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Nikon D800 Review


Review based on production Nikon D800 and D800E cameras running firmware v1.00

June 2012: This review has been significantly expanded to include detailed analysis of the performance of the D800 alongside its closely-related stablemate the D800E. We have also added samples and analysis of the D800/E's uncompressed video feature. Except where specifically noted, any comments in the body of this review which reference the 'Nikon D800' actually refer to both models.

When the Nikon D800 and D800E were announced, the specification that got everyone's attention was - and to a large degree still is - the massive pixel count of their 36.3MP CMOS sensor. When a moderately-sized full-frame DSLR body aspires to go toe-to-toe with medium format cameras and backs at a fraction of their price, other attributes can seem secondary. But don't be misled. Coming as a successor to the now 3 1/2 year old D700, Nikon has updated much more than just the resolution. The D800 has a significantly more advanced feature set than its predecessor, particularly in terms of its video capabilities that make it, on paper at least, a viable and tempting option for professionals.

At the heart of the D800 is a brand new Nikon-developed sensor that boasts 36.8 million pixels in total, with a maximum effective output of 36.3MP. Its ISO span is 100-6400 natively, expandable to a range of 50 ('Lo1') to 25,600 ('Hi2') equivalent. Nikon's highest resolution DSLR to date, the D800/E more than doubles the pixel count of the flagship D4. The D800 is potentially very attractive to studio and landscape professionals, but should pique the interest of a great many enthusiast Nikon users too - many of whom may have been 'stuck' at 12MP for years, with a D300, D300s or D700.

The D800 and D800E's 36.3MP CMOS sensor has by far the greatest pixel count of any non medium-format DSLR currently on the market. The ISO span is slightly wider than that of its predecessor the D700, at 100-6400, expandable down to ISO 50 and up to ISO 25,600 (equivalent).

Of course, the D800 faces a competitive field that has made significant gains as well. Arch-rival Canon has recently updated its best-selling full-frame model to the 22.3MP EOS 5D Mark III. That the D800 has to prove itself a compelling upgrade for current Nikon shooters is a given. Yet a glance at the specifications indicates that Nikon has clearly been paying attention to the success of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and its video performance in particular. The hope among the Nikon faithful is that the D800 matches or exceeds the impressive high ISO performance of recent Nikon DSLRs while providing the resolution benefits of a much higher pixel count.

Apart from their sensors, the D800 and D4 share many identical specifications. Although the D800 offers a much slower maximum frame rate at full resolution (4fps, compared to 11fps in the D4) and lacks some of the pro-oriented 'frills' like built-in Ethernet connectivity, it shares the same revamped 51-point AF system which is effective down to -2EV, the same processing engine and almost exactly the same highly advanced video mode.

Broad appeal

Whereas the D4 is intended as a specialist tool for professionals that need to capture images quickly in all types of weather and light conditions, the D800 has been designed to appeal to a much broader user base. For most of us, D4-only features such as ultra-high ISO shooting, very fast frame rates, QXD card compatibility, 2000+ image battery life and built-in Ethernet, are simply not that high on the list of must-haves. The same goes for many pros who earn their livings with their camera.

Wedding, event and studio photographers, for example are likely to be far more concerned with resolution at low ISO sensitivities than shooting at 11 fps at ISO 204,000. To them, a camera with the D800's feature set, priced at less than half the cost of a D4 is an exciting prospect indeed.

And let's not forget videographers. The D4 is Nikon's most advanced video-enabled DSLR. And the D800 offers almost exactly the same video specification in a smaller, lighter, and significantly less expensive body, making it potentially much more attractive as either a primary or 'B' video camera on a low-budget shoot.

Compared to D700: Specification highlights

  • 36.3MP CMOS sensor (compared to 12.1MP)
  • 15.3MP DX-format capture mode (compared to 5MP)
  • 25MP 1.2x Crop mode
  • 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors, rated to -2EV* (compared to -1EV)
  • ISO 100-6400 extendable to ISO 25,600 equiv (same as D700)
  • 1080p video at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second, up to 24Mbps, with uncompressed HDMI output and audio monitoring options*
  • 3.2", 921,000 dot LCD with anti-fog layer* (compared to 3in, 921k-dot)
  • Maximum 4fps continuous shooting in FX mode** (compared to 8fps in FX mode)
  • Advanced Scene Recognition System with 91,000 pixel metering sensor* (compared to 1005-pixel)
  • 'Expeed 3' Image Processing*
  • Dual-axis Virtual Horizon (on LCD screen/viewfinder)* (compared to single-axis)

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

Compared to the Nikon D700

The D800 shares basically the same form factor as its predecessor the D700. Both models have a built-in flash and lack the integrated vertical grip of Nikon's top-end DSLRs, which is available instead via an accessory battery grip. There are differences though - some minor, some major.

The most obvious differences from the perspective of core functionality are a massive increase in resolution - from 12 to 36MP - which comes with a significant boost in processing power, and the addition of video mode. The D800's video mode is lifted almost completely from the professional D4 and boasts 1080p30 resolution with the option to output uncompressed footage via HDMI.

