The D800 Arrives

It’s been a long wait, for some of us a very long wait (and I suppose until it’s in our twitching hands, the wait will continue), but the successor to the legendary D700 has finally been unveiled. For those of us who didn’t want to make the investment in the D700 in this day and age due to it’s perceived ‘lacks’; super-high resolution over 12mp, video capability, the ability to give us a great image with our existing DX lenses, our requests have been met. In spades. With 36.5mp FX resolution and around 15.5mp in DX crop, we have a lot of detail however we shoot. Then, with high bit-rate 1080p video, available uncompressed straight from the HDMI port, we have just about whatever video we might want in this day and age.Before we go further, though, lets have a little recap of how we got to this point, from my own perspective, of course.

Film Days

For a long time, the likes of me were using film SLRs. Sure, they improved with each iteration, but they never really were rendered redundant, at least as far as image quality was concerned. Sure, you could try newer films, or have models with better ergonomics or autofocus capabilities, but whatever you bought into was a ‘full frame’ camera, whose image quality was defined by lens and film, both being interchangeable, though due to the design, not exactly flexible. I personally moved from an  F70 to an F90X, getting a much nicer body with a pro feel. In fact, despite using the same lenses and films, the later blew away the former and offered a much better viewfinder and autofocus, not to mention the sexy body. Yet this was more a case of moving from amateur to pro cameras than an obsession with new technology itself. What really made the difference was lenses and I could comfortably be sure that any investment in them would be lasting, including older ‘legends’.

Digital Nights

Then came along digital, first in high end bodies with tiny megapixel counts, then drifting down-market to materialise in the D100, Nikon’s first semi-affordable DSLR. At 6mp, with a body much like the F100 film camera it was based on, DSLRs were finally in the public’s hands in a big way. Then that same sensor came into the miniaturised and more simply-built D70, my first DSLR and my exit from film. Yet little did I know the true scale of iteration possible with the move to digital. I held out despite a very desirable D200, with pro body and a 10mp sensor to boot, upgrading to a D300 pretty much on the day it arrived. With a much better sensor, capturing not only 12.3mp, but richer dynamic range and the ability to store a 14-bit RAW file, I was suddenly able to capture something much more detailed than I was getting from 35mm film. I started to get more new lenses to make the most of it, most of all to make up for my missing wide-angles, thanks to the 1.5x APS-C crop.

Little did I suspect, but not too long after came the D700, a scaled down D3 and Nikon’s first ‘affordable’, though still very expensive full-frame DSLR. With the same 12mp, it offered far better dynamic range and unheard of high-ISO capture capabilities. But, as a D300 user, I found it a tough sell to buy again so soon, especially when I would only have 12mp capture from a much larger use of the lens. When the D90 came out, it brought with it the potential for HD video capture and Canon turbocharged this with their 5D MkII, a full frame camera that captures video so lush even film studios are using it, along with a massive 22mp resolution, offering cropping and large printing potential I wondered if the D700 could match. Nikon struck back with the D3X, an absurdly expensive (for the likes of me) full-frame camera with a 24mp sensor and no video capabilities and being so heavy, like Nikon’s other pro segment (D)SLRS, it requires a strong man to heft around. So again, still pretty happy with the D300, wait I did, for…

The Latest Generation

Fast forward to the D7000, a camera with a much better sensor, thanks to Sony’s intense development efforts and 1080P video, a new feature for DSLRs that had started to catch on. Though not not quite as good with AF, build or ergonomics as the D*00 series, it is  excellent in it’s own right, bringing great usability and weather-sealing into a smaller body. The new 16mp sensor brought not just third more pixels, but far, far better dynamic range and at least a stop better high ISO. Looking at DXO Mark’s controversial ranking, we can see that the cameras with this very sensor are among the best in the world. In fact, I liked the results from it so much, I bought it’s baby brother, my much-loved D5100. Obsessive HDR machine-gun like clanking is a lot less necessary when you have such a rich image to begin with.

