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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Update on Nikon D800 focusing issues

It seems that I’m going to have to redo all of my focus tracking and lens evaluation tests: my AF sensor module is misaligned. I’ve come to this conclusion after a) trying out a number of wide angle lenses, all of which exhibit a soft left side when the AF system or focus confirmation dot reports achieving focus; and b) sending it in to Nikon locally to diagnose. Curiously, the problem is only exhibited with wide angle lenses (telephotos are mostly fine), and live view confirms it’s an AF sensor issue not an imaging sensor issue.

The bad is that it’s serious enough to require a new camera because the calibration is a very high precision adjustment that takes time (and unclear if it can be done locally); the good news is that NPS Malaysia made the situation right: a couple of hours after reporting the problem, I met with a representative who informed me a new D800 will arrive next Wednesday, and I’ve been loaned a D3x until the replacement arrives – at which point it will just be swapped out. Kudos to NPS for handling the problem well though – that’s how professional service should work (though a new camera on the same day would be even better…)

Still, a bit of a shame, because I planned to use the D800 for its first commercial shoot this weekend – looks like I’ll only be using it for the stop-down telephoto shots. MT

Coda: It’s interesting just how sluggish the D3x feels when shooting in 14-bit raw mode – just 1.8fps, with what feels like a good 200ms or more of lag between hitting the button and the shutter firing. It’s very noticeable if you put the camera back into 12 bit mode, after which it feels responsive and snappy like it should. Even the menus feel a little laggy, like the camera’s processor is working very hard. The D800, by comparison, runs happily along at 5fps in 14-bit mode – 3x the frame rate with files that are 50% larger, for a total of 450% more data. You don’t feel any lag, and zoomed in images – even 14 bit raw – are very fast to navigate around. Faster than the D700, even. I don’t know how many other people have noticed this, but it’s pretty darn impressive, in my opinion.

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More D800 autofocus observations

After a couple more days of testing, I’ve got more observations on the D800′s autofocus system:

1. I think we’re reaching the limits of accuracy for CAM3500FX, and in fact, any phase detect based AF system. There are just too many parts that have to be precisely perpendicular and in exact alignment to achieve focus accuracy – the AF sub mirror assembly, the AF sensor itself, and the main imaging sensor. If any of these is out of plane by a few microns, then you’re going to see some softness. We’re now getting enough resolution that the planarity of the lens mount relative to the sensor becomes an issue – to say nothing of perfect alignment of optical elements. I believe there was an article posted a while back on the Luminous Landscape about shimming a sensor and how much resolution improved by both on-center and especially in the corners of the frame.

2. Future AF systems will have to be hybrid – i.e. use some form of contrast detect or phase detect embedded into the imaging sensor in order to work around these limitations. It doesn’t however solve the problem of mount planarity or lens element alignment.

3. There are some things you can do as a photographer to counter these limitations, chief of which is use live view for critical focusing, or stop down – or better yet, both. Live view eliminates problems of AF sensor/ sub mirror alignment. Stopping down covers slight sensor misalignment with depth of field.

4. AF fine tune is an absolute must to get the most out of the AF system.

5. Bad news for manual focus fans. I did my mirror alignment and calibration this morning – it was almost perfect from factory, which is a first; however, my joy died after removing the focusing screen. The focusing screen in the D800 is a different size to anything Nikon has yet produced. Worse still, it’s the largest one I’ve ever seen, so you can’t even cut something down to fit – it’ll just drop out. This is a real shame; I can only hope a third party produces replacement screens for MF aficionados.

6. Finally, lenses you thought were fantastic on the previous 12MP FX cameras may now only be mediocre or average on the D800 – you have been warned. MT

A quick note on Nikon D800 autofocus…

Up to this point, I’d been shooting the camera with the same autofocus settings I used on the D3 and D700 – which share the same CAM3500FX AF module. I think I just discovered why the AF system doesn’t seem to be as precise as before.

Previously, I used single point AF-S for static subjects, and 51-point dynamic 3D tracking AF-C for everything else. I could lock on with the center point, focus and recompose, and everything would be fine. It seemed like a good starting point for the D800.

