Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Field Tests: The Nikon D800 - Nikon's Second Game-changer?

I. Introduction

Post Date: Main Article: March 27, 2012
Post Date: Executive Summary: August 2, 2012
Update: December 13, 2012: Executive Summary updated.

My Executive Summary:

For me the Nikon D800 is an engimatic camera filled with contradictions. Its unmatched resolution and dynamic range combine to make it undoubtedly the best DSLR currently available for landscape photography. But, its penchant for "beating up" on all but the best of the Nikkor lenses, plus its sharpness-limiting diffraction effects at small apertures, combine to complicate and challenge its effectiveness when actually shooting those landscapes! The D800 also offers surprisingly good ISO performance for a 36 MP DSLR. And a darned good autofocus system. Combine this ISO performance, AF performance, and a decent frame rate (especially when shot in DX-mode with the MB-D12 battery grip with a EN-EL18 battery is used) and you have a 36 MP DSLR that is reasonably versatile. Because of this versatility the D800 is attracting what I think is an undue amount of attention from those who focus on other "non-landscape" aspects of nature photography, such as wildlife photography. But it does seem to me that purchasing a 36 MP camera and "crippling" it by shooting in DX mode is somewhat akin to buying a Ferrari for urban commuting. Why do it? I think it's only because Nikon doesn't currently offer a quality pro or semi-pro level DX camera in the 18 MP range. And, in my opinion, it was a very good move by Nikon to introduce the D800 BEFORE the D600...otherwise FAR fewer D800's would have been sold.

So what is the D800 best used for? After shooting it for months and scrutinizing thousands of files produced by it (and comparing those files to ones shot with other cameras, including the Nikon D4) I'm exactly back to where I was in my thinking about the D800 when it was first announced: first and foremost this is a landscape/studio camera that exhibits its full potential only when used with medium-format like discipline and care. It was cleverly designed to be versatile enough to function reasonably well in other photographic specialties, such as wildlife photography. But it isn't the best choice in a DSLR for anything but landscape/studio photography requiring high-resolution output.

Back to the Introduction...

We've been waiting for the "replacement" for the Nikon D700 for quite some time. But...prior to the strategic leaks that start coming about a month before the camera's announcement, almost no one expected the D800 to be the first real DSLR challenger to the high resolution world of the medium format cameras. And, as soon as it (and its sibling the D800E) were announced everyone (including me) began asking a lot of questions, such as "Will it be a complete noise machine at all but the lowest ISOs?" and "Will diffraction issues make it overly challenging to use in the field?" and "Will it beat up all but the best of the best Nikkor lenses?". And, as a full-time professional nature/wildlife photographer I want and need to know first hand exactly how I can use this camera in the field - will it be suitable as a wildlife camera, or will its role be limited to that of a landscape camera? Simply put - I need these answers. Thus the work behind this field test. Hopefully others can benefit from my efforts too (which is the whole reason I'm producing this document). Enjoy.

As always, this field test is not intended as a regurgitation of the specs of the camera - it's simply intended to convey how it works for me in the field. For a spewing of the specs, go here on dpreview's website. A more "interpretive" (and I think more readable) overview of the D800 may be found found here on Rob Galbraith's website (thanks Rob). For those reading this field test I will assume you know that the D800 is - as of this writing - Nikon's latest professional DSLR and that it has dramatically pushed the resolution bar to previously unheard levels for a DSLR - 36 MP.

PLEASE READ: Qualifiers, Caveats, and Context:

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for ME (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I'm not paid to test equipment, nor do I receive my gear for free. I test them under field conditions only (no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While I do some of my testing very methodically, much of it is pure "field shooting". I do not shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of landscapes, wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get the results I need to sell images! While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products is real only in a statistical sense (and has no real correlate in producing a quality image, which is definitely not a pure science). There are a few tests I rely on - for instance, I normally find dxomark.com's published values for "Low-Light ISO" performance are almost always close to what I consider "acceptable image quality" (in terms of noise), and thus they have a real-world correlate for me (but...in the case of D800, I do believe their ISO testing regime seriously broke down - see the March 24 and 25 (2012) on my blog for my thoughts on this).

This field test is intended as a living, evolving document. It will be produced and modified over time as I learn more and more about the D800. There will be a minimum of two chapters in this story. Chapter 1 includes my early impressions of the camera - the good, the bad, and the ugly (if it exists).

Chapter 2 looks at how the D800 pairs up with selected lenses. This section will evolve continuously over quite a long period of time - it is intended as a personal reference for me (to guide me in my own photography) - hopefully it will be useful to others as well...

Chapter 3? The D800 as...a wildlife camera...and as a landscape camera...and as - you get the picture. This chapter won't see the light of day until at least late spring of 2012, and possibly not until summer 2012.

It is important for readers of this document to realize that it is intentionally written from the perspective of a nature/wildlife photographer who, until now, only occasionally shot landscapes. And, like the majority of nature photographers, I shoot raw images only - so you will not find detailed discussions of JPEG-only features, such as Active D-Lighting or in-camera HDR functions. This field test may or may not be applicable to other genres of photography, such as portrait or studio shooting. That's up to the reader to decide.

Finally, some may think this field test omits half of the camera's functionality - everything that deals with video. That's true. While I have been told that the D800 is a breakthrough DSLR with respect to video, given I know next-to-nothing about video (and probably never will) I am totally unqualified to talk about it. So, you'll have to go elsewhere to read about that. C'est la vie.

II. Chapter 1: The Nikon D800 - Early Impressions.

Post Date: March 27, 2012.
Update #1: March 29, 2012. Additional comments on performance of D800 when paired with 70-200mm f2.8 VRII added.
Update #2: March 29, 2012. All Information on lens performance has migrated to its own chapter (Chapter 2 below).
Update #3: April 5, 2012. Head-to-head-to-head ISO comparison shots of D3s, D4, and D800 added.
Update #4: April 9, 2012. Additional observations about the ISO performance (and comparative images) posted - see "Test 2" under point #6 ("And What About ISO Performance") below...

