Nikon Z8 Bird Detection

Last Saturday I got a chance to quickly try out Nikon’s new firmware 2.0 release for the Nikon Z8 mirrorless camera. I was anticipating this firmware upgrade since the firmware upgrade to the Nikon Z9 flagship camera.

The following are my first impressions of the new bird detection feature in the Nikon Z8 and how it can help capture sharp, in-focus photos of birds. This review is by no means comprehensive and doesn’t even address BIF or “birds in flight”. Yet I believe it may be helpful in determining Nikon’s improvements in the focusing department.

Firmware 2 for the Nikon Z8

I was looking forward to this Nikon firmware upgrade for two reasons:

  1. Better bird detection and focus;
  2. Auto Capture

Twenty years ago I used a simple form of Auto Capture on the Nikon D70 to take sharp photos of my son as he sped around the corner of the house. I’d pre-focus the camera on a place where the boy was going to show up and pressed the shutter release. I had set the camera to AF-S and “focus priority”, and the Nikon D70 would wait patiently until something or someone would enter the frame and get into focus.

Nikon reintroduced this feature, but this time configurable to your hearts content. Auto Capture is much more sophisticated and I can see books written on that subject, or at least a fair amount of tutorials. I won’t go into this feature as I haven’t had a chance to test it. I plan to use it for bird photography, for example to photograph a kingfisher as he shoots down from his perch.

Sports photographers will find Auto Capture in the Nikon Z8 or Z9 helpful to capture athletes at the finishing line, for example. But there are many more use cases. I wonder if it’s good enough to capture a flying baseball as it approaches the bat.

Auto Focus with Bird Detection

The weather was nice and when my son invited me to join him on a walk in the nearby park, I grabbed the Nikon Z8 with a 24-120mm f/4 Z lens mounted in the hope to get some photos of him and our dog. As my son went to buy a juice, I noticed the black ducks behind the kiosk near the river. They aren’t actually all black, but in the shade I couldn’t make out any color except black.

This was a great opportunity to give the new bird detection feature of the Nikon Z8 a try. Would it detect the pitch dark birds in the shade? Would it be able to focus on the eye? None of the photos below are keepers, are worthy of printing. Yet I believe they may be valuable indicators on how good (or not) the Nikon Z8 focus system is. So here is my very first shot with the Nikon Z8 and firmware 2:

Mallard (duck) at the Yarkon river – Nikon Z8 with 24-120 f/4 Z lens, ISO 140

Note: All photos shown here were shot in M (manual) mode, shutter speed 1/320s, aperture f/4, Auto-ISO, vibration reduction on, and at 5 frames per second continuous shooting. The focus mode was AF-C, Auto-area mode with “bird detection”. The photos were then imported to Lightroom, color corrected, minimally adjusted for exposure, shadows, etc. No noise-reduction was applied!

Update: Bird and wildlife photographer Steve Perry just posted an updated Nikon Z8/Z9 settings guide on YouTube – highly recommended.

Below is a crop of the above photo which I lightened up a little in Lightroom:

Mallard (duck) at the Yarkon river – crop from the previous photo

As you can see, the focus is on the eye of the duck in front. The f4 aperture didn’t provide a shallow depth of field and the birds behind are only slightly out of focus.

I walked closer to the ducks and captured the following photo. The photo is one out of 3 pictures I took, but the other two photos showed the duck with its eye closed. All photos were sharp, though.

Black male mallard (duck) at the Yarkon river – Nikon Z8 with bird detection, ISO 400

To the bare eye the duck was pitch black, and so his eye. Yet the viewfinder clearly showed me that the camera was focusing on the area of the eye. Below is a closeup (crop).

Black male mallard (duck) at the Yarkon river – crop from the previous photo

I took a total of 47 photos in this location, within less than three minutes. From these one was out of focus (back-focused), and two were slightly blurred (motion blur).

Note: As long as you use the stabilizer, a 1/320s shutter speed is a save bet for a 120mm focal length and birds that don’t move fast. This helps in keeping the ISO down and produces cleaner, noise-free images at the cost of perhaps a few lost shots.

Below are two heavily cropped photos. The first is in focus, the second one is clearly back-focused.

Black male mallard (duck) at the Yarkon river

The next photo shows where the Nikon Z8 missed the focus, despite “bird detection” and the fact that the eye is now in sight:

Black male mallard (duck) at the Yarkon river

Conclusion

With firmware 2.0, Nikon has once again improved its focusing system and given us a very useful “bird detection” mode. Others did more comprehensive tests and reviews, see for example the video by Jan Wegener.

What I really appreciate about Nikon is that they are constantly thriving to improve existing products. Where other companies sell you products that basically become obsolete the moment they hit the shelves, Nikon has repeatedly demonstrated that they care about their existing users and provide firmware updates to fix or improve their cameras. Actually Jan, who is a Canon shooter, acknowledges this Nikon trait.

When I bought my Nikon Z8 in June 2023 I hoped to have a good all-rounder and a decent action camera for bird photography. Little did I know back then that the Z8 would develop into a beast of a camera. Like the Auto-capture feature that opens up new creative possibilities. For landscapes or cityscapes, the pixel-shift feature may come in handy.

Update March 9, 2024: Thom Hogan detected some bugs and undocumented features with the Nikon Z8 firmware 2.0 update.

I plan to write my own Nikon Z8 review once I got more mileage on that camera. So far it has been a great camera for portraits and people. I love the colors out of the box. That combined with eye detect focus is fantastic. I’ve shared a few Nikon Z8 photos in my article on Choosing a Camera System, but there is so much more to show.

Author: Heiko Sieger

The day has 24 hours. If that isn't enough, I also use the night.

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