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Nikon D800 – “Should I upgrade?”

Saturday 14 April 2012

I have been asked by a number of people about whether they should upgrade to a Nikon D800. They are understandably attracted by the amazing potential that this camera holds for higher quality digital photographs and video. Once they get past the shock of its price, they start thinking about that state-of-the-art 36mp sensor – bigger has to be better, right?

Well perhaps, but not for everyone. There are a few things you need to consider before jumping on the D800 bandwagon:

  1. How often do you enlarge photos to 16″ or more? The 36mp sensor in the D800 is 7360 x 4912 pixels. At 300ppi, it will produce uncropped prints of 16.4″ x 24.5″ or at 360ppi (for Epson printers) uncropped prints 13.6″ x 20.4″ in size. If you are making prints this size or larger on a regular basis, then the D800 is for you. Some have asked, “But wouldn’t downsizing from this file size result in better prints as well?” Quite possibly, yes, but the difference at print viewing distance would be minimal and perhaps only visible to someone who really knows what to look for (which is not the vast majority of people who buy large fine art photographs). By the way, I am speaking in terms of uncropped prints, because a photographer who is working towards mastering the craft will routinely compose to either fill-the-frame or at least fill one dimension to allow the other dimension to be cropped. Do you do this as common practice? If not, then perhaps the D800 is not for you.
  2. Do you shoot raw or jpeg format? Many pros shoot jpegs as that’s what their job demands: grip and grins that need to be processed and sent out immediately or news hounds that don’t have time (or the necessity) for post-capture fine-tuning. Even many wedding photogs are still shooting only jpegs. While it may be controversial for me to say this, but if you are shooting jpegs and you are not a pro – in other words if you are shooting jpegs because they are more convenient than doing some post-process work on your photographs – then the D800 may not be for you. The D800 is all about image quality. The photographs you are capable of producing will not improve with more megapixels, only their size will increase. If you are not willing to put the time and effort into fine-tuning raw image files, then the shortcuts you take in producing jpegs may well prevent you from taking full advantage of the benefits the D800 offers. Don’t get me wrong – the D800 produces amazing jpegs, but if it’s only jpegs you want – pre-processed and pre-sharpened with a truncated colour depth – then the D800 is not the ideal machine for you.
  3. Are you prepared for full-frame? This goes along with the next question. Your 18-55mm or 18-200mm zoom will not cut it on the D800 unless you use the camera only in DX mode. If that’s the case, you’d be better off with a D7000. If you are not prepared to upgrade your DX lenses to FX, then don’t consider a D800.
  4. Do you have lenses that will resolve to 36mp? Most of the kit lenses and cheap zooms produced by Nikon and the various 3rd party lens manufacturers will not resolve 36mp well enough from centre to corner to take advantage of the D800 sensor. While they will capture 36mp of data at full-frame, they will not resolve detail in ever one of those 36mp, even if the detail is in the original scene. Like the previous question, if you are not prepared to invest in lenses that resolve 36mp of detail, then you should rethink your decision to buy a D800. For more information, have a look at the work lensrentals.com is doing or the discussions on the Luminous-Landscape Forums here and here.
  5. Is your technique refined enough to get the quality from 36mp you are expecting? A number of D800 users have, in just this short time, realized that to get the most out of the D800 you need impeccable technique. Hand-held shots do not seem to be as sharp as they were with 12mp because even the smallest of movements are now being recorded. Diffraction at f/16 and f/22 is more noticeable. You may find that working on a tripod becomes the norm when using the D800 – would you be happy with that? You may also find (as other D800 users have) that each lens will need its autofocus fine-tuned. As well, many D800 users are making active use of live view for focussing. Are you prepared for that kind of precision?
  6. As a corollary to Q 6. (and there is no insult intended) – would you recognize the additional image quality provided by a D800? Many photographers are quite satisfied with their on-screen results and the prints they are producing. In your current photography, do you recognize that you have reached the image quality potential of your current system? If not, then the D800 is not for you. Do you recognize the flaws in IQ with your current system and wish to go beyond what you can currently achieve? If so, then perhaps the D800 is the way to go.
  7. Are you prepared to buy larger, faster memory cards? A standard raw file from a D800 is almost 75mb. your current 4GB card that may hold nearly 300 12mp raw files will now only hold 53 D800 raw files. Even the jpegs at highest quality are over 20MB in size. You will need to invest in larger capacity memory cards with faster write speeds, not just for raw files, but for video as well.
  8. Is your computer system and image management application up to processing 36mp files? Further to Q. 7, that 75mp raw file you’ve just captured will open in Photoshop at over 200MB – and that’s before you add any layers! Is your system up to manipulating these files? Realistically, however, most serious photographers  will have already migrated to  using a non-destructive workflow offered by Lightroom, Aperture and Capture One. But even there you will notice a speed hit, particularly when it comes to generating 1:1 previews (don’t do this upon Import, but rather only as needed) and when retouching. Be prepared for a slower work-flow!

