Mid term report: The Nikon D800E

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I’d long ago intended to post a full review of the Nikon D800E, but somehow that got lost in a flurry of work, left-side AF problems, and repeatedly having to answer the question of ‘which camera should I buy?’ – note that this has now gotten even less straightforward now that the D600 is an option, too. And then there was the fact that it wasn’t really that different to the original D800, which I already reviewed here (I believe it was the first complete one up on the internet, actually). But now, I think enough time has passed, and I’ve used the camera under enough situations (and somewhere in the region of 20,000 images – almost all of them on-assignment) that I think it’s about time for a mid-term report card. This won’t follow the form of my historical reviews; rather it will take the form of a series of annotated comments. Some apply to both the D800 and D800E.

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Apples. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

One general observation is that it seems Nikon got the product mix wrong – most of the photographers I know bought the D800E over the D800, figuring that if they were going to go all out with resolution, they might as well really go for broke. I suspect this is contributing to the limited availability of the camera, despite the D800 being in stock – Nikon’s facilities were probably geared up to produce more D800s, but the demand is in favor of the D800E. I was recently told by NPS in Malaysia that while the D800 is readily available, the D800E is still back-ordered for a month or more.

I’m going to start with the bad first, to get all the negativity out of the way upfront.

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Dragonfly. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

Something still doesn’t feel right with the autofocus system.
Although my camera no longer exhibits any asymmetry with its focus points following the recalibration and fix by Nikon Malaysia, it just doesn’t seem to be as positive or accurate as the D700 was (or D600 is now). There are situations in which the camera nails everything perfectly, and situations under which it just seems to miss by a hair; far more of the latter exist than the former. And no combination of AF settings seems to work; this means that the D800 is effectively an unviable proposition to me as a documentary/ reportage camera. Bottom line: I’m not 100% confident that it’s going to focus where I tell it to.

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Up or down? D800E, 28/1.8 G

The viewfinder is nearly useless for manual focusing.
Sure, it’s big and bright and covers 100% of the frame, but the problem is that it just doesn’t have enough focusing ‘snap’; it’s very difficult to tell when things are in critical focus or not, which is made doubly critical by the extremely high resolution of the sensor. It seems that all modern focusing screens are really just optimized for brightness with slow zooms. I would have done the same thing I did to my D700 – namely, cut and fit a custom screen from one of the other cameras I like – the F6 type J and FM3A type K3 are my favourites. However, the D800′s focusing screen is so enormous that this simply isn’t an option – I think it actually has the largest focusing screen of any Nikon to date, which means there are no suitable donors. I’m trying to get hold of an original screen to see if I can make it more matte on my own, perhaps by grinding it down with 1200 grit sandpaper. (You’re probably wondering how I use the camera at all without AF and a good finder – since most of my work with this camera is tripod-based anyway, live view comes to the rescue.)

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The ZR012. D800E, 60/2.8 G Micro

Demands on lenses and technique are high.
It’s not the pixel density, but the pixel density for a given angle of view – this is the highest it’s been for any consumer/ prosumer level camera (i.e. non-medium format) to date. I think a lot of people confuse this with pixel pitch. The bottom line is that if your lens covers say 90 degrees horizontally, then the D800E puts much more resolving power per degree in the hands of the average photographer than they’re used to; this places corresponding demands on lens quality and technique (focusing, camera shake etc) than the vast majority people can manage handheld except under good light. I can’t even get a consistently sharp image unless I’m over 1/2x focal length – and I’m certain I’ve got better technique than average. This, and the size of the files (a throughput issue) make it impractical for a documentary/ travel/ journalism camera. Oh, and you’ve got to use good lenses too, which tend to be large and heavy – not ideal for walking around with.