Well...here we go again! Seems like I just finished my V1 Field Test and it's time to start all over again! Anyway...while I know I'm getting WAY ahead of myself here, I'm just going to come out and say it - the D800 is Nikon's second revolutionary camera or, if you prefer, their second game-changer (the D3 was, in my opinion, Game-changer #1). Take the resolution of a medium format camera, add in almost best of class ISO performance plus a state-of-the-art autofocus system and what do you get? A camera in a class totally of its own - the D800. Simply put, between its resolution and features this camera is capable of output that no other camera can match. Anyways...back to the task at hand - some of the first details and impressions of the D800 in the field.

1. Build Quality: This one is quick - just like the D700 and D3, D3s, D4: the best Japan can produce. This body is solid and clearly well-built and the instant I picked it up it felt...well...like Nikon wanted everyone to know it was a pro camera. I picked up the MB-D12 battery grip the same time I picked up my D800 - same thoughts on the build quality of that.

2. The "New" Autofocus System: Nikon has changed BOTH how you control/change the settings on the AF system and the "guts" of it. Here's a bit on both sides of the equation:

• The New AF Controls: You now control all aspects of AF function using a single button (in combination with the commmand and sub-command dials) on the left side of the lens mount. Which means you can modify your settings while looking through the viewfinder. How does it work in practice? At first I found it difficult to find the button tactilely, but after a few tries it became totally natural and...well...after I had some more practice...I can say I love it. I virtually never use Single servo mode, but various continuous modes (Single Area, 9-point Dynamic Area, 21-point Dynamic Area, etc,) are super-fast to access. When I'm shooting wildlife I am ALWAYS jumping between these modes, so for me being able to do it while looking through the viewfinder is a godsend.

• The New AF "Guts": Most of the hoopla surrounding the internal workings of the AF system has focused on (pardon the pun) on its improved lower light performance, increased number of cross-type sensors, and full functioning at maximum apertures of f8 (so now you can use teleconverters with compatible f4 and f5.6 lenses). To date I haven't been in the situation to test these aspects of the new AF system. But, when I was talking with Nikon a month or so ago, they stressed to me that the system also would acquire initial focus AND focus-track moving subjects better. And, I HAVE noticed this - it is definitely seems snappier (than all previous AF systems, including that of the D3s) at bringing subjects into focus, including when using 51-point Dynamic Area mode with super-telephoto systems (which can make lesser AF systems - like that on the D7000 - absolutely choke). Accuracy? Well, on every lens I've tried, it's been fantastic (more on this immediately below).

I've seen many comments about how the D800 will be tricky to use because its high resolution sensor will pick and emphasize up ANY missed focus. I've heard things like "...this camera will be as sensitive to focus errors as any of the medium format cameras". Seems logical - and it was a fear I had myself. BUT...so far getting spot-on focus seems no harder than any other professional Nikon I've used - misses just haven't been a problem! Maybe that new AF system is just that good? I guess I should put my money where my mouth is - here's an AF challenge for any camera...

• Lo-Res Image: Leaping Forward With the D800 - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 464 KB)
• Hi-Res Image: Leaping Forward With the D800 - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 6.3 MB)

3. Less Prone to Over-exposure of Highlights: I almost instantly noticed (given I was shooting some high-contrast subjects, like my black and white dogs in the sunlight) that the D800 is less prone to losing highlight detail (when using matrix metering) than any previous Nikon I've ever used. This was particularly true when shooting a scene which was uniformly gray or dark but had some small white patches within it. This camera DOES have a new metering system ("3D Color Matrix Metering III") which uses 91,000 sensors (instead of 2016 as in previous models). So it could be that. But, it also could be the fact that this camera has better dynamic range than any other camera tested to date (14.4 stops according to dxomark.com). Or, could be a combination to both. But, whatever, the reason - this is a good thing!

4. Improved Auto ISO Function: OK, I admit it - since the "old new" Auto ISO function was introduced on the D3, I've liked it. And, now (on this camera and the D4) it's better. In the "old new" Auto ISO system you "told" the camera what the longest shutter speed it could employ before bumping the ISO. The "new new" system still offers this. But, it also offers a "Auto Shutter Speed" option where the camera examines the focal length in use (including on zoom lenses) and picks the slowest shutter speed that the average person could hand-hold (using that old 1/lens focal length = shutter speed formula). But what if you're a human tripod (or using VR) and can hand-hold slower shutter speeds? Or if you're kinda shaky? Well, there's a 4 stop over-ride to the auto - up to 2 stops faster than 1/focal length or 2 stops slower than 1/focal length. What does this mean in the field? Well - in my first 300 hand-held shots virtually NO blurry shots (and all at VERY usable ISO's). Slick as hell. And it means you don't have to re-adjust the AUTO ISO settings every time you swap lenses. Very cool.

5. What About Small Apertures and Diffraction Effects? This is another area where there's been a lot of chatter (and deservedly so - even Nikon has warned folks that you shouldn't stop down too far with the D800 and expect sharp results). Yep, I was quite concerned about this. Well...here's some great news for wildlife shooters - so far...and when using super-telephoto lenses...diffraction effects have been pretty much a non-issue (perhaps this MIGHT be related to the narrow angle of view of super-telephotos being less prone to diffraction than wide angle lenses??). I haven't systematically examined my wide angle shots yet, so I'm not prepared to say the same thing for them. Oops...I guess this is another "show the goods" time...here's an f16 600mm f4 VR shot:

• Lo-Res Image: Snack Time - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 521 KB)
• Hi-Res Image: Snack Time - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 10.4 MB)

TWO COMMENTS: I shot this same scene at apertures from f4 through to f16 (patient squirrel) - while depth of field varied dramatically, I could see virtually no difference in sharpness on the in-focus regions from f5 through f16. And, by the way, this shot was at ISO 1250 with NO NOISE REDUCTION (beyond the mild "default" noise reduction of LR4) - quite clean for ISO 1250...

