Befitting its status as a professional-grade DSLR the Nikon D800 benefits from solid, tank-like construction. Encased within an aluminium alloy frame, the D800 is also fully sealed against dust and moisture. In addition, the shutter is tested to 200,000 cycles. Professionals looking for a solidly built workhorse are unlikely to be in any way disappointed with overall durability.
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 during our hands-on time 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 deep and comfortable enough for you to get a secure grip of the camera with for extended periods.
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 seem quite baffling to anyone without extensive photography experience and/or familiarity with pro-spec DSLRs. Thankfully, the menu is quite neatly laid out, making it relatively easy to navigate. Of course, if you’re new to Nikon 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 start.
In addition to the huge jump in sensor resolution, the D800 also takes a big step forward in several key performance areas over the D700. As we mentioned at the start of this preview, this is primarily down to the technological and hardware advancements that have been made in the three years since the D700 was released. Chief among these is Nikon’s latest 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.
Nikon also claims the face detection abilities of the new metering module have been much enhanced, even when shooting through the viewfinder. This is said to improve the camera’s ability to deliver pleasing results even in tricky lighting conditions such as backlit portraits. The 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX TTL autofocus module, however, 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 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 SDHC/SDXC and one CF card slot. Storage options can be customised and split between the two cards 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.
While we’re unable to confirm battery performance at this stage Nikon claims the D800 uses a new power-saving design that’s been re-designed for minimal power drain while the camera is being used in live view and while recording movies. Furthermore, Nikon claims the supplied li-ion battery is good for 900 images and 60 minutes of live view. If so then that’s quite an achievement.
Of course, we’re unable as yet to make any comments on image quality although we do very much look forward to putting a full review sample through its paces. We’ll be especially interested to see how the ability to switch between FX (full-frame) and DX (APS-C) affects the depth of field, not only in stills mode but also when recording video. Of course, one of the main benefits of a full-frame sensor (over APS-C) is its inherent ability to produce a shallower depth of field. Nikon has itself drawn attention to this with some bold claims about how the D800 (used in FX mode with a fast lens) is able to produce “exquisitely shallow depth of field with beautiful bokeh effects”. That’s something we definitely look forward to seeing for ourselves first-hand.
The Nikon D800 is a pro-grade DSLR that will primarily appeal to landscape, commercial and studio photographers, but which also has the flexibility to tempt well-heeled enthusiasts. Given the massive boost in resolution to a class-leading 36.3MP, we can understand the disappointment of those who’d simply hoped for a revamped D700 with around 18MP and extended ISO capabilities. That said, we’re more inclined to see the D800 as a new model in its own right, rather than as a direct successor. Viewed on these terms, it could well open up new territory for Nikon while taking on an ambassadorial role for the video capabilities of the company's other pro-grade DSLRs. If image and video quality live live up to the bold claims being made, then it’s likely to be a hugely successful camera too.