I wrote this piece for Outdoor Photography after they arranged the loan of one for me to review. If you want to see more pictures, I’m afraid that you’ll have to wait until the article is published in the magazine in a couple of month’s time.
The Nikon D800 has been long anticipated and much hyped. Niall Benvie has used one on assignments recently to see if it matched expectations.
Nikon’s D3 (and its more compact version, the D700) was the first digital SLR that allowed photographers to use very high ISO settings without noise degrading the image to any great degree. As such, it had a profound effect on the way we could work, from shooting action in low light to simply dispensing with a tripod more of often. For once, the hype was merited: the D3 was a real game changer.
The replacement for the D3/D700 has been a long time in coming, with the launch of the D4 and D800 hindered by damage to their manufacturing plant by the 2011 tsunami. Early rumours suggesting a sensor in excess of 30 MP seemed improbable; why would the company take a backwards step in the noise stakes by trying to cram as many pixels onto a relatively small sensor (the camera has a “full-frame” sensor but it nevertheless is considerably smaller than the sensor in cameras with a similar pixel count, such as the “entry-level” Hasselblad H4D-31)? And who, given our ever growing consumption of photography on-line rather than in print, needs all those pixels anyway?
Well, not only does the D800 have a 36.3 MP sensor but the fears about noise levels are, amazingly, unfounded. And the benefits of having all those extra pixels to play with – as well as some of the drawbacks – came home to me during a shoot on the Dutch island of Texel in May.
My 12 MP, D700 is capable of recording an image 4256 x 2693 pixels, full frame. The D800, in contrast, uses 7360 x 4912 pixels to capture a full frame image which means that in DX crop mode – 4800 x 3200 pixels – you are still capturing more data than the D700 can when it makes an uncropped picture. In effect then, you can multiply whatever focal length you are using by x1.5 and still capture a 15 MP image. The need for very big, expensive glass recedes when you can crop in tight on a picture and still have plenty of data to print. I borrowed a TC-17 E converter from Nikon UK for this shoot and married to my 70 – 200mm f2.8 AFS lens and with the D800 in DX crop mode, I had an effective maximum focal length of 510 mm with a maximum aperture of about f5. Vibration reduction is maintained and the entire package is much more affordable, portable and versatile than the 500mm AFS- f4 option. This is almost as significant a step forward as low noise, high ISO capabilities – perhaps even game changing. And if you do own a long lens already you can greatly increase its reach when the D800 is used in either DX crop mode or x1.2 crop mode. I tried this lens with the x1.7 converter but, even at 1/1600 second and the lens supported on a beanbag, was unable to secure any sharp pictures in either of the crop modes with this converter. This is not entirely surprising: a 500mm in DX crop mode with a x1.7 converter is the equivalent of a 1275 mm lens. Not only is the slightest vibration or subject movement greatly magnified but the resolution of the sensor makes it extremely unforgiving of poor technique.
If you want to get the best from the D800 you need good glass and a willingness to crank up the ISO to get much faster shutter speeds if you are shooting action. Since, in FX mode, three times as many pixels describe the scene than in my D700, movement and blur has more chance of being recorded; it doesn’t get “absorbed” as it would on lower MP cameras. I found that I could get sharp images of the terns and avocets with a x1.4 converter on the 500 mm with the camera in DX mode so long as I kept the shutter speed high – typically more than 1/2000 second. And that still just over 1000 mm of effective focal length.
And the downside
Now, it has to be said that while the D800 offers great cropping opportunities, it is not really the ideal camera for action photography; if you’re shooting in FX (full frame) mode, you’re restricted to 4 frames per second (increasing to 5 in x1.2 and DX crop modes) because of the time it takes to write the huge files to the card. What’s more, the buffer fills up quickly so you may have no more than a continuous burst of 2 or 3 seconds before you need to pause to allow the camera to catch up. The moral: replace your old memory cards with those that write as fast as possible, such as Sandisk Extreme Pro (90MB/s) so things aren’t slowed further. Changing between the different Image Areas, something that is potentially very useful in a fast moving situation and should be quickly accessible via the Function button, instead involves a lot of scrolling and button pressing in the Shooting menu. Incidentally, if the D800’s “Quiet” advance mode is meant to impress wildlife photographers, it doesn’t: it’s no more successful than any previous attempts by Nikon to make picture-taking more discrete.
For photographers used to working with12 or 16 MP images, the time it takes to download, convert to DNG and render 1:1 previews in Lightroom 4 (3 didn’t support the D800 when I tried it) will come as a bit of a shock. This is hardly surprising given that an exported 16 bit RGB TIFF is over 216 MB and that even a DX cropped image (4800 x 3200 pixels) comes out at over 92 MB. The whole review, editing and export process is much, much slower so just be sure that you actually need files as big as this in the first place. At the very least, it will probably encourage you towards a parametric image editing system rather than one that ends in the export of a finished 16 bit TIFF every time.
