The Nikon D800 features the world’s largest resolution full-frame sensor. Just how good is it? Find out in the What Digital Camera Nikon D800 review
When the Nikon D700 arrived in 2008, it was Nikon’s first enthusiast full-frame DSLR and their answer to the hugely popular Canon EOS 5D, which had been the only really affordable full-frame DSLR since its launch back in 2005.
The D700 inherited many of the high-end features of the flagship D3, including the excellent 12.1MP full-frame sensor which had broken new ground in high ISO performance along with the advanced 51-point AF system. This was all packaged-up in a rugged, but more compact and affordable body.
The D700 had many fans who loved its lowlight capability and performance, making it a very versatile piece of kit for a range of shooting situations. However, it arrived just before HD video found its way onto DSLRs, while the resolution offered wasn’t enough for some photographers – areas that its closest rival, the 21.1MP Canon EOS 5D MkII excelled.
And now we have the Nikon D800. With a mouth-watering specification that includes a sensor knocking on the doors of Medium Format digital cameras in terms of resolution, the Nikon D800 promises a lot.
The Nikon D800 was original announced with a body-only price of £2299, but
has since been corrected to £2599. Even with the price increase, it’s
still pretty good value and £400 less than its closets competitor, the
Canon EOS 5D MkIII. It’s also well under half the price of the 24.5MP
D3X – until recently, the highest resolution camera Nikon offered. Let’s see how it performs…
Nikon D800 review – Features
Nikon D800 sensor
What’s probably generated the most interest round the Nikon D800 is the sensor. Compared to the 121.MP full-frame chip found in the D700, the Nikon D800 features an incredible 36.3MP full-frame CMOS sensor.
Not only will it be possible to produce large prints with this kind of resolution, but there’s the added flexibility of being able to crop much tighter into the image. As well as being able to do this post capture, the Nikon D800 has a host of crop modes that can be selected as well as shooting at full resolution.
Nikon D800 crop mode
There’s a 5:4 crop mode (30.1MP), 1.2x crop mode (29.4MP) and DX 1.5x crop mode that outputs at 15.3MP – only a little less than the DX-format 16.2MP D7000 and a massive improvement over the D700‘s 5.4MP when shooting in this format. This makes it a much more useful option if you want to get closer to your subject or want to shoot with DX glass.
Nikon D800 ISO
With the increased pixel density over the D700, the ISO range doesn’t alter that much. The standard range is from 100-6400, with the extended range running up to an ISO equivalent of 25,600. This is the same as the D700 and some two stops lower than that offered by the 5D MkIII. The sensitivity of the chip can be extended in the other direction as well, so it’s possible to shoot at an ISO equivalent of 50.
Nikon D800 image processor
Even though the Nikon D800 features the same EXPEED 3 image processor as the D4 (with 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing), the high resolution does see the burst rate suffer slightly compared to the D700, dropping from 5fps down to 4fps.
This will be fine for general shooting, but you may find it a touch slow if you’re going to be shooting action.
Switch to either 1.2x or DX crop modes, then 5fps is achievable, while attaching the new MB-D12 battery grip and additional batteries can see the frame rate increase to 6fps, though it remains at 4fps when shooting at full resolution.
Nikon D800 shutter unit
There’s also a new shutter unit tested to well over 200,000 cycles and featuring an intelligent self-diagnostic shutter to monitor and correct possible variances that can sometimes occur.
Nikon D800 AF system
The D700 had one of the more advanced AF systems going, so it’s more evolution than revolution here. The 51-point AF arrangement remains the same, but the Nikon D800 borrows the same Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module that’s used in the flagship D4.
The central 15 AF points are cross-type variants, being sensitive to both vertical and horizontal lines. As well as this, its also claimed to be faster than the unit found in the D700, while also being more accurate in low-light conditions, working down to -2 EV and the approximate physical limit of human visibility through an optical viewfinder.
only does the RGB sensor recognise the scene’s colours and brightness to
set the exposure, but is also used to detect focus, set white balance
and control flash exposure. The system’s even clever enough to detect
faces in backlit scenes, focus on them and bias the exposure in their
favour if desired.
Nikon D800 viewfinder and LCD
The viewfinder itself is another area that’s also come in for improvement – the viewfinder in the D800 now offers a coverage of 100% compared to 95% covered by the D700.
Also making the transition across from the D4 is the new 3.2in LCD display with a resolution of 921k-dots and an ambient brightness sensor that automatically adjusts the screen depending on the environment you’re shooting in.
Nikon D800 flash
While the inclusion of a built-in flash may seem like it’s dumbing-down a high-end proposition, it’s a handy feature. As well has coming in useful for a bit of fill-in flash, it can be set-up to control remote flashguns for creative off-camera lighting to really set your shots apart from the rest.
Nikon D800 card slots
The Nikon D800 not only features a CompactFlash card slot that’s compatible with the latest UDMA 7 cards, but an additional SD card slot that’s compatible with SDXC and UHS-1 cards.
There’s a plethora of options if you want to use two cards together – one could be set-up to record Raw files for example, and the other for JPEG, while other people choices can see the second card slot used as a back-up, overflow or for video capture.
