The Nikon D800 is a professional-grade full-frame DSLR with a class-leading effective resolution of 36.3MP that is likely to appeal to professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts. Rather than replacing the three-year-old D700 outright, the D800 will sit alongside its older sibling for the time being. That said, it’s pretty clear from the outset that the two cameras are very different beasts. This is hardly surprising, given that the two models are separated by around three and a half years – an absolute age in digital camera technology terms.
The big news, of course, is that the D800 uses a new 36.3MP FX CMOS sensor. This firmly establishes the D800 as the leader of the professional DSLR pack when it comes to effective resolution, and by some margin too. Indeed, it even puts the D800 into the same territory as some of the medium format digital backs so beloved of commercial and fashion photographers.
But of course, there’s much more to the D800 than headline resolution. Indeed, coming so soon after the launch of the £6000 Nikon D4, it's no surprise to find that the D800 shares some of the hardware found in its more expensive sibling. This includes the EXPEED 3 image processor with its 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing, the 91k-pixel RGB metering/AF/scene recognition sensor, and the same Multi-Cam 3500FX 51-point AF module that includes 15 cross-type sensors.
With its 11fps Continuous shooting speed and top (extended) ISO setting of 204,800, the D4 is geared more towards sports/action shooters and photojournalists whose chief requirements are speedy shooting and clean high-ISO performance. In contrast, Nikon is keen to position the D800 as more of an all-rounder, with Nikon especially keen to champion its video recording capabilities. In this respect, Nikon make a valid argument. Indeed, look beyond the headline-grabbing resolution and consider the D800 as a new model in its own right (as opposed to a straightforward linear replacement/upgrade to the D700) and it’s hard not to be impressed with what's on offer.
The D800 is built around an all-new full-frame (39.5mm x 24mm) FX CMOS sensor. With its effective resolution of 36.3MP, maximum output at the default 3:2 aspect is a whopping 7360 x 4912 pixels. Not only does this enable you to make huge prints with staggering amounts of detail, but it also allows you to crop your images quite aggressively. This can be really helpful if you don’t happen to have the right lenses to hand, or perhaps just miss something at the time that you later spot within an image.
Of course there is a price to be paid for all this flexibility, which comes in the shape of very large file sizes. As a guide you can expect large, fine-quality JPEGs to measure around 15MB each, with 14-bit Raw (.NEF) files measuring closer to 80MB in size. In addition the D800 can also record images as 16-bit TIFF files, and once processed you can expect these to take up around 212MB each.
In keeping with recent high-end Nikon DSLR models the D800 offers twin card slots, although it eschews the D4’s QXD compatibility in favour of one SD/SDHC/SDXC and one CF/UDMA card slot. Storage options can be customised and split between the two slots as you see fit; from one card acting as an overflow, to one card saving stills with the other saving movies, to both cards saving the same data simultaneously. Even still, the large individual file sizes will undoubtedly have some workflow repercussions, especially if the computer you use for editing your photos isn’t up to the task.
In addition to shooting in the default 3:2 aspect, the D800 can also shoot in 5:4 (30.2MP), 1.2x (25.1MP) and DX (15.4MP), which gives it quite a bit of added flexibility. When set to any of these alternative aspects/sensor sizes the D800 helpfully displays the area covered with a black outline in the viewfinder to make easier work of composing your image. Being a full-frame model the D800 obviously works best with FX lenses, however if for any reason you’re tempted to use a DX-optimised lens then you’ll need to set the D800 to DX mode, otherwise the smaller image circle of the DX lens will produce dark corners and edges in all your images. In all capture modes, the D800 can be set to record Large, Medium or Small JPEGs at Basic, Normal or Fine quality.
Alongside the new high-resolution sensor, the D800 uses Nikon’s latest generation of super-fast EXPEED 3 image processor. This enables the D800 to reach 4fps when used in Continuous shooting mode, which isn’t at all bad given the file sizes involved. Should you need a bit more speed, then it’s possible to reach 5fps when the camera is used in DX mode. With the optional MB-D12 battery pack this jumps to 6fps, but only when the camera is used in DX or 1.2x crop mode – at 36.3MP the top burst speed remains pegged at 4fps.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to ISO 6400 in standard mode, which is bookended by an extended Low1 setting that’s the equivalent of ISO 50 and a Hi2 setting that’s equivalent to ISO 25,600. Naturally, the burning question for many potential purchasers is to what extent the D800’s densely populated sensor affects low-light image quality. While the D700 was rightly praised for its ability to suppress noise at higher sensitivity settings and in poor light, resolution on that model was pegged at 12.1MP. Does the D800’s threefold increase in resolution adversely affect image quality in low light? Well, we’ll deal with the answer to that more thoroughly a little later on in this review, but the short answer for those who can’t wait until the next page is that it’s really not an issue at all as the D800 offers excellent high ISO/low-light performance.
This being a professional-grade DSLR, there are no frivolous shooting modes beyond the basic quartet of PASM. Similarly, there are no digital filters or panoramic modes, although the D800 does offer the standard range of Picture Control settings that can be used to customise the look of still images and videos by adjusting sharpness, contrast, saturation and hue values. As ever there are six presets to choose from: Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape, along with a couple of user-defined Custom settings. In a new twist, the Picture Controls can now be accessed directly from a dedicated button down the left hand side of the screen.
While Nikon pioneered the inclusion of HD movie recording on DSLRs with the launch of the D90 in 2008, the company has long since seen its position usurped by rivals, most notably by Canon’s ‘5D’ DSLR range. In 2009 the 5D MkII quickly became the go-to DSLR for video enthusiasts, while the recently launched 5D MkIII has upped the ante even further. Clearly aware of this Nikon hopes to establish the D800 as a class-leading, pro-grade DSLR for video shooters – something that we expect to see reflected in the company’s marketing and promotional material.
Thankfully for Nikon, the D800’s movie-making abilities do stand up quite well, extending to a maximum 1080p Full HD at 30/25/24fps, with a further option to shoot 720p HD at 60/50fps. The D800 also adds index marking to make the editing process easier, and it’s also possible to use the D800’s movie mode to record time-lapse images with. Sound is recorded in mono by default, however there are separate inputs for both an external microphone and a set of headphones, along with an HDMI output for live, uncompressed HDTV playback when the camera is being used in live view mode. The maximum length for individual movie clips is set at 29 minutes and 59 seconds, with movies stored as .MOV files and encoded in H.264/MPEG-4 format.
The back of the D800 is dominated by a large 3.2inch, 921k-dot LCD monitor that like so many other components has been lifted straight from the D4. Nikon is keen to emphasise the “vastly improved” colour range of this screen, even going so far as to claim that you’ll be able to use it to judge the quality of your images, without the need for a computer. While we’d certainly agree that it’s one of the best screens we’ve yet seen on a DSLR, we’re still more inclined to put our trust in the histogram than what's displayed on the screen. One other thing of note is a new vertical/horizontal level-gauge, which will undoubtedly please landscape photographers – we certainly found it very useful while out shooting the north Cornish coast with while testing the camera.
Should you wish to hold the camera at eye-level then the D800’s optical viewfinder offers a 100% field-of-view magnified to 0.72x when the camera is being used in FX mode – a big step up from the 95%/0.72x offered by the D700. Last but not least, is the GN12 pop-up flash, and while this might seem a bit of an oddity on a pro-grade camera like the D800 it can provide some basic fill flash and is also compatible with Nikon’s Creative Lighting system, meaning it can act as a commander unit for wireless triggering of off-camera Nikon flashguns.