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June 2012: This review has been significantly expanded to include detailed analysis of the performance of the D800 alongside its closely-related stablemate the D800E. We have also added samples and analysis of the D800/E's uncompressed video feature. Except where specifically noted, any comments in the body of this review which reference the 'Nikon D800' actually refer to both models.

When the Nikon D800 and D800E were announced, the specification that got everyone's attention was - and to a large degree still is - the massive pixel count of their 36.3MP CMOS sensor. When a moderately-sized full-frame DSLR body aspires to go toe-to-toe with medium format cameras and backs at a fraction of their price, other attributes can seem secondary. But don't be misled. Coming as a successor to the now 3 1/2 year old D700, Nikon has updated much more than just the resolution. The D800 has a significantly more advanced feature set than its predecessor, particularly in terms of its video capabilities that make it, on paper at least, a viable and tempting option for professionals.

At the heart of the D800 is a brand new Nikon-developed sensor that boasts 36.8 million pixels in total, with a maximum effective output of 36.3MP. Its ISO span is 100-6400 natively, expandable to a range of 50 ('Lo1') to 25,600 ('Hi2') equivalent. Nikon's highest resolution DSLR to date, the D800/E more than doubles the pixel count of the flagship D4. The D800 is potentially very attractive to studio and landscape professionals, but should pique the interest of a great many enthusiast Nikon users too - many of whom may have been 'stuck' at 12MP for years, with a D300, D300s or D700.

The D800 and D800E's 36.3MP CMOS sensor has by far the greatest pixel count of any non medium-format DSLR currently on the market. The ISO span is slightly wider than that of its predecessor the D700, at 100-6400, expandable down to ISO 50 and up to ISO 25,600 (equivalent).

Of course, the D800 faces a competitive field that has made significant gains as well. Arch-rival Canon has recently updated its best-selling full-frame model to the 22.3MP EOS 5D Mark III. That the D800 has to prove itself a compelling upgrade for current Nikon shooters is a given. Yet a glance at the specifications indicates that Nikon has clearly been paying attention to the success of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and its video performance in particular. The hope among the Nikon faithful is that the D800 matches or exceeds the impressive high ISO performance of recent Nikon DSLRs while providing the resolution benefits of a much higher pixel count.

Apart from their sensors, the D800 and D4 share many identical specifications. Although the D800 offers a much slower maximum frame rate at full resolution (4fps, compared to 11fps in the D4) and lacks some of the pro-oriented 'frills' like built-in Ethernet connectivity, it shares the same revamped 51-point AF system which is effective down to -2EV, the same processing engine and almost exactly the same highly advanced video mode.

Broad appeal

Whereas the D4 is intended as a specialist tool for professionals that need to capture images quickly in all types of weather and light conditions, the D800 has been designed to appeal to a much broader user base. For most of us, D4-only features such as ultra-high ISO shooting, very fast frame rates, QXD card compatibility, 2000+ image battery life and built-in Ethernet, are simply not that high on the list of must-haves. The same goes for many pros who earn their livings with their camera.

Wedding, event and studio photographers, for example are likely to be far more concerned with resolution at low ISO sensitivities than shooting at 11 fps at ISO 204,000. To them, a camera with the D800's feature set, priced at less than half the cost of a D4 is an exciting prospect indeed.

And let's not forget videographers. The D4 is Nikon's most advanced video-enabled DSLR. And the D800 offers almost exactly the same video specification in a smaller, lighter, and significantly less expensive body, making it potentially much more attractive as either a primary or 'B' video camera on a low-budget shoot.

Compared to D700: Specification highlights

  • 36.3MP CMOS sensor (compared to 12.1MP)
  • 15.3MP DX-format capture mode (compared to 5MP)
  • 25MP 1.2x Crop mode
  • 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors, rated to -2EV* (compared to -1EV)
  • ISO 100-6400 extendable to ISO 25,600 equiv (same as D700)
  • 1080p video at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second, up to 24Mbps, with uncompressed HDMI output and audio monitoring options*
  • 3.2", 921,000 dot LCD with anti-fog layer* (compared to 3in, 921k-dot)
  • Maximum 4fps continuous shooting in FX mode** (compared to 8fps in FX mode)
  • Advanced Scene Recognition System with 91,000 pixel metering sensor* (compared to 1005-pixel)
  • 'Expeed 3' Image Processing*
  • Dual-axis Virtual Horizon (on LCD screen/viewfinder)* (compared to single-axis)

* Same or almost identical to Nikon D4
** Maximum frame rate in DX mode is dependant on power source

Compared to the Nikon D700

The D800 shares basically the same form factor as its predecessor the D700. Both models have a built-in flash and lack the integrated vertical grip of Nikon's top-end DSLRs, which is available instead via an accessory battery grip. There are differences though - some minor, some major.

The most obvious differences from the perspective of core functionality are a massive increase in resolution - from 12 to 36MP - which comes with a significant boost in processing power, and the addition of video mode. The D800's video mode is lifted almost completely from the professional D4 and boasts 1080p30 resolution with the option to output uncompressed footage via HDMI.

The ergonomic changes that have resulted from the inclusion of video are the addition of a video/stills live view mode control on the rear, plus a direct movie shooting button on the top plate. Among other refinements, a D7000/D4-style integrated AF mode/function control can be found on the front of the camera, and the door covering the ports on the side of the D800 is now hinged, and stays open when opened rather than flapping annoyingly against your fingers when you try to plug in accessories. The D800's LCD screen is slightly larger than the D700's, at 3.2 inches, but resolution remains unchanged. A Picture Control button now sits on the D800's rear plate.

Compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III

One of the few obvious physical differences between the D800 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is that the D800 has a built-in flash whereas the 5D Mark III doesn't. Both cameras share very similar proportions and the D800 weighs only 50 grams less. Both have 3.2 inch rear LCDs, with the 5D Mark III boasting a higher screen resolution of 1.04 million versus 921,000 pixels in the D800.

Under the hood of course is where the most notable difference lies. The D800's 36.3MP sensor surpasses the pixel count of the 22.3MP 5D Mark III, as well as every other 35mm-format DSLR currently on the market. The D800 also offers a useful DX (APS-C) crop mode which captures 15.3MP stills. While the D800 inherits the 51-point AF system of the D4 with 15 cross-type points, the 5D Mark III sports a 61-point AF system shared with the EOS-1D X, in which 41 of these are cross-type points. The D800 has an edge in flexibility, however, when it comes to the aperture required for these cross-type points to function. While the 5D Mark III requires a minimum aperture of f/4, the D800 can utilize 9 of its center cross-type points at an aperture as narrow as f/8.