6. And What About ISO Performance? Well, despite what dxomark.com says, it isn't up there with the D3s. But, it IS astonishing for a 36 MP DSLR. I can already say that I won't hesitate to shoot this camera at ISO 1600, which is about 2 stops better than I had expected! And, in a pinch - and with the right kind of scene - you COULD get by at ISO 3200 and still produce high-quality output that would be accepted for publication by many or most magazines and books! For my complete ISO series you'll have to wait for the next iteration of this field test, but here's a 1600 ISO (another f16 shot!) shot with no noise reduction beyond that of the mild defaults in Lightroom 4 (0 luminance; 25/50 color/detail):

• Lo-Res Image: Doing it ALL Wrong with the D800 - Stopped WAY Down at ISO 1600 - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 589 KB)
• Hi-Res Image: Doing it ALL Wrong with the D800 - Stopped WAY Down at ISO 1600 - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 7.5 MB)

TEST 1: Noise - A Head-to-head-to-head High ISO Performance Test - The Nikon D3s, D4, and D800: Here's some composite images that show head-to-head-to-head ISO comparisons between the D3s, D4, and D800 shot at ISO 1600, ISO 3200, ISO 6400, and ISO 12,800. The images were captured in the field under heavy overcast skies (just like when you WOULD need to use high ISO's). And, I intentionally chose a scene with in-focus, partially out-of-focus, and completely out-of-focus elements (that's what MOST images wildlife - or sports - shooters have, and the visible noise DOES differ between regions that differ in sharpness of focus). The comparison includes images that show extreme examples of how images are used - including taking the full-framed image and reducing it in resolution all the way down to web-size AND using every single pixel of the image (such as you would do if you REALLY wanted to crop your image). Realistically, most image uses would fall between these two extremes - but by showing these extreme examples you should get a feel for how you can use each cameras images at various ISO's. It's best to view these images at 100% magnification - sorry for the huge size but it was necessary. Anyone trying to view these graphics on an iPhone will be hooped! ;-)

ISO 1600 Comparison WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 1.1 MB)
ISO 3200 Comparison WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 1.2 MB)
ISO 6400 Comparison WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 1.3 MB)
ISO 128000 Comparison WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 1.5 MB)

The obvious take home lessons?

1. Resolution reduction masks visible noise! You want to shoot images primarily for electronic displays (such as web images)? You could use each of these cameras at almost any ISO setting! You want to produce 8"x10" at 300 dpi prints (that require about 8.4 MP)? You won't have too much noise "masking" on the 12.4 MP D3s, a little more on the 16.2 MP D4, and a lot on the 36.2 MP D800 (simply because you'll reduce the resolution more on the D4 and a lot more on the D800). But with all the cameras you'll have to watch the ISO. You want to use full resolution crops? You have to be REALLY careful of the ISO, especially on the D800.

2. D3s and D4 VERY close in ISO performance, D800 lags. When it comes to visible noise, if you look at images at 100% resolution the D4 and D3s are really, really close. And, the D800 lags by a stop or slightly more. But, given the D800's resolution, this is really, really good performance!

TEST 2: Overall High ISO Image Quality Comparisons? ISO performance is about more than just visible noise. The effects of cranking up the ISO on your final image are also VERY dependent on the scene type. Besides image noise, dynamic range, tonal range, colour sensitivity - and even some "derivatives" of these measures such as contrast - vary with ISO (they ALL decline with increasing ISO). If one is shooting a low-contrast scene with pastel colours (think of a foggy scene) the dynamic range of almost any ISO might be sufficient to capture the scene. But in other high contrast shots (think, for instance of photographing a white Spirit Bear in a dark forest) you might need ALL (or most of) the dynamic range your camera can provide to effectively capture the shot.

While producing this next series of shots I varied ISO from 200 to 6400 using both D800 and D4 cameras (sorry, I was hiking and couldn't bring ALL my gear with me and the D3s was left at home). All camera settings and ALL post-processing was identical on all the captures (except, of course, ISO). All images are full-frame (uncropped). The noise characteristics of virtually all the shots are "masked" when they are reduced to 1200 pixels, but are apparent on the hi-res samples. With this scene the D4 seemed to hold contrast much better throughout the range of ISO's tested and was about 1 to 1.3 stops less "noisy" than the D800 (as judged when viewing the full resolution files at 100%).

• D4 at 200 ISO:Annotated 1200 pixel version (JPEG; 818 KB)
• D4 at 200 ISO:Full res version (JPEG; 5.8 MB)
• D4 at 6400 ISO:Annotated 1200 pixel version (JPEG; 836 KB)
• D4 at 6400 ISO:Full res version (JPEG; 8.9 MB)
• D800 at 6400 ISO:Annotated 1200 pixel version (JPEG; 894 KB)
• D800 at 6400 ISO:Full res version (JPEG; 17.9 MB)

7. The Nikon D800 and Selected Lenses: Hey? Where did all this information go? Relax...it's simply migrated to its own section (Chapter 2) below. Why? Because the lens performance information will evolve and be added to over the long term, thus it makes little sense to keep it parked in a section called "First Impressions".

