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Nikon D800 Review: Function and Form Converge
by Theano Nikitas -  1/24/2013

Nikon introduces the D800 as the highest megapixel DSLR in their lineup. With an unheard of 36.3MP FX-format CMOS sensor, we are surprised the pixels aren't falling off the sensor. Speaking of sensors, Nikon has unleashed a newly designed sensor for the D800. It promises to have great dynamic range and extraordinary color sensitivity. Priced at a mere $2800, this camera makes us wonder if medium format digital camera companies are getting a little worried. Optimized for portraits and studio work, the D800 can be a great addition to a wedding photographer's camera bag. However, at only 4 frames per second it will leave sports photographers wanting more.

Overview

Nikon shook up the DSLR world when they announced the full-frame, 36 megapixel D800. Standing alone in its class, the D800 is jammed packed with features. Currently, the only DSLRs that come close to these specs and are in the same price range include the Nikon D600 and the Sony A99. But these cameras only have 24 megapixel sensors. Alternatively, you can drop $9,000 on the 40 megapixel medium format Pentax 645D or mortgage your house (and possibly your soul) for a Hasselblad or Phase One rig.

Nikon D800

Not surprisingly, some Nikon D700 owners--who had been awaiting an update to the popular DSLR--were surprised and a little disappointed that the D800 wasn't more in line with their expectations, especially given that the new camera tripled the D700's 12 megapixel sensor. Granted, as a huge fan of the D700, I was disappointed, too (although the D600 has since eased the pain). Rather than an update to the D700, one might think of the D800 as a new category of camera in Nikon's DSLR line--one that offers a huge amount of resolution for a comparatively affordable price tag along with advanced video features.

As we all know, however, the megapixel wars are supposed to be over and while the files from the D800 are tremendous--in both quality and size--the camera has much, much more to offer than just plenty of pixels. Think of it almost as a convergence, takings its cues from the D4 and the D700 but wrapped around an extraordinary new sensor that promises to deliver amazing dynamic range and peak color sensitivity.

Although the D800 looks great on paper, this camera is not for everyone. Sports photographers, photojournalists and other professionals who need speed to capture images should stick to the D4 (or the Canon 1DX). But portrait, studio, product and other photographers whose subjects are more stationary may find Nirvana with the D800 due to its newly designed sensor, massive file sizes and amazing resolution. Along with the D800, Nikon also released the D800E--it's only a couple of hundred dollars more but delivers even finer details thanks to the lack of an optical low pass filter.


Build and Design

As expected, the D800 is well constructed and while not quite as rugged or weatherproof as the D4, it is sealed in enough places to keep it from failing when exposed to the elements. In many ways, the D800 is physically similar to the D700 with a little bit of D4 thrown in. It's slightly smaller and lighter than the D700, measuring 5.7 x 4.8 x 3.2 inches and weighing 31.7 ounces (body only). Pick it up and it feels surprisingly light, at least until you put a long lens on it.

Nikon D800

But the camera is comfortable to hold and is well balanced, even with a zoom lens attached. The grip is substantial, but isn't so big that the camera is unmanageable for photographers with smaller hands (like me); those with larger hands will feel comfortable holding and using the camera as well. Unlike the D4, however, you'll still have to reach for the shutter and controls when shooting in portrait mode since there's no built-in vertical grip/shutter.

As one would expect, the D800 is equipped with dual card slots. The camera accommodates one CompactFlash card (including UDMA) and one SD/SDHC/SDXC card. The second slot can be designated as back-up, overflow or to record separate file formats. I tested the camera with various cards including SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB, Lexar Professional 600x 16GB (both UDMA) CF media and an assortment of SanDisk SDXC cards. Obviously, you'll need high capacity cards to hold the camera's massive files and fast media in order to help maintain good write/read speeds.

Ergonomics and Controls

Overall, the D800's design and control layout provides convenience and easy operation. As always, there's enough consistency across Nikon DSLRs that it is unlikely current users will need more than, perhaps, a cursory glance at the user guide to get up and running with the D800. Non-Nikon users will probably benefit from more than a quick look at the guide (printed Quick Start and full User guides are bundled with the camera).

However, Nikon has revamped some external controls from previous models and, like the D4, has paid attention to the D800's advanced video options. As a long-time Nikon D3s and D700 user, I had to get used to some of the changes, though. Overall, however, the control layout is definitely improved.

Nikon has added a direct video record button atop the camera, which is within easy reach. It's next to the shutter button but, unless you're in Live View video mode, the button is essentially disabled so there are generally no worries about pressing it accidentally. Like the D4, the D800 has a Live View switch on the rear panel that toggles between still and video capture, with a center button for activating Live View.

Nikon D800Nikon D800

The reconfigured AF mode switch on the front of the camera is more efficient in many ways but, instead of toggling between continuous, single and manual focus, there are only two positions: AF and Manual. To change between single, continuous and auto, you now need to press the control's center button and use the main command dial to choose the appropriate mode. This same functionality can be seen in other Nikon cameras such as the D7000, D4 and D600.

Other controls that contribute to this camera's efficiency include a dedicated Picture Control button for adjusting parameters such as sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue for each preset picture style option including Standard, Neutral, Portrait and Landscape.

Although there are similarities between the D4 and the D800, the latter doesn't have a built-in vertical grip. Instead, you'll need to purchase the optional vertical battery grip to avoid having to contort you hand/wrist when shooting in portrait mode. Other optional accessories include a GPS unit, wireless transmitter and stereo microphone.

Overall, the D800 offers a well-designed control layout with easy access to just about every feature and function you need, whether via hard controls or the camera's info screen.

Menus and Modes

Nikon's menu system, although it may seem foreign to Nikon first-timers, is actually quite well organized. Functions and settings are easy to identify and menus can be navigated with little effort. Core settings can be adjusted using the information menu on the LCD so there's generally no need to go into the main menus while shooting.

Nikon D800

While the D800's main menu system is all-encompassing, it's logically arranged. The most confusing aspect is the custom menu, not so much because of its structure but because there are so many options that, until you get the know the camera, you'll have to stop and think about what selections to make. After that, it's smooth sailing.

Like all DSLRs, the D800 offers Program, Manual, Aperture-priority and Shutter-priority modes. Above and beyond the basics, users can create a timelapse video in-camera. Nikon has, over the years, consistently included an intervalometer function in its cameras. But the D800 not only captures individual images; it also automatically compiles them into a time-lapse video. Other shooting options include a two-shot HDR mode and a multiple exposure feature. The D800 offers so many different options and custom settings and it's important to explore them all to make the most of this highly capable camera.

Display/Viewfinder

The D800's optical viewfinder is bright and clear, with 100% coverage when shooting in FX (full-frame), that's up from the D700's 95% coverage. Since the camera offers a couple of different crop modes, including DX (1.5x, like an APS-C sensor), 1.2x and 5:4 aspect ratio; all of which can be set manually or automatically switches from FX to DX when a DX lens is attached. Note that the viewfinder coverage drops to about 97% when any of the alternate crop options are utilized. A diopter can be used to adjust the viewfinder to your eyesight and while the focusing screen isn't interchangeable, there appears to be some third-party options although swapping focusing screens will probably void your warranty.

Nikon D800

The rear panel is home to a 3.2-inch, high resolution, 921,000 dot LCD. It works well under almost all conditions. Direct sunlight might make it a little difficult to review images but, otherwise visibility for viewing menus and image playback is quite good.

A dual axis (roll and pitch) virtual horizon "overlay" is available for both the viewfinder and the LCD. This is a step up from the D700, which only measured a single axis. It's a very handy feature, particularly for landscape and architectural photographers. Of course, the virtual horizon is useful for studio work as well.

Performance

As I mentioned earlier, if you want a high speed (as in frames per second) DSLR, you'll need to look at the Nikon D4 or the Canon 1DX. At best, the D800 can continuously shoot full resolution images at 4 frames per second (6fps with the optional battery grip). But that's more than respectable for a camera that's pushing data from a 36 megapixel sensor. The D800's speed is fairly consistent whether you're shooting high resolution JPEG or even JPEG + RAW. The only difference is the number of frames captured in a single burst. We counted close to 40 high resolution JPEGs and about 15 RAW shots before the buffer was full. We'd love to see the option to have different sized RAW files in the next iteration of the D800, not only for improved continuous shooting speed, but also for those times when we don't need such large files and don't want to use one of the crop modes.

Otherwise, the D800 is pretty much on par with higher end DSLRs. Fast start-up and a responsive autofocus system make using this camera a real pleasure. Users have a choice of several AF modes including 9, 21 or 51-points, single point, 3D-tracking utilizing 51 points or auto area AF, where the camera selects what it considers the most appropriate points for focusing. The best AF mode, naturally, depends on what you're shooting.

