Was it worth the wait? There has been a lot of buzz about the D800 before and after the camera was announced. One of the main reasons is the popularity of the existing Nikon D700 camera and the sheer number of people, especially part-time and full-time pros, who were dying to upgrade their aging cameras. In addition, the production delay further fueled the heat and spiked up the interest from the photography community that was getting rather impatient, wondering what Nikon would bring to the table for the next several years in the full-frame arena.
As you will see further down in this review, I consider the Nikon D800 to be a breakthrough camera, something we have not seen since Nikon introduced its first full-frame D3. While we have seen some amazing products from Nikon, they were all evolutionary, with minor upgrades, tweaks and changes here and there. The D800, on the other hand, is a revolutionary product that once again raises the bar on image quality, dynamic range, autofocus and even noise performance – all without the high price tag of a pro camera attached to it. Sure it has its share of problems with its rather slow speed (FPS) and average battery life, but these problems are rather insignificant, given what we are getting as a total package. Think of the D800 as a beefed up D3X, just in a smaller body, at 40% of the cost. How is that not revolutionary? And the D800 just happens to set a new world record in full-frame resolution.
But wait, what about all those photographers that anticipated a camera with the same sensor as on the Nikon D4, the ones that do not particularly care for high resolution? Did Nikon leave them all out with the D800, forcing them to jump to the expensive D4? Before I answer this question, let me first give a brief history of the D800, along with my analysis on why Nikon decided to take a different route with its full-frame line this time.
1) A Brief History and Analysis
I remember the day when I first read the rumor about the D800 and its 36 MP sensor. I quickly dismissed it, because it sounded completely unrealistic to me. With Nikon putting so much focus on image quality in its full-frame line with the D700, D3 and later D3s, and keeping the megapixel count low at just 12 MP (while the competition had been only increasing the number of megapixels in their new cameras), I only pictured the D700 replacement to be a very modest update in terms of resolution. Maybe something similar to the D7000, with a 16-18 MP sensor. Plus, a 36 MP full-frame sensor just did not fit in with the existing super expensive D3X that was specifically targeted for high-resolution applications.
As you may already know, the Nikon D700 was announced about a year after the D3 came out in 2007. Nikon did not have the time and resources to create a separate product line like Canon did with its original 5D, so it decided to borrow the sensor along with most features from the D3. Aside from the slower fps speed (that you could increase with a grip), smaller body & battery and 97% viewfinder coverage, the Nikon D700 was almost the same as the Nikon D3 – some even dubbed it “the D3 brother”. Needless to say, the Nikon D700 was an instant success.
On the grand scale, however, the D700 became a problem for Nikon – it heavily cannibalized the D3 sales. Why spend $5K on the D3, if you could get a smaller and lighter camera with almost the same features for $2,000 less? And if you really wanted, you could push the D700 to be almost like the D3 by adding a grip and D3 batteries. Consumers were quick to react to this opportunity and Nikon soon realized that it made a mistake by letting one product line compete head to head with another. But it was too late – the D700 was already too popular. Nikon released the 24 MP D3x shortly thereafter, which proved to be a marketing failure due to its inflated price (despite being a superb camera for high-resolution work). Nikon’s professional line suffered all the way until the Nikon D3s was released in October of 2009, which finally created more demand for the top-of-the-line professional cameras once again. With the highly successful D700, well-performing D3s and failed D3x lines, it was clear that Nikon had to come up with a better strategy for positioning and pricing its full-frame cameras.
In January of 2012, the Nikon D4 was announced with a 16 MP sensor, which seemed in line with what I was expecting in terms of resolution. A very modest update in megapixels, different ergonomics and plenty of new features including a revamped autofocus system that works at f/8. We all knew the D800 was around the corner, but still, the biggest question remained – would it have D4′s 16 MP sensor or the rumored super high-resolution 36 MP sensor? Within a month from the D4 announcement, Nikon finally announced the Nikon D800 with a 36.3 MP sensor. Why did this happen and what caused Nikon to change its direction in this full-frame line?
As I have already explained in my “benefits of a high-resolution sensor” article before, I believe Nikon made a smart move in positioning its current and future full-frame (FX) lines. Rather than offering three or more product lines with different performance characteristics and features, it makes a whole lot more sense to have just two distinct cameras – one general-purpose, high-resolution camera (D800) and one advanced high-performance camera specifically targeted for sports, news and wildlife photography (D4). This move obviously eliminates the D3x line and sends a message that we might never see another high-end, high-resolution full-frame camera from Nikon. But in fact, I believe this could actually lead to an introduction of a medium format camera from Nikon in the future… But that’s a whole different topic of discussion.
Traditionally, DSLR cameras with very high resolution have been categorized as specialized tools for landscape, macro and studio photography. With the introduction of the D800, many photographers thought that Nikon is specifically targeting one group of photographers, while completely ignoring others. In fact, as you will see later on in this review, it is actually not the case. There is a reason why I called the Nikon D800 a “general-purpose, high-resolution” camera – because it can be effectively used for any sort of photography. There is a common misconception among the photography community about the size of pixels and their impact on image quality and noise, especially when comparing one sensor to another. If a sensor packs a lot of pixels, it is often assumed that it will perform much worse in low light at high ISO when compared to a sensor with less and bigger pixels.
