GEAR REVIEW - NIKON D800
The Nikon D800 went on sale in March 2012, a month after it was officially announced on February 7th. It's now 2.5 years old at the time of writing review and its short lifespan hasn't be without problems. Early versions of the camera were fraught with focus issues and was another blow to Nikon, who were still reeling from the October 2011 flooding of their factory in Thailand. It has since been replaced by the D810, which really is just the updated D800E.
After quelling my paranoia about purchasing a potentially buggy camera, I bought my copy in late June, 2013 and happily have had no issues with the auto focus of the camera. So how does the D800 perform? How does it stack up against my D90?
Understanding The D800
Despite being around for 2 years, I still hear complaints about the D800 from the far flung corners of the Web. Even some from the occasional well-known photographer. Some don't regard it as a professional camera, which of course is complete nonsense. I think those who don't regard it as such, do so because the camera doesn't meet their specific photographic requirements and they lack the foresight to appreciate the camera for what it is. Like most tools, they tend to be for a specific task. It'd be as idiotic as saying the D4s isn't a professional camera because the resolution isn't big enough for my needs. I also think the fact that DXOMark scored the D800 higher than the D4 left a few people a little bit butt-hurt they didn't have the best rated camera. I know, ridiculous, right?
When Nikon designed the D800 and D4, they deliberately created two very distinct cameras for different genres of photography. If you were a professional news, street, concert or sports photographer you required fast FPS, great ISO performance, along with a precision focusing system. The D4 was the intended camera for these jobs. For landscape and studio photography where you had time to compose/stage your shots and emphasis was upon detail and high resolution images, the D800 was the weapon of choice. The ISO performance and impressive 14.4EV range even out-gunned the D4 at ISO100-400. The medium format territory 36MP resolution captured an amazing amount of detail and allowed for cropping without pixelation. The D800E even more so, due to the absence of an anti-aliasing filter.
Some photographers seemed to just want it all. Huge resolutions, high FPS and fantastic ISO performance. Unfortunately, technology isn't quite there yet (although we aren't all that far away from ticking all these boxes). The new D810 certainly comes a step closer to this but we're not seeing the extreme FPS that the D4s or Canon 1Dx is capable of. I think we're still about a decade away from seeing performance like that in a single body.
So now you have a better comprehension of the camera, I'll carry on with the review of it based upon a year's experience both in studio and out in extreme environments. The D800 is a joy to use. The detail it captures is quite stunning but, you do need glass that has the resolving power to match or exceed the sensor's capabilities. The 7,360 x 4,912 pixels allows you to zoom and zoom and zoom inside Photoshop and make very minute edits that I could only dream of on the D90. It also allows you to crop in considerably and still retain great resolution, which is never a bad thing. The only drawback to having this amount of digital information is the file sizes. NEF files are around 30MB each and every time you duplicate a layer in Photoshop you add another 100MB+ to the PSD file. My PSD files can routinely reach 2GB in next to no time, So if your PC isn't the fastest, you may struggle to handle more complex images that require compositing. I'd suggest a 16GB DDR3 system with powerful CPU and GFX card, as well as 2TB hardrives to store your work on.
Aside from the massive detail captured, one of the most impressive features of the camera is the dynamic range. At 14.4 EV, the D800 can retrieve information from the highlights and shadows that would simply be lost on lesser models. When shooting in high contrast situations, this can really save your bacon and also negate the need for bracketing. While bracketing may give cleaner results by exposing purposely for specific tonal ranges, there are a lot of times where you just cannot do that (moving subject etc). Coming from the Nikon D90 and its 12.5 EV range, I was very surprised at just how much more leeway I had in recovering details at both ends of the histogram.
Focus is another great attribute of the D800. 51 AF points with 15 being the cross-type variety. That's more cross-type points than the entire AF points of the D90, which has a paltry 11 in comparison. Even in low light conditions, the D800 rarely skips a beat. Perhaps not as impressive as the likes of the D4/D4s but still brilliant nonetheless. Remember though, lens choice affects low light accuracy. If you have a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4-5.6, it's going to struggle much more than a lens with a f/1.4 aperture. That's 3-4 stops more light for the camera to see in the dark, so will make a huge difference.
Focus speed also improves significantly on both AF-D and AF-S lenses. My Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 VR would take 4 seconds to go from closest focusing distance to infinity and back on the D90. It was a chore to use that lens at times as a result. Now the same lens does the same focus test in just short of a second. Much more like it! So if your glass was failing to lock onto target in time or unable to track moving subjects as well, upping to a more juicy power-system found in the professional bodies will help.
Build quality and ergonomics are top notch, with a solid magnesium alloy chassis and weather sealing. It feels sturdy in your hand and certainly will handle being knocked about. Mine has seen some pretty harsh environments, having been in -30c weather of central Canada for 3 months, with no ill effects. Despite the bitter cold, battery life seemed absolutely fine, whilst I traversed woodland, looking for deer and other critters. The only thing I did notice was that my lenses REALLY didn't like the cold. The frigid air caused the gears to almost seize on one occasion and the camera really struggled to focus the lens. But these are really pushing the limits of both man and machine and the camera held up!
