Some early D800E thoughts

June 02, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

After just a day with the D800E I thought it would be worthwhile to put a few initial thoughts together.  It can be interesting and instructive to revisit how you were thinking at a given time.  Having shot extensively with the D700 and D7000 I found the D800E to be very similar to the D700 with the AF and live view controls inherited from the D7000.  I doubt I'll need to spend much time reading the manual.  

The D800 is a versatile camera, but first and foremost, it is a landscape camera.  The combination of 36MP and exceptional dynamic range means that the D800 just may be the first camera I have used that can begin to capture the range of lighting in a forest with a visible sky.  I took my first image with a friend's D800 last week (below) and the D800 lived up to the hype, easily retaining the blue sky and shadow detail on the canyon sidewall.

We have a pair of White-crowned sparrows nesting in our front yard, so when my D800E arrived they were a logical target to use for some test snaps.  Focus acquisition was snappy and positive, and the shutter noise gives a perception of precision, sounding less clunky than the D700, but it is still quite noisy.  The D800E has a couple of attributes that make it an excellent birding camera:  it is very easy to switch image sizes to a DX crop, which is still 15MP, and high ISO images are amazingly good.  While you sacrifice some detail shooting at ISO 2000 I suspect you take a larger hit in dynamic range.

As I worked my way through all the custom settings I discovered a couple of gems.  The first one is function d7 and is called "Show ISO/Easy ISO.  What this does is quite clever.  If you are shooting in aperture priority normally the shutter command dial does not do anything because the camera is adjusting the shutter speed based on the aperture chosen.  What function d7 allows you to do is use the rear command dial to adjust the ISO which is very ergonomic.  Well done Nikon.  Another sweet improvement is the implementation of a toggle mode for the virtual horizon, which stays on until you press the button again or turn the camera off.  Again, this type of engineering is clearly driven by photographers and is a pleasure to work with.

The three functions I use all the time and want to have at my fingertips are the virtual horizon, choose image area and auto ISO.  I have implemented them this way:

  • I have assigned the image area selection to the Fn button.  A press and twirl of the rear command dial quickly changes the image area from 36x24 (FX) to 30x20 to 24x16 (DX) to 30x24 (5x4 format) and wraps back to FX.  The image area numbers describe the width and height of the sensor employed in mm.
  • I have assigned the virtual horizon toggle to the AE-L button. When the virtual horizon was implemented in the D3/D700 I became addicted to it, especially when I discovered just how inept I am at leveling the camera.  The D800E virtual senor display shows both pitch and roll.
  • Finally, I have placed the ISO sensitivity settings as the first item in "My menu", and assigned the preview button to run the first menu item.  This means that pressing the preview button directly accesses the ISO sensitivity.  While this works well if you want to change the settings, it is still a few button pushes if all you want to do is toggle auto ISO on or off.  Wondering if there was a way to quickly toggle auto ISO I discovered (probably old news) that pressing the ISO button and rotating the front command dial does the trick.  Another well done to Nikon.

The files from the D800E are looking very good, combining excellent colours, the largest dynamic range I have seen in a DSLR and low noise that competes with the D4.  Not much not to like.  They are large though, so I added a USB3 port and hub to my main computer.  As usual when we make a jump in camera resolution our lenses and technique are challenged.  The D800E is no different in this regard and will punish you for sloppy technique and anything but the best lenses.  

One nit is that Nikon has not fixed their implementation of saving camera settings for quick switching in the field.  The D7000 has an excellent system where you can save settings in  U1 and U2.  Whenever you select either U1 or U2 all the settings are changed and you are good to go.  The D# and D### series have implemented banks to remember settings, but they are "updated" every time you change a setting, so you can never go back to a bank and be totally confident it has the settings you want.  Then there are two separate banks to keep track of, and some settings are not saved ...  The short story is not many photographers use banks.

Enough thoughts for now - I'm off to Cathedral Grove to polish my technique and give a few lenses a workout.


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