Pro-Spective: Who is the D800 for? Part 3

This is the third and final installment of the Pro-Spective series on the new Nikon D800 DSLR. (Read the first, with Sam Bié, and the second, with Tim Kemple.) The series sprouted out of personal curiosity. I wanted a replacement for the D700 I sold in late 2011. But when the D800 was, at long last, announced, I didn’t jump to place my pre-order. There were some hang-ups; it wasn’t what I’d expected. So I went about exploring the question of who the D800 is really great for… or not so great for. The result is this series. It’s by no means comprehensive. It’s just an attempt to add the perspectives of three great, professional action/adventure photographers to the mix. I picked them because I know them and I know that they have a good handle on tech like this. Talking to these guys and writing these blogs has certainly helped me get a better grip on the pros and cons of the D800. Below, I’ll post Corey Rich’s thoughts, and then I’ll tell you what I’ve decided and why.

A quick aside: After reading the first two parts of this series, another photographer queried on Facebook “No D4?” He was curious why I focused on the D800 when the D4 is clearly the most badass camera in Nikon’s line. The answer is simple: the D4 is a no-brainer. If you have the scratch, you’ll buy it over the D800. Or you’ll buy both. I think the D4 is a superior camera for most users. Only landscape photographers and studio photographers will prefer the D800’s 36-megapixel resolution to the D4’s much-faster frame rate. One of the only downsides of the D4 is its size. It’s a bigger, heavier camera than the D800. Also worth noting, the D800 is smaller and lighter than the D700, which makes it especially nice for taking up, say, into the mountains, as Corey Rich mentions below.

Corey Rich headshotCorey Rich

The California-based photographer Corey Rich is Co-owner and Vice-president the stock/assignment agency Aurora Photos. His images have appeared on the covers of publications from Outside, to Rock & Ice, to the Washington Post Magazine and many more. He’s produced videos for The North Face, Patagonia, and even Nikon. His latest video project, Why, is a release video highlighting the capabilities of the D4. Why went viral and has over one million views between YouTube, Vimeo, and the Nikon website. Corey is one of those pros who’s both perpetually busy and somehow always willing to stop and chat. When I sent him a list of typed questions, he fired back a voice memo recorded on his iPhone, 1950’s executive style (“Janet, take down this letter…”). Off the top of his head, he reeled off some very insightful answers. Read on…

What cameras are you currently shooting with? And do you plan to add the D800 to your stable of bodies?
Three D7000’s for video and a D3S when I’m shooting action that requires speed. Then I have a D700 that’s about to get replaced with the D800. I’m really excited about the new camera. The way I break those cameras down: D7000’s are for video. The D3S is for shooting action sports — skiing, mountain biking, anything with speed where I need nine frames per second. And the D700 is what I take into the mountains when video is not a consideration … which seems to be rarer and rarer these days. In fact, one of the challenges of the past few years has been I’ve been forced to use the D7000 in the mountains, when I really would like to be using the D700, because it’s an FX body and I can use my entire quiver of lenses. But I’ve been forcing the D7000 into my bag because of the full HD video capabilities. As a result, I’ve ended up with a second quiver of lenses, which are DX lenses. So I’m hugely excited about the D800.

What do you think Nikon was going for with this move? Do you agree with the grumblings that the D800 addresses a different niche, a different user, than the D700? 
From my perspective, I think this is a huge step forward. One of the things I hear from many of my high-end commercial and advertising clients is they want large file sizes.  They want gigantic files that give them maximum resolution and the ability to crop. And I’ve already alluded to the fact that I need a camera that does both high-end still photography in an FX format and full-HD video with all of the functionality of the D4. It’s very exciting to see that this has finally arrived in the form-factor of the D700.

Do you feel the D800, with its relatively slow frame rate and massive files, will be good for the type of things you’re shooting? If not, who do you think would benefit most from its still capabilities?
The only complaint that I’m seeing folks mumble about is the four frames per second. For me, that’s just a non-issue. I think you always choose the right tool for the right job. If you’re heading out to go sport climbing, you bring short quickdraws, and if you’re heading out to climb a wall you have long slings that you convert into quickdraws. I think the same is really true with photography and filmmaking. If I’m shooting action, I’m going to bring the D4 for that speed. And if I’m not shooting action, I don’t want to lug around that heavy camera, quite frankly. The D800 is exactly [what I need in that situation].

