When Nikon unveiled the D800 alongside the D800E it was hard to believe that behind the F-mount lay a 36.3MP sensor – the highest resolution of any DSLR at the time of its launch, and a claim that still holds truth today.

With both becoming the hot topic of conversation among photographers, photo press and the trade alike, it sparked a series of questions as to whether such a high resolution was needed, how the enormous file sizes would be handled and perhaps more fundamentally, who Nikon were trying to target as their audience with these high resolution beasts.

Two years on and we’re left questioning why we ever doubted the D800/D800E‘s existence. Both have won an endless list of accolades, proving to be the choice of professional and enthusiast photographers around the world who demand they capture the finest levels of detail from a scene using a camera that ticks virtually every box.

I say virtually every box because two things the D800 and D800E weren’t successful at were being small and lightweight. This opened up a gap for another manufacturer to exploit and take Nikon’s DSLRs head-on. This manufacturer was Sony, who late last year released the A7R – the world’s smallest full frame system camera with an identical resolution to the D800/D800E.

With a promise of delivering Nikon D800/D800E quality in a smaller and more lightweight system, has Sony succeeded in producing the best high-resolution system camera to date?

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Features

Before we kick off, it’s important to clarify the reason for testing the Nikon D800E against the Sony A7R instead of the D800. The D800E is identical in every way to the D800 with exception to the optical low pass filter which is removed in an effort to increase resolution and sharpness in much of a similar way to the Sony A7R.

To ensure our test was strictly comparative, we requested both models with the manufacturers best prime optics in the same focal length – the Nikon D800E with the NIKKOR AF-S 35mm f/1.4 G and the Sony A7R with the FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens.

The Sensor

The Sony A7R’s CMOS sensor features an identical 36.8MP total sensor resolution to the D800E, with a negligible difference in effective pixel resolution – the A7R produces a 36.4MP effective resolution in comparison to the D800E‘s 36.3MP. With both sharing identical sensor dimensions (35.9x24mm) it supports suspicions that both cameras use the same sensor made by Sony, however what’s interesting is that up until the A7R’s release Sony has never used this sensor before in its Alpha line, opting to use its 24.3MP chip instead presumably due to the fact it sold exclusive rights of the 36.3MP sensor to Nikon for a limited time period thats since expired.

Unsurprisingly, both sensors produce a maximum image size of 7360×4912 pixels with the option to record at lower 20.3MP or 9MP resolution on the D800E or 15MP and 9MP on the A7R. Though both cameras essentially have the same ISO sensitivity output of 50-25,600, the D800E‘s native sensitivity range runs from ISO 100-6400 meaning you have to enter the L1.0 or H2.0 settings to access the equivalent of ISO 50 and ISO 25,600 respectively.

The key difference regarding the sensor is the design of its positioning behind the lens mount. Whereas the D800E‘s chip is set back behind the mirror and shutter mechanism, the A7R’s sensor is much more exposed, sitting directly behind the smaller E-mount – one of the key contributions towards its compact size.

Though the A7R is compatible with Sony’s E-mount NEX series lenses, these were originally designed for use with an APS-C sensor and as such won’t deliver the optical quality to match the 7R’s sensor performance. To get over this hurdle, Sony’s new FE-series of full-frame lenses should be used, but with a limited range of just four optics at present it starts on the back foot compared to the D800E‘s vast support of Nikon’s FX-format lenses.

Sensor and lens compatibility aside, the D800E uses an EXPEED 3 image processing engine with 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing whereas the A7R features Sony’s new BIONZ X processor with 14-bit Raw output. With regard to stabilisation, both support the use of optically image stabilised and non-stabilised lenses, with Nikon’s VRII system and Sony’s SteadyShot system claiming to allow users to shoot handheld up to 4-stops slower than would otherwise be possible.

For autofocus, and as you’d expect of a DSLR, the D800E relies on Phase-detect AF whereas the A7R instead relies on a contrast-detection system that’s suspected to be less responsive in low-light. The Multi-CAM3500FX AF module provides the D800E with a 51 AF points compared to the A7R’s 25 contrast-detect points and with neither model featuring a touchscreen, AF points are positioned via the body controls.

