It has been four years since my switch back to Nikon after 8 years with Canon. In mid-2008 I acquired a D300 and D700 to fulfill my DX (1.5x crop) and FX (full frame) shooting needs. In November of that year I added the Nikon D3x for my serious landscape photography. After acquiring the D3x, the D700 served as my low light camera due to its great noise performance up to ISO 3200. These three cameras have served me extremely well for about 4 years but in the world of digital cameras (computers with lenses attached), 4 years is an eternity. When Nikon announced the D4 in late 2011, I wasn’t terribly interested since I was looking for a single camera type to fulfill both my DX and FX shooting needs. The D4 at 16 megapixels is a bit light on resolution for my landscape needs especially since I already have a 24.5 megapixel D3x and in DX crop mode it only provides a bit over 7 megapixels which is a huge step backwards from the 12 megapixels I have in the D300 or the 10 megapixels I have when shooting the D3x in DX crop mode. So I continued to truck on with my D300/D700/D3x combo but I continued hoping for simplification – one camera body type that provides adequate resolution in both FX and DX mode, a single battery type so that I don’t need to carry two chargers, a single user interface, and lighter weight. Of course all of this needs to be packaged in a professional build body.
At the beginning of 2012, Nikon announced the D800 and D800E. This new camera sports over 36 megapixels in FX mode and 15.4 megapixels in DX mode. It is housed in a magnesium alloy camera body and weighs much less than the D3x and about the same as the D700 and D300. This of course piqued my interest so I did a lot of reading and a lot of research and discovered that this camera body would meet my needs if Nikon truly delivered on the specs and the camera performed well in the field. As readers of my writings know, I no longer pre-order anything and prefer not to ever get any gear from the initial production run. Past experiences and nearly 27 years of working in the technology industry has taught me that in the first couple of months of production, a vast number of improvements are made to all electronic products in their manufacturing. Once the initial shipment of cameras from the first production runs were in the hands of photographers and field reports started coming in, I pulled the trigger and ordered both a D800 and a D800E through Nikon Professional Services (NPS) and Hunt’s Photo and Video (Hunt’s is a sponsor of EJPhoto.com and NatureScapes.net). For those unfamiliar, NPS allows qualified NPS members to order gear through an authorized retailer such as Hunt’s and NPS simultaneously. NPS then allocates to the retailer a camera specifically for that NPS member. It may seem unfair to non-NPS members but this is one of the perks of being a Nikon sponsored professional photographer and it gets new gear in the hands of Nikon pros immediately. The NPS member basically jumps to the head of the line. In this case, even though these cameras are backordered for months, I was able to get each in about a week and a half including shipment from NY to Massachusetts and then on to me in Arizona.
The D800 and D800E are identical in every way except for the sensor filter. One uses a traditional anti-aliasing filter; the other has a filter that eliminates the slight blurring effects of anti-aliasing. One of the benefits of an AA filter is that it eliminates moiré pattern noise and false color but at the expense of softening fine detail. Moiré occurs when there is an interaction between the pattern being photographed and the pixel spacing on the sensor. If one spent a lot of time photographing things with fine repeated pattern such as fabric, this could be a significant problem. In nature, this is generally not an issue for landscapes but has the potential of being a problem in fine, evenly spaced, feather detail on birds. My D800, the camera with the AA filter, will likely spend much of its life in 1.2x crop or DX crop mode and be used for bird photography. My D800E will spend much of its life in FX mode for my landscape photography. Since the cameras are identical in every other way, my desire for a high megapixel landscape camera and a great cropped body all in one has finally been achieved. This allows me to simplify my photography life significantly while lowering weight. The camera supports both CF and SD cards. In another simplification move, I have decided to shoot this camera using SD cards rather than CF cards allowing me to leave a card reader at home since my MacBook Air has an SD card reader built in.
