Nikon D800 review



Specs and purchasing information
Most new cameras are evolutionary. They push a few specs forward, make some tweaks, and hopefully make it a little easier to take photos that are a little better. But every once in a while, a camera comes out that disrupts the natural order, that surprises you and may even allow for big changes in the way you take photos. The Nikon D3 was like this — most people expected the first Nikon full-frame camera to be a megapixel monster, but instead it focused on high-ISO quality unsurpassed at the time. Now Nikon has disrupted the market in reverse: The headline spec of the D800 is the resolution, 36.3 megapixels, which had only been the domain of medium format cameras. But what made it truly disruptive is the price — $3,000, $500 less than the Canon 5D Mark III and just over half the price of Nikon’s own D4. It seems that at first glance you’re getting a lot more camera for a lot less. But there are trade-offs, most notably shooting at only four frames-per-second. And then, of course, there are the files, which depending on your settings range from very large to incredibly massive. So how does it stack up overall?

That Darned Sensor: Resolution

How much is 36 megapixels? A lot. In the video world, we call 1080p to be true HD, the hallmark of fancy televisions and forcing movie stars to invest in better make-up. Here’s how a 1080p frame compares to the D800′s 7,360 x 4,912 pixels:

Here’s a 100 percent crop of the image next to it:

This is an old, manual-focus lens, the 105mm f/1.8, shot wide open and free-lensed. While yes, to maximize the resolution it helps to have the best lenses, shoot at the sharpest apertures, have high shutter speeds and impeccable technique, you can still see advantages of that resolution even without all that. It gives you extra detail that shows up at even more moderate sizes, since a downsized image will tend to keep the “best” data, and noise will tend to have a finer grain structure. The pictures are big, that’s no surprise. But what really made the D800 interesting to my was another trick it has up its sleeve:

That Darned Sensor: Dynamic Range

At low ISOs, particularly ISO 100, the d800 has absolutely incredible dynamic range, better even than cameras like the Fuji S5 that used an entire extra set of sensors just to extend the range. Like most recent Nikons, it keeps a lot of this range in the shadows. There is an incredible amount of ability to lift shadows, particularly compared to the Canon 5D3. You can raise ISO 100 images by as much as five f-stops and still maintain a usable image. Now, that doesn’t mean your exposures have to be off by 32x, but it does give you an incredible ability to either selectively dodge an image or simply lift shadows until it looks very similar to the dynamic range of the human eye. We’re so used to having to choose between bringing out extreme highlight or extreme shadow, even though our eyes could see both, that this — even more than resolution — is what can really change the way you do photography with the D800.

The inside of Bethesda Terrace in Central Park is completely dark. The outside is a summer day. Most cameras would force you to choose which tones you want to keep. But with a little help in post the D800 can pull it off.

Dynamic range functions more like a normal camera at higher ISOs. Of course, most forms of photography that really make the most of high resolution — landscape, studio portraiture, product photography, etc. — also tend to be shot at lower ISOs. Doubtless the folks in the sensor lab worked hard on that synchronicity.

<centerThat Darned Sensor: High ISO

The big worry when the D800 was announced was that, because of the smaller pixels on the sensor, the camera would be noisier at high ISOs. But the D800 does remarkably well, especially when images are shrunk to print or display sizes. Sure, you’ll see more noise at 100 percent pixel peeping, but there’s also a lot more pixels. Overall you get a fine grain structure, a lot of detail, and most importantly it maintains good color at high ISO, like the D3s and D4, instead of the muddiness you can get from the D3 and D700 at the highest settings.

The photos below are at ISO 4500 and 11,400. Is there noise at 100 percent? You bet. But it works:

Live View: A Mixed Bag

Even though I never do video, I absolutely love using Live View for photography. The instant response of a great viewfinder will never be totally replaced, but in so many situations it is incredibly helpful to see exactly what the final picture will look like in front of you. Viewfinders don’t accurately record depth-of-field of super fast lenses, and they definitely don’t record different white balances or the overall contrast and tonality of a scene. So much of the expertise of photography is learning to interpolate exactly how your camera sees. Live View is an end-run around all of that.

