Diving Deep with the Nikon Z 8
Nicolas Remy reviews the Nikon Z 8
It’s no secret that the Nikon D850 has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most successful DSLRs for underwater photography. When you consider how often the camera has been behind competition-winning shots, the D850 may well still be the number one full-frame camera among advanced underwater shooters. Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many D850 users (and D500 users alike) have held on to their trusty DSLRs, waiting for Nikon to release a mirrorless camera that could truly outperform the old guard for the specific challenges of underwater photography. With the arrival of the Nikon Z 9, many seasoned DSLR shooters — myself included — were optimistic that the wait was finally over.
When I got the opportunity to review the Z 9 in Nauticam’s housing, I found the new flagship mirrorless camera to be a very compelling upgrade, offering much improved autofocus performance over my Nikon DSLRs and providing a better overall experience. Still, the weight and size penalties of a full-size pro body aren’t for everyone — even before you consider the eye-watering price. So, when Nikon announced the Z 8, with a body of a similar size to the D850 but promising Z 9-level performance, it seemed like Nikon shooters’ prayers had been answered. With almost identical specs to the Z 9, the new camera seemed almost too good to be true — was it?
To find out how the Z 8 fared underwater, I spent 35 hours over a five-week period diving the camera in a Nauticam NA-Z8 housing in the temperate waters of Sydney, Australia — sometimes challenging waters of varying visibility, from 4 to 20 meters (13 to 65 feet).
The author with the Nikon Z8 in Nauticam NA-Z8 housing with the Nauticam WWL-C wide-angle conversion lens and two Ikelite DS230 strobes. Photo credit: Lena Remy.
Overview of the Nikon Z 8
The Z 8 has been extensively promoted as a “mini Z 9” and the “true successor” of the esteemed D850. I don’t think the Internet needs yet another list of the Z 8’s specifications, so I will rather focus on the key specs for underwater photography, comparing the newcomer with the D850, and with the Z 9. Autofocus, EVF, battery life, and video capabilities are all important topics, so they will be discussed further in subsequent sections, as will lens choices.
Nikon Z 8 vs Nikon D850
The Z 8 is about the same size as the D850, but about 10% lighter. They both have a 45.7MP full-frame sensor, and the image quality is very similar, save for the dynamic range, where the D850 does a little better on paper (14.8EV vs 14.2EV for the Z 8). To put things in perspective, 14.2EV is still a very high score, and I was fully content with the Z 8 files and how I could recover details in the highlights and shadows.
Port Jackson sharks upside down while mating. Their bellies are easily overexposed and I thought my strobes had burnt them out. The Z 8 files are very malleable, however, and I could recover all the details in post-processing (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 34mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Ikelite DS230, f/13, 1/80s, ISO 320)
In the autofocus department, the Z 8 brings significant improvements: 493 points covering 90% of the frame, compared to 153 points and a 21% frame coverage for the D850. In addition, each of the Z 8’s 493 focus points can focus in –7EV low-light conditions, compared to –4EV for the D850’s central AF point. To put that another way, the Z 8 should keep snapping to focus in conditions 16 times darker than the D850 can manage.
Another advantage of the Z 8 is burst shooting speed: It’s capable of shooting full-resolution RAWs at 20fps over long periods, whereas the D850 maxes out at 7fps. I found this higher continuous shooting speed handy for fur seals and moving supermacro subjects. In terms of battery life, the D850 has a clear advantage over the Z 8 — and all mirrorless cameras — delivering well over 1,000 shots on a single charge. By comparison, per the CIPA ratings, the Z 8 delivers 340 shots per charge if you use the rear LCD, and 330 shots if you use the viewfinder (see below for in-water real-world figures).
Shooting at 20fps allowed me to get one shot when the super-fast fur seal and the diver were nicely balanced in the composition (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 50mm, Nauticam WWL-C, ambient light, f/11, 1/640s, ISO 1800).
One major point against the Z 8 (and similarly, the Z 9) is its 1/200s maximum flash sync speed, compared to the D850’s 1/250s. While I found 1/200s to be sufficient for shooting in temperate waters, when I took the Z 9 to the Red Sea, I wished for a higher shutter speed a couple of times. I ended up closing down my aperture and increasing strobe power instead.