How does the D800 perform? So far so good! There are a number of things that stand out:
- I love the availability of the new 1.2x crop mode. This allows me to still get a 25 megapixel photo (slightly more resolution than a D3x) but without using the outer edges of the lens, which is generally the weakest, part optically. Additionally this keeps the file size reasonable and similar to the D3x. 1.2x mode also increases the frame rate from 4 FPS to 5 FPS even without the optional MB-D12 battery grip. The 1.2 form factor is reasonably close to the much loved Canon 1.3x APS-H mode. There is also a 5:4 ratio crop available like previous FX Nikon bodies which is an excellent landscape photography format.
- I absolutely love having an automatic sensor cleaner which the D3x lacked. This solves what is probably the D3x’s single largest problem for someone living in the desert. The sensor is very dirt prone and extremely difficult to clean due to the sensor chamber’s construction on that camera.
- Image noise is amazing given the number of pixels and to my surprise; the dynamic range is better than any of my three previous cameras. The ability to recover shadow detail without introducing undesirable artifacts such as banding, blotching, or color noise is like no other camera I have used. This is of course due to the class leading dynamic range and the awesome job Sony has done in dropping the noise levels in their sensor technology. Yes, the D800 uses a Sony image sensor (like many Nikon cameras)!
- Autofocus is better than my previous cameras and at least as good, if not better than the D3s. This is not surprising since the D800 shares the AF system of the D4. I tested autofocus acquisition on an f/6.7 lens combination (500mm + 1.7x) to see if Nikon truly improved AF at apertures smaller than f/5.6 or if it is just marketing hype since Canon no longer supports AF on lenses slower than f/5.6. I used a low contrast target in low light and compared performance between the D3x and the D800 and, to my surprise, the D800 focused immediately and positively while the D3x hunted a bit before confirming focus. The D300 was unable to focus on the target in my test scenario. There is most definitely a measurable difference in low light, small aperture AF performance.
- On past Nikon bodies, the exposure delay function when used with mirror lock-up only allowed you only a 1 second delay between the mirror flipping up and the image being taken. This was simply not enough time to always allow mirror vibrations to dampen. With the D800 and its super high resolution, mirror vibration becomes a big problem so it is great that Nikon now allows up to a 3 second delay between the mirror coming up and the shutter going off. Of course with a cable release or Live View you can have any delay you want. From a simplification standpoint, I prefer to not use a cable release. My standard shooting method for landscapes is to set the camera for mirror lock-up and shutter delay. Now that delay is set to 3 seconds on my D800E.
- Live view has also been improved. One now can look at a histogram prior to committing the exposure, have a virtual horizon display and level overlayed, and have face detection available for up to 32 faces simultaneously. There are new contrast detect autofocus modes and the balky AF mode where the mirror first has to swing into position is gone. There is a plethora of information available before you ever take the shot. This is how live view should be! I will clearly use it much more after virtually never using it in previous iterations. There are some grumblings about live view’s performance with manual focus lenses; specifically, because Nikon automatically stops down the lenses to the shooting aperture for live view, in low light situations this results in a noisy and pixelated live view image that isn’t as easy to manually focus as it should be.
- Auto ISO has been revamped from a cumbersome experience to one that works. You can even have the camera decide the slowest shutter speed at which it starts to ramp ISO based on the focal length in use. Even this function can be customized to be faster or slower than the traditional 1/focal length hand holding shutter speed. I would recommend, due to the high sensor resolution, to use something faster than 1/focal length. This function even works with zoom lenses, changing the longest shutter speed allowed based on the current zoom level.
- The camera gains a dedicated Bracket button like the D3/D4 series rather than having to use a customizable function button for auto bracketing like the D300 and D700.
- Another nice addition is that the in viewfinder level now measures both roll and pitch where previous iterations only showed pitch (pitch is fore/aft, roll is tilt left/right, yaw is pan left/right). However the display is not lit so in low light situations, the viewfinder level is not easy to see. My previous cameras only measured on the roll axis but it was very easy to see in all lighting conditions. Hitting the shutter button lights them up temporarily.
