The Problem with the Nikon D800E as a Landscape Camera

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.


10 responses to “The Problem with the Nikon D800E as a Landscape Camera

  • The Problem with the Nikon D800E as a Landscape Camera | Steve Troletti Photography and Environmental News

    […] See on – Steve Troletti Nature and Wildlife PhotographerThe 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. The…See on […]

  • Leanne Cole

    That is a great post, I have been thinking about wanting D800, but I am starting to have doubts, I want to be able to do spot metering of the whole image, not just the bit in the middle, and the D800 sensor range in camera is smaller than what I have now. Maybe I should take a closer look at the Canon. Thank you for this.

  • What you want in a Camera « Leanne Cole Photography

    […] going to be that different to what I have now.  Then I was reading a blog post over at  Nature and Travel Photography by Justin Reznick, and Justin has me thinking.  I don’t know what I want […]

  • Green Cathedral of South Africa

    Before I bought my Sony A77 (merely landscape, portrait photography) in South Africa I was in Amsterdam and visited Volker and Engel (camera shop) and asked for advise. These people don’t deal in Sony cameras (would want to but curious Sony politics in Holland) and she told me more or less the same story about Canon and Nikon as you are telling now. They advised me to buy either a Sony A77 and preferable Sony A99 but from a budget point of view (also lenses are not cheap) I choose for an A77 and I don’t regret it. Wonder if you ever tried/worked with Sony A77/99 and should like to know what your experiences are. It can also help others to make a right choice. You obviously have quite some experience with photography; far more than I have.

    • Justin Reznick

      Thank you for the reply! I just recently put together a Sony NEX-7 kit, with the brand new Sony 10-18m and Sony 16-50mm pancake lenses. I think Sony is innovating at a rate far greater than Canon and Nikon and I’m excited at the prospect of trying out an A99 one day. I have a client who is shooting with one and I will get first hand experience with her Sony, but I’ve yet to use one. I really do love the Mark III as a camera, and I think I will be with Canon this generation. But who knows with the next round? If Sony keeps pushing the boundaries of technology, I could see a switch in the future. There is unfortunately an issue of market saturation. The fact that I shoot Canon does help me with my profession as many of my clients have the same or similar camera and it’s easy to let them borrow lenses, remote shutter, etc. Sony has almost zero penetration in the DSLR market in the US currently. It’s going to take a long time for that to change.

  • Bella Remy Photography

    This is an awesome review and really helps me get a better understanding of the Nikon products. Thank you so much!

  • Raico Rosenberg

    Superb review Justin, I couldn’t agree more! I was dying for an upgrade to my Nikon D300s but was held back loads due to all those silly niggles on the D800. For my workflow I love dynamic range and it was something Canon currently lacks. Disregarding what DxO labs spits out statistically, The feel of the raw files to me is fantastic . Changing from one brand to another would be a enormous cost. 36mpx is simply faaaar too much, not just for defraction.

    Nikon has made many fundamental mistakes in the past.

    Sony is a interesting contender but in my opinion still struggling with ISO performance and although mirrorless sounds promising it still doesn’t convince me yet. I think it needs to mature first. Sony does have exquisite lenses by Zeiss which is a huge bonus.

    For the time being I will have to aim for the crippled D600 which is my opinion is basically a D800 with stupid restrictions but less niggles. A fantastic camera nonetheless and it all boils down to how the camera feels overall

  • John Wall

    Good article — except now I’m back to the drawing board! 😉 I was thinking the D800e was “it” and was just wondering what the best lenses are…. Did you ever come back with the follow up to: “I will discuss the many benefits of live view in a future blog post.” I don’t use live view at all because I’d need to put my glasses on to see it in detail.

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