The ergonomic changes that have resulted from the inclusion of video are the addition of a video/stills live view mode control on the rear, plus a direct movie shooting button on the top plate. Among other refinements, a D7000/D4-style integrated AF mode/function control can be found on the front of the camera, and the door covering the ports on the side of the D800 is now hinged, and stays open when opened rather than flapping annoyingly against your fingers when you try to plug in accessories. The D800's LCD screen is slightly larger than the D700's, at 3.2 inches, but resolution remains unchanged. A Picture Control button now sits on the D800's rear plate.

Compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III

One of the few obvious physical differences between the D800 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is that the D800 has a built-in flash whereas the 5D Mark III doesn't. Both cameras share very similar proportions and the D800 weighs only 50 grams less. Both have 3.2 inch rear LCDs, with the 5D Mark III boasting a higher screen resolution of 1.04 million versus 921,000 pixels in the D800.

Under the hood of course is where the most notable difference lies. The D800's 36.3MP sensor surpasses the pixel count of the 22.3MP 5D Mark III, as well as every other 35mm-format DSLR currently on the market. The D800 also offers a useful DX (APS-C) crop mode which captures 15.3MP stills. While the D800 inherits the 51-point AF system of the D4 with 15 cross-type points, the 5D Mark III sports a 61-point AF system shared with the EOS-1D X, in which 41 of these are cross-type points. The D800 has an edge in flexibility, however, when it comes to the aperture required for these cross-type points to function. While the 5D Mark III requires a minimum aperture of f/4, the D800 can utilize 9 of its center cross-type points at an aperture as narrow as f/8.


If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

Images which can be viewed at a larger size have a small magnifying glass icon in the bottom right corner of the image, clicking on the image will display a larger (typically VGA) image in a new window.

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DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks below. We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.

This article is Copyright 2012 and may NOT in part or in whole be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author.

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Comments

Total comments: 15
Galbertson
By Galbertson (2 weeks ago)

Maybe subject expressed before, has anyone tested older legacy glass, 70's manual prime nikkor glass on D800E for overall performance? The resolving power on film was extremely high, the only artifacts in hi res scans was film grain, not flaws in optics, seemingly capable of resolving limits of 36mp sensor. Have never found true test without bias for "new", "best" nikkor glass.

0 upvotes
Vmo9
By Vmo9 (2 months ago)

After using this camera for a while, I tried the Canon 5D Mark III and recently made the switch. Auto focus needs improvement, as does the weather proofing. After 30 plus years of being a Nikon fanatic and after the issues with this camera causing countless shipping for maintenance and water seepage I became frustrated and ended not using it as much. Resale value was fair but not what I had thought a camera such as this would bring.

2 upvotes
q8wizard
By q8wizard (2 months ago)

VMO9 you have the same issue of mine, focusing problem and slight salty water leaked inside and spreads like a cancer in the camera component, it is not a weather nor water sealed and it cant be fixed, now since i have all the top of the lenses and accessories i cant think of switching, so I'm in delma, should i wait for the upgrade or to by the d800e, I'm very loyal to this brand for very long time, i cant think of abandons nikon but i guess as someone said Nikon who is trying to.

1 upvote
Vmo9
By Vmo9 (1 week ago)

It was not easy to switch from Nikon to Canon, especially since I owned every "fast" professional lens Nikon produces. From the fisheye to the 800mm and two 400mm f2.8 lenses, it was a very difficult choice financially and also to end my loyalty to Nikon after 30 years. Selling all of my used gear and basically starting over was an adventure in itself. What I can offer is that since I made the switch the customer service that I've received from Canon has been impressive, as I'm hard on my gear and push the limits. The recent firmware update for my 5D Mark III pushed the standards even higher. It's difficult after purchasing an expensive piece of hardware to give it a thumbs down, as know one wants to admit making a bad decision.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 3 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
bdenize
By bdenize (4 months ago)

I just got my D800 2 days ago, coming from D7000.
I do not own the very expensive lenses everyone say to be the "MUST" on the D800/E. And that was my very big concern about getting this camera.
I tested it with my 70-300VR and even with my 24-85 AFD. It works just GREAT !
Maybe I unconsciously take a bit more care in holding the camera when shooting. But that is the point also for every amateur... improving the technique.
Still, IMHO... I am very happy I didn't go for the smaller D610. Worth every penny I spent for it. I am VERY happy I did it.
I did my homework of course, and checked the left AF points. All is fine for me.
I found the shutter noise to be a bit kinky compared to D7000... not as "smooth" but it seems normal for FX.
If you are Amateur, go for it and be happy if your budget allows it. You will certainly be with the D800, no matter you need or don't the extra mpx. It is a monster.

Comment edited 51 seconds after posting
1 upvote
calicam
By calicam (5 months ago)

I agree that to take full advantage of the D800E quality, it demands extra care when shooting and using the best lenses. I'm looking at the Sony A7R for a possible future purchase, maybe easier when backpacking. I also don't care for the very curvy, roundish look of the Nikon and Canon offerings.

