The excitement surrounding the announcement of the full frame Nikon D800 has been unprecedented.
One of the key topics of conversation about the new camera has been its class-leading effective pixel count of 36.3 million – perhaps proving that the pixel race is not over, and that numbers still really grab the headlines.
Could such a high pixel count be the D800’s undoing though? Until recently Nikon’s mantra had been that 12-million pixels is enough if the images are clean, and Nikon has a strong reputation for its cameras’ low-light performance and noise control. Could 36-million pixels be a step too far, too soon?
Although it has a more densely populated sensor, the 36.3Mp D800 utilises many of the new features of the previously announced 16.2Mp D4 in a smaller body and at a cheaper price.
These include the same EXPEED 3 processor, the same Multi-Cam 3500 FX autofocus system, which offers 51 autofocus points and the same 91k-pixel metering system.
It’s also capable of focusing right down to -2 EV, which coupled with its ability to shoot at up to ISO 25,600 (at the Hi 2 setting), should make the Nikon D800 a promising camera for low-light shooting (read the 12 common errors of night photography – and how to fix them) if image noise is at an acceptable level.
Given its effective pixel count, it’s not really a surprise that the Nikon D800 has a lower maximum continuous shooting rate than the D700; but at 4fps (the D700 can manage 5fps) at full resolution with the standard battery and 5fps (D700 8fps) with a battery grip it’s no slouch.
As with the D4, the D800’s central 11 AF points are capable of functioning at f/8. This means that the AF system will still function when teleconverters are used to extend the reach of telephoto lenses.
This is great news for wildlife photographer who want to avoid the expense and burden of carrying a selection long and heavy optics (read more: DO or Di? Your lens markings explained). For instance, a 200-400mm f/4 fitted with a 2x teleconverter effectively becomes a 400-800mm f/8, and unlike with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the D800’s autofocus system will still function.
The Nikon D700 doesn’t feature a video mode, but the D800 brings full HD functionality. It can record 1080p video at 30, 25 and 24fps frame rates, along with 60 and 50fps rates at 720p for shooting slow-motion movies.
Both FX and DX crops are available in video mode, although the D800 lacks the D4’s useful 1920×1080 crop mode (see How to set up your DSLR for video recording).
In another upgrade over the D700, the D800 features dual memory card slots. Unlike the D4, the D800 makes use of existing memory card formats, namely Compact Flash and SD/SDHC/SDXC. The decision to include two formats might prove frustrating for some pros, who will now have to carry two different sets of cards.
The shutter has been tested to around 200,000 cycles, while the battery life has been reduced from the D700 to around 850 shots at CIPA standard. While the D700 was capable of around 1,000 shots, the new battery has been made to comply with a new Japanese electronics law, hence the reduction in shot output.
Since the measured battery life (850 shots) includes the use of flash, it’s likely that the battery has the potential to last even longer, depending on the situation.
It’s worth noting here that the D800, like the D700 has a built-in pop-up flash unit (GN 12m @ ISO 100) which is useful for providing fill-in light and triggering external lights wirelessly. The Canon 5D Mark III doesn’t have a flash built-in.
The Nikon D800 is available in two versions: a ‘standard’ body, plus a special edition, called the D800E. The latter has a modified filter over the sensor that has no anti-aliasing qualities and comes with an extra £300 premium as a result.
Removing the anti-aliasing filter allows for a potentially greater amount of detail to be resolved and comes at the price of increasing the chances of false colour or moiré patterning, which may require some extra post-capture processing.
Fortunately, this type of interference is relatively straightforward to remove in photo-editing software packages, such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. Nikon’s own Capture NX2 can also be used to reduce or remove the effect, and will come bundled with the D800E.
Altogether, Nikon claims to have included 36 new features or improvements to this full-frame SLR (read more: Full frame DSLR: do you really need one?), when compared to the Nikon D700.
The Nikon D800 Verdict
Our testing team put the Nikon D800 through its paces, which you can read about in the full Nikon D800 review over on our sister site, TechRadar. If you want some of the key points from the full test and the final verdict on the Nikon D800, here is what our head of testing had to say:
On Build & Handling
“In terms of size, shape and weight, the differences between the D800 and D700 are subtle. It’s 10% lighter than the D700 and the body has a more ‘contoured’ look and feel. Like the Nikon D4, the shutter release has been slightly repositioned for better ergonomics, while a number of the controls have been tweaked…
“Anyone familiar with Nikon SLRs, especially the D700, or D3 S/X professional series, will be at ease with the menu and operation of the camera. There are no major changes other than the addition of video recording options and the change to the D7000-style focus mode switch and button.
