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An Embarrassment of Riches

by Mark Dubovoy

The Horns
Torres del Paine, Patagonia.  Sony NEX 7

Introduction

2012 promises to be a watershed year in terms of photographic products. We already have an embarrassment of riches and we are barely starting the second quarter of the year:

Lightroom 4 was recently introduced.  It is an excellent product that encompasses major improvements versus the prior version. The same is true for Photoshop. I have been playing with the Beta version of Photoshop CS6 for a while (it is already available for download as a public beta) and I am quite impressed with the speed, the new features, the new tools and the much improved UI.

Rumors abound that CaptureOne 7 is on the way.

The new iPad is out, and the mobile device software suite from Adobe is quite impressive.

Cameras such as the Sony NEX 7 and several innovative Fuji models are finally shipping, and of course, there is the current elephant in the room that everyone is talking about:  the Nikon D800/D800E.

As if this was not enough, my contacts in the industry indicate that this is far from over.  There are several very interesting announcements coming in the months ahead, and several more at Photokina in September.

Stay tuned, this is shaping up as one of the most exciting years in the history of photographic hardware and software.

I recently returned from a trip to Peru and Patagonia.  The only camera I took on that trip was a Sony NEX 7.  Much has been written about this camera, so I will not belabor the point.  It has an excellent sensor, the camera is very small, is extremely well built and it has some brilliant design items (such as the virtual horizon and the soft programmable dials). Unfortunately, it has some features (such as the location of the video button, which cannot be locked or disabled) that should be called what they are:  amazingly stupid.  The camera smacks of a design by brilliant engineers, but with very little testing and/or input from photographers (if any!).

In spite of the quite annoying design flaws, I found it to be a good choice for a "travel light" camera, that with the right lenses and the right technique can deliver image quality essentially on a par with any rangefinder or DSLR camera in the 18-24 Megapixel range (as long as the ISO is at or below 1600). No, I do not like EVF cameras, but I am willing to make the sacrifice for the convenience of this small machine.

As soon as I returned from my trip, I checked in with my favorite local Nikon dealer:  Keeble and Shuchat Photography in Palo Alto California to see if my order for a D800E had come through. My dear friend and salesman extraordinaire Jeff Alford informed me that they had not seen a D800 or a D800E yet.  I waited patiently and finally the call came:  He had a D800 for me, but no E models yet.  I will definitely be purchasing an E as soon as it is available (see below), but in the meantime I dashed over there and I purchased the D800.

(Yes, this is a blatant commercial plug for Jeff at Keeble and Shuchat and I am not ashamed of doing it.  The best dealers and the best truly knowledgeable salesmen do not get enough recognition.  Jeff is a great guy, and for those of you in California, or those of you interested in small format cameras, he is one of the best people I know to contact).

Machu Picchu Wall
Sony NEX 7

 


 

 

The Nikon D800

First Impressions

When I took out the D800 out of the box, I was not happy. The grip did not fit my hand like I am used to with higher end MF SLR and hightend Technical cameras. I also found the shutter release button to be located in a place that is less than ideal. There is absolutely no aesthetics to the body, and even though the materials in the bottom of the body feel and look reasonably good, I thought the top plate looked cheesy and it felt like cheap plastic with a completely tasteless paint job on it. The camera also felt heavy, given its size.  I mounted a lens, inserted a battery and I found the viewfinder to be small and dark.

I then realized that I am spoiled.  I have not used a 35 mm size DSLR in many years and I am used to the much larger and brighter viewfinders of medium format cameras. Still, the viewfinder is not as bright as some other 35 mm SLR's.  I have also been using cameras that cost a lot more than a D800/800E . One should expect to have better materials, better fitting grips, and better ergonomics in more expensive cameras, but I still think Nikon could have done a better job on the grip, the top plate and the position of the shutter release button at essentially zero additional cost.

Maybe someone with totally different hands from mine (which are rather average in size and shape) will disagree, but I can say that I have shown the ergonomic issues to several other photographers by letting them play with the body first, and then showing them exactly what is bothering me, and they have all agreed that I am right (so far).

Second impressions

Once I got past the ergonomic and aesthetic issues mentioned above, I found something truly remarkable:  I was instantly in love with the D800. It felt completely like a camera that was designed by photographers for photographers.