The EVF is a significant change for anyone transitioning from a DLSR like the D850 or D500. However, the Z 9 has one of the best EVFs on the market (more on that later), and I felt the Z 8’s EVF performed identically. For underwater photography, the many advantages of the Z 8’s EVF massively outweigh the two negatives I noted (see below).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that all lenses benefit from in-body stabilization on the Z 8, while this was lens-specific on the D850. Last but not least, the video capabilities of the Z 8 are well ahead of those of the D850 — more on that later.
Red-fingered anglerfish (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 105mm f/2.8, Retra Flash Pro, f/14, 1/200s, ISO 640)
Nikon Z 8 vs Nikon Z 9
On paper, the Nikon Z 8 is identical to the flagship Z 9 in many (good) ways. I have found only four differences relevant to underwater photography. First and foremost, it is about 30% smaller and 15oz (430g) lighter than the flagship body. Second, battery life is significantly shorter, which should come as no surprise since the Z 8’s EN-EL15c battery has a 16Wh capacity, about 45% of the Z 9’s 36Wh EN-EL18d battery.
Third, in terms of memory card slots, the Z 8 offers an CFexpress (type B) slot and a SD card slot (UHS-II), whereas the Z 9 has two CFexpress (type B) slots. Professional filmmakers might see this as a downside, but as a traveling underwater photographer, I much prefer being able to keep using my old SD cards and leave the CFexpress card reader at home; like many laptops, mine has a built-in SD card reader. My old SD cards won’t stop me shooting two or three seconds of 20fps RAW bursts — the Z 8 has a huge buffer, like the Z 9 — and I am still able to record 4K/60p video clips in 8-bit quality. Fourth, and last, I have found subtle differences in autofocus tracking, which are detailed in the autofocus section.
Eastern blue gropers (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 31mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Ikelite DS230, f/13, 1/50s, ISO 320).
Nikon Z 8 for Video
I am first and foremost a stills photographer, and I can only comment briefly about the Nikon Z 8 as a filmmaking tool. However, I have started shooting some video with the Z 9, and now the Z 8, and I have found myself filming short clips every second dive, as these cameras made it ridiculously simple, in comparison with a DSLR, for three reasons.
First, I could switch from stills to video without taking my eye away from the EVF. I just had to flick a switch (right thumb on the Nauticam housing), and I could start filming 4K or 8K by pushing a lever conveniently positioned under my left thumb. Second, I found that “full-time” autofocus (AF-F) mode fared pretty well when capturing short wide-angle videos. I didn’t expect this, as previous DSLR experience taught me you just couldn’t trust autofocus while filming underwater, as the camera would start “hunting” anytime, making the footage useless. Third, in-body image stabilization also works while filming, and I found my video clips to be unexpectedly stable.
All in all, despite my limited filming experience, it was obvious how little effort or time was required to record short films that I was happy with, in-between shooting stills. Taking good video clips “on the side” feels more achievable than ever, and I am now thinking I should be getting a couple of video lights — keep in mind that the Z 8 frequently fails to white balance deeper than 15 meters (40–50 feet).
More Than Enough Battery for 2 Busy Dives
With DSLRs, we’re used to measuring battery life by number of shots, but I found both the Z 8 and Z 9 are more about duration of use: how long you keep the viewfinder or LCD screen switched on, how often you are focusing, whether you are using continuous tracking, how much video you are recording, and so on.
In my experience, the Z 8 will comfortably cover two busy dives, using the viewfinder all the time (brightness set to –3), shooting mostly stills with continuous AF tracking and animal recognition enabled, and recording a few short 4K/60p 8-bit video clips.
To arrive at this conclusion, I logged a number of my Z 8 dives, which were all in 16-17°C (61°–63°F) water:
- 2h30 macro/super-macro dive, 250 shots, 10% battery left.
- 2h30 wide-angle dive, 250 shots, 10% battery left.
- 2h20 wide-angle dive, 290 shots and a few videos, 24% battery left.
