Rational love: the D800E long term report

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It’s been nearly two years since the D800E was released. In the meantime we’ve dealt with left focusing issues, comparisons with much more expensive cameras (here, and here), the fact that most of the Nikon lens stable doesn’t really match up to the capabilities of the sensor, focusing issues with MF glass – now that we have lenses like the Otus and 2/135 APO, and its use as a scanning device for film – amongst other things. It’s become my go-to camera when an image needs making, under any circumstances, and with any given set of requirements. Yet it’s honestly taken me two years to warm up to it. Here’s why.

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The logical part of us doesn’t like things that don’t work properly. Quirks aren’t endearing when they get in the way of your shot, nor are they charming when they cost you a job. I’ve used many cameras that were entertaining and fun to use for whatever reason – ergonomics, shooting experience, the lenses, the way they looked and felt…but the frustrations and limitations ultimately dominated. The rational part, however, tries to persist with these devices anyway because we enjoy using them. So long as there’s no critical need to deliver images to a paying client, then loss of photographs might be a severe disappointment, but professional reputations aren’t at stake. Bottom line: for photography that doesn’t matter*, we’re willing to take a risk.

*Though this raises the much larger question of why we are bothering to photograph it at all in the first place if the image or subject does not matter…

What I do notice is that whenever I have a job to deliver – the D800E is always the first camera I pick up. I have no concerns over image quality, having the right range of lenses, lighting gear, spares, clients caring that my camera isn’t big enough (happens surprisingly often in this uneducated but price-sensitive market), etc. I know the hardware is sufficiently capable, and I am almost certain that it won’t let me down. And if it does, I have another one which I can just pick up and continue with. This gives you a certain amount of confidence when approaching what is sometimes unfamiliar or challenging photographic conditions – inside a tunnel boring machine, for instance. And the price point is relatively high for a DSLR, but at least it’s friendly enough that I can afford to have two, and easily available enough that I can buy another one on location if it really all goes to hell in a hand basket. You can’t say the same about a Leica M, or a H5D…

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The D800E is not without its flaws; far from it. No camera is perfect. But these aren’t the dominating part of the experience, and that’s what makes it the current go-to. It took several months to resolve the focusing issues; my lens solution is mostly third party; the focusing screen** is a hack job, and the camera still locks up from time to time – requiring battery removal – but at least it doesn’t eat images and corrupt memory cards like the Leicas. There’s no stabiliser in the body, unlike the OM-Ds; but I’m not stuck if clients request 30MP+ files for extremely large enlargements – which they sometimes do, especially now that I seem to be slowly moving up the commercial food chain somewhat. Color requires quite a lot of work to fix; the camera’s native output doesn’t look as natural or pleasing as CCD-based cameras like the CFV, M9 or even E-1. The grip isn’t the most comfortable in the Nikon lineup, and I find my fourth and fifth fingers getting cramped after a few hours of use, unless I have the battery grip mounted – and that makes the whole caboodle even heavier still. The whole system is still larger and heavier than I’d like for travel, especially in light of today’s increasingly strict airline carry-on restrictions. And we haven’t even started talking about the significantly increased shot discipline required to make the most of the available resolution.

**They didn’t fit very well out of the box; significant work was required to restore mirror alignment and subsequently, AF accuracy. I know many of you will ask, but it’s a qualified recommendation – only buy if you know what you’re doing, and you’re prepared to fiddle around inside your mirror box and potentially void your warranty.

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At this point, I’m now about 70,000 shots in with two bodies in constant rotation, and most of those were purely for commercial/ studio work – careful set up under ideal conditions, single shot, repeat. I admit that I’ve become both very used to and subsequently spoiled by the camera’s image quality – when I look at output from other cameras, some (like the GR) may meet it at the pixel level, but then they fall short on gross resolution. I have said many times that almost all current cameras’ resolution is more than sufficient for 99% of all applications – that stands true; but if you are in the 1%, and you do have a final output medium that’s demanding enough to distinguish between say 16 and 36MP, then the D800E does give you a bit of extra bite. My current printing method is in that 1% – it does resolve that difference in just a 10×15″ print; this has lead me to carry the D800E more and more often for this reason – especially when I know my output from that shoot is for this print method. (The internal conflict really arises when there is a small possibility that you might capture an image you want to print, but you’re not sure and don’t want to compromise…do you carry smaller, lighter, or bigger, heavier, better – just in case?)

On the whole then, there are more positives than negatives. It does the job, with better reliability and image quality than anything else to date, over a wider shooting envelope – even if you can now get decent ISO 6400 quality out of the current generation of CMOS medium format cameras, there are no f1.4 lenses to go with it, giving several stops’ advantage to the D800E. But, honestly: I’ve found this to be a very soulless, uninvolving camera to shoot – it does its job, gets out of the way, and then you take it out again only when you need to do another job. It has never really given me the impulse to take it out and shoot with it for the enjoyment/ entertainment value; I used it for work and work alone. Until now.

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I think what has changed is that in the last six months a number of things around the ecosystem have matured to the point that I’m happy with the available solutions; firstly, I now have lenses that can make the most of the sensor – the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and 2/135 APO, and now a full set of PCEs; but more importantly, focusing screens** that make the manual focus lenses workable under situations other than those requiring a tripod and controlled lighting. It means that I can bring formerly medium format image quality to very demanding photographic situations; low light corporate documentary, for instance. And that does give me a commercial edge. File handling was an issue until I got a more powerful computer – with dual RAID 0 SSDs – that now make processing a breeze. It seems to work quite well as a film scanner, too. Finally, I now have a printing method that can take advantage of all of the resolution of the camera without having to print so large that I can only hang one photograph on my wall at any given point in time.

