Should You Buy the Nikon Z8 or Z9?

Should You Buy the Nikon Z8 or Z9?

After the release of Nikon’s new Z8 mirrorless camera, you may be asking yourself a simple question. Should you get the Z8 or its big brother, the Z9?

First off, a bit of good news. I’ve been able to get my hands on an early Z8 and am currently putting it through its paces in real-world situations. I’ll provide an early hands-on review shortly. So, stay tuned.

But, even without putting it into the field, one might be able to already tell from the product announcements alone that the Z8 and Z9 have a lot in common. Like a lot. Like they are basically the same camera with a handful of key differences which I will go into below. Yet, if they are, in fact, so alike, then how does one choose between the two?

I am particularly interested in this question because I am a longtime Nikon shooter. I’ve used their cameras for pretty much the entirety of my still photography career. Starting with the D200 then working my way all the way up to the D850, Nikon DSLRs have been the bread and butter for all of my photographic needs. They just work. They were the perfect cameras for my style of shooting and workflow. And the D850, especially, I believe will go down as the best DSLR ever made.

Shooters of the flagship DSLRs like the D6 might disagree with me. Those flagships, which always came in larger bodies and with heftier price tags, took perfection to a new level. They were built solid as a tank. Made to withstand the rigors of any shooting situation. If you were ever out on a dangerous assignment and needed to use your camera as both a photo tool and a cudgel for self defense in a dark alley, the Nikon flagships would do the trick. But, because I am an advertising photographer and shoot largely under controlled environments to produce images for large-scale campaigns, camera durability always would take a back seat to megapixels for my needs. And the D6 style bodies always focused on speed at a lower resolution, while the D850 would trade in some of that speed for a higher megapixel count. So, while I truly do love the machine gun sound a D6 makes at full throttle, for my line of work, the D850 was a better fit.

Compared to some other brands, Nikon has taken its time to carefully grow its mirrorless slate. Their mirrorless lenses have been amazing straight out of the gate. The early mirrorless bodies have undergone a gradual evolution. It wasn’t until Nikon released the Z9 that I finally felt that Nikon had produced a mirrorless body that could best my D850. Especially because I do even more filmmaking than I do photography these days, that camera has been the perfect camera for me at this moment.

The Z9, of course, falls into the flagship category. So, coming from a D850-style body, it was a change from what I was used to. But, unlike the lower megapixel sensors of the previous DSLR flagships, Nikon chose to equip the Z9 with their highest-resolution sensor. Suddenly, you had all the machine gun rapidity of the D6, but with resolution that fit the needs of my particular genre of photography. Obviously, at the time the Z9 was announced, the Z8 didn’t yet exist. Had it existed, I might have never owned a Z9 and stuck with the familiar 8 level form factor. But I went all in with the Z9 and haven’t looked back. Surprisingly for me, who tends to want every new camera ever released, even with the Z8’s amazing specs, I find myself just as much in love with my Z9 as the first day it arrived. But I’ll get more into that in a second.

Rumors of a potential Z8, a mirrorless replacement for the D850, persisted for years. No one quite knowing which direction Nikon would go. Would it be a mini Z9? Would it offer a huge megapixel boost over the Z9, in the same way that the D850 offered a megapixel boost over the D6? Would it be a cinema camera perhaps?

Well, as it turned out, the Z8 would eventually take shape as a near copy to the Z9, but smaller and cheaper. “How does that work” you might ask? Well, despite the two brothers having a lot in common, there are some key differences. I’ll get to what sets them apart in the next section. But, first, let’s identify how the two cameras are similar.

As we were speaking of resolution, the Z8 and the Z9 share the same sensor, the exact same 45.7 MP stacked CMOS sensor. So, there will be nothing to separate the two cameras in terms of image quality, dynamic range, ISO performance, and so forth. Neither camera has a mechanical shutter. They both share the same excellent dual stream electronic viewfinder which is truly one of the best mirrorless shooting experiences on the market, especially for those, like me, who were wary of giving up the optical viewfinder of our DSLRs.  

To my amazement, the Z8 includes all the same video functionality of the Z9, including the wide array of available video formats from 8K N-RAW video to internal ProRes 422 HQ. They even both have full-size HDMI ports. Nikon could have been forgiven for holding a few things back with the lower cost model, but instead they chose to put it all in to take advantage of the same EXPEED 7 processor that is in the flagship Z9.

