When Nikon released its new Z8 hybrid camera to the world in May 2023, I may have been one of the many photographers who couldn't wait to test this "mini Z9" extensively. So the perfect place for me as an aviation photographer to test the new Nikon Z8 was the La Ferté-Alais - Le temps des hélices airshow in France which celebrated its 50th edition this year and as always is all about the history of aviation. Equipped with a brand-new camera and some accompanying lenses, I therefore let myself go fully into the world of biplanes, propellers and historical air raids.
La Ferté-Alais: no ordinary airshow
The 'La Ferté-Alais - Le temps des hélices' airshow is one of the oldest and largest aviation events in France. In one weekend, more than 40 000 visitors descend on an old grass airfield near Cerny, 53 kilometers south of Paris, where the famous Musée Volant Salis is located. Unlike other airshows, the La Ferté-Alais airshow starts only in the afternoon and in the morning visitors have the chance to admire all participating aircraft up close in the presence of pilots, crew and also re-enactors. These re-enactors try to create the zeitgeist in which the aircraft in question flew or played an important role. What is unique about this airshow is that the entire history of aviation is displayed here using numerous important historical aircraft that are still flying. For example, this airshow traditionally always begins with the flight of a replica of a Blériot XI propeller plane that was first flown in 1909. In addition, important themes in aviation history such as World War I and World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war in Vietnam are also featured during this event. The French Air Force, Army and Navy are also always present during the La Ferté-Alais airshow, and this year the Belgian Air Force was also present with its F-16 solo display and its Red Devils formation team.
Smaller and lighter
What struck me immediately when I took the Nikon Z8 out of its included box was its weight. For example, this body weighs only 910 grams while the Z9 weighs 1.16 kilograms. When using the Z8 for a full day in combination with a super-telephoto lens, every gram that a camera weighs less is an important argument. In addition, the Z8 is also 30% smaller than the Z9, which in turn offers extra space in the photo bag. The Nikon Z8 is equipped with a 3.2-inch touchscreen with very high brightness that can be tilted in all possible directions. Personally, I found this to be a particular plus since I often take pictures from ground level or from a height and this means I don't have to lie completely flat on the ground all the time. A notable difference between the Z8 and the Z9 is that the Nikon Z8 is equipped with two different memory card slots, one for CFx type B and one for SD memory cards (UHS-I and UHS-II). This is very interesting for those who switch to the Z8 and do not have to renew all their memory cards as a result. If you plan to use the Nikon Z8 for very fast action shots and thus take a lot of burst shots, it is best to use a CFx memory card.
The Z8's OLED viewfinder has 18 levels of brightness, which is even better than the Z9's viewfinder, which has 16 levels of brightness. The Z8's viewfinder has no blackouts when taking pictures, meaning that you continue to see the subject as you press the shutter button to take the picture. The round eye pad on the Nikon Z8's viewfinder is new versus the square pad on the Z6II or Z7II. A round eye pad ensures that less light falls into the viewfinder, which can otherwise lead to interference. Also new to the Nikon Z8 is that it was equipped with two USB-C ports, making it possible to have the camera's battery charged at the same time as a data transfer or when the camera is currently connected to a computer (tethering).
While taking action photos such as of airplanes, speed plays a very important role. Like the Z9, the Z8 is a very fast camera that is perfect for this type of photography. For example, the continuous shooting speed of 20fps in RAW format is quite spectacular and the Z8 even reaches 120fps when shooting in jpeg format. The camera does this effortlessly with a 45.7 megapixel sensor, the same sensor is in the Nikon Z9. Thanks to the high buffer capacity, the Nikon Z8 only fills up at 1,000 photos taken. With a maximum shutter speed of 1/32000 of a second, the Nikon Z8 is therefore particularly well suited for sports and action photography. The Nikon Z8 also features 6 stops of stabilization. What I personally looked forward to particularly hard was the autofocus system and the Deeplearning AI autofocus. Thus, the Nikon Z8 has the same autofocus system as the Z9 and you have 493 autofocus points, 405 of which are used for one of the ten automatic field or mode modes.
Thanks to Deeplearning AI autofocus, the camera automatically recognizes subjects such as people, animals and vehicles. In addition, the Z8 also has head, face and eye detection for highly accurate focusing. Also new to the Nikon Z8 is that vehicle recognition has been split into vehicles and, yes, airplanes. The 3D tracking ensures that the subject is automatically followed and the camera reacts immediately when there are changes in position, direction and speed. When I started experimenting with this, I noticed that my subjects, in my case airplanes, were always recognized perfectly automatically, allowing me to pay more attention to the composition.
Tested with different lenses
The Nikon Z8 uses a Z mount which means that the choice in Z lenses is still quite limited. Fortunately, thanks to the Nikon FTZ II adapter, you can also use lenses with F mount in combination with the Nikon Z8 camera. If you want ultimate quality, you will still have to look at the Z-lenses since these lenses were specially designed for this type of system camera and catch more light than the older F mount lenses due to their ultra-wide Z mount. Because the distance between the Z mount and the sensor in the Nikon Z8 is 65% shorter than in DSLRs, the loss of light at the edges of the image is also much less. To best test both capabilities, during the La Ferté-Alais airshow I used the Z8 in combination with a Nikon Z 24-200 lens, a Nikon Z 100-400 lens and a Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 Sports lens. While the Nikon Z 24-200mm and Nikon Z 100-400mm lenses combined with the Z8 provided great results, I noticed virtually no loss of image quality or light when using the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Sports lens and the Nikon FTZ II adapter.
Surprised by the battery
Then again, something that I was personally quite apprehensive about was battery life. My experience with Nikon Z cameras taught me that such new hybrid cameras devour a lot of battery capacity and that there is still room for improvement here, in my opinion. Nikon claimed that the new Z8 should easily be able to take 700 photos with one battery and I tested this extensively. With the En-EL15C battery that came with this new Nikon Z8, I managed to take about 1,400 photos during the first day of the airshow and about 1,500 photos during the second day of the La Ferté-Alais event. All these photos were taken, spread out over an entire day, with the Z8 camera not being used continuously. When I read results of tests where the camera is used continuously, the number of photos taken is quite a bit lower. Needless to say, I was still pleasantly surprised by this and I think you can already achieve a lot with two batteries. Another fact that surprised me was that the Nikon Z8 camera immediately recognizes when you want to use a "third-party" battery as the camera displays an error message. However, this is not the first camera to do this.
For me at least, Nikon delivers a top performance with the new Z8. Because the Nikon Z8 system camera is cheaper than the Z9 and still delivers very impressive performance, Nikon is undoubtedly aiming here not only at the group of professional photographers but also at the group of very serious "amateur" and semi-professional photographers. Thus, this is the perfect camera for semi- and professional sports, action and wildlife photography that becomes a bit more affordable due to its cheaper price. Because the Z8 is smaller and lighter than its "big brother" the Z9 and still delivers top quality, I believe this new system camera has everything to grow into a very successful model.
Text & photos: Kris Christiaens/Nikon