At a glance:
- 36.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor
- Expeed 3 processor
- ISO 100-6400 (extended to ISO 50-25,600)
- 51-point AF system
- 3.2in LCD screen
- CF and SD card slots
- Street price £2,599 (body only)
The Nikon D800 has been a very eagerly awaited camera, and on release it did not disappoint, providing many points of discussion. It is the company’s second ‘enthusiast-level’ full-frame DSLR, following the release of the D700 some three and a half years ago. Smaller and with a much lower price tag than the professional-level, full-frame Nikon D4 launched earlier this year, the D800 should have wider appeal.
The specification of the D800 belies its position in the market. Several of the features found on the more expensive D4 are also present on the D800, namely the Expeed 3 processor, autofocus and metering sensors, LCD screen and video-capture capabilities.
The standout feature of the D800, though, is its 36.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor, which is currently the highest resolution in this format by some margin – so much so, in fact, that the 24.3-million-pixel resolution of the much more expensive, professional flagship Nikon D3X pales in comparison, and its days must be limited.
Following the D800’s release, there has been much talk about just how many pixels a camera’s lens can cope with before image quality ceases to benefit from the increased resolution – are 36.3 million pixels more than is necessary for a full-frame sensor? To quote Professor Bob Newman from his article, Do sensors outresolve lenses – or vice versa?, in AP 10 March: ‘Improving either sensor or lens will always yield benefits in resolution… Purchasers of new high-resolution cameras need not fear they will fail to see a benefit, as their camera will yield sharper results with all their lenses’.
Sharp results made possible by the sensor mean that the user can get more out of a DX lens than when that same lens is used on a lower-resolution camera, so giving the optic a new lease of life. Of course, for best results the D800 should be used with a professional-level lens.
This professional-level resolution combined with responsive handling make the D800 an exciting prospect for those considering an upgrade, or those wanting to replace an existing full-frame DSLR.
To offer a 36.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor for around £2,600 and in a model of the Nikon D800’s size is nothing short of remarkable. Images can be captured as 14-bit files in FX (full-frame) format at 36.3 million pixels, as well as in 5:4 at 30.2 million pixels, 1.2x at 25.1 million pixels and DX (1.5x) at 15.4 million pixels. Although all full-frame Nikon models offer a DX-crop mode, primarily for a greater focal-length reach, given the high resolution of the D800 this function is, for the first time, a genuinely useful feature.
In fact, given the 15.4-million-pixel output in DX format, it is safe to assume that the pixel dimensions, and therefore performance in low light, is similar to that of the 16.3-million-pixel, DX-format Nikon D7000.
Raw capture is possible in any image area option. Full-resolution 7360×4912-pixel) NEF raw capture produces a 76.5MB image file (or approximately a 207MB TIFF), which rivals more expensive digital medium-format cameras. Such large files mean that, for the first time in the full-frame format, A2-sized prints are possible at 300ppi without upscaling. By using a perfectly acceptable 200ppi file resolution, A1 prints are possible, placing the prints in the realm of exhibition size.
To help cope with processing such large files, the D800 features the same Expeed 3 engine as that used in the Nikon D4. Nikon claims this also allows ‘superb noise reduction’, which gives the D800 similar noise haracteristics to the D700.
The major differences between the D800 and D4 are the imaging sensor, ISO range and high-speed burst mode, but more on these later.
Clearly, Nikon has had some catching up to do at this level to match the video capabilities of the Canon competition. The D700 does not feature video capture, but the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Mark III do. Now, so does the D800. In addition, the D800’s capabilities closely match those of the D4, making the new Nikon model extremely competitive. Full HD (1080p) video files are captured in H.264 format at 30fps, 25fps or 24fps. Video users will be pleased to see clean HDMI output at 1080p/720p for live view, without compression. Furthermore, the time-lapse function has been enhanced for playback at speeds up to 36,000x, with files encoded for immediate playback as a video file.