In fact, it all depends on how you perform this comparison. When a high-resolution image is down-sampled to a lower resolution, its noise characteristics can actually improve dramatically (see my articles on down-sampling). So when comparing a 36 MP image to a 12 MP image, why would you look at both at 100%? Clearly, the 36 MP image would print much larger in size, so it is only fare to compare sensors at the same print size. See this example of just how much bigger the 36.3 MP image is from the D800 in comparison to the 12.1 MP image from the D700:
By down-sampling 36 MP to 12 MP, you would not only reduce the amount of noise, but you could also make the image appear sharper. As I reveal in the following pages of this review, the down-sampled Nikon D800 images look exceptionally good, even when compared to the high-end Nikon D4. There is a reason why the new sensor is rated as #1 by DXOMark among all sensors produced to date. In addition, a high-resolution image has a lot more room to work with for cropping and can produce exceptionally good-looking images at low ISO levels, perfectly suitable for huge prints. Hence, when looking at the Nikon D800, one has to be fully aware of the many advantages of a high resolution sensor and the benefits of the down-sampling process.
Let’s move on to the camera details!
2) Nikon D800 Specifications
Main Features and Specifications:
- Sensor: 36.3 MP FX, 4.8µ pixel size
- Sensor Size: 35.9 x 24mm
- Resolution: 7360 x 4912
- DX Mode: 15.3 MP
- DX Mode Resolution: 4800 x 3200
- Native ISO Sensitivity: 100-6,400
- Boost Low ISO Sensitivity: 50
- Boost High ISO Sensitivity: 12,800-25,600
- Processor: EXPEED 3
- Metering System: 3D Color Matrix Meter III with face recognition and a database of 30,000 images
- Dust Reduction: Yes
- Weather Sealing/Protection: Yes
- Body Build: Full Magnesium Alloy
- White Balance: New White Balance System
- Shutter: Up to 1/8000 and 30 sec exposure
- Shutter Durability: 200,000 cycles, self-diagnostic shutter
- Camera Lag: 0.012 seconds
- Storage: 1x CF slot and 1x SD slot
- Viewfinder Coverage: 100%
- Speed: 4 FPS, 6 FPS in DX mode with optional MB-D12 battery pack
- Exposure Meter: 91,000 pixel RGB sensor
- Built-in Flash: Yes, with Commander Mode, full CLS compatibility
- Autofocus System: Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX with 51 focus points and 15 cross-type sensors
- AF Detection: Up to f/8 with 9 focus points (5 in the center, 2 on the left and right)
- LCD Screen: 3.2 inch diagonal with 921,000 dots
- Movie Modes: Full 1080p HD @ 30 fps max
- Movie Exposure Control: Full
- Movie Recording Limit: 30 minutes @ 30p, 20 minutes @ 24p
- Movie Output: MOV, Compressed and Uncompressed
- In-Camera HDR Capability: Yes
- Two Live View Modes: One for photography and one for videography
- GPS: Not built-in, requires GP-1 GPS unit
- Battery Type: EN-EL15
- Battery Life: 900 shots
- USB Standard: 3.0
- Weight: 900g
- Price: $2,999 MSRP
A detailed list of camera specifications is available at NikonUSA.com.
3) Nikon D800 vs D800E
For the first time in Nikon’s history, a DSLR camera is offered in two variants – one that is specifically targeted for landscape and macro photography (Nikon D800E), and another for everything else (Nikon D800). In the past, Nikon only offered one single model that could be used for all types of photography. While the specifications, body shape, size and ergonomics are all identical, there is only one difference between these two models – one has an anti-aliasing filter in front of the camera sensor that is designed to blur fine detail, while the other has a modified version of an anti-aliasing filter that retains all the details. Here is an illustration of how this filter works on each model:
You might be wondering about why this sort of filter is needed on a camera, so I highly recommend to read my “What is Moire?” and “Nikon D800 vs D800E” articles, where I explain this topic in much more detail.
4) Nikon D800 vs D700
While a detailed comparison specifications comparison between the D800 and D700 can be found in my Nikon D800 vs D700 article, there is not much info there about how both cameras compare side by side in terms of fps (frames per second) and camera buffer. In the below video, I show the performance of both cameras when shooting 14-bit Lossless Compressed RAW images with very fast SanDisk Extreme Pro 16GB compact flash memory:
As you can see, the Nikon D800 is slower than the Nikon D700 with its 4 fps speed versus 5 fps on the D700. It also lasts about half a second shorter than the D700 before its buffer gets full at around the 4 second mark. Nikon’s estimates for the D800 and D700 are 17 images for the D800 and 20 images for the D700 before memory buffer gets full and fps slows down. My tests are a little off, because the D800 should be a little faster according to Nikon – 17 / 4 fps is 4.25 and 20 / 5 fps is 4. Interestingly, the same thing happens when both cameras are set to 12-bit RAW – the D700 still lasts longer. Note how much longer it takes for the D800 to complete its write from the camera buffer into the memory card – now that’s one huge buffer! I bet it is at least 4 times larger than the one on the D700. Lastly, note that the D800 shutter sounds very different than the one on the D700.
Some people have been reporting memory compatibility issues with the D800. I have not seen any issues so far with any of the SanDisk & Lexar cards I have (I have been using SanDisk and Lexar cards for my cameras exclusively), so I believe memory card issues are happening with cheap third party memory cards only.
