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Nikon D800 SLR Review

by Shun Cheung, November 2012 (updated February 2013)


FX-Format DSLRs

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?

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
  • 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

Operation

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.

Auto Focus

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.

Memory, IQ, Dynamic Range, Low Light…


Text and photos © 2013 Shun Cheung.

Article revised February 2013.

Readers' Comments


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Steven Seelig , December 04, 2012; 02:07 P.M.

Shun,

A very nice review and at least the comments on the D800 match my experience as well.  

Wes Bender , December 07, 2012; 01:35 P.M.

Thanks for your informative review Shun,

I ordered an 800e when it was first introduced in February 2012-- literally within hours of its introduction.  Despite having a long-standing relationship with Adorama in NYC (going on 20 years now) I did NOT receive the camera until mid JULY.  I feel this is an excessively long time to wait for a camera, especially since there were folks already selling D800's "used" on eBay, Craigslist, etc  That said,  i'm not sure I will continue to patronize Adorama for serious purchases going forward...

My experience with my own D800e has been mixed with both positive and negative observations.  Starting with the positive: the D800e handles well and ergonomically is well-balanced and laid out.  Yes, although HUGE, the RAW files are magnificent in terms of image quality - ONLY.

The negative: unfortunately, my D800e had issues with color-accuracy and other digital artifact anomalies (fringing, etc).  The most serious issue however was with focus accuracy and sharpness.  I've owned quite a few pro Nikon DSLR's (starting with the venerable D1) and therefore am well apprised of Nikon's image quality prowess. Whether using AF-S or M focus, my images with the D800e were simply NOT sharp.  This was the case whether shooting on a tripod using studio strobes (with the lens sufficiently stopped down) or hand-held in bright specular daylight situations.  Along with the other issues, I truly felt letdown and disappointed and decided to request a replacement D800e!  

When I contacted my salesperson at Adorama to ask them to exchange the D800e for another one, I was RUDELY informed that the 800's are a hot commodity and there was still a long waiting list, so while they would take it back, they wouldn't exchange it (and insisted that I send it back to Nikon for warranty service -- despite it being less than a week old!).  With little other options available to me, I ended up sending it to Nikon (paying for shipping and insurance) and recently got it back.  On the warranty receipt, they indicated that they "adjusted" the focus and color issues and gave the D800e a thorough once-over and cleaning (again, it was less than a week old!).  I haven't as of yet had an opportunity to thoroughly put the D800e through its paces, but am looking forward to finally having the use of what should be Nikon's finest digital slr yet!    

To be perfectly honest, I feel as though Nikon has known all along about the many issues plaguing the D800 / D800e and should have voluntarily apprised early buyers of potential issues (which have been widely documented here on the web and elsewhere).  With that in mind, i've noticed a serious decline in the quality of Nikon's "customer service".  I've been shooting professionally with Nikon cameras since the mid 80's  and have always been loyal to the brand -- even when it appeared that Canon was outclassing them...  Is anyone at Nikon listening? 

Wes Bender / NYC

Kin Yu , January 03, 2013; 10:53 A.M.

The good:

Between the words it pointed out that the D800 and D800E were not a good camera for your money.  I'll keep my D700.

 

The bad:

1. A camera was borrowed from Nikon.

2. Copied word by word of Nikon's own ad.

3. Did not emphasize the flaws of this camera as pointed out by one of the members and in other web blogs.

4. The review was too wordy and too long. One page should be adequate.

5. Did not compared with Nikon's competitor's camera mainly Canon's D5 Mk 3 an D6.

Shun Cheung , January 04, 2013; 05:04 A.M.

Kin Yu, if you do not like the Nikon D800 and/or my review of it, you are entitled to your opinions. I don't have any problems with that. However, I do find the D800 to be an excellent camera, especially for still subjects such as landscape, stuidio work, etc. The D800 would not be my choice for sports and action photography. The fact that I had used a Nikon D800 test sample for a month, waited for the release and initial reviews of the D800E, which was released a month after the plain D800, and spent $3300 of my own money on one should make it very clear.

 

Both the D800 test sample photo.net had on loan from Nikon and my personal D800E are as perfect as they can be. By now, I have been using my D800E for over 6 months. I did not run into any of those AF issues that are widely discussed on web forums. So it is difficult for me to comment on issues I did not experience personally, as I would rather not comment solely based on here say. In the review, I did mention such left AF problems that apparently a lot of people have experienced.

 

Incidentally, this entire review is my own writing. How can it possibly be some "word for word" copy from some Nikon advertisement? Unless Nikon copies my review, but that also seems to be highly unlikely, especially this review was published months after the introduction of the D800.

 

As I said, the D800 is not for everybody. Unless you apply top-notch technique and good optics at optimal apertures, 36MP is a waste of memory and disk space. By now, Nikon has added the 24MP D600 which is sold at deep discounts. For a lot of people, the D600 is a much better deal for the monty.

 

Incidentally, when Bob Atkins reviewed the Canon 5D Mark III for photo.net, he also used the same D800 photo.net had on loan from Nikon. Bob made some comparisons and found that the D800 has better dynamic range than the 5D III: http://photo.net/equipment/canon/5D-MkIII/hands-on-review/?p=3

Manel Pablo , January 05, 2013; 07:11 P.M.

I just bought a Nikon D800. I give them back for problems with focus and problems with LCD display (appears a dominating green).

I think that the buyers are also beta testers.

Quality Nikon is not the same than ten years ago.


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