Six Months of the D800: did it deliver?

October 27, 2012  •  20 Comments

"This is the future I've been waiting for" - that was my first reaction on seeing the announcement of the D800 (especially the E variant) on the 7th February 2012. 

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D800E with 70-200VRII at F2.8, ISO1800

Let's rewind a little to the past from which I was trying to escape. It was full of cameras that were not quite right: 

  1. The Leica M9: poor-ish high ISO performance, tendency for lenses to 'drift' out of calibration with the body's rangefinder.
  2. The Canon 5DII: a benign but unexciting beast, plodding AF and bandy shadows. Same as all the 1Ds models I had before.
  3. The Phase One P45+ then P65+ then IQ180, shot on both SLR-style and technical-style bodies, each with their own profound usability issues.

So my pump was primed: I was ready for a radical shift, combining the convenience and flexibility of a DSLR with much of the resolution of Medium Format.

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D800E with Nikkor 28mm F1.8 at F2, ISO1600

I was hoping for a Canon, I must say: back in February I had a bag of Canon glass and my only flirtation with a Nikon, the D7000, had been so profoundly irritating that I'd made a very rapid exit. Nikons don't focus well was my gut reaction after that experiment. But, as is so often the case, my eyes were to prove hungrier than my stomach when suddenly, bang, out of nowhere appeared the announcement of the D800. And better still, the D800E without AA filtering. I hate AA filtering. And surely Nikon would have gotten the focussing right on such a massively high-profile camera? To some extent I was willing to bet that they had - I would buy into the system as an experiment but I would hold on to my other gear for a while, just in case.

On the horizon we finally had a camera that would be small, light and with some weather sealing, offering almost the same resolution as a P45+, with access to a vast range of glass, promising super fast and accurate AF, great ISO performance... in short, all the skills and conveniences of a modern DSLR with most of the image quality of a medium format system. I could eventually sell all the Phase One gear, all the Canon gear, the M9 (but keep the Leica glass: you never lose money by keeping Leica glass) and frolic off into a sunlit meadow of photographic loveliness. 

_DSC0626 D800E with PC-E 24mm F3.5 at F3.5, ISO100

I placed an order and waited, accumulating a basic set of lenses in the meantime and sagely sharing opinions with other Medium Format refugees. "The glass will be the problem," we all agreed. Of course, coming from MF-land, we had all the techniques and tripods we needed to deal with this number of pixels. But would we be able to find good enough glass?

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D800E with 70-200VRII at F6.3, ISO100

Before my "E" arrived, I got a whisper of a standard D800 and nabbed it. It would be a handy second body, I thought, and if moiré turned out to be a big problem with the E, I had another option. Then the E turned up, a few days later.

Neither of them could focus as advertised. I won't bore you with the details but after months of effing about, failed repairs, blah blah blah, Nikon refunded the D800 and finally got the E to focus such that, at a stretch, I can convince myself that it is 'within standards'. It certainly isn't within my standards but hey ho...

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D800E with 85mm F1.8G at F2.2, ISO 320

The next most pressing problem has to be the extraordinary approach to lens manufacturing that Nikon has. They seem to bang them out of the factory without reliably effective testing, I suppose in the hope that most punters will be too daft to notice. And when you send one back for repair, in my experience, it does not get repaired. I now test every lens I buy immediately, knowing that there's a pretty good chance that it'll be a sub-standard copy and that the best thing to do is return not repair. I have to rotate retailers it's so embarrassing. And I have never had this sort of thing with any other manufacturer. Sure there have been one-off problems but not like this. Nikon need to be aware that selling bodies with incorrectly calibrated AF alongside poorly QC'd lenses is a recipe for really pissing of its customers. Nuff said.

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D800E with 70-200VRII at F4, ISO1800

On to the good stuff, and there is plenty.

The D800/E is no more demanding than, say, a D700 or 5DII, as long as you don't want to enlarge or crop more than you did with either of those cameras. On the other hand, if you want to shoot it like Medium Format (i.e. with either a tripod or a fast shutter speed and with great glass) then in my opinion you will get results in the same ballpark as Medium Format. Actually, the colour is not quite as good, the ISO performance is waaay better and the Dynamic Range is better overall even than an IQ180, though most of the advantage is in those deeply miraculous shadows: for my money, the Phase camera still handles the rolloff into blown whites with more skill.

_DSC1529 D800E with Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar F2 at F11, ISO100

Largely, the promise of MF quality with DSLR convenience and flexibility is, focus issues aside, delivered. The camera is no machine gun, but it is fast, responsive, fully-featured, light, comfortable, practical and very highly capable. It can cover 85% of what I was previously doing with the Phase One and Canon gear combined (including studio work at which I think it excels) as long as you use the right lenses. And there's the rub: there are very few lenses that can match the abilities of the sensor across the entire frame. Even some of the exotic manual focus lenses, especially the wides, have design compromises that make it very hard to deliver what the sensor is capable of. Here's a list, with a 'would I buy it again now I know it' rating of Yes/No..

