I was at loose ends this week. My regular corporate clients all seemed to take advantage of a mid-week 4th of July; they all took the whole week off! American productivity took a five day nose dive...
I knew this was coming and you know how much I hate to have idle photo hands, so I sent an e-mail over to my friends at Zach Theatre and offered them my photographic services on any project they might have in mind but didn't have the budget for. If it was fun then I was in. (They are, after all, a non-profit community theater). It took a bit of schedule adaptation but they quickly got back in touch and asked if I could spend a day shooting their Summer kids programs and create images for future use in brochures and on-line collateral. I agreed.
I've photographed so often, and in every nook and cranny of the theater, that I felt like I knew just what to bring. I'd be making candid, non-lit, images of kids under florescent lights (for the most part) and we'd be working on two stages, one rehearsal hall and in two temporary buildings. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 18 and I knew I'd want to use longer lenses so the kids wouldn't be too intimidated by a photographer who was right in their faces. I settled on one main camera; the Nikon D800e. I chose it because it does very well in mixed light, makes great Jpegs and has enviable low light/low noise skills.
The way I chose to use it today was to shoot in Jpeg. I used the fine setting but I shot in the medium size setting. This gave me files that were 5520 by 3680 pixels for a 20.3 megapixel file. More that ample for the theater's use, quicker to shoot, and since the camera is downsampling from the full size file it generates even lower noise files that it would at full res. A monster win on all counts.
Having cut my digital teeth on early Kodak cameras and cameras like the Nikon D2X I always have a certain amount of reservation when using any camera at ISOs higher than 1600 but I know that with my main lens selection and the lower levels of illumination I'd need to shoot in the range of 3200-6400 to get the shutter speeds (and depth of field) that I'd want. I've read in many places that this camera is capable of doing well in those settings but I still a bit reticent.
I packed four lenses today and used two of them. I carried along a 50mm f1.4 G lens as well as the 24-120mm f4.0 VR lens but both of these stayed in the backpack. I also packed an 85mm f1.8 D lens and a 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR lens and I used these two for everything. I used the 85mm when I was photographing in horrible light and the 70-300mm for the rest of the shots (about 85% of the total).
Since the 70-300mm maxes out at f4.5 and slips to f5.6 as it zooms to its longer focal lengths the ability to handle higher ISOs with some grace was a vital parameter in the selection of the camera
Photographing kids of various ages in a theater setting can be a hit or miss sort of assignment. The kids are outside their usual routines and are very active and engaged. Since most activities revolve around actively acting, or dancing and acting, and since nothing is choreographed or rehearsed, I'm constantly trying to anticipate movement and spatial relationships between the kids, the stages and to assess the general lighting. A longer zoom lens is very helpful in isolating just the action I'm interested in.
So, how did it all work out? Well, I must say that reports of the mediocre optical qualities of the 2006 vintage, 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR AFS lens are highly exaggerated. If you can't make sharp images with a good copy of this lens at nearly every focal length you might re-visit your handling techniques, minimum shutter speeds and better take into consideration the vagaries and pitfalls of subject movement. I was shooting images at up to 300mm, handheld, at 1/160th of a second and, with a human subject comped from the waist up, able to get sharp eyelashes most of the time. And this, generally, at ISO 3200 or 6400.
In comparison to the D700, which I also used for about 10% of the images, the D800e does a much better job handling Auto WB. Any corrections I needed to make were much less dramatic with the D800e, even when shooting in exactly the same environment.
With a battery grip attached the camera is the perfect size and has the perfect configuration for both vertical and horizontal shooting. The finder is very good and nicely bright. While I would prefer an EVF for the instant feedback it would provide I am happy to use a good optical viewfinder, when necessary.
With the noise reduction set to NORMAL and the camera shooting medium/fine Jpegs the files have a good combination of fine detail and low overall noise. Shadows at 6400 are just starting to show some color artifacting but it's only really apparent to me when viewing the files at 100%. In fact, I would say the camera does a better job handling noise in the Jpeg files than I am generally able to do with similar raw files.
Why review a camera that's six years old? Well, because it's still a really, really good camera and now available for bargain prices. High resolution, full frame, low noise at high ISO all for half the price of a flagship micro four thirds or APS-C camera? Yes. A bargain.
I'm toying with the idea of buying one more. I have a D800 and a D800e but one more D800e seems like a worthwhile expenditure --- if I can really justify having a third body as a doubly redundant back up. Probably a dumb idea. In the next six months to a year we'll probably see D810 prices drop toward the $1200 mark. Newer technology isn't necessarily a bad thing....
Now uploading 900+ files for the theater. Answering questions for attorneys on a pending house sale and then straight to bed. Priorities, priorities! I've got some swimming to do tomorrow....
Forgot to mention: The 85mm f1.8D lens is just fine at f2.2, 2.5, 2.8 and beyond. And it's quick to focus on the D800e body. I like it. I'll keep using it until I win the lottery and can afford the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens...