Saturday, June 9, 2012

Buy the Nikon D4 or the D800?

Anna Maria Perez De Tagle sings with her Broadway friends aboard the Hornblower Hybrid in NYC. (Nikon D800, 1/200 @ f2.8, 4000 ASA)

The question was never IF I should buy the new Nikon cameras, but rather WHAT I should buy. Get the flagship Nikon D4, with the 10 FPS or the D800 with the massive 36 megapixels? I know that this is a first world problem, but it is a dilemma that all professionals face. 
I have always tried to make equipment choices based on need, not some perceived notion of what gear I need to use. Since I do not have the luxury of an equipment allowance from a large company, my equipment purchases have a direct effect on my bottom line. My start in this profession was as a staff photographer for the Ft Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.  They provided Nikon N90 bodies, but I was a Canon guy back then. I bought my own Canon EOS 1N bodies, zooms and even a 400 2.8. Sports photography was important enough for me to spend my cash to use the best available gear I could get. When I quit my job to freelance full time in 2001, sports photography was still a major part of my income. Now, over 10 years into my solo career, that is no longer the case. Corporate and advertising photography comprise about 80% of my work, and the remainder is editorial. Since I do not NEED the speed of the 10FPS  Nikon flagship camera, should I still get it? I had the Nikon D3, an unbelievable camera body that actually influenced my to switch from Canon over 4 years ago. So the question is, do you buy a Nikon D4 or a D800? 
I actually dislike most of the equipment reviews I read online. I don’t like the safe situations these cameras are put in. I want the equipment to be put to the test  - real assignments and real conditions (of course, I would recommend keeping a backup camera in the bag just in case). And, most importantly, I want a real professional photographer using it, I am not interested in what a writer/hobbyist/photographer thinks about it. My first actual professional shoot with it can be found here. Since that was such a specialized shoot, I cannot really use it as a review of the camera for daily use.

Anna Maria Perez De Tagle 
My first real test for the Nikon D800 was to see if it could perform in low light concert conditions. I am friends with Anna Maria Perez De Tagle. She was a Disney Channel actress on the Hannah Montana TV show and the Camp Rock movies. She is now starring in the Broadway musical “Godspell”. I flew up to NYC to photograph her as she headlined a charity concert for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The concert was held on the Hornblower Hybrid as it sailed around Manhattan waterway. The light on stage was 2 small leko type lights, except that they were much smaller and less powerful. The exposure wound up being 1/200th @f2.8 @ 4000 ASA. Of course, you need a fast enough shutter so the performer doesn’t blur from motion, but a low enough ASA so the quality of the images are still good. I was never comfortable shooting beyond 3200 with my D700 or D3. I know the image would be “ok”, but I want to have really great image quality- clean blacks, nice color, good detail in the highlight and shadows. I think the D800 handled the low light like a champ. Good color saturation, nice contrast and very pretty right out of the camera. Looking at the frame, I wouldn’t guess that it was 4000 ASA, looks more like 1600 ASA to me. The nice thing about the D800 is the autofocus is fast and accurate. The frame rate is slow, but there is no lag. You can track and fire away. 

(Nikon D800 - 1/200th @f3.5, 160 ASA)

My first lit job with the D800 was going to be my most important gauge. Since most of my work is lit portraits, this would be important. It was a shoot that was simple, but telling. This magazine shoot was of a high level executive. The art director wanted a vibrant portrait that would show her personality. The key light was a Profoto 7B with a beauty dish, the backlight was natural, a backlit overexposed background doorway. Exposure was 1/200th @f3.5, 160 ASA with the D800 set to LARGE (Raw + JPG) with a 70-200 VR1 zoom. The files turned out amazing. The areas in her red jacket and back shirt held good detail but more importantly the overexposed areas in the window looked nice. The dynamic range on the sensor is exceptional. It is able to hold both the dark areas as well as the highlights. Early speculation about the D800 wondered if the super high megapixel count would reveal deficiencies in the lens and show up on the image. I didn’t see one thing that would indicate that. 

1/160th @ f3.5, 4000 ASA.
(1/250th @f4, 10,000 ASA)
My first test of the Nikon D4 was at a convention. Low light stage shots are a necessary at these kinds of jobs. You cannot use a flash, so it is good to see how much you can push your camera. I shot the D4 and D800 next to each other at 4000 ASA to see if I could tell a difference. Same lens, same light in the same exact environment. The images matched up pretty well. I couldn't tell the difference in the files. Blacks were clean - no weirdness in the shadows and the highlights were in check. (I shot the D800 in Medium -20.3 MP. I think that for a majority of the day to day stuff I shoot, 36 MP would be too much). Just out of curiosity, I also shot some at 10,000 ASA. Here you really see the image start to break apart. Blacks have that mucky look with weird noise. Highlights are a bit dirty with noise as well. 
Waterski jumper Freddy Kruger
(1/1250 @f4, 1000 ASA)
I think that 10,000 is just past the effective range of good looking photos for the D4. 

Finally, I got to shoot what the D4 does best. I photographed professional Waterski athlete Freddy Krueger jumping in Lake Eola. He was in promoting the new Soaked Waterski Festival that will be held in Orlando on September 7 & 8. The challenge was to shoot action photos from a powerboat traveling 35 MPH of a waterski jumper hitting the ramp at 70 MPH. As expected, the Nikon D4 performed like a champ. The camera's AF found and tracked Freddy quickly and accurately. The combination of the D4 with the 70-200 VR1 was sharp and accurate. I couldn't ask for anything better. 

