Ever since Nikon introduced their first FX-format (full 35mm-film frame, 24×36mm sensor area) DSLR the D3 in August 2007, 12MP had been standard on those Nikon DSLRs with the addition of the D700 and D3S in the following two years. The only alternative for a higher pixel count from Nikon was the $8000 D3X, while Canon and Sony have had 20 to 24MP DSLRs for within $3000 since 2008. Therefore, for several years, Nikon users had been waiting for a mid-price FX-format DSLR with more pixels.
In February 2012, the 36MP Nikon D800 and its twin, the D800E, were announced. Needless to say, the pixel count tripled from 12MP to 36MP, and it can capture 1080p HD video with a 100% viewfinder and two memory card slots, CF and SD, while Nikon maintains the $3000 original price tag from the D700 while the Japanese yen has appreciated a lot against all other major currencies since mid 2008 when the D700 was introduced.
This review is based on my experience with a D800 photo.net had on loan from Nikon USA for three months from late March 2012 to early July and a D800E I purchased in mid June. In the few weeks I had both cameras, I did a lot of comparison between the two and wrote a separate article Nikon D800 vs D800E, Which to Choose?
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Key D800 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
White Sided Dolphins
Frame Rate: 4 fps FX, 5 fps DX (6 fps for DX with the MB-D12 vertical grip and appropriate batteries) in either the 12-bit or 14-bit capture mode.
Flash sync speed remains to be 1/250 second
Dual CF and SD memory card slots, CF UDMA 7 compatible and SDXC compatible
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: Nikon EN-EL15 Li-ion battery, same battery used on the Nikon D600, 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
Three Black-Necked Stilts
If you are familiar with the Nikon D3, D700, or D300, you should be very much at home with the D800. In particular, controls on the D800 are very similar to those on the D700, but Nikon continues to make small adjustments, although probably not everybody agrees that those are all necessarily improvements.
The controls on the D800 are very traditional Nikon AF with the main and sub-command dials and dedicated buttons for the main controls. One fairly annoying issue on the D300 and D700 is that Auto Exposure Bracketing uses a user-customizable button. Shortly after I had started using my D300 in 2007, I unintentionally engaged auto bracketing and it took me a few hours to find out why my exposure was inconsistent from frame to frame. On the D800, the dedicated BKT (bracketing) button that was previously on the D2 and D200 is back.
Another control that previously received some complaint was the Continuous Servo, Single-Frame Servo and Manual Focus (C/S/M) switch. Quite a few people have accidentally touch that switch and therefore changed the setting, typically from auto focus to manual focus. On the D800, the C/S/M switch becomes an AF/M (MF) switch as the one on the D7000. You select AF, hold down the button on it and then use the main command dial to select Continuous vs. Single and the sub-command dial to choose among, 9, 21, 51 and 3D AF points. This is certainly a less error-prone design.
One not-so-welcome change is that the trap focus function is now gone on the D800.
The D800 uses the same Multi-CAM 3500 AF module as the D3 family, D4, D300/D300S, and D700, with 51 AF points and among them 15 cross-type AF points in the center three columns of 5 AF points each. My experience with it is that it is excellent for sports and wildlife action photography. However, as I pointed out in the original D3 review back in 2008, its cross-type AF points are too concentrated in the center of the frame, especially in the portrait orientation, I would like to have some cross-type AF points in the top half of the frame to cover the subject’s eyes.
AF for Bird in Flight
Since the D800 is mainly designed for still subject, landscape type photography with a relatively modest 4 frames/sec rate, I do not use it much for bird photography.
Back in spring 2012, I used the D800 for some hummingbird images and got good results. But recently, I mounted my 500mm/f4 AF-S (first version) on my D800E for some pelican flight images. I have owned that lens since 1998 and even on the D3, D3S and D700, its AF speed is fine for still birds but is never good for birds in flight. Therefore, when I tried it on the D800E and suddenly got consistently good AF results with flying pelicans, I was pleasantly surprised.
The D800 Left AF-Point Issue
Since the D800 was available in late March, 2012, there has been a lot of web forum discussion about AF errors mainly from the left AF points. Based on the amount of forum discussion, I assume that a somewhat higher than normal percentage of D800 bodies have this problem, but unfortunately only Nikon themselves have accurate records for warranty repair. Otherwise, we simply do not know how many cases are due to user error and how many are actual problems. Judging from discussion on the Nikon Forum here on photo.net, the percentage of D800 owners who require warranty AF service is not that high. Personally, I would not hesitate to buy a new D800. I had already read a lot of such discussion by the time I ordered my D800E in mid April, 2012. It took my local dealer almost two months to deliver it in mid June. I immediately tested my D800E thoroughly and it is totally fine. In case you get one with any defects, get it replaced promptly.