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Nikon D800 – A Hands on Review

Okay, so I promised a full review of the D800 some time back. We’ve been absolutely plastered with work the moment we got back from Greece and it’s been non-stop. I’ve had a bit of time today to relax a little and thought of putting up this long overdue post.

I’ve put the camera through its paces during our trip and shot over 100GB of photos+video. Yeah I know. 36 megapixels can really eat up hard drive space. But after spending more than a month with it I’m happy to say it was worth the investment.

First, the good stuff. Super duper resolution. Even at wide open apertures. Yup.

You can’t get any better than this for a 35mm format camera. It even rivals the Hasselblad H4D-40 which, at 40 megapixels and $27,000 more, makes for a very expensive investment for not a lot more camera other than the prestigious brand-name.

If you want to know more about that comparison, check out the video below

Now some might say pitting the D800 against a Hasselblad is not really fair. But even then the D800 managed to hold its own especially when it came to high ISO and shadow detail.

What about comparing it to the latest Canon 5DMkIII? Some would argue the 5DMkIII is a generation ahead of the D800. New AF system, faster FPS, better high ISO performance. But don’t forget the D800 was meant to be a replacement for Nikon’s flagship D3x, which retailed for more than $6k when it was launched. It’s not a sports or news camera, it was meant for studio and editorial work. It is my belief that Nikon made a marketing mistake when they released the D700, essentially cannibalizing the sales of the D3 because the D700 could pretty much do 90% of the D3’s work at less than half the price. Nikon quickly made up for their mistake by releasing the D3s and the D3x. By doing so, they made a distinction between those who needed ultimate image quality vs those who needed to shoot available light under difficult lighting scenarios. The same distinction can be seen today in the release of the D800 and the D4. Will there be a D4s/D4x? It remains to be seen but I highly doubt it. On the other hand, Canon might have shot themselves in the foot with the 5DMkIII and the 1Dx. The only thing the 1Dx does better – and this is just comparing specifications, not real-world performance – is frame rate: 14fps on the 1Dx vs 6fps on the 5DMkIII. Only sports shooters would need a fps that high. Anyway, I digress.

So, the D800 is a camera with amazing resolution, but how amazing is it? I’ve been using the D700 for about 2 years now and it was a great camera when I bought it. Super high ISO performance (at that time) and great quality at just 12 megapixels. Enter the D800 and I realised what I had been missing the whole time! Details, details and more details!

Check out the image below to compare (top is D700, bottom is D800):

Image courtesy of www.dpreview.com

The difference in sharpness is quite evident, especially in the details on the banknotes as well as the strips of canvas on the left. All this detail comes at a cost however. As I mentioned before in my previous review, the files sizes from the D800 are huge. Hasselblad users might be used to seeing such large files but it was a bit of a shock for me when I first started using it. Thankfully, I had a PC that was already upgraded with the latest SSD and enough RAM to push these files through without too much hassle.

 

So what about the high ISO performance?

I’m happy to say the D800 has exactly the same ISO performance as the D700, minus the sensor blooming artifacts that were the bane of my existence before. It’s nothing groundbreaking but then if you wanted a D3s successor then you should look at the D4 instead.

 

Next, and this is a big one, the D800 has probably the highest dynamic range of any 35mm DSLR available. Not only that, it’s ability to retain shadow detail is simply astounding, even beating the Hasselblad H4D-40 as mentioned in the video above.

To show you what I mean, check out the image below:

D800 shadow detail

This was the original image taken straight out of the camera.

Now look at this:

D800 shadow detail

If you hadn’t known better you would have sworn it was a different image! This was processed in Lightroom 4.1. I pushed exposure +3 stops, brought highlights and whites right down to zero, pushed up shadows by another 50% and increased blacks by 50% to bring back some contrast. Noise is still almost non-existent even after extreme post-processing. The sky, which is usually about 4-5 stops brighter than the foreground, is still within the dynamic range and we can see all the glorious detail that was previously in shadow. This is even more amazing considering that the sun is just shining on the other side of the couple. Of course, a lot of what goes on under the hood has to do with Lightroom’s processing engine, and Adobe has done a marvellous job. Apparently if paired with Nikon’s own Capture NX2, the D800 files look even better. I’ve yet to try that one out.

