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

Photoessay: The mosque by the sea

A little while ago, I was on a company trip to Melaka/ Malacca – happened to attend Friday prayers at one of the more pleasant mosques I’ve been to, on the outskirts of the historical city of Melaka/ Malacca. The open, airy architecture made the most of its location by the sea, oriented well to allow cool breezes to flow through and keeping the internal temperature pleasant. I got some images before and after the main prayer session.

Series shot with a Sony NEX-5 and 18-55 kit lens.

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