8. Live View (Still Photography Mode): Finally - Nikon has figured out how to do Live View! And after using it, I'm left wondering why more folks aren't talking about the "new" Live View. Besides multiple new focus modes (Normal-area AF, Wide-area AF, Subject-tracking AF, Face-priority AF), we now have live histograms, dynamically updated aperture (depth of field) effects, dynamic white balance adjustments, and about a million (OK, how about "several") display options, including a virtual horizon, grid view, different data views, etc. Simply put, Live View is now dramatically improved, and, for some types of photography, a major asset. While I won't be relying on it for my wildlife work I have already used it (and will continue to use it) for my landscape shooting. In fact, I'm already looking for a high quality compatible rear hood/lcd viewer for my own landscape and macro work.

Oh...and by the way...one little quirk about Live View that I've noticed (so small I wouldn't call it a "bug"): when using the preview feature of Live View to judge exposure (visually or using the histogram), the system doesn't notice "soft" exposure compensations (those made using "Easy Exposure Compensation" via rotating the master command dial alone). For Live View to pick up exposure changes you must make "hard" exposure compensations, i.e., by pushing the exposure compensation button and then rotating the master command dial. Not a big deal - while I use the Easy Exposure Compensation all the time with my wildlife shooting, I don't use it much for my landscape shooting or macro shooting (and I doubt many others would either).

9. Virtual Horizon - Much Improved! Given that the last iteration of both Live View and Virtual Horizon (in Live View or through the viewfinder) was less than steller, I rarely used the feature. But, I have to say the new Virtual Horizon is NOT just a goofy gimmick - it's quite useful! Now it shows if the camera is tilted both tilted front-to-back OR side-to-side. And, when using the viewfinder, it no longer usurps your light meter display - instead it super-imposes itself on what you're looking at through the viewfinder - on the bottom edge (lateral rotation) and right side of the frame (fore-aft tilt). Bottom line - it doesn't get in the way at all and seems to work well. And, if you've programmed the function button for this (I couldn't really find anything else useful for that button!), you simply tap the function button once to turn it on (and, unlike the D3s, it stays on even if the camera goes to sleep) and tap it again to turn it off. Handy as heck when you're hand-holding the camera. The display is different in Live View mode but it functions pretty much the same. What's unclear when you're viewing it through the viewfinder is how much each "increment" of the display represents - it's 5 degrees in the Live View mode but the viewfinder increments aren't discussed anywhere in the manual (trust me). I've actually been using it a lot since I started shooting the D800 - quite cool!

10. D800 vs. D800E? While it's hard to take a hard side on this question until one has the 800E in-hand, I can already say now that I'm completely pleased with my decision to buy the "non-E" version - I frankly can't imagine how the "E" version could be significantly sharper visually (perhaps at the pixel level, but...). In my opinion (and from images I have seen taken with both cameras), I believe that ultimate image sharpness will be determined more by the lens used and the technique of the photographer (behind the camera and behind the computer). Like probably everyone who read Nikon's marketing I was - for a time - left thinking that it would be a mistake to NOT go for that little bit of extra sharpness ("What? Spend $3000 on the not-quite-sharpest version of the camera??"), but that fear is totally unjustified.

11. Video? Video? This camera has video? Oh...that's what that big section in the middle of the manual was about! Sorry - haven't tried it. Would be surprised if I ever did. You'll have to go elsewhere to get someone else's first impressions about video.

12. On the Negative Side - Huge File Sizes! Here's some sobering truths: Average raw file size (.nef file, lossless compression) - about 42.5 MB; file size of derived 16-bit TIFF file - 217 MB. Add a few adjustment layers in Photoshop and "poof" - average file size jumps to about 440 MB. If you're a raw shooter and you buy this camera you better have a computer with a hot processor, tons of RAM, and huge storage devices. Want to print the files at full resolution - well...you better have a very wide carriage printer! Welcome to the new hi-res world!

13. On the Negative Side: Non-matching Memory Card Slots: The decision by Nikon to offer non-matched dual card slots on the D800 (one CompactFlash and one SD/SDHC/SDXC) and on the D4 (one XQD and one CompactFlash) continues to baffle me. And frustrate me. I suppose one could argue there isn't room for two CompactFlash slots on the D800 - but there is certainly room for two SD slots! The only rationale I've been directly heard (from Nikon) about this mixed-card slot strategy is "legacy support", but at the professional level (especially given the ever-dropping price of memory cards) you'd think performance and convenience in the field would trump "legacy support". It becomes a particularly large pain in the butt if one is going in the field with a D800 and D4 - be prepared to carry 3 types of cards and associated readers. Smells like a "committee decision" to me - and definitely isn't one a confident market-leading company (like Apple..or Nikon?) would (or should) ever make. Dumb.

14. On the Possibly Negative Side - Battery Life: OK - in my opinion, the battery life (per charge) is a bit "iffy" on this camera. But, I have to provide a caveat with this comment: I was using my D800 somehat atypically - the bulk of my testing was done in cool temperatures (around the freezing point) AND much of it with super-telephotos with the VR on (in tripod mode). Both of these factors reduce the number of shots one can expect to get. I didn't quantify the battery life fully, but after about 200 shots in the cool weather (and using the big lenses) I was down to about a 50% charge. This possible issue is something you might want to think about. In my case I will be using the battery of the D4 (the EN-EL18) in my MB-D12 once the D4 batteries and the adapter cover (the BL-5) arrive and soon battery life questions will disappear for me.

15. On the Really Picky Side: Slow-ish Frame Rate: Some will point out the slightly slow maximum full resolution frame rate of 4 fps (faster in crop modes) is limiting. Hmmm...depends on your perspective - it's blazing fast compared to other cameras (including medium format ones) in its resolution class. But its a bit slow compared to other professional DSLRs. In a perfect world it would be nice if it was faster, but realistically this is a reflection of the "state of the union" in technology, not a faulty decision by Nikon. C'est la vie.

My one sentence summary of my first impressions? Just this: The D800 is a true a game-changer - Nikon has knocked this one out of the ballpark.