So as you probably have figured out by now, I bought both new cameras. The D800 was a no brainer. To get a DSLR with 36 MP is just amazing. The files for my lit portraits are going to be 2/3 larger with better image quality. There really is no more need for a medium format camera. That is too bad, cause I was looking for a reason to buy the Hasselblad! The poor decision may have been getting the D4. Don't take it the wrong way, the D4 is amazing. Other than a poorly placed vertical AF button and the introduction of the XQD card, it is just a rock solid camera in the mold of the D3. Although it is "better" than the D3, I am not sure if it was worth the upgrade. The D3 (and the D3s) are so good that I don't think the D4 is a big enough upgrade to warrant the $6000 price. 
I know that I have not mentioned the video features in the cameras, but that is because I shoot so little of it. In the future, if my business evolves more into video, that may change my mind a bit. Also, I know the XQD is blazingly fast and I actually like shooting onto it. However, the fact that no one else has those readers or cards makes it very difficult to work with when you are dealing with other shooters and editors at an event. The CF/SD option on the D800 is what I would've preferred on the D4 as well. Like everything else, the gear you get are just tools for you to do your job. I think that no matter what you shoot, the D800 belongs in your bag! If you already own a D3 or D3S, I would probably wait till the price comes down a bit. 


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  2. My main Reasons for the D4:
    1)Speed of focus - I can't use my 85 f/1.4 or 24 f/1.4 on my D3 or on a D800 and have it focus fast enough to get in focus shots of toddlers or other erratically moving things.
    2)Ethernet port - I use a Netgear WNCE2001 and Mophie Powerstation Gen 2 which works quite well.
    D4 Wireless Tethering

    Oh - I still want a D800 to shoot 36 megapixels through the Nikon lenses. I just need the speed of focus that the D4 gives me.

    1. Dan , that is a great idea to use the Netgear device. I actually own that as well. I will try to see if I can get that to work. I already use the WT-4 to transmit to my iPad, but I'd like to see if that would work as well.

  3. Thanks for the review Preston. I'm a wedding photographer here in Seattle. I used to shoot all Nikon d700s and recently just upgraded one of my cameras to see if I would notice a difference and could improve my photos a little. I had the opportunity to choose between a Nikon (D800, D3s, D4). I weighed all the pros and cons, read reviews like yours which helped me cement my decision. I went with the Nikon D800. I just shot the D800 a couple of days ago and was able to review some of my raw files. I must say I was impressed. Low light photos looked better than my D700s, the dynamic range is awesome, and the raws contain so much info, adjustments in Lightroom look amazing. The af is better than the D700, especially in low contrast situations and low light. I could grab focus in moments where I knew the D700 would normally fail. There were also times when I didn't have a long lens mounted, but saw a moment and would shoot with the lens I had on. Many times it would be with a 35mm 1.4G. I'm able to crop the D800 images down to make it look like I'm zoomed in without any loss of quality! Amazing! On the 12mp D700 files the same crop would have been mushy and lacking any detail. I was a little nervous using the d800 for the first time. I wasn't sure how it would respond to the unpredictableness of some weddings. I now trust the d800 completely. I used 3200 iso frequently through the night just to test what it could do. Looking at the raws, it looks like I could've went to 6400 iso no problem. It has become my new main camera. I won't need a D4. I dreaded the thought of carrying 2 cameras that size all day long. Besides that I'd be working just to pay for the cameras. The d700 is still amazing though =) and will be used to compliment the d800. Hopefully I'll get some new photos up of the wedding I shot with the D800 (Rhae & Sam), but it probably won't be for another month.Thanks again for the review. It's very helpful to read when shopping for new gear!

    <a href=">C2 Photography</a>

    P.S. To Dans comment. You need a d4 to speed up the focus for toddlers using a 24mm 1.4 or a 85mm 1.4?! Both those lenses use their own motors, and the D800 uses the exact same focus module as the D4, so I'm not sure where you're coming from there. I shoot 1 year old birthdays and toddlers all the time and even the d700 with those lenses and they focus just fine. Don't get me wrong a D4 would be great, but it just doesn't make financial sense. Not when the upgrade cycles of cameras seems very fast these days. I think the d4 probably makes the most sense for sports photographers who have less leeway as to where they can position themselves and less control over the lighting, and need the high frame frate to get the most opportunities to get a focused shot as well as a flattering photo. I read somewhere where someone compared sport's subjects to bouncing sticks of jello. I can only imagine some of the rejected photos they have. They would probably be very funny!

    1. D4's shutter speed (frames per second) is much faster than D800. With the latter there are many missed shots.

  4. i just shot a set covering a fabric art quilt exhibition. i was using 28mm f2.8afd nikkor and a sb800 mounted on the camera. most of the pieces were 2 dimensional and mounted on black muslin. Was shooting D800e at iso 100. using the center focus spot mostly. the panels were about 8x10 feet, shot from about 8 feet. if you zoom in you can actually see threads. i was worried about aliasing supposedly fabric being a particular problem, but it did not happen even with direct flash and f5.6

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