Well here we are! I have finally found time to write up my thoughts and feelings on using the D800, I know I am a little late to the game but that is the nature of putting these reviews together in what is essentially my spare time.
As some of you will know with my reviews, I use these cameras first and foremost then report back to you guys later rather than running to the lab as soon as I have my hands on one. For those new to the site, I recently spent a month in Africa running a few of my annual Big Cat photography workshops. I was very kindly lent a Nikon D800 body by Nikon UK for review. I took this to heart and decided to use it as my primary non action camera. A bit of a risk yes, but I trust Nikon and I of course had my workhorse D3 bodies to step in if needed.
A little disclaimer, Nikon put absolutely zero conditions on the lend, no pre-requisites for the write up at all. Simply “here’s the body, tell us what you think”. I receive no freebies, discounts or ‘encouragements’ to switch or anything like that (unfortunately!!) Also, please, please take this review as it is intended. It is a hands on report of my experiences using the camera out in the field. It is not a resolution chart, unboxing, super detailed spec porn write up. For one I don’t have the time to do these and also this detailed lab overview is done much better at the usual haunts I am sure you are all well aware of. It is also, not an English essay. I like to keep this blog informal, writing and adding to this review as and when time allows, often when traveling or waiting around for something when my laptop is to hand. If I spell a few words wrong or miss a comma don’t worry about it. I say this as on previous write ups some guys over on the forums seemed to dismiss everything I had to say as I mis-spelt four words! If you notice a misplaced c,om,ma please just let it go.
Well that’s the housekeeping out of the way. So, onto the camera..
The D800 was announced and released back in February to much fanfair and a huge dose of forum speculation. It features a whopping 36 megapixel sensor as well as high end video improvements over its (not quite) predecessor, the D700. I say predecessor, but this really is a whole new class of camera for Nikon. Whereas the D700 took the (still) amazing D3 sensor and placed it in a smaller, slower, cheaper body; the D800 stands alone separate from it’s brother the D4 in almost every respect. Touting great ISO capability with huge detail in a rugged small (comparatively) body and at a reasonable price for its class. It completely undercuts the previous high res offering from Nikon, the D3X in price and easily graces past it in terms of image resolution (the D3x was 24 megapixels) at 36 megapixels.
My initial thoughts upon reading the spec (which I learnt at the same time as you all, I have no inside ahead of the game knowledge on Nikon announcements) was that this could be a great addition to my gear. Mainly due to cost reasons I have decided to sit out the D4 as an upgrade to my current D3, as that does meet all my (and my client) needs and the whopping £5k plus price tag (and I would need two don’t forget) means the business would suffer in far greater ways that missing out on 4 extra megapixels (I know there is more too it than that, stay tuned for a small article on that later). However this camera; whilst not squarely aimed at the wildlife crowd as much as the D4 is perhaps, offers some great opportunities for creativity and patching a few holes in my current setup. More on these as we dive in deeper….
BODY AND HANDLING
Based on a revised, slightly (very slightly) smaller D700 body. It fits well in the hand and feels nice and solid. I personally much prefer the built in grip, larger bodies of the speed cameras as the flexibility and durability they offer is far more important for most of my travels that a slight reduction in size/weight. However those trekking on foot or really aiming for packing light will feel the benefit. You can of course buy the additional battery drip, the MB-D12, although I was not supplied with one on this occasion so can’t comment.
Weight was there but not too bad to hold for lengthy periods, besides lens weight is usually more of the issue especially for the longer lens work I normally lean towards on the plains of the Mara. It felt well balanced with my 70-200 VR attached, yet somewhat off kilter with the larger 200-400. Part of this may be my overwhelming use of recent years with the larger bodies, but there is no denying pairing these long lenses with a larger body has balance benefits. That said the construction felt (and I can now confirm, is) solid an it can take a beating. I have used the D700 for lengthy priors before and have had no issues with durability and have no reason to expect that the D800 would be any less well put together. Certainly during my use I had no problems, it took everything I threw at it in it’s stride and kept on going. Life as a Richard Costin camera, especially working from a vehicle on the plains is a tough gig, I put my attention to the wildlife and light with care of the camera (during the shoot) often being an after-thought.
