It isn’t every day that I get a call to ask if I’d like to do an extensive test of a new camera. It is even rarer to get asked to do the test in New York. There it was though, an invitation by Nikon Europe to go to New York and take part in an event that brought together photographers and journalists from all corners of Europe. There was one mission 48 hours in NY to give the D800 a good workout and report our findings.
I was given the D800 a week before the trip so that I could familiarise myself with the layout, menus and handing. I’m a D3 user so although the D800 felt smaller in my hand it felt no less at home. Lacking the body height and bulk of the D3 or D4 it sat surprisingly comfortably and stable in my hand. I put a memory card in the camera, formatted it and noted that I had space on the card for 200 photos. I popped the card out again to check the card size and saw it was a 16GB card. With the camera settings set to 14Bit uncompressed NEF I’d have the camera yelling at me for more storage after just 200 shots! We’re looking at files of around 75mb each here. Compare that to around 430 in the D4 and 600 in the D3. This sort of file size would mean I’d need 3 x the memory card capacity to shoot as much with the D800 as with my D3, plus of course, 3 x the disk space on my computer. There are other file options like 12Bit and compressed NEF that will fit more images onto a card but I was a little disappointed to see no ‘Small NEF’ option.
Needless to say, I hastily ordered some more CF and SD cards plus a portable hard drive.
As for the general handling of the D800, the controls and their positions are the usual natural progression rather than a fundamental change. I could grab the camera, put it to my eye and my fingers and thumbs knew instinctively where the controls could be found, with one exception. On both the D800 and D4 the Movie record button has been placed just behind and slightly to the left of the shutter release button, where the Mode button is on any other pro Nikon body. The Mode button is now further back and even more to the left. My hands aren’t small but I can tell you, trying to get my finger to that mode button while holding the camera to my eye takes some serious stretching. My finger falls naturally onto the Movie record button. Let’s not forget this is in the first place a stills camera so the ability to change Mode easily should be the priority. To rub salt into the wound, D800 users are not going to like the fact that the option to reprogram the Movie record button is only available on the D4. Option F16 in the Custom Settings menu gives has several options for re-assignment of the button, ISO, Image area, Shooting bank, shutter speed and aperture lock. It goes without saying that I would like to see the F16 menu options to be included on the D800 together with the option to reprogram the Movie record button to ‘Mode’ when shooting stills. Can it or will it happen? I hope so! D700 and D7000 users will trip over another button assignment issue too. The + and – zoom image previews are in opposite positions on the D800 and D4. + is above the -. Any D700 user instinctively pressing the buttons will be surprised, especially if using a D800 together with a D700.
Arriving in NY, I had a few hours to explore the neighbourhood and shoot a little street photography. It soon became apparent why Nikon does actually warn about taking care when making photos with the D800. I was making photos as I normally would during a short city walkabout, see a shot, reach for the camera and grab the image. I was getting a high percentage of shots that just lacked that crisp feel I expect. It was very obvious that I’d slacked into bad habits. A camera with 36mp will and does punish the use of low shutter speeds and bad technique. As soon as I adjusted my technique and used a higher shutter speed than I normally would, I started to notice the images were getting better. It also became very apparent that the D800 is very critical of lenses; I noticed a marked difference between the Nikon 70-200mm VRI and VRII. The VRII was substantially better on the D800, a difference I have hardly noticed when using my D3. The D800 loves high quality prime lenses.
One seriously good addition to the D800 and D4 is fact that the AF mode can now be changed without even taking the camera away from the eye. Pressing the button in the middle of the AF/M selector and rotating the aperture or shutter controls, the AF mode can be changed and is displayed in the viewfinder. I found this really useful during a trip on a water taxi to the Statue of Liberty. Some jet skiers were ideal high speed moving targets to test the new 3D AF tracking. Not only was the water taxi moving quickly on the choppy river but the jet skis were giving their all too. Pixel peeping after the event showed consistent and accurate focus. Time after time the D800 managed to lock onto the target and follow it shot after shot. However, this is where the D800 has to bow to the mighty D4. 4fps in FX mode obviously isn’t going to be quick enough to catch all the action but the images it did catch were spot on. Nikon makes no illusions about the shooting speed of the D800 and with the sheer processing power needed to process and save 36mp files; I’m surprised the camera even manages 4fps.
