Nikon D800 review

Specs and purchasing information
Most new cameras are evolutionary. They push a few specs forward, make some tweaks, and hopefully make it a little easier to take photos that are a little better. But every once in a while, a camera comes out that disrupts the natural order, that surprises you and may even allow for big changes in the way you take photos. The Nikon D3 was like this — most people expected the first Nikon full-frame camera to be a megapixel monster, but instead it focused on high-ISO quality unsurpassed at the time. Now Nikon has disrupted the market in reverse: The headline spec of the D800 is the resolution, 36.3 megapixels, which had only been the domain of medium format cameras. But what made it truly disruptive is the price — $3,000, $500 less than the Canon 5D Mark III and just over half the price of Nikon’s own D4. It seems that at first glance you’re getting a lot more camera for a lot less. But there are trade-offs, most notably shooting at only four frames-per-second. And then, of course, there are the files, which depending on your settings range from very large to incredibly massive. So how does it stack up overall?

That Darned Sensor: Resolution

How much is 36 megapixels? A lot. In the video world, we call 1080p to be true HD, the hallmark of fancy televisions and forcing movie stars to invest in better make-up. Here’s how a 1080p frame compares to the D800’s 7,360 x 4,912 pixels:

Here’s a 100 percent crop of the image next to it:

This is an old, manual-focus lens, the 105mm f/1.8, shot wide open and free-lensed. While yes, to maximize the resolution it helps to have the best lenses, shoot at the sharpest apertures, have high shutter speeds and impeccable technique, you can still see advantages of that resolution even without all that. It gives you extra detail that shows up at even more moderate sizes, since a downsized image will tend to keep the “best” data, and noise will tend to have a finer grain structure. The pictures are big, that’s no surprise. But what really made the D800 interesting to my was another trick it has up its sleeve:

That Darned Sensor: Dynamic Range

At low ISOs, particularly ISO 100, the d800 has absolutely incredible dynamic range, better even than cameras like the Fuji S5 that used an entire extra set of sensors just to extend the range. Like most recent Nikons, it keeps a lot of this range in the shadows. There is an incredible amount of ability to lift shadows, particularly compared to the Canon 5D3. You can raise ISO 100 images by as much as five f-stops and still maintain a usable image. Now, that doesn’t mean your exposures have to be off by 32x, but it does give you an incredible ability to either selectively dodge an image or simply lift shadows until it looks very similar to the dynamic range of the human eye. We’re so used to having to choose between bringing out extreme highlight or extreme shadow, even though our eyes could see both, that this — even more than resolution — is what can really change the way you do photography with the D800.

The inside of Bethesda Terrace in Central Park is completely dark. The outside is a summer day. Most cameras would force you to choose which tones you want to keep. But with a little help in post the D800 can pull it off.

Dynamic range functions more like a normal camera at higher ISOs. Of course, most forms of photography that really make the most of high resolution — landscape, studio portraiture, product photography, etc. — also tend to be shot at lower ISOs. Doubtless the folks in the sensor lab worked hard on that synchronicity.

<centerThat Darned Sensor: High ISO

The big worry when the D800 was announced was that, because of the smaller pixels on the sensor, the camera would be noisier at high ISOs. But the D800 does remarkably well, especially when images are shrunk to print or display sizes. Sure, you’ll see more noise at 100 percent pixel peeping, but there’s also a lot more pixels. Overall you get a fine grain structure, a lot of detail, and most importantly it maintains good color at high ISO, like the D3s and D4, instead of the muddiness you can get from the D3 and D700 at the highest settings.

The photos below are at ISO 4500 and 11,400. Is there noise at 100 percent? You bet. But it works:

Live View: A Mixed Bag

Even though I never do video, I absolutely love using Live View for photography. The instant response of a great viewfinder will never be totally replaced, but in so many situations it is incredibly helpful to see exactly what the final picture will look like in front of you. Viewfinders don’t accurately record depth-of-field of super fast lenses, and they definitely don’t record different white balances or the overall contrast and tonality of a scene. So much of the expertise of photography is learning to interpolate exactly how your camera sees. Live View is an end-run around all of that.

