Conclusion - Pros

  • Class-leading image resolution at 36.3 MP (with the D800E offering slightly superior resolution)
  • Outstanding high ISO performance in both JPEG and Raw files
  • High quality JPEG images at default settings (with the D800E offering slightly superior detail)
  • Wide dynamic range Raw files
  • Consistently pleasing metering and white balance results
  • Very solid build quality and good ergonomics / handling
  • Fast, responsive camera when adjusting settings
  • Greatly improved live view operation (compared to the D700)
  • Dual SD/CF card slots
  • Comprehensive camera customization options
  • DX, 1.2x and 5:4 crop modes
  • 100% viewfinder coverage
  • Built-in flash can wirelessly trigger Nikon Speedlight units
  • Auto ISO selection can be linked to lens focal length
  • Well-designed, easily accessible menu system
  • In-camera raw processing
  • Good video specification and output
  • Ability to output uncompressed HD video to an external recorder
  • Button-driven fine control of aperture in video mode
  • Dual axis virtual horizon
  • USB 3.0 port

Conclusion - Cons

  • Relatively slow 4 fps continuous shooting in FX mode (6 fps with optional battery grip in DX mode)
  • Slow AF in live view and video modes (compared to phase-detection)
  • Rear LCD prone to glare in bright sunlight, despite new design
  • Fine detail in live view magnifications can be prone to artifacts
  • When shooting in live view, screen is blacked out until data is written to the card
  • New 'simplified' AF mode switch requires more steps to switch between AF-S, AF-C and AF area modes (compared to the D700)
  • No equivalent to Canon's 'small RAW' option
  • ISO button in slightly awkward location for use in the shooting position
  • Shooting uncompressed video to recorder via HDMI is not as user-friendly as we'd like

Overall conclusion (D800 & D800E)

In many ways, the D800 had a difficult act to follow in the 12MP D700, which was (and remains) one of the best all-rounders of any DSLR we've ever used. The demand of some Nikon users for a higher resolution model notwithstanding, there was not a whole lot we'd have wanted to see change in an updated model. Thankfully, Nikon's approach to the D800 has followed a similar mode of thinking.

A majority of the things we liked about the D700; its handling, sensible interface and very impressive high ISO performance have been retained in the D800. Physically, the two cameras appear nearly identical. On the outside at least, the D800 represents a refinement, rather than overhaul of its well-respected predecessor.

We don't mean to imply that Nikon has chosen to rest on its laurels, however. Far from it. The changes on the inside of the camera are hard to overstate, the most obvious of course being its 36.3MP sensor, which offers three times the pixel count of the previous-generation 12MP CMOS chip. Yet there's more. The D800 shares many features and specifications with its big brother, the Nikon D4. Live view now feels like an integral function of the camera, rather than an afterthought, and the D800's video spec is one of the most attractive of any currently-available DSLR. Dual SD/CF card slots provide not only media flexibility but the option of in-camera image backups. The inclusion of a viewfinder with 100% coverage is another welcome upgrade over the D700.

And again, much of what we liked about the D700 remains reassuringly present in the D800 and D800E. There have been some changes, obviously, but the overwhelming majority are changes for the better, helping you work more efficiently and successfully. The only thing we really wish the D800 had inherited was a slightly faster framer ate. Although 4fps will be enough for many photographers, we know from speaking to professionals that higher frame rates would have been very useful.

With the D800 arriving in camera shops alongside its chief competitor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, we have two well built photographic tools that are capable of outstanding images. While the 36MP D800 has the resolution advantage over its 22MP rival, it's wise to take note of other differences, like maximum frame rate; here the 5D Mark III takes the edge at 6fps vs 4fps (FX mode). Canon has also managed to take a very complex AF system and ease the learning curve with a well-presented series of presets. The D800 counters with the ability to output uncompressed HD video and a range of useful crop modes, including the APS-C sized DX format. Most notably though, Nikon has provided a high end offering that comes in at a street price that is US$500 less than the 5D Mark III, representing very strong value for the consumer.