- 2h20 macro/EMWL dive, 350 shots, 2min40 of video clips, 27% battery left.
- 2h35 fish portraits dive, 230 shots, fully exhausted the battery.
- 2h00 wide-angle dive with seals, with burst shooting at times, 300 shots, 38% battery left.
- 1h20 wide-angle dive with seals but less busy, 190 shots, 71% battery left.
- 2h20 macro/EMWL dive, 230 shots, 35% battery left.
- 1h40 macro/EMWL night dive, 190 shots, 47% battery left.
- 2h50 wide-angle dive, 390 shots and 42secs of video, 5% battery left.
An important caveat: Although the Z 8 will accept the D850’s EN-EL15a batteries, you need to buy the latest EN-EL15c version to achieve the above performance.
Overall, it doesn’t take much effort to quickly dry the housing, open it, swap batteries and then pump it up, for the vacuum check to confirm that it is still waterproof. For those who don’t like opening their housing during the day, Nauticam has just released a USB-C charging bulkhead that allows you to top up the battery of compatible cameras (like the Z 8) without opening the housing.
A Rich Viewfinder Experience for More Enjoyable Dives
I couldn’t tell the Z 8’s EVF apart from the Z 9’s, which is fantastic news, as it is one of the very best on the market. Overall, it is a much better tool for underwater photography than the D850’s optical viewfinder.
If you’re new to mirrorless, have a read of my review of the Z 9, written from the perspective of a DSLR user adjusting to a new paradigm. I discuss at length the benefits the Z 9’s EVF brings, and everything therein applies to the Z 8, too. For the purpose of this review, below are the key takeaways on the Z 8’s EVF.
First, when there’s plenty of ambient light, the EVF really feels “life-like” — meaning hard to tell apart from a good optical viewfinder. This results from a combination of the high resolution (3.69M dots) and the impressive refresh rate (120Hz), which is sustained during focusing. When it gets darker, the display adjusts to make it easier to see and frame your subjects. Like any EVF, it can get difficult to see both your foreground and background when framing a high-contrast scene — think shooting into the sun with a dark foreground. I did notice my water background being clipped on occasion, but I was still able to see the key elements and compose my shots.
This is the sort of high-contrast scene where an EVF can’t show you everything. I was still able to see each of the old wives, but the water background near the sun was clipped (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 24mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/13, 1/100s, ISO 200).
Second, the EVF is quite large and I chose to make the display smaller (there is an option for that), so that I could see the whole frame from a distance, when using the Nauticam 40°/0.8:1 angled viewfinder. It is possible to see the whole EVF display through this viewfinder if you stick your mask up close, but I prefer having a bit of leeway.
The Nauticam 40°/0.8:1 viewfinder installed on the NA-Z8 housing: I tried shooting through the rear screen, but it is often too hard to compose a shot when angling the camera upwards. An angled viewfinder solves that problem and makes the most of the Z 8’s mighty EVF.
Third, I really like being able to see all the important shooting parameters without taking my eye away from the EVF and without needing to press any button. This information is laid out on two rows, above and below the image.
Fourth, the EVF’s visual focus aids make manual focusing (supermacro) much easier. Focus peaking is obviously configurable in terms of sensitivity and color, and you can even “zoom through” the EVF, by pressing the “+” button. I loved the focus distance indicator, which kicks in when you focus manually. (I installed the Nauticam focus ring on the Z 105mm lens.) It showed me how close I was to the 11.4in (29cm) minimum focus distance, so I knew if I had maxed out my magnification, and when it was time to attach the Nauticam SMC-1 diopter to get even more magnification. Again, it told me when I had maxed out my SMC-1 as well.
Sydney pygmy pipehorse supermacro shot: Focus peaking and the focus distance indicator are quite helpful when attempting supermacro shots of tiny subjects on the move (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon Z 105mm f/2.8, Nauticam SMC-1, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/29, 1/200s, ISO 800).
