Thursday, March 15, 2012

D800 - My Thoughts

I remember very clearly the first time I saw Nikon's D700. I was only beginning to understand the benefits of full frame photography and was even more naive than I am now about professional photography in general. In my little head I said, Jacob "my little DX camera will do for now, but when Nikon upgrades this camera, then I'll be at a level to deserve it." Ladies and Gents, the hour has arrived...well, kinda.

Long-form technical discussions of the D800's merits are better left to those with a greater understanding of the camera than I have, but I'll give to the gist of it here:

• The pixel count:

The D800 packs 36 megapixels on a standard full frame sensor. Some people think this is the best thing since double-ply TP because they can finally venture into 'medium format' photography on a prosumer budget. I suppose these people would be correct if they intend to disassemble their D800 upon arrival and enlarge the sensor spreading the existing photosites apart onto a physically larger surface. Oh, and buy new lenses to accommodate it. While I haven't checked on an individual level, I don't believe this is their intent. Medium and large format photography existed before pixel counts folks, so just adding more megapixels doesn't give you a medium format camera.

The next oft-criticized issue is directly related. Packing so many pixels on the same size sensor logically entails making the pixels smaller (neighborhood of 4.88 microns--just above the popular D7000). Downside to this is poorer low light sensitivity, less dynamic range (type in photosite, dynamic range, and bucket if you want Google to explain this to you) and increased noise. I'm not too worried about D800 stills being comparable with the D700 once they're scaled down to the same size, but how the noise holds up at 36 mp will really be interesting. Even if it's on par, not exceeding, the capabilities of the D700, we'll be grateful to our friends across the sea.

• The Speed:

To the chagrin of current D700 event, sport and wildlife photographers, the upgrad to the mighty D700 is still somewhere in Asia. The D800 shoots at a lackluster 4 frames per second. Impressive if you consider how many additional enslaved miniature monkeys have been enlisted to crank 36 mp through the buffer at that speed, but discouraging if you wanted a fast shooter and don't have $6k.

DX (cropped mode) and the additional battery grip will buy you an extra 2 frames per second bringing you up to reasonable, but not remarkable speeds. And it makes your camera look bigger so you can charge more for your pictures.

• The Logo:

After major production delays, flooding and a series of unfortunate events, Nikon forgot to design the D800 with a place to attach the name of the camera. This worked great for the pre-production models because the logo didn't need to be concealed with black tape in the field. One preproduction photographer, when returning the camera to Nikon, found a small space to write 'D800' with a fine tipped Sharpie and microscope. The engineers, upon receipt of the camera were so taken with this genius, that they've sent every D800 coming off the line to him for similar treatment. This may have pushed delivery dates from late March to the end of late March, but you'll really be grateful when you see the awkwardness of the 'D800' label pasted uncertainly on the face of your camera. Not to fear, you can still use a D800 Nikon neckstrap to prove to all your friends that you have a cool camera and that you, for some inexplicably bizarre human reason, have a holy allegiance to the Nikon brand. I for one think they should be wearing my neckstrap after taking $3k for a camera.

• Video

Shooting video on DSLRs has been all the rage as of late. Plenty of A-list Hollywood features have included shots (or the majority of the film in the case of Act of Valor) from prosumer level digital SLRs. PANASONIC's GH2 HAS BEEN KING OF IMAGE QUALITY, and NIKON WAS FIRST WITH THE D90, but Canon's dad beat up Nikon's and Panny's dad, and the 5D MkII has emerged the irrevocable champion of the DSLR video binge. Guess not everyone minds the fact that wide, high detail shots look like aliased, moire-infested, line-skipped garbage.

For being the first, Nikon has played a very slow game of catchup to Canon and the D800 represents the first real threat to Canon's market presence--at least in my view.  Reason being the the singular feature of uncompressed video from its HDMI output. When I read this on NikonRumors as a potential feature I chortled. And I'm not the type to chortle often. Kids, this is a pretty stinkin huge feature. The on-board codec has crippled DSLRs from the beginning. While the D800 records to an internal MPEG-4 intraframe codec limited to some measly data rate well below Canon's 50mbps, the option to record externally to an Atomos Ninja or BlackMagic little box thingy that records uncompressed or DnxHD is huge. Crop modes, manual controls and such are big deals, but the HDMI out is definitely the headliner.