- A built in HDR function is now also available. The camera takes two shots when you push the shutter release button at an exposure differential of your choosing or you can let the camera automatically decide on the exposure differential based on the brightest and darkest parts of the scene. It actually works very well and does a decent job even when set to Auto. One can also specify up to 3 stops exposure differential between the two photos it uses for tone mapping the image. Unfortunately the HDR mode does not work for RAW capture. One has to choose JPEG or TIFF file capture to utilize this function. It is nice to have it available though especially if you will only have a very short interval in which to capture the HDR image.
- The way interval shooting is done has been revamped from a confusing mess to something much more intuitive. The camera can now also generate a movie from interval shots automatically.
- Build quality is exceptional. It feels like a solid tool with excellent workmanship all around. The MB-D12 accessory grip, while plastic, is also well built. One note, if you already have a tripod mounting plate for an MB-D10 (vertical battery grip for the D300 and D700), you may not need to buy a new one for the MB-D12. The MB-D10 plate from Really Right Stuff fits perfectly on the MB-D12.
- Finally, I love the charger. Previous Nikon chargers required a power cord. This one can either be used either with a power cord or with a clip on standard plug so that the charger hooks directly to the wall (similar to many Apple products). This saves you from packing yet another cord. Simplification without losing functionality is always better!
Lens calibration was performed on all of my lenses with both bodies. All of my lenses calibrated within 0 and +4 on the D800 and between -4 and +2 on the D800E, which is a much lower adjustment amount than was required on my previous cameras. Even with the 1.4x II on the 500mm f/4, a combination that is notorious for requiring extreme adjustments, often beyond the adjustment range built into the camera, only a +5 adjustment was needed on one body and +2 on the other. On the other hand, the 200-400mm f/4 lens with the 1.7x teleconverter could not be calibrated within the adjustment range available on either camera. Even at -20, it is not yet focused properly. Something in the neighborhood of at least -30 would be needed. In the default position of 0, the combination is completely unusable from an AF perspective. Fortunately, I never use this combination since, even when perfectly calibrated, the sharpness is below my personal standards. Note that these values are for my lenses and my cameras and cannot be used on any other lens and camera even of the same type.
There are also a ton of video features and in-camera image processing features that interest me a lot less than the still photography capabilities. The major change from the D300s and D3s is the inclusion of 1080p video and the availability of uncompressed video out when utilizing HDMI tethering. I now have true, high quality HD movie capability – let’s see if I actually ever use that!
The question about the D800’s 36 megapixel sensor’s noise performance is bound to be on the reader’s mind. When you view images at 100% it is much better than I expected but not as good as the D700 and significantly noisier than the D3s. But when you normalize to a specific size then it is exceptional. Let me explain what I mean! Let’s say I need an output of a 9×14 print at 300 pixels per inch. This is roughly the native resolution of a D700 or D3/D3s. However when you print a D800 photo at this resolution you are down sampling the image by about 1.5x per side thereby binning 2.25 pixels for each one that is printed. This roughly halves the noise resulting in an image nearly as clean. But lets say you have to make a 20×30 print at 300ppi. The D800 image only needs to upscaled by 1.5x per side meaning that almost 50% of the printed pixels are original pixels from the camera. The D3/D700 image needs to be upscaled by more than 2x per side meaning that more than 75% of the pixels in the print are manufactured from the original pixels. Which one will look better, all else equal? Clearly the D800! The D800 even has a significant advantage compared to the D3x in this regard and that’s before you factor in the D800’s better dynamic range, which means better shadow detail.
