nikon almost won.
The last month has been spent in a flurry of research, frustration, returns, and exchanges. It all started with my decision to upgrade from my Sony a900 (see my post Selling Out, Moving Up.) I diligently did my research and got pretty excited about the reviews and image quality of the Nikon D800/D800E. It has won all sorts of awards and handily spanks Canon’s top offerings in resolution, dynamic range, and low-ISO noise. Then I started reading about all the focusing problems (and here, and many other places) the D800 was plagued with early in its production. The DPReview forums were filled with threads about the D800 having faulty left-side autofocus. I took my chances, seeing as how most people were saying this issue had been quietly solved by Nikon in the year since the D800’s release.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that well for me. I ended up testing and returning three (3!) brand new D800E bodies from B&H. This was only about two weeks ago mind you, months after the supposed “all clear” was given on this issue. All three bodies exhibited horrible left-side back focusing, regardless of lens. I tested the bodies with the 35mm f/1.4G, 85mm f/1.4G, 14-24mm f/2.8G, and the 105mm f/2.8G VR Micro-Nikkor. I shot test images inside (with halogen photo lights) and outside using three different print targets and regular subjects. I even used the Reikan FoCal automated AF tuning/testing software. I sent many emails back and forth with an expert on this issue, Thom Hogan. I encourage you to read the entire DPReview thread if you’re looking into buying the D800/D800E. I started what ended up being a maxed-out 8 page thread over at DPReview: D800E… brand new, left focus issue.
The consistent result was that the far left AF point would severely back focus with all lenses. The center AF point would front focus with the 85mm 1.4G and 35mm 1.4G. And the far right AF point was pretty much spot on the whole time. No amount of AF Fine Tune would fix this problem, and I have no faith in Nikon’s ability to fix this issue (I read one too many horror stories about their terrible service for me tangle with it). Some folks encouraged me to try another retailer to try to find a “good batch” of D800E’s. But as one person put it in my DPReview thread… if there were 3 faulty bodies with a manufacturing batch of 2300 (the difference between the Serial Numbers I had received), the odds of me getting all three were 2,025,189,100 to 1. So either I was extraordinarily “lucky” or Nikon has not figured out or fixed the heart of the design flaw, and many people have AF issues with their D800/D800E that they simply aren’t aware of.
Here are a few closing thoughts from Thom Hogan after he and I went back and forth over sample images and everything I had posted on DPReview.
I asked him if he thought the focus behavior I was showing him in the sample image (the same ones I posted here, as well as some others I didn’t post here. After all, I shot well over 1000 images across the three bodies testing these issues) were what he would consider normal for any DSLR or D800.
“No, not normal, but also not totally unexpected. Where the line between those gets drawn is tougher with a 36mp camera than a 12mp one, which is part of the problem. Yes, I have seen D800s that don’t have different left/right focus performance. I own two.”
My interpretation (and fill in from our other conversations) is that he admits the focus behavior is not normal, yet the missed focus is not unexpected with the D800’s track record and the tolerances/variation in PDAF are razor thin and Nikon has not figured out how to correct the issue yet.
“My point is that these persistent left-sensor problems on the D800 have no explanation that I can find. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but without an explanation we can’t actually rule anything out, including user errors. That Nikon themselves seems perplexed is not reassuring at all. I’m actually surprised at your persistence. I wouldn’t have gone past body #2.”
We debated a bit about subject choice and in some of the situations, what could have caused the missed focus (though cumulatively, the tests speak the same results each individual subject did, thus ruling out to some degree missed focus due to less than ideal contrast, pattern, or placement).
“But we’re still left with the problem that is unanswered: why is the left reacting differently than the right on many of these cameras? I don’t know. Worse still, I don’t think Nikon knows.”
And we talked about the limitations of Phase Detect in general right now. And while I completely understand the science and logic behind what he’s saying, the real world implication is that Nikon has not mastered the tight tolerances needed to achieve sharp focus at 36mp, which basically makes the resolution a complete waste if your shots aren’t in 100% focus. Now, I rarely had this problem when shooting with a Phase One AF body and 32mp back (and I shot almost exclusively in AF because MF was not reliable without zoomed in Live View, which those backs didn’t have then), so I’m not willing to admit that PDAF in general sucks. After all, there are many happy folks over at GetDPI shooting 40-80mp and not complaining about AF problems.
“Phase detect has always been a compromise. It provides high speed but low repeatability/accuracy. The question is always whether the repeatability/accuracy falls within a range that a photographer finds useful. With an aperture of f/5.6 and normal subjects at normal distances, absolutely. But as we start stretching the parameters (36mp, f/1.4, flat targets, etc.) we start hitting boundaries that are very, very tight. In film as you went up in capture size you started wanting focus magnifiers in order to nail the manual focus right. We’re sort of in the same problem. It very well may be that the D800 is pushing the boundaries of the existing system and the system needs full redesign.”
Summing it up, there is a recently published article by Nasim Mansurov, Nikon Quality Assurance and Marketing Gone Wrong, over on Photography Life that pretty much sealed Nikon’s fate with me. That and the fact that B&H wasn’t willing to exchange a fourth faulty Nikon body with me.