Nikon D800 Review

on Sunday, October 26, 2014
In the spring of 2012, Nikon rocked the camera world with its D800. The prospect of the camera’s class-leading 36.3-million-pixel full frame CMOS sensor had landscape and studio photographers in particular licking their lips. With an RRP of £2,600 and a street price now under £2,000, the D800 is good value for professionals and attainable for enthusiasts with a bit of cash. It’s a camera that appeals to many image makers.

At launch, the D800 was only the company’s second ‘enthusiast-level’ full-frame (FX) DSLR, some three and a half years after the D700. In many respects the cameras are worlds apart, given the long gap between them and how technology has moved forward in this time. The D800 sits above the more recently announced Nikon D600 and below the Nikon D3X and Nikon D4 in the company’s full-frame DSLR product range. Surely the days of the professional-level D3X are limited, given the higher resolution of the D800 which is half the price.

Nikon’s ‘enthusiast-level’ terminology primarily indicates a smaller form factor than ‘professional-level’ models like the Nikon D4. During this test I comfortably lugged the D800 (and D800E), two lenses, tripod and filters over hills and around lakes all day – its a relatively lightweight camera. Make no mistake though, such a high resolution suggests anything but ‘enthusiast’ when it comes to image quality.
Despite its price tag and size, the Nikon D800 boasts many of the same features as the more expensive D4, such as its LCD screen and video capture, as well as its metering and AF sensors (both of which are among the best systems available). The D800’s standout feature, however, is undoubtedly its 36.3-million-pixel FX CMOS sensor, a resolution still unmatched in this format today. For this test, the Lake District provided the perfect setting for me to take the camera through its paces.

Key features

The D800’s class leading 36.3-million-pixel resolution surpasses all other full-frame DSLRs, including Nikon’s 12.3-million-pixel D700 and 24.3-million-pixel D3X and D600. Full resolution files are massive at 7360×4912 pixels, enabling A2-size prints without upscaling when using a print resolution of 300ppi. Crisp prints are still possible at 200ppi, where the D800 is capable of A1-size prints. In short, the D800 can comfortably produce gallery size work – a first for this format.A single 14-bit raw file is 76.5MB, while a TIFF file is approximately 205MB, so memory cards can fill up very quickly when out and about with the camera. There are several options for those that still want to shoot in raw format but without filling up memory cards and hard drives so quickly, such as changing the image size to ‘Medium’ which gives 20.3-million-pixel files – much closer to the 24-million-pixels of other full-frame DSLRs. During this test I often opted for the medium image size when I knew that I would take numerous images in quick succession, such as a high speed continuous burst. Other formats and aspect ratios are available too, including 5:4 (30.2MP), 1.2x format (25.1MP) and 1.5x DX format (15.4MP).

All full-frame Nikon models offer a DX crop mode, which provides a 1.5x focal length magnification, but at a reduced resolution. With such large full resolution files, the DX crop mode of the D800 is a genuinely useful feature (providing 15.4MP files). The DX format Nikon D7000 has 16.3MP, which means the pixel dimensions of the D800 are very similar and therefore its performance in low-light is just as impressive – more on this later.
There are further benefits to using the DX crop mode. The continuous high-speed shooting rate is increased from 4fps to 5fps (and up to 6fps when using the loaded MB-D12 battery pack). Also, the 51-point phase detection AF array covers virtually the entire DX crop frame, which reduces the number of times one needs to focus and recompose for subjects that are not central in the frame. I have written more about AF in thePerformance section of the review.Other shooting modes include multiple exposure, which combines up to 10 shots and with the choice of auto gain. Interval timer shooting can record frames at one second through to 24 hour intervals, at up to 999 times in groups of up to 9 shots (that’s up to 8991 exposures). Time lapses are possible up to eight hours, and the files encoded for playback as a video file. I would like to see longer time lapses possible, but the camera would need to be installed with a more powerful battery to allow this.
Clearly a necessary area of improvement from previous Nikon DSLRs is video recording. While the D700 does not feature video recording at all, the D800 offers full HD 1080p recording at 24, 25 or 30fps, with (a somewhat sluggish) full-time contrast detection AF. There is an HDMI output for uncompressed live view, a 3.5mm headphone jack and external microphone jack. Sound levels can be monitored and there are 20 adjustment levels for an external mic; a year after its release, it’s clear from D800 owners that the camera is being well used for videos as well as photographs.There are several colour modes (‘Picture Controls’) to choose from, including monochrome with filters. When using JPEG format, a HDR mode is available, with manual control over the smoothing and the ‘exposure differential’ up to 3EV. Another option for making detail in shadow and highlight areas more obvious is Active D Lighting. Again, there is manual control over the strength of the effect. It should be pointed out though that Active D-lighting does not extend the dynamic range like HDR, it merely makes detail that already exists more obvious.I found little need to shoot in anything other than the standard colour mode as there are a host of edits that can be made in-camera through the Retouch menu. Of the many edits possible, key ones include raw processing with options for exposure compensation, white balance and colour mode, as well as filter effects, distortion control, straightening and even edits to video files. Once images are loaded to a computer, there is no auto-orientation applied to portrait-format images, which is very frustrating. All in all though, the D800 offers a comprehensive feature set.

Design and handling

At 1,000g including battery and card, the D800 is around 10% lighter than the D700, although the cameras are very similar in size. With a standard zoom or short prime lens attached, the D800 is a comfortable load to carry. Until the D600 was released, the D800 was the lightest full-frame DSLR from Nikon. Those upgrading from an APS-C camera will be right at home with the size and weight of the D800, but may be a little intimidated by the number of external controls.


Like the Nikon D4, the D800 uses an EXPEED 3 processing engine to process images and also for its noise reduction. Image files are so much larger than those in the D4 though, so shooting rates are more limited. It’s easy to play down the shooting rates of the D800 – a modest 4fps in FX and 5fps in DX respectively – but this is not a camera designed with action photography in mind. That said, when using a UDMA 7 CF card, the camera is able to capture 19 raw FX format images and 100 JPEGs, while in DX format it can record up to 35 raw images and 100 JPEGs, which is respectable. The buffer does, however, take a little time to clear raw images, during which time full control of the camera is not possible.Using a multi-CAM3500FX AF sensor and 51-AF point system, the performance of phase detection AF is, in one word, excellent. In good light focusing is virtually instant – so quick one has to double check the camera has performed a focus – but it’s in low light that the D800 is particularly impressive. Nikon is keen to highlight focus operation down to -2EV (under moonlight), which I was keen to test. While focusing is not quite as quick as in good light, the hit ratio of the D800 is impressive and its speed quick, where other systems would fail altogether. In live view however, focusing is a different matter because contrast detection AF is employed, which is significantly slower in any lighting conditions. In Live View the D800 is not as effective as some CSCs, for example the latest from Panasonic and Olympus.


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