In Photography Land, the full frame DSLR market is mostly governed by Canon and Nikon. Up until the release of the Nikon D800, Canon had ruled the roost with the 5D Mark II for one prodigious reason: its scintillating HD video capture. The Mark II’s competitor, the Nikon D700, was blessed with a 12-megapixel full frame sensor that cranked out dazzling still images, but alas, video capture was nowhere to be found! As a result, the 5D Mark II found itself in the hands of more customers because of its versatility in the photography and videography circuits. I remember preferring the D700 over the Mark II when it came to still images, but the Mark II’s HD video quality trumped many prosumer camcorders in its price range.

Now let’s fast forward to 2012. Nikon unleashes the formidable D800, a radical departure from the still photo-exclusive D700. Nikon threw down the gauntlet on Canon’s home turf. The D800 is capable of 1080p HD videos captured at 30 or 24fps, and its sensor is a complete overhaul, spewing out 36 effective megapixels. Those two features alone alter the D800′s DNA to the point where the new full frame juggernaut is a completely different breed under the hood. That versatility photographers and videographers loved about the 5D Mark II is now offered on a Nikon. Poster size images can be produced and professional quality HD videos can be filmed with the Nikon D800, making this full frame DSLR one of the hottest additions to the company’s 2012 lineup.

As a potential buyer of an expensive digital camera body, there are a few questions that must be striking you repeatedly. Is this camera worth my hard-earned three grand? Which is better, the Nikon or the Canon? This review will answer the first question. As for the second, I haven’t gotten the Canon EOS 5D Mark III in yet to test, but as soon as I do, I plan on taking both the D800 and the 5D Mark III on a series of head-to-head excursions. So, this review will help the droves of photographers with legacies of Nikon FX lenses in their drawers who need a shiny new body to replace their weathered old D700. This review will also appeal to the videographer looking to ditch his camcorder equipment for something capable of capturing beautiful videos and stills, all within the same package.

Is the Nikon D800 the full frame of your dreams? Let’s find out.

Nikon D800

Pros

  • Fantastic image quality and killer high ISO performance
  • Excellent HD video quality with full manual adjustment and audio control
  • Highly intuitive design and interface; making manual adjustments takes seconds
  • Decent built-in flash
  • USB 3.0, as well as Mic and Headphone jacks for external audio
  • Dual SD/CF card slots

Cons

  • I still prefer manual focus over Continuous Autofocus in Live View
  • Slow 4fps Continuous shooting mode
  • Floor noise increases when external mic is connected via 3.5mm jack
  • Battery life took a slight dive, D700 batteries are not compatible

Ideal for: Pro/Semi-Pro photographers and videographers.

Find it at: Nikon USA.

Suggested Retail Price: $2999.95 body only.

Nikon D800 Design

Unleash the Dual Slots

Nikon-D800-Product-8The Nikon D800 features a more curved design, which compliments the right hand more ergonomically than the D700′s boxy frame. The D800 feels like a Cadillac in the hand, courtesy of its rugged magnesium alloy chassis and ample rubberized grip panels. Dimensions are relatively unchanged since the D700, though there are a few welcome additions. The most exciting upgrade on the D800 is the dual SD/CF card slot. Images and videos can be recorded to either card and when one fills up, the next one begins recording. When you’re recording videos, the footage will be stopped for a second and a new file will be created and continue writing on the other card. This is invaluable for photographers who still keep an arsenal of CF cards from their D700 days, and satiates the likes of SD card pack rats. I used a 64GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC card for all of my testing, which performed flawlessly. I’ve never had a problem with a SanDisk in all five years of testing digital cameras.

The other upgrades consist of a slightly larger 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen and a video record button tacked next to the On/Off switch. The Video Record button enables videos to be recorded in any mode, so there’s no need to set the D800 to a specific Video mode in order to start rolling. Aside from that, the D800 is almost a carbon copy of the D700 when it comes to button and terminal layout. The amount of customization capable on the D800 is scary. There are two Function buttons next to the lens mount, which can be assigned to various tasks. In addition, the Function buttons can be used in conjunction with the command dials to select things like Active D-Lighting and Shutter/Aperture Lock. The Bracketing button can be customized between Auto, Multiple Exposure and HDR capture, and there are various other shortcuts and tricks throughout the D800′s body that will force you to pick up the manual repeatedly during the first month of owning this thing.

