The Nikon DSLR Conundrum

David Haueter
Feb 19, 2013

Besides conducting research on the photography market for our clients, many of the analysts in the InfoTrends’ Consumer & Professional Imaging group are serious hobbyists and even semi-professional photographers outside of work. In my spare time, I do a lot of writing and photography for a few different car magazines; with most of my photography work a mix of still and action shots, including coverage of motorsport events.

For the last seven years, I’ve been shooting with a Nikon D200 and have wanted to upgrade for the last two years. The D200 has been a workhorse and is still a reliable camera, but is starting to show its age. The command dial has become increasingly difficult to turn over the last year; the rubber front grip piece has been glued back to the body twice in the last year, and the clips that hold batteries in place in the optional battery grip are both broken off (though they work when the door is closed). The D200’s 10.2MP resolution is still adequate for the magazines I shoot for and even some ad work, but there have been occasions in the last year where I’ve lost work because the resolution wasn’t sufficient for larger format applications.

So it’s time to demote the D200 to backup camera, but deciding what [Nikon] model to upgrade to has been a bit of a conundrum. What I really want is a professional-level DX-format camera with an all-metal body, higher resolution (somewhere between 18-24MP), and a faster continuous shooting speed. A replacement for the aging D300s would be perfect, but Nikon’s recent focus on the higher end of the market has revolved around full-frame FX-format cameras and not DX.  That leaves me with a choice between the D800 and the D600, as the D4 and D3x are well out of my price range.

Nikon D800

Thanks to a loan from Nikon, I’ve been able to try out the D800 over the last few weeks and have been very impressed with the camera, though it has some drawbacks for the type of shooting I do. On the plus side, the resolution and sharpness of the images are stunning. Portraits and still photos are exceptional, and I was able to capture some impressive motorsport action shooting handheld in low light at high ISO with no noticeable noise in the images. The focus tracking has worked perfectly and there weren’t any issues with out-of-focus images due to the high resolution that some owners have complained about. To show an example, the photo below was taken at night in low light (some track lighting was provided on this corner) with an 80-200mm f2.8 lens at 1250 ISO and a 1/160s shutter speed. No flash was used and the lens did not have vibration reduction.

Turner Motorsport BMW M3 at Daytona (David Haueter photo)

The D800 is also fairly light, has the full-metal body I want, and fits my large hands better than some of the smaller Nikon DSLR’s. I also like the layout of the controls, as they’re very logical and haven’t changed much since the D200 was introduced. The major strike against the D800 is speed. With a fastest continuous shot speed of 4fps, the D800 felt like a laggard compared to my D200, which is no speed-demon but can shoots at 5fps. The difference of just one frame per second may not seem like much, but in motorsport it can make a difference in capturing the perfect shot. There are some corners at the tracks I routinely shoot at where cars routinely lift a front wheel or often go into dramatic slides, and the faster the camera can shoot the greater the chance is of catching the ideal action shot. Using the D800, there’s a 20% higher chance I’ll miss that shot than with my older D200. Gaining more experience with the D800 and learning to anticipate when to release the shutter would help of course, but you can’t get around the fact that it’s missing some shots a faster camera would capture.

As much as I like the fantastic image quality of the D800, I also consider the file sizes a drawback, as even shooting in FINE JPEG mode often results in file sizes of around 15MB, which makes downloads slower and takes up more space on your memory cards and hard drives. I still have at least one more photo shoot with the D800 before I need to return it to Nikon, but after shooting with it for a few weeks I’m really undecided on whether to buy it or not. I’m going to try and get a loan on a D600 after the D800 is returned, so that may clarify things more. The D600 doesn’t have the full-metal body of the D800 and the controls aren’t what I am used to, but it’s capable of shooting at 5.5fps in full resolution and I would prefer having 24MP resolution to the D800’s 36MP.

While I’m not against spending a few thousand dollars on a camera I’ll own for several years, I don’t have a huge budget so it’s hard to ignore that the D600 also costs $900 less than the D800, savings I could put toward a used 300mm f2.8 lens on eBay that I’ve had my eye on. I’ll blog on this more as the review process continues, but Nikon could make my life a lot easier simply by introducing a D300s replacement.

 


 

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