Major D800/ D800E firmware update (additional: more Nikons, ACR 7.4 final)

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Just got an email from NPS: it appears that a lot of the issues with the D800/ D800E have been addressed (note: I didn’t say ‘resolved’, that remains to be determined after testing) in the latest firmware update A 1.01/ B 1.02. The list according to Nikon:

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Nikon D800/ D800E left focus problem update: fixed successfully!

Just got my D800E back from NPS. Apparently, the cause of the focusing problem in all cases is some inaccurate calibration data entered during the alignment/ calibration process. I was told it’s basically a case of hooking the camera up to the laser calibration jig, and letting a piece of software run a calibration routine point by point – there are no physical or mechanical adjustments made to the camera. The software then writes this somewhere in the camera’s ROM for future use. All testing is done with the 50/1.4, and the instrumentation is apparently sensitive enough to detect minor focus errors – they’re also present even on teles, but less obvious, is what I was told.

Also asked about the new firmware that’s appearing in some cameras – apparently it’s legitimate, but not officially downloadable yet. No news on when that might be. My camera still has the same firmware it went in with – A 1.00, B 1.01, L 1.006.

The good news is that all of the wides I tried the camera with now focus consistently between AF and live view, i.e. there’s no difference between the results from either AF system. I repeated the test a number of times, each time with the camera locked down on a Manfrotto Hydrostat head on top of a Gitzo 5-series systematic tripod, using flash. (Let’s just say that camera shake is a non-issue.) However, it’s also revealed that lenses are a lot less perfect and symmetrical than we would like them to be…the D800E has one seriously demanding sensor.

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This example set shot with the 28/1.8G at f1.8. The original size is visible here, which is a screen shot of 100% crops.

Conclusion: problem solved. If you do have the left side AF issue, then send it in and insist they look at it – because there exists a fix, and it works. Barring any further AF oddities (it’s night time here and I haven’t had a chance to test AF tracking or 51-point 3D yet), I’m considering this issue solved. Thanks to the folks at Nikon Malaysia for turning around the camera so fast!

I’m off to break out the LensAlign to run AF fine tune on the rest of my lenses again. MT

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How to tell if your D800/ D800E/ D4 has the ‘left focusing problem’

I’ve been asked this question more times in the last few days than I can remember: ‘does my D800/ D800E/ D4 have the left side focusing problem?’

Here’s how you can tell.

1. Pick the widest, fastest lens you own. A 24/1.4 is ideal.
2. Shoot it wide open, with the camera on a tripod, AF set to AFS single point.
3. Shoot a set of images at extreme left, center and extreme right, defocusing the lens manually between shots. Use viewfinder AF. Pick a subject about 2m away.
4. Without moving the camera, do the same but in live view. (This is so the camera focuses exactly on the sensor).

5a. If there is no difference in sharpness in AF and LV modes between the points across the frame, then you’re fine and don’t have a problem. (But you might of course find the edges worse than the center; that’s normal. LV and AF focused shots at each point should look exactly the same in a correctly calibrated camera.)

5b. If LV is sharper than AF for all frames, then you need to use AF fine tune and try the process again.

5c. If the LV shots look sharper for only some, but not all, of the points, (e.g. right and center points look the same for AF and LV, but your left point is much sharper in LV than AF) – then you have the asymmetric focusing problem and your camera has to go back to Nikon.

You might also find this article useful on how to use AF fine tune.

And with that, I’m off to send my camera in for the fix. Will report back later (or tomorrow, whenever it’s done)…MT

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Good news: there’s an official Nikon D800/D800E focusing fix!

Was told by NPS this morning that an internal fix for the D800/ D800E asymmetric focusing issue has been issued. I’ll be sending my cameras in next week after a job; apparently it’s both hardware and software calibration. Fingers crossed…

Photoessay: The C3H5N3O9 (Nitro) Experiment ZR012

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Despite being completely unpronounceable, this watch is just plain outright cool. The brainchild of Max Busser (MB&F) and Felix Baumgartner (URWERK), it is the first watch to use an eccentric planetary transmission system for the timekeeping mechanism – i.e. the same geometry as the Wankel engine. (Curiously, there’s only one ratio of inner to outer satellite that actually permits the three distinct chambers to be formed; any other ratio doesn’t seal at all). The minutes are read off the red tips of the upper ‘rotor’, with the hours on the level below. There is no seconds indication, but there is a power reserve on the back of the watch.

