The Intro Bit......
It’s taken me a while to do this, mainly due to other ongoing projects (which you can read at the end of the epic) but here finally are my thoughts on the Nikon D800. It’s not a review, there are many of those on the web with in depth analysis of all the features, close ups of clocks and million percent crops to show atoms of noise. I’m not a lab tester, I am a working professional and I know what is acceptable for image quality and what isn’t. So for my musings here all I did was to take the D800 out and use it, I mean hardly earth shattering right? I didn’t cover every feature because most I would not use in a month of Sundays, even if I were marooned on a desert island with Take That for company. And trust me at that point I’d be reaching for the D800 manual for intellectual conversation.
Firstly you should know that I pay for all of my equipment. Nikon are not the kind of company to give out free equipment unfortunately, I know for a fact that other companies would look after me with all my gear, but for Nikon I have to buy it. The other day I wedged out for a 300mm f2.8, it half near killed me but I needed it for safari so it was a no brainer. So D800 I am using was sent to me for evaluation for a month to see if it suited my needs for a second body to the D4. Considering the financial constraints I mention above, I have to be careful with all purchases, and a new D4 would mean I can’t get a new Skoda (that’s a joke by the way, I would rather walk than be seen dead in one). Seriously it would be a huge purchase for me, hence the interest in trying out the D800 as a second body. Allegedly it has the same feature set as the D4, with a few exceptions of course, and I it was these that I was keen to try. So why am I telling you this? Simply because I want to be honest with everything to my fans and it’s important that you know the man with the receding hairstyle behind the dodgy images!
Also a couple of other things. There will be no comparisons with Canon cameras, what a waste of space and time that is! You aren’t going to change from Canon to Nikon or the other way just because of one camera review are you? No, because there is a lot more to it than that (yes I changed but there are more complex reasons, see later). Besides gone are the days when Canon produced dodgy cameras, they are good now so stay where you are! Ok let’s get on with it.
When Nikon released the D3 they soon released the much cheaper D700, which had a slower buffer and frame rate, but the same AF, IQ and exposure system. I bought one as a companion for my D3 and loved it, in fact it’s still my underwater camera. They skipped this idea with the D3s (the D300 was not a cut down model) and I am glad to see that they have returned to the idea with the D4 and the D800. The difference is that whilst the D800 has a slower frame rate, it delivers a whoppingly huge mega image size, so in some ways it’s the equal of the D4. In fact you can think of them like a couple of squabbling children, mine is bigger than yours and all that. Well it isn’t, mine’s the biggest so be quiet you two! Anyway where was I, oh yes the D800.
For the geeks, D800, 600mm lens, 1/640th at f4, ISO 800, precariously balanced on a beanbag filled with edible yummies
So in a nutshell, the D800 has the same new AF system as the D4, full HD movie capability (which can be output as uncompressed media should you want to make Andy Rouse The Movie), dual media slots (one SD and one CF), plus the usual other gubbins. The huge difference is the whopping 36.3 MegaPixel sensor, which delivers an 8 bit TIF of 103 MB! Of course many of you will wonder why you need this size of image and I have some interesting ways of utilising this based on my tests so read on. To summarise (so that you can go off and get into your rubber duck suit or whatever you all do in your spare time), I found nothing wrong with the D800, it worked as expected and delivered files as expected. There you go, the shortest review in history. What, uh, you want more......ok you asked for it.
In the hand
Like all things in my hand the D800 felt so good. It was slightly light for my taste as I am used to the weightlifting familiarity of the D4 (hah, fooled you, thought I was being rude and naughty didn’t you!). Nothing much has changed on the outside I suspect, the buttons are all well thought out. As a D4 user I am used to the ISO button being at the bottom where I can see it, rather than out of sight on the top; this resulted in me regularly changing the quality and setting up bracketing. Lovely when you wanted to do that, all I wanted was to change the chuffing ISO. Of course it’s the same design as all the predecessors in the range so it’s not the D800’s fault, but I have a pack of rabid wild dogs on hand to track down whoever designed that layout! Be warned, I am coming for you. I will track you forever.
