I received my Nikon D800E camera body in July of last year, so I’ve had it for nearly nine months now and I think I’ve used it enough at this point to share my thoughts. Just to be clear, this isn’t meant to be a formal review or a recitation of the camera’s features; there are plenty of both of these scattered all over the Internet (a search engine is your friend). My intent is simply to muse on my thoughts about how well the camera has met my expectations and perhaps discuss some of the anticipated (and unanticipated) consequences of moving to this camera body.
The Back Story
First, some background. My primary camera body prior to purchasing the D800E was the Nikon D700, which I had used since late 2008. (The D700 remains in my camera bag as a backup body.) The most important difference between the two cameras is found in the sensors, principally the number of pixels. The D700 sensor had 12 (and change) megapixels; the D800E has 36 (and change) megapixels. That’s a big difference. The D800E also does an end run around the anti-aliasing filter that the vast, vast majority of digital SLRs possess, as a means to reduce digital artifacts that are inherent in the capture process with cameras using Bayer sensors.
The camera cost me more than $3000; I had to think very long and very hard about whether to commit that kind of money to replace a camera (the D700) that I was basically satisfied with. What was the new camera giving me that I didn’t already have? Pixels, mostly, and a whole lot of them. And a breathtaking amount of dynamic range. (The D700′s DR is impressive; the D800 series is even better.) I print quite large, at times; I’ve had orders up to 24×36″ for conventionally oriented images (i.e. those with a 2:3 ratio). For images with a lot of detail, that’s beginning to really push it for the D700′s files. (In fairness, though, I had a commercial client who was thrilled with 20×30″ prints that were produced from shots I took with the D200 and its 10 MP (and generations old) sensor. To some degree, this how-large-can-you-print matter is very much in the eye of the beholder.) I also often occasionally push the envelope in terms of dynamic range with my shooting. I knew I’d use every bit of the alleged 14 stops of DR that the 800 series has at base ISO, and then some, from time to time.
I was ultimately able to get myself to pull the trigger by telling myself that the D800E might well be my “last camera.” Let me briefly explain what I mean by that. It doesn’t mean that I’d committed myself to never buying another camera, ever. What it meant was that, barring some incredible path breaking new capability that I can’t even imagine coming down the pike some day, I saw nothing in the way of incremental improvements that would have me lusting over another camera if the D800E lived up to its billing. Not more pixels; not more dynamic range, not any other features. This was it…and it was, without question, the first time I had ever thought this since I first started shooting with a DSLR back in 2003. With the purchases of each of my previous cameras–the D100 in 2003; the D200 in the spring of 2006; and the D700 at the tail end of 2008–I’d bought in fully knowing that there were existing cameras (sometimes produced by Nikon, sometimes by other manufacturers) that had capabilities that I wanted myself. I’d never purchased a digital camera thinking “this is it.” But this time was different. Had I not felt that this very well could be “the last camera,” I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.
The $64,000 question was–would I still feel that way after actually using the camera?
Camera In Hand
When I received the D800E last summer, I immediately conducted some controlled (but relatively informal) tests with the camera and my lens lineup, and compared the results with images shot with the D700. What I expected–and discovered–was that, when pixel-peeping (looking at images at 100% magnification in Photoshop), the effects of diffraction barely became visible at f/8, and were increasingly visible as I stopped lenses down further. By f/16 they were quite apparent when pixel peeping. In other words, all other things being equal (which they rarely are, but I digress), it was best to shoot the camera at f/7.1 or below. (This is not always practical, to put it mildly, in the real world; more on this below.)
I also noted that–again, when pixel peeping–the camera revealed every optical flaw in my lens lineup. As a refresher, I shoot almost entirely with high(ish) end zoom lenses–the Nikkor 14-24/2.8; the Nikkor 24-70/2.8; the Sigma 70-200/2.8; the Nikkor 80-400/4-5.6. I also shoot with one prime lens, the Nikkor 200mm micro. The 80-400 is the weakest optic in my quiver; the 200mm micro is the sharpest, by far. I saw no obvious flaws with the prime lens, even when I was scouring around looking for them. With the others, there was some corner softness visible in all of them, with the 80-400 being the worst offender (as expected). Without careful viewing, all were perfectly acceptable, but images shot with this camera and these lenses, if upsized enough, would reveal the flaws, even at fairly reasonable viewing distances. How much of an upsizing was “enough”? That depends, both on the lens in question and the personal opinion of the viewer.
Reviews of the camera that I’d read prior to pulling the trigger on the purchase consistently discussed what needed to be done “to get the most out of the sensor,” including avoiding shooting at f/8 or above and exclusively using high end prime lenses. I pretty much knew that I wasn’t going to do either of these things, particularly the latter. Maybe it’s laziness on my part, but I really like the convenience of carrying an assortment of zoom lenses that cover all of the focal lengths I’m likely to shoot; I like being able to minimize the amount of lens changing I engage in as well. I’ve already touched on the aperture part of the matter above. So I was pretty much acknowledging that I wasn’t going to be getting “everything” there was to squeeze out of the sensor in terms of image quality. The operative question was whether I was going to be getting enough out of it to justify the purchase of the camera. My speculation was that the answer was yes, but the proof would be in the pudding.
