Review: Nikon D800

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In 2008 the megapixel clash came to a standstill with the 1DsIII, 5DII, D3x, and A900 all scrabbling to reach the claimed pinnacle of 35mm image quality. Any more would impinge upon medium format territory, which was a bit of a perceived technological no-no, the same way informed consumers shirked away from 16MP+ compacts. When rumors of a 36MP D700 replacement swarmed the internet in late 2011, all sorts of profanities and naysaying resulted; it was hardly believable that a 35mm sensor would be able to handle such pixel density, especially considering Nippon Kogaku was still reeling from the aftermath of the Sendai disaster.

What's in the box
  • Stuff you expect
  • Neatly, a clamp to lock down a USB 3.0 cable to the body is included for tethering security (or disaster)

Specs that matter (when boasting)
  • 51-point AF
  • 100% viewfinder
  • CF+SD card slots
  • EN-EL15 battery
  • ISO range 50-25600
  • 4FPS (6 in crop mode w/ MB-D12 grip)

It's... the way forward.

If you paid attention to DSLR releases between the time the D700 came until D800 rumor season, it was no surprise that Canikon had taken a common design path- rounded edges. A departure then from the hard edges of older Nikon bodies with their blatant disregard towards health and safety precautions resulting in innumerable potential infant injuries from unattended handling of N2020 bodies and their pointy, ouchie corners. At this rate, full-sized DSLR cases and bowling ball bags will be interchangeable.

Compared to the D700, there's an ergonomic change that's minor in photos, but a sigh of relief (for some) after hours of usage- the slightly lowered, rounded edge where the index finger curls over. For those with long, spindly fingers this may be a point of complaint, as this results in overshooting the tip of the shooting finger.

An omission made on the D800 is the rubber lip upon which the thumb rests. I personally really liked having that wedge, but I also do see that it was a point of wear vulnerability in the long run; almost every D700 I've ever come across had the rubber bit showing signs of giving out and peeling off. This one's not as likely to come off.

Something's missing though. Depending on how large your hands are, you'll feel that the pinky and ring finger feel a bit cramped and neglected. The overpriced grip gives you a nice extension for the latter fingers to find a home in.

Compared to the D700, the D800 is a bit lighter too. Presumably it's due to materials used and the compromise of plastics over heavier parts. It's a welcomed addition for most, but I personally find myself being able to handhold steadier shots with heavier gear; it's taken me a while to get over this spec.

If you shift between A and M modes even somewhat frequently, you'll find much aggravation in feeling around for the mode button. If you rely upon muscle memory, you'll hit the record button. My horror has been made tangible- if you've known me for a decent period of time, you'll know that I staved off the temptation to upgrade cameras because I knew there would be dedicated video controls taking up real estate where traditionally photography controls grazed. The way there's now DSLR bodies that only do video, maybe we can hope for cameras that only do stills.

Ooh, shiny

Changes will be a bit polarizing, but something users will be forced to adopt eventually. The most notable change is in the AF settings. We've lost the AF spread switch at the bottom right of the backside. Instead, all of the controls have been delegated to a D7000-adopted button and switch system. This won't much bother those who only use one AF point, but if you enjoyed going back and forth between one and all points, the loss of tactility will be missed. This is similar to the M-S-C AF switch at the front of the body, that also requires the operator to hold down a button and turn dials. This is a change I enjoy immensely; gone are the days of pulling out a body from storage to find mid-shoot that it's been knocked into continuous AF.

In trend with global overpopulation, the packed island to the left of the viewfinder is even more crowded now with the addition of a bracket button, resulting in smaller quality, white balance, and most importantly, ISO buttons. Mercifully, Nikon has allowed for easy adjustment of ISO with the secondary dial in aperture and shutter priority modes.

Shooting dials get some deserved attention too. Standard S/CL/CH are still intact. A quiet mode has been introduced, although the difference is sadly, near negligible. Timer mode and mirror lockup are no surprise, but curiously, no hint of live view. Now a denizen of the former single AF/3D AF tracking/all AF-point selector switch residence, the relocation of live view allows for mirror lock-up to be used with the screen, perhaps the most useful addition for those shooting still life. Unfortunately, it seems that the live view implementation is a bit premature. Images that show up on the screen are shown at the settings dialed in, meaning 1/250 @ f8 and base ISO indoors will result in black. To see the subject at a reasonable brightness, you'll have to pop into program mode and flip back before the shot; this is made even more tedious by the aformentioned elusivemode button.

