Tag Archives: Nikon

Nikon D800 & Action Photography: a Swiss Army Knife?

USA, Nantucket (MA)
 Kite surfer on a windy day

Nikon D800, Nikkor AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II; 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 250

After my previous post about how to effectively customize a Nikon D800 so as to make it work the way you want/need, a question from a reader prompted me to write again about the D800 and explain why I think that, if properly configured, the D800 is a dream camera (at least in the Nikon camp) and a star performer not only for photographing still subjects but also action.

Let’s start from a few basic facts: the D800 has a so-called “FX” format full-frame CMOS sensor, capable of recording images at the stunning resolution of 36MP in the traditional 35mm format of 24×36. At this resolution, the D800 resolves much more detail than any “legacy” 35mm film-based camera and approaches medium-format territory. The flip side of such phenomenal resolution is that, given the huge amount of data that the camera needs to move from the sensor to the flash card, at maximum resolution the D800 achieves a relatively slow continuous shooting speed of 4 FPS (frames per second). In addition, if you are shooting NEF (i.e., RAW files – which I think you should for the reasons explained on a previous post), even with a fast CF card the buffer would fill after about 17 consecutive shots (using the “14-bit lossless compressed” NEF setting).

While of course the above limitations are not a concern if/when you shoot stationary subjects, they will most likely get in the way if you plan to also use your D800 to shoot action.

USA, Nantucket (MA) 
Kite surfer on a windy day

Nikon D800, Nikkor AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II; 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 250

So, is all hope lost and do you need to resign yourself (as many have lamented on the World Wide Web) to choose the D800 if you shoot landscapes/portraiture/architecture OR the D4 if you shoot sports or active wildlife?…

The short answer is: not really.

Let me explain why. Your D800 could be compared to a Swiss Army knife: if you have the corkscrew tool out, your versatile knife will let you pop a bottle nice and easy, but will it be as effective a tool to, say, cut an unplugged electrical wire? Of course not: to do that you will have to switch to the appropriate tool for the job, a blade.

Much the same way, Nikon engineers did not pack all that unbelievable technology in the D800 for no reason: you need to configure your camera so as to maximize its capabilities of shooting action.

USA, Nantucket (MA) 
Windsurfer on a windy day

Nikon D800, Nikkor AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II; 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200

Let’s see what I think you should do:

  1. Set the AF Mode to AF-C (Continuous Servo AF) and the Release Mode to CH (Continuous Shooting – High Speed)
    *
  2. If you shoot NEF (as you should), set your compression to “14-bit Lossless Compressed”
    *
  3. Set the Image Area function to the DX (24×16) format
    *
  4. Use a fast CF (or SD) Card! For best results, get an UDMA 7 card, such as Lexar Professional 1000x or SanDisk Extreme Pro UDMA 7
    *
  5. Purchase the optional MB-D12 external battery grip (note that the street price for it in the US is almost 50% less than what Nikon USA charges) and a D4 battery (EN-EL18) and connect them to your D800

USA, Nantucket (MA)
 Kite surfer on a windy day

Nikon D800, Nikkor AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II; 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 250

That’s it! By configuring your camera as above, you achieve the following benefits for action photography:

  • You maximize the D800 “base” 4 FPS rate, by increasing it by 50% to 6 FPS, which is adequate for most action shooting scenarios, barring only those involving extremely fast moving subjects (such as if you professionally shoot F1/NASCAR/MotoGP)
    *
  • You increase the number of images that can be saved to the buffer before this fills up by 70%, from 17 to 29, depending on how fast your memory card is
    *
  • Although by switching to the DX image format you reduce the file size from 36MP to 15MP, your image size is still going to be plenty enough to print even large photographs or to submit to agencies/magazines
    *
  • By switching to the DX image format, you get the “1.5x magnification” effect typical of such format, which effectively adds 50% to the focal length of your long lens, something desirable for most action shooters who, no matter how long a lens they are shooting with, often find themselves hoping it were even longer! (A technical note: technically speaking, it is incorrect to call such effect a “magnification” as by switching to DX there is no optical difference – what happens is that the file you get is just an in-camera crop of the center portion of your full-frame FX image. But in practical terms your image, at the reduced DX size, will be very similar to the image that you would get if you used a 50% longer lens at the larger FX size)

USA, Nantucket (MA)
 Kite surfer on a windy day

Nikon D800, Nikkor AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II; 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 250

Also, the accuracy of the D800’s Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module and 15 cross-type AF sensors is phenomenal – it really nails down the focus on almost all images, so much so that you will soon come to realize that, if you have occasional out of focus shots, in most cases it is due to operator error, not inaccurate technology!

One final note: for your convenience, you may decide to assign one of the four customizable Shooting Menu Banks available on the D800 to your action shooting settings, so that you may recall them at any time with just one click. See page 268 of the D800 User Manual for instructions how to set it up.

Now have fun and go shoot some action with your Swiss Army knife D800! 🙂

USA, Nantucket (MA)
 Kite surfer on a windy day

Nikon D800, Nikkor AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II; 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200

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Nikon D800: How To Customize It Effectively

If you have been following the photography part of this blog for a while, you will have noticed that I do not talk about equipment, let alone brands, because I think what matters most are the principles of photography and, ultimately, the photographer who is behind the camera. A photographer may have the best gear in the world, but if he/she does not master the technique to make the best of it or lacks creativity or artistic sensitivity, then the resulting photographs will be either technically inadequate or incapable of expressing an artistic message.