The D3s has pretty good live view with one major flaw — it only works to 1/250th of a second. Want to shoot f/1.2 in daylight? Live View should be great for that, but you can’t do it on the D3s. On the D800? No problem, it works at any shutter speed. And it’s great. I took the ring shot above using Live View — it perfectly let me see how the depth-of-field was affecting the shot, a huge issue in macro photography. It also let me put the specular highlights in exactly the right place.

But there are a couple issues. The first is that Live View is when I really notice the greenish cast of the LCD. Nikon first said this was more accurate and now says they’re working on changing it, but in any case green is not the best tone to overlay on a scene when you’re photographing people.

But worse, when using Live View you can really feel how the camera is struggling with that much data. On the D4, shooting is nearly instantaneous. On the D800, there’s a very noticeable delay after every shot, more than enough to be annoying. In fact, it’s very un-Nikon. Nikon cameras are known for being workhorses that are always ready to take a shot. Using Live View on the D800 is beautiful but quirky, like an old Fuji DSLR. Because my primary uses for the D800 are portraits and details, where Live View matters a lot, this is a real issue for me.

General use: Focusing and ergonomics

Some people have noticed quirkiness with the outer focus points on this camera; for me it’s performed like a champ. In least in theory it’s the same AF system as the almost twice as expensive D4, and it works fantastically well in low light. AF in Live View is slower but still remarkably accurate with a good lens.

I’ve also noticed that most of my lenses need less micro-focus-adjustment on the D800 than on my D3s’s, but that’s probably just that my D3s’s have been ground down nearly to a fine powder. In any case, most of my lenses were spot-on the moment they were put on the camera.

What annoyed me is that, as near as I can tell, one of the buttons on the back is missing from the button re-configuration menu. That meant that I had to reach my thumb way over to find the AE-L/AF-L button, which I use as a “fire the shutter now!” button to catch moments even if the camera isn’t quite sure it’s perfectly in focus. This also ruined a few Brenizer-method panoramas, as the camera would try to re-focus halfway through when I couldn’t keep the button held. Keep in mind I have gigantic hands, so this may be an even bigger problem for other users.

Overall the camera feels great, well-balanced and a great general workhorse. Four frames per second is almost always fast enough for me; the only time I ever ran into problems with its speed was in buffer issues while doing panoramas.

The Big But: File sizes

The tragedy of the D800 is that it has no Small RAW option like Canon cameras (which don’t even need it as badly). Heck, the smallest JPEG option is still 18 megapixels. The largest settings for a RAW file will set you back around 75MB for every shot. Optimized fully for size you can get that down to about 33. With so much data and dynamic range, I felt pretty safe compressing a tiny bit of it away.

For most professionals, 33 MB isn’t so bad. Remember, the Fuji S5 shot 25MB files to produce essentially a really sharp six-megapixel file. But I shoot a LOT — more than 250,000 photos a year. Next week I’m doing four full weddings in five days. Shooting with the D800, I’d end up with more than half a terabyte of data. And even if I compress the RAW files, I’m still ending up with abnormally giant JPGs, which means bigger hard drives sent to clients, longer upload times, etc. etc. I have a lot of budget for hard drives, and of course this data is still paltry compared to videographers, but for someone with my volume having to shoot at 36MP all the time is a huge liability.

The Final Word: It’s good for me, fantastic for most

Nikon has built an extraordinary camera. It doesn’t quite get out of my way and just do its job as much as the D3s does, but the trade off is a lot more resolution and greater dynamic range, as well as lighter weight and much less cost than the D4. For most advanced photographers and professionals, this is really going to hit a sweet spot.

If Nikon ever manages to produce a firmware update with a good SRAW option, I’d switch my entire line-up to three of these the next day.

In any case, I really hated giving this back. Here are some more pictures I’ve made with it. This camera renders images amazingly well, not just amazingly large.

There are also some more photos of Dominique on my Facebook page taken with the D800 that might be too hot for a camera review.

Buy it here!