Turns out I was wrong. Single point AF-C is MUCH more accurate and slightly faster than 51-point dynamic 3D. It’s solved a good number of my AF issues. Remains to try it out tonight when the light gets low to see if performance is improved under those conditions too. MT

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A couple more Nikon D800 images, and some commentary

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Shadows. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

One of the big questions that’s been running around the internet is whether the D800 can replace medium format – the answer isn’t quite as simple as you might think. Firstly, the resolution is definitely there to compete with the lower pixel count options – and even more so once the D800E joins the fray. However, a very large part of the medium format ‘look’ is a product of the interaction between lenses, sensor size (i.e. angle of view) and tonal response of the sensor. Remember that almost all medium format sensors are CCDs, which have a very different – and less linear – tonal response to CMOS sensors. For comparison at the 35mm/FX size, the D700 and D800 both have a different tonal palette to the CCD-based Leica M9. Undoubtedly the look is different already due to no other factors.

However, once you consider the angle of view vs DOF equation, then things look different again – it’s similar to the difference between APSC and full frame – for a given angle of view and aperture, you’re going to have ever decreasing depth of field (and quicker transitions between in-focus and out of focus areas) with the larger sensors.

Some of the other things which have been of concern to shooters – like having enough light and decent support – are nothing new in the medium format world, especially to users of very high resolution backs like the IQ180 or H4D-MS; this is perhaps why a lot of people are crying ‘so what?’. Even so, good support pays off for both medium and smaller formats – even compact shooters have something to gain. The tradeoff is always weight and flexibility.

A quick note on color reproduction: the D800 has the most accurate color I’ve ever seen. This seems to be corroborated by the recent batch of DXOMark tests, which rank the D800 first (!). Most cameras have trouble accurately reproducing the blue-green-cyan tone of glass reflections (due to UV transmission/ reflection issues) – but the D800 required only minimal corrections. Furthermore, the very fine repeating patterns between the squares on the textured floor panels do not show visible moire, but plenty of detail. It’s also worth noting that nothing is blown out, and I crushed the shadows for the visual effect – there weren’t any blocked up blacks, either.

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The look. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

Again, I was very pleased with the quarter tone reproduction quality here. I’m actually finding that for a lot of images – especially those with less contrast – you need to apply a curve with a very long, shallow shadow tail in order to get the right ‘look’. This is undoubtedly due to the D800′s huge dynamic range at low ISOs. As for detail, you can see the weave in the man’s shirt and my reflection in his glasses.

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Bike traffic. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

This shot was a test in many ways – extreme highlights and shadows; lots of fine detail; tonality of B&W conversions. The short answer is, the camera passes. The image (which looks much better on a large monitor at full size, by the way) retains good detail even into the extreme corners, despite being shot with the weakest end of the 28-300VR, and has nice rich quarter and half tones, which make for a good B&W image.

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The reader and the thinker. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

This portrait is a little deceptive, because there was a lot less light than it appears – 1/125s at ISO 1800, f5.6 and 150mm. Yet the camera held on to shadow details well – with remarkably little noise, I might add – and I can read the text in the newspaper at full size. I don’t think the files make as outright punch B&W conversions as say the Leica M9-P, but black and white conversions from the D800 seem to have a unique signature of their own – perhaps best characterized by subtle tonal gradations and deep shadow detail. In short, I like what I’m seeing, but I’m going to need to adapt the processing style a little to get the most out of it. MT

Nikon D800 review update: daylight shooting

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On reflection. D800, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

As promised, here’s an update to the Nikon D800 first impressions review I posted last night. I’ve now had the chance to shoot with the camera for several hours under bright daylight conditions (read: no problems with running out of light, base ISO and nice high shutter speeds) and want to share some more images, impressions and report back on a couple of things.

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Are you my mother? D800, 28-300VR

Firstly, I think I need to clarify a few points that have repeatedly come up on both the forums and in the comments to the first part of the review.

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Out of place. D800, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

1. AF is not as fast as the D4, nor do we expect it to be.
The difference is similar to that between the D700 and D3 – probably down to battery voltage and the current available to drive the lens motor. It seems subjectively the same as the D700 under very low light conditions – specifically, speed and tracking ability. However, I was using an 85/1.4 G wide open to see if the camera could track moving objects with it – the answer is, hit and miss. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I suspect the actual AF module performance is no worse than the D700, but with the increased pixel density of the D800, the demands on focus accuracy just got a lot higher – and that’s the shortfall we’re seeing here.

