Nikon's new D800 SLR is a study in expectations and identity. Laid bare, the $3000 D800 is an impressive camera. But it's probably not the D800 that a lot of Nikon fans have been waiting for—what some feel they'd been virtually promised.
Here's what it's not: a tiny D4, a pint-size, light-eating dynamo. It's not even a linear progression from the D700, which was like a tiny D3. This is a whole other thing. It's more like a tiny D3x, with a gigantic all-new 36.3-megapixel full-frame sensor (FX, in Nikon speak, which you can crop down to 15.4 megapixels in DX mode).
The D800 is aimed mainly at studio or wedding photographers and videographers, people shooting in a (relatively) controlled environment who need photos with massive resolution—in 7360x4912-pixel photos. If you're tramping around in a sewer or an abandoned subway line, you're probably going to look elsewhere. The necessarily smaller pixels (4.88 microns across) crammed into the sensor are smaller the ones on the D4 (7.3 micron), so we're not talking about the same light-stalking prowess as the D4, by a significant margin. Which you can see in the D800's ISO range too: 100 to 6400, expandable to 25,600—a far cry from the D4's credulity-stretching 204,800 max ISO.
A few things are the same as the D4, though. The D800 has the same 91k RGB 3D color metering, lightning-fast AF, and 3-inch 921k-dot LCD screen. A lot of the D4's plusses have made the jump down to the D800 on the video end, too. It uses B-frame data compression for 20-minute h.264 recording (30-minute normal image quality). Also like the D4, you can record full, uncompressed 8-bit 4:2:2 video to an outboard DVR.
Oh, and the D800 shoots continuous bursts at 4fps in FX and 5fps in DX. The magnesium alloy body comes in slightly lighter than the 1075g D700, at 1000g. The on-board flash can be used as a commander, meaning it can trigger multiple other flashes you've got set up-probably in a studio. The D800 only uses a CF and SD card, not the fancy CompactFlash XQD that the D4 takes. It's got the same live view with neat features like horizon pitch. A big loss is the pixel-to-pixel 1080p crop mode, which would have been too minuscule on the gigantic 36MP sensor to make much sense anyway.
There was also a question about whether the D800 would axe the lowpass filter, with people seeming to scream their heads off on either side. Nikon's appeasing both sides by keeping the filter and putting out a separate camera, the D800E, that ditches it. The D800E is the exact same camera, just without the lowpass (or anti-aliasing) filter. That'll let the camera take slightly, but noticeably, sharper photos. The downside is that it also becomes susceptible to color moire and chroma noise. The moire, though, is offset by the sheer number of pixels in the 36MP sensor, which dampens moire. You can also blank out any ill effects in Lightroom or Aperture, or alternatively with a new tool in Nikon Capture NX 2 called Color Moire to deal with them.
The craving for a small-bodied, high-ISO camera from Nikon is palpable, and to be sure, a lot of the longstanding anticipation for the D800 was centered around just that. But any disappointment surrounding the camera is in all likelihood to do with the notion of the camera, not the execution. The D800 looks impressive for what it is. It's just a question of if what it is is what you need.
The D800 will be available in March for $3000, with the D800E following in April for $3300. [Nikon]