Last post in this saga.
I ain't the biggest gearhead in the sandbox, but I do know the territory pretty well. For 25 years I've deliberately made it a point to experience a wide variety of cameras of most types: I've tested dozens of cameras, owned dozens of cameras, and seen and handled literally hundreds more. I wrote the first of my many published camera reviews in 1989, in Darkroom Photography magazine. I was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine and Editor-in-Chief of Photo Techniques. Among the 150 or so published articles I have to my credit are more than 80 columns for the British Black & White Photography magazine and a number of the annual "World's 25 Best Cameras" features written for Photo Techniques.
My concerns and concentrations have sort of shimmied and segued back and forth between professional reviewing and my needs and enthusiasms in my own work. My weaknesses: I have relatively limited experience with toy cameras, underwater cameras, specialty aerial cameras, subminiature cameras, medium-format digital backs and pinhole cameras, infrared shooting, Foveon sensors, and extreme telephoto lenses.
Most other things I have at least a passing familiarity with. I've used many cameras on loan for periods ranging from a number of days to more than a year, and at least snapped a few frames with a wide variety of cameras ranging from a plastic Diana to a Deardorff 8x10*. I've tried literally hundreds of lenses. The first digital camera I used was the .7-MP Agfa ePhoto 1280 in 1997, and currently I own five of them, including an Olympus OM-D and a Sony A900. I also own eight film cameras including a whole plate Chamonix and two Rolleiflex 6008AFs.
There are of course a whole lot of cameras I haven't used, or tried, or seen.
Cutting to the chase: all things considered, the Nikon D800E and Nikkor AF-S 35mm ƒ/1.4G lens is the best overall photographic device of any description I have used thus far in my life.
• • •
That said, I'm not entirely certain that it's the best camera out there now, or even that it's actually appreciably better than the Olympus OM-D E-M5 for image quality in the small to medium-sized prints I make. My intuition—and that's all it is—is that digital technology has recently rounded another curve in its ongoing technological development, in that the engineers at the camera manufacturers are actively responding to the photographic community's concerns about dynamic range. This is leading to a new class of sensor and new emphases of implementation—and a new, higher level of image quality that is exciting and gratifying. These new FF Nikons; the D7000 and the Pentax K-5II; the newest rangefinder-style Fujis, starting with the X100 and definitely including the great X-Pro1; the current best Micro 4/3 camera, the OM-D; the NEX-7 and even the supersweet little Sony RX100 all seem to belong to this movement. There may be more. The Canon 5D Mark III, for one, might also belong in this group, though I don't know a lot about that one.
Although evolutionary in nature, this trend feels like a breakthrough to me. (The next breakthrough—currently still hull down on the horizon—will be when we're able to comfortably keep our digital cameras for seven to ten years instead of two to five. But that's a post for another day.)
• • •
Now then...people ask. But I don't usually see why it should be interesting to others what I actually do. As a photographer, I'm just another photography-phile, just like almost all of you. I don't see why my decisions amount to a bigger hill of beans than anyone else's.
But here's what I did. I dropped the rental camera off at UPS, and turned right around and drove to Mike Crivello's Cameras, my local camera store, and bought a D800.
I opted for the plain-jane version as opposed to the hot-rodded "E." For one thing, they had it in stock. The one I bought happens to be the very same one I handled the other day.
This is my first snap with the new camera, taken this morning. My dear doggie, a quarter-pit named Lulu. Ain't she handsome? Best-natured animal of any species I ever met. (At least towards me. She gets after some other critters pretty good, including my son's friend A.J. whom she doesn't cotton to for some reason. His friend Caleb is wary of her too. And she routinely scares the crap out of delivery people....)
The process I've been going through recently grew out of one central insight. I realized I was wasting a whole lot of emotional energy on the idea that I'm still going to be a B&W film photographer. Realistically, I have to give that idea up. That's a big step; black and white film photography and its entire culture was a huge part of my life for better than twenty years. And I loved it dearly. Still do.
