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Nikon D800 / D800e

Initial Field Impressions
By Michael Reichmann 

Why The Excitement?

Back in mid-March I wrote a think-piece titled Nikon D800 or D800E – Which to Choose? I wrote this, in part, because I was going through the decision process of which to purchase (in the end I decided to get both), but also because I received an unprecedented number of calls from friends in the business asking what I thought. Then the e-mails started coming in. It seems that there is huge interest in these cameras, and the extremely high demand being reported by dealers, and anecdotally on forums, bears this out.

Then, DxOMark published their D800 report, ranking the D800 as having their top ranked camera sensor, with a score higher than any preceding camera, including top medium format backs. (Please be aware that DxO rankings are based on sensor performance metrics other than resolution). This was all the marketplace needed, and though priced at some US $3,000, initial demand for the D800 soared even higher.

As for me, I saw the D800 as an opportunity to revisit the Nikon marque and to look in some depth over a period of time at where the current state of the art from that company finds itself. So I put together a two camera, eight lens system for long term use. I'll be detailing my choices below as this report progresses.

Spring is Sprung. Toronto, April 2012
Nikon D800 with Tamron 70-300mm @ ISO 400

Maturity

After spending the past couple of years working with the new generation of mirrorless Compact System Cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and Sony, coming back to a full-frame Nikon was like a breath of fresh air. Notwithstanding its amazing new sensor, the D800/e is a mature product – the culmination of Nikon's more than 60 years of camera design experience.

We all are familiar with the litany of complaints that accompany the release of so many new cameras; glaring ergonomic flaws, firmware design issues, missing features etc. This is not the case with the new Nikons. Certainly there are design decisions made by Nikon that one can disagree with – the inability to combine mirror lock-up with the self timer, for example, is one that people have been complaining about for years. But, I think it fair to say that other than such disagreements there is little Nikon's engineers and designers have overlooked.

As we'll see, this camera produces images of exceptional quality, limited in most cases by the user's technical abilities and the quality of the lenses used. But from a functional perspective, and unlike so many camera that cross my desk each year, there is little to quibble about functionally. The reason, I believe, is that Nikon camera design group clearly has actual photographers on the team, and it shows. One might not agree with every design choice that they've made, but clearly they were made for a reason. Regrettably one can not say this about so many other products, especially from companies that are newcomers to the pro and semi-pro segments of the industry.

The Manual

The camera comes with an almost 450 page printed manual – and needs it. Firstly, kudos to Nikon for providing a printed manual (in Canada, even two, one in French and one in English). So many companies think that a fold-out Getting Started guide and a PDF are all that's needed. Not.

Secondly, even if you're an experienced Nikon owner, do spend some time with the manual to familiarize yourself with what the camera can and can't do. This is probably the most feature-rich camera that I've ever used. Not everyone will need all of the features, but it's worth knowing what's there and how it works.

Malting Tower Ruins. Toronto, April 2012
Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G

On Screen Help

If you've left the manual at home, or are working in a hurry and need to understand what a menu setting does, the camera has a very handy Help function. Simply press the "?" key with a menu selection highlighted and a one or two screen description of what the selection does is available. Very nicely implemented!


Falling to Hand

Ask professional photographers what they value most in a camera, and most will say "handling". When you work literally all day with a camera in your hand, how it feels, the location of controls, the size of the grip, the heft, and other ergonomic issues are all critical. But they are also subjective.

For example, I have read complaints by some that the grip is too small. If one has larger hands, this may be the case. But, my hands are on the medium to small side and I find the grip to be fine for me. For the amateur's occasional use I don't expect this to be an issue. For the pro who will be hand-holding for hours at a time, my suggestion is to try one on for size first.

Vertical Grip

The optional MB-D12 vertical battery grip greatly increases the camera's bulk, but it also makes vertical shooting much more convenient. A second battery can be installed in the grip, and the camera can be set to use the camera battery first, then the grip battery, or vice versa. The battery can either be another El-15 Lithium Ion, same as the camera, or six AA batteries, which fit into a special provided insert.

The huge advantage of AAs is, of course, that it means that one can shoot in extremely remote areas (without electricity for charging) without worry. Pack in a supply of double As and you're good to go. 

You can also use the battery from the Nikon D4 in the portrait grip via an available accessory. Take note that the D4 battery does not augment the frames per second in the same way that the D3 battery did with the D700.

Optical Viewfinder

There has been so much attention paid to the latest generation of mirrorless cameras and their electronic viewfinders that it's worth mentioning that as good as they are, a full-frame optical viewfinder through a large glass prism is still the gold standard. I discussed this with an illustrative example in my recent Sony NEX-7 Six Months On Report.

But, having said that (as Seinfield was wont to say), this isn't the biggest and the brightest OVF on the market. A Sony A900, for example, is much brighter. Not that the D800/E is poor in this regard, it just isn't brilliant (literally and figuratively).

Dual Card Slots

As with many pro level bodies, the D800/E has dual card slots – a CF slot and an SD slot. 