Finally, my favorite feature of the Z 8’s EVF is its DX mode, whereby you can choose to apply an in-camera APS-C crop and produce 19MP files, very close to the venerable D500’s 20.9MP files. In this mode, the Z 8 still uses the full EVF to show the DX framing, making composition as comfortable as when shooting in full-frame (FX) mode. I assigned the DX/FX switch to the Fn2 button, easily accessed via a lever on the Nauticam housing using my left pinkie. When composing shots, toggling between FX and DX modes really felt like I was swapping between a D850 and a D500 underwater — whatever suited the subject best.
The only time I missed an optical viewfinder was at night, when using a red light. In these conditions, I found the EVF showed less contrast than a good optical viewfinder.
"Sticky" Autofocus That Almost Never Loses Your Subject
Overall, the Nikon Z 8’s autofocus system is a treat to use underwater. Quite simply, it is one of the best out there. It is easier to use and produces more keeper shots than the well-regarded D850/D500 can. Here, I will talk about my general findings regarding autofocus, with some lens-specific observations shared in the Lenses section.
Without question, my go-to mode is AF-C 3D: You put the focus point on your chosen subject, depress the shutter, and the Z 8 will track said subject all around the frame (remember, 90% coverage). Tracking works impressively well and generally sticks to the subject while you’re getting closer, while you’re recomposing, while the subject is swimming, or all of the above! That “stickiness” is a significant win over the best Nikon DSLRs, regardless of whether the “animal detection” feature kicks in. For testing purposes, I sometimes selected a random piece of algae swinging in the swell and tried recomposing, only to find the Z 8 kept on tracking the algae!
Even more impressively, this highly commendable performance was sustained in low ambient light, such as shooting fish below a jetty in less than 15-foot visibility, without a focus light. For really unpredictable subjects, like fish swimming erratically in midwater, I switched to the Auto-Area AF mode and let the Z 8 figure out what the subject was. This was more productive than AF-C 3D, as long as the fish stood out from its background.
Nikon Z 8 vs Nikon D850
For swimming fish and macro, the Z 8 largely outperformed the D850, as it would stick to the subject for much longer when using continuous tracking. This enabled a different way of shooting, where I could select my subject from a distance (AF-C 3D), and then make my approach and possibly recompose, confident that the subject would still be tracked. With the D850 (and D500), I would approach first and then select my focus point once I was at the intended working distance. Selecting a macro subject’s eye underwater can be fiddly, and that “old” way of shooting resulted in missed photo opportunities.
Juvenile White’s seahorse on an artificial reef: With visibility of less than 5 meters (16 feet), I could select the seahorse from a distance, then approach and recompose at the same time, while the Z 8 kept tracking the eye (Nikon Z8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 105mm f/2.8, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 100).
The Z 8 let me work faster than Nikon’s well-regarded DSLRs, resulting in more keeper shots, especially in lower ambient light. I don’t recall having to switch on my focus light at all, except when shooting with Nauticam’s SMC-1 diopter. The only macro situation where I found the D850/D500 still had an edge was focusing under a red light (at night). Just like the Z 9 (and most likely mirrorless cameras from other brands), the Z 8 relies on its blue and green sensor photosites (but not the reds) for focusing, making it slower when presented with a fully red scene.
Striped pyjama squid at night: With high-contrast subjects like this pyjama squid, the autofocus (AF-S) still worked under my red light, but it was slow and I reverted to white light as soon as the squid started moving (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 105mm f/2.8, Retra Flash Pro, f/18, 1/200s, ISO 640).
For wide angle, the D850 and D500 were already hard to fault, but again, the Z 8’s 90% coverage simply made it less likely to “lose” the subject compared to the D850’s mere 21%. Having said that, while AF-C 3D and Auto-Area both worked very well in good visibility, when shooting wide angle with visibility of less than 6 meters (18 feet), I noticed the Z 8 sometimes focused on floating sand in-between the camera and the subject. In hindsight, the Z 8 appears to “overthink” the scene, locking on to tiny particles that the D850 or D500 would have ignored, and this could presumably be fixed via a firmware update. With the Z 9, Nikon has had a good track record of delivering significant autofocus improvements via firmware updates, so I shared my observations with Nikon in the hope that we’ll see this being addressed down the line. Although the Z 8 has a plethora of AF settings to work around this low-viz wide-angle scenario, I’d prefer to just stick to AF-C 3D for every situation — are you hearing me, Nikon?