The spectacular image quality that the D800 and D800E can deliver has been talked about a lot on the Internet and the traditional review sites as well as by many bloggers around the world. At the moment there is no other 35mm format camera that delivers the detail or dynamic range of the these cameras. The amount of detail captured and the amount of shadow detail that can be extracted without excessive noise is like nothing we have seen before. But how do these two compare to each other? Nikon markets the D800E as a specialized version of the D800 for those that do not shoot things prone to moiré color artifacts. I decided to put the two to the test to see how much I need to be concerned with this. But before I reveal the tests results, I wanted to mention how incredibly sharp images straight out of the camera on the D800E are. I have been missing the days of the original EOS 1D and Nikon D100 where pictures coming out of the camera were dead sharp without the need for capture sharpening to counteract the effects of aggressive AA filters and aggressive detail smearing noise reduction. When you look at D800E images, even at 100%, you get a very sharp rendering and none or almost no capture sharpening is required. The images just put a smile on your face when you first open them in ACR, Lightroom or Photoshop and zoom in to 100%. The D800 images by comparison, while delivering an incredible amount of detail; more than we have ever seen before, still need that small shot of capture sharpening to try to regain the acuity lost due to the AA filter. The difference is more visible the more you zoom in on fine detail.
Much has been said and written about the possibility of moiré interference artifacts when there is no AA filter. In fact Nikon probably created more hype about this than necessary in their own warnings about the D800E. Moiré interference is best illustrated graphically. In real world photography, this can lead to strange color artifacts on photos where there is interference between the pixel array and the subject. It is most likely to occur when photographing things with fine repeated patterns such as the texture in fabrics. I set out to try to find this in photographs with the D800E and compare it to identical photos with the D800. I was able to produce moiré with the D800E in almost every photo that includes very small text such as a regulatory sign that is in the distance. While the D800 displays much less of this, it also smears the detail enough on those signs that the text can’t be read without some significant small radius sharpening if at all while it can be clearly read on the D800E.
There has also been quite a bit of debate on the various bird photography forums whether or not bird feathers can produce moiré interference that is visible in photographs. I set out to test this by photographing feathers with both cameras under identical conditions. The only difference in the test shots was the camera body. Exposure, lens, and focal lengths were all identical. I can now, without a shadow of a doubt say that moiré can be an issue on bird feathers on the D800E while it is not on the D800. In the two 100% clips below, green and magenta moiré patterns are clearly visible on the D800E sample and are not on the D800 sample. The clips represent just 0.2% of the full frame It is most evident in the lighter colored feather pattern just to the left of the spine on the D800E imagewhere green and magenta interference is visible:
Additionally, note that the D800 resolves feather detail all the way to the left edge of the feather where the D800 does not. Some of this can be regained by sharpening the D800 image but not all of it can. While I do not think the moiré interference seen here will be a problem for most bird photographs, I do think it can be an issue on close-up photos of birds that reveal a lot of feather detail. Fortunately, Adobe has built in a new Moiré Reduction tool into both the Lightroom 4 Develop module and Photoshop CS6’s Camera Raw 7. However, this is an extra, time-consuming step that would need to be taken on each image that has an issue in the digital darkroom.
Below are two 100% pixel level clips from an ISO 12233 resolution test chart. The top is the D800 and the bottom is the D800E. If one looks very carefully, the lack of color artifacts on the D800 clip and the slight color fringing on the D800E clip are apparent. This is the result of not having an AA filter:
My test chart shots were all done with the very sharp AF-S 300mm f/4 lens at f/5.6. This is the first camera/lens combination I have ever tested where the combination significantly outresolved the finest detail of the test chart. I can’t, therefore, quantify the true resolution difference between the two. Qualitatively it is clear that the D800E produces fine detail that is slightly more crisp than the D800 as illustrated in the feather clips above.