Then, just recently (or so it seems) came the surprise announcement of the D4. Matching the D7000 sensor’s pixel count, only in full-frame goodness, with a sensor reputedly at least as good as the D3S in terms of image quality, though bringing this extra detail and the incredible video capabilities I mentioned before. Yet, there was still only the D700 in the ‘affordable’ category, with all it’s enthusiast-baiting MIA features, just screaming, ‘use me for pictures, not videos or bragging rights, be a better photographer darn it!’ Yet, with many other enthusiasts, I was not to be moved, especially when the rumours were flying thick and fast that something better was in the making…

So here we have it and it is here, the D800. The camera we have dreamed of. I would say in my case, if my detour into DX is not to be permanent, the DSLR I’ve been waiting for for all these years. But hang on a moment, is it really the right one for me, for the likes of me, even? Let’s see and take an impartial look at what this offers. I can hardly call it a review, but it is indeed an outline of the D800, from what we know (or can suspect) so far.

Pros

1* Incredible, mind-blowing detail, for a DSLR at least, bringing 50% more pixel count than even the D3X , which was basically the camera many of us were waiting to be downsized and videoized (not needing the D3S fidelity that much). With this much resolution, we could have something like medium format in our hands, using existing lenses. If not stretching up to the 80mp and beyond heights of true MF digital, at least it would give us something better than we would get from scanned film. Probably.

2* With the large sensor comes DX ability in a full-frame camera, at 15.5mp, much more of a detailed photo than the D3/D3s/D700’s mere 5mp or so, which of course could also be used as a handy ‘digital zoom’ on FX lenses, as after all, anything more than 10mp is enough for most purposes and I’ve actually made incredible prints from 4-6mp, as well all needed to do for years.

3* The new AF and other technical goodies of the D4, with fast face-detect, better low-light abilities and superior 3D tracking. The face-detect, being fast, could well revolutionise many types of shooting.There is even an ability to focus on the face and then meter from it, helping immensely with backlit subjects, which are generally a pain in the you-know-where. A lot of this comes from having Expeed III and the new 91k-pixel metering sensor. It could make it a lot easier to get the picture you want, rather than  the one you don’t want.

4* Amazing dynamic range is promised, perhaps matching the D700 (whose sensor is after all 5 years old), though we will soon know for sure. Since this is an area where film and MF (film or otherwise) have a distinct edge and in fact make DSLRS output look like ugly ducklings, it’s a very important development.

5* Whilst the D3X is super pricy and super-heavy, this is a bit smaller and lighter than a D700, so perhaps coming into D300 territory, which for a lot of enthusiasts is about as large as we’d like to go.

6* The option of a low-pass filter neutralizer, in the form of the D800E, making for pixel-level super-sharp images straight from the camera, something like M9 users now enjoy. It could bring moire effects, though presumably ways to remove it will improve and they high resolution will make it less prevalent than on the M9 (where apparently it crops up).

7* The wonderful viewfinder, inherited and improved from the D700 will blow away anything DX could dream of. Whilst the D700 had only 95% coverage, this will go up to the D3’s 100%, just another ‘luxury feature’ becoming available to the common Joe in this camera.

Cons?

Blasphemy, can I already be listing these now, when the poor little thing is only 1 day old, announcement wise!? Of course, as whatever happens, these may turn out to be issues.

1* There is still no word on the quality of high-ISO shots. Certainly, it won’t be as good as the way higher-priced D4, or D3S, but how about it’s predecessor, the D700? Will it be at least as good as the D7000, seeing as it shares a similar pixel density?  I’ll be very happy if it’s as good as the D700 (very good ISO 3200), at least with good Raw conversion software.

2* Massive files sizes for Raw images. Uncompressed, we are talking 75mb, which will unload into Adobe Lightroom into immense amounts of data, slowing down previews and editing, not to mention the extra storage space needed if we are to keep shooting at the rate we are used to with DSLRs, let alone feel free to use Raw. In fact, I suspect that just as in the early days of using the D70 and then D300 after it, it was quite a while before I could justify using Raw except for difficult or special photos. It’s a camera that cries out for a new computer, screen and storage space, the likes of which have yet to appear in the consumer (cheapskate) realm.

3* A poor frame-rate and probably slow buffer clearance. Whilst the D300 and D700 both give a useful 5/6 fps, with a battery pack an even healthier 8 and the D4 promises an incredible 11, here we drop down to just 4. 4fps! That’s like an old compact and just a little more than my D70’s 3fps. In fact, it’s a bit like the D3X’s paltry 5fps. Sure, for the landscape photographer or most other uses, even 3 is fine, but once you have some movement or sports, more can be merrier. Of course, this is all due to the massive data being shunted around, but as with point 1, it shows how hard it is to use such detail smoothly for the moment.

