Friday, June 7, 2013

Nikon D800: First Impressions

When Nikon unleashed the 36 megapixel D800 on the world last spring I was not interested in the camera at at all. My primary camera for the last two and half years has been the Nikon D700, a camera that provides a great balance of high ISO performance and speed. On paper the D800 didn't seem to be a true D700 replacement, for various reasons, so I dismissed it off hand. I had seen the detail that the 36MP sensor brought to the table, but that alone wasn't enough. I mostly photograph wildlife and landscapes, so I felt that a more balanced camera would fit my needs better. Not to mention that I was concerned about the disk space that the larger D800 files would take up.

Roll the clock ahead one year, my thoughts on the D800 slowly started to change, particularly after talking with some D800 owners. Following those discussions I started to take a second look at the D800, and the roll it could play in my camera bag. The resolution that once turned me off, ended up seduced me. I continued to battle with the idea of working with the D800 for a while, since I was concerned that speed would be the limit the cameras usability. That stumbling block always seemed to come up, and kill, any thoughts of adding the D800 to my workflow. I finally realized that the speed of the D800 did not have to be an issue. Why? As a practice I always work with two cameras, since having a backup is essential in my mind. With that in mind I came to the conclusion that as long as I keep the D700 in my bag, speed isn't an issue. When I need speed, the D700 is there, and when I need highly detailed shots, with room to crop if needed, the D800 is there.

After a week of working with the D800, I have a few thoughts that I'd like to share about the camera. To keep this simple I'm going to list the changes I like about the D800, some aspects I feel neutral about, and some things that simply bug me.

  • The 100% viewfinder has to be one of the most welcome changes of the D800, over the D700. 
  • Auto focus seems slightly snappier than the D700, particularly when using teleconverters.
  • Auto Focus selector switch/button. The move from a three position switch to a two position switch with a button greatly reduces the chances of accidentally selecting the wrong auto focus mode. 
  • The drive mode dial. The change of design makes switching modes an easier process.
  • The shape of the body. The ergonomics of the of the camera are different from previous semi-pro Niko bodies, but those changes seem to be an improvement in almost all respects.
  • Amazing (RAW) files, the level of detail is as outstanding as every reviewer and owner has told me.
  • Improved virtual horizon in the viewfinder. On the D700 the virtual horizon hijacked the exposure meter, that is no longer the case with the D800.
  • Meter seems to do a decent job, at least as of firmware version 1.02.
  • Vastly improved live view focusing speed (compared to D300/D700)
  • Video mode: Visual feedback of exposure in manual mode
  • Microphone and headphone jacks.  

  • Reversed zoom buttons on the camera body (for image playback)
  • Reversed exposure meter (compared to previous generation bodies). This could have been a negative, but since it can be switched in the menu it is not a big deal.
  • Larger rear LCD, this makes no difference, since it is the same resolution as D700 (921k)
  • Placement of the movie record button. I assumed the position of the record button would interfere with the use of the shooting mode button, but that does not seem to be as much of an issue as I assumed it would be.
  • File sizes. Yes the files are 40-50MB on average (14bit lossless compressed), but that comes with having a 36MP sensor. Many users said to me that processing the RAW files from the D800 would bring almost any computer to it's knees. That does not seem to be the case, and I'm not working with a super high end system (2.7Ghz Quad Core - Core i5, 12GB RAM, 27" 2011 iMac). 
  • Dual card slots. I would have preferred both slots be the same type, but mixed slots are better than just one.
  • Build quality, solid magnesium alloy frame (with some issues, see negatives)
  • Left focus issue still seems to be a problem. The center cross type focus points are focusing fine, but the left and right focus points are back focusing (left more than right). It's hard to believe this problem is still showing it's ugly head a year after the camera was released.
  • Custom/Shooting Banks work the same as before, but Nikon has changed the way to rename the banks. Rather than a separate menu item to change bank names, now pushing the selector button to the right will bring up the menu to change the name. If you need to select a bank you must press the center button or OK button now.
  • The 10-Pin remote/accessory socket does not seem solid. The socket itself flexes when an accessory is attached. 
  • The quality of plastics used on the outer shell of the body seems lower than that found in earlier semi-pro Nikon bodies. It could just be the use of lighter plastics, or a change in the surface texture, but the plastic feels cheaper than what was used in the construction of the D300/D700.