Nikon D800e Review

UPDATE 4/20/2013 I have had some serious issues with this camera since I did this review, please have a look at my other post, especially the Kahiltna Trip Day. It appears that certain cards can crash the camera, the culprit for me was a Lexar Pro 64gb 800x.

Is this the best digital camera for mountain photography?

I have now owned the Nikon d800e for about five  months and I feel comfortable reviewing its abilities. I will only be discussing it as a possible wilderness-mountain photography camera and won’t be doing a general review of its features or broad appeal.

I have written before on what I look for in a digital camera, it is a short list and I will go through my requirements and discuss whether or not the D800e fits my needs.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

Image Quality

The term image quality can be subjective. What  I am looking for are sharp RAW files, excellent dynamic range, low long-exposure noise and good high ISO noise.

The RAW files that come out of the D800e are the sharpest I have seen from a non-medium format digital camera. Yes, you need to either have fast shutter speeds or you need to use a tripod, mirror lock up and a remote release to get maximum sharpness (and of course, excellent glass). The web is loaded with complaints about people’s inability to get sharp images, well I hate to break to them but it isn’t the camera’s fault. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy and impatient. I would love to have heard the laughter if someone ten years ago wrote on a forum saying “I can’t get sharp images from my medium format film camera when hand holding it for landscape images”. The higher the resolution the more you need to slow down and think, pay attention and practice the solid fundamentals of photography.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

Can a camera have too much dynamic range? Sometimes I think the D800e does. I find myself crushing blacks and boosting highlights just to get some contrast in my images. That is not a bad thing, it’s great, in fact, it even helps lighten up my bag, I can leave all those graduated nd filters at home. Did I just say that? Yep, I no longer carry my trusty graduated nd filters!

Are we talking HDR looking images, no and thank goodness! I really dislike the HDR look. In fact, I enjoy the graphic nature of photography and I WANT deep blacks without detail and pure paper whites.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure and looks clean.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure, iso 200 at 2.8. The image is clean and almost noise free.

I like long exposures and shadow noise from long exposures have always bugged me about digital photography. Guess what? The D800e has almost zero long exposure induced noise. Now let me clarify something, it is winter in Alaska and cold. The main reason noise appears during long exposures is because the sensor gets hot, well,  taking images when its 0f and colder keeps that sensor from getting hot.  So we will see this summer whether the temperature is what is helping the camera’s stellar performance.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

I don’t shoot at extreme ISO’s very often. My main concern is performance between 400-800, which I use when I am hand holding the camera or trying to stop motion. At 400 the camera is great. At 800 I see some obvious loss in detail but noise is easily fixed in post. Above that the camera is good but not great. I found the loss of detail at 3200 almost unusable though noise cleaned up well.

Durability

I hate buying new cameras and I really want a camera that will last. I purchased this camera for a four year book project. I will be on at least 15 long expeditions in Alaska, so it needs to be reliable. On the surface the camera is more than tough enough, not too cheap and not over built. Seals seem tight and so far the lens fits tight and secure, which is very important for wilderness photography, that connection is a major weak spot.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e's batteries than expected.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e’s batteries than expected.

Battery life is what plagues digital cameras, especially in the cold. I have a very elaborate system when it comes to keeping batteries warm and working. For the last few months I have ignored my system so I could gauge the D800’s battery ability. One test was an overnight trip where I left the battery in the camera the whole time. I also reviewed every exposure, pixel peeped, used Live View to check focus (a major battery killer) and finally made a bunch of long exposures, some as long as 60 minutes. The verdict? Excellent! I took about 180 photos, between temperatures of 20f to -10f and the battery still had one bar left. Am I going to abandon my battery saving techniques,? No, but I will probably bring fewer batteries on trips.

The true durability test will be in a few weeks when we spend ten days on the Kahiltna Glacier in the heart of the Central Alaska range.

Other Positives

Auto focus on my model has been accurate with the lenses I own. No left sided focus issues that plagued early models. I tested focus tracking on the two hardest subjects on earth, moving kids and dogs, and was pretty impressed when teamed up with my Nikon 24-70.

