The Nikon D700 was the last great pre-video DSLR. It was an excellent and very boring camera. Nikon's newest, a $3,000 body called the D800, introduces two major features: HD video and a 36-megapixel sensor.
That sensor is what's on everybody's mind. Studio photographers will love its rich details, and for the hack on the street, it's the sharpest sensor in this price range. Let's be clear from the start: This is one of the best cameras you can buy for three grand, period. But it's been overshadowed by the standard-bearer in this category, the Canon 5D Mark III. At a $500 lower price, could the Nikon D800 be a better buy?
Why It Matters
Thirty-six-point-three-million pixels. That number should smack you in the face. Megapixel counts can be misleading, but in this case, pay close attention. The camera's success hinges on that sensor. See, a sensor like the Nikon D800's shoots extremely high-resolution photos, which means a ton of detail in the images. When the conditions are right, it can get better results. But cramming more pixels onto an image sensor can hurt its ability to shoot in dark conditions. If this super sensor falls short, the camera will only be interesting to pros working in controlled environments.
The other big change is Nikon's introduction of video. Until now, if you wanted a DSLR to shoot professional video, you bought a Canon like the Mark II—an upstart embraced by the filmmaking community, because at $2500, you couldn't beat the quality. That evolved into the $3500 Mark III, a refined movie-making machine. The HD-shooting Nikon D800 enters the field with specs that, on paper, could challenge the Canon at a cheaper price.
The Hardware: Sturdy and Perfect for Tweaking
The ergonomics and build of the D800 are excellent. For a professional camera, it's lightweight and compact. The textured grip is perfectly shaped to be carried one-handed. And its sealed magnesium alloy body can survive some abuse. The camera's LCD went from 3 to 3.2 inches, and it gained a new plastic "anti-fog" protector, but the resolution, like the D700, remains at 921,000 pixels.
Like the D700, the D800 uses two-handed adjustments for many camera settings. That's ideal for photographers who want to quickly tweak shots. Hold down a button for white balance, ISO, or auto-focus on the left side of the camera, and adjust each with a click of the wheels on the right side. The notable additions include a programmable manual function on the front of the camera, and controls for video on the camera body.
As with the Canon 5D Mark III, the camera has dual CF/SD card slots. These are programmable in several configurations—for example, it can back up all the images on only one of the cards, or it could set the RAW files to write to one slot and the JPEGs to another.
Image Resolution: More Sharpness
The D800 is all about resolution. The 36.3-megapixel, full-frame sensor produces huge, 7,360 x 4,912 images. Studio photographers love these big images because they capture a ton of detail. For photographers who aren't shooting under bright lights, though, these images are still really useful because they offer a lot of leeway to crop usable sections from the larger image.
There are drawbacks to the D800's high-resolution sensor. Recording huge images to memory cards slows down the camera's performance. While the 12-megapixel D700 could shoot 5 fps, the D800 lost a little speed, as it only takes four. When dealing with the images on a computer, the D800's RAW files are a whopping 33 MB, which makes processing files very cumbersome. Working with the images in Photoshop or Aperture can be maddeningly slow. Trying to convert hundreds of RAW files to JPEGs? You better have a couple of hours to spare. That said, the camera's JPEG quality is very good, so you don't always have to shoot RAW.
Low-light Performance & ISO: Surprisingly Excellent In the Dark
The megapixels that do such a great job of capturing detail and dynamic range during the day are your worst enemy at night. More pixels means smaller pixels, and smaller pixels aren't as good at capturing light as the larger light-buckets on the 23.1-megapixel Canon 5D Mark III. Hardcore photographers love the D700 because its 12-megapixel sensor does such a good job making the most of low-light situations.
On specs alone, those megapixels on the D800 clearly affect light sensitivity. Its weak sensitivity constraints are a generation old—the D800 shoots at up to a standard ISO setting of 6400 and at up to an expanded range of ISO 25,600. Still, it's impressive that Nikon has tripled the resolution of the camera without hurting ISO ratings. But how do images at that sensitivity look?
Turns out, the Nikon D800 is a monster when it's pushed to its limits. Under decent light with all noise-reduction turned off in our still-life ISO test, the camera held up very well within the standard range. If you zoom in very closely, the noise becomes obvious to the untrained eye above ISO 1600. But at a reasonably scaled resolution, those images are very usable. The noise patterns are uniform, a problem that can be dealt with in post processing. As for actually shooting with the D800 at night, the camera is capable of some great things, assuming you can get them in focus. More on that below.
Auto-Focus & Metering: The Devil's in the Details
Shooting performance, although improved over the D700, remains the Nikon D800's weakest point. The camera carries many of the same specs as Nikon's D4: The same 91,000,000-dot RGB 3D color metering sensor, the 51-point autofocus system, and the Expeed 3 processor. The metering and processor are new, while the autofocus system is a hand-me-down from the last generation of Nikon cameras.
So you get a camera that feels fast in your hands but needs a little more TLC when shooting. The bright spot is the metering. It's very accurate, and by toggling between the center-weighted, matrix, and spot metering systems, you can get the right exposure without any hassles. You'll hardly ever need to use exposure compensation.