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Distorted reality. D800, 28-300VR

2. Noise.
People seem to get angry and anxious when I say it isn’t as good as the D700 at the pixel level – I don’t know how it could be, the photosites occupy half the area! (Probably less, once you take into account the additional power and read circuitry required to run the sensor.) HOWEVER, if you downsize to 12MP to match the D700 (or print both at the same size) – the D800 is better, markedly so. I’d put it a stop ahead for noise, and there’s of course the extra detail.

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Not used to being the little one. D800, 28-300VR

3. A lot of people have said the images are noisy. Yes, they are at the pixel level, but remember a) mixed light sources; b) I run zero noise reduction and sharpen fairly aggressively – I much prefer grain to smearing and indistinct edges; c) this is a worst-case scenario, overall.

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Virtual continuation in reflection. D800, 28-300VR

4. Usability and ‘demandingness’.
To achieve the same PIXEL LEVEL quality as the D700, you’re going to have to up your game. And the camera itself cannot deliver the same level of quality at the individual pixel level (think 100% enlargement on screen) because the pixels themselves are smaller. Those are laws of physics. In reality, this means shooting at one stop lower ISO, and taking care with camera shake. If you’re just talking about the overall appearance of a print at a given size, see #2.

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Man-mountain to capitalism. D800, 28-300VR

With that settled, let’s move on to the update part of the review. This is to address performance of the camera under bright daylight, i.e. close to optimal conditions.

AF, under daylight
Focusing is snappy, positive, and noticeably faster than the D700. I was testing the AFS 28-300/3.5-5.6 VR today – not known for being a snappy lens – but nevertheless, the picture was in focus before I expected it to be. I often re-focused again, because I wasn’t sure it had locked – subsequent testing revealed it always had. AF-C mode is best described as being a little bit skittish – you can hear the AF motor chattering away as it tries to keep the lens elements in optimum position. Whether this is because of the new AF system, the interaction between the camera and the lens or something else, I don’t know. Tracking moving subjects – in this case motorbikes coming towards the camera – was no problem at any focal length using the 28-300VR. I’m certain performance would be better if a lens with a faster motor was used.

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Untitled. D800, 28-300VR

Resolution
In short: at base ISO and sufficiently high shutter speeds that camera shake isn’t a concern, there’s more resolution here than you can shake a stick at, even with decidedly ordinary lenses: even the 28-300VR delivers pretty amazing levels of detail. With the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon, it’s on par with the entry level medium format systems. Retouchers, beware. This thing is going to produce files that take two or three times as long to fix as previous cameras, simply because there’s so much more information here. I would honestly recommend NOT getting the D800E if you’re shooting portraits, because it’s going to produce downright unflattering results for anybody without absolutely perfect skin or makeup. Bottom line: the D800 delivers what you’d expect it to, and in a most impressive way. The anti-aliasing filter in the regular D800 is evidently very weak; fine detail remains well resolved, but simultaneously it’s just strong enough to prevent moire. I haven’t seen any evidence of it in the ~2000 images I’ve shot so far, even in fine repeating textures (which you’ve be surprised by how many of them there are when you have this much resolving power).

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Porthole-barnacles. D800, 28-300VR

Some more resolution examples:

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Work in progress. D800, 28-300VR

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100% crop of above

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Morning skyscrapers. D800, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

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100% crop of above

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The much-maligned pump room. D800, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

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100% crop of above

Dynamic range
Nikon’s claims about more dynamic range than the D700 are true, but must be accompanied with a caveat. I’m finding that while there was a lot of recoverable headroom in D700 files, there isn’t so much in the D800 – however, there’s more useable shadow detail and less noise. Subjectively, I think we’ve lost 1 stop in the highlights and gained around 2 in the shadows; this at base ISO. You could probably pull a bit more out of it with judicious use of the right sliders in your raw converter, but then color accuracy starts to wane. At higher ISOs, color accuracy in the shadows is a bit suspect and heavily influenced by the ambient light source.

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Urban dynamic range torture test canyon. D800, 28-300VR

White balance, color and tonality
The D800 seems to deliver the same general white balance as the D700, but with a slightly different tonal response. I can’t put my finger on exactly how it’s different, but the files are quite reminiscent of the Leica M9′s output – my color profiles for that camera actually deliver better results during conversion than the D700′s profiles. I can only put it down to new sensor architecture, or perhaps a change in the filter pack in front of the sensor. It’s definitely more pleasing, that’s for sure. Note that I’m talking about RAW file output converted via ACR for both cameras, which removes any manufacturer-specific processing.