Nikons have also been known as ISO-less cameras. What that means in simple terms is if you push the exposure of an image in post, the file won’t crumble to pieces with posterization and noise everywhere. This sort of post-processing is available not only to the D800 but to a lesser extent, the D700. How the Nikon engineers are doing it, I don’t know. But I’m not complaining. By the way, Canons can’t handle this kind of extreme post-processing. Chalk another one up for Nikon ;)

Lastly, Nikon have really upped their game in the HD video department. Finally a camera to rival the 5DMkII in video! But was a case of too little, too late. I took some footage while on our trip in Europe and soon I was pulling focus like a pro! Check out the video below and watch it to the end. They’ve got pretty decent voices, and the dad looks like Antonio Banderas!

That was the BFFamily whom we ran into in Bologna twice! They’ve left Norway for a year to travel the world and they busk in each city they visit. The money earned from busking finances their travel and living expenses. Cool ay? They were truly living out their dreams. Not many people can say they’ve done that. By the way, this footage is straight from the camera, no editing. It was shot on my 50mm 1.4D and the cinematic quality just blew me away! The audio was recorded using the camera’s built-in mic. We took heaps of footage during the trip and I can’t wait to edit it all into one video clip. With video quality I can’t comment much about it other than it’s way better implemented than the D90. The rolling shutter effect seems to be fixed and video at high ISOs retain detail and dynamic range better than its predecessors. Still it’s nothing 5DMkII users haven’t seen before.

So what’s the downside to this seemingly great camera? A big one would be the reduced FPS or Frames Per Second rate. The D800 shoots with a measly 4fps, while my aging D700 still manages a decent 5fps. Does 1 fps really make a difference? I can tell you from experience, it does. I’ve come to rely on D700’s fairly high fps to nail the shot at weddings, when things like people blinking and movement meant little time to guess the right moment to click the shutter. I admit, it’s a crutch. Henri Cartier Bresson would be turning in his grave if he knew the ridiculous fps that modern DSLRs can dish out. He was the master at anticipating the moment and all he had was an old film rangefinder, probably a one-click wonder. Using the D800 has forced me to slow down and anticipate the moment. I still use it at 4fps, but I rely on it a lot less now.

Another downside is the secondary SD card slot. Why Nikon used that instead of two CF card slots is beyond me. SD cards generally have much slower writing speeds when compared to CF cards. When I first got the camera I thought great! I can write RAW files to both CF and SD cards as backup! Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. In burst mode the camera can write up to 15 RAW files to the CF but only 3 to the SD. I had both cards in the camera at a wedding and couldn’t figure out why my camera would stop shooting after 3 shots. I realized the problem was the camera waiting for my SD card to finish writing before I could fire the shutter again. Sucks. The only way I could have a backup in-camera was to shoot RAW to CF, and JPEG to SD. Not ideal but it’ll have to do. At least there’s still a backup.

I use the D800 and D700 together at weddings now, usually fitted with different lenses so I can swap between wide and telephoto quickly. One minor problem I didn’t anticipate was the way Lightroom processed the images from both cameras. Using the same presets, I get very different results from both cameras. The D800 tends to process much darker and with a lot more contrast than the D700. It just meant I had to adapt again and change my workflow.

In my previous review, I addressed several other problems with the camera. I can thankfully say these have been resolved. The misalignment of the left focus points was a big one that needed a fix pronto. I’m so glad I bought my camera locally. I had the camera examined at the local Nikon service centre and within a week it was back, fully fixed and at no charge. Nikon has yet to release an official statement about the problem.

The green tint on the LCD was another issue I had, but after using the camera overseas everyday for a month I can’t see it anymore. Guess my eyes have adjusted to the difference. It doesn’t affect the actual RAW file in any way so it’s a minor issue. I’ve also gotten used to the controls now and it actually makes sense to have the ‘zoom in’ button above the ‘zoom out’. The shutter has also been redesigned and sounds so much better than my D700. Now whenever I pick up the D700 I feel like I’m using a jackhammer!

 

Overall, I’m quite happy with my D800. It pairs well with my D700 and I use it for certain parts of a wedding day, especially during the formal portraits and bridal party photos. The high resolution means I can shoot knowing I can crop in later if I need to, or make large poster prints without degrading the image. The camera’s ability to recover shadow detail also means I can use it confidently where I would have been wary with the D700. The camera doesn’t excel in action shots but that’s when I can turn back to my D700 if I need to. If I had the money, I would keep the D800 and sell the D700 for a D4. Now that would be the perfect combo! Amazing low-light ability and high FPS on the D4, coupled with high resolution and dynamic range on the D800. Maybe next year! ;D

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