Button positions are typical for these Nikons, with plenty of options well placed. Again the bigger bodies have the edge here, but that is simply a physical space issue. Down on the side, near the lens release button is the new AF mode switch, also found on the D4..
When fist using the camera I thought that this was perhaps a mistake. However as I continued with the camera, it did start to make sense and as my D3 muscle memory (from the past generation) played a smaller and smaller part in my handling of the camera. Especially with the in viewfinder feedback given when changing modes. You simply depress the button and use the thumb wheels to change to the required mode. Is it better? It is simply different. What it does do is free up space on the rear of the camera for additional options, such as the live-view/recording mode selector (which worked very well).
Viewfinder was big and bright as expected from a Nikon full frame, the view was consistently good whether shooting at dawn, dusk or in the midday sun. The information HUD was bright and did a good job of letting me know what the camera was up to, no major changes here from the previous generation, whether the viewfinder is 99.99999% or 100% is a small point for me as I tend to always leave a touch of room around what I think is the ideal crop at the time of shooting.
The rear screen offers a large view and seemed well calibrated and accurate to the colours shown (at default processing) in both CaptureNX and Lightroom. There seem to be some concerns about the D4 screen having a slight green tint, this certainly wasn’t present on my D800 here and as well, I only use the rear screens for a quick check of exposure and focus. I shoot in RAW all the time so what white balance was captured and if it is accurate to the scene doesn’t concern me until I am back in Lightroom. The less I have to think about when in the field the better as I usually have more pressing concerns from things with fur and teeth.
One thing I adored when the D3 was announced was the double compact flash slots and it is a shame they couldn’t squeeze them onto this model. I presume this is simply a space issue. We do get the double slots; but compact flash shares duties with the much smaller SD cards. I have nothing against SD cards unlike some photographers and I would perhaps prefer two SD slots rather than a mix and match. Two of the same simplifies workflow and in my opinion that is a good thing. Making the most of your existing cards is not the bonus it used to be as memory these days is cheap. Having mixed cards can make for issues depending on your card holding cases/wallets and field workflow. Changing cards in a rush, although this is usually avoidable does sometimes happen and in those situations you want fast easy access. SD cards do keep up with their larger brothers in speed terms though so assuming you buy genuine, high spec cards it shouldn’t prove a huge issue. Certainly not a deal breaker by any means and it does mean I can use the large pool of Compact Flash cards at my disposal I guess!
A double edged sword here. My main issue with the camera is it’s speed (or lack thereof). I say double edged however this camera is not aimed at super speedy capture so you can’t really complain. The D3 and now D4 rip through frames and shunt data to these fast cards super quickly, freeing you up to take the next shot. The D800 by comparison feels slow. It is however technically deceptive as if anything it is throwing around more bytes per second than the D3 due to those huge files, but that is a technicality. Rated at 4 frames per second it does get the job done for most of my needs. I did however find myself reaching for the D3 when we were preparing for some high action. Now these situations where I must have a rattling shutter are less encountered than a lot of you may think, I only really let rip with the motor-drive when I really have to. Motor-driving the raw files means more images to copy/review/tag/approve/delete later on down the road and time is very precious. Experience means I can cherry pick those moments, for 70% of my shooting the 4fps the D800 offers if fine and can be boosted to 6fps with the MB-D12 grip as well. There is however a lot to be said for knowing the speed is there and ready at a moment’s notice. When it’s not there it takes a little getting used too (for me) and can make you feel uneasy and is one reason I choose the D3.
Below is one example of an occasion I needed the D3’s speed and would have possibly missed the capture with the D800. I was prepared to react quickly (we had seen this chap chasing these guys around from further away and knew it would only happen once or twice again). The AF would have performed but sometimes a blasting framerate is what you need and this moment was over in a heartbeat and the car was still skidding to a halt as I took it (hence the ISO 2000).
