Hang Your Kids. Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/2000s @ f2.8, ISO 400
Nikon D800e Field Test
For my personal work I mainly use a digital Leica M9. For all the photographic stuff the Rangefinder can’t handle I use Nikon DSLR equipment. The D800 and D800e bodies are Nikon’s newest kids on the block, and Nikon’s NPS left me a Nikon D800e to run my personal tests on it.
This shooting report shares my personal thoughts on this new camera and shall not be seen as a comparison test of different makes and models with full sample images or labor test set ups. These is handled in depth on numerous other websites. Just my personal impressions under real photography conditions, depending on my shooting style. As usual, your mileage may vary (and for sure will). Most images shown are slightly altered to my taste and no comparisons or conclusions shall be based on the photographs.
The small body of new Nikon D800e was also on my mind as a replacement for the Leica M9. In my personal opinion Leica will go the wrong way and future ‘improvements’ for the M series by Leica will not match my shooting style. See here Dear Mrs. Leica – An Open Letter To Leica
Nikon D800 versus D800e
Why the Nikon D800e without AA-Filter? Well, I’m using a 18 MP Leica M9 that also lacks the AA-Filter and I never noticed a Moire problem. Digital sensors without the AA-filter are also quite common in many medium format cameras and data-backs. So I didn’t expect any reasonable Moire in a 36MP camera.
My simple math: in 1 out of 1000 images (just an assumption) Moire might show up. In return, I’m awarded with 999 images showing more details. When dealing with a 36 MP camera I like to get the most possible image quality out of it.
Moire might be removed completely, or at least reduced, in post-processing. But I didn’t try that. If all fails, the affected area could be completely retouched. If the affected image is a keeper at all!
The AA-filter is there in both bodies (to simplify production); in the Nikon D800e it’s just not activated. The Nikon D800e is slightly priced over the Nikon D800. Although this is not a deal-killer for me, I don’t understand why this asks for a higher price. Just like opting for a car without A/C and the dealer tells you “Well, A/C is in also, just not activated – that’s why yours does cost more.”
I only can assume that Nikon wants to discipline buyers. To make people think twice before opting for the higher priced Nikon D800e and to make sure interests really know what they are buying. Otherwise, users might run out and ‘forcing’ Moire shots all day long – just to hammer Nikon on boards.
Little Girl Running – The D800e is Nikon’s newest kid on the block. Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/125s @ f2.0, ISO 400
Nikon D800 / D 800e – Body & Design
As a traditional cam guy I prefer the classic designs of the analogue SLR cameras I used for years. Just a matter of personal taste, of course. A younger photographer probably can’t compare. The product photos of the Nikon D800 / D800e bodies always reminded me on a piece of ‘melted chocolate’. Thanks God, the impression is quite different with the real camera and in reality the cam looks by far better. And body-design doesn’t affect the IQ. However, just a personal approach.
The Nikon D800e seems to be well built – the professional way. Nikon pro-stuff. For sure NOT a high resolution sensor featured in a cheap body just to get the price down. Quite the contrary.
A poppy built-in flash in a pro or semi-pro body never will make sense to me. One must not use it, but it weakens the body (imho) in regard to weather sealing. Worst of all, the integrated flash sacrifices the view finder. Photography is mainly about ‘seeing’ – that’s why the largest and brightest viewfinder possible is very, very important. No compromises allowed here.
But when used with fast primes the viewfinder of the Nikon D800e is bright enough even in low light situations. Viewfinder information is kept to a minimum; easy to read and to note – no problem here.
Nikon D800 / D 800e – Life View & Video
A ‘Life View’ feature never was important to me (and never will be). I’m not the guy who operates a (sometimes heavy) DSLR by the stretched out hand – for sure not! Trying to focus a hand-hold DSLR via life view is just funny, nothing else. One would be busy to keep the zoomed & enlarged detail in the viewer, especially with a telephoto lens. In addition, AF is much slower in life-view.
‘Life View’ might be handy, comfortable and advantageous when the cam is operated off a tripod. Assuming one could recognize something on the display in bright daylight. I doubt that. Again, photography is ‘seeing’. Otherwise just guess-work.
I was looking for a camera to make stills. Video capabilities in a DSLR body are not of interest for me, and I didn’t try this feature.
Nowadays a cam without ‘Life View’ and ‘Video’ might not find too many buyers. So both is there in the Nikon D800e. You have to pay for it, but you must not use it. And it’s integration does not sacrifice anything else.
Couple By The River With Little Girl Dancing On The Ceiling. Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/2000s @ f2.8, ISO 800
Nikon D800 / D 800e – Setting ISO values & ISO Automatic
ISO – one of the most critical and most important factors in any digital cam. And the one and only reason I’m looking for a replacement for the Leica M9. I’m quite happy with the 18 MP images the Leica generates. Just high ISO with the Leica M9 is horrible.
Note: when talking about ‘High ISO’ I refer to a range of ISO 400, ISO 800, maybe ISO 1600 for emergency shots. Anything above neither is important nor necessary for my shooting style.
Besides aperture and shutter speed, the ISO setting is the 3rd parameter responsible for correct light metering. In digital photography ISO can be adapted within the camera. An huge improvement over photography with analog film. No more need to carry along, rewinding and changing films.
ISO Automatics are another step into the right directions. ISO Automatics are very helpful if a fast series of images are shot (e.g. sports, action …) where settings are given for a higher number of shots.
For my personal shooting style ISO Automatics are not that useful. The ISO Automatic is triggered by the set shutter speed. In addition the Nikon D800e is able to recognize lenses and the ISO Automatic mode can also be fine tuned by a ‘lens-profile’.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ? Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/2s @ f8.0, ISO 400
But how shall the Automatic know that I prefer a higher shutter speed, and not a higher ISO setting, when situations are changing fast?
Next, whenever the automatic ISO setting is off the base ISO setting (mostly) the according ISO display in the viewfinder starts to blink to alert the photographer. This is very annoying and distracting. I always had the impressions there is something wrong with the camera. For me a no-go.
Activation / deactivation of the Auto ISO mode is done by pressing a button on the top and by turning a wheel. A nasty two hand job and, btw, not an easy task when the cam is still on the eye.
To skip the Auto Mode and to adapt ISO manually by turning the front wheel of the cam is the faster and more reliable way for me.
Aperture is set by turning a wheel. I’m usually by far faster by turning the aperture ring on lenses. One quick turn and I can adapt from fast to slow, and vice versa. No guesswork about the direction the aperture ring has to be turned – it’s common sense. The same procedure may take several ratcheting turns of the wheel, depending on the step settings (1/3, 1/2, 1 steps). To be faster I set full steps.
Setting ISO by the front wheel and setting aperture by the rear wheel. Very often I turn the wheels into the wrong direction first. Sometimes valuable time is lost when nestling around with both wheels.
Due to the cam’s top display both adjustments can be preset for really fast snap-shooting when the cam is still off the eye. Although the shutter has to be activated every time to read the ISO/Aperture settings via the top display.
Nikon D800e – ISO Noise
Still the Achilles heel in any digital sensor. I’m very critical at this point, for sure more than most other photographers.
For the D800 / D800e series Nikon claims noise-free ISO values up to ISO 1600, with some noise stepping in at ISO 3200.
Well, I don’t see it that way.
I don’t think the comparison of JPG files is fair or useful in any way. It depends too much on the various possible settings of the implied NR. I shoot RAW only and so the RAW files are my benchmark, where no NR by the camera software is applied to the RAW files (usually).
My very rough and personal observations and estimates for the sensor of the Nikon D800e when comparing the RAW files (I checked full step ISO settings only):
- ISO 400 (RAW file): Noise starts to steps in. You can note it if you are very, very critical (like me). Luminance noise is no problem at all – there is really no need to use any NR. Image can used ‘as is’. Some color noise is present in the reds. Can be left ‘as is’ or treated with NR or a noise brush, if you like.
- ISO 800 (RAW file): Luminance noise is very present all over the image and generates an over-sharped look. Imho, some NR treatment over the whole image is necessary and therefore image quality will start to suffer a bit.
- ISO 1600 and above were not tested by me. But things will not become better.
With a fast lens like the Nikkor the f1.4/35 mm ISO 800 was all that was needed during the test, even when shooting in very low light and in the night. I’m talking about real photography – I don’t shoot ‘black cats in the night’ just to test ISO 64.000.
Those numbers are just my personal ISO benchmarks, observed in real images. No labor tests. People are different and what might be bad for me might not be a problem for others at all.
A 36 MP sensor shall generate the very best image quality and I just liked to figure out the mark when noise steps in and applied NR (if desired) will start to sacrifice the output.