Button layout on the whole is very well thought out, although the changing of focus mode was disliked by some, who favoured a switch that controlled AF-S, AF-C, AF-A etc. I'm used to it now and everything feels like second nature after a year of the D800. Any changes Nikon makes to an upgraded body, generally has people in uproar because they are so used to something being in a particular place. Muscle memory, people. You will adapt. Get over it! The addition of a dedicated AF-ON/Back button focus, makes it great for isolating the shutter and focus systems.
D800 with battery grip
I use the D800 with a generic "Meike" battery grip, which cost me £36. The genuine Nikon one is literally 10 times that price. Quite how Nikon can justify that amount, I don't know. Comparing the two side by side has left me struggling to see any differences between them in layout or construction. Sometimes you get what you pay for. Sometimes you're just paying for the name and getting shafted. The latter seems true to me at least in this case.
Two memory slots are found on the camera, one for SD cards and the other for CF. This is handy if you already have SD cards from earlier camera models, as they are usable in the D800 but, anything below 16GB won't last 5 minutes, as it will only give you 200 RAW files. I shoot with a 32GB CF and SD fitted simultaneously.
There are options on how the camera writes to the cards. Either splitting the two between RAW + Jpeg. RAW+RAW, or treating them as one larger card, with the second acting as a spill over, once the first is full. You can of course shoot Jpeg only but personally, that just defies logic. In doing so you dump a HUGE amount of information in favour of a compressed file format that has far less latitude when it comes to editing and recovering shadows and highlights.
I won't bother talking too much about the various crop modes available on the D800. I see no point in using DX lenses on an FX camera for any extended period of time. You ditch a lot of pixels in doing so and place limitations on the camera's capabilities. If you don't want to sell your DX lenses, get a D7100 as it's a fantastic bit of kit and shares many of the qualities of the D4s.
For studio work the D800 really does come into it's own. Whether that's portraiture or product photography. The 36MP resolution gives you medium format sized files to work with which are very detailed. Obviously you get shallower depth of field with MF gear and in general the crispness of the detail is enhanced but, not many people have got £30k to drop on a Hasselblad system. For a £2k camera body the D800 certainly holds its own against the bigger boys. Likewise with the D800E and the new D810 which are even sharper due to no low pass filter.
The camera also excels when it comes to landscape photography. This again comes down to the amount of detail it captures, together with the dynamic range of the sensor. If you're photographing a high contrast scene, those 14.4 exposure values can only help. Obviously for best results bracketing may be more prudent and of course using polarizers and ND filters to balance bright skies with the ground. The better it looks in camera, the less headache you will have in post processing.
If macro photography is your thing, then again the sensor on the D800 will only delight. Some insects are incredibly small, so even with a dedicated 1:1 ratio macro lens, they can still appear small in the frame. Having that 36MP resolution will allow you to crop in and still deliver a good amount of detail. Obviously for best results use of extension tubes, bellows or reversed lenses will give you the edge. It's far better to get optical magnification than rely on digital zoom.
While not designed for sports, the 4FPS still make it acceptable for some action shots. You may have to work harder and repeat things more often to nail the exact moment, but it's certainly doable. If that's going to be the mainstay of your photography though, then it makes sense to look at something with a higher FPS count like the D3s, D4, D4s. Like I said earlier, pick the right tool for the job.
The low light performance of the D800 is surprisingly good considering the huge resolution of the sensor. Up until ISO400 it actually out performs the D4. Clean, highly usable images can be had at ISO 6,400-12,800. Since I predominently shoot in studio, it is rare that I will go above the native ISO100, unless I want to stop down the aperture and cannot be bothered to go and adjust the power on all my strobes when using a multi-light setup. For example, if I want to go from f/5.6 to f/8 (1 stop) I just up the ISO 1 stop from 100 to 200. f/5.6 to f/11 (2 stops), ISO100 to ISO400. A neat trick there for you, which can save a lot of time and help maintain the flow of a shoot!
For the money the D800 is a phenomenal piece of kit and great value. So much so that I cannot see myself upgrading to the D810 - which is a very good evolution of the camera and a fantastic camera in its own right. Still, the differences just aren't big enough for me to warrant selling the D800 and outlaying another £1.5k for a camera that isn't going to bring me that many more benefits. Image quality, performance and accuracy are all wonderful and far outshine the D90 that I cut my teeth on. Again, it's not a camera for everyone. If you want something to just photograph your friends and family with, you'll probably not be spending £2k on a camera to do so. If you need high FPS for news reportage and actions sports the D800 isn't going to appeal to you. For static objects and controlled environments, not a lot beats the D8xx series cameras. So if you're looking to go to a full frame sensor, with professional AF and incredible detail capture, The D800 will deliver the goods. If you can afford the D810, then sure, go for that, it is a slight step up that might benefit your work. For what I do, I'd score it 10/10.