Nikon Introduces the Z9 Light…uh…Z8

If all you want are the full specifications of the Z8, you can get them by clicking this Z8 link. While I’ll cover some key specifications in this article, I mostly want to try to try to position the new camera in Nikon’s lineup and against the competition.

It’s raining Z9’s! [NikonUSA supplied photo to illustrate weather resistance]

Nikon today launched the Z8, the fifth model in their lineup of full frame mirrorless cameras. Before we get to the specifics, I want to once again write a bit about the three mule/prototypes that circulated during the last 18 months:

  1. 61mp existing Sony sensor.
  2. New Nikon sensor. It might have been 67mp (certainly 60mp+).
  3. 45mp existing Nikon sensor.

We now know Nikon’s decision was #3, but I think it important to consider why. 

Nikon’s been in a following position for awhile. Essentially, Sony has been first mover in full frame mirrorless for some time. Canon and Nikon were both slow to start their full transition from DSLRs. Sony’s decade of mirrorless iteration has created a wide variety of full frame models: A1, A7 Mark IV, A7C, A7R Mark V, A7S Mark III, A9 Mark II, plus three video-specific cameras (ZV-E1, FX3, and FX30). 

While it won’t have perfect row alignment, let’s put the current full frame mirrorless lineups into a table to illustrate the point we need to get past to understand the Z8 announcement:

bythom fullframe competition

*Indicates a completely less-than-perfect fit for the categorization, but rather best current interpretation

In the run-up to the Z8 announcement I saw quite a few different interpretations of where Nikon's new camera might fit into the competitive landscape. Here are the four that kept getting repeated:

  • The Z8 competes with the Canon R5
  • The Z8 competes with the Sony A1
  • The Z8 competes with the Sony A7R Mark V
  • The Z8 replaces the Z7 II

If Nikon had used a higher-pixel-count image sensor, then the third bullet would have been correct. But they didn’t. In essence, the Z8 turned out to be basically a Z9 in a body that loses the vertical grip. Where does that fit in the competitive landscape?

In order, I believe the Z8 competes first and foremost with the Z9 (!), and secondarily with the Canon R5. Because the Z8 inherits all the “speed” from the Z9, many will also consider that it is also a new competitor to the Sony A1.  

Is that a useful and relevant product position? We’re about to find out. 

Here’s what I believe: Nikon originally intended the Z8 to be a high-pixel count camera that competed with the Sony A7R Mark V and would give Nikon D8xx users a very clear upgrade path into mirrorless. Probably because of sensor offload speed (can’t drop the mechanical shutter without it) and the appearance of being late to the game with the same sensor, Nikon didn’t really want to use the Sony 61mp sensor. Unfortunately, getting a completely new sensor with Nikon’s desired attributes on fab and in production proved to be impossible in the time frame Nikon wanted, thus they picked #3.

Which gives us a strong Z9 competitor at a US$1500 discount. 

On other pages I provide the short list of the things that are missing from a Z8 that the Z9 has, and the shorter list of things the Z8 has that the Z9 doesn’t. When you stack those lists up against the full set of specifications, you'll find that the Z8 is indeed basically a Z9 inside a smaller body. While they will disclaim it because it’s not the official marketing message, I’ve heard Nikon executives talking about “mini Z9.” 

So let’s talk about that body. Nikon picked a size that slots in between the Z6/Z7 and the Z9. Many have been referring to it as D850-sized. The D850 is 5.8 x 4.9 x 3.1” and 915g without battery (for some reason, Nikon has been insistent upon using the without battery number for the D850). The Z8 is 5.6 x 4.6 x 3.2” and 910g with battery. So somewhat lighter, ever so slightly narrower and less tall; I’d still effectively call the Z8 D850-sized. The Z9, by comparison, is 5.9 x 5.9 x 3.6” and 1160g without battery.

bythom z8 top.jpg

Is the Z8 the “right” size? That’s an excellent question. One of Nikon’s goals clearly was to provide a mirrorless camera that D850 users could transition to mirrorless with (the press release had the words “true successor to D850” in a sub-head). But those users will get basically the same image sensor (pixel count) and basically the same body size if they do. Thus, the primary things Nikon can say to a D850 user is: faster frame rate, better video, and the new autofocus system. Is that enough to convince D850 owners to give up their DSLR? Personally, I believe it is; but that’s from a “marketing sense” not a pragmatic sense talking to users. I see a lot of resistance among D850 owners not wanting to give their camera up, particularly because they believe the optical viewfinder and battery capacity myths (I’ll have more to say about that in my talk on Friday night).