Apart from my pointless gripe about this there is nothing much different about the D800. Oh, one neat thing I nearly forgot, in the viewfinder now there is a very subtle inclusion of the virtual horizon; it takes some getting used to but is a very well thought out and overlooked feature in ALL the reviews. I used it A LOT to get the D800 level but then again England are playing in the Euros and my only solace is cider so that explains my wonky horizons.
Back in the day, I bought the Nikon D3x, which at 24 MP, produced an 8 bit TIF of 72MB. It was a pretty slow camera, 2 fps if the wind was blowing in the right direction, and it’s noise capabilities were nowhere near the D3s. So much so that I never shot it above ISO 200. This proved to be a severe limitation and eventually prevented me using it as a second camera body, hence I was interested to see how the D800 performed in this area.
The doubters have already had their say on the internet about the D800 ( thanks @FakeChuck, you are awesome if a little bit misguided). Well my friends, I can confirm that the D800 exhibits a superb noise performance. At low ISO, which I consider at 640 and below, there is simply no noise in the subject areas or the background. None. Of course noise increases with ISO but I shot the one below at ISO 1600 AFTER THE SUN HAD SET
(check the reflection of the horizon in the eye) and the performance was excellent. Very sharp and no noise, not even in the dark, dingy pits of hell that exist at the edges of my depravity.....
For the geeks, D800, 600mm lens, 1/60th at f4, ISO 1600, precariously balanced on a beanbag
Now again well after sunset and it a very gloomy spot, this time to ISO 2000. Just lovely. All I expect a camera to do is to perform the impossible and give me saleable images in all situations, it did.
For the geeks, D800, 600mm lens, 1/640th at f4, ISO 2000, 1.2x aspect ratio crop mode jobbie, precariously balanced on a beanbag
Certainly I would have no hesitation in publishing the images from the D800. I cannot say whether it was on a par with the D4, as it’s a pointless argument anyway, but if the D800 was the only camera I had I would be perfectly satisfied with the performance at high iso. End of argument there, no need to waffle on for pages on this, it works. Smile at the pictures, cute aren’t they....like me in my younger years, ah yes the memories......
On the subject of D800 sharpness, one D800 knocker spoke to me at Focus, spreading rumours that the D800 images would all be out of focus due to the file size. I have noted other reviewers suggesting that at low shutter speeds the D800 images are not sharp, all I can say is check the hare image at 1/60th second, put that in your pipe and schmoke it baby. I always try to shoot at high shutter speeds anyway and did not find any issues outside of what I would normally expect. My images were razor where I expected them to be, when the light dropped I raised the ISO accordingly to keep the shutter speed up. That’s what a pro does, compensates and adapts.
A lot has been written about the D800 being solely for bearded landscapers and architectural types with perpetually cricked necks. You know I sometimes wonder if the people that write this stuff are actually photographers or just technical writers who just read books instead of talking to girls.
The problem is that the D800 is it’s own worst enemy, no one can believe that the resolution that it produces comes without problems. And it is phenomenal, in full frame FX mode it produces a 7360 x 4912 pixel file, which equates to 60 cm on the longest side or a 103.45 MB 8 bit TIF. I got more excited saying that than I did at the last Kylie concert...and trust me I was in a right state after that. In anyone’s language, the D800 produces a huge file, hence the perception that this will be useless to anyone that doesn’t use medium format. That has about as much truth in it as the statement from Alladyce that "West Ham will be pushing for Europe next season”. The closest we will get to Europe will be the training camp in Torremelinos.
In my opinion this huge file size is an incredible bonus for any creative photographer, as it gives us the ability to really control how we want the image to look. If you want a big print, then you have one! For me however all I want is a 50 MB file for my agents, so you might think that the remaining 50MB is a waste of storage that I don’t need? No, far from it...let me try to explain. With the D4 I get a 50 MB file from the camera. If I want to crop in to the image, perhaps to improve the composition and balance of the image, or simply to increase the visual impact, then this 50 MB rapidly reduces. All too easily I get a 30MB file, which I then have to re-interpolate up to 50 MB using Photoshop. A right pain, time consuming and you lose a tiny bot of quality everytime (although I have been really impressed with the D4 files in this respect). With the D800 though, as I found with the D3x, I can crop right into the image and still be well above the 50 MB size. That means I do not lose any quality when I am being creative with the image; so having the large file size of the D800 allows me to be very creative. So if you are one of those photographers who crops into the tiniest part of the frame to show how close that you got to something that was 4.5 miles away, the D800 is the one for you.
