Nikon D800 – an In-Depth Review

Dpreview has just posted an in-depth review of the much waited Nikon D800.

When the Nikon D800 was announced, the specification that got everyone’s attention was – and to a large degree still is – the massive pixel count of its 36.3MP CMOS sensor. When a moderately-sized full-frame DSLR body aspires to go toe-to-toe with medium format cameras and backs at a fraction of their price, other attributes can seem secondary. But don’t be misled. Coming as a successor to the now 3 1/2 year oldD700, Nikon has updated much more than just the resolution. The D800 has a significantly more advanced feature set than its predecessor, particularly in terms of its video capabilities that make it, on paper at least, a viable and tempting option for professionals.

At the heart of the D800 is a brand new Nikon-developed sensor that boasts 36.8 million pixels in total, with a maximum effective output of 36.3MP. Its ISO span is 100-6400 natively, expandable to a range of 50 (‘Lo1’) to 25,600 (‘Hi2’) equivalent. Nikon’s highest resolution DSLR to date, the D800 more than doubles the pixel count of the flagship D4. The D800 is potentially very attractive to studio and landscape professionals, but should pique the interest of a great many enthusiast Nikon users too – many of whom may have been ‘stuck’ at 12MP for years, with a D300, D300s or D700.

Of course, the D800 faces a competitive field that has made significant gains as well. Arch-rival Canon has recently updated its best-selling full-frame model to the 22.3MP EOS 5D Mark III. That the D800 has to prove itself a compelling upgrade for current Nikon shooters is a given. Yet a glance at the specifications indicates that Nikon has clearly been paying attention to the success of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and its video performance in particular. The hope among the Nikon faithful is that the D800 matches or exceeds the impressive high ISO performance of recent Nikon DSLRs while providing the resolution benefits of a much higher pixel count.

To Nikon’s credit, the D800 does not, at first glance appear to be a camera intended to protect sales of its big brother, the D4. Truth be told, apart from their sensors, the D800 and D4 share many identical specifications. Although the D800 offers a much slower maximum frame rate at full resolution (4fps, compared to 11fps in the D4) and lacks some of the pro-oriented ‘frills’ like built-in Ethernet connectivity, it shares the same revamped 51-point AF system which is effective down to -2EV, the same processing engine and almost exactly the same highly advanced video mode.

Read more about it here

This is the conclusion made by Dpreview

The Pros of this camera

  • Class-leading image resolution at 36.3 MP
  • Outstanding high ISO performance in both JPEG and Raw files
  • High quality JPEG images at default settings
  • Wide dynamic range Raw files
  • Consistently pleasing metering and white balance results
  • Very solid build quality and good ergonomics / handling
  • Fast, responsive camera when adjusting settings
  • Greatly improved live view operation (compared to the D700)
  • Dual SD/CF card slots
  • Comprehensive camera customization options
  • DX, 1.2x and 5:4 crop modes
  • 100% viewfinder coverage
  • Built-in flash can wirelessly trigger Nikon Speedlight units
  • Auto ISO selection can be linked to lens focal length
  • Well-designed, easily accessible menu system
  • In-camera raw processing
  • Good video specification and output
  • Ability to output uncompressed HD video to an external recorder
  • Button-driven fine control of aperture in video mode
  • Dual axis virtual horizon
  • USB 3.0 port

The Cons of this camera

  • Relatively slow 4 fps continuous shooting in FX mode (6 fps with optional battery grip in DX mode)
  • Slow AF in live view and video modes (compared to phase-detection)
  • Rear LCD prone to glare in bright sunlight, despite new design
  • Fine detail in live view magnifications can be prone to artifacts
  • When shooting in live view, screen is blacked out until data is written to the card
  • New ‘simplified’ AF mode switch requires more steps to switch between AF-S, AF-C and AF area modes (compared to the D700)
  • No equivalent to Canon’s ‘small RAW’ option
  • ISO button in slightly awkward location for use in the shooting position

Overall Conclusion

In many ways, the D800 had a difficult act to follow in the 12MP D700, which was (and remains) one of the best all-rounders of any DSLR we’ve ever used. The demand of some Nikon users for a higher resolution model notwithstanding, there was not a whole lot we’d have wanted to see change in an updated model. Thankfully, Nikon’s approach to the D800 has followed a similar mode of thinking.

A majority of the things we liked about the D700; its handling, sensible interface and very impressive high ISO performance have been retained in the D800. Physically, the two cameras appear nearly identical. On the outside at least, the D800 represents a refinement, rather than overhaul of its well-respected predecessor.

We don’t mean to imply that Nikon has chosen to rest on its laurels, however. Far from it. The changes on the inside of the camera are hard to overstate, the most obvious of course being its 36.3MP sensor, which offers three times the pixel count of the previous-generation 12MP CMOS chip. Yet there’s more. The D800 shares many features and specifications with its big brother, the Nikon D4. Live view now feels like an integral function of the camera, rather than an afterthought, and the D800’s video spec is one of the most attractive of any currently-available DSLR. Dual SD/CF card slots provide not only media flexibility but the option of in-camera image backups. The inclusion of a viewfinder with 100% coverage is another welcome upgrade over the D700.

And again, much of what we liked about the D700 remains reassuringly present in the D800. There have been some changes, obviously, but the overwhelming majority are changes for the better, helping you work more efficiently and successfully. The only thing we really wish the D800 had inherited was a slightly faster framerate. Although 4fps will be enough for many photographers, we know from speaking to professionals that higher frame rates would have been very useful.