River Band. Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/4s @ f11.0, ISO 800
Nikon D800 / D 800e – Autofocus & Co.
The Nikon D800 / D 800e shares the same Autofocus sensor module as the flagship Nikon D4. That’s good. Otherwise I wouldn’t have considered this camera at all.
Up to 51 AF points – sounds pretty nice. But only 15 AF points are cross-type sensors and therefore are ‘the real thing’. That always should be taken in account. The cross-type sensors were always pretty fast and dead on. No hunting, never missed. Even in low(est) light. No complaints here. Just Nikon.
Same can’t be stated as soon as the ‘half-hearted’ (non-cross-type) AF point sensors are used – they are reliable just ‘half of the time’. Some hunting occurred and some shots were missed. But that’s a fact also with any other camera model/make whenever non-cross-type sensors are part of the focus game.
Sounds critical? Yes! No focusing – no picture. That’s it!
Nikon D800 / D 800e – Layout of the AF sensors – The real deal breaker
Up to the D2 series Nikon features 9 cross sensors to cover nearly the full image area. With the D3 camera generation Nikon started to change the layout of the AF-sensors, more targeted to sports shooters.
Now we have 51 AF sensors, wow, but all 51 sensors are crowded in the center. Around 2/3 of the image area in landscape mode (and around 2/4 in portrait mode) are not covered by the AF sensors. For me a real drawback!
For nearly half of the images done during this test my considered focus point was outside the AF area.
For me it is essential that the photographer can decide where the focus shall be. This decision shall in no way left to a system that forces the photographer to redesign the composition. Period.
OK, let’s consider focus lock. Focus on the subject, lock the focus, recompose and take the picture. The focus is locked either via shutter or a button located on the rear of the cam. Both ways are not very practicable for me. The lock is gone whenever you take the picture or you take your thumb off the rear button to adjust another setting (e.g. aperture).
Note: you also can set all the buttons to act as on/off. Hopefully you can keep in mind the recent settings.
By taking a fast series of images I never was sure where the focus is now. Still locked on my desired area, or did it refocus to any subject else?
This focus method works best with a wide angle lens where the larger DOF covers the desired focus area when you recompose with locked focus. With a fast telephoto lens (shot wide open) you might find some images slightly out of focus later.
The focus lock method works with static images (and a static photographer). Now, the Nikon D800e features a lot of fancy dynamic AF modes, face recognition, 3 D tracking, etc. Of course, this works only when the focus of the motive is within the (very centered) layout of the AF sensors.
Resume: For sure the centered arrangement of the AF sensors works pretty well for sports- and action shooters. But it is not that favored for creative photographic work and thoughtfully composed images. For my shooting style too many compromises must be made to get it to work.
Too critical again? Yes! Again, no focusing – no picture. That’s it! And even in cheap digital prosumer cameras it’s possible to focus over the whole image area.
Stairway – Steyr parking only. Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/1000s @ f5.6, ISO 100
AF-S NIKKOR 35mm F1.4G and the Nikon D800e
A demanding, high resolution cam like the Nikon D800e should be tested with the best available lenses only. The Nikkor f1.4/35mm is one of Nikon’s prime lenses. It’s a fast lens, therefore not a very small lens. Handling is superb on the D800e. A Nikon pro-series lens featuring the famous golden ring on it’s front.
To get a feeling for the capabilities of the sensor I did run some brick-wall test shots. The AF-S NIKKOR 35mm F1.4 performs best between f4.0 and f8.0. The lens is very soft at f1.4 and f2.0. Ok, no big surprise here, as usual for most lenses. I didn’t test apertures beyond f8.0 because in my photography they are rarely necessary.
As any other lens the Nikkor f1.4/35mm is best at the center, and the sharpness falls off to the edges – just optical law.
But I have to state that this lens, operated on Nikon D800e, is soft over the whole range. Incredible details, but I miss the killer sharpness.
OK, this lens isn’t designed to shoot brick-walls and in real photographic work the lens performs very well. This is the difference between labor test set ups and real-life work. Images by this lens always show astonishing details and sharpness is more than adequate.
For my work I never would hesitate to use this lens on the Nikon D800e, even wide open at f1.4.
If you are mainly after landscapes & Co you may think different and you may test this lens by yourself, please.
