Nikon’s D800: A Very Short Hands-On Preview

Posted Apr. 27th, 2012 by Daniel J. Cox

I recently returned home from India, walked down to my local camera shop and found one of Nikon’s D800s sitting on the shelf. It wasn’t there due to lack of interest, rather it had been set aside as a demo. So I asked Jen, “Hey Jen, any chance I could take that home after the shop closes and bring it in early tomorrow morning?” She agreed with a big smile and later that day I returned to pick up one of the most talked about cameras to come out of Japan in several years.

Nikon's megapixel monster, the new D800.

Before I discuss my initial impressions I want to say that when Nikon first announced the camera I was quite surprised. I wrote a post on the subject titled  What do You Think of Nikon’s Two New DSLR’s?  Click on the link and you will see my early pre-handling thoughts. I tried to keep most of my feelings to myself, hoping to get honest feedback from our readers, but to say the least, I was confused.

What threw me for a loop was that ever since Nikon started producing professional DSLR’s they’ve worked hard at convincing us that the megapixel size of the chip doesn’t matter. Then they announced this monster 36 megapixel machine that goes against everything they’ve been professing for the last ten years. Wow, I was taken aback. However, I’ve come to understand the danger of professing the word “NEVER”. If you do,  you’re absolutely guaranteed that at some point that comment WILL come back to bite you in the ass (oops did I say ass? Are we allowed to swear on the Internet?). Anyway, they obviously changed their mind. And…. I have to say that after seeing the files from this top of the line, DXO christened  “King” of all DSLR’s Nikon does have something really special in this new captivating image capture machine.

After picking the camera up from F/11, I took it back to the studio, grabbed a couple of lenses, rifled through my gear for an external mic, picked up my little buddy Dice and headed down to the creek that runs not far from our studio. My plan was to shoot some images of Dice (have you ever seen a South American Pygmy Wolf?) as well as record some video of the flowing water. It was as good as I could do on such short notice. The goal was to compare the files to my now very old (in digital camera years) Nikon D700. The D700 has become my favorite camera for situations where low light is predominant.  The high ISO capabilities of the D700 are legendary and I’m actually thinking about picking a second one up, but I wanted to compare the D800 to the D700 first. Keep in mind that the D700 has only a 12 megapixel sensor and the D800 is 36 megapixels. This is important since traditional thinking in the camera world is the higher number of pixels, the poorer low light performance you should expect. That said, I had been reading amazing things about this new 36 megapixel sensor and I wanted to see it for myself.

With the late afternoon light fading fast I hurried to shoot about 100 frames and capture several minutes of HD video. Since the time I spent with this camera was so short, I’m going to bullet point my main thoughts.