The D3s has pretty good live view with one major flaw — it only works to 1/250th of a second. Want to shoot f/1.2 in daylight? Live View should be great for that, but you can’t do it on the D3s. On the D800? No problem, it works at any shutter speed. And it’s great. I took the ring shot above using Live View — it perfectly let me see how the depth-of-field was affecting the shot, a huge issue in macro photography. It also let me put the specular highlights in exactly the right place.

But there are a couple issues. The first is that Live View is when I really notice the greenish cast of the LCD. Nikon first said this was more accurate and now says they’re working on changing it, but in any case green is not the best tone to overlay on a scene when you’re photographing people.

But worse, when using Live View you can really feel how the camera is struggling with that much data. On the D4, shooting is nearly instantaneous. On the D800, there’s a very noticeable delay after every shot, more than enough to be annoying. In fact, it’s very un-Nikon. Nikon cameras are known for being workhorses that are always ready to take a shot. Using Live View on the D800 is beautiful but quirky, like an old Fuji DSLR. Because my primary uses for the D800 are portraits and details, where Live View matters a lot, this is a real issue for me.

General use: Focusing and ergonomics

Some people have noticed quirkiness with the outer focus points on this camera; for me it’s performed like a champ. In least in theory it’s the same AF system as the almost twice as expensive D4, and it works fantastically well in low light. AF in Live View is slower but still remarkably accurate with a good lens.

I’ve also noticed that most of my lenses need less micro-focus-adjustment on the D800 than on my D3s’s, but that’s probably just that my D3s’s have been ground down nearly to a fine powder. In any case, most of my lenses were spot-on the moment they were put on the camera.

What annoyed me is that, as near as I can tell, one of the buttons on the back is missing from the button re-configuration menu. That meant that I had to reach my thumb way over to find the AE-L/AF-L button, which I use as a “fire the shutter now!” button to catch moments even if the camera isn’t quite sure it’s perfectly in focus. This also ruined a few Brenizer-method panoramas, as the camera would try to re-focus halfway through when I couldn’t keep the button held. Keep in mind I have gigantic hands, so this may be an even bigger problem for other users.

Overall the camera feels great, well-balanced and a great general workhorse. Four frames per second is almost always fast enough for me; the only time I ever ran into problems with its speed was in buffer issues while doing panoramas.

The Big But: File sizes

The tragedy of the D800 is that it has no Small RAW option like Canon cameras (which don’t even need it as badly). Heck, the smallest JPEG option is still 18 megapixels. The largest settings for a RAW file will set you back around 75MB for every shot. Optimized fully for size you can get that down to about 33. With so much data and dynamic range, I felt pretty safe compressing a tiny bit of it away.

For most professionals, 33 MB isn’t so bad. Remember, the Fuji S5 shot 25MB files to produce essentially a really sharp six-megapixel file. But I shoot a LOT — more than 250,000 photos a year. Next week I’m doing four full weddings in five days. Shooting with the D800, I’d end up with more than half a terabyte of data. And even if I compress the RAW files, I’m still ending up with abnormally giant JPGs, which means bigger hard drives sent to clients, longer upload times, etc. etc. I have a lot of budget for hard drives, and of course this data is still paltry compared to videographers, but for someone with my volume having to shoot at 36MP all the time is a huge liability.

The Final Word: It’s good for me, fantastic for most

Nikon has built an extraordinary camera. It doesn’t quite get out of my way and just do its job as much as the D3s does, but the trade off is a lot more resolution and greater dynamic range, as well as lighter weight and much less cost than the D4. For most advanced photographers and professionals, this is really going to hit a sweet spot.

If Nikon ever manages to produce a firmware update with a good SRAW option, I’d switch my entire line-up to three of these the next day.

In any case, I really hated giving this back. Here are some more pictures I’ve made with it. This camera renders images amazingly well, not just amazingly large.

There are also some more photos of Dominique on my Facebook page taken with the D800 that might be too hot for a camera review.

Buy it here!

Throwing a curve

The wedding party kept talking about what a great athlete Marisa is, so I had to see for myself.

(Her husband Joe also said he really wanted to make the blog, so we joked I’d only put in photos without him in it. Don’t worry Joe, you’ll join the party soon.)

