Live view

The Nikon D800 offers a considerably more robust live view feature set than its predecessor, the D700. The most obvious improvement is a dedicated 'Lv' button on the rear of the camera surrounded by a lever that toggles between still image and movie mode.

The D800 has a dual mode live view system. You can compose still images or preview framing for video with precision. A press of the 'Lv' button at the hub of the switch activates live view mode, offering a significant usability improvement over the D700.

When live view is activated, the camera's mirror flips up and a through-the-lens view is displayed on the rear LCD. The lens is automatically set to the taking aperture, which means you can accurately preview depth of field. Manual exposure adjustments are updated in real time in the preview image on the LCD. You can press the 'OK' button to display an onscreen exposure indicator along with the option to display a histogram, both of which update in real time. Of even more importance though, is that pressing the 'OK' button is necessary to preview the effects of any exposure compensation adjustments that you make.

In situations where the scene is too bright or dark to present an accurate preview of the final image, however, the preview histogram will not match that of the final image. The only indication of this mismatch in live view mode is that the exposure indicator will blink, signalling that the camera cannot provide an accurate preview.

After taking an exposure in live view, the rear LCD remains blacked out until the image is written to the card, a delay that can last several seconds when shooting in RAW+JPEG mode. While access to all of the menu screens is locked out during this period, you can, however, change parameters available via the camera's top plate controls such as shooting and drive modes, ISO sensitivity, image quality, white balance and exposure compensation. These can all be verified on the camera's top plate LCD.

In live view you have the option of using all of the D800's additional crop modes, such as 1.2x, DX (1.5x) and 5:4. The preview fills the frame with these crop modes, with the 'mis-matched' 5:4 ratio displaying black bars along the side of the screen area. Note that switching among these crop modes requires you to first disable live view. The menu option is actually grayed out while live view is active.

Information displays

The D800, by default offers four separate information displays, with an additional exposure indicator/histogram view available if you first press the 'OK' button. You cycle through these views by pressing the Info button.

By default, live view does not preview exposure compensation adjustments. To do that... ...you must press the 'OK' button, which gives an accurate exposure preview along with an exposure compensation indicator.
A grid view is available. You can also display a histogram.
The dual axis virtual horizon can be displayed. An 'information' view displays key camera settings.

Live View autofocus

When live view is activated the D800 is limited to using contrast-detect autofocus. This is a departure from D700 behavior. On that camera, in addition to the contrast-detect AF 'tripod' mode in live view, you have the option of a 'hand-held' live view mode in which a half-press of the shutter momentarily disables live view, lowers the mirror and uses a phase-detection autofocus system to acquire focus.

While allowing for a continuous live view feed that doesn't black out during focus aquisition, the D800's contrast-detect AF is much slower than the phase detection AF the camera employs when live view is disabled. In fact, D800 AF aquisition in live view is far more sluggish than most of the mirrorless cameras we've used. To be fair, we imagine that for most D800 users, live view will be reserved primarily for critical focus applications like landscapes, still lifes and product photography, where maximum AF speed is somewhat less important than accuracy.

The AF point can be manually positioned anywhere inside the frame via use of the multi selector arrows. You can choose between static and full-time AF modes, with the latter option allowing the camera to continuously adjust focus until the shutter button is pressed. In addition you can select one of four AF area modes. In Face-priority mode, the camera attempts to detect and lock focus on the face positioned closest to the camera. This works as advertised with faces that are fully turned towards the camera and can actually be quite useful for quick snapshots, although we doubt owners of a $3000 camera will be using live view in Auto AF mode much of the time.

A Wide-area AF mode provides a larger focus point than the Normal-area AF. A subject tracking mode allows you to identify an element of the scene for the camera to follow as it moves within the frame. With the slow autofus performance we cited above, we find subject tracking to be eminently more useful in non-live view shooting modes, as you can see on our AF performance page of this review.

Live view manual focus

The manual focus implementation during live view is pretty straightforward. As with image playback, the zoom buttons on the rear of the camera can be used to change magnification of the image preview. You scroll through magnified areas of the image by using the multi selector's left/right up/down arrows. In live view, the highest magnification level yields a pixelated image preview that is not useful for manual focus adjustment. It is the penultimate magnification level that provides a preview most suitable for critical focus. It should be noted that the live view preview reflects the taking aperture of the lens. So in many cases you may benefit from temporarily opening the lens up while focusing.

You can customize the behavior of the multi selector button to toggle between the fit to screen view... ...and one of three levels of magnification ('medium' is shown here) to make critical focus adjustments.

In the custom 'f' menu you can configure the multi selector's center button to automatically toggle between this magnification level (designated as 'medium magnification') and the default 'fit to screen' view. Frustratingly though, even at this magnification level you must contend with what appears to be interpolation-generated artefacts that can make critical focus a bit more difficult when viewing patterned objects of fine detail. The view of the same image area at the same magnification level in playback mode displays none of these artifacts.