Focusing was snappy and accurate, which is great as AF performance really makes or breaks a camera for me. I see on the forums that there is a potential focusing issue with some of the AF sensors on certain samples; I used all the focus points throughout the trip and didn’t have any issues. I do suspect these issues are few and far between in reality and that it is the usual vocal majority and the ‘me too’ crowd throwing a wobbly. This of course doesn’t make it any easier for those of you who have experienced it, but in my time with Nikon, I have seen that they are pretty efficient at fixing issues (the dead battery issues the D3 had upon release spring to mind, quickly diagnosed and fixed with a firmware update). These are very complicated machines and how the company deals with issues when the arise is important (1DMIII anybody??) and Nikon have a good track record with firmware improvements and fixes. It’s easy to see the wrong picture when only listening to those online who have experienced it and then become the vocal minority. I hear Nikon are fixing any bad samples so all seems well (please get in touch if you contend this, but be civil).
For the video mode I was a little disappointed that the excellent on-sensor phase detect AF from the Nikon 1 series compacts was not included. Phase detect AF is the super speedy AF we know and love from our DSLRs in stills mode, far better than the slow, groggy contrast detect mode on most compacts/video modes. The AF in video mode on the 1 series is stunning and to have had it in the D800 would have put it a step ahead of all others. Unfortunately it wasn’t too be. The contrast detect we do get is nippy for contrast detect, but still looks hugely amateur when seen in action on your videos as it does that rocking back and fourth to hone in on focus. Manual focusing (or pre-auto focusing) is the order of the day. It was however very accurate. When I tested the 2x tele convertor on the 200-400 lens with the D3 a couple of years back the results were a disaster, as the f4 combined with light loss of the 2x meant 70% of shots were mis-focused both on the D3 and D800. However the contrast detect AF, whilst much slower was able to nail focus with the convertor attached. Fine for still of very (very) slow moving subjects but not an option for anything moving faster than a snail. Stick the 2x on a f2.8 (or faster) lens and it’s a different story but it really doesn’t play well with the 200-400.
The video mode dial was very well thought out. The outer switch, similar to the on off switch surrounding the shutter moves between live view (for stills) and video recording. Left in recording mode I was able to begin video capture with a quick thumb and finger motion. As you may know I am not a huge video guy, but the easy, rapid recording will be a boon for many of you I imagine. In summary the performance was exactly as expected and it didn’t disappoint, minus the on sensor phase detect omission.
AF almost always nailed shots and the camera responded very well under pressure until the buffer locked out. Lobbing a 36 megapixel image around is no easy task and if you really do expect/need/want massive speed you should be looking at the D4. If you buy into the D800 system knowing where it is aimed you will not be disappointed with how it performs.
THE RESOLUTION KING
The main reason I presume most of you will be considering this camera…. Resolution. And it’s HUGE (tweaks glasses)!!
When panning across an image at 100% on the screen it just keeps going and going. Image files are a stonking 7360 x 4897 pixles which is now in the domain of medium format. With this camera it definitely will pay to pair it with good quality lenses. I used it with the 14-24, 24-70, 70-200 and 200-400 in addition to adding the 1.4x convertor when needed. Detail is present in abundance and you really do see a difference when comparing the same scene shot with the D3’s 12 megapixels vs this camera’s 36. As mentioned, I have no issues with the D3 output and it serves all my needs very well, a 12 megapixel image goes a long way when taken correctly and most of my client base is magazine or book related for which 12 megapixels is fine.
Where I do see the D800 shining for my work is in it’s ability to allow me to crop in and still have a large, sellable image. Assuming I am happy with a 12 megapixel image (which I mostly am), when using the D800, cropping to the centre portion of the image to match the D3 resolution gives me a great virtual teleconvertor. Now of course that means I am throwing away a good portion of the image around this centre section, but as the D800 has such a huge resolution, I am still left with a whole lot of image. Of course it is better to get it as wanted in camera and use the whole sensor, but this will be a huge boon for my hide work and in situations where I am simply not able to use fieldcraft to get closer to my subjects. As well for action shots, it will allow me to be a little more generous about leaving space behind and in front of the moving subject to avoid sudden movements causing clipped tails, wings an so fourth. Please note I do realize other qualities that you gain from using a physically longer lens will not be present when using this technique (more extreme bokeh, subject compression, loss of AF speed etc..), but the logic stands and carrying a bigger lens is not always an option and can in some instances limit your photography.