The Nikon D800E is the second version of the camera and it is targeted at those who want to get the highest level of detail from the imaging sensor. It is essentially the same as the D800, but with the optical low-pass filter, otherwise known as the anti-aliasing filter, having been ‘cancelled’.
A low-pass filter is present in most digital cameras and blurs detail at the pixel level (to the slightest degree) to avoid moiré patterning and false colour. These blurring flaws are most noticeable in details such as fabric or the feathers of a bird. Removing the blurring effect caused by the filter increases the clarity and level of detail, although this is discernible only to the eagle-eyed.
In the D800E, instead of removing the low-pass filter, it is ‘cancelled’, which means the infrared blocking and reflective properties of the D800 and D800E are the same. In the D800, the low-pass filter has two layers: the first separates the image into two horizontally, while the second separates the image again, this time vertically.
In the D800E, however, the second layer instead cancels the horizontal separation by combining the image vertically. Those who shoot landscapes should consider this version of the camera, although it is around £300 more expensive at around £2,900.
Build and handling
In size and build quality, the D800 is very similar to the D700, yet it is 10% lighter.
The camera features a dust- and water-droplet-resistant magnesium-alloy body, although the inclusion of a built-in flash (GN 12m @ ISO 100, plus wireless control) means that the weatherproofing cannot be of the same standard as found on professional models like the D4 or the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. That said, the D800 suffered no ill effects when it got a little wet while shooting landscapes in the Lake District.
The redesign of the D800 (based on the D700) includes new controls to accommodate video capture, with a direct movie-record button near the shutter release and a live-view switch to the right of the LCD screen. Like the D4, the refined body of the D800 has an improved textured grip that rests comfortably in the hand, and a greater incline for the shutter-release button and flat design for the power switch. These factors make pressing the shutter release that little bit more comfortable.
Nikon has tested the shutter to 200,000 cycles, and measured a lag of 0.042secs. Start-up time is claimed to be 0.12secs, and I found the D800 almost immediately ready to go after powering up.
As a camera not primarily intended for action, the D800’s continuous drive mode high-speed burst of 4fps for up to 15 frames (raw) or 60 frames (JPEG) cannot match the 11fps for a 60-frame (raw) or 144-frame (JPEG) burst of the D4. When the 1.2x or DX (1.5x) crop factors are selected, the D800 can shoot at 5fps, which in the DX crop is for a 22-frame (raw) or 97-frame (JPEG) burst.
Those capturing high-speed sequences will find the D800’s buffer not as quick to clear once full as that of the D4, during which time the camera freezes. Those who don’t record action sequences will find 4fps sufficient for everyday use.
The D800 uses an EN-EL15 battery to give approximately 900 still shots. Battery life can be doubled via the use of the optional MB-D12 battery grip (priced around £380). Further benefits of the battery grip are that it mirrors the control layout, so it is the same whether in portrait or landscape format, and it boosts the high-speed burst rate to 6fps in DX format. The grip is not compatible with Nikon’s D700 or D300S models.
Still images and videos can be recorded onto a choice of CompactFlash (CF) or SD cards, including the latest high-speed versions, such as UDMA 7, SDXC and UHS-1. Fast file transfer is possible via USB 3.0 connectivity, which is a first for a camera, although it is also backwards compatible to USB 2.0 devices.
With such high-resolution files, any errors in the image are quite noticeable. It is therefore very important to spend a little more time on each photograph. For critically sharp results, I found that shooting landscapes with shutter speeds slower than 1/125sec not only requires the camera to be fixed to a tripod, but it also has to be also set to mirror lock-up and fired with a cable release.
Unfortunately, the camera does not offer both mirror lock-up and self-timer simultaneously.
There are lots of nice touches to aid the handling of the camera. The dual-axis virtual horizon is available in both live view and through the viewfinder. The AF switch to the left of the lens has a button to access the different AF modes, so the user need not remove his or her eye from the viewfinder.
