#132. Why my new #mirrorless camera has a mirror (Nikon D800e) !

#132. Why my new #mirrorless camera has a mirror (Nikon D800e) !

According to many photographers, myself included, the Mamiya 7 was the best camera ever designed. It allowed a reasonably priced but oh-so-high quality foray into nature with some of the best lenses money could buy and easy, silent operation in the field. Under any conditions, you returned with transparencies that could turn inspection under the loupe into hour-long meditations. It was so good I sold my Linhof 4×5.

Trading it in for early high-end Canon digital gear was the most painful photographic mistake of my life. But I was just a kid with no money and no brains, and there was no going back.

A Mamiya 7 photograph of northern lights aurora over a log cabin in lapland

Aurora over cabin, Mamiya 7

Swapping from the big C and two pro zooms to a Nikon D80 and assorted 18-200 traded some of the quality expected (and not found) in my first digital experience for convenience. It was so nice to never change lens and adjust focal lenght to the desired perspective in a matter of seconds. But the magic lasted a couple of years and I got bored, in spite of the great results the combo produced.

A fairy tale bridge in North Wales imaged in HDR with a Nikon D80

Fairytale Bridge, Nikon D80

Resurrection came in the form of the Sony NEX-5n, an absolute gem of a camera, reviewed at length on this website. It was shaped like a mini Mamiya 7, accepted a whole universe of interesting lenses and produced stunning results that left the poor Nikon wayyy behind. Plus, I feel no shame in admitting the lovely creative modes gave me much , pleasure, particularly the high contrast B&W.

Canes and moutain, Sony NEX-5N & Leica Summicron-R 50

Canes and Mountain , Sony NEX-5N & Leica Summicron-R 50

Still, the lack of a viewfinder and the excessively small body did become a drag. Being one to experiment and not all that much of a brand loyalist, I then took the plunge for an Olympus OM-D E-M5, a camera which, in spite of its ridiculous name, I consider to be the best a budding photographer can get anywhere, at any price. The optical quality of Olympus lenses is simply second to none and the body is strong (I left it out under heavy rain for 4 hours and it wasn’t bothered in the least, it has traveled in my bags and cases unprotected for millions of travel miles and it is like new). The IBIS works wonders. And, most of all, the quality of files is so brilliant, even at indecent ISO ratings, that you would need to be an absolute nutter to look elsewhere for the perfect camera.

City highways in Hong Kong at night

Utopia Highway, Olympus OM-D E-M5

But a nutter I must be ;) The fact is that the OM-D makes me lazy. It makes me shoot without thinking. It reminds me of all the forum or rumour blog discussions in which readers constantly beg for a full-frame camera good for ISO 102000 with a 15-400 f/1 lens, ultra fast autofocus and 15 frames per second. They want to get the shot, however good or bad their skills are. Guys, that doesn’t make you a better photographer, quite the opposite. When Ansel Adams was offered his Contax camera, he loved it, but used it with the rigorous approach of a large format photographer. He, Weston and Stieglitz lamented the appalling quality of the vast majority of small format photography, produced by picture grabbers that got sloppy because it was easy to get a shot. Digital has only made this more acute. And the full auto power houses like the OM-D are particularly dangerous in that respect. In the right hands (Robin Wong …) it simply shines (to repeat, I feel this is the best all-rounder camera/system on earth today). But it’s not for me, my will to stay focused and rigorous is not high enough. To all you crowds in search of the next mega-zoom mega-ISO mega-speed camera, I have only one thing to say : read Susan Sontag’s On Photography (this blog is named after that author). After you come out of the coma, you’ll never think the same way about making pictures again. Rummaging over.

In my perpetual hunt for the spiritual son of the Mamiya 7, I could (probably should) have turned to the NEX-7. My friend and co-author Philippe‘s mainstay combo (NEX-7 + Elmar 24) simply looks amazing and produces the most remarkable pictures in his hands. But, as a past large and medium format nut, the lure of full frame was stronger than the pull from high-tech APS (even with the best glass this side of Rodenstock).

Dresden Bastei, Sony NEX-7 (c) Philippe Berend

Dresden Bastei, Sony NEX-7 (c) Philippe Berend

It is my contention (or – rather – hope) that today, as the world draws to a near end, the worthy successor of the Mamiya 7 is produced by Nikon.

Enter the D800e

Yes, you read me correctly. After going on for months about how great it is to feel free from the encumbrance of a mighty DSLR and its mighty lenses, here I am back in the Nikon stable with a 10 pound anchor hanging around my neck. That’s gonna take some explaining.

I could be honest, cut this short, and simply admit that 36MPix is the main attraction. But I intend to use this and a few of the following posts to defend myself a little more subtly. The interesting part of this is that, as I write these words, my D800e is 2 days old, I have taken only 10 pictures with it and my lenses haven’t yet arrived. All of which meaning, the next posts will confront my hopes and expectations with reality.

A colourful provence village under the rain from inside a car

Watching Rainy Provence from inside the Car. Nikon D800e & Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5

So what do I have to reveal today ?