Lens: 24mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s

Sonya and David’s Alger House Wedding

Sonya and David were married on a Sunday. They booked me that Friday — after being unceremoniously double-booked by their photographer. So I didn’t get to meet them in person beforehand — what sort of people are they? I wondered.

Fantastic people, it turns out. The sort of people who wedding photography clichés are based on, because they just sort of do that stuff in real life. The photo in the cab, 100 percent blissful, heads together in a world-class nuzzle? That was just how they were sitting, on their own. They have the type of connection where, when she came down the aisle at the Central Park Ladies’ Pavillion ceremony, he met her halfway … and kissed her.

Sure, breaking tradition keeps me on my toes, but it’s also beautiful to watch.

They followed with an intimate, thirtysomething-person reception at the Alger House, with modern Jazz music from Cate Cox, including a stint with her Dad serenading everyone to the Doors.

A beautiful, fantastic day, despite exactly eight minutes of rain (the ceremony was saved from being moved indoors by the amazingly precise Dark Sky app on my iPhone). Sometimes it’s the jolts in life that get you where you need to be.

Thanks to Kacy Jahanbini for the help and great photos in this last-minute scramble.

A 42nd St. Reprieve

Brenizer-method panoramas plus the D800 equals a really great way to test your computer system. The full-res shot of this image weighs in at 211 megapixels. There’s less than three weeks remaining to get in your entries for the contest, so get out and shoot!

As an interesting look at how using lighting can change the mood of a shoot, keep in mind that this was taken only a few minutes and 500 feet away from this shot, both outdoors in the same light. Variety is key.

Camera: Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: 33-image “Brenizer method” panorama with the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G (equivalent of 36mm f/0.44 according to Brett’s calculator)

With Gusto

It’s a wedding, have some fun. I certainly have been.

The top one reminds me of something crossing my mind recently. Somewhere around now I’ve crossed the threshold of shooting my 250th wedding. It’s been interesting to see what aspects of growth are in photography, and what are specifically wedding expertise, whether it’s the comfort of a wedding feeling like your natural habitat or just having learned every lesson the hard way. I once was on a bumpy trolly ride with a bride and groom when the bride had someone pour her a Solo cup of Coca-Cola.

“Hey, how about I take that and give you this Sprite?” I said, aping my best David Tutera.

Two minutes later, a big bump in the road, and there was Sprite on the dress. No biggie. Coca-Cola? Probably a biggie.

So when Chika wanted an ice cream, my first thought was “OK, let’s have some fun.” My second thought was, “That’s a Vera Wang. You get the coconut.”

Of course, the lower shot was taken in Mexico, where all bets were off.

You’ll see. Oh, you’ll see.

Lens: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G and Nikon 24mm f/1.4G
Camera: Nikon D800

See me (and other amazing photographers) at the Canada Photo Convention!

RCKY2Artist’s depiction of Canada Photo Convention

I am so thrilled to announce that I have joined the line-up for the Canada Photo Convention in Vancouver on April 23-24. And honestly, this is a convention I’d want to go to even if I weren’t speaking. I’ve been to a number of conventions before as a speaker and an attendee, and you tend to see the same people over and over again. Here, you have a lot of the top rising stars in the industry, including people like my buddies Jonas Peterson and the Nordica dudes, and so many people who are cranking out work that is fresh, original, and well, so hot right now. I’m honored to be among them.

I was born so close to the Quebec border that all the signs in my hometown are also in French. I absolutely can’t wait. I promise lots of new material in my presentation, and a few new moves for the dance floor afterward.

Even though the convention is a year away, it’s filling up incredibly fast. So sign up now!

Announcing the first Brenizer Method contest, sponsored by B&H Photo

110917 174318 85 copy

Time flies. It was almost four years ago that I started playing around with panoramas not for the traditional reasons of super-wide frames or insanely high resolution, but to dance my way around a simple problem of physics: to get incredibly shallow depth-of-field, generally you need a lens with a long focal length set to a fast aperture, but that restricts you to a narrow frame of view. You could shoot medium or large format film as one way around this problem, but physics gives us another problem: there’s a good reason you don’t see f/1.4 lenses for large format cameras. They’d be ginormous. But using panorama techniques effectively increases the size of any camera’s sensor, allowing us to use super-fast and relatively compact SLR lenses to achieve incredibly shallow depth-of-field even on wide-angle frames.

