The D800 is Nikon’s latest salvo in the megapixel wars. It still shoots at a stunning 36 Megapixels but it has impressive night shooting ability as well. The most impressive thing about this camera is the dynamic range it gives photographers. As of January 2014, it is still the top camera with respect to dynamic range. There is nothing better in the professional realm. You would have to pick up a very expensive, unfriendly scientific camera to achieve better dynamic range. The only possible contender for better dynamic range is the Nikon D4s, but that has yet to be see.
The Nikon D800 is Nikon’s flagship resolution camera, beating out the D4 and D4s by over a 2-to-1 margin in terms of resolution. This camera also holds the current top spot in terms of dynamic range, easily beating out the Canon 5D Mark III.
The first thing to note about the D800 is that is comes in two flavors: the D800 and the D800e. The difference between the two bodies stems from the addition or removal of an anti-aliasing filter. This filter has been the bane of photographers since the advent of practical digital photography with the Nikon D1 way back in 1999. The D1 had a whopping 2.7 Megapixels. The only interest in that body is it had a rare top shutter speed of 1/16,000 second.
The anti-aliasing filter takes care of potential moire patterns that show up from photographing patterns in subjects that nearly match the spatial resolution of the sensor by, get this, blurring the image. If the pattern of the object you are photographing has the same frequency of occurance as the sensor sites on the camera’s sensor, there is a very good chance that a nasty purple or green pattern will emerge in your photograph. For all practical intent, this is an irreparable problem. Even though there is now software to help fix the image, the damage is done. There is nothing worse than a purple or green shimmer in a bride’s dress or veil.
Enter the D800. This is one of the first professional SLR camera bodies to remove the AA (anti-aliasing) filter, allowing the photographer to capture the absolute best possible image. The reason the AA is present is to slightly blur the image, reducing the likelihood of a moire pattern. For all the expensive lenses, sensors, and technology built into cameras, the Bayer pattern sensor is very sensitive and prone to exhibiting this awful effect. There have been cameras and new sensors out in 2013 and 2014 that have a changed pixel pattern to help eliminate the moire problem. One can only assume that every sensor company in the world is working toward eliminating the AA requirement.
Without the AA filter, the D800e has the increased potential for moire patterns, especially in architecture, bird feathers, and finely woven fabrics. However, it has been shown that the D800 suffers from this problem as well. It’s just not as pronounced. Also, for whatever reason, Nikon has actually priced the D800e higher than the D800. There is at least one more filter in the D800, so the logic escapes me on that one. It very well may be that Nikon actually had to put a lot more work into the D800e, beyond what we might expect.
Also, the D800e shoots slightly slower than the D800, if that is possible. Shooting on CH (continuous, high speed), both bodies shoot at a glacially slow 4 FPS (frames per second). Just about any other consumer body, from a D3200 up, shoots that fast. Then again, the D3200 also shoots on a 24MP cropped sensor without nearly as much dynamic range as the D800. The D800 and D800e are not what you would consider sports photography cameras at all. They cannot rip off 11 FPS like the D4s can. And the autofocus is not nearly as fast as Nikon’s top of the line bodies like the D4s. That is not what this camera is made for.
The D800 and D800e are made for maximum dynamic range, huge resolution and incredible images. This is the first SLR camera body that even has a chance at competing with a MF (medium format) body. The MF still have better dynamic range and resolution but that gap is closing. Will an SLR body sized sensor match a MF sensor? Probably not. The larger the sensor, the better the dynamic range, resolution and capability. MF camera manufacturers are not resting on their laurels, either.
As each 14-bit RAW file is 45-50MB out of this camera, you will want the fastest possible cards you can get your hands on. Not that the camera can shoot very fast, but the 16 shot buffer in RAW and the 22 shot buffer in FINE-JPG will fill up pretty quickly. Consider this – the average FINE-JPG out of this camera comes in at over 20MB. That is four times the average file size of the D300s, a 12MP body. Using a high-performance compact flash card like the Lexar 32GB Professional 1066x UDMA 7, the camera will keep you shooting. Although this camera is not meant to rip off a series of shots like a sports camera would, the major advantage of a the fastest CF (compact flash) or SD (secure digital) is the download from the card to the computer. Even with the ridiculously cheap Sandisk Extreme 32GB 45MB/s class 10 SD card, it still takes a long time to download the images into a Macbook Pro Retina machine.
Consider this: with the D800 set to shoot RAW 14-bit Lossless compressed, the file sizes are upwards of 50MB a piece. That means after 20 shots, you have consumed 1GB (gigabyte) of space. That still doesn’t sound like a lot? Let’s say you are shooting an event, say a wedding. And you shoot 1000 shots. You will generate 50GB of RAW images. That’s two 32GB cards. And you’re shooting on both the SD and CF cards as backup in the camera, right? You will, in a mere 5 weddings, you will completely fill the 250GB hard disk on your laptop that you are, of course, backing up, right?