One might be tempted to think that purchasers of the Z9 might feel a bit hard done by. We spent roughly $1,500 more on our Z9 bodies and then Nikon released this camera with basically the same features for less. And, while I love my Z9, the larger body that I love on set does admittedly start to feel heavy if being used for more casual shooting in the street. Yet, I don’t feel any buyer’s remorse at all for spending more on the Z9. While, at the same time, I absolutely love what they’ve done with the Z8. I almost feel as though the best setup for any photographer would be to own one of each, budget permitting, of course, as the two bodies actually complement each other extremely well.  

Here’s what I mean:

Why Would You Choose the Z8

The first reason one would choose to purchase the Z8 instead of the Z9 is obvious just by looking at it. The Z8 is 30% smaller than its big brother. And, if you don’t need the extra ruggedness that comes with a flagship body, the extra battery life, or the built-in GPS, the idea of having less weight in one’s camera bag is always appealing.  

Also, as I mentioned earlier, it is roughly $1,500 cheaper. So, again, if you don’t need the extras, you can get essentially the same performance for less. Additionally, by making the battery grip optional with the Z8, you are getting a somewhat more versatile camera. It can be smaller and more compact when you need it to be. Or, you can build it up with the battery grip when necessary.  

Because the two cameras use identical imaging systems, trying to separate them based on image quality is a non-conversation. So, simply put, you would choose the Z8 if your emphasis is on size and price and you don’t need some of the extras the Z9 has to offer. But, in terms of image quality, you’ll get the same out of either.

Why Would You Choose The Z9

Speed. Pure speed.

What I’ve fallen in love with when it comes to the Z9 is just how darn fast it is to operate. I don’t mean frames per second. The Z8 and Z9 are identical in that regard. What I mean is that the body just offers everything I need in the most convenient way possible. 

Here’s an example. One of the reasons why the Z9 is bigger than the Z8 is because of the built-in battery grip. In that battery grip, the Z9 has a massive battery that can pretty much go all day. In comparison, the Z8 uses a smaller battery. And while the battery life is far from poor, it is, unsurprisingly, not the same as the massive battery in the Z9. “Big whoop,” you might say. If you want to extend the battery life for your Z8, all you need to do is add the battery grip. And this is true. But two things. One, if you are planning to shoot with a battery grip most of the time with the Z8, then you are losing the size benefits versus the Z9. And two, speaking only from a personal point of view, knowing that my Z9 battery can seemingly run forever provides me a certain peace of mind on set. What’s the value of peace of mind? That can vary. But basically never having to worry about my battery running out or having to remember to bring the battery grip in my bag just gives me one less thing to worry about. It’s always there. Not having to deconstruct my video rig to get to the battery compartment multiple times a day is a tangible plus. It’s a personal thing, but it’s something I’ve really come to appreciate, despite it coming at the expense of lugging around a larger camera.

Handling-wise, the Z9 fits perfectly into my hands. But I also want to single out the Z8 as it is a great hold as well. If you are used to shooting the D850-size bodies, you will find the Z8 to be a very comfortable hold. Whether you like to shoot with or without a grip is up to you. But both of these cameras are excellent in terms of ergonomics.

Z9 with elevated settings dial.
Z8 has a flatter mode dial with the option to change other settings in the menu.

What you get on the Z9 but not on the Z8 are creature comforts. For instance, the Z9 has a raised mode dial on top. You can change all of these same things on the Z8, but the tactile, elevated dial can speed things up in the field. Likewise, the Z9 has a GPS system built in. Again, you can also use GPS with the Z8 via Snapbridge. But, like the battery grip, that is adding one more step. Not that that is too high a hurdle to climb. The Z9 has an ethernet port. This may or may not apply to you. But, if it does, it will be appreciated. Both cameras have the excellent dedicated autofocus mode knob on the bottom left of the camera, which speeds things up when shooting. The Z9 has three custom function buttons on the front as opposed to two on the smaller Z8. Again, not the biggest thing in theory, but if your workflow utilizes this, it could speed you up once again. I'm sure you're noticing a theme. 

And the Z9 has dual CFexpress card slots versus the Z8, which has one CFexpress and one SD. The benefit of SD being that the cards are cheaper and more ubiquitous, thus, easier to find in a pinch. The benefit of both card slots being identical CFexpress is the added stability of using CFexpress exclusively and only needing to worry about having one type of media card on me. Again, not a game-changer. Just something that makes my life easier. Or, to put it another way, faster.

So, where the Z8 offers size and cost benefits, the Z9 offers speed and efficiency benefits. Which is most important to you depends completely on your own needs. By ensuring that there is no difference in image quality or shooting formats with either camera, Nikon is allowing its customers to make their choices based on their own professional workflow rather than on (often) meaningless individual specs. This is actually great for customers, as you know that whichever of the cameras you choose, you will be setting yourself up with an excellent professional tool with great image quality. You just get to pick the one that best suits your practical shooting needs.