I loved the look I was getting and set out to see what I could do with it. How can I shoot panoramas with people? Of candid action? How could I use flash? I was happy to share the things I was learning, and photographers seized on it, trying it for themselves and naming it the “Brenizer method.” (You can read more about it, including a tutorial video, here)

Years later, countless thousands of photographers around the world have made this technique their own, using it for everything from weddings to still lives to even George Clooney. It makes me thrilled to see people taking this and using it in ways that achieve their own vision or just make beautiful photos … and so I want to see what y’all can do with a little incentive.

To that end, I have partnered with B&H and some fantastic photographers for the first Brenizer Method contest. We want to see exactly what you can do. The basic tool is simple — it’s just a way to shoot at crazy effective apertures like f/0.4, but that alone doesn’t make a photo good, you do. And so I’ve partnered with some amazing photographic teams to help the judging:

The judges: Vancouver’s Nordica Photography and Brisbane’s Feather and Stone (and me.)

Storyboard001

Cole and Jacob of Nordica, and Seth and Tenielle of Feather and Stone are absolutely fantastic photographers, skilled in various techniques and brilliant in compositions. Seriously, spend some time drooling over their work. They also don’t as far as I know, use the Brenizer method. In the end, this contest isn’t about using the biggest lens or the most photos in a panorama — it’s about creating the most compelling photos — and I’m excited to have them aboard.

The Rewards

Honorable Mention photos will be featured on this blog and related social media sites and linked to by the B&H media mammoth. All photos will be credited with links back to your Web site (if you have one.)

The top three photos will be awarded gift cards to B&H Photo. Third place will win a $50 card, second place will win a $100 card, and first place will win a $150 card. These photos also will be given top spot in the Web feature.

The Rules

First, of course, these photos must be taken with the Brenizer method. Not all panoramas count — what the method does is rely on a fast aperture and close enough subject distance to show a visibly shallow depth of field. This is not a Brenizer method photo:

Samples110528 172057 24mm f2 110528 172121 24mm f2 22 images

But these are:

Storyboard002
The entries do NOT have to be wedding photos, or even of people. They just have to use the method to create compelling photos.

We will be accepting entries until midnight EST on July 1, 2012.

All photos will be properly credited and you retain full copyright. Images will just be displayed in conjunction with contest results.

How to submit

E-mail entries to brenizermethodcontest@gmail.com. No more than five entries per contestant, and use a separate e-mail for each photo. Each entry needs to contain a reference to the camera and lens that were used, and how many frames were used to make the final result. Please include how you would like to be credited, both your name and the Web site.

Resize photos to 1000 pixels on the largest side. NO WATERMARKS. My assistant will be managing the entries so that judging will be as blind and fair as possible.

Grandview Wedding: Tom and Nicole

I’d met Tom, a photographer himself, way back when he attended my very first workshop. I always love working with photographers of all stripes, since we can really just jump into a sort of creative collaboration. Doubly so when the couple is as kind and open as Tom and Nicole. It was a deeply emotional and beautiful day, the April weather bringing just the right coolness to get the Grandview dance floor moving — not that much convincing was needed. The ceremony was at their alma mater, Marist College, a gorgeous campus where all the ground is apparently at a 45-degree angle.

D800 teaser: Ariana and Eric at the Metropolitan Club

To say that Ariana and Eric are a pretty cool couple is like saying that the Metropolitan Club — pretty much what you’d expect from a place built for J.P. Morgan to hang out in — is a pretty cool place to get married.

The D800 is a very different sort of camera than the D3s or D4, but a performer in its own way. And, since this is an ISO 3200 photo in a very dark spot, it’s a surprisingly good low-light performer. Of course, the exported TIFF of this photo was 217 megagbytes, so I will never have enough hard drives from now on.

Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D800

Review: Nikon D4

Storyboard034

Specs and Purchasing Information
838794The Nikon D4 has some big shoes to fill. Nikon’s professional line of cameras has been a benchmark since 1959, and it is the next iteration in a line that has seen both revolutionary cameras like the D1 and D3, and relative missteps, like the D2H. It has to compete with Canon’s similarly specced 1D-X (slightly higher in resolution and price). It has to complement and provide unique advantages over the megapixel-monster D800.

But there’s only one real challenge it faces in my book … and it’s not easy. Can it pry my beloved D3s from my hands? I’ve taken 338,378 photos with my D3s’s. They’re worn down to the gunmetal and aren’t slowing down. The D3s is the first camera I’ve ever used that isn’t just good, but something more important … it’s not annoying in any real way. Anyone who’s worked with a lot of cameras on a wide variety of shoots know how profound this is. The things cameras can do these days is astounding, but boy can they also be annoying. The D3s just does its job and gets out of the way, even at crazy-high ISOs, so what can Nikon do to make professional users buy a pricey upgrade?

The most obvious answer is video. The D3s does video … decently. It uses the amazing night-vision chip well for video in the dark, but it’s only 720P, which is below-standard for professional usage, and most of the controls are sort of tacked on. So if you’re looking for a fast-FPS professional Nikon that does great video, you don’t really need to read the rest of the review, just buy the D4. It does 1080p, it has dedicated video controls and a much better live-view screen. Go for it.

But that’s enough of that. This is a camera review. I’ve had video-enabled DSLRs for almost three years now, and … I really don’t care. I’d rather do what I do really well then tack on something else I do decently. The question is how it performs as a photographic tool.

The answer? It is both the best workhorse camera I have ever used and one that I’m ambivalent about.

The good:
Build quality and ergonomics: Every flagship Nikon DSLR has felt incredibly solid, and with more curves and a clearly huge amount of testing, they’ve added little touches of finesse to make this the best one yet. Check out the back:

20120106 nikon d4 backjpeg

Nikon managed to add video controls and two joysticks — one for horizontal operation and one for video — without making the camera feel cluttered. There’s some additional gripping for vertical holding, a lighter but still-powerful battery — just a fantastic overall design. It’s a potential self-defense device as much as a camera.

The screen and Live View: Live View is tied to a camera’s video functioning, which means that in the D3s it works … OK. But in the D4 it’s fantastic. Sadly the D3s Live View only works up to 1/250th of a second, which can leave you hanging in bright situations. But the D4 Live View works at any shutter speed, has a fantastic refresh rate, and allows autofocus that isn’t super-speedy but is surprisingly accurate even in poor light.

You might ask why someone who doesn’t care about video is so impressed by good Live View. Sometimes you want to shoot from angles that aren’t so easy to get your eye in front of:

Storyboard030

Or when you don’t want to stare directly into the sun, or into a very close light bulb:

Storyboard002

Live View is also an incredibly helpful tool for advanced photography, particularly for someone who likes to manually focus fast lenses. Nikon’s fastest lenses, the 50mm f/1.2 and 58mm f/1.2, only come in manual focus varieties, but the problem is that the optical viewfinder doesn’t show anything like the true depth-of-field of an f/1.2 lens. Live View is almost a necessity to get good focus with these lenses wide-open:

Storyboard025

It also comes in tremendously handy for freelensing and even tilt-shift, since it very accurately shows the plane of focus.

But even if you use AF lenses, perfect manual focus comes in very handy for precise situations, such as being able to zoom in on someone’s eyelashes in the dark, with the LCD being much, much more light sensitive than your still-adjusting eyes. That allowed me to know I was getting this image sharp at f/1.4, since the scene was almost completely dark:

Which brings us to:

The great sensor: Like the D3s before it, the D4 is a champ at high ISO. Sadly, while the D3s was a huge step above the D3, which was a GIANT leap over the D2X, the D4 is no better than the D3s in this space. In fact, the D3s is probably very slightly better, but at a given print size it’s pretty much a wash. They’re both fantastic, but the D4 isn’t breaking any new ground.

