Camera Review: Nikon D800

June 12, 2012

By Dan Havlik

The NIkon D800 has so much resolution, its real competition might be medium-format digital cameras designed for studio photography.

“How’d they do it?” That’s the first thing the two photographers who helped me test the Nikon D800 asked after they were done shooting with this 36.3-megapixel, full-frame digital SLR, which replaces the four-year-old D700.

And honestly, I had a similar question after using the D800, a relatively inexpensive DSLR, which can capture images with such excessive amounts of detail, you wonder what you can possibly do with it all.

While the D800 doesn’t offer nearly the same kind of speed or ruggedness as Nikon’s flagship D4, which we reviewed last month, it is designed to challenge other medium-format digital cameras with their massive resolutions and single-minded intent. And at only $3,000, it’s a fraction of a fraction of the price of those impressive but extremely expensive medium-format models.

Yes, the D800, like most DSLRs these days, can also shoot 1080p HD video but it’s really aimed at the still photography market, particularly wedding, beauty and studio photographers seeking to get the most out of every pixel of the camera’s 35mm CMOS sensor.

But there has to be a trade-off, right? There has to be some sacrifice in quality for producing a DSLR with this resolution and feature-set, and pricing it so that even advanced amateurs, semi-pros and “weekend warriors” can afford it, right? And what about those vaunted 36+ megapixels of resolution, necessary or overkill?

During our month of testing, we explored every nook and cranny of this unique DSLR and here’s what we found.

Light and Lean
Though the 36.3-megapixel D800 has three times the resolution of the 12.1-megapixel D700 from 2008, along with many of the latest features including 1080p HD video shooting at 24/30p, it has a similar look to the older camera and actually weighs less: 32 ounces for the D800 compared to 39 ounces for the D700 (with the battery loaded).

As with the D4, Nikon has made the D800 slightly more rounded and sloping overall. The previous top-tier DSLRs—the D700 and D3s—had squared-off edges and broader shoulders, and prominent, steeple-like pentaprisms on top.

With its lower, angled viewfinder and tighter dimensions, some might find the D800’s look to be more consumer-y than the previous model, while others might think Nikon’s latest DSLRs are starting to resemble Canon’s. Once you get it in your hand though, the D800 is distinctly Nikon and feels more robust than the D700.

“The build feels better than the D700,” reports photographer Jeremy Saladyga one of our Nikon D800 testers. “Very solid and comfortable.”

Adding to that comfort is the shutter button, which is tilted down slightly to the right instead of straight down as on the previous model, making it easier to fire it with your forefinger. Shooting with the D800 felt about as natural as any DSLR out there right now and while, on paper, it’s small (5.7 x 4.8 x 3.2 inches) for a “pro” camera, it feels hefty and substantial in your hand—especially with some quality Nikkor glass attached. (I shot with the D800 using the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens while Saladyga used 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4G and 135mm f/2 DC lenses. Jordan Matter, another D800 tester, shot with it using Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/1.4 lenses.)

One area where Nikon skimped on the D800 is the flimsy, consumer-style sliding door covering the CF and SD card slots. This was the same story on the D700, and while it might sound like a minor quibble, it’s fairly easy to accidentally open the door when pulling the D800 out of a camera bag.

There are some other, higher end extras on the D800 including its nice 3.2-inch, 921,000-dot LCD screen, which is the same as the one on the D4. The screen features 46x magnification for extreme zooming during image playback, which helps you make sure all 36.3-megapixels are in order.

The focus selector switch on the lower front left of the D800—which allows you to toggle between autofocus and manual focus—lets you change modes on the fly, just as with the prosumer-oriented D7000 DSLR and, more recently, the D4.

Matter who currently uses the D3s and liked the tough and heavy build of the D4, was happy with the smaller and lighter D800. “I love the size,” he tells us. “I mean, why not?”

Say You Want Some Resolution?
How do you squeeze 36.3 megapixels on an imaging chip that once had just 12 megapixels? You make those pixels smaller.

With one of the most generous pixel sizes (8.45 microns per pixel) for a digital SLR yet, the D700 was a low-light killer and a pretty amazing performer in good light as well. But if you wanted to print your photo at 17 x 22 inches or larger or significantly crop a portion of the shot, it wasn’t ideal.

The D800, on the other hand, has relatively small-sized pixels (4.88 microns per pixel) which should, theoretically, make it struggle in low light. At the same time, its medium-format-worthy resolving power seems better suited for large-scale advertising campaigns and significant photo crops.

And, in our testing, the D800’s resolution was often more (emphasis on more) than enough for us: detail was exquisite; color was pristine; and dynamic range was better than what we’d get from most medium-format cameras. Plus, we could print as big as we wanted or zoom in and crop as much as needed, and not lose detail.