I believe these are the first photos outside the official press release, and I was told that the watch is a working production prototype – which means non-final parts and finishing, and some potential tool marks in places as befits an engineering experiment…

Many thanks to Ian Skellern at C3H5N3O9.

This series shot (hastily) with a Nikon D800E and AFS 60/2.8 G Micro. It wasn’t a commercial shoot, so please excuse me if I missed a spot or two. All images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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Minor firmware update: Nikon D800/ D800E

Sadly, it doesn’t seem to address the AF issue yet (if it is at all addressable via firmware) – but those of you who’ve been having problems with the camera freezing in playback mode, or wireless transmitter use, or D lighting shadows – here’s your fix. D800 and D800E

Just arrived: Nikon D800E

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The D800 went back, so I won’t be able to do a direct A-B comparison, but what I will do is post an update as I shoot with it more. I’ll also try to find a matched image to shoot (both under ideal conditions) so we can take a look at the differences.

Initial impressions: acuity is better, but ever so slightly. It seems to remove that ‘layer of fog’ from some lenses, though. Annoyingly, you can’t save settings on a D800 then transfer them to a D800E; apparently the firmware is different, too. Everything else is the same.

The question you’ve been wondering about is AF: yes, it’s a hell of a lot better. Not 100% perfect on the left side, but close enough to LV that I’m now wondering if my copy of the 24 is a bit off and the other bodies just weren’t high enough resolution to notice it. The 85/1.4G is noticeably better than on the D800; no explanation why. I haven’t used the other lenses yet, so I can’t comment. But I do have a watch shoot coming up for which I’ll use the 85 PCE, so that should be interesting.

This month looks like there’ll be a lot of gear reviews – I’ve got an OM-D incoming, and I was told to clear my schedule for a couple of days after May 10. Please don’t ask me what for, I don’t know either. MT

Quick update at 8pm: I forgot to mention earlier that I also had a chance to play with the new AFS 28/1.8 G at Nikon; it was a prototype so they didn’t let me take it away for a more extensive evaluation, and I wasn’t allowed to keep any images. First impressions are positive; it’s sharp wide open, bitingly so by f2.8, consistent across the frame, focuses fast and positively, and is surprisingly light. However, the problem for me is that it simply lacks character; I can’t put my finger on why but I suspect it’s to do with Nikon’s preference for macro contrast over micro-contrast. The Zeiss 2/28 Distagon may not be as perfect on a test chart, but it certainly has much more personality – and remains my preference in this focal length. I suspect also that it has a much higher T stop than the Nikon.

Long term review postponed: The Nikon D800

I was originally going to post a long term review of the Nikon D800 today, but seeing as my camera has been autofocus-crippled and I’ve only used it under studio conditions with manual focus, it wouldn’t be fair. Instead I’ll roll my conclusions into the D800 vs D800E review which will go up later this month, once my camera arrives – I’m told later this week.

But what I can say is that the sensor is absolutely stunning, and remains one of the best, if not the best I’ve ever used – at least in 35mm format (sorry, I haven’t had a chance to shoot with the H4D-50MS or IQ180 backs). And it definitely provides more flexibility than anything larger; you can use the high ISOs, you can shoot faster than 1fps with it, it can do video…and I’ve not run out of useable dynamic range yet. Yes, the product definitely has some early teething troubles – and I’m not for one minute saying that we should let Nikon off the hook, because it is a lot of money – but if you stop for a minute and think about what we’re actually getting, it’s pretty amazing. Ten years ago, the same money got you a D100: the output from that camera was so soft that you wouldn’t even know if you were having edge AF issues or not; in fact, nobody would think to use the edge AF points for anything other than viewfinder decoration because they were that inaccurate.