ISO AND IMAGE DETAIL
Nikon really (really!) shook the DSL world when it released the D3 back in 2007. It was (in my opinion) one of the biggest single advances to my craft and perhaps one of the only times I will use that hugely overused phrase, “game changer”. Prior to it, those selling digital images to demanding agents/clients had to realistically keep things in the ISO 400 range, certainly for most work 800 and 1600 was considered extreme. Nikon made the bold move of keeping the megapixels low, lower than even canons previous generation 1Ds II (16 megapixels). This move however was a wise one and super low light photography that yielded amazing quality was now possible. It is only in the last couple of years that others have caught them up in this respect. Canons new flagship the 1Dx has borrowed may philosophies from the D3 compared to their past 1D and 1DS offerings and that speaks volumes regarding Nikon’s winning formula.
Well in some ways the D800 reverses that thinking and fires up the megapixels into medium format territory. The D800 is a classic full frame 35mm sensor, yet it pushes things up to 36 megapixels. Many commentators online instantly dismissed the image quality before seeing samples, refusing to believe anything decent could come out of the sensor in anything but bright light. Others “knew” that this camera was “too much for Nikon’s lenses”. All these claims came well before images samples, let alone camera samples were available. Similar talk before the D3 was available means I simply don’t form an opinion until I have tried it for myself.
Well I am very pleased with what I see on screen with the RAW file (for reference, all images are processed in Lightroom 4.1). Of course the detail is fantastic, picking out subtleties that the D3 does miss when looking closely and as mentioned letting me crop creatively and keep a decent sized image. We all know a picture speaks a thousand words so below are some for you, both the full image and 100% crops…
One question I wanted answering and that I have been asked a lot since mentioning having the camera for review, is how it stacks up against the D3. To that end I made a quick direct comparison, seen below. Same lens, framing, lighting, camera settings etc. Again full shots and 100% crops. For reference both cameras were set to ISO 400, 1/500 at f6.3 with the 200-400 lens and 1.4x tele convertor (550mm total)..
As you can see the D800 of course is showing more detail. I chose this situation because the light was good, they were relatively still at the time and the hair with spots would be a good test (and relevant to my type of work). One thing I will say is that, yes there is more detail in the images (a lot more), but I don’t get that ‘creamy’, ‘slick’ feel I get with the D3 images. It’s quite hard to put into words, but I do feel the D3 has better per-pixelquality, that is when zoomed in. However, whilst the per pixel comparison may favor the smaller sensor, reality does kick in and the sheer number of pixels far outweighs the comparison to the other direction to the point where it is almost irrelevant and the d800 has the realistic edge. Now, assuming I composed the image perfectly in the camera and I didn’t need to crop, would my clients notice the difference? The answer I would say for the most part is probably not. Book, magazines, calendars, greetings cards and the like all are fine with the D3 images I supply, given that I haven’t needed to crop much.
One think I did notice however is that the D800 is far less forgiving. The huge revolving power puts lenses (and technique) to the test. I have good technique and lenses so this is not a real problem but one area it means a slight change to my methods after reviewing the images on the big Eizo is that the 1.4x convertor has a larger impact on quality with the D800 than on the D3. As I have reported in the past, I have no hesitation to use the 1.4x on my 200-400 lens to get a touch more reach on the D3. AF is hardly affected and neither is image quality. On the D800 you can see a slight reduction in detail fidelity when the 1.4x is on the lens. Below I have included a 100% crop with the tele-covertor not attached..
We go from super sharp to super-super sharp with the edge over non teleconverter shots above.
It’s not a huge deal as the images with the 1.4x are still great but it is something to be aware of. Given the huge virtual crop I can achieve with the D800’s files I don’t think I will use the convertor with it unless I really, really am struggling for reach ono a subject.
One area where there it is simply a no-brainer to upgrade from Nikon’s previous generation is if you are wanting video. Since the surprise consumer and professional breakthrough use of Canon’s 5D II for video some years ago, DSLR video is the format of choice for high quality on smaller budgets (and sometimes on huge budgets). A lot of people rant and moan about video on DSLR cameras, the common phrase being “if you want to shoot video, get a video camera“. Well the truth of the matter is until you hit the (really) big bucks, DSLR video blows traditional camcorder quality out of the water. The research that has gone into these sensors of recent years, combined with their large physical size means that the video the produce can be fantastically cinematic. With one of these at your disposal, the real limitation becomes your cinematography skills. Using your large high quality lenses on a full frame sensor to capture motion gives you the potential to capture images of outstanding visual quality. Anyone who doubts the abilities of these cameras in the video department needs to look at the list of high end productions that have used them. The first high profile use was a full episode of “House” that was shot on one as well as elements of the Avengers film, Dexter and so on. The logic here is, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you (and me). So, how is the video quality?