III. Chapter 2: The Nikon D800 and Selected Nikkor Lenses

Post Date: March 29, 2012. This chapter added (migrated from "First Impressions"), plus new info added on the performance of the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the D800.
Update #1: March 29, 2012. Information on the performance of the 200mm f2 VR ("old" version, like me) added.
Update #2: April 2, 2012. First pair (lo- and full-res) image samples from the 200mm f2 VR added.
Update #3: April 4, 2012. Information and images for 16-35mm f4 VRII and 24-70mm f2.8 added. New image pair (lo- and full-res versions) add for 400mm f2.8 VRII.
Update #4: April 6, 2012. Comments about shooting at 70mm with both the 24-70mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm VRII added to the lens performance description of each lens.

One of the keys of effectively using a high resolution camera like the Nikon D800 is understanding how it will perform with each lens - things like "Where is its sweet spot?" and "When will diffraction REALLY start limiting my on lens "x"? Thus for this camera I'm dedicating a full chapter to looking at how the D800 performs with selected lenses. A couple of quick notes:

1. Long-term Evolution! This section will definitely evolve over time. It is intended as a personal reference for me that will help guide me in my shooting - hopefully others will find it useful too...

2. Why Only "Selected" Lenses? Because I can only test the lenses I own and, unlike some others, I refuse to just "guess" at how a specific lens will perform (how do you say "zero crediblity?"). If you're dying to know how a specific lens you own stacks up (and it isn't covered here) - like the 300mm f2.8 VRII or the 500mm VRII - feel free to purchase one and send it to me for permanent storage - I promise I will test it and post the results! Oops...beginning to sound like Ken Rockwell - can't have that! ;-)

There has been much discussion (and I've contributed to it in a small way) about how the D800 will be exceptionally demanding on lenses. The argument is two fold: the high reolution sensor will show (and even emphasize) any lens defects AND it will be quite sensitive to the diffraction effects associated with using small apertures (most normally thought of as apertures smaller than f8). Nikon themselves have added fuel to the fire - in their D800/800E Technical Guide they warn of diffraction effects (complete with photos) AND have produced a list of 16 lenses "...you can use for enhanced sharpness". So, being an anal type of guy, I have decided to test ALL my current lenses to see how they "perform" (where their sweet spot is, where diffraction may become limiting, etc.) with the D800. And, with no further ado, here's what I've found to date. All but one are lenses found on Nikon's list of "...use for enhanced sharpness." Finally - while most viewers are probably more interested in the full-res shots - ALL the techs and processing details are presented on the low-res versions.

And...finally...an odd paradox! As I have been testing various lenses with the D800 and thinking about how each lens in my "arsenal" (from wide angle to super-telephoto) is normally used, I've been noticing a bit of a paradox developing. That paradox is found within the D800, the way it is most likely going to be used by most nature photographers, and how it behaves with various lenses. Presumably many nature photographers are buying this camera for shooting landscapes, at least some of the time (and possibly the majority of the time). Odds are a lot of these folks will be commonly wanting to use wide angle lenses. And, in many cases they will be shooting images where it will be important to have images as sharp as possible from foreground through to background. Which usually puts a premium on shooting with small apertures. But...the wide angle lenses I have tested remain maximally sharp up to the f8-f10 range only. So...to use these wide angle lenses effectively on a D800 when capturing landscape shots that "need" a very broad depth-of-field to work, one has to be extremely careful and very deliberately balance your depth of field concerns with diffraction-induced softening. In practice, and with some lenses (like the 16-35mm f4 VR) you may only have less than 2 stops of aperture to play with (f5.6 up to about f10) if you want a maximally sharp image! But, quite ironically, when shooting wildlife (or sports), where the goal is often to isolate and separate the subject from its background, you commonly use large apertures. Which, coincidentally, is where the D800 has no diffraction and/or sharpness issues (and where it provides beautiful bokeh with the right lens). So...if you only look at the constraints that the high-resolution sensor of the D800 puts on lenses, you could reasaonbly conclude that this camera is better suited to shooting sports or wildlife than landscapes (or, at least, that it would be easier to use for shooting sports or wildlife). Hmmm...why does something seem a bit backwards here?? Just food for thought...

1. AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR: In general, the handy 16-35mm f4 VRII wide-angle FX zoom performs quite well on the D800. At all the focal lengths I tested (18mm, 24mm, 28mm and 35mm) I found the lens approached maximum sharpness at f5.6 and stayed that sharp until f8. Edge-to-edge sharpness was surprisingly good on this lens (and even slightly better than on the 24-70mm f2.8 when tested at the same focal lengths!). At smaller apertures the images softened, presumably owing to the impact of diffraction. But f11 shots showed only very slight softening. By f16 the images very noticeably softened up. I could see no visible chromatic aberration (in the form of purple or yellow fringing) on any images shot with this lens (though this issue did come up in a minor way on the 24-70mm f2.8).

The first image shot with the 16-35mm VRII lens that I'm showing was shot at 24mm - it provides an interesting comparison to the same shot captured (at the same focal length) with the 24-70mm f2.8 (see below). I recommend downloading the 1200 pixel version to see the notes comparing the the two 24mm shots, but you'll likely have to download and view the full-resolution version (at 100%) to see what I'm talking about...

• Lo-Res Image 1: Columbia Valley - 16-35mm VRII - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 778 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 1: Columbia Valley - 16-35mm VRII - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 16.6 MB)

2. AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED: I'd have to describe the results of my field tests with this lens as mixed. Definitely more good than bad, but the results were a little disappointing to me. On the positive side - at all focal lengths tested (24mm, 32mm, 50mmm, 70mm) the resulting images were quite sharp (and very slightly sharper than the 16-35mm f4 VRII on overlapping focal lengths). The images were maximally sharp by f4 and maintained all their sharpness to f8-f9. Interestingly, while the images did soften up a little by f11 and beyond, they didn't "fall apart" very quickly at all - with a little careful sharpening (and perhaps a little downsizing), even f16 shots are quite usable. The negatives? A little visible chromatic aberration (purple/blue fringing on some edges) showed up at 24mm and 32mm (though at 32mm it was very hard to see) - I could see no traces of it at 50mm or 70mm focal lengths. Another negative was a little edge softening at all focal lengths (with it being more pronounced towards the 70mm end of the focal range). Given the edge softening was still visible at f8 and slight diffraction effects begin at f10 or f11, you can only partly solve this problem by stopping down. I don't want to over-emphasize these negatives - both the chromatic aberration and the edge softness were quite minor. Check out the first image below - this image was shot at 24mm and you can check out the seriousness of the issues yourself - the chromatic aberration is best seen on the full resolution image on the top edge of the distant mountains and on the bare branches at the crown of the tallest tree on the right side of the frame. If you're bored trying counting the bighorn sheep on the rocky ridge that leads down into the lake! You can see a whole lot more of the sheep if you download (and view at 100%) the 400mm f2.8 image below entitled "Bighorns Above Columbia Lake" - it was taken from the exact same spot...

• Lo-Res Image 1: Columbia Valley - 24-70mm f2.8 - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 848 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 1: Columbia Valley - 24-70mm f2.8 - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 16.8 MB)

The situation at 70mm is interesting and merits a little more discussion - and it's especially relevant if one also owns the 70-200mm VRII. At 70mm the 24-70mm lens shows more edge softening than at shorter focal lengths. Stopping down to f11 (if you have the light to do so) seems to offer the best compromise "solution" to solve the edge softening problem - diffraction effects are still very minor with this lens and the edges have sharpened up considerably. Stopping down further softens the entire image noticeably, so that's not something I'd recommend. But how does the 70-200mm VRII perform at 70mm? On the positive side, it's sharp edge-to-edge - and even in the central portion the 24-70mm seems no sharper. But, on the 70-200mm there is very, very slight chromatic aberration visible (in the form of just barely noticeable purple fringing on edges separating dark from light regions - like along the edges of trees against an overcast sky). Because the slight chromatic aberration is easily dealt with during raw processing, if I need to shoot at 70mm I'll trade off the slight chromatic aberration against the better edge-to-edge sharpness (meaning it would be the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII that would come out of my bag). I'll supply comparative images soon to allow one to compare the two lenses at 70mm.

As a final note here - I've noticed a trend on all the Nikon zoom lenses I've tested (with the D800 and other bodies) - they tend to be sharpest over the entire frame at the short end of the focal range, with edge softening showing up at the long end of the focal range. But, if one is going to see visible chromatic variation, it tends to be near the shorter end of the focal range. Minor chromatic aberration is usually easy to "clean up" during image processing, but edge softness can be tough to solve in the field OR in post-processing (especially on the D800 where you have diffraction-induced effects limiting your ability to stop down too far). Always compromises - always decisions to be made!

3. AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR: OK - this is interesting! This versatile "all-rounder/travel lens" IS an FX lens, but most serious photographers (including myself) would NEVER consider this lens for serious work, especially on a high-resolution camera like the D800 that purportedly eats inferior lenses for breakfast. Overall the lens is not bad, given what it is (an "all-rounder/travel" lens that almost everyone acknowledges is a "compromise" lens). So...because I own it (for now) I decided to take it for a spin with the D800 - just, if for no other reason, so how badly the D800 would beat it up! And, given that I would NEVER use this lens on a tripod (hey, if I'm able to carry a tripod I'm NOT going to be using this lens!), I shot it only hand-held. After all, the first images posted here for the 70-200mm VRII were hand-held (with very good results - see below). What did I find? Shockingly, even when I pushed the lens and camera with high ISO's and in low light (hand-holding ALL the time), the results weren't nearly as bad as I expected. You know, not complete crap! So...two images (low and full res versions each) for you - one ISO 1600 shot of Poncho the Portie under poor light, and the second an ISO 100 landscape shot taken from my property (this morning - March 27). Note that on the landscape shot I shot a full range of apertures (from wide open through f16) and at various focal lengths. Were diffraction effects visible? I don't know - how do you see diffraction on already soft images? I couldn't see it. But...you COULD find a use for the landscape shot...if you reduce the resolution a little it's actually not that bad...

• Lo-Res Image 1: Columbia Lake - March Morning - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 660 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 1: Columbia Lake - March Morning - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 11.6 MB)

• Lo-Res Image 2: Poncho -Thunderhill Ridge - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 465 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 2: Poncho -Thunderhill Ridge - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 10.5 MB)

4. AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED: Not yet tested or scrutinized (and probably won't be for a few months).

5. AF Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4D IF-ED: After early testing I'm quite encouraged about how the 200mm f4 Micro pairs up with the D800. This somewhat uncommon lens is known for its sharpness and many like it for its longer working distance and its ability to isolate subjects from the very soft and out-of-focus backgrounds it is capable of producing. One of the challenges in using this lens is "finding" enough depth-of-field to cover the critical aspects of your subject, which means users do, at time, want to stop this lens down. On this front I have at least preliminary good news - for some reason this lens seems to resist the effects of softening due to diffraction better than some other Nikkor lenses. On several occasions and with several different subjects I was able to stop down to f13 with no noticeable diffraction-induced softening. And, even at f16 diffraction effects - while noticeable - were minor enough that they could be pretty much mitigated through careful processing, especially if one reduced the resolution of the image somewhat - and how often do you really need a 7000+ pixel image of a flower? I think I might get some angry email with that comment, but I think it's largely true! One set of sample images of a Calypso Orchid in bloom and shot at f13 for now (additional images to be added over time):

• Lo-Res Image: Calypso (Fairy Slipper) Orchid - 200mm f4 Micro - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 287 KB)
• Hi-Res Image: Calypso (Fairy Slipper) Orchid - 200mm f4 Micro - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 3.8 MB)

NOTE: Be careful not to confuse depth-of-field (DoF) effects with diffusion when examing these images - there ARE lots of areas outside the areas of sharpest focus in these images (this is intentional) - when determining if the image is sharp enough for your taste look at the in-focus elements.