5) Camera construction and handling
Similar to the D700 and other higher-end Nikon DSLRs, the Nikon D800 has a full magnesium-alloy frame. The camera is built tough and will last a long time, if it is properly taken care of. So far I have taken it up to mountains and have shot some images at below freezing temperatures and the camera worked just fine. I also used it in very dusty conditions and in light rain and none of the dust or moisture made its way into the camera.
Handling-wise, the D800 is superb – definitely better than the D700 I have been so used to. Although the ergonomic changes to the camera might seem small when comparing the D800 to the D700, there are a few big changes that I really like on the D800. First, the old C/S/M switch on the front of the D700 has been replaced by the one from the Nikon D7000. Now we just have the “AF” and “M” switch options with a button on top of the switch, so changing the focus mode from AF-S to AF-C and vice-versa is accomplished by depressing the button and rotating the rear camera dial. Rotating the front camera dial changes AF focus mode: Single, Dynamic (9, 21, 51), 3D or Auto. Much better and faster to get to than trying to use the switch on the back of the D700 then messing with the “Dynamic AF Area” custom setting menu option. I really liked this feature on the D7000 and I am glad that Nikon ported this change to the D800 as well.
Another big and welcome change is the enhanced rotating dial on the top left side of the camera. Instead of the thin rotating base with the letters on top, we now have a much larger base with the letters on the side. Because of this change, the full surface of the top of the dial is now available, so we now have 4 buttons instead of 3 – QUAL (changing image size and format), BKT (bracketing), ISO and WB (white balance). Now you can access bracketing options without going into the menu or assigning a custom button for bracketing.
The grip went through some changes as well and it feels more comfortable on the D800. While the shape of the grip handle stayed the same, the spacing between the two function buttons and the handle has been increased. When holding the D700, my fingers occasionally touch the function buttons, so it is nice to see this small, but important ergonomic change. People will bigger hands will find the D800 to be better to hold, especially with a battery grip. Speaking of which, I do not understand why Nikon wants to rip people off with a $450 battery grip (MB-D12 is listed for $616 on NikonUSA.com). Considering the battery life of the camera (more on that below), I think they are expecting plenty of photographers to buy the grip, so the intentions here are pretty clear. I won’t be buying the MB-D12; it is just a matter of time until much cheaper alternatives are released by other manufacturers. On the other hand, I am happy to have a $3,000 D800 with a $450 grip than a $3,500 D800 with a $250 grip…
Back to camera handling. The shutter release area of the camera has also been redesigned. Now the shutter release is angled a little lower, which certainly adds to the comfort in my opinion. The “MODE” button has been moved a little further away from the shutter to make space for the smaller video record button, as shown on the image.
One more welcome change is the harder plastic access door to the camera ports such as USB and HDMI located on the left side of the camera body. The door on the Nikon D700 opens up too easily after several years of heavy use, which is kind of scary when using the camera in dusty and wet conditions. Looks like the Nikon D800 will be protected better in that regard.
The buttons on the back of the camera stayed the same, except the Zoom In/Out buttons are now reversed. I agree that it is a good ergonomic change, but it should have been done a long time ago in Nikon’s first DSLR camera bodies. I got too used to having the zoom button lower, so I keep on messing up for now. I guess it will take time to get used to this change.
Oh, and for whatever reason, Nikon decided to flip the (+) and (-) signs on the camera by default. If you are used to the normal way of changing exposure compensation or your shutter speed, then go to Custom Setting Menu, f9 Customize Command Dials and f12 Reverse indicators and change the orientation to (+) being on the left and (-) on the right. This will make the D800 behave like D700 and other older Nikon DSLR cameras.
The AF Area Mode Selector has been replaced by the Live View switch/button. The switch allows choosing between image and movie modes, while the “Lv” button in the center is for getting in and out of the Live View mode. Lastly, the “AF-ON” button on the D800 now triggers VR to get activated. I tested this with a couple of VR lenses and VR started to engage as soon as I pressed the AF-ON button on the back of the camera.
Other than these and a couple of other minor changes, everything else stayed the same.
6) Camera Sensor
Without a doubt, the most important feature of a digital camera today is its image sensor. You could put the most advanced autofocus and metering systems with a boatload of great features into a camera, but at the end of the day, they are all more or less secondary – the sensor performance is still looked at first. Things like resolution, dynamic range, diffraction, color depth and ISO performance are all tightly related to the sensor and its physical size. When I talked about the D800 being “revolutionary”, I mostly referred to the phenomenal sensor technology Nikon incorporated into the camera.
The Nikon D800 features the highest resolution full-frame sensor produced to date by Nikon. With a pixel size of 4.8µ, it is comparable to the excellent sensor on the Nikon D7000, except it is physically more than twice bigger in size. Nikon tweaked the output of the sensor even more with a better image processing pipeline, giving us even better dynamic range and colors tones. As I have recently pointed out in this article, folks at DXOMark made some scientific measurements of sensor performance on the D800 and they found it to beat all other sensors they have evaluated to date, including some high-end medium format cameras. The Nikon D800 topped all cameras in dynamic range, as can be seen below:
In terms of color depth, it came third, right after Phase One IQ180 and Phase One P65 Plus, which is also very impressive (considering that Nikon D7000 is 23rd on the list). But the biggest surprise for a lot of people was the high ISO performance of the Nikon D800 that DXOMark shows. Take a look at this ranking chart:
At first, it mind sound crazy that the D800 could have almost as good of ISO performance as the new Nikon D4, especially considering that the pixels on the D4 are much bigger in size. But as I have already explained at the very beginning of this article, the massive 36.3 MP resolution is what makes this score. When the 36.3 MP image is down-sampled to match the D4′s 16.2 MP image, the high ISO noise performance is greatly reduced. Take a look at the below chart:
As you can see, noise performance on the Nikon D800 is almost identical to the D4 and D3s all the way to ISO 12,800 – it only falls behind at ISO 25,600 at which point it is maxed out (the Nikon D4 and D3s continue at much higher ISO levels). On a pixel level, anything above ISO 12,800 is too noisy for my taste on the D4/D3s cameras, so I do not particularly care about extremely high ISO levels. My working range on my Nikon D3s is ISO 200 to ISO 3200 mostly, with occasional ISO 6400 and rare 12,800. I never go past ISO 12,800, since there is too much color and detail loss. So when evaluating sensors, I do not particularly care for anything above ISO 12,800. If you find yourself shooting at extremely high ISOs above ISO 12,800, then you will surely be better off with the D4 or the older D3s.
