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I AM D800 – our unusual Nikon D800 review

D800’s spec was leaked way before it’s official announcement. but Nikon was still managed to surprised us at the last minute with a much lower than expected price.
It’s pretty obvious there will be a huge demand and low supply for this latest full frame camera. So after it’s announcement, I went and pre-ordered one from Auckland Camera (www.aucklandcamera.co.nz)  immediately.

 

 

Unfortunately because of the new Japanese regulations, the ENEL3 and the ENEL4A battery that were used on the D200,D300,D700,D2,D3..etc are now replaced by the new ENEL15 and ENEL18 batteries.
To prepare ourselves for the new camera, Igot ourselves some ENEL15 batteries and large memory cards. And waiting for my camera to arrive.

 

 

One day, I got a call from Ken, Nikon’s NZ product manager and he asked me to call Auckland Camera tomorrow. He didn’t say clearly why so I can only hope it has something to do with the D800!
I called the shop the next morning and confirmed my D800 was already on the way to the shop. Hooray!!

 

Nikon claims the D800 is now able to autofocus down to -2EV. So one of the first thing I tested was the low light autofocus performance. I turned off almost all the lights and mounted a Nikon AFS 50mm f/1.4G lens on the camera. I put a lens cap on the floor as the AF target. Because it was so dark, it actually took me a long long time before i can see where the lens cap is through the viewfinder, and to be honest i can not actually see the lens cap, i can only tell there is something there! I thought there is no way the camera’s autofocus system can see anything.
But surprisingly, the camera can do a AF lock successfully on the lens cap (even though it took a bit of time), I set the aperture to f/1.4 and the metering system tells me at ISO25600 my shutter speed still has to be around 1/30s. I took a photo with that setting, and examine the photo on screen, at f/1.4 and close shooting distance the DOF is very shallow, but the autofocus was spot on!
Then I mounted the same lens on the D700. The D700’s AF system just can’t even see the target even after 15 tries. I don’t really blame it as my eyes can barely see where I should aim! I mounted the lens back on my D800 and yes it was able to focus and accurately again!
So, yes D800’s improved 3500FX AF system’s low light performance is simply amazing!
p.s. both camera’s AF assist lamp was turned off

At 36MP, the pixels on D800’s full frame sensor are a lot smaller than the one on the D3/D700. So as a wedding photographer who shoot under dim light regularly, I was quite worried about if D800’s high ISO performance could be worse than the previous Nikon FX cameras. Amazingly I found the 36MP D800’s high ISO performance is just as good as the 12MP D3/D700. Actually after taking some more comparison shots under controlled environment, I can confirm D800’s high ISO performance is at least 1 stop better than the D700. Even at the maximum ISO 25600, while the photo is a bit noisy but it retains tonnes of details if you look at the full size image and the colour and contrast still remain reasonably good! Nikon could have push the max ISO to 51200 or even 102400  if they want. I guess Nikon is  a bit conservative and don’t want to output barely acceptable photos from their cameras.

D800 has the dual-axis electronic virtual horizon that tells you your camera’s pitch and roll angle. This is very useful for landscape or architectural photographer. While D3/D700 also has the virtual horizon feature, it was single axis only and the implementation (especially the viewfinder mode) isn’t as good as the D800.

I did a little test to test D800’s RAW file’s quality and dynamic range. I first set the camera to aperture priority mode and took a photo. Checked the photo on the LCD screen, even though there was a bright light source in the scene the exposure seems pretty much perfect, so that’s good! Next, I dialed in a -5 EV exposure compensation on the camera, yes 5 stop underexposed the photo and took another photo. Now the photo looks very dark (of course, it’s 5 stop underexposed!). Then I loaded the photo in Lightroom, pushed the exposure up by +5 stop. Amazingly the photo still look very nice! The colours are still there, there is very limited noise and there are still lots of shadow details. I then did some quick editing in photoshop and created this photo. I  think it’s hard to believe the original photo was underexposed by 5 stop, what do you think?

 

 

I went to the Zoo today with the D800 and a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens. I quickly took a photo of this giraffe when it was walking past me. But even at 200mm I still can’t get the close up shot I want. Fortunately the D800’s 36 megapixel output means we can crop a lot and still have a lot of pixels left. I cropped the photo so the output is prerty much what I would got if I was shooting with a 300mm lens. The cropped photo still have more resolution than a D700 can output and virtually I have a 1.5x teleconverter I can use anytime. When shooting with the D800, be very careful with your shutter speed and remember to keep your hands and body very steady if you want to capture sharp images.