Finally, if you’ve read my article on using the Nauticam Extended Macro Wide Lens (EMWL) for “bugeye” photography, you’ll know that the Z 8, Z 9 and other Z cameras currently suffer from some back-focusing issues. Nauticam are now offering a solution which requires modifying the Z 105 MC lens, see this article for my review of this modification.
The modification does limit the capability of the Z 105mm MC lens, and I wish that Nikon would offer a menu option to change the focusing aperture in a future firmware update, which would make that alteration to the lens un-necessary.
Striated anglerfish (hairy frogfish): While I wait for the EMWL back-focus solution, I position my AF focus point slightly in front of the eye, which works reasonably well in getting me critical sharpness where I need it (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 105mm f/2.8, Nauticam EMWL with 160° optic, Retra Flash Pro, Retra LSD, f/18, 1/200s, ISO 320).
Nikon Z 8 vs Nikon Z 9
The Z 8 and the Z 9 apparently share the same sensor and image processor, which would imply that they have the same autofocus system. I felt this was mostly the case, but I noticed two subtle differences.
First, the animal detection feature — which I enabled most of the time — appeared to recognize marine life more often on the Z 9. Of course, if you read through the manuals of the Z 8 and Z 9, neither camera is supposed to recognize fish — they’re designed for dogs, cats and birds. However, as I discuss in my detailed Z 9 review, it just so happened that the Z 9 would sometimes pick up fish and cephalopods, and when it did, this saved me from having to move the focus point onto the subject. This behavior was unpredictable on the Z 9: During one dive in specific conditions it would recognize goatfish, and on another one, it wouldn’t, but clearer waters and brighter ambient light seemed to help. It took me a few dives to be certain, but the Z 9 was definitely better at detecting marine life and automatically picking up the eye.
While the Z 9 was frequently able to recognize goatfish and automatically focused on the eye, this rarely appened with the Z 8 (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z 8, Nikon Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 50mm, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/6.3, 1/100s, ISO 100).
Second, the tracking in AF-C 3D mode felt a little less “sticky” on the Z 8 than on the Z 9. Both cameras are significantly better than DSLRs, but if I had a scale of “stickiness” from 0 to 10, the D850 being 5/10 and the Z 9 being 10/10, I’d score the Z 8 at 9/10. Note that I set up both the Z 8 and Z 9 at level 3 and “Erratic” mode in the a3 menu (Focus Tracking with Lock-On), meaning both cameras could be tweaked to increase “stickiness” further.
The Z 9 was able to keep tracking the eye of a goatfish as it turned away, up to a 120-degree angle, but the Z 8 would drop the eye a little earlier. While the Z 8 was still more “tenacious” than the D850/D500, the Z 9 had a small edge (Nikon Z 9, Nauticam NA-Z9, Nikon NIKKOR Z 105mm f/2.8, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/11, 1/200s, ISO 200).
A Lens for Every Occasion
Nikon mirrorless shooters have native short (Z 50mm f/2.8) and long (Z 105mm f/2.8) macro lens options, but the front element of the former extends during focusing, making it less suited for use behind a flat port. However, most underwater housings, Nauticam’s NA-Z8 included, can accommodate Nikon’s FTZ/FTZ-II adapter, enabling the F-mount AF-S 60mm lens to be used on a Z-mount body like the Z 8. In my tests, I used both the AF-S 60mm and the Z 105mm macro lenses.
Nikon Z 105mm Macro
Like I wrote in my Z 9 review, I love the Z 105mm lens. It’s sharper than its F-mount predecessor from 2006, while being faster and more responsive, courtesy of its dual internal motors. It also focuses a little closer than the AF-S 105mm f/2.8 (11.4in/29cm vs 12.2in/31cm), while still delivering 1:1 magnification. The Z-mount 105mm pairs very well with the Z 8, making it a highly capable fish portrait machine.