Are the DXOMark measurements accurate? Yes, they are and I believe they have a solid sensor testing methodology. I performed my own tests of high ISO performance between the Nikon D4, D3s and D3 and my test data closely matched the DXOMark results. And this is not the first time when it happens. See the second page of this review to see the actual comparisons between the D800 and the D700 and you will see that they also closely match the DXOMark data.
I do not think we will see a camera that will even remotely match the D800 sensor performance for the next couple of years at least. The Sony A99 will have the same sensor as on the D800, but I doubt its image quality will be the same for two main reasons. First, Nikon has a better image process pipeline than Sony (especially in dealing with noise at RAW level at high ISO levels). Second, Sony’s translucent mirror blocks 1/3 of a stop of light from reaching the sensor, which means that the A99 ISO output will have to be boosted further up, resulting in slightly noisier images.
Click here to download the above photograph in high resolution (8 MB JPEG).
7) Autofocus Performance
Before the Nikon D4 was announced, I wondered what Nikon would do with its autofocus system. The legendary Multi-CAM 3500FX system used on all professional Nikon cameras has been extremely reliable, so what else could have Nikon done to improve it? I was hoping to see more focus points and have them spread out on a larger area of the viewfinder. Unfortunately, Nikon did not give us an all-new AF system with more focus points on the D4 and D800, but we did get an updated version of the AF system called “Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX” that does something no other DSLR AF system can do, which is ability to focus all the way to f/8. While autofocus is limited to only 11 cross-type focus points at f/8, it is still very impressive that it actually works. I tried mounting the TC-20E III on both the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 and the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and I was able to acquire focus at maximum aperture of f/8. AF is not ultra fast at such a small aperture, but it does work, which is great news for wildlife photographers (read more on this below).
If you shoot in indoor/low-light environments, you will be surprised by just how well the new AF system works in poor conditions. I took the D800 for a short tour with me to Denver downtown at night and I was surprised by how well the AF system worked in street light. Take a look at this portrait taken with the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G in street light at night (1/60, f/2, ISO 3200):
The image had a little grain that I cleaned up right in Lightroom 4, then exported right out of Lightroom with 1024 pixel wide dimensions and “High” sharpening applied upon export. No other edits were performed in Lightroom. White Balance set to “As Shot”. That’s impressive, definitely much better than what I can do with the D700 or the D3s. I was obviously using the center focus point to focus (it is the most accurate of them all), which is why the subject is in the center of the frame. Previously, I would have to stop my fast lenses down to f/4 or smaller to get larger depth of field and re-focus continuously in hopes to get my subject in focus. Now I no longer have to do that anymore – the system is very good at acquiring focus in low light even when shooting wide open. I am very impressed by this new Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, it certainly does make a huge difference.
Here is another image sample at ISO 3200 taken 30 minutes earlier after sunset (1/200, f/2, ISO 3200):
Again, no edits were performed in Lightroom!
8) AF Performance for Sports and Wildlife Photography
While the Nikon D4 is the proper tool for sports and wildlife photography due to its faster speed and extreme ISO capabilities, many photographers are also looking at the Nikon D800 for sports and wildlife photography. First, the high-resolution sensor could give some “reach” opportunities with plenty of options to crop in-camera (DX mode) or in post. Second, the AF system on the D800 is identical to the one on the D4 (Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, as highlighted above). And lastly, noise characteristics of the D800 are very similar to the D4 when images are down-sampled to 16 MP (down-sampling can also result in increased sharpness). The biggest disadvantage is the slow 4 FPS speed of the D800.
Since many sports and wildlife photographers have been asking me about the D800 AF performance, I decided to share some information on it that I have collected so far. First of all, the f/8 focusing capability is not a myth – it definitely works, as I have already pointed out above. This means that the Nikon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses will also autofocus with the TC-20E III teleconverter and you are not just limited to very bright shooting conditions. I will have to do some more in-depth digging with the TC-20E III and other long lenses, but so far I am impressed by the updated AF system.
What about the TC-17E II that I have been avoiding when shooting with f/4 lenses? Surprisingly, the D800 made my TC-17E II usable again. Take a look at this image, shot with the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and TC-17E II:
While this is not a good image sample, this is actually a 100% crop shot at 510mm, 1/1000, f/8 and ISO 250 (click to open the full-size 100% version). I exported the image with default Lightroom settings (my sharpening default is set to Amount: 50, Radius: 1 and Detail: 50) without any sharpening applied upon export. Down-sampling the image by a little and then sharpening it would yield superb results – look at all the feather details.
