Wetpixel D800 camera review

Wetpixel D800 camera review: Conclusion.

I have been shooting the D800 for some time now, and there is no doubt in my mind that it represents a game changer. The resolution that it gives creates both new opportunities and significant challenges to the user. If the question is: Will this camera provide you better images than most other cameras? The answer has to be yes, but a very qualified one. For the vast majority of images, and especially those underwater, simply amping the number of pixels in a sensor will not make a huge difference. Our image quality is affected significantly by the environment in which we dive and the D800’s amazing sensor is no “magic bullet” to deal with this. Perhaps a better way to look at this camera when using it underwater, is that it will take very similar images to the ones that you are taking now. However, every now and again, it will produce images that will simply blow your socks off, or get details when your old camera couldn’t!

The counterpoint though is that this camera suffers from the limitations that all full frame cameras have. It needs very careful lens and port selection as well as thought about exposure controls in order to get the benefits of the resolution. Its more limited depth of field (DOF), when compared to cropped sensor cameras, make shooting at open apertures a challenge. Of course, the creative use of blurred backgrounds or bokeh is enhanced.

Not the best example of Bokeh, but you can see how narrow the DOF is.

I have been mostly shooting the D800 in challenging UK conditions, although I was able to shoot it in blue water during a visit to the Red Sea in July. Although the green water conditions were a good test for the camera, it was great to see how it fared in the “easier” clearer water of the reefs around Sharm el Sheikh. The improvements in tonal range noted earlier in the review have application in blue water too, and the sun was no longer something to frame or mask out of the image. The details that can be captured in both wide-angle and macro images are stunning, but as always, the camera needs careful handling to get the best out of it.

To be honest, until very recently, I was starting to feel somewhat jaded with the D800. It is not the camera’s fault, but I was struggling to find subjects that gave a real chance to use the extra detail. All too often I found that the limitations were subject choice and underwater conditions, not camera performance. The images were fine, but not spectacular, and I felt a bit like I was driving a Porsche at 50mph on the Autobahn! This all changed when I started printing images. I was printing at A3+, and hence the images were being produced natively. The prints just look stunning, with a clarity, detail and depth that I haven’t been able to achieve with any other camera. The images themselves were probably not first rate, but on paper, they looked amazing. I don’t think there can be many photographers who do not enjoy seeing their work on paper, and when the images look as good as those that can be produced by the D800, this really emphasizes the advantage of all those pixels.

Another element with this camera that shouldn’t be underrated is its build quality. For these of us coming from the D7000 particularly, the “Pro” features really make a huge difference. The AF speed and accuracy, the metering and the video functions all make this a far easier to use camera than its “non-pro” cousins. The camera feels more solid and robust (although this might be a perception) and the feature set is more advanced. If you have been shooting a D3 or D700, you may well not experience this. However, the addition of in-camera time-lapse and HDR adds to the creative potential with this camera, and the streamlining of the video function enhances it too.

The D800 is a robust feeling pro camera.

I have found that in low contrast situations (green water diving) the AF-C Auto setting has a tendency to hunt/mis-focus more than I like, but the camera’s AF performance is still better than the AF on any other Nikon camera that I have used (I have not used the D4). Alex Mustard has reached a similar conclusion, although he definitely finds the D800’s AF to be inferior to that of the D4.

This tight crop shows that noise need not be an issue as macro shots are normally at base ISO.

The D800’s low light capabilities are very good, although not a marked improvement over that of the D7000, which is also a very capable low light performer. However, it has been widely commented that images appear quite noisy when used at high ISOs and then observed at 100%. This is caused by the noise created by the number of pixels/unit area. An article in Outdoor Photography(1) explains the phenomena thus:

Shoot the same scene with the same lens on a D700 and then the D800, zoom into the processed image at 100% on each and the D800 will look very noisy in comparison. But that is only because you’re looking deep into a much larger image. Resize it to the same pixel dimension as the D700 image and you’ll see that the D800 picture is actually slightly smoother.

In short then, a crop of an image shot at a high ISO is likely to appear pretty noisy. So if you plan to crop, it is best to shoot at as low an ISO as possible. Fortunately, most images that are cropped are macro ones shot at a low ISO by default, and hence real world application suggests that this issue is not a major one. If you are planning to crop wide-angle scenes shot at high ISO though this will count against you. That said, the advances in noise reduction algorithms in software means that many issues can be corrected in the computer too.

The D800 captures an amazing level of detail in the shadows, and both Keri Wilk and I have commented on how this can often be restored by a judicious use of the shadows slider in Lightroom. However, it is important to note that the shadow areas will not have had the effect of light (natural or strobe) and so hence the color will not visible in the shadow areas.

Despite restoring the detail in the shadows in this image, the colors in the shadow areas are still absent.