A rubber seal over the connection ports on the left of the camera is hinged so it can remain out of the way while in use. I would, however, like to see the rubber seal split into sections so that any unused ports could stay covered. As it is, these unused ports are exposed to dust and dirt.
White balance and colour
In most cameras, I find auto white balance (AWB) gives a slightly cool colour balance in all situations except tungsten light, where it is usually too warm. The same is true with the Nikon D800. However, a second AWB option is designed to keep warm tones of light, which is ideal for maintaining ambience.
New to the D800 (and D4) is the ability to adjust the colour temperature setting minutely in the manual Kelvin mode. Alternatively, a manual white balance reading can be taken, although this is a slightly longwinded process compared to other systems. It is achieved by navigating through a couple of menus and selecting a previously recorded image of a grey card taken in the ambient light conditions.
Overall, the D800 is perfectly capable of good colour rendition. Skin tones are usually spot-on and the greens in landscape images are particularly natural, although I do at times find the blue of skies a little cyan.
Standard colour mode in Nikon DSLRs appears less saturated than in most other systems, so I often opt to use the vivid setting to add a little punch to images.
However, all the colour modes can be customised for saturation, sharpness and contrast, so it is worth adjusting to taste. Handily, the monochrome setting offers not only different tones, from sepia to cyanotype, but also yellow, orange, red and green filter effects. These can be replicated in editing software, but to have the option to enhance the impact of the sky in a monochrome landscape by using the red filter is quite addictive.
Image: The monochrome colour mode offers different filter effects. Here the green filter is ideal for skin tones
Both the D800 and D4 benefit from a dramatically revised 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor. This is a significant increase in pixels from the previous version. The reasoning behind such a change is that the camera uses a 3D Color Matrix Metering III scene-recognition system, benefiting not only the exposure in a wide range of scenes, but also white balance and focusing.
Overall, I find metering systems in most cameras tend to be spot-on in the majority of situations. However, difficult conditions can cause problems, so the metering system benefits from being linked to a scene-recognition system.
For example, if the system recognises a face in the scene prior to exposure, it can apply exposure control for accurate metering on the face. This works well for a backlit scene where the camera would naturally underexpose the face.
In reality, though, the number of situations that benefit from the system are not immediately obvious. That said, despite the few scenes where the camera underexposed and I needed to dial in +0.7EV compensation, I have no complaints about the metering system.
Image: ISO 50 is sufficient to give an exposure slow enough to blur the movement of water, using the sweet spot aperture of the lens and without the use of an ND filter
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
The Nikon D800’s native sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400 can be extended at either end, to ISO 50 (Lo1) and up to ISO 25,600 (Hi2), giving a total range of 10EV. In comparison, the D4 extends up to ISO 204,800 for a 13EV range, and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III reaches up to ISO 102,400.
Nikon has made a neat refinement to the auto ISO control, as the camera detects the attached lens and focal length, and adjusts its settings to give the minimum possible ISO to achieve the longest shutter speed for blur-free handheld images.
For example, with a 200mm lens attached, auto ISO sets the shutter speed to 1/200sec and selects the appropriate ISO setting for a ‘correct’ exposure. In most situations this is very accurate and eliminates the need to change the ISO manually (if shutter speed isn’t the primary exposure concern), although this can be achieved quickly via the control on the dial on the top left of the camera.
Given the high resolution of the sensor, I had great expectations for the level of resolved detail and I was not disappointed. The D800 resolves the highest level of detail of any full-frame camera, and comes very close to some medium-format models,.
At ISO 100, the D800 comfortably reaches the 38 marker on our resolution chart, with sections of the lines visible all the way to the end of the chart. Also a pleasant surprise, the level of resolved detail is high all the way to the extended ISO 25,600 (Hi2) setting, at the 30 marker.