A funny thing- zooming in and out buttons of image reviews have been reversed to a logical orientation. Why it was ever the other way I don't understand. No surprises anywhere else on the vertical strip of buttons.

Considering the D800's rate of memory consumption, dual card slots can save your butt during a shoot. CF is still the expected media format among professional bodies, but the SD slot means that in a pinch, you can grab an emergency memory card from any multitude of devices around you. I personally keep my body stocked with a quick 32GB CF and SD card, the SD card for the one day I accidentally forget to pull the CF card from the reader before a shoot (hasn't happened yet!)


With 36MP, every little mistake is going to show up huge on your screen, and AF is perhaps the biggest reason why you come home with what appear to be soft images. On its own, I like the AF, it's quick enough, although this is heavily due to lens selection. Nikon's G primes are relatively sluggish, but they are accurate.

51 AF points is a huge amount, and while I'd rather have them than not, I've reduced the amount of AF points to 11; I typically only use the center, 12 O'clock, and 3 O'clock position points. Where the other 48 points come in useful is for 3D tracking, which I'm happy to report is pretty good. About as good as the D3 I owned prior to the D800, which should be enough for most circumstances. I'd say the 3D tracking would be more limited by lens selection

An imperative control that you mustn't forget is micro-focus adjust. There's plenty of ways to do this, from printing out a test chart and eyeballing it, to newer software-driven technologies that calculate the appropriate MFA setting. Whatever your approach, do it one way or another, as it'll (likely) make a hell of a difference. Even first party lenses are prone to manufacturing tolerances defects, and this is your only way to do anything about it.

Image Quality
High-risk, high-reward

Nikon's pulled off some real magic here. The 36MP in 35mm feat is in itself amazing, but to make them look good is another reason for festivities. Certainly the D800 oozes paragon image quality for the format... nearly.

ISO 400 bumped 5 stops

Dynamic range is titanic, but most of it is to be found in the shadows. At base ISO, the highlights offer maybe 1.5-2 stops of recovery at most, but the shadows can go as deep as 5-6 stops, more if you're ambitious. I didn't know it was realistically possible to extract so much details from the shadows; I can drink my fill of information from the abyss.

Nearly HDR

I don't do any work requiring precise color accuracy so I'm not the most reliable source for that, but I do trust that they're for the most part accurate. Enough that I haven't noticed any strangeness about the color palette.

Noise performance was the concern of many upon seeing the 36MP label; historically, higher MP bodies have suffered at higher ISOs. Take the Canon 50D for example- in brandishing a 15MP sensor, it lost out to the preceding 40D at the higher ISOs, and caused it to be a bit of a flop among enthusiasts. I'm glad to report that there's none of that here though. In fact, I feel more comfortable shooting up to ISO8000 without considerable restraint compared to the ISO 4000 I felt was the upper end I was comfortable with on the D700/D3. This restraint came not only from the amount of noise generated and detail retained, but the dynamic range at the loftier ISOs. The D700/D3 files felt limiting in headroom, but D800 files still give me that little extra bit more detail in the extremes I've been hoping for. For the higher ISO shots that don't look too great, the option of downsizing them is available, likely resulting in a more reasonable output. The world is not ready for a handheld, 80" print at ISO 25600... yet.

I've never played with a D3x, but I have had my hands on a 5D2 and A900, and while those files were staggeringly impressive for the time, I never really fell in love with how much detail and headroom they had, allowing me to stay happy with a 12MP sensor for so long. In retrospect, those files feel tiny and almost archaic; a bit like going back to your high school. You know where everything is and all that, but the students look absolutely juvenile, and there's the sense of disbelief that such a miniature realm was your everyday reality.

Now, the bad. Shortly after the D800 came out, users began reporting that there was an issue when using fast, wide lenses. It quickly became the nightmare of every D800 owner and prospectives. There was simply no way around it besides changing lens selection, which reduced the apparentness of the effect, but was still present. Nikon, after months of silence, came out with a statement pinpointing the issue to small manufacturing tolerance defects that caused the sensor plane to be slightly shifted, which may not have been an issue before, but became clearly evident with such high resolution. Reportedly D800 bodies with serials over 3055000 are free from the defect, and service centers are finally able to tackle the issue.

