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Nikon D800 Preview

by Shun Cheung, February 2012


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.)

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

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.

Video Capability

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 RAW HDMI 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.

Memory Cards

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.

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.

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 Generation D4 Generation
Sports/News D3, replaced by D3S D4
High Resolution D3X D800/D800E
Prosumer D700 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.


Text and photos © 2012 Shun Cheung.

Article created February 2012

Readers' Comments


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Kevin Beretta , February 07, 2012; 01:10 A.M.

Too many pixles... I have all G state of the art lenses but the way you describe the need to use a tripod etc. to get all the benefits of the mega-pixel monster this is, makes it not appealing at all. I'll stick to D700 and look forward to scoring an extra body as the new toys become available.

T Du Vernet , February 08, 2012; 04:14 P.M.

Personally, I am disappointed with the D800 package. I was hoping for a 24mp camera that would give good hi ISO noise and buffer to 18 shots at 7+ fps. Otherwise, this concern over absolute sharpness is missing another element. In the ancient days of film, beyond "sharpness", an attractive quality of large format was smooth grain and shadow detail. I hope that those same qualities will apply to 36.5mp. Not every art photograph must be shot with absolute sharpness. 

Mario Lopez , February 08, 2012; 04:36 P.M.

Shun,

Thanks in advance for your article. I completely agree with this sentence :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 class=ISO and video, without the compromises of huge image file size and slow frame rate. I will wait until appears this true D700 successor, I hope. For my job although I practice several genres,to take architecture is enough 18-24 Mp

Didier Lamy , February 08, 2012; 04:44 P.M.

For working comfortably with 36 Mp photos, what kind of computer and screen must be added to the bill?

John Liow , February 09, 2012; 04:43 A.M.

A picture taken with the same lens and setup will be the same picture whether it was recorded with the D700 or the D800. The difference being, with the 36.3MP offered on the D800 now, you can actually see the micro smudges, motion blurness previously not recordable by the 12.3MP sensor. A user making the same sized prints from both cameras will probably not be able to appreciate the advantange, but if you are a photographer who has been constantly frustrated with the form factor of a medium format camera, the D800 will no doubt provide relief.

Demetris Yianni , February 10, 2012; 09:25 A.M.

Hi all, I'm an amateur photographer hoping to start exhibiting my photos at some point. I am certainly interested in printing to a large size. 

A question for those more technically aware. I imagine the preview and comments regarding the 'excessive' pixel count showing up the limitations of the lenses refers to examination at 100% viewing.

Practically I wouldn't necessarily have to print at the maximum photo quality size the camera allows, I could print at slightly less. If printing at less than 100% then would I not be able to eliminate any 'lens defect' issues from appearing in my prints?

If yes, then all the talk of 36 mega pixels being excessive is perhaps to be taken with a pinch of 'sugar' since it will give more head room for large prints.

Many thanks for any help on this!

 

 

 

 

 

M. Kevin Johnson , February 10, 2012; 01:57 P.M.

for the person that mentioned making large prints, as a test I had a perfectly exposed image with an 8mp digital camera that I wanted to see how far was too far.  I took it all the way up to 30"x50" and it actually looked really good (AND I AM VERY PICKY ABOUT SHARPNESS) using a Chromira 50-5x.  I am shooting with the D7000 now so I do not see a D800 in my future but I woudl love to have one to play with!!!!

Ray Samoy , February 10, 2012; 11:38 P.M.

Good review.  I'm glad I'm not the only one that thought the mega pixel was a little extreme.  For someone like me making the transition from medium format film to digital.  I have experimented with a 6MP Pentax and got good results on 12x18 print.  So I am pretty modest regarding mega pixels.  Anything from 18-28 would be more than enough.  And the price makes it out of reach for most people with the economy the way it is.  The D700 is looking pretty good right now for FX.

Brian T , February 11, 2012; 12:08 A.M.

Very nice preview of the D800.  I am looking forward to receiving mine.

Brief preview video at CP+: D800 Video CP+

Shun Cheung , February 11, 2012; 01:40 P.M.

There are some reports from people who have recently toured the Nikon Sendai plant in Japan that they are making about 30,000 units of the D800/D800E there. Those reports completely contradict the information photo.net received from Nikon USA that the D800 is assemblied at Nikon Thailand.

 

I am still trying to get confirmation from Nikon about that. I apologize for any confusion.

Marc Hult , February 14, 2012; 03:39 P.M.

Nikon's multi-model approach confuses the fingers and brains of folks that shoot more than one body at a time -- and pocket-book of underwater photographers who have to buy housings that can cost several times the price of a D7000. 

The nascent D8xxx family with the D800e (maximum sharpness with moire limitations) and D800 (high pixel compromise) c/should get extended with another D8xx that has a sensor with D4-like noise and sensitivity and reduced pixel count. All in the same form-factor and Human Interface

( And -- durnit !  - they should  _*all*_ have the U1 and U2 modes of the D7000. What were they thinking ??  This should be an immediate free firmware upgrade. )

Ric Donato , February 15, 2012; 02:05 P.M.

Yes, the specs of the D800 look good, however for my landscape shooting I will use a medium format film camera. In my minds eye the price of a roll of film with processing makes more sense than a spending $3,000+ for, computer that captures pictures, a DSLR.

Michael Bessler , February 15, 2012; 08:44 P.M.

