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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.

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I own it
I want it
I had it
Discuss in the forums
I own it
I want it
I had it
Discuss in the forums


Total comments: 18

This is a great camera. However, one concern that many reviewers voice is the 4fps continuous shooting rate. Is there any way to improve this in FX mode? For example, can the user shoot at a lower resolution (i.e. ~24MP) in FX mode to achieve a greater continuous shooting rate?

1 upvote

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.


Legacy glasses will do just fine! I only have one, which is a 50mm F2 AI. I own the D800E and the resolving power on that little lens is still amazing. It keeps up with my modern Nikkor 35 1.8G, which, according to Dxo is sharper than it's big brother the 35 1.4G. It's definitely not as sharp as, say my 58mm 1.4G, but for an old lens, it really does bring out its best.


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.


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

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

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

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.


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


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.


sound interesting -> i will test that too :)

munro harrap

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

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

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

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.

Mike Davis

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:



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...

sebastian huvenaars

Funny, soap bars tend to follow the shape of your hands over time... Aesthetics vs ergonomics.

(i do like the look of straight lines better by the way)

Total comments: 18