Keeping things simple is key to me. I was able to simplify the D800e to my style and can work quickly. None of the features I use, need to be dug up from inside of menus and folders. The viewfinder is easy to see through with glasses.

Auto focus was accurate, even under flat conditions.

Auto focus is accurate, even under flat lighting conditions.

Negatives?

Not much to say here except that the camera doesn’t need the majority of the features that are included. Photographers really want (or need) less. Nikon please, follow Fuji and Leica’s lead and make us a super simple DSLR with the image quality of the D800e, like a digital F3 High Eyepoint!

The D800e could be considered heavy and bulky for a digital DSLR, especially when compared to all the mirror less cameras popping up.  But compared to any of the film cameras from my past, its light enough and even rivals the quality of my medium format film cameras (no it doesn’t challenge my 4×5 or 8×10 images but its sure a lot lighter and smaller).

Is this review too good to be true? Hey the camera delivers, to me at least. Don’t worry, I am no fan boy of anything, if I thought something was bad, I would be the first to tell you!

Questions about the camera? Bring them on!

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Choosing a Camera for Wilderness-Mountain Photography: Part One

Image Quality

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing a camera for remote wilderness photography, the first and foremost is image quality.

Since the early days of mountain and wilderness photography, from Vittorio Sella to Ansel Adams, maximum image quality has been the goal. The old rule was “carry the largest negative possible”. Today we could argue the motto should be” carry the highest resolution you can afford”.

One of the most frequent questions I get is “Does the number of mega-pixels directly translate to high image quality?”  If we had two cameras that were created equal, with the same processors, dynamic range, ISO performance, but one had a higher pixel count, then in theory the camera with the more pixels would produce an image with more information and essentially higher  image quality. But not all cameras are created equal. Each manufacturer has their own designers and engineers, some are just better than others. I would go with the most you can afford as long as the mega pixel count doesn’t affect the other important qualities like dynamic range and noise (which I will discuss later).

What about sensor size and its relationship with mega pixels and image quality? In the early days of digital photography, image quality was all about pixel size, the bigger the sensor, the lager the pixels and the higher the image quality. Those days are slowly coming to an end. We must remember that we are dealing with programming and with each new year programmers and engineers create new processors that work more efficiently and create better images, regardless of the size of the pixels.  There is also the issue of depth of field, the larger the sensor, the narrower the depth of field, something that is critical for portrait and video work, not so much for landscape and mountain photography.

Another factor that controls image quality is noise performance. Modern digital cameras are truly amazing  when it comes to low light image taking. Noise and other  artifacts are rarely present under ISO 800 on most high quality DSLRs. Some look great even up to 3200. Just the ability to change ISO whenever you want seems like a miracle to anyone who has worked with film. But why would a wilderness photographer need a high ISO anyways? While it is true that I almost always use a tripod and rarely shoot over ISO 200, there are times when having the ability to switch to a higher ISO is essential. The two most common times are when photographing in high winds when either my camera is being blown around(even on the tripod) or my subject is (flowers, grasses, leaves…). The other time is on the flights in and out of locations.  I also use a higher ISO for those needed expedition shots of people.

Dynamic range is another factor of high image quality. In layman’s terms, dynamic range is how much detail is recorded in the highlights and shadow areas. Unlike the fake looking HDR images that have taken over the photo world, in camera dynamic range is a gradual, nature, smooth transition between tones. A camera with good dynamic range will allow you hold highlight detail while at the same time be  able to pull shadow detail without those shadows getting noisy and full of artifacts and that terrible HDR glow.

What about that AA (anti-aliasing ) filter? The highest quality digital cameras, medium format, don’t use them and I don’t think DSLRs should either. On rare occasions, cameras without them can produce a moire effect when photographing certain patterns. That is what the filter is there for, to remove the moire effect. But that filter slightly softens the image. The AA filter is just not needed for outdoor photography, I would prefer to get maximum sharpness right from the start.

The higher the resolution, the more attention we must pay to craftsmanship and technique. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy. If you aren’t willing to take the time and photograph with patience and attention to detail, there is no reason to purchase a high image quality camera. Wilderness and mountain photography demands high image quality and solid techniques.

 Next Post Part Two: Camera Durability and Essential Features