“That [imaging] chip is something else,” Saladyga notes. “The images I got from it were fantastic.”

Matter, who had previously considered buying the D4 ($5,999) after testing it for last month’s issue, is now more interested in the less expensive D800. He says a recent campaign he shot with the 12.3-megapixel D3s that was printed on large banners would have been much better served by the high-resolution D800. “I was really impressed with my images from the D800,” he says. “I’d purchase it over the D4 for my needs.”

The D800 was also a far better low-noise/high-ISO/low-light performer than any of us expected, considering it’s rather small pixel size. A wedding image Saladyga shot at ISO 2500 of a bride and groom clinking glasses was clean as a whistle.

“I’m not seeing any noise at all, even up to ISO 3200,” he reports. Though the D800 struggled at ultra-high ISOs (it can shoot up to ISO 25600), the camera fared better than expected. A wedding image he shot at ISO 12800 was noisy but perfectly usable once it was converted to black-and-white.

At lower ISOs, the D800’s noise levels actually seemed to be better than the D700. “At ISO 400, there was less noise but ten times the detail,” Saladyga says. “Pretty impressive.”

Quid Pro Quo
The trade-off to the D800 being able to record such large images is that you’ve got to have some place to put them. The RAW image NEFs we shot with the D800 were 40 to 50 mb per image and we burned through CF and SD cards like there was no tomorrow.

These high-res shots will also create a lot of external storage dilemmas, in that you’ll probably need to buy a whole new set of hard drives and RAIDs to archive your pictures. That’s not a make-or-break scenario though: External hard drives are pretty inexpensive these days and with the advent of high-speed transfer protocols such as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, moving the D800’s big pictures throughout your workflow should be easier and faster than it would have been just a few years ago.

Make no mistake though: The money you save by buying the D800 instead of a D4, Canon 5D Mark III or whatever other pricey new model you had your eye on, will probably be dropped on 64 gb memory cards and Thunderbolt RAIDs.

The D800 is also not going to win any races as a performer. Matter photographs a lot of dancers in motion and the one area where the D800 lagged, for him, was its rather pedestrian 4 frames per second (fps) full-frame burst rate. (The camera can shoot 5 fps in cropped, DX mode and with its new MB-D12 battery pack, it can capture 6 fps in DX mode.)

Though the D800 has, purportedly, the same Multi-CAM3500FX auto-focus sensor (51-point, 15 cross-type) and EXPEED 3 image processor as the Nikon D4, it didn’t seem to react as quickly as the D4 or even the D3s.

“The focus points are not as clear as on the D3s, and I had to switch to it for an outside shot because the focus wouldn’t lock onto a dancer as he ran into the frame,” Matter notes. “Burst was slow compared to the D3s and overall not as easy to lock focus on a moving target.”

Saladyga describes a similar problem while testing the D800. “It seemed to have a problem focusing in low-contrast situations, such as on the white of a wedding dress or clothing as it was moving toward me. I kept saying to myself, ‘Why isn’t this autofocusing?’”

Those issues aside, both Saladyga and Matter say they would likely purchase the camera. “I thought Nikon was nuts for releasing a camera with this much resolution but it held up great,” Saladyga adds. “Now I just have to buy some more hard drives.”

The Bottom Line
Many were skeptical when they first heard about the 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800. Was it really possible to create such a high-resolution digital SLR and sell it for $3,000 without some massive trade-off in image quality?After testing the D800 with two other photographers, we’d say the answer is yes. Images from the D800 were gorgeous and filled with incredible detail, letting us comfortably print at 17 x 22 inches and above as well as zoom in and crop our shots without losing any significant detail. It’s also no slouch in low light. We got relatively low-noise shots at up to ISO 6400, which is something we totally didn’t expect. The icing on the cake is the D800’s excellent 1080p movie mode which, while it may not be the first thing photographers are interested in when they’re considering such a high-resolution camera, is a nice bonus. On the downside, the D800’s build is not nearly as robust as the flagship D4 and the camera’s mediocre 4 fps burst rate makes it unsuitable for sports or photojournalism shooters. But that’s not who will be interested in the D800. It’s a camera for wedding, beauty and commercial photographers seeking the resolution and stellar image quality of a medium-format model, but not the Wall Street-bonus-like price tag. While it may not be exactly for “the 99 percent,” the D800 is a great camera for the hard-working pro.

Pros: Incredible detail and gorgeous image quality from the 36.3-megapixel, full-frame sensor; surprisingly low noise at high ISOs despite relatively small pixel size; lightweight but solid camera build; excellent 1080p HD video mode

Cons: High-resolution image files will force you to buy lots of new memory cards and external storage devices; mediocre 4 fps burst rate; we experienced some autofocus issues with moving subjects in low-contrast settings; some skimping on details such as flimsy memory card door

Price: $2,999;

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