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Eleven. D800E, 28/1.8 G

The live view exposure implementation needs work.
If you shoot manual exposure, live view mode always shows you a preview of the actual exposure. Guess what this means if you’ve got things set up for a studio strobe exposure with zero ambient: a black frame! You’ll have to toggle back and forth between P and M modes to focus, which wastes time and is unnecessary – especially since they fixed this on the D600. I hope it’s something that gets addressed in a future firmware update. Or, at least give us an option…

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Bored. D800E, 28-300VR

There are a few ergonomic fails.
The mode button is more and more annoying the more I use the camera – it’s just impossible to reach without contorting your grip, and muscle memory from using every other Nikon pro body means that you will almost inevitably try to change exposure with the video record button and back dial. The D-pad lock switch is too loose, and easy to activate, meaning that you may not be able to change focus point at a critical moment – and then be left wondering why, while your shot disappears. By a similar token, the metering mode switch is too stiff, and difficult to operate with the edge of your thumb. Aside from that, ergonomics are spot on. What I don’t understand is why Nikon seems to make minor changes between generations to both things that need fixing, and things that work fine as they are…

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Polo. D800E, 28-300VR

The shutter appears to have a vibration issue around 1/30s or so.
I’ve noticed a strange blurring/ double image that occasionally pops up in the 1/20-1/40s range; even with everything locked down on a heavy – Gitzo 5 series systematic – tripod and studio lights; the only conclusion I can come to is that somewhere in the shutter or mirror mechanism, something is vibrating at that natural frequency and creating a bit of camera shake. The solution around this has been to use live view and the self timer when required; it of course doesn’t require the mirror to cycle.

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3T MRI. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

File handling is…chunky.
This isn’t a flaw of the camera. But the increased amount of detail means even larger files than the D800; you’re looking at 40-50MB routinely for a compressed NEF. It would be a waste to shoot jpeg with this camera, of course. This is one of the reasons why I tell prospective buyers to think very, very carefully about whether they really need such large files: it has a knock-on effect on everything else from processing to storage. I usually open my raw files in batches; with the D700, my current laptop can happily handle 20; for M9, OM-D and RX100, it’s about 15; for the D800E…I think a threshold has been crossed somewhere, because it’s more like five.

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Sarpaneva Korona K0. D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

Now for the good news:

Visible diffraction is offset somewhat by the lack of an AA filter.
My work requires small apertures on a regular basis; the diffraction limit for the D800 was visibly between f8 and f11, with all other things equal. The lack of an AA filter allows you to claw back some perceptual sharpness (though remember that diffraction is a property of the pixel pitch, and still sets in at the same point for both cameras) – all other things being equal, this allows a D800E image at f16 to have the same perceptual sharpness as a D800 one at f11 or thereabouts. Handy. Needless to say, at smaller apertures, the D800E provides a noticeably crisper image – there isn’t necessarily more resolution, but the pixel acuity is definitely higher.

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All about the hair. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

Moire is a non-issue for the majority of circumstances.
I don’t shoot a lot of fabrics or repeating patterns, but on the occasions I have done, I’ve seen very, very little moire. And these tend to be studio situations anyway, which means that I’m at small apertures; I can always have the option of removing any aliasing by stopping down a little bit more and letting diffraction take care of things for me should the situation arise. Conversely, I can’t add the acuity back to the D800′s files.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Moon detail. D800E, 60/2.8 G Micro

Image quality is impeccable.
After working regularly with good D800E files, it makes me feel as though my other cameras are all lacking something; however, the knowledge that you really have to have all your ducks lined up in a row to make the D800E sing is enough for me to remain happy with the image quality from the rest. That said, the D800E is easily the best DSLR at the moment for any form of controlled lighting or tripod work; color accuracy and dynamic range are both superb; pixel acuity is beyond reproach (with the right lenses, of course) and – barring the aforementioned issues – usability is excellent.

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Spiral. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Battery life is outstanding.
Both the D800 and D800E have excellent battery life – easily 2000+ shots per charge without use of flash, or 1500+ if the built-in is used as a CLS trigger – which means that I only have one spare battery. This is a first for me: even my D3 had two spares. In fact, I think the real-world battery life of this camera is bested only by the D600.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300. D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

It doesn’t feel that heavy.
Even though the camera isn’t much lighter than the D700, you do notice the difference after a day of shooting with it – my hands just don’t feel as tired as they did when I was using the D700. Perhaps it’s also a function of grip shape. I don’t know if this has negative consequences for camera shake and stability, though – probably not, since the D600 is even lighter and seems fine (though admittedly it also has a much lower-vibration and slower shutter).