 

 

If you take a DSLR with you when you go out with your friends or family, normally you will be the only one that taking photos as most of your family members or friends probably don’t know how to use a DSLR. But D800’s much improved liveview mode makes taking photo a lot easier and similar to a compact camrea.
The contrast detection in D800’s liveview mode is a lot faster. It is not as fast as most of the latest mirrorless cameras but it is a big improvement over the D700 and make the liveview mode a lot more usable.
The new 91000 RGB pixel metering system helps doing the face detection and tracking. The face information is also used to adjust the exposure. While I still need to dial in a bit of exposure compensation, the frequency and amount of exposure compensation i need to adjust is a lot less than before. Overall the metering system is a lot smarter than D3/D700’s 1005 RGB metering system.

So with all these improvements, you can now give the camera to anyone in the family (or even strangers, just make sure they won’t run away with your D800) and they can take some nice family photos easily.

I took this photo in liveview mode. Autofocus set to AF-S + Face detection. I use the LCD to compose the photo and the camera detect my daughter’s face straight away. I press the shutter button and the camera focus on my daughter’s face accurately. Also the exposure seem pretty good even though there is strong backlight on the right hand side.

Ok, no sports photographer would buy a D800 as their main camera. The 4fps shooting speed is probably the camera’s biggest weakest and my biggest complain about the camera as well.
But if we consider the huge image size, 4 fps @ 36MP = 144MP/s. That’s more MP per second than even the D3s (9fps @ 12MP = 108MP/s).
I remember I was shooting lots of motorsports events with my 10MP 5fps D200 happily just few years ago and I was not really complaining about the speed. With the D800, we can also shoot at 5fps if we shoot at the 1.2x crop mode. And even with the 1.2x crop, we are still getting 25MP images. That is still more pixels than the D3x or the Canon 5D Mk3. And with the same latest autofocus system as D4 (which has features like 3D tracking, but we’ll talk more about that later) , there’s really no reason we can’t go to a race track and be a weekend racer with the D800.
And yes we can boost the speed to 6fps in DX mode. But we have to get the MB-D12 grip (and use the correct battery). Seeing the D7000 powered by the same battery and EXPEED2 chip can already do 6fps at a similar resolution (as D800’s DX mode), it makes me wonder if Nikon purposely limit the D800 just to sell some MB-D12 or is it really caused by some kind of hardware limitation.

But anyway, yes the D800 can definitely be used as a casual sports camera when it doesn’t want to be a landscape or portrait camera.
This photo was shoot with the D800 + Nikon AFS 28-300mm VR lens at 1.2x crop mode.

I haven’t really test the D800 under severe weather conditions yet, but I have used the D700 and the D200 under heavy rain and all different kind of weather many many times and the cameras never have a problem. So there is no reason why the D800 would be any different. Afterall, they all have alloy magnesium body and protected by extensive weather and dust sealing. Just make sure the lens you use also has good weather sealing and you dry the camera and lens properly afterwards.

Street photography is all about capturing what’s happening on the street, especially the action or interaction between people on the street. Most of the time the photo oppournity appears and disappears quickly. You have no control of the subject you are shooting, you have no control of the lighting and you only have a short period of time to capture the scene.
So what makes a camera good for street photography? If you ask me, I would say the ideal street photography camera should be able to take great quality under various lighting condition, it allows you to change camera settings and take photos quickly, and it should easy to carry around and take photo without drawing too much attention.
Is the D800 a good camera for street photography?
D800’s very good high ISO performance, amazing dynamic range allows us to can take great quality photo under various lighting condition.
Then all those quick access buttons and dial + button combination means we can adjust most of the camera settings quickly without even have to look at the camera. The improved AF system + new metering system with face tracking/detection feature means the camera can help you nail the focus and give you a decent exposure without too much hassles. Oh Nikon if you are reading this, I would actually like to have the cross type AF points a bit more spread out if that’s possible, that’s my biggest complain about the otherwise awesome AF system.
Now the D800 is definitely not the smallest camera in the world, but it’s still one of the smaller/lighter full frame camera (with the exception of the Leica M9). It’s considerably smaller and lighter than cameras like D3, D4 and definitely looks a lot less intrusive when you point it to a stranger on the street. While on paper, it’s only 95g lighter than the D700 which doesn’t sound like much, but if you are a regular D700 user, you will feel the D800 is considerably lighter when you hold it on your hand. Also compare to the D700/D3, D800’s shutter sound is more quiet now, it allows you to take a photo more discretely. D800, like most other new DSLRs, also has a “Quiet” mode, but to be honest I don’t find it to make too much a difference. It’s a pity as sometimes I do want the camera shutter to be more quiet.
So is the D800 a good street photography camera? I leave it to you to answer this question but I know I love doing street photography with the D800.