Terminals and Controls

Nikon-D800-Product-6Aside from the hot new dual card slot, the Nikon D800 features a layout that’s nearly identical to its predecessor. In order to switch through modes (PSAM), the Mode button can be pressed and the command dial will shuffle through the options. In fact, many of the D800′s parameters are adjusted via button/command dial combinations. For instance, in order to change Focus options, the Focus button next to the lens has to be pressed while the rear command dial chooses Single or Continuous and the front dial chooses Focus Area selections. In many ways, the Nikon D800 is a highly intuitive camera to use once you grow accustomed to the button and control combinations. This applies to ISO, White Balance, Exposure Compensation and more.

There were a few things I was happy to see again, one being the 100% coverage optical viewfinder. The D800′s viewfinder could actually be covered via a switch on its side to limit potential light entering through the mirror. In addition to an ample grid pattern, the viewfinder could also display the Virtual Horizon meter, which helps to level shots. I loved the 8-way directional pad on the Nikon D700, and it was back again on the D800. This thing is one of the best navigational controls I’ve ever used on a digital camera, thanks to its ace feel and sensitivity.

As far as terminals, it’s a fairly standard lot for a camera of this caliber. The Nikon D800 has USB 3.0, Mini HDMI, MIC, Headphones, Flash Sync and a 10-pin connector for remotes and other accessories. The D800 is powered by a Nikon EN-EL15 battery pack, though its stamina takes a hit this year, dropping from 1,000 estimated shots per charge to 900. Unfortunately, the older EN-EL3e batteries that fit the D700 will not work with the D800. Nikon makes a battery grip for the D800, but prepare to shell out an extra $450 for it.

Shedding a Few Ounces

Nikon-D800-Product-10Believe it or not, Nikon found a way to knock 3.3 ounces off the weight of the D800. However, the D800 still tips the scale at 31.7 ounces, which means you’re still going to be lugging around a two-pound cinder block wherever you go. Tack on an additional 1-1.5 pounds for the lens, and we’re looking at about 3.5 pounds of full frame Nikon goodness strung around your neck. This is just a formality, as any pro knows that quality doesn’t come cheap, or light for that matter. It also didn’t help that Nikon sent me the massive 24-70mm f/2.8 ED NIKKOR lens either. I remember testing the 14-24mm f.2.8 NIKKOR with the D700, and that lens was not as much of a monstrous protrusion. But hey, they could have sent me 600mm, so I’m not complaining.

Nikon D800 Features

Staying Focused

Nikon-D800-Product-3There’s a lot to focus on with the Nikon D800, particularly the camera’s Autofocus capabilities. This year, we have the same Nikon Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module with TTL phase detection that we saw on the D700, only the D800 brings new capabilities to the table. While the maximum number of AF points remain at 51, the D800 now has Face Priority available in Photo and Video mode. There’s also a new 3D-tracking AF mode that tracks subjects, adding new focus points as they move. I found the D800′s Autofocus to be a speed racer. Paired with the 24-70mm AF NIKKOR, the camera was able to shift between focal points swiftly and accurately. Of course, I was able to individually select focus points and move them in order to fine-tune, and the D800′s Servo AF was blazing fast.

But for me, the big question was whether or not the D800′s Autofocus was acceptable in Live View. Typically, this is a major downfall for most DSLRs, as the camera goes through a series of grunts and jolts in order to properly focus when monitoring through the LCD. The great thing about newer Nikon DSLRs is that they have Continuous Autofocus (Full Time AF) in Video mode, meaning the camera will automatically focus while it’s rolling footage. I found the D800 to be one of the better Full Time AF models on the market. It’s quieter and takes less effort to lock in on a target. However, I still recommend Manual focus because it’s much smoother and the built-in microphone doesn’t pick up on the camera’s grunts and groans.

Exposure

Nikon-D800-Product-12The Nikon D800 is improved in this department, flaunting a TTL exposure metering system with 91,000-pixel RGB sensor. Although the max ISO range has not changed (25,600 is still Hi 2), the base ISO has been expanded. The D800 can now shoot as low as ISO 50 (Low 1), which bests the D700′s ISO 100 base. The shutter speed range has remained the same with a Bulb/30-seconds to 1/8,000-second gap, and metering modes are still composed of the Matrix/Center-weighted and Spot trio. Exposure Compensation was easy to access, thanks to the shortcut button next to the shutter button, and incremental values were flexible by 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV increments.

