Monday, July 27, 2020

Nikon D800E First Impressions

Nikon D800E First Impressions
July 2020, Carl Garrard

Prices on used and older pro level DSLR's have all fallen dramatically. Lucky for me, it was time for to upgrade two key areas of my kit. I needed an edge in two key types of photography: Birds in Flight/Action, and Landscape/Low Light. I've already found my perfect combo for bird in flight/action, the D500/Sigma 100-400 HSM. And trust me when I say that finding a camera and lens combination that I deem perfect for this task is so rare that it's only happened once in my life. My D500/Sigma 100-400mm HSM combo is stunning. But I'm here to talk about part II of my quest. Yep, I've set out to find that combo's equal, but this time for landscape/low light work instead. And after much deliberation, weighing practical advantages to cost etc. I decided to give the Nikon D800E a try. The D800E, is a camera I always wanted to try out, and although it was released in Feb of 2012, practically speaking I do not find it dated in the least bit.
Nikon D800E 36.3 MP Best Used Prices

The Back Story

What is an article about a finding a great tool without it's back story?

Having spent time in the past with a D700, I was intrigued and impressed by it's tanky, beefy build. It had an immeasurable charm. But if cameras could be measured in masculinity, the D700 was the mere definition of it. It felt as though it were designed by a man, for a man, as sexist as that may sound. Ergonomically, it was spacious with large buttons for gloved hands, and that's what I wanted in a landscape DSLR. Overall though, for this task at least, I was never in love with its sensor and felt the body and sensor were a sort of mismatch. In my opinion, the 25mp sensor of the D3X was a better solution for the D700 body but it was too large and expensive for me.

Tanky, beefy, fast. D700 still has appeal power.

For general professional photography (name the type) the D700 is an absolute legend in its own right. So obviously, my opinion is in the extreme minority. But irrespective of that, I still desired a powerhouse landscape camera that would surpass the 24mp class DSLR's (like the Sony A900), providing detail and dynamic range far beyond what we had available over the years. These were two nagging, and highly common issues of digital sensors over the years. I settled for a Canon 6D, which served me well.

Nikon must have known I wasn't the only one with this opinion, and answered the call.

Later when Nikon introduced the D800/E cameras, and I saw what its sensor could do, and I just didn't believe it at first. ISO invariance was something pretty new to digital at that time. The D800E solved the dynamic range and shadow detail problems, and I wanted it. But I wasn't going to shell out over $5,000.00 (camera and a lens or two) just to prove to myself it was real. So I waited, and I book marked the D800E in the back of my mind. There the seed was planted. 

I've been using Canon systems for years. For landscapes, Canon were always behind in true dynamic range with their homegrown sensors. Fixed pattern banding made it worse in many of their camers, rearing its ugly head any time you raised your shadow values on raw files in post, and clipping was all too easy to do making your initial exposure. Stacking several bracketed images in post seemed like the only real solution that would ever be found. Immensely frustrating. The problem wasn't going to go away. Thankfully the Canon 6D didn't have the banding problem, but its dynamic range was limited.

Over the last few years, I've used the new generation 50mp medium format sensors; Fujifilm's GFX 50R/50S, and the best new full frame sensors too- the Pentax K1 and Mark II, and a short stint with the Nikon D850. I didn't buy any of those cameras (actually I bought and returned one), most were loaners from camera companies, or in the case of the Nikon, a weeks rental.

Fujifilm loaned me the 50R, what a great camera overall. But its image quality is in another league, I was rocked and blown away by it's quality more than any other camera I've reviewed. It's a big deal. But it's not yet a convenient or versatile enough system for me, yet.

I was determined to solve this image quality quandary. I felt I had sampled enough of the very best sensors available at a reasonable cost, and one of those cameras could be a candidate for my long term landscape camera solution. But I hadn't tested the D800E yet, fearing it was becoming long in the tooth (why do we do that?), but something told me to go for it anyway. So I bought my own.

Prices have come down on the D800E since it's introduction. Like, way down. And now, if you are patient (and very careful) you can find an almost like new D800E for about 800.00-1,000.00 USD. I'm all about performance for the price, and if the D800E could give me 95% of the performance for 1/3rd the price of those cameras (less the Pentax's), I'd go for it. The other consideration was lenses, and the cost of those lenses, so that was factored into the equation as well. The value proposition of the D800E was starting to come into focus.
I found an excellent seller in Japan who had a near new D800E for $825.00. I tend to find that the Japanese generally take better care of their equipment than other regions. So I went for it, and it arrived about a week before I started writing this article. With only 4K shutter actuations, it wasn't even broken in yet, and it was in near immaculate shape. Seemed like a great deal, but I needed to use it for its intended purpose before I let myself get excited. I wasted no time in doing that.

