Befitting its status as a professional-grade DSLR the Nikon D800 benefits from solid, tank-like construction. Encased within an aluminium alloy frame that’s fully sealed against dust and moisture, the D800 feels every inch the professional tool it’s positioned as. In addition, the shutter has been tested to 200,000 cycles, which means it’ll give many good years of service. Professionals looking for a solidly built workhorse are unlikely to be in any way disappointed with the overall build quality and durability of the D800.
In terms of size, the D800 is claimed to be slightly smaller and around 100 grams lighter than the D700. While we didn’t actually have the older model to hand while working on this review, from memory this does seem about right. Despite lacking the horizontal grip of the D4 the D800 remains a fairly large and heavy camera that really requires two hands to operate. That said, the handgrip is sufficiently large and deep enough to wrap your whole hand around. This enables you to get a secure and comfortable hold of the camera, even for extended periods of time. The rubberised finish is pretty grippy too.
As with all high-end Nikon DSLRs, the D800 sports dual control wheels along with a good range of physical buttons that allow immediate access to regularly used settings. As might be expected the in-camera menu offers an extensive array of advanced customisation options, many of which will undoubtedly seem quite baffling to anyone without extensive photography experience and/or familiarity with pro-spec DSLRs. Those that do will find plenty to tinker with in order to get the camera working exactly the way they want it to. Thankfully, the menu is quite neatly laid out, making it relatively easy to navigate and set things up as you want them. Of course, if you’re new to Nikon then you’ll need to familiarise yourself with where to find things, but for those who’ve used Nikon DSLRs in the past menu navigation should be pretty much second nature from the get go.
In addition to the jump in sensor resolution, the D800 also takes a big step forward in several key performance areas over the D700. This is primarily down to the technological and hardware advancements that have been made in the three years since the D700 was released. One such component is the 91k-pixel RGB sensor that sits at the heart of both the D800 (and D4) and which links the camera’s Metering, Advanced Scene Recognition System, and AF modules together, thereby enabling them to work in tandem to produce the best possible results.
The face detection abilities have been much improved too and we found the camera was able to deliver consistently spot-on results – even when faced with tricky lighting conditions, for example strong backlighting, the D800’s is able to deliver balanced portraits that are neither overly silhouetted nor blown out. The 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX TTL autofocus module is essentially the same one employed by both the D700 and D4, and uses 15 cross-type sensors in the centre of the viewfinder for enhanced speed and precision regardless of whether you’re shooting portrait or landscape. Autofocus options extend to a choice of Single-point AF, 9/21/51-point Dynamic AF, 3D Tracking and Auto Area AF.
In all AF modes the phase detection technology that underpins it is both consistent and speedy. The D800 is claimed to be able to operate in up to -2EV, which in real-world terms basically equates to shooting in moonlight. Certainly, during an extended sunset shoot we were perfectly able to shoot in the twilight, at least 20mins after sunset. While shooting these images (nominally to test ISO Performance) we were really quite blown away at just how easily the D800 was able to find focus and lock-on. Yes, in very dark conditions we have experienced a few frustrating moments of focus hunt, but on the whole the D800 is very quick and very accurate – even in pretty poor light. (See the Sample Images: ISO Performance page for the actual images we shot during this test).
Battery performance is also pretty good, although perhaps not quite up to the standard of the D700. The D800 uses a new power-saving design that’s been designed for minimal power drain while the camera is being used in live view and to record movies. We actually managed to conduct the majority of our test on a single charge – granted we only managed to shoot around 500 images and a few short movie clips, although by the same token we did spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing our images and flicking through the various in-camera menus.
And so to image quality. Clearly anyone who is considering shelling out the best part of £2600 for a camera is going to want to know that it’s money well spent. Thankfully in the case of the D800 we can assure that this is absolutely the case. In fact, put simply, the D800 offers some of the very best image quality we’ve yet seen in a DSLR.
As mentioned earlier, shooting in Raw will result in huge 80MB files, however these can be adjusted and tune these to get your images to look exactly how you want them using either the supplied Nikon Capture NX2 software, or something like Lightroom 4 (there’s no support in Lightroom 3 though, so those with an older version will need to upgrade). Raw images do come out of the camera slightly softer than their JPEG counterparts, however with some careful sharpening it’s possible to end up with something far sharper than a straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG. In terms of colour and tone, Raw files are again a bit more muted than JPEGs that have been processed in-camera, although again the abundance of sensor data contained in Raw files (whether lossless compressed, compressed or uncompressed) means you have much more scope for processing tone and colour as you see fit.
Although we suspect the majority of D800 users will prefer to shoot Raw, there’s a lot to be said for the quality of the JPEGs it produces too. During our test period we primarily used the D800 with Nikon’s 50mm f/1.4 prime – a fantastic lens that’s as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel and capable of producing exquisite bokeh when opened right up. Shooting around f/8-f/11 however produced really quite spectacular levels of detail, with images appearing to jump out of the screen. Used on the ‘Standard’ Picture Control setting, the D800 produces pleasingly vibrant (yet lifelike) colour, excellent tonality and good levels of contrast. Of course, you can always choose to ramp this up via the ‘Vivid’ setting or tone it down via the ‘Neutral’ option.
Metering proved particularly accurate, as did automatic white balance and we didn’t experience any issues with either – even in tricky lighting or when shooting under mixed natural/artificial lighting. You can choose between Matrix (multi-zone) metering, centre-weighted and spot and there’s also a highly customisable AE-L/AF-L button to call upon when you need it. Dynamic range especially impresses with the D800 able to reveal excellent levels of shadow detail in high-contrast scenes while retaining the highlights.
While many observers and potential purchasers were understandably worried about how such a high-resolution sensor might impact ISO performance, we have to say that in our experience these fears are largely unfounded. On the contrary the D800 excels at controlling noise, especially at middling to high sensitivity settings. Below ISO 1600 and noise really isn’t an issue at all, while at ISO 1600 the D800’s images are right up there with the very best we’ve seen, with noise barely making an impact on overall image quality – even when pixel peeping at 100% or more. At ISO 3200 a small amount of softening does begin to occur as a hint of noise creeps in (especially in processed JPEGs), although overall image quality is still very good. ISO 6400 is where noise becomes more noticeable, although yet again it’s perfectly possible to make good images at this setting – especially if you are shooting in Raw and processing out the noise yourself. Above ISO 6400 things do take a bit of a downturn with the two extended settings of ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600 both displaying a fair bit of chroma as well as luminance noise. Overall though, for a camera with such a high resolution and such fantastic overall image quality we really can have no great complaints.
The Nikon D800 is a professional-grade 36.3MP DSLR that delivers phenomenal image quality at around half the price of Nikon’s flagship D4 model. Overall, it’s a fantastic addition to the Nikon range that easily justifies its £2,600 price tag. Build quality is superb, handling is excellent and despite the huge range of customisation on offer the D800 remains relatively intuitive and easy to use. In terms of image quality, the D800's 36.3MP sensor is able capture huge amounts of fine detail, which in turn allows you to make billboard-sized prints with. For this reason we can see the D800 finding favour with landscape and commercial photographers, although that's not to say that its appeal is limited. On the contrary, the D800 represents a solid investment for just about all professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts looking for a serious tool to make professional standard images with.