Image Quality

The specification commanding the most attention with the D800 is undoubtedly its 36.3MP resolution sensor and you can read the resolution page of this review to see just just what this means in our testing environment. Yet, in the real world there is more to image quality than pixel count. After spending a lot of time shooting with, and evaluating images from the D800, it is in characteristics like noise reduction, dynamic range and metering that we find ourselves most impressed.

The camera's metering and auto white balance algorithms produce generally pleasing images in a variety of both natural and artificial lighting scenarios. Color reproduction is fairly accurate overall, with the D800 sensibly erring a bit on the conservative side, yielding a more subtle 'unprocessed' rendering that can be adjusted post-capture rather than 'over the top' colors and contrast that are difficult to later undo.

At ISO sensitivity settings up to 6400, chroma noise is kept at stunningly low levels even at the camera's default JPEG settings. It's clear to us that Nikon has not sacrificed low light performance for a high pixel numbers. In our noise comparisons with the 22MP Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the D800 arguably produces slightly better results in terms of shadow detail.

Back to resolution though. Can the D800 make good on its pixel count and provide a level of fine detail that trumps its DSLR rivals? It can. We emphasize the word can, because if you're truly after 36MP performance, be prepared to do some work. Flawless technique and top-shelf equipment (particularly lenses and a tripod) along with a low ISO are requirements not options. We've spent an inordinate amount of time in the preparation of this review getting things just so in order to reap what we feel the D800 is capable of producing. The chances are that relatively few D800 buyers will go through similar procedures in the course of normal shooting, but this is fine. The D800 consistently delivers excellent images that don't have to be viewed at pixel level detail to be appreciated. But if you're prepared to put in the effort, your reward is a degree of resolution and detail that is very, very impressive and visibly superior to anything else on the market in this form factor.

The D800E, the sister model to the D800, offers slightly superior resolution to the already impressive D800, but whether or not you'll even see the difference depends on many factors, not least your working aperture. You can get a feel for the difference between the two models from the resolution chart samples on this page and in a three-page section starting here.

Handling

The D800 offers a well-implemented ergonomic control layout that users migrating from a D700 will feel largely at home with from the outset. It is simply a comfortable camera in-hand, one that actually feels lighter and less bulky in actual use than its appearance might indicate. A wealth of external controls mean that changing shooting parameters on the fly is a quick, simple process that can often be done by feel. The well-positioned multi selector makes the task of changing the AF point quick and easy, even with the camera held to your eye in the shooting position.

Build quality of the D800 is first rate, with the camera offering the same degree of weather-sealing and shock-proofing as the D700. The 3.2" rear LCD offers a pleasingly colorful and reasonably accurate image review. We do find the screen rather difficult to use for live view composition in bright sunlight due to glare though. And we can't help but miss the D700's ease of switching between AF-S and AF-C modes and all their permutations. The D800's 'unified' approach, even after you get used to it, requires more steps and depending on what you're trying to do, can make swapping between modes more time-consuming than it needs to be.

These are relatively minor complaints, however. On the whole we are much more pleased than disappointed with the D800's operational abilities. And as with most enthusiast-level DSLRs, you've got the option of significantly altering the camera's handling with the optional MB-D12 battery grip, which adds control points optimized for shooting in portrait orientation.

The Final Word

As you can see by the pros and cons list at the top of the page, we're very impressed by the D800. Nikon has built upon what made the D700 such a pleasing camera to use and added features that do more than simply fill out a spec sheet.

Despite its massive pixel count, the D800 is in many respects an evolutionary camera. This isn't a bad thing. Nikon users coming from the D700 will feel largely at home with the D800, but where changes have been made they (usually) have the effect of improving the shooting experience compared to the older model.

Of course, the game changer is that you now have 36MP at your disposal, a resolution that was, until the D800 announcement, the sole province of very expensive medium format cameras/backs. The D800 does indeed offer a level of fine detail that ranks it among the best performers we've subjected to our studio testing, and for an additional $300, the D800E actually improves upon it. 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).