The D800's autofocus works well in just about all lighting conditions and while it may be a little slower in low light, under good light, the camera locks in focus quickly and accurately. Continuous AF works well, too, although most of my test shots were static and I used the single AF mode.

A built-in flash is available but, unless it's an emergency or the on-board flash is set to Commander mode, it's likely that most D800 shooters will not make use of this feature. Instead, available light, off-camera flash or an attached Speedlight will probably be the lighting of choice.

Battery life was excellent during our testing. I was able to shoot 900 images over a two day period without changing or recharging the battery.

Video Quality

As they did with the D4, Nikon has stepped up the D800's video capabilities. A headphone jack is available to monitor audio recording levels and the HDMI port can be used to output uncompressed video to an external hard drive. Simultaneous streaming of video to the camera's LCD and an external monitor can be accomplished via the HDMI port as well. An optional stereo microphone can also be plugged into the camera for capturing high end sound. The camera's on-board microphone is monaural but is actually quite good.

Video can be recorded in full HD (1920 x 1080) at 30fps or 24fps, as well as 720p at 30fps or 60fps in H.264/MPEG-4 (so it's much easier to edit than other formats). Crop modes can be utilized for video and manual exposure (with some limitations) is available.

Keep in mind that although the D800 offers autofocus in video mode, this is still the one of the shortcomings in most DSLRs due to the use of contrast detect AF. Autofocus in movie mode isn't as responsive as it is when shooting stills and, if your video experience comes from using a camcorder, don't expect the same kind of autofocus capabilities. But that's true of most DSLRs and experienced DSLR videographers can handle the issues presented by this type of AF.

However, the D800 produces some really nice video with crisp focus (when pre-focused or once the lens finished hunting) and accurate, but natural, color reproduction. Exposures were accurate and the metering system generally was able to keep up with small-to-moderate changes in lighting in a scene.

*Editor's Note: The video footage above was taken in a 12x15 room. The camera was set to auto mode. The lens was a Nikkor 24-120mm f/1.4. The only lighting in the room was directly behind the shooter from a window.     

Image Quality

Still image quality was stellar. Our test shots showed excellent dynamic range with and without D-Lighting, which can be set at different levels to help retain shadow and highlight detail. Exposure was pretty much spot on and colors were naturally rendered but well-saturated. I tested the camera with the Nikon 18-36mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 24-120mm lenses. While the latter was my least favorite (but still quite good), detail capture was excellent across the other three lenses. The camera's ISO range hasn't changed from the D700, with a native ISO span of 100-6400 and an expanded low of 50 and high of 12,800 and 25,600.

Nikon has always been ahead of the curve with low light/high ISO performance and the D800 is no exception. Even with its 36 megapixel sensor, the D800 keeps noise levels well under control even with the camera's noise reduction feature turned off. For snapshot-size prints and posted on the Web, I'd feel comfortable shooting up to the maximum expanded ISO if there was no other way to get the shot. Image noise during long exposures was equally as impressive, even for 15-second exposures (see image below).

 ISO 640, 15 second exposure

Of course, you'll get the best results shooting RAW and keeping the ISO lower. The D800 doesn't offer the high ISO quality of the D4 or even the D3s, but it's quite good considering its 36 megapixel sensor. Obviously, the best results are captured under good lighting conditions, whether outdoors or with studio/flash lighting.

 As shot                                                                           Cropped from image on left

Conclusion

With its 36 megapixel sensor, sophisticated feature set and amazing image quality, the Nikon D800 offers a solid--and more affordable--alternative to photographers who crave medium-format files without stretching a budget to the breaking point. It's no speed demon with a continuous shooting speed of about 4fps but it's not designed that way. It's great for studio, portrait and product photographers, as well as landscape shooters who want the ultimate amount of information. Heed our warning, though. Be sure your computer and storage systems are up to the task of handling large files. This camera's files can quickly eat up valuable space on your hard drive. An external hard drive is a necessity when purchasing this camera.

With DSLR video becoming more ubiquitous, Nikon has done a good job of expanding the D800's video capabilities. If you've not shot video with a DSLR before, be prepared for a learning curve especially in focusing. The D800's AF--like many other DSLRs--requires some special skills, but the results are well worth the effort.

Whether or not you have an interest in shooting video, though, the D800 is first and foremost an excellent camera for capturing stills. And, if you're a pro with a high speed D4, the D800 is the perfect complement for your portrait or studio needs.

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