Gadget

Nikon’s Z8 is a phenomenal mirrorless camera for the price

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Nikon is arguably the world’s most famous camera brand, but with the decline of DSLRs it has lagged behind Canon and Sony. In 2022, it released the Z9, a flagship mirrorless camera that could finally hold its own against rivals, but the $5,500 price tag put it out of reach for most. To appeal to a wider audience, Nikon unveiled the Z8 last year with the same sensor and nearly the same specs as the Z9 for $1,700 less.

With a 45-megapixel stacked sensor and the latest Expeed 7 image processor, the Z8 can do everything from sports to wildlife to scenic photography. It’s also a powerful video camera, offering 8K RAW internal capture at up to 60 fps.

The only other model that can really compare in terms of speed, resolution and video is the Sony A1, but it costs a whopping $2,200 more. To find out how the Z8 stacks up against that model and others, I rented a Z8 and shot with it around Vancouver, Canada with my photographer cousin.

Design-wise, you can think of the Z8 as the Z9 with the battery grip chopped off. It’s still a chunky camera at 910 grams (2 pounds), though, compared to 737 grams for the Sony A1. That might suit pros or those who like a larger camera body, but the size and weight aren’t ideal for travel. By the way, a $346 battery grip (the MB-N12) with secondary controls is available for the Z8, effectively transforming it into a Z9 for far less money.

The Z8 has a nice big grip and all the controls you’d expect, including a joystick, D-Pad style menu control, switch for camera/video settings and front and rear dials. Nikon users will enjoy the layout as it’s largely similar to past models, but everything is just different enough that it may feel awkward for users coming from other brands.

Unlike the A1, the Z8 features a display on top that shows key settings like shutter, aperture and battery life. Although it takes up space that could be used by buttons or dials, it’s a handy way to see everything at a glance and I miss it now on models that don’t have it. If you do have to dive into the menus, they take a bit of getting used to, but work well once you’re over the learning curve.

One of the key negative points is the lack of a fully articulating display. Instead, the rear 3.2-inch 2.36-million dot screen only tilts up and down and to the left or right. That’s too bad, because the Z8 could be a powerful vlogging camera and a flip-out display is must for that type of work (especially as it makes solo shooting easier).

The 3.69 million-dot electronic viewfinder is a bit low-res for a camera in this price range, especially compared to the 9.4 million-dot display on the Sony A1. Even Canon’s cheaper R5 has a 5.76 million dot display that makes it substantially easier to check focus.

Battery life is on the weak side at 420 shots (one to two hours of video shooting depending on resolution), compared to 490 shots for the Canon R5 and 530 for the A1, according to CIPA ratings. Again, though, you can nearly double that with the battery grip. Other notable features include UHS-II and CFexpress B memory card slots, a full-sized HDMI port for external capture, as well as two separate USB-C ports for power delivery and data.

With the fastest high-resolution stacked sensor out there, the Z8 is unbelievably quick for a 45-megapixel camera. You can shoot RAW photos at 20 fps, a bit slower than the A1’s 30 fps RAW capability, but the Z8 can shoot 30 fps in JPEG mode. It can handle 40 uncompressed RAW frames before the buffer fills, but can store more compressed images if you have a fast CFexpress card.

The hybrid phase-detect autofocus is Nikon’s best to date due to the upgraded image processor, stacked sensor and huge number of AF tracking points. It offers reliable subject tracking, and the face, eye and animal detection is fast and accurate as well. In fact, the company has said it’s nearly identical to the far more expensive Z9 as of the latest firmware.

That said, the Z8’s AF isn’t quite as dependable as Sony’s A1 when shooting at the highest speeds. It occasionally had trouble tracking subjects, in particular those moving toward the camera, resulting in some out-of-focus shots. The Z8 (and Z9) is quite sensitive to setup, so it’s best to fine-tune the AF settings until it works the way you want.

There’s no mechanical shutter, but the Z8’s sensor is fast enough that rolling shutter isn’t an issue, even on fast-moving objects like airplane propellers. The 5-axis in-body stabilization reduces shake by six stops, enough to get sharp photos down to a quarter second or so. That’s superior to the A1, but falls way short of the EOS R5’s 8 stops.

The Z8 has the same excellent sensor as the Z9, so of course image quality is identical in all respects. With 45.7 megapixels on tap, it delivers sharp photos on par with the 50-megapixel A1 and second only to Sony’s 60 MP A7R V in the full-frame realm. Dynamic range is also outstanding, arguably a touch better than the A1.

JPEG images are bright and punchy straight out of the camera, with the best results in terms of colors from the Natural Light Auto white balance setting. Colors are accurate, though skin-tones aren’t quite as warm as Canon’s R3 or R5.

Meanwhile, the 14-bit RAW images hold plenty of detail that can be teased out in Lightroom or ON1, particularly in the highlights. Like the Z9, the Z8 no longer has an “uncompressed” option, but now offers “lossless compression” and two high-efficiency lossy modes. I typically used the RAW setting with the highest compression, because it’s super efficient and frankly, I can’t see any difference between that and lossless compressed RAW.

The Z8 performs reasonably well in low-light, too. Grain is well-controlled up to about ISO 6400, and shots are usable at ISO 12800. Beyond that, noise can become distracting. That lines up with Canon’s R5, but Sony’s A1 performs a bit better in dim lighting.

The Z8’s video specs are pretty mind-blowing for a non-cinema camera and exceed the A1’s capabilities. You can shoot RAW video at up to 8K 60p in Nikon’s 12-bit N-RAW or 8K 30p with 12-bit ProRes RAW HQ internally, to CFexpress cards only, of course. It also captures 4K video oversampled from the full width of the sensor at up to 60p, and full-width 4K up to 120p — again, all in RAW.

It’s worth noting that Nikon recently purchased RED cameras, so it now owns the RED RAW video patent that stymied so many other companies, including Apple. It’ll be interesting to see if Nikon loosens up that enforcement, and if the acquisition impacts the tech in its own future models.

As with photos, video autofocus is fast and reliable, while doing a good job tracking subjects, faces and animals. It can handle challenging situations like subjects moving toward the camera, though again, not quite as well as the A1.

Nikon Z8 hands-on

Rhonda Dent for Engadget

8K and 4K oversampled video is extremely sharp. Colors are accurate, but again, skin tones aren’t quite as pretty as on Canon’s latest models. Dynamic range is top-notch, particularly in the ISO 400-800 level in ProRes mode, making it easy to adjust shadows and highlights in post. If you love shooting ProRes footage, be sure to get some high-capacity CFexpress cards, because the files can get huge.

One area where the Z9 bests the Z8 in video is with thermal performance, as the Z9’s larger body allows for 125 minutes of 8K 60p recording compared to 90 for the Z8 before overheating. There are very few content creators that will need to continuously shoot 8K video for that long, however.

Nikon’s Z8 is an extremely capable camera and shows that the company should offer as much speed and power as possible if it wants to catch up to Canon and Sony. For many hybrid shooters, the Z8 is a better option than Sony’s A1, particularly when it comes to video.

While it does out-spec the Sony in a number of areas, the Z8’s autofocus isn’t quite as good — and that’s arguably the most important feature on any camera. Shooters who require a mechanical shutter (for flash photography, etc.) will also need to look elsewhere. Another 8K-capable full-frame mirrorless model is Canon’s R5 that falls short of both models in many regards, but is cheaper at $3,200.

A decision to buy this camera might be based on what system and lenses you’re already into. However, if I was starting from scratch, I’d go for the Z8 over Sony’s A1, as you get the camera plus a very good lens for the same amount of money.

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