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Untitled. D800, 28-300VR

The other crop modes
I’m actually finding these surprisingly useful. The 15+MP file you get from the smallest DX crop is still a serious amount of resolution. On a personal note, I’m also starting to like 5:4 a lot. 3:2 is increasingly feeling like no-mans’-land between 16:9 and square for me.

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Verticals. D800, 28-300VR

Battery life
Seems even better than yesterday after a full charge and cycle – I shot 500 frames today, and at the end was only down by 20% – again with heavy LCD use and mucking around in the menus. I was also using a VR lens, which wasn’t the case yesterday. That means an estimated 2,500 shots per charge – on par with my D3, as far as I recall. I don’t know what Nikon have done with power consumption, but it’s impressive. I don’t think I need to buy that third battery anymore.

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Voluntarily caged people. D800, 28-300VR

Commentary on the AFS 28-300/3.5-5.6 VR
This lens has been a bit of a mixed bag for me in the past – it’s so-so on the D700, good at some focal lengths (the longer end) and downright unusable at 28mm until you hit f5.6 or preferably f8. Oddly, it did pretty well on my D5100; enough that I’d actually use it. On the D800, it’s a big, big surprise. The midrange is excellent at f5.6 and outstanding at f8 – we’re talking about 35-200mm or so here; the ends are slightly less good, with the 28mm lagging slightly behind the midrange (but useable wide open, if slightly hazy due to flare) and the 300mm end being just okay to good. Still, it’s a surprise given the resolution of the sensor. I didn’t think the lens was capable of resolving this well. Don’t get too excited though, while it delivers excellent macro contrast, micro contrast structure lags far behind the Nikon primes, let alone the Zeiss primes. Look out for a full review of this lens in the near future.

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Chevrons. D800, 28-300VR

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And a 100% crop of the above – can you say ‘detail’?

The shutter mechanism
Although it’s a bit more hollow-sounding than the D700, and frankly I was a little disappointed it wasn’t as smooth and well-damped as the D7000, it’s got one other trick up its sleeve: low vibration. Again, subjectively because I have no way of testing this, the D800′s shutter and mirror mechanism has a lot less recoil than the D700 – this is very, very, very important because it helps us reduce camera shake. Bravo.

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The glass ceiling. D800, 28-300VR

Intermediate conclusion
Initially, I thought I’d shoot this camera at full size raw and then reduce by 50% to 18MP; not so. Instead, I’m processing at full resolution but forcing myself to be more selective about the keepers. I guess it’s a rare example of a camera actually driving you to be a better photographer – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I still need to go out to buy more hard drives, though. MT

Look out for more updates and images over the coming days and weeks. I’ll be shooting some studio assignments this week and next week, so I’ll report back after on how the camera performed. I’ll also try to make some video with it in the near future.

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Keep on smilin’. D800, 28-300VR

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A (very detailed) first impressions review: The Nikon D800

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We all know the paper specs for the Nikon D800: 36MP, 4fps, full frame. Same ISO range as the D700 – 100 to 25,600. 100% viewfinder, full HD movies, and an improved 51-point AF system derived from the previous camera. And to boot, a D800E version with no anti-aliasing filter for even more resolution, as if 36MP with a weak filter wasn’t enough for you. What we don’t know is how it fares in the real world.

What follows is what I believe is the one of, if not the first, complete, real-world test by a photographer of a production D800. 8 hours of non-stop flat-out work – so, please leave a comment if you enjoyed it.

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I first heard D800-shaped noises way back at a Nikon event in March 2011, both locally and from my sources in Japan. These definitely wasn’t the same information as what was going around on the popular rumor sites at the time – I was told specifically D3X replacement, slightly higher pricing. An interesting strategy; too bad the initially planned May-2011 release got derailed by the tsunami. The Sendai plant that produces the D700, D800, D3S and D4 was inundated and had all of its precision machinery replaced; an amazing feat considering the magnitude of the disaster.

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Stall chef. D800, 85/1.4 G. 

All images in this review were shot as 14-bit lossless compressed NEF and converted in ACR 6.7/ PSCS5.5.