And here is another sample image that is down-sampled and sharpened:
If you shoot at higher ISO values, you might want to run some noise-reduction before you down-sample the image to get the best results.
Overall, I am quite impressed by what the D800 can offer to sports and wildlife photographers, as long as you do not mind the slow fps speed.
9) Camera Shake and Hand-holding Technique
If you want to have sharp images at 100% view, then you need to be more careful with camera shake and you need to learn proper hand-holding techniques. Similar to the Nikon D7000, the D800 is more prone to any sort of movement that causes blur than the D700. While down-sampling will yield very similar results as the D700, even with a little blur in your images, if your intent is to print large, then you should take this account. If you shoot with longer portrait/telephoto lenses and want to have tack sharp images, you should consider increasing your shutter speed even more. I quickly learned that shooting at the shutter speed that is equal to the focal length often produced slightly blurry images at 100% view, so I had to use faster shutter speeds to get the maximum resolution out of my lenses and the D800.
One more important feature I discovered on the D800 that now finally works properly – you can use “Exposure Delay” with up to 3 seconds (d4 in custom setting menu) in conjunction with “Self-Timer”. For example, you can set the self-timer to 5 seconds and turn “Exposure Delay” on with 3 second delay. Once the shutter button is pressed, the camera will wait for five seconds, raise the mirror, wait for three seconds, then open and close the shutter, then put the mirror back down. This will prevent pretty much any sort of camera shake – equivalent of using mirror lock up (MLU) mode with a cable release. And speaking of mirror lock-up, if you find this feature grayed out in the menu while your battery is fully charged, check your “Assign Shutter Button” in Custom Settings menu (G4). If it is set to “Record Movie”, change it back to “Take Photos”, which will bring Mirror Lockup functions back.
10) Lens Selection
Our readers have been asking me a lot of questions in regards to lens performance on the Nikon D800. For some reason, many photographers seem to think that their old lenses will be no good on such a high resolution sensor. I have received links to forums and other sites, where some photographers say that only the best pro-level glass should be used and everything else is going to look awful. While some of this is true and the camera surely does put some burden on lenses, do not forget that the pixel pitch on the D800 is the same as on the D7000. Your f/4 lenses will perform just fine on the D800, maybe the extreme corners might suffer a little. So far I have used a number of different lenses and most of them work perfectly fine, yielding plenty of resolution, including some of the older AF-D and AIS Nikkors. The newer lower cost full-frame lenses such as Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR and Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR and it worked great, with plenty of resolution throughout the frame. Fast primes like the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G and the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G also worked great, as can be seen from the image samples posted in this review. Optical defects like chromatic aberration are definitely more visible at 100% view, but that’s expected – after-all, we are dealing with 36 MP images here. In most cases, you will find camera shake to be the cause of blurry images, not lenses.
Now if you are a sharpness maniac and you need the best lenses, so that you could make those gigantic prints of sweeping landscapes with extreme detail from center to corners, then I will be publishing a separate post on the best lenses for the D800. I am planning to do some thorough sharpness tests to see which lenses perform best on the D800. I already know that some of the primes like the 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4 and the zoom trinity (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm) are superb, along with some exotic Zeiss lenses, but I also want to see how the cheaper and older alternatives will do in MTF/resolution tests.
11) Metering and Exposure
Both the Nikon D4 and the D800 feature a brand new and sophisticated 3D Color Matrix Meter III exposure metering system with a 91,000-pixel RGB sensor, face recognition and a database of 30,000 images. Compare that to the 3D Color Matrix Metering II system with only 1,005-pixel RGB sensor on the Nikon D700! The new metering system is excellent. I have been shooting in aperture priority mode for about a week now and I have had very few occasions when I wanted to dial in exposure compensation – the exposure was spot on, especially when photographing people. In comparison, the D700 gets confused by different lighting conditions very easily and I find myself occasionally dialing between -2 to +2 EV. In fact, the Nikon D700 constantly overexposes in matrix metering mode, so I have mine set to -0.7 EV by default. The Nikon D800 does not seem to have any of these exposure problems. I started with 0 EV in matrix metering mode and the camera pretty much nailed the exposure every time. Lola and I photographed weddings with the D800 and metering on people was spot on, definitely more accurate than any other DSLR I have used to date, including the D3s.
Speaking of weddings, I wrote a detailed article on photographing weddings with the D800 / D800E – check it out. Here is a sample image from that article, captured with the Nikon D800E:
12) Shooting Speed (FPS) and Battery Life
One of the biggest complaints by photographers when the Nikon D800 was released was its slow speed of 4 fps (frames per second). Since the Nikon D700 is capable of shooting at 5 fps and can go all the way to 8 fps with the MB-D10 battery grip, many photographers were bummed by the 4 fps limit of the camera and only a small increase to 6 fps with a battery grip attached. What’s bad is that not only do you have to get the MB-D12 grip to get 6 fps, but you are also limited to less than half resolution in DX mode! I personally find this feature quite useless, but those that really need the speed and do not care about resolution as much might consider it as an option.