In theory this lens also could be focused manually. In practice this doesn’t really work. To close is the ratio of the focus ring for fine manual focusing. Hyperfocal focusing is also not possible due to a missing graduation on the lens. It is designed as an AF lens. For a great manual focusing wide angle lens one has to look elsewhere.
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200 mm 1:2,8G ED VR and the Nikon D800e
The Nikkor f2.8/70-200mm zoom lens is one of Nikon’s all time masterpieces and performs very well on the D800e. No more, no less.
Mainly due to better weight distribution the handling of this large zoom lens is by far better with the full-professional bodies (Nikon D3/ Nikon D4 series). At a first glance the lens is an overkill on the D800e. But after some time, and if you don’t shoot all day long with this lens adapted, it feels quite OK. Otherwise, the optional handgrip for the Nikon D800e might be worth a consideration.
Nikkor DX lenses and the Nikon D800e
DX lenses can be used on the Nikon D800e FX body without any problem. 15 MP are still left – on par with the actual Nikon D4 flagship. But I didn’t run photographic tests. I just mounted an DX lens to see if the reduced view finder will come up (it did). Of course, the finder became a lot more cropped. An advantage: now the AF sensors cover most of the image area.
Graffiti Street Art. Nikon D800e, Nikkor f1.4/35mm, 1/125s @ f8.0, ISO 400
Real life shooting the Nikon D800e
For the real shots I didn’t use a tripod and all shots were done by hand. No use of life-view. Raw only, Nef lossless compression. Adobe RGB, 12 bit.
To become familiar with the camera a first series of static images were done. Static sceneries are no problem. No people involved. A lot of time to compose, a lot of time to adjust the wheels and buttons, a lot of time to focus outside the AF area and to work with focus lock.
I went to a local market fair, crowded with people, for a greater challenge. Some snapshot photography, some street photography, urban life, night shots, call it whatsoever.
Just the Nikon D800e and the Nikkor f1.4/35mm went there. A typical street setup. It’s is not a very large combo, but also not a very small one. A serious photographer will have no problem to carry it around the whole day. It is approximately 3 times the volume of a Leica M9 with the f2.0/35mm Summicron attached.
But the Nikon street setup was already too eye-catching to work as a hidden street sniper. You are looking far too professional. People were Thinking I was was working for the event management and various times I was asked if the images will be featured anywhere on the Internet.
When working with a small camera like the Leica M (or any other small cam) people don’t take you too serious and you might earn a smile. Things are dramatically different when you are looking too professional. They are scared and you might earn the opposite of a smile. Ok, not the fault of Nikon. Just for the records.
Thanks to the higher usable ISO values of the Nikon D800e a photographer is completely free in the decision – no guesswork if the shutter speed might be a bit too low or too much noise might occur. Just take pictures and don’t care. With the fast Nikkor f1.4/35mm lens ISO 800 was the max. setting required, even for night shots.
I missed some shots because I was too slow with ‘all’ the buttons. Some shots were missed due to the non-cross-type AF sensors. Some missed shots can be blamed on the photographer only.
This type of shooting usually is the genre of a Rangefinder, where you have less buttons to consider. In some cases you are faster with manual focus or you can work with hyperfocal focus range. Rangefinder shooters know this, others never will believe it.
On the other hand many shots wouldn’t have been possible with the Leica M9 due to the poor high(er) ISO capabilities of it’s sensor.
Nikon D800e – Battery life
Battery life – an important fact in any camera body. Battery life and battery management is really great for the Nikon D800e. Charge it and simply forget about it. I’m pretty sure the battery never will let you down. Nikon states around 900 images per cycle. I guess a puristic photographer will by able to fairly exceed this number. For sure things are different when Life View and Video step in, or the camera is used as a game boy.
Nikon D800e – Sensor and image quality
Short and sweet: the generated image quality is as anticipated by a 36MP sensor – and by far more! Nikon did it, and Nikon did it well. Of course, conclusions were done by looking at RAW files at a 100% level. The sensor features incredible details. By far the best I have ever seen apart from a medium format sensor. For a fraction of the price. That’s it. Period.
What also came to a great surprise: The colors rendered by the sensor are simply great. Images can be used straight out of the cam. Usually no need for any color adjusting, except for personal taste. Under real photography conditions light metering is dead on, as is white balance. Dynamic range is awesome, especially at low ISO setting.
