D800 First Impressions
It’s not shipping yet. Firmware isn’t final yet. There’s even a lot of confusion about what the damned thing even is. All that said, as an ecstatically happy Nikon D700 owner, here’s why I will, barring disaster, be buying a D800.
Why do I love my D700? It’s a “Pro” body. Why do I care about a “Pro” body?
It’s the handling. What does this really mean? It means you’re never three menus deep trying to get off a shot. It means you have a readily accessible button for damned near anything you’d want to change on the fly. It has a magnesium chassis and rubber covered grip surfaces making it feel better and be easier to hand-hold without camera shake. Real ‘pro’ bodies (f5, D1, D2, D3, D4) have built in vertical grips for access to command dials, a second shutter release and more as well as a Jay Leno chin’s worth of space for larger (or more) batteries. The D700 is a ‘gripless’ body with the option of a really good screw on vertical grip. Historically, add on vertical grips have been fiddly, plastic and not well integrated with the rest of the camera. Not so the MB-D10 for the D700. I can have essentially all of the portrait orientaion handling of a D3/D4 pro body if I want to, or unscrew the grip and have a leaner, lighter and less imposing body to carry around and attract less attention. Yes, many bodies offer these add-on grips but the MB-D10 (D300(s)/D700) and, presumably, MB-D12 (D800) bolts on and blends in like it’s part of the body. The grip can also take AA batteries!
It’s the viewfinder. What does that really mean? It means you have a huge, bright marvelous optical finder to look through. That finder takes diopter correction lenses that *stay on* (I correct my viewfinder to let me shoot without glasses and I can’t do that without pegging the diopter adjustment and adding a corrective lens.)
All of these benefits are almost impossible to fully appreciate until you hold and spend quality time experimenting with a camera. With the exact same image quality (and that’s rarely the case), a “pro” body will be easier to use, more reliable, more flexible and become an organic extension of your eyes and hands. They also hold resale value better (though bodies depreciate faster than lenses by far). You read the specs, you see the weight, you think “big deal, so what”. That the feel, the handling is so important yet so hard to describe is one of the many reasons you want to maintain a relationship with a really good local camera shop. A chance to really handle, try out, perhaps even rent this gear is what you get when you have a good shop you can visit. It should go without saying that this means buying stuff from this camera shop. Not just going in and test driving and going home to order online. Build a relationship. That means learn who works there who knows things, you’d be surprised how different an employee at a real camera shop is than some kid in a blue polo shirt at a big box store. Real photographers work at pro camera shops. They can and often enjoy teaching you things. If you show them respect, actually buy things there, you will find you may get a call when something you have been waiting to see comes in. You will find they can be honest with you about where they can, and can’t discount and how much. Show them you value you them, need them. Buy things from them. Don’t be afraid to ask “Hey, is it still helpful if I buy these ten (often higher margin) accessories from you but grab the body at BH because they have it in stock?” Be honestly willing to support them and you can be sure they’ll still be in business when you need them. Plus, they often run rental shops, sell used gear, can help you sell your used gear and in the case of my personal favorite local shop, have studio facilities you can rent out for your bigger projects. I can’t stress this enough, build a relationship. Saving twenty bucks by trying theit demos and buying online is short sighted self defeating in the long term and, frankly, downright dishonorable. Hell, saving a hundred bucks can be stupid if it’s going to mean they won’t be there when you crack a filter and need help getting it off. (My personal favorite ‘real humans work there’ camera shop is E.P Levine, or as I am known to call them “Eeeps!” if you live in the Boston area, are serious about your photography and don’t shop there, you’re missing out in a very, very big way. Yes, I know the owners, yes I’m biased. I also happen to be right. Just go….oh,…and they sell online and have a constantly updating used inventory too.)
It has features most people don’t even know matter because they don’t shoot on a tripod, (or a good enough tripod). Shutter release delay to avoid shake from mirror slap. A lever-operated shutter blind to keep light leaking in from the finder and mucking with metering when your face isn’t mushed up against the finder doing the masking.
It has a screw cam that can drive older non-AFS lenses.
It has a pop-up flash. Do I *use* that flash as a flash? Almost never. Do I use it as an Infra-red trigger for an off-camera flash? Often. Very often. Is it nice to have it there for a bit of fill when I don’t have a flash? Damned skippy!
It’s also FX. Why do I care about FX? There are more and better lenses available for FX that go, in my case, back to 1980’s vintage lenses. FX feels ‘natural’ to me. When I see the world, I can, having learned photography an all manual on 35mm film Pentax Spotmatic my mother was kind enough to lend me, see how a shot will frame at a given focal length. I don’t need to remember my 50mm will frame like a 75mm. I don’t need to think “oh, and my ability to isolate subject from background with depth of field is different too”.
It’s really, really good in low light. How good? It eats film’s lunch. You can get effectively noiseless images at ISO 1600 and damned nice ones even at 3200. At 6400? The shot you’d never have bothered taking 5 years ago can be had and cleaned up in post to acceptable quality.
The autofocus is fast. The metering is stellar. Nikon’s CLS /iTTL flash system is shockingly good. It is, for all intents and purposes, a D3 for half the money with more flexibility.
