The D800E has become all the rage in landscape photography. While leading numerous private tours and workshops this fall, my clients continually show up with the latest and greatest from Nikon. There have been many converts from Canon in the landscape world as well. Bottom line – it’s become a very popular camera amongst landscape photographers.
Let’s get the sensor talk out of the way. It is the best sensor in the DSLR market with incredible dynamic range and resolution. That’s not debatable. This article is about usability, not image quality. If image quality trumps the usability of the camera, than there really is no argument, get the D800E. If you want a camera that’s a joy to use and doesn’t get in the way of creating images, consider other bodies like the Canon 5D Mark III.
Nikon has never taken live view seriously. Even relatively recent bodies still have live view buried in a dial that also controls burst mode and timer remote. These are obvious features you would want to pair in many situations. The D800E has a dedicated live view button, but the live view is inadequate. The screen resolution is 921,000 dots per inch. The Canon 5D Mark III has a 1,040,000 dots per inch screen. The forward thinking Sony A99 comes with a whopping 1,228,000 dots per inch screen. Nikon is last in this category and while 921,000 is plenty usable, there is a green tint on the screen that is so strong that you lose all sense of the colors of the scene before you. When shooting a scene next to a client, he would look at my LCD (Mark III) to review images he was taking with his D800E! Worst of all, the live view has a live depth of field feature that gives you an accurate reading based on your aperture. This is a monstrous engineering error. When photographing in a dark environment like the Narrows of Zion National Park, you have to change the aperture to f/2.8 or f/4 to even see the image in the screen! Smaller apertures show up as pure black on the screen. How often do D800E users forget to change the aperture and end up shooting wide-open? There is a depth of field preview button on my Mark III. I can CHOOSE to see the depth of field preview on the LCD if I want to. At the time of writing this blog, I have read a firmware release will be coming to fix this issue. Glad to know that Nikon is addressing it!
I have been harping on live view quite a bit, but here’s the thing – landscape photography has evolved to a point where nearly all landscape photographers use live view on nearly every image they take. The viewfinder is for composing, live view is for shooting. If any of my clients don’t use live view, I do my best to convert them. It really makes the DSLR a much more efficient tool. I will discuss the many benefits of live view in a future blog post. Nikon needs to recognize this trend and take live view more seriously. Even a recent model like the D700 is almost useless with live view due to battery life. If you are shooting live view on the D700, you will go through a battery in less than 2 hours! The D800E has poor live view battery life as well, but it is much more useable.
This first issue with the D800E has nothing to do with the sensor but simply the engineering of the camera. My second issue is a product of the size of the sensor and will likely still be an issue in the huge megapixel cameras coming from Canon and Sony in 2013.
Nikon recommends that an aperture of f/11 is as small as you should go to maximize quality and avoid diffraction. They are not kidding. I use f/13, f/14, and f/16 a lot, and even f/18, f/20, or f/22 on occasion. Diffraction on a sensor with less megapixels is minimal in comparison. I have shot the D800E at f/14 with a blurry background (a result of diffraction). For me and my workflow in the field, the limitation of f/11 is crippling. It slows me down and forces me into focal blends. I’m comfortable focal blending and I teach it to all my clients, especially D800E owners, but it is time-consuming and if I know I can use f/16 to maximize my depth of field, I want that option. It’s a sacrifice to obtaining incredible resolution and thus the ability to create large, detailed prints, but I’m not sure all D800E owners are aware of it, and whether or not they in the market of creating large fine art prints.
I have some bias towards the Canon ergonomics, including how the camera feels in the hand and the incredibly tactile feel of the click wheel on the back. The Nikon joystick is a mess in my opinion. Obviously those view are very subjective. I am not loyal to Canon. I took a hard look at the D800E upon release, I’m intrigued by the Sony A99, and will go with the right tools to create the images I want to make. I’m simply not impressed with the usability of the D800E during my time with it, and I thought it was worth sharing my findings.