Why is the D800 limited to 4 fps? The main reason are the massive 36.3 MP files that the image processing pipeline has to process and send to the camera buffer. Even the pro-level Nikon D3x is limited to 5 fps and that’s with much smaller 24.5 MP files! So the 4 fps limit is not something Nikon is artificially limiting the camera to in order to differentiate it from the D4 – it is the amount of data coming out of the sensor, time it takes to process the data and then the buffer limit to keep those files temporarily before saving them to external media. I have a suspicion that the whole 6 FPS battery grip requirement is an attempt to make more money by Nikon. When shooting in DX mode, the camera surely does not need a battery grip to get faster frames – more than half of the sensor data is chopped off, which the camera should easily be able to deal with. In fact, Nikon should allow us to go all the way to 8 fps in DX mode.
As for the battery, the bad news is that D300/D300s/D700 owners will have to replace their EN-EL3e batteries with the new EN-EL15. Unfortunately, Nikon had to replace the old battery due to new battery regulations in Japan. The good news is that the EN-EL15 battery is used by a few current DSLRs like Nikon D7000, Nikon 1 V1 and Nikon D600, so if you already have those cameras you will not need to worry about purchasing spare batteries.
One bug that I have discovered so far with the D800, which I have not seen on the D4 yet, is the memory read/write halt. Every once in a while, perhaps once in several hundred shots, the camera freezes up while trying to either read from or write to the memory card. This freeze lasts between 5 to 10 seconds and during this time, the memory write light is constantly turned on. Turning off the camera does not help, so it is best to just wait it out – I did not feel like removing the battery while the light is turned on. I first thought that my memory card was bad (I was using a 16GB SanDisk Extreme Pro card), so I swapped the card to another one and it happened again. I have never seen this sort of behavior on any of the Nikon bodies I have used to date, so it might be a firmware bug.
The battery life of the Nikon D800 is definitely worse than on the D700. Again, more resolution and larger files certainly take their toll on the battery, since memory read and write operations are greatly increased. In addition, the new EN-EL15 battery does not seem to be as efficient as the older EN-EL3e batteries.
13) Shooting in DX Mode
After I published a few articles on the Nikon D800 and D800E, I received a number of comments from our readers that indicated interest in the DX mode offered by D800. Some even said that they were planning to shoot in DX mode exclusively, since they did not need the full 36 MP resolution and they were fine with just 15 MP. Many are too scared to deal with the large file sizes, especially RAW. Others complain about 36 MP files requiring much more processing power and slowing down their PCs/Macs, etc. I responded to a few comments about shooting in DX mode and here is my take on it. Shooting in DX mode is a waste. You are throwing away more than half of the data just because you do not want to deal with large files. It is like putting a cap on a Ferrari so that it does not go over 30 mph on a 60 mph highway. If you are thinking about shooting in DX mode, why bother buying the D800? Get the Nikon D7000 instead – it will give you 16 MP files and the RAW files are twice smaller. If you already own a Nikon D700 and you are planning to shoot in DX mode, you will be disappointed by what you will see from the D800 in terms of image quality, especially at anything above ISO 800. It is almost equivalent to downgrading a full-frame sensor to a cropped-factor sensor, since you would no longer have the down-sampling advantage.
If your PC/Mac is too slow, it might be time to upgrade it (see below). If you have DX lenses from your legacy DX camera, it might be time to replace them with full-frame lenses. If you are worried about storage and larger memory cards, it might be time to buy bigger storage and memory cards. But don’t shoot in DX mode just because you are not ready to deal with the D800. If you are not ready for large RAW files, I suggest buying a different camera.
14) Cropping Options
When I say do not shoot in DX mode, you will quickly see what I mean in this section. The Nikon D800 gives cropping opportunities like no other full-frame camera on the market today. It had better, with its 36 MP sensor! When shooting large 36 MP images, you will have a lot of flexibility to crop your images – something the 12 MP sensor from the D700 was not very good at. Take a look at the below image that I shot with the D800:
Now take a look at what I was able to do with a little cropping:
Impressive, isn’t it? So much detail! The above image is 2500 pixels wide and has incredible detail at 100% view.
15) PC/Mac Requirements
You might be wondering whether your old PC or Mac with a single core processor and 4 GB of RAM is going to suffice for the D800 or not. If your PC/Mac is more than 3-4 years old, then I would recommend to upgrade it to be able to work with those massive 40+ MB NEF files. If you don’t, you will surely suffer. Opening up the RAW files in Lightroom takes twice longer and Photoshop will need more memory to work with the 36 MP files, especially once you start working with multiple layers at the highest resolution. Here is the configuration I recommend:
- PC or Mac with a dual-core Intel Core i5/i7 (quad-core preferred)
- 8 GB of RAM (16 GB preferred)
- Solid State Disk (SSD) drive to store Lightroom catalog and Photoshop cache files
- 1+ TB of HDD space to store high-resolution RAW files
16) Live View
As I have already pointed out, the Nikon D800 comes with two live view options – one for photography and one for videography. You can switch between the modes by moving the live view lever on the back of the camera. The photography mode is similar to the previous “tripod” mode on older DSLRs – you cannot record video or audio, but you can zoom in and out, track objects / faces and acquire focus using contrast detect. The video mode is used for recording video, so you will see microphone record levels and other video-related features.