The following are areas of improvement that I have found:
- I can’t go over 6 frames per second and 6 FPS is only available when I use the MB-D12 vertical grip with AA batteries. In actuality it seems that Nikon rounded up a bit here. I thoroughly tested the FPS and under no circumstance can I get more than 5.7 frames per second using freshly charged 2700mAH AA batteries in the grip. My D300 and D700 were capable of 8 FPS with the MB-D10 grip attached. Perhaps, with the EN-EL18 battery pack from the D4, one could hope for maybe 0.2-0.3 FPS more. In 1.2x crop mode, the camera delivered precisely the 5 FPS that is specified. I opted to not get the module that allows you to use a D4 battery in the grip since that adds a huge and very expensive charger ($400 for the charger alone and another $200 for the battery and battery endplate). This would return me to two different types of batteries without really adding to the performance of the camera (although battery life would be longer). Since I already have to carry an AA charger for my flash batteries, using the MB-D12 with AA batteries does not add complexity when I travel. I am not and have never been a “machine gun” shooter and typically limited even those cameras capable of 10 FPS to something slower so this isn’t a huge deal for me but it would be nice to have the capability on those rare occasions when a higher frame rate would be beneficial.
- High ISO noise at 100% pixel level view could be better but, as I explained above, it is actually much better than I expected so this isn’t a disappointment to me in any way. I’m just wishing for the stars. ISO 1600 is still relatively clean – much cleaner than the D300 and still cleaner than the D3x. And when down-sampled for something like an 8×12 print, it is quite good; on par with the D700/D3.
- The third “area of improvement” is battery life, which seems about 50% to 67% of what the D300/D700 was. It provides much less than half the shots per charge of the larger battery in the D3x. The drop from the D300/D700 is partly due to new Japanese Lithium Ion battery construction rules. Ironically, the new batteries have already faced a recall due to the possibility of internal shorting resulting in the batteries exploding and damaging the camera. Fortunately I did not receive the recalled batteries but at the time of this writing, these batteries are under an extreme shortage and even NPS members cannot get spares easily.
- I don’t like the layout of the on screen menus. While this has improved somewhat, the menus are still often a mixture of items that aren’t logically grouped and don’t always have the functionality one expects. Sure, the Shooting Menu, Playback Menu, Custom Functions Menu and so forth are grouped but the items within those menus are not always logically laid out. Items that most photographers use often and are related to each other should be grouped together and near the top while items that are used once or infrequently should be relegated to the bottom. If this is too hard to do, simply alphabetize them but the current state of affairs simply requires too much hunting for various functions. Furthermore, as in previous models, the shooting banks are separated between regular menu selection items and custom functions. Why would they be different? One should be able to select a single bank and have the camera instantly reconfigure like every other camera manufacturer does. To add insult to injury, the shooting banks are automatically updated if you make a change any camera setting while shooting. So there is no true way to configure a camera, save it to a shooting bank and have that locked down until you forcibly change the programming of those banks. This is truly a brain dead way of implementing shooting banks making them essentially useless unless you never make camera configuration changes during a shoot. Fortunately Nikon gives you the option of making a custom menu for the things you use most but the way shooting banks are implemented should really be made more useful.
- A modern feature that I wish the camera would have that it doesn’t have is focus peaking in live view mode. Once you have seen how amazing this capability is, you will wish that all cameras had it. Some cameras, such as the Sony NEX and A77 systems have this capability. Basically what this does is to put a bright outline on the LCD display around high contrast edges that are critically in focus. This makes manual focusing, seeing what is critically sharp from a depth of field standpoint, or making sure what the AF system is actually focusing on super easy and makes it virtually impossible to mis-focus a photograph involving a stationary subject. I would love to see this in a firmware update in the future but I am not holding my breath since this would require significant additional code.
- While we are on Autofocus, the contrast detect autofocus method used in live view is slower than contrast detect AF in most mirrorless interchangeable lens system cameras such as those in the Micro 4/3 genre from Panasonic and Olympus. It isn’t a problem for me since I would never use this type of AF for action but it could be better. Note, however, that contrast detect focus accuracy is absolute since the data for it is taken directly off of the sensor, rather than off of a phase detection array that must be carefully calibrated and is subject to a number of critical tolerences.