First Impressions

Out of the box, the exterior and build of the D800E was pretty much the camera I hoping it would be. Something more tanky than my D610, more akin to the D700 in its build and its overall impressions. The grip felt right from the outset, at least for my medium hands, even better than my D610's that I've learned to get used too.

Controls are well spaced out, almost too far apart in some respects for single handed control. Yet that's not a bad thing, one handed shooting isn't my prerequisite for landscape or low light work. For landscapes I'm almost always using two hands, shooting slowly and deliberately. Same goes in low light circumstances. I'm either focused on keeping it rock solid still with two hands or working it on a tripod.

So in this case, I actually prefer that the D800E is a two handed camera, unlike the cameras I use for casual or street photography.

Build quality is fantastic, and I mean fantastic. The D800E screams that it is a camera built to take abuse and to be reliable for years. I don't abuse my cameras, but like other things I buy, I so appreciate the feel of camera that is overbuilt. It's a bit heavier than my D610, but again this is a good thing. Heavier cameras are more stable and blur images less.

All metal frame beefcake. Surprisingly, a bit lighter than the D700.

Big and heavy are traits that are especially helpful for a camera with 36mp of resolution and a cancelled out AA filter. I'd need all the help I could get keeping the camera from vibrating or shaking during exposures. I wanted all that glorious detail to emerge on my 32" computer monitor, and soon.

All of the buttons are large and have a satisfying enough feel of assurance. The only thing missing, is illuminated buttons that my D500 has (same goes for the D850). I'm willing to give that up in order to save $1,750.00 on a D850 though. I think that's reasonable, despite the advantage. I'll just use a red head lamp at night if needed, like I've always done in the past.

And damn, what a huge, bright, and wonderful viewfinder the D800E has. It's a step above my D610, even though they have the same "specs". Higher quality optics at the eyepiece must be the reason for better light transmission and clarity. Adding the DK17M magnifier makes the view monstrous, something I can't add on the D610 (or any of the newer 700 series FF Nikons). The view with it is 84x equivalent now (up from .7x), and 100% accurate.

I wouldn't want a larger view than that, or I'd need to move a few rows back in the theater. It's huge, bright, beautiful, perfect for Landscape, low light, or macro work. In comparison D850s view is .75X standard, for comparison. Adding the magnifier would make the view too big, so this is a perfect solution.

Taking full stock of the D800E's overbuilt exterior and overall feature set, I realized that I didn't miss anything the D850 has that the D800E doesn't. Even the lure of the larger viewfinder on the D850 is completely mitigated using the DK17M magnifier on the D800E. As far as it's immediate successor  (the D810) is concerned, I'm not overly tempted unless a better deal can be had. The refinements of the D810 weren't enough to push me to buying one, maybe that was the wrong decision.

But first...

Autofocusing and Metering

Nikon's 51point AF system on the D800E is somewhere on a scale between my D610's and my D500's in both capability and viewfinder coverage. This means that it's absolutely fantastic, and much more capable of an AF system than I need for this kind of work. But I'm glad to have it.

For lower levels of light, it's center AF point is very sensitive. It locks on to subjects in very low light almost completely dark. It's not as good as my D500 or Canon 6D, but slightly better than my D610 by about a stop less light; which is fine for my needs. For landscapes, I find value in a highly sensitive center AF point for low light. Longer testing should reveal any further strengths or weaknesses, but I doubt I'll be disappointed.

In bright daylight, the AF system tracks and locks just as fast as my D610's, and the AF coverage is noticeably larger in the finder. This is great to have, but overkill for a still landscape subject that doesn't move. It may come in handy though in the event I'm given a rare opportunity that has nothing to do with a landscapes. There's no need to compare it to my D500, that camera is an Indy car.

Matrix metering is so good with this camera, like wow good. I was truly impressed how well it handled high contrast  mixed lighting conditions in my first few minutes with it. One of the best cameras I've tested, Nikon or not, in this regard. I didn't expect this based on my experience with DLSRs (one of the advantages of mirrorless). But in the first few frames on my first hike with the D800E, I noticed it immediately.