Unlike the D4, the D800 has an AF assist lamp; I always find these lamps very intrusive so during one of our challenges I was happy to see that when I turned it off the AF still performed with no noticeable problem. The challenge was an exclusive chance to photograph and video the spectacular Blue Man Group at their theatre, just off Broadway. Low light, bursts of bright colour and fast action were there to test the D800‘s low light stills and video capabilities. I shot up to 4000 ISO very comfortably. With high ISO being one of the other major concerns of potential D800 buyers, I was very surprised at the lack of noise. There is no doubt; the D800 can’t touch the D4 in this area, but what I think it does do is beat my current camera, the D3. Yes, at a full 36mp the noise is visible but no more obtrusive than a full sized D3 file. Reduce the D800 file to 12mp and the noise is substantially less noticeable. What’s more important: I feel there is a lot more detail retained in the highlights and shadows of the D800, even at the higher ISO’s it feels a lot better than the D3 and certainly as good as the D4, suggesting the dynamic range of the D800 and D4 to be a lot better than their predecessors.
Battery life is good, even with the larger LCD, a lot of video use and about 650 photos it still wasn’t empty. The battery is the same as used in the D7000 so Nikon have obviously worked hard on efficiency. On the subject of the LCD, I did spot some irregularities in playback. Sometimes colours didn’t look accurate, switching the monitor settings to Manual brightness instead of Auto fixed this. Maybe just a slight firmware issue here?
I’m new to the DLSR for video world but seeing example videos online has certainly motivated me to use video more. One popular D800 example video is ‘Joy Ride’. The film’s creators, photographer Sandro and cinematographer Anthony Arendt were at NYC48 to talk us through the production and offer tips. My video clips during the event certainly didn’t do the camera justice but I was certainly impressed with the ease of video recording and the output quality. To make my life easier to switch between photo and video settings I set up custom Shoot Bank A for photos and B for basic video settings. This helped to an extent but I did find myself forgetting to switch Shoot Banks a lot, mainly because the only place you can see the selected setting is by using the info screen on the rear LCD, which I rarely use. I would have liked to have this information displayed on the top LCD panel as it is on the D4.
Upon returning from NY I shot a real-life comparison test with the D800 and D4, a simple model portfolio style shoot on the streets of Gent. Moving quickly though the streets, no fuss and all had to be done in 2 hours. I matched the settings on both cameras and used both cameras as I would on this style of shoot, using the body that had the right lens at that moment and using it. Paying as little attention to the camera as possible I dialed in the settings and just made the shots. Back in the office I did the same for the selection and processing of the images, just selected the shots I liked without paying attention to file info. I only looked afterwards. Out of the all the photos I made with the 2 cameras I chose 42 ‘keepers’. 14 were from the D4 and 28 from the D800. Not by any means a scientific test but enough for me to see that these two cameras are so close in so many ways.
D800 vs D4
Looking back at the D800 images from NY and the comparison shoot in Gent, the final look and feel of the images from both cameras in mixed conditions is virtually identical. The images can be processed next to each other and nobody would guess which camera they came from. Yes the D4 will accelerate past the D800 when pushed to the high ISO range. It will capture more frames per second than the D800 but personally, the image detail of the D800 far outweighs the disadvantages it might have when compared to the D4. Yes, maybe I would have liked the option to shoot a smaller NEF size, Shooting DX mode is one option but that isn’t quite the same. Like it or loathe it, by leaving the FX image output at 36mp Nikon have certainly given the D800 one defining feature to set it apart from the D4. Thinking about it, the price of memory cards and hard disks has declined in recent times, so unless you are a ‘Spray and pray’ photographer, is the actual cost of image storage a serious problem? The real cost could be in the workflow as the D800 files do take extra time to process and handle. Saying that, I do seem to remember having the similar concerns when moving from 6mp to 12mp.
With the launch of the D4 and the D800, Nikon have defined two markets with a cross-over area in the middle. For some photographers the choice will be very obviously defined by the type of work they do. Others will be wondering which they should choose. I tried the D800 in situations in and outside its comfort zone and it performed better than I expected. I think the crossover zone is actually bigger than Nikon expected.
Which camera would I choose?
Ultimately, I ‘need’ both cameras for my work but if I was given 6000 Euro to spend tomorrow, I’d buy a D800 and with change I’d buy a 35mm 1.4. With the D800 you’re not getting half a D4, I’d dare to say you are actually getting 90% of the D4 for half the price.
This article was originally published in Shoot magazine, edition 19. The Belgian photography magazine.
Thank you to Erik for allowing me to reproduce the document in for the blog.
Thank you to Nikon Europe for the ‘challenge’