component – a 45.7-megapixel Stacked CMOS sensor, which is likely to be an evolution of the sensor we first saw in the D850, way back in 2017. That sensor has already formed the basis for the chips in the Z7, the Z7 II, and (in its stacked form) the Z9, so there shouldn’t be any surprises here when it comes to image quality – which is no bad thing.

D850 and Z7 / Z7 II users will be pleasantly surprised by a couple of things though. Being, in essence, a ‘mini Z9,’ the Z8’s sensor has a very fast readout rate (~1/280sec), which means practically zero rolling shutter distortion with the electronic shutter, enabling it to get by with no mechanical shutter.

Oh, and the Z8 can also shoot in the 10-bit HEIF image format, which can be used with the Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) HDR curve to capture a wider range of brightness than a conventional JPEG can.

Dust protection and prevention

What’s that in the photo? A shutter? You just said there wasn’t one! Not so fast: Like the Z9, the Z8 features a protective curtain that closes over the sensor when the camera is powered off, purely to protect the imaging surface during lens changes.

For an additional layer of protection (literally), the optical filter on the sensor is treated with a dual coating to repel any dust that makes its way past this protective curtain.

EN-EL15c battery and continuous shooting

Amazingly, given how many of the features it has inherited from the Z9, the Z8 gets by with a much smaller battery, which will be a familiar one to D850 and Z6/7-series shooters. The EN-EL15c offers roughly half the capacity of the much beefier EN-EL18d used in the Z9, and per CIPA, it’s rated for around 330 shots per charge (when shooting using the viewfinder). As always with CIPA figures though, you can expect a lot more endurance than this in normal use, especially if you’re predominantly capturing stills and even more so in burst shooting.

On that topic, the Z8 offers the same headline performance as the Z9: bursts are possible in Raw+JPEG mode at up to 20 fps, increasing as the data load drops until you can hit 120 fps, if you’re OK with 11MP JPEG files. Pre-Release Capture is also available in the JPEG modes, and, like the Z9, the Z8’s buffer extends to more than 1,000 JPEGs or HE* compressed Raws at a continuous shooting rate of 20fps (with a fast CFexpress Type B card).

For photographers who need more juice than a single EN-EL15c can provide, an optional MB-N12 battery grip is available, which can accommodate two batteries, for an MSRP of $349.95.

Weather-sealed construction

According to Nikon, the Z8 is ‘fully sealed and gasketed’ with ‘maximum consideration for dust and drip resistance’ and exceeds the durability of the D850. It is rated for operation in temperatures as low as -10°C (14°F) and Nikon claims that it has used a ‘new pro-grade carbon fiber composite’ in the body material to reduce weight.

Ergonomics and handling

Ergonomically, the Z8 can be operated very similarly to the Z9, but there are some subtle differences – besides the lack of vertical controls. The Z8’s top left shoulder control cluster is lower-profile, with the Z9’s annular drive mode dial (inherited from flagship DSLRs) replaced by a simpler modal control. The Z8 features only two Fn buttons on the front plate, compared to the Z9’s three.

Like the Z9, though, the Z8 is nicely suited for use in low light, thanks to its backlit buttons, warm display color setting, and ‘Starlight View,’ which enables autofocus down to -9EV. That’s pretty hard to visualize, but basically, it means that with a fast lens, the Z8 should be able to lock focus, literally, on stars.

In more conventional, everyday low-light shooting situations, especially with long lenses, the Z8’s ‘Synchro VR’ can deliver up to 6EV of vibration reduction with compatible Z-mount lenses. This sees the lens VR and in-body systems work together to correct pitch and yaw movements, whereas models such as the Z7 II passed responsibility off to the lens.

It should be noted that while the Z8 is ‘mini’ relative to the Z9, it’s still a heavier body than the Z7 II, 910g (32oz) to 705g (24.8oz).

Video

As well as high-resolution stills, the Z8 is also a powerful video camera. Unsurprisingly, it’s almost as powerful as the Z9.

Like the Z9, the Z8 can capture 8K/30p video in H.265 formats or 8K/60p video in N-Raw, with options up to 4K/60 in ProRes 422 HQ or ProRes RAW. If you don’t need that much resolution (and most filmmakers don’t), 4K video can be captured (with sound) at up to 120fps via subsampling or up to 60p via oversampled footage derived from 8K capture.

The Z8 doesn’t have quite the same stamina in its high-resolution video modes as the Z9, with recording limited to approximately 90 minutes, compared to 125 mins in the larger camera. This is presumably due to thermal considerations arising from the smaller body.

Ports

You might notice in this picture that the Z8 sports two USB-C ports. One is dedicated to charging (PD), and the other is for communication with external accessories. Like the Z9, it also offers a full-size HDMI port. There’s no LAN socket but the upper USB socket can be used with common adapters to provide Ethernet connections.

Autofocus

The Z8 inherits the Z9’s formidable autofocus system, including all the improvements made since release thanks to firmware upgrades. Brand new in the Z8 is a dedicated airplane subject detection mode, for those times when you absolutely need to keep an Airbus’s eyes in focus.

Towards the bottom of the Z8’s body you’ll see the dimpled AF mode button – another control inherited from the Z9, which enables you to quickly cycle through the Z8’s various autofocus modes. By default, when pressed the front control dial cycles through AF area modes, and the rear cycles between AF-S, AF-C, and MF.

At the top of the camera on this side you can see the venerable 10-pin remote control socket, which, unlike the flimsy plug-in design of lower-end Nikon cameras, features a screw thread for secure attachment of a cable release.

Viewfinder and rear LCD

With your eye to either the viewfinder or the rear LCD, the Z8 offers practically the same shooting experience as the Z9. While the Quad-VGA (3.69M dot) electronic viewfinder’s resolution might seem low compared to some competitors, its high refresh rate and lack of blackout during shooting make for a very immersive experience.

The 3.2in, 2.1M dot 4-axis tilting touchscreen on the rear of the Z8 is also a known quantity. It’s very responsive and offers good detail during both shooting and image review. The rest of the controls on the rear of the Z8 are absolutely identical to those of the Z9 in design and layout. In our view, that’s a smart move, given how many Z9 owners will be tempted by the Z8 as a second camera.

We’re not kidding – the Z8 really is basically a Z9 with the vertical controls chopped off.

Twin card slots

Finally – here’s something that isn’t the same as the Z9! The Z8 offers the now fairly familiar (from other cameras at this level) combination of one CFexpress Type B card slot, and one UHS II SD slot. This is the same combination offered by the Z6 II and Z7 II, and competitors including the Canon EOS R5.

The original Z6 and Z7 attracted criticism for offering only one XQD card slot (later upgraded to CFe B via firmware) and clearly, Nikon isn’t going to make that mistake again.