And what about the huge files that the camera produced? I was looking at 1/3 as many shots per memory card compared with the D700, not to mention (obviously) longer write times. The D800E has two card slots, one for CF cards and one for SD cards. I’d never had a camera that accepted SD cards, but given the file sizes I was looking for, I felt that a card upgrade was in order. I found a sale at Amazon and picked up a 32 GB SD card and a 16 GB CF card which allowed me approximately 600 shots without card swapping (significantly more than I’d ever had with the D700–my biggest card for that camera was an 8 GB CF). I also spent some time experimenting with file downloads and image processing. Needless to say, both were significantly slower than what I was used to with the D700 files. This, too, was anticipated, but could I deal with the added wait times when I had a bulk of files, from multiple days worth of shooting? I would soon find out.
In the Field/On the Road
I shot with the camera outside in the field a couple of times, and at a botanical garden in Indianapolis, before taking the camera on its first “road trip” to northern Arizona for a workshop in August (which was chronicled at length beginning here). This was when the pedal hit the metal, so to speak. I would be dealing with the camera (and the resulting images) all day, every day.
As an aside, it’s worth pointing out, I suppose, that I shoot off a tripod at least 99.99% of the time. (Literally every one of my images that has appeared on this blog was produced with a tripod-mounted camera.) As a result, handheld ergonomics have never been a particularly important issue to me. Also, as followers of this blog know, roughly 95% of my imagery can be classified as landscapes/scenics, with almost all of the remaining 5% closeup work (mostly of plants and flowers). In other words, I’m rarely shooting moving subjects (other than running water and blowing foliage), so a camera’s operational quickness isn’t a prime consideration for me either, particularly given my circumspect (some would say “plodding” or “sluggish”) photographic style in the field.
So, how did the camera perform?
The answer was quite well, thank you. There were a few differences in the camera’s controls, compared to the D700, and with the menus as well, but the similarities greatly outweighed the discriminating points. It wasn’t a difficult adjustment to go from one camera to the other, particularly given the sloth-like nature of my in-the-field workflow. I did notice that the D800E was, on occasion, a bit slower to complete the card-writing process than the D700, but that was to be expected and it really wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. And the dynamic range was absolutely breathtaking. Even with scenes possessing an exceptionally wide contrast, it was often necessary to underexpose images–often by several stops–to produce silhouettes of objects against bright dawn or dusk skies. In fact, I stopped trying, with the full knowledge that the effect could easily be teased out in postprocessing. So using the camera wasn’t a problem.
What about the image quality? That was always the main issue. Was I seeing a meaningful, real world improvement over shots from the D700? The short answer is, yes. Regardless of the lenses I used, apples-to-apples comparisons of images (i.e. when D700 images were up-sized to the equivalent of D800E shots or D800E images were binned to the same size as D700 photos) revealed that the shots from the D800E held more detail–period, end of report. And they should; 36 MP really ought to trump 12 MP, particularly when the former is of a newer generation than the latter. The point of obtaining the D800E was to up the ante when it came to printing large, and based on some tests I did after returning from Arizona, that holds up. I up-sized a detail-filled D800E shot to the equivalent of 24×36″ and printed a cropped 8×10 section of it; I did the same with a D700 shot. (Both were taken with the same 24-70 lens.) The D700 version was actually pretty decent; not phenomenal, but quite good. But the D800E shot…it was almost as though it hadn’t been interpolated at all.
What about the lenses? Given my options, how had images held up? It was essentially as expected. Shots with the 200mm macro (i.e. micro, in Nikon-speak) held up from corner to corner, even when pixel peeping. Shots with the other lenses still held up very nicely, even when enlarged. Yes, the corner degradation could be spotted when pixel peeping, but large prints, seen at a normal viewing distance, were immaculate.
And the aperture issue? I had decided to shoot for the needed depth of field and live with the incumbent diffraction, even if that meant f/16 (though I didn’t often need to go beyond f/11). This paid off, in my opinion. With adjustments made to postprocessing sharpening techniques, the effects of diffraction were mitigated to the point of effective irrelevance.
In the end, I concluded that this may very well, in fact, be my “last camera” (in the sense described above). I’m extremely happy with the performance; I’m completely satisfied with image quality, even with the limits of my current lenses (though I may end up replacing the 80-400 with Nikon’s recently announced new version of that lens, if it pans out in real world tests and if I can get past the price!), and I didn’t even have to compromise my in-field shooting choices with regard to aperture selection. File sizes and computer requirements will become non-issues as I naturally upgrade hardware over time (though I hasten to add that, despite shooting with the camera for the better part of a year now, I’m still using computers that are 3-5 years old).
This is more camera than most people need; if you don’t have the intention to print large, you really have no need for it, in my view. It’s arguably more camera than I need myself. If the D3X had come with the same price tag as the D800 when the former was released four-odd years ago (instead, it cost $8000!), I might well have bought one and, if I had, I’d almost certainly still be using it, even though that would mean leaving 12 MP on the table. (The D3X has a 24.5 MP sensor.) But if you’re going to buy your “last camera,” you may as well give yourself some headroom, I think, and that’s what the D800E gives me. Would have I been satisfied with the non-”E” version of the D800? Almost certainly, yes. But again, I gave myself a bit of extra sharpness, particularly when I use my macro lens.
I look forward to having the camera with me during a planned trip to the Smoky Mountains in mid-April. During my last extended trip there, six years ago, I was still shooting with the D200.
The D800E won’t make me a better photographer–that was never part of the consideration–but it will allow me to print larger with considerably more effectiveness. Since that was my hope when I bought the camera, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the purchase.
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