I don’t know how many more large leaps in technology we’re going to see at the advanced consumer/ pro level – look at the incremental changes to the flagship Nikon and Canons – but I honestly feel the D800 is a game changer in the sense that it’s now truly made the next step in image quality accessible at a much lower price point than before; forget the Pentax 645D. But the same caveat always remains: just because you can afford the tool, doesn’t mean you know how to use it properly. And no amount of money can replace dedication and hard work in achieving photographic results. Then again, I suppose you could just buy a large print. MT

POTD x3: Food photography with the Nikon D800

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Goldeneye steamed in miso and ginger

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Seared tai (seabream) with momeji oroshii chili.

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Iso-bagai snail, I believe poached in mirin and soy.

This series shot with a Nikon D800, PC-E 85/2.8 D Micro, and two LED light panels. Chef – Kenny Yew at Hanare

Two of the toughest things to get right color-wise (in my experience, at any rate) are people and food. There’s something about the way organic materials reflect light – probably due to the fact that they are both reflective, transmissive, and have odd properties in the infrared and ultraviolet regions (think: flowers, or cat’s eyes) which is just a huge challenge for most cameras.

Up to this point, I was fairly convinced that the Olympus Pen Mini plus Zeiss lenses (usually ZF.2 2/28 via adaptor) delivered hands down the best color; perhaps not the most accurate, but certainly the most pleasing. The Olympus sensor’s color bias would take care of global saturation and hue, and the Zeiss glass would ensure great micro contrast and accurate color transmission. Similarly, for landscapes – anything with skies, especially – the Leica M8/M9s excelled; I still can’t match the blue with any other camera. To my eyes, the Leicas (with Leica lenses) deliver the best sky blue bar none; and a decent skin tone (with Zeiss lenses – yes, there is a difference in color transmission; it’s subtle but I’ve always felt the Zeisses are slightly warmer.) The Nikons…well, I learned to correct them, but frankly, they weren’t that accurate (thought the D700/D3/D3s was the best of the bunch to date). I think it has something to do with the way Nikon designs lenses for global contrast rather than micro contrast, which affects the transmission of subtle tonal variations. Color improves markedly with Zeiss glass, which is designed to optimize micro contrast.

After this shoot, however, I think I’ve stumbled upon the best of both worlds. The D800’s sensor delivers the best color I’ve ever seen – accurate and highly pleasing, which is an achievement (and I believe DXOMark found the same thing). Paired with the Zeiss 2/28 Distagon, it’s pretty incredible. But what if it could get better? What if you could have accuracy, saturation, micro contrast, macro contrast and everything in between? Apparently, you can. The PC-E Micro-Nikkors now take the cake for me as the best lenses to use with the D800; resolving power is there even wide open; color transmission and micro contrast are on par with the Zeisses; edge performance isn’t an issue because they were designed with enormous image circles to support the tilt shift movements; and finally, you solve the DOF vs diffraction issue through tilts or swings.

My only complaint is that focusing ring feel is rather inconsistent, for some inexplicable reason. The 24 PCE is silky smooth; the 85 PCE is so stiff and dry that it’s very difficult to move in small increments. And sadly, Nikon has changed some components internally so that moving the tilt and shift axes to be parallel now requires new internal PCBs and about $400, instead of just removing some screws. This begs the obvious question: why the hell didn’t they design it that way in the first place, since a) clearly, enough people want the lens that way that they designed a separate PCB for such cases; b) almost all of the lenses I’ve seen on ebay have been modified and c) it doesn’t make any sense photographically unless you want to do a horizontal pano! For architectural work, macro work, and everything else, you need to have tilt and rise/ fall, not tilt and shift or swing and rise/ fall. Makes you wonder if anybody is actually a photographer on the lens design team.

All of that aside, being able to shoot at wide open or nearly wide open and still have sufficient DoF is a joy. It makes small LED light panels useable as your primary light source at ISO 100, handheld even. This is great, because studio strobes and speedlights will make the food wilt in double time, and anything raw will start to look slightly parboiled under the heat if you don’t work fast. On that note, enjoy the sushi. MT

And the Nikon D800 autofocus saga continues (with some comments on specific lens performance)

This post is a quick update to my D800 autofocus issues, as well as commentary on the specific performance on some of the more popular lenses people have been asking about. I don’t have time to post crops, but I think most of you would trust that I know what I’m doing.