6. 70-200mm f2.8 VRII: In general the D800 just loves this lens. At almost all focal lengths it is very sharp at f2.8 and tack sharp at f3.5 through f8. However, at 200mm only the central part of the image remains sharp - the edge-softening that is "mild" when using other, lower-resolution FX bodies, is markedly more pronounced on the D800. That edge softness at 200mm mostly disappeared on other FX bodies by about f8 and was hardly noticeable by f11. However, on the D800 the edge effects are still quite visible at f8, and diffraction effects do begin softening the image at smaller apertures...so this "method" of dealing with the edge softness is not an option for D800 users. Speaking of diffraction effects - at focal lengths of 160mm and beyond (and possibly other focal lengths, but I need to do some more testing before I can comment on them), if you're after maximally sharp images you don't want to close down beyond about f9 - and by f13 the images are becoming noticeably soft. How significant is this "edge-softening @ 200mm" issue? Decide yourself - check out the images below (you'll need to download the full-res shot to see the softness. For me? Well, for many (most) wildlife shots - probably not a huge issue. But, for landscape shooting? Well...I would either back off 200mm OR pull out my 200mm f2 VR. How far does one have to back off of 200mm before the soft edges go away? At 180mm I could notice them, but they weren't too obvious. At 160mm they were virtually impossible to see.

What about hand-holding the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the D800? Very hand-holdable for me, and hard-to-miss sharpness-wise when using the new Auto ISO function (in Auto shutter speed mode).

Owners of this lens who also own the 24-70mm f2.8 lens should make sure they read the comments above (in the section on the 24-70mm lens) regarding which of the two lenses to select when shooting at 70mm (my recommendation would be the 70-200mm - see above for details). Comparative images shot at 70mm (with the 24-70mm vs 70-200mm) with the D800 coming soon!

A final note I'm mentioned before but worth repeating here - I've noticed a trend on all the Nikon zoom lenses I've tested (with the D800 and other bodies) - they tend to be sharpest (over the entire frame) at the short end of the focal range, with edge softening showing up at the long end of the focal range. But, if one is going to see visible chromatic variation, it tends to be near the shorter end of the focal range. Minor chromatic aberration is usually easy to "clean up" during image processing, but edge softness can be tough to solve in the field OR in post-processing (especially on the D800 where you have diffraction-induced effects limiting your ability to stop down too far). Always compromises - always decisions to be made!

Two hand-held "grab-shots" for you to scrutinize and one tripod-mounted shot - all technical notes on the 1200 pixel versions but I'd recommend downloading and checking out the full resolution versions at 100%.

• Lo-Res Image 1: Have Frisbee, Am Happy - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 742 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 1: Have Frisbee, Am Happy - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 10.2 MB)

• Lo-Res Image 2: Columbia Lake in Late March - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 700 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 2: Columbia Lake in Late March - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 13.2 MB)

• Lo-Res Image 3: Edge Softness @ 200mm? - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 635 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 3: Edge Softness @ 200mm? - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 12.7 MB)

7. AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR: This not-too-common lens is one of Nikon's best, and its excellent performance continues on the D800. Out-performs the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (when shot at 200mm) by enough that it is easily noticed by visual inspection alone (which, at the end of the day, is what really matters). Edge-to-edge sharpness is excellent. Very sharp wide open, but tack sharp from f2.8 through f8/f9. By f10/f11 there is hard-to-notice softening owing to diffraction, but by f13 the diffraction effects are very noticeable and by f16 the images become quite soft (relative to larger apertures).

• Lo-Res Image 1: Swimmer's Point - Columbia Lake - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 759 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 1: Swimmer's Point - Columbia Lake - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 16.1 MB)

8. 400mm f2.8 VR: Not surprisingly - absolutely stellar. But arguably this is the best of the super-telephotos from Nikon and it should deliver in spades. Very sharp wide open and tack sharp by f3.5 and stays that way up until at least f8 - and f16 still looks amazingly sharp on SOME images (at least to me). After shooting repeated tests the following dawned on me - when working with very close subjects that pretty much fill the frame, there are so many pixels dedicated to the subject that diffraction effects are functionally hidden (unless one is into checking out the pores on a squirrel's face by viewing full resolution files at 100% magnification). But, when dealing with wildlife at very long distances - and the subject takes up relatively fewer pixels and one is more likely to be viewing the image at 100% magnification - diffraction effects are more easily noticed. The second shot below (Bighorns Above Columbia Lake) showed diffraction-induced softening in a pattern similar to that on other lenses - very sharp up to the f8/f9 range, but softening at smaller apertures. The f16 version of this "animalscape" (or "bighornscape") showed very noticeable softening.

• Lo-Res Image: Red Squirrel - Lunch Break - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 471 KB)
• Hi-Res Image: Red Squirrel - Lunch Break - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 7.8 MB)

• Lo-Res Image 2: Bighorns Above Columbia Lake - Download 1200 pixel version WITH ALL TECH NOTES (JPEG file: 941 KB)
• Hi-Res Image 2: Bighorns Above Columbia Lake - Download FULL RESOLUTION FILE (JPEG file: 18 MB)

9. 600mm f4 VR: Excellent performance on the D800. Sharp as can be by f5 (and very good at f4) - and on close subjects, visually appears seems to stay sharp right through f16 (see explanation discussed above in the 400mm f2.8 VR section). Two high-ish ISO f16 shots above (under "What About Small Apertures and Diffraction Effects?" and "And What About ISO Performance?" More images with this lens to follow soon...

