Nikon's D800 incorporates the world's highest resolution full-frame sensor. But at 36.3-megapixels, will the D800 maintain the same quality as its D700 predecessor? What Digital Camera's Nikon D800 Hands-On First Look Review takes a closer look at the D800...

The long-awaited replacement for the Nikon D700 takes high-resolution shooting to the next level. Nikon’s D800 features a 36.3-megapixel full-frame FX CMOS sensor – tripling the 12.1-megapixel resolution of the D700.

View full Nikon D800 review

Nikon D800: At A Glance

–   36.3MP FX (full-frame) CMOS sensor

–   EXPEED 3 processing engine

–   ISO 100-6400 (50-25,600 expanded)

–   Multi-CAM3500FX 51-point AF system

–   4fps burst mode (5/6fps in 15.4MP DX crop mode)

–   100% field-of-view, 0.72x magnification optical viewfinder

–   3.2in, 921k-dot LCD

–   Weather-sealed magnesium alloy body

Nikon D800: A Stripped-Down D4?

The D800 also carries over many of the pro-spec Nikon D4‘s features. The same EXPEED 3 processing engine can capture images from ISO 100-6400 (50-25,600), and movie mode can record 1080p files at 30, 25 or 24fps. A 3.2in, 921k-dot LCD – also the same as found in the D4 – includes an illumination sensor that updates the preview image in real time depending on the surrounding lighting situation.
The Multi-CAM 3500FX, 51-point autofocus system includes 15 cross-type sensors that are sensitive up to f/8 – very impressive for long-lens shooting or when using a teleconverter that forces you to stop down. A new AF switch design also means you’ll never need to take your eye away from the viewfinder whilst switching between various focus array or single point setups. Sensitive to -2EV, it’s said the camera will be able to autofocus in near-moonlight conditions.
There’s also the new 91,000 pixel metering sensor that not only uses ever last one of those pixels to assess exposure, but also feeds information in real time to the Advanced Recognition System to ensure an optimum, scene-dependent exposure. This means the likes of face detection, backlighting, and other tricky scenarios are dealt with before you’ve even pressed the shutter.

Nikon D800: New Features

One big change for the better is the inclusion of a 100% field-of-view optical viewfinder. It has the same 0.72x magnification, style and finish as found in the D700 model, but improves upon the 95% field-of-view found in the earlier model – potentially enough alone to tempt D700 users to upgrade, though a feature that Nikon didn’t cover in much depth at its press conference launch.
Build quality follows on from the D700 by incorporating weather-sealing from dust and moisture, though the body itself is around 100g lighter and dimensions differ by a few millimetres.
The camera has a dual card slot – one for SD and another for CF, compatible with UDMA 7 and UHS-1 for the fastest possible transfer times.

Nikon D4: Movie Makeover

Nikon may have been the first manufacturer to introduce HD movie recording in a DSLR, but many of its older releases were restricted by resolution, frame rate, file type and quality. The D800 has almost exactly the same movie-capture abilities as the D4, which ought to make it among the best moving-image-capture products in the market.
The camera can capture 1080p movies at 30/25/24fps using H.264 compression, or 720p files at 60/50fps for fluid half-time playback in editing. Unlike the D4, however, the D800 lacks a true 1920×1080 mode. Nikon claims this is on account of its (would-be) 3.85x magnification factor.
The inclusion of not only a microphone input (with 20 adjustment levels) and a headphones output (with 30 adjustment levels) also see the D800 excel. No other DSLR at this price point offers live audio monitoring.

Nikon D800: Too Much Resolution?

Whether the images will be as impressive as they’re talked up to be… we’ll have to wait and see. The 36.3MP resolution is significant and there’s no other camera out there that uses the same base sensor as a means to compare it to. At low ISO settings the D800 ought to be perfect for landscape shooters and the like, but whether it’ll stand up to high ISO scrutiny is for debate.
Each pixel at a sensor level will be considerably smaller than the D700 and this may cost overall quality due to light-gathering ability. The EXPEED 3 engine ought to ensure decent overall image quality, but in terms of each sensor diode’s light gathering potential, it seems as though it’s more similar to the 16.2MP sensor in the D7000 (although we don’t have full information, each pixel at a sensor level will be slightly smaller in the D800 compared to the D7000’s sensor).
For now we’ll have to wait and see how the sensor performs as a whole.

Nikon D800: Burst Speed

Continuous shooting is, along with sensor resolution, the other main difference the D800 has compared to the D4.
The D800’s 4fps burst mode isn’t as quick as the D700’s 5fps, and sits yet further behind the D4’s 11fps – presumably on account of resolution increase and to hold a gap between the products for different prospective markets. The caveat, however, is the D800’s DX crop mode which can shoot 15.4MP frames at 5fps or 6fps with the new MB-D12 battery grip – that’s higher resolution and potentially faster than the D700. Good though this is, the DX mode’s crop marks in the viewfinder are subtle and can make it difficult to always assess the shot effectively.

Nikon D800E: No Anti-Aliasing Filter Option

Also announced is the D800E: the same as the D800, albeit minus the anti-aliasing filter (and almost £300 more expensive). This means sharper shots are possible, yet the absence of such a filter may cause false colour and moiré issues – hence the D800E is aimed at an experienced, high-end market aware of specific subject matter.

Nikon D800: In Conclusion

The D800 doesn’t replace the D700. Both models will continue to run, presumably until the D700 stock is depleted. The other theory, of course, is that the super-high resolution of the D800 may not appeal to all users.
The camera looks to be a cost-effective, high-performance full-frame machine that offers many of the top-spec features of the D4 but for half the price.
The D800 will be available at the end of March, priced a penny shy of £2400, while the D800E will follow in April with a £2690 price tag. Both models are compatible with the new MB-D12 battery grip, expected to ship at £380.