I have not been excited about a new camera since I traded a bag full of Olympus OM1’s and a bunch of lenses for a couple of new Nikon F3’s, an 80-200mm and a 20mm back in 1985. The first digital camera I considered worth buying was the Nikon D100. I had used the NC2000 and the D1’s and they were total crap. Sorry, it’s the truth and we all know it. Since the D100 I’ve only bought a couple of D2x and a D700.
I wasn’t really planning on buying a Nikon D800. However, when I saw the specs and it coincided with a need for a new HD video setup I figured it was as good a time as any to make the credit card say ouch.
I don’t think anyone expected a 36 megapixel “full frame” monster with new expanded video features.
Cameras, as cool as the technology can be, are still just work tools for professional photographers. They have to have features that are useful and functional in my “real world” shooting and production environment.
With that in mind, this review of the D800 is going to be more about things that matter to working photographers in the field. It’s not a tech “test” or a spec review or, God forbid, a Nikon vs Canon discussion.
D800 ON THE JOB
I was on my way to a shoot on an office tower construction site when my favourite Fed-Ex driver delivered the new D800. There wasn’t much of a ceremony, the camera was pulled out of the box and tossed in the camera bag and the battery was charged on the way to the site. It would be working alongside the D700 and grand-daddy D2x shooting some stills but mostly B-Camera video today.
It’s baptism would be with splatters of wet concrete. The rest of the week shooting would be rain, freezing rain, winter snow storm, salt water spray and hopping pans of ice on the North Atlantic Ocean and hours of vibration in a big helicopter. We did get a relaxing evening at the Newfoundland Symphony where its low light capability really showed through. Welcome to your new home buddy.
The photo gallery will give you a pretty good idea the nature of our work over a three week period.
The D800 is a chunky camera. Height and width much the same as the D700 but its deeper and a slightly different shape. Certainly heavier. But it feels substantial and balanced in the hand and easy to operate even without the accessory battery grip. Which is good because there is no technical benefit to adding the grip as there was with the D700. You are not getting any faster frame rates or extended battery life. The only benefit I can see would be the option of AA batteries.
The one knock against the D800 I’ve seen discussed, so far, is the slow frame rate. At 4 frames per second I would tend to agree if you are a daily news or sports photographer. The 36 megapixels would make anyone’s eyes gloss over with desire but everyone really do have to ask themselves what’s the right tool for the job. The D800 might not be it for you. Frame rate has not been an issue for most of my work and when it is I have other cameras that can handle the job.
The thing that struck me almost immediately was the dynamic range and tonal graduation. The files are noticeable different. Side-by-side in NXView2 (see below for software rant) with the D700 and D2x files it was pretty easy to pick out the D800 files.
I was shooting a construction worker almost directly backlit and still getting perfect tones and exposure in the shadow areas. No blocking, blotching or noise in the shadow area.
White sea ice lit by low angle sun and every nuance of the snow texture shows.
No blow outs in the snow or blocked up shadow detail. The huge amount of data collected with the 36 megapixel sensor allows for a 14 EV range which allows for much smoother transitions and tonal graduation. (See DXO for more specs.)
Can it be possible that I can handhold this camera at slower shutter speeds than my other digital cameras and get sharp pictures? I’m going to have to do some real control tests to sort this one out.
When I first got digital cameras I was finding I could not handhold at slow shutter speeds like 15th or 30th, as well as I could with my Nikon or Leica film cameras. The digital sensors were just more sensitive to the smallest of movements than film I figured.
One of the first things I noticed was I was getting very sharp images from the D800 with a 20mm manual focus lens with 15th of a second shutter speed. Something I was never able to do with my D100, D2x or D700. If anyone also has any experience with this please add a comment below. Curious.
BRING THE NOISE
What noise you say? Yes, it’s true, some people love that they can shoot at 12 thousand, whatever, ISO and get perfectly “usable” photos. The lowlight skills of the D800 a very good but honestly, I might use 3200 ISO once a year and only then out of desperation. We usually just light everything we need to light so I see noise where other people don’t simply because I rarely have to work with high ISO. Some of the symphony shots were done at 6400 …just to see where the break point for me would be and, yes, I see noise.
BUT it’s not the same as the high ISO noise from my D700 or other DSLRs with mid-teen megapixels. The “noise” from the D800 isn’t dirty or blotchy. It’s clean, clear and you can still see detail and contrast in the shadow areas where digital technology is at its weakest. It struck me that it reminded me of film grain!! Remember when we would say, “its grainy but its sharp.” ? If you can still see the pores on someone’s face in something shot at 6400 ISO it’s amazing. Weird, eh?
WHAT ABOUT AUTO FOCUS?
It’s fast. …at least on the AF lenses I have. Even fast with some of the old AF D lenses. Fact is AF is not that important to
most of my work. I still use a lot of old manual focus Nikkor prime lenses which get a bit of a boost with the bright new viewfinder in the D800. It makes manually focusing off the screen much easier.
If any of you “old guys” are still pineing for the manual focus days the D800 viewfinder works very nicely with your old lenses. I’m looking forward to trying out a couple of Zeiss manual focus prime lens.
I’m send you back to Rob Galbraith for the definitive statement on AF.
Adapting to the video functions after years of traditional video cameras will be a bit of a learning curve but when you look at what guys like Sandro and Chase Jarvis can do with these little wonders it’s pretty inspiring. You just have to remember the budgets they are working with and all the lighting, grip and stabilization gear it takes to make a professional motion picture production …and that’s before it gets to the editing suite.
I have not had a chance to do any major production with the D800 yet but here is a quick clip reel from the camera, out of the box, no extra lights, mics or stabalization.
It looks like the D800 may put an end to my relationship with Adobe products as my primary RAW file processing tool. My MAJOR GRIPE is not with the camera and I’m not sure if there is anything Nikon can do but Adobe does not support the D800 RAW files in my PS/BRIDGE/ACR PS3 software, nor in my Lightroom 3 which is less than a year old. In fact if you want RAW support for your D800 you have to buy the latest version of Photoshop/ACR or Lightroom. Weren’t counting on that were you? Me neither. This is the kind of crap that drove me to dump all Apple products out of the office and life a few years back also and there really is no excuse. It’s just corporate bullshit.
Phase One software was recommended by my printer and I’ll be checking that out. They announced last week support for the Nikon D4 and D800.
Or it might be back to Nikon Capture (which is very good software by-the-way) for processing RAW files from my various generations of Nikon cameras.
A UNIQUE CAMERA
I don’t think that comparing the D800 to other Nikon or Canon products is of any use. Every creature has its job and the D800 is a different animal in the DSLR world. It brings a whole new paradigm to the game and is a camera with extraordinary abilities for the photographers who need or can use them.
Like all gizmos today, engineers pack in every feature and function they, their mothers and cousins can think up. Most we’ll never use. Hell, I still use these cameras on FULL MANUAL! …But when you find the few features that you can use to make your work sing then that’s gold to you.
The 36 megapixel sensor produces files better than any other DSLR to date and is more comparable to medium format digital cameras and backs where prices start at three times that of the D800 and no where near the handling flexibility. A recent comparison on YouTube to a 40 megapixel Hasselblad tethered to a laptop must have been a joke.
The D800 would not be my first choice for daily news photography either but for editorial and commercial photographers who can use the highest quality and still take advantage of the highly mobile and flexible DSLR form factor this camera is literally …to use an overused phrase, “a game changer”, for the professional photographer.
In just a couple of weeks using this camera it has already allowed me to think anew about my picture making process and that not only brings new creative ideas and possibilities but allows me to “up my game” in the eyes of the client.