A hands-on first impression of the latest contender in the high-end mirrorless underwater camera options.
It is no exaggeration to call the Nikon Z8 “long awaited” among existing Nikon enthusiasts. For many still photographers, the Nikon D850 has represented the nicest all-around DSLR for underwater photography ever made. And while the Nikon Z6 and Z7 (and their mark II brethren) are certainly nice mirrorless cameras, they were not really nice enough to inspire an upgrade from a D850 for most shooters. But the D850 appeared on the scene in mid 2017. A full six years ago is like light years by today’s digital camera standards. That said, there just hasn’t been a viable upgrade that wasn’t a full pro body like the well regarded Z9. Enter the Nikon Z8 – at last.
When rumors started circling that the Z8 would deliver most, if not all, of the Z9s impressive performance spec, it was easy to be a bit incredulous. But Nikon did not hold back and most of what makes the Z9 special has somehow been stuffed into camera body that is smaller and lighter than a D850. That is especially good news for us underwater photographers who have been waiting for a reason to move to a mirrorless interchangeable lens format that is clearly the future of cameras in general.
A quick specs review:
46MP – Just about perfect for underwater resolution and a subjectively beautiful file
30 FPS – More than any of us really need
8K 60P & 4K 120P Recorded internally in N-RAW or ProRes RAW. Nikon finally takes video seriously!
CF Express B for enough speed to handle the serious video capability. UHSII for the second slot
Max sync speed 1/200 unless shooting HSS
EVF 3,686,400 pixels
Same EN-EL15C battery as in D850/D500
No mechanical shutter
Much expanded AF menu of capabilities
Image above: Even in tricky constantly moving environments, rapid adjustments with the Nauticam housings come naturally. Even when holding one's breath.
Getting use to the camera
Many D850 (and other DSLR) shooters wonder out loud if they will “like” moving to the Z8. Like many things in life, that depends. When Nikon introduced the modern Micro-Nikkor VR 105mm 2.8G series lens to replace the decades old 105 “D” series macro lens, it was a significant improvement in sharpness, bokeh, and focus speed. But not everyone loved it. Why? It focused so fast some were intimidated by it – they liked the old slow focus. But for everyone else, it was a dream come true. Similarly, there are some things on a mirrorless camera that will be different and might take a few dives to get comfortable with, but once you learn to take advantage of what only a mirrorless camera can do, it is hard to imagine shooting any other way. A lot of the initial learning curve is easily overcome by setting up the camera properly for the type of underwater imaging we do, preferably well before you ever put it in a housing or go on a trip. Yes, this will mean getting used to a new and very extensive menu, but it is well worth it.
Image above: Z-24-50 with WWL-C. Even with only 1/200 sync, you can still get nice sun rays.
The Z8 EVF is not the highest resolution EVF of any camera available – is it good enough?
One of the biggest learning curves for many people switching to mirrorless is going from an optical VF to Electronic VF. In the past, EVFs have not been overly inspiring, they could lag, blackout during a shot, or just look a little too “TV-like”. That is largely irrelevant now. In most circumstances, the best EVFs will perform remarkably well. There is also a subtle software component that can make EVFs seem more optical-like and that is where the Z8 VF shines. The Z9 was one of the first EVFs that really felt like (to me) you were using an optical VF for the most part. The Z8 VF is identical and really pleasant to use. Is it perfect? Not quite. If you do not use a good strong focus light on a night dive, certain focus modes seem to cause some crunchiness in the EVF display and the option of shooting in red light mode is largely off the table with any of the current electronic viewfinders on any camera. On the plus side, Nikon’s popularity in stellar photography inspired them to offer a “Starlight View”. This is a very useful tool for night dives and especially for Blackwater dives. This lowers the AF sensitivity to about -8.5EV which is an amazing accomplishment and makes it easier to view tough subjects. The data displays also turns red to help preserve your night vision. There is already talk that the Z8 will be “THE” blackwater camera and feedback from the field looks good.
Once you get comfortable with reviewing your images through the EVF display, you will never want to go back. I find turning off auto playback and utilizing the playback lever perfectly placed by my left thumb on the Nauticam housing to be intuitive and a game changer for confirming focus when needed. All while never missing the action by taking my eye away from the viewfinder.
Considering all the benefits of utilizing the viewfinder, I think every Z8 owner shooting primarily stills should consider one of Nauticam’s new Full Frame Enhanced Viewfinders. These new viewfinders were designed in response to the ever-increasing size of the EVFs coming out that demanded a whole new optic design. Even on traditional DSLRs, using the new FF viewfinders show just how much sharper and defined the optics are.
