The D800 is Here to Stay!
By Bernard Languillier
Two weeks have passed since the first part of this rolling review. Many things have been written about the D800 in the meantime and I’ll try to avoid repeating stuff already described elsewhere. However 2 weeks will probably end up being insignificant relative to the many years during which this amazing camera might serve my needs.
How do I feel about the camera today? Well, probably even better than I did a week ago! It has been a mostly trouble free experience so far. Audio and wine aficionados think that some pieces of equipment perform better after a few tens to hundreds of hours of usage… the D800 feels the same.
One key differentiator of the D800 I had forgotten to mention is the sensor dust removal function that seems to be working well so far. I have indeed not seen a single dust spot on the sensor after a few thousand images, some of them in a very dusty environment. That is for sure a relief compared to the D3x.
Here are a few things my initial report had not been accurate enough about.
Live view speed
I mentioned the time it takes to get the hand back after live as a major annoyance. It now seems that this time depends on the write performance of the slowest memory card inserted in the body. With only a Sandisk 32gb CF 600x card in place, the time goes down to around two seconds which is fast enough. I believe Lexar 1000x cards should be even faster but the 2 samples I tried didn’t seem to get along with by D800. I know others have had no problems with these cards.
When both a fast CF card and a slower SD card are inserted, the performance is limited by the slower SD card. According to the recent tests performed by Rob Galbraith the fastest SD is still about 1.7 times slower than the fastest CF.
Night reflections Beijing – D800 + 35mm f2.0 AFD
When fast live view speed is needed, I may configure the camera in such a way that jpgs are written to the SD card. This might only become important for some applications like DoF stacking where taking several images in a row in live view is essential.
Aperture in live view mode
It seems my memory had failed me regarding the live view behavior of the D3x. Apparently it also did stop down the lens to the aperture set on the camera… not that I necessarily like this behavior, but at least I cannot call it a regression.
Whether focusing in stopped down mode is a suitable/worse/better option than shooting wide open will depend probably on the lens being used. For those lenses exhibiting no focus shift between full and stopped down aperture, it would obviously be preferable for focus wide open since the shallowe DoF will help set critical focus where it needs to be.
For those lenses that do exhibit a certain amount of focus shift (many lenses do), it might be better to focus with the lens stopped down anyway.
New stuff I have been playing with…
My first tripod tests were performed using my usual pano lens, the trusted Zeiss ZF 100 f2.0. A favorite because of its low amount of light fall off, uniform quality across the frame and excellent micro detail that help panorama software find matching points for accurate images matching.
The old gate – 300 megapixel stitch done with Zeiss 100mm f2.0
100% crop of the above
Simply put, there is little to report here. The D800 is a wonderful tool for panoramic shooting. The excellent damping of the mirror makes it possible to shoot very quickly in MLU mode. There is basically zero camera movement visible in the viewfinder even pico seconds after the mirror moves back down. Critical sharpness tests also do not show any visible impact of using a very short intervals between mirror lock up and shutter-release activation. One less thing to worry about in the heat of the action.
Nikon has also finally made it possible to use shutter delay mode in combination with MLU. Why did it take so long?
Finally, I have also captured a few casual handheld panos and here also, the very good mirror damping makes it scarily easy to snap a 100 megapixel pano. The only issue as of now really is how painful it becomes to come up with 200-300 megapixel images.
We have been told by Nikon that only the very best lenses would work with the D800. I had the opportunity to capture a few hundred images with my old 35mm f2.0 AF and am glad to report that the results are in fact very good. Maybe not perfect corner performance good, but at least good enough that the lens appears to be tapping into the resolution potential of the sensor.
I may keep using the 35mm f2.0 as my main compact travel lenses instead of a bulkier zoom lens.
Beijing light red – D800 + 35mm f2.0 AFD
Only did a couple of tests so far. When in HDR mode, the D800 takes 2 images a fraction of a second apart from each other with only one activation of the shutter-release. Only the resulting image is kept. It is possible to select the gap of exposure between these 2 images (1, 2 or 3 stops) as well as the degree of smoothness, that appears to be a measure of how sharp the transitions are at the edge of the masks applied to merge the 2 images.
On the plus side, the results seem very natural, the shooting experience is good. Providing a sufficiently high shutter speed is used, handheld results are pretty good if not perfect. The following sample is of limited artistic value, but it is a typical high contrast scene that requires HDR. The image was shot handheld at 1/40 sec but the camera still managed to merge the 2 images pretty well. I would expect more than a few busy architecture shooters to end up using this feature from time to time for non critical work.
HDR sample image – handheld 35mm f2.0 at 1/40 sec
One the negative side, there is a need to set the camera to jpg or tiff modes to be able to use the HDR mode. I have created a dedicated shooting bank and added the shooting bank control to my personal menu in order to make the shift to HDR mode as quick as possible. Custom setting f8 makes it possible to switch HDR on/off by using the BKT button which is pretty fast.
HDR mode might come handy in combination with the Eyefi card when there is a need to share on the spot an immediately usable image through a smart phone.
Speaking of which… Mixed feelings here. It does work well when it works, but having it to work with the iPhone 4 was not as easy as I would like it to be.
More tests will be needed to provide a final comment on usability/reliability.
Note to myself: I will probably need to create a specific shooting bank to handle eye-fi shooting also.
All my tests so far were done using Lightroom 4. I have been struggling a bit to find the most pleasing compromise in terms of sharpness/noise.
Following generic advice from Jeff, I ended up liking the following settings best.
strength 60, radius 0.7, detail 40, mask 10, luminosity noise reduction 10.
Now, it is difficult to provide generic values for a given camera. The micro contrast of the lens used will impact as well the ideal sharpening values. Specifically, lenses with an outstanding micro contrast will benefit from a more aggressive sharpening of fine details while there would be little value when applied to lesser optics. More tuning will be needed to optimize down to this level.
I am looking forward for the support of the D800 in Raw Developer that has been one of the best offerings for many years I terms of detail extraction, although it does offer little in terms of workflow convenience . According to the editor the D800 should be supported in an upcoming upgrade due out around April end. Unfortunately for Win users, RD is only available on Mac,
RPP. Another Mac only converter with a growing reputation for excellence now supports the D800 since version 4.5. I had never had the opportunity to try it out so far, probably because of its reputation as a tool that may be a bit difficult to use. This is now corrected and the results are indeed brilliant. The conversion boast colors that have a great purity and rightness to them. The philosophy of RPP appears to be 180 degrees opposite to that of LR that tries to be a single stop do it all application.
RPP is meant to be used as a first step of a workflow that will probably involve PS for more tuning . In this context it focuses on delivering a robust file that is a healthy basis for further manipulations. I do indeed find the compromise between details and artifacts to be excellent. Applying Topaz Detail 2 to those file delivers a very nice result. This is obviously still early and more tests will be needed.
Another temple – D800 + 85mm f1.4 AF-S (handheld) converted with RPP
100% detail of the above after Topaz Detail application
There is a quiet mode on the D800, but it feels a lot less effective than that of the D7000 for example. My initial tests indicate that the gap compared to the S mode is small enough that I would probably not bother.
As a side comment, I have found it challenging to get good hand held results with the D7000 when using the Quiet mode, but it may be a matter of getting used to a different timing.
The RRS L bracket
All my recent shooting on tripod with the D800 was performed using the Really Right Stuff L bracket they have just started shipping.
As usual with RRS products, the fit is excellent and the part has been performing flawlessly so far. It could be no more than an impression, but I feel that the rigidity of the bracket in vertical orientation may be a bit superior compared to former models.
As a total beginner in the complex world of video having only limited experience with a J1 and D7000, the quality of the video of the D800 is strikingly good. I have so far only tried shooting with the 24mm f1.4 near full aperture and the results are simply delicious with a filmic look that is further strengthened by the light fall off of the 24mm f1.4 used wide open.
All in all… I am growing increasingly addicted to this camera. Stay tuned for more first hand reports in the coming weeks.