Your investment of $3000 (+ tax!) for a D800 body may end up costing you a whole lot more if you haven’t thought things through thoroughly. You will need larger, faster memory cards; you may need a few new lenses or at least one of the more expensive high-optical-quality Nikkor zooms (and the circular polarizing and other filters for them); you may need a new computer system or at least a pile more ram. You may also need to invest in Lightroom, Aperture or Capture One to avoid the humungous file sizes generated by a Photoshop workflow. And, if you haven’t already adopted a non-destructive workflow, that may also be a learning curve you need to take on.

My decision to move from my 12mp Olympus to the D800e was not taken lightly. Nor was it taken without a hard look at (a) what style of photography excites me; (b) where I would like to go with my photography; and (c) how well my technique, workflow and equipment fit the requirements of a D800. As I have said before in posts, I come from a background of using manual, mechanical 6×7 and 4×5 cameras with prime lenses. I am quite happy to use a tripod and slow my methods down to squeeze  from every scene as much image quality as possible– in fact, that’s where I thrive. For me, using a D800 will be like going back to my medium and large format days but with the added convenience of digital processing and printing, video capture and, when needed for extra reach from a telephoto, DX capture at 15mp.

I am greatly excited by the prospects and am anxiously awaiting the arrival a D800e body.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. PWeiser permalink
    Sunday 15 April 2012 12:04am

    This is one of the most-informed and thoughtful reviews about whether to upgrade to the amazing Nikon D800.

    • Sunday 15 April 2012 10:14am

      Many thanks. There are many “externalities” to consider when jumping to 36mp!

  2. Saturday 21 April 2012 12:35pm

    I think every one should answer your questions it may save them some cash which they can use for quality lenses or travel for there next photo adventure. There is one question that you have missed. Do you want video?

    • Saturday 21 April 2012 12:59pm

      Thanks Andrew – too true. By far the majority of photographers really do not need 36mp as they will never be making prints that require that kind of resolution.

      With regards to video – so far, it’s a non-issue for me as I’ve never shot video. Although I’ve always been a landscape and nature stills photographer, I am greatly looking forward to using the D800e’s video feature if only “for fun”. No doubt, I’ll also capture some of the wonderful moments out in the field, but not until I’ve made some stills first!!

      • Saturday 21 April 2012 1:06pm

        We sound very similar. Landscape is what I consentate on but can’t wait to get mine so I can have fun with video and also it’s time lapse options.

  3. myallegro31 permalink
    Saturday 21 April 2012 1:23pm

    Great writeup. I am currently shooting with a D7000 abd love it, but want to get the most out of my FX lenses, print a lot for resale, and crop all the time. I shoot on a tripod most of the time (street photography with stay with the D7000 and 28-3000mm lens). Nice work buddy.

    • Saturday 21 April 2012 1:38pm

      Many thanks. Sounds like you would benefit from a D800. Hopefully the 28-300mm will hold up in the corners.

      • soberle permalink
        Monday 23 April 2012 12:12pm

        I hope so also, because the 28-300 is such a terrific lens. But if it doesn’t, I’ll just crop the heck out of it…after all, 36mp will allow a bunch of cropping! And if hand-holding is an issue with the D800, I’ll have to borrow wife’s D7000 for that sort of shooting.

  4. Christian Hardouin permalink
    Monday 23 April 2012 11:17am

    Michael Reichman ,from luminous landscapes site, gives a very detailed comparison of the 800 and 800E plus the details of the shooting techniques required as well as the lenses to fit it.

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