In purchasing a D800, you owe the majesty of the sensor an educated knowledge of lenses. A car enthusiast wouldn't fill his or her object of pride with 87 octane and slap on economy tires from Costco, and similarly, the D800 would be shamed to be adhered to a lesser lens. Consider the D800 output a magnified version of your old files- all of the defects even slightly visible on a lesser sensor are going to be much more obvious, short of vignetting and distortion. Edge softness, coma, longitudinal and latitudinal chromatic aberrations will manifest themselves throughout more pixels.

Beware the CA

My preferred list of lenses for the D800 is amusingly their second tier of primes- 28mm 1.8G, 50mm 1.8G, and 85mm 1.8G. I haven't been a fan of the 24 1.4G's results on this sensor, and the 35 1.4G has been surprisingly disappointing. The 85 1.4G has been splendid, but not any sharper than the 1.8G. I have confidence in the trinity of Nikon primes (14-24, 24-70, 70-200 VRII), and would not hesitate to use any of those. My proposed lens setup with a D800 is the 28 and 85 1.8G for most scenarios, and paired with a 60mm 2.8G micro for still life shots.

Here's the biggest caveat in owning a D800 (that sending in for repairs won't help with)- camera shake. Only a fool would downplay how seriously this may impact your images. I consider myself pretty good at holding a camera steady, confident at 1/30 using a 85mm lens, and 1/80 @200mm back on a 12MP sensor. Now, I need at least twice that amount, going no slower than 1/60 using 85mm. Never before have I considered a tripod a necessary accessory, instead relying upon flash duration to freeze the subject sufficiently. D800 still life macro shots occasionally streak due to user error using this tactic, so I sucked it up and invested in a Gitzo tripod with a Manfrotto hydrostatic head.

The full-size version reveals significant camera shake

Other bits

Battery life is... not brilliant in my experience. Other reviewers claim to get upwards of a thousand shots, but I struggle to get over 400. This isn't by means of a faulty battery or body either. Out of three samples I've had my hands on, they average out to precisely mediocre. Perhaps I press press meter or engage AF more than the average person, but I do make a conscious effort to ration battery use. Still, I've been cursed with consistently worse battery life than most people. I stockpiled three EN-EL4A batteries for my old D3, eight EN-EL3e's for a D700, and six BP-511A's for an old 5D. And I actually have had instances where I burned through all batteries on hand in less than a two day period. I expect to need three or four EN-El15's with this body.


I really like the viewfinder, especially with the DK-17M magnifier eyepiece and DK-19 eyecup attached. Experiencing that sweeping view makes using any other viewfinder feel a bit... lackluster. Much to my dismay, it's not particularly useful for using manual focus glass. Even worse, there's no focus screen swapping option from companies such as KatzEye. I suppose AF lenses I'll have to stick with.

Mechanically bound to the release button, the pop-up flash is still a nuisance in storage, prone to popping up during transportation. I have mine shut up with gaffer's tape. Radio triggers are my preferred method of setting off OCL, so the built-in CLS commander function is not necessary for me.

If you shoot sports, photojournalism, or events, I would heavily recommend against a D800; the increase in resolution won't do you as much good as it will incite frustration. And space consumption for the junk shots that'll never see light of day.
For weddings, it's a bit of a compromise. You'll inevitably get slightly blurry shots from low-light situations, but downsizing should help considerably. The AF is certainly up to the job as is the ISO performance, and the dynamic may save your bacon here and there. Plus you'll be able to offer huge prints.

Extra expenses are likely to maintain usage of the D800. You'll surely want to have at least 16GB cards, and at least 2TB of hard disk space (that's about 25000 uncompressed .NEFs).
I'm presently working from a Macbook Pro w/ retina screen which has enough computing power to handle most things, but does slow down to a crawl when working with D800 files. 16-32GB of memory would be ideal.

[++]: [+]: []: oker [-]: [--]:

[++]Breakthrough in DSLR image quality
[++]ISO performance retained despite tripling resolution
[++]Splendid dynamic range, particularly in the shadows
[+]ISO now assignable to secondary dial
[+]Dual card slots
[+]100% viewfinder
[+]Virtually no lag in operation
[+]Usable HDR mode
[]Large files (quality vs. space taken)
[]New AF switch is intuitive, but foreign to most
[-]4FPS without ability to improve w/ grip (in FX mode)
[-]Live view lacking boost options in manual mode
[--]Left-side AF issue

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Updated 06-02-2013 at 12:11 AM by asamimasa

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