I did a lot of shooting in Program Auto, at times taking advantage of the Flexible Program mode, which allowed me to shuffle the Shutter/Aperture combinations but retain the same exposure. For the most part, the Nikon D800 was right on the money, as long as the ISO is set accordingly. I actually preferred a manual ISO adjustment because the D800 tended to select lower values than I would have used in low light. For instance, while shooting indoors at the Seal Cove Auto Museum, the D800 fluctuated around ISO 400-1600 when ISO control was set to Auto. In many instances, I probably would have opted for higher values in the 3200 +/- range, given the less than ample lighting conditions, and the fact that the D800 is fantastic at high ISO levels.

Another caveat about the D800 is that Nikon really hypes the Live View aspect of the camera. The science behind Live View is that since the mirror is retained in the up position, the camera is less susceptible to motion blur, since the mirror does not have to be raised up and come slamming down in traditional fashion. While Live View was essential for shooting videos, I didn’t find it necessary while shooting still images because if I was worried about mirror-driven motion blur, I would just shoot in Mirror Up mode, which raises the mirror when the shutter button is pressed and then captures an image on the second press of the shutter button.

HDR and All That Jazz

Nikon-D800-Product-13The Nikon D800′s HDR mode was not an all-star feature to me, but it’s nice to know that the camera offers it. The D800 will capture a few varying exposures and then blend them in-camera to produce an image with enhanced dynamic range, but the camera must be placed on a tripod in order for this to go smoothly. Also, most true HDR photographers will be taking advantage of the D800′s Bracketing feature. When shooting with Bracketing, I was able to select 3, 5, 7, or nine exposures at increments of 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EVs. If you ask me, that’s far more compelling than using the in-camera HDR mode, given the fact that nine various exposures would make a killer HDR image in Photoshop. It’s worth noting that Bracketing applied to White Balance, Active D-Lighting and Flash Exposure, enabling different variations of each image.

While we’re on the burst mode train, the D800 has a max Continuous shooting mode that tops out at 4fps, which is one short of the D700′s 5fps cap. Continuous Low and Continuous High offer different speeds, though I didn’t see any reason not to shoot in CH, especially for sports photography. The D800 was quick to refocus and rapid fire, allowing me to point the camera in all directions and fire away continuously with great success. For more subdued exposure increments, the D800 had an Interval Timer Shooting mode and Time-lapse Photography mode, as well as a Multiple Exposure mode that offered as many as 10 exposures layered on top of each other.

White Balance was fairly straightforward, relying on presets and Kelvin temperature adjustments, and the D800 was stocked with Nikon’s classic Picture Controls (Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape). I stayed in Auto White Balance and chose Standard for Picture control in order to see what the camera was capable of offering natively. Other features you’ll stumble upon are Vignette Control, Auto Distortion Control and Noise Reduction modes. I kept them at Normal and Standard to get a feel for the lens and camera performance, but they can be adjusted with adequate results.

News Flash

Nikon-D800-Product-2While any serious photographer will be relying on their $500 Speedlight for additional illumination, the Nikon D800 does come with a popup flash for emergency situations. The flash has front and rear curtain sync, as well as a few Red-eye reduction syncs and a Slow sync. I was highly impressed with the performance of the built-in flash. Very few images exhibited that ghastly washed out flash look, and portraits of people were not marred by red devil eyes. The only issue I ran into with the D800′s flash was that the 24-70mm lens was too monstrous at base focal lengths. So, I had to back up and zoom in to avoid the infamous lens shadow in order to use it, even with the lens hood removed. With a fixed aperture prime lens, the built-in flash will be fine, but if you plan on tossing on a behemoth piece of glass like the one Nikon sent me, then your best bet is to rely on the trusty old Speedlight, hosted by the D800′s hot shoe.

Interface

Nikon-D800-Product-15I’m not a fan of Nikon’s Coolpix menus and interfaces, but in the DSLR world, it’s a whole different sleeve of Newman-O’s. The D800 is perhaps the best example of what a camera interface should be, alongside the venerable Nikon D4. First off, shooting options are beyond simple to access and select. Nearly everything can be controlled via a press and hold of a button and a spin of a command dial. The top LCD screen was my prime information display, complimented by green illumination for night shooting. The D800′s response times are superhuman, especially in the vibrant menu system. I could honestly fly through menu options. The menu layout was reminiscent of the lower Coolpix lineup, though it was so much more responsive and intuitive. Options were copious in the Custom Setting Menu, allowing me to customize Function and Shortcut buttons, alter EV step values, control sounds, customize command dials and ample amounts more.