While the camera has an impressive live view implementation with more features than on any previous DSLR, there is one very disappointing news – the magnified view on the D800 is not 1:1 pixel level. If you have ever used live view on the Nikon D5000 or D90, you might remember how bad those cameras were for precise manual focusing. The D800 is very similar in this regard. Because it interpolates the image instead of showing 1:1 pixels, the image appears with much less detail. I noticed this while testing lenses and it was a very annoying problem, making it difficult to see if the focus is accurate or not. I was really hoping to use the Nikon D800 for our Nikon lens reviews, but with a problem like this, I might need to go back to testing lenses on other Nikon DSLRs. I thought that there might be a menu setting in the camera to change this behavior, but I could not find it anywhere…
17) Dynamic Range
As I have already stated, the dynamic range on the D800 is phenomenal – even better than most medium format cameras. While I have not done any scientific measurements to evaluate the dynamic range of the D800, I trust DXOMark when it says that the D800 can go as far as 14.4 EVs. I have tried recovering shadow details from RAW files and I was amazed by how much I can pull out of them. There is so much information stored in those 14-bit RAW files, that you can easily restore overexposed and underexposed parts of the image, as long as they are not completely blown out. Dynamic range is the highest at ISO 100 and gradually goes down as you increase ISO. My field tests are showing that shooting between ISO 100 and 800 is quite acceptable without heavy loss of dynamic range. Anything beyond ISO 800 will decrease dynamic range dramatically.
And this is how it came out after I tweaked a couple of settings in Lightroom:
Here is one more set of before/after images that show dynamic range recovery options:
See the next page to see more examples of D800′s ISO performance, along with comparisons to Nikon D700, Nikon D3s, Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 5D Mark III.
18) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to Custom, Temp: 4300, Tint: +25
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Imported images into Lightroom 4 and normalized to 12 MP resolution
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
Here is the full image, showing which area of the image I cropped below:
Let’s take a look at how the Nikon D800 performs at low ISOs. Here are some crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
The images look very nice with no noticeable noise between ISO 100 and ISO 800 when down-sampled. The only exception is the 4th DVD from the top in blue that seems to lose the striped color marks on it.
19) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-6400)
High ISO performance is a very important measure of DSLR sensor quality for low-light photography. Here is how the Nikon D800 performs at high ISO levels between ISO 1600 and 6400:
Every step up in ISO adds a slight amount of grain. Shadow areas start to get impacted at ISO 3200 and quite a bit of noise is added at ISO 6400. Getting rid of noise at very high ISO levels would require a more selective noise reduction algorithm, so software like Noise Ninja or Nik Software Dfine would have to be used for best results. See my “Photo Noise Reduction Tutorial” for examples of selective noise reduction.
20) High ISO Performance “Boost” (ISO 12800-25600)
Nikon D800 has two extra ISO “boost” levels – ISO 12800 and ISO 25600 for extreme situations. Take a look at these:
ISO 12,800 adds quite a bit of noise compared to ISO 6,400, but thanks to down-sampling, the detail level is still pretty high. Even at noisy ISO 25,600 there is still plenty of details to work with, although the shadows look pretty bad to me with large grains and artifacts all over the image.
21) ISO Performance Summary
The Nikon D800 yields very impressive results at all ISO levels, even at boosted ISO 12,800 and 25,600. Given how little noise there is, I would not hesitate to use it at ISO 3,200 and could even push it as high as ISO 6,400. Now bear in mind that these are down-sampled images at 12 MP – I had to normalize the output in order to compare the camera to the D700 and D3s.
It is hard to judge the performance of the Nikon D800 without direct comparison against other professional cameras, which is why you should definitely check out the below comparisons as well.
Compared to Nikon D700
Let’s see how the new D800 compares to the older D700. Below you will find image samples normalized to 12 MP by down-sampling.
22) Nikon D800 vs D700 ISO Comparison at low ISOs
Take a look at the below crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800 (Left: Nikon D800, Right: Nikon D700):
At ISO 100, which is “boosted” ISO for the D700, there is no difference in noise.
I cannot see any difference at ISO 200, ISO 400 or ISO 800 either.
23) Nikon D800 vs D700 High ISO Comparison
What about high ISO levels above ISO 800? Let’s take a look:
Again, ISO 1600 looks very similar on both cameras. Little noise here and there, but otherwise very comparable.
At ISO 3200, we are starting to see some noticeable differences. The D800 has smaller grain, especially in the shadows.
At ISO 6400 the Nikon D700 is clearly worse now – grain is much bigger and we are now seeing all kinds of artifacts in the shadows.
Pushed to ISO 12,800, the D800 is clearly leading the game, with close to a full stop of difference.
And ISO 25,600 cannot even be compared – the image from the D700 looks horrible in comparison.
24) Nikon D800 vs D700 Summary
As I have already pointed out before, a high resolution sensor clearly has advantages over a lower resolution sensor when the image is down-sampled. While the Nikon D700 shows very clean ISO performance at low ISOs, the Nikon D800 easily matches it and produces noise-free images. In addition, due to having a much higher resolution, the D800 can resolve a lot more details at low ISO levels – take a look at the small letters on the DVDs and see for yourself.
As expected, the Nikon D800 takes the lead when the image is pushed to higher ISO levels above ISO 1600. Starting from ISO 3200, the difference gets almost as big as a full stop at ISO 12,800 – compare ISO 6400 from the D700 to ISO 12800 from the D800 and you will see that they look pretty darn close.
Compared to Nikon D3s
What about comparing the D800 to the low-light king, the Nikon D3s? Let’s take a look.
25) Nikon D800 vs D3s ISO Comparison at low ISOs
26) Nikon D800 vs D3s High ISO Comparison
Let’s see what happens when both are pushed to ISO 1600 and above:
Once again, ISO 1600 is very comparable.
And the same at ISO 3200.
