Two years ago, Nikon pushed DSLR resolution to new heights, by eclipsing their pro-level D3x and its 24mp full frame imager, with a similar sized 36mp chip in a semi-pro body called the D800.
This body became widely recognized as the most capable digital 35mm format SLR in industry, not only because of resolution, but also class-leading sensor characteristics such as dynamic range.
Yet there’s always a fly in the ointment. Even with the D3x (which was itself a large leap forward in resolution), experienced photographers recognized that high resolution can expose the flaws in one’s technique and lens collection, much more so than lower megapixel devices. This potentially steals away some of the sensors resolving power. Some pundits went as far as to suggest that inexperienced photographers “need not apply”.
In a previous article, I discussed my recent acquisition of a D800E, the slightly higher resolution version of the D800. With the introduction of the Nikon D810, along with the Sony A7r, there are now multiple 36 mp platforms which are relatively affordable. Just how hard are they to shoot? How will they do when fitted with less than pro level glass? Am I better off with this camera, or the lighter, simpler 24mp D600?
I’ve been shooting my D800E for several weeks now. I have been deliberately shooting in different situations and styles in an effort to see just how challenging it will be to obtain most if not all of the resolution that this instrument has to offer. For this report, I will comment on my experiences using the D800E with varying levels of “shooting discipline” in terms of camera stabilization,, and shutter release.
For the uninitiated; obtaining the highest resolution/sharpest image from any camera, requires good shooting technique. I’ve discussed this elsewhere.
Most full frame DSLRs, when compared to mirrorless cameras, announce their shutter release with a big mechanical “clunk”. This is because not only does the big focal plane shutter move, but also the largish mirror needed to divert the image to the viewfinder between shots. This momentum needs to be damped so it will not blur the image. Add in the movement induced by depressing the shutter, as well as involuntary tics during the shot and a lot can go wrong. When you have 36 megapixels of resolution, any little motion blur is evident on careful review of the image, and may well be visible on the large prints made possible by this sensor.
To see just how challenging things are, I have been shooting the D800E multiple ways: freehand, with a monopod, and clamped to a heavy duty Gitzo tripod, and with or without a remote release (it’s a wired release in the case of the D800E).
Shooting the D800E has been an easy transition from my other Nikons. Though there have been subtle refinements, the camera body has much in common with both the prosumer bodies such as my D600, and the pro level D700 I sold several years ago.
I never thought twice about freehand shooting with the 12mp D700, but with the D600’s 24mp chip, I have tended to use it mainly on a tripod, with its convenient infra-red remote to minimize camera movement. Thus, it didn’t get as much use as the lighter, 16mp Fujis, which I use to shoot more spontaneously.
It’s easy to be fooled when reviewing images shot with this camera. Typical monitors do not have anywhere near the resolution of this imager which creates a 7,360 X 4,912 file. When the full image is viewed on the screen, the detail is underwhelming. In Adobe Bridge the previews often appeared smeared and unsharp. Only when zoom in to a point where the area viewed has roughly the same number of pixels as the monitor (the so called 100% view), do you appreciate the incredibly fine detail the camera can render.
Another issue is depth-of-field, which for wide apertures on larger imager cameras can be fairly shallow leaving much of the image out of focus. When evaluating an image, it is important to remember where you put the focus point, as details elsewhere may naturally look blurred, leading to you to believe that your shot discipline was at fault.
Here’s a good example, a landscape scene I almost deleted at first glance, because it looked blurred.
100% this impression is revealed to be illusion as there is no evidence of the camera shake I assumed had occurred.
I wanted a challenging subject. Here is a picture of one of my usual models, Greg (not pretty, works cheap), in pub lighting, at high ISO, but still a slow shutter speed (1/20th second).
On magnified review, there is really no blurring (but at 3200 ISO definitely some noise) but it looks sharp and detailed as an 8″x 10″ print. At A3 size, it still looks good but I would print it no larger.
The Fuji X100 series with their very soft shutter, and better high ISO performance, for me still rule in this domain.
Still I think one could use this camera very much in the way I have used its lower megapixel Nikon brethren. Oh, you’ll see more of your mistakes, but the sheer resolution of the imager, makes possible very nice- looking fair -sized prints, even when there’s a bit of blur. I certainly don’t think The D800/E is significantly ”fussier” than my D600.
Despite this, for me, this will be a landscape camera, used mainly with camera support. The small Fuji’s have more than enough imager for 99.9% of my usual work, and are much lighter, more discrete, and I think more fun to shoot. And without a mirror flying around within the body, they are much less like to suffer camera movement issues at low shutter speeds.
But for inclusive, immersive landscapes that demand to be printer large, the big Nikon imager will be just the right tool for the job.
And the 24 megapixel Nikon D600 will likely be listed on Ebay.
By the way…It’s in really good shape.