So, which of the two should you buy? That, in the end, is your decision. But you can rest assured that you won’t go wrong with either of the cameras.  

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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I'm jacked! Ordered my Z8 today! I Hope Nikon is anticipating a large pre-order.

The Z8 is nice. The Z9 is for old hardcore DSLR users. What is impressing me is that Nikon just reuse the parts/tech from Z9 in a lower cost camera. That strikes me as a good way to manage resources. I don’t have budget to switch and don’t have any way to justify a new camera. But I hope Nikon will do well with this camera to.

I own two Z9 bodies and I will order a Z8.

The Z8 will be for my AIS/D lenses. The focus peaking is more responsive on the Z8 than my Z7ii bodies.

The Z8 also has much better ergonomics. The Z7 is to small to be comfortable.

I will see how I like shooting the Z8. It might replace my Z9 bodies for travel with the 1.8 primes. If it gets to this I will buy a second body. I always like to have two bodies.

Budget permitting and I was switching, I'd opt for the Z9. It's about the same size as my R5 with grip and having a grip is important....or, the larger battery of the Z9. The Z8 grip is quite large and kinda' clunky looking and makes it larger than the 9. All subjective and a Canon shooter's opinion, so it's worth about what it took me to type this. :-)

Personally, I feel a Z9II is coming on the nearish horizon. I could be wrong but given how similar the Z8 is to the Z9 I think it will cannibalize almost all Z9 sales and I'm sure Nikon knows it so has another big upgrade planned within 6 months.

For that reason I wouldn't consider paying retail for a Z9 at this time as I expect its price to plummet. :)

If you shoot in extreme weather conditions, like the arctic in November, you are better off with Z9 - better battery seal and longer charge. If not, I guess the Z8 would be adequate.

Honestly, not sure why people don’t give the X-H2S a look, it’s as good as this and better in some ways, for 60% of the cost.

Soon it will have the automatic subject detection and there won’t be anything it is lacking compared to this.

The X-H2S has a better viewfinder, better AF Setup, Fully articulating screen which is better for many bloggers and really isn’t at a disadvantage to the Nikon screen, and it has a physical shutter for times when banding or rolling shutter is an issue (it is rare but it still exists).

I don't really think the X-H2S is comparable to the Z8. It is a smaller cheaper camera that has half the resolution, is capable of half the fps, and has a cropped sensor. Its an excellent camera but I can't see many people who are in the market for a Z8 considering a X-H2S instead. The X-H2S competes with Z6II.

You would be wrong. The sensor is faster than this with regards to rolling shutter. The viewfinder has double the resolution, you don’t need an external monitor for the blogging, the battery life is double, the stabilization is even higher rated, because it is lighter, You have the flexibility to shoot with or without the mechanical shutter, it literally only loses the resolution battle, and the build quality is fantastic so I’m not sure why you think it is cheaper.

Nothing I said was incorrect.

I dont think anyone is buying a Z8 as a blogging camera. Nor do I think many are fussed by a lower resolution viewfinder. And by cheaper I meant the price was lower thats it.

There is not a lot to debate. The X-2HS is an excellent camera like I said but it doesn’t compete with something like the Z8. 26mp and APS-C alone would be a deal breaker for almost everyone who is in the market for a Z8.

Its kind of like saying how much better a Tesla model 3 is to someone shopping for a diesel pickup truck. Yeah it has some fancy tech but at the end of the day the model 3 doesnt do what the truck buyer needs from a vehicle so it isn’t relevant.

I get that you like Fuji, but I’m merely pointing out that they are not comparable. The fuji line that sorta competes with this sort of camera is GFX but even that is only half true because GFX isn’t really meant for high paced action. But at least they both compete for the pro market.

And I’m merely pointing out that they’re very comparable. The problem is you’re stuck on the sensor size and not the capabilities of the camera.

Even if people don’t blog it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is one more aspect where the X-H2S has an advantage.

As for Fuji, I like Fuji, but I like Nikon too. I just don’t see the value difference in these two bodies and the size of the sensor isn’t enough for me see to see a $1500 difference.

For the Z8 you have a larger, higher resolution sensor, that can shoot 8K video. None of those should be a deal breaker. I personally haven’t found anything the Nikon can do that the Fuji can’t.

If you’re in the Nikon camp, buy the Z8, if you’re not, you’re getting a much better value from the X-H2S.