first impressions of the D800E – a mini review

May 21 2012, 0 Comments

[This isn’t a scientific review in any way, just my thoughts on the camera. If you want a pixel peeping review is the place to be.]

I’ve had the Nikon D800E for about a month now. For the most part, I like it. Right off the bat I noticed the ergonomics of this new series of Nikon cameras, D800/D4. The grips are smaller and the button layout is much better. On previous Nikon bodies I didn’t feel like I had a solid grip on the camera. The D800E fits my hand perfectly, enough so that I didn’t buy the MB-D12 grip. If you can get your hands on a D4 to play with, the new button layout and extra joysticks makes that camera very intuitive to use. The only complaint that I, and most other long-time Nikon users have, is the new placement of the Mode button. Nikon has moved it further to the left of the shutter button to make room for a new video-recording button. The Mode button has been in the same place since the days of the F100/F5 (1996), and it takes a while to get use to having to stretch further to change modes.

There is one other beef I have with Nikon on the D800E body. Back in the early days of digital, Nikon set the multi-selector button to scroll through pictures using the up/down buttons, and scroll through information using the left/right buttons. Ever since then, Nikon has allowed users to customize the multi-selector buttons to scroll through images/information whichever way they choose. With the D800E, Nikon has removed that user customization. Now it may not sound like a big deal, but I’ve been using the Up/Down buttons to scroll through pictures for the last 8 years, it’s just natural for me. I know at least a few photographers who have sent Nikon their thoughts on this. Hopefully they can add the customization back in a firmware update.

Samuel - Color - Nikon D800E - Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2

Samuel - Color - 100% Crop - Nikon D800E - Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2

Image Quality
What can I say, 36 megapixels (MP) is big. There more than enough detail to print large or crop-in close. But megapixels are really only a small part of this story. You can have lots and lots of megapixels but if there is terrible noise or poor latitude megapixels doesn’t matter. My initial worry for the D800E when Nikon announced that it would have 36MP, was that it would have a lot of noise. Coming from shooting a D3, I’m use to having virtually clean images up to ISO 3200 and very usage ISO 6400 images. 36 million pixels is a lot of dots to jam into a 35mm sized frame. I was surprised to find that the high ISO performance is very very good. I can comfortably say that images are usable at ISO 3200, and can be tweaked to be used at ISO 6400. The noise is also more noticeable because of the ultra high resolution. At 100%, noise is easy to distinguish. Down-sample 36MP down to 18MP and the noise is probably as good as my D3.

Nikon D800E - ISO 3200
Nikon D800E - ISO 3200 - 100%
Nikon D800E – ISO 3200

Nikon D800E - ISO 6400
Nikon D800E - ISO 6400 - 100%
Nikon D800E – ISO 6400

I’ve been impressed by the D800E’s latitude. DxOMark ranks the D800E’s sensor as the best camera for latitude, even above the PhaseOne IQ180. I’m not sure how much that translates into real world situations. My friend Nick at Redline Photography, mentioned to me that he feels his Leaf digital back still has more latitude, especially since it records 16bit color. All I know is that the D800E has more latitude than my D3. Enough so that when I first tested my D800E I thought my strobes weren’t firing right (also partly due to having LCD auto-adjusting brightness turned on – more about that below). It really keeps good constraints on both high-lights and low-lights. There is a lot of information kept both ends. And if you shoot neutrally like me, you can push/pull the raw files a few stops.

Nikon D3 - Nikon D800E - Latitude test
These shots are lighting tests from Brandy’s Love Your Face shoot. Both images are shot with the exactly same setting, with exactly the same lighting setup. The D3’s high-lights are almost peaked, where the there is clearly still information in the D800E’s image. The white-balance difference is also evident in the test images. The D800E’s white-balance is much warmer than the D3 and a tad on the green side.

Colors seems a bit more saturated on the D800E . I’ve also found that contrast is low, which could be linked to how Nikon is achieving so much latitude. Both of these aspects rely heavily on the lenses used on the D800E. With 36MP, the camera picks up everything. It will make mediocre lenses look terrible, and bring out the good characters in high-quality lenses. A lot of my initial tests where with my Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. The lens is small and light to carry around. Unfortunately the D800E seemed to out resolute the 50mm f/1.4G at most apertures. I’ve been tailoring my kit over the last few months, and finally picked up a Zeiss 35mm f/2. The Zeiss lens is amazing on the D800E. Super super sharp, superb contrast, and resolves an almost pastel-like color profile. It’s fast becoming my favorite lens.

This is the big question for the D800E. Without an anti-aliasing filter, or more accurately a reverse engineered low-pass filter, the chance of moire becomes much much higher. Moire is created when there is more detail than the sensor can capture. Fine repeating patterns are the number one culprit of moire; grain in wood, the thread pattern in clothing, and even metal grates on buildings. I wasn’t able to create any moire while shooting every day tests, so I setup a studio test with a silk scarf. The thread count of the scarf was small enough to out-resolute the D800E when shooting at 24mm at about 8 feet. Getting closer or changing focal length seemed to eliminate moire (which are two of the best ways to compensate for moire while shooting). Lightroom 4 also has a new moire-correction tool. It does a pretty good job, though it can mute colors.