Matrix metering was perfect on this shot. The entire range of wide ranging contrasty light was within the limits of the histogram, giving a slight priority to highlights (see below). A perfect result. This is how I expect full view metering to work, but it's rarely been the case that my expectations have been met on DSLR's.
Right out of camera, no adjustments in ACR.

Although extremely impressed with the matrix metering, I'll likely be using spot metering of highlights most of the time for landscapes. This is because of the massive dynamic range this camera has, without almost zero penalty to shadows regions- which I'll be talking about next. This trait liberates me for landscape imaging. I cannot stress how important this is. 

One shot landscape shots, with high quality shadows and highlights, in one image. That's what I'm talking about. That's what I'm fricken talking about!

Nikon D800E 36.3 MP Best Used Prices

Image Quality

The accolades for its 36mp sensor are all true. ISO invariance is a huge deal, add with that the massive amount of dynamic range in this sensor, and it is unparalleled by any other full frame sensors with less resolution. It's not just the measurable Dynamic range either. No, that is not the big deal either, stay with me.

The big deal here is the high level quality the raw files maintain look after you have pushed your shadows a good 1-5 stops in post. That, is a VERY big deal. I do not say this lightly nor do I exaggerate either. This full frame sensor is fantastic in such a way that it exists in an new upper echelon of full frame sensors; just as new medium format digital is in its own league compared to the best of full frame, so too is the 36mp sensor compared to the 24mp ones.

Color, noise, and dynamic range are all at levels I've always wanted in full frame, and detail (mostly). This is serious step forward for ultra rich and detailed landscape shots. One shot dynamic range shots are not only possible, but welcomed by this sensor. Free at last from my past troubles. The clarity, depth, and magnitude of its raw files has to be experienced first hand in order to convey the advantage my words will fail to accomplish.They are a step above the D610 in quality on screen when pushed in post, despite "technical" similarities in DXO's output.

Detail are mostly what I expected from this sensor.  But in order to really squeeze the finest detail from the D800E, you need a few things: A very sharp lens, a very steady subject, and a very steady camera. Follow those rules, and you'll get that detail. I suppose the D810 is just a tad better having zero AA filter at all, and a dampened mirror/shutter cycle.

You can push these raw files around as much as you wish in post without fear of degradation. For a photographer who loves landscape photography, again I must stress that this is liberating in a way I've only experienced with medium format sensors in Fuji cameras. Only the Nikon platform is so much more versatile, capable, and lightweight so I can take it with me everywhere and do so much more. Here is a boring "test" shot sample at ISO 100. Jpeg out of camera (right), then a 3 stop exposure pushed raw file (left), along with +35 to the right on the blacks slider.

Heck even the Jpegs out of this camera are fantastic, which really surprised me. Better than my D610, more refined, less "stressed" feeling. They are especially good if you use D-Lighting, normally a gimmick item to me. I prefer to use it to mitigate clipping on both sides of the spectrum, and the results are a rich Jpeg worth bragging about, even at higher ISO values! D-Lighting can be used when I'm set to Raw+Jpeg recording, so I enabled it, no reason not too. Jpegs are normally  my throw-away files anyways.

Jpeg, cropped out of camera. Experimenting with D-Lighting and liking it.

This is a big deal too, because readers here should already know I hardly ever use Jpegs. Even more rarely do I ever recommend shooting Jpegs. But the D800E's Jpegs are just flat out recommendable, as long as you keep in mind they are just jpegs.

I recommend backing off the sharpening and noise reduction all the way (you don't need it) and experiment a bit with D-Lighting to help save some shadow and highlight detail. Then shoot Raw + Jpeg Fine and experiment with monochrome and other color profiles in the camera. I absolutely love the monochrome output when I bump up the contrast, and put the D-Lighting on "high" (about mid range). I may even consider using a Jpeg or two for big prints if the output is right, which is something I told myself long ago I'd probably never do again.

And there's loads of cropping room here. A before and after image, final image was a processed from raw Jpeg.

Before crop. Boring, a crow on a light post. So what.

After, much better. Hi little guy. You can crop the hell out of the D800E's files and still get a shot suitable for a nice print. Even a 3mp equivalent file like this here can make a nice detailed 8x10.

The ability to push and pull raw files like no other (bar medium format), crop the hell out the files, and yet still get such quality output just makes digital imaging on another level here. So far the image quality of the D800E surpasses my expectations for its intended purposes. Better to be overbuilt than under built I say. Loving it.