Nikon D800 review – Design
While the overall size and weight is very similar to the D700, when compared side-by-side, there have been quite a few changes – both design wise and button arrangement.
The Nikon D800 takes some of the design cues from the D4 – it takes a much more sculptured, plumper shape compared to the D700. Just like the D4, the angle of the shutter button has been altered, changing from an angle of 28° on the D700, to a slightly steeper 35° to make it more comfortable after long periods of shooting.
First seen on the D7000 and most recently the D4, the AF/M focus switch positioned to the side of the lens mount has also been refined. Instead of offering separate positions for AF-S or AF-C, as well as manual, there’s now the single choice of AF or Manual. To select between Single or Continuous AF, there’s now a button to press in the middle of the switch, and by using the sub command dial, you can toggle between the two modes, while the AF area mode is selected via the main command dial. This is relayed in the viewfinder, meaning you don’t have to lower the camera from your eye if need be.
Working our way round to the top of the camera and the release mode dial has been refreshed. It’s more pronounced than the one on the D700, and along with single, continuous, self-timer and mirror lock-up drive modes, there’s also a dedicated ‘Quiet’ mode, where the noise of the shutter release is dulled for when you’re shooting in sensitive surroundings such as a church. The buttons sitting in the middle of the release mode dial have grown from three on the D700 to four on the Nikon D800, and along with controls for White Balance, ISO and Quality, there’s now an additional Bracketing button.
Along with the Mode and Exposure compensation buttons next to the shutter button is a Movie Record button. This pushes the Mode dial to the left and if you’re used to swapping between modes with your D700 while the camera’s raised to your eye, you can inadvertently hit the wrong button. Nothing major, but could be a bit of a nuisance for some.
Turning to the rear of the Nikon D800 and the most notable change apart from the slightly larger screen is the addition of a Stills/Video switch in place of the AF area mode switch. Other button placements are the same as the D700, though the zoom in/zoom out buttons have been reversed. They’re positioned the same as on the D4, but if you’ve been using a D700 then you can find just through habit that you hit the wrong button when you want to zoom in or out when reviewing an image.
The overall feel of the Nikon D800 is very good. Nikon have managed to make it 10% lighter than the D700 but still maintain that high-end, quality feel. As you’d expect for a camera of this class, the body is constructed from magnesium alloy and comes with a host of weather-sealing to protect it from the elements, while the handgrip and it’s tactile rubber finish provides a solid grip.
Nikon D800 review – Performance
The Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system in the D800 is very strong and won’t disappoint. Set to AF-S and focus acquirement is very fast, even under poor lighting conditions. If you find that it can take too long to select one of the 51 AF points on offer, this can be reduced to 11 available points via the menu, allowing you to jump to different areas of the frame much quicker.
Switch to continuous AF on the Nikon D800 and you can take full advantage of the Advanced Scene Recognition and 91,000 pixel RGB sensor that’s linked into the AF system. Choose either 9, 21 or 51-point Dynamic AF for focus tracking – your choice will depend on how unpredictable your subject is moving in the frame, while you can also vary the distance priority, giving a bias to subjects in the foreground, middle-distance or background. Add the 3D Focus Tracking into the mix that will track your subject across all 51 AF points and you have a very versatile and clever AF system that’ll deliver the goods.
Switch to Live View mode and contrast-detect AF is employed with either AF-S or AF-F (full-time servo AF, with autofocus is being constantly adjusted if you or the subject are moving), and four AF modes to choose from: Face-priority AF, wide-area AF, normal-area AF and subject-tracking AF. Focus is relatively quick in Live View, though still lags behind specifically designed Compact System Cameras. For the most part though, Live View is more suited to manual focus and to ensure focus is spot on, you can zoom in on the image to assess sharpness.
Using an UDMA 7 rated CompactFlash card and the Nikon D800 is capable of shooting 16 consecutive Raw files at 4fps before the buffer needs time to clear the backlog. Pretty good considering the large files that are getting pushed through, though at 4fps, it may be a touch slow for some. Interestingly though, switching to JPEG doesn’t see a massive increase in the amount of shots achievable in a burst, only increasing to 18 shots before slowing. In DX-crop mode and at 5fps, 20 JPEG or Raw files can be captured consecutively before it slows.
The Nikon D800’s 3.2in screen auto adjusts the brightness of the screen thanks to an ambient brightness sensor. This works pretty well, though we found it a touch dark, but this can be overridden with a manual control should you wish, while it’s possible to zoom in up to 46x when reviewing your images and to assess focus. There’s now a Dual-axis virtual horizon that can be displayed on the rear screen or overlaid over your Live View feed – it’s a handy feature to ensure not only your horizons are level, but also any verticals as well. The viewfinder is lovely and bright, with a magnification of 0.72x and the option to overlay grid lines if you wish as well. If you’re using one of the crop modes, the peripheral area of the viewfinder is not masked completely unfortunately. Instead there’s a relatively thin black line to display the cropped area.
