Shadow noise

There's been a lot of interest in Nikon's ability to successfully manage shadow noise at a pixel view level in such a high resolution sensor. In the example below we've drastically opened up the shadows using Adobe Camera Raw with noise reduction turned off, to shine a light on the sensors' inherent capabilities. We've compared the D800 with its most natural competitor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III as well as its predecessor, the Nikon D700. Both cameras were shot at ISO 100.

Nikon D800 - ACR +3.0EV 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark III - ACR +3.0EV 100% crop
Nikon D700 - ACR +3.0EV 100% crop

As you can see, the D800 does a singularly impressive job of controlling shadow noise. Fine detail is very well maintained in the spools of thread. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III, while not performing badly at all, is displaying more prominent chroma noise. And in perhaps the most telling example, the D800 shows noise performance that is on par with the 12MP D700, a camera offering only 1/3 the pixel count.

Real world sample

While the results of our studio scene reveal interesting information about the sensor's maximum capabilities, it's important to place those results in the context of real-world photography. Below is an image shot outdoors under typical daylight conditions at ISO 100. We've taken the same file, converted from a .NEF raw file and converted it in ACR 6.7 beta twice - once at default exposure settings and again with three Basic Panel adjustments, detailed below.

ACR default settings with NR off ACR with Exposure +.35, Fill Light 26 and Blacks 0 slider adjustments and NR Off
100% crop 100% crop

Again, the D800's raw file shows an impressive ability to withstand luminance boosts in the shadows while keeping noise at levels that still allow you to read the fliers inside the bus.

AF point and metering

The D800's AF point selection plays a discernible role in the camera's metering behavior as well. Even when shooting in matrix (evaluative) metering mode, exposure settings are biased towards the object on which focus is acquired, meaning overall scene brightness can vary as you set the AF point on a darker or lighter object within the scene. To demonstrate this, we've taken the photographs below with our subject in the shade, with the background in full sunlight. These images were all shot in aperture priority mode at ISO 100. As you can see, the camera adjusted shutter speed to create a brighter or darker exposure triggered by the location of the AF point (highlighted in red). Active D-Lighting is enabled in these samples but we see the same results with this feature turned off as well. This exposure adjustment also occurs regardless of whether the camera's facial recognition algorithms determine that a person is chosen as the subject.
AF point placed on face in shade
1/125s at f/5.6, ISO 100
AF point placed on bright background
1/250s at f/5.6, ISO 100

We don't want to make too much of this, as the effect is generally speaking, a positive one; the area on which you choose to focus is well-exposed. We've seen more extreme examples of this behavior in other cameras as well, most recently the Sigma SD-1/Merrill. Yet this is something to be aware of when photographing in high contrast situations.

Overall image quality

The D800's image quality is very impressive by any standard. The camera's matrix metering mode delivers well-exposed images in a variety of lighting scenarios and the auto white balance setting produces pleasing colors. Continuing in the tradition of its predecessor, the D700, the default JPEG settings of the D800 do an excellent job of minimizing color and luminance noise at very high ISOs and in general produce files that lean more towards a more natural, 'unprocessed' look. Of course in a camera of this class, discerning users will want to tweak output to taste. And in this regard, the D800 offers a comprehensive range of color, contrast and sharpening settings that can be set with a minimum of fuss. To get the truest sense of what the D800 is capable of though, you'll definitely want to explore your editing options with its Raw files, which stand up quite well to even the more extreme exposure adjustments we've demonstrated in the previous section.

Resolution is undoubtedly a strong, if not primary selling point in a 36MP camera. And the D800 is capable of absolutely stellar results, certainly at the top of the class for any DSLR we've seen to date. To get the most out of the D800's sensor, however, is no trivial affair. If what you're after is medium format quality in a DSLR form factor, be prepared to bring your best technique and equipment to the task. A sturdy tripod, cable release and use of mirror lockup will provide noticeable improvements in image sharpness, as will using flash (which when used as the primary light source effectively gives you an ultra-short shutter speed).

If you're hand-holding the D800, as we suspect most people will most of the time, it's worth keeping your shutter speeds good and high - a little higher than you might be used to with lower-resolution cameras. Stabilized lenses help, but in our experience it's a good idea to keep your shutter speeds at least one stop higher than the conventional 'one over the focal length' rule might suggest.