First Impressions of Image Quality and Summary

Obviously the D800's headline feature is its 36.3MP pixel count, which in specification terms, puts way above the competition and right up there with medium format digital equipment. Although we've barely scratched the surface of the D800 yet in terms of our studio testing, my first impressions of the D800's image quality are very encouraging indeed. The following table shows four examples of images taken with the D800 within its 'optimal' ISO sensitivity range of 100-400. All images are processed 'to taste' in Adobe Camera Raw (6.7).

Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 VR
ISO 100, 160sec, f/9
Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8
ISO 400, 80sec, f/4
Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8
ISO 400, 250sec, f/9
Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 VR
ISO 100, 60sec, f/9

As you can probably tell, the resolution increase over the 12MP D700 is significant, and with a good lens attached, I'm confident in saying that the D800 outresolves every other 35mm DSLR on the market (until the D800E becomes available, at least). And so it should, with a pixel count this high.

36MP Compared to 12MP

The following table shows the D800 alongside the 12MP D3S. Judge for yourself what difference the extra 24MP makes to detail reproduction.

For this comparison I set up the D3S and D800 under identical lighting conditions, at identical exposure settings at ISO 200, and shot in .NEF (raw) mode.

Raw processing in Adobe Camera Raw 6.7 was identical and at ACR defaults except for sharpening, which was adjusted for optimal detail. 
Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8
ISO 200, 25sec, f/8 (processed raw)
Crop 2
Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8
ISO 200, 25sec, f/8 (processed raw)
Crop 2

What I am especially encouraged by is the versatility of the D800's sensor. One of the D700's strengths when it was released was its performance in poor light relative to most DSLRs. Nikon's current low-light 'king' is the 16MP D4, but despite its massive pixel count, the D800 (which shares the same AF system, sensitive down to -2EV) is an impressively useful camera at its highest ISO settings.

In Poor Light

As you can see from the samples in this article, and in the samples gallery on the next page, the D800 produces files which are sharp and detailed right up to its maximum 'native' ISO sensitivity of 6400. At default settings noise reduction maintains detail pretty well, while supressing chroma noise very effectively. Things get a little smudgy at ISO 3200 and above, but that's only visible on very close inspection. I wasn't really expecting much above ISO 6400, but from my shooting so far I'm very impressed by how useable the D800's high ISO files are.

Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8
ISO 3200, 30sec, f/6.3

At default settings, this ISO 3200 JPEG is perfectly acceptable and contains a lot of detail. The D800's AWB system has coped well with the mixed artificial lighting and although noise is visible at 100%, it's far from obtrusive.  
Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 VR
ISO 25,600 (Hi 2), 20sec, f/4

This image was converted from a .NEF file, taken at ISO 25,600. In light so poor there was virtually nothing to see through the viewfinder, this shot is in focus, exposure is acceptable, and although noisy, banding is well-controlled.

Even at ISO 25,600, in light too low to properly see through the camera's viewfinder, I've captured images which are in focus, well-exposed, and display very little banding. Obviously we've got a full gamut of tests still to run on the D800, but for now, based on the images I've seen, I'm impressed. Both Nikon and Canon (in the 5D Mark III) seem to have made meaningful leaps forward in terms of high ISO image quality in this generation of cameras and the results speak for themselves. 

The D4, and cameras like it (the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and very likely the forthcoming 1D X as well) produce cleaner images at a pixel level, but the fact is that I'd be confident about shooting JPEGs with the D800 right up to ISO 6400, and I've coaxed useable images out of its raw files even as high as ISO 25,600. This is truly impressive stuff, and I can't wait to get the camera into our studio and investigate the abilities of its sensor more thoroughly. 

Summary 

Well, as you've probably already gathered, I'm cautiously impressed. The D800 offers a combination of versatility and sheer image quality which is worthy of serious respect. Although we've only had the D800 in the office for a few days, I'm very encouraged by both the quality of its output, and by the breadth of its feature set. In this article I've barely even touched on the D800's video abilities, but first impressions are - again - very positive. Video image quality, like stills, is very good, although we want to do a lot more shooting, and take a detailed look at the footage alongside files from the recently-announced Canon EOS 5D Mark III before we make any definitive statements on that score. 

The only serious fly in the ointment when it comes to the D800's total performance is its speed - or rather its lack thereof. A maximum framerate of 4fps at full resolution isn't going to set the world on fire, and may limit the D800's appeal to some photographers.

I have two other issues with the D800, but it's hardly fair to call them criticisms, since both are a natural consequence of the massive pixel count. Firstly, on a 36.3MP sensor, accurate focus is essential, since there is less margin for error than you'd expect from a 12, 16 or even 24MP sensor. When viewed at 100%, even minor focussing errors are visible in files from the D800 where they might go unnoticed in cameras with a smaller pixel count, and although I've been impressed by AF accuracy on Nikon's prime and zoom lenses (so far) if you're shooting at wide apertures - especially on longer lenses - accurate focussing is a must.

Secondly, the D800's files are massive. It isn't unusual for high quality JPEGs to take up around 30MB on a memory card, and the .NEF files are bigger again. Not only will they rip through hard drive space like there's no tomorrow, but manipulating files this large on a computer can be pretty time-consuming. If you're planning on purchasing a D800, some extra RAM for your PC should probably also be on your shopping list...


Click here to go to page 4 of this article: First Impressions - Using the Nikon D800...