Friday, August 30, 2013

Nikon D800 Review


The D800 is a camera that caught the attention of many photography enthusiasts and professionals alike when it