D4 vs. D800E – 300mm Shootout

For most of 2012, I was fortunate to be able to shoot with both of Nikon’s flagship DSLRs, the D4 and D800E. I finally decided to pit these two amazing cameras against each other in a controlled shootout to see if there really is enough of a difference between them to justify lugging both bodies along on the types of journalistic shoots I usually tackle.

In order to determine what the D4’s 16.2MP and D800E’s 36.3MP CMOS sensors were truly capable of without the glass acting as a limiting factor, I shot with one of Nikon’s most optically perfect lenses, the Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VRII. Just for fun, I decided to shoot a series with the Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VRII at 300mm. I wanted to see how this humble superzoom ($1,000) would hold up at long telephoto distances against Nikon’s top-of-the-line 300mm prime ($6,000).

The following photos were all shot in 14-bit RAW, AdobeRGB, with manual settings and auto white balance. All shots were cropped and/or horizon corrected in Adobe Lightroom 4, and converted to 8-bit .jpg files in Adobe Photoshop 6. With the exception of cropping and resizing, all photos appear exactly as they came out of the camera.

D4 with 300mm prime at ISO 200

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

D4 with 300mm prime at ISO 200 (100% crop)

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

D800E with 300mm prime at ISO 200

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

D800E with 300mm prime at ISO 200 (100% crop)

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

… and just for fun, here are the shots with the Nikkor AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VRII superzoom at 300mm.

D4 with 300mm superzoom at ISO 200

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

D4 with 300mm superzoom at ISO 200 (100% crop)

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

D800E with 300mm superzoom at ISO 200

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

D800E with 300mm superzoom at ISO 200 (100% crop)

300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
300mm @ 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

The superzoom shots looked much better once I stopped the lens down to f/8, specifically the vignette. However, it never matched the sharpness of the 300mm prime, nor did it render the out of focus areas as smoothly. The superzoom also failed to give me a true 300mm perspective at the 50-meter distance I was shooting from. At infinity the superzoom may be a true 300mm, but at the distances I was shooting it acted more like a 285mm. Still, for a fraction of the price and weight of the mammoth 300mm prime, the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G is a very versatile lens with acceptable sharpness. I wouldn’t mind using it as an all-purpose lens in good light.

Here’s an illustration of all the 300mm shots taken at ISO 200, cropped to 100%.

Clockwise from top left: D800E with 300mm prime, D800E with 300mm superzoom, D4 with 300mm superzoom and D4 with 300mm prime.
Clockwise from top left: D800E with 300mm prime, D800E with 300mm superzoom, D4 with 300mm superzoom and D4 with 300mm prime.

To me, the 300mm prime is clearly a vastly superior lens, both in speed and in picture quality. The differences between the two camera bodies, however, are much more nuanced. The D800E holds a slight edge over the D4 in terms of overall sharpness and dynamic range at low ISOs, but this advantage quickly evaporates once the light fades. I’ll probably need to conduct a proper low-light test between the two cameras to verify my suspicious about the D800E’s weakness in low-light situations before I make a final judgement, but for all intents and purposes, I’m sold on the D4. It’s a solid workhorse in all the situations photojournalists might themselves.

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