4* Despite the high resolution and promise of a small medium format camera, it isn’t the later. Not only can MF have a lot more resolution, coming up at 80mp already, but it offers supremely rich 16-bit files, handled as TIFFS reaching even 480mb in size. Of course it may move enough into the territory of the Pentax 645D, or even the Leica S2 to make an impact and it is far, far more affordable and easier to use. Still, the larger lenses of MF can more comfortably cover that huge frame, without needing to be as finely tuned as 35mm-sized ones, with their smaller image circle, which brings us to the next potential drawback…

5* The law of diminishing returns. 24mp was a lot, but 36mp may well be too much resolution for this format, at least with most lenses available today. We will have to see, but perhaps only the best pro zooms and primes will be able to make perfect use of this sensor, or even ‘out resolve’ it. For the enthusiast hoping for such sharp detail in their pictures, it may be necessary to buy new, heavy, expensive lenses and lug them around as well. I’m just guessing, but I suspect the 28-300mm zoom just won’t cut it and even the better-suited 24-120mm will struggle as well. I have already sold on lenses that didn’t bring me sharp results on my D300 and up (megapixel-wise) cameras. They had worked admirably on my 6 mp D70, but I just kept getting one soft image after another on the finer sensors.

6* Even with VR and fast shutter speeds, tripods may be increasingly necessary at this resolution .Camera shake will eat into image sharpness like never before. Presumably smart people will downsize and call it quits, getting sharpness that way. People wanting their full resolution, all the time are bound to be disappointed. In fact, it might be time for a Nikon version of S-Raw (small Raw files), as used by Canon, as people may want the lossless benefits of post-processing raw files without the huge size, unless they actually need it.

7* Of course, despite the smaller size, it is still a big, heavy, expensive camera. All the resources used to buy it could go film-days style, into lenses or even a body of smaller format. The D700, though lighter than a D3/D4 is still a hefty chunk of metal, as are the full-frame lenses. The M9 is full-frame and small and light. So was my otherwise lacking film-using F70D. Heck, film compacts were all ‘full frame’ and many would fit in your pocket. Why can’t Nikon give us a D5100-sized full-frame camera, or even smaller?

The current culture of pro equating to big and hefty has to change. Of course, the D800 is going some way to doing that in itself, at least compared to the D3X, but more progress needs to be made, especially for users of light, small, wide primes who want the image quality but don’t need the whole kit and caboodle. In many cases, it could just slow people down and end up getting left at home, especially in these days of weight restricted air travel. Still, on camera-oriented trips it will be very manageable, it just may be more camera than people really need, even if it sounds so very… sexy!

Summary (for now)

The D800/D800E are groundbreaking cameras, offering unprecedented detail and usability in the DSLR world. They will no doubt sell loads and bring a lot of users, many with full-frame lenses already, into the full-frame world. Yet, this ability comes at a price and FX is not the ‘convenient compromise’ format for the digital realm the way 35mm was for film, at least not yet. Dealing with the files and making the most of the resolution could be very challenging, calling for new equipment and possibly even purchases, to keep that processing chain optimised.

What it does offer is access to the whole world of lenses optimised for the format, if not so much in resolution, though many primes may well be more than up to the task, in wide-angle ability. 20, 24 or 28mm will be just that in a way DX depends on zooms. With the huge viewfinder, manual focusing will be a breeze and this is just about the only format I can say this for, as a DX viewfinder is small and dark by comparison and the compact systems, with their low-resolution EVFs make it cumbersome to MF, though they are getting better at it.

This is a next-generation camera and we are lucky to be seeing it today. We are even more fortunate regarding the price. Yet for all the potential involved, excellent image quality is already available from smaller formats, including Nikon’s own D7000, Sony’s NEX series and Fuji’s efforts. I’m not convinced that APS-C is insufficient for me. Yet the whole range of potential this brings to use with my FX lenses, along with usable manual focus and the deep, intentional DX backwards/forwards compatibility is just mouth-watering!

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