About Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas is a professional fine art photographer and writer specialising in photography related instructional books as well as travel writing and street photography. 

Trying out a Friend’s Nikon D800

Trying out a Friend’s Nikon D800

Recently I had an opportunity to try out a friends Nikon D800 and I’ve been wanting to write about the experience ever since. I realise that the D800 is a few years old now and has been superseded by the D810, but as the camera is selling for quite a reasonable rate second hand, I thought some people may still be interested. This isn’t going to be a review as such, but rather a personal take on what it was like to use it. 

I only had the camera for a few days. This certainly wasn’t enough to fully appreciate it, but as it is more or less the same controls as my D700, it was easy enough to get accustomed to using it. There are a few subtle differences between the D800 and my D700 in terms of operation, but the majority of the interface is more or less the same. I used it with my best Nikon lenses, the 24-120 f/4 and the 50mm f/1.4. These are the highest quality Nikon lenses that I own so I wanted to make sure I gave it something that could handle the resolution. I’ll get into more details of the whole resolution aspect of the camera in a little while, but before I do, there’s a couple of other things I want to mention.

On a pixel level the camera has a bit of noise, even at the lowest ISO. This particularly manifests itself in shadow areas. I’m not talking about recovered shadows, but just dark areas of an image in general. It’s not a huge deal, but coming from the super clean D700 it took a bit of getting used to. It does't increase massively as you go up through the range of ISO settings. At ISO 800 it’s not significantly more noticeable than at ISO 100. Weirdly though, there seems to be a bump at ISO 400. For some reason, to my eyes anyway, ISO 400 looked worse than ISO 800. I don’t know why this should be the case, or if it’s just a quirk of the particular unit I was using, but it was quite noticeable. I haven’t read about this anywhere else, so I’m guessing it may have been a one off issue.

Image noise is mostly luminance noise when it is present. It’s not as intrusive as colour noise can be and at ISO 800 looks like film grain. The advantage of having 36mp is that you can apply quite a bit of noise reduction in Lightroom without loosing too much detail. 

Another factor of the resolution that has been written about extensively, is that you need to have perfect technique to take advantage of it. Some have said that one can only get the most from the 36mp sensor if you use the camera on a tripod. I’m not so sure how true that is. I shot mostly hand held, and the images looked fine to me. While I’m sure images would have been sharper on a tripod, I think this issue has been totally overblown. 

What hasn’t been exaggerated though is the hassle of handling the large files from the D800. I found that Lightroom slows down quite a bit when dealing with the images from the camera. This mostly manifests itself during loading and importing images, and generally switching between pictures in the library. Using the develop module is ok, but you definitely noticed the load. It’s not like I have a slow computer either. I’m using a 12 core mac pro with 20gb ram. I can only imagine that images from the new high resolution Canon 5d models will be even more taxing.

The resolution of the D800 was certainly the headline feature when it came out, but in my opinion, after using it for a week, the resolution is not its best feature. The best feature by far is the dynamic range. The dynamic range on this camera is amazing. Compared to my D700 the difference is substantial. I shoot a lot of images in high contrast situations, and my D700 regularly has problems handling highlights when an image has a great deal of dynamic range. The D800 on the other hand is a whole different beast. It can handle bright skies and dark shadows with no problems, and highlights roll off in a much more natural and film like fashion. The D700 is pretty good, but this is amazing. I don’t think this aspect of the camera gets the attention it deserves. In my opinion, this would be more of a reason to buy a D800 (or D810) than the resolution.

Video is pretty good on it too. I didn’t shoot much but it is definitely better than my ageing 5D Mark II. There is still some aliasing and moire, but over all it’s much improved compared to my older Canon. Of course, the 5d Mark III is reportedly much better than my Mark II, but I don’t have any first hand experience of that, and apparently the d810 is better again. Judging it on its own merits without comparing it to anything else, I was impressed. It was better than I had been expecting based on the things that I had read about it, but I can't fairly compare it to the competition, as I don't have direct experience with its current counterparts.

The only really negative experience I had when using it, was the much talked about green tint to the display. I had read about this at the time and had thought that perhaps the forums had been exaggerating it, but they weren’t. It’s not a slight tint, but a significant one. Apparently there had been a firmware update to fix this, but my friend had never applied it to his camera, and I didn’t want to do it as it wasn’t mine.

With D800s selling second hand for around €1500 now, they’re a good bargain used, but the question is, would I buy one. Probably not. I think the changes made to the D810 would encourage me to go with the newer model rather than the old one, but still, if you were looking for a high end DSLR on a budget, a good quality second hand D800 might be worth looking at. I certainly enjoyed the short time I spent shooting with it.

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