One thing to bear in mind is that the whole camera is only as fast as the slowest card installed. Since the fastest CF cards are about 1.5X faster than the fastest current SD cards, if you have set the camera to save RAWS to both the CF and the SD, you are giving up potential speed. If shooting speed isn't an issue for your work, then no problem. But, if you're trying to extract the best high speed shooting performance my suggestion would be set the CF slot to RAW and the SD slot to JPG for backup, since JPGs are smaller and will compensate for the SD card's slower writing speed. This isn't a Nikon issue, just something to be aware of.

 


The Moire Issue

Mesh and Circles. Toronto, April, 2012
Nikon D800 with 14-24mm f/2.8G @ ISO 100

I have already written a couple of installments on the topics of resolution and moire with the D800E vs the D800. Because Nikon decided to produce two otherwise identical models, one with the usual 35mm DSLR anti-aliasing filter (D800), and one without (D800E), this will likely remain a topic of fascination and debate for some time to come.

It's not an easy issue to deal with objectively. There are so many variables that finding a situation where one camera displays aliasing and the other doesn't is very hard to do. Sometimes a very slight change in camera position (just inches) and the angle of the light can make a huge difference.

For example, look at Mesh and Circles above, and then click on it to see a slightly larger version. Depending on the monitor size and resolution that you are using to view it you likely will see moire on one, or more likely both. But, there is none in the original file. This was taken with the D800, not the D800E. I repeat. There is no moire in the original file. What you see is all about the patterns in the image beating with the pixel grid of your particular monitor.

Why am I showing you this? Because things aren't always the way they appear.

100% crop of Mesh and Circles

Photographers have been shooting with medium format backs and cameras (Phase One, Hasselblad, Leica) without AA filters for years. Why don't they have AA filters? Because these camera makers (who know just a bit about this stuff) have determined that one gets higher resolution when a sensor doesn't have an AA filter than when it does. Also the photographers who buy these cameras (pro, fine art, reproduction, landscape, fussy amateur, fashion, product, and architecture photographers) have decided that putting up with the chance of moire is preferable to the reduced resolution of a camera with an AA.

It's really quite simple. If the moire boggyman scares yet, save $300 and get a D800. If not, get a D800E. Chances are you still might get moire with a D800, because all cameras can show it at some time or another. It's only a matter of degree and when.


Features and Functions

If you want a laundry list of the camera's features and functions Nikon's web site has these in abundance. What I will do here though is discuss those features which I believe make the camera of interest and contribute to its versatility (or not). Of course just because I mention something here doesn't mean that its unique to the D800/E.

Auto-ISO

Auto ISO on the D800/e may well be the best implementation of this feature on any camera. Here is what it allows one to do...

– set minimum ISO speed

– set maximum ISO speed

– set a shutter speed sensitivity (use a higher than usual shutter speed before ISO is increased, in stages)

– recognizes when a zoom lens is used and automatically adjusts the ISO change-over point based on focal length

– allows auto-ISO to operate in full Manual mode (set both shutter speed and aperture and the camera rides the ISO gain within the range that the user has set).

Spend a day working with this system and you'll wonder how you'll ever go back to anything else. Simply brilliant.

A Non-CPU Lens ISO Bug

The D800/E can use non-CPU equipped lenses, such as the older but still available 50mm f/1.2 A-IS. You can program the camera to recognize different lenses by identify their focal length and maximum aperture. So far so good. This shows up in the EXIF data and the camera uses this information for advanced metering purposes.

But somehow the non-CPU lens team forgot to liaise with the Auto ISO team. The Auto-ISO function is unaware of the focal length of non-CPU lenses and insists on a fixed minimum shutter speed of 1/30 sec, which in the case of a 50mm lens simply isn't fast enough by at least half.

Variable Aspect Ratios

Like other Nikon DSLRs the D800/E will automatically crop the frame to APS-C format when a DX lens is mounted. This means that if you're migrating from an APS-C sized sensor camera you do not need to abandon your reduced frame lenses.

Though I've been shooting in the 3:2 aspect ratio 35mm format all my life, I really dislike it. It's either too wide, or not wide enough for my taste. The D800/E allows you to manually set one of four different crop modes, normal, DX format, 1.2X crop and 5:4. In the optical viewfinder this is displayed by a black outline, which illuminates in red when AF points are displayed, or optionally the display can be configured to gray out the cropped areas.

If you're coming from the world of rangefinder cameras, and appreciate being able to see outside the image area so as to be able to anticipate incoming action, this capability will be really appealing.

Mirror Lock up and Delay

Camera makers are funny. Even when they hear the same complaints for years (Canon's lack of a straightforward direct mirror lock up) and Nikon's mutually exclusive MLU and Self Timer, they often dig in their heals like a petulant child, mutter something like – Go away kid and stop bothering us. We know best.

Well, Nikon has finally listened. There is a Shutter Delay option of 1, 2 or 3 seconds which when the shutter is released puts the mirror up first and then releases the shutter that number of second later. Finally – thanks for listening Nikon.

I would request though that the number of seconds delay be set-able beyond 3 seconds. While this is enough to absorb any mirror bounce (which appears to be very slight at worst) it isn't enough when shooting with super telephoto lenses. 

OK Canon, the ball is now in your court. When are you going to have a dedicated MLU button or switch? Never? OK, I thought so.

RGB Blinkies

If you're an ETTR aficionado – maximizing exposure without blowing the highlights – being able to monitor not just the RGB histogram but also each invidual channel is critical. Not only does the D800/E display separate R, G and B histograms but one can also set the flashing "blinkies" to just show the blown channel(s). Nice!


