The muscle car of cameras- a photowalk with the Nikon D800
Life is 440 horsepower in a 2-cylinder engine
~ Henry Miller
There is something about a muscle car that is infinitely satisfying and makes no sense whatever.
A long time ago, I had a brief flirt with terror and my mortality when I had the chance to drive a Smokey-and-the-Bandit Pontiac Transam, in black (of course) with a giant gold eagle on a bonnet which seemed to stretch as far as Africa. It had an enormous 455 cu in V8 engine with enough power to pull a battleship onto the dry. As I climbed behind the wheel, a feeling of unease gripped me. was I going to live through this? Blipping the throttle (well, you would, wouldn’t you?) unleashed a dark heart. As it sat there, with the engine torque causing its spine to twist maliciously, it seemed to say: Light me up, if you dare….
So I did.
At 100kph, with the car still fishtailing on the tar seal, I gave up. I had decided I wanted to live.
I gave it back.
But the mystique never went away. The inner child continues to drool whenever a modern muscle car sneers quietly past and the sound of a big, lumpy V8 will always overcome the sensible puritan frugality of a Toyota Corolla, no matter that Toyota have sold 59 million of them.
Cameras can be like that.
I Auckland recently, I caught up with fellow photographer Stella Jones, who seems to have a thing for horsepower as well (she owned a Holden Monaro and rides a Ducati), and who, after a brief fling with a Sony NEX 7, went back to Nikon and bought herself a V8 D800e. She suggested we should go for a walk around the waterfront and make some photographs together. You can use the D800, she smirked, because I know you are going to love it.
She handed it to me, equipped with an AF-S 24-70mm f2.8G ED lens, and I dug into my camera bag for an 8 GB CompactFlash card. That should be heaps, I thought to myself, setting it on Raw plus JPEG. The camera told me my card was good for 59 photographs, which made me blink. Already I was beginning to see the eagle on the bonnet.
I have read a lot of reviews of this camera, all of which suggest this camera is capable of astonishing results, provided you know how to maximise it. 36 megapixels packed into a full frame sensor means that capture technique is going to be absolutely critical. A number of commentators have made the point that image diffraction kicks in really early, and one has even gone so far as to point out that if you are truly serious, you shouldn’t be shooting above f5.6. If that is true, then bug and plant photographers have a problem.
A long time ago, I was a Nikon photographer, and I absolutely adored my F5 (the f stands for film). It was solid, reliable, had amazing ergonomics… and it absolutely loved batteries. In fact it couldn’t get enough of them. Five rolls of film from a set of eight AA batteries was a good day. But it had a reassuring solidity, a feeling that it meant business, and that no matter what challenge you threw at it, it would deliver. High light, low light, action, landscape, sport. It was master of all of them.
Over the last few years, from time to time, I have used Nikon digital SLRs, and every time there has been sense of continuity in design philosophy, so picking up the D 800 was both reassuring and comfortable. All the controls are where you would expect them to be, there for a purpose and for a reason. What I did notice however, is that the exposure compensation dial has been reversed. Now you dial left to underexpose, and dial right to overexpose. In that sense Nikon have decided to join the rest of the digital camera world.
The viewfinder (100%) is big, bright and glorious. It makes you want to pack a picnic lunch and go for a walk inside it. Only the viewfinder on my a900 is bigger and better. It makes a change from working with one of those entry-level DSLRs where looking through the viewfinder is like staring through the Simplon Tunnel. Remember that the viewfinder is your first point of contact with your subject, and it is important to buy a camera with a viewfinder which allows you to integrate visually and philosophically with your subject. If your viewfinder gives you a difficult and unpleasant experience, then this will show in the photographs you make.
This camera has weight and gravitas. The controls are solid and purposeful, and the construction is superb, evidence that you can take the D800 and give it a hard time, without having to mollycoddle it. After several days of working with the exquisite Fujifilm X-series cameras, picking up the D800 was a surprise, with its weight and heft. This is not a camera for stealthy photography, for sneaking around in smoky bars or back alleys. While the shutter noise is quick and purposeful, it is obvious. But this is a shutter which somehow seems to say that it will be around after a couple of hundred thousand photographs.
The focusing was accurate, precise and very quick. Adjusting the focus points is easy and intuitive.
Since I was concerned about trying to extract the maximum possible quality from what was a first look, I opted to set the aperture at F8 and use the Auto ISO function. In fact most of the files, when I looked at them later, were shot at 400 ISO. At this sensitivity there is clearly noise, but nothing which cannot be corrected in postproduction. What I did find interesting was that the noise had an almost-analogue, random look to it, as if I had been shooting film. With only a couple of hours to use the camera, I really didn’t get the opportunity to try it in very low light at high ISOs, but my suspicions are that it would be a little on the noisy side. However, rather than being objectionable, the noise adds a certain character to the files, and a certain spatial separation which somehow gives a 3D quality to the image.
With the ISO set higher, I was able to use higher shutter speeds, a thing I was keen to do to try and get the best from the opportunity. Without a tripod I was obliged to handhold, and the higher shutter speeds would, I hoped, compensate in part for the demanding nature of the sensor.
So we had a wonderful couple of hours, wandering around the eclectic and fascinating Wynyard Quarter of Auckland’s waterfront and then, reluctantly, I was forced to hand over the keys, and go back to my eminently-capable Corolla.
I decided to wait until I got home to download the files, so I could have a really good look at them.
And what a revelation!
At 200% the detail is simply astonishing. Acutance (edge sharpness) is phenomenal. The edges of sharp objects are so good that very little sharpening is needed, and it would be easy to induce halos for no advantage at all. Micro-detail is utterly superb and, again, very little extra postproduction work is needed to take these files to exhibition level. What fascinated me however was the way in which the files had a three-dimensional quality, a sense of spatial separation in their rendition, the mark of a very special camera, with a very special sensor (Sony), engineered by people who understand photography.
However, the files are huge (209 MB as a 16-bit TIFF at 300 PPI). At 300 PPI, the native file size is about 40 cm x 61 cm. If you make big prints (A1 and larger), then it will require very little upsizing to make A0 or larger prints. Perfect for large exhibition work. Add in a few layers in postproduction and your files will quickly climb over the 1 GB barrier. This has implications for your computer processing power, and I would suspect a minimum of 16 GB of RAM with the latest generation processor and SSD drives would be de rigeur, if you are not to spend a lot of time drinking coffee.
What is clear to me is that this is not a camera for beginners. To get the most out of what this camera is capable of delivering, you will need to be on top of your game, using a massive tripod and the best quality glass Nikon has to offer. Kit lenses simply will not deliver.
I did notice that the combination I was using is very prone to chromatic aberration, a clear message that even the best Nikon glass is only barely coping. Using Photo Ninja I was quickly able to remove any chromatic aberration, but the lens defects (and all lenses have them) were clearly obvious. This is a sensor which takes no prisoners. Again, like many of the current cameras on the market, there is a clear message here: if your pictures aren’t good enough, then it’s because you aren’t good enough.
As I reluctantly handed it back (Stella had been watching me very suspiciously to make sure I did), it occurred to me that the only thing missing in its design was a gold eagle on the top deck.