I spent the morning at Nikon. Ostensibly, to collect my replacement D800, and a PC-E 85/2.8 Micro. However, it turns out the replacement D800 exhibits the SAME autofocus issue – namely, with wide angle lenses, the center and right side AF points yield in focus images, the left side bank is way out. This is especially obvious with the 24/1.4 G. We also tried their NPS loaner demo units and their D800E sample. The results were mostly the same – all of the D800s showed identical results. The D800E was a bit better, but still noticeably soft on one side. It gets worse: I’ve had a number of emails from people with cameras in the same serial number block – below 1000 – and the 24/1.4, who are finding the same thing. Apparently it is a serious issue, because my NPS rep told me that HQ has asked for updates and is looking into it on the production line.

Perhaps it was my 24/1.4 sample that was the issue – nope, because it works fine on a D3x, D4 and D700; we tried another 24/1.4 which showed consistent results – that rules out lens problems. I think we can also rule out sensor alignment problems as I don’t see any odd shifts in the focal plane when focusing using live view.

The upshot is that it will take them two days to diagnose the problem, and possibly longer to fix. Since it’s only an issue with wide angles, and not an issue with anything above about 50mm, I elected to keep this body for the time being – I’m only using it in the studio with the 60/2.8 G Micro, and now the 85/2.8 PCE. It looks like I will be reviewing both E and non-E after all – I’ve elected to take a D800E for the replacement unit.

There were more surprises in store, though – specifically, with lenses.

Summary of Nikkors tested so far on the D800:

AFS 14-24/2.8 G: Not good at 14mm; obvious corner sharpness issues. Displayed AF issues at 24mm. Center is sharp. T stop is probably closer to f4 than f2.8. Average to good performer.

AFS 24-70/2.8 G: Sharp everywhere in the range, at every aperture. No AF issues, even at 24mm. Excellent performer.

AFS 70-200/2.8 G VR II: Sharp everywhere in the range, at every aperture. 85mm setting better than the 85/1.4 G at f2.8, and comparable to the 85/1.8 G at f2.8 (yes, you read that right. The 85/1.8 G is better than the 85/1.4 G.). No AF issues either. Excellent performer.

AFS 24/1.4 G: Sharp everywhere except extreme corners at every aperture if you live view – remains an optically amazing lens, but now even more fiddly to use thanks to the AF issues. Three copies all displayed left-side softness on the D800, but not on other bodies. Cautiously, I’d say excellent performer, to be confirmed once I have a properly working body.

AFS 28-300/3.5-5.6 G VR II: Sharp everywhere if you close down the aperture on stop. Microcontrast not great, but serviceable. Overall global contrast is good. Color a bit odd. Good to very good performer. No AF issues, probably covered by depth of field and small apertures.

AFS 35/1.4 G: No good wide open. Center is okay, both sides are not good – even after AF fine tune. Not recommended. The 24-70 performs much better at 2.8 than the 35/1.4 does at the same aperture. Slight AF issue noticed, same as 24/1.4.

AFS 85/1.4 G: Inconsistent. Wide open displays LCA and LoCA at edges. Nowhere near as good as it was on the D700/ D3/ D3s. Stopped down to f2.8, it improves, but only to about the same level as the 70-200/2.8 II wide open. Note T stop is pretty high for this lens though – probably 2/3 stop more than the 70-200/2.8 II, and half a stop more than the 85/1.8 G for the same aperture. Good to very good stopped down. Honestly, I’m not liking this lens very much anymore.

AFS 85/1.8 G: Incredible. Sharp everywhere at every aperture, no LCA or LoCA. Bokeh is neutral, not quite as good as the 85/1.4 G. Surprising considering this lens has no ED glass, Nano coating or aspherical elements. It’s honestly an optical masterpiece, and very, very cheap. If you need an 85mm and don’t have the 85/1.4 G already, I’d suggest buying one of these. Performance at wide open at f1.8 is better than the 85/1.4 G at 2.8; it matches or slightly exceeds even the 60/2.8 G Micro at the same distances. You’re probably wonder what’s the catch: two things; T stop and build quality. T stop is half a stop down on the 85/1.4 G for the same aperture, and it’s light and plasticky. Still weather sealed, though. Excellent plus performance, no visible AF issues.

