inches) for a “pro” camera, it feels hefty and substantial in your hand—especially with some quality Nikkor
glass attached. (I shot with the D800 using the AF-S
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens while Saladyga used 50mm
f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4G and 135mm f/2 DC lenses. Jordan
Matter, another D800 tester, shot with it using Nikkor
14-24mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/1.4 lenses.)
One area where Nikon skimped on the D800 is the
flimsy, consumer-style sliding door covering the CF and
SD card slots. This was the same story on the D700,
and while it might sound like a minor quibble, it’s fairly
easy to accidentally open the door when pulling the
D800 out of a camera bag.
There are some other, higher end extras on the
D800 including its nice 3.2-inch, 921,000-dot LCD
screen, which is the same as the one on the D4. The
screen features 46x magnification for extreme zooming during image playback, which helps you make sure
all 36.3-megapixels are in order.
The focus selector switch on the lower front left of
the D800—which allows you to toggle between autofocus and manual focus—lets you change modes
on the fly, just as with the prosumer-oriented D7000
DSLR and, more recently, the D4.
Matter ( www.jordanmatter.com), who currently
uses the D3s and liked the tough and heavy build of
the D4, was happy with the smaller and lighter D800.
“I love the size,” he tells us. “I mean, why not?”
SAY YOU WAN T SOME RESOLU TION?
How do you squeeze 36. 3 megapixels on an imaging
chip that once had just 12 megapixels? You make those
With one of the most generous pixel sizes ( 8. 45 microns per pixel) for a digital SLR yet, the D700 was a
low-light killer and a pretty amazing performer in good
light as well. But if you wanted to print your photo at
17 x 22 inches or larger or significantly crop a portion of
the shot, it wasn’t ideal.
The D800, on the other hand, has relatively small-sized pixels ( 4. 88 microns per pixel) which should,
theoretically, make it struggle in low light. At the same
time, its medium-format-worthy resolving power
seems better suited for large-scale advertising campaigns and significant photo crops.
And, in our testing, the D800’s resolution was often
more (emphasis on more) than enough for us: detail was
exquisite; color was pristine; and dynamic range was
better than what we’d get from most medium-format
cameras. Plus, we could print as big as we wanted or
zoom in and crop as much as needed, and not lose detail.
“That [imaging] chip is something else,” Saladyga
notes. “The images I got from it were fantastic.”
Matter, who had previously considered buying the
D4 ($5,999) after testing it for last month’s issue, is now
more interested in the less expensive D800. He says a
recent campaign he shot with the 12.3-megapixel D3s
that was printed on large banners would have been
much better served by the high-resolution D800. “I was
really impressed with my images from the D800,” he
says. “I’d purchase it over the D4 for my needs.”
The D800 was also a far better low-noise/high-
ISO/low-light performer than any of us expected,
The Nikon D800’s tight camera body with sloping shoulders
makes it resemble some consumer digital SLRs.
considering it’s rather small pixel size. A wedding image Saladyga shot at ISO 2500 of a bride and groom
clinking glasses was clean as a whistle.
“I’m not seeing any noise at all, even up to ISO 3200,”
he reports. Though the D800 struggled at ultra-high
ISOs (it can shoot up to ISO 25600), the camera fared
better than expected. A wedding image he shot at ISO
12800 was noisy but perfectly usable once it was converted to black-and-white.
At lower ISOs, the D800’s noise levels actually
seemed to be better than the D700. “At ISO 400, there
was less noise but ten times the detail,” Saladyga says.
QUID PRO QUO
The trade-off to the D800 being able to record such
large images is that you’ve got to have some place to
put them. The RAW image NEFs we shot with the D800
were 40 to 50 mb per image and we burned through CF
and SD cards like there was no tomorrow.
These high-res shots will also create a lot of external
storage dilemmas, in that you’ll probably need to buy a
whole new set of hard drives and RAIDs to archive your
pictures. That’s not a make-or-break scenario though:
External hard drives are pretty inexpensive these days
and with the advent of high-speed transfer protocols
such as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, moving the D800’s
big pictures throughout your workflow should be easier
and faster than it would have been just a few years ago.
Make no mistake though: The money you save by
buying the D800 instead of a D4, Canon 5D Mark III (also
reviewed in this issue) or whatever other pricey new
model you had your eye on, will probably be dropped on
64 gb memory cards and Thunderbolt RAIDs.
The D800 is also not going to win any races as a
performer. Matter photographs a lot of dancers in motion and the one area where the D800 lagged, for him,
was its rather pedestrian 4 frames per second (fps)
full-frame burst rate. (The camera can shoot 5 fps in
cropped, DX mode and with its new MB-D12 battery
pack, it can capture 6 fps in DX mode.)
Though the D800 has, purportedly, the same Multi-
CAM3500FX auto-focus sensor (51-point, 15 cross-type)
and EXPEED 3 image processor as the Nikon D4, it didn’t
seem to react as quickly as the D4 or even the D3s.
“The focus points are not as clear as on the D3s, and I
had to switch to it for an outside shot because the focus
wouldn’t lock onto a dancer as he ran into the frame,”
Matter notes. “Burst was slow compared to the D3s and
overall not as easy to lock focus on a moving target.”
Saladyga describes a similar problem while testing
the D800. “It seemed to have a problem focusing in
low-contrast situations, such as on the white of a wed-
ding dress or clothing as it was moving toward me. I
kept saying to myself, ‘Why isn’t this autofocusing?’”
Those issues aside, both Saladyga and Matter say
they would likely purchase the camera. “I thought
Nikon was nuts for releasing a camera with this much
resolution but it held up great,” Saladyga adds. “Now I
just have to buy some more hard drives.”
THE BOT TOM LINE
Many were skeptical when they first heard about the
36.3-megapixel Nikon D800. Was it really possible to
create such a high-resolution digital SLR and sell it for
$3,000 without some massive trade-off in image quality? After testing the D800 with two other photographers, we’d say the answer is yes. Images from the
D800 were gorgeous and filled with incredible detail,
letting us comfortably print at 17 x 22 inches and above
as well as zoom in and crop our shots without losing
any significant detail. It’s also no slouch in low light.
We got relatively low-noise shots at up to ISO 6400,
which is something we totally didn’t expect. The icing on the cake is the D800’s excellent 1080p movie
mode which, while it may not be the first thing photographers are interested in when they’re considering
such a high-resolution camera, is a nice bonus. On the
downside, the D800’s build is not nearly as robust as
the flagship D4 and the camera’s mediocre 4 fps burst
rate makes it unsuitable for sports or photojournalism
shooters. But that’s not who will be interested in the
D800. It’s a camera for wedding, beauty and commercial photographers seeking the resolution and stellar
image quality of a medium-format model, but not the
Wall Street-bonus-like price tag. While it may not be
exactly for “the 99 percent,” the D800 is a great camera for the hard-working pro.
Pros: Incredible detail and gorgeous image
quality from the 36.3-megapixel, full-frame
sensor; surprisingly low noise at high ISOs
despite relatively small pixel size; lightweight
but solid camera build; excellent 1080p HD
CoNs: High-resolution image files will force
you to buy lots of new memory cards and
external storage devices; mediocre 4 fps burst
rate; we experienced some autofocus issues
with moving subjects in low-contrast settings;
some skimping on details such as flimsy
memory card door