- Like most full frame cameras, as an eyeglasses wearer, I wish for a longer eye-relief so that the full viewfinder and image can be seen without having to smash your face into your glasses to get your eyeball close enough or having to move your head around. Utilizing the 1.2x crop alleviates this but I would gladly take a camera whose prism is a quarter inch taller to get more eye relief so that the full viewfinder can easily be seen even with eyeglasses. Note that the D800 isn’t worse than other low profile full-frame cameras like the D700 or EOS 5D models, but it is slightly worse than the large bodies like the D3, D4, and EOS 1Ds models.
- There is apparently a firmware bug or a circuit timing issue that affects some D800 and D4 cameras that cause a sudden lock-up. The lock-up can only be cleared by removing the battery from the camera. While this seems like a big deal, I have seen this sort of thing happen on virtually every digital camera body that I have ever used at one time or another. It has not occurred on either of my bodies to date. For people that have this happen a lot, one can eliminate the problem by turning off the blinking highlights and RGB histogram displays. Unfortunately these are two of the most useful things one can display on the rear LCD. Since this doesn’t happen on the majority of the bodies, yet can be toggled by a menu option indicates to me that there is an interaction between the code and something electronic that can happen in certain regimes. My past history in the semiconductor industry has me theorizing that there is a circuit timing issue that can pop up somewhere in the camera based on certain component tolerances interacting with timing requirements in the firmware code. Nikon should be able to solve this with a firmware patch.
- As stated earlier, the viewfinder based level for pitch and roll are black bars overlayed on the image and are very difficult to see in low light and impossible to see if the image behind the level indicators is black. However, bumping the shutter release lights them up momentarily. This is linked to the crop mode display, which is my biggest complaint on the D800…
- Finally, my single biggest issue with the D800/D800E is that when you select a cropped mode, the lighted frame that indicates the new crop area in the viewfinder only stays on for a fraction of a second if you choose to enable the custom function that illuminates the autofocus points. You have to constantly bump the shutter button to clearly see where the edges of the frame are when shooting in anything other than FX mode. You can get a very nice grayed out frame if you turn off AF point illumination via a custom function but this comes at the cost of not being able to see your selected autofocus points in low light or if the underlying image is dark. I much prefer how my D3x did this – these cameras gray the inactive part of the viewfinder while allowing illuminated autofocus points. I would like an additional option added to the firmware that does this. I have decided to set-up my landscape camera (D800E) with illuminated AF points since I can work slower and more methodically and am often working in very low light. My D800, which will primarily be used for wildlife, is set-up to gray out the unused image borders when selecting a crop mode since it is way too difficult in the heat of action to insure that your subject is fully in the frame when the whole viewfinder, including the cropped areas, are the same tonality as those areas that are in the frame.
Overall I am very happy with the switch to the D800 and D800E so far. All cameras have things that could be implemented better and the D800/D800E is no exception but for me, the this is the best tool I have found as it meets the vast majority of my needs in a single camera body type. The amount of detail in photos from this camera is like no other camera I have ever used. I was skeptical about packing this many pixels in a 35mm frame and how good those pixels would be. In short, they are remarkable. I am also happy that I decided to get a D800 for my bird photography, not a D800E since I feared moiré on bird feathers and I was easily able to see it on my feather test shots. I have not been able to find any sign of moiré on landscape shots taken with the D800E while producing slightly more fine detail. This makes me feel good that I chose that camera for my landscape photography. The lenses I am using with these new bodies are the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8 VR2, 200-400 f/4 VR, 500mm f/4 VR, and Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS Macro. Depending on how the new 28mm f/1.8 looks for corner sharpness, I may add it for low light night photography. If not the 28 f/1.8G, perhaps the 35mm f/1.4G which is simply the most mind blowingly sharp wide angle lens in the Nikon line-up and easily the sharpest autofocus wide angle lens ever made for the 35mm format but it comes at a very steep price. I now only have to travel with two cameras. They are lighter in weight and require fewer support components while producing more detailed photographs.