That’s Hot Body as opposed to Hard Body which I would use to describe the D4.

I bought the D800E to use as a second body to the D4 and to replace my retiring D2Xs – these are my impressions and experiences after three months of use. I’m going to dispense with the technical comparisons because those have been done in extensive detail by many others so I’ll stick to my real world usage impressions. Oh, and by the way, the reasons I chose the D800E over say, a second D4, D800 or D600 are as follows:

  • I wanted a body to handle the bulk of my studio work so I wanted a larger output image than the D4 can produce.
  • The D800E is only $300 more than the D800 so if it gives even slightly sharper results in the studio, it’s worth it.
  • I didn’t want to manage different types of memory cards. Both the D4 and D800E can use CF, the D600 takes only SD.
  • I do a fair bit of HDR work so I wanted to make sure I can bracket 5, 7 or 9 exposures automatically. The D600 will only do 3.

Overview

First of all, it feels small in my hand. Even with the Nikon MB-D12 grip it doesn’t have the same perfect ergonomics that the D4 does. On the plus side, however, without the grip, it’s plenty light enough for walking around on vacation without it starting to feel like an anvil by day’s end. So why bother with the grip? Two reasons: firstly for comfortable vertical shooting and secondly, and this was a big one for me, you can get the Nikon BL-5 battery holder which allows you to use the same EN-EL18 batteries as the D4. These give you a lot more frames on a charge than the stock EN-EL15 (2600 vs 900) and also allow you to travel with a single charger if you’re carrying these two bodies.

The controls are reasonably well placed on the D800E with the exception of the flash button (to adjust flash mode and exposure compensation). For some reason, Nikon chose to put this on the left side between the lens mount and the connector sockets. I can never seem to find it when I want it. I also don’t like the memory card door. It’s too easy to inadvertently slide it which makes it pop open. The D4’s door is much more secure and is impossible to accidentally open. The popup flash seems kind of pointless in a camera like this but I’ll allow that it could be useful in commander mode if you’re triggering remote speedlights.

My Configuration

For work, 90% of the time, I have mine configured as follows:

In Use

Ok then, let’s get down to what it does well and where it falls down a bit. On the plus side, image quality is superb with outstanding detail and enough pixels to yield a 16 x 24 inch image at 300 DPI. This kind of capability was previously reserved for medium format digital backs at several times the cost. But don’t put the Hasselblad on eBay just yet.

The D800 may have lots of pixels, but they’re still crammed together in a 35mm sized sensor compared to a medium format back where you’ve got lots of big fat pixels spread out over a much bigger sensor. This means it’s a little more susceptible to softness due to camera shake (that micro vibration is now spanning pixels) although with careful technique or on a tripod this shouldn’t be an issue. There have also been reports that the higher resolving power can reveal flaws in some lenses that previously seemed acceptable. I can’t speak for third party lenses but I’ve not seen this with my Nikon lenses in real world conditions. Even lower end optics like the 28-300 have produced good results for me.

Because of the tight packing of pixels, it’s also a little noisier than the D4 although Nikon have done a pretty good job of controlling this. You can’t really tell until you get up into the higher ISO ranges. I regularly use the D4 at ISO 1600 for wildlife and have gotten usable (ie. publishable) results as high as ISO 4500. No way with the D800E – ISO 800 is pretty much the limit beyond which noise is quite evident.

The autofocus system and image processing is the same in both bodies so performance should be the same, but it’s not. I find that the D4 is both quicker to acquire focus and is also able to lock focus on smaller targets. I don’t know why but that’s what I’ve experienced.

With regard to speed, no one will be using the D800E for sports or wildlife – the frame rate (4 fps) is too slow and feels glacial compared to the D4.

Where it really shines is image quality at low ISO under controlled conditions. In other words, as a studio camera, there is no other DSLR that will provide better resolution or detail, smoother tonal gradation or the huge file size that this body will. If you do landscapes, you’ll be able to make 24″ prints with no scaling and sofa sized prints with amazing clarity. If you need to, you’ll also be surprised at how much you can crop and still get good results.

Conclusion

There is no such thing as the perfect camera that excels at every aspect of photography but the D800E is pretty darn good at what it does. If you work in the studio or shoot landscapes or macro subjects, you’re going to love it. At ISO 100 -200, on a tripod, with carefully controlled lighting, it has no equal. The D800E may not be the speed demon that the D4 is but when “used as directed” you may very well get the finest quality images you’ve ever seen from a DSLR.