The Info button summoned a large information display on the LCD screen, which was a bit more in-depth than the top-mounted LCD screen. In addition, the new Live View switch allowed me to toggle between Photo and Video Live View modes in real-time, and Video mode even displayed stereo microphone levels. The Virtual Horizon meter was available in nearly every shooting mode, as well as advanced grids in the viewfinder display and LCD screen. The interface on the Nikon D800 was fantastic.

Nikon D800 Image Quality

The Megapixel Boom

Nikon-D800-Product-11Back in 2008, the 12-megapixel count on the D700 was more than acceptable for most of its owners. Then again, that time frame marks the incipience of the Megapixel Wars, in which every manufacturer vied to take each other out by increasing resolutions by ridiculous numbers. After the D700 was announced, megapixel counts began to skyrocket. Today, a 12-megapixel count on a full frame DSLR is absurd, and Nikon knew that. Hence, the 36-megapixel FX format CMOS sensor inside the D800. Yes, Nikon tripled the D700′s resolution to ungodly proportions, placing the camera near medium format territory. Heck, the Pentax 645D captures 40-megapixel images and it can’t shoot video like the D800. But medium formats are a totally different animal, so that’s where the comparisons will end.

Now let’s talk about files. The D800 is capable of capturing RAW, JPEG and even TIFF images at 36.2-megapixels (7360×4912), 20.3-megapixels (5520×3680) or 9-megapixels (3680×2456). 36-megapixel RAW images averaged a 50MB file size, while their JPEG counterparts hovered around the 22MB average size. So, if you’re shooting in RAW+JPEG at full resolution, which is what I did, prepare for over 70MB per exposure. With an 8GB SanDisk SD card, I was able to capture just over 100 images before depleting it, while that 64GB SanDisk SDXC card gave me over 500 exposures. Of course, JPEGs can be recorded at different quality settings consisting of Fine, Normal and Basic, but I kept things in Fine.

The D800 records HD videos at 1920 x 1080 30/25/24fps and 720p 60/50/30/25fps in the H.264 format that are outputted as .MOV files. Videos recorded at High quality have a record time limit of 20 minutes, while Normal quality can stretch up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds per capture. In High quality, the Nikon D800 is capturing videos at 24Mbps, which is on par with most high-end consumer/prosumer camcorders and means you’ll have to use a memory card that’s Class 6 or higher. The Class 10 SanDisk may have been overkill, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. I found videos recorded at maximum quality to run about 200MB per each minute recorded. So, five minutes of 1080p 30fps video shot with the best settings will cost you a gigabyte. That’s actually on par with the rest of the DSLR market, and the 64GB SDXC card was more than enough.

Still Images
Nikon-D800-F9-1_320-100_1

F9, 1/320, ISO 100

Anyone who has ever read one of my camera reviews knows that my testing is a bit unorthodox compared to the rest of the digital camera sleuths out there. Rather than sit in a dark, dusty testing lab snapping away at manufactured scenes in every single combination imaginable, I take the camera out in the field with me and shoot in a variety of environments. So, if you’re looking for 100% crops of noise reduction and vignette control, you know where to go. I tested the Nikon D800 outdoors, in a museum, at night, inside and in a slew of other areas, challenging the camera with everything it had. In the end, I was wildly impressed with the D800 and its performance. Let’s face it, it’s hard to screw up a full frame DSLR these days, and most photographers will base their preference on brand loyalty (Nikon vs. Canon) or reviews like this. Let’s lay it on the line: the D800 is definitely worth it.

Nikon-D800-F8-30-100

30-second shutter with just a little touch-up in ACR.

The thing that amazed me the most was that Nikon was able to retain the detail and clarity from the D700 while tripling the pixel count on the D800. Colors are fantastic, as well as dynamic range. The D800 is a camera that will excel in portrait photography, landscapes, street, fashion, commercial, you name it. And when the lights when down, the D800′s high ISO performance stole the show. I was able to shoot comfortably at ISO 3200, even 6400 in some instances! Things started to get a bit noisy in the Hi ISO levels, especially at 12,800 and 25,600, but the noise is negligible if you plan on sizing the image down. It was at these high ISO levels that I began to truly see the difference between RAW and JPEG quality.

