First Impressions: Using the Nikon D800
The D800, like all currrent high-end Nikon DSLRs, is compatible with both DX and FX (full-frame) AF lenses, and be programmed to accept up to nine manual 'Non-CPU' Ai-standard lenses. Once programmed in, it is possible to mount and use an older lens exactly as you would on an older camera, focussing manually, and adjusting the aperture using the mechanical aperture ring. The viewfinder focus confirmation indicator and the left/right focus 'arrows' work too, which is handy.
My oldest Nikon lens is a Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 from 1962 (ish) but because it lacks an Ai coupling I can't mount it on the D800. My mid-60s Nikkor 105mm f/2.5, however, which at some point in its life was 'updated' somewhat messily to the Ai standard, will fit just fine.
I shoot a lot with my 'converted' 105mm - not because it is the sharpest lens I own (it isn't) but because it's small, light, and I like the way it renders detail, particularly in portraits. I've always been happy with its performance on the 12MP sensors of the D700 and D3S, and I was curious about how it would perform when bolted onto the front of a 36.3MP sensor.
In principle, a 36MP sensor will always deliver more detail than a 12MP sensor paired with the same lens, just not necessarily in proportion with the pixel count. Even if the results don't look as sharp at a pixel level, prints made from the 36MP file should, in theory, look more detailed.
|For this scene, I set the D800 on a tripod, in natural light and shot my 105mm at f/2.5 through f/8 in one stop increments. I shot in raw mode and processed 'to taste' in ACR 6.7.
At f/2.5 there's plenty of detail but things are a little hazy and fringing is very obvious around high-contrast edges. Critical image quality improves on stopping down, until by f/8 sharpness is high, there's a lot of detail and only a little residual fringing.
In coldly critical terms, my 50 year-old 105mm isn't a fantastic lens on the D800, but neither is it outstanding (by modern standards) when paired with a D700 or D3S. Reassuringly though, it remains the same pleasant, pocketable portrait lens that it always has been. In demanding, high-contrast scenes like the one of the cameras, above, fringing is obvious, and more noticeable when viewed alongside equivalent images taken on the 12MP D3S, at 100%. But that's just because the D800's files are larger. When the D800's output is downsized to 12MP, results from the two cameras are virtually indistinguishable.
The same is true of a couple of other lenses that I've experimented with - a late 1960s Ai converted 50mm f/1.4 and a slightly more modern Ai-S 35mm f/1.4. Optically, they're just as useable on the D800 as they are on the D700/D3s, and when stopped down they're capable of transmitting plenty of detail to the sensor. Newer primes like the excellent AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 are better, but if you're thinking of investing in a D800 there's no need to sell your old lens collection yet.
Watch out for one thing though - focussing. If, like me, you like to shoot 'wide open' you'll find that the D800's 36.3 million pixels are very unforgiving of even minor focussing errors, something that habitual 12MP shooters will just have to get used to. The D800's high-resolution sensor really does demand a medium-format level of attention to focus accuracy, and for critical work, I'd strongly recommend use live view mode and focussing manually.
DX Crop Mode
I've mentioned that the D800 is compatible with DX lenses, designed for the APS-C format, and while this isn't a new feature, it is far more useful than it has been in previous FX format Nikon DSLRS. The D700 could accept DX format lenses, but resolution dropped to 5MP. The D800, by comparison, can capture 15MP images in the 1.5 X crop DX format - a far more useable resolution (and not far off the native resolution of the DX format D7000).
Besides a respectable output resolution, the other benefit of the DX format is that in this mode the D800's AF array covers almost the entire image area. This has obvious appeal for certain types of photography, perhaps most obviously sports and wildlife.
|The D800's DX format shooting mode can be selected manually, but it is activated automatically when a DX lens is mounted. As it was in the D700, the bounds of the DX frame are indicated in the D800's viewfinder with a black rectangle.As you can see, in DX mode, the D800's 51-point AF array covers a very large proportion of the image area.|
|D800, AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm /f2.8 DX
ISO 200, 640sec, f/8
|D800, AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm /f2.8 DX
ISO 250, 200sec, f/9
Using Movie Mode
The D700 didn't have a movie mode (amazing how much has changed in 3, 1/2 years) but the D800 offers one of the most advanced video-shooting specifications around - a clear sign that Nikon has its eye on the semi-pro and enthusiast videographers that Canon captured with the 5D Mark II. I haven't done much video shooting on the D800 yet (but our friend Dan Chung has a nice overview of his early experience here) but my first impressions of both the functionality and quality are very good.
Because the D800 replaces the video-less D700, there will inevitably be some users who come to the new camera having not shot video using a DSLR before. If it sounds like I'm describing you, you'll be pleased to know that despite its advanced video specification, the D800 is pretty easy to get to grips with.
|Before shooting movie footage you first have to activate live view, in movie mode. The first thing that you'll notice is that the framing switches to a 16:9 preview, and the second thing you'll (hopefully) spot is that your exposure settings might have changed. Exposure is set independantly in still and video modes, so you need to get into the habit of setting up for video shooting once you've switched into movie live view mode, not before.
|Once you're in movie live view mode, pressing the red button to the left of the shutter release initiates movie recording.|
|The D800 includes a microphone port for recording audio, and a headphone jack for 'live' sound monitoring during recording. Uncompressed video can also be saved to an external recorder via the HDMI port.|
The D800 features a red button on its top-plate but in normal shooting mode, pressing it won't do anything. To initiate video recording you must first be in live view mode, with the live view switch set to 'movie' (denoted by an icon of a video camera).
Full shutter control from 1/30 - 1/8000 is possible during movie shooting, and full aperture control as well. Autofocus is contrast-detection, obviously, and very accurate if not as fast as we'd expect from a high-end Micro Four Thirds camera. For casual videos, the D800's AF-F mode - where focus is continually adjusted - is useful, but in my limited experience of using the feature, the frequent focus acquisition and reacquisition can be distracting.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.