D800: Meet the new boss

The saying goes, go big or go home.

After four and a half years with my Nikon D300 I have traded it and my DX lenses in for an upgrade. Four years is a long time in electronics given the rapid pace of innovation and development and so while I’ve been resisting buying a new camera simply for the sake of it I have had a mental list of improvements over the D300 that I have been waiting for a new camera to fully satisfy. That happened this year.

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I take gear buying seriously as it can get quite (very!) expensive, but I also believe it is worth waiting/saving and buying the right thing first time round. My D300 was a case in point, a bit of a stretch financially at the time but when you break it down over the time I’ve had it then it was excellent value. There were four main things I wanted from a new camera;

1 – To be at least as tough and reliable as the D300 (with similar stellar auto-focus performance).

2 – A full frame sensor so I could use it interchangeably with my Nikon film SLRs.

3 – Increased dynamic range from a newer sensor for landscape shooting.

4 – Better noise performance at all ISO values (the D300 can be noisy even at low ISO if you don’t get the exposure spot on).

The first point rules out a lot of options as the D300 is a big, heavy tank of a camera that I find reassuring to use and is suitably comfortable to carry and shoot with all day long (as I have large hands). The second point limited me to the higher end cameras but still gave me options. The third and fourth points were pretty easy to satisfy, heck my Fuji X-100 outperforms my D300 in both areas!

So I bought a Nikon D800. Very slightly smaller than a D300 to hold, but equal or better in all the areas that I care about.

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Well done to Nikon as it feels immediately familiar and after a morning setting all the custom settings to my liking everything now falls to hand (or finger) without any bother. I’ve had limited shooting time so far, but I did manage to take my standard Forth Bridges shots during a rare outbreak of sunshine.

I like the results. A lot. The heavy sky made the scene quite easy for the metering to get a good exposure and there is a nice tonal range with good solid colours. I did very little post-processing to these and I think they are just great. The files are quite big (about 35 to 40MB for a 14-bit RAW file) but I recently upgraded my computer so no problems there, plus a year of shooting film again has improved my ‘think before pressing the shutter’ discipline so I’m not going to be reeling off hundreds of shots a week anyway.

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I’m in the process of getting a new wideangle zoom lens to replace the 12-24mm lens on my D300 and these were shot with my trusty 35mm f2.0 prime lens. However, even handheld the files produced show some remarkable image detail. The image below is a 100% crop of an area in the centre of the image above and you can pretty much count the rivets! My D300 was about a match for lower ISO medium format film with regard to detail, but this surpasses that considerably. You can see the individual diagonals on the handrail which google maps informs me is about 1000m away (ok not pin sharp, but I wasn’t using a tripod!).

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So early indications are that it’s going to be a productive 4 years with the D800. It’s arguably more camera than most people really need but that’s not to say it’s wasted on anyone who really wants it. The same could be said about the Nikon F4 I bought earlier in the year (if anything that was the D4 of it’s day) but I love that camera dearly for the way it makes me feel while shooting with it. And I think that is important. A camera I have a connection with is more likely to be taken out and used than one that I compromised on based on cold, hard, rational reasoning about features Vs price.

I look back on my SLR lineage fondly, and indeed still own most of them ~ Canon AV-1, Canon A-1, Canon T90, Bronica ETRSi, Nikon D80, Nikon D300, Nikon FE, Nikon F4, Nikon D800.

My latest should fit in well. Now to find a suitable super-wide lens…

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