The Wetpixel D800 review camera suffers from an intermittent card writing problem, and I gather anecdotally that this affects many, if not all, cameras. It appears when the camera attempts to write an image to the card, and seems to “hang” with the hourglass/egg timer being displayed in the LCD. This seems to happen particularly when the camera has not been activated for a short period, almost as if the write mechanism has “gone to sleep”. Taking another frame usually clears it, although sometimes, it is simply a matter of waiting. The images are captured, so there is no data loss, but it is frustrating as there is no opportunity to review images either. I assume that there will be some kind of firmware fix at some point.

The D800 offers numerous image area modes, including a DX mode. In effect, this means that only a portion of the camera’s sensor is used, and this restores the depth of field, still gives a 16MP image and allows the use of DX lenses. Another interesting feature of the DX cropped mode is that the image area is entirely covered by focus sensors. Despite these advantages, many have pointed out that using the camera in DX mode seems pointless, when you can crop to a similar resolution. This, of course, assumes that you can get the subject in focus. The depth of field in FX is very narrow!

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR with Subsea +10 dioptre. 1/320 at f25, ISO100. Very narrow DOF even at f25!

If you plan to switch to this camera from a DX model, please be aware that you will need to invest significantly in new glass. This camera will show the weaknesses in the optics of most lenses, and using inferior quality lenses is very obvious. My experiments suggest that the beloved Tokina 10-17mm is one such culprit, and using it with a teleconverter to “correct” its field of view for FX only makes the situation worse. In truth, my experience of the Kenko range of PRO 300 teleconverters with this camera is that it significantly out-resolves them. Topside, I have also tried to use a Kenko 2x convertor and was very disappointed with the results.

Hence lens choices are limited and expensive. For underwater use, the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG and Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D AF fisheyes both give acceptable results, as do the Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR and 14-24mm F/2.8G ED AF-S rectilinear wide-angles (although these both need large domes to perform without corner distortion). Macro choices will include the familiar Nikon 60mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Micro and 105mm f/2.8GAF-S VR Micro lenses, although older versions of these may well also be adequate. I am reticent about being prescriptive about lens choices, as I am sure they will be controversial, but my experience with this camera has lead me to conclude that to do its optical quality justice, your potential lens bag is limited (although not inexpensive). I hope that if anyone from Nikon or one of the lens manufacturers is listening that they will heed our need for a great fisheye zoom for FX.

Another question that has been asked a lot about this camera is will it work with a 4” mini dome? The answer is not really. This camera, and all FX cameras in fact, really need a big quality dome, especially with any rectilinear lenses. Shooting fisheye lenses is somewhat more forgiving, but you can expect very soft corners when you stop down to catch those big wide-angle scenes. Please note that this is an FX issue, not a D800 one. For more information, Alex Mustard provided a very good overview of the subject of domes and FX cameras in his talk at DEMA last year.

At the London Dive Show back in March, I was chatting to Jean Bruneau (Viz’art) of Aquatica about the D800 and he was commenting on how much interest this camera had created amongst underwater photographers. By contrast, the Canon 5D Mark III, also a very capable camera, had not received nearly as much. He posited that this was due to the fact that Nikon have not had a viable alternative to the 5D Mark II and so the D800 represented the first time that Nikon shooters have had a camera with similar performance. Whilst this may be true, and certainly Nikon’s production problems have not helped with the process, the D800 really is, as I stated earlier, a game changer. I have no doubt that other manufactures will shortly release similar models with more resolution, but Nikon are to be applauded for being brave enough to take a lateral step when the industry trend was for less pixels and higher burst rates in pro cameras. The D800 opens the door to potential new creative challenges and techniques, once this potential has been recognized, and the limitations dealt with and minimized, I am convinced that this camera will be producing some amazing underwater images.

Nikon are apparently planning to release a “budget” FX camera, mooted to be the D600, and it will be interesting to compare the two models. It may be that the D600 may be a very good option for underwater use.

This review has intentionally not included any extensive testing of the camera’s video functions. I intend to complete this as a separate review in the future. Many apologies to those who are waiting for this.

Many thanks to Dan Lion of Holiday Designers, the Hyatt Regency, Sharm el Sheikh and the owners and staff of Red Sea Waterworld for their assistance with providing accommodation and diving in Egypt for the review. Additional thanks are again due to those who helped us out with the equipment for the review: Edward Lai of Nauticam and Alex Tattersall of Underwater Visions for their speedy and early assistance with providing a housing, and Ryan Canon of Reef Photo and Video for the loan of a Sigma 15mm lens and ZEN 230mm dome port.

  1. Introduction.
  2. The Nikon D800 body, controls and overview.
  3. Resolution, ISO and tonal range.
  4. Image size and “shooting to crop”.
  5. Autofocus, teleconverters and built-in processing.
  6. Conclusion.

(1) Niall Benvie, Nikon D800, Outdoor Photographer, September 2012, pp. 85.