Pros: Lots of cropping margin, “clean” HDMI video output
Cons: Low light performance, slow with typical speed flash cards, proprietary USB cable
NOTE: Contrary to Epinion’s description, the Nikon D800E is a conventional, not a 3D, camera.
In the ancient days (13 years ago!) of the first generation of digital SLRs, naysayers poo-pooed the new technology and argued that electronic imaging would not approach the resolution and quality of 35mm film until sensors were, indeed, the size of a full 35mm frame (24mm X 36mm) and pixel count amounted to at least 35 mega-pixels – the “35/35 threshold.” Such specs seemed distant if not unattainable in a time when the spec sheet on Nikon’s flagship D1 showed a maximum of 2.7 megapixels on its 24mm X 16mm sensor and a several thousand-dollar price tag. Today, however, Nikon has not one but two SLR bodies that have met those far-fetched specs and have done so with features that nobody imagined in 1999 or even just a few years ago. The Nikon D800 and the D800E, the subject of this review, have reset the bar for resolution and, more importantly, usefulness for the professional still and video shooter.
What is the Nikon D800E
The D800E fits in the Nikon hierarchy as one of its two “Professional compact” SLR bodies. It is capable of a maximum of 36.3 megapixel resolution on a full-frame or what Nikon calls an FX, CMOS sensor. The only difference that makes the E version distinct from the D800 is its lack of a low-pass sensor filter. It is identical to the D800 in every other way.
The low-pass filter, what it is and why you need / don’t need one
Skip this section if you understand the low-pass filter design and understand its function. Otherwise, read about it to fully appreciate the D800E.
Because the D800E is marketed to the professional and advanced amateur who regards sharpness paramount, Nikon decided to create two versions of the D800. To understand the reason, it’s necessary to know what the low-pass filter is and what it does. The “pixels” on a sensor (technically “photo sites”) are arranged in a regular checkerboard pattern and consist of a tiny lens over a CMOS device of which there are 36.3 million in number. In a typical sensor, the CMOS device only understands levels of black and white. The lens over each needs to be colored to be able to read hue information. Every 2X2 pixel grid making up the entire sensor consists of a red, a blue and two green pixels making up the typical “Bayer Pattern” used in every digital SLR camera design except for the Sigma line. Information from each exposure, then, is processed to create a final image that has both brightness and color information. Imagine a point of light from an orange candle flame focused on a single sensor with a blue lens. The resulting photo would show a blue flame. Imagine again a scene that includes a distant picket fence or tiled roof focused on the regular spacing of the Bayer Pattern. Some of the pickets or tile edges might strike only a line of sensors and interpret the colors wrongly plus create an interference pattern called “moiré” or “aliasing.” To better illustrate moiré, hold a pocket comb up to a window screen and look through both at a distant scene. As you move the comb a bit, you’ll see a pattern of alternating lines that are neither inherent in the comb nor the screen. So, to prevent false color and moiré, camera makers place a low-pass or as some call it an “anti-aliasing” filter just in front of the sensor. The filter spreads the light to keep it from striking just one pixel. This mitigates (but doesn’t always totally cure) false color and aliasing but at the expense of sharpness. (I won’t go into the technicalities of what most call “sharpness” because that will take several pages.)
The E version was designed without a low pass sensor filter (actually it replaces the filter with a neutral, clear piece of glass). This allows maximum sharpness because, after all, isn’t that what we’re looking for when we buy 36 megapixels? However, with this ability, shooters run a real risk of the moiré and false color artifacts. Shooters must decide what level of risk they want to assume when choosing between this and the version without the low-pass filter. Which leads me to what other choices there are in a camera of this level of resolution.
At this level, the Canon 5D MkIII is a basis for comparison but hardly a “competitor” because at the price point and function set, typical buyers are already committed to a system. At $3,300, this is hardly an entry-level body. In reality the D800E’s only competitor is the $300 less expensive D800. Again, the prospective buyer has to do some soul searching in choosing between the two. I’ll try to help with that decision in a bit. Nikon is eyeing not just pros and advanced amateurs with this camera but digital and traditional medium-format aficionados who truly need the pixel count for cropping margin and for poster-sized prints.
