New Tool in the Box – Nikon D800E

So it’s finally time to switch up. The siren call of the Nikon D800E has finally found a new victim. Have I just succumbed to the hype and wasted money unnecessarily? What do I gain by blowing hard earned cash on this? After all, I have a perfectly good D700 which has served me well for years, and still takes just a good a shot now as it did when I first got it. If I felt I was missing something, why not a D600 or a D800 instead of the E version?

Nikon D800E

I’ve loved the D700. The low light performance, full frame sensor has been a marvelous tool. I got it as a present to upgrade from a D300 and at first I was ambivalent, but it won me over with it’s ability to capture superb quality images in low light conditions. This was the first camera where I could ride the ISO button like a shutter or aperture setting. Shooting indoor sports with no flash? Easy.

So what are the limits? Over the years I’ve switched to shooting a lot more travel photography. This means I want to travel light, which can be restrictive on the lenses I carry. If I can carry fewer lenses or get more versatility out of the lenses I do carry, that would be a good thing. So the obvious difference, 36Mpix of the D800E over the 12Mpix of the D700 will give me the ability to crop and extend my lens range while still having the ability to print 24″x36″. I love big prints, but if I crop at all from a D700 image, I have to work very hard to print big just because of the limited pixel count. Some commentators have said that only fools and lazy photographers will use the ability to crop to “fix” photographs, but that is a very limited viewpoint. There are occasions when you can’t fix the crop in camera due to positioning and being able to use a 15Mpix DX crop to gain focal length is priceless. My 200mm f2.8 becomes a 300mm f2.8 and I can still enlarge to a respectable size without major effort. Awesome for people photography and means not renting or buying a 300mm f2.8 or f4 for occasional use. The reason I didn’t go for a D600 is that the Dx crop takes me smaller than I would like. I Like the D600 and seriously considered it. It has a great sensor and has everything going for it, but it’s a touch too small for my hands. It is slightly limited in cropping ability, but the camera is really good. It’s the handling difference that mostly swung me over to the D800.

Not everything in the garden is rosy with the D800E. I’m going to have to be more rigorous with technique with this beast. It is not forgiving of lazy techniques when it comes to sharpness. If I want to use that resolution to the max, I have to be very mindful of shutter speed and focusing. it’s very easy to miss with this camera. Doesn’t matter with small pictures for the web, but going to 1:1 and it’s obvious. That is also one of the traps of the camera. Pixel Peeping is a trap that is very easy to fall into. I’ve seen lots of pictures on the web from the D800 with subsequent crops at 100% demonstrating the resolution, but to be honest, most of my work doesn’t get printed big enough for it to matter. I can live with a little softness at 100%, because at normal sizes no one will ever know!

What I have noticed is that it will out resolve some of my lenses! One notable issue is my 80-200mm f2.8 AFD. This is an old lens, but worked perfectly on the D700. On the D800 it is noticeably out resolved by the sensor. I compared it to a new 70-200mm f4 AFS VR and the difference is remarkable. I’m going to investigate this a little more, but this may be the writing on the wall for the old lens.

Nikon 70-200mm AFS VR f4Nikon 80-200 AFD

There are some quirks I love about the new camera. I wasn’t aware of the “easyISO” feature. I hadn’t seen it mentioned in reviews, but it’s a fantastic feature. I shoot 95% of the time in Aperture Priority, so I turn the front sub command dial and the aperture changes. The meter sorts out the shutter speed for me. If I wanted to change the ISO to get the shutter speed to a point that I want, with the D700 I would have to take the camera from my eye and push a button and spin a wheel to select a different ISO. With the easyISO feature selected on the D800, the main command dial switches the ISO, so I can ride it up or down without taking my eye from the viewfinder. I can easily fine tune it so that I get the ISO and shutter speed I want for whatever my creativity demands, while holding the aperture constant! This is a wonderful feature. I know the D600 has it as well, but this is the first time I’ve seen it and it will make a big difference to me.

I also like the triaxial accellerometer package. Huh? This is the ability to see a horizon and pitch meter in the viewfinder. The pitch meter is going to be very handy for using my 14-24mm – especially at the 14mm end!

There are some custom settings that I’ve already set up. The first is the depth of field preview button. I have this set so if I press it and turn the command dial it changes crop factor and I can cycle through the available crops. The viewfinder has the crop lines and also displays the resolution in inches – 36″x 24″, 30″x 20″, 24″x16″ or 30″x24″.

I’ve got the function button set to turn on the accelerometers in the viewfinder. On the D700 this was my bracketing button – but the D800 has a dedicated bracketing button on the top of the camera.

I’ve also got my menu options set up. This is a menu tab to access frequently used items without digging through the menus. I have 4 things in here. The first is long exposure noise reduction. When I start pushing exposures out to 20 seconds plus, this helps reduce the sensor noise inherent with digital sensors. It helped on the D700, I need to see if it is neccessary on the D800. The second menu option is Exposure Delay Mode, This is improved over the D700 with the ability to choose the delay setting up to 3 seconds. I use this a lot on a tripod. Following this in the menu is High ISO Noise Reduction. I have this set at Normal, but I do play with this when the ISO creeps up. As I become more familier with the noise characteristics of the camera, I’ll be better able to judge when and how I use this. The final menu item is Commander mode. I use the built in pop up flash to control speedlights using this option. It’s a major strength of the Nikon system and I use this option all the time when messing with off camera flash.

The reason I went with the D800E is because of something one commentator wrote in one review. If you have the best resolution possible now, you won’t regret not having it later. I rarely shoot stuff where Moire will be a problem, and if it is, I’ll fix it in post. Thats a small issue compared to gaining the best possible result from that sensor.

I do miss the AF area switch on the back. The combo of button push and wheel spin will have to be gotten used to. It does allow for more options, but if you don’t need the options, who cares?

I did have a grip for the D700. I probably won’t bother with one for the D800, and if I do I’ll buy a 3rd party grip for less than a $100.

The D800E can use the cheap and cheerful Nikon infrared remote, the ML-3. Looks like I might finally retire my old MC-20 cable release.

At the end of the day I’m still learning how to use this beast. I’ve prepped it for travel using gaffer tape over the logos. Anyone asks about it gets the response “this old thing? Had it for ages, amazed it’s still going…”.

It’s going to be interesting to see how my workflow adapts to the large file sizes inherent from this thing. I suspect I’m going to be doing a lot more in camera editing or selective transfer to preserve disk space. I’ll also end up shooting more JPG for the stuff I’m not fussy about, so I suspect the qual button will get a lot more use than it did on the D700.

I’m looking forward to using this camera in anger. It’ll take time to get used to it, but it is very similar to the old one, so a short learning curve in some respects.

More to come….

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