Nikon’s latest full-frame DSLR has an incredible amount of resolution with an equally awesome price. Of course it’s impressive — but let’s see how good it really is.
Features and design
Affordable digital cameras change with the seasons, but full-frame DSLRs are more like the Olympics, showing up every few years. These very expensive models are near the pinnacle of the digicam food chain, offering the best quality at a hefty price. Nikon recently updated its full-frame line-up with the 16.2-megapixel $5,999 D4 and the “cheap” 36.3-megapixel $2,999 D800. The duo takes the place of the D3S, D3X and D700, which have been around for ages. The D4 is strictly for pros and grabs a startling 11 fps at full resolution, versus 4 for the D800. Current competition for the less-expensive Nikon is Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III, a $3,499 22-megapixel full-frame edition. Yes, this is a rarefied atmosphere, like leaving the Toyota dealership and deciding to stroll through the Lamborghini showroom. We can all dream, right?
Anyway, the Nikon D800 is relatively affordable full-frame DSLR that’s targeted to serious enthusiasts and pros, not strictly professionals. As noted up top, our test rig had a list price of $4,898, so that pretty much says it all about the audience for this camera.
One of the key components of the D800 is the 36.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, which measures 35.9 x 24mm, approximately the size of a frame of 35mm film, hence the full-frame designation. (Nikon calls it FX; its more affordable DSLRs that use smaller APS-C sensors are dubbed DX). We constantly harp on sensor size because it really makes a major quality difference; bigger chips deliver more accurate colors with less digital noise at higher ISOs. APS-C imagers in Compact System Cameras and more affordable DSLRs measure 24 x 16mm, while Micro Four Thirds chips are 17.3 x 13mm moving down the line to the 7.6 x 5.7mm point-and-shoots. Camera makers are now cramming larger chips into enthusiast models like the new 14-megapixel Canon G1 X (18.7 x 14mm) and the 20.2-megapixel Sony RX100 (13.2 x 8.8mm) in order to improve image quality. But enough of the numbers game, let’s check out the new Nikon DSLR.
It was a fascinating juxtaposition moving from the $699 D3200, Nikon’s latest entry-level DSLR, to the D800. Besides the sticker shock, the D800 is a beast in comparison. It measures 5.7 x 4.8 x 3.2 (W x H x D, in inches) and weighs 31.7 ounces for the body alone. This is twice the weight of the plastic D3200, since the more expensive model has a magnesium alloy body. Add the 24-70mm lens and now you’ve got some serious tonnage around your neck. While the camera has a large grip — with this particular zoom — a monopod or tripod is highly recommended unless you have Hulk-like arms.
Forget about cute colors for this one; the D800 is only available in black and looks like a classic Nikon DSLR with red swoosh and a few other logos. The key feature on the front is the Nikon F mount, and it accepts AF/AF-S glass. There’s also a depth-of-field preview and function buttons as well as an AF Assist lamp. On the pistol grip is an angled shutter button surrounded by the power switch as well as a sub-command dial. Below the lens release button is the focus mode selector (AF/manual). On the top right are inputs for flash sync and 10-pin remote terminals, both covered by attached soft plastic plugs. The grip is a beefy one, but as we say with every camera, definitely do a hands-on test with the lenses you’re most likely to use.
On the top deck is the main dial, hot shoe, built-in flash, Mode, Movie and Exposure Compensation buttons. The dial is not like the typical mode dial found on more consumer-oriented DSLRs. Since the D800 is for very committed photographers, you won’t find Intelligent Auto or Scene modes. Since there are only four options (Program Auto, Aperture/Shutter Priority and Manual) they’re relegated to the small Mode key and the main dial offers quick access to white balance, ISO, quality and bracketing adjustments. These buttons rest on top of the Release Mode dial that lets you adjust the burst setting. A lock release prevents you from accidentally changing your choice. With its 36.3 megapixels, the D800 is no speed demon, but will capture 4 frames per second at full resolution, 6 if you crop the image. Also on the top deck is an LCD control panel that lets you quickly check your current camera settings or make adjustments.