Another thinking photographer’s benefit of the D800 is that it allows me to act like I am shooting with a much bigger lens. Consider this. If I shoot with a 500mm lens to get a 103 MB TIF, then crop this by 50%, I will get the same image that I would have done with a 1000mm lens. So it means I could shoot an owl with a 300mm lens, crop in so that it was the same as I could have shot with a 600mm lens, yet still be above the 50 MB limit that I need! Of course you might say that I could achieve the same with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter, but they are a very poor solution as they cut down the light, AF speed and general quality of the image. Cropping the image taken through a single lens is the way forward I think to preserve every ounce of detail.
The benefits of this fall beyond any tech manual. I can hand-hold a 300mm lens and get nearly the same image as with a heavy 600mm on a tripod. Of course the effect given by the two lenses are slightly different, none the less the principle is sound. It is certainly giving me some thoughts for my forthcoming safari.
Of course the above may sound like a real chore and you might simply just want to get a little closer to your subject without all the hassle of post processing. Well for the first time the Image Area / Aspect Ratio function of a Nikon DSLR becomes very interesting to me and I used it increasingly during the test. By default the D800 is a full frame DSLR, but using the FN button on the camera I can set aspect ratios of 1.2x and 1.5x respectively. Using my 600mm lens as an example, 1.2x would give me the same image as a 720mm lens and the 1.5x as a 900mm lens. Here’s an example showing the FX and DX crops, quite a difference isn’t it?
Now this is not something new for the D800, it’s the same for all Nikon DSLRs. The difference here is that the D800 filesize is so huge that cropping it like this still leaves a very decent filesize. The 1.2x crop produces an image with a file size of 77MB, whilst the 1.5x produces 49 MB. Both of these are awesome sizes to get from the D800, as all are achieved by using the lens only, at its maximum aperture and without any degradation caused by converters. It’s a definite bonus and they really extend the capabilities of the wildlife and sports photographer; I have always been jealous of the cropped sensor crowd for extra reach, well now I have it.
To be truthful I did not test the AF capabilities as fully as I did with the D4. The problem for me is the frame per second rate of the D800, 4-5 fps, which is low compared with the rocket like speed of the D4 that I am now used to. With the high action photography that I have been doing this weekend it just did not compare to the D4 and, to be honest, why would it. The D800 has to ship a damn large file around, so at 4 fps it’s doing a great job I think. I did test it though in a very difficult backlit situation, against a very distracting background. Here you can see the result:
For the geeks, D800, 600mm lens with 1.4x converter, 1/1250th at f7.1, ISO 640, precariously balanced on a beanbag whilst I was a tree!
As you see the barn owl is rock sharp and only fills a small part of the frame. Actually I have cropped this slightly from the original so it is even wider. Still, with a single AF point selected and continuous AF, it tracked the barn owl as it was hunting across the field. Yes it lost it a couple of times, but I managed to get it re-acquired quickly. Not a definitive test I know but it gave me the confidence that it could handle tricky AF.
Of course I tested the AF system a lot with more static subjects, the hit rate was comparable with the D4 that was sitting next to it. Here’s a sharp little chap:
For the geeks, D800, 600mm lens, LH image - 1/800th at f5.6, ISO 640, RH image - 1/400th at f4, ISO 1250, on a car mount that is a crime against manufacturing
I often shoot with two different systems at once from the car and this time was no exception, although the D800 was being used mainly for video.....talking of which.....
HD Video Capabilities
I had heard that the video of the D800 was exceptionally good and so I shot at least 50 movie clips with it. Of course with any DSLR this is a trial of patience (see below) but I have to say that the video output from the D800 is excellent across the ISO range. I did have some videos to upload but I’m currently fighting with the Vimeo settings that don’t support the codec I used from FCP, see what I mean about a learning curve. I’ll upload a few over the next week anyway. Video might not be a big deal for you yet, but video is becoming increasingly important and for me it really counts. I didn’t test any of the tracking autofocus options in video mode, in my opinion dslr video is hopeless at this no matter who the camera manufacturer is and I just concentrated on statics. But I can say that the video quality is really excellent, by far the best that Nikon have ever produced (along with the D4 of course).