By far the biggest part of this is the lenses, though. Subjectively, it feels as though the Otus has finally unlocked the full potential of the camera; you don’t have to carefully watch your apertures or subject distances for adequate performance, or apply compensatory sharpening afterwards to make up for diffraction losses. I now want to shoot with the D800E/ Otus combination simply because it is the most transparent tool I have used; it replicates what you see, without coloration or adulteration. It does it over a very wide shooting envelope. I can now focus it adequately, too. But beyond that, it finally feels as though everything is working in concert: on the input side, the technical latitude of the camera and lenses allows me to translate my creative vision into a file, whose detail, colour and tonal subtleties translate into an accesibly-sized final print. There is a rational, logical synergy here – and that in itself is worthy of respect. It’s not the usage experience that’s finally make me like the D800E beyond its function as a core business tool: it’s the results. And I’ve finally put my money where my mouth is – I’ve now got two of them. MT

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

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Comments

  1. David Caballe says:

    I own a d800E and it s the best ever camara I shot,sure. After leave Canon DSRL series ; )
    I had shot zeiss serie, 21 2,8 and 50 1,4 an old 50 1,7. Now with my E I have zeiss 35 1,4 I dare to afirm the 35 i so good as zeiss 21. I m useId a lot at zeiss 50MP. And my wishlist is only zeiss 100MP. Really the 135 is so good, it s a difference between the 100Mp?? I don t ask for 50MPvs Ottus ,I know the answer. The sad face of my tast is I dislike nikon lens series. I only shot the 24-70 2,8 , because I need a AF ,of course. Where I can see raw of E with 135 and Ottus? COngr for your work, the best is your improve performance throuht time! Entusiast work.

  2. Ming, the review website SLRGear just posted the reviews for the Otus and the new Sigma 50mm Art lens. According to them:

    “As we had hoped, the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art stands up to the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus very well, meeting or slightly exceeding the optical performance of the Zeiss!”

    I own a Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art series and I’m very happy with its performance and I’m really praising sigma for their new quality products. Two of the major barriers for the Otus are the prohibitive price and lack of AF. If the review from SLRGear stands true, we have a kind of impressive performance/price ratio. Putting this together with the weight/size and the presence of AF, I think the new sigma must be a great alternative to use along with the D800E.

    I’m not a huge fan of the 50mm focal lenght, I tend to use the 35mm/85mm combo more. Although I love my 85mm 1.8G, I’m really looking forward to see how the Sigma 85mm will perform. If it follow the steps of the 35mm and 50mm it looks like it will blow the nikon away.

    • Interesting results – one can only hope they used live view to focus the Otus though.

      Frankly, I cannot see how a lens can get any better – or if it is, you certainly won’t see it on the D800E. Or maybe I have a particularly good sample of the Otus. In any case, if it is true – AF plus that level of performance at that price point is something rather special indeed.

      • plevyadophy says:

        Ming,

        The relevant paragraph reads as follows:

        ” As we had hoped, the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art stands up to the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus very well, meeting or slightly exceeding the optical performance of the Zeiss! In terms of sharpness, the Sigma performs superbly. At ƒ/1.4 on a full-frame camera, the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art is just as sharp right in the center as the Zeiss lens, while the Otus shows better sharpness in the corners. The Otus 55mm’s blur characteristic is almost perfectly flat, and very sharp everywhere. When you stop down to ƒ/2.8, the Zeiss 55mm and Sigma 50mm show very similar, very sharp and very flat blur characteristics. Looking at our graphs, you may think the Sigma appears slightly sharper, but the difference is so slight, it’s essentially negligible. ”

        To read the reviews in their entirety, see here: Sigma: http://slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/1677/cat/30 and Otus: http://slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/1664/cat/98

        It seems Sigma have now caused Canon MAJOR problems (I have not mentioned Nikon or Sony because they both have already updated their 50mm lenses with what, I guess, is their view of excellent perfomance …………….. and they fall short, VERY short of this Sigma’s performance if ………………………….. we can rely on the results of just this one review site)

        • You’re the fourth person to send me this. I honestly cannot see how the Zeiss could be any better optically – which makes me very curious about the Sigma. But I do agree that the Canikon 50s are all uniformly rubbish.

          • plevyadophy says:

            Hi Ming,

            I wasn’t sending the links to in anyway “big up” the Sigma lens or to suggest that the Zeiss Otus should be better. Rather, I provided the links so as to give context to the passage that the previous poster quoted. In essence, my interpretation of the two reviews is that the Otus is at the top of the tree optically and that the Sigma Art 50 matches it in so many parameters whilst having advantages like AF and being a little lighter in weight that for SOME the Sigma would be the better buy.

            If you regularly shoot wide open, and your motif often has details into the extremities that you want reproduced very well then it seems the Otus is the one to go for.

            Still, two remarkable lenses.