A short aside: This new DSLR looks similar to the D700 but with a couple of key twists. First, the D700 was a 12.1-megapixel FX camera that did not capture video. The D800 does full HD 1080p at 30 fps. With its movie capability, the new model has the obligatory red dot movie button near the shutter, plus the Live View switch lets you move from still to video. To accommodate this control, the D800 shifted the direct metering adjustment of the D700 on the back panel to a higher position surrounding the AE-L/AF-L button.
This is a very tall camera, so there’s plenty of real estate on the back. The viewfinder — which is big and bright — has a 100 percent field of view in FX mode and dips slightly to 97 percent if you adjust the framing. Directly below is a 3.2-inch LCD rated 921K pixels. It’s very good, but not the best we’ve seen on a DSLR; some Canons top a million dots. On the left side of the screen are the usual keys (playback, delete, menu, OK and so on). On the top right are AE-L/AF-L, AF On and another jog wheel. Directly to the right of the screen is a multi-point controller with center set button surrounded by a Focus Selector lock. This is used to pick one of the 51 available focus points if you go that route. Below this is the Live View key (still/video) and the Info button.
On the right side are dual slots for Compact Flash and SD memory cards. One is CF Type I, UDMA 6/7 compatible while the other is for SD media (UHS-1) and Eye-Fi compatible cards. The left-side compartment has mic and headphone inputs as well as USB and mini HDMI outs. The D800 is one of the first cameras that’s USB 3.0 compatible. The bottom of the Made in Japan camera has the tripod mount and battery compartment.
What’s in the box
The D800 body, 900-shot battery and charger with AC cord, strap and various caps. You also get a monitor cover, a USB cable with clip, a 52-page Quick Guide and a 448-page user’s manual. Clearly if you’re spending this kind of money it’s a given the camera is uber sophisticated and the manuals walk you through it. Also supplied is a CD-ROM with Nikon View NX2 software for handling images and developing NEF (RAW) files. To show its pro bona fides, the camera not only captures JPEG and RAW files but TIFFs as well.
Performance and use
After charging the battery, we loaded a 16GB Extreme Pro SanDisk SDHC card and admit to being a bit frustrated. We didn’t have a catwalk nearby with strutting super models or an assignment to photograph a catalog for Neiman-Marcus. We had to suffice with our usual New York and New Jersey subject matter, but this time using a $1,900 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom affixed to a 36.3-megapixel full-frame $2,999 DSLR. Poor us.
Typically when you’re shooting an interchangeable lens camera, there’s a digital factor of 1.5x, 2x or something similar. With full-frame editions, there is no digital factor, so we were using a true 24-70mm lens. Very cool. Another thing blew our collective minds: Full-resolution images for the D800 register at 7,360 x 4,912 pixels, a shade over 36 megapixels. We remember less than four years ago 10-megapixel 3,648 x 2,736 DSLRs were so impressive. Now that number has more than tripled. If you thought your images were taking up loads of external hard drive space, wait till you start shooting with this one!
In a recent review of the Nikon D3200 DSLR, we wondered if 24 megapixels was overkill — now we’re dealing with a full-frame model with 50 percent more. Before getting too far into the tech weeds, we’ll answer with a qualified “yes” — but this camera is not perfect by any stretch, even for three grand.
Shooting with the Nikon D800 is a deliberate task, requiring effort befitting a $3,000 imaging instrument. This is not a camera for casual shots walking on the beach; try a Canon S100/G1 X or Sony RX100 for that. As mentioned earlier, there’s no Intelligent Auto or Smart Auto where the camera decides how to set the parameters for a specific scene. Programmed Auto is as simple as it gets, since the camera adjusts aperture and shutter speed. If you want to go beyond this “snapshot” mode, get ready to use all of your photographic skills regarding aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO, focus points — all that good stuff that went out the window with the advent of point-and-shoot digicams. We’re not knocking aim-and-forget photography, just letting you know the D800 requires some effort for wringing out the maximum results. And our rig was plenty heavy walking about in the summer heat. Overall with the 24-70mm lens, the setup had a nice balance and we grabbed sharp images even without built-in stabilization by using classic bracing techniques and resting the camera on steady surfaces where available.