Of course there are other advantages. Resolution is slightly higher at 16 megapixels, and now it natively goes to ISO 100 instead of the D3s’s ISO 200. In the photo below, to bring down the sky’s exposure and sharpen the foreground I had to shoot at f/14 at ISO 100. With the D3s I’d have to shoot at a less-sharp f/20 at ISO 200.

Storyboard028

But the big guy on the sensor block these days is the D800. And it’s true, that thing works magic at ISO 100, with unmatched resolution and dynamic range among DSLRs. But the D4 sensor is clearly designed for sports and photojournalism where ISO 100 is a rare luxury, and according to DXOMark it starts to outperform the D800 in dynamic range at higher sensitivities. As a wedding photographer in New York, I live in dark spaces, so this is worth consideration.

Unlike the 5D3, the D4 deals very well with pushed exposures or dodging.

But a light-sensitive sensor is nothing without light-sensitive…

Autofocus. Sadly the AF system doesn’t correct the one thing about the D3s that is almost annoying — the AF points are clustered too closely together on the FX frame. At first glance it looks exactly the same as the D3/D700/D3s AF system, but it’s rated to be twice as sensitive in low-light, and when you do a lot of work in poorly lit environments you can feel the improvement (even though the D3s is no slouch.) The lighting at this wedding with Sam Hurd was intensely purple, which drove the normally-great Canon 5D3 autofocus a bit bonkers, but it was hard to shake the D4 off its game:

Storyboard003

Overall, this and the D800 seem to be the best in class for low-light autofocus. We’ll see if the 1D-X has any tricks up its sleeve.

The Bad(ish):

Honestly, very few things are wrong with this camera (as long as you get one that isn’t locking up). But there are some niggling issues that affected me, and may affect you.

You Can’t Buy Just One: Most of the people in the market for D4s are professionals, and thus need backup gear. If you shoot with two cameras at the same time (like I do), then you’re probably going to want to buy two. The D3s looks and feels so similar that you’ll keep forgetting which is which — until your thumb reaches for a button and you remember that it’s not there. The fastest way to do things with the D4 are via the new joysticks, but that was another thing to remember when I had a D3s slung over the other shoulder. The AF mode switching, the metering selection, there are so many little changes that will frustrate you down the line. If you use a D800 as a second body, not only will your files randomly be vastly different sizes, but you’ll be dealing with three different memory card systems. Which brings me to:

Hybrid cards: Nikon had this right with the D3 and D3s, and now Canon has it right with the 1DX. The best way to implement a dual-card system is with two of the same kind of card. I am constantly switching cards in and out to back up as I go along, and with nothing but CF cards the chain is seamless — all cards are either in the camera or actively being downloaded at any time. But throw in a different sort of slot and it all becomes some sort of strange juggling act that is at best annoying (there’s that word!) and at worst can endanger valuable data by misplacing a card. Honestly, I can’t wait for the D4s where they figure out whether the XQD system was worth it or not. Go all-in or don’t.

Conclusion:
This is an amazing camera, with a few quirks that will only annoy people who are very set in their D3s-shooting ways. It combines Nikon’s excellent flash system (with upgrades like remembering flash-head zoom positions after they’ve been turned off and on) with a great overall sensor and a world-class body. Is it worth the $6K when the D800 is half the price with more resolution or the D3s is still hanging around at a discount? For most Nikon sports photographers and photojournalists who increasingly live in a multimedia world, the answer should probably be yes.

For people who are counting every dollar? Perhaps, going forward, but ponder this: if I were unethical, I could have written this review without ever touching a D4. Any of these shots could have been taken with the D3s and you’d never know the difference, even with 100 percent crops (the difference between 12 and 16 megapixels isn’t huge). Only the images where I used Live View in the day time provided a clear practical advantage.

But I have loved mine to pieces, and kept turning to it, as these sample photos will show. This is a camera that is built to work:

Storyboard022

Buy it here

Just … trust me.

Storyboard028

Sometimes photography requires a good deal of trust. The coordinator from the New York Botanical Garden stood in front of me and said “We have transportation, and you have access to all the wonders and beauty of the gardens at your disposal. Where would you like to go?”

“Well … I saw a really great patch of unmowed grass. Can we go there?”

Trust can pay off.

Lens: Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6
Camera: Nikon D4