Either the designers themselves are photographers, or Nikon had a lot of input and did a lot of testing with photographers under real working conditions.  Maybe a combination of both.

I can say without hesitation that this camera is truly refreshing.  I have not experienced any other DSLR that even comes remotely close to being as good as this one is in this regard.  It has all the controls I need, all the custom functions I need, all the features I need, but I do not feel overwhelmed or bothered by the stuff I do not use.  Everything I need seems to almost magically be where I expect it to be, and it is a snap to access it.  Any changes such as ISO changes, mirror up, autofocus mode, or whatever else, lead to controls located exactly where you expect them and the changes are performed quickly and easily.

In Michael's recent D800/E review, and others online, you can read about all the features and functions, so I will not repeat them here.

Bravo Nikon!  Brilliant design and brilliant execution for the most part. This camera is light years ahead of the competition in terms of the user interface.

Do I have some quibbles?  Yes I do.

My biggest quibble is the fact that the camera has a "Shooting Memory Bank" and a "Custom Memory Bank", and you cannot protect the settings in either. Furthermore, there are a number of settings that cannot be saved in these banks.

Besides the fact that I do not like the names (how about something simple like "Profile"?), I cannot understand why we have two separate places to save our camera settings, with some settings in one and other settings in the other.  If there is some reason for this (something that totally escapes me), there should still be a way to lump them together in a single folder or a "Mother Memory Bank".  I also do not understand why some critical things like the ISO setting and the autofocus setting are not saved. All possible settings should be saved.

The reason is that if, for example, I want to change from shooting landscapes on a tripod (mirror up, three second shutter delay, manual focusing, manually selected native ISO, etc.) to shooting action sports handheld (no mirror lockup, no shutter delay, multipoint autofocus, Auto-ISO, etc.) I want to make the change as quickly as possible.  Alas, with the D800 I cannot:

Firstly, I have to go to two different memory banks in two different menus and change each individually.  After doing this, I still have to change the settings that cannot be saved into these memory banks, such as autofocus mode, drive mode, ISO setting and several others. Some of these need to get changed via menus, others by mechanical means. This is too convoluted, too slow and makes no sense.  Even worse, if you have selected a specific memory bank and in the middle of shooting you decide to change something that just happens to be the setting of a function saved in the bank, your original settings in that bank are not protected.  The bank automatically changes to your new setting and will activate the new setting as opposed to the original one the next time you select that memory bank.  This is dumb and unacceptable.  There should be a way to protect your original settings so you can always go back to them.

Dear Nikon: A firmware update correcting these issues is needed ASAP.

__________________________________________________________

To "E" or not to "E", that is the question...

Well, for me there really is no question.  To purchase an instrument based largely on its resolution and then put a filter in front of the sensor that diminishes that resolution seems like a pretty dumb thing to do.

The standard argument against the "E" model is the fear of the moiré effect in a camera without an AA filter.

I have been shooting landscape and other subjects for over a dozen years with Medium Format and other cameras that have no AA filter, and I cannot recall ever seeing a moiré problem in one of my shots. I have been able to cause a moiré problem on purpose, by concocting just the right scene, with the right lens at the right distance, but even then, getting rid of moiré with well known techniques in Photoshop is quite easy.

Note that CaptureOne includes an excellent de-moiré filter.  Given our competitive world, and the advent of the D800E, I would not be surprised if future versions of the other RAW converters on the market will also add a de-moiré filter.

So, my take is that all this noise about moiré in the "E" model is much ado about nothing. For the vast majority of photographers moiré is either totally non-existent, or an extremely rare event that can easily be fixed.

Before getting off this subject, it is important to point out a few things:

1. The presence of moiré artifacts is not just determined by whether you have an AA filter or not.  I have seen a demonstration that shows a well known pro 35 mm DSLR with an AA filter  producing massive amounts of moiré artifacts in a specific shot, while an MF back with no AA filter produced a very clean file of the same shot. There are many elements that come into play other than just the filter or no filter issue. If you are worried about moiré, you better start worrying about all your cameras, not just the ones with no AA filter.

