I recently purchase my first full frame camera, a Nikon D800. Previous to this I’ve always shot with ‘cropped’ camera bodies (DX, APS-H, APS-C sensors). Like many aviation photographers the extra ‘reach’ of a crop body helps when shooting aircraft. The other thing that might make you think the D800 is an odd choice for me is the low shooting speed of 4fps (the downside of the huge 36 megapixel sensor).
The reason I went for the D800 was that it isn’t just a full frame camera is it also has a crop mode which simulates a cropped sensor. The crop mode allows you to select either DX (1.5x) or 1.2x crop with the megapixel dropping respectively. The crop mode isn’t a new feature; Nikon first introduced it on the D2X in 2005 and has been on all their FX cameras but the size of the sensor of the D800 means either in DX mode it will still deliver 15 megapixels (or 25 megapixels for the 1.2x crop). With 15 megapixels I have 3 more megapixels than my previous body (Nikon D300) and so can shoot in crop mode when I need as much reach as I can get and still have a lot of resolution to play with. Whilst talking of the crop mode it is worth mentioning that the viewfinder stays at 100% and a black line is superimposed by the LCD overlay to show you what the crop is.
The shooting frame rate is a little low but 4fps is usable and I try to shoot 3 to 4 frames burst rather than ‘spraying and praying’ anyhow. The frame rate rises from 4fps to 5fps in DX crop mode and can be further increased to 6fps with the expensive battery from the D4 fitted in the optional grip but that would also require an even more expensive D4 battery charger (the alternative is using AA batteries instead). The D4 battery option or using AA batteries doesn’t appeal to me and neither increases the full frame performance beyond 4fps.
The actual purchase was somewhat of an impulse purchase and I hadn’t really considered all the ramifications. I knew my 70-200 f/2.8 VR and 300 f/2.8 VR would be fine on an FX body and that would cover the majority of my shooting but it would be at the wide end of the focal range where things would change. For my pair of D300s I had a Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 and a Nikon 17-55 f/2.8. I was happy with both of these lenses and hadn’t really thought about them too much when buying the camera. Since both are DX lenses I thought I could use them in DX mode but I soon decided that owning a full frame camera and not using it full frame didn’t make any sense and when I tried shooting with them on DX mode you still see the full FX viewfinder and both the hood and the back of the lens encroaching into the view (but outside the crop) which I found very distracting.
The 16-35 f/4VR looked a good replacement. It would be wide enough for the cockpit shots I use for the Tokina for and would just about be ok at the other end of the focal length for static shots and I could always either use the 36 MP to crop in or switch to DX crop mode (this being one of big advantages of the D800). The plan came apart when I found out the lens had been on back order with Nikon for 3 months with no date of when anymore would be available so I opted for a 24-70 f/2.8 instead. A great lens but it isn’t wide enough for cockpit shots. Something I may have to address at a later date.
The size of the images have somewhat caught me out as well but not how you might be expecting. Whilst I expected my memory cards to hold less (can be up to 74MB each when shot full frame, 14bit and uncompressed) it was the CPU load of processing large images that I didn’t expect. When using 12bit lossless compression the image size drops to around 32MB but those images will need uncompressing when you handle them on a PC. My quad core PC is worked hard when handling the images in Lightroom 4 and I think an upgrade might be due ahead of air show season (assuming Adobe don’t bring LR4 up to the speed LR3 use to work at with a software patch). Another complaint with using lossless compression is the camera doesn’t display the correct number of images left as it doesn’t know how much compression it will get from each image. Although, this can be offset with using the SD slot as an overflow which will give you a safety net if you fill the CF card.
Handling the D800 and you notice the build quality is on a par with previous Nikon cameras but feels heavier than the D300. Once you have a long prime attached the optional battery grip changes from desired to essential. The extra battery in the grip is also welcome as power consumption is greater than the D300 (which seems to last forever). Most of the controls and menu system will feel familiar to a Nikon shooter but the AF mode switch has changed from the traditional selector with manual, single shot and continuous to only selecting automatic or manual. The switch itself now has a press down button on top of the selector which allows you to choose you AF mode and select AF points using the LCD and the front and back wheel selector (the same two used to change the shutter speed and aperture settings). This feels a little unnatural at the moment but should improve over time.
The autofocus itself is very quick to react and I had no problem getting an initial AF lock on RAF Hawks suddenly appearing around a hill at low level. I’m glad to say I’m not seen any of the AF problems reported by people who purchased early production examples of the D800 (fixed by a recalibration by Nikon). AF tracking against the sky is good and against the ground (where all AF systems struggle) the tracking delivers similar performance to my previous D300. At present I’m shooting 9 AF points with the centre point selected and tracking speed set to default. With previous camera I would change the AF tracking via the custom settings to be slower to disregard its AF lock and attempt to acquire a new one (the thinking being that at low level with a background that could throw off the AF system that would help the camera to retain the lock on the aircraft). Now I have a feel for the default setting I’ll try this with the D800 in future. The big surprise for me was the performance with a 1.4x teleconverter (or extender as they are sometimes referred to). The drop off in AF performance with this fitted seemed to be much less compared to the D300.
I’ve taken the opportunity to shoot in FX and both crop modes to see how things performed. The viewfinder was of particular interest as I wasn’t sure if the space outside the crop area would assist in framing the aircraft or would I forget and end up cropping off parts of the aircraft as I framed it using all the visible space? As it turned out, it was neither. I didn’t consciously notice the crop or non-crop area at all when shooting.
In terms of image quality the sensor produces very good images. You can deeply crop into the image thanks to the 36 megapixels to play with and I’ve not seen any issues with the lenses being able to resolve this size but this might be because I’m shooting Nikkor f/2.8 lenses. The ISO performance is also very good. ISO 100 to 400 shows little difference in terms of noise and it continues to control noise well up to ISO 3200 (I’ve not had the need to go past this yet so can’t comment on how it performs past ISO 3200).
The exposure metering is good but I seem to need more compensation than I would apply to my previous D300. With my experience of shooting the D800 being limited to winter so far with the sun low in the sky I may not be making a fair comparison. I’ll update this article with my further experiences.
I have seen some reports of people using the D800 saying it consistently overexposes and others saying it consistently underexposes but I’ve not experience it. If I did there is an interesting that gives you the ability to fine-tune the auto exposure by adding a permanent exposure compensation to the camera. This compensation doesn’t show up on the LCD and you can still apply the usual temporary compensation on top that will show up in the LCD.
Overall, I have a positive opinion of the D800. The few downsides are more than outweighed by the upsides. As I get more time to explore the settings and adjust to thinking about what the correct lens choice is for a non-crop body I expect my experience will further improve.