You Can't Take it to The Bank

Sorry for the pun (I think it's actually pretty clever), but let's talk about Memory Banks. The Nikon D800/E has what could be the world's best custom memory settings system. Regretably though, it fails pretty badly in terms of convenience and functionality.

There are only a couple of settings that are purely mechanical; metering mode and shutter activation. Everything else is firmware controlled, which means that everything else should be settable and memorizeable into custom user banks. They are actually, but not the way you'd wish.

Instead Nikon has implemented a two bank system; A Shooting Memory Bank and a Custom Memory Bank. Why Nikon, why?! What this means is that you can set some items, such as exposure mode in the Shooting Bank, and some things like the Focusing modes in the Custom Bank, but there's no way to activate them at the same time without  accessing the seperate banks, located under different menu headings. Yes, you can put both on the My Menu setting, but one still has to set two separate selections to put the camera into the state that one needs. And, since the point of this is to enable quick changes between shooting modes, the whole process is subverted. Really quite a shame, since it could be so convenient.

Here's a suggestion Nikon – make the Custom Settings Bank a selection in the Custom Memory Bank. It's just firmware, right? A SMOP.

More Bad Bank News

If that was all that was wrong with the Nikon memory bank system on the D800/E, I could live with it (sort of – what choice do I have?). But it's worse than that. Nikon's otherwise prescient engineers were clearly dozing the day that they designed this system, for the following reason...

There is no way to lock settings in a bank. So, for example, let's say that you've set the camera up for "fully manual" mode in Bank B. You work in Bank B, but then decide to make a change to couple of settings. Maybe pop into Aperture priority mode for a few shots. Now, you realize that you actually want to work with your Bank A settings (full auto), so you switch to those.

What happens to your Bank B settings? You guessed it. They now have changed to whatever you set while you were in that Bank. In other words, a memory bank retains the settings that were in effect the last time you were in the bank, not the settings that you want them to retain. This is really lame, and together with needing to set two separate Memory Banks for each individual shooting situations, the whole Memory Bank system becomes close to pointless. This seems more like it was designed by Sony, rather than Nikon.

Come on Nikon, put your "A" team on this for a firmware update ASAP.


It's The Lenses, Stupid

Experienced photographers know that quality lenses trump everything else in the image quality chain. A good lens can make the most of a sub-par sensor, but a poor lens on a great sensor is a waste of money. To coin a phrase – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and this is especially true in the camera / lens equation.

Below is a discussion of the lenses that I have chosen for use with the D800/e, along with my rational, and links to objective technical reviews. With 75 lenses in the current Nikon line-up, and hundreds more available from third parties, there are no end of choices for just about any need and budget. I have quite specific needs, which may differ from yours, but I'll discuss the thinking that went into each of my choices. Remember – your needs will undoubtedly vary, so do pass these comments through a filter that reflects your own particular needs.

Back in 2008 and 2009 when I was working with the Nikon D700 and D3x I gained some considerable experience with Nikon's current lens range. As a Nikon shooter for a couple of decades in the 1970's and 1980's I knew the lens line quite well, but almost every lens from that period has since been replaced or updated, so that doesn't really count as much.

Primes

I selected four primes; three f/1.4 lenses for low light work, along with a stabilized macro.

Nikon 35mm f/1.4G

The AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G is the latest iteration of Nikon's venerable 35mm f/1.4, a classic focal length if there ever was one. Finally this lens is up to the optical performance demanded by high-end digital. Here's the photozone test report for this lens. This would be my "desert island" lens.

Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

 

At about US $500 the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G is probably the fastest high quality Nikon lens that one can buy. It also is quite inexpensive for a first rate prime lens. If buying a D800 has stretched your budget to the max, and you only have enough left for one lens, then go old-school and get this 50mm f/1.4G. No, it's not perfect, but the lens is relatively small, great for low light work, and by f/2.8 through f/5.6 is bittingly sharp, fully up to the demands of a high res sensor. Here's the photozone test report for this lens.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

If there is one lens that you want to really challenge the sensor on the D800/e it is the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G. This may well be one of the highest resolving lenses currently on the market, and its sterling qualities are available beginning from wide open, peaking at f/4, and holding strong through f/8. It's a great portrait lens (maybe even too sharp for this use), and has terrific reach, with great light gathering power for candid work. Here's the photozone test report for this lens.

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro

There is nothing like the Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro in Nikon's line-up. There are several things that make this lens unique from a feature / function perspective. Firstly, for a Macro lens the focal length is much preferable to the more common 60mm–100mm lenses. Short macros are annoying, because they require that one get very close to the subject. If these are alive, they can spook, and if inanimate it's all to easy to block the light with ones body as well as the camera and lens. 150mm is almost ideal, and for a lens of this type f/2.8 is quite fast. This lens also is stabilized, making it possibly the only macro of this focal length to have stabilization.