It’s great. I only was able to capture strait to the memory card. One great feature of the Nikons (vs the Canons) is that they provide you with a clean HDMI out. What this means is that you can use external recorders to capture an uncompressed signal. Canon have admitted to deliberately stamping UI elements on their output to protect their video camera sales which seems a little short sighted considering the market now (although there are firmware workarounds). Capture to the CF card was easy to do at a moment notice. There is a well placed record button that is easily reached but out of the way. The video button (when the outer ring is set to video mode), opens up the mirror and the shutter begins capture. This is easily doable with your thumb and index finger.
One disappointment when reading the specs was the omission of Nikons on sensor Phase-Detect focusing (introduced on their “1” series mirrorless range). Simply put, there are two main types of focusing used in cameras. Phase detect is the type we know and love in our DSLR cameras, it snaps into place as fast as your lens can throw the glass around. Contrast detect is the type we know and hate that most compact cameras use, it rocks back and fourth around the subject and eventually locks on. In the “1” line, Nikon added these (normally separate) phase sensors onto the imaging sensor which meant the super speedy phase detect focus could be done without a mirror to divert the light (i.e. when in live view mode). This means the focusing during video capture is snappy, confident and accurate. I was presuming that this would be put into the D800/D4 as it really offers a great benefit. Unfortunately it was not to be this time around and we are stuck with contrast detect during video capture. Now the a fore mentioned high end productions rarely, if ever use auto focus (having a dedicated focus puller), but for my work it would have been a huge benefit. The contrast detect is actually pretty good (considering), but no substitute. When used during a recorded sequence it makes for very amateurish looking video. For static subjects this should be ok as you can prefocus and you are away. For moving objects you really would want the phase detect, so until then (for me) it is manual or nothing. Manual focus was however easy on my larger lenses with the big focus rings and there are even third party adapters to rig up large focusing handles if you are really serious about it.
Capture quality is fantastic with almost no perceivable compression artifacts or banding. If you are going to really manipulate the footage afterwards in post for colour grading or pulling a green-screen etc, you will ideally want to use the uncompressed capture of a ninja, black magic or other external recorder via the HDMI. For general use though the footage stood up to modest grading well, below is a small montage of clips unaltered from the camera. Please use the vimeo HD option or set youtube to “1080” mode to get a better idea (although some degradation always occurs on upload to these services).
As a quick example I worked up the below clip with a quick and simple punchy grade. The footage stood up well for grading, but those wanting to really push the footage will want to capture uncompressed to an external device.
Lastly, below I have included a clip of the Cheetahs that has been enlarged 300%. Please examine this in the full HD mode on youtube (vimeo link here). For a direct to card capture enlarged this much it holds up very well..
The D800 records quicktime videos at “only” 24 megabits per second (in contrast the 7D is 47 megabits/second). However its use of B-Frames (a fancy quality improving doobries) means you do get great results. If you are really interested in high bitrate capture you will likely want to be upping this to uncompressed capture via an external recorder, putting the bitrate near 200 mb/s (I believe).
To sum up, it is a whole new world of video capture for Nikon shooters and finally brings it inline with Canons similar offerings. I would have no hesitation to take footage on a paid job with this camera, especially when using the uncompressed recorders. How it stacks up to Canon’s new dedicated video offerings will be interesting, but they are lofted to a much higher price bracket. For me, it is great to have video as an option and I may be treading my toes in this water in the future, but stills are where my heart is right now.
On a side note, as I know a lot of you follow my workflow process. I began to edit the footage with the new Final Cut Pro X from Apple. Now in contrast to many other industry professionals I actually quite liked this software. However a few glaring omissions in feature set has meant I am now editing video footage in Adobe’s Premiere Pro CS6 application which is working great. The last straw for my switch was the many stupid restrictions FCPX puts upon you when working from a network drive. As I recently switched my main storage hub to an 8 bay Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) this was somewhat of a stumbling block. But I digress, onwards….!