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How the other half live. D800E, 28/1.8 G

Overall, the impressions are good: very seldom is there a camera which I would consider perfect or close to it (the D700 was probably the last one) – the D800E pushes the image quality envelope forward by a significant margin, and with this necessarily comes compromises. The mistake I think most people make is in thinking that if you used the D700 with great results, you should be able to do the same with the D800E; no. Even for somebody who pays constant attention to shot discipline, you will find situations under which the demands of the sensor exceed your ability at that moment to achieve a pixel-level, critically sharp image. I know, because it’s happened to me several times.

This brings me to the final portion of this report card: I want to conclusively answer the ‘what should I buy?’ question once and for all.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude. D800, 60/2.8 G Micro

Buy the D600 if:

  • Size and/or weight is a priority.
  • You are coming from a DX body that doesn’t have the same controls as the pro bodies (anything except the D2H/D2x/D300/D200)
  • You just want a general purpose FX body, and getting the large sensor ‘look’ is your priority.
  • You want resolution for large prints but can’t afford a D800E.
  • You shoot mostly handheld
  • You shoot a lot of live view work in the studio
  • You don’t print larger than 40×60″ or so

Buy a (or keep your) D700 if:

  • Budget is a priority – second hand D700s are abundant now, and cheaper than new D600s. They’re still capable of producing excellent images – I still use mine for reportage work.
  • You need speed or AF tracking ability – it has more coverage than the D600, and (I feel) higher precision than the D800E. It also runs at up to 8fps, which none of the others can.
  • You do a lot of low light or marginal shutter speed work – it’s just more forgiving for handholding.
  • You shoot in hostile environments
  • You don’t print larger than 20×30″ or so
  • Workflow throughput is a priority – events, weddings, sport etc.
  • You shoot mostly handheld
  • You don’t need video or live view

Buy the D800E if:

  • You need to have the absolute best image quality in a DSLR available now (due to lenses, or budget vs MF, or whatever)
  • You don’t mind using studio lights and/ or a tripod to maximize image quality
  • You don’t mind re-evaluating your lens lineup
  • You shoot a lot of video – it has manual exposure controls and power aperture than none of the other cameras do
  • You need to print larger than 60″ wide
  • You don’t mind (and have the hardware to) handle enormous files

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Nadiah. D800E, 45/2.8 P

And what about the D800? Well, I honestly can’t see why anybody would bother unless money is super-critical, or you shoot a lot of fabric -  the price difference to the D800E isn’t big enough to be a factor if you’re already committed to spending that much money, and it requires almost as much shot discipline and lens quality anyway. Finally, if you do a lot of long lens work – wildlife or similar – then you should probably look at a DX body instead; cropping isn’t going to up your frame rate much, or improve AF ability; the D600 and D700 probably won’t have enough resolution for demanding applications in DX crop mode, either.

I think what says the most about this camera is the fact that I only use it on assignment – it isn’t my first choice when I’m shooting personal work, or teaching (except in studio), or just going out for a while and feeling like I want to do some photography; something’s missing. And I don’t know if it’s the file sizes and processing that subconsciously puts me off, or something AF-related, or perhaps I’ve just moved on from feeling the need to carry a big camera for reassurance. Bottom line – I’m just not bonding with it in the same way I did with my D700, or even D2H for that matter – and those were even larger and heavier cameras. All of that said, I wouldn’t dream of using anything else for critical commercial work. MT

The Nikon D800E is available here from B&H and Amazon and the D600 here from B&H and Amazon.


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  1. Thom Hogan and dpreview say that due to diffraction there is no difference between D800 and D800E beyond f/8, or at least beyond f/11. As far as I understand, diffraction should be the same for cameras using the same sensor and therefore the starting aperture of softening should be the same for cameras with the same sensor regardless of absence/cancellation of AA filter. This is indeed the view of TH and dpreview, which I seem to agree. Dpreview’s samples does not show any difference either. However your quite powerful statement “all other things being equal, this allows a D800E image at f16 to have the same perceptual sharpness as a D800 one at f11 or thereabouts” is contrary to their views.

    Although I understand that you are not saying “diffraction starts at f/16 in D800E whereas at f/11 in D800″, and that your emphasis is on “visible sharpness”, I cannot understand why the cancellation of the AA filter in D800E positively affected the visible sharpness in your experience.

    - Can you elaborate on what aspect(s) of the cancalled AA filter might have produced visibly sharper images at f/16 than f/11 of D800?