Miscellaneous Notes and Initial Conclusion

How about bonus attributes?  Traits of the D800E that I didn't have on my wish list?

Battery life is the typical Nikon awesomeness, and I'll have no problem shooting all day long on a single charge, or even a full weekend. Long exposures and live view included. Don't know what else to say here, Nikon just have the best battery life of any camera maker.

The shutter/mirror cycle has a gorgeous sound to it.  For landscapes and low light work, I prefer using a camera that has that special mechanical sound of finality. A sound that is eager, definitive,  highly tuned, refined and final. The D800E has it. It sounds like a classic film era SLR, only more tuned, if there is such an official classification. And I love it. It's much  like the D700 before it, from my memory at least.

I'm curious  how the D810 sounds in comparison. I've "heard" it has been muted and/or smoothed in comparison, and doesn't sound the same. The downside to the mirror up/return sound and action of the D800E, is slight possibility of adding some minor vibrations. Which I did notice btw, so I'll be using the mirror up mode for my landscape shots, something I'm used to doing anyways.

Enjoyment Factor and Preliminary Conclusion

Edit: After completing this article I noticed my D800E needed a very rarely occurring ACU adjustment/repair (aperture control unit). I was getting a ERR message on all lenses without electronic aperture control built in, and that was the culprit. I used the Tamron 24-70mm G2, Sigma 100-400mm HSM, *24-120mm f/4 Nikkor,  AF-P 70-300mm Nikkor, and *50mm f/1.8G SE along with the classic *35mm f/2.8 D for this article. *Denotes lenses I encountered the issue with.

The seller gladly agreed to take it back to get it repaired, despite being in Japan. In exchange, he offered a D810 in even better condition than the D800E, and I took the offer. So my final review will be a mixture of the D800E/D810 experience. This rare occurrence does not tarnish my D800E impressions, nor my confidence in its reliability. It was just a rare, bad luck situation.

I used the Tamron 24-70mm G2, Sigma 100-400mm HSM, 24-120mm f/4 Nikkor, and 50mm f/1.8G SE along with the classic 35mm f/2.8 D for this article. But the D looks so nice on it.

Some cameras just have mojo, they go over and above expectations, exceeding the expected return value. The D800E is one of those cameras for me. Did I get a good deal for used prices? Oh god yes, I almost feel guilty for paying such a low price for it. It's all about the point of diminishing returns vs. total dollar for me. I don't mind spending money, but I do mind if I feel more cash layout doesn't give additional value. Value the D800E certainly has, if you can find a lightly used one.

The combination of its' tanky, all metal build with beefy shoulders, excellent viewfinder, competently decisive and quick AF system, insanely good image quality, and fine tuned attributes such as a nice mechanical shutter and comfortably large grip, make an unmistakable impression. This is a serious piece of pro kit and Nikon got the D800E correct right out of the gate.

I don't blow money just so I can say I have the latest model. This is why I prefer buying tools that are more specific to a single purpose. You don't have to fuss and obsess over why it won't do this or that well, when it's perfect for a single task. There's a satisfaction in finding the ideal equipment you need for less than you think you may need to spend. It's an added bonus.

Sure I could have bought the D850, which plays dual roles as an action and landscape camera. I would have saved money from the D500. But I prefer more specific tools. The D850 is more of a crescent wrench or Swiss Army knife, albeit a very good one.

Call my first impressions glorious, this is one hell of a good camera, a DSLR that for its intended purposes, excels above others in value. Just don't go expecting it to do things it wasn't designed to do. Even then, the D800E could probably do them just fine.

But no camera is good without the right lens. So I went hunting for a lens that would take advantage of the D800E's resolution and image quality capability. A lens I'd have on it most of the time. I decided to look at the new generation of lens designs because they have addressed both the needs of the  high resolution modern sensors, and mitigated most of the distortion problems digital introduced in the past.

For a general landscape/low light zoom lens, I decided to take a look at the newer generation Tamron 24-70mm G2, Sigma 24-35mm f/2, and a few Nikon "G" primes, such as the highly touted 24mm f/1.8 Nikkor. I'll report more about how the combo work with one another in my final review of the D800E. (see edit at the top).

For now, call me impressed, pleased with the D800E. Hopefully, it only gets better from here.

Stay Focused.


Here's a link, without the typical begging jargon.
Nikon D800E 36.3 MP Best Used Prices

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