Nikon D800 in Praxis (Part 1: Land Photography)

(December 2012)

In March 2012, when I bought my first D800, I immediately started "laboratory" tests of it in my apartment and my surroundings. Some photographers believe that such tests are pointless, since one can only get to know a camera while using it on terrain and shooting in real-life conditions. In my personal opinion, one needs both to really get to know the camera.

The first real assignment I used my D800 for, was shooting for a book about the small Slovenian coastal town of Piran and this is when I gathered my first shooting experience with it. In June I went on a journey to Florida, USA and the Bahamas and in July in Egypt followed by Indonesia. Unfortunately I was still forced to use my old D2X for underwater photography in June in America, since Seacam did not manage to produce an underwater housing for the new D800 yet at that time. Only days before my next trip to Egypt and Indonesia I received a message from Seacam that my D800 housing was finally available and so my old D2X could finally retire. Just before my departure I purchased the D800E, since I always travel with two cameras and use one for underwater and the other on for land photography. For the first time in my life I had the ideal equipment – I was traveling with two cameras of the same kind, so in the worst case scenario that all underwater photographers fear, I would still be left with one working camera, which I could use to continue shooting underwater and thus save the trip.

After the assignment in Piran, ten days of shooting in America, one week in Egypt and four weeks in Indonesia, I believe I can confidently say that I've gotten to know the D800 in real-life conditions. On my trips I used the D800 almost exclusively for underwater photography and I've shot with it over 12.000 shots. With the D800E I shot a bit over 3.000 shots (I never use continuous, only single shooting mode – every shot is a story by itself, so even "only" 3.000 shots is not so little!).

If I summaries my impressions of both cameras, which I will explain in further detail in the continuation, I would say:


Or with other words:

"The sharp photos are even sharper with the D800, but the unsharp photos are even more unsharp!" (I believe this second statement explains the first one sufficiently). The D800 is a camera that shows you the cruel reality of how very many unsharp photos we actually shoot....

In real-life conditions I almost never had the chance to use the camera ideally – mounted on a tripod and focusing in Live view mode. I was almost always shooting hand-held, when traveling with a plane I had no other choice. Among the large quantity of necessary photographic and diving equipment, which always exceed the airlines' weight limitations, there is no space for a good tripod. But to be honest, after four long dives a day, one has little time and energy left for serious land photography.

Consequently my photos are generally speaking not "ideally" sharp; in any case they are less sharp than they theoretically could be with the same lenses used. On my travels I mostly use the 16-35mm f/4 and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses for land photography. Despite the fact that I did not use the ideal technique, I've noticed at a 100% magnification of my images that the 70-200 lens is sharper than the 16-35, just like my previous "lab" test at home showed. I've never noticed this difference while using the D3.
General Impressions

A new camera is, in a way, like a new girlfriend. At first you're excited and you explore her secrets, then you get used to her. Obviously (and fortunately...), this process is much faster with cameras than with girlfriends and after two months of intensive use, me and my new camera already became "old buddies".

I can confidently say now, that I really got used to it and that everything that bothered me in the beginning is already forgotten. When I compared it to the D3, it seemed very light and a kind of "plastic". Today I don't feel that way anymore and I consider it to be just like the "good old Nikon". I quickly got used to the new button positions, but I'm sometimes still confused about the location of the ISO and WB buttons, which I use a lot and are placed differently than on the D3 and D2X.

When switching from the D2X and D3 to the D800 I was mostly worried about its battery life, which is substantially shorter. In my first tests, where I browsed often in the menus and reviewed many photos, I sometimes managed to shoot only 300 photos per charge. However in a real-life shooting conditions I came very close to 900, the official number of shots per charge.

While shooting, I did not encounter any problems, except one, which is surprisingly very rarely mentioned on the internet. Both of my D800 cameras freeze from time to time. The problem does not occur while taking photos (I never missed a shot, because the camera wouldn't shoot), but usually while reviewing photos. Sometimes and relatively randomly a sand-clock appears on the screen instead of the picture and doesn't disappear. I then usually turn the camera off and on again, and when I press the PLAYBACK button, the last shot is shown on the screen immediately. In reviews written by Thom Hogan, whom I believe to be the best independent expert on Nikon equipment, I read that the problem lies in memory cards, which are too large and too slow. I use SanDisk 32 GB CF and SD cards for both my D800 cameras. According to Thom (whose review I unfortunately read only after I've already bought the memory cards), 8 and 16GB memory cards of the best speed possible are the most suitable ones. Seeing as I'm not a sports photographer and that faster memory cards are also more expensive, I truly did not choose the fastest models available...

Hand-held Photography

Is it possible to shoot a sharp photo from a car, driving at 100 km/h through the desert on an asphalted road, which has however seen better days? The most likely answer is "no" or "maybe with the D4, but surely not with the D800". Yet, it is possible! These are the conditions in which I was shooting from a roaring Toyota in the Sinai desert; the driver was in a hurry and considering his grumpy mood I did not want to pester him about stopping the car to take a picture. I used ISO 800, f-stop value f/8, and the aperture priority mode set the shutter speed at about 1/4000 second. Below you can see an example of these photos. In the details on a 100% magnification you can clearly see that no shot is blurred and the shadowy parts of the photo show a slightly increased noise due to the higher ISO setting (D800E, 24-70/2.8, 50mm, f/8, 1/4000, ISO 800).