“While the AF system is advanced and there are lots of AF-point selection modes available when shooting continuously, the options are made very clear in the viewfinder and in the top-plate LCD, so it’s easy to select the one you want. However, it’s about time that the AF points were spread a bit further across the frame and not clustered within the DX crop area.”
“Our tests reveal that the Nikon D800 is capable of resolving a huge amount of detail, in fact it’s not far behind the medium-format Pentax 645D, which has a 40Mp sensor that measures 44x33mm. This is an impressive feat, as although it’s full-frame, the D800’s sensor is considerably smaller at 35.9x24mm…
“Nikon isn’t new to producing DSLRs, and the D800 uses the company’s know-how to ensure that white balance and colour are good straight from the camera in most situations.”
On Noise and Dynamic Range
“We have compared the Nikon D800 against the Nikon D700, Nikon D4, Canon EOS 5D Mk III, Canon EOS 5D Mk II and Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III.
“JPEG images from the Nikon D800 have a signal to noise ratio that compares well against, but cannot quite match, that from the Nikon D4 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III. At lower sensitivities results compare closely to Nikon D700, however from a sensitivity of ISO 800 there is a definite improvement.
“TIFF images (after conversion from raw) show that the D800 handles noise well at lower sensitivities and the results compare well against the Nikon D4. Above ISO 3200 noise becomes more of an issue.
“The Nikon D800’s JPEG files have a high dynamic range only just beaten by the Nikon D4. Compared to the Nikon D700, the results show a big improvement across the sensitivity range. At ISO 3200 the Canon EOS 5D Mk III just over takes the dynamic range of the D800.
“The D800’s TIFF files (after conversion from raw) score some of the highest dynamic range results that we’ve seen from a DSLR, just beating the Nikon D4 and showing a huge improvement over the Nikon D700. At the lower end of the sensitivity scale, the D800 is the clear leader, but by ISO 800 the Canon EOS 5D Mark III takes the lead.”
It’s great to find that the D800 isn’t just a triumph of numbers, and that the 35.3Mp sensor actually delivers on its promise – capturing bags of detail. The surprise bonus is that noise is actually pretty well controlled and the dynamic range is very impressive.
For those interested in stepping up to a full-frame camera, the D800 represents a good investment. You get pretty much all of the best features of the D4 in a more compact and lighter body, with a much higher pixel count for just shy of half of the price.
Many see the Canon EOS 5D Mark III as the D800’s natural competitor. While the average serious enthusiast is likely to think long and hard about switching manufacturer, professional photographers are less loyal and will go with whichever option works best for them.
The Nikon D800 will be very attractive to photographers who need a comparatively light camera that is capable of capturing a lot of detail and producing large prints.
As it is an especially good choice for those who shoot in normal or daylight conditions or at low sensitivities, we think the D800, or perhaps the D800E, will be a big hit with landscape and studio photographers.
Meanwhile the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is perhaps a bit of an all-rounder that will appeal to enthusiast photographers who want to shoot a range of subjects in lots of different conditions.
Given the level of detail that the D800 can capture and its impressive dynamic range there may be a few studio and landscape photographers who will choose it instead of a bulkier, heavier, slower and more expensive medium format camera.
It’s clear that the D800 is an excellent and very capable camera. The metering, white balance and autofocus systems all deliver the goods and the image quality is superb at the lower sensitivity settings.
While we’d love to see a couple of niceties such as the rating option and more flexible HDR system found on the Canon 5D Mark III, we find Nikon’s AF point selection options clearer in continuous AF mode.
Although the D800 can’t quite match some of its competitors for signal to noise ratio at the lower sensitivity settings, it comes close and the much larger images have an impressive dynamic range.
Nikon has managed to produce a camera that delivers exactly what many enthusiast and pro photographers want.
Many images are suitable for making superb A2 pints straight from the camera or with a minimal amount of adjustment.
Sport and action photographers will find that the large file size limits the continuous shooting rate and burst depth in comparison with the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D4.
The Nikon D800 Overall Score: 4.5/5
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