My prints are big and I do multiple image pans to keep the detail.  With this camera, my multiples will be able to go down, not to a single image, but down by half or a little more because of less overlap.  I have one image 15' wide x 6' tall, which is made up of two rows of five 3'x3' gallery wrapped individually hung pieces.  That one was taken with 2 rows of 7 images each and the stitching was handled manually.  Now PS5+ can do it in a few minutes.  But my point is I want as many good pixels as I can get for a reasonable price.  It'll be the 800 or maybe the 400, can't wait for the 400 specs.

JOE PRETE , February 16, 2012; 03:09 A.M.

Shun, Like I mentioned in your review of the D4, here in the U.S. we are several steps behind the U.K. I am especially annoyed at NIKON'S (TECH?) Support. Everyone male or female, they give these blanket statements that don't really say much of anything at all. They try to explain why there is a USB 2.0 on the D4 with "USB 2.0 has been in use for quite some time and it is more than fast enough for the D4" and when I ask why is it that the lower priced D800 employs USB 3.0 the answer was "we're trying to anticipate the speed that will be needed in the future so sure we are using a USB 3.0" I wonder if this company holds employee meetings with so many different responses. Yesterday, when I asked about were these D800'S are being built, " I was told that "NIKON is a global company, so they will be built in several plants" I asked if that includes TIAWAN? And I was told "both the D4 and the D800 are being built there as well" And when I asked about the other plants, I was told "we don't yet have that information to give you" I wonder when Firmware updates are needed, and the answer, "If firmware updates are needed, it will be determined by the serial number as to, if anything needs to be done" She also said "we won't know if firmware updates will be needed, until they are in the customers hands" So I replied, it seems that updates are needed more often than not lately, and it seems like something we should be prepared for. She also reminded me that "NIKON is a very high quality oriented company. My reply to that was that every digital NIKON that I've owned so far has needed firmware updates, and the early ones had to go in for the service. I asked her how long she's been working for NIKON? She replied nearly 5 years now! She asked how long I've been using NIKON cameras. Since 1985 I said. She said that's a coincidence, "that's the year I was born!"  A SIDE NOTE: For you guys who think I'm too picky, remember that I do this, so you don't have too. I use Nikon, but I pick on them the most. My advice for those of you counting the days, try to wait for some of the bugs to be worked out. You'll be glad you waited.  JOE PRETE

Shun Cheung , February 16, 2012; 09:52 A.M.

The person who provided us (photo.net) advanced information on the D800 under non-disclosure agreement is a high-level manager with Nikon USA. All the information he provided us during a 30-minute conference call is accurate except for the country of assembly.

 

I think it is pretty clear that the D800 is manufactured at Sendai, Japan (with parts from all over, of course). However, I am still waiting for an official clarification from Nikon. To me, whether the D800 is made in Japan, Thailand or somewhere else maked little difference although as far as I know, Nikon only makes DSLRs in those two countries. Therefore, I am not like checking with Nikon every day to get an answer. Again, I apologize for the confusion.

 

Nikon also has factories in China and Indonesia. The mirrorless Nikon 1 system is make in China, so are some F-mount lenses (e.g. the 50mm, f1.4 and f1.8 AF-S) and flashes such as the SB-700. A lot of Coolpix digicams are made in Indonesia.

Reza Gorji , February 28, 2012; 09:30 P.M.

Excellent article

A great article with excellent points.

D800 is in my opinion a niche camera for studio and landscape photographers as the article states. It does not "replace" the D700.  Big differences with the D4.

 

Gorji

My gallery

 

Shun Cheung , March 25, 2012; 09:57 A.M.

Photo.net members who received the first batch of production D800 bodies have confirmed that it is actually made in Japan. I have corrected the article.

 

Again, I apologize for the earlier "made in Thailand" error.

Jim McConnell , April 12, 2012; 10:11 P.M.

I have a d800, got it on March 21st, 2012. According to the lable on the bottom of the camera it is indeed made in Japan. I also have a Nikon D7000 and it is a very good camera. I print fairly large pictures, ( Canon Pro-1 13x19"), the pictures taken with the D800 and printed on that printer are the BEST prints I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of prints! Of course I have spent a great deal of money on lenses, but a camera is only as good as the lens being used. Those of you who are thinking about high pixel count decreasing picture quality, it ain`t so!!! Nikon got it right this time.

Jorge Villegas , April 21, 2012; 04:37 P.M.

I'm a little fed up with this "too many pixels" issue. Since I have several Nikkor lenses  (20mm, 50mm, 24-120mm, 70-300mm) but not the real expensive stuff, am I suppose to get worse pictures than I do with my D200? Maybe I won't take full advantage of the sensor's potential, but I can't seriously believe that hype.

Mark Silverberg , May 17, 2012; 12:09 P.M.

I do street and documentary photography. I need the new audio monitoring for documentary video and the improved video of the 800. I need better low light capability for the streets, tent camps, workshops and people I photograph in natural light. I don't need more fps for sport or care less about that. A Nikon 750 with the same video as the 800, about 24 mp so my MacBookPro doesn't choke on the file size, and better low light works for me. Until then I'll get a couple of 700 bodies since the rush is for the sexy new 800.

Roy S , May 17, 2012; 02:26 P.M.

I have been testing my lenses on the D800 and have found that my best performer is my old 50mm 1.4D, which I thought would be terrible. I am not using a tripod for these tests. I have used the 24-85 2.8, 24-70 2.8, 16-35 4.0, and my old plastic made in Japan 50 1.4. I did shoot some of my art work using a tripod and the results were drop dead gorgeous. Hand holding it is completely another story. I need to improve my technique or carry a tripod around, something I'm not really interested in doing.


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