Aram Stith - Ryan thanks for this review! great info, agree with you about how nice a firmware update would be. I think one of these cameras is in my future…

Sam - Great review Ryan! Looking forward to using my D800 at a wedding for the first time this Saturday. It will be the D4 for most of the day but the D800 for the formal portraits and secondary camera during the ceremony.

Craig Cacchioli - Insightful review Ryan. If it weren’t for the cost of dumping all my Canon gear and switching to Nikon I would almost consider getting one of these beauties.

Bazo - Very good review :)
I love your colors especially skin color. How do you make this amazing warm skin colour…?

Emi@1314 STUDIO - Thank you for the review! I tried out both and I think the D800 is a better (also cheaper) camera than the 5D3. I would switch if not for the cost.

almostinfamous - did you see any difference in the speed of operation between using a Fast SD card and a Fast CF card? When i got one to play around with for a couple of hours, it came with a 32GB Sandisk UHS-I SD card and it was ridiculously slow.

Max - If it would of had sRAW I would have made the move from Canon… I just upgraded to a 5D3, but its cool what sony has done with this sensor!

Ian Kreidich - Great Review. I have to ask how many photos do you deliver to a client on an average wedding? Using what you said in your review I figured that’s like over 2,500 raw files you’re keeping for each wedding.

I have to say the D800 has fit nicely into our wedding workflow along with 2 D700s, but we keep an average of 900-1000 raws for a 12hr wedding. We only keep what we deliver and time machine keeps the backups narrowed down as we go.

I hope your day is turning around from earlier.

Michael Greene - Looks like I found my camera for landscape photography!

Ryan Smith - I always love your reviews, they mean a lot more to me than anyone else. I’m waiting on my D800 to ship.

Carsten Bockermann - >>This also ruined a few Brenizer-method panoramas, as the camera would try to re-focus halfway through when I couldn’t keep the button held.

On all of my DSLRs I have separated the Af actuation from the shutter release. This way I can tell the camera to focus whenever I want it to by pressing the ‘AF-ON’ button, and it never gets in my way by focusing on its own.

Ryan Brenizer - @Ian: I don’t keep 2.500, but I do take that many. So the initial ingest into my system would be half a terabyte just for a long weekend, even if I didn’t have to store all of those files forever.

Ian Kreidich - I see. I’d say we shoot about 2,300 on average for a 12 hr. I suppose it would be an issue if we had 3 D800s and shot over 70 weddings a year.

We have yet to fill up our 64GB card, with lossless compression we’re getting way over 800 files on it. The dual cards is such an upgrade (even if it is an SD) for people like us moving up from D700 with no backup. It means one card rather than constantly switching out 8GB cards for backup.

Michael Greene - even on the web, the shots look amazing!

Larry Chua - Great review Ryan. I’ll have to wait until I upgrade my MBP to a faster machine before getting a D800. I don’t think my current MBP can keep up with the huge file sizes.

Sean Molin - I agree exactly with your sentiments all the way around. You nailed the two quirks that slow me down… the buffer for panos, and the buffer for live view.

Skyler Andrew Greene - Great read! Thanks Ryan. I think I might have to pay a visit to B&H soon….

Christian - Hey Ryan, great review and perfect photos! Which software did you use in post?

I am still developing my “best practice”… For me, CNX2 produces the better looking results but is totally rubbish for selecting the best pictures. In Lightroom, on the other side, I have to spend too much time for every picture, until it looks as good as the jpg looks right out of cam…

Ian Abdilla - Wow… ok that confirmed my last few doubts… going to get myself one now… only hoping that they issue a frmware update with SRAW maybe…. thanks really concise review… straight to the point…

The Complete, Continuously Updated Nikon D800 & D800E Review File | THEME - […] Ryan Brenizer‘s excellent D800 review with nice samples: Most new cameras are evolutionary. They push a few […]

john kraus - For those whom file size is an issue, one converting to DNG using the latest Adobe DNG Converter. There’s a ‘lossy compressed’ setting that, if you set it to ‘maintain pixel count’ doesn’t seem to lose any image information, though the file becomes 1/8th the size. As soon as you open the file in PhotoShop it pops back up to full size.
I and others have tested this including pushing up shadows and pulling down highlights and it appears to work great. Not every RAW converter handles DNGs the same, so test on the one you use. I’ve tried in Aperture and the files look fine.

