While the Nikon D4 is the proper tool for sports and wildlife photography due to its faster speed and extreme ISO capabilities, many photographers are also looking at the Nikon D800 for action photography. First, the high-resolution sensor could give some “reach” opportunities with plenty of options to crop in-camera (DX mode) or in post (I highly recommend to do it in post instead of in-camera). Second, the AF system on the D800 is identical to the one on the D4 (Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX). And lastly, noise characteristics of the D800 are very similar to the D4 when images are down-sampled to 16 MP (down-sampling can also result in increased sharpness). The biggest disadvantage is the slow 4 FPS speed of the D800.
Since many sports and wildlife photographers have been asking me about the D800 AF performance, I decided to share some information on it that I have collected so far. First of all, the f/8 focusing capability is not a myth – it definitely works. I tried the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR with the TC-20E III and focusing worked, even in low-light conditions (although not as accurate as in daylight conditions). Granted the image quality was pretty bad (the 200-400mm just doesn’t couple well with anything but the TC-14E II), AF worked just fine. This means that the Nikon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses will also autofocus with the TC-20E III teleconverter and you are not just limited to very bright shooting conditions. I will have to do some more in-depth digging with the TC-20E III and other long lenses, but so far I am impressed by the updated AF system.
What about the TC-17E II that I have been avoiding when shooting with f/4 lenses? Surprisingly, the D800 made my TC-17E II usable again. Take a look at this image, shot with the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and TC-17E II:
While this is not a good image sample, this is actually a 100% crop shot at 510mm, 1/1000, f/8 and ISO 250 (click to open the full-size 100% version). I exported the image with default Lightroom settings (my sharpening default is set to Amount: 50, Radius: 1 and Detail: 50) without any sharpening applied upon export. Down-sampling the image by a little and then sharpening it would yield superb results – look at all the feather details.
And here is another sample image that is down-sampled and sharpened:
If you shoot at higher ISO values, you might want to run some noise-reduction before you down-sample the image to get the best results. Please keep in mind that some lenses are rather soft when used with teleconverters, so each lens has to be assessed for performance separately. Also, I have not performed tests for birds in flight with the D800, which I am hoping to do very soon.
Overall, I am quite impressed by what the D800 can offer to sports and wildlife photographers, as long as you do not mind the slow fps speed. This information has been added to my D800 review (see it here).