May 102012
 

My very first impressions of the D800 were posted after just a small handful of shots, indoors under terrible lighting conditions. I was impressed! Now that I’ve had all of one weekend to use it outside too, I’m impressed even more.

As I said previously, the cost of the D800 ($3,000) still puts it at a point where it’s really hard to recommend for people like me who are shooting pictures of their kids and capturing other memories. Serious shooters will be far better of reading the in-depth (as always) review of the D800on dpreview.com (they like it a lot too, and go into a ton of depth). Still, within 5 years or so, it’s reasonable to expect that sub-$1,000 cameras will match or beat what the D800 can do today, and that’s great news if you’re the one in your family tasked with taking pictures. I apologize to any actual photographer who is still waiting for a D800, seeing this awesome piece of technology used for my dull family photos must be painful!

Part of why I’m bothering to write this – besides that when you think something is really cool you usually want to share it – is that most reviews seem to compare the D800 and it’s immediate predecessor, the D700. My perspective – the D800 vs. D7000 – is hardly a fair fight and is probably much less useful in general. But I suspect there’s at least a few other DX shooters that ponder – as I did for years – whether it was the right time to go full frame, so I’ll just provide an opinion on that.

So that said, what did I find noteworthy that wasn’t already captured in the many photographer-oriented reviews out there?

Resolution

Okay, so this one is covered to death in every mention of the D800; but yes, 36MP is pretty stunning. Here is a really poorly framed snapshot of our friend George:

Here’s a 100% crop from this snapshot:

 

If you look at what a tiny part of the original image this represents, it’s pretty amazing. If there were any more detail, aliens would be able to clone us from a photograph alone.

There’s been lots of commentary on how you need really good lenses to get the most out of the D800, and that’s true. But keep in mind that the D7000 made exactly the same demands on central sharpness of a lens; in fact, this photo would look identical on the D7000 (high ISO isn’t a factor), except the “zoomed out” version would a center crop of the image above. This really matters, though; you can crop the heck out of a D800 image and still have a ton of detail to work with.  If you were satisfied with 12MP photos (I am), then considering resolution alone, you can get a full body shot and a head shot with the same exposure!

Highlight Protection

At base ISO, the D7000 had incredible shadow detail and really low noise. What this meant is that if you mess up like I do and underexposed things, you had a lot of room to fix the mistake later by brightening things up. However, if you overexposed on the D7000 and blew the highlights by more than a little, there was often no chance of recovery. The D3 and D700 seemed to be much better at highlight protection; even up to a full stop overexposed, you could probably fix things. As a result, I set my D7000 to -0.7 exposure compensation by default; this was safer for outdoors shots, but gave up a little quality indoors if I forgot to reset things.

By contrast, the D800 seems as clean (unscientifically) as the D7000 in shadow detail, while providing lots more headroom on highlights. Thanks to the metal slide reflecting the sun, this shot of George’s son Patrick would probably have been unusable on the D7000 due to blown highlights:

Kids don’t give you a second chance and don’t always have a natural expression when looking at the camera, so reviewing the shot, adjusting exposure, and asking Patrick to hold still in the process would simply not have worked. Fortunately, even with -1.7 exposure compensation in Lightroom – almost two full stops! – the shot turned out to be one of the nicer ones that day:

I feel almost guilty thinking about how much insight the film photographer would have needed back in the day to take the shot correctly – while I managed to get things quite wrong, yet easily correct things later. It was literally just basic exposure and levels, with a little cropping and vignetting, to go from the top image to the bottom one.

Mid ISO

Landscape and nature photographers mostly focus on image quality at base ISO, because shutter speed isn’t so important and they’ll carry a tripod around. For sports photographers, especially indoor sports, speed is paramount, and thus high ISO performance becomes important. Pretty much every review focuses on quality at those two extremes.

I find things are a little different shooting memories. You’ll have quite a few shots outdoors in good light where even a decent compact camera will produce perfectly good images. You’ll have plenty of indoor, poor light situations where either you need good high ISO capabilities or a decent flash (though shots are always a little less natural looking with flash) – and as I mentioned previously, the D800 does great here. But I find that there’s a good chunk of family shots that are in fading light on a cloudy day, where you’ll be between ISO 800 and ISO 3200 at the shutter speeds you need.