    - Do you have any idea why TH and dpreview could not observe the difference you observed? Could you please post some samples?

    • They’re both correct in saying that diffraction begins at the same point because it’s a function of the pixel size; however, since the D800E starts of sharper to begin with, you can stop down a bit further before they appear to have the same level of softness.

  2. Seems you were using the D800E for street photography in Fukuoka in March 2013 with some success.
    Did you change your mind or your technique?


  3. Do you have experience with the D3X ? And is the D3X a better image quality than the the D4 (at Low ISO) ?

  4. Ian Watt says:

    Just wondered if your feelings for the D800E have changed in any way as time has passed. I have been using a D800E for a year now and have grown to love it more and more. I dumped my zooms for a set of primes and now its the only camera I use on a daily basis. The results I’m getting now are better than ever, not sure if thats down to the lens change policy (thanks to you) or the camera but it works for me. By the way I think your site is one of the best.

    • Yes and no; whilst I’ve gotten accustomed to the file sizes, dynamic range, plasticity of the files and general output quality, I’m no more in love with the ergonomics or build – especially after shooting with an F6 of late – and the color accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, even compared to its Coolpix A brethren – let alone the Hassy CFV-39 MF digital back I’m also using.

  5. Ming, as always, you seem to have a knack in writing that stimulates the best in your readers. Great job. In reading this line of replies, I get a recurrent thought that a lot of camera enthusiasts have more disposable income and less true photographic experience. So, the get the best camera and I will learn someday methodology seems to abound. Regardless of this mispent bank accounts, I wonder if you would find it worthwhile to write an article specifically designed for your affluent readers who can easily drop Three and a Half for a new camera when they only have a 50mm kit lens and a zoom lens in their lens quiver. How about an article about great lens with non Rolls Royce Lens? I know that for your specific occupation uses, the Nikon 85mm f1.4 G is not a useful tool for you, BUT this lens IS the finest lens that any of your normal readers and even your affluent readers will ever see! The DxO folks rate this lens nearly off the top end of their scale. Just seems to me that your affluent D800E users would have greatest confidence using this best above any other lens with a lesser camera than the big boy’s D800E. Not only woukd they have increased confidence but their photos would LOOK BETTER! What do you thnk? Mike

    • Most of those people usually buy Leicas…

      The 84/1.4 G (reviewed here) is a lens I absolutely loved on the 12 and 24 MP FX cameras, but it just isn’t up to par on the D800E – there is no point paying for f1.4 if you have to use it at f2.8 for the CA to go away!

      Lenses are only as good as the photographers using them…I can show you fantastic images made with optical dogs, and vice versa. Just because somebody has the money to spend on something doesn’t mean that buying it will reap necessarily any benefits.

  6. I am a commercial photographer. I want to shift from D300s to D800. I have some FX prime lenses. I shoot architectural, interior, factories, machines, products , tabletops. My images are often enlarged to poster and large hoarding sizes. All the time I use manfrotto tripod and studio lights. What should be the resolution of my monitor to see the complete resolution of D800? My current monitor is Dell 2312HM which has full HD 1920X1080 resolution. I understand I will have to buy extra hard drive for more storage. Will I need to connect graphic card to my PC to edit the images of D800? What should be the ideal PC config to edit D800 image with reasonable speed? Will I be forced to buy 64 GB CF card if I buy D800? Sorry for so many Qs?

    • The D800′s files are 7360x4912px. No single monitor with that resolution exists.

      You can buy or use whatever you want, it depends on how much patience you have. I can’t answer that question for you.

  7. it s very good information about camera providing such information is an inspiring because its really helpful for readers. i like your post its very informative and very awesome. keep providing such kinds of post

  8. Ming, was there any fix for the live view problem? I’m planning to get a D800 by the next quarter to shoot events and expand towards product photography. it may seem strange i’d use that for events but I figured since I shoot primes, I’m better off being able to crop fast to zoom in case of rapidly unfolding events. will downres to DNG before PP.

    any thoughts?

  9. ming – just wanted to say hello from los angeles – really appreciate your in-depth, no-nonsense and technical-based reviews. nice to know there is a no BS pro out there who talks straight to me, covering what really matters withouth a subjective ax to grind. getting a D800E next week: you tilted the scale for me.

    thx, michael

  10. I wonder if Ming or any readers have had any luck with focusing screen alternatives for the D800E? There appear to be a few choices over at Focusing Screens, including a F6-J style among others.

