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A new beginning with a Nikon D800e

Monday 9 April 2012

Over the past six months, various aspects of my photographic and non-photographic life have caused me to think hard about where I am going with my photography and the equipment I am using.

Up until 2004, I was an ardent film user having started my photography in 1977 with a Praktica camera. My first serious system was a Minolta with their wonderful lenses. Eventually I “graduated” to a Nikon FM system with Nikkor lenses, but, upon moving to Pentax 67 (selling my Nikon gear to purchase the medium format system), I began using my wife’s Olympus system which I have stayed with all these years. The OM system with its small bodies and prime lenses was ideal for carrying alongside my 4×5 system which I began using in the mid-1990s for my serious work.

In 2004, I made the leap and bought a digital SLR. I agonized over the decision and lamented the fact that my Olympus lenses would not work on their new line of 4/3s DSLRs. However, Olympus once again won out as I could get the full range of focal lengths from 28mm to 400mm in two zooms that also had the same filter size – an ideal kit for travelling as by that time we were living and working overseas. It meant giving up my wonderful prime lenses, but zooms made sense at the time. Not long after returning to Canada I upgraded that system to a 12mp body with a zoom that finally allowed be to reach 24mm – my personal “sweet-spot” for landscapes. In fact, the 12-60mm f/2.8-4 (24 to 120mm equivalent in 35mm terms) was one of the finest zooms ever made – a brilliant range for the nature and landscape work I do.

But alas, the writing was on the wall. With Olympus’ new “flagship” E-5 only carrying 12mp (although a very sharp 12mp), the 4/3s system was quickly being out-paced by APS systems and Olympus began putting its efforts into mirrorles-4/3s. Many argue that it’s not megapixels that make an image and they are absolutely correct for the vast majority of photographers. However, I come from a 6×7 and 4×5 background where image quality and every little detail is absolutely essential.

The second big revelation came back in September of 2011, when I finally began doing some serious printing again after a 12 year hiatus. This meant re-tooling and relearning having spent more than 2 decades in the darkroom creating both black-and-white and colour prints. I don’t care what anyone says – a 12mp sensor simply does not hold up on a 17″ print, especially when I am trying to express the amazing detail found in grand landscapes. That being said, I have 5mp images that look stunning in large prints and many 12mp images that look even better, but they are few and far between and suffer from image breakdown upon close inspection.

With my photography moving more and more into fine art prints, I knew it was just a matter of time before my work would begin to take a back seat. Besides, if I am going to invest time and energy into getting myself in the right place at the right time, I want the resulting digital files to be worth it. Yes, I could just pick up my 4×5 and start shooting film again and scanning it, but the beauty of digital is just so tantalizing. The Pentax D645 with 39mp was just about ideal for this kind of work but it started at $10,000. The same-sized Leica system was also ideal but even $30,000 would’t be enough to do it justice.

With the demise of the 4/3s system and my quest for ultimate image quality at a price I could afford, I began looking seriously at the Sony ∝900 and 850 bodies and the wonderful Zeiss zooms available for them. But even those cameras began to look outdated. Word began spreading of a new Nikon body with megapixels galore. Really – 36mp! You’ve got to be joking!

Meanwhile, my brother Charlie who lives and photographs down in Naples, Florida helped to bring me back to my photographic roots when he sent me a booklet and calendar showing the work of Clyde Butcher. If you’ve never seen his work, think Ansel Adams in the Everglades. Amazing – you must visit Clyde’s website! His vision in making gorgeous photos of his “home turf” has re-kindled my desire to do the same here in Ontario.

So, now I’m thinking – while I’ve done some very rewarding work with zoom lenses, I enjoyed photography even more when shooting 6×7 and 4×5 (and 35mm) on a tripod with prime lenses. There is something about prime lenses and working on at tripod that makes you slow down, think and look a lot more closely. It’s not that you can’t do that when hand-holding a zoom lens, it’s just that with primes and a tripod, a certain discipline develops and that discipline of careful thought and placement and composition begins to seep into all areas of the craft and vision of photography. I, for one, benefit from that discipline.

Thus, the various alignments of the demise of 4/3s, the move to fine art prints, the arrival of a breakthrough, full frame 36mp DSLR and my recommitment to prime lenses have resulted in this new beginning. Over the past week or so, I have begun that metamorphosis by purchasing a variety of Nikkor prime lenses and selling my Olympus gear (thanks eBay and Kijiji). The metamorphosis will be complete when I begin shooting with the Nikon D800e that is currently on order and not yet available. Hopefully, my name isn’t too far down the list that I won’t be waiting too long to take delivery.

I have scoured the ‘Net for professional opinions of these new, ground-breaking DSLRs. Everyone who has used one arrives at the same conclusion: the D800 and D800e are truly game-changers. They bring what was once only possible with a minimum $15,000 investment into the hands of photographers like myself for whom that kind of expenditure was simply out of the question. In many ways, the Nikon D800 represents a democratization of image quality like we’ve never seen before.

Check out the Internet and you’ll see all the usual splash about new cameras on dpreview.com, but two things have helped me most in making up my mind. First were the numbers posted by DxOmark.com – a whopping 95 for the D800 – better than any camera of any sensor size, right up to 180mp. Phenomenal. While this is only a measure of the sensor, for me it was the D800’s amazing dynamic range of 14.4 stops that counts most – ideal for the kind of nature and landscape work I do. (In comparison, my E-30 scores 55 and the E-5, 56; the Pentax D645 scores 82 while the Sony 900 scores 79.)

The second bit of help I had in making this decision came from a photographer whose work I have greatly admired for many, many years – Jim Brandenburg of National Geographic fame. His 20-minute interview with WhatDigitalCamera.com and his work for Nikon on this project was a revelation. Granted, he would be a bit of a fan-boy as result of his close association, but, given his reputation, I’m sure he’s also not one to jump on a bandwagon that doesn’t have a solid foundation.

So, consider this my first post on the Nikon D800e. I will add more as I continue this exciting new beginning…

Note: Call it serendipity, but having sold my two Olympus zooms yesterday, just as I was writing this post, my E-30 sold on eBay. I am now completely divested of Olympus (yes, with a tear in one eye), but am now looking forward with even greater anticipation to the next week or so.

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