Still, the camera has finally arrived, and delivered precisely on the promised date – even in a small market like Malaysia. That’s impressive. I got mine through NPS; apparently there are around 200 members, 90 D800 orders, and…only 18 cameras to go around. Mine must be one from the very very first batch – serial number 234.

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Literally, Mickey Mouse color. D800, 85/1.4 G, DX crop mode.

Initially, I wasn’t going to order one. Then my high-mileage D700 began to give up the ghost, and I downloaded some sample images – which in short, blew me away. They were honestly better than the output from the Hasselblad H3D-39 I used a couple of years back in mid-2010 – and quite close to what I’ve seen out of the Leica S2 (I do have access to one, I will try to do some comparisons soon) so far. I called my local NPS rep and put in an order for the D800E; however, playing with both sets of demo files further, it became clear that a) you weren’t really giving up that much getting the regular D800, and as a bonus, it would arrive sooner – an increasingly important factor given this month’s shooting commitments – and b) lenses and diffraction would be the limiting factor for me, not the camera’s sensor. Furthermore, for most purposes outside the studio environment, I intend to shoot the D800 in 14 bit compressed RAW, but downsize by half to 18MP for manageable output, lower noise, and better per-pixel detail.

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Untitled. D800, 85/1.4 G

At some point, I will probably source a split prism screen and have the focusing screen and mirror precisely adjusted for manual focus planarity; for now, I’m relying on AF. I do really miss the focusing snap of the custom-cut F6 type-J screen on my D700; it’s just so much easier to tell if things are in focus or not. The standard D800 screen is bright but doesn’t have much snap. This may sound odd, but I’m having trouble getting used to the 100% finder again – I’ve become so accustomed to mentally adding a little bit around the edges of the D700 frame (97% finder) that now I’m chopping things off. Just one of those little differences between the two cameras, but important nevertheless.

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Minor copyright infringement hotel. D800, 85/1.4 G

First impressions on lenses
But this is a camera review! Glass matters. Two big things: a) AF fine tune matters a LOT; b) the optimal set of lenses for this camera is different to the D700, again. The 24/1.4 never quite focused properly on my D700 – I was at the extreme limit of AF fine tune adjustment – but it’s bang on with the D800 with zero adjustment, and incredibly sharp all over. The 85/1.4 needs a lot of shutter speed while handheld to shine; probably double what you’d expect – in the 1/125s range or higher. I’m also seeing a lot of edge CA that wasn’t there before (1-2 pixels worth; that’s probably less than a pixel on the D700). My 60/2.8 G Micro is soft until f5.6 and focus shifts, which isn’t something I’ve ever seen before. Oddly, the 28-300VR is actually rather impressive at 300mm on the D800 – NOT something that could be said about the lens on the D700. In fact, it performs much better on the D800 than it did on my D700 – curious considering the demands of this sensor.

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Mall performance. D800, 85/1.4 G

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And a 100% crop – this is a best case scenario for CA, with the lens wide open at f1.4. There were other, much worse shots; I suspect being ever so slightly out of focus also contributes to visible CA in a big way. The older 85/1.4 D is very likely going to be unusable wide open with any subject that’s even moderately contrasty.

The sole lens that has been outstanding on every camera it’s been mounted on is the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon – wide open, I think it has the highest resolution of any of my lenses. Makes me want to get the 2/100 Makro-Planar again, and possibly also the 4/18 Distagon. Generally, lenses I though were good wide open on the D700 are showing a slight but noticeable improvement stopped down, even if only by a stop – I’m talking about my workhorse AFS 24/1.4 G, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro and AFS 85/1.4 G here. Also, lenses that vignetted a bit before will vignette more strongly now; I suspect it’s because the individual photo sites are smaller, and there’s no trick offset micro lens array like in the Leica M8/M9 to counter it.

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Disposal. D800, 85/1.4 G

It was dark by the time I got the camera and had a chance to shoot with it, so take it as a worst case scenario and impressions will almost certainly improve when I have more light to work with. I will not be providing full size files, so please don’t ask. There may be crops. Clicking on any of the images will bring you to a larger version on Flickr; the EXIF data is all intact.

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Untitled. D800, 85/1.4 G

Autofocus
Seems to be about the same speed as the D700 in good light, no difference as far as I can tell in low light. Has issues focusing the 85/1.4 G accurately in low light; this may be true of the D700 but it’s a lot more noticeable here due to the higher resolution. Tracking ability seems slightly improved. More tests are required before I can reach a conclusion here. Contrast detect AF for live view subjectively seems at least twice as fast as the D700, and doesn’t require as many passes while hunting.

