Using the Nikon D800

Nikon hasn't made many drastic changes to the handling experience of the D800 compared to its predecessor, the D700. That's a good thing in our book, as the latter was a pleasant camera to hold and operate. And the changes that have been made are consistent with design decisions seen in Nikon's more recent DSLRs, providing a useful level of continuity for current Nikon owners considering the D800.

Replacing its predecessor's MF/AF-S/AF-C focus mode switch on the lens throat, the D800 uses a combined AF/MF switch and AF mode button of the type seen on the Nikon D7000 and D4. A dedicated live mode button with a stills image/movie mode switch is also inherited from the D4. And sitting atop the lockable drive mode dial is now an auto bracketing button, providing a fourth control where the D700 had only three. Most notably, however, for video shooters is the addition of a direct movie shooting button on the camera's top plate.

Overall handling

In your hand

The D800 is a solidly-built and ergonomically well-proportioned camera, just like its predecessor. A prominent rubber hand grip is augmented by a subtle yet effective recessed channel, offering a comfortable platform for your bottom three fingers with your hand in the shooting position. The D800 balances well in-hand with a wide range of lenses including fast zooms like the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II.

The D800 is nicely balanced and its controls are well thought-out. While we had few complaints with the ergonomics of the D700, the D800 feels, in most aspects like a slightly more refined version.

External controls for most key shooting parameters are easily reached with your hand in the shooting position. We do, however, wish for an ISO button design and placement that allows for right-handed operation by default. To be fair, the D800's high degree of customization means that without too much effort - though you'll certainly be consulting the owner's manual - you can configure button and dial operation exactly to your liking. The multi selector is very well positioned for operation with the camera held to your eye, making the manipulation of AF points a quick intuitive process.

As you'd expect, the responsiveness of the D800 is swift and sure, whether adjusting individual parameters or navigating its extensive menu system. You can confirm your shooting options in the viewfinder, on the top plate LCD or, with a press of the Info button, on the rear LCD. The viewfinder offers 100% coverage of the image area to be captured, a small but not insignificant improvement on the D700 which provided 95% frame coverage.

Nikon's traditional two-button 'press and hold' operation that is used to change frequently used settings like ISO, white balance, and shooting mode may be initially off-putting for new users, but it does have the welcome effect of preventing accidental changes to crucial settings. And, in a sign of the camera's high degree of customization, this behavior can also be changed to eliminate the button hold requirement.

The D800 is a comfortable camera to operate and - sans the optional battery grip - offers DX and FX functionality in a smaller, lighter package than Nikon's flagship D4. Make no mistake though, the D800 is a body of substantial heft. Mount a lens like the Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR and you have a combination that will certainly make its presence felt around your neck during a day of shooting.

With the MB-D12 Battery Grip attached (shown below) the D800 gets pretty close to the size and bulk of the D4, but of course becomes even more comfortable to use with super telephoto lenses or when shooting in portrait orientation.

As you can see above, the MB-D12 Battery Grip significantly adds to the weight and size of the D800... ...but offers a duplicate shutter release, command dials, AF-ON button, and multi selector, all optimized for use when shooting in portrait orientation.

Specific handling issues

Much of the D800's operational behavior will be familiar to D700 owners, and indeed to any user of recent enthusiast-grade Nikon DSLRs. We struggle to find much to complain about in day to day use. And we applaud the D800's enhanced video handling and live view operability.

The combined AF/MF switch and AF mode button neatly associates numerous options with a single physical control point.

With the surrounding switch set to AF mode, pressing the button and turning the rear dial switches between static and continuous AF modes. When set to continuous AF you can then use the front dial to cycle among six AF Area modes.

This 'simplification' comes at a cost, however. Specifically, it makes switching between AF-S and AF-C, and indeed changing AF pattern mode, slower than on Nikon's previous generation DSLRs. Using the D3S, for example, a quick flick of the left thumb is all it took to go from single AF to continuous, and a quick flick of the rear lever would switch from single-point AF to multi-pattern. With the D800 (and the D4) there's an extra step - a button press - in both cases. This may admittedly be a minor issue for many D800 owners, but does represent a significantly different (and slower) way of working for longtime Nikon users.

When holding the camera at eye level in the shooting position, we'd really prefer to be able to make ISO adjustments with one hand. On the D800, however, the ISO button sits on the top left side of the camera and must be selected with your left hand, which leaves you unable to support the lens barrel. This is certainly not a deal-breaker, but feels much less fluid than on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, for example where an ISO button sits behind the shutter button for easy one-handed access.

The D800 has a 'Quiet' shutter mode, something of keen interest to D700 users who wished for a less audible mirror slap. One feature of Quiet mode is that once the mirror is raised, it does not drop back down until you allow the shutter button to return to the half-press position. In essence you can delay the sound of the mirror dropping back down. Disappointingly though, this mode is only marginally quieter than the single frame advance option. In side by side comparisons, Quiet mode on the D800 is significantly louder than even the standard shooting mode on its rival, the 5D Mark III. As it stands the most silent operation on the D800 occurs in live view, where the mirror is already raised before you press the shutter button.