For whatever reason most of the wildlife photography I do ends up being in less than desirable conditions. Its rare that I get that perfect light, with the animal perfectly posed and the weather just right and me in the right place and time to capture it. A lot of times I am in the right place, but all the other elements needed seem like they are on the extreme limits of what is needed for quality photography. I recently had the opportunity to photograph black bears here in New Hampshire and one thing that a person not from NH must understand is that this is not like going to Yellowstone or some similar place where the bears are more receptive to humans. Here in NH they are the ghosts of the woods, the animal you never hear while hiking or rarely see unless its by accident and then its for seconds before they disappear. I was able to use both the D800 and D4s during this time and I found out some disappointing things about the D800 which has me regretting purchasing it.
This article is not about bashing the D800, its more about sharing some limitations and quality issues I have with the camera compared to a D4/D4s and how much more capable the D4s is in these extreme shooting conditions. I mistakenly thought I could use the D800 to crop my way to success, only to find out that I was actually not happy with the quality and I chose to rotate the D4s camera between the two long lenses I was using rather than use the D800. This is not a technical article, we lovingly have Nasim for that, this is an article from a photographer sharing his real life experience and readers taking that information, disseminating it and deciding what is useful and helpful to them. I know the D800 has had some glowing reviews and is supposed to be an exceptional camera, but for me it is not the right camera for what I do, and the conditions I shoot in, and long lenses I use.
The 1st image at the beginning of this article is one that I am extremely proud of and find to be of the quality level I need to be happy. It was taken with the D4s and the new Nikkor 800mm f5.6 lens attached, it had just rained and was overcast. It was taken at approximately 1pm in the afternoon. I have set some self imposed limits / target settings for the D4s in this shooting scenario and the two lenses I was using which were:
- D4s and 800mm F5.6 – min shutter speed 800th sec, max ISO 3200
- D4s and 600mm F4 – min shutter speed 500th sec, max ISO 3200
As you can see even though this was essentially shot in midday light, because of the overcast conditions to get the 800th of a sec I was looking for with the 800mm lens, 200o ISO was needed. What is remarkable is the quality of the image at 2000 ISO, it is sharp, clean, very little noise and will print beautifully. The conditions were what they were and I cannot change that, that is what I was given and I can tell you that is how it often works, but having a camera that produced a high quality image in those conditions adds a photo I am proud of to my portfolio that I may not have had with another camera. Below is a 100 percent crop from around the eye area of the bear so you can better gauge the end result.
I have only had the D4s for a relative short period of time and am still learning the cameras limits, I almost treat the D4 (my previous camera) the same as a D4s when talking ISO limits and noise levels. When I had the Nikon D3x I had more or less set myself an ISO limit of 1600 before I was unhappy with the noise in the photo. With the D4/D4s I have now changed that limit to 3200 ISO max when I have no other choice to get that photo.
Above is a photo shot with the D4s at 3200 ISO, now my preference is definitely not to shoot at that high of an ISO, but the bears did not want to play nice and chose to mostly show themselves around the last hour before sunset and in the place where they were mostly in the shade right near the tree line. I am using the auto ISO feature of the D4s and have the max ISO set to 3200 and minimum shutter speed set to 500th of a sec. Because there was not enough light the camera couldn’t get the 500th of a sec speed I was asking for at 3200 max ISO set in the auto ISO setting, because the max ISO had been reached the camera adjusted the speed below the setting. 400th was ok in this instance because the bear paused and stood stationary for a few seconds. This photo is at the extreme shooting parameters I set for myself, but this photo at 3200 ISO is as good as the photos I was taking with my D3X at 1600 ISO and at noise levels I am ok with.
The above phot0 was taken with the Nikkor 600mm F4 VR attached to the D4s, and I have always had extreme difficulty in getting two sharp sets of eyes using long lenses, luckily the eyes of the two bears are almost in the same plane but I pushed the f-stop to F8 to try and get both eyes sharp. I felt comfortable at 200th of a sec here to keep the ISO down to 2000th because the bears are almost not moving while pausing to stare in my direction.