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KL Tower peeking. D800, 85/1.4 G

Ergonomics
First thing you notice is the camera is lighter – about 100g, according to the specs. However, I personally find it not quite as comfortable as the D700; my fingers were cramping after use. This is because the lower section of the grip is thinner – not sure why, perhaps their testers had small 4th/5th fingers, or perhaps Nikon just really, really wants you to buy the vertical grip.

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Fruit choices. D800, 85/1.4 G

That’s about the only bad thing ergonomically – I don’t know if it’ll be a deal breaker for extended use. Sadly I don’t find it anywhere near as comfortable as the D4, which is pretty amazing. Oh, there IS one more thing: the mode button is a stretch to access; I feel like I’m going to dislocate my index finger by pressing it. Too often I hit the movie record button by mistake and wondered why nothing was happening. A firmware fix to make the movie button change exposure mode when shooting stills would be a nice easy fix. I do like the new angle for the shutter button, though – it’s much more comfortable.

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Taxi man. D800, 85/1.4 G

There are a lot of nice touches though. Live view is a lot easier to access thanks to the button where the AF mode switch used to be; am I the only person who misses the AF mode switch though? That little button near the lens mount is not so easy to find, but at least you can see what the camera is set to in the finder. The new drive mode dial is also a lot easier to use – it locks and still has detents, so you can count positions and change modes in the dark – there’s a big difference between using CH and Q in a theatre, for instance. Speaking of the shutter, it’s slightly more hollow sounding than the D700; crisper, too. Sadly not as quiet as the D7000, which is nearly silent in Q mode. Interestingly, the mirror doesn’t cycle when shooting in live view – just the shutter – so the camera is actually very quiet, and doesn’t vibrate much. Although the maximum frame rate is 4fps, it doesn’t feel any slower than the 5fps D700. Mirror blackout time is the same, which is to say, effectively instantaneous.

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Dial-a-sunlight. D800, 85/1.4 G

Metering
I mention this because it seems that Nikon’s newest meter isn’t quite as accurate as the last one. My D800 definitely meters a bit hot compared to the D700, and seems a bit more erratic. Further investigation is required here.

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Plugged in. D800, 85/1.4 G

Turning AUTO ISO on and off is an option from the button, finally! You use the front command dial to toggle on/off, and the rear one to select ISO. There’s also an option to automatically select minimum shutter speed as a 1/focal length, with some fine tuning in either direction – sadly, the fine tuning isn’t granular enough. For example, the 85mm defaults to 1/90; adjusting this to ‘faster’ gives 1/200 rather than say 1/125, which would be perfect. Back to manually selecting shutter speed again, it seems. In short: you will be needing to use higher shutter speeds than 1/focal length would suggest. Think about what you’d set on a D7000, and that’s about right – remember, the pixel density is the same.

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Communist taxi. D800, 85/1.4 G

Image quality
Bearing in mind that I’ve only shot it under low light/ night/ available darkness conditions, I’m impressed. It’s doing a decent job for the pixel density – though I would not pick this over a D700 for reportage work. The few flash-based tests I have done have left me stunned. Color accuracy is slightly better than the D700, but resolution is out of this world. Dynamic range is about the same, subjectively; however, instead of being highlight-biased as with the D700/D3, it’s shadow biased – you’ve got to be careful not to blow highlights because there simply isn’t as much recoverable color information there. Still, I wish I’d had the camera earlier today for the food assignment I just shot; it would be the ultimate tool for things like that. No matter, because I’ve got several watch shoots in the coming weeks. Early impressions are that the pixels don’t have the same degree of elasticity/ integrity as the D700 (duh) and are probably somewhere between that and the D7000; probably closer to the D7000.

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The burden. D800, 85/1.4 G

Noise
See the following crops; they were shot under pretty dark conditions and tungsten light, i.e. a torture test. Subjectively, I think it’s ~1 stop behind the D700 at a pixel level; if you downsize to D700 size, it’s actually a stop ahead. Now if only Nikon would give us a pixel-binned half-resolution sRAW size for low light! If you are shooting full resolution, I recommend stopping your auto-ISO at 6400; anything higher than that has to be downsized to look good. 3200 is definitely acceptable, and anything below is good. The reality of printing, however, is that because you’ve got so many more pixels, a print will look a lot better than at 100% on screen. There’s no sign of banding, but beware of strong noise in one particular channel over another in the shadows, but it depends on the temperature of your light source – for instance, heavy shadow recovery or dodging under fluorescent lights is going to give you a red cast to that area.

