The sublime Vs. The ridiculous

Arguably the Nikon F and the Nikon D800 are the same camera just seen four decades apart. How do they compare?

Ok, I’ll admit this isn’t a proper comparison as I’ve only shot one roll through my F so far (and my D800 is still pretty new to me). But while shooting that roll I took the D800 along to shoot some similar images, so these six are of the same subjects (but this isn’t a shot for shot comparison.

highlands_1

I should qualify my initial comment – in my eyes both these cameras are the same. Both are top class professional tools that are built to perform and to last. Both have the same compact yet slightly awkwardly bulky feel to them, both weigh a similar amount and both have round viewfinder windows (Ok, maybe that last one is stretching the point slightly). To me they are Nikon’s first 35mm film SLR and Nikon’s first 35mm DSLR that you can shoot like it uses film.

highlands_2

I shoot film like it’s the first step in the process of creating an image. My aim is always to get a nice printable negative first and foremost, with exposure, contrast and local dodging and burning adjustments made during printing to develop that negative image into the finished print. I think it was Ansel Adams that said the negative is the musical score, the print is the performance.

highlands_3

That never really worked with digital cameras. There was only ever so much you could pull form a raw file. It felt like shooting slide film. Great when it went well, but you had to do all the thinking up front to avoid blowing highlights out or blocking up shadows. The Fuji X100 showed me that maybe it didn’t have to be this way, and the D800 proudly delivers what I was looking for.

I’m sure in a few years we’ll wonder what the fuss was about dynamic range and bit-depths, but right now it still matters.

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I shoot the D800 like I would a film SLR (albeit one with autofocus, VR and a crazy good matrix metering system) knowing I can pull a good image out the end of the process. These shots, like my recent lake District ones, were pretty dull and uninspiring straight out of the camera. Flat and grey, just like the weather. With the monochrome film in the F I simply scanned the negative and applied the kind of punchy contrast that I used to print in the darkroom as even the brightest sky and darkest shadow have something you can pull back out of them, easy. But I wasn’t sure where to start with the D800 raw files.

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Where I did start was to torture some pixels. Cranking up the contrast, clarity, vibrance sliders, dialling in a high contrast tone curve and then using a 1.5 stop digital neutral density grad filter to recover the skies and balance the frames. What surprised me was that the raw file took this abuse without showing any (or maybe only little) sign of distress. That surprised me. The results look like a well exposed medium format Velvia transparency, the difference being I can do this with every shot, not just 3 or 4 out of a roll of 15 like I used to manage with Velvia.

Further experimentation needed, I think. These images are very different to the set I shot on film with my F, but they are both the best that the respective cameras could produce, and both are to my taste, if for different reasons.

By way of overall comparison (such as it is) I think these are my two favourite cameras right now. Just like my hands, my brain may favour one over the other, but I don’t think I could choose one over the other.

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