While resolved detail is impressive at higher ISO settings, images are not free of noise. When viewed at 100%, luminance noise is evident at ISO 800 in shadows, but it is adequately controlled all the way to ISO 3200 in highlight areas. Beyond these ISO settings, luminance noise steadily increases in shadow and highlight areas.
In the extended ISO settings of 12,800 and 25,600, chroma noise is also obvious, with an array of yellow, red and blue blotches. It is in noise control that the D800 cannot quite match the competition, but this is to be expected to a degree, due to the camera’s high resolution. Images all the way up to ISO 3200 look clean and are perfectly acceptable.
It is possible to use the high resolution to control noise. By exporting raw files in a smaller format (with fewer pixels), the level of noise is also reduced. I shot the same scene at ISO 6400 with the D800 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. In full-resolution files, the 5D Mark III controls noise more effectively.
By reducing the output of the D800 file to a similar number of pixels as the EOS 5D Mark III, the difference in noise levels is less noticeable, although the Canon model still has the edge.
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen)
sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro set to f/8. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Like the D700, the D800 uses the Multi-CAM3500FX AF sensor, with a 51-point AF system. However, it is the same refined version as that found in the D4.
Refinements include 15 cross-type points in the centre of the frame compatible with lenses at f/5.6 or faster, and an 11 AF-point set-up that, when selected, is compatible with lenses at f/8, bringing the best of the focusing system to a wider range of optics. Furthermore, improved low-light performance enables operation at -2EV (for use under moonlight).
Although contrast-detection AF is claimed to be more precise than phase-detection AF (which is the type used in the D800 for stills), the camera was capable of producing sharp images. Once I was familiar with the AF system and after selecting the right mode for a scene, the camera is spot-on in virtually every situation.
Certainly in low light, it can pick up subjects and focus with minimal effect on speed. Impressively, even shaded objects in moonlight are picked up with minimal hunting. Most other systems simply would not operate under these conditions.
There are a few AF mode options, all of which can be seen and viewed through the viewfinder. Handily, the AF switch has been redesigned to include a button so the user’s eye can remain fixed to the viewfinder to navigate through the different modes.
AF modes include 3D colour tracking, single point, nine-point tracking, auto area, 51-point tracking and 21-point tracking. If there were time to compose the scene, I most often opted for single-point AF because this point can be selected from any of the 51 points in the central area of the frame.
LCD, viewfinder and video
Another feature shared by the D800 and D4 is the 3.2in LCD screen. The screen is slightly bigger than the 3in version in the last generation of models, but the 921,000-dot resolution remains. A sensor next to the screen detects the ambient light and adjusts the brightness, contrast and saturation accordingly.
This function means that in a variety of lighting conditions the screen will appear the same to the eye and viewable even in bright light. The LCD screen also features a new glass-and-panel design for an improved viewing angle, thanks in part to a resin between the glass and screen where previously there was an air pocket.
Unlike the D700, the D800’s viewfinder has a 100% frame coverage, which is excellent for precise framing. It is also bright to aid focusing, although for critical focusing it is best to use the LCD screen with focus magnification.
When a crop mode is selected, the electronic overlay in the viewfinder displays a marker to indicate the frame edges. An option for shading out the unused areas of the frame would be useful because it is easy to forget where the crop is effective. Wideangle DX lenses display a cutoff in the corners, but not in the final image. Another display in the viewfinder (and LCD) is for the dual-axis virtual horizon, which can be brought up by pressing a function button.
With the high resolution of the D800, not only is Nikon setting a benchmark for stills cameras, but it is also aiming at the video market. It is possible to capture high-quality, full HD (1080p) footage for a maximum 29mins 59secs recording time. Enthusiast film-makers will appreciate full-time contrast-detection AF in movie capture, with face priority and subject-tracking AF available.
Furthermore, connections are included for an external mic with 20 adjustment levels, sound level monitoring, headphones and clean HDMI output at 1080p/720p for live view, without compression. As I mention in Focal points, edits to video files can be made in-camera.