It looks like the D300s has been discontinued — is there any possibility that the D400 will go full frame and be the D700 successor that some were hoping for?
I don’t know anything more than the next guy in terms of strategically what Nikon is thinking in terms of how to roll these cameras out. For me, as a working professional [who is] fifty percent still photography at this point and fifty percent motion (it might even be leaning more in the direction of motion), the D4, combined with the D800 or several D800s, will be the perfect combination of cameras for almost any job that I would go out to do.

To add one more piece in the puzzle: I contacted an old friend who works as a fashion photographer in Hong Kong. I was curious about Nikon’s front-and-center claim that the D800’s resolution would make it a rival of medium-format cameras. His response? “The D800 looks really solid, but in no way like a Medium Format Camera simply because of the sensor size of a medium format back — to me it seems like too many pixels for that sized sensor.” That’s the first question mark/complaint many have about the D800. He went on, saying, “I have actually heard that a lot of pro model cameras are going to reduce the number of pixels on the sensors, ending the pixel count race.” This was precisely the tack that Nikon has been taking for years, leaving its megapixel count low but pushing image quality and low-light performance up, even in most of its high-end full-frame cameras. In short, not everyone is sold. We’ll have to wait and see what all the users think after getting their D800s in March.

So what will I do? As an amateur who shoots stills and motion for my job as Communications Manager at a major outdoor company, I already use a D7000 to shoot HD video. I sold my D700 in the hopes that the D800 would bring much-needed video capability. Now that it’s here, and I’ve had a chance to hear a lot of arguments pro and con, I think I’m going to go with the D800 after all. Here are three reasons why:

1. Sam Bie’s comments that 36 megapixels is too many struck a chord with me. With his 12-megapixel D700, he shoots amazing photos that get printed as two-page spreads in magazines. Plus, he felt the D800’s low frame rate was a downer. But in the end, I decided that Sam is more of a traditional still shooter than I am. He doesn’t seem very interested in video yet, and he doesn’t see the need for his cameras to be much different than they are now. He’s more conservative when it comes to his gear and never misses an opportunity to point out the importance of technique over equipment. (Imagine that!). For me, HD video is as important as the FX sensor. And if the past is any indicator of the future, as computers get faster and memory cheaper, big file size won’t be much of an issue. Video is already so much more memory and processor intensive that 36-megapixel stills, that it seems a moot point.

2. Tim Kemple operates on a totally different level than I do, but his comments about frame rate were interesting. “I see no reason why you wouldn’t take the d800 out to shoot climbing,” he said. “Climbing is the slowest ‘action sport’ there is. It probably isn’t even an action sport. A better question might be, ‘Why would you not take the d800 out to shoot climbing?’ Or ‘What would you not shoot with the d800?'” In the above interview, Corey Rich answers that question: “Skiing, mountain biking, anything with speed where I need nine frames per second.” Rich is talking about the D3s, but you can just swap D4 in for that. Those are the things you would not shoot with the D800. Since I don’t really shoot that stuff — I’m mostly shooting nature, events, climbing, product, and macro photography — I think the D800 is safe.

3. Corey Rich laid down a cardinal truth about photography, or any craft, that I’d been trying to ignore: “You always choose the right tool for the job.” Looking back, I realize that I wanted the D800 to be my all-in-one camera. I basically wanted the D4, but in the D700 form-factor and for the D700 price point. That’s just not realistic. If I ever really need an FX camera that shoots nine frames per second, I’ll just have to rent one. If it’s not worth the cash outlay, then maybe I don’t really need it, and the D7000 and D800 will be plenty good for me. Guess I’d better place that pre-order. 

As always, comments are welcome. Do you plan to get the D800? I’d love to hear your reasons for or against.

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

5 thoughts on “Pro-Spective: Who is the D800 for? Part 3”

  1. Call me old fashioned but having grown up on the decicive moment school, I believe in waiting for that great moment… Not shooting 10 frames around that moment, hoping one was it.
    Great idea this blog, we dont take a knife to a gun fight, and youre right there will never be one tool for every job, how could there be a FWD/off road forumla one racing car. Sounds like the d800 is the the great next step. Nice work.

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