Size does matter darling
One point you really need to consider is the size of the files that the D800 produces. The NEFs are 33MB, that is a huge RAW. This means you will need bigger CF / SD cards to get a decent capacity for a single or multi day shoot. It also means that you will need a decent MAC or dinosaur (PC) to process them and extra external storage for them. It’s a point that is rarely mentioned but one worth thinking about.
The Bottom Line
So now you are going to ask me two questions, should you get one and will I be getting one? To answer the first question, ask yourself why you need it? If you like what I have said about being more creative whilst retaining filesize, or you simply need the bigger file, then the D800 is a great camera for you. In fact it’s a very versatile camera, really delivering on all fronts, according to my limited tests anyway. If you are an existing Nikon owner, perhaps with a D300s, a D7000 or even a D3, then upgrading will be a great idea if you cannot stump up for the D4. I would probably get a battery grip too, it will help the balance and you get much longer life with the two batteries.
No doubt some of you will be wondering what is the point then of the D4? It’s simply capture speed and frame rate, plus a more robust and water-resistant body (I can see the hate mail from Nikon Service already being written to me after saying that!!!). Being able to shoot at 11 fps, with a virtually buffer-less XQD card is awesome. In my view, this is the only reason to get the D4, if you don’t need that then the D800 is the tool for you.
I think that the D800 is a major leap forward for Nikon and supercedes all other Nikon DSLRs available today....except the D4 of course.
Buying the D800
It’s taken me some time to put all this together so do me a favour, if you are buying a D800 please use link below
to get it from the award winning Wex Photographic. Great service, great prices and the knowledge that you can actually call someone for help and advice. I get a few shekkels from each sale, perhaps an old shoe or even a camel, and it all helps to keep me doing this.
Just click the logo below and you will be taken straight to the Wex Photographic page for the D800, don’t forget to add the battery pack too and get a decent sized CF card (recommended 32 GB) whilst you are at it!
A crossroads for me.....
The question to whether I will get one or not is a difficult one for me to answer at present. As I have said above, this evaluation D800 must go back soon and I will have to stump up the cash if I want one. Right now I am making a lot of decisions in my business for the future so am not really sure what my needs are. Most of you will know that I have been shooting a lot of movie, learning all the techniques and editing too. This is a long journey and I will write a separate BLOG about that sometime soon. One thing I am assessing is whether the DSLR can actually shoot wildlife video, or whether the AF limitations make it too difficult. If this happens then it changes the game for me as I will need a top end HD camera for my movie work. I have no doubt that movie will form part of what I do in the future, I really enjoying doing it alongside my stills. Of course a lot of people wonder why I am doing it, trust me all will be revealed in a few months but for now let’s just say that it will greatly benefit all of those who follow my work and learn from me. It will allow me to give much more back too, which is something that I want to do.
Photography is a business to professionals, and all decisions are purely for the business and not emotional. I don’t use a Nikon D4 because I love it, I don’t polish it every night and I don’t take it on holiday with me. It’s a tool and it sits packed away until I need it. Right now I feel it’s the best tool for the job, hence I use it to give me an edge. I am not one of these social media professionals, with huge followings that don’t sell any images. I’m a traditional wildlife photographer, I make a large proportion of my income from selling pictures and that is something that I need to continue in order to keep respect for myself. When I changed from Canon to Nikon, it was purely a business decision to use the best tool at the time, the D3. Right now I think that the best tool for the job is the Nikon D4 so I use that, hence a second D4 or a D800 makes sense in every way except financial! As I said above I am at a crossroads in my career here and am assessing what I need to go forward, combining movie and stills into my workflow. If I can do everything in one place, the DSLR, then obviously I will stay with Nikon and the D4. If however I decide that I need to use an XF300, 1D C or the c300 for my video work, and I need to use EF lenses, then the business case to change systems will be strong. That is why I am shooting the rest of the summer with a mixture of video and dslr, to see where it takes me. I have many avenues open to me and I am taking time to work out which direction is best for the business and the kind of lifestyle that I enjoy. As always I’ll keep you all informed and hope that you will follow me on the journey, these are certainly exciting times!