Nikon DSLR Real-World Review - GES Who Photography

Nikon DSLR Real-World Review

My experiences with entry to professional Nikon DSLRs, and why I eventually left the brand

By: Garrett Stroup

January 10, 2020

My Nikon Roots: D3400

I first picked up a Nikon DSLR on Christmas of 2016, when my [now] wife's family bought us a Nikon D3400 kit with two basic zoom lenses. At that point in time, she and I would visit the Walt Disney World parks frequently, armed with nothing more than iPhones and Instagram filters. Truth be told, I owe my wife and her family a huge debt for first introducing me to the world of photography!

Shortly after the New Year, we took the D3400 on our first outing. I had done significant research into the basics of the camera by this point, and although I knew only a fraction of what I know now, and only had basic kit lenses, the gift had fulfilled its original purpose: our pictures from the parks had grown significantly in quality from being limited to cell phone cameras. I felt like a wizard when I held this camera in my hands. It was a magic wand of picture beauty!

Fast-forward a few months, and I was already researching fast Nikon DX prime lenses, and quickly acquired the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX and Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 FX. I was tricked into an "eBay special" grey market version of the latter, due to my inexperience, but luckily it never gave me any issues. I became absolutely obsessed with pushing my portrait and food photography game to the next level, and I was amazed with how sharp and clean the D3400 was with those two basic prime lenses.

I am sure many do not know this, but those pictures of my wife and the Disney parks are what led to the creation of my company, GES Who Photography, because it was not long until friends and family began approaching me to take portraits of their families. The D3400 carried me through a few portrait sessions, my first music festival as a bonafide media representative for a local news outlet, and of course, a ton of pictures of family and my wife.

Upgrading to the D750

Around the time I first started booking portrait sessions, I had already been debating an upgrade. I was starting to outgrow the limits of the D3400, and was looking for a Nikon camera body that had more advanced features that I would need for portrait sessions and other future work; a big feature being high-speed flash (HSS) sync. After researching several of their models and watching Amazon and eBay like a hawk, I finally found a terrific deal I could not pass up on a Nikon D750.

Circa September 2017, my Nikon D750 arrived, along with Nikon 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 and Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 G1 lenses. This upgrade felt like the same exciting leap in level of image quality as the previous jump from the iPhone to the D3400. Though slightly overwhelming at first with all of the new features and menu options I was not used to, the D750 quickly became my favorite electronic device I had ever owned to that point. At some point, I had acquired a Nikon SB-700, and LOVED popping that on my new D750 and taking full advantage of the HSS capability, though I scarcely really knew what I was doing with a speedlight at that point.

After a bout of Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), I ended up purchasing Sigma ART 35 f/1.4 and Sigma Art 85 f/1.4 lenses on a Black Friday sale. One thing I noticed with my D750 over time was that the focusing was not super reliable; especially with the third-party lenses I owned. I did not have as many issues with my 50 f/1.8 or 24-85 Nikon lenses, but my Sigma lenses would miss focus frequently, and the Tamron would struggle to acquire focus in the first place. I had no idea if this was a D750 issue, or an issue with the third-party lenses. I bought the calibration tools for Sigma and did my best to correct the focus issues, while running additional testing on the Tamron; all to no avail.

These were not comfortable revelations, and around this time, I was being approached for more important events. Namely, weddings. I know many photographers will comfortably walk into weddings with lenses they know are not giving them 100% the results they want, and console themselves by saying "Ah, it is okay, the client will never know!" But, this is not the kind of person I am. With my first actual wedding on the books, I knew I had to make a big change to feel like I could adequately and professionally cover. I made an intimidating move.

Enter the D850

Shooting a wedding, I felt it was only right to upgrade my off-hand D3400 to a full-frame, so I would have at least two more similarly-performing cameras. I debated for a long while about whether to purchase a second D750, or try my hand at something more extravagant. I joined some Facebook camera gear buy/sell/trade pages to hunt for Nikon deals, and eventually found a solid deal on a gently-used Nikon D850 package, complete with a Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 E ED VR lens. This camera and lens combo was a game-changer for me. Noticing my third-party lenses also had issues focusing properly with the D850, I opted to upgrade my Tamron 70-200 to the venerable Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 E FL ED VR. After finding another bargain on a Nikon 105 f/2.8 Macro, I was fully-equipped!

