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Initial thoughts: The donut that made me fall in love with the Nikon D800

This is not intended to be a FULL review of the Nikon D800 but to discuss some initial thoughts and reactions I had after purchasing this beauty.

This is the photo that officially made me fall in love with the Nikon D800.

If I hadn’t taken this photo myself, and saw it online somewhere, I’d be convinced that this was taken with a macro lens. I mean, come on! Look at the details of those sugary flakes. Look at the highlights in the chocolate and caramel glaze. This HAS to be a macro lens shot!

Actually it was taken with a cheap Nikon 50mm F/1.8 from about two feet away.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s the original…

Yes. It’s true. This is the same photo from above. The only difference is that the first shot is zoomed in at 100%

Another impressive thing about the image clarity is that I didn’t bump up the details or contrast all that much (especially not on the zoomed-in crop image). I just did your typical curves and tones edits that I normally would on most other images. In fact, the image came out so sharp and clear straight out of the camera, that I barely messed with it at all.

So how does this compare with other donut photos?

Funny you should aks, because I just so happen to have a photo to compare it with…

This is a 100% crop of the same donuts under the same lighting conditions and the same edits applied as the first image. Also, the lens used is very similar: 35mm F/1.8. I actually find this lens (35mm F/1.8) to be a much cleaner and sharper lens than the 50mm used above.

The camera this time was the Nikon D300s. Don’t get me wrong. I love the D300s. This is the first camera I used to start my business, and if I thought this camera was no good, I wouldn’t have used it to shoot weddings and family photos (for money!) for the last three years.  But the difference in quality is just impossible to miss.

The colors pop so much more brightly. The details are more defined. The clarity is unbelievable.

Here’s a look at the original, full view…

Kinda boring, right?

So why did I photograph donuts, and why do I feel such sweet victory after pixel-peeping these sugary snacks?

In all truth, I snapped the photo of these donuts just because we were waiting around for our next photo shoot to start in the Strip District. I had arrived early with my two assistants, and we had about an hour to kill before meeting up with a family for photos.

In all honesty… right about the time I took the photo of these donuts, I was feeling a little overwhelmed and VERY apprehensive about my latest Nikon D800 purchase, for one BIG reason…

The files are HUGE.

This past Saturday was my first photo shoot opportunity to test out the D800. I was excited and giddy with the purchase. I opened the box just a few days before my birthday. I grabbed a 16GB memory card and popped it into the side slot, and immediately I felt a heavy, heavy feeling in my stomach.

The little display on top of the camera said I had only 200 pictures left on the card.

That can’t be right. I formatted the card, waited for the reading to reset, and… same. Two hundred images. That’s it.

You have to understand that I shoot in RAW. If you’re not a photographer, most cameras nowadays give you the option to take photographs in JPEG, TIFF and RAW. RAW is simply the most information-heavy version of an image, and therefore come out to be much bigger files than JPEG images. The benefit is that the images are a lot more malleable and easy to manipulate to my liking. I then convert the files to JPEG after I make each edit.

The reason I felt so sick to my stomach is because I typically shoot anywhere between 300 and 600 photos on a single family photo session. At a wedding  I personally shoot between 2,000 and 4,000 images.

Typically, when I shoot in RAW with my Nikon D700 (which produces a 12 megapixel image), each image is approximately 10MB in size, and I can fit 1,300 images on a single 16GB memory card. The D800 shoots 36 megapixels per image.

I would have to buy a lot more cards…

Also, because the files are so massive, if you shoot rapidly you BETTER make sure you have fast memory cards. I would recommend cards that can write at least 90MB per second (or 600x speed). If you think about it, that might even be a tad close because this camera can shoot 4 images per second at 45MB per image. You’re looking at a shooting rate of 180MB per second with this camera when you shoot RAW.

But definitely don’t use this camera with a cheap memory card on a photo shoot. It will slow down your buffer rate and suddenly you’ll press the shutter button and the camera will REFUSE to take pictures for a good few seconds.

Photo taken with Android phone

Fortunately today I got some backup. I might even consider a 64GB SD card since this camera can hold both.

As it turned out, the 200-image figure displayed on my little LCD screen was a little conservative. After my first photo shoot that morning, I discovered that I could fit approximately 350 images on a 16GB card. Each raw image is approximately 45MB in size (that’s 4.5 times bigger than the files shot by the D700).

I was slightly relieved by the new figure, but that number was still harder to digest than a full box of donuts. I just shoot so much that a memory card wouldn’t even last me a single family shoot.

Even after converting the files to JPEG, each image turned out to be 10MB in size. If I shot a wedding and included 2,000 images, it would take me FOUR whole DVDs to fit all of the images. That’s crazy! I would have to consider providing USB memory drives for my brides and grooms. Yikes.

So as you can imagine, around the time I took photos of the donuts above, I had lost my appetite (fortunately the donuts weren’t for me. My assistant, Chris Lane, bought them for himself and failed to offer me or Olivia any).

I had some serious problem solving to consider.