Well, I can at least explain my hopes and what makes me think the D800 can replace a film rangefinder in my heart and tell you what initial impressions feel like. It’s not all roses, but it’s not all thorns either. Follow me :)

D800, son of 7 ?

A few days before the return of Bilbo and friends, I’m hoping my naming is correct, even though it feels like writing Gimli, son of Celeborn. But here are my reasons :

The lenses

The 3 Mamiya lenses I was fortunate to use (43, 65 & 80 mm) were simply perfect. Small(-ish) optically perfect at any aperture and ergonomically perfect. 3 perfect tens and reasonably priced (particularly on the second-hand market).

A cloudy sunrise over Provence hills with a Nikon D800e and Micro Nikkor 55mm

A New Dawn? Nikon D800e & Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5

Today, thanks to people like David Llado of Leitax, it is possible to mount venerable glass on the D800. In the good ol’ age of the SLR, Japanese manufacturers focused on variety and feature sets while the German teams (Zeiss & Leitz) were all about optical quality. Today it is (on paper) possible to combine the strengths from both stables at prices that defy reason (more on this when I review the lenses) and very conveniently. We shall see …

The body

It turns out I was wrong. My claim to photographic freedom gained through the use of smaller, lighter (mirrorless) bodies was a fallacious dream. Photographic freedom comes from a body that doesn”t ever get in your way.

In spite of average sized hands, the Sony NEX and Olympus OM-D of this world feel too small. Too many menu systems, too many cramped controls. The worst offender here has to be the new RX-1. However good the file quality, that thing is simply too small. It’s lucky no one at Sony had Minox in its sights or we’d be using the RX-1 with tweezers. The RX-1 is utterly wonderful, but it’s for much better photographers than me : I can’t even understand where to put my fingers and my eye …

Rediscovering a well thought-out layout in which every major function has its easily accessed button is a revelation. The D800 feels like its designers sneezed controls all over the front, sides, top and rear of the body. It’s not a particularly ordered sight, in the way of – say – a Leica M, but it feels natural and easy (except for picture review, which can’t use the thumb wheel).

The grip is just great and the camera feels a lot lighter than it looks. With a hefty zoom such as the 24-70, it’s a real dog and will break your neck in no time. But choose a light prime and day-long walks are easily possible in comfort. The view finder is nothing special if you’re a D4 user, but coming from the mirrorless camp, it feels like looking at the world afresh. In this respect it feels as pleasant as the Mamiya.

Cloud reflection. Nikon D800e & Micro Nikkor 55mm

Cloud reflection. Nikon D800e & Micro Nikkor 55mm

One potential pitfall is focusing. The Mamiya’s long base range finder made it difficult to miss a shot. Live View implementation and the inadequate focusing screen make life much harder on the Nikon. I’ll write a lot more about this in future installments.

The image quality

The bar is set very high. If you ever seen one of Nick Brandt’s stunning 7 foot prints, you’ll know what great 6×7 photography can produce. To me, it deserves it’s nickname ‘Ideal Format’ because size allows for lazy enlargements of gigantic proportions, yet hand holdability encourages imaginative shots rarely found in the f/64 large format clan (let’s not generalise, Ansel is still my patron Saint ;)).

So are we there, then, with the D800′s 36MPix ? That’s a tough one to answer.

Provence house at dusk. Nikon D800e & Micro Nikkor 55mm

Provence house at dusk. Nikon D800e & Micro Nikkor 55mm

For colour work, I believe the D800 & D800e are actually superior to the best 6×7 slides. More resolution, more exposure range … For B&W, unlikely. 80 lp/mm over 72mm is a whole lot of pixels, roughly 12000 monochrome pixels, ie roughly 15000-20000 Bayer pixels. We’re not nearly there with the D800′s 7000 horizontal pixels. But, still, you can stitch and the D800 is the closest we’ve ever gotten to the magic goal.

What to expect from this review ?

In the coming installments, I will be looking at the following aspects

  • Lenses. I’ll be testing as many lenses as I can lay my hands on. The D800 is said to be very intolerant of poor lenses. We shall see.
  • Focusing. My main worry and greatest potential pitfall of this whole adventure is focusing.
  • B&W. A Leica Monochrom has as much resolution. Can the D800E match it in terms of pixel malleability for B&W ?
  • Zen. Can this high-tech beast convey the same feeling of slow, meditative image making as view cameras, or technical cameras such as those I almost fell for before making a choice (Arca Swiss & Alpa, mostly)?

and reporting hints, difficulties and successes. Remember, it will be live and ongoing. If you have help to volunteer, please do so in the comments. The D800e is a camera with immense potential and all help is welcome. Please share.

Backlit Euphorbia. Nikon D800 & Micro Nikkor 55mm

Backlit Euphorbia. Nikon D800 & Micro Nikkor 55mm

I will also be posting better photographs (hopefully ;)) These are just early tests made in a couple of work days since the camera arrived.

One last word : I read like a zillion reviews before taking the plunge. In the end (and as usual) it was the words of a very few select bloggers that convinced me. If you don’t already know these (unlikely) I do recommend reading The Online Photographer, The Luminous Landscape and Tim Ashley.


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