But for me it's like resolving to walk everywhere when you have a car in the garage: you'll do it for a while, but the car is just too damn much easier. I wish I wasn't so lazy, but I am. I have to learn how to do exactly what I want to do with modern tools.
I really will have to sell most of my other cameras—along with the lens I bought, this is a very expensive camera. I've decided to keep just two digital cameras (one DSLR and one mirrorless) and one film camera**. For the DSLR, the D600 would have been a more sensible choice. Twenty-four megapixels is enough, and the D600's lighter build quality suits my usage level: I'm not hard on my cameras these days. But for some reason I just wanted the higher level model this time.
As for the D800, Nikon just seems to do this every once in a while: they hit a balance that seems clearly to exceed the sum of the specs. The image quality of this camera is truly exciting even for a jaded old photo-dawg like me. It sees in the dark, it's got oceans of pixels, and the highlight rendering seems to me like a long-simmering problem solved. And I find the camera itself marvelously comfortable and transparent to use, a highly refined design that falls to hand just right.
Lest you think that my purchase constitutes some sort of ringing, clarion endorsement of Nikon, though, let me bring you back to earth by pointing out that my last two major camera purchases were singularly, even rather inspiredly, unwise. I bought an A900 at the very end of its product run, for instance, paying full price for a camera that was just about to go past its sell-by date, that had been augmented by a significantly less expensive but nearly-as-good little brother (the A850), and that hadn't been terribly popular to begin with—certainly less popular overall than it deserved to be. It was a poor move on my part from a practical standpoint, and I will lose a significant amount of money on that one, as well as on the Don Quixote view camera. So, another facet of my ambition for the D800 is the hope that it will turn out to be a sensible, practical, and wise move. But, really, what I do is not necessarily any less dumb than the happy dumbass things most cameraholics do from time to time.
And I'm happy.
So that's it.
*For a while it was my ambition to collect a set of good or decent pictures taken with as broad a range as possible of different cameras and techniques. I gave this up as being sort of senseless, as well as too dorky by about a factor of two.
**Or possibly two, should the whole plate view camera prove unsalable. As one reader suggested, though, if I can't sell that on, I can always set it up in the corner of the living room as a superlative piece of decor and a conversation starter. That'll work. It's a true beauty.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Omer: "Nice image of Lulu, who definitely appears to have some opinions."
Dave: "As a very satisfied D800 user, I'm curious how much difference (if any) you see between the 'E' and standard model in real-world shooting. Maybe a quick follow-up post after you've used the new body for a few weeks?"
Mike replies: Okay.
Robert Harshman: "Congrats Mike, it's a great system, I ordered a D800 today as a backup to a D800E and primary if shooting products/people. Like you say, I think it's the best SLR I've ever held in my hands/used and I do have access to a Canon 5D3, a great camera too, but not quite a D800/E.
"A couple of notes on the D800/E use. Keep the ISO as low as possible cause you lose DR with every push up and it's not small. By the time you get to ISO 1600 or 3200 you have lost 4 stops of DR. And based on my own test and others reviews, don't push the ISO beyond 1600. You are better off beyond that under exposing and pushing the shadows up in PS.
"And lastly, but perhaps most useful is try Photo Ninja RAW converter, it's automatic smart lighting adjustment should blow your mind vs. ACR and you actually get a few more pixels as if that matters here. Seems most DSLR's actually capture more pixels than the stated dimension and what all other RAW converters produce.
"Enjoy the current top of the hill :-) "
Riley: "It's good to be happy."
Jeff Smith: "Enjoyed the posts on the 800E and hope you thoroughly enjoy the camera too. I sometimes think that coveting new gear is a sickness, but you like what you like and new gear is nifty. I bought two new cameras this year—well, three if you count the used Nikon 35Ti film camera, which is a jewel of an old semi-compact film camera, but by golly is it slow in operation to today's gear.... And as I tell my wife I sold two cameras this year too, so all-in-all not too bad. Heck I even sold the old Yashica T4 for more than I paid for ages ago. And now I can't stop thinking of the Fuji X-E1 and that wonderful little Sony RX1. I guess it never ends, does it. But really do we want it to?"
Mike replies: Not me. It's fun!