But once I pulled up the donut photo on my laptop and saw the amount of detail and clarity this camera delivers, all of my worries about file size seemed secondary. Suddenly things fell into perspective.

I mean, think about it.

Imagine driving a 4-cylinder Honda Civic (let’s say, it’s a very nice Civic with alloy wheels, a speedy engine and a transmission that responds quickly and lets you zip around town without problems). If all of a sudden you upgraded your Civic and bought a Chevy Camaro, you can’t exactly complain about spending twice as much on gas each month. Bigger engine, more power, more gas. The same thing is true with the D800. Once I got over the initial shock of the file size, I knew I was producing a superior quality image and that the extra memory space would be worth it.

Another reason the file sizes are so big, is not just because of the sheer pixel count, but also the quality of the image’s dynamic range. In other words, there is more information and detail retained within the image layers. This is what allows you to brigthen or darken the exposure of an image while still maintaining a clean picture.

Take this image for example:

This is not what I would call a good image. It’s way too dark. In photography terms, it’s about a stop and a half or even two stops under exposed. If you tried to correct his image, you would easily get a lot of grainy dots where the blacks used to be. This is one of many reasons why photographers shoot in RAW.

When I saw this photo, I was actually happy. That’s because it gave me a chance to test the camera’s dynamic range.

This is what the photo looked like after I brought in the “Fill Light” option in Adobe Bridge (for those of you who edit with Apple Aperture or Adobe Lightroom, I think you have the same tool available in your editing pallet).

This is the same exact image after I pulled the details from the blacks. Now, to be fair, most professional cameras can produce images with the same flexibility when you shoot in RAW, but I think the D800 excels without question compared to an image produced by the D300s & the D700. Also notice the quality of color. The skin is not blotchy or grey. It’s nice an pink and it pops.

The D800 has a phenomenal sensor. One thing that has been highly reviewed about this sensor (and the one in the D4) is how well it captures color, but especially skin tone. In the past, I remember how I had to take extra care to bring out the skin tone in my pictures compared to other, more vibrant colors. With this camera, the skin color comes alive all of its own without any additional edits. It produces a super clean shot.

The same is true when an image is over exposed:

For the most part, I’ve noticed that the D800 under exposes images by about a third of stop. This is not an issue for me because that’s how I typically like to shoot when I’m in Manual Mode anyway. However, on this rare occasion the D800 produced an image that made it look like a nuclear explosion was going off near by, thus giving me the picture on the left.

When you have white highlights on an image, it’s a bad thing. It means that there is zero information to recover in the hot spots. I had shots (by accident) photos like this in my past with the D300s and D700 and I had to turn them black and white just to save them.

However, with the D800, this wasn’t even an issue. I brought down the exposure by TWO stops, giving me the image on the right. I thought for sure there would be a trace of bleached skin on the little girl’s forehead… but not a bit. The highlights are a tad bright on her blue hood and at the bottom of the slide, but that’s hardly an issue because the girl’s face is intact.

Again, not to berate my original point, but here is a 100% view of my dog’s nose…

And here is the original image…

So am I happy with this camer?

You betcha!

Am I going to have to figure out some problem solving in terms of memory storage and media delivery to my clients? For sure. But that’s hardly a compromise considering what we’re getting in return.


Of course I wish that Nikon would come out with a Firmware update that allowed you to take 24MP images with the D800 in RAW, but if in the meantime I have to spend some extra money on memory cards, I’m not too upset about it. Fortunately, unlike film, memory cards are a one-time expense. Quality memory cards are not cheap, but at least I don’t have to buy more and more to replace old ones.

Will I shoot with the D800 always and at all times? Probably not. I still have the Nikon D700, which I feel it’s still one of the best quality cameras out there as far as built quality, performance and image clarity. I might stick to the D700 for family shoots and add on the D800 for weddings (especially the posed photos).

There are still a few minor issues that I’m picky about as far as the ergonomics of the D800. Much like other complaints around the web, the grip does feel a little small in my hands (and I don’t have very big hands) and the mode button is a stretch to reach with my index finger. But those are things I can get used to. Also the battery life is not as bad as I anticipated. The battery is rated for 900 pictures, but I was able to take 1,600+ images with 20% of battery life to spare.

I know a lot of you are disappointed I didn’t cover the camera’s ISO capabilities. Let’s save that for my next review when I have more images to show for it. So far I mostly shot in daylight with good weather, so I didn’t really have to put the ISO to the test much.

I will say I took a few shots of our son, Phoenix, at 3200 ISO. The images came out more noisy than the D700 produces at the same ISO range, but given that the photos are so sharp, you can apply some noise reduction and image smoothening and still come out on top.

Again, keep in mind how much data and info this camera produces in each image and equate that to how much you can do with it in post production without feeling sorry.

Even though I never got to eat those donuts, I have a very good taste in my mouth after purchasing this beast!


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12 responses

  1. Nick Smarto

    I can’t tell if that feeling in the pit of my stomach is jealousy over the D800 or hunger over the donut. Both?

