Underwater photography is a niche art form and the ultimate underwater camera needs to be equipped with a niche feature set – one fulfilled by the Nikon Z8. As the world transitions away from DSLR cameras, Nikon devotees have waited for the brand’s answer to its competitors’ smaller and more effective mirrorless models such as the Sony A7R V and Canon EOS R5. Finally, that wait is over and Nikon enthusiasts have a compelling reason to upgrade.
Table of contents
- Nikon Z8 Key Specifications
- Why Choose Mirrorless?
- Key Nikon Z8 Features
- Silence Never Sounded So Good
- Image Quality
- The Autofocus Revolution
- Lightning-Speed Burst Shooting
- Battery Life Beyond the Spec Sheet
- 8K/60p & 4K/120 RAW Video
- A Sturdy Build with a Few Caveats
- Comparing Image Quality: Z8 vs. Z7 II vs. D850 vs. Z9
- Underwater Photography & Videography with the Z8
- Top Underwater Lenses for the Nikon Z8
- The Bottom Line
- About the Author
Nikon’s Z8 model takes the features and internal excellence of the Z9 and puts them in a smaller, more affordable package. Retailing at $4000, the Z8 puts Nikon in a league of its own; no other camera manufacturer offers a flagship full-frame model under the $5000 mark. The Nikon Z8’s stacked, full-frame 45.7-megapixel CMOS sensor, 20 frames per second (fps) RAW shooting, 8K/60p & 4K/120p RAW video recording, and a massively improved autofocus system provide everything a professional photographer or videographer needs.
Fortunately for underwater photographers, Nauticam, Ikelite, and Marelux promptly released underwater housings for the Z8 almost as the Z8 hit the market. Aquatica and Sea & Sea will likely announce models soon. I was privileged to head to Cozumel to test out Ikelite’s first prototype housing for the Z8. Cozumel is known for its colorful coral reefs, beautiful drift dives, and challenging photography environment, making it the perfect underwater testing ground for the new Z8.
Nikon Z8 Key Specifications
- 45.7-megapixel, full frame stacked CMOS sensor
- Expeed 7-image processor for ultra-fast readouts and virtually no rolling shutter
- One CF Express/XQD card slot and one UHS-II SD Card slot
- 20 fps (RAW) up to 120 fps (11-megapixel JPEG) burst shooting
- Enhanced autofocus system with 3D tracking on par with Sony’s and Canon’s offerings
- Autofocus in low light down to -9 EV
- ISO range spanning from 64-25600
- Flash sync speed of 1/200 sec
- 5-axis in-body image stabilization
- 8K/60p & 4K/120p video recording capabilities
- N-Log, N-RAW (12-bit), and ProRes RAW recording
- 3.69 million dot EVF
- Lightweight at just 910 grams
- Dimensions: 5.7 inches x 4.7 inches x 3.3 inches
Why Choose Mirrorless?
Nikon loyalists may wonder why you should upgrade to a mirrorless camera from your reliable D850. Mirrorless cameras have proven their value through their engineering: the absence of a mirror allows for more compact camera bodies with internal improvements. If that weren’t enough of a reason, it may simply be time to progress with the times; both Nikon and Canon have discontinued DSLR production.
The Nikon Z8’s mirrorless design has allowed it to be equipped with a 5-axis body stabilization system and a wealth of autofocus points, offering greater creative possibilities and image quality. Look forward to less motion blur at slower shutter speeds, lenses that produce less diffraction and sharper corners, and an autofocus system that renders expensive magnified viewfinders redundant.
Video shooters can expect even more substantial improvements with the mirrorless Z8, including upgrades to contrast/phase detect hybrid autofocus systems. The Z8’s 8K/60p RAW recording capability was only available in the highest-quality cinematic cameras in recent years.
Key Nikon Z8 Features
The Z8 is nothing short of an engineering marvel with its newly developed silent sensor and shutter taking photography to new levels. Other features include improved image quality, highly anticipated autofocus capabilities, lightning-quick shooting speeds, longer battery life, and excellent video shooting performance.
Silence Never Sounded So Good
One remarkable feature of the Z8 is its stacked sensor, eliminating the need for a mechanical shutter. This means every shot you take is silent, contributing to improved image sharpness and camera longevity. Photographers who miss the tactile feedback that confirms a shot can add an artificial sound to the shutter. In my underwater testing of the Z8, I discovered the best solution was to enable automatic image review for two seconds after each shot. This allows you to quickly check image quality and focus, without being slowed down if you want to continue taking photos in quick succession.