I’ve written in the past that the D850 was the best all-around camera you could buy. That’s no longer true. Several mirrorless cameras would now take that position. And the Z8 will be right there with them, if not once again the best all-rounder. Indeed, because the Z8 is essentially a speed camera as well as a high pixel count one, it certainly has the attributes to justify that (the Canon R5 and Sony A1 would tend to be my other current candidates). 

Nikon appears to have very high hopes for the Z8. They’d better, since they’re undercutting their own Z9 with this new camera. At a price of US$4000, here in the US that means that you can get a “Z9 equivalent” camera for US$1500 less now. That extra US$1500 is a lot of money just to get a vertical grip, a larger battery, built-in GPS, and a few other things. Thus, I believe that we may see most Z9 sales simply transition to Z8 sales now. The question thus becomes whether or not the supply of Z8’s will satisfy the demand. 

The Z8 will start shipping on May 25th. Thus we’ll discover whether the demand exceeds supply very soon. That tight announce-to-ship timeline is a bit unusual for Nikon. Coupled with the late government registrations (for the communication aspects of the camera), I wonder just how long the Z8 has been being built in Thailand.

One thing that echoes what Nikon has done in the past is the “start at the top and deploy downward” philosophy of the engineering teams. I’m sure that has some Z System users a bit baffled, but it’s been Nikon’s basic modus operandi since forever. It’s been true of the F4, F5, D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5 generations. The lingering question that the Z8 launch raises is “how fast will that Z9 tech tickle down to the rest of the lineup?

To be specific, the Z9 pioneered a number of things on the tech side:

  • Stacked image sensor
  • Dual-stream image sensor
  • Removal of the mechanical shutter
  • EXPEED7 with way faster processing and additional IP in the chip (e.g. IntoPix core, additional GPUs, maybe a neural core?)
  • New raw image formats (HE*, HE)
  • New video capabilities (N-Raw, HLG, etc.)
  • New autofocus system (Subject Detection,
  • Faster CFe slots

You can expect EXPEED7 in future full frame cameras, for sure. The questions are which of the other tech also makes its way downward, and how fast. 

Z6 and Z7 users right now are in a holding pattern. Dual EXPEED6 (Z6 II, Z7 II) didn’t seem to add all that much, though those second models did clean up a number of small details, and are quite good cameras. The fact that we didn’t get III models at the two-year anniversary seems to indicate that Nikon was waiting for this new tech to get fully fleshed out and established before iterating those models. The fact that the Z8 went mini-Z9 also seems to indicate that a Z7 III would now become the most logical candidate for the higher-pixel-count image sensor that didn’t make the Z8 schedule. Of course, that could also turn into a Z8x, given Nikon’s previous patterns. 

The big question mark, though, is now with the Z6 III. To truly take advantage of all that new tech, I’d guess that a Z6 III needs a new image sensor, too, which makes predicting when it might appear almost impossible. One glitch in producing a new image sensor and the potential launch date rapidly crumbles into fantasy. 

I keep hearing that Nikon is working on two new sensor technologies (which would give them three new image sensors, the last one being a DX derivative of the high-pixel-count FX one). Tell me when those resolve into “available” and I could tell you a lot more about Nikon’s future lineup and when those models will appear. Unfortunately, I keep hearing “sensor delayed,” so we get interim product decisions that might not be what everyone expects (exhibit 1: the Z8).  

As the rumors started to clarify about what the Z8 actually was, I saw a lot of disappointment in the discussions. That disappointment has a tendency to fan boi into “Nikon is no longer competitive” wails, though many of those are from folk who don’t own Nikon gear ;~). 

I don’t buy that. Nikon is clearly competitive in full frame mirrorless:

  • The Z5 is peerless as an entry camera, the Canon R8 included when specs and price are considered.
  • The Z6 II is the most price competitive entry prosumer camera you’ll find. Highly capable still.
  • The Z7 II is a really solid landscape, architecture, travel camera at again a very competitive price.
  • The Z8 is now arguably one of the best all-around full frame mirrorless cameras available, also at a competitive price.
  • The Z9 still sits as the solid pro camera that’s nearly indestructible (I know, I’ve tried ;~). 

I can see now how a Z5 II will use (mostly) the current Z6 II tech and keep its position defended. And if there isn’t too long a delay, I can see how the Z6 III and Z7 III will defend their positions, as well. No, Nikon has a solid full frame lineup, with an interesting set of price points (see this new camera pricing article).

As many moans as I heard today from grumpy “want it all” folk, I’ll bet that the Z8 will prove to be a popular and widely used camera. 

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