  • 70-200VRII - reliable, sharp, wonderful - Yes
  • 85mm F1.8G - fabulous - Yes
  • Zeiss 100mm F2 MP  - frankly, so compromised by colour aberrations that it hardly gets used - No
  • Leitax-adapted Leica 50R Cron  - an absolute star - Yes Yes Yes.
  • 24-120 VRII - test your copy carefully. Nothing else is this convenient so even though it doesn't realise the  sensor's potential - Yes
  • 24mm PC-E - IMHO out of its depth on a D800 but I have to have a wide with movements so grudgingly, on my second copy - Yes
  • 28mm f1.8G is 'tricky' but fun and very, very sharp when used to the full - Yes
  • TC20E-III - a very useful extra, plays pretty well with the 70-200VRII - Yes
  • 20mm F2.8D - a Lensbaby without movements. Blurry, close to useless, de-centred too. I returned it hence - No
  • Tamron 24-70 F2.8 VC - I returned this because neither the aperture setting nor the VC worked properly but it showed promise - No

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D800E with 70-200VRII at F9, ISO 100

Things I would really like the camera to do:

  • Give me access to the Slower - Faster setting in Auto ISO at the top level or in My Menu.
  • Allow individual AF Fine Tune settings for each sensel.
  • Allow designated Non-CPU lenses to have their own AFFT value, so the 'green dot' is influenced by it.
  • Have proper Matrix Metering: if I want Spot, I'll choose Spot. When I choose Matrix, I want Matrix.
  • Have an 'Expose to the Right' metering mode (actually in Live View it almost does).
  • Have a mode that effectively gives UniWB based 'blinkies' but with a correctly coloured preview image.
  • Have better zoomed Live View implementation, possibly with a form of focus peaking.

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D800E with 70-200VRII at F4, ISO 200

I have included a selection of images here to show the variety of bases I want the camera to cover. And from macro and still life through studio work, tilt/shift and landscape right through to moderate action, in black and white and colour, it really can cover all those bases. Its weaknesses are in the areas of very fast action, (either in terms of frame-rate or accuracy of focus tracking for those with poor left-side sensel calibration) and in the lack of a good, wide T/S lens. Otherwise it is pretty damned good and quite certainly the best all-round camera I have ever owned. And a good, properly fine-tuned lens using the cross-type sensels can focus very accurately. _DSC4004

D800E with 70-200VRII at F5.6, ISO 140

And yet... I don't love it. It's amazing, visionary, widely capable and I am very grateful that it exists: but I don't love it.

Maybe that is because of the series of returns and repairs I have had to endure and which I know from the online community are far from being a rarity. Maybe it's because it lacks what Michael Reichmann calls 'thingness', the tactile pleasure of the thing itself: as a more-or-less pro tool, that isn't a design priority. Maybe it is because, though the files are truly excellent, with the best combination of resolution, noise and DR I have ever experienced, they lack the character of (for example) the way a Nex-7 handles blues and greens or the indefinable but wonderful rendition of a Leica M9. I also have failed, as yet, to find a low-distortion flat-field wide angle lens that is sharp to the edges and corners on far landscape at an aperture wider than where diffraction sets in. 

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D800E with 24-120VR F4, at F5.6, ISO 100

I shoot with my D800E more than any other camera I own and yet here we are, six months in and I still have all the Canon glass and I still (just) have the IQ180 and technical camera  - and the thing that stops me finally 'pushing the button' on selling them is that I have yet to take a single shot with the D800 that enters my personal 'hall of favourites'. Not a single shot I really love, in six months. My fault, I know: I've found the perfect second wife and yet, here's me, still seeing 'the ex'  - and looking for a mistress too.

 


Comments

Fotografia Ślubna Trójmiasto(non-registered)
Wow! amazing images, what a the beautiful colors. You have very good eye. Congratulation!
Tom(non-registered)
My second D800E has been testing the patience of me after a few frustrating months with a previous model that was replaced. Unpredictable AF focus has taken a lot to get used to, seeming unreliable, and the time and energy in doing this has probably absorbed much of the love one should have with a camera of this quality. Having fine tuned AF i am getting a better level of consistency with this camera and I will persevere as in time i think i will grow to love this camera - but is certainly a strange old beast and Nikon's QC needs some serious tlc itself! Manual focus lenses perform well and I find it good with 24mm tilt shift and Zeiss 21mm.
feather(non-registered)
Exactly same situtation with you.As a Canon user ,I was just very happy and for tasting Nikon I bought D800e with 70-200VRII.Now I am very much confused with D800E.I am keeping all my Canon equipment but I cannot quit D800E too!!!
Your review last paragraph,I am %100 percent same feeling.". Not a single shot I really love" with my D800E, but taste is so good!!!
Mark(non-registered)
You make us all envious with your access to top of the line gear (Phase, Leica, Nikon, Canon), but it seems you still aren't satisfied. Have you thought about going more fascinatingly eccentric or antique in equipment for that unique character you are seeking? ... at least as a vacation from your current gear? If not your thing, what about trying a style of photography that is new to you, where you feel like an amateur, exploring again?
fotografia ślubna trójmiasto(non-registered)
D800 it's great camera! I'll buy it if my d700 die :)
Thank you for your article it is very good.
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