The D7000 was pretty decent for getting family shots at the lower end of that range, but often needed at least a little noise reduction (which takes some detail along with it), and you started to be able to see some reduction in dynamic range and/or color performance (I don’t know the right way to technically describe it). So far, it feels like the D800 is really solid and a definite improvement in this fairly important ISO range that gets little attention in most coverage.

This is an example from yesterday; it’s 7:30pm, we’re completely shaded by trees, and it’s completely overcast on top of that. Even opening up fully to f/2.8, and going with a shutter speed of 1/200th that really is on the low side for kids on bicycles, ISO was still up at 1250, but the resulting shot felt a good notch above what I would have previously expected:

Olivia is pretty impressed with her ability to ride without any hands. Just wait till I take off the training wheels!

On the D7000, I’d probably have applied a little vibrance to get the colors to look a little more like what they do at base ISO (and to match my perception of real life); indeed, +10 vibrance was my default setting in Lightroom for the D7000. On the D800 and the above shot in particular, I find this unnecessary – colors look great out of the camera even into middle ISOs. There’s also no noise reduction at all in the above, I just didn’t feel it was needed!

Other Things Worth Mentioning

While the above stood out most and seemed to call for examples, a few other observations:

  • AF is awesome. The number of focus misses is noticeably lower than on the D7000 (which was already decent), and focusing speed is notable faster.  Maybe this wasn’t a huge improvement over the D700/D3, but it’s definitely a step up from the D7000.
  • The AF-ON button is great, use it! I configured my D7000 not to focus when half-pressing the shutter; instead, the AE-L/AF-L button was assigned to focus. The D800 has a dedicated AF-ON button positioned just perfectly for this. I strongly prefer this mode of doing things. Normally, you need to use a tiny switch + button to go between manual focus, AF-S (single focus), and AF-C (continuous). AF-ON is a much better solution; don’t press it = manual focus, press once = AF-S, hold down = AF-C.
  • Video AF still sucks. This is really too bad, and it probably can’t be addressed without changes to lens design and overall mechanics, but full-time AF in video mode still sucks. It’s loud (so you need a microphone), it’s slow (dpreview is spot on about contrast-detect AF performance in Live View mode), and instead of smooth focus transitions, things are abrupt and focus bounces back and forth as things converge. Video quality seems a little higher than the D7000, but things sadly still don’t feel great for kids that move unpredictably in and out of focus.
  • Shooting banks are still poor. I already found the D7000s U1/U2 modes sub-optimal; I was usually in U2 (using aperture priority) but if I ever switched to manual mode (e.g. to force higher shutter speed on a flash shot) and back, it would reset everything including exposure compensation, aperture, etc. The D800 seems inexplicably even worse. Shooting and Custom settings are in independent banks despite being related, certain things and covered and certain things are not, and while the D7000 had dials, you need to use menus to switch banks on the D800. Even for simple family shots, it’d be nice to easily switch between a “still” setting (AF-S, lower minimum shutter speed, etc) and “action” setting, or between settings optimized for flash vs. natural light. No such luck. This is inexplicably poor.
  •  The built-in Mic seems OK. An external mic will still do much better, but the built-in Mic seems significantly more competent than before. Any focus-related noises are still really audible, though.
  • Video activation is confusing. There is a dedicated red button beside the shutter for video recording. Just press it, right? No. So far as I can tell, you have to put the camera in live view mode, make sure that video is selected on the live view switch, and then use the red button to start recording. I don’t understand why pressing the video record button, which has no other purpose, wouldn’t automatically do all the other steps.

All in all, I really feel like the D800 is a fantastic piece of equipment that I wish every non-photographer capturing their life could have. At $3,000, it’s still hard to recommend for that purpose. If you don’t have Lightroom or an equivalent, if you don’t have a good flash for indoor shots yet, if you don’t have lenses you really like, those things are all more important. Saving for your kids college education and your own retirement are also more important! But if you’re fortunate enough to be able to justify the price tag, it definitely won’t disappoint.

 Posted by at 9:53 am

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