In the field / On location
I’ve used this camera in a number of scenarios including an outdoor product shoot, landscape, portrait and as a B cam for an indoor dance video. Generally, I’m pleased with the handling, quickness of setup, and intuitive nature of the D800E. I say this as a long-time Nikon SLR user who is using an FX, full-frame, digital camera for the first time. While certainly heavier and bigger than my current D7000 and D300 I used to use, handling is similar for my medium-sized hands. I’ve used the camera a bunch with Nikon’s 24 – 70mm f/2.8 (which I reviewed at Epinions here: http://www.epinions.com/review/nikon-24-70-f-2-8g-ed-lens/content_597395082884), which balances the camera nicely when handheld. The lens is clearly designed for Nikon’s FX cams although it can be used on the DX (smaller APS-C sized sensor) SLRs. Gripping surfaces are nicely tacky and secure. Controls are familiarly placed and I found myself making most needed adjustments immediately without having to take my eyes off the viewfinder. Unlike the D7000, I enjoyed seeing the return of the Quality, White Balance, and ISO controls atop a dial on the top left of the body along with a Bracket control.
A viewfinder shutter is built in to prevent stray light from confusing the meter. The viewfinder diopter control dial requires the user to pull it out of its locked position to make an adjustment. This is a nice touch as I’ve found my diopter out of whack on a number of cameras that don’t include this locking feature. The dial’s location, though, appears to make it vulnerable to damage although I’ve not had any issues with it. I’ve found the base rubber to be extra grippy and secured my tripod head quick release plates tenaciously.
As with all Nikon monitors, the 3.2-inch screen was bright and contrasty and held up to daylight. I still need a large monitor solution for client support but clients seem to have been equally pleased to view the small screen than the larger but less bright remote monitor I have. I still need to make some color adjustments to the camera screen, though, as they seem to shift to the yellowish side in playback. Nikon nails it when it comes to viewfinder information in their pro-line of SLRs. In typical use, I see all the information I need to see but none of what I don’t need. As I shoot I see exposure meter and shooting modes, shutter speed and aperture setting, exposure compensation setting, ISO (technically: exposure index or EI) and approximate number of frames left. All of which are shown below and out of the image frame. Focus points are shown as squares and illuminate automatically in low-light situations. Much of this can be customized in the menu. After looking at the smaller viewfinder image area inherent in all smaller sensor cameras, I really like the large viewfinder area in this FX camera. Seeing the bright and larger image allows me to evaluate detail and imagine the resulting image better. For those who wear glasses, the eye-point isn’t as high as in other cameras and you may not be able to see all four corners at once.
Thankfully, none of my shoots required fast frame rates. Using Class 10 SD cards and 266X Compact Flash cards, the D800E takes both, and shooting Nikon NEF (RAW) files, my shot-to-shot times were slowed down by the time needed to write to the cards. This was totally unimportant for product shots and landscapes but slowed me down during my outdoor portrait session. Towards the end when I was dealing with a setting sun, I switched to shooting jpgs only which sped up ready times immensely. This is not the camera for sports shooting to RAW files at full resolution even with the fastest cards. The typical .jpg files I shot (camera set to Optimal quality jpg compression) ranges from 8 – 22 megabytes while RAW files ranges from 38 to more than 50 megabytes. To be fair, the camera totally races shooting at the Normal jpg quality (one step above Basic) at the medium size (16 megapixel) setting even with Class 6 cards. I would suggest that users use only Class 10 and above SD cards and at least 300X Compact Flash cards.
The body includes an HDMI-C port which is the smaller HDMI connector size and outputs both stills and video when Live-mode is activated. The USB port is used to transfer files from the camera and to the camera for firmware updates. Unfortunately, it’s a proprietary connector but is used on other Nikon cameras as well so there is inter-usability even if limited. The lithium ion EN-EL15 batteries seem to last forever for still shooting but will deplete under heavy video use when the monitor is on. Expect no more than two to three hours. A replacement battery runs about $80 and pros will have backups no matter what.
After downloading the latest software for Photoshop to allow it to read Nikon’s NEF, RAW files, I evaluated my shots. As with any test, results are only as good as the weakest link in the chain. I was pleased to find that only my personal limitations got in the way of the highest picture quality I have ever managed out of a photo shoot. As you can expect from any pro-level body, lens, and supporting gear, nothing short of professional was the result. When I pixel-peeped under high magnification, handheld motion blur was the limiting factor where shots went south. The Nikon D800E rewards good technique and punishes errors mercilessly. Looking at RAW files down to the pixel level in magnifications that would result in blow-ups 4 by 6 feet, I saw detail I had never before seen. Additionally, using Nikon’s matrix metering mode almost exclusively, I rarely had shots that fooled it. Surely, I know enough of the system to know when to kick-in compensation and that comes instinctively to any experienced shooter.