The rehashed auto-focus performed well on the D700. It finds focus fast—instantaneously, basically—even when the lighting is terrible. Unfortunately, the results weren't always great. Finding good focus with a very shallow depth of field can be a challenge for any camera, but the D800 would occasionally run into problems above f/5.6—generally considered safe territory. The AF is tweakable in the settings, so you can match it to the profiles of your lenses, but it should work better out of the box.
A word on lenses—be careful about which lenses you use with the D800. If you've got shaky hands, it's unforgiving with lenses that don't have image stabilization. To really take advantage of all of those pixels, you'll need some very sharp glass.
Videography: Welcome to the Party, Nikon
Nikon arrived late to the HD party, but the delay allowed the company to take advantage of the Canon's shortcomings.
From a hardware perspective, the camera's main distinguishing feature is the clean HDMI output. This can take unprocessed video from the image sensor, feed it into a recording device, and do the processing there. That means you can record raw video and process it later—a useful, if niche, advantage over the 5D Mark III. The camera is also a healthy competitor on the audio front. It has both a stereo mic input and a headphone jack, which are essential to monitor and adjust the audio as needed.
The D800 shoots HD footage on par with comparable DSLRs out there. In Gizmodo's initial test, pitting the D800 against the Canon 5D Mark III, the camera held its own against the 5D. The D800's video performance mimics its photography skills: It's a very good all-around shooter, but it's much better suited to daylight shooting than night. During the day, footage was noticeably sharper than the 5D Mark III's video. After the initial test, we even swapped out the $2000 lens we were using for a Nikon DX lens designed for Nikon crop sensor cameras. That's a major no-no, but the Nikon's quality remained sharper than the Canon 5D. Using any lens, the D800's nighttime performance could not compete with the 5D.
The D800 has the same video problems as other DSLRs: rolling shutter. Rolling shutter occurs when either the camera or something in the shot is moving quickly. In the recording, some portions of the shot will appear to move more quickly than others, causing a weird warping distortion. It's the proverbial runner that moves faster than the camera. It's the biggest complaint against both the 5D Mark II and Mark III, and it's no different here. It sucks. In our test, the Nikon camera also suffered from terrible moire interference—this is the trippy-looking distortion that occurs with detailed, repeating patterns.
The Nikon D800 takes beautiful photos in nearly any situation. In daylight, the camera is completely satisfying. It shoots minuscule details and vivid color like no other camera out there. In the dark, the high-resolution sensor holds up impressively in its standard ISO range, and photos taken at up to ISO 1600 and often ISO 3200 have so little noise that they're usable without editing. The camera is built to survive, and manipulating your shot with the buttons on the camera without ever going into a menu is smart, streamlined and intuitive. As for video, the D800 delivers what the D700 lacked: versatile filmmaker-quality footage in a DSLR package. The clean HDMI output opens the door to a new world of post-production.
When a camera is fantastic—and expensive—the small shortcomings get frustrating. The D800's biggest disappointment is the auto-focus. It works, but not as fluidly as the rest of the camera. The high-resolution sensor was an awesome and potentially visionary addition to the camera. Nikon should have developed an auto-focus tailored to make it work. Instead, they reused existing technology. Yes, this is a pro's camera, and most photographers won't expect it do all the thinking on its own. But this feature just seems sloppy.
Given how well that sensor does in daylight, it's disappointing that the camera doesn't quite hit that level of excellence in the dark. It fizzles out at just ISO 6400, which doesn't really push the boundaries of what came before.
As for the video, the camera upgrades to the status quo. It adds the usual benefits and drawbacks, without the bringing a whole lot more to the table. The results are very sharp, thanks to the sensor. But if Nikon wants to get serious about video in its DSLRs—and it should—the company has to introduce something new.
Should I Buy It
If you're toting around a D700 and tons of nice glass, this is as close as you're going to get to an essential upgrade. You, Nikon devotee, you should buy this camera. It's a better still camera than the D700, it adds video, and the fantastic image sensor takes images to a new level of quality. The high-resolution sensor was a gutsy move, and it paid off, as Nikon proved that you can pack pixels into a camera without ruining its performance in the dark.
But for the camera consumer with a budget over $3,000 and no brand loyalty, it's a tough call between the D800 and the 5D Mark III. They're both excellent cameras, and they're good at different things. After testing each for a week apiece, we're still asking whether the benefits of the Nikon's high-resolution sensor outweigh the Canon's versatility.
The best way to tell could be to consider how you'll use the tool—for a pro photographer shooting portraits in a studio, or a Nat Geo correspondent capturing the landscapes of Yosemite, the Nikon could be the clear choice. For a photojournalist on an unpredictable news beat, or even a young professional taking on a wide range of work, the Canon could be a better option. Answering the question for yourself could be a matter of just picking each one up and seeing which feels right in your hands.
We'll keep testing these cameras, and we'll keep you posted with the results.
Price: $3000 (body)
Sensor: 36.3-megapixel, full-frame (35.9mm x 24.0mm) CMOS
Processor: Expeed 3
Max ISO: 6400 (standard), 25,600 (expanded)
Max Image Size: 7,360 x 4,912
Video: 1080p (24/30 fps), 720p (24//60 fps)
Display: 921,000-dot, 3.2-inch LCD