            And as I said to you before, I am now gonna wait and see how Canon, or if Canon, responds. If they can respond by making a new 50 f1.2L with the floating lens elements design of the 85 f1.2L Mark II then they may well produce something sensational; and it’s gonna have to be sensational to even equal the Sigma Art and Zeiss Otus. The current Canon 50 1.2L is pretty rubbish really considering its cost.

  3. Hello Ming,

    Have your thoughts changed at all since you wrote this article https://blog.mingthein.com/2013/08/24/the-demise-of-the-dslr/? I’ve moved from a Nikon DSLR to an EM5 and GR for everything I do but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss the heft and ‘experience’ of carrying around the beast of a Nikon.

    Cheers!

  4. Nikon D800 is my first digital reflex camera (I have a long experience of Nikon camera from the first F to F5).
    I do not have Otus and Zeiss lens (I use Nikon AF-S lenses, mostly zoom as 14-24/2.8 and others 2.8 zooms, plus the AF-S 60/2.8G micro and AF-S 300/2.8).
    I do not think that, with theses lenses, I would see a significant improvement with the D800E.
    To improve the micro-contrast, I use the “Smart Sharpen” filter of Photoshop which is very efficient but request a powerful PC.
    So I bought a MSI GS70 Stealth where the i7 can run at 3.4Ghz with 2 SSD working with Raid 0, 16Go RAM and 1To fast HDD.
    I do not think, now, that the SSD are less reliable than HDD. I think the opposite. But I think that back-up data’s is mandatory.
    Congratulations for all your posts and reviews.

    • There is a difference. It’s small, but consistently visible if your shot discipline is good enough. And remember everything you apply to one file you can also apply to another – but microcontrast cannot be recovered through sharpening. It’s a transmissive properly of the lens. You can *enhance* it, but you can’t replicate it if it isn’t there.

      • I agree “Smart Sharpen” can’t recovered details no more exist. But the improvement is real when the small details have so low contrast that it’s difficult to see them.
        I took a picture of a house in a park with nice trees and flowers. In front of the house, there was a small chart to remind the story of the park. On the picture, the text has a low contrast so I was unable to read it. After using “Smart Sharpen”, I was able to read the text (screen set to the pixel size) on the picture.
        After that, I returned in the park at the place I took the picture to see if I was able to read the text… I wasn’t able. I had to walk closer to read it.

        My feeling was about the price of the D800E and the $500 difference price versus the D800. I had to make a choice between the D800E vs the D800 + AF-S 60mm/2.8G micro… and I choose the second, with the feeling that with my zooms the small difference would be difficult to see. May be with my 300/2.8, but it’s not the lens I use the most.
        Choose the body depends on the lens you have or intend to.

        • Again: you can always reduce resolution, but not increase it. There is of course a point of diminishing returns/ practicality which sets the threshold for most; you can pay $20,000 more and get a MF digital back, but there might not be much point for most applications 🙂

          • I all agree… I hope people reading these comments will understand that the sharpen filters DO NOT increase resolution, but change the MTF shape (not the limit) and increase contrast where the lens and anti-alias filter reduce contrast of small details.

  5. Jorge Balarin says:

    It’s nice to know that you are happy with your tools.

    • An acute observation, but one that’s seldom true, actually. The more you use something, either the more you appreciate it or the more it starts to grate on you. Seldom anything else.

  6. Peregrine says:

    Hi Ming
    On the all important subject of focusing screens for Nikon full frame sensor cameras, have you had the opportunity to compare the two types of micro prism screens from focusingscreens.com, the Ec-A (Canon based) against the F6-J (Nikon based)? I’ve enquired here in the UK and a repair center has quoted £25 to change plus carriage, which doesn’t seem too bad given the job might not be that straight forward. Also is the Nikon DK-17m viewfinder a worthwhile investment in search of a manual focus biased digital camera,and are there any significant disadvantages/compromises?

    • Yes to all of the above. The Ec-A is a bit coarser and easier to focus with. DK17M is a must. And they can change it, but check that price includes shimming/ mirror alignment too – that’s the difficult bit.

  7. Interesting read, especially your issues with the focussing system. I never got those issues really fixed on the D800E (and not on the D3x). I was thinking that I was completely crasy as no one else was facing such troubles. Nevertheless, the D800E was always with me on assignments, mostly as a backup. I’m a portrait and fine art-photographer, for me exact focus is mandatory. This is why I gave up early on Nikon and bought into the Leica-S-System, a step I never regretted (except maybe financially). Every lens is perfect there, the AF which has only one point, is perfect as well. Now I will use the Sony A7R as travel-companion and backup, a combo that works extremly well for me.

  8. William Rounds says:

    I realize this isn’t the subject at hand, but for years the D3x was the benchmark for resolution, and right now used D3x’s are selling for almost the same price as a D800e. Do you see any reason why anyone might prefer a D3x, perhaps ergonomics?

  9. Interesting to look back at the comparisons to the two Leicas. Do you think that if Zeiss hit the standards set by the Otus on their wide and tele version you would revise your view that “the S2 wins on the quality of its lens system.”

    If so that is a remarkable achievement, both by Zeiss and Nikon (albeit a new S will be out soon, moving the bar yet again!).

    Separately, I have a longing for an MM. I know it is completely irrational – just shoot film, the price of one of those things pays for a hell of a lot of Acros; but what a camera!

    • Yes and no. The S still has a wider range of lenses and AF; the system is more complete. Three primes – albeit well-chosen ones – do not make a complete system.