Not unexpectedly, the D800E doesn’t break any records for low-light performance. With its high pixel density, even for a full-frame camera, I didn’t expect stupendous images in low light. Every new camera I’ve used has always done better when shooting in low light than with the previous. Certainly, I don’t do standard tests in this regard but I do have a good feel for my photos in conglomerate. The D800E doesn’t do poorly but it was my first new Nikon that didn’t improve in low-light performance over my current D7000. I will say that the low-light performance on either my D7000 or the D800E is not too shabby and that I shoot routinely for the Web at an ISO of 6400 is pretty cool. I still wonder at folks who are crying because they can’t snap crows flying at midnight.
And that false color and moiré monster? No, it never reared its head but I didn’t spend a lot of time shooting picket fences and tile roofs. I test as I shoot and none of my photos showed any signs of the horrifying results that the fan-boys are discussing online all day while the real-world shooters are actually, you know, shooting. However, I still have apprehensions about artifacts that could come up during product shots where regular patterns exist and video shoots where, despite my warnings, the talent shows up with pinstripe shirts, patterned ties, and hounds-tooth blouses. Yet, I’ve seen moiré and false color with conventional video and still cameras so my workflow will not change.
Speaking of video performance
The discussion in this session is aimed primarily at regular to pro-level video shooters. Skip this if you’re intent for this as a video camera is minor.
In short – performance is super. I judged video using my Final Cut Pro X editing software. Nearly all of my video has been shot through the Nikon 24 – 70mm f/2.8. At large apertures with my speed set at 60 fps as is typical, I had to play with low ISO numbers to get the proper exposure. I really need to get a more comprehensive set of ND filters to be able to fully control my aperture. That mentioned, I found sharpness and picture quality superior to my professional level video camera at high magnifications. The D800E will hardly supplant my video cam though as its limitations as with any other video-capable SLR gets in the way. I won’t discuss those reasons as most videographers understand the pros and cons of shooting with SLRs. However, I will say I’m impressed with the video quality and will certainly include the D800E on projects needing a B cam or even in a multi-cam shoot.
Nikon has improved the user interface for recording video over its former video champ, the D7000 in two ways. The first is a switch allows live mode to frame the shot in either the standard 2:3 still shot aspect ratio (which I still prefer over the point-and-shoot 3:4 ratio, thank you very much) or the 16:9 ratio for HD video. Having a separate frame for either makes it easy to compose compared to composing while looking at a screen with only a guide border to tell you where your frame edge is. The next improvement is a dedicated button to start and stop video recording. This “improvement” comes at the expense of getting used to it. I still keep pressing the shutter release when trying to start or stop video and taking unintended photos. Overall, these controls make taking video easier and allow the shooter to concentrate on the important things like not tripping over light stands.
While one can use the D800E’s built-in microphone no professional will do so. At best, it’s there for recording audio for synching to your real video cam or separate recording scheme. Nice is the fact that the shooter can monitor audio through the headphone jack and there’s a separate 3.5mm (1/8th inch) microphone input jack. This won’t allow you to use your pro (XLR) gear directly but there are converter plugs available and I discovered that while the D800E isn’t great at capturing sound, it’s great at recording sound. Even if you don’t have pro-level mics and cables, at least use a separate, off-camera microphone if you must record audio.
While I’ve not tested it yet, the D800E outputs a “clean” uncompressed video signal along with audio via its HDMI port. This leapfrogs former SLR video champ Canon who still doesn’t separate display information from its “unclean” HDMI output. Therefore, Nikon not only records to native, 24 Mbps AVCHD as Canon does but also to a much higher quality 4:2:2 Pro Res file to an external recorder such as a Ki Pro mini or Atomos Ninja for a direct to edit workflow. This just gets my loins a-quivering.
What I especially like about the Nikon D800E
For me personally, the ability to shoot full-frame again after six years of shooting with the APS-C, DX, cameras is welcome and has been the goal ever since I plunked down bucks for my old D70. I’m using lenses that have been sitting idle for more than a half-decade. My 80-200mm f/2.8 and my 17-35mm f/2.8 feel like old faithful friends who I’ve neglected but are happy to have my acquaintance again. Their heft and solid build are reassuring in my hand and on the tripod. They are every bit as highly performing in front of an electronic cam than they were in front of film. I now respect depth of field and embrace its effect even more than when I had access to as much as I wanted back in the day.