10. Teleconverters? Yep, in time I WILL be adding in information about how selected lenses pair up with the D800 when teleconverters (both the TC-14EII and the TC-20EIII) are wedged between the lens and the camera! No, I will not be discussing the 1.7x TC-17EII - I abandoned that teleconverter long ago for reasons that are discussed elsewhere on this website (basically wasn't happy with it!).

IV. Chapter 3: The Nikon D800 as a...

Post Date: April 9, 2012. Section 1 - the D800 as a Wildlife Camera - added.

The D800 as a wildlife camera...and the D800 as a landscape camera...and the D800 as...you get the picture...

1. The D800 As a Wildlife Camera...

It's already widely accepted that the autofocus (AF) system on the D800 (and the D4) is excellent and is very well suited for capturing action. And, I (and probably lots of others) have found that the D800 works extremely well with Nikon's super-telephoto lenses. These facts probably explain at least partly why I'm getting more and more email on one specific topic - how well is the D800 suited for wildlife photography? It's a good question and there isn't a single "one size fits all" answer to it. Here are some of my thoughts on the pros and cons of using the D800 for wildlife photography...

1. The Pros...

• The AF system: The new "Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system" is very accurate, tracks subjects well, has better predictive AF capabilities than on the D700 or D3s and, unlike some of Nikon's non-professional cameras, works just as well with the biggest super-telephotos as it does with the shorter focal length lenses. Check.

• ISO Performance? Not quite a D3s or D4 at full resolution, but still awfully darned good and among the best on the market. Check.

• Resolution? Awesome at full resolution (36 MP), and still pretty good when in DX crop mode (4800 x 3200 pixels - or 15.4 MP). Check.

• Performance with Telephoto Lenses? This one is going to raise some eyebrows, but my experience is that the D800 tends to produce slightly sharper images with pro super-telephoto lenses than it does with pro wide angle lenses. Check.

• Compact...ish! Not as small as a DSLR can be, but a whole lot smaller than any professional "flagship" camera. Until, of course, you put the MB-D12 battery grip on - then it's pretty much flagship-sized. Sorta check?

2. And...The Cons...

• Frame Rate: At full frame the D800 can muster up only 4 fps. Go to DX crop mode and the camera's frame rate climbs to 5 fps with the stock battery (EN-EL15) or 6 fps with the D4's EN-EL18 battery in the MB-D12 battery grip. Hmmm...only so-so compared to the fastest DSLR's, and you only get 6 fps after investing about $700 CAD more. Definitely not optimal (and even pokey!) for flight shots. UNcheck.

• Demanding on Lenses? If you want to shoot full-resolution shots and get the very best out of this camera you are pretty much forced to use very good (professional quality) lenses - it's quite demanding on lenses compared to many other well-regarded wildlife cameras (such as the D3, D700, D3s). And, due to diffraction-imposed image softening you sure don't want to stop down too far with a D800 (not that one regularly does this when shooting wildlife). One thing a D800 tends to do is really emphasize or draw out ANY edge softness a lens may have. Fortunately, there's a solution for this that many wildlife photographers will like - if you shoot in DX mode you'll cut off those soft edges. Which means you can likely count on getting pretty decent results with a somewhat wider variety of lenses (than if you're shooting full-frame). And, you have that 1.5x gain in effective magnification compared to a full-frame 15.4 MP camera to boot. Overall, perhaps a mild but somewhat debatable UNcheck (because if you have a less than stellar lens collection you're pretty much going to be forced to shoot in DX mode).

• Huge File Sizes at Full Resolution! If you're going to use all the pixels the D800 gives you, your files sizes are huge. Average raw file size (14-bit, lossless compression) about 42.5 MB. A 16-bit TIFF derived from that raw file? 216.9 MB. Add a few adjustment layers in Photoshop and you're quickly up to 450 MB (almost half a gig!). Shooting in DX mode? Cut those numbers in about half. So about one half of an UNcheck.

• What About Teleconverters? Many wildlife photographers (but not this one) like and rely on teleconverters. How does the D800 perform with teleconverters? Hmmm...I'm still testing this out, but early results (which ARE subject to change) with one of Nikon's most teleconverter-friendly lenses (the 400mm f2.8 VR) are not very promising - overall softness (not just edge-softening) of the images jumped quite a bit at f8 when shot with the 1.4x TC-14EII (compared to when the 400mm was shot "native"). But please consider this a preliminary result ONLY. So a tentative UNcheck.

Put all this together and what does it mean? I think the D800 will be a FANTASTIC "animalscapes" camera - which is the main thing I bought it for. And, if you shoot in DX mode and with a MB-D12 battery grip attached (with EN-EL18 battery) you have a pretty darned good - and only a little sluggish - wildlife camera. Will that "pretty darned good" wildlife camera capture some outstanding wildlife images in 2012 and beyond? Undoubtedly yes (and I hope some of them have my name on them!). But that "pretty darned good" wildlife camera will cost you close to $4000 CAD or USD (after taxes). Hmmm...what would a GREAT wildlife camera - like a used D3, D700 or D3s - cost you? Probably less than that. And then there's the "coming soon" D400 that will likely run around $2000. Hmmm...sorry, but I don't think the purchase of a new D800 for use primarily as a wildlife camera (or as your primary wildlife camera) is the best use of one's "photography dollars". I'm just sayin'...

2. The D800 As a Landscape Camera...

Coming in late spring/early summer 2012.

3. The D800 As a ???

Coming ??? (when I figure what the heck this section is going to be about!).

Field Test Index


Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRIINikon's Series 3 tele-converters4 Ways to 400mm
Nikon D7000 - First ImpressionsLensCoat RainCoat ProThe Nikon V1
The Nikon D800The Nikon D4Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR