Performance

Overall Performance

The Nikon D800, is, by any measure an extremely nimble and responsive camera. Its autofocus performance is swift and sure (except in live view and movie mode) and cycling among the 51 AF-area points can be done easily and quickly by 'feel' with the camera held to your eye in the shooting position. A wealth of external controls greatly limits the time you spend in the camera's menu system - assuming you first configure the D800's many customization options to your liking. Yet whether navigating through menu screens or using the command dials to change shooting parameters, you're never far off from being ready to capture an image. The only area in which the D800 feels even remotely sluggish is its rather pedestrian frame rate which - in FX mode - tops out at 4fps.

From power-on to first exposure with the camera in MF mode occurs in just under 0.5 seconds. The D800 features dual card slots, so that an SD and CF card can be loaded simultaneously. You can specify either card slot as a primary storage source, with the remaining slot configured as overflow (default) or duplicate storage. When shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, you can also designate a specific card slot to record either file format.

Continuous Shooting and Buffering

As you'll see in the tables that follow, the amount of images you can shoot with the D800 before filling the buffer varies according to the image quality settings. Yet the frame rate remains consistent regardless of the image quality selected. Crucially, you can still shoot single images as well as access all of the camera menus and shooting options while data is being written to the card. The stiffest penalty to be paid for shooting at a very processor-intensive TIFF setting for example, is long wait times for the images to be off-loaded from the buffer to the card; a requirement to resume at the camera's maximum frame rate

The D800 offers two drive modes; Continuous Hi and Continuous Lo. The former has a maximum rate of 4 fps in FX mode and 5 fps in DX mode. You can increase the maximum rate as high as 6 fps in DX mode by using the optional MB-D12 grip.

In FX mode, when shooting at a quality setting other than JPEG, there is a delay after the buffer reaches capacity (noted in each table below) before the shutter will fire to record any additional images. The secondary burst that follows this is captured at a reduced frame rate. In RAW and RAW+JPEG modes, the shutter fires at staggered repeating intervals. While the frame rates between any successive shots will vary somewhat, we've noted the maximum frame rates achieved by any pair of shots.

For the timing tests below we used a SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB UDMA7 CF card (100MB/s) and a Sandisk Extreme Pro 64GB Class 10 SD card (95MB/s). All in-camera lens corrections and Active D-Lighting were disabled.

FX Mode: Continuous Hi (with CF card)

Timing
JPEG Large/Fine
TIFF
RAW
RAW+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 4.0 fps 4.0 fps 4.0 fps 4.0 fps
Burst capacity 40 images 16 images 16 images 15 images
Buffer full delay* none 2 sec. 0.9 sec. 1.4 sec
Buffer full rate 3.0 fps 0.2 fps 3-image bursts
at 1.0 fps max
2-image bursts
at 1.6 fps max
Write complete 39 sec. 1 min. 5 sec. 21 sec. 23 sec.

FX mode: Continuous Hi: (with SD card)

Timing
JPEG Large/Fine
TIFF
RAW
RAW+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 4.0 fps 4.0 fps 4.0 fps 4.0 fps
Burst capacity 36 images 16 images 17 images 15 images
Buffer full delay* none 3.3 sec. 1.3 sec. 1.5 sec
Buffer full rate 2.0 fps 0.17 fps 3-image bursts
at 1.6 fps max
2-image bursts
at 2.0 fps max
Write complete 32 sec. 1 min. 21 sec. 21 sec. 28 sec.

DX mode: Continuous Hi (with CF card)

Timing
JPEG Large/Fine
TIFF
RAW
RAW+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 5.0 fps** 5.0 fps** 5.0 fps** 5.0 fps**
Burst capacity 100 images 21 images 30 images 23 images
Buffer full delay* none 1 sec. none none
Buffer full rate n/a 1.0 fps max 8-image bursts
at 3.0 fps max
4-image bursts
at 2.0 fps max
Write complete 1 min. 9 sec. 36 sec. 28 sec. 23 sec.

DX mode: Continuous Hi (with SD card)

Timing
JPEG Large/Fine
TIFF
RAW
RAW+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 5.0 fps** 5.0 fps** 5.0 fps** 5.0 fps**
Burst capacity 100 images 20 images 30 images 21 images
Buffer full delay* none 3 sec. none none
Buffer full rate n/a 0.32 fps 2.0 fps max 1.4 fps max
Write complete 1 min. 11 sec. 58 sec. 26 sec. 20 sec.

Whether using our fastest CF or SD cards, we measured roughly comparable results. The CF card typically provided slightly faster write times, which reflects its slightly faster speed rating of 100MB/s compared to 95 MB/s for the SD card.

The most significant performance improvement by far, comes by shooting in DX mode (1.5x crop factor) versus FX mode (full frame). The smaller DX format image files allow for faster shooting, substantially higher burst capacity, the elimination of 'buffer full' shooting delays in all but TIFF mode, and offer regular shooting intervals while the camera continues writing data to the card.

Interestingly, we tried a configuration while shooting RAW+JPEG in which raw files were written to the CF card while JPEGS were written to the SD card to see if the camera could more efficiently write to both cards simultaneously. We found slightly slower write times compared to having the camera write both files to the same card.

Continuous Lo at 2 fps: FX mode with CF card

The D800 gives you the option of specifying the maximum frame rate when the camera dial is set to Continuous Lo drive mode. Curiously it can be set as high as 5fps, the same rate for Continuous Hi in DX mode with the standard battery. The table below shows results at the camera's default setting of 2 fps.

Timing
JPEG Large/Fine
TIFF
RAW
RAW+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 2.0 fps 2.0 fps 2.0 fps 2.0 fps
Burst capacity 100 images 17 images 25 images 19 images
Buffer full delay* none none none none
Buffer full rate n/a .4 fps 1.6 fps max 1.6 fps max
Write complete 1 min., 13 sec. 1 min., 5 sec. 29 sec. 27 sec.

Continuous Lo at 2 fps: DX mode with CF card

Timing
JPEG Large/Fine
TIFF
RAW
RAW+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 2.0 fps 2.0 fps 2.0 fps 2.0 fps
Burst capacity 100 images 26 images 100 images 100 images
Buffer full delay* none none none none
Buffer full rate n/a .5 fps n/a n/a
Write complete 1 min., 7 sec. 41 sec. 1 min., 11 sec. 1 min., 16 sec.

*'Buffer full delay' refers to the time you must wait, with your finger still pressing the shutter button, before another image is recorded as part of a secondary burst, specified as the buffer full rate.

**A 6fps burst rate is possible in DX mode when the optional MB-D12 battery grip is used.

Continuous drive real world sample

At a maximum frame rate of only 4 fps, (5 fps in DX mode) the D800 cannot compete with a camera like the 11fps D4 when it comes to capturing split-second action. When you take into account that the camera is processing 36MP files in FX mode, however, this frame rate seems more than reasonable. And, as demonstrated below, even at 4fps the D800 is fast enough to capture some scenes very effectively.

Frame 1 Frame 2 Frame 3 Frame 4 Frame 5 Frame 6