I also love that for the first time, I am not making a sacrifice for having given up the resolution and acutance of film. With 36 megapixels and the performance of pro lenses in front along with automatic chromatic aberration and automatic distortion control built in to every current Nikon body, I’m feeling that this digital imaging thing might make me put away my film SLR for good. Essentially, I’m again becoming the limiting factor for the quality potential of my images.
I also like that Nikon seems to “get” video shooters perhaps even more than Canon does by providing a clean output via HDMI. This allows recording uncompressed, high bit rate video on separate recorders that are becoming cheaper every month.
What I hope Nikon improves in the next iteration of this camera
Certainly, Nikon deserves kudos for leapfrogging the other brands in terms of pixel count and doing so without giving up quality and while, arguably, regaining the lead as the most qualified video capable SLR since its first one, the D90. However, the D800E isn’t perfect for me but it could do a few things that would make it so. The first thing is to give it the U1, U2 up to Uwhatever buttons as in the D7000 to immediately set the camera with a user prescribed set of functions and modes. The D800E allows doing so although with limits and requiring a trip to the menu. I would love to see the buttons allow a complete set of functions and mode including mode (i.e., shutter speed priority, aperture priority, program and manual); focus point selection; exposure mode; image size, quality, compression; picture control; and behaviors of each memory card to name some of the important ones. I would like to see a sensor with fewer pixels but greater speed and low-light performance. And Nikon and every other professional camera maker out there: You can’t have too many function buttons.
Unfortunately, while I found the 24 - 70 mm f/2.8 lens nicely quiet when focusing, I discovered the D800E to be the loudest camera in operation I've ever used. Shutter releases plainly announce to a wide radius when I'm shooting, even when I use the camera in its dubious "quiet" mode. Hopefully Nikon will find a way to mitigate the clash in future models.
Nikon would make a huge splash if they produced a version of the camera that would have something like a picatinny rail on its left side or underneath that would accept modular devices like a video recorder, audio recorder, GPS, flash controllers and other hardware. This would obviate the frankenkamera look and hassle when trying to use gear jury-rigged to the camera. Think of the licensing possibilities! Think of the cool hardware apps!
I still argue with myself on which is the “better” D800 – with or without the E. The D800 has been shown, based on unbiased test measurements, as the camera with the most resolution beaten only by the D800E and by the slightest of margin. With its low-pass filter, the D800 is no more susceptible to moiré than is any other conventionally designed camera. The D800 is $300 cheaper which will get you a few fast memory cards. The D800E is ever so slightly sharper but will have absolutely no effect on pictures posted online to where 95% of all pictures are published these days. It will have absolutely no effect on 99.9% of all pictures regardless of where or how they’re viewed. Where you’ll actually see any benefit is not sharpness but the lack of occasional moiré and false color patterns by choosing the SLR with the low-pass filter, the D800. And, of course, the ability to crop like crazy. Don’t let the pricing fool you into believing you are paying more for a more capable camera. You’re actually paying more for the E version because Nikon is building far fewer of them and need to recoup costs. The bottom line recommendation is that unless you are publishing poster sized prints and you can prove that because you’re shooting medium format already, there is no “need” for the D800E in your repertoire.
If you’re a videographer looking to capture great imagery if not great audio, it’d be near impossible to get any better picture quality for the price. With the ability to output clean, uncompressed video, The Nikon is the reigning champ for SLR video.
If you’re a landscape or travel photographer who isn’t professional or won’t produce prints larger than 16X20, stick with what you’re shooting now. The premium for the 36 megapixels now is quite a high price to pay. In fact, I’m buying the 24 megapixel Nikon D3200 because it’s much lighter than any camera I have now, accepts the delightful 18-200mm zoom, is fast and doesn’t have to do anything more than be a great landscape and travel camera. It’s only $700 and includes an excellent 18-55mm zoom. Wait and let the 36 megapixel sensor trickle down to lower priced models in a year or two and by then processors will improve to get more performance in low light and other benefits.
The Nikon D800E is now one of the world’s most capable cameras and can stand up to any pro level assignment thrown at it except for sports and heavy action photography and probably capable of that as well if RAW files aren’t required. For the double-duty pros who shoot both stills and video, the dual personality of the D800E will find a perfect fit in the workflow on both types of projects.