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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