I’ve been using the Nikon D800E as my main camera for a long time now. I’ve been through two bodies (nothing wrong with the first one, just me making an ill-advised detour to a different camera system and then back again). I’ve taken it to Japan, up to Mt Rainier and Mt Baker multiple times, and shot a wedding with it. I’ve used many different lenses and shot tens of thousands of photos in a huge variety of weather and lighting conditions.
This is the distillation of that experience in review form; basically, I’m asking the following question of myself: “If I could go back in time, to just before I first bought the D800E, would I tell myself to go for it or to buy something else?”
Short answer: I would still tell myself to buy it. It’s the best camera on the market right now for my needs within the reach – budget-wise – of us mere mortals (who wouldn’t want a Phase One IQ280 for landscapes, or a Leica S with that beautiful Leica glass? But, then again, how many of us can afford those, especially if you aren’t a full time pro?).
That said, the D800E, while the best out there for shooters like me right now (Dec 2013), isn’t a perfect camera.
I want to go through the Cons section first, so I don’t leave on a negative note with this review (because I genuinely do love my D800E and I would buy it again).
First, and worst for me, is the rear LCD. Nikon decided to use an interpolation algorithm (or “digital zoom”) when you magnify the image on the rear LCD, either in Live View or when reviewing an image. In practice this makes zooming in to manually adjust focus using Live View much more difficult and frustrating than it needs to be, with 100% zoom almost useless. I don’t know if Nikon was limited by processor speed and had to interpolate the 36 megapixel image just to get a reasonable framerate on the Live View, but whatever the case, it is awful, and trounced by the Canon 5D Mark III (I watched a fellow photographer use his) and, reportedly, by the wonderful LCD on the back of the Sony A7R (which is also 36 megapixels).
For those who love manual focus lenses, or want to use the optically spectacular Zeiss ZF line, the focusing screen on the D800/E is probably going to be the biggest source of frustration for you (along with the aforementioned Live View). The screen is optimized for autofocus and the appearance of brightness, not for manual focus glass; in and of itself this isn’t the end of the world, if Nikon had made the screen easy to replace (so we could go out and buy split prism screens for ourselves if we so desired). But the process is not easy, and there are very few vendors offering screens for the D800/E right now…and none that I personally really trust. A good split prism focusing screen would go miles toward making the D800/E more usable with the Zeiss ZF line and all those manual-only Nikon AIS lenses (some of which the company still produces and sells new!).
The D800/E comes with the ability to set up custom shooting banks, where you can, in theory, set up fast recall of particular settings for different situations. In practice it pales in comparison to the Custom modes offered by Canon and Sony, which recall nearly every setting on the camera at the turn of a dial. When I owned the Canon 7D and, later, the Sony A850, I used C1-C3 on the dials constantly. I never use the shooting banks on the Nikon – they are just too limited and too much of a pain to get through in the menus.
I was also never really happy with the hand grip/feel of the D800/E, even from the moment I took it out of the box. To be fair, I also didn’t really care for the Sony A850’s grip; the Canon 7D had the best hand feeling of the three, at least for me (someone with quite large hands – I can palm a basketball). I fixed that with some judicious use of Sugru to build my own custom grip, so now the camera falls naturally to hand and feels great in my fingers. But, still something to keep in mind, as is the sheer weight of any professional-quality DSLR currently made (excepting possibly the new Nikon Df).
Finally, the left-auto-focus-point debacle. An initial run of Nikon D800/E units had terribly mis-aligned or mis-calibrated left-most auto focus points. Nikon butchered the handling of this issue (as they seem wont to do – see the recent mishandling of the D600’s sensor spot issue), denying it and then playing it down while quietly fixing it in later batches. I personally haven’t experienced it with either of the bodies I’ve owned, but it’s something to bear in mind if you buy on the used market.
Now, on with the Pros.
The main thing – the thing that brought me back to the camera after leaving it for a short while – is that sensor. 36 megapixels of beautiful detail with tons of dynamic range. It leaves my old Sony A850 in the dust, with RAW files producing a level of usable dynamic range that I couldn’t get out of the Sony without resorting to HDR. Sony’s newer cameras (like the A7R) are equal to the D800E – the A7R and D800E may even use the same sensor, or at least related sensors, as the D800E uses a Sony manufactured sensor – but for me, coming from first the APS-C Canon 7D and then the 24 megapixel, dynamic-range-limited Sony A850, the flexibility and beauty of the D800E’s files was revelatory. With the right lens and the right shot discipline (those 36 megapixels are demanding mistresses) you can get near-medium format quality at a fraction of the price.
And that, for me, is basically all I need to know. There are many other great things about this camera – see the long list above, including the sheer number of great lenses available on the Nikon F Mount from Nikon, Zeiss, Sigma, Tamron, and Samyang/Rokinon, among others – but for me that sensor, the tops in the industry, still, is what gets me excited to use my D800E every day. That said, I do want to highlight a couple other important “pros,” namely the smart control layout (letting you rapidly change modes, ISO, white balance, mirror lockup, and more without diving into the menu), fast and dependable operation in all the conditions in which I’ve used it, and the overall feeling of having a robust, professional, capable product in your hands.
So: would I tell my past self to buy it again, 18 months ago? Yep. I would buy it again, now, if I had to pick a new full frame camera. That’s right, even over the new Sony A7R, as tempting as that new little beast is, because the A7R has very few native lenses available for it right now (though they are, apparently, excellent) and 36 megapixels is very demanding for even the best lens adapter in terms of micron tolerance; and because the A7R is still, to this point, an unproven commodity. I think it has every chance of becoming a special camera, especially if Zeiss keeps pumping out great E-mount lenses for it, but for right now, if you don’t mind the weight, the D800E has a much larger library of native lenses and a proven build and image quality.
All that said, what would I want done differently on the next Nikon go-around? Say, the D900. Here’s a wishlist:
None of these are impossible wishes. Other cameras have some of these things, or the basic technologies exist somewhere (even if its camera phones, in the case of pixel binning). Will we get any of them? I hope so, but we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, for many of us the D800E is still the camera to beat, and the best one we have right now for making huge, glorious prints.