The rear screens and viewfinders differ too – the 7R features an electronic viewfinder due to its mirrorless design whereas the D800E‘s optical viewfinder with 100% frame coverage lies above a 3.2in, 921k dot display that’s larger than the 7R‘s 3in 921k-dot screen. Not only that, the D800E features a pop-up flash above the hotshoe that could be useful for fill-in, with the A7R lacking in this department with only a hot shoe to its name.

Focus On – Lenses

The Nikon D800E is supported very well by a vast range of full-frame optics, however the same can’t be said at present for the Sony A7R. Although an adapter can be used to attach Sony’s A-mount lenses or other full-frame lenses, it adds unwanted bulk and goes against the principle of it being a small and light full frame camera.

At present there are only four optics that match the quality of what the 7R’s sensor is able to deliver – the 35mm f/2.8 as used in this test, the 55mm f/1.8, 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS and the 24-70 f/4 OSS. There’s talk of a 70-200mm f/4 joining later in 2014 and up to 10 dedicated lens being available in total, but right now there’s no questioning it’s a restrictive system.

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Design

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Design

Nikon D800E angled

As you’d expect from cameras aimed at targeting enthusiasts as well as professionals, the D800E and A7R feature robust bodies, with magnesium alloy used in the construction of their chassis. Added to this, both feature weather seals to prevent dust, dirt and moisture creeping past panels to the internals.

This weather sealing provides a full sense of security when they’re used in extreme and demanding conditions, and even when shooting in downpour, both shrugged off moisture with no apparent signs of water damage. On the scales the A7R weighs 493g less than the D800E when you compare body weights.

Sony A7R angled

Despite this considerable weight saving, the A7R feels just as rigid as the D800E. It does lack the same muscular quality of the D800E that some photographers will prefer, but the handgrip has been sculpted in such as way your hand wraps around it very comfortably.

Sony A7R detail

My only concern in terms of the A7R‘s design lies with some of its buttons and controls – the exposure compensation dial on the corner of the body for example is too easily knocked in use and requires more resistance to prevent this occurring. Added to that, the menu and zoom buttons, as well as the aperture control dial, could benefit from protruding further from the body to bring them flush in line with the back panel of the camera for more comfortable operation.

Nikon D800E detail

Out of the two, the positioning of the D800E‘s larger buttons and intuitive layout of controls around the body make it more instinctive to use.

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Performance

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Performance

Nikon D800E top down

The trade off for choosing a camera with such a high resolution is the continuous speed it can offer. The large file sizes demand so much from the processor, neither camera can shoot at what we’d call a breathtaking pace, with the D800E capable of 4fps in its continuous high speed (CH) mode – a speed matched by the A7R set to its speed priority continuous mode.

Loaded with identical SanDisk ExtremePro SDHC cards, the A7R sustained a continuous burst of 15 Raw files at 4fps, a figure lower than the 18 recorded by the D800E. Set to Raw&JPEG, the A7R rattled out the same number of frames, with the D800E‘s count reducing to 16 frames. Switching the format to JPEG, the D800E shot 32 frames at 4fps as opposed to 17 frames on the A7R.

Sony A7R top down

Turning attention to focusing speed, the A7R‘s autofocus detection range runs from EV0 to EV20, whereas the D800E is the more responsive at detecting a low-light scene with a range that goes down to -2EV. Field testing in low-light revealed the D800E‘s phase detect AF system was always the first to lock on to our subjects, with the A7R‘s contrast-detect AF system putting up more of a fight, with occasional signs of hunting before the focus beep indicated correct focus had been achieved.

It goes without saying the D800E is much faster set to continuous AF too, with further signs of hunting from the A7R in a comparative test focusing between near and far subjects.

LCD screen

Nikon D800E rear

Whereas the D800E‘s screen is the marginally larger of the two, it’s the fixed type unlike the A7R‘s that is bracketed on a hinge, which allows it to be pulled out and tilted down by 45 degrees or up by 90 degrees to aid low-level shooting. Each display offers excellent clarity and sharpness for reviewing images, but on the subject of review and playback, the way the A7R zooms into 100% instantly after using the zoom button quickly becomes tiresome and there is no such problem on the D800E, which lets you zoom in and navigate an image in playback mode more gradually.

Sony A7R rear

As briefly mentioned earlier, the D800E is more instinctive to use. One example of this is when it comes to repositioning the AF target – something all photographers want to be able to do quickly with minimal fuss. While all it requires is a tap of the dpad to move the AF point on the D800E, the A7R requires you to locate and depress a custom button beside the shutter on the top plate first – a noticeably slower process.

While the D800E has buttons on the body for virtually all frequently used functions and modes, the A7R‘s petite body doesn’t allow for this, with settings such as white balance, metering mode and focus mode tucked away in a quick menu instead.

As for the interfaces, the D800E‘s main menu settings are broken down into six categories just like the A7R. The only difference is that these are positioned at the side rather than the top, with the type being displayed on black compared to dark grey on the D800E.

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Image Quality

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Image Quality

Resolution

To guarantee our image quality results in the lab were consistent and comparative, the D800E and A7R were tested with identical lenses. The Nikon 50mm f/1.8D was our chosen optic and to attach this to the A7R required the use a NEX-Nikon lens adapter.

The reason for opting for the older ‘D” variant as opposed to the newer ‘G’ series lens would allow us to take manual control of the aperture on both models. With each camera sharing the same sensor size and near identical effective resolutions, we predicted a comparable detail performance, which was confirmed by our resolution chart results.  

A close assessment of detail revealed that the results at ISO 100 were virtually identical, with both 36MP sensors managing to do what very few cameras are capable of and that’s out resolve our resolution charts 40 lines per millimeter scale. It was a similar story at other low ISO settings, with detail only starting to drop off slightly at ISO 3200 on both cameras, more noticeably so above ISO 6400.

Even at ISO 12,800, both sensors were resolving between 34-36 lines per millimeter, signifying an outstanding resolution performance, and with virtually identical readouts throughout the ISO range it backs up the originally suggested comment that both cameras employ the same image sensor.

Image Noise

Before assessing the image quality of both cameras, noise reduction within Camera Raw was switched off all together from its default settings. Under close inspection, the noise performance on both cameras was identically matched. Clean, noise-free images are produced by both sensors between ISO 100-400 with the faintest trace of colour noise entering at ISO 800.

Colour noise becomes a little more pronounced at ISO 1600 and 3200, however this was removed effectively using the colour noise reduction slider in both Camera Raw and Lightroom 5. Both the D800E and A7R handle luminance noise very well up to ISO 6400, and with careful adjustment of the noise reduction sliders at this sensitivity it’s possible to create images with the faintest trace of luminance noise that has little affect on detail.

Detail does start to drop off more noticeably above ISO 6400, and though ISO 12,800 could be used at a push, we’d consider ISO 6400 to be the limit at which we’d want to push the 36MP sensors too in order to preserve the highest levels of detail and ultimately the best image quality. 

White Balance & Colour

Comparing the same images taken on both cameras and studying the colour temperature in Lightroom revealed the A7R‘s Auto White Balance has a tendency to produce images that are warmer than the D800E. I discovered this to be the case on a number of occasions in both Raw and JPEG files, with the D800E‘s files only needing a subtle tweak to the temperature to bring them up to a similar level of warmth to the A7R.

Colour tones in each cameras Raw files also appeared more faithful compared to JPEGS – an excellent reason to choose the uncompressed Raw file format over the compressed JPEG file format – the latter often being the victim of in-camera processing.

Raw & JPEG

The processing applied to the A7R‘s JPEGs is a touch more aggressive than the D800E‘s, with images receiving a sharpness and contrast boost that’s obvious when images are inspected alongside each other at high magnification.Whereas the D800E seems to apply just a fraction of sharpening to help resolve detail in its JPEGs, the A7R‘s is noticeably more severe, with noise-reduction also the more obvious.

As briefly mentioned earlier in the review, there’s differences between JPEGs and Raws regarding colour. Whereas the D800E‘s JPEGs appear to receive a saturation boost that’s most noticeable in the greens, RAW files represent more faithful colour to the scene photographed. While we’d say the colour balance is slightly better in the A7R‘s JPEG files than the D800E‘s, again for the best results from the A7R, Raw should always remain the file format of choice.

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Nearest Rivals

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Nearest Rivals

Nikon D610

Nikon D800E v Nikon D610

Resolution: Currently the smallest and lightest full frame model in Nikon’s DSLR lineup, the D610‘s sensor shares the same physical dimensions as the D800E‘s chip but has less resolving power with a lower 24.3MP resolution.

Winner: Nikon D800E

ISO range: Both the D800E and D610 feature a standard ISO range of 100-6400, with the possibility to also shoot at ISO 50 or up to ISO 25,600 in the expanded settings, indicated as L1.0 and H2.0 on the body of the camera.

Winner: Draw

Continuous Shooting: The D610 shoots 2fps faster than the D800E. Whereas the D800E can only shoot as fast as 4fps in its Continuous High Speed (CH) mode, the D610 (6fps) makes a better choice for capturing high-speed sequences.

Winner: Nikon D610

Autofocus: The Nikon D610 features a 39-point AF system with 9-cross type points. This isn’t as advanced as the D800E‘s AF system which boasts 51 AF points, 15 of which are the more sensitive cross-type sensors.

Winner: Nikon D800E

Sony A7 front view

Sony A7R v Sony A7

Resolution: The Sony A7 features a full frame sensor like its stable mate, the only difference being it sports a 24MP resolution that doesn’t have the capability to resolve as much detail as the 36.4MP resolution offered by the Alpha A7R

Winner: Sony Alpha A7R

ISO range: Both the A7 and A7R are capable of shooting from as low as ISO 50 right through to ISO 25,600. The easiest and quickest way to change ISO from the body is to use the Function button (Fn) beside the thumb rest at the rear.

Winner: Draw


Continuous Shooting
: The A7 has a speed advantage over the A7R in that it can shoot consecutive shots at up to 5fps, while the larger files the A7R turns out means it can only accomplish 4 fps in its speed priority continuous mode.

Winner: Sony Alpha 7

Autofocus: The A7 features the more sophisticated AF system of the pair with 117 phase-detect points combined with 25 contrast-detect points delivering a spritely AF performance that can’t be matched by the A7R‘s contrast-detect only AF system

Winner: Sony Alpha 7

 

Summary

A quick glance above reveals the D800E and A7R are very well equipped, however there are cheaper and more viable alternatives available. There’s an £850 saving to be made if the D610 was to be chosen over the D800E and though its sensor resolves less detail and has a slightly less advanced AF system, it’s a more than capable full-frame DSLR that’s considerably lighter in the hand.

The same goes for the A7R, with the Alpha A7 challenging it’s stable mate with a more advanced AF system and faster burst speed for £460 less. Ultimately what you’re paying for on the D800E and A7R is the highest resolution sensor available on the market.

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Verdict

Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R – Verdict

These two cameras are both very different and very similar. The connection is the incredible level of detail that’s recorded from the 36MP sensor and our tests revealed little, or no difference in the level of detail that’s recorded when subjected to a series of tests using the same lens. The way each camera’s image processor handles the images is different however, with the D800E‘s JPEGs receiving less sharpening, but also producing images with a slightly cooler auto white balance.

The A7R offers a lot in a body of its size. To fit a full frame sensor behind the E-mount in a body a fraction of the size and weight of the D800E seems uncanny, but it’s a formula that works and verifies that full-frame doesn’t need to be heavy or cumbersome.

Out in the field where these cameras will see most use, the D800E is the winner. It might be a heavier, it might be bigger, even more expensive by quite a margin, but its muscularity makes it feel more serious and given the choice I’d be prepared to spend the extra for the superior handling, faster focusing and optical viewfinder that in my mind is no match for A7R‘s electronic alternative.

There will be some who look at the Alpha A7R as a way of reducing the weight of their kit bag while maintaining the finest levels of detail, however until the lens range expands, the autofocus speed is improved, the body’s controls are refined and the battery life lasts for longer, it remains second best to the superb D800E as a camera that delivers optimal resolution.

Nikon D800E, £2349

Pros – Image Quality, Handling, Performance, Weather Sealing, Optical Viewfinder
Cons – Burst Shooting (4fps), Heavy, Expensive, No Wi-fi

Sony Alpha A7R, £1635

Pros – Image Quality, Lightweight, Weather Sealing, Wi-fi, tilting screen
Cons – Burst Shooting (4fps), AF performance, battery life, button layout, No pop-up flash

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R - Design
  3. 3. Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R - Performance
  4. 4. Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R - Image Quality
  5. 5. Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R - Sample Image Gallery
  6. 6. Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R - Nearest Rivals
  7. 7. Nikon D800E vs Sony A7R - Verdict
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