We were definitely glad Nikon provided a pocket-sized Quick Guide which we carried around. Again not that it’s so difficult to use, just there are so many options to do practically everything our short review period could hardly do the camera justice.
To get the feel for this camera we started off shooting high-res JPEGs in Program then moved through the other options. The D800 was set to Standard image quality using Auto ISO, Auto White Balance and so on. Burst mode was set to high (4 fps). As we got more comfortable making adjustments with the command dials, we got a little more adventurous. The camera was almost lightning fast as it captured images with practically zero shutter lag, one of the great blessings of DSLRs. However, we found the AF system to be very squirrely at times as it hopped from point to point. Switching to AF-C (51 points, 15 cross type) things went much more smoothly. If you are taking a deliberate shot of flowers, for example, you can use the Focus Selector Lock to zero in on the subject. Folks, this barely scratches the surface of the D800’s capabilities.
When done with our test shots, we did the obligatory pixel-peeping — you have to see how far you can enlarge a 36-megapixel file — made prints and viewed our videos on a 1080p HDTV.
While sensor size is super critical, the size of the pixels is also important. With the D800, Nikon crammed 36 million of them on the same size chip as competing 22- and 16-megapixel full-frame cameras. Given this, no matter how good the processor, there will be unwanted digital noise. This was one of the most disappointing aspects of this camera. Not that everyone shoots at 12,800 ISO, but the company touts you can capture images at that level and even 25,600. We wouldn’t go there on a bet, but we could still capture a reasonable image in very dim light. It wasn’t something we’d want to use, but it least it was there. The D800 is really best at 1,600 or less, although we got some reasonable results at 2,500.
Once we realized this was an issue, we changed from Auto ISO and set sensitivity ourselves. You can even go as low as 50, even though the basic range is 100 to 6400. At low ISOs, the D800 really shined. We were really thrilled reviewing shots of flowers, cats and so on. The color at low ISO levels just superb. You really can’t ask for much more. The last time we saw files this good they came from another full-frame camera, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. With a camera like this, you can really make the most of depth-of-field. The f/2.8 lens delivered excellent blurred backgrounds with extremely sharp main subject matter. The Nikon’s auto white balance also delivered accurate results especially indoors. Metering was quite good as well as it handled a variety of tough subjects very well.
The Nikon D800 can record full HD video MOV files. We’re still not huge fans of DSLR video focusing, yet this camera did a very good job; we used a combo of auto and manual focus for improved results. There was little rolling shutter noticeable in a clip of a gently panned local landscape; we reviewed the footage via HDMI on a 1080p HDTV. Colors were a bit smeary, however. MOV compression is simply not as good as AVCHD Progressive now working its way through the digicam food chain. Note the sound recorded is mono; if you want stereo you have to purchase an optional mic (ME-1).
Saying the Nikon D800 is a very good camera is as easy as saying “Breaking Bad” is great television series — both are slam dunks. Now buying the D800 — due to expense and commitment required — is a serious decision. Supplies for the camera are very tight, so don’t expect to buy it for less than the $2,999 list price, if you can find one at all. And high-quality Nikkor lenses are a must — primes and zooms. Don’t expect spectacular results without tweaking, and noise at high ISOs is definitely an issue. In the end, however, your photos will be worth the effort.
- 36.3-megapixel full-frame DSLR
- Records full HD 1080p videos
- Has more options than you possibly imagine
- Expensive and heavy
- Noisy at higher ISOs
- Definitely for serious shutterbugs