With the Z 8, the Z 105mm lens has replaced the trusty AF-S 60mm as my go-to lens for fish portraits, like this close-up of a weedy seadragon (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon Z 105mm f/2.8, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/8, 1/200s, ISO 640).
Nikon AF-S 60mm Macro
The F-mount 60mm macro lens still has an important place in my gear bag, as it provides the same 1:1 magnification at a reduced working distance (7.5in/19cm). It lets you get closer to approachable subjects, which results in less backscatter and makes snooting easier. In the DSLR days, I would pick the AF-S 60mm over the AF-S 105mm for any of these reasons: (i) low visibility, (ii) larger subjects, or (iii) swimming subjects. The last reason had to do with the AF-S 60mm being faster and “hunting” less than the AF-S 105mm, but now that the Z 8 focuses so well with the Z 105mm, this reason no longer applies, and I find myself using the longer macro lens more and more.
Sydney divers were excited to have a tasselled leatherjacket settle down in one of our popular shore dives. Given the fish’s size, the Z 105mm had me work a little too far, so I came back the following day with the AF-S 60mm. Select the eye from a distance, track, approach, recompose and shoot — it just works really well (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon AF-S 60mm f/2.8, dual Retra Flash Pro with Retra Reflectors, f/20, 1/160s, ISO 64).
I wish I had had the time to go blackwater diving with the Z 8, but at least I caught up with Fabien Michenet, one of the best blackwater photographers out there. With the AF-S 60mm, Fabien told me he found that the AF-C 3D tracking worked very well on blackwater subjects, whereas he couldn’t trust that autofocus mode using the D850 with the 60mm and had to rely on central-point AF. Given how impressively the Z 8 pairs with the AF-S 60mm and with the Z 105mm, I am looking forward to trying both lenses when I finally do some blackwater dives.
When I was testing the Z 9, the only wide-angle lens I had the opportunity to shoot was the Nikon AF-S 8–15mm fisheye, and I frequently found myself switching to DX mode when subjects were too shy for its 180-degree diagonal field of view. So I was very happy to have a rectilinear zoom option to try with the Z 8, namely the Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3, along with the Nauticam Wet Wide Lens (WWL-C).
The grey nurse sharks off Bass Point were too shy for a fisheye lens, but the WWL-C delivered just the right field of view (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 35mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/10, 1/100s, ISO 400).
Nikon AF-S 8–15mm Fisheye
The AF-S 8–15mm fisheye is a known quantity in the underwater world: sharp, good colors and usable behind relatively small domes (I used the Nauticam 140mm glass dome). As expected, it works brilliantly with the FTZ-II adaptor, but I can’t help thinking that I am unnecessarily carrying two lenses in one — a 15mm fisheye and a 8mm circular fisheye — but I am really only interested in the frame-filling 15mm end. I’d rather have a lightweight, fixed 15mm fisheye for the Z-mount.
Nikon Z 24–50mm and Nauticam WWL-C
Sometimes, a fisheye is just too wide, but getting good image quality on a full-frame rectilinear wide-angle zoom comes with a heavy weight and size penalty, namely requiring a 6lb/2.8kg, nine-inch glass dome port or a premium wet optic like the WACP-1 — weighing 8.6lb/3.9kg! At least this used to be the case on a DSLR... But as it turns out, Nauticam’s WWL-C — their most compact wet wide-angle lens, which weighs just 2.2lb/1kg — happens to work really well with the affordable Nikon Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3. What’s more, the full range of the zoom lens is usable with the WWL-C, providing a versatile 81°–130° field of view. This covers a useful chunk of the zoom range of the popular Tokina 10–17mm (180°–100°) and extends a bit further, for those shy subjects where you would have needed to add a 1.4x Kenko converter on the Tokina.
I found the wider end of the WWL-C (130°–100°) well suited for seadragons, which would be equivalent to the narrower end of the Tokina 10–17mm zoom range (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 28mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Ikelite DS230, f/13, 1/100s, ISO 320).
When I witnessed these two seadragons starting their courtship dance, I knew I had to give them a little privacy. By zooming through the WWL-C, I could stay back and still fill the frame, with only a minimal 10% crop needed (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 48mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/11, 1/80s, ISO 200).
