X

Nikon D800 review: Nikon D800

An excellent addition to the Nikon SLR line, the D800 does not disappoint on any front.

headshot-lexy-2-crop
Lexy Savvides
headshot-lexy-2-crop

Lexy Savvides

Principal Video Producer

Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.

See full bio
7 min read

Not content with announcing just one professional-grade SLR this year, Nikon has also released the D800, with a whopping 36.3-megapixel CMOS FX sensor (35.9 x 24mm).

NikonD800_1.jpg
8.8

Nikon D800

The Good

USB 3.0 connectivity. Clean HDMI out for video shooters. Excellent image quality. Bright, clear viewfinder. Good shooting performance.

The Bad

AF area adjust switch works differently from D700. Can't adjust mic/audio level while recording.

The Bottom Line

An excellent addition to the Nikon SLR line, the D800 does not disappoint on any front. If you don't need the machine-gun speeds or hefty size of the D4, this camera provides a very satisfying photographic experience.

Design and features

This camera takes plenty of inspiration from the D4, with the same 3.2-inch LCD screen at 921,000 dots, auto-brightness sensor, similar video capabilities and the Expeed 3 processor. The D800 is more than just a D4-lite, though.

Aimed at studio, wedding and fashion photographers, the D800 has a similar shape to its predecessor, the D700, but with refined ergonomics. It's an easier camera to hold in the hand, thanks to its lighter weight. The positioning of buttons has also been tweaked slightly, with more curvature on certain dials so that they fall easily into reach, when needed. There's also a new Live View switch to change between video and stills at the rear of the camera, which is the most prominent addition to the rear panel. Like the version found on the D4, it feels very much like Live View was a central part of the engineering process for this camera, as it works intuitively and without any airs or grace.

The control dials are now more curved than ever before.
(Credit: CBSi)

Astute readers will note that there are 51 AF points present on the D800 -- the same as on the D700 -- but Nikon has included a completely new sensor module. This ensures precise subject tracking, and also that the AF system is initiated faster. Nikon also claims that the D800's AF system has improved sensitivity in low light. Like the D4, there's face detection, which meters more accurately for people in the frame.

Speaking of AF, the mode selector dial has disappeared from the rear of the camera. To change between AF-S and AF-C mode, you need to press the AF/M button at the front, just underneath the lens release, and turn the rear dial. It's a little more effort than what is required on the D700, but it is easy enough once you're accustomed to the new positioning.

The dual-card slot (CompactFlash and SD) is, dare we say it, more useful than the CF/XQD configuration found on the D4. But, beware of your memory cards when using the D800 -- given the 36-megapixel sensor, the file sizes can be unwieldy. On average expect 15MB JPEG files and 40MB RAW files.

The viewfinder's coverage is now 100 per cent of the field of view. It's really bright and very pleasing to use.

Additional shooting settings for photographers include: an in-camera HDR mode, though it only uses two exposures; a time-lapse controller, which also calculates how long the resulting movie will be when the interval is set; a virtual horizon, to level shots; and enhanced retouch menus. The native ISO range sits at 100 to 6400, expandable to 50 and 25,600 using the low and high settings, respectively. The shutter has been tested for 200,000 cycles. The battery, same as found on the D7000, is rated for 900 shots.

Video capabilities

The D800 has the ability to shoot in FX and DX formats at full 1080p (H.264), and has selectable frame rates of 30fps, 25fps or 24fps at full HD, or 60fps, 50fps, 30fps or 25fps at 720p. More exciting is the headphone jack that lets you monitor the sound recording in live-view mode, just like the D4, and an auto-flicker reduction that lets the D800 select either 50Hz or 60Hz, depending on the lighting conditions.

The video record button is located just behind the shutter button.
(Credit: CBSi)

Uncompressed video can be recorded from HDMI output, but you'll need to make some space -- Nikon's own tests showed that three seconds of footage takes up 1GB.

As well as the tweaks to the LCD mentioned above, the monitor elements are gapless, which means that it's less reflective and less prone to forming condensation. In our outdoor tests, the LCD was easy enough to see, but in full sunlight and glare it does become tricky, as with any LCD screen without a hood attached.

The second D800

Thought that was enough surprises? Nikon has released not one, but two models of the D800. The second model is designed "for ultimate resolution", for landscape and artistic photographers in particular. This camera (the D800E) is identical to the regular D800, except that it disables the low-pass/antialiasing filter, which is found on most cameras to help reduce moire. Removing the filter means that the resulting image has a greater gradation of colours -- but it is more susceptible to moire. Medium-format photographers, this second camera is definitely designed for you.

Performance

General shooting metrics (in seconds)

  • Start-up to first shot
  • JPEG shot-to-shot time
  • RAW shot-to-shot time
  • Shutter lag
  • Nikon D4
  • Nikon D800
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Continuous shooting speed (in FPS)

  • Nikon D4
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • Nikon D800
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The D800 isn't blisteringly fast like the D4, but with a 36.3-megapixel sensor, you're not buying this camera for machine-gun speeds. It can shoot 4fps in FX mode, 5fps at 1.2x crop mode (25.1 megapixels) and 6fps in DX mode (using the battery pack only). New connectivity options include USB 3.0 for fast transfer speeds -- something that would have been valuable on the D4, but must have been omitted in order to get it to market quickly.

Autofocus is swift, accurate and effective, even in low light. Nikon rates the battery for this camera for 900 shots as well.

Image quality

While some may initially think the resolution of the D800's sensor is too high for lenses to be able to adequately resolve detail, the image quality delivered by this camera is stunning. Shooting both JPEG and RAW images is incredibly impressive; the camera processes its JPEGs in a very smooth, faithful manner, with good gradation of colour. Metering is very accurate and there's little evidence of blown highlights with a correct exposure.

A photo taken on the D800 at ISO 1600, shot in RAW, with 100 per cent crop inset.
(Credit: CBSi)

Shooting at high ISO levels also makes for a pleasurable experience. As you can see from the image below, which was taken at ISO 5000, straight from the camera, there's still plenty of detail and the noise profile is pleasing. There's definitely noise present, but it looks fine on the image, especially when resized for web.

(Credit: CBSi)

Pixel-peepers, and anyone inspecting images at 100 per cent magnification, will definitely notice the difference when shooting with less-than-perfect lenses. However, given the resolution, you can get away with a lot on the D800. A small resize here and a minor sharpen there, can produce incredible results on JPEG images.

A camera with 36 megapixels definitely leaves plenty of room for cropping in for your subject. Plus, the D800 renders skin tones beautifully.
(Credit: CBSi)

Speaking of lenses, unfortunately, we weren't supplied with any image stabilised glass to accompany the D800 during our review -- we had the 85mm f/1.4 and 24-70mm f/2.8. This meant that for several applications, most notably video testing, we were restricted to studio settings with a tripod, rather than being able to present a number of real-world, handheld examples.

Here's a perfect example to show how the D800 renders its JPEG images in terms of colour, specifically the red channel.
(Credit: CBSi)

Video quality is very impressive and presents the real leaps and bounds that have been made since the D700 was released. There's very little evidence of rolling shutter, the video image is smooth and artefact-free at low ISO levels, plus, the added level of audio control is welcomed. Our only complaint is that the controls for adjusting certain video functions are buried right at the end of the shooting menu. There's also no provision for changing the audio level during recording; it must be set correctly before filming.

Image samples

Exposure: 1/5000, f/1.8, ISO 250

Exposure: 1/320, f/14, ISO 250

Exposure: 1/50, f/1.4, ISO 800

Exposure: 1/80, f/10, ISO 100

(Credit: CBSi)

Conclusion

An excellent addition to the Nikon SLR line, the D800 does not disappoint on any front. If you don't need the machine-gun speeds or hefty size of the D4, this camera provides a very satisfying photographic experience.

Of course, the question that many want answered is which camera to buy: the D800 or the Canon 5D Mark III. Naturally, anyone who has already invested a serious amount in lenses and accessories for one system would find it difficult to switch, purely on a financial level.

The D800 offers resolution and image quality completely suited to studio and professional work. The 5D Mark III performs slightly better in low-light/high ISO video, with more options for compression and timecoding. The ergonomics have been tweaked in both cameras, compared to their predecessors, which may affect usability for some photographers. For us, the D800 feels better in the hand and presents the best value for money, when comparing local pricing.

While there is no official RRP for the D800 in Australia, we have seen body only prices for AU$3425 to AU$3800.