    April 5, 2012 at 2:47 PM

  2. Thomas

    Michel: I saw your post over on Nathan Elson’s blog. Thanks for this real-world review of the D800. There are so few in the wild that it’s extremely useful to hear from someone who is actually using it. (Mine was pre-ordered day of announcement, but who knows when it will arrive….) I’m moving up from a D300, and the file size issue has been my biggest concern. Not just capturing in-camera, but also dealing with monstrous file sizes in PhotoShop/Lightroom. Have you had a chance to try the NEF compression settings that I mentioned on Nathan’s blog? (P. 86 of the D800 manual). In theory, anyway, it’s supposed to let you compress the RAW files without any loss in picture quality. I’m just wondering if it really works.

    Thanks for any input, and great site!

    April 6, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    • Hey Thomas, I’m pretty sure that the NEF files I’m shooting are already compressed. I could take a look in the menu and double check with the manual.

      Ultimately I think what we will do is when we edit the images we will save them as 17.5 MP images for our clients. It’s just too much space otherwise. Families and brides don’t really have a need for 36MP. We save the RAW originals just in case.

      April 7, 2012 at 7:05 PM

  3. Hey Tomas,

    I just switched the settings on the NEF compression from “Lossless Compressed” to “Compressed” and my 32GB card jumped from allowing 400 pictures to 589 (so I’m assuming the actual count will be much higher than that). My guess (from a bit of calculation) is that the actual count will be around 1,100 images. Also, if I switch from 14-bit to 12-bit, the displayed image count jumps to 750+ but I don’t think I want to do that because I love the way this camera records color, and I wouldn’t want to compromise that.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:36 AM

  4. Thomas

    Hi Michel. Thanks for the update. Given that you now have experience with both the D800 and D700, any advice for someone moving up from a DX camera? There are still D700s around, brand new, for about 30% less than the D800. Would you say there’s enough of a benefit from what you’re seeing to make it worth moving to the D800 and its (much) bigger files? I know, of course, that it depends on what someone is doing with the camera–my pursuit is a mixed bag of portraiture, landscapes, and an occasional event. The largest prints I’ve ever done are 11×14.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    • Hey Thomas,

      I have a feeling that the D700 will be discontinued soon and Nikon will release a different camera to bridge the gap between the D300s and the D800.

      To be totally honest, the D700 images are fantastic and I still LOVE that camera. I’m keeping both in fact. The downside is that it feels like a much heavier camera to lug around, it has no video and has a third of the megapixels.

      If a photog is ok with 12MP and doesn’t care about video, then the D700 is a phenomenal body to work with. It really is.

      The D800 is worth buying if you wanna dabble with video and you want some of the most incredibly sharp images you’ve ever seen in a compact DSLR.

      April 9, 2012 at 7:55 PM

  5. Thomas

    P.S. Hope you had (are having) a joyous Easter!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:41 PM

  6. Joe Leong

    Great write up. Picking my D800 tomorrow. I shall also pop around the corner for some donuts

    April 19, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    • Thanks Joe! Hopefully my review was helpful in making that decision. I will be doing another review once I actually photograph a wedding with this beast (which won’t be until Late May).

      I will say I shot an engagement session with it the other day, and I’m glad I used this camera! The dynamic range of this camera is fantastic and I was able to pull some great details from shot taken up against the sun (to get sunflare)

      Take it easy!

      April 21, 2012 at 9:30 AM

  7. Oliver

    Great review. Echoes my feelings, with the addition that I was hungering to get video capabilities too. I am a bit panicked about file size and am thinking shooting her in raw and switching back to jpeg for low level stuff. Although I am curious-and I’ll have to test this – maybe with the dynamic range I won’t need to shoot HDR for commercial real estate and can just pull and push one massive raw file… It’s also making me think about my medium format film wedding days when shooting 15 or 20 rolls of 220 was shooting a tonne! Maybe it’s time to slow done the trigger finger again? One thing is for certain, I’m not sending it back ;-). (although truth be told, what I was really wishing for was stripped down D4, as the D700 was to the D3. Maybe a firmware pixel reduction like you say. Are we really asking for less pixels? Amazing!)

    April 20, 2012 at 11:53 PM

    • This camera is PERFECT for commercial work. It was recently compared to the Hasselblad H4D-40 in ISO performance (which it blew it out of the water), details (which was neck and neck), dynamic range (the H4D-40 won in bring details back from the highlights and the D800 won in bringing details out of the darks) and dynamic range (which the Hasselblad won by a small margin in color depth). So you basically have the capability of a medium format camera at the hand of a $3,000 DSLR. That’s a win for Nikon, I think.

      You can watch the video here: http://fstoppers.com/video-the-nikon-d800-vs-hasselblad-h4d-40

      If you’re looking for a mini D4, wait for the Nikon D400 to come out and I think you’ll have just that.

      I don’t really work with HDR, but I did an engagement photo session with a couple the other day and I shot a bunch of photos into the sun (while setting), and I was able to pull all the details in their faces while maintaining details and colors and a steady exposure around them. It’s unbelievable what you can do with this camera.

      April 21, 2012 at 10:56 AM

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