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First Impressions: Using the Nikon D800

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Mar 22, 2012

As updates go, the Nikon D800 is a pretty major one. Compared to its predecessor the D700, Nikon's newest DSLR features an impressive set of key specifications, and subtly refined ergonomics, too. After more than three years we expected the D800 to outclass its predecessor, but products don't exist in a vacuum, and it wasn't long after the 12MP D700's announcement that Canon brought out the movie-shooting EOS 5D Mark II.

Not only was the 5D II Canon's first video-equipped DSLR, but at 21MP it offered a class-leading pixel count, effectively equal in resolution to Canon's professional EOS-1 Ds Mark III. The D700 won plaudits for its versatility, low light image quality and 51-point autofocus system, but it couldn't compete with the 5D II on resolution, or of course, video. 

The D800 changes all that. Compared to the D700, the D800 is a thoroughly modern camera, boasting a highly advanced feature set for both still and video shooting. At 36.3MP the $3000 D800 comfortably eclipses its competitors in terms of pixel count and makes the $8000 Nikon D3X look distinctly irrelevant, too.

Compared to D700: Specification highlights

* Same or almost identical to Nikon D4
** Maximum frame rate in DX mode is dependant on power source

We've had a D800 in the office for a few days, and we've spent that time shooting with the camera not only in our studio but also out in the big, bad 'real world'. We're some way off being able to publish a full review, but I wanted to share with you some first impressions. You've already read our in-depth preview, and you know what the professionals think, but now that we've got a production sample to play with, I want to give you an idea of what the D800 is actually like to use.

Handling

The D700 was a generally pleasant camera to hold and use, and so is the D800. Nikon hasn't made many drastic changes to the handling experience, and those that it has made are broadly in line with Nikon's design philosophy for 2011/12. Gone is the 'traditional' MF/AF-S/AF-C focus mode switch on the lens throat, to be replaced by the same combined MF/AF switch and AF mode button control that we've seen on the D7000 and D4. This updated approach to focus mode selection is nice and neat, because it associates all of the many options with a single physical control point, but as I pointed out in my recent article about the D4, it does make switching between AF-S and AF-C less rapid than it used to be.

 In general terms, the D800 handles a lot like the D700 that it replaces. Key controls are in almost exactly the same places, but the D800 does benefit from a redesigned live view control and drive mode dial. The screen has the same 920,000-dot resolulution as the screen used in the D700, but like the D4, it features improved moisture and dust-proofing. 
Not only does the drive mode dial lose the D700's 'Lv' position, it also features firm detents, so with the dial unlocked it is possible to tell by feel when you're scrolling through the various positions. This is a small change, but a very welcome one, and one which (with a little practise) makes it possible to switch drive mode with your eye to the viewfinder. 
On the D800, just like the D7000 and D4, live view gets a dedicated control on the rear of the camera, with a physical switch for still shooting and movie shooting modes. In movie mode, the framing reflects the 16:9 aspect ratio. You must be in movie shooting live view mode to initiate video recording, via the red button on the camera's top-plate.

Of more signficance to the average D7000 user will be the D800's updated drive mode dial and dedicated live view switch. Live view mode on the D700 was very much a 'first generation' implementation and although effective and useful, setting it via the drive mode dial was a pain, especially if you needed to grab a quick high or low-angle shot.

Improved Automatic ISO Sensitivity Mode

The D800's automatic ISO mode is inherited from the D4 and is improved over the same mode in earlier Nikon DSLRs. Previously, auto ISO customization was minimal, and consisted simply of an option to set the maximum ISO and minimum shutter speed when the camera was used in auto ISO mode. The currently-set ISO counted as the minimum ISO sensitivity (and in fact still does). This system was fine for shooting with a fixed focal length lens, but less useful with zoom lenses, where a 'safe' minimum shutter speed at either end of the focal range might be several stops apart. 

In the D4 and D800, Nikon has (at long last) added an 'Auto' option to the minimum shutter speed options, which allows the camera to automatically set the minimum shutter speed based on its knowledge of the focal length that you're working at. This response can be biased in 5 steps, from 'slow' to 'fast' depending on whether you'd like the camera to err on the side of slower or faster shutter speeds. A small change but one that takes Auto ISO a little closer to being the 'set and forget' function that it should have been long ago.


Click here to go to page 2 of this article: First Impressions - Using the Nikon D800... 

Lens Compatibility

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. 
Nikon D800, Nikkor-S 105mm f/2.5 (Ai converted) 105mm, f/2.5, ISO 200 Nikon D800, Nikkor-S 105mm f/2.5 (Ai converted) 105mm, f/4, ISO 200
Nikon D800, Nikkor-S 105mm f/2.5 (Ai converted) 105mm, f/5.6, ISO 200 Nikon D800, Nikkor-S 105mm f/2.5 (Ai converted) 105mm, f/8, ISO 200

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.

Taken on the same Ai-converted Nikkor-S 105mm f/2.5 manual lens, this image, taken at f/2.8 (raw file processed 'to taste' in ACR 6.7) displays the same smooth rendition on the 36.3MP sensor of the D800 as I'd expect from my experience of using it on much lower-resolution cameras.

The only major difference is that focussing is much, much more critical on the higher-resolution camera - this final image is one of a series of almost 20 focus-bracketed frames, and one of only a couple where my subject's eye is in sharp focus when viewed at 100%.

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.


Click here to go to page 3 of this article: First Impressions - Using the Nikon D800...

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...

Image Quality Samples

These have been shot using a production-standard D800 and, as usual, include both Raw and JPEG images with all original files available for download. Added them to our comparison tool means they can be called-upon from other reviews or the standalone comparison tool. For this test we used the recently-announced Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Click the image below to take a look (note that this link goes to a page within our original preview of the D800, and opens in a new window). 

'Real World' Still Image Samples

There are 40 images in this review samples gallery - a mixture of default JPEGs and processed raw files. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. Because our review images are now hosted on the 'galleries' section of dpreview.com, you can enjoy all of the new galleries functionality when browsing these samples.

Nikon D800 Preview Samples - posted March 22nd 2012

Raw Files for Download

As well as default from-camera JPEGs and processed Raw files, we're also providing a handful of original 'real world' .NEF raw files for you to download and examine using your choice of raw conversion software. Support for the D800 is very limited right now, but if you're an Adobe Photoshop user, you can download a release candidate of the forthcoming Adobe Camera Raw 6.7 plugin (which supports the D800).

Video Samples

The D800 offers full HD video recording at up to 30fps with the option to record uncompressed HD footage via an HDMI output and monitor 'live' audio. These files were captured in the D800's 'high quality' mode at a bitrate of 24Mb/s, in aperture priority mode. 

Note: to see these clips at their full quality, click the 'download original file' beneath the videos.

Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 VR lens (single AF)
1920x1080 30p, MOV, 15 sec, 42.1 MB Click here to download original file

Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 VR lens (single AF)
1920x1080 30p, MOV, 31 sec, 90.0 MB Click here to download original file

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