Although there won’t be any surprises in here from those that follow my ramblings, I’m still going to provide a few words here for reference on the 2016 camera bodies and what each one brings to my photography…
The DSLR Bodies
Nikon Df – Full Frame, 16MP, 5.5fps, ISO 100-12800
I’ve written a few words about the Df before but I’m going to add a few more here, it’s not that there is a shortage of prose on the internet about it but it really is very much a marmite camera body to many for some reason. It certainly has its little quirks that not everyone will like, but just like a new pair of shoes, eventually what might feel a bit stiff initially become comfortable companions. Shooting the Df has been a lot like this for me, its an experience which is now second nature and it remains unlike anything else out there on the market.
I bought my Df in December 2014 so after more than a year of ownership I think it qualifies me to speak from some experience now. Most importantly it’s often the first camera that I reach for these days, I used it to shoot 99% of my Lunch Club gallery to wonderful effect for example. In terms of its physical properties, it’s pretty light and thin compared to my specialist landscape DSLRs, and weighs in at only 750g. I think this compares rather well overall to cameras like the Sony A7RII (also full frame) which is just under 500g and the latest Fuji X-Pro2 (crop sensor) which is 450g. Weight of my kit is more important to me these days (but only part of my balanced shooting considerations) especially as I’ve had a shoulder injury for the best part of two years, and yes the obvious headline here is that mirrorless bodies win the day in the lean stakes. But is that where their advantage ends? Certainly when you pair Fuji’s 50-140mm f/2.8 with the new X-Pro2 and the Nikon Df with the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 (a fair equivalence comparison based on focal length and quality of bokeh), that weight advantage drops to only 120g. It’s an isolated example maybe but I certainly wouldn’t call that significant by any means. Given the 70-200mm is probably my most used lens, and the Fuji 50-140mm f/2.8 would probably be the first Fuji lens purchase should I buy into the system again it leaves me wondering about the overall advantages of a crop sensor mirrorless system. When (rather than if) Nikon get around to releasing their first full frame mirrorless offering, as I believe is inevitable, that current weight advantage is on its way to being matched and overtaken.
Apart from being a bit leaner, the Df has one magnificent ace up its sleeve – Nikon were brave enough to give it the sensor from the D4. Over time, that’s proved to mean two things; firstly and critically it becomes what I call an almost ISO-less camera – that is to say that it doesn’t seem to matter what ISO you select, the images produced have a noise control like no other camera I’ve shot with ensuring that using ISO settings in the range of 6,000-10,000 are not only genuinely usable but they still enjoy the sort of contrast, colour, clarity and detail which means you’re never going to miss an opportunity. Secondly, there is something really compelling about the frames which come off the Df which I think are quite different to my D810 – they definitely are more film like in their appearance (maybe because you can consistently shoot at higher ISOs and enjoy a fine grain like appearance accordingly), possibly more punchy, saturated even, it’s very difficult to put your finger on. I’m sure there will be a couple of D4/D5 owners out there who will be chortling reading this, who know exactly what I’m taking about – there’s a reason why these cameras are the very best DSLRs you can shoot with and it all starts with the sensor.
The only thing I’m currently working on just now is a mini-upgrade project to the Df to try and improve its manual focus capabilities in my hands. To this end I’ve ordered a replacement split focus screen and a magnified viewfinder eyepiece to see if I can improve usability even further. I love shooting with manual focus lenses, I own a number of them of course, but trying to shoot wide open at f/1.4 at telephoto lengths hand held with any sort of speed or accuracy remains a trick too far. We will see…
Despite all of these wonderful characteristics I’m wondering how long the Df will remain in my hands. My D810 is the complete landscapers camera – it is a technically wonderful thing, unmatched in my view. So I’m looking very closely at Fuji again for my secondary body – the next generation of sensors is now a reality and it’s a certainty that a Fuji X-T2 will come with 24MP in it. That could potentially dislodge the DF from my ownership because I’m still really looking for something light and mobile for times when the big Nikons are well, a bit too big. I do think that eventually mirrorless cameras will continue to improve and eat into the DSLR market.
Nikon D800 – Full Frame, 36MP, 5fps, ISO 100-6400, 720nm Infrared Conversion
My original D800, which I bought in May 2012 and now coming around to 4 years old and 30,000 frames at the time of writing this. There’s plenty of life in this DSLR yet and after I doubled down on the magnificent D800 series with the D800E, I got this one converted permanently to infrared with a 720nm sensor in Februay 2014 via http://www.advancedcameraservices.co.uk/.
Of course, this meant my D800 went from being my high resolution specialist landscape DSLR to being even more specialist in its application but I haven’t regretted that for a moment. Like the Df, this DSLR gives me something different, it was the enabler for my Backwater series and gives me something to think about when other creative options might feel a bit flat. Indeed, infrared continues to surprise me with what it ‘sees’ at times, it really is another world.
There are some very real limitations with a converted camera however, it’s definitely not for everyone. Firstly, and most importantly, not all of my lenses work well with infrared (often because of the various specialist lens coatings deployed by manufacturers) so it’s important to know your kit backwards in this respect. Zeiss for example often fair poorly for some reason here but I have my needs covered from the widest of my wides with the magnificent Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 to my longest telephoto. Other serious limitations with infrared are that you lose about 1 stop of light in camera and your AF system is degraded – Phase Detect autofocus (via the viewfinder) becomes unusable which limits accurate focus to static subjects, generally a tripod but using Contrast Detect Autofocus via Live View. These are key things to bear in mind before jumping into this world. Because I’m using this body for landscape work off a tripod, I’m very happy to shoot like this and I’m confident in the results I can get. Personally I think it’s great fun, has lots of interesting applications and provides something very different to my portfolio anyway.
My prediction is that this particular DSLR will remain a key component of my kit through 2016 and beyond. A couple of my favourites below…
Nikon D810 – Full Frame, 36MP, 6fps, ISO 64-12800
When Nikon released the D810 I don’t think anyone thought it was revolutionary in any way, nor I think was it intended to be. Instead many said that the D810 was the camera the D800 should have been from the start, and to an extent I can see why people think that. In August 2015, I locked myself into a very good import deal, sold my D800E for an unexpectedly strong price on eBay and so the D810 actually only cost me £250 to upgrade. That my friends was indeed a bargain because all of the refinement and quality you’d ever want in a DSLR is right there.
The key changes for me that Nikon made between the D800/E and the D810 include a fantastic upgrade to Live View, a beautiful new shutter mechanism that is so smooth and confidently quiet you’ll just want to keep hearing it, a much improved ISO range including the very welcome implementation of an ISO64 setting that makes life even easier for longer shutter speeds and also an Electronic First Curtain shutter mode which ensures ultra-sharp images with the right technique. These changes really did cement the D810 as the landscape DSLR of choice in my mind and set the benchmark for the market once again. This body is so good that I’m left wondering how it is that I’ll give it up. Nikon or Fuji (rather than Sony it seems) are going to have to create something so good, so special – the experience of shooting with the D810 I can only describe as pure joy. A very high quality mirrorless offering is the ONLY thing that is going to get me to part with my D810 that I can see.
That’s it, I have nothing further to say on this body, it’s exceptional. Samples below…
So there we have it, that concludes this rather long multiple review of my gear. I hope it’s helpful in your deliberations, I’m certainly looking forward to another year of shooting with this lot anyway!