At ISO 6400 the shadow area of the image on the D3s looks a tad cleaner.
The same at ISO 12,800.
When pushed to ISO 25,600, the Nikon D3s is a little cleaner and retains colors, while the D800 still shows more details. D3s seems to retain more dynamic range at this ISO level.
27) Nikon D800 vs D3s Summary
Unlike the Nikon D700, the D3s is a worthy competitor to the D800. At high ISO levels, the Nikon D3s shows slightly better performance in the shadows, mostly because of higher dynamic range (visible at ISO levels 12,800 and 25,600). At the same time, the Nikon D800 still resolves more detail at high ISO levels, thanks to lots of resolution and the down-sampling process.
Compared to Canon 5D Mark II
Let’s see how the old Canon 5D mark II fares against the Nikon D800.
28) Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark II ISO Comparison at Low ISOs
Both images are noise-free, but again, the D800 resolves more detail in comparison.
Noise level all the way to ISO 800 looks about the same to me, with very slight differences.
ISO 800 is a little noisier on the 5D Mark II – take a look at the same 4th DVD from the top and note the shadow areas.
29) Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark II High ISO Comparison
You can see more noise on the 5D Mark II throughout the image, especially in the shadows.
ISO 3200 looks even worse on the 5D Mark II, which seems to be losing some colors as well.
And ISO 6400 is a lot worse for the 5D Mark II, which shows close to a full stop of difference.
30) Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark II Summary
As expected, the Nikon D800 performs better than the 4 year old Canon 5D Mark II. The difference is not so obvious at very low ISO levels, but pretty clear from ISO 800 and onwards. The D800 also shows resolution advantage, just like when compared to the D700; again, down-sampling is to blame for this. The Canon 5D Mark II is worse by up to a full stop at ISO 6400.
Compared to Canon 5D Mark III
Let’s see what the new Canon 5D Mark III brings to the table.
31) Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III ISO Comparison at Low ISOs
At base ISO, both are very clean, with very similar output and detail.
Unlike the 5D Mark II, the new 5D Mark III shows impressive performance at ISO 800, matching that of D800.
32) Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III High ISO Comparison
Looks like the D800 is a tad cleaner in the shadows, otherwise both show very good performance.
ISO 3200 is clearly noisier on the Canon 5D Mark III, as can be seen from the above image.
And even more so at ISO 6400 – look at the shadows.
The grain throughout the frame is bigger on the 5D Mark III at ISO 12,800, although not a huge difference. I would say between 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop max.
Pushed to ISO 25,600, both are pretty similar, although the Canon 5D Mark III still shows larger noise artifacts. Again, down-sampling does the magic for the D800 here!
33) Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III Summary
As you can see, the Nikon D800 sensor has no competition, even from its biggest rival, the Canon 5D Mark III. Although the Canon 5D Mark III shows impressive levels of noise at lower ISO levels, it still cannot quite match what the D800 can do. Don’t forget that there is also a big resolution difference between the two – the D800 is 36.3 MP, while the 5D Mark III is 22.3 MP. So at base ISO levels, the D800 is going to have a resolution advantage for landscape and fashion work.
Since I have been shooting with both the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800 side by side, I can say that the D800 clearly has the lead in dynamic range. This difference was obvious when I shot the same scene with both cameras, at very similar camera settings. The Canon 5D Mark III consistently overexposed highlights, while the D800 rarely did (the exposure was similar on both). The dynamic range difference was even more obvious when post-processing images in Lightroom – I clearly had more options for recovering data on D800 images than I did with the 5D Mark III.
For example, take a look at the below two image crops from the 5D Mark III and D800:
The original images (RAW) were exposed the same on both cameras, both at base ISO of 100. After I imported them into Lightroom, I moved the “Shadows” slider all the way to 100 and then picked the darkest part of the image for the above crop. As you can see, the Canon 5D Mark III crop looks much noisier in comparison and retains less colors and details compared to the Nikon D800 crop. When pulling details from shadows, the D800 has a lot more information to work with.
Summary and Image Samples
As you can see from this review, the Nikon D800 is a very appealing camera. With its impressive 36.3 MP sensor, which is currently the highest resolution full-frame sensor on the market (as of May 2012), the D800 delivers stunning images in terms of dynamic range, colors and details. While it is slower than its predecessor, the Nikon D700 in fps (frames per second), one has to keep in mind that the camera has to process a lot more pixels. In addition, it produces massive JPEG and RAW files that take up a lot of space in the camera buffer, so it also takes longer time to transfer files from the buffer to a memory card (as shown in a video on the first page of this review).
The slower speed, along with a few other annoyances are far outweighed by the many advantages the D800 has over the D700 – from better ergonomics, dual card slots, 100% viewfinder coverage and movie recording capabilities, to improved autofocus and excellent metering. Above all, the image quality of the D800 sensor is simply phenomenal, with no other full-frame DSLR on the market that can match its performance. As you can see on the third tab of this review, the Nikon D800 performs better than both the Canon 5D Mark II and the new Canon 5D Mark III in high ISO when the image is down-sampled. As a result of the down-sampling process, images from the D800 also show more sharpness and details.
Overall, I am very impressed by the Nikon D800. Coupled with some pro-level Nikkor prime and zoom lenses such as the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G, the Nikon D800 will become the camera of choice for my photography needs.
I hope you enjoyed this Nikon D800 Review. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.
35) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon D800 body only for $2,999.
36) More image samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.