    • plevyadophy says:

      My friend, I am surprised that you say “If so that is a remarkable achievement, both by Zeiss ….”. That makes it sound as if Zeiss are some new kids on the block. Zeiss are every bit as good as Leica at making lenses, and in fact I would say they are better at it, making a wider range of lenses for various mounts and are leaders in optics for mobile phones. Leica may have the snob value and mystique but Zeiss dispense with that and just get on with the business of making superb optics. I don’t regard the Otus as a “remarkable acheivement” because for me it’s no surprise that Zeiss can make such a great lens; rather, I regard the Otus as a remarkable lens.

      Regards,
      plevyadophy

      • It’s nothing to do with whether Zeiss is new or not. Of course it’s a great company with its own amazing history. Nor is it to do with the fact that the S is made by Leica, it would be a remarkable achievement if it had been compared to a Contax 645 with an P40 – also using Zeiss glass.

        What’s a remarkable achievement is simply that the Nikon + Zeiss 35mm combo can live with a sensor with 1.6x the area on a system with what is commonly regarded as some of the best MF glass out there.

        • Until recently with the new 33x44mm CMOS sensors, economies of scale and development costs have meant that smaller sensor development have outweighed physically larger pixels. I suspect that the new 50MP Sony CMOS shares architecture with the D800E’s sensor – so performance should be similar at a pixel level, but there are of course now just a lot more of them. It means that lens demands are also going to be a lot higher…

        • plevyadophy says:

          Hi Nick,

          Like Ming says, developments in small sensors have been galloping ahead whilst leaving larger sensors behind still using (relatively speaking) primitive tech. That’s the first thing.

          The second thing is, to be honest, the Leica S sensor is tiny ……………………. for it to be truly called or considered medium format. I have actually seen it described by someone as Super 35mm, and to me that is what it is (and even Leica themselves are a bit confused as to what to call it, sometimes referring to it as the Leica Pro System, and then when it suits them they refer to it as medium format). Given it’s relatively primitive technology it is no wonder that the better tech of the Nikon D800e can compete, especially so when the sensor sizes aren’t sufficiently different for the Leica to get away with old-school tech and still do better.

          Third, for one to really see differences one needs to DOUBLE the imager diagonal. So going from the micro Four Thirds system to 135 format roughly results in doubling the diagonal. Then going from 135 format to 6 x 6 medium format results in a doubling of the diagonal measurement of the imager, and we double again when we go to something like a 10 x 8 imager.

          Well, the figures don’t really stack up well for the Leica S; to convert from 135 format to the Leica S format you multiply by a mere 1.25. So not much of a difference.

          Then you add to this a superb optic like the Zeiss Otus, and it really isn’t surprising at all that the Nikon can compete with, and some might argue, better, the Leica S.

          Of course all of this might change if Leica manages to get a much better sensor for the next model of the S camera. But for now, their old tech sensor’s performance is easily matched by smaller but better designed sensors as Leica’s S system doesn’t have sufficient sensor real estate.

  10. My camera isn’t big enough…. 🙂

  11. Thanks Ming, infact it it was your earlier review of the D800e that helped to me switch from a Canon 1ds mk 3 to the D800e. Like yourself I seem to be ending up with 3rd party lenses. From my point of view the Schneider 90mm pce was the first piece of glass I brought, that truly complemented the sensor in this camera. I Also recently acquired the Otus 55, & Zeiss 21mm. The quality from the Otus, kind of reminds me of using 5×4 transparency, so refreshing after all these years to finally have 55mm glass that can be shot wide open. Most of my photography is shot under fairly controlled conditions so get by okay using liveview, however I am not a fan of the green dot focusing aid in the Nikon, I’m sure Canon is somewhat better in this department, in the end nothing is perfect in any one camera system. With regard to focusing screens for manual lenses, I don’t think Nikon or for that matter Canon are going to be particularly helpful. After all supporting future sales Zeiss is not in there marketing plan. So far I haven’t built up the courage to dismantle my camera with a 3rd party screen, I’m sure it is finally the way to go, after all the combination of the Zeiss Otus & the D800e is a little like having a pocket battleship, & any thing that aids this combination has to be good.

    • I recently tried the Schneider 90mm PCE and wasn’t very happy with the results – it was pretty similar to the Nikon 85 PCE, to be honest – but over a stop slower, less magnification ratio, and quite fiddly to use.

      The green dot is terrible. Canon is no better, to be honest. We need proper OEM focusing screens.

      • Interesting because the first lens I brought with this camera was nikkor 85 pce, which was highly recommend by a good friend, my copy was only useable on f10 – f11, by which time diffraction creeps in, also prone to chromatic aberration on the wider f stops. The mechanism is totally different, pros & cons for both systems.

        If you find or have a good copy of a lens hang on to it.

        • Absolutely – sample variation is much more serious and common than most people or sites give credit for. I would imagine anything with elements that can move out of plane such as PCEs, DCs or VRs are more prone to this.

  12. Great article, Ming. At the outset, you mention focusing issues with MF glass. Are your issues limited to short telephoto glass and longer? Other than the live view’s inability to resolve sufficient detail, I have no issues when using my D800 with my Zeiss 2.8/21.