OK, so we have established I love the D4/D4s at low light, high ISO and poor shooting conditions and that the camera performs amazingly, so what about the D800?
Well I only used the D800 on three nights, looked at the photos and was not happy with the result. Not willing to lose more precious photos to the D800 I stopped using it and chose to only use the D4s. Here are some things I learned about my D800. Maybe these results are particular to my D800 and maybe I have a bad camera, I don’t know because I don’t have a second D800 to compare to.
- the D800 does not focus as good in low light as the D4/D4s
- where I am ok with 3200 ISO max D4/D4s, the D800 max would be 2000 ISO for me
- the D800 seemed to produce a slightly slower shutter speed for same lens / light scenario
- the D800 images are not as defined as the D4/ D4s images, they have a softer diffused look
I have seen great sharp images from the D800, so I don’t know if my experience is because of the lens / camera combination or my D800 has issues or it doesn’t perform as well in low light with long lenses. Let me try and show you what I mean with a couple of photo samples.
So this photo is taken with the D800 and the Nikkor 200-400mm F4 VRII lens, which is a superb wildlife lens that has always given me prime lens like results. The reason I am throwing this 200-400mm example in here amongst the 600mm and 800mm images is to support my argument about not being able to crop your way to a high quality image. It is not to compare the 200-400mm against the 600mm / 800mm lenses, I do have a 600mm / D4s to 600mm / D800 comparison further down the article. The first things that I immediately notice is the noise in the image at 2000 ISO and the when I look at the bears eyes, they seem much softer and not as defined (sharp). I also notice the lack of detail in the fur and it seems softer and more blended. Here is a section of the D800 image at 100 percent.
If you clicked on the images to see them large as you were progressing through the article you should have noticed that this last image taken with the D800 is much poorer quality compared to the D4/D4s images. You should notice it has more noise than say some of the D4s images taken at 3200 ISO and that the details just look soft. Let try and do a side by side un-processed comparison.
The above image is not a perfect example, but I didn’t have the ability to photograph the same bear in the same position with the same lens but different cameras, so this is two images taken on different days but close to same pose and light conditions. To me, the D4s image on the right has less noise and more defined details than the D800 image, even though the D4s image is at slightly higher ISO. Its hard to explain unless you have looked at a lot of images taken with the two cameras, because I do have some D4s image that have slightly more noise than I would like or not quite as sharp. Overall the D4/D4s produces better images that look sharper in poor light and less noisy and because I shoot a lot in poor light I don’t want to risk loosing images because of the D800.
Above is another un-processed comparison at same ISO.
I would summarize my findings this way:
The results I get from the D4s are superior to the photos I get from the D800 using similar long lenses and similar low light conditions and because of that I won’t be using the D800 in that scenario. Its hard enough to get wildlife in a great photographable situations without risking getting poorer quality photos because of my camera choice. I have a D4s and because of that its a no brainer for me to use it over the D800. The difficult thing to wrap your mind around is the 16.2MP of the D4/D4s have more quality value to me than having 36.3MP cropping power of the D800. One of my wishes is for a D4s with 24MP capability, that would make a perfect Nikon camera for me, so the D800 was my hope for cropping in closer at times when I need that crop ability. The ability to crop almost half the image out and still get a 300 dpi 8″ x 12″ image is amazing in the D800, but to me it comes at a price I cannot accept. Every pixel of a D4/D4s is a quality pixel and the camera really is an engineering marvel.
I would not use my article to make a camera choice on, rather I would use it as one source of additional information when doing research to choose your next wildlife camera. I said at the beginning that this was not a technical comparison and the reason I said that was because, how do you quantify/measure the look of a photo. I just prefer the look and quality of the images from the D4/D4s over the D800 and the secondary issue that I can’t overcome in my mind is I don’t trust the D800 to get me the kind of images I want.
Hope you find something useful in this article, thanks for reading and remember to get out there and get into it.