All these things are what I love, love, love about my D700. I hated my D1. I hated my D2h because they just couldn’t touch film in terms of quality despite being beautifully made, I love my D700. It is, for me, the camera that stopped me pining for the money and time to shoot more 35mm film. That’s not to say, at all, that film doesn’t continue to have value but I just can’t justify the cost and slower feedback loop I get shooting film. I improve faster as a photographer with digital because I see the results of my mistakes sooner and can learn and adapt with immediate re-enforcement I just can’t get waiting even a day for processing film. Also, if you consider digital post artistically valid (and I do) you can have all you’d have had with 35mm film and more. (Note that I stipulate 35mm film and not medium or lager formats. Larger film formats are a different best altogether.)
Why do I want a D800?
100% viewfinder coverage.
It has two card slots. Sadly, one of them is an SD card but I get backup in the camera if I want it.
I get a dedicated Bracketing Button
Better auto-focus when I attach a teleconverter and lose a stop and a half of light (depth of field doesn’t change) 1.7x more reach making my 70-200 into a 119-340.
But, and here’s where the “barring disaster” kicks in, I also get a roughly 15mpx DX body at the same time!
If I want that “DX reach”, I can crop in like mad and still have 15 mega pixels worth of resolution. Why do I say barring disaster? Higher pixel density, all other things being equal, comes with the penalty of inferior noise performance and especially at high iso.
The question is, are all other things equal? Well, early indications looking at the sample images are that things aren’t equal. The sample files I have seen online so far suggest the D800 will be no noisier than a D700. Advances in sensor technology and in camera processing seem to have worked magic. Will it be as good in low light as a D3s? I’m guessing no. Do most people need a camera that can shoot in the dark like the D3s can? No. Does my eye *expect* to be able to shoot in the dark using the ‘mental map’ I cling to based on experience with film? No. The hi-iso performance of a D700/D3 is really, really good. Better than film. (Some argument might be made about the potential dynamic range of film vs digital in the hands of an extremely skilled photographer. The same can be of the aesthetic charms of grain vs this hideousness of noise. There are also important considerations about archival media. All these points are valid. I’m not, and I am pretty sure most of you aren’t a good enough photographer to make them most of them matter in a meaningful way. I do know this, shooting more with a DSLR and really thinking about what you learn has made made me a better photographer for all the reasons above.)
The D800 looks to be just dandy in low light and, when it’s not, I if I don’t need to crop, I can scale. When I scale down to D700-class 12 megapixels, I get noise reduction for free as the noise is averaged out in the down-sampling. Will all my uncharacteristic optimism about the hi-iso peformance prove valid? I won’t know until the camera is shipping but sure looks like, barring disaster, the D800 will match a D700 in noise performance which, for me, is plenty good enough!
With both my trusty D700 and a new D800, I have my tele body and my wide body. A day with fewer lens swaps, a backup, long continued good use from my D700 and a new class of opportunities that come when, since I can’t afford, or carry, a 500mm lens I can use a TC more freely and get the option to crop to DX (or tighter) and FINALLY get a good shot of that hawk that lives in my neighbor’s tree.
Side note: I hold the heretical belief that DX is a dead-end format for lenses. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to buy them or even that there won’t be more new ones introduced. There will be DX bodies for the foreseeable future as ‘hobbyist’ products but, if you’re going to invest in a DSLR and the ‘system’ that goes with it because you are, or aspire to be a pro, you’re basically nuts to buy DX glass. An un-popular view I’m sure but I’ve bought and then sold exactly one DX lens. (I don’t even remember what it was exactly. I bought it when I had a D2h because there were no wide-enough-angle FX lenses I could afford.)
Mirrorless has been coming for a long time and it is, now, finally coming into its own. If you want cheaper, smaller, lighter kit, you’ll end up wanting a mirrorless system. After enjoying a mirrorless system, you may decide you want to upgrade to the larger sensor size and optical TTL viewfinder you get when you choose a DSLR and an inexpensive DX body might be a good way to start but, if you do, you’d be unwise invest heavily in DX glass.
You’ll outgrow your DX body eventually. The high resolution of the D800 was inevitable. The desire for ‘a body with DX reach’ is or, if the D800 falls short, will be irrelevant. You’ll want your investment, the largest and most long-term part of your investment in photo gear to be in FX glass. I own nine, ten if you count the teleconverter, FX lenses. The resale value holds up well. The used market is good. (I have lenses I’ve used since I got my first Nikon, an N8008 film body) . The cost of glass, as a function of my total investment in photo gear, is the lion’s share. Sure, want some lighter, slower DX lenses to let you explore focal lengths you might not otherwise invest in? Geat! Want something lighter or cheaper? Fine! But to make a significant and growing investment is a ‘set’ of DX lenses is, for lack of a kinder word, loopy.
Oh? Video, yeah, the D800 shoots video and early buzz it will kill in that market vs Canon’s current offerings. I don’t care. You might.
Also see Thom Hogan’s bythom.com. He doesn’t make his ‘news articles’ easy to link directly to but there’s lots of good stuff to be read on topics discussed above.
Chris Foreseman’s D800 article at Ars Technica. I won’t telegraph the title too obviously here but it’s an insightful piece. Some of the comments thread are bozo-liscious which is always fun.
Expect more on this later. Also, D800 vs D80oE? I don’t know yet which but don’t whine the E costs more money. Nikon aren’t removing a part and charging more, they are changing a part and charging more. There’s good reason to believe will be a the lower volume product and, as such, there are inherent costs involved. Don’t whine! It’s not the same as charging you too much for a remote shutter release. Whine about that, that’s a fair complaint.