Nikon D800 Digital Photography Review

While there may be other current full-frame DSLRs to choose from, for many photographers the choice is going to be between only two of them; the D800 and new Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which was also launched in March. The earlier EOS 5D Mark II has been the benchmark camera in this class since it was introduced in 2008, with its 21.1-megapixel resolution easily trumping the excellent 12.1-megapixel Nikon D700 which had been launched a few months earlier. I'm going to be taking a look at the EOS 5D Mark III in a couple of weeks, but there are some comparisons we can make right away. For a start, Nikon has turned the tables on its rival, with the D800's awesome 36.3 megapixels resolution soundly beating the 5D Mark III's 22.3 megapixels. The most crucial comparison for most though will be the price; the 5D Mark III has an RRP of £2,999 body-only, while the D800 is priced at £2,599 body only, which is bound to be another big point in its favour.

Both the D800 and the EOS 5D Mark III are what are termed "compact" full-frame cameras, although they earn that name only in comparison to the massive behemoths that are the EOS-1D series and Nikon's own single-digit models, such as the D3X and the new D4. The D800 is a big camera by most other standards, measuring approximately 146 x 123 x 81.5mm, which is slightly larger than the D700, and a few millimetres narrower but taller and deeper than the EOS 5D Mark III at 152 x 116.4 x 76.4mm. The D800 is surprisingly light for such a big camera though, tipping the scales at 1,006g including battery and two memory cards, approximately 95g lighter than the D700 and 50g lighter than the EOS 5D Mark III.


For other improvements we have to move inside, where we find that the D800 has many components that it shares with the D4, including the new EXPEED 3 image processor. This is faster than previous versions, with 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing, giving increased dynamic range in raw mode. It is also designed to deliver better video results too, with uncompressed HDMI video output and high quality audio output. I will admit to being no expert when it comes to video, but compared to other DSLR video that I've tried the results looked superb to me. It can shoot full 1,920 x 1,080 HD at 30, 25 and 24 fps, which I am assured is very useful for filmmakers, and has audio monitor output.

Also visiting from the D4 is the Multi-CAM3500FX 51-point AF system. It's an improved version of the AF system from the D700, which in my humble opinion has been the best AF system on any DSLR. This improved version is now even more sensitive in low light, going as low as -2EV, a whole stop lower than the D700. My opinion of it is unchanged; it's still the best AF system on the market. I shoot many gigs, often in very dark conditions, and I found that the D800 can focus on a stage back-lit by just two 40W bulbs. I could barely see the guitarist, but the D800 still produced a sharp picture. Another chunk of D4 is found in the 3D Colour Matrix III metering system, which is a fairly bonkers bit of kit. It features a 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor, a massive boost from the 1,000-pixel sensor in the D700. It is apparently much better at scene recognition and has full-time face detection. The test of this is in the results, and I didn't find a lighting situation in which it failed to produce perfect exposures.

Features and Quality

The body of the D800 is made of magnesium alloy and is built for durability. It has the same body seals as the D700, protecting it from dust and moisture, and many of the FX-fitting lenses also have body seal gaskets. The body design is obviously derived from that of the D700, with many of the controls in the same position for the sake of familiarity, but the body shape is noticeably different, with a taller viewfinder turret and more sloping shoulders. Despite its size, the D800 is a very easy camera to handle, with all of the controls sensibly place and clearly labelled, although the changed AF controls are a bit fiddly to adjust. Like the D4 and D700, the viewfinder has a circular cushion and a manually activated blind. The video recording button is located above the shutter button, also like the D4, reflecting the increased importance Nikon has placed on the camera's video recording capabilities.

Listing all the D800's many features would take up more space than we have here, and is available on Nikon's site anyway. Instead, I'll just cover the major improvements over the D700, and since I already mentioned the viewfinder, I'll start there. The improvements are not just external; inside it's basically the same finder as the new D4, with a larger, brighter focussing screen, 100 per cent frame coverage and automatic crop lines for DX, 1.2x and 5:4 formats. As with the D700, DX cropping is optionally automatic if DX lenses are used, but the D800's massive sensor produces 15.3-megapixel images in this mode (compared to the D700's 5-megapixel ones). The D800 has a slightly larger monitor than the D700, an 8cm (3.2in) screen with 921,000 dot resolution and 170-degree viewing angle. It comes with a good heavy-duty clip-on screen protector as standard. Also new for this model is dual memory card format support. The D800 has two slots, one for CF cards, the other for SD. One nifty little improvement I noticed was perhaps the least significant, but I like the attention to detail. There's now a small white raised bead on the left of the body near the lens mount, which lines up with the white dot on the lens mount when fitting a lens. It's much easier to see than the small white dot on the mount ring itself, and makes changing lenses that little bit quicker.

Price : £2599 (body only)

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