One interesting way to compare high-spec cameras is on the thickness of the accompanying manual. My old Sony Alpha A100 had a typical manual for an entry-level model, a relatively slim 160-page volume, while the Pentax K7 that I mainly use these days has a more substantial 334-page book befitting its professional status. In preparation for my forthcoming review of the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III I downloaded a copy of the manual for that camera, which weighs in at a healthy 404 pages. They all pale before the tome that comes with the Nikon D800 though. At 448 pages, all in English, as well as a 52-page “Quick Guide”, it’s a veritable brick of a book, and one of the biggest instruction manuals I’ve ever seen for a camera.
It’s not all that surprising though when you actually take a look at the camera itself. Launched in March of this year, the D800 is Nikon’s latest entrant into that most exclusive of photographic clubs, the full-frame digital SLRs. Even among such distinguished company though the D800 stands out. With its specially-developed 36.3-megapixel CMOS sensor the D800 is, to paraphrase Harry Callahan, the most powerful digital SLR in the world, offering the kind of image quality and performance that will have professional photographers, as well as the more ambitious amateurs, drooling into their Billinghams.
Battle of the full-framers
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.
Build quality and features
Like all the best pro cameras, 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.
Some other external features have remained unchanged from the D700, however. For example, the built-in flash and the LCD data display are exactly the same.
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.
One unfortunate exception to this is the focussing in live view mode, which employs the usual contrast-detection method and is quite slow, especially in low light, although to be fair I have seen a lot worse, and it does suffer particularly in comparison to the viewfinder focussing.
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.
One area where the D800 does lose out to several of its rivals is in continuous shooting speed, which I have to say really doesn’t trouble me all that much. I’ve never considered a very fast continuous frame rate to be all that important in a camera, at least not as important as low shutter lag and fast, accurate AF. Nonetheless, some people seem to like clattering away at a double-digit frame rate, and the D800 doesn’t really do that. At full resolution, it can shoot at 4fps for up to 15 frames, and it then takes a while to fully clear the buffer, around 25 seconds with a 90MB/s CF card, but over a minute with slower older cards. While this is slightly faster than the EOS 5D Mark II, it’s slightly slower than the EOS 5D Mark III’s 6fps, and in fact also slower than the D700. However, when you realise that it’s chucking around raw NEF files of around 70MB alongside JPEGs averaging about 18MB that’s some pretty impressive high-speed data handling.
When it comes to discussing the D800’s picture quality it’s hard to talk in anything other than superlatives. I was using the camera with Nikon’s new AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED lens, and the results were just fantastic. I strongly recommend looking at the accompanying sample shots; they really tell the story better than I can here. In terms of sheer resolution and detail, it is simply the best you’ll find this side of a medium-format camera. Processing the 16-bit raw files produces amazing dynamic range and colour depth, but even the native JPEG images are of amazingly high quality, not surprising considering their extremely low compression rate and huge file size. Even in odd lighting conditions, the very accurate and reliable automatic white balance produced great results. The flawless autofocus and metering ensure that every shot is pin sharp and perfectly exposed, but it is the noise-free smoothness that really stands out. The D800 produces almost noiseless images at 3200 ISO, and even at the expanded 12,800 ISO setting the noise is just a slight grain.
Having said all that though, there is one thing I find a bit odd. We’ve established that the D800 has phenomenal image quality, and that this is undoubtedly the camera’s major selling point. However, in April, just a month after the launch of the D800, Nikon introduced the D800E, which is exactly the same as the vanilla D800 but with a modified low-pass filter that has no anti-aliasing, producing marginally sharper pictures under some circumstances. The D800E costs £300 more than the standard model, but surely they’re competing against themselves here? In my opinion, it would have been a better idea to wait a while and then release the D800E towards the end of the year, giving the D800 a chance to build up a bit of momentum, but then what the heck do I know?
Nevertheless, in my opinion the Nikon D800 is now the benchmark for DSLR image quality, and I don’t foresee anything coming along that will be significantly better for some time. If you’re looking for a lightweight full-frame DSLR and the ultimate in image quality then either the D800, or if you want to spend a bit extra, the D800E, is really your only choice.
No matter how you look at it, the Nikon D800 is unquestionably one of the best DSLRs on the market, and in terms of sheer picture quality and resolution, it is now the one to beat. It has class-leading colour depth and dynamic range, the best AF and metering system you’ll find anywhere, and it produces amazingly detailed noise-free images even at moderately high ISO settings. It’s essentially a D4 with a higher resolution sensor, in a smaller and lighter body, and for about half the price, and is going to be a massive hit with landscape, portrait and studio photographers. Its continuous frame rate is a bit slower than the EOS 5D Mark III, but that’s not going to earn it any bad marks from me.
- Image quality
- Build quality
- Some fiddly controls
- Live view AF
- Slower FPS (if it bothers you)
£2599 (body only)