However, a dear reader who knows I have (and love) a Nikon D800 and who has recently bought one herself asked whether I would post some advice as to how to effectively set it up, so here I am talking about equipment! 😉

Saint Emilion Restaurant

In my view, the D800 is a wonderfully capable and powerful camera, that offers the photographer a myriad of options for customizing it just the way that specific photographer needs to suit his/her photography style. In this post I will focus on pointing out some of those that *FOR ME* are the most useful options that I take advantage of to make my D800 work the way I want based on how I shoot. Of course, other photographers may have different needs, so what follows may work for me but not for you – your mileage may vary 🙂

(A) Shooting Menu: These are the main options for which I have changed the defaults:

1. Primary Slot Selection: I changed it so the primary memory card to which images get saved on my D800 is the CF card, while the SD card only kicks in when the CF card is full (“overflow” option). This is because the latest CF cards are still faster than SD cards and trust me, with the unbelievable amount of data that the D800 moves to a memory card, you do need a fast UDMA 7 card if you do not want to fill the buffer too soon!

2. Image Quality: As you may have guessed already if you read my previous post about why one should consider shooting RAW instead of Jpeg, I set this to RAW. 😉

3. Jpeg Compression: For those rare instances when I shoot Jpeg, I set this option to “Optimal Quality.”

4. NEF (RAW) Recording: I set the compression option of NEF files to “Lossless Compressed” and bit depth to “14 bit”.

5. Color Space: I changed this to Adobe RGB as it provides a broader gamut than sRGB, which is a color space that is best assigned to an image at the time it is ready to be published on the Web. Bear in mind that the “color space” setting only affects images taken by the D800 as Jpegs, while it does not have an effect on NEF/RAW images for which the photographer can decide which color space to assign to them at the time of processing.

6. Auto ISO: Auto ISO is a feature that may come in handy on certain occasions, such as when shooting sports indoors (when light levels are generally dim) or wildlife on the move at the fringes of the day. The one setting of Auto ISO that I changed upfront is “Maximum Sensitivity”: this basically allows the photographer to instruct the D800 not to go higher than a certain ISO setting when Auto ISO is turned on. This is useful as it lets you set the highest ISO setting that you feel comfortable will return images with noise levels that are acceptable for their intended use. Personally, I set the limit on my D800 to 3200 ISO.

USA, Arches National Park (UT) Windows Arch at twilight

(B) Custom Settings Menu: The D800 has 54 custom settings that let you customize it just the way you want: use them! Below is a list of the custom settings that are the most useful to me:

a4AF activation: I prefer that my camera AF only activates when I want it to, so I changed a4 to make sure that the shutter release only takes the shot when tripped, without activating the AF. To do that, I assigned AF activation to the AF-ON button only, by selecting the option “AF-ON Only”. This way I have the utmost flexibility and I can activate my camera AF only when I want to.

d6Viewfinder Grid Display: I set this to “ON” so grid lines will show at all times in the viewfinder: this is helpful both not to tilt horizons when you handhold and to quickly identify strong compositional points in the frame according to the rule of thirds.

f4Assign Fn Button: There is a host of options here, so you should choose the one you think you are going to use the most. In my D800 I assigned it to spot metering mode, by choosing the “Spot Metering” option, so whenever I want to take a spot meter reading off a subject I just press the Fn button and there we go.

f6Assign AE-L/AF-L Button: This is one of my favorite customizations in the D800 – I assigned the button in combination with the subcommand dial (the one in the front of the camera) to “Select Image Area”. This way, whenever I want to change the active area of the sensor and therefore the size of the end image (which is something I do fairly often) I can do so in a breeze by just pressing the AE-L/AF-L button while rotating the subcommand dial: this toggles among the four available image sizes (FX – 36×24; 1.2x – 30×20; DX – 24×16; 5:4 – 30×24).

f11Slot Empty Release Lock: I set this to “Lock” – why would I want to trip the shutter when there is no memory card in the camera???

f12Reverse Indicators: In this option I chose “Reverse” so that the exposure indicator that appears in the viewfinder and in the top screen of my D800 has the + sign on the left and the – sign on the right. This is because I mostly shoot in Manual Exposure mode and I find it easier that the exposure indicator mimics the rotation of the camera dials. So for instance, if I rotate the main dial to the left to set a slower shutter speed (therefore increasing my exposure) the mark on the exposure indicator in the viewfinder will also move to the left toward the + sign, showing that my exposure is increasing (i.e., the image is getting lighter).

USA, Arches National Park (UT) Balanced Rock at twilight

(C) My Menu: This is a fully user customizable menu that I find incredibly helpful and I definitely suggest you set up and use. Essentially, you can add to it those of the options/custom settings of your D800 that you use the most so they can be all grouped in, and accessible from, one and the same spot as opposed to scattered across the various menus they belong to. To give you an idea, these are the options that I have assigned to mine: (i) Choose Image Area; (ii) Auto ISO; (iii) Long Exposure NR; (iv) Virtual Horizon; (v) d4-Exposure Delay Mode; (vi) Multiple Exposure Mode.

That’s all for now: I hope the above tips may be helpful to some D800 users who may have preferences/needs similar to mine.

In a future post I will discuss why I think the D800 (particularly if used in combination with the optional MB-D12 battery grip and a D4 battery) is a wonderfully flexible camera that fits many different shooting styles and subjects.

Happy shooting! 🙂