Nikon is perhaps the most famous camera brand in the world, but with the decline of DSLRs it has fallen behind Canon and Sony. In 2022, it released the Z9, a flagship mirrorless camera that could finally keep up with its competitors, but the $5,500 price tag put it out of reach for most. To appeal to a wider audience, Nikon introduced the Z8 last year with the same sensor and almost the same specs as the Z9 for $1,700 less.

With a 45-megapixel stacked sensor and the latest Expeed 7 image processor, the Z8 can do everything from sports to wildlife to scenic photography. It’s also a powerful video camera, offering 8K RAW recording internally at up to 60 fps.

The only other model that really compares in terms of speed, resolution and video is the Sony A1, but it costs a whopping $2,200 more. To find out how the Z8 compares to this model and others, I rented the Z8 and shot it around Vancouver, Canada with my photographer cousin.

In terms of design, you can think of the Z8 as the Z9 with the battery grip cut off. It’s still a hefty camera at 910 grams (2 pounds) compared to 737 grams for the Sony A1. This may suit professionals or those who like a larger camera body, but the size and weight aren’t ideal for travel. By the way, a battery grip for $346 (MB-N12) with secondary controls is available for the Z8, effectively transforming it into a Z9 for a lot less money.

The Z8 has a nice big grip and all the controls you’d expect, including a joystick, D-Pad-style menu controls, a switch for camera/video settings, and front and rear dials. Nikon users will enjoy the layout, as it is largely similar to past models, but everything is different enough that it might feel uncomfortable for users coming from other brands.

Unlike the A1, the Z8 features a display on top that shows key settings such as shutter, aperture and battery life. Although it takes up space that could be used by buttons or dials, it’s a handy way to see everything at a glance, and I miss it now on models that don’t have it. If you do have to dive into the menus, they take a little getting used to, but work well once you get over the learning curve.

One of the key negative points is the lack of a fully articulating display. Instead, the rear 3.2-inch, 2.36-million-dot screen only tilts up and down and left or right. That’s too bad, because the Z8 can be a powerful vlog camera, and a flip-up display is a must for this type of work (especially since it makes selfies easier).

The 3.69 million dot electronic viewfinder is a bit low resolution for a camera in this price range, especially compared to the Sony A1’s 9.4 million dot display. Even Canon’s cheaper R5 has a 5.76 million-dot display, which makes checking focus much easier.

Battery life is on the weak side at 420 shots (one to two hours of video shooting depending on resolution), compared to 490 shots for the Canon R5 and 530 for the A1, according to CIPA ratings. Again, though, you can almost double that with the battery handle. Other notable features include UHS-II and CFexpress B memory card slots, a full-size HDMI port for external capture, and two separate USB-C ports for power and data.

With the fastest high-resolution sensor stacked, the Z8 is incredibly fast for a 45-megapixel camera. You can shoot RAW photos at 20fps, slightly slower than the A1’s 30fps RAW, but the Z8 can shoot 30fps in JPEG mode. It can handle 40 uncompressed RAW frames before the buffer fills up, but can store more compressed images if you have a fast CFexpress card.

Hybrid phase-detection autofocus is Nikon’s best yet thanks to an improved image processor, a stacked sensor and a huge number of AF tracking points. It offers reliable object tracking, and face, eye and animal recognition is also fast and accurate. In fact, the company said it’s almost identical to the much more expensive Z9 from the latest firmware.

However, the Z8’s AF isn’t as reliable as the Sony A1 when shooting at top speeds. There were occasional issues with tracking objects, especially those moving towards the camera, resulting in some out-of-focus shots. The Z8 (and Z9) is quite sensitive to setting, so it’s best to fine-tune the AF settings until it works the way you want.

There’s no mechanical shutter, but the Z8’s sensor is fast enough that a rolling shutter isn’t an issue, even with fast-moving subjects like airplane propellers. In-body 5-axis stabilization reduces shake by six stops, enough to get sharp shots down to a quarter of a second or so. That’s better than the A1, but well short of the EOS R5’s 8 stops.

The Z8 has the same excellent sensor as the Z9, so of course the image quality is identical in every way. At 45.7MP on tap, it delivers sharp photos on par with the 50MP A1 and second only to Sony’s 60MP A7R V in the full-frame realm. Dynamic range is also exceptional, perhaps a little better than the A1.

JPEG images are bright and vivid straight out of the camera, with the best color results from the Auto Light natural white balance setting. Colors are accurate, although skin tones aren’t as warm as Canon’s R3 or R5.