After reading slews of posts by others that received their D800s, I finally received my camera from B&H last week. I have to admit that my initial enthusiasm was a bit tempered by the many reports of the D800 having autofocus issues. I began to wonder, “Just what am I getting – a good D800 or a bad D800?” (think Wizard Of Oz…). Or perhaps more appropriately, did my camera fall into the Caviar, Sardines, or Spam category?
Here’s how I defined each, based on reports from those around the internet that have received this much lauded DSLR:
Caviar – Working perfectly, no autofocus issues
Sardines – Sharp center and right focus points, but the left bank of focus points noticeable out of focus and showing high chromatic aberrations
Spam – All autofocus points out of focus, even the center, with no amount of lens adjustments able to resolve the issue
Unfortunately, I happened to get the Sardine version of the D800. Sigh…
Unlike other DSLRs, lenses, and photography items I have purchased, the D800 didn’t have me racing out the door at the crack of dawn and spending an entire day putting it to work in real life situations. With the cloud of having a potentially defective autofocus system, I instead started scouring the internet for testing strategies that could confirm whether my camera had the issue, and what was the extent of it. Nasim and I also discussed the best-of-breed techniques, which made their way into his recent post regarding “How To Quickly Test Your DSLR for Autofocus Issues.”
1) Lens Calibration
As soon as I knew my D800 was on its way, I got a LensAlign lens calibration unit from B&H. This is a compact device that is well-designed and extremely easy to use. I found that each of my lenses needed some minor adjustments. The truth is that I would never have noticed that such adjustments were warranted without the LensAlign unit. After seeing the sharpness improvement I was able to achieve relatively quickly, I can’t recommend the LensAlign unit enough. The other benefit is that it allows you to objectively confirm that your brand new shiny lens is working properly. Without such a test, you may “feel” a given lens is / is not up to snuff, but you can’t be certain. Photographers spend quite a bit of money on their hobby/profession. I urge everyone to a few extra dollars to ensure that their equipment is working properly and you are getting your money’s worth. We will post a review of the LensAlign product in the near future, but for now, check out the detailed Lens Calibration article by Nasim.
I created a test chart after downloading a Siemen’s Star from the internet and making a few modifications to it in Photoshop (you can download a copy here). I pasted the stars to piece of foam board on which I had taped a piece of graph paper. The graph paper helped with the alignment of the stars. The left and right stars were placed 13 inches from the center star, enabling me to completely cover the autofocus point with the star. I had a few post-it notes handy to label each shot so I could clearly identify the specific test scenario when I reviewed the image in Lightroom. I had L, C, R, AF (autofocus), and LV (Live View). This might seem to be overkill, but putting these post-it notes on each image helped me identify exactly what was tested in each photo.
Lightroom doesn’t store the focus point associated with each image, so without an aid such as a post-it note (or notebook identifying each shot), thus it is difficult quickly identify your focus point and whether you were using Live View or focusing through the viewfinder. I took 3 shots per combination of focal points and focus mechanism (Live View or autofocus through the viewfinder).
Here’s a photo of my test environment. I had two small floodlights aimed a the test target that enabled me to shoot at shutter speeds between 1/640 and 1/3200 at ISO 100.
I then tested the following lenses, making sure that I racked (defocused) the lens after each shot and kept the environment consistent for all tests. I only moved the tripod backward or forward to keep the chart’s stars in alignment with the autofocus points.
3) Results – Uh-Oh…
As you can see from the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 results below, the left autofocus point did poorly compared to the center and the right. Some falloff in sharpness and higher chromatic aberrations are to be expected as you move toward the corners of the lens. But the left focus point clearly has more issues than the right. Live View was able to capture a much sharper image relying on the same left focal point. Live View should provide a bit sharper image than relying on the autofocus points through the viewfinder, but the results shouldn’t be drastically different. And autofocus should be relatively consistent on both the far right and the far left.
The other lenses showed similar results, with all turning in worse results than those of the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. The Sigma 85mm 1.4 shows some blurriness and chromatic aberration on the right side, but much more on the left. You can still read some of the numbers and letters on the right side. The left side is unreadable.
4) So Now What?
I had the opportunity to send the D800 back to B&H for no charge, but after reading enough blogs regarding the potential number of cameras with this issue, I realized that it might be some time before I saw another D800, and the new unit could suffer from the same issue. Thus I bit the bullet and sent it back to Nikon. I wish I could say that I got warm fuzzies from my communications with Nikon’s Customer Service staff via the phone or email exchanges on “My Nikon,” regarding this issue, but I didn’t. I sent multiple links explaining the issue and seeking some confirmation that this problem was understood and solvable, but alas, the only response I received was essentially, “Send the camera to our repair center.” The Nikon staff was courteous and empathetic, but failed to offer much in the way of any meaningful discussion of this issue. Perhaps the support representatives and managers have been told not to say much to customers in regards to the D800 autofocus concerns. It sure would have made me feel a bit better if I heard something such as:
“Sorry to hear that you have encountered an issue with your camera. Have you followed the Nikon D800 Auto Focus Test Procedure (one might think there is one, huh?) to verify the problem? Yes ? Good. We want to assure you that we understand that some of the early D800 models indeed have an issue with the autofocus system. It would be helpful if you could send some of your test images on an SD card or via the My Nikon website. The good news is that Nikon technicians have developed a technique for quickly analyzing and resolving this issue. The staff in our Service Center has been trained in this technique. Rest assured, we will have your D800 back to you as soon as we possibly can and you will see that your D800 focuses with the pinpoint accuracy it was intended to have. And to show our appreciation for your business and to help ease the trouble of having to ship your brand new D800 back for repair, we are offering you a $75 coupon toward your next Nikon lens.”