Nikon D800e – Image processing & dealing with huge file sizes
The Nikon D800 / D800e RAW files are supported in Adobe Lightroom 4.0 only. Of course, LR 4.0 does not run on older operating systems. That’s Adobe.
Fortunately there is a free tool by Adobe to convert D800 / D800e RAW files to the DNG file format. Now, the converted files can be imported into Adobe Lightroom 3.0. Drawback: the files have to be processed 2 times. This takes up a lot of time. For sure not the final solution.
Horses for courses, to get the very best out of Nikon NEF files the Nikon Capture NX RAW converter should be used. The genius Nikon Capture NX is the professional tool and is the very best RAW converter available at all. By all means, use it if you shoot Nikon NEF files. Compared to it, Adobe Lightroom is just lousy.
Before getting trapped by ‘bigger is better’ think twice, and rethink again, if you really need the high resolution generated by the Nikon D800e. If you don’t own the latest in PC technology the processing of the really huge files may drive you crazy.
You are dealing in file sizes usually found in medium format cameras only, mainly operated off a tripod, where a photographer thinks twice before shooting anything just for fun. If you are the type of photographer who returns from a photo-walk with 1000′s of files the Nikon D800 / D800e may discipline you a bit.
Of course, a work around is to shoot RAW in conjunction with a (low resolution) JPG file. To verify the shots by the JPG files and to process the real keepers only.
Nikon D800e – Resume
The Nikon D800e – at present the highest image quality offered in a full frame digital sensor and wrapped by a professional DSLR body. Pretty usable high(er) ISO settings and state of the art AF system. Comes also with all the ‘en vouge’ bells and whistles like Live View, Video and Co. (if you need it). Nikon built, Nikon quality. All at a real bargain price.
Usually none would need more and the Nikon D800e (due to the high sensor resolution) will not be outdated in short time. The Nikon D800e might serve your needs for many years to come. In the long run this is a cost factor and shall be considered.
Only the very best lenses shall be used on the D800e. Prime lenses might be considered. Some zoom lenses might not do the job. I guess Nikon will come up with a new lens generation to team up with the new high resolution cams. It’s good business for them.
Besides that, how else can such a high resolution sensor be advantageous? Here are some thoughts:
- Even when a lower resolution camera might be able to produce similar detailed images – when it comes to large printing you can start with a larger master image.
- This 36 MP sensor always will have a reserve. A lot of reserve! To crop. Or to use ‘digital zoom’. You can convert a prime lens to a small zoom. If necessary (for emergency) you can shoot a wide angle prime lens like a 50 mm lens, or whatsoever. You can crop the shot later to the desired lens range. Same for telephoto lenses. Your telephoto range might not be enough. Or you don’t like to lay the money down for a new lens. Or you did, but your long-range lens is at home (as usual). Take the shot and crop it later. With a 36 MP sensor you now have the reserve to do so. This can save you money. The total cost of ownership for the whole camera equipment can be decreased.
- A nice side effect: by cropping a high resolution sensor you are skipping the lower quality lens corners.
- With a 36 MP sensor you can crop a lot to be on par with the 15 MP featured by the actual Nikon D4 flagship.
Nikon D800e – Final statement
For me the one and only drawback is the centered arrangement of the AF sensors. This sacrifices my personal shooting style and is a real deal breaker. But that’s just me.
In this experience report the Leica M9 rangefinder is sometimes mentioned. In no way it should be seen as a comparison of the two cameras. Both systems are not comparable and do not compete. Just like a 2 seater sports-car can’t be compared to a 4WD Off-Road vehicle.
Before image quality can be verified and discussed “something very weired” must happen: first of all the image must be in the cam! This calls for functionality. And functionality doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of functions. Often there are too many buttons between the photographer and the image. This is when a puristic Rangefinder like The Leica M is advantageous. On the other hand, a DSLR like the Nikon D800e can do things a Leica has never heard of.
My camera wish-list (at least for personal work)? Best of both worlds. A Leica M with the sensor and image quality of the Nikon D800e. Or, even better, a puristic Nikon S Digital with the sensor of the Nikon D800e and M-mount. The latter would be by far cheaper, more reliable and future-proofed. With such a cam I would be done for the next 25 years. Unfortunately, it will never happen.
The really downside of the Nikon D800e? Once faced with the image quality generated by this camera you will not like to step back again.