The D800 provides a wide tonal range, measured by www.dxomark.com at 14.1EV, which puts the D800 up there with the best cameras at any level. Given the high resolution and therefore smaller pixels than the direct competition, this is impressive.
As a function normally reserved for lower-end cameras with a more limited dynamic range, I am a little surprised to see a high dynamic range (HDR) mode included in the D800 (and indeed the Canon EOS 5D Mark III).
Nonetheless, this is a good feature to have, and an HDR image can be recorded in two frames, for up ±3EV. This extends the possible dynamic range to 20EV, which I found particularly useful when trying to preserve detail in the highlights of a waterfall, where normally the falling water would appear as a solid white mass.
As with all Nikon DSLRs, Active D-Lighting can be applied to images in-camera. This feature brightens shadow areas for the impression of extra detail, and is available in two different strengths and auto.
Image: The wide dynamic range and Active D-Lighting ensure detail is visible in dark areas here
Images: Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Pentax 645D
At the time of writing, the high resolution of the D800 outperforms any full-frame DSLR, and is comparable to medium-format models.
The Pentax 645D has a sensor measuring 44x33mm with 40 million effective pixels compared to the 35.9x24mm with 36.3 million effective pixels of the D800. However, the Nikon model is less than a third of the price, and its impressive handling and autofocus system make it more suitable for a wider range of use.
Comparable as an enthusiast-level, full-frame model, Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III is the D800’s most obvious competition. The EOS 5D Mark III cannot match the resolution of the D800, nor its AF performance in extreme low light. However, the Canon’s resolution and ability to control levels of noise rest somewhere between the D4 and the D800, and so does its price.
For a camera costing around £2,600, the D800 is unrivalled in the level of detail it can resolve and is an enticing prospect, particularly for landscape photographers.
While luminance and chroma noise are gradually introduced up the ISO range, and the camera’s full-resolution files cannot quite match lower resolution competition, it performs very well up to ISO 3200 with resolved detail at this setting, matching the top full-frame and APS-C models.
It’s not just about the sensor, though. Numerous features from the much pricier D4 are also present in the D800. The LCD screen is bright, as is the viewfinder with its 100% field of view, and the AF system is accurate.
The D800’s buffer cannot handle the large volume of data in high-speed situations as effectively as the D4, but the D800 is not intended to perform in this way. Reducing the format and shooting JPEG images does, of course, enhance continuous shooting rates.
We talk about the bar being raised occasionally, and Nikon has certainly raised the bar in the full-frame market with the launch of the D800. Despite the slight increase in the camera’s price since its original launch, it remains a relatively affordable model.
Nikon D800 – Key features
The built-in flash offers +1 to -3EV manual adjustment for all flash modes. In centreweighted and multi-segment metering, face detection and highlight analysis by the RGB metering sensor enhances the i-TTL-balanced fill flash to illuminate subjects according to the brightness of the scene.
Enhanced retouch menus include vignette control, Active D-Lighting, straighten, distortion control, perspective control, redeye, crop, monochrome, filter effects, image overlay and resize, many of which are also available for video editing. This means some of the post-production work on images can be done in the field.
High dynamic range mode is available via the in-camera menu. It works by combining two frames: one overexposed and one underexposed, up to ±3EV. Added to the usual Active D-Lighting feature, the D800 can add extra information to the tonal range in an image.
The D800 offers live-view operation designed for still and video capture via the new live-view switch on the rear of the camera.
With the live view switch set to still capture, the screen displays any changes to exposure, and magnification up to 23x aids critical focusing. In the video-capture setting, a dedicated exposure control provides smooth exposure transition for moving subjects.
Ambient light sensor
This measures the ambient light levels for automatic control of the monitor’s brightness
The viewfinder has a 100% field of view with 0.7x magnification, 17mm eyepoint and dioptre adjustment from -3 to +1
Focus selector lock
The focus selector lock has a prominent position on the rear of the camera. When activated, the control locks the point of focus