Of course none of this would mean much of the lens wasn't optically excellent, especially at its stiff price of around $1,500. Fortunately though, this lens is nothing short of superb, both optically and mechanically. Resolution is excellent, from wide open through f/8. The lens is of such high quality that even adding a quality 1.4X extender, producing a 210mm f/4, is feasible. Here's the photozone test report for this lens (an earlier non-stabilized version). The new version is reported to be even better, and I'm certainly very happy with my copy. It particularly excels in the macro range. I don't think I've ever seen better. And even in use as a day-today mid-range tele it's performance is very fine. The matching 1.4X Sigma extender is also of very good quality, and in the f/5.6 - f/8 range creates a quite good 210mm f/4 combination.

Zooms

It used to be that if one wanted optimum image quality prime lenses were the only way to go. But that was then and this is now. There are, especially within the Nikon lens family, some very fine zooms. Now, the use of zooms is usually about convenience and versatility, and not all zooms are exceptional. But since photography is often the art of compromise, here are the zooms that currently inhabit my Nikon gear bag.

Nikon 14-24mm, f/2.8G

From the moment the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED was first released it has generated nothing but praise from pros and advanced amateurs. Indeed it may be the finest ultra-wide zoom ever made, and it rivals even the best wide primes in most regards. Though not without a few flaws, it still is the reference wide angle lens for many photographers. Here's the photozone test report for this lens.

Nikon 24-120mm, f4G VR

Most people's bread-and-butter high quality mid-range zoom is a 24-70 f/2.8. But, based on my needs, and some previous experience, I chose the AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR instead. Why not the excellent Nikon 24-70 f/2.8? There are several reasons. Firstly, the 24-120 covers quite a bit more at the long end, and I tend to want to always shoot tight. Secondly, though it's an f/4, and therefore gives up a stop to the f/2.8 lens, it has VR, which gains it at least three stops of hand hold-ability.

This is the lens that I place on the camera when I walk out the door to shoot. It's the lens that sits on the camera in the car, ready for a grab shot. Independant test have shown that though it's not claimed to be one of Nikon's "pro" lenses, it is quite close in quality to both the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8.

Since I have several primes covering this focal range, when it comes to careful tripod work and striving for optimum image quality, these are always available. This leans is all about versatility combined with really good (though not superb) image quality. Here's the photozone test report for this lens.

Tamron 70-300mm  f/4-5.6 VC

The Tamron SP 70-300MM F/4-5.6 Di VC USD is of necessity a compromise. Based on my own tests as well as those that I've read online, Nikon's 70-300mm isn't quite up to the Tamron, nor is Sigma's. This is a focal length range that I find very useful, especially for hand-held urban shooting where larger and faster lenses are prohibitivly heavy and massive. Unfortunately neither Nikon nor any third party lens maker makes a really good lens in the 70-300mm range in F mount.

Though this is optically the weakest lens in my Nikon gear bag, at about $500 it isn't a serious financial committment, and there are times and places where nothing else will do. The Vibration Control works very well, and its mechanical construction is first rate. A compromise lens, but one that for me is worth making when needed. Here's the photozone test report for this lens.

Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS

The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM is also a compromise, but of a different sort. I first had an opportunity to use this lens in the summer of 2011 when I was testing the Sigma SD1 camera. I wasn't crazy about the camera, but I feel in love with the lens.

The reason that I call this lens a compromise is because for me to replaces the need for a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom and a 300mm f/2.8 prime. I've always found the 70-200mm focal length restricted at the long end, which is why for urban shooting I gravitate to the 70-300mm focal range. For wildlife, landscape and sports a fast high quality 300mm (sometimes with a 1.4X) is needed, but can be something of a one trick pony.

The Sigma 120-300mm has the reach that I need, is fast, and assuredly though heavy, handles beautully, and has superb optical performance. At some 3kg, it is the same weight as Nikon's 300mm f/2.8, but is so much more versatile, and like a fast 300mm prime it is hand-holdable but will be happier on a tripod. Here's the photozone test report for this lens (in Canon mount).

Speciality

Nikon 24mm f/3.5 PC-E

Nikon's PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED will appeal to photographers doing architecture, landscape and some macro work. It is a manual focus only lens. My review of the 24mm PC-E from when the lens was first introduced in 2008 is found here. There isn't much more that needs to be said other than that it is a superb optical performer, and if you need a T/S lens this one doesn't disappoint.

Except... Nikon's mechanical design on this lens is a decade behind Canon's. Having to send the lens to a Nikon Service center to have the axis swapped is lame. Doing it yourself (which isn't that hard) voids the warrenty. This lens sorely needs a mechanical update.

Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AI-S

The Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 is still current in the Nikon catalog (but who knows for how much longer). There have been rumours of an AF version for some years, but nothing yet. Most major online retailers show the lens as back-ordered, and Nikon U.S. shows it as "Special Order". Here in Canada many dealers have the lens in stock. I bought mine from a downtown Toronto retailer, for CDN $650 just by walking in off the street.

This lens is from another time though. Beautifully made, manual focus with a silky smooth focusing action and a manual aperture ring. This definately is your father's Oldsmobile (or even your own, if you're old enough).

This was my favourite lens for many years, and I'm very happy to be able to buy another one new. It is very sharp when stopped down to f/2, similar to other current-generation 50mm Nikkors. Even wide open it is quite sharp, but its extremely shallow DOF makes this hard to achieve and hard to see.