Nikon D800E - Moire - Lightroom 4 Moire Correction

D800 vs D800E
I initially pre-ordered the D800. After about a day, I switched my order to the D800E. Why? Well, I felt that extra detail and resolution outweighed the chance of dealing with moire. Before the D800E was announced, my plan was to invest into a digital back system. Digital backs don’t have AA filters, and moire is a fact of life. A digital back system is still in the future, and creating a process to deal with moire is probably good idea. Lightroom 4 has a new moire correction tool, and it does a fairly good job at reducing moire. I’ve noticed the extra detail, and I like it. Now I personally haven’t tested a D800 and a D800E side-by-side, but guys like Rob Galbraith has and it seems like I made the right decision for me.

A few small things
Since the D800/E was released there has been a few bugs that have shown up. The first was the color of the LCD screen. There have been varying reports of a green cast on the LCD screen. There is a color difference between the D800/E and D3 screen. To me, the screen seems warmer rather than greener. Nikon has also confirmed a problem with the D800/E locking up, and are working on a firmware fix. The temporary fix is to turn off the RGB histogram and highlight indicator in the playback mode.

D800E (Left) - D3 (Right) - LCD Comparison
Yes, that is a plush monkey with a toy gun. He’s been my test subject for years.

With the D800/D4 Nikon has introduced auto-adjusting brightness into their LCD. In theory it works great, on bright days the screen gets brighter and inside the screen automatically dims. The problem that I found is that Nikon not only adjusts the brightness of the LCD but also the contrast. When the LCD is auto-dimmed for inside use, images look really flat with absolutely no contrast. For studio shooting this is a problem since the LCD may not correctly display strobe output. I have auto-adjusting brightness turned off on my D800E. I would much rather have an accurate representation of my strobe output than save a bit of power with auto-adjusting LCD.

Nikon has introduced face detection into their SLRs. I initially thought it was an odd feature for high-end SLRs. It’s a great option for consumer bodies, allowing users to automatically focus on subject’s faces. Then I found a great little playback feature in the D800E. When zoomed-in on a picture you will notice small white boxes around any face the camera detects. You are able to quickly scroll between faces by using the front dial. It’s a small feature, but it beats trying to hunt around while zoomed-in for a face to check focus.

D800E Wishlist
I will admit that there are a few things that I wish Nikon would have included in the D800E that the D3/D4 has. The first and most practical, is the D3/D4 viewfinder. The D3/D4 viewfinder is much better laid out, having two information screens; one at the bottom for all technical data, and one on right side for a meter. The D800E has all of the information at the bottom plus the meter crammed in there, similar to the D700. The D3/D4 focus points are individually lit red LED boxes that you can see through; the selected focus point stays lit. The D800E inherits the black focus points the D700/D300 series has. The focus points only light up red when the shutter button is pressed, and turn off after a few seconds. The addition of a flash doesn’t allow Nikon to design in a larger fully-featured viewfinder into the D800E. To be honest, I don’t need an on-camera flash, and wish Nikon would go the same way Canon did with the 5D and include the same viewfinder as the cameras above.

I wouldn’t mind a more customizable top LCD screen. Being able to switch between how many pictures are left to how many picture I’ve taken, like the D3/D4. As well as a place to constantly display the ISO. It was nice to glance at the small rear LCD on the D3 and know what ISO the camera was set to.

One more frame-per-second would be welcomed. I know, 36MP is a lot to push through, but at least give up one more frame with the grip (in full-frame mode). And that extra joy-stick button on the D4 would have been a really nice design touch on the D800E.

Samuel - Black & White - D800E - Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2

The Right Gear for the Right Job
The D800E is the first camera I’ve purchased outside of being a wedding photographer. All of my cameras before have been equipped to be versatile, fast, and provide amazing low-light performance. If I was still shooting weddings, I would probably have picked up the D4. Now shooting mostly commercial and editorial work, I don’t need the speed, and high-resolution becomes more of a priority. I am able to take more time to create the images I want. Setting up additional light is just the norm. The D800E has slowed down how I shoot, more methodical. Pairing the D800E with my Mamiya RZ67 makes for a very good combination for how I work now.

So far, I am happy that I chose the D800E. It has met every expectation I’ve had, and surpassed my expectation in high-ISO. There is a lot of detail with 36 megapixels, and the latitude allows a lot of post-production power. Since starting this post about a week ago I’ve discovered that moire will sneak up on you when you’re almost done retouching, that a vertical grip comes in handy when you’re trying to shoot at a weird angle, and that 4 fps takes more than a month to get use to. Not that I’m complaining. 36MP is more detail than any normal person will ever use. The lack of a AA filter results in some of the sharpest images I’ve ever seen with a digital camera. And having a camera that fits your hand that a glove is really nice to work with. For what I do, the D800E is a great camera.

Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2
Quickly on the Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2. It is one of the nicest lenses I have very owned. It is sharp, even wide open, great contrast, and produces the really interesting color. The biggest complaint you will find online from users is that there is a lot of vignetting at f/2, and there is. The only reason to shoot at f/2, other than being in low-light, is to isolate your subject. The vignetting helps with that, and I like it. Bottom line, buy one if you’re looking at a 35mm. And don’t let manual focus deter you, it’s not as hard as you think.

Christen - Nikon D800E - Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2

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© Copyright 2013, Ian Sheh