In February of 2012, Nikon announced their D800 professional DSLR camera. Nikon users (such as myself) were looking forward this announcement as many were expecting a “replacement” for their D700. Nikon threw a bit of a curve ball at the photographic community with the announcement of the D800 for the following reasons:
I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when I first read the announcement – a 36 megapixel FX DSLR for $US 3,000.00? That’s medium format territory for relatively little money, compared to these high end, high resolution cameras. Surely Nikon must have compromised something to attain this price point?
As I was about to find out, I was wrong. Very wrong. Read on to find out …
People who know me well understand that I rarely pre-order a high end camera product – I usually wait until I can physically get my
grubby, little hands on a sample to test it out before I hand over my hard earned money. This time, I did not do this – I saw several pre-release image samples on the web from some well respected photographers and they were superb. So I broke with tradition and pre-ordered the D800.
Nikon (and NPS) was very kind to me as I received a D800 from the first shipment into Canada back in March of 2012. Shortly after receiving my D800, numerous detailed reviews appeared on the web and I did not want to write “just another D800 review”, so I decided to wait until I used my D800 on a commercial assignment. I would rather articulate my thoughts after using the camera in the field as a working pro. Thus, this article is based on my experience on a recent assignment to Iceland – if you are looking for an in-depth technical review, you can visit sites like dpreview.com for that.
Although this is not a detailed technical review, I wanted to highlight some features from the D800 that really caught my attention:
I ended up purchasing the D800 (with the AA filter) over the D800E – I shoot landscape, fashion and portraiture and did not want to increase the chance of moiré occurring in my images. Having said that, I know of several wedding photographers who opted for the D800E (without the AA filter) who have never had moiré in their images.
After taking the D800 out of its gold box and charging the EN-EL15 battery (Amazon ~ Adorama ~ B&H Photo/Video), I started using the D800 right away. If you are used to Nikon DSLRs, you will feel right at home with D800’s menu and many of the external controls.
One thing that took me a while to get used to was the new AF selector which was borrowed from the D7000. At first, I did not like it at all as old habits die hard (i.e. I became accustomed to the AF selection on my D3s) but after using the camera for a couple of weeks, I got used to it.
The external styling has changed too – there are more rounded corners and sloping lines which is neither good or bad, IMHO. One thing that I do not like, even to this day, is the built in hand grip on the D800. I have small/medium sized hands and I find holding the camera uncomfortable compared to the D700 or D3s. Perhaps it is a personal preference issue, but I still do not like it.
The D800 has two memory card slots for use with one compact flash and one SD card. I appreciate the ability to write in-camera backups, so I have the SD card setup to do this.
After getting acquainted with the camera and its controls, I decided to take it to Iceland for my assignment along with:
Along with the above, I brought a carbon fiber tripod, ball head, RRS plates and B+W filters (which fell apart after one year of use – nice quality control, B+W) – all securely contained in my photo back pack.
Here are my basic settings for use with the D800:
That’s it. I use exposure compensation as needed and will sometimes use manual mode in difficult lighting situations.
Overall, the D800 handled very well. AF was fast and accurate as it uses the same CAM3500 system as found in its bigger brother, the D4. One thing that really surprised me was that I could easily track birds in flight and if I used a sufficiently fast shutter speed, I got very sharp images from the camera:
Given that there a lot of pixels (36.3 million of them), the sensor on this camera will expose every flaw in your hand holding technique and glass. It pays to use the best Nikon lenses on this camera and where possible, support the camera with a sturdy tripod when using slow shutter speeds.
I also found diffraction to be an issue with small apertures and it rears its ugly head around f/8 to f/11, even with the best Nikon lenses. There were times when I shot a scene with several different apertures (whilst mounted on my tripod) and the shots above f/11 always showed some softness. Thus, for the sharpest results, try and limit your lens opening to f/8 – f/11.
RAW files are massive. I guess that is to be expected when you have a camera that produces a 36 megapixel, 14 bit image. I shot lossless compressed NEF’s (Nikon’s RAW format), 14 bit files and they weighed in at 39MB to 51MB each, depending on the scene I shot. That means if you are trigger happy, you will eat memory cards like candy. I normally shoot with 16GB cards and I almost had heart failure when I inserted one into the D800 and it indicated I could shoot 200 frames with it. Yikes. I have since purchased 32GB cards for my D800 to give me a bit more storage capacity to avoid changing cards frequently.
Make sure that you are using the fastest CF and SD cards you can afford. With massive files, it will take a long time to clear the buffer if you shoot several frames at a time and are using slow cards. I am now using UHS-I SD cards and UDMA-7 compact flash memory in the D800. Fortunately, the D800 can take advantage of these fast cards and I believe you owe it to yourself to use them to get the best write performance.