When an even tighter field of view was needed, I could unclip the WWL-C from the front of my flat port (which barely extends from the NA-Z8 housing), attach it to one of my strobe arms, and photograph shy, mid-sized subjects; the Z 24–50mm focuses down to 13.8in/35cm throughout the zoom range.
I normally visit Shelly Beach with a fisheye lens, ruling out the colorful yet skittish sergeant baker as a potential subject. This time though, I could unmount the WWL-C and zoom through the Z 24–50mm lens to create this uncropped portrait (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 50mm, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/11, 1/50s, ISO 200).
On the same dive, I mounted the WWL-C again, zoomed out and had a 130-degree field of view, well suited for this 10-foot-long wobbegong shark (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 24–50mm f/4–6.3 at 50mm, Nauticam WWL-C, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/11, 1/80s, ISO 320).
When it’s not being used, I mount the Nauticam WWL-C onto a bayonet holder attached to one of my strobe arms.
The WWL-C is one of Nauticam’s water-corrected optics, meaning it has been engineered to optimize image quality in the presence of water, which as we know diffuses light, reduces colors and sharpness alike. According to Nauticam, the Z 24–50mm/WWL-C combo delivers sharper images than a full-frame fisheye and dome! I haven’t conducted rigorous comparison tests in a pool, but I shot Port Jackson sharks with both setups and I found the WWL-C images at least as sharp as the AF-S 8–15mm/140mm dome combo, at the same apertures. For close-focus wide-angle shots, I liked using the WWL-C at f/13–f/14, and I was happy to open up to f/8–f/11 for more distant subjects.
I have taken quite a few shots of these sharks (currently aggregating in Sydney), and I found both lenses can resolve about the same amount of detail on the skin, with a slight edge for the Z 24–50mm/WWL-C combo. It is great having this choice between compact rectilinear and fisheye, without compromising image quality.
An Optimal Shooting Experience with the Nauticam Z 8 Housing
As with all Nauticam housings I have used so far — this was the seventh — the ergonomics of the NA-Z8 are excellent. The multi-selector “joystick” makes it a breeze to move the AF target around the 493 available locations, and Nauticam’s engineers have managed to arrange no fewer than eight control levers around the housing handles. It’s an effective design choice: The alternative would have been to implement fewer levers and more buttons, but buttons often require taking one’s hand away from a handle, which amounts to a loss of efficiency. The Z 8 allows one to get the shot faster than a DSLR does, and the NA-Z8 housing maximizes this advantage.
Importantly, the design of the NA-Z8 is such that you can change ports and lenses without having to open the back of the housing. This applies to both Z-mount and F-mount lenses, as there are two distinct lens release buttons. By the same token, you can swap batteries without having to take off the housing port.
The NA-Z8 has a grand total of eight control levers ergonomically arranged around the handles.
Engineering marvel: The many gears and levers involved in “relocating” camera controls to the diver’s fingertips.
Nauticam housings come as standard with a battery-powered manual flash trigger, which plugs into the hot-shoe of the camera and triggers supported strobes via fiber-optic connections from two optical bulkheads. These flash triggers typically work flawlessly, but I noticed an issue with the flash trigger that came standard with the NA-Z8 housing.
It worked perfectly up to 1/160s, including when firing strobes at 10fps or even 20fps, but at 1/200s (the camera’s maximum flash sync speed), I occasionally noticed a dark band across the top of the image, as if the camera’s maximum sync speed had been exceeded. It was only noticeable with powerful strobes used at higher powers, such as the Ikelite DS230 and Retra Flash Pro that I used for the review, and on scenes illuminated with strobe light alone. If you’re shooting mostly wide angle with water in the top of the frame, it’s unlikely you will notice anything; I didn’t, despite 500-plus wide-angle shots at 1/200s using the NA-Z9, which appears to have the same triggering issue.
