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|| News Item: Posted 2012-06-08

Photographer's Toy Box
By Preston Mack

Photo by Preston Mack

Photo by Preston Mack

Anna Maria Perez De Tagle sings with her Broadway friends aboard the Hornblower Hybrid in NYC. (Nikon D800, 1/200 @ f2.8, 4000 ISO)
The question was never IF I should buy the new Nikon cameras, but rather WHAT I should buy. Get the flagship Nikon D4, with the 10 FPS or the D800 with the massive 36 megapixels? I know that this is a first world problem, but it is a dilemma that all professionals face.

I have always tried to make equipment choices based on need, not some perceived notion of what gear I need to use. Since I do not have the luxury of an equipment allowance from a large company, my equipment purchases have a direct effect on my bottom line. My start in this profession was as a staff photographer for the Ft Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.

They provided Nikon N90 bodies, but I was a Canon guy back then. I bought my own Canon EOS 1N bodies, zooms and even a 400 2.8. Sports photography was important enough for me to spend my own cash to use the best available gear I could get. When I quit my job to freelance full time in 2001, sports photography was still a major part of my income.

Now, over 10 years into my solo career, that is no longer the case. Corporate and advertising photography comprise about 80 percent of my work and the remainder is editorial. Since I do not NEED the speed of the 10fps Nikon flagship camera, should I still get it? I had the Nikon D3, an unbelievable camera body that actually influenced my to switch from Canon over 4 years ago. So the question is: do you buy a Nikon D4 or a D800?

I actually dislike most of the equipment reviews I read online. I don’t like the safe situations these cameras are put in. I want the equipment to be put to the test --- real assignments and real conditions (of course, I would recommend keeping a backup camera in the bag just in case). And, most importantly, I want a real professional photographer using it, I am not interested in what a writer/hobbyist/photographer thinks about it. My first actual professional shoot with it can be found here. Since that was such a specialized shoot, I cannot really use it as a review of the camera for daily use.

My first real test for the Nikon D800 was to see if it could perform in low light concert conditions. I am friends with Anna Maria Perez De Tagle. She was a Disney Channel actress on the “Hannah Montana” TV show and the “Camp Rock” movies. She is now starring in the Broadway musical “Godspell”. I flew up to NYC to photograph her as she headlined a charity concert for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The concert was held on the Hornblower Hybrid as it sailed around Manhattan waterway. The lighting on stage was 2 small leko-type lights, except that they were much smaller and less powerful. The exposure wound up being 1/200th @f2.8 @ 4000 ASA. Of course, you need a fast enough shutter so the performer doesn’t blur from motion, but a low enough ASA so the quality of the images are still good.

I was never comfortable shooting beyond 3200 with my D700 or D3. I know the image would be “ok”, but I want to have really great image quality- clean blacks, nice color, good detail in the highlight and shadows. I think the D800 handled the low light like a champ. Good color saturation, nice contrast and very pretty right out of the camera. Looking at the frames, I wouldn’t guess that it was 4000 ASA, looks more like 1600 ASA to me. The nice thing about the D800 is the autofocus is fast and accurate. The frame rate is slow, but there is no lag. You can track and fire away.

Photo by Preston Mack

Photo by Preston Mack

From left: Nikon D4 - 1/250th @f4 10,000 ASA; Nikon D800 - 1/200th @f3.5, 160 ASA; Nikon D4 - 1/1250 @f4, 1000 ASA.
My first lit job with the D800 was going to be my most important gauge. Since most of my work is lit portraits, this would be important. It was a shoot that was simple, but telling. This magazine shoot was of a high level executive. The art director wanted a vibrant portrait that would show her personality.

The key light was a Profoto 7B with a beauty dish, the backlight was natural, a backlit overexposed background doorway. Exposure was 1/200th @f3.5, 160 ASA with the D800 set to LARGE (Raw + JPG) with a 70-200 VR1 zoom. The files turned out amazing. The areas in her red jacket and back shirt held good detail but more importantly the overexposed areas in the window looked nice. The dynamic range on the sensor is exceptional. It is able to hold both the dark areas as well as the highlights.

Early speculation about the D800 wondered if the super-high resolution would reveal deficiencies in the lens and show up on the image. I didn’t see one thing that would indicate that.

My first test of the Nikon D4 was at a convention. Low light stage shots are a necessary at these kinds of jobs. You cannot use a flash, so it is good to see how much you can push your camera. I shot the D4 and D800 next to each other at 4000 ASA to see if I could tell a difference. Same lens, same light, in the same exact environment.

The images matched up pretty well. I couldn't tell the difference in the files. Blacks were clean - no weirdness in the shadows and the highlights were in check. (I shot the D800 in Medium -20.3 MP. I think that for a majority of the day-to-day stuff I shoot, 36 MP would be too much). Just out of curiosity, I also shot some at 10,000 ASA. Here you really see the image start to break apart. Blacks have that mucky look with weird noise. Highlights are a bit dirty with noise as well.

I think that 10,000 is just past the effective range of good looking photos for the D4.

Finally, I got to shoot what the D4 does best. I photographed professional water ski athlete Freddy Krueger jumping in Lake Eola. He was in promoting the new Soaked Water Ski Festival that will be held in Orlando on September 7 and 8.

The challenge was to shoot action photos from a powerboat traveling 35 MPH of a water ski jumper hitting the ramp at 70 MPH. As expected, the Nikon D4 performed like a champ. The camera's AF found and tracked Freddy quickly and accurately. The combination of the D4 with the 70-200 VR1 was sharp and accurate. I couldn't ask for anything better.

So as you probably have figured out by now, I bought both new cameras. The D800 was a no-brainer. To get a DSLR with 36 megapixels is just amazing. The files for my lit portraits are going to be 2/3 larger with better image quality. There really is no more need for a medium format camera. That is too bad, because I was looking for a reason to buy the Hasselblad!

The poor decision may have been getting the D4. Don't take it the wrong way, the D4 is amazing. Other than a poorly placed vertical AF button and the introduction of the XQD card, it is just a rock solid camera in the mold of the D3.

Although it is "better" than the D3, I am not sure if it was worth the upgrade. The D3 (and the D3s) are so good that I don't think the D4 is a big enough upgrade to warrant the $6000 price.

I know that I have not mentioned the video features in the cameras, but that is because I shoot so little of it. In the future, if my business evolves more into video, that may change my mind a bit.

Also, I know the XQD is blazingly fast and I actually like shooting onto it. However, the fact that no one else has those readers or cards makes it very difficult to work with when you are dealing with other shooters and editors at an event. The CF/SD option on the D800 is what I would've preferred on the D4 as well.

Like everything else, the gear you get are just tools for you to do your job. I think that no matter what you shoot, the D800 belongs in your bag! If you already own a D3 or D3S, I would probably wait till the price comes down a bit.

Preston Mack is a freelance photographer based in Central Florida. You can view his work on his member page:

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