  • The fit and finish of this camera is the best I’ve ever experienced on any Nikon I’ve ever used. They just keep raising the bar regarding quality feel and ease of use. Admittedly this machine is a chunk but it’s a very satisfying chunk even though my desire to go lighter and smaller is well known. You just can’t believe the feel of quality and perfection.
  • The Menu system has been reworked slightly from what I can tell and is just more pleasing to look at and navigate. They’ve improved the colors of the Folders and overall it just seems crisper than other Nikon LCD’s. As I write this it occurs to me they most likely increased the resolution of the LCD. I’ve tried finding details on the specs but no luck. If anyone has information on this I would love to have you share it here on the blog.
  • There is currently a lot of debate going on around the web regarding a strange greenish color cast on the D800’s LCD. I have to say I didn’t see it but I wasn’t looking for minor issues. I wanted to see the files.  Nikon Rumors claims some sort of official response from Nikon addressing this problem but I couldn’t find an official response anywhere. From what I saw with my own eyes it seems this very well could be one of those issues many photographers like to partake in when it’s really not much of an issue at all. I can’t say for sure. I can say that I didn’t notice it and what I did notice is that the D800’s auto white balance was much more accurate in the images that I loaded to my computer than those I shot in the exact same situation with my D700. The D700 images were much, much warmer.
  • The controls have a bit more of a tactile feel and  are a big improvement over my D700.
  • The AF seems extremely fast and accurate though I didn’t shoot anything that was really moving. That being the case my observation is a bit meaningless but it seems to be every bit as good as my other Nikons. I’ll be doing more tests when I get one to use for a longer period of time .
  • The new placement of the video button is going to take a bit of getting used to. They really changed the video controls and I’m not sure it’s for the better.
  • Regarding video; something I’ve not seen any review mention to date is the new switch that toggles the camera from Video Mode to Live View/Stills Capture Mode. At first I was confused by this setup but once I saw what the camera did when it was set to Video Mode I was elated. A little known rule of thumb in the Video DSLR world is that to get the highest quality video, the camera should be shooting at a shutter speed equal to the video frame rate the camera is set to. For those who are unfamiliar with Video Frame rates I promise to discuss it in more detail in another post but suffice it to say that before the D800 I was constantly having to set my cameras shutter speed to 1/30th or 1/60th of a second. Video capture produces a smoother, less choppy looking moving image when it’s shot at a shutter speed equal to the the frame rate the camera is set to. I know this sounds confusing but trust me on this one. Now when you set the toggle switch to Video, the frame rate is automatically  set to the necessary 1/3oth of a second it should be. No need to have to remember to adjust your exposure so the camera is shooting at the shutter speed equal to the frame rate. That is a big deal.
  • The HD video is stunning. I’m no expert but for the projects I would be using it on, namely the Arctic Documentary Project, it will be a substantial improvement over everything else I’ve used to date. To not have to carry a dedicated Video camera, along with all my other still photo equipment will be a welcomed blessing.
  • My one generation back 70-200mm lens will most like have to be replaced with the newer 70-200 VRll. It just didn’t seem to be as good as I’ve seen this lens produce. The word across the net is that the older, non-nano coated lenses just aren’t up to producing the quality a chip this size can capture. I would like to make further tests before I go out and spend money on another lens I already own. My 24-70mm f/2.8 and 14-24mm f/2.8 produce superb results. They are, however, nano coated and that makes a big difference in sharpness and flair.
  • The new option of plugging in head phones so you can listen to the audio while in video mode is a fantastic new addition to the video capture process. Anyone who shoots video knows that sound is at least 50% of a quality video production. It was a joy to plug my Rode mic into the mic socket and my Apple headphone into the headphone jack. I could hear every bird chirp, the rising water and passing trains. It was beautiful.

Low Light, High ISO Tests

For a quick and dirty low light test I set the D800 on a tripod in the little space I call my video editing room. The walls are almost black, well kind of dark chocolate. I know, I know, why would you have dark chocolate colored walls when black would be better for an editing room? Well, my dear wife, who’s kindness is legendary, decided to decorate my new digs when I was away on assignment . I hate painting and she doesn’t mind. She knew I wanted dark and thought a dark chocolate would fit the bill. I didn’t have the heart to tell her a dark gray or black would have been more consistent within the world of video editing. Her heart, as always, was in the right place and I didn’t want to spoil that. So just between us (she doesn’t read my blogs), she chose something much more interesting in her mind and I didn’t have to paint. Win/win if you ask me. Anyway, back to the test.

With the D800 on tripod and a 14-24mm F/2.8 lens attached, I shot ISO combinations starting at 200 and progressing one stop each until reaching 12,800. I could have started the ISO tests at 100 but since the D700 doesn’t go that low I chose to make the test the same between the two cameras by starting at the 200 mark. After running the sequence on the D800, I swapped the camera out for the D700 and repeated the steps. The key to using this dark room was the shadowy corners I would be able to look into on the final image. This is not as technical as what the folks at DPReview would do but it works well for the real world scenarios I plan to shoot in.

A chunk of D700 image at 100%. Take a look at the shadows beneath desk. There is noise but keep in mind this is directly out of the camera in RAW format. Click on the image to see it at full size.