AF designed to fit every style of shooting
I have always found Nikon cameras to generally be better auto focusing still cameras than most, if not all, of their contemporaries when they release a properly developed camera. This is particularly true when it comes to low light and challenging macro fish portrait photography. The Z8 lives up to that tradition and then some. But getting the most out of the camera does require some experimenting to find what works best for each individual’s style. There are a LOT of AF options including different shapes and sizes of AF area and various tracking and animal recognition features. It pays not to just pick the same old focus size you have always used in the past, but rather take advantage of the new menu of tools at your disposal. For instance, I found that a wide, short, rectangular shaped focus area worked great for shark photography and reef scenics, thus eliminating the need to move a simple group focus around for composition. Wide angle focusing is essentially instant and consistent.
Macro focusing with the NIKKOR Z MC 105MM F/2.8 VR S lens on a small moving fish like a Royal Gramma was an absolute pleasure with a small group focus that was rarely prone to jumping to a closer or further subject as some other mirrorless cameras have been prone to do. After taking 70+ shots of small fish subjects I found my in-focus percentage was over 80% which is all I could ask for considering the challenge.
Image above: Focusing head-on to a low contrast subject, in vertical, with a busy background will baffle many modern mirrorless cameras. Z8 nails it.
Image above: Shooting the Z 105 with an off-center subject with Isopod and a strong background is still easy - I took a dozen photos of this unfortunate fish and all were sharp. I love the soft Bokeh of the Z 105.
Autofocusing with Nauticam’s wonderful SMC-1 on the 105 was easy and accurate and I found the EVF to offer at least as detailed and easy to compose a scene as with a D850 optical viewfinder.
Image above: On a night dive, Z 105 with SMC-1. At F16 I wanted to see how easily I could autofocus on one blue eye. It was easy and the other little crustacean was a bonus.
Image above: Fish portraits like this young hamlet with the Z8 are probably the most fun I have ever had doing it.
Image Above: The Z8 and Z 105 make a wonderfully versatile portrait combination, and it is a lot of fun to experiment with. Here providing a very detailed reef shark face portrait.
A special note on “Live” autofocus for video. If Nikon’s have had a particular AF weak spot in the past, it has been continuous focus in live view for video. The Z8 offers a huge and needed improvement to the point it comes within spitting distance of Canon’s best-in-class dual pixel AF. Even in less than perfect water conditions, I was shocked at how well it performed.
The good news is that the Z8 uses the tried-and-true EN-EL15 battery (in updated form) that many Nikon shooters already have in their kit from many previous camera iterations. The downside is the Z8 is a much more power-hungry camera than traditional Nikon DSLRs. The real world results are that if you are shooting a modest amount of still photos (100-125) per dive, you can likely get through two dives without issue. If you are shooting a lot of stills or shooting video, you may want to change batteries for each dive. Since I was shooting a lot of stills and some video, I preferred to change batteries on every dive most of the time. With the Nauticam housing, the whole process only takes a couple of minutes including pulling a vacuum, so I would rather err on the side of more run time.
There are settings that can mitigate a bit of energy drain, but as Alex Mustard recently pointed out in a discussion, do you really want to buy a high performance camera and then handicap its abilities to save battery life?
The whole battery run time issue will soon be a moot point as future developments by Nauticam should offer the option of an external USB charging bulkhead to top off battery charges between dives without releasing the vacuum seal. An inexpensive external battery pack can offer fast charging on the camera table.
Image: Z 24-50 with WACP. One of the perks of Cuba is silky sharks near the surface. The Beauty of shooting with the WACP and WWL-C is minimal distortion of the ocean surface when this close. Check out the detail of eye and sensory pores.
Hands on with the NA-Z8 Housing
Nauticam housings are now the accepted leader in both innovation and refinement of underwater camera housings for a reason, and the NA-Z8 offers everything we have come to expect along with some nice new tweaks that are very useful. When looking at the back of the Z8 camera, it is easy to see that all the controls the DSLR shooters have grown used to finding on the rear left side of the camera are no longer there. But thanks to some beautiful internal engineering, our left hands have still been given plenty to do when operating the housing. Our left thumb now controls switching the EVF and LCD monitor displays, operating the Playback and the Display function which I find of great use in both the EVF and LCD, rather than my right hand having to find the button. Also on the left-hand side is the very useful Focus Mode lever and a dual lever for Function Buttons 1 & 2 which are physically located on the front right-hand side of the camera. Of course, the Zoom/Focus knob is also on the left. I really appreciated being able to spread the workload out a bit between left and right hands, an idea long overdue.
Whether using Z-lenses or the FTZ adapter, loading the camera, changing lenses and swapping batteries and media all was pretty effortless in typical Nauticam tradition. As with the Z7 housings, the lens release functions with F and Z lenses and all existing port and gear configurations for F-Mount lenses will function on the NA-Z8 exactly as they worked on the Nauticam DSLR housings. For those wanting to load up their housing with extra lights, monitors and GoPros, the top of the housing is now capable of supporting a total of six ball mounts without any extensive modifications – another nice improvement for gear intensive folks.