I reported the issue to Nauticam, who are looking into it, but for the time being, if you absolutely need 1/200s for macro, then you will need a more sophisticated flash trigger that the Z 8 “sees” as a connected strobe. One possibility is the Nauticam TTL converter for Nikon, which I used for most of this review. I found that using the TTL converter did produce properly illuminated images at the maximum sync speed of 1/200s, but it couldn’t fully keep up with fastests bursts, missing three shots out of 10 when shooting at 10–20fps. Nauticam are also working on fixing this, via a firmware upgrade of the TTL converter.
Red-fingered anglerfish, shot with the standard flash trigger: A dark band appears at the top of the frame (Nikon Z 8, Nauticam NA-Z8, Nikon NIKKOR Z 105mm f/2.8, dual Retra Flash Pro, f/4, 1/200s, ISO 125).
Size and Weight
Let’s now take a look at how the NA-Z8 measures up compared with other Nauticam housings in the same league:
|Width with Handles||Height||Depth||Housing Only||Housing, Camera and Battery|
As you can see, the Z 8 in the NA-Z8 housing is about the same weight as the D850 in the NA-D850 housing (just 6.7oz/190g more, including camera and battery) and the external dimensions are roughly the same, save for the housing depth, as the Z 8 is 1.1in/28mm deeper, to make room for the FTZ-II adaptor. This design choice means that you can keep using the same ports when upgrading from a Nikon DSLR to a Nikon Z camera, but this makes the newer housings a little more bulky. I would have preferred a thinner housing, but the NA-Z8 still fits in the upper compartment of my Pelican 1637 Air Case, so I don’t really mind.
For anyone deciding between a Z 9 and a Z 8, note that the housing port sits about 1.2in/3cm closer to the seafloor on the NA-Z8 housing. This will make a difference only when shooting very low on sand.
The Nikon Z 8 is one of the best cameras out there, excelling at almost any underwater photography challenge you might throw at it.
I could have written that statement about the D850 back in 2017, but the last six years have seen autofocus technology make significant progress, while mirrorless cameras have steadily matured, closing the gap on viewfinder experience and battery life. Now the tables have turned: The EVF experience is so good that it has become one of the key reasons for an upgrade, together with autofocus and the ease with which you can record quality video.
If you love your D500 and are hesitant to give up the compact and versatile Tokina 10–17mm fisheye, consider the Z 24–50mm/WWL-C combo, which will cover the “close-focus wide-angle end” of the Tokina’s range and deliver much better image quality. And if a fisheye is really needed, the Nikon 8–15mm remains an excellent option. In any case, you can turn the Z 8 into a D500 by touching one lever to switch to DX mode.
Impressively, Nauticam managed to turn eight of the Nikon Z 8’s controls into ergonomic levers, located within easy reach of the NA-Z8 housing’s handles, giving you extensive options to make the camera “your own.” Overall, the Nikon Z 8/Nauticam NA-Z8 pair will allow you to create images faster and with a higher success rate than the D850 and D500 ever could, as well as open the door to top-quality video recording, if that is something you fancy.
So, is the Z 8 the best Nikon underwater camera out there right now? Well, it depends: If size, weight and cost are not a problem, I would suggest considering the Nikon Z 9, which scores a touch higher on autofocus tracking (with animal detection being surprisingly helpful with marine life) and lasts around 2.5 times longer. But, boy, is it a big and heavy beast! Most underwater photographers will find the Nikon Z 8 to be in the sweet spot. Either way, whether you’re moving to a Z 8 or a Z 9, you’ll find it to be the best Nikon camera you’ve ever used underwater.
The Nikon Z 8 in Nauticam NA-Z8 housing, ready for more awesome shore diving off Sydney’s northern beaches.
Pros & Cons
Pros: One of the best AF systems on any camera (tracking, low light); EVF is better than an optical viewfinder in low light and feels DSLR-like under bright ambient light; Z 24–50mm and WWL-C is a compact solution with great image quality; flexible customizability of controls, accessible via eight ergonomic levers on the Nauticam housing; battery lasts for two busy dives.
Cons: Maximum flash sync speed of 1/200s; slow to focus under red light; sometimes focuses on floating sand in low-viz wide-angle scenarios.