After looking at images from both cameras I was astounded at how well the D800 compared to the much smaller sensor of the D700. The files out of the D800 had much more detail and the noise was comparable up to 6400ISO. After 6400, images from both cameras started to degrade but it’s a toss-up in my mind which one was worse. They both weren’t that bad. It’s hard to believe how low the light can be in today’s world of digital photography and still be able to get superb images. The D4 and D3 series cameras would be better but the sensors are so much smaller. I’ve been extremely happy with the D700 so I can’t complain about the D800 when you consider the advancement in the sensor size.

Ever since Nikon released the D3 and D700 bodies it has been obvious that they really have some sort of magic going on when it comes to optimizing their digital sensors for low light situations. Canon was killing them before the D3, but ever since the D3 was released there has been almost no competition for Nikon on the low light front. To have the D800’s 36 megapixel sensor be able to handle such low light conditions at such high ISO’s seems almost beyond the realm of possibilities. But here it is.

A chunk of D800 image at 100%. This image is larger than the D700, since bringing the image up to 100% makes the image a smaller chunk of the overall picture. This is because the file size is much larger as a result of the 36 megapixel sensor. Click on the image to see it at full size.

So those are my initial thoughts. Overall I think this will be an amazing camera for Nikon. However, I can’t help but think here is another camera in the lineup they haven’t announced yet. Something most likely with a 22-24 megapixel sensor that can shoot at 8 frames per second and also does quality video. There just seems to be a gaping hole. My guess is they have it virtually done and ready to go but there’s a reason why they haven’t released it yet, and here’s my theory on why that’s the case.

Back when the D3 was originally released, Nikon also introduced the D700. If they weren’t released together it was within a few months of each other. The fabulous thing about the D3 was it quickly became the low-light, high ISO performance leader. Even today the D3’s sister camera, the D3S, is still considered to be the camera for low-light pictures and DXO labs actually rate the D3S a bit better in low light than the new D4.

So back to the D700 and the fact that the the best thing about the D700 is that it uses the exact same sensor as the D3. When that became obvious, many photographers chose not to spend their hard earned cash on the twice as expensive D3. Why pay the extra money for the D3 if all you really wanted was quality low-light performance and you could get it in a D700 at half the price? That’s the route I took.

Well, Nikon didn’t let that happen twice. That’s why I’m convinced we’re going to eventually see another camera that really does replace the D700. The D800 didn’t do that in my mind. The D800 is a completely different animal than the D700. I’m guessing Nikon will sell the begeezus out of the D4 before they release a downsized version of the same and THEN we will have a true D700 replacement.  Meanwhile Nikon is going to make as much hay off the D4 as they possibly can, forcing all of us who want faster frame rates, a bit better low-light performance and some other nice options, to buy the high priced D4. I don’t fault them for taking this route, it’s good business but they do take a chance that people may migrate to the competition.

The new Canon EOS 5 Mark lll. A big upgrade in quality of build from the old Mark ll. Canon has finally received the message that Nikon kills them in build quality in their second tier cameras.

Aaaah… the competition. Yep, it’s alive and well in the wonderful world of photography. The most notable player for competing with the D800 is the recently released EOS 5 Mark lll. From all I’ve heard it has a few of its own issues. Seems to be a major Kerfuffle, as my Canadian wife, who can paint up a storm, would say. Seems the EOS 5 Mark lll has a so-called light leak, attributed to the top LCD panel that affects exposure. The 5 Mark lll has many of the same attributes I predict for the yet unannounced Nikon. It has a 22 megapixel sensor, shoots at 6fps (I hope the Nikon is at least 8fps), shoots HD video and numerous other options. Except for the frame rate, the 5 Mark lll could be the unreleased Nikon D700 replacement. It will be interesting to see if Nikon loses market share to a camera they probably have built but don’t want to release so they can milk the D4. It’s a strategic business move and you can’t fault them for playing the game. After all they aren’t making cameras out of the goodness of their heart; they’re in it to make MONEY! If you check Amazon’s best selling cameras, the D800 is outselling the EOS5 Mark lll by a substantial margin. So it seems Nikon certainly does know what they are doing. They really are getting good at this game.