Nikon D800 by Ryan Brenizer | Techmixup - […] What can a real-world working wedding photographer do with the Nikon D800? Find out in the brand new review of the camera by Ryan Brenizer. […]

BrianBB - Am I the only one around here that actually wants to know this guys post-processing style and technique and how its done?

Rik Pennington - Does anyone else think the D800 responds too slowly for a wedding camera? I’m not talking FPS, but write times to card, playback/review speed and shutter responsiveness (not to mention its sound). No doubt the files look amazing but I’m not a fan of how it handles for fast moving events. Is that just me?!

Kandid - Thanks for the review and the great shots you shared Ryan.

dylan - The review, very nice.. the photos at the end, mind blowing.

Derin - these are all mind melting.

Alessandro Di Sciascio - Ryan, the review is excellent and for the most part mirrors my experience with my D800 (I also shoot a D3s so I hear what you’re saying re buffer etc). It’s too bad you already sent the camera back because frankly I feel you missed out on a feature of the D800 that imho is just as good as that epic sensor. The acutally USEFUL crop modes. Hear me out for a second before just dismissing “crop = crap” LOL. Think about the 1.2x crop for just a second… and imagine that ON DEMAND (I have a button programmed to switch between crop sizes and only enable 3 of the 4 options, screw the 4×5 one) you can turn your “epic DR, epic resolution, epic AF DSLR” into a 25mp RANGEFINDER-VIEW camera with all of those features. Yeah I know it’s crop… but hey Canon’s 1D Mark IV was bought up by a LOT of wedding shooters and it’s got a 1.3x crop that you’re stuck with… THe D800 in 1.2x mode gives you two benefits: 1. RAW Files about the same size as the Canon 5D Mark III… and then that incredible ability to see BEYOND the frame that is being captured – anyone who’s shot a Leica or other rangefinders should see the amazing benefit for PJ shooting, and actually even for detail shots… ’cause you know how sometime you move your camera around up to your eye to see if something else that’s cool will enter the frame… well with the 1.2x crop you can actually SEE the stuff outside the frame.
I’m totally in love with the camera. I just wish when they redesigned the body (it’s not the same body as the D700 they had copied the incredibly comfortable side grip of the 3Ds instead of basically re-hashing the D700 side grip.

Ken Mann - Brilliant photography, I am too waiting for a smaller raw option. My D700’s are staying with me for now.

Fabrice Drevon - Photographe - I own a D800 for several months now. I was so worried about the overload in workflow because of raw size. It is as simple as that, image quality (from size, to high iso a so on..) is so so good that instead of being my super high camera for posed photos & equivalent, it became my main camera because I so get used to this quality. I own a D700 aside.

Fred - In a post in March you said, “the idea of a sensor that only shoots 36MP is a non-starter.” Do you still feel that way if Nikon does not implement an sRAW option?

Ryan Brenizer - @Fred: For me, I absolutely could not make this my primary camera. Even just for portraits my hard drives very quickly filled to overflowing.

Jean-Laurent - The best deal should be to have both D4 & D800 ^^

darrell - nice review Ryan, so how do you rate this camera against the D4

Dannie Moore - Those are by far the best ring shots I have ever seen. Thanks for sharing…

The Strength of Film » Ryan Brenizer — NYC Wedding Photographer. Problem solver, storyteller. - […] have come a long way with dynamic range in particular — the D800 is startlingly good, in particular. But when you reach the very ends of it, you’ll always […]

S Robinson - Ryan, love your work – I mean love it. But your Sraw thing isn’t possible. Canon’s Sraw is more or less just a jpg. Raw by definition is everything coming off the sensor. Downsizing the “raw” etc etc isn’t a raw, it’s been processed. (bythom has a great article on this). If you look into what canon does to get the sraw you will see it’s more or less just the same as shooting jpg with the D800 – there’s nothing raw about canons sraw. It’s pointless. Besides, the other reason it’s a non issue is the I7 processor with 16GB chews through 36MP files. I don’t see the issue, if you upgrade your pc.