    • Thanks. Live view is actually fine if you use the right magnification setting and turn the sharpening up a bit – it doesn’t affect the raw file. Focusing issues are present with all lenses…there just isn’t enough discrimination on the screen to be able to tell. Perhaps what the camera needs is a flip-in magnifying diopter for the centre like the Hasselblad waist level finder…

      • You are referring to the focusing screen. I agree with you on that front. It is woefully insufficient.

        I did not know the sharpening could be increased. I will give that a try.

        • Under picture controls. It’s helpful to preview in/out of focus, but of course too strong for output. It only affects the JPEG and the raw preview, though.

  13. Wonderful images. I think you have achieved a technical perfection with the 800E unmatched by work on other sites. Your most compelling images also come from the 800E. A very pure objective vision of a kind of urban banality. I’m not being back-handed. The images are transformative – showing the beauty of what is normally taken for granted. Like a 21st century Atget.

    The Zeiss component is quite important, I think. There is a certain look and tradition to they way their best glass renders images that is more definitive of excellence than any other line. Given its character, the Otus 55mm is a bargain.

    You should do a book.

    • Thank you – it doesn’t come across as backhanded at all, it seems like you’re seeing what I’m seeing and intending you to see – even if it’s only 800px wide instead of the full monty 🙂

      What the Zeiss glass gives is transparency: what you see in reality is what’s rendered in the image.

      Books are time consuming and very poor business propositions because they’re hideously expensive to produce…lots of upfront investment and the returns are mediocre at best. Then if you’re going to publish at quality like Nick Brandt’s books, be prepared to bleed serious sums of money! Sadly conventional publishing is going the way of the dodo as fewer people see good prints, fewer are left to appreciate and buy…the internet and ‘images now’ mentality has seen to that.

      • leonroy says:

        Have a look at the City of Darkness Kickstarter campaign here:

        Up front cost covered and you minimize a low return by setting your limit wisely. No funding, little lost. I’m sure many of us would pay up front for a large format book of your work.

        • I made some enquiries into how much gravure printing would cost – we’re looking at easily a quarter of a million USD just to set up the drums alone, not counting paper/ production/ binding/ logistics/ profit. We could of course do it cheaper, but then the print quality wouldn’t be up to snuff, and there wouldn’t be much point 🙂

          The question is, how many people are willing to pay $500+ for a book?

  14. Firstly congrats on getting into that 1%, Ming. I’m sure it’s enjoyable but meanwhile demanding creativity-wise to remain there and progress further. I have had the D800E for about 2 years now also and shared your feeling on the camera itself. Besides what you said which I agree, I was surprised last weekend when I was using my D4 out for bird photography. The birds were not moving much in the mid-day and shutter speed didn’t matter then. I used the D800E for a few test shots replacing the D4, surprisingly the dynamic range, saturation of colour and micro-contract dramatically improved once i screwed the D800E on. Now I don’t quite recall why I still need the D4 though birds were its only application previously.
    Fortunately or unfortunately, D800E also re-defined what “professional” lens are. With the new Zeiss line-ups, the dust on my 24-70 are ever thickening…

    • Very demanding indeed. In good light, no question the D800E will yield superior results – color and DR too, which is surprising given pixel pitch is smaller than the D4. But the D4 does have the edge in ergonomics, and by quite some margin, I think. I use my D4 for speed of shooting and processing when clients don’t need files that big.

  15. S.Surace says:

    As for cramped fingers, do yourself a favor and make yourself a custom-molded grip using Sugru.

  16. Great shots by the way!

  17. Ming, you have stated several times that a regular photog can’t take perfectly sharp images with the D800E handheld using the 1/focal length rule. Do you still think that way?

    About the Otus. Indeed it seems like a close to perfect lens, but its price is proibitive for regular prosumers. When I’m using the nikkor 85mm 1.8/G I fell that this lens is REALLY sharp on my D610 sensor, better than many other pricier lenses. Do you fell that this lens can’t stand on the D800 sensor?

    Least, I saw many reviews that compares the low light performance of the D800 and the D600 and the last one does a better job. Is it because of the difference on pixel size? Do you agree with that conclusion?

    • Yes. I think 1/3x is safe, 1/2x is if you’re careful. I’m usually running 1/2x.

      The 85/1.8 G is good enough on the D800 sensor but lacks that last bit of microcontrast ‘bite’ and clarity that the Otus (and other APO lenses) have. I reviewed it some time back here.

  18. I have been happy with my D800 from the start. No finger cramping problems, but that is an individual thing. 99% of the time I use AF so the screen is not an issue. It is handy to have extra megapixels for cropping.

  19. Tom Hudgins says:

    I have yet to “fall in love” with any camera but the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar on my D800E has certainly infused new excitement into my commercial work. There’s nothing that compares to an excellent APO lens — software corrections just don’t cut it. Regarding love of the D800E, a better quality ‘live view’ experience could would help me feel more impassioned. I think a Zeiss 85mm APO will give Nikon another short boost until a 54 megapixel body hits the market. If that happened to be a Sony mirrorless with their almost-Otus performing Zeiss lenses, and if their menu, shutter, light leak, etc. problems were fixed, I might allow my attention to wander. I’ve had a brief affair my OM-D EM-1 but the D800E is still the camera I’m married to.

