In just less than a year since Nikon introduced the D3 in August, 2007, Nikon added a D700 in the middle of 2008. The D700 shares the same sensor and essentially the same electronic as the D3 but in a smaller, slightly less robust body. At about 2/3 of the price of the D3, the D700 has been a hot seller. As Nikon updated the D3 to D3S with an improved sensor in late 2009 and then recently to the D4 last month, they have not changed the D700 so that its technology is getting old. In particular, since the D700 and D300S use the EN-EL3e battery that has exposed electronic contacts and is no longer in compliance with the new Japanese safety standards, Nikon can no longer sell them in Japan. Clearly, an update to the D700 is overdue.
Introducing the D800 and D800e
After quite a long wait, Nikon is finally introducing the D800 with a D800E variation. But unlike the similarities between the D3 and D700, the D800 has a very different design objective from the newly introduced D4. The D3/D3S/D4 series is optimized to be sports, news DSLRs with high frame rate, state-of-the-art high ISO results, and very robust bodies. The D800 jumps to 36MP, tripling the pixel count on the D700 (and more than doubling that on the D4) while the frame rate drops to 4 fps maximum for FX, 5 (or 6 with the MB-D12 grip) in the DX crop mode. The ISO range is from 100 to 6400, where the high end is the same as that on the D700. The low end is extended to ISO 100 similar to the D4. With those specifications, the D800 should be ideal for slower studio, fashion, and landscape photography. At least based on the specs, its low-light, high-ISO capability is still good. However, we are now spoiled by the D3S and the up-coming D4. In comparison, the D800’s top ISO 6400 is no longer state of the art.
The D800E, with the AA Filter Effect Cancelled
The way Nikon explains to us is that the D800E has the same filters in front of the sensor as the regular D800 does, including the anti-aliasing filter, but the D800E has an additional filter to cancel out the AA effect. The result is that the D800E can produce higher resolution at the expense that it is more prone to morie. Please keep in mind that feature is permanently built into the D800E such that there is no option to turn it off. You choose either a D800 or D800E when you purchase and you are stuck with that choice as long as you own the camera. (Nothing prevents you from buying both, of course.)
Nikon D800 Internals
Key D800/D800E Features
Sensor: 35.9×24.0mm (FX format), 36.3MP (7360×4912) Nikon designed sensor, Exceed III image-processing engine, auto sensor cleaning.
ISO range 100 to 6400 with extended Lo 1 (50) to Hi 2 (25600)
100% viewfinder, and that comes with 5:4 crop, 1.2x crop, and DX crop
3.2" LCD, 921K dots
Auto Focus: 51 AF points including 15 cross type, same Multi-CAM 3500 AF module as on the D3, D4, D700, and D300 families. However, similar to the D4, 9 of the AF points are sensitive to slower lenses with a maximum aperture of f8.
Dynamic 3D tracking AF uses a 91K-dot color matrix meter, same as the D4.
New AF priority option: focus priority for the first frame and then release priority for subsequent frames
Frame Rate: 4 fps FX, 5 fps DX (6 fps for DX with the MB-D12 vertical grip and appropriate batteries)
Flash sync speed remains to be 1/250 second
Memory Card Slots: 1 CF, 1 SD
Magnesium alloy chessis, weather sealing
Virtual Horizon: in additional to horizontal leveling, there are pitch and yaw leveling (front and back tilts)
In-camera HDR (High Dynamic Range): Can merge two images with 3-stop differential inside the camera.
Battery: EN-EL15 Li-ion battery, same battery as the D7000 and V1
Vertical Grip/Power Pack: New MB-D12
Pop-up flash that can serve as Nikon CLS commander
Accepts the older WT4A Wi-Fi transmitter, not the new WT5 for the D4.
Assembled at Nikon’s Sendai, Japan plant
Nikon D800 Side View
AF System and Metering System
While the D800’s sensor, frame rate, and ISO range are quite different from those on the D4, the AF system, metering system, controls, and video capability are similar. The D800 also uses the Multi-CAM 3500 AF module with 51 AF points, 15 of them cross type. That part is the same as the D700 as well as the entire D3 and D300 families. However, like the D4, the D800 can AF with f8 lenses, i.e. those f4 long teles with a TC-20e III attached. One thing I like about Nikon is that they continue to provide you their best AF system on their 2nd-tier DSLRs.
Nikon D800 with ME-1 Microphone
Once again, the D800’s video capability is similar to those on the brand new D4, i.e., the D800 is also a very capable video camera with direct RAWHDMI output. The main difference is that the D4’s video can be the full FX frame, DX crop, or CX crop (CX being the Nikon 1 mirrorless system’s 2.7x sensor size). On the D800, it can be either FX or DX, but there is no CX crop.