One of the key advantages of the Nikon D800 over other cameras at the time of writing (except for middle-format cameras of course) is its resolution. With a high resolution and the use of good lenses and photography techniques, a greater amount of detail can be included in the photo, than would be possible with any other camera in the same class. The critical factor for achieving a sharp photo is first and foremost a good photographing technique and only secondly a good lens. This camel portrait from the Sinai desert is full of details and one could say that the camera really pictured nearly every single camel-hair (D800E, 70-200/2.8, 200mm, f/11, 1/400, ISO 250).

For a better display of the detail-richness that this camera is capable of portraying, I've prepared eight different 900x600 crops at a 100% magnification, of a photo shot in Piran, Slovenia. The picture was shot hand-held from a boat, so it cannot be perfectly sharp. Had I taken this same shot at the same location with identical settings using the D3, the picture would seem sharper, however it would display substantially less detail (D800E, 70-200/2.8, 75mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO 200).
Is the telephoto lens to short? No problem! Simply switch to DX crop (you are still left with 15 MP) and the telephoto lens is "extended" for 50%. The photo below displays a blue heron on the other side of the river in Florida (D800, 300/2.8 (borrowed) + TC17E, DX crop, f/8, 1/1600, ISO 3200).
Dinamic Range

If your computer screen cannot differentiate between the light and dark grey tones displayed below, you might not be able to see some key differences that appear in the following pictures.


The photo of a young Egyptian girl below was shot in the heat of the scorching July sun, at noon when the contrast is very high. Despite this, details in the darker parts of the girl's black head-cover are clearly visible (D800E, 70-200/2.8, 200mm, f/11, 1/400, ISO 180).


I find the next example even more fascinating, since it vividly shows the incredible potential of this camera in managing contrast at the stage of photo-editing. The photo below was also shot on a very sunny day from the shadows of a boat-cabin in Indonesia. On the photo, as came from the camera, it is difficult to distinguish details on the black parts of the diving gear in the shadow part of the cabin. On the other hand the sunny scene outside of the boat is overexposed, some object are almost fully burned out - i.e. the white T-shirt of the diving guide and the sea-foam behind the boat that seem to blend together into seemingly perfect whiteness. I processed the RAW picture in Lightroom 4, where many details in the too dark or too bright parts of the photo became visible. The restoration of (too) dark parts of the photo a very common practice in digital photography; however it does increase the noise in the photo. This is also visible in the example photo, yet to a lesser degree than it would have been with many other cameras, including the D3. But it was in the (too) bright parts of the picture that the true miracle happened - details appeared which had been completely invisible before! Suddenly, there are folds in the T-shirt and details in the white sea-foam. One can almost not believe that we're still talking about the same picture. I want to emphasize again, that I was shooting hand-held (so I couldn't use the built-in HDR function) and that all parameters for the optimization of contrast (ADL) were turned off. What matters is that I was shooting in RAW format, which enabled me to process the photo afterwards. I believe that this example clearly demonstrates the advantages of RAW format photography over the JPG format (D800E, 16-35/4, 16mm, f/11, 1/30, ISO 250).


Original photo:


Photo after editing in Lightroom 4:

High ISO Speeds

Already my "lab" test showed that the D800 is very good with high ISO speeds, despite it has very small pixels. At the pixel-level the noise is slightly greater than for instance with the D3, however when you reduce the size of photos from different cameras to the same size (i.e. 12 MPix) the D800 can easily be compared to the best cameras (like the D4).

Below you can see a night photo of the southern coast of Piran, which was shot from a small rocking boat, due to a relatively strong southern wind. I shot it with the 70-200/2.8 lens at ISO 3200, f/4 and 1/30 second. Waves were constantly beating at the side of the boat, which was rocking so strongly that I could barely hold my balance and framing the shot with a telephoto lens was very difficult. Obviously due to the conditions, the photo is not perfectly sharp. The noise in dark parts of the picture is medium strong, which can be seen in the details, however in the lighter parts there is almost no noise! (D800, 70-200/2.8, 160mm, f/4, 1/30, ISO 3200)


This shot of an older Indonesian woman was taken with the 70-200/2.8 lens at ISO 1000. Despite the relatively high ISO speed, all details on the woman's face are clear and the hair is very sharp (D800E, 70-200/2.8, 200mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO 1000).


The limit of when a picture becomes useless because of the noise, depends mostly on the printing size, but even that is quite subjective. I personally believe that pictures in full resolution (printed at 62 x 41 cm) can be easily used until ISO 1600; ISO 3200 is the highest ISO speed I usually choose, and try to avoid higher settings unless I'm sure that I will only need a small print or use it for the Internet.

Moire efect

I was searching in vain for the moiré effect in my "lab" test of the Nikon D800E. Even in my every-day use of the camera it appeared extremely rarely, but when it did appear it was very random and unpredictable. Below you can see three examples, where I've spotted it:


Window shutters on a nightly scene in Piran (D800E, 50/1.4, f/11, 8s, ISO 100).

Furrow from turning on the black aluminium frame for a dome port on the underwater housing (D800E, 60/2.8, f/11, 1/60, ISO 100).

Even on the hair of this young Indonesian guy! (D800E, 70-200/2.8, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO 100)

How Rugged is the Nikon D800?
I've never used any of my D800 cameras in temperatures lower than 10 °C, so I do not know how resistant they are to the cold. However I can testify that they are great at enduring heat! When I was trekking around the Colored canyon in northern Sinai on a hot July day, the official temperature as measured in the shadows was 45 °C. But the trick was that there was no shadow to be seen, since the sun was almost in zenith. In some parts, where it was necessary to climb, I had to spill some water over the rocks because they were too hot to touch with my bare hand. The metallic parts of my D800E, equipped with the 16-35mm f/4 lens heated up so strongly, that they would nearly burn my hand. Despite this scorching heat the camera worked flawlessly the entire time!