Well, the big news is that I have a Nikon D800! My D2X has finally been retired after nearly eight years and it was with mixed emotions that I part-exchanged my trusted work tool at Carmarthen Cameras. After what seems to have been eternity waiting for Nikon to release their response to Canon’s 5D Mk II, I finally have what may be the answer to my imaging dreams for many years to come.
It is hard to believe rumours of the specification of this new model have turned out to be true. The D800 has an FX full frame sensor with a mind-blowing 36.3 mega pixels giving an image 7360 by 4912. This is 11.5 mega pixels more than the previous Nikon flagship, the very expensive D3X which retails for around £5,000, more than twice the D800 at £2,400. This is really a left-field move by Nikon, breaking all expected, and at first glance rational, line development of their stable of cameras.
I must admit that when I heard the 36.3Mp sensor was really going to materialise, I wondered if this was really a wise move. Surely, this was pushing the bounds of sensor physics too far by cramming in so many photo sites on to a relatively small sensor, even if it was full-frame. There is talk of diffraction limitations on image quality and these will have to be tested to see if this is a real cause for concern.
Well, according to DxO Labs, this is the best sensor that that they have ever analysed, achieving an overall score of 95, even out-performing the new Nikon D4 and the Phase One IQ180 medium format digital back. It ranked first in the landscape category with a dynamic range of 14.4 EV, and amazingly it also matches the low-light ISO score of the D4.
To be honest, my very first thought when I took the body out of its box was that it felt like any consumer model due to its lightness and small size. It just didn’t feel or look like a pro camera compared to models such the D2X which weighs in at 1252g compared to the D800 at 895g. This made me feel uneasy as I had found my Nikon D200, which has the same form factor, to handle poorly compared to the D2X with the controls being too close together, small and fiddly to operate. The handling of the D2X also had issues for me as its navigation pad could easily and irritatingly be engaged by my nose!
Once the battery had been charged, I started configuring some of what I call the fixed settings. Firstly, I entered the Shooting Menu and put the image quality to NEF (RAW). I was reassured that the menu navigation was similar to previous models and, above all, well laid out and intuitive to use. The primary slot was set to the CF card slot in which I had inserted my 32Gb card. My first shock was that this would only store 401 raw images (14 bit lossless compressed) compared to 1500 on the D2X. The Time Zone and date were duly entered as well as setting the auto file naming menu to a different prefix as to the ones I had used before to ensure that all my files were uniquely numbered. Image Area was set to FX, White Balance to sunny to ensure that no shift is applied and Colour Space to Adobe RGB.
The next menu category to be addressed was the Custom Setting Menu and Autofocus. This is where things started to get a little complicated and my initial settings are summarised as follows:
A1 AF-C priority selection
Release and focus
Gives priority to focus in continuous release mode
A2 AF-S priority selection
Shutter can only be released when the camera is in focus
A3 Focus tracking with lock-on
AF 3 (Normal)
The camera waits for the specified period before adjusting the distance to the subject. Prevents refocusing when the subject is briefly obscured by objects passing through the frame.
Both the shutter-release button and the AF -ON button can be used to initiate autofocus.
A5 AF point illumination
Selected focus point is always highlighted
A6 Focus point wrap-around
A7 Number of focus points
A8 Built-in Af-assist Illuminator
The options in B Metering and Exposure were left unchanged and the camera used in Matrix metering mode.
This was enough to start taking pictures, but whilst out shooting birds at my local Wildfowl and Wetland Trust site at Llanelli, I found that I couldn’t find a way to change the autofocus mode from AF-S to AF-C or the AF-Area mode! Referring to the manual later on, I discovered that these options are accessed by pressing the button in the focus mode selector, a feature that I had not come across before. One downside was the lack of a second shutter release when the camera was turned in portrait mode.
It was great to go from a DX format sensor to an FX as my 14-24mm now become a wonderfully wide angle lens but the reach of my 300mm was understandably reduced by 1.5x. Otherwise, it handled extremely well with the beautiful 3.2” TFT colour screen being a joy to behold. The navigation pad is now positioned far enough to the right for my nose not to interfere with it and I found it was better to turn off Image review in the Playback Menu which plays the image back as soon as it taken. This was a problem when taking a series of pictures in quick succession when you want to be constantly refining the focus point. Once the image was automatically played back, it meant that the navigation pad would be in Playback mode and not move the focus point.
Images were easily transferred from the camera to the computer via the supplied USB cable but large numbers will take a considerable time with each RAW file being around 42Mb. Adding a USB 3 card in my computer would speed things up a bit. Initial impressions were that the image quality was outstanding with very smooth rendition of colours. It was predictable that Photoshop CS4 wouldn’t open the files and an upgrade to CS5 will be required to enable Adobe Camera Raw to open them within Photoshop. However, the supplied ViewNX2 software is adequate in converting the RAW files to TIFFS. A further consequence of the enormous sensor is that a TIFF in 16 bit mode is a whopping 212Mb and a fast machine is required to cope with these large files a well as plenty of hard disk storage.
The first image characteristic I noticed was the reduced depth of field with the FX sensor. As a consequence, you have to use smaller apertures compared to a DX sensor to get the same depth of field. Also, you have to have pin-point accuracy in acquiring the desired focus point with the high-resolution sensor showing up any errors. I will add more over the coming weeks as I get to know this interesting camera further.