If you make large prints, you probably do want these big files. A FX image at 7360 x 4912 pixel will let you make a print (at 240 pixel/dots per inch) 30 x 20 inch print without any interpolation. Short of spending 5 figures, there is no other camera that can do this.
For many photographers, myself included, the chance to nail an optimal exposure by simple reference to the camera’s histogram has been one of the greatest boons of digital capture. Each Nikon I’ve used until now – the D2x, D3 and D700, have exhibited an almost perfect match between the camera’s histogram and that in Lightroom/ ACR. For the first time in the D800, there is a considerable disparity, in part due to the way Lightroom 4 handles highlights and in part, I suspect, to the camera itself. The manual rather lamely protests that the histogram is only an approximate guide to exposure but between them, Adobe and Nikon have undermined the reliability of the histogram I’ve grown used to in earlier version of LR and D series cameras. During a Meet Your Neighbours shoot in Bristol, all the pictures taken with the D800 (but not the D700) needed extensive work to restore the pure white backgrounds as each was effectively one stop under-exposed – something confirmed when I compared the meters of the two cameras. Even if this isn’t the sort of work you do, underexposing any digital file by one stop means that you are failing to use about half of all the levels of brightness the camera is capable of differentiating and compromising the technical quality of your images (this is why we routinely “expose to the right”). My feeling is that photographers would be better served by reliable histograms than ever more complex metering systems, themselves made irrelevant when you have an accurate histogram to refer to.
The D800 is not the camera of my dreams; it’s not easy to get the best out of it, it makes much bigger files than I need most of the time and I’ve learned the hard way that the histogram isn’t to be trusted, at least in the example I was loaned. It offers wildlife photographers the advantage of being able to crop in tight but is slow to operate. Nevertheless for photographers shooting static subjects and making prints, this may well be the camera for you.
The Nikon D800 has no competition. While the Leica S2-P can resolve 37.5 MP, its ISO tops out at 1250 (compared to the D800’s 6400, normal range) and it costs 8 times as much as the D800. Medium format bodies include the Hasselblad H4D- 31 (1600 maximum ISO), costing 4 times as much and the 40 MP Pentax 645D. Nikon can breath easily.
(from Nikon website)
• 36.3 megapixel FX-format (full-frame) CMOS sensor with high signal-to-noise ratio, wide dynamic range and 12-channel readout.
• ISO 100–6400: extendable up to 25,600 (equivalent) and down to 50 (equivalent).
• 4 fps consecutive shooting in FX/5: 4 crop modes. 5 fps in 1.2x/DX crop modes.
• Multi-area D-Movie records FX- and DX-format Full HD (1080p) movies in 30p, 25p and 24p. Max recording time approx. 29 minutes 59 seconds. Offers uncompressed HDMI output to external devices and high-fidelity audio control.
• Multi-CAM3500FX 51-point AF system: individually selectable or configurable in 9-point, 21-point and 51-point coverage settings. Sensitive down to -2 EV.
• EXPEED 3 image processing engine with 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing for superb tonal gradation.
• 8 cm (3.2-in.), 921k-dot LCD monitor with auto brightness control anti-reflective, with wide colour reproduction.
• 3D Color Matrix Metering III: 91k pixel AE AF sensor with full-time face recognition.
•100% viewfinder coverage and three Crop Modes: 5:4, 1.2x and DX-format, with viewfinder masking.
• Storage media: CF and SD card slots.
• Built-in i-TTL Speedlight: GN / guide number approx. 12, 24mm lens coverage.
• Magnesium alloy body: moisture and dust resistant.
Reflecting the interests of most readers of this magazine, I have not mentioned the D800’s video capabilities. Like most DSLR’s these can only be full realised with the addition of an SSD recorder like the Atomos Ninja that allows uncompressed HDMI output with a bit rate of 50 MBps – the absolute minimum standard set by the BBC for broadcast. Nevertheless, the standards for video for on-line use – which will increasingly include stock for e-textbooks – are somewhat lower and the output straight from the camera is quite adequate.
A quiet word about noise
Shoot the same scene with the same lens on a D700 and then the D800, zoom into the processed image at 100% on each and the D800 will look very noisy in comparison. But that’s only because you’re looking deep into a much larger image. Resize it down to the same pixel dimension as the D700 image and you’ll see that the D800 picture is actually slightly smoother. Either way, both are vastly superior to a drum scanned Velvia slide, the gold standard for high quality publication not so long ago…
Huge files provide lots of data to crop – or to make very large prints.
Very sharp rear LCD panel – can make sharpness judgments there and then
Compact and lightweight
Compatible with many old accessories and lenses.
Dual card slots for SD and CF cards
Huge files take up lots of storage space and slow the camera down
Only 4 fps advance
Inaccurate histogram and exposure on Manual mode
Relative slowness of changing between Image Areas
In addition to the standard D800, Nikon are offering a E version without anti-aliasing filter (something that is very useful if you shoot subject prone to moiré, such as fabric) for the ultimate in sharpness. Just remember that you will then be restricted by the range of subjects you can shoot with confidence.