With the D800 arriving in camera shops alongside its cheif competitor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, we have two well built photographic tools that are capable of outstanding images. While the 36MP D800 has the resolution advange over its 22MP rival, it’s wise to take note of other differences, like maximum frame rate; here the 5D Mark III takes the edge at 6fps vs 4fps (FX mode). Canon has also managed to take a very complex AF system and ease the learning curve with a well-presented series of presets. The D800 counters with the ability to output uncompressed HD video and a range of useful crop modes, including the APS-C sized DX format. Most notably though, Nikon has provided a high end offering that comes in at a street price that is US$500 less than the 5D Mark III, representing very strong value for the consumer.

Image Quality

The specification commanding the most attention with the D800 is undoubtedly its 36.3MP resolution sensor and you can read the resolution page of this review to see just just what this means in our testing environment. Yet, in the real world there is more to image quality than pixel count. After spending a lot of time shooting with, and evaluating images from the D800, it is in characteristics like noise reduction, dynamic range and metering that we find ourselves most impressed.

The camera’s metering and auto white balance algorithms produce generally pleasing images in a variety of both natural and artificial lighting scenarios. Color reproduction is fairly accurate overall, with the D800 sensibly erring a bit on the conservative side, yielding a more subtle ‘unprocessed’ rendering that can be adjusted post-capture rather than ‘over the top’ colors and contrast that are difficult to later undo.

At ISO sensitivity settings up to 6400, chroma noise is kept at stunningly low levels even at the camera’s default JPEG settings. It’s clear to us that Nikon has not sacrificed low light performance for a high pixel numbers. In our noise comparisons with the 22MP Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the D800 arguably produces slightly better results in terms of shadow detail.

Back to resolution though. Can the D800 make good on its pixel count and provide a level of fine detail that trumps its DSLR rivals? It can. We emphasize the word can, because if you’re truly after 36MP performance, be prepared to do some work. Flawless technique, fast shutter speeds and top-shelf equipment (particularly lenses and a tripod) along with a low ISO are requirements not options. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in the preparation of this review getting things just so in order to reap what we feel the D800 is capable of producing. The chances are that relatively few D800 buyers will go through similar procedures in the course of normal shooting, but this is fine. The D800 consistently delivers excellent images that don’t have to be viewed at pixel level detail to be appreciated. But if you’re prepared to put in the effort, your reward is a degree of resolution and detail that is very, very impressive and visibly superior to anything else on the market in this form factor.

Handling

The D800 offers a well-implemented ergonomic control layout that users migrating from a D700 will feel largely at home with from the outset. It is simply a comfortable camera in-hand, one that actually feels lighter and less bulky in actual use than its appearance might indicate. A wealth of external controls mean that changing shooting parameters on the fly is a quick, simple process that can often be done by feel. The well-positioned multi selector makes the task of changing the AF point quick and easy, even with the camera held to your eye in the shooting position.

Build quality of the D800 is first rate, with the camera offering the same degree of weather-sealing and shock-proofing as the D700. The 3.2″ rear LCD offers a pleasingly colorful and reasonably accurate image review. We do find the screen rather difficult to use for live view composition in bright sunlight due to glare though. And we can’t help but miss the D700’s ease of switching between AF-S and AF-C modes and all their permutations. The D800’s ‘unified’ approach, even after you get used to it, requires more steps and depending on what you’re trying to do, can make swapping between modes more time-consuming than it needs to be.

These are relatively minor complaints, however. On the whole we are much more pleased than disappointed with the D800’s operational abilities. And as with most enthusiast-level DSLRs, you’ve got the option of significantly altering the camera’s handling with the optional MB-D12 battery grip, which adds control points optimized for shooting in portrait orientation.

The Final Word

As you can see by the pros and cons list at the top of the page, we’re very impressed by the D800. Nikon has built upon what made the D700 such a pleasing camera to use and added features that do more than simply fill out a spec sheet.

Despite its massive pixel count, the D800 is in many important respects an evolutionary camera. This isn’t a bad thing. Nikon users coming from the D700 will feel largely at home with the D800, but where changes have been made they (usually) have the effect of improving the shooting experience compared to the older model.

Of course, the game changer is that you now have 36MP at your disposal, a resolution that was, until the D800 announcement, the sole province of very expensive medium format cameras/backs. The D800 does indeed offer a level of fine detail that ranks it among the best performers we’ve subjected to our studio testing. Yet, I’d caution anyone who considers buying the D800 solely, or even primarily because of its ultra-high resolution. Pushing this camera to its maximum level of detail requires an investment of both time (methodical preparation) and money (the very best lenses Nikon makes).

Fortunately, the D800 also excels in areas that require no extra effort on your part; notably its impressive high ISO performance, fast and accurate AF system and the wide dynamic range of its image files. These are attributes that most of us are likely to call on far more often than the need to view 20×30 prints at a very close distance. The D800 is a camera that consistently delivers high quality results, under a wide range of shooting conditions with a minimum of fuss. There’s not much more you can ask for in a photographic tool than that. Our admittedly minor complaints of the camera and its relatively slow frame rate don’t detract from how impressive a performer it is for all but pro sports/action photography. As such we’ve awarded it our highest honor, the Gold Award.

Final Verdict: Overall Score 82% – GOLD AWARD

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