Now, two caveats:
1) I don't think Nikon is there with video yet. The content posted to YouTube (please people, internet compression is destructive enough, at least use Vimeo) looks soft and aesthetically it does not register as well with me as what I've seen from the GH2 or from Canon's cameras. We all hope this is an effect of internet compression or in-camera settings, but my gizzard fears the worst. The videos Nikon used to demo the camera, despite a lot of praise from elsewhere, were NOT impressive (narratively or technically I'm still deciding which was worse) to this observer at all. Perhaps the lack of extreme rolling shutter skew was the only real aspect I was impressed with.
2)  Recording uncompressed through HDMI from a DSLR isn't the dream I and many others have hoped. Panasonic's GH2 progressied through a series of increasingly aggressive hacks to arrive at a 170+ mbps data rate internally. That the hardware was designed to support that throughput still surprises me, and I laud Panasonic for doing it. And once we got to these bit rates, the difference between HDMI out and internal recording slowly dwindled. I work as a colorist, and 'clean' video is important to me. Just as much as the next guy I'd love to grade 4:4:4 full raster video with no chroma sub sampling. However, I think too much cripples the video before exiting the camera to make this feature as useful as we'd like unless no one hacks the camera for higher data rate recording. I feel like, while HDMI out on the GH2 is possible (be ready for a technically intimidating post process for getting around Panasonic's cadence crippling crap), most choose to shoot internally to the card because the codec becomes much less of a limitation at 178 mbps and the source is 4:2:0 for both. That said, I'd still prefer a D800 with HDMI out recording to an interframe codec I want to edit in (Ninja recording ProRes) to the hacking and tweaking of another camera. Already bricked one and don't want to make a hobby of it.
If the D800 exhibits the sharpness and downscaling quality of a GH2, I will be thrilled, but also quite frankly surprised.

Check out the first test I've seen (YouTube...grrrrr) of uncompressed, external recording of a Nikon D800. Scroll to bottom of linked page for video (and enjoy the read if you speak Chinese).


I think D800 will be an awesome stills camera. Smaller pixels could result in poor signal to noise ratio, but not likely since Nikon knows people will be comparing this directly to a D700. It's not a speedy camera (4-6 fps) and the video features like uncompressed HDMI out, while real milestones, may be more beneficial in pushing Canon to action if the quality still isn't there.


  1. About the pixel count, don't you think the technology or sensor quality really make diferen├že, even putting all of them in the same amount of space? Can you remember when Kodak released the TMAX Films. They develop a thinner grain and better tonal range at the same 35mm film.
    So, my point is that the extra pixel count really make difference because of the technology applied to them. But, i have not tried de D800 yet to find out myself if the noise at low light will be a big problem.
    Thanks for the article. I really like the way you write.
    Alexis Prappas

    1. Thanks for the comments maximidiams. Your experience in evaluating the aesthetic of TMAX is certainly much greater than mine, but your point is valid. Low light performance on the D800 is actually quite reasonable considering the specs. I'd still prefer the performance of a 5d Mk III for low light, but can't seem to have everything in one camera. DxO mark has had their detailed report up for a while on the D800 now (very positive if you haven't read it). Nikon seems to be putting more of their own sensors in cameras and I'm wondering how that will affect their high-end products if they break from the sony imagers. Interesting to watch and see.

  2. With only a few exceptions DSLR's just don't autofocus well while shooting video. For the most part the photographer is expected to manually focus the lens to keep the subject sharp. This isn't a concern when the subject is ten feet away or more, such as at a football game or during a stage performance, but if the subject is about ten feet or closer to the camera the photographer will get the best results from manual focus.

    Buy Atomos Ninja Blade