Its esthetic magic though is discovered when used wide open at f/1.2. The lens simply glows with optical defects wide open; including coma and spherical aberrations. It also has extraordinarily shallow DOF, perfect for environmental portraits and still lifes. Like similar lenses without aspherical elements and 9 aperture blades it has lovely bokeh.

I will have a separate write-up on this classic lens in the days ahead.

Tulips #4. Toronto, April, 2012
Nikon D800E with 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor @ f/1.2 and ISO 100

 

A Comment on Lenses and the D800/E

When I wrote my essay on choosing between the D800 and D800e back in March, 2012 I wrote that it was important to select the best lenses possible and also wrote the following about how to get the highest image quality that these cameras can produce.

– Use the optimum aperture. Apertures above about f/11 introduce diffraction which effectively acts as an unintentional AA filter

– Use a really solid tripod and head

– Use Live View, or mirror lock up with a remote release or self timer.

– Use critical focusing, using single point AF and LV focus magnification (up to 23X)

– When shooting hand-held use lenses with VR when possible, and also a high shutter speed... 2X or 3 X the reciprocal of the focal length, not the 1/focal length of olden days

– Use the lowest possible ISO, though as we'll see the camera is very clean up to and including ISO 1600

Some folks with apparently sub-optimal reading comprehension took the above comment about using only the best lenses and the very best shooting technique to mean that otherwise a D800/E wasn't worthwhile. Well – no, that's not what I wrote. These dictums are true if you want to extract the best that these cameras can produce. But, it doesn't mean that normal hand-held shooting with every-day lenses can't work well and make owning and using a D800/E worthwhile. It's just that better lenses and better shooting technique will make the most of what this remarkable sensor and camera have to offer. I hope this is now clear.

 


Autofocus Tracking

The Nikon D800/E wouldn't be my first choice for sports or other fast action shooting. This simply isn't within its design brief. But, the camera does have the same fast AF tracking system as the new sports oriented Nikon D4, it just can't shoot as quickly as that model.

Above is a 15 frame burst of my Golden Retriever Lula doing what that breed does best, retrieving. Apparently Goldens can run at a maximum speed of about 30 MPH, so in this instance I would judge her to be moving toward the camera at about 25 MPH. Of course, this is the type of predictable motion that focus tracking systems do best, but hey – it's common when shooting horse races, car races, ski races and even dog races. I'll leave how the camera performs on irregular motion to someone else.

How did it do? In a word – perfectly. Every single frame of the 15 was tack sharp.

Above is a sequence of thumbnail 100% crops, on the nose. Each is as sharp as the other. Below is a very small 100% crop of the final frame.

This sequence was taken with the D800E and 24-120mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens at f/8 in Manual mode. The shutter was set to 1/1000 sec and Auto-ISO took care of maintaining exposure. The shots were taken in RAW uncompressed to a 64GB Sandisk Extreme Pro card. This allows 15 frames in about 4 seconds before the buffer is filled. 


Auto Focus Fine Tuning

Though all pro cameras have had AF fine turning for about the past four years, there are still many photographers who don't understand or appreciate this feature's importance. Because I believe that this is so important to getting optimum image quality from ones cameras and lenses I'm going to spend a bit of time elaborating. Let's start with a brief backgrounder.

Your D800/E has two different types of autofocus technology built in; Phase Detection AF, when you use the optical viewfinder, and Contrast Detection AF when you use Live View. PDAF is very fast, and uses a seperate focusing module. CDAF is slow(er) and focuses the image directly off the sensor. Because Live View CDAF is off the sensor there is no need for calibration. Autofocus should be extreemly accurate, though it's possible that careful manual focusing can, in some situations, be even better. (Just as with humans, AF systems can sometimes be fooled by tricky subjects).

Why does PDAF need calibration? As I wrote in my LensAlign review a few years ago, "...unless you're NASA, with a celestial budget, you have to live with the fact that the distance between the lens elements and the lens flange – the sensor and the focal plane, the autofocus mirror assembly and the focus sensor, and the myriad of other critical tolerances are not all perfect."

As was once explained to me by a product manager from a major Japanese camera company; each camera body and lens has a manufacturing tolerance. Let's say that it's +/- 10. (These are arbitrary numbers, just for illustration purposes). A camera or lens can leave the factory following quality control so long as its tolerences fall within +/- 10.

A quality manufactruer will try to ensue that each unit falls within this range, and most will have even tighter tolerences than the extreemes. Typically you might have a body that's -3 off spec and a lens that +2. In that case the net is -1, and all is very good. If you have a body that's -5 and a lens that's -3 you have a combination that's -8, and that's not as good, but still within tolerances. But, focus will not be optimum using Phase Detection autofocus, and when used wide open focus will not be as preceise as it could be.

Now take the situation where a body is +6 and a lens is +7. The total is +13, which is out of spec, though each of the devices remains within spec. The camera and lens combination is then seriously front focusing. A casual user likely won't notice, but a more critical one definately will, and he or she will voice their displeasure on forums that the XYZ lens is a dud. No, it's not a dud. It just unfortunately isn't a good match with the body that person is using.

A relatively inexpensive and painless solution is at hand, and it doesn't require sending anything back to the camera maker. Just purchase a device such as LensAlign, and at about 5 minutes work per lens / body combination all will be well. It took me about two hours to fine tune both my D800 and D800E bodies with eight lenses on each. Here's how:


– precisely align the camera on a tripod with the target on another tripod or a shelf

– use mirror lockup, or exposure delay set to 3 seconds

– set the lens to its widest aperture, and if a zoom, its longest focal length

– take a shot of the target using PDAF

– switch to Live View and take another shot using CDAF

– pop the card and load it into your computer, preferably looking at both images side by side, at 100% on screen, showing the ruler

– the Live View shot should be perfectly focused. The PDAF shot may or may not be, with the focus point on the slanted ruler either being front focused or back focused

– if the shots match, you have a perfectly aligned system and can move on to the next lens

– if not, note if the point in focus on the PDAF shot is towards you or further away on the ruler

– enter a + or - value in the Fine Tune setting, reload the card and take two more shots

– rinse and repeat

– after a few tries you'll see how much of an adjustment is needed, and doing additional lenses won't take long

You only have to do this once. The camera records the final setting for that particular lens, and then whenever it is mounted on that camera it is used to adjust the AF system accordingly. No more front focus. No more back focus. So, the next time someone on a forum complains about front or back focus issues, you know what to tell them.

And... just for clarity, this is irrelevant for Live View CDAF, since that is performed right off the sensor and so no calibration is necessary.

My AF Calibration Settings

Lens
Nikon D800E
Nikon D800
85mm f/.4 Nikkor
+9
+3
50mm f/1.4 Nikkor
0
0
35mm f/1.4 Nikkor
+3
+5
150mm f/2.8 Sigma Macro
0
0
24-120mm f/4 Nikkor
0
0
14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor
+6
0
70-300mm f/4-5.6 Tamron
0
0
120-300mm f/2.8 Sigma
+20
+12

I am showing my calibration settings above because they are illustrative of how variable and how unpredictable the needed adjustments can be. It's impossible to know without testing and calibration whether a lens / camera combination will be optimum or not. Whatever you do, do not copy these settings to your own camera. They are only relevant to my individual lenses and bodies.


Video

Video on DSLRs is a complex topic. The D800/E certainly has all the features users want, including a mic jack, headphone jack, and a full range of resolutions and frame rates.

Image quality? Sorry, but there are days and weeks of work to be done in coming to any fair conclusions, and I've been putting the past weeks into working with these cameras in stills mode. Stay tuned. Chris and I will be looking at the D800/E's video capabilities as soon as we can. 


 

More Quibbles and Gripes

As good as the Nikon D800/E is (and it may well be the best all-around camera that I've ever owned), it is not without its faults. Here are a few more that I've discovered...

UPDATE: I had originally written that Capture NX2 was not available in a 64 bit Mac version. I was in error. It didn't install properly on my computer, and in a conversation with another photographer she mentioned that she had had the same problem as me, and that in a conversation with a Nikon support rep had been told that it was for this reason. I guess she shouldn't have believed him and I shouldn't have believed her. I appologize for any inconvenience that this mistake has caused.

– Try as I might I can't get saved Camera Settings profiles to be loaded between my two cameras. When a card with saved settings made in the first camera is placed into the second camera for loading, the Load command is grayed out. Is this a bug or simply user error? Let me know if it works for you.

– If you format your primary card, and have your secondary card set for backup and do not erase it at the same time, then pressing Play, instead of showing you that the primary card is blank, will show you the secondary card's contents. WTF – I just formatted the card, why are the shots still there. Ooh. it's the other card. The reason for this is that there is no way to select payback pf the contents of the card desired, short of popping out the one that isn't desired. Play simply shows you all the files on both cards in round-robin fashion. 

Nikon – please create a "Select Card to Play" option.


Raw Processing

Most of the time I shoot raw. The D800/E allows for both 12 bit and 14 bit raws as well as compressed and uncompressed raws. I have read commentary that compressed raws save space and don't give up anything in terms of IQ. Maybe. But, since I'm shooting slowly and deliberately much of the time, and have a fast 64GB card CF card in the camera, why not shoot 14 bit uncompressed? I save backup JPGs (and videos) to the SD card, so I have something quick and dirty if needed.

As far as raw processing goes, people familiar with my training videos with Jeff Schewe know that I am partial to Lightroom, and Lightroom 4 really is fantastic. But Capture One 6.4 has just been released, and it too supports the Nikon D800/E. I would be hard pressed to say which one does a better job IQ wise. They each have their strengths.

I wish I could tell you what Nikon's Capture NX2 was like in comparison, but it refuse to install and run properly on my machine (Macbook Pro with OS 10.7.3). I'll keep trying.

As this is being written DxO Optics Pro does not yet support the D800/E, but I have no doubt that it will before long.


Image Quality

This is the one that you've been waiting for, right? Well, the story is simple as I see it. The sensor in the Nikon D800/E is the best all-around sensor that anyone has yet put in a DSLR. You can go to DxOMark and do your own comparisons of various parameters with other cameras, but the fact that they rank it as the best sensor overall of some 250 cameras tested, even besting the $40,000 medium format Phase One IQ180 (at matching sensitivities), is not be ignored. Don't like, or don't believe in DxO's testing? Well, it is controversial, and it doesn't include resolution or other camera features or capabilities. One can quibble, but I know of no other reputable testing lab who does as consistent and comprehensive a job as DxO.

I would also point out that there are third party sensor comparisons that corroborate DxO's findings. Here's one such.

Resolution? Well, as you no doubt know the D800/E's sensor is a full frame 36.3 Megapixel CMOS. Again, this makes it the highest resolution sensor in a full frame DSLR. Of course there are 50, 60 and even 80 Megapixel sensors in medium format backs from Hasselblad, Leaf and Phase One, not to mention smaller ones in the Leica S2 and Pentax 645D. But, these are larger sized sensors, and also considerably more expensive, not to mention being unable to match the D800/E's superior high ISO capability and frame rates.

Of course there are higher resolution DSLR sensors in terms of sensel size. A 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor, if scaled up to full frame, would be about 54 Megapixels, and some of these have pretty terrific performance. But the sensor in the D800/E strikes a balance between size and sensitivity that's the new Goldilocks of the industry. And when you combine this with a relatively modest list price of US $3,000, you have what will likely be the camera of the year, if not the decade thus far.

Noise

It didn't take more than a day's intiial shooting to realize that this camera's noise performance was extraordinary. One can read DxOMark or other stats and graphs, but there's nothing like a bit of real-world shooting to tell the tale in a convincing way, one way or the other.

Here's a simple test that anyone can do at home. This is a shot of a bookshelf in my office. It was taken with the D800E and Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO Macro at f/5.6. Focus was via Live View AF then lock-off for all exposures. Heavy tripod, 3 second delay with MLU. Processing in Lightroom 4. No noise reduction

Below are 100% crops from the lower center of the frame. Each shows the basic EXIF data, including ISO, so no need for additional captions. The dark area just to the left of the letter A, seen in the small crop above, measures  about 10% on the ISO 100 frame, just so you have a familar shadow reference. See what you think. (In camera long exposure NR was turned on).

 

You will draw your own conclusions. Mine, based not just on this simple test, but on about 1,000 frames shot over a couple of weeks in differing situations, are as follows...

– From ISO 50 to 1600 it's hard to see any noise, and I wouldn't bother using NR, even at 1600

– At ISO 3200 noise starts to appear, but only on screen at 100%. On prints it's almost invisible

– At ISO 6400 noise is visible on screen, and slightly in prints, but cleans up pretty easily, except for the most demanding situations

– At ISO 12800 noise is an issue, and ISO 25600 is for emergencies only.

This is remarkable performance, that will make most photographers with a background in film think that they've died and gone to heaven. No, it's not the lowest noise perfornance currently available. There are cameras from both Nikon and Canon that have better high ISO performance, but they don't have 36 Megapixle sensors!! It seems that sometimes you indeed can have your cake and eat it to.

More Real World

Nick Waiting for his D800E
Nikon D800 with 85mm f/1.4 @ ISO 6400

So what does all this mean in the real world? Above is a grab shot of my long-siffering colleague and friend Nick, taken at ISO 6400. Not 640, as one might think from the image quality, but ISO 6400. I slide the luminance NR slider a bit to the right for web display at 100%, but in a print no NR would have been necessary. Below is a 100% crop.

I don't know about you, but with high ISO noise performance like this my plan is to simply set the camera in Manual exposure mode, selecting both the shutter speed and aperture needed for a particular scene, and then let the camera automatically ride the ISO between 100 and 6400, as needed.


Getting the Most Out of the D800

I won't belabor the point, but this is a camera that is likely better than you are. By this I mean that unless you excercise first rate shooting technique you will not get the best that this camera is capable of. Medium format camera and back users know this (they'd better, when spending north of $30,000 for a back and body, let alone lenses) but it's not been all that common among 35mm shooters; till now.

This also isn't just about resolution, though at 36 Megapixels we're now in medium format territory. We're also there with the D800E in terms of color sensativity, dynamic range, signal to noise ratio, and tonal range. Great technique is needed to maximize the camera's potential in all of these parameters.

Here than is my recipe for achieving optimum image quality from the D800/E, or any high-end system for that matter.

Focusing Accuracy: Calibrate your camera and lenses using a device like LensAlign. Even then, when possible preferentially us Live View's contrast detection autofocus. It's always more accurate. And to really be sure, use Live View's magnification and a focusing loup on the rear LCD to visually confirm focus.

Use MLU or Release Delay. Mirror lock-up and a wireless remote works well, or use the new release delay feature set at 3 seconds, which locks the mirror up first. Except with the longest lenses, where a longer delay will allow vibration to dampen down, this will work very well.

Use the Best Lenses at the Best Aperture: Glass matters. Really good lenses aren't cheap, but they're worth it if you're after maximum image quality. Also, be aware that each lens has an optimum aperture. This is usually between one and three stops down from maximum aperture. Try to avoid shooting at f/11 or smaller, because lens diffraction will reduce resolution.

Use a large tripod and solid head. Don't skimp on your tripod and head. These aren't sexy, but they'll produce dividends in terms of improved image quality for decades to come. Carbon fiber is preferable because of its freedom from "ringing". These are also lighter weight and more rigid than aluminum. Don't use a center column, it turns your tripod into a monopod.

Use a high enough shutter speed: When shooting hand-held (yes, this is allowed) use at least a shutter speed that is twice the old rule of 1/focal length, and preferably three times. In other words, if you're shooting with a 125mm focal length, use at least 1/250 sec, and preferably 1/500 sec. Better yet, use auto ISO with the second or third fastest auto setting. This is really handy when shooting with zooms, because it automatically tracks the focal length being used and adjusts itself accordingly.

Use the lowest possible ISO: Low ISO isn't just about the best quality signal to noise ratio. It also produces better dynamic range. 

As you can see in this DxOMark graph, each stop of increased ISO speed leads to a one stop decrease in dynamic range. Of course getting the image always comes first, but if you can, stick with ISO 100 – 400 for the best SNR and DR. Noise, as we've seen, just isn't an issue until above ISO 6400.

ETTR: Expose to the right. In other words, keep the histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping, to maximise signal to noise ratio, but it only makes sense to do so at base ISO.

Once again, for clarity, let's be sure that the message I'm trying to convey also has a high enough signal to noise ratio. These are my suggestions for optimizing image quality, not a set of rules, that if broken, mean that there's no point in purchasing or using a Nikon D800/E, as some half-wits on discussion forums have posited these past couple of months. 

If you have a D800/E feel free to shoot with old coke bottles for lenses, tie one hand behind your back, and stand on one foot hand-holding at 1/8 sec @ ISO 12,000. Whatever it takes to get the shot that you want. But, if you follow (when possible) as many of the recommendations above you'll be rewarded with superior image quality. 


Noise and Dynamic Range

I was shooting a resolution test chart on my GTI lightbox when the phone range and a colleague asked if I'd read Fred Miranda's D800 vs. 5D MKIII report, particularly the rather amazing example of opening up the shadows on the D800 at low ISO. Yes, I had, and had been quite amazed. Had I tried this myself. No, not yet, but now that you mention it I would in a few minutes.

Above on the left is my resolution test shot. Exposure was set so that the white on the paper is about 250, just below clipping. The image on the right is the same exposure but with the shadows opened to +100 and the highlights set to -100, in Lightroom 4. The Exposure slider was then set to keep the paper white at about 250.

I should mention that there were only very low lights on in the room, hardly enough to read by when away from the light box.

Above is a 100% crop of the opened up image, with a slight bit of luminance noise reduction added. Frankly, this is knock your socks off amazing. Holy dynamic range Batman, this is extracting a usable clean image from a shot that is underexposed by maybe 5 stops. Lightroom 4 and the D800/E are a marriage made in dynamic range heaven.


But Wait – There's More...

As they say on TV shopping channels, there's more. The D800/E is such a feature-rich camera that if I went through even just the major features this review would double in length, and wouldn't be published till mid-summer. For the sake of completeness though, here are a few of the more salient features not otherwise covered here...

– Battery Life... claimed at 900 Exposures, but this is typical of manufacturer's exaggerated claims. More like 250 – 500, depending on the amount of Live View or Video, chimping, etc. Worth noting is that the battery system is intelligent, showing in real-time the number of frames taken on a charge and the battery age.

– Eye Fi support... I could never get my Eye-Fi card to work with my iPad. Not sure where the problem lies.

– Built in flash that can also act as a trigger for Nikon's intelligent flash system

– Weather sealing and a magnesium alloy body (So far I've shot in heavy rain with the D800E twice. No problem.)

– 200,000 actuation shutter life expectancy (likely quite a bit more in actual use)

– the D800/E uses the same advanced autofocus and metering modules as the $6,000 Nikon D4

– In-camera editing of raw files possible to produce JPGs with different processing characteristics

– Built-in intervalometer for timed sequence shooting

– Built-in time lapse shooting control producing animated HD videos

– In-camera multi-exposure HDR (JPG only)

– Artificial horizon display in Live View, and a level display overlay within the optical viewfinder

– Effective sensor vibration dust prevention. In over 1,000 frames with two bodies I have yet to see a dust spot (with lots of lens changes outdoors)

There's more, but I'm bored with listing features, and frankly I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of all of the camera's features and capabilities. I may not ever get to some of them, because they don't interest me. But the point is that this camera is about as chock-a-block with features as one could want, and for the most part they are really useful features of interest to various types of photographers, and without the useless nonsense that many camera makers use to clutter their control dials and menus.


The Bottom Line

Even a few weeks isn't enough time to get the full measure of as complex and versatile an instrument as the Nikon D800/E. I expect to spend the rest of 2012 working extensively with the D800/E, and it will be the benchmark from now on against which I measure other cameras that cross my desk. In fact, I believe that this camera is so exceptional, in so many ways, that it will force the rest of the camera industry to up its game – big time.

No, it's not perfect. The grip will be found to be too small for some, and the frame rates too slow for others. But other than that, and a few quibbles which I've pointed out above, this is a truly excellent camera. When used casually with ordinary glass it will satisfy just about anyone. When used with meticulous technique and the very best glass it is simply awesome, and I have never used that word in print before in relation to any camera or back. The D800/E really is that good. Just be aware that you'll have to up your game to match it if you want the camera to reach its full potential.

Have fun and produce some great images.

I'd like to thank Henry's Canada for their assistance
in helping me obtain my order for these cameras in a timely manner. 

April, 2012

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