I know a lot of you often simply skip to this section as you are simply after a roundup, well here it is..
Simply, I heartily recommend this camera. Its combination of huge resolution, solid body, nippy AF along with all that it offers makes this camera great to start with. Then factor in the price point, which for this level is very competitive and you have what I am sure will be a hugely popular camera.
Whilst shooting with it alongside my D3, the D800 ended up being my default camera for everything except extreme low light or action. That’s not to say it’s performance in low light was bad, it’s not, it’s fantastic but the smaller sensor does have the edge. For action it is of course no contest, but then this camera was never meant to compete in that area, the domain of the D3 or D4. The extra resolution gives you much more creative control over cropping if you shoot appropriately and allows me to get (visually) closer to my subject after the shot and still retain a high res image afterwards for my clients.
So what negatives does this camera hold? Speed is the real one for me. I like (need) my cameras to respond faster than I can man handle them and the frame rate and lack of (built in) grip are hard to deal with after years on Nikon’s speed models. Accept the slower FPS (and to be honest I use blast mode less than you would think) and add the MB-D12 grip to bring it closer in line to my wants.
The larger file sizes as well could cause trouble if ignored. Lightroom does slow down significantly when rendering previews for these files and of course digital storage will need upgrading to handle the larger influx of data. However, computers are fast and hard drives are cheap (please remember to always back your data up to multiple locations!).
One real shift in the way I evaluate cameras now, perhaps most exemplified with this one is that all even half decent cameras today take great quality, sellable images. Yes, they do! My D3 as mentioned is still working very well, I have used and sold images from a D7000, D300 and even D200 recently with no complaints. Image quality will keep rising but for me now they all reach an acceptable level, what counts more is AF speed (there is nothing more frustrating that a great picture sitting on the back of your camera’s screen and to zoom in to see it’s out of focus). Good lock-on is essential and the D3 and D800 do this well. I will be following the D800 focus rumors online closely, but based on my sample all the AF points worked very well and I missed no shots due to the camera.
Low light is of course a big need in my field and since the D3 upped the game cameras have caught up and we are back to the minor leapfrogging of each brand. Of course I will want the improved resolution and I believe dynamic range capture is where sensor research should be focusing now, but we photographers have it so good now that any people complaining really don’t know they’re born. Where Nikon will go from here is hard to say, but for now their current lineup is pretty special and with the recent announcement of the D600 (more on that in a a few days), things can only get better.
So will I be putting my money where my mouth is an getting one for myself? Yes! I have just upgraded our studio’s storage server and need to spend a little more time at the screen in the coming months to organize and prepare for an intensive period of field work coming up next year so I will wait. But when I have one in my bag I will be reaching for it without hesitation. The D4? Well as mentioned I am sitting that one out for now as I have my D3 bodies. The D4s or D5? Well Let’s wait and see, but for now I am VERY happy with the Nikon product landscape.
THE MAN AT WORK
For a bit of fun you can view a time lapse of some of my testing out in the Mara here..
Lastly a word of warning for those researching.. well anything online
A word of warning. I please urge you to take everything you hear about cameras (and anything actually!) online (especially in forums) these days with a pinch of salt.
As you can tell from the comments in this article, I am getting rather fed up with so many people arrogantly dismissing this gear or that gear (this is for all brands and models, not just the D800). When reading the forums/sites I ask that you look into the person whom is making the comments you are reading. You will (usually) find that the more arrogant and dismissive the person is, the less work of theirs (if any) is to be seen.
Many people talk and talk but it is your work and actions that speaks for you and if someone is telling you that they own a D4, 1DX, D800 and a RED Epic and regularly shoots professionally for Stephen Spielberg whilst sipping martinis with Ridley Scott of an evening, but has no work to show is probably exaggerating to say the least. These cameras are meant to be used so please look to people who use them for real for guidance and never, never feed the troll!!
For more fun with this, check out this list of forum warriors! http://redwing.hutman.net/~mreed/
WHERE TO BUY
If I have helped you in any way and you are considering purchasing a D800, it would be awfully decent of you to use the below referal link. It doesn’t cost you any extra and every little helps these days to keep the website running 🙂
Many thanks to you all, I hope this was of help and as mentioned I am sorry for the delay!