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Nikon D800 - A 36MP Revolution

By Alvin Soon - 21 Apr 2012

Conclusion

Conclusion

As cameras go, it would be no exaggeration to call the Nikon D800 a quantum leap forward. 36MP on a full-frame sensor is a bold move. So many things could have gone wrong pushing the envelope like this, but Nikon has managed to execute it with aplomb.

Ergonomically speaking, nearly everything has been improved from the D700. The camera handles superbly, controls are intuitively placed, it sits comfortably in the hands and it's lighter than the D700. The only major complain we have about the camera body is that battery life is now lower than the D700, at 900 shots versus 1000 shots (as rated by CIPA). This isn't entirely Nikon's fault though; the batteries had to be changed due to new battery regulations in Japan.

Image quality is breathtaking, full of detail and rich in tones with a high dynamic range. We feel confident in saying that the D800 produces the most detailed images among DSLR cameras today, but that doesn't come without its price, because even though detail is more apparent, so is image noise. If you shoot at high ISO settings, you will find that the D800's images will always benefit from a little noise reduction. At the same time, not every photographer will be using the full 36MP resolution (which is nearly a maximum print size of A2 at 300dpi) for output, so images can benefit from the perceived noise-reducing effects of down-sampling.

The other price D800 owners will have to pay comes in the form of larger file sizes; JPEGs are an average of 20MB and RAW files 40MB, but they can be higher - in fact, RAW files can go up to 75MB per file. It means a potential hardware upgrade of existing workflow, from memory cards to storage to computing horsepower. While users can certainly shoot at lower resolutions with the D800, we certainly don't advise it, as we've found that down-sampling on your own retains more detail than letting the camera do the same. Do not get this camera if you do not want to work with large files.

You will also need to be more exacting with your shot technique, as slightly off-focus shots at wide apertures, or slightly blurry movement might look sharp with lower resolution images, but will be revealed as soft in the D800's large images. It's also a little disconcerting when the D800 takes a moment to hunt for focus in low-light; it's certainly not a deal-breaker if you're not shooting fast subjects in dim environments but it's not something we expected out of a flagship model.

Because of the D800's 36MP resolution, its slower frame-rate and the large image file sizes, we felt at the start of this review that the D800 would turn out to be a specialist tool for photographers who would benefit most from its images' rich detail and high dynamic range - most likely photographers who shoot landscapes and in the studio. But we've come to believe that if you are able to work with the greater demands on focus and workflow which comes with 36MP images, the D800 can also work well as a general-purpose camera with all the joys that the higher resolution brings.
 

Nikon D800 vs. the World

Don't forget that the D800 has an almost identical twin, the D800E that come without an optical low-pass filter.

We would be remiss in our review of the D800 if we didn't mention its sister camera, the D800E. The two cameras are virtually identical, except that the D800E comes without the standard optical low-pass filter seen in most digital cameras. This filter helps prevents moiré artifacts from appearing in photographs, but at the expense of the blurring of fine detail. Without this filter, the images from the D800E are richer and more detailed, but there is the risk of moiré appearing if shooting regular, repeating patterns - which is why the D800E is recommended for photographers who shoot natural and organic subjects. 

When we visited Nikon's Tokyo HQ for the D800's launch, we could definitely see the difference in detail between two identical images shot with the D800 and the D800E, but only at A3 size. Viewing at any size smaller than that is doubtful if anyone would be able to separate which print came from which camera. Whether moiré will turn out to be a significant issue with the D800E in everyday use can only be determined with further testing. Luminous Landscape has some early tests done with both the D800 and D800E in which the D800E resolves even more fine detail than the D800 and with no signs of moiré - yet.

The big question - Nikon D800 or the Canon EOS 5D Mark III?

Some will wonder how the D800 stacks up against its closest competitor, the 5D Mark III, but we don't feel that such a comparison is really possible. Both are distinctly different cameras, while the 5D Mark III is like a 1D X Lite with its 22MP and six frames per second performance, the D800 is no D4 Lite with its 36MP and four frames per second shooting speed. While that means Nikon has no 'affordable' full-frame, current generation, fast camera to compare against the 5D Mark III, Canon also has no high resolution, full-frame camera to compare against the D800.

We doubt that Canon and Nikon users will switch platforms simply based on one camera, but the question arises: What if you're not invested in either system and are looking for your first full-frame camera? We feel that the D800 produces more detailed images, but also with more image noise (if you compare without down-sampling), and it also demands more from its user, both in use and in post.

From that perspective, the D800 isn't as user-friendly as the D700, and consequently not as user-friendly as the 5D Mark III as well. The 5D Mark III also feels more versatile, and while the case can be made for and against the D800 as a general purpose camera, none can be made against the 5D Mark III. Even though the 5D Mark III"s 22MP sounds 'smaller' now, it's still a respectable size for most uses, whereas 36MP will turn out to be overkill for some users.

9.5
  • Performance 9.5
  • Design 9.5
  • Features 9.5
  • User-Friendliness 9.5
  • Value 9
The Good
Exceptionally detailed images
Rich dynamic range
Excellent handling
The Bad
Moiré patterns visible in some videos
Slower 4 fps shooting speed
Large image files