My final thoughts on the D800.

The D800 is a fabulous camera. However, my biggest concern relates to the D800’s most notable strength, the huge sensor. At 36 megapixels the D800 files will be monsters to work with. It’s going to take larger, faster hard drives to tame each of these individual beasts and a more powerful computer to boot. I’m not the first one to write about any of this stuff and I’m not the first to be concerned about the gargantuan files. The size of each picture and slow frames per second would be the primary reasons why I would pass on this camera if I were planning to have just one camera to shoot. But since my work with Polar Bears International’s Arctic Documentary Project will include landscapes of the far north, I’m planing to buy the D800 and make it part of my equipment arsenal.  Meanwhile, I’ll bide my time waiting for the true D700 replacement to hopefully get a faster frames per second rate and reasonably sized files that I can use for more action oriented photography. At least that’s my plan until I have a chance to test the new D4. Maybe I should repaint my office to keep me out of the camera store.

Update: Nikon just announced the D600. It’s being hailed as an intro option for those who want a full frame sensor. Not convinced this is the replacement for the D700 either. It’s not professional grade from what I can gather.

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There are 6 comments on this post…
  1. John DelcoureOn May. 12th, 2012

    Daniel,

    Thanks for the great review. I just purchased the D800 and took a few test NEF pictures. What I would like to discuss is the file size and software compatibility issues that have surfaced for me. I have a iMac 2008 32 bit, Lightroom 3.6, and Photoshop CS5 extended with plugins for my basic workflow.

    As you may know, Lightroom 3 will not recognize the D800 files, and no update is available. So I must upgrade and migrate to LR4. That is fine. However, LR4 can not be installed on a 32 bit Mac, and I can not find an update to the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw, so PS5 will not work with the D800 either. So I may have to upgrade to PS6.
    How are other Mac users approaching this challenge? I shoot primarily RAW files. I don’t know, but I expect I will experience the same issues with jpg files.
    So in the meantime, my workaround is to use Aperture 3 and convert the NEF files to dng, then I can edit in PS5 if need be. Very lengthy. Any comments or suggestions?

  2. Viki GaulOn May. 9th, 2012

    Daniel, Thanks for this info..You bring ‘light’ to the question folks all over the world are asking themselves, “Do I buy the D800 or do I not buy the D800?”
    Keep up the great work…I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I am glad to have your blog and your expertise in my own ‘arsenal’….

  3. Esther BeatonOn May. 8th, 2012

    This is a fantastic review and I’m so grateful. I was enthusiastically ready to buy the D800 until I did a quick mental computation of the file sizes and huge slowdown in workflow this was going to cause. I launched a discussion on Linkedin (in the Nikon Photo Group) to get some thoughts but this is the best feedback on the problem to date. Thank you so much for testing and sharing your results.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn May. 9th, 2012

      Esther,

      Thanks for your feedback. Yes, the files will be large but I was pleasantly surprised to not see as much of a hit on my 4 year old Macbook Pro as I had anticipated. I’m looking forward to getting a D800 for a more lengthy test to see what it’s like to push hundreds/thousands of files through the camera and onto my external, mobile, hard drives. Keep in mind that one of the necessities of our photography passion is to continue to keep up to date with our mobile workflow tools which includes computers. Unfortunately, it’s just the nature of the beast. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Kevin J RailsbackOn Apr. 28th, 2012

    I’ve been waiting for Nikon to come out with a full frame sensor and excellent low light capability to rival the Canon 5D MarkII.
    I’m looking to do astro time-lapse sequences and the Canon 5d Mark II has been the king in that niche for quite some time.

    I hope the D600 is the answer!

  5. Gerry HeineOn Apr. 27th, 2012

    Dan,
    Dpreview specs the D800 LCD at 921,000 pixels and the D700 at 922,000 for what it’s worth.

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