Nikon D800 – It’s OK but it’s no Leica

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Nikon D800 – It’s OK but it’s no Leica


As many of you may have noticed from my Flick feed (from the comments received), I’ve suddenly started using my pre-Leica days Nikon D800 DSLR again.  At first it was to test lenses for my Nikon F4 SLR, then I took it to Poland for a model photography trip to share lenses with the Nikon F4.  Love for the Nikon D800 was reignited using it with autofocus lenses such as the Tokina 100mm f2.8 Macro.  Life was good.

For my last model photography shoot in the UK I decided to dig out my Leica M8 to use.  I shot the Leica M8 plus Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0 v2 lens against the current flavour of the month,  the D800 plus Tokina 100mm prime.  Suddenly the Nikon D800 didn’t look so special.   Out gunned by the old slow simple Leica M8 which produced far more pleasing images to my eyes.  Hmm, the new Nikon romance was starting to show signs of weakness.

I then had another trip to pack for.  I wanted to take one film camera and one digital camera.  The smaller and lighter the better.  I could not take the Leica M9,  reasons to follow, so for the digital camera it was the Leica M8 or the Nikon D800.  I needed professional quality images,  not just arty looking, and possibly shooting in very low light.  I picked the Nikon D800 and packed my smallest Nikon mount lenses, my new Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f2 SL II pancake manual focus lens and also my new Nikkor 28mm f2.8 E series manual focus lens.  For the film camera the possible obvious choice was the Nikon F4 SLR as I took to Poland but the F4 is bulky and heavy.  I also needed lenses to be sharp wide open and I know the Nikkor 50mm primes are sub-standard vs Leica quality.  I therefore picked my Leica M3 double stroke paired with the mighty Leica Summicron 50mm f2 DR lens.

After a two days of shooting the Nikon D800 with manual focus lenses the Nikon romance was dead.  I wished for my Leica M8 despite one shoot being at ISO 3200 and me having to use pop up flash on the D800 for some photos.  My eyes really struggled to focus the MF lenses by eye resulting in mis-focused images for the first shoot.  When I tried to work fast and focus by eye at more than 0.5m I sometimes missed on a few photos. When I focused at more than 1m distance from my model I used the Nikon focus confirmation green dot in the viewfinder and it was still easy to miss focus.  Next option was to stop lenses down to from f2-f2.8 to say f4-f5.6 and I was still able to miss focus on the eyes.  On the Leica M cameras I can hit focus at f1 on the Leica Noctilux pretty much every photo with the Leica rangefinder focus system.  It seems my eyes became spoilt by 18 months of using the Leica RF system and now I am no longer able to focus a DSLR accurately and quickly with manual focus lenses. 

When I did the Nikon F4 vs Leica M3 shoot out prior to the trip with model Harriet (results and conclusion still to follow) I did not struggle using the Nikon F4 with manual focus Nikkor 50mm f1.2 AI-s lens but then thinking back to it, most photos were taken at around 0.5m or less distance.  Some models make me want to shoot as close as possible to capture face details yet others make me want to back up to get full length images.  It also depends on the location, whether to include the background or hide it.

So to conclude,  the Nikon D800 cannot match the Leica M8 or Leica M9 in creating interesting images in terms of rendering from the CCD Leica sensor (together with Leica M lens glass) vs Nikon CMOS sensor. No surprise that I prefer the filmic look of the CCD sensor when I love film photography.  The D800 can however create clean sharp modern looking images and at an ISO of 1600-3200 vs 640-800 on the M9 and even lower ISO on the M8. Secondly, for manual focus lenses, I found my weakness in that I have lost my ability to focus MF lenses accurately with the D800.  This is not a deal breaker as I have some autofocus lenses for the D800 like the Tokina 100mm Macro.  This camera-lens combination still lets me focus longer and closer that my regular Leica M lenses and as quickly and accurately.  I still love the large file size of the Nikon D800 for creative cropping, the long battery life and the modern larger rear LCD display.  It looks like maybe I am moving towards getting a Leica M 240 again! 

Is the Nikon D800 dead once more, to be returned to the shelf to collect dust for another 18 months?  No.  I just need to be aware that personally I can operate the D800 better (faster and more accurately) with autofocus lenses.  Strangely I find it easier to focus the Nikon F4 vs the D800 for manual lenses.

Blog posts in the pipeline for  –

> Nikon F4 vs Leica M3 Shoot Out
> Nikon D800 vs Leica M8 image comparison
> Nikon D800 with Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f2 SL II lens
> Film images and more details from my latest trip
> Ilford Delta 100 vs Kodak T-Max 100 vs Fuji Acros 100 film comparison


Author: matthewosbornephotography

Coventry, UK studio based Model and Wedding Photographer offering both Medium Format Film and Digital Images. 1-2-1 Photography and Lighting Tuition also available.

4 thoughts on “Nikon D800 – It’s OK but it’s no Leica”

  1. Why not try an FM2 or similar with a proper focusing screen with the manual focus Nikon lenses.. the Nikons will never be Leica’s, but it’ll be a much more apples to apples comparison in terms of use… The D800 and F4 were, of course, designed for auto focus lenses and as such don’t provide the same mechanical interface the M’s or the older Nikon’s. Very much appreciate your work. You’re very talented…

    1. Hi John, sorry for the delay. I thought I had replied but I don’t think it saved. I have a Nikon FM but I actually prefer the standard Nikon F4 screen. The F4 is really a joy to use. With macro lenses on the F4 i’m pretty sure the images are of ‘Leica’ ‘standard’. I am really pleased with some of the results I have been getting.

      Thanks for the kind words. Sorry for the Leica slant on everything but that is what I know best. What I also know is the F4 with a good lens and decent film can produce stunning images so as time goes on I become more open to different camera systems. My current favourite is a Fuji GA645 for size, weight and resolution. Thanks Matt

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