NIKKOR Z 24-50MM F/4-6.3
Part of what makes the current Nikon Z cameras awesome for underwater is the unfolding new lens line-up. In particular, the Nikkor Z 24-50MM F/4-6.3. This little walk around lens should be in all Z8 owner’s quiver for wide angle and blue water pelagic shooting thanks to what a powerful small package it creates when mated with Nauticam’s WWL-C water contact optic on an extremely tiny flat port. It can also be used in the WACP-1 with some vignetting at 24-25mm.
Image above: The small form factor of the Z 24-50 and the WWL-C makes it a blast to use.
I shot the 24-50 with both options and after trying both, I opted for the WWL-C most of the time. If in a hurry, it is easy to zoom too wide on the WACP-1 getting the shade in the shot, and the WWL-C is just such a nice compact form factor. The WWL-C does exhibit a little shading in the corners at 24mm (you can’t even tell until loaded on a decent monitor), but a quick toggle of the vignette correction in Lightroom makes it disappear. This is just such a fun and versatile option, it will be tough choice to decide which wide angle option suits your needs on this camera.
Image above: If you use the Z24-50 with the WACP and accidently zoom to 24mm, this is what you will get. But it stays pretty sharp into the corners.
Image above: 24-50 with WWL-C at 24mm showing slight vignette shadowing.
Image above: The same shot with vignette removed in Lightroom.
Image above: Part of the fun of working with the WWL-C is the range of fish behavior you can capture on a dive. Here a grouper hides behind a fan - all the groupers here seem to know this trick.
Image Above: Zooming to about 35mm with the WWL-C is perfect for a grouper getting cleaned. Image quality only gets sharper as you zoom in.
Image above: Zoom all the way to 50mm and the framing is perfect for an immature queen angel.
Image above: Another example of framing for effect with the WWL-C. The detail is amazing.
For those that own the WACP-1, the Sony E-Mount 28-70 works surprisingly well on the various adapters for E-Mount to Z-Mount. It will offer the maximum zoom range of any option. It is important to use some form of group focus and not spot focus when using the adapters.
Image above: WACP-1 at about 28mm
Shutter Sync Speed
Some may find the 1/200 synch speed a little disappointing – but so far it has not seemed too limiting. The camera will let you shoot higher shutter, but you will not get a fully strobe lit frame in spite of the camera having no physical shutter. For those wanting a higher sync speed, there are HSS compatible TTL converters and strobes available to make that possible.
Image above: WACP at about 28mm
CF Express B Cards and Video
For shooting stills, most name brand card will function fine. When it comes to video, the Z8 is capable of generating very data intensive high bit-rate files. It has become pretty clear that certain manufacturer’s cards will overheat quite quickly. Sandisk and Lexar seem especially prone to this. Delkin cards seem to perform much better and some other brands seem to be surfacing that also work well. This will no doubt be a moving target and needs to be assessed at the time of purchase based on the latest findings. Nikon’s “approved media” list does NOT mean it will successfully record all video formats.
Final Thoughts on shooting the Z8
As most photographers realize, there is no perfect camera made today, but they are getting closer all the time. As a long time DSLR shooter, the Z8 joins just one or two other mirrorless cameras that I find really fun to shoot the way I like to use a camera underwater. And as a long time Nikon shooter, I was pleased with how much seemed familiar, but also how much better this camera performed in several categories than its DSLR predecessors. It's few weak spots (like battery life and sync speed) are really not deal breakers and both issues have solutions now or in the works soon. If you are a Nikon shooter who enjoys shooting video or wants to learn video, it is a no-brainer. This camera will blow away any Nikon you have ever shot video on and is worth taking advantage of.
So yes, if you want the best Nikon has to offer, the Z8 is worth it. But if you still love your old Micro Nikkor 105 2.8D lens with its slow focus and funky bokeh, this may not be the best camera for you. That 105 D lens will not work on the Nikon FTZ adapter. For everyone else, embrace the learning curve and go for it.
Image above: A 24-50 with WWL-C is a near perfect shark photography set up.
Image above: 24-50 with WWL-C. The silversides in the upper left corner are a little soft as the point of focus was a bit further away. But this is a nice example of the Z8's great dynamic range and a lot more detail could be pulled out of the shadows if desired.
Image above: 24-50 with WWL-C. I only had a split second to try and catch the grunt yawning and the Z8 nailed it. Unfortunately, some of the fish were closer than the yawning grunt and are a bit soft. This is an example of when a short, wide focus box would have really helped get everything in focus, rather then a center group. It is worth remembering even the best camera can't fix the mistakes of the photographer. But when you get it all right, the camera can make you look good.