For as great as the resolution is, wedding photographers and the like are really starting to ask if they really need this much resolution. Unless you’re printing big (16×20 or larger) or like to crop a lot, that 36MP image all of the sudden becomes quite unwieldy. The dynamic range is incredible, so there is that to consider. The D800 has given me images that my now ancient D300s could not even dream of creating. But D800 would never have the chance to capture the sporting events that I can with the D300s. It is a matter of horses for courses.
Let’s get right down to it. How does this camera’s files look compared to others? Below are some sample shots with description to give you a better idea of what the D800 is capable of.
Mexican blanket from Ensenada, Mexico, Nikon 35mm f2, f8 at 0.8 sec, ISO 100, Auto Distortion Control Off, Active D-lighting OFF, JPG-Optimal, on tripod, mirror lock-up, shutter release delay 1 second. Click here for the original JPG image.
The above image straight of the camera demonstrates the sharpness and dynamic range of the camera. The light and dark are captured well with detail. But look at the dust, fuzz and fibers. You can see it all. I did not convert the RAW file through Lightroom 5 to generate the JPG. The JPG conversion Lightroom uses is a very good approximation of the one Nikon uses in NX2 but it is not exactly the same. For the purposes of this demonstration, you will be hard pressed to tell the difference, though it’s there. In the histogram, you can see what the camera showed the blanket exposure to be. That is one thing about the D800 – the metering is not as good as the D300s. The D300s has rarely if ever failed me in metering a scene in matrix metering mode and not been spot on. More on this below.
Adaptive Dynamic Range (ADR)
The ADR function on the Nikon D800 works wonderfully. I usually have it set to Automatic, though I have to be careful with some shots. It gets me a lot closer to the image I had in mind by managing the highlights. When I’m shooting JPG, this is a function I like to have on. But when I’m doing test shots, like the ones in this article, I tend to shut it off to show what the camera produces without any adjustments.
How much resolution is 36MP?
Normally one would not think of the D800 as a sports camera. I contend that, for me, it’s a great sports camera. Instead of having to shoot with a DX sensor, I’m able to shoot with a glorious 36MP, crop, and still have a completely usable 12MP image.
When I used to shoot events like roller derby with my 12MP D300s, I would crop the image and not have a lot of resolution left. Even though the APS-C sensor gave me the extra reach, that’s not what I really needed. Once I boosted the ISO to 1600 in the D300s, the picture quality degraded pretty badly. Now, with 6 year newer technology, I am able to boost my D800 to ISO 1250, shoot with Pocketwizards in a roller derby rink and have very fun and usable shots.
If you click on the picture at the left, you can see the original image and the cropping area in Lightroom. If you click the thumbnail on the right, you can see the resultant 12MP image. The dynamic range and cropping options on the D800 continue to blow me away. These two shots were done on a Nikon 180mm f/2.8. It’s not nearly as versatile as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 but it’s a sharper lens and much lighter. I always have it in my small camera bag.
Viewfinder light leakage
From my testing with a 9-stop neutral density filter, I have learned that the viewfinder suffers from light leakage during very long exposures. Normally very long shots, meaning 1 second or longer, are taken at dawn, dusk, or at night. But with a 9-stop filter plus a polarizer, long exposure shots can be taken. I thought this wall all great with my new D800 until I noticed some pink tinting in the snow shot. I know that a 9-stop filter induces some color shifting, but that shift is uniform across the image. What I saw was pink in the middle of the image.
Viewfinder light leakage is very easy to see in the ice with the pink hue visible in the middle of the frame. D800, 9-stop neutral density filter, Nikon 180mm f2.8, 30 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, viewfinder cover open, morning light shot
I can only presume this is why Nikon chose to install a flip switch to close the back of the viewfinder when performing non-interactive long exposures, where you do nothing but watch the camera sit there while it gathers light to make an image. I have never suffered from such a problem on my D300s, though I have not made images where it was easy to tell there was a tell-tale pink tint, either. Most of the time, my 9-stop neutral density filter shifts the color a little magenta, so it does take some effort to balance the color properly.
Previous bodies, like the D300s, have included a little slip on cover for the viewfinder when performing long exposures. Of course I never have that with me, nor does anyone else. It’s a tiny piece of equipment that’s very easy to misplace. I’m very thankful Nikon saw the wisdom of including a flip-down cover inside of the body. It’s very possible there is not enough room in an APS-C size camera, hence the little cover. This little detail was not lost on me when photographing on the Gros Ventre river on an icy morning, struggling to get clean color in the ice.
Which one do I choose?
Do you pick the D800 or the D800e? The D800e seems like the logical choice, with no AA filter. It might shoot just a little slower, it might cost a little more, but what do I miss? The answer is that depends on what you shoot. As with all photography, there is no one, clear answer.
It all comes down to how you shoot, what you shoot, and where your aperture tends to be. More clarification soon…
More information on the way…