Processing NEF files is a bit of a task as they chew up a lot of CPU cycles in your RAW processor. I recently upgraded my Mac to the latest and greatest – putting the fastest processor and maximum amount of memory into it. RAW processing “flies” with my D3s files but becomes significantly slower when processing the D800 NEF images. If you have an older computer system and shoot your D800 in RAW, you could be spending more time than usual waiting for your computer to finish tasks with D800 NEFs.
Overall, I found the new metering to be quite accurate. One thing I discovered on my own is that the meter (in matrix mode) is affected by the focus point you use, which was both good and bad. It came in handy when I had a subject that was strongly backlit. To my surprise, the scenes were accurately exposed given the conditions. I tend to shoot a lot of backlit subjects, so this is going to be useful.
The following shots were strongly backlit and I have done minimal processing to them:
Nikon’s new Auto ISO implementation is fantastic. It is the best one I have seen to date. Not only can you set the ISO upper/lower limits (as before), but you can also set the minimum shutter speed in one of two ways:
If you use “Auto” for the minimum shutter speed, you can “bias” it to be slower or faster which is really handy. Since I wanted faster shutter speeds (because of the pixel density of the new FX sensor), I biased my shutter to be faster in Auto mode. Well done, Nikon.
The bottom line for any camera body is its image quality (IQ). For the Nikon D800, I can sum it up in one word: fantastic.
Actually, let me clarify what I just said. The IQ can be fantastic – provided you use the best lenses, excellent technique and have good post processing skills. The D800 is unforgiving of bad technique and will expose all of your shooting flaws.
Now, having said that – the resolution of this camera is beyond impressive. Case in point – I was photographing a nesting Arctic Tern and here is the full image:
This image is pin sharp when viewed on my computer screen. When I enlarged the image in Lightroom to check the detail on the bird, I noticed there was a chick to the left (circled in red above) of the adult bird. Here is a crop from the above image:
I had never seen an Arctic Tern chick before (very few people have) so as you can imagine, I was really excited by this. The above crop is sharp enough and has sufficient resolution to make a decent print from it. I could have never done that with any of my previous cameras. The ability of the D800 sensor to resolve detail is beyond phenomenal.
The dynamic range of the D800 is also very impressive. Last time I encountered dynamic range like this, I was using a Fujifilm S5 Pro (remember that camera?).
Many people by now have read the review from DxOMark giving the D800/D800E the highest score ever for a DSLR sensor. It also beats out some medium format sensors. I put it to the test by photographing many high contrast, high dynamic range scenes when I was in Iceland.
The ability to retain both highlight and shadow detail is very impressive indeed. There were times where I may have blown out the highlights, but since I shot RAW, there was some headroom in the D800 files, so I could easily recover them.
What was most impressive was the ability to recover shadow detail with little (or no) discernible noise. Here is an example of image shot in RAW that I accidentally under exposed in very harsh sunlight:
In Lightroom, I recovered the image and excavated the shadows (i.e. increased the brightness). Now the image appears to be properly exposed.
Normally when one recovers shadows this much (in my case, almost 2 stops), you can expect to see a lot of noise in them. If you take a closer look though, there is no noise to be found:
This is truly impressive – I have never seen this before from any camera sensor (except from a couple medium format backs). Again, well done Nikon.
Noise is very well controlled across the entire ISO range. I have no issue shooting up to ISO 6400 with the D800 and could never ever dream of doing this with a 36 megapixel DSLR.
As I do not shoot video, I did not use the video capabilities of the D800 during my trip.
Here are a few more images that demonstrate the capabilities of this sensor:
Many of the things I really liked about the D700 such as its handling, user interface and very impressive high ISO performance have been retained in the D800. The D800, however, is much more than an upgraded D700 – and if you approach the D800 from that perspective, you will not get the most out of it.
Although the D800 has the latest photography technology in it, the camera is not a speed demon, so it really requires the photographer to shoot with even more “intent” than usual. When using the D800, I felt as though I was transported back in time to when I first learned photography almost 40 years ago. I found myself concentrating even more on imaging basics such as lighting, exposure, perspective, composition and timing. By taking the time to slow down and really concentrate on what I was “seeing”, the D800 rewarded me with some very memorable images.
The Nikon D800 (Amazon ~ Adorama ~ B&H Photo/Video) and D800E (Amazon ~ Adorama ~ B&H Photo/Video) are not without their (minor) warts, however, Nikon has given the photographic community the ability to shoot “near medium format” quality images at a prosumer DSLR price ($US 3,000.00). The D800/D800E are demanding cameras but if you use the best lenses plus are very careful with your shooting technique and post processing, you will be rewarded with absolutely amazing file quality and images.
Congratulations, Nikon. I believe you have hit a home run with the D800 (and D800E).
Here are a few more D800 images from Iceland (the EXIF data is intact in all of these images):
BTW, Iceland is by far one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited and a photographer’s paradise. If you would like to see more images that I shot there (with the Nikon D800, Nikon V1 and Fujifilm X-Pro1), you can click here to view them.
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