  20. Good review, Ming. I have found that getting the D800 to work for me, in manual mode, was a process, but now that it is done, I can enjoy the various primes I own. I agree with the color issue, and would be interested if you, or anyone else out there, has found a solution. For me, an inveterate Lightroom and Photoshop user, the answer is CaptureOne. Lightroom as asset manager, C1 to process raws, and PS for pixel pushing and output…

    • I created a custom profile that generates the output I expect, and now work in a hybrid RGB/Lab environment depending on the subject matter.

      • Good morning,
        I wanted to see information about this RGB/Lab environment – at least on the tech video page was nothing to find.
        My concern is the weak output I get from LR4 as a raw processor, and I would like to avoid creating tiff out of View-NX2 to proceed them in LR. Capture NX-2 will shutdown, Capture NX-D seems not to be a fully working replacement – so – where to go? CaptureOne as Heintz writes? Your answer seems to be different.
        Regards, Paul

  21. tessttt says:

    have you ever try D800 with sigma 35mm f/1.4?
    i heard they are beautiful match.

    • No, because I don’t like the 35mm focal length.

    • Peter Boender says:

      Please see my personal view on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG Art on the D800E earlier in the comments section of this post. In short: make sure to fine tune the AF; better to do that with the lens instead of in camera. After that it’s very impressive: excellent sharpness, contrast, acuity; very lovely bokeh; fast and silent AF; exemplary build quality; good size, weight and balance on the camera. If you like 35mm on full frame, get this one! The no-brainer price point doesn’t even need to be an argument.

  22. plevyadophy says:

    Excellent; an honest, well articulated write-up.

    Given my recent love affair with a certain cam, I can well undersand your distinction between the cam that is the go-to device because it’s practical and the cam that you just love to shoot, the two not always, and very often not, being the same thing.

    Warmest regards,
    plevyadophy

    • Bingo. I’m finding myself starting to fall in love with the D4 because of the ergonomics…too bad it doesn’t have the D800E’s sensor, too.

  23. Taildraggin says:

    I rented one for a couple of weeks and found it a really “imbalanced” camera/system, as you describe. I already use an old Hasselblad and didn’t expect a DSLR to need to be operated like one to be better than its predecessor. The Emperor still has his clothes on most other sites, so thanks for putting your opinions on the web.

  24. Can you please tell us which focus screen you are using, and exactly how to go about modifying and installing it? That would be a huge help, as I have avoided buying a D800E for two years because I was not able to figure out how to get a decent focus screen that would allow me to use my manual focus lenses. Thanks!!

    • Focusingscreen.com. I won’t go into how to modify it because I don’t want to be liable for any accidents or mistakes or damage…

      • There are 7 different focusing screens to chose from… Any you would recommend?

        • It depends what you shoot. I personally like the EC-A micro prisms; the cross type split image is good if you shoot a lot of architecture. Unfortunately there’s no micro prism + split image type.

          • It might work…I shoot mostly figure, stillife and some landscape. Though I’ve fine calibrated most of my lenses(Nikon primes), getting accurate focus is frustrating, even manually. In studio I shoot thethered in Camera Control Pro, so I can check for focus right away, but outdoor it’s to much hit and miss…..

            • That’s what live view and magnification is for. I think treating the D800E as a handheld run-and-gun camera is a mistake: it’s too unforgiving. Shoot it with the care you’d use on medium format and instead it becomes wonderfully flexible and capable at delivering at another level.

  25. Getting accurate focus in D800 is a nigtmare……I was wondering which focusing-screen you have replaced in D800?….

  26. I’m glad you found your groove with this combination. No doubt you will play with the 85mm Otus later this year.

  27. Peter Boender says:

    Honest report MT. Kudos! Personally I’m getting excellent results as well with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG Art, which is a beautiful match to the camera (although honestly I needed to fine tune the AF heavily on the plus side with the Sigma USB adapter for it to truly shine). But I concur with your observation: the D800E is a very discriminating and scrutinizing piece of equipment. Funny then that Nikon themselves have a hard time delivering the right lenses for it. The best matches are third party: Zeiss. Sigma. You can even debate about the Tamron for a 24-70mm zoom solution.

    Furthermore I wish Nikon would give us better options for focusing screens (I’m reluctant to go down that DIY path): this was much better on older generation cameras (F5 springs to mind). I would love a focusing screen with center split circle (diagonal please) and a circle of micro prisms around it. Pentax knows how to do this: the K-3 has it (and my 1980’s ME Super already had it).

  28. Wonderful read! Great to see you with such a good combination. Raid 0 is great for speed but you have twice the chance of losing your files in a drive failure. Just make sure you have the files backed to something non-raid.

    • Yes, I’m aware of that and recently switched the drives over to RAID 1. Everything is backed up on another set of RAID 1 drives, and an external portable.

      • Neal Elward says:

        I do RAID 0 for my system and RAID 5 for the mass storage. My next processing computer will probably have RAID 0 for system, and RAID 0 regularly backed up to a RAID 1 for mass storage. I think it’s worth taking on the risk of losing maybe a day’s worth of work to always get faster speeds. That said, SATA technology can’t really handle current SSDs, and you are not losing much by sticking with RAID 1 for now. I am very much looking forward to the next generation of consumer SSDs, which are looking to be about twice as fast as what we have now while remaining affordable.