 D800 has the enhanced Multi-Cam 3500-FX AF system with 51 focus points. 15 of the points are cross-type sensors and 11 midpoints. It’s based on the AF system used on D3/D700 but with a few improvements.  For example, the AF system can now operate at f/8. It means you can mount a 2x teleconverter on a 600mm f/4 lens (which gives you an effective f/8 maximum aperture) and go take some bird in flight photos and the camera’s autofocus system will still work. But I don’t have a 600 f/4, actually i don’t even have a 300 f/4! But i still went out and took some bird photos with my little 28-300mm VR instead. The camera also uses information from the 91000 pixel metering system to improve subject tracking especially when tracking smaller size subjects. And I do feel the autofocus system can track fast and slow objects more accurately when compare to the D700 which uses the original Multicam 3500FX AF system. There are lots of autofocus settings and it may take a while to understand it. (Nikon didn’t do a really great job with the D800 user manual explainingg the different AF settings. I probably had more question marks in my head after i read the user manual) The different autofocus mode, like 21 point AF, 51 point AF, or 3D tracking AF mode, all has their plus and minus and sutiable for tracking different kind of objects and you really need to spend a bit of time to get familar and understand what works best for you. But when you got the correct setup for the photo you are taking, the autofocus system can track the object with great accuracy and allows you to capture some amazing photos.

Even though Nikon released the first ever video DSLR – the Nikon D90 back in 2008, their whole video engineering team probably immediately went away to celebrate as all the following DSLRs were sharing pretty much the same basic 720p video mode, including the otherwise fantastic D3s. So it’s not really surprising that we never see any professional or even amateur videographer that uses a Nikon DSLR for video. But when their engineering team finally came back from their 2 year long vacation, they knew they got some catch up work to do and we saw improved video recording capability on the D7000, D3100 and D5100 . Now, with the D800 and D4, Nikon is clearly putting a lot of efforts in the video department and we see 1080/30p record mode, HDMI umcompressed output, external microphone input, headphone out, full time continuous autofocus (with face tracking), crop mode recording, new liveview/video recording buttons…etc in both cameras. So while the D800’s video mode is still far from perfect, (for example, the noise performance in video mode could be better at high ISO, the autofocus speed is quite slow compare to the mirrorless cameras, the internal mic picks up a lot of autofocus noise), Nikon DSLRs are finally no longer lagging behind the competitors behind when it comes to video mode!
If you have watched the short video Joy Ride (https://vimeo.com/36326055) you’ll agree the D800 can create awesome quality videos even under challenging conditions.

I AM THE BIG PICTURE – this is the offical slogan for D800 and you can print some really big photos from D800’s 36MP photo. While some people love the huge output from the D800, there are also people who don’t like it and think most people will never need anything bigger than 12 (or 16, or 18) megapixels and the extra resolution is just a waste of memory card and hard disk space. Funny thing is, I remember a few years ago, we were all saying 6MP is more than enough and 10+MP is a bit of overkill (and admittedly i was one of them!). But anyway no matter which side you are on, the 36MP sensor is definitely the biggest talking point among the Nikon users (or even non-Nikon users). I picked the same slogan as the finale of my D800 “I AM” review.

So what can I shoot to show “THE BIG PICTURE”? I don’t live in France so I can’t go to the Nation library of France and replicate Benjamin Antony Monn’s beautiful library photo in the D800 brochure).

Now if I can’t think of a beauitful building with lots of details to capture, how about I capture lots of buildings instead? I decided to go up to the top observation deck of the Sky Tower, which is the tallest free-standing structure in the Souther Hemisphere. I want to take some photos of the beautiful city I live in.
So I went up the Sky Tower, and I mounted the Nikon AFS 16-35mm f/4 VR onto my D800. I took this long exposure photo without a tripod through the observation deck’s thick glass window, in spite of that, the D800 still managed to capture a beautiful and detailed photo of the Auckland City. From the street and buildings nearby, to the bus parking space a bit further away, to the marina far away, there are just tonnes of details everywhere.

I wish I could go outside the observation deck so I don’t have to shoot through the thick glass and setup a tripod and shoot a better photo, but I’m still quite happy with what I got!

 

 

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Reviewer: Richard Wong

Richard is an award winning wedding/portrait Photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard is also a contributing writer for the D-Photo magazine. (www.dphoto.co.nz)

Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Photo-by-Richard/113755425305636

 

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