Hi-2-ISO-JPEG-VS-RAWIn bright light, the D800′s RAW quality edges out JPEG quality with more vibrant colors and finer detail, but in low light, the sharpness of the RAW images is miles beyond that of the JPEGs. Of course, there’s a bit more noise at higher ISO levels, but it’s a sacrifice for better clarity and detail in darkness. Even colors in low light were more accurate in RAW mode. So, if you’re doing any kind of post editing work with your images, shooting in RAW with the D800 is imperative. Overall, the Nikon D800 is a winner in the still image department. There were times that I had to dial the Exposure Compensation down due to an errant blown highlight, but I have no complaints regarding the image quality. For a full frame DSLR, the D800 is one of the best you can get.

Nikon D800 Still Image Samples

Note: All images were shot in RAW and converted to maximum quality JPEGs using Adobe Camera RAW. For information on aperture, shutter speed and ISO, refer to the file name of the image, which can be seen in your navigation bar when the image is clicked to full size. For instance, an image titled “Nikon-D800-F2.8-1_25-9051″ means that I shot it at f/2.8 (aperture), 1/25 (shutter speed) and ISO 9051. Also, every image is untouched, aside from the long shutter shot of the pond, which I spruced up in Photoshop.

Videos

While the Nikon D800′s still image quality is by far its most attractive feature, the camera’s video quality comes in at a close second. When the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was announced only months after the D700, I knew that Nikon was in a tight spot. The 5D Mark II not only had a 22-megapixel sensor, but its video quality was good enough to make it a viable option for filmmakers and commercial shooters across the globe. I knew that the D700′s successor had better come equipped with a stellar HD video mode in order to compete with the Mark II’s successor, and by golly, Nikon pulled it off.

The D800 can now be considered for film and commercial work, thanks to its fantastic HD video quality. Bright light shooting is outstanding while the D800 is sensitive enough to tackle many low light shooting environments with ease. However, I did notice a few things. Colors were not as vibrant in videos as they were in still images. Also, I ran into an occasional moire pattern and experienced the rolling shutter “jelly” effect while panning the camera quickly. This is to be expected though, since no camera is capable of producing stills and videos of equal caliber. Regardless of these minor faults, the D800 is still one of the best options for video, even when compared to certain rivaling prosumer camcorders. Shooting in Manual mode is the only way to go with videos, as shutter, aperture and ISO settings are readily available. In low light, high ISO levels do have a tendency to bring on the noise at anything past ISO 6400, so lighting will have to be configured properly in low light.

The built-in stereo audio quality was highly impressive for what it was, though a Rode Stereo VideoMic showed me that the D800 was capable of so much more. I particularly loved the Headphone jack for monitoring audio in conjunction with a good external mic, and the adjustable Audio Levels made me feel right at home. Any serious videographer will be taking advantage of those ports, no doubt. But there is one thing to consider. When connecting any 3.5mm microphone into the D800, the blanket noise nearly triples. I was able to manually lower the levels, but this made my audio pickup lowed, meaning I had to boost the levels in post. Coming from a camcorder background, this level of blankets noise with external microphones was something I never had to deal with. I think the best bet for serious audio on the Nikon D800 is to go for an XLR grip like a Beachtek DXA-SLR Pro in order to use higher quality sound modules and mics. Otherwise, I would not rely on the 3.5mm audio jack for professional applications.

So, the Nikon D800 is now a worthy video machine as well.

Nikon D800 1080p 24fps Video Samples

Nikon D800 1080p 30fps Video Samples

Nikon D800 Conclusion

Nikon-D800-Product-1Nikon finally caught up to Canon and said, “Hey, we can do HD too!” But scintillating still image quality and top notch video quality is only the tip of the iceberg for this champion. The Nikon D800 benefits from a highly intuitive construction that enabled me to make practically any adjustment I needed within a matter of seconds. Its Live View has been improved and the overall interface is a dream to work with. The D800 is rugged and trustworthy, just like having Chuck Norris as your bodyguard. Although I wasn’t crazy about the 24-70mm NIKKOR lens only because of its mammoth size, the glass churned out beautiful images.

But there’s still work to be done here, folks. I’ve got to take a look at the Canon EOS 5D Mark III in order to see which one of these full frame DSLRs cuts the mustard. On paper, the D800 transcends the 5D Mark III’s 22.3-megapixel sensor with 36 megapixels of fury, but the Mark III has a higher maximum ISO level in the absurd 102,400. Both cameras are capable of the same HD video resolutions and framerates, and my bet is that the contest will inevitably come down to brand loyalty, but we shall see.

For now, you can sleep soundly knowing that the Nikon D800 really is all that it’s cracked up to be and more. If you’ve had your finger on the “add to cart” button, go ahead and hammer it down: this thing’s a winner.

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