This is a user report of the Nikon D800E. It is not a full technical review per se: there are many of those to be found on the internet already and adding another will not increase the sum of man’s knowledge a great deal, I think!
However there is useful value in describing how the D800E fares in real life use rather than in the studio test environment used in many reviews. I am therefore setting out my thoughts for you here in the hope that you find them useful.
First up, I was loaned the D800E unit for a week by T A Macalister in Auckland, who are the Nikon distributors for the NZ market. There were no strings attached in terms of this review (not even sure I told them I was doing one!) and no discounts etc on products. My thanks to Greg at TA Macalister for the loan unit, which was entirely for me to assess the usefulness of the D800E in my own practice.
The D800E is a small unit when you are used to D3s series bodies such as those I usually use. It lacks the built in vertical grip (although an accessory grip is available, which I did not have) and to my hands seemed very small. I found that the little finger of my right hand was left with nothing to hold as the grip is shorter than my hand is wide.
It is around 200g lighter than a large pro D series body which is nice in terms of carrying but I felt that it did not balance heavy f2.8 lenses as well as the larger bodies do.
Control layouts show clear Nikon DNA, but have undergone some shifts from prior cameras. The major shifts are:
• Focus switch by lens mount has now only AF and M positions
• The AF function switch has been deleted from the back panel and replaced with a ‘press and hold, then turn command dial’ approach
• Some alteration to the angle of the shutter release
• A dedicated movie record button
• Simpler Live View controls
I showed the camera to a friend who shoots a D700 and he compared the two and pronounced them very similar, so I think we can say that alterations are at least cosmetically minimal.
Are The Alterations Good?
Ah. This is a tricky one.
If you are new to Nikon, of course there are no alterations – this is the first time you have used one, so it all seems to be where it should be and to work how it should be.
For those coming to the D800 from a Nikon platform, then here are my thoughts:
• AF controls: seemed odd to me but I could get used to them probably
• Movie button: of no use to me at all, as I do not want to shoot movies with my still camera. Useful if you do I expect
• Shutter button angle: may be better on a long shoot
The Nikon D800 should be robust. It lacks the ‘hewn from rock’ feel that the D3 series (and no doubt the D4) have but it has a metal body underneath the paint and rubber and good dust sealing according to Nikon.
I do not like the pop up flash. It has uses – to control off-camera Nikon CLS units, if nothing else – but it feels weak and vulnerable and I doubt it would last in the field. I would probably tape it shut with gaffer tape to prevent annoying random activation and hope that the body took no significant knocks on top of the pentaprism as I think a decent one would crack the plastic flash arm.
The flash could have been better designed and built and is the weakest thing about the body in my view. In fact, since they have two models, perhaps offering the flash option on say the D800 and no flash on the D800E might have been possible.
Thom Hogan has blogged before about whether we are approaching the era of BTO (Build To Order) cameras whereby you can specify some options for your individual camera. Leica already do this with M cameras and I would think that Nikon could do it with the top models too. It would be interesting to see what people would choose to include and exclude!
Much like every Nikon DSLR recently, to be honest. Same metering modes although they seem to work better. I noticed a much better ability to expose faces against bright backgrounds: for example in front of a window. Even with no fill flash, this image looks reasonable:
Out in the field I found less evidence of blown highlights in JPEGs when the meter was left to it’s own devices. The need for intervention in the form of exposure compensation seemed less and anything that reduces the task load between “see image” and “press shutter” has to be a good thing when working with busy subjects as I tend to do.
Of course, static subjects such as landscapes and studio work etc all generally offer more time for tweaking exposure, sontrolling light and so on, and also you may well be using a meter to measure ambient rather than reflected light and so on.
AF seemed better as well than earlier iterations. Unfortunately I did not find a great many subjects to test this as much as I would have liked but my dog obliged once or twice and it coped with him running at the camera just fine.
I found the Viewfinder screen a bit busy at first until I found out I could turn off the composition grid – you may want to experiment with that. It added no value for me and was visually distracting. I cannot imagine the average targeted user of the D800 would need such a grid but at least you can turn it off.
The body does seem small in my hands. I am around 6ft and I could not quite shake off the feeling that I had a compact camera in my hands but I think that is just because I am used to shooting with the larger style of body.
Yes, this really is the strong point (although I have caveats to follow!). There is no doubt that the files out of this camera are very good indeed. Heaps of detail in both highlights and lowlights, plenty of scope for cropping without loosing resolution, great colours and pretty much just what you would expect.
My caveats are as follows:
1. Files are HUGE. Bigger memory cards, more storage on your Mac and so on are all going to become a requirement if you choose this path. Even a JPEG is 16Mb.
2. Technique must be perfect to get the best from the platform. This means camera support, top tier glass, perfect focus and care with aperture choices are all a necessity. At such high resolution, errors that would have gone unnoticed at 12Mp or even 16Mp are going to be right there front and centre.
So whilst it is VERY good, I am not sure everyone will be in a position to make the most use of it. Of course, Nikon have no full frame alternative at lower Megapixel count now other than the D3x and the D4 at 24Mp and 16Mp repectively.
I was surprised to learn from TA Macalister that the D3x is still current; like many, I had assumed it would die when the D800 appeared at 60% of the D3x price with 12 more Mp. However, I am told that the D3x sensor has better results in certain applications (mainly studio portrait type work I suspect) and may be kept on for a while as long as sensors and so on are available. The D3x does give those with existing D2 and D3 bodies in their kits a high resolution option that uses the same batteries, as well. Both the D800 series and the D4 use different batteries from their forebears which is inconvenient if you are running them side by side with older bodies.
The D800 series beats the D3x hands down at higher ISO settings however. The D3x is reaching the limits of good results by ISO 800 (and ideally less) whereas the D800 will happil run up to ISO1600 very well and to ISO 3200 with quite useable results.
I think the D800 is a tool for specific work and, whilst useable by everyone, will not actually deliver to everyone the full benefit of it’s potential. It is a shame that there is no equally priced (or cheaper) full frame offering from Nikon. A D800 body with the D4′s 16 Mp sensor in might well be a future winner for Nikon, as might a D4 with the 36 Mp sensor from the D800E!
My thoughts as to the areas most suited for the D800 series are:
• Fine Art
Not so good for:
• Portraits (so much resolution is very unkind to skin flaws etc)
• Action (not fast at 4 fps and buffer struggles with the huge files)
Other uses will depend on your style of shooting, subjects and so on. Some PJ’s and deocumentary shooters might like the resolution whereas for others the huge file storage requirements in the field will prove challenging and the robustness may not be up to it for some high stress environments.
One thing is for sure and that is that the D800 is a revolutionary series of cameras, putting a whole lot of bang for your money into your kit bag. Never before could you dream of this level of resolution for less than NZ$15,000, so to be able to get it for NZ$5,000 or so is simply amazing. Hats off to Nikon for achieving that.