My D800 Preorder

(Image is Nikon’s, and links to their D800 page). In an earlier post on the announcement of the D4, I decided that the D4 was too big and too expensive to reasonably consider – and that the D800 was looking like it wasn’t the camera for me. Almost three weeks ago, on February 7th, Nikon announced the D800 (and D800E) full frame cameras. And in spite of what I had said earlier, I pre-ordered a D800 the day of the announcement.  Did something change my mind – why did I preorder?

Well, pre-ordering alone doesn’t take much guts – you get to pore over all the samples, analysis, and early user feedback in the month or so that follows until the camera actually starts shipping, and if you don’t like what you see, you can cancel at no cost. And if Nikon’s past launches have been indicative, there won’t be enough D800s anyways, so it’d probably be trivial to sell it perhaps even at a profit if it didn’t meet expectations. I intensely dislike secondary markets that offer new goods at inflated prices (because it results in lots of non-customers buying solely to make a profit, making it more difficult and expensive for legitimate fans to actually get the products in question, without providing any value back to the product creator – see the first year of the Nintendo Wii for examples), but it does take any risk out of pre-ordering.

However, as I’ll explain below, I went a step further and actually committed to this for real. Given that the D800 isn’t intended to address my primary need – good enough high ISO performance to shoot the kids in ambient indoor light at shutter speeds that accommodate their constant state of motion – why did I commit anyways?

There were several factors:

  • Size.  Or more specifically, weight; the D800 is about the same size as the D700 (both are much smaller than the D3/D4), and it’s a decent bit lighter (900g for the D800 vs. 995g for the D700, according to Nikon).  That’s also just 210g more than my current D7000 weighs.  Okay, so 210g is more than the entire weight of my PowerShot S90, and at 1kg with a battery it’s certainly not a pocket camera, but the D700 was about the limit of what I’d carry around with the kids and the D800 comes in a decent bit below that, so I’ll call it a win.
  • Price.  It was basically accepted that the D800 was going to cost $3,700, so when it was announced at the significantly lower price of $3,000, the surprise was a pleasant one.  It’s still not a cheap camera by any stretch, but $700 is a big difference and it doesn’t raise the price of going full frame.
  • Presumed ISO Capability.  At the time of my pre-order, I assumed that with similar sized photosites between the D7000 and D800, that per-pixel quality would be at least as good as the D7000 – and hopefully a little better, given that the design & technology of the D800 is a little over a year newer.  Similar or better per-pixel quality from a noise perspective translates into much less visible noise when viewing at a fixed size – just look at a 50% crop vs. 100% crop of a D7000 image. Overall, at a fixed on-screen (or in print) size, the D800 ought to have at least a 1-stop lead over my D7000 when not shooting in crop mode – perhaps more. Sadly, resampling like this doesn’t improve high ISO dynamic range or color performance, which is just as important, but I convinced myself there’d be a meaningful improvement over the D7000.  Subsequent online samples and analysis seem to confirm this, with many saying that the D800 will equal or better the D700 (which is indeed about a stop better than the D7000).
  • Complete D7000 Replacement.  The D800 has a 36-megapixel 35.9mm x 24.0mm sensor.  The D7000 has a 16-megapixel 23.6mm x 15.6mm sensor.  Why does this matter? It means that when using DX lenses (of which I have several) that only cover an APS-C sized sensor, I’ll be getting the same resolution as the D7000 provides. So if I’m travelling somewhere and going light, I can still bring the 18-200 and get the same performance I would have with the D7000. With the D4, this wouldn’t have been the case. And being able to sell the D7000 (or configure it for Valerie to use) makes the effective price of the D800 even lower.
  • Video.  The D90 really wasn’t usable for video.  The output from the D7000 is better – enough that we don’t use or carry a separate camcorder anymore – but still leaves something to be desired when panning or focusing during shooting.  The sample D800 video is mind blowing, and while that requires expertise, skill, and setup that will never be present in anything I shoot it’s nice to know that motion, panning, and low light all seem to handle well when the camera is used optimally. I bet they still had complex rigs to shoot that sample video, though! I’m not a big video fan in general, but there are moments with the kids that still images just don’t capture.

Oddly, the D800s defining feature – 36 megapixels! – is nowhere to be found in my list (though it does make the D7000 replacement item possible).  I would gladly trade the super-high resolution (and my DX lenses) for the speed and high ISO capability of the D4, but that doesn’t look like an option that’s on offer. At least, not yet! And now I hope not soon, because I don’t want to be tempted to upgrade anytime soon :).

So, what did I do to truly lock myself into going through with the D800 purchase? I bought this:

It’s the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR, a full-frame ultra-wide lens that’s roughly equivalent to the 10-24mm lens I use on the D7000 today. While I’ve essentially stuck to full frame lenses in the past several years in anticipation of ultimately buying something like the D800, as I mentioned in this post, ultrawide full-frame lenses are useless on a crop camera. So in other words, if I don’t wind up with a D800, then the above purchase will be completely worthless.

The only reason I pulled the trigger on the above is because it popped up in a local Craigslist ad, at a quite reasonable asking price. I’ve barely ever seen this lens second hand, so I went ahead in anticipation that I’d go through with the D800 purchase. I did use the legendary 14-24 on the D3 for a while, and though I never wrote it about it,  the reputation it carries is deserved. But I expect the 16-35 to be far more practical for everyday use. Though perhaps at 36MP of resolution, I’ll be pining for the sharpness of the 14-24 in the end!

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