The Nikon D800 was supposed to be released in the summer of 2011, but due to several natural disasters that heavily impacted Nikon’s capability to produce cameras both in Japan and in its Thailand factories, its launch was delayed until February of 2012. There has been a lot of hype about the D800 and while our team has been posting several articles about this camera, there are still many questions pouring in on a regular basis from our readers about its features, capabilities, limitations, and performance, especially when compared to the older cameras like Nikon D700, D3, D3s, and the new Nikon D4.
Check Out: Best Lenses for Nikon D800
Nikon D800: Price
Was it worth the wait? There’s been a whole lot of buzz about the D800 before and after the camera was announced. One of the main reasons is the popularity of the existing Nikon D700 camera and the sheer number of people, especially part-time and full-time pros, who were dying to upgrade their aging cameras. In addition, the production delay further fueled the heat and spiked up the interest from the photography community that was getting rather impatient, wondering what Nikon would bring to the table for the next several years in the full-frame arena.
Check Out: Best Full-Frame DSLR
But wait, what about all those photographers that anticipated a camera with the same sensor as on the Nikon D4, the ones that do not particularly care for high resolution? Did Nikon leave them all out with the D800, forcing them to jump to the expensive D4? Before I answer this question, let me first give a brief history of the D800, along with my analysis of why Nikon decided to take a different route with its full-frame line this time.
Nikon D800: Camera Construction and Handling
Similar to the D700 and various other higher-end Nikon DSLRs, the Nikon D800 has a full magnesium-alloy frame. The camera is built tough and will last a long time if it is properly taken care of. So far I have taken it up to mountains and have shot some images at below-freezing temperatures and the camera worked just fine. I also used it in very dusty conditions and in light rain and none of the dust or moisture made its way into the camera.
Nikon D800: Image Sensor
Without a doubt, the most important feature of a digital camera today is definitely its image sensor. You could put the most advanced autofocus and metering systems with a boatload of great features into a camera, but at the end of the day, they are all more or less secondary – the sensor performance is still looked at at first. Things like resolution, dynamic range, diffraction, color depth, and ISO performance are all tightly related to the sensor and its physical size. When I talked about the D800 being “revolutionary”, I mostly referred to the phenomenal sensor technology Nikon incorporated into the camera.
Nikon D800: Autofocus Performance
Before the Nikon D4 was announced, I wondered what Nikon would do using its autofocus system. The legendary Multi-CAM 3500FX system used on all professional Nikon cameras provides been extremely reliable, so what else could have got Nikon done to improve it? I was hoping to see more focus points and also have them spread out on a larger area of the viewfinder. Unfortunately, Nikon did not give us an all-new AF system with more focus points on the D4 and D800, but we did get an updated version of the AF system called “Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX” that does something no other DSLR AF system can do, which is the ability to focus all the way to f/8. While autofocus is limited to only 11 cross-type focus points at f/8, it is still very impressive that it actually works. I tried mounting the TC-20E III on both the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 and the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and I was able to acquire focus at the maximum aperture of f/8. AF is not ultra-fast at such a small aperture, but it does work, which is excellent news for wildlife photographers.
Nikon D800: Performance
Our tests demonstrate that the Nikon D800 is able to solve a massive amount of detail, in reality, it’s not far behind the Pentax 645D medium-format, which has a 44x33mm 40Mp sensor. This is an incredible achievement, as the D800’s sensor is comparatively smaller at 35.9x24mm, although it is full-frame.
One disadvantage of packing too many pixels on a sensor is that the picture sites need to be very small, which can contribute to higher levels of image noise. The positive news is that a strong equilibrium has been reached between resolution and noise by Nikon.
However, whenever possible, we would advocate staying within the native sensitivity environment (ISO 100-6400), and the upper expansion sensitivity values are reserved for needs-must cases (equivalent to ISO 12800 and ISO 25600).
Depending on the lighting conditions, the appearance of colored speckles (chroma noise) varies considerably. For eg, chroma noise is easily seen from about ISO 2500 in our shots taken in a gym that was dimly illuminated by sodium lamps, when the photos are displayed on the computer screen at 100 percent. In other cases, however, noise from around ISO 3200-6400 is only visible in the shadows.
On the whole, however, to make A2 prints, ISO 3200 and even ISO 6400 images look decent when scaled. However, the shadows of certain photographs taken at ISO 25600 have a clear purple or blue cast that even in thumbnail images is noticeable.
As a consequence of the sensor having such a high pixel count, we would expect dynamic range to suffer, but here too, the D800 impresses. Photos have a good variety of tones right from the camera, but ironically, this ensures that a small boost to the contrast helps only a few of them.
Since it has the same Multi-Cam 3500 FX autofocus system as the D4, which is a modified version of the D3S, it is not surprising that, even in low indoor light, the D800 is capable of focusing quickly and reliably when the need arises.
When shooting moving subjects, as the D800 has a wealth of continuous shooting possibilities, it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about the subject and the shooting conditions. For example, when tracking a moving subject through an area where obstacles such as pillars or posts may temporarily block it, it might be appropriate to set the camera to react very slowly to prevent the lens from concentrating on the obstacle and then having to refocus on the subject.
Nikon is not new to making digital SLRs, and in certain cases, the D800 incorporates the company’s know-how to ensure that white balance and color are decent straight from the camera. This is not to suggest they are infallable, though, and during this evaluation there were quite a few times when the exposure compensation facility was needed, the explanation was not apparent in a few cases.
One slight complaint is that it is unusual that an advanced camera such as the D800 should have an HDR (high dynamic range) feature that only functions when JPEG images are taken. In comparison, a combined file is the only image that is preserved. For experienced photographers, Canon’s solution to the EOS 5D Mark III is even more helpful, since the three images that make up the final HDR image are documented and raw file shooting is feasible.
Nikon D800: Specifications
- 36.3MP CMOS sensor (compared to 12.1MP)
- 15.3MP DX-format capture mode (compared to 5MP)
- 25MP 1.2x Crop mode
- 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors, rated to -2EV* (compared to -1EV)
- ISO 100-6400 extendable to ISO 25,600 equiv (same as D700)
- 1080p video at 30, 25, or 24 frames per second, up to 24Mbps, with uncompressed HDMI output and audio monitoring options*
- 3.2″, 921,000 dot LCD with anti-fog layer* (compared to 3in, 921k-dot)
- Maximum 4fps continuous shooting in FX mode** (compared to 8fps in FX mode)
- Advanced Scene Recognition System with 91,000 pixel metering sensor* (compared to 1005-pixel)
- ‘Expeed 3’ Image Processing*
- Dual-axis Virtual Horizon (on LCD screen/viewfinder)* (compared to single-axis)
Nikon D800: Conclusion
As you can see from this review, the Nikon D800 is a very appealing camera. With its impressive 36.3 MP sensor, which is currently the highest resolution full-frame sensor out there (as of May 2012), the D800 delivers stunning images with regards to dynamic range, colors, and details. While it is definitely slower than its predecessor, the Nikon D700 in fps (frames per second), one has to keep in mind that the camera has to process a lot more pixels. Furthermore, it produces massive JPEG and RAW files that take up a lot of space in the camera buffer, so it also takes a long time to transfer files from the buffer to a memory card).