Dennis - Hi Ryan,
As you have used both the canon 5Diii and the D800 which do you prefer for daily jobs.
(as i have not invested in any glass the choice is still open for me)

Rebecca and Varun (D600 Review Coming Soon!) » Ryan Brenizer — NYC Wedding Photographer. Problem solver, storyteller. - […] plus for it — it didn’t freeze up at all while shooting this 47-image panorama, while the D800 would have locked up several times from all that data coming in too fast. — Camera: Nikon […]

Grant Corban - Thanks for the review. It confirmed every misgiving I had on buying this camera. Enormous file sizes make this way too much of a camera for wedding work. The lack of compressed RAW or variable sized capture is unforgiveable. Even the ancient 10 year old Kodak DCS 14n camera had THREE different resolutions built into the body. I had a look at the D600 as it is smaller, lighter, smaller file sizes, more customizable (the U1 and U2 settings) and quieter which is important in some churches. Well, I thought it was quiet until I put it next to the 5DMk3 in the shop. The 5D was whisper silent. The D600’s lack of important functions made me balk as well. I am at a turning point. I love my nearly 5 year old D3 but am now looking for the replacement best suited to weddings. The D800 would be it if not for the silly file sizes. As a working professional I have no issue selling and moving back to Canon if Nikon do not address the issues as life is too short to keep waiting for Nikon to realise it has fallen behind for us wedding shooters.

Andrea - Hy Ryan, yesterday my camera with 300 mm crashed from my shoulder bag, so now I’ve to decide soon to buy another camera. I was waiting for your D600 review…. Can you say me if D600 for weddings is OK? What I like is high Iso performance and low light autofocus.
Good job,

Nikon D600 Review » Ryan Brenizer — NYC Wedding Photographer. Problem solver, storyteller. - […] This, not the D800, is Nikon’s real successor for the D700 … which shows how confusing the model naming system is. The D700 was all about fitting a full-frame sensor in as compact and broadly usable a camera as possible for a more affordable price. The D600 has the same mission, and uses a few design choices and technological progress to make the camera even more compact and affordable, weighing 22 percent less than the D700. The D800′s mission is totally different — from extremely high resolution to crazy dynamic range, Nikon set out to make the best ISO 100 DSLR around, and they did so. But the trade-offs are giant files and a sluggish, un-Nikonlike response speed. (see full review here) […]

David Medina - I was on the fence but your article push me to get my D800. Thanks.

Alan Lawson - I find the D800 incredibly responsive. But I do us 90MB/s SanDisk Extreme Pro CF Card and the 95MB/s SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC Card. With these I can get full 4fps continuous for about 18 shots on RAW before the buffer fills. Given I hardly ever just hold the shutter down, instead I’m often shooting individuals shots rapidly and repeatedly, I find the speed of both the buffer processing and AF incredible, and in no way hinders me or slows me down…

decisivemoment - Not in the least. Well, except for LiveView, that does take a while to get ready for the next shot. But apart from that, you’ve got EXCEPTIONALLY short lag time and viewfinder blackout; it’s significantly faster than, say, a D200 or D300, more like the D4 or F-series or FM2. The shutter sound is acceptable, no more. Still too loud, but at least not like a D2 or D3 or D700. You may still want DX or mirrorless in a noise critical situation, even the D600 is a bit quieter. Write speeds are very good considering the large size of the buffer but do use the fastest possible cards and don’t fall into the trap of removing the card before that big frame buffer has finished emptying out. Personally I find it fast enough for anything (4fps FX, 5fps in the 1.2x crop mode, and then 6 in the high-voltage battery MB-D12 grip DX mode that I’ve never used), but then I’ve never been one for machine-gunning; I’m more focused on the absolute shortest possible lag and getting the immediate single shot. If I ever bite the bug of machine-gunning, I guess that’s when I’ll switch to a different camera.