        • RAID 5 is risky. See if you can add a disk and go to RAID 6. The problem with RAID 5 is that is a disk fails and you replace the disk it will be rebuilt from the data on the other disks. if one of those disks has even slight bit rot the process fails and you have lost all of your data. RAID 6 is an easy fix but even then when a disk fails you are down to RAID 5 for a moment.

          My next system will be Raid 1 system volume (No Data) with WD RE drives for data. All backed up to another set of drives and also the cloud.

    • Raid 0 and Raid 1 are not mutually exclusive. So you can do Raid 10 with four drives, where you span two pairs of drives, and then mirror the two spanned pairs. This gives you the speed of Raid 0, with the redundancy of Raid 1, so that you get a very fast array that keeps working when a drive fails, and depending on which drives, will possibly keep working even with two drive failures. If you use a Macintosh, the Raid 10 capability is included using the Mac’s Disk Utility software for setup. But Raid is for speed and/or uptime, not a substitute for a backup. (Current wisdom in the digital preservation world is you need six copies made in different ways on various media, in scattered locations to be safe.)

  29. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “… especially now that I seem to be slowly moving up the commercial food chain somewhat.”

    Congratulations!
    Especially hoping that this is a bit of an understatement. 🙂

    ( And I like nr. 2. And nr. 4. )

  30. Tinker's Realm says:

    The Otus can make any camera capture Incredible Images – even an inferior body like the D800e-LoL still glad that I sold mine!

  31. stratiformus says:

    Just a minor edit – the ** footnote seems to have moved up above the ** comment.
    It’s a little too much camera for me, but I do like the idea of being able to ‘take the shot’ and be done with it. One tool, one shot, done. Good to see it’s evolved for you.

  32. Ming. I agree with at least some of your thoughts on the D800, but on balance would say it’s the best camera I’ve ever owned and more importantly has produced my best work. Covering, street, wildlife, gardens, macro and landscape photography. I’ve taken it all over the world with a minimum number of primes with no backup which in the past I would never consider ( I used to have at least 3 cameras on the go). In fact for the last 2 years and over 30000 shots it’s the only camera I have. I did have to invest heavily in glass but I’m sure using primes is perhaps the main reason my photography has improved and that in part is thanks to you and your articles. I still feel that a large or medium format transparency/BW has the edge on tonal values and range on certain subjects but the price in effort for me is unfortunately too high. Keep up the good work I look forward to and enjoy all your writings.

    • Peter Boender says:

      Thanks for your contribution Ian. I agree with you on the hybrid route. Out of curiosity: which primes did you invest in?

      • Primes…50mm 1.8g, 35mm zeiss, 21mm zeiss, 28mm Ais (old but excellent), 24 pce (excellent if you get a good one and everything is working in you favour). 45 pce, and 100 f2 zeiss macro (probably the best lens of that type, incredible) and a 300 f4 nikon which again is super sharp even hand held. I usually take out 3 or 4 at most and mixing and matching keeps things fresh for me anyway.
        http://www.ianwattphotography.com/colour.html …some of my images My main work is botanicalgardenphotography.com

        • Do you have CA issues with your 2/100? I dropped it in favor of the 85PCE because it was just too difficult to clean up on chrome and reflective objects.

        • Peter Boender says:

          A very nice collection Ian! Some questions, if you allow me…
          24PCE, excellent if you get a good one… There is sample variation with the 24PCE, in your opinion? Which problems can one expect? I recently got a 24PCE, so far I’m happy with it, didn’t notice any optical problems.
          Nikon 300 f/4.0 … super sharp… I had one once, and I still regret selling it. I have a 300 f/2.8 VR now, which is fabulous on my D800E, but not as portable and versatile as the f/4.0 version was.

    • Thank you. In hindsight, it really is/was a game changer – and that perhaps explains why there hasn’t been a follow up; one simply wasn’t needed.

      As for the B&W issue – I mostly agree, but I’m working on something 😉

  33. Ming, curious how you feel that neither of the two lenses that can fully utilize the D800E’s sensor are a 28mm or 85mm – two focal lengths you seem to shoot a lot. Are you seeing differently when composing in your mind when you are out shooting with the 55mm normal focal length? Or are you still shooing as much with the 28 1.8G? Nice to hear how it all came together for you to improve your work! Thanks for sharing.

    • My 28mm solution is now the GR. I’m enjoying that particular 55 because it separates like an 85, but allows for more context. That said, there is the Otus 85 confirmed and possibly also a wide…so maybe there won’t be a problem either way after all. In any case, the Zeiss 21mm is also excellent.

  34. Ming, I’ve watched this love affair develop over the past couple years and could have predicted this article right now. That new Zeiss lens allowed you to drop into the groove. And your output has always been of the highest caliber in your already high caliber world. I’ve never been a Nikon guy and I’ve forever forsaken the big DSLR world since I sold the 5D MkII and all the L glass and moved to the E-M1 system. It’s been perfect for those of us who don’t have to worry about clients asking for a 36 MP file! I’m glad you love it and it certainly is a marriage made in heaven for you and your high level of commercial work. I guess we’ll see it out in force in Havana! Cheers!

    • I think it’s because we now have a really complete system – before there were various bits missing. Even if the whole thing is a bit of a hack job, at least we have a body/lens/focusing/ display and print solution that works well together; the last bit is critical.

