Before the Nikon D4 was announced, I wondered what Nikon would do with its autofocus system. The legendary Multi-CAM 3500FX system used on all professional Nikon cameras has been extremely reliable, so what else could have Nikon done to improve it? I was hoping to see more focus points and have them spread out on a larger area of the viewfinder. Unfortunately, Nikon did not give us an all-new AF system with more focus points on the D4 and D800, but we did get an updated version of the AF system called “Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX” that does something no other DSLR AF system can do, which is ability to focus all the way to f/8. While autofocus is limited to only 11 cross-type focus points at f/8, it is still very impressive that it actually works. I tried mounting the TC-20E III on both the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 and the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and I was able to acquire focus at maximum aperture of f/8. AF is not ultra fast at such a small aperture, but it does work, which is great news for wildlife photographers (read more on this below).
If you shoot in indoor/low-light environments, you will be surprised by just how well the new AF system works in poor conditions. I took the D800 for a short tour with me to Denver downtown at night and I was surprised by how well the AF system worked in street light. Take a look at this portrait taken with the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G in street light at night (1/60, f/2, ISO 3200):
The image had a little grain that I cleaned up right in Lightroom 4, then exported right out of Lightroom with 1024 pixel wide dimensions and “High” sharpening applied upon export. No other edits were performed in Lightroom. White Balance set to “As Shot”. That’s impressive, definitely much better than what I can do with the D700 or the D3s. I was obviously using the center focus point to focus (it is the most accurate of them all), which is why the subject is in the center of the frame. Previously, I would have to stop my fast lenses down to f/4 or smaller to get larger depth of field and re-focus continuously in hopes to get my subject in focus. Now I no longer have to do that anymore – the system is very good at acquiring focus in low light even when shooting wide open. I am very impressed by this new Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, it certainly does make a huge difference.
Here is another image sample at ISO 3200 taken 30 minutes earlier after sunset (1/200, f/2, ISO 3200):
Again, no edits were performed in Lightroom!
Please see the next page of this review to see my comments on the Asymmetric Focus Issue on the D800 / D800E.
AF Performance for Sports and Wildlife Photography
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 sports and wildlife photography. First, the high-resolution sensor could give some “reach” opportunities with plenty of options to crop in-camera (DX mode) or in post. Second, the AF system on the D800 is identical to the one on the D4 (Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, as highlighted above). 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, as I have already pointed out above. 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.
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.
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