The Nikon Z8’s underwater video capabilities are enhanced by the virtually non-existent rolling shutter. Expect higher-quality videos with reduced warp in fast-paced conditions. There are plenty of benefits to a camera without a mechanical shutter; however, the most exciting is the theoretical infinite lifespan of a camera without a mechanical shutter to degrade with use over time.
The image quality from the Z8’s 45.7-megapixel sensor is superb, offering ample room for cropping even for underwater macro photographers, and particularly in black water conditions. During testing, I discovered the image quality to be on-par with Nikon’s other high-end cameras and found the color rendition and dynamic range from the RAW files to be comparable. However, in a critical review, I noticed a slightly reduced dynamic range than in Nikon’s previous models such as the lower-resolution Z6.
The Autofocus Revolution
Autofocus is one of the features of previous Nikon models that was due for a serious overhaul to bring its cameras in line with those of its competitors. Nikon devotees can rejoice that the Z8 features exponential improvements to autofocus acquisition speed and accuracy. Its new 3D tracking may remind you of DSLR autofocus, but with major upgrades including animal eye autofocus tracking and responsiveness settings. Look forward to an improved accuracy of the new, smaller autofocus tracking box compared to Nikon’s Z7 II.
My testing of the Z8 underwater in Cozumel confirmed that the Nikon Z8’s autofocus system is comparable with that of Sony and Canon. If I want to nitpick, I can point out that its autofocus tracking is not as “sticky” as Sony’s A7R V, known to be the best autofocusing camera to date. That said, my “hit rate” improved by 30-40% compared to Nikon’s Z7 II.
Underwater, I found that the animal eye autofocus feature worked on only a few of my subjects and works better when using a macro rather than a wide-angle lens. However, the ease of locking onto any autofocus point using the 3D tracking system makes up for the inconsistency of the animal eye feature.
I was most impressed with the Z8 autofocus’ capability of focusing in low-light conditions – up to 9 stops below proper exposure. This reduces the risk of startling your subject by eliminating the need for a focus light in many situations. For underwater photographers shooting in low light, reduced visibility, or post meridian light conditions.
Lightning-Speed Burst Shooting
Thanks to its stacked sensor, the Z8 can capture 45-megapixel uncompressed RAW photos at speeds of up to 20 fps, which can be increased to 120 fps with 11-megapixel JPEG files. While most underwater photographers may not need such rapid burst speeds, the Z8’s capabilities open new creative opportunities, especially when paired with modern strobes with shorter recycle times. Cold water divers will be even more satisfied with the Nikon Z8 when used with lower-power strobe lights. If you enjoy capturing images of pelagic animals such as dolphins, whales, and sharks, combining the 20-fps burst with 3D tracking opens a whole realm of possibilities.
Battery Life Beyond the Spec Sheet
The Nikon Z8 is listed with a battery life of 340 shots but in testing, I discovered the camera exceeded the expectations set by its spec sheet. I found the Z8’s battery lasted through four dives with power to spare – closer to 600 shots. Underwater photographers can rely on a single charge of the Z8 lasting a full day of diving.
8K/60p & 4K/120 RAW Video
Historically, Nikon has not been the first choice for underwater video shooters due to limitations in color grading features. With the Z8, however, those constraints are eliminated. This camera excels in underwater video recording, capable of capturing 8K video at 60 fps and 4K video at 120 fps. It provides flexibility for macro shooting and slow-motion effects (up to four times) in post-production. Underwater videographers can choose from N-RAW (up to 12-bit), ProRes RAW, and N-Log picture profiles, enabling extensive post-production editing control.
The Nikon Z8’s manual white balance capability is the source of one of my few complaints: at depths exceeding 50 feet, it cannot capture a custom white balance. However, at depths shallower than 50 feet, it is very accurate and only takes a few quick steps. Underwater photographers planning deep dives should be prepared to use an underwater light to compensate for this slight flaw.
A Sturdy Build with a Few Caveats
Although the Z8 is roughly 30% smaller than the Nikon D850, it is about 30% larger than the Z7 II, which I found disappointing. It is a robust camera clearly capable of standing up to tough conditions, but some may prefer trading that sturdiness for a lighter body. However, when it comes to taking the Z8 underwater, the size difference is negligible, and it is only slightly heavier when in a housing.