      You’re also going to see the D4 in Havana. I think that is really the ultimate point and shoot…

Trackbacks

  1. […] for printing or client applications. (I was also thinking if this could in some way replace another D800/810 body and occasionally used tele zoom for location work, then I’d gladly take the weight […]

  2. […] from the Havana series. VR on the 70-200/4VR required for slow shutter to motion blur car handheld; D800E to maintain extended tonal range and relatively small aperture for […]

  3. […] (notably those with extended dynamic range and very smooth shadow transitions such as the D810, D800E and 645Z) is the ability to neatly manage shadow zones such that we can still leave in subtle hints […]

  4. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus, and […]

  5. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, and Ricoh GR. […]

  6. […] suspect that given sufficient time, I may come to respect this thing in a rational way – like the original D800E, which is still going strong after nearly 90,000 exposures and only ever used on assignment – […]

  7. […] used a Nikon D800E, D810, AFS 24-120/4 VR and AFS 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR lenses and processed with the […]

  8. […] it the better part of a year. Initially, my thoughts were that nothing much changed between the D800E and D810 – and an upgrade was not justified at all if you already had two of the latter. Several […]

  9. […] but the same, or very similar sensors would be the Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR, the Nikon D800E and D810, and the Phase One IQ250 and Pentax 645Z; I’m sure there are plenty of other […]

  10. […] go head to head with any medium format digital camera, and in the smaller format realm, only the D800E/ D810 combined with Zeiss Otuses can come close. Note first caveat: at the pixel […]

  11. […] set with shot with a Nikon D800E and AFS 24-120/4 VR, and D810 with AFS 80-400/4.5-5.6 […]

  12. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E, 70-200/4 VR, Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 and Ricoh […]

  13. […] series was shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E, 70-200/4 VR and Zeiss 1.4/55 […]

  14. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E and AFS 70-200/4 […]

  15. […] punching in on individuals and candid emotion rather than getting up close and getting a pose. The D800E and 70-200/4 VR accompanied a Ricoh GR, both of which performed admirably. Enjoy! […]

  16. […] the high end, knocks the socks of medium format film and approaches large format in the form of the D800E/D810. We even have a new generation of lenses designed to match the pixel pitches of these things […]

  17. […] series was shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and 70-200/4 […]

  18. […] if anything, I was encouraged to push it to the limits. And I did. Test images were made on a Nikon D800E and D810. I’ll be uploading more images to this set on flickr as time goes on. If […]

  19. […] – I believe there’s a little bit of something for everybody here. Enjoy! MT Shot with a Nikon D800E, D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar and a Ricoh […]

  20. […] lens when I do this kind of work; usually in the form of the Ricoh GR. 45 (Hassy V/80mm) and 55 (D800E/Otus) combinations have also been tried recently. But only since Havana have I used anything much […]

  21. […] to bring any more gear down with me, but partially because I’d very much enjoyed what the D800E/ 70-200/4VR did for me in Havana; the perspective worked well for urban situations and especially […]

  22. […] set was shot with a Nikon D800E, Nikon 70-200/4 VR, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Ricoh GR. […]

  23. […] set was shot with a Nikon D800E, the 70-200/4 VR and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus […]

  24. […] stayed pretty much the same as last time (and every other studio setup I’ve done): a pair of D800Es, one for backup, a bag full of speedlights, stands, modifiers and clamps, enough batteries to cause […]

  25. […] in the conventional sense. I’ve covered the original D800 here, a mid-term report here, and a long term report of the D800E here; after more than 70,000 frames with one D800 and two D800Es, I think I can say I know these cameras […]

  26. […] set shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and the 70-200/4 […]

  27. […] moisture and dirt, it meant that the Hasselblads were not an option. I went with a pair of D800Es2, one Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, the 1.4/55 Otus and a 24-120/4 VR – I needed as much light as […]

  28. […] and Hasselblad CFV-39 on a 501CM body (49x37mm, 39MP) against the Pentax 645Z (33x44mm, 51MP) and Nikon D800E (24x36mm, 36MP). Perhaps we should have gotten one of the 41MP Nokia PureView phones along for […]

  29. […] to its predecessor, a previous generation CCD-equipped Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back, and the Nikon D800E. As far as I can tell, this is the first review of a production 645Z, anywhere. This part alone is […]

  30. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E, Nikon D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. Enjoy! […]

  31. […] set was shot with a D800E, D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. Enjoy! […]

  32. […] odd is retention of the AA filter in the D4s; Nikon was in transition at the time of the D4 (and D800/E) release over whether to remove AA filters or not; it’s pretty since which decision was […]

  33. […] enough to make a 13×19″ Ultraprint. Needless to say, I find myself carrying the D800E/ Otus combination quite a lot these […]

  34. […] of choice were therefore the usual wide-envelope workhorses: a pair of D800Es. However, this time I used the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon and 1.4/55 Otus – they were a […]

  35. […] Nikon D800E (x2) Performed very much as expected, except it seems as though the mirror calibration of the primary body had drifted slightly. An inconvenient (but at least doable) fix with the tools I brought along. More concerning was the occasional long lag and ‘hour glass’ delay visible when awaiting playback or powering up; it seemed to clear with a power or shutter cycle, and failing that, a battery removal. Other than that – nothing but the usual great image quality. The second body was probably overkill and saw no service at all the entire week. […]

  36. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E, PCE 24/3.5, PCE 85/2.8 Nikkors and the Zeiss ZF.2 2/135 […]

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