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!