Impressions: Nikon D800

I’ve been busy lately.  I’ve had the D800 for about 4 months now and I’ve already taken 10,000 pictures!   Four weddings, three engagement shoots, three family portrait shoots,  one 50th anniversary, one 50th birthday party, product shots, and now I’m doing the directory shots for our church.  Whew.  I need a beer.

A little background before I get into it:  I started with a Minolta Film camera.  I had to write down all the settings for each picture, then get the film developed!  Ugh.  It was archaic!  After that I got my first digital camera, the Nikon D50. I used that for about 4 years until I upgraded to the D7000.  I had that for about 2 years before I got the D800.  Side note:  That’s a jump from 6MP, to 16MP (which I thought was ridiculous) to 36MP (which is ridiculous!).  Based on this trend, my next camera will be 66MP and I’ll be getting it in 8 months!!!

Over the last 4 months I’ve gotten to know the D800 fairly well.  As you might expect, it’s amazing.  On second thought, it’s incredible.  There isn’t really anything bad about it.  Sure it has a few minor annoyances and quirks, but then again what doesn’t. It’s a precision instrument that cost more then my first car (a ’91 ford Thunderbird FYI.  I really liked that car…).  So, what’s the good, bad and ugly of it you ask?

The Good:

  • Focus System.  It shares the same AF system with the D4, and it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s quick, accurate and works in the dark.  The center point works down at -2EV or f/8 (A clear night with a full moon is about -3EV).  Empirically I can tell you its pretty awesome.  It finds focus much more frequently and more accurately then the D7k ever did.  (The other focus points aren’t as sensitive, but still just as awesome.)
  • Image Processor.  Another thing it shares with its big brother.  Its maximum frame rate is 4 FPS.  That’s not a whole lot when you know that the D50 was 3.5 FPS and the D7k was 6 FPS.  But remember, this is shooting 36MP images!  It’s chewing through a lot of data.  The buffer capacity reads as 14 frames (14bit Lossless compression) but it’s actually 18 with a fast card.  If you wanted to shoot JPEGs for some reason, the buffer capacity reads as 21 frames.  I held the shutter down and the buffer went down to 17 shots by the time I took 20 images and then went down to 16 after 10 more… I’m not going to test it, but i’m pretty sure you’d fill the card before you hit that buffer limit.
  • Video.  Again, same as D4.  It shoots beautiful 1080P at 30fps and 720P at 60fps.  It also does uncompressed video via the HDMI port.  I’m not a video person, but the few times I’ve used it so far I’ve been blown away by the quality.  I will eventually get into it and get myself a Blackmagic recorder when SSD’s come down in price.  As far as I know the D800 was the first to allow you to change the aperture while recording.  Oddly enough, as far as I can tell, the power aperture option only works when recording uncompressed video…
  • View finder size.  Okay, this is kinda a positive of all full frame cameras, but it’s still nice.  It’s a lot easier to see through the viewfinder in an FX camera vs a DX.  It’s kinda something you have to see for yourself.  It’s like looking through a hole the size of a dime versus one the size of a silver dollar…
  • Sensor.  This sensor is incredible.  I can shoot at ISO 1600 with NO worries about image quality.  I can get up to ISO 4000 if i’m careful and ISO 6400 in a pinch.  Granted i’ll be doing a ton of noise processing at those levels, and probably down sampling to 12 MP, but I know I can do it if necessary.

The Bad (kind of):

  • Battery Life (It uses the same battery as the D7k).  With the D7k I could do a full wedding on a 75% charge.  With the D800, i’m almost always dead by the end of an event.  I got the battery grip and I keep a second EN-EL15 in there for just this issue, so again, more of an annoyance than a problem.
  • (36MP).  I’m putting this into the bad category (with parenthesis) for a two reasons: file size, and there is no small RAW option.  I bought three 2TB hard drives to deal with all this image data (well technically i’m only using one of those HDD’s.  The other two are for backup).  I’ve also had to change my workflow.  I now delete the culled RAW files after one month and the original RAW files after six months.  With each file clocking in at about 35MB, I have yet to shoot an event and not completely fill my 32GB CF card.  Looks like I’m gonna have to get a 64GB one…
  • (Only 4FPS).  Not a huge annoyance, but it’d be nice to have more.  If you put 8AA batteries in the grip you can get the DX mode up to 6FPS but FX is 4FPS no matter what.  I’ve gotten used to it and it’s rarely an issue.  The only times I’d really want that extra 2FPS is during the bouquet toss, when children are running/sliding/etc or other fast action.  With good timing on my part this isn’t a big deal.  So really I’m just greedy.

The Ugly:

  • Image review lockup.  There’s an issue where the camera will hang up between writing an image and displaying it.  It appears it only happens when your primary card is CF and you have a SD card in it.  It’s happened to me 20 or 30 times.  Its really more of an annoyance then a problem as I just have to wait to see the image or leave the SD slot empty.  I’m assuming it’ll be fixed in a firmware update soon…
  • (AF point issues).  Either I got a good copy of the camera or they fixed the problem.  There was a problem with the focus points not working properly on one side when the camera first came out, but I’ve had absolutely no problem with it…

Conclusions, Insights and Recommendations.  I put a lot of time and research into it before I decided on the D800.  I was looking at either a used D700, a new D600, or the D800 (I briefly looked into getting a used D3s!).  So what pushed me over the edge?  I think it was the AF system, image processing /ISO / sensor.  The D700 is essentially a slimmed down D3s, but at 12MP and 5 years old, I felt the D800 would be a better option and a little more future proof.  The D600 is nice and would have been a good transition from the D7k, but weaker AF system and inferior ISO processing, the D800 was again the better option.  The only sacrifice I had to make with the D800 was in the wallet.

A few things you’ll want to think about if going with the D800.  A large fast CF card is essential.  I got a Lexar Professional 1000x 32GB Compact Flash UDMA 7 card.  In the second slot I have a SanDisk UHS-1 64GB SDXC card.  If you remember the post about card speeds, you’ll know how important this can be.  The CF card is fast.  To put that into perspective, remember the jump in speed from the  Transcend up to the SanDisk?  Well the Lexar CF card is about 75% faster then that same SanDisk card.

I’d also recommend the battery grip.  I got Nikon’s version, but I’ve heard good things about other brands.  With the battery life issue, you’ll want a second battery plus, the Nikon’s battery grip is rock solid on the camera and you can put AA’s in it or even the D4 battery…

Hope this was helpful.  If you also have the D800, feel free to comment in with your opinion of it.

-Dave

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