0 upvotes
scottstensland
By scottstensland (6 months ago)

the ON/OFF switch on D800E is less ergonomically pleasing than D300

0 upvotes
aquadream
By aquadream (7 months ago)

The review states that best results are obtained from D800/E if best (most expensive) lenses are used, which sounds a bit like a drawback. My experience shows the opposite. Nikon D800E shines the brightest over any other camera I have used when I use just simple plastic zooms like Nikon 28-80/3.3-5.6G
I was not able to get ever sharper immages with any Canon using superior prime lenses than the images I get from nikon D800E with the nikon 28-80/3.3-5.6G lens.
Perhaps the best D800E results will be with the best lenses there are. I also have Nikon 85/1.4G, no questions there. This lens is so sharp that manages to exite some moire and aliasing even when shooting grass.
However D800E produces superior image quality over anything else even with cheap lenses.

I could post some examples.

4 upvotes
mufflon
By mufflon (6 months ago)

sound interesting -> i will test that too :)

0 upvotes
munro harrap
By munro harrap (7 months ago)

There seems to be a kind of failure to realize that the D800 responds very much faster to use than does the 5D MkIII, and that it does not degrade images as do the 5D MkII and 5D MkIII series.
There's no point having the resolution if the 5D Mk II and III smooth away all low contrast detail as they do- certainly in Raw files as well as Jpeg in the 5D MkII.

I would not advise anyone to buy such a camera whose shutter lag is also much greater than its peers. An Old 1Ds is a much better bet if you are a Canon fan, much. No degradation to fine detail (which happens at ALL isos and much much faster response-same as D800 in custom function mode.

I bought a 5D MkII. I was appalled at what it did to the images and the Jpegs are a disgrace-worse than the Basic level off a Nikon with all detail mushed. Well, if you want that, and the finest detail turned to mush in 5dMkII and MkIII RAW files too , as now Dpreview admit(years too late), go ahead, but the D800 is just SO much better -it just is.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
3 upvotes
SASpurr
By SASpurr (8 months ago)

In the 'Final Word' subsection of the 'Overall Conclusions' section it states:-

"Yet, I'd caution anyone who considers buying the D800 or D800E solely, or even primarily because of their ultra-high resolution. Pushing these cameras to achieve their maximum level of detail requires an investment of both time (methodical preparation) and money (the very best lenses Nikon makes)."

The part about which I would like clarification is "...requires an investment of both time...". Is the author referring to additional tasks over and above what one would 'normally' do in taking a picture? If so what are these tasks?
Or does it refer to care in the conduct of normal tasks: use of tripod, select correct depth of field/aperture, exposure delay and remote control to reduce vibration, switch off image stabilisation??

1 upvote
Joed700
By Joed700 (6 months ago)

The only reason you want this camera is because you plan to present your photos or make BIG prints. Of course, shooting RAW at all time. You probably want to invest in prime lenses or good zoom like 24-70mm f2.8 or 80-200mm f2.8; 50mm f1.8g... Also, purchasing a photo processing program is a must, like CS6 or similar. If you are a causal shooter who doesn't care about post processing, you are better off getting the D610 for full frame or D7100, D5300...and shoot jpegs.

Also, you really don't need a tripod in many situations. I think Nikon was trying to emphasize the pixel power of this camera by telling people to shoot at a higher shutter speed...

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
YogiGX20
By YogiGX20 (5 months ago)

When digital cameras reached 14 MP, with the first being the Pentax K20D, criticism was raised, that lenses won't cope. It's now crept up to 24MP for APS-C and the sensors are praised for their detailed pictures. Makes me wonder how great all these new kit lenses must be??? Or it was all just a media hype?
Using a DX lens on a D800 brings the resolution down to about 15MP which is roughly the same pixel pitch as a Nikon D7000 or Pentax K5 - it is also considered the best compromise between pixel size and resolution. So a D800 is basically a full frame version of a 16MP APS-C sensor as far as I understand it.
I think you do need much better glass for a D7100 or D5300 (than a D800) to get the best out of the sensor and a much steadier hand (or fast shutter speeds) for really sharp pictures. Such a high amount of photo sites will pick up any lens movement ....
I reckon if Nikon also produced a "D800" with a 24MP sensor, it'd be more appealing to a wider audience.

2 upvotes
Mike Davis
By Mike Davis (9 months ago)

Regarding the excellent demo of diffraction's impact at various f-stops, on page 25 of this review, where is the photo showing what could have been accomplished using Photoshop ACR sharpening against an f/4 RAW file?

I would very much like to compare sharpening of the f/4 RAW file to sharpening of the f/22 RAW file. Surely, a silk purse made from silk would be more attractive than a silk purse made from a pig's ear.

Link to page 25 of this review: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/nikon-d800-d800e/25

Mike

0 upvotes
arhmatic
By arhmatic (9 months ago)

Maybe it's just me, but I see this camesas looking more and more like a melted soap bar. I miss the days when bodies had straight, clean lines. They were also much smaller, for the same full frame film...

3 upvotes
Total comments: 15