Battery and the MB-D12 Vertical Grip
The D800 uses the same EN-EL15 battery as the D7000 and V1. The EN-EL15 has protected, semi hidden electronic contacts and is safer. On my D7000, it lasts a long time.
The D800 accepts an optional MB-D12 vertical grip/power pack. It is equivalent to the MB-D10 for the D300/D700: once again there are three battery options:
A second EN-EL15
Eight(?) AA batteries
An EN-EL18, the battery for the D4
In any one of these options, there can still be an EN-EL15 inside the D800 body. Obviously you must have at least a battery either in the camera or in the grip for the D800 to operate.
With the latter two options, the MB-D12 can boost the D800’s frame rate to 6 frames/sec in the DX crop mode (from 5 fps). In the full FX mode, there is no boost to the frame rate; it remains at 4 fps regardless of which power option you choose.
The MB-D12 provides the same type of controls for vertical as those on the D800 and D4.
Similar to all modern higher-end Nikon DSLRs, the D800 accepts two memory cards, one Compact Flash (CF) and one Secured Digital (SD). Since the D800 is not a sports/action DSLR, it cannot take advantage of the fastest XQD cards as the D4 can. Therefore, Nikon puts the more traditional card slots into the D800. There are the usual backup (write image files onto both cards), overflow, and RAW/JPEG options.
D800 Top View with 24-120mm/f4
Price, Remaining at US$3000
With all of its new features, the good news is that the D800 remains at $2999.95, the same price the D700 was when Nikon introduced it in 2008. The D800E version, with the effect of its anti-aliasing filter cancelled, is $300 more at $3299.95.
Commentary and Conclusions
Without a doubt, the D800 is a strong successor to the D700 with a lot of features updated to current standards, such as a 100% viewfinder, dual memory cards, powerful video capability, new battery system, etc. In particular, the pixel count is tripled to 36.3MP from 12 on the D700. Clearly, all the complaints that affordable Nikon DSLR (i.e., other than the $8000 D3X) had too few pixel are more than answered. Apparently, the mega-pixel race is not over yet.
When I tested the D3X three years ago, it was already apparent that with 24MP on the FX frame, it was quite challenging to a lot of lenses. I had to use top-quality lenses, stopped down to f5.6, f8, maintaining a low ISO, and put the entire set up on a sturdy tripod to get super sharp results. While the D3X’s price is out of reach for most people so that not many of us have experience with it, a lot of us had the same observation with the $1200, 16MP DX-format D7000. The D800 is essentially the combination of those two, as its pixel density is almost the same as that on the D7000 (the DX crop mode on the D800 yields a 15MP image, just shy of 16MP on the D7000), but now you have the much larger FX area to cover where the edge of the image circle tends to be poorer. While I am confident that the top-notch lenses such as the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II, 300mm/f2.8 AF-S, 24mm/f3.5 PC-E will continue to work well on the D800, perhaps with some stopping down, some of the lesser lenses such as the 28-300mm/f3.5-5.6 AF-S will be soft on the long end. Additionally, even though your optics is top notch, any camera vibration, subject motion, focusing errors, insufficient depth of field, diffraction from very small apertures, and high ISO will more than offset gains from 36MP.
D800 Back Side
Therefore, the D800 should be an excellent portrait, landscape, fashion, and studio camera where you either have plenty of light or full control of the light, can take advantage of more pixels but not require fast frame rates, and people tend to use tripods in those occasions. The D800e has additional filters on the sensor to cancel out the anti-aliasing effect to maximize resolution, but at the expense potentially more moire. The exact pros and cons between the D800 and D800E will have to be tested under various conditions, such as subjects including fabrics, feather, etc.
With its higher pixel count, smaller size, and considerably lower cost, the D800 should be an excellent replacement for the D3X, especially for landscape photography. At least I would much rather have a lighter body when I go hiking for landscape images. However, for most photographers, 36MP seems to be an overkill. I think there is still a large market for a true successor to the D700: something with a moderate price tag, excellent AF capability, a moderate pixel count and state-of-the-art high-ISO and video, without the compromises of huge image file size and slow frame rate. In other words, it is like a D4 in a smaller, affordable package similar to the way the D700 differs from the D3. Whether Nikon will have a thrid FX-format DSLR in this new D4/D800 generation as they did in the previous D3/D700 generation remains to be seen.
D3, replaced by D3S
D800 and perhaps something else?
Correction: Initially photo.net received information that the D800 would be assembled at Nikon’s factory in Thailand, and we reported that accordingly. Unfortunately, that turns out to be incorrect. Production D800 units are actually assembled at Nikon’s factory in Sendai, Japan. I apologize for the earlier incorrect information.