The biggest things I noticed right-off-the-bat were the color rendition and dynamic range of the D850. I noticed upon importing the RAW photos into Adobe Lightroom for processing that I was able to recover SO MUCH detail from the shadows and highlights of the images. Of course, with RAW files approaching 80 MB due to the 45.7 Megapixel sensor, you do expect quite a bit of data to be stored! Another welcome update was the backlit buttons of the D850. That came in handy in many a dark concert hall or dimly-lit reception! Incredibly, the high ISO performance of the D850 outshined my D750! I noticed the D750 would get grainy around ISO 6,400 and upwards. I would regularly push the D850 to ISO 10,000+ with no discernible issue.

One negative thing was Lightroom and Photoshop struggled to keep up with processing D850 RAW files. Files so large, that contain SO MANY pixels, result in significantly more work for your post-processing rig. I eventually had to upgrade my laptop to keep up with the D850, lest I spend almost triple the time culling and editing my images as I had to spend with my D750 RAWs. There were also a couple of other issues with my newly-completed Nikon kit.

Downsides of Nikon DSLRs

Despite the amazing image quality, I found fault with the Nikon DSLR system and lenses that were difficult for me to deal with. 

First and foremost (and this is not exclusive to Nikon), the WEIGHT. Even carrying a single DSLR body and a couple of lenses in a backpack for a few hours would begin to hurt my back. Two DSLRs and two f/2.8 zoom lenses on a 14-hour wedding day? I babied my back and legs for days afterwards! 

The second major factor for me? Appearance and presence, which is sort of a double-edged sword.

When you show up to a wedding or event wielding a couple of professional DSLR bodies and two massive zoom lenses, you demand respect. Based on the appearance of your kit alone, you will actually hear guests/attendees talking amongst themselves "Look at those cameras! He knows what he is doing!" Of course, anybody who has pressed a shutter button knows that is NOT how it works. But the respect is nice, regardless.

To contrast, when you are walking down the street in public with a large DSLR and lens, you receive scrutiny. My Nikon cameras became an issue for me after a couple of encounters at Walt Disney World trying to take pictures of my wife. I was accused on two occasions of shooting commercially in the parks without authorization, for no reason other than my camera "looked professional." One employee even told me I must be getting paid, because I had a flash on my camera! I WISH money fell from the sky when I had a flash in my hotshoe!

The final big issue I had with my Nikon DSLRs was the focus. In daylight, with great light, the D750 and D850 were both very snappy at acquiring focus (with Nikon glass). However, the D750 seriously struggled to keep up in low-light situations. The D850 was marginally better, and was what I relied on during dark first dances, candlelit birthday cake action, and similar scenarios. I felt that wearing nearly $10k of camera gear at any point in time, I should be able to acquire focus on whatever my heart desires.

My Nikon D750 + D850 setup, 12 hours into a wedding!

Nikon's Future Success

I do not want my earlier opinions on the flaws of the Nikon DSLR system per my own needs to be construed as objectively damning commentary against either the cameras or the company, because the image quality is top-notch. If you can get past the bulk, the weight, and the focusing systems that leave room for improvement in only the least forgiving circumstances, you can easily enjoy Nikon's DSLRs! Especially if you shoot more casually than professionally.

That all said, Nikon is also coming a long way to address all of those concerns, and more, with the Z6 and Z7 camera bodies. Both are designed to reclaim some of the competitive edge from companies that launched headfirst into the mirrorless market. Nikon has already achieved their fastest and most accurate autofocus performance ever with the new Z bodies, and are working to catch up to Canon and Sony with features like eye autofocus. Not only are the new bodies fantastic innovations, but Nikon is working to develop compact and lightweight Z-mount lenses for the new bodies! We have already seen their roadmap includes a completely redesigned 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8!

This is all very good news for the future of the company, and truth be told, I considered a switch back to Nikon during my most recent camera brand transition.

Nikon Z Series Bodies and Lenses (not my photo)

Why I Left Nikon

To summarize the points above, I was really not a fan of being hassled or treated suspiciously in public because of how my cameras "looked professional." That was a big part of why I left. Also, after shooting a good 14-hour wedding day with my D750, D850, 24-70 f/2.8, and 70-200 f/2.8, I was pretty worn down. After having a number of friends who swapped to mirrorless systems, and my transition occurring immediately before the Z-series cameras were announced, I decided to sell off my entire Nikon stash and try out a different brand!

I will be doing follow-up blog posts related to camera gear, my journey with photography, educational pieces directed towards both photographers and clients, and more! Make sure to bookmark my website to come back and check it out, and thank you for reading!

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GES Who Photography

Dedicated wedding and portrait photographer based out of St. Augustine, FL. Serving Northeast and Central Florida.
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