2. The 800E is not a camera without an AA filter.  It is a camera with an additional filter that tries to reverse the loss of resolution created by the AA filter installed in all the  800 models. It is obvious that having two filters can never be as good as having no filter at all.  You have 4 air to glass (or other material) surfaces with their inherent reflections, refraction inside the media and all that.  Furthermore, nothing is perfect, so the "reversal" filter will never be a perfect opposite match to the original filter (which is not perfect either). So, while the 800E certainly gets closer to a camera without an AA filter, it cannot possibly be quite the same.

3. I am already tired of reading all the rants about whether the 800E is sharper than the 800.  The key issue is resolution, not sharpness.  It is a fact that the 800E has better resolution than the 800. We should also remember that anything lost due to lack of resolution can never be recovered. The D800 is a superb camera, but in terms of resolution the 800E is better.

4. The de-mosaic part of the software in order to build an image is more complicated for cameras without an AA filter (and probably for the D800).  Luckily, it appears that at least Adobe and PhaseOne have done their homework and Lightroom 4/Camera RAW 7, as well as CaptureOne 6.4 do an excellent job with D800E files.

Bottom line:  You want to give me better resolution for $300 bucks?  I'll take it.  No brainer.

Laguna Amarga

Patagonia, Chile; Sony NEX 7

 


 

 

A Few General Comments About Image Quality

With all due respect to all the great photographers that have used 35 mm size cameras for many years, I was never satisfied with the image quality from these cameras.  It took me nine years to be able to afford my first high quality 35 mm SLR (the venerable Nikon F) and when I finally got it there was a lot missing for me in terms of image quality. In spite of the great effort to buy it I ended up getting rid of it.  I gravitated towards larger formats and I finally settled on 4x5 and 8x10 inches for a number of decades.

It took me a while to realize the obvious: 35 mm was developed as a "miniature" format (the original name used by Oscar Barnack, the inventor of the format) in order to be able to have a highly portable and very convenient "miniature" camera.  This camera was the original Leica. 

The 35 mm camera became ubiquitous because it was so convenient and small, and because many professional photographers adopted it for photo journalism, for expeditions, to document historical events, for sports, etc.  The important point I would like to make is that almost none of those images ever saw the light of day as an exhibition print. The goal for professionals was to be published in a magazine or in a newspaper.  And let's face it, magazines and newspapers are low resolution, low quality media in small sizes.  Therefore, the relatively low image quality of 35 mm was never a problem, as the camera was perfectly suited for its final output being a low resolution low quality small print.

In terms of the non-professionals that used these cameras; they were interested in either small prints or slide shows, not in exhibition prints.  Again, the relatively low image quality was acceptable for these uses.

Most large format film photographers used to consider 35mm film as a medium with image quality that was unacceptably low to make exhibition prints. I was never able to achieve the fine resolution or the fine tonal gradations that are so important to me, (Hyper Reality as described in my prior articles on this site) by using a 35 mm size camera, film or digital.  For me the image quality was simply not good enough.

I also must add that I do not like the 2x3 aspect ratio.  I find it to be too wide for most of my images and not wide enough when I want to make a wide image. I can get around this problem by simply cropping the sides. The D800/D800E has variable aspect ratios, including 5x4 which feels a lot more comfortable to me (and perhaps to other photographers?), but I hate to waste pixels.  I know this is extremely unlikely, but I wish that someone would bring out a similar camera with a sensor shape in a more pleasing aspect ratio than 2x3.

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Image Quality-A Game Changer

I now have to report the exciting news:  For me the Nikon D800/D800E is a game changer.  Why?  Because it is the first 35 mm size camera that exceeds my threshold of image quality for exhibition prints. I have shot hundreds of tests, and in test after test the image quality is surprisingly good. The D800 delivers not just high resolution, but also outstanding dynamic range, extremely low noise and world class color accuracy and sensitivity. I would not hesitate to make 40 or even 50 inch wide exhibition prints from D800 files. Believe me, to go from a large format film view camera to a D800/800E for exhibition prints in a little over a decade is a bit shocking, but such is the incredible pace of innovation in our medium.

I believe that this camera represents the first product of a new era in digital photography.

_____________________________________________________

However..........

There is no free lunch.  With this kind of image quality and small size come some burdens, and I am afraid that the vast majority of users will not pay enough attention and will not realize the ultimate potential and image quality that this camera can deliver.

First of all, the tripod.  Most 35 mm shooters I see in the field use tripods that are already marginal in terms of being too small and flimsy for their cameras.  People seem to think about what is small, convenient and looks cool, instead of thinking about what they really need.

This is a camera that requires a heavy solid tripod.  I took some shots using a Gitzo Series 2 and then compared them with the same images using a much larger Really Right Stuff TVC-34L. I can easily see the difference.  I doubt many people will heed this advice, but if you are a 35 mm shooter and you purchase a D800/800E, you are highly likely to need to replace your tripod with a larger one. And I would strongly recommend you shoot in mirror up mode either with shutter delay or with a wireless cable release. 

I have also noticed a similar effect when shooting handheld.  Shooting at the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens is not good enough-even with a VRII lens.  I would recommend multiplying the focal length of the lens times 3X and using the reciprocal of this number as the minimum shutter speed for maximum handheld quality.

The autofocus in the camera is excellent (also the best I have used to date) but it is still not as good as manual focusing using Live View.  I would recommend using manual focus at high magnification in Live View mode whenever circumstances permit.  As good as autofocus in Live View mode is, it is still not as good as a human being evaluating the image at high magnification.  A quick method that works is to use autofocus first and then do a final tweak in manual at high magnification. In case you wonder, logic would lead one to expect that autofocus in normal shooting mode is not necessarily as accurate as it is in Live View mode. This is because in Live View mode the data that produce the image on the screen is coming straight off the sensor.  On the other hand, while in normal mode the light goes through a convoluted path that can be affected not just by the manufacturing tolerances in the lens and in the lens mount and the body, but also by mirror and auto focus system position tolerances. At least in my camera and in Michael Reichmann's cameras we both concur that in our early tests Live View manual focusing seems best for critical work, and Live View autofocus seems to be more accurate than regular mode autofocus. Whether this holds true for most cameras and after more extensive tests is yet to be seen, but at least it is comforting to know that the early tests match the basic logic.

"Maserati Birdcage"
Nikon D800 with 14-24 mm lens


Conclusion

Ansel Adams used to say that there was nothing worse than a sharp print of a fuzzy concept.

The D800/D800E is a camera with the best auto-exposure and the best auto-focusing mechanisms I have ever used.  It is also a camera capable of producing very high quality image files; certainly good enough for large exhibition prints.  As such, I believe that we will see a deluge of what Ansel called "sharp prints of a fuzzy concept". It is almost too easy to just point and shoot, and my guess is that lots of images will be produced without much thought or care in the process.

On the other hand to produce a great image nothing has changed: Superb artistry and a compelling message is required, then one still needs superb light and one has to pay attention to and manage all the small details. Very few people have the artistry, the message, the patience, the dedication and the technical expertise to produce great images. In fact, if anything, this camera will challenge the user to use flawless technique; the smallest degree of carelessness will immediately show up.

Great images will still continue to be very rare and precious, as they have always been.

The Nikon D800/D800E is an instrument that commands respect and needs to be used with utter care and flawless technique in order to extract all it has to offer.  Those that use the camera in this manner, will be rewarded with superb image quality;  image quality that was heretofore unthinkable from such a small camera.

The D800/D800E (with some of the newer Nikon lenses which I am finding to be much better than the prior vintage) is definitely a game changer.  At least for me it is.

While I do not intend to give up my MF technical camera just yet, the next time you see a landscape photographer running around with a solid tripod and a D800E, it might just be me...

What a great time to be a photographer!

April, 2012

Filed Under:  
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Concepts: Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Digital camera, Nikon, Photography, View camera, Nikon F-mount

Entities: Palo Alto, Adobe, Sony, Nikon, Peru, ISO, UI, DSLR, Mark Dubovoy, Michael, Oscar Barnack, Jeff Alford, Michael Reichmann, D800, D800/E, California, Photoshop, SLR

Tags: camera, image quality, AA filter, exhibition prints, memory bank, small, Nikon, autofocus, Live View, Live View mode, mm size camera, moiru00e9, shutter release button, prints, shutter delay, game changer, aspect ratio, low image quality, high magnification, autofocus mode, large format film, great images, mm slr, de-moiru00e9 filter, format cameras, mm shooter, Sony NEX, technical camera, MF technical camera, mm camera, DSLR camera, camera settings, film view camera, vast majority, mirror, solid tripod, superb camera, quality 35 mm, ISO setting, brilliant design