The Z8’s attractive ergonomics recall the D850 while the settings and layout of the buttons are reminiscent of other Z-series cameras. The mode dial on the left side marks the only significant departure from previous models, with four buttons: white balance, mode, drive speed, and bracketing. In my tests, I found adjusting these settings to be somewhat cumbersome as you must press the button and turn the dial simultaneously. I recommend you select some settings on the Z8 before you get in the water.
Comparing Image Quality: Z8 vs. Z7 II vs. D850 vs. Z9
It’s essential to consider the upgrade to the Z8 when comparing it to its predecessors and Nikon’s DSLRs. While the Nikon D850 is a reliable DSLR, it suffers from outdated video capabilities, making it less suitable for those interested in both photography and videography. It also lacks compatibility with the sharper modern Nikon Z lenses, and its absence of in-body image stabilization limits low-light image quality.
The Nikon Z7, priced at $2997 for the body, offers good value for those who do not require swift autofocus. With 4K/60p video recording and in-body image stabilization compatible with the Nikon Z mount, it is a solid option. However, for $1000 more, upgrading to the Z8 provides a much improved autofocus system, significantly boosting your opportunities to capture the perfect shot.
Finally, when comparing the flagship Nikon Z9, it simply does not make financial sense. The Z8 offers the same features, is lighter, and the underwater housings are less expensive. For those reasons alone, underwater photographers are better to spend the extra $1500 for the Nikon Z8.
Underwater Photography & Videography with the Z8
Nikon’s reputation for producing lenses with legendary image quality extends to the Z8. The camera’s appeal isn’t limited to Nikon shooters; Sony and Canon users interested in Nikon’s Z lenses will feel confident switching brands without sacrificing quality. Nikon’s 8-15mm fisheye lens sits alongside Canon’s equivalent as the top fisheye lenses for underwater photography. For macro photography, the Nikon Z 105mm macro lens is actually sharper than both the Canon RF 100mm and Sony 90mm macro lenses, although slightly slower with autofocus. For underwater photographers, the slight tradeoff of a moderately slower autofocus is worth it for the notable features of the Z8: high-quality glass, fast shooting speeds, and no mechanical shutter.
When it comes to underwater video, I was pleased to find the Nikon Z8 performs as well as the Sony A1 and Canon R5. Macro videographers can produce superior footage from the Z8, which films in 8K up to 60 fps, enabling you to both crop and slow your videos for improved stabilization. The primary drawback of the Z8 is the inability to set a manual white balance below 50 feet, however, its robust set of recording options will be enough to compensate for that fault.
Overheating can be an issue with cameras filming in high quality while in an underwater housing. I never experienced any overheating during my test dives in Cozumel’s 86°F water while filming in 8K and 4K/120p video. This lines up with initial reports on the internet that claim the Z8 should be capable of recording for substantially longer durations than the Canon EOS R5 or Sony A1.
Top Underwater Lenses for the Nikon Z8
Choosing the right lens for your Nikon Z8 is critical to capturing the best underwater images and videos. Z mount lenses provide sharper corners and less diffraction and ghosting, such as the Nikon Z mount 14-30mm f/4 for wide-angle and the Nikon Z 105mm macro for (you guessed it) macro photography. For a wider selection of lens focal lengths, try the various F mount options. Macro lovers can choose between the Nikon 60mm 2.8G Macro and 105mm 2.8G VR Macro. Wide-angle enthusiasts will enjoy the Nikon 8-15mm fisheye or Nikon 16-35mm 4.0 rectilinear. With the Z8 gaining popularity, I’m excited to see more Z mount lenses in the market soon.
The Bottom Line
With Nikon finally edging in on the competition, fans of the Nikon DSLR or Z series will be relieved to find the Z8 a worthy upgrade. With an excellent price point and exceptional versatility and quality, for many photographers switching to the Z8 will be a no-brainer. Features from the stacked sensor’s rapid burst speeds to 8K/60p video, not to mention the shutterless operation, make the Nikon Z8 a trailblazer in the future of camera technology. After testing the Z8 in action, I am confident that Nikon loyalists (and some converts from Canon and Sony) will find the upgrade more than satisfying.
About the Author
Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. After working as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, Nirupam became the Editor-in-Chief of the Underwater Photography Guide and the President of Bluewater Photo – the world’s top underwater photo & video retailer. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com! A version of this article was also published here and shared with permission.