Alas, I can dream… Am I upset? Absolutely. With all the hype, the awards, and reviews of the D800, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed when putting this gem back in the box and dropping it off at the UPS Store. During the 8 days I spent with my D800, I was pretty impressed. But I would much rather have been busy taking pictures of some stunning landscapes, writing some interesting article regarding, “How My D800 Conquered The Canadian Rockies,” or showcasing my latest D800 photo that won Digital Camera Magazine’s Photographer of the Year contest. Instead, I discovered the joy of taking test images… over… and over… and over… again.
There are many people on some camera forums that actually relish such “adventures,” but for others of us, such issues are a distraction from the reason we got into photography – to take pictures. After seeing a myriad test charts taped all over our walls, my wife looked at me and said, “You’re becoming one of ‘those people.’” “Those people?”, I asked. “Yes – the ones that take pictures of brick walls and test charts all day!”, she replied. Ouch… women can be so cruel, and unfortunately in this case, so absolutely right!!! Of course, the $73 shipping fee from UPS didn’t do much to make me feel any better…
And yet… having worked in the software and hardware industry and having been responsible for bringing new technologies to market, I am well aware that ordering such a sophisticated device as the D800 this early in its life cycle was a bit of a gamble. I have no doubt Nikon perfected the early D800s by giving each quite a bit of TLC and individual engineering attention. When they ramped up the production lines for the masses, however, they were bound to run into some snags along the way. This is normal with new product introductions – it takes some time to work out the kinks in the manufacturing lines, training programs, the workflow processes, the supporting software, and communications. There would be little innovation if perfection was the goal out of the gate. I probably sound like a Nikon apologist, but I am simply being realistic. Only those that haven’t launched a high tech product and lived to tell the tale can be so smug and play Monday morning quarterback regarding such issues.
If you aren’t up for being a bit of a guinea pig for the manufacturers and don’t accept the reality that you may have to deal with such issues with the first wave of product shipments, you may want to rethink the timing of your DSLR purchases in the future. If you have little/no tolerance for the typical issues that can accompany new product introductions, I would strongly urge you to consider waiting 6-9 months before placing your order for any sophisticated product. That is a reasonable amount of time to expect Nikon, or any other manufacturer, to work through the early production issues. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I or others should let Nikon off the hook for this one. I can identify with the frustrations of those that have experienced this autofocus issue. It just doesn’t feel right to have to send a DSLR – one that has won virtually every possible DSLR technology award handed out this year – back to the manufacturer after a week or two of use and pay the shipping costs. The good news is that on the few occasions I have needed service for my lenses, Nikon’s Service Center came through. It took them a few tries, but they eventually solved the issue or replaced the product with a new one. I am hopeful that I will soon be able to sing Nikon’s praises for how they recognized and dealt with the situation promptly and professionally, and get to use my D800 to take photos of something (anything!) other than test charts!
5) Some Takeaways
1. Risk vs. Reward – Consider whether you really fit the mold of someone that is willing to deal with some of the issues of new high tech product launches. Such issues are part of the normal innovation cycle, but they are not for everyone. This is by no means an excuse for poor quality or bad customer support, but it does take companies some time to get things right.The first few shipments of any high tech product are likely to be the ones in which issues are uncovered. The “Innovator” tag is one used to describe those that buy new technology as soon as it is announced. These people have a much higher tolerance than most consumers for dealing with new product issues, and in some cases, relish, the challenges of testing out new gear and making suggestions to the manufacturers. But if you do not understand and/or are unwilling to deal with some of the early production cycle snafus, consider waiting for some time until such issues have been ironed out.
2. Test Your Gear – You invest quite a bit of money and time in your gear and hobby/profession. Shouldn’t you know for certain that it is working properly? Up until my D800 purchase, I had not put my gear through any extensive, formal testing. Shame on me. With DSLRs becoming more sophisticated, you have to question how you can be assured that your equipment is working correctly. As those of us in the software industry know, it is dangerous to make assumptions or take it for granted that things are working as described. You can be assured that the first few photos I take with any new camera or lens will be of the LensAlign unit. There really is no good excuse not to test your lenses and ensure that your DSLR is working properly. The LensAlign unit sports a very reasonable price tag, will last for years, and can provide the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have a good copy of a given lens and it is achieving the maximum level of sharpness possible on your camera.
3. Nikon & Autofocus – The D800 is a great DSLR, despite the problems associated with my specific unit and those of others experiencing similar issues. Nikon has done a phenomenal job in bringing a ground-breaking DSLR to the market and, in the process, delivering a lot of value for the money. But Nikon has a serious problem of having shipped quite a few D800s with autofocus issues to customers. Time alone will tell how well it responds to this challenge. No one enjoys encountering product quality issues, or the disappointment and headaches associated with resolving them. Depending on its response, however, Nikon has the potential to come out stronger and actually enhance its relationship with its customers. Customers are willing to deal with occasional problems and issues, but only if the company is forthright and promptly resolves them. Nikon – are you listening? ;)