    • I’ve ordered a couple but they still haven’t arrived yet. I’m hoping they didn’t get lost in the Christmas shipping kerfuffle…

      • Hi Ming,first of all thx for your wonderful and inspiring website and blog. I highly evaluate your opinions that’s why i dare to bother you by asking your advice: i have D800E and planning to buy a Zeiss 135 f2 APO for some commercial work..i shoot mostly fashion and catalogues..i’m curious how do you find focusing with the Zeiss especially wide open, do you think a focusing screen F6-j style is needed?

  11. Ming- as you say- no monitor, therefore no Web page or software application is capable of
    displaying the full resolution of this camera. The only benefit I see from this camera is very
    large prints. What we really see from any of your examples is how well your browser or
    software down-samples your file.

  12. I’m fashion photographer,..workflow using capture one pro and I know all advice is to avoid the d800E for fabric but I want sharper images! I have tested the 800 and all tho it is good. I know the 800E will give me more detail. Should I get the 800 or 800E?


  1. [...] siempre, para los que sepan ingles, mejor vayan al sitio original del post, porque tambien, de paso, le da un repaso bastante detallado a la D800E y sus virtudes, pero luego [...]

  2. [...] Architectural Residence Design Architectural Home Strategy Salient FeaturesArchitecture Prototyping and The Software Debate – by Piet Meijs – It's a 3D WorldDavid Chipperfield Architects Reports 57% Profit IncreaseMid term report: The Nikon D800E – Ming Thein [...]

  3. [...] of reportage; this added another tool to my repertoire. A third, less major, shift came after the Nikon D800E forced me to shoot mostly tripod based: I would shoot with precision, with more depth of field, and [...]

  4. [...] Canon 7D would work. If it’s image quality, then buy a tripod, some good prime lenses and the Nikon D800E. Frankly though, any of the cameras you can buy today at each of the levels – prosumer [...]

  5. […] 4G11 by Hijjas Kasturi Architects, Putrajaya. Nikon D800E […]

  6. […] OM-D is available here (B&H, Amazon) and the Panasonic 14-42 X here (B&H, Amazon). The Nikon D800E is available here (B&H, Amazon) and 24-120/4 VR here (B&H, Amazon). […]

  7. […] F6 on Ilford Pan F 50 film, using the 45/2.8 AI-P and AFS 85/1.8 G lenses, then scanned with a D800E and 60/2.8 G Micro. Enjoy! […]

  8. […] this assignment, I packed a range of gear (D800E, D600, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100, Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR, OM-D and […]

  9. […] that exclusively for my professional work – in many ways, it’s more flexible than the D800E, and for 99% of intended end use, there isn’t enough difference in image quality. It’s […]

  10. […] then again, Ming Thien reported that moire wasn't a real problem under most circumstances… Mid term report: The Nikon D800E And of course people that shoot digital medium format routinely shoot without the anti-aliasing […]

  11. […] system – D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 85/1.8, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon and a couple of SB900s (you never know when you might […]

  12. […] Live view was used to match subject sharpness as closely as possible. Testing was done on a D800E body, at base ISO with self timer used at all times, on a locked down solid tripod – a Gitzo […]

  13. […] Note: there are others who have done a good job of far more comprehensive formal and technical tests, such as Lloyd Chambers, DXOMark etc. – this will not be that kind of review; I’m going to approach it from the point of view of what this lens was designed for: making pictures. I won’t be posting full size samples because I do not want to lose control of any images; and images that have no real merit shouldn’t be posted at all in any form. In any case, a large print is really required to see what this lens can do; no screen can do it justice. All images were shot with a Nikon D800E. […]

  14. […] the clouds are truly free was shot at the top of Taipei 101 with a D800E and Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon; to paraphrase Nick Brandt it’s a subtle reminder that man […]

  15. […] Photography imitates art. Nikon D800E […]

  16. […] Nikon D800E: Here, it all boils down to the system of lenses and flashes: if you need any special purpose gear […]

  17. […] tricky part was the digitization process. I ‘scan’ my film with a D800E, AFS 60/2.8 Micro, an SB900 for light, and a custom jig to keep the camera and film planes […]

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