Shooting with the Nikon D800, and you’ll find core controls are within easy reach – once you get to know your way round the camera, you won’t need to take your eye away from the viewfinder to make certain adjustments. There’s also a couple of function buttons that can be programmed for a range of settings also. The menu system has been refreshed, though this is more aesthetic change than anything. The menu is split into six main sections (Playback, Shooting, Custom Setting, Setup, Retouch and My Menu), with some having additional subcategories within them. With the amount of adjustments and settings on offer, it’s still pretty intuitive and quick to use.
Nikon D800 review – Image Quality
Here are a small selection of sample images taken with the Nikon D800, for a full selection please visit our Nikon D800 Sample Imge Gallery.
Tone and Exposure
The Nikon D800 uses the new 91,000 pixel RGB sensor and offers the choice of three metering modes: 3D Color Matrix Metering III (Nikon’s latest multi-zone metering system), Centre-weighted and Spot. You can alter the bias of the Centre-weighted metering area to 8, 12, 15, 20 or an average area.
The new metering system worked very well – exposure was consistently accurate, even in tricky lighting conditions. The claim that the system will detect faces and give priority to that area of the image when assessing exposure is accurate – our test shots showed that against a backlit scene, a subject that would normally be left in shadow was perfectly exposed.
White Balance and Colour
Set the Nikon D800 in Auto White Balance mode and the camera delivers nice, neutral looking results. Just like we saw on the D4, there’s also a secondary Auto White Balance that aims to retain warm lighting in shots. Along with the two AWB modes, the Nikon D800 has a selection of preset white balances to choose from: incandescent, fluorescent (7 types), direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual (up to 4 values can be stored).
If you’re shooting JPEG, then there’s a choice of Picture Controls as well: Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape, while each preset can be adjusted to personal taste. Sharpening, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation and Hue can all be altered.
Sharpness and Detail
The jump from 12.1MP to 36.3MP is massive. Files has a native resolution of 7360 x 4912 pixels, it’s easily possible to produce A2 prints at 240ppi, while A1 prints are a realistic proposition.
As you’d expect, file sizes are very large – a 16-bit D800 file opened directly in Photoshop is 206.9MB in size, so you’ll need a pretty high-spec’d and up-to-date computer to deal with those sizes, while storage and transfer speeds are another consideration.
That said though – the detail is phenomenal. If you’re looking to produce high-quality images, then you won’t be disappointed. The resolving power of the sensor matched with good glass will deliver first-class results.
The Nikon D800 is bundled with Nikon’s all-in-one ViewNX2 software to read and convert Raw files, though D800 Raw files are supported in Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6 beta.
As you’d expect with in-camera processing, JPEG files display more saturation and a boost in contrast. At higher ISOs image noise control is evident, with JPEG images seeing less noticeable noise than an unadjusted Raw file, though this comes at the expense of detail.
The D700 built-up a reputation as a strong ISO performer, so how does the D800 stack up? With an extra 24.2 photosites on the sensor over the D700, there’s a greater risk of image noise encroaching on the image at higher sensitivities due to the increased signal to noise ratio.
The good news is that the Nikon D800 performs very well. Low ISOs deliver smooth results up to ISO 1600. At ISO 3200, colour noise begins to subtly creep into the image and becomes more pronounced as the sensitivity is increased.
Ultimately, the Nikon D800 is out performed at the higher sensitivities by some rivals, but only just. Interestingly, if you compare a downscaled D800 file with one from a D700 and there’s not much to choose between the two. So while it might not deliver the best ISO image noise results for a full-frame DSLR, the D800 is still very good, especially when you take into account the benefit of the huge resolution on offer.
One of the key areas where the D700 was lacking was video, but the video capture on the Nikon D800 should put it firmly on the map for videographers. Capable of shooting at 1080p at either 30/25/24fps at up to 24Mbps, the D800 can also shoot at 720p at 60/50fps. Videos are output as MOV files with H.264/MPEG-4 compression, while there’s also the opportunity to capture uncompressed video footage via the HDMI socket to an external drive. As well as an input for a microphone, headphones can be connected to monitor audio as well.
Inteview with Jim Brandenburg
Value & Verdict
Nikon D800 review – Verdict
In many ways the Nikon D800 doesn’t feel like a natural upgrade to the D700, but rather a new line in Nikon’s full-frame DSLR line-up.
While the D700 was a great all-round full-frame DSLR, the Nikon D800 is slightly more specialised – whereas the D700 was seen as a baby D3, the Nikon D800 could be seen as more of a baby D3X with even great resolving power.
The ISO performance sees it loose out to the competition ever so slightly if you’re going to be shooting handheld in lowlight, while the frame rate, even in DX mode can make it feel slow when shooting action. That’s not to say you won’t be able to achieve great shots in these situations, but you’ll just have to work a little harder.
These negatives are to some extent brought about by the camera’s main appeal, resolution. If you’re prepared to make small sacrifices in other areas, then the results from the D800 will blow you away. The amount of detail rendered is excellent, while the tonal range very broad, allowing you to produce super-sized, high-quality prints. Combine that with the quality feel, extensive feature set and polished handling, and the Nikon D800 is an excellent DSLR that won’t disappoint.
Preview and Key Features Videos
Nikon D800 Preview Video
Nikon D800 Key Features Slideshow