I bought a used Nikon D800 and it made me laugh… but in a good way

DCW contributor Claire Gillo holding a Nikon D800
(Image credit: Future)

Just how old IS the Nikon D800? I checked, and it was launched in 2012. At the time of writing in 2023, that makes it 11 years old. In terms of camera development, this should put it right back with the dinosaurs.

I was working on a Nikon magazine when the Nikon D800 first came out, and its full frame 36MP sensor was the stuff of dreams. I wanted one very badly, but there was no way I could afford one.

So fast forward more than ten years, and the D800 is now a venerable antique. There's no way we could reasonably include it in a list of the best DSLRs today, or the best full frame cameras, largely because you can't buy them new any more. But it was definitely one of the best professional cameras in its time, and still has professional credentials today, especially with the large choice of Nikon F lenses still on the market.

But unlike most antiques, the Nikon D800 cheap. I bought mine from MPB for just under £600 in UK money - and you can currently get one for under $500 in the US, I guess. Mine had around 4500 shutter actuations, so it was practically new and cosmetically graded ‘Excellent’. It arrived, and it is. It’s like a new camera.

Can the D800 possibly compete today?

Nikon D800's has a very creditable 36-megapixel full-frame sensor 

Let’s get to it. Even today, you really have to up the ante to get this kind of resolution. The D800 can’t match the 45/50/61MP resolution of the best mirrorless cameras of today, but it still offers a clear resolution advantage over the swathe of 20MP/24MP/26MP ‘entry level’ full frame cameras on the market right now.

So right, live view and video. Yes, the D800 is pretty hopeless here. It does have live view but it’s slow and you would only use it for painstaking tripod shots. And video… well, it can do it, but this is NOT a camera you would choose for video.

But now the positives. The D800 is built like a tank. I’ve used this joke before but I can’t think of a better one – you could use it as a wheel chock for a 747. You pick it up, and you know this is a proper camera because it actually fits an adult human hand. Unlike so many modern mirrorless cameras, that feel like they were designed to fit the hand you had when you were eleven years old.

So the viewfinder. I love optical ‘finders. I love the way what you see in the viewfinder is a naked-eye view of exactly what you saw the instant before you put the camera to your eye. No, the OVF does not simulate the what the sensor will capture, but I reckon I can wait half a second to see this in the instant playback view, which is on a screen, incidentally, that is still really sharp, bright and crisp even by today’s standards.

My colleague Mike Harris on N-Photo magazine is also a big Nikon D800 fan. (Image credit: Future)

I am not a DSLR reactionary

Seriously, I’m not. I understand what the best mirrorless cameras have brought to photography, and I can be very boring about that too. But at the same time, I think we need to understand that when we gain something we often lose things too.

There is no way I should have been able to buy a camera this good at price that would hardly get you a novice point and shoot mirrorless model today. And there’s no way a camera this old should still be so good and so effective today – though I admit, I am saying this from the perspective of a stills photographer.

I will always, always regret selling my Nikon D7200, but my new (well, nearly-new) Nikon D800 has made up for it. We bang on about how great cameras are today but, my word, let’s not forget how good they were before.

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Rod Lawton

Rod is an independent photography journalist and editor, and a long-standing Digital Camera World contributor, having previously worked as DCW's Group Reviews editor. Before that he has been technique editor on N-Photo, Head of Testing for the photography division and Camera Channel editor on TechRadar, as well as contributing to many other publications. He has been writing about photography technique, photo editing and digital cameras since they first appeared, and before that began his career writing about film photography. He has used and reviewed practically every interchangeable lens camera launched in the past 20 years, from entry-level DSLRs to medium format cameras, together with lenses, tripods, gimbals, light meters, camera bags and more. Rod has his own camera gear blog at fotovolo.com but also writes about photo-editing applications and techniques at lifeafterphotoshop.com