Fortunately, the D800 also excels in areas that require no extra effort on your part; notably its impressive high ISO performance, fast and accurate AF system and the wide dynamic range of its image files. These are attributes that most of us are likely to call on far more often than the need to view 20x30 prints at a very close distance. The D800 is a camera that consistently delivers high quality results, under a wide range of shooting conditions with a minimum of fuss. There's not much more you can ask for in a photographic tool than that. Our admittedly minor complaints of the camera and its relatively slow frame rate don't detract from how impressive a performer it is for all but pro sports/action photography. As such we've awarded it our highest honor, the Gold Award.

Should I buy a D800E?

The answer to this question depends entirely on what kind of photographer you are, and what kind of photography you practice. As you'll know if you've been through our exhaustive comparisons of the D800 and D800E, the extra $300 for the E version buys you a genuine increase in resolution - in optimal conditions. But that increase is small, and we've found that to leverage this difference requires you not only to pay close attention to your working method, but also your working aperture.

Within the zone of best sharpness for the lenses that we've primarily used for comparison (a 50mm and 85mm prime) the D800E only held a meaningful lead over the D800 between F4 and F5.6. By F11 diffraction narrows the difference between the two models to the extent that the D800 and D800E produce virtually identical results. By F16 - a reasonable working aperture for landscape photographers that want front-to-back focus - the difference between the D800 and D800E's Raw output is academic. So if you're a portrait photographer working between F4-5.6 then yes - in your day-to-day photography you'll see the benefit of the D800E's special sensor design. If you shoot wide open, or stopped right down though, you probably won't.

Most of our direct comparisons between the D800 and D800E were made from their respective Raw output, but as you'll see from our JPEG comparisons and from our image quality comparison pages the D800E's JPEG output is significantly superior to the D800's at optimal aperture settings. Not only do the D800E's JPEGs look sharper at default settings, they contain noticeably more detail - something that will be very attractive to casual photographers that want to save storage space on cards and hard drives, but also to professionals that want better looking JPEG 'proofs'. Even in our F16 comparison images the D800E's JPEGs appear 'better' although close inspection reveals that they are no more detailed.

Ultimately then, if you're weighing up the D800 and D800E, in our opinion there is no obvious downside to opting for the more expensive model beyond the extra cost. You get better image quality in both RAW and JPEG mode (although diffraction and lens aberrations remove that benefit at certain aperture settings). And color moiré in still images - in the relatively few instances we've encountered it - is typically only marginally more visible in the D800E than it is in equivalent scene elements captured by the D800. Like the D800, the Nikon D800E earns our coveted gold award.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Nikon D800
Category: Semi-professional Full Frame Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The D800 combines swift operation and well-designed controls with outstanding image quality that is particularly impressive at high ISO settings. Expanded video capabilities hold appeal for those who need to produce both stills and video while on assignment. The camera's 36 MP sensor allows for class-leading resolution in a 35mm format camera... if you're prepared to hold your technique and equipment to the highest standards.
Good for
Photographers who regularly shoot low-light settings that demand high ISO performance. Those who need very high resolution to make large prints. Videographers who can make use of uncompressed video.
Not so good for
Professional sports/action photographers or Nikon users who do not own top of the line lenses.
82%
Overall score

Nikon D800E
Category: Semi-professional Full Frame Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Nikon D800E, at low ISOs and optimum lens apertures, offers slightly higher resolution than its less expensive sibling, the D800. Its raw files respond impressively to a moderately aggressive sharpening routine, while avoiding visible artifacts. As with the D800, it offers the (somewhat clunky) option to output uncompressed video, but is noticeably susceptible to color moiré in video mode.
Good for
Photographers with medium format experience and expectations who place a premium on obtaining the highest resolution currently available in a 35mm form factor camera. Videographers who can make use of uncompressed video.
Not so good for
Professional sports shooters who demand faster frame rates. Videographers for whom moiré removal in post is not a viable option.
84%
Overall score

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