PC-E 85/2.8 Micro: This is the only lens of the group tested that could best the new 85/1.8 G, and by the slightest of margins (or maybe both lenses out resolved even the D800E sensor and we’d need something even higher density to see the difference). Global contrast is a little lower than the 85/1.8 G, but micro contrast has more bite and structure to it – reminds me of the Zeiss macros. Excellent plus performance. (I took this one home, after relieving my credit card of some of its available balance. Look out for a full review in the future once I get a chance to shoot it in the studio.)

PC-E 24/3.5: A truly excellent piece of glass. Matches the performance of the 85/2.8, but at 24mm. Shame about the small aperture, though. Handily focuses to about 20cm – which is about 3cm from the front element of the lens. I’d say sharpness performance of this and the 24/1.4 G at f4 are about the same, however the micro contrast structure of this lens is almost Zeiss-like in detail. Excellent plus performance again. And whoever said it won’t mount is wrong – it mounts and offers full movement just fine, but you must zero all of the movements before trying to mount it, and there are certain orientations that work better than others (big knobs vs small knobs near the prism etc.)

AFS 60/2.8 G Micro: Although this was my reference standard on the 12MP FX bodies, it’s performance clearly isn’t up to the D800’s demands: I’m seeing plenty of longitudinal CA (especially in the bokeh) that wasn’t there, or almost negligible, on the D700. It’s sharp already at f2, but not critically bitingly sharp til f4-5.6; your working aperture range is somewhat limited because diffraction kicks in noticeably by f16, and it’s unusably soft by f25. I’d say f22 is probably best reserved for emergencies. This is the main reason I got the 85/2.8 PCE: lack of depth of field control. I’d put it in the good-to-excellent range.

A word on the D800E: I didn’t have a lot of time with it, but from what I can see, there is a slight but noticeable difference in fine micro contrast, as well as sharpness and resolving power. It seems to offset diffraction to some extent. However, file sizes will be even bigger, and lens demands even higher. Recommendation: use with caution, requires controlled circumstances to get the most out of it (tripod or studio lights, low ISO).

Conclusion: If you plan on getting the most out of your D800/D800E, you’re going to have to rethink your lens lineup. What worked brilliantly for me on the D700 – as in I felt I couldn’t get any more image quality out – isn’t working on the D800. And there are a lot of surprises here; not all of them good – the 85/1.4 G and 24/1.4 G are good examples of this. It seems that one has to now choose for a lens set optimized for studio work (or slightly brighter light conditions) – 24-70, 70-200, 85/1.8G, 85/2.8 PCE – with the compromises that brings for available light work, especially now that you’re going to require more shutter speed to handhold and the sensor loses out a stop to the D700 at the pixel level – or run two sets of lenses. This obviously isn’t ideal, or cheap. I feel the latter route is likely the way I’ll have to go – probably with the 85/2.8 PCE for the majority of my studio work, and a Zeiss 21/2.8 or 24/3.5 PCE for architecture and interiors.

Am I happy with feeling like a bit of an expensive guinea pig? Not one single bit. I think this latest push in resolution has brought up manufacturing tolerance and QC issues that were never previously noticeable. But at least a) it works under a known range of conditions, and more importantly NPS here deserves credit for doing their best to rectify the situation, and at least provide me with a working solution in the intermediate period (D3x on extended loan for high-res WA work).

It’s not ideal, but when you get everything right, the D800 is capable of delivering pretty darn amazing image quality. The trouble is, once you’ve seen it, you really don’t want to give it up – even if it is a colossal pain to achieve. Of course, none of this will be news to seasoned medium or large format shooters – but for anybody expecting to go from a DX consumer body, or even 12MP FX, to D800 and get pixel-level crispness across the frame, there’s going to be something of a steep learning curve to climb. MT

Check back for more updates once my D800E replacement body (finally) arrives at the end of the month.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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