Note that I didn’t bother with ISO 100 and 200, they look the same as ISO 400. Click to go see larger versions on flickr – the ‘original’ size is a 100% crop.


D700-D800-ISO400-800
ISO 400-800

D700-D800-ISO1600-3200
ISO 1600-3200

D700-D800-ISO6400-25k
ISO 6400-25600

Here’s a real world ISO 6400 example, sodium-vapor street light. Yes, it’s noisy at 100%, but I’m fairly confident it’ll print just fine.

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And a 100% crop.

Movie mode
I’m not a huge video person, though I have dabbled (to be the subject of a future article). I do know what good quality footage looks like. The D800 is excellent. Dynamic range is great; noise is low, and above all, there’s no rolling shutter effect that I can see – even while panning rapidly under fluorescent light operating off a 60Hz AC supply.

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Battery life
Pretty darn good, I think – I just grabbed the battery that came with the camera; 36% charged; shot about 650 frames, and it went down to 6%. Extrapolating, that’s about 2,100 shots per charge. And that was with heavy LCD use and some live view. One battery should more than get you through a day – you’ll run out of card space far, far sooner. I can’t honestly say I’m pleased about the complete battery system change (I have plenty of EN-EL3es and EN-EL4as) – but at least the new power system lasts longer, and also has a little catch that allows for a spring loaded (read: easier to replace) battery.

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Salad days. D800, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

Buffering and file handling
The manual claims 25 images for 14-bit compressed raw – the camera shows r13, but I’m getting 17, using a UHS-I Sandisk Extreme 32GB SDHC card. Still trying to find out where the difference is; auto ISO gives back three more frames, but curiously NR makes no difference. The buffer flushes surprisingly quickly, and you never feel like you’re waiting for files to write – although there is a slight lag when playing back images, probably due to the file size.

It’s probably worth noting that file handling is a bit slower, but not 3x slower (despite 3x the resolution) – however some operations like brushes etc. and even converting in ACR definitely take longer, so budget time accordingly. I’m using a mid-2010 MacBook Pro with the 2.66GHz i7 and 8GB of RAM. I don’t even want to think about retouching files this big yet.

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100% crop of the above.

Early conclusion
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that getting the most out of the D800 is going to require a lot more care than the D700; the resolution is so high, in fact, that I think the AF system may be letting it down slightly – not from a speed point of view, but from a precision standpoint. And I’m not sure it’s the AF sensor per se, but possibly the granularity with which the lens motors can move the elements small distances. I know that in live view, there’s a point of critical sharpness that’s usually very tough to hit using the focusing rings of AF lenses; the travel is simply too fast.

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Untitled soaking tomatoes. D800, 60/2.8 G Micro

I don’t think the D800 is a general purpose tool. It definitely isn’t a run-and-gun photojournalist’s camera; in fact, I find it more demanding to shoot street with this than the Leica M9-P. It’s probably at a two stop or more disadvantage to the D700 if you want critical sharpness at the pixel level – firstly, you’ve got a slightly noisier sensor, and secondly, you’re going to need higher shutter speeds to maintain pixel integrity and combat camera shake. Although downsizing the files to 12MP yields lower noise and more detail than the D700, I don’t think I’ll be using the D800 for photojournalism at the moment; I’m going to have to figure out the AF and lens foibles first.

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100% crop of the above.

Where the camera will shine is in the studio for work with controlled lighting, or landscapes – the resolution is outstandingly impressive, and dynamic range at base ISO seems subjectively on par with the D700 – no mean feat indeed. However, I need to do more testing in daylight (not experiments with flash) to determine for sure. Stay tuned for more images and thoughts over the next few days; at some point I want to try to get hold of a Leica S2 to do a head to head comparison. Please leave a note in the comments below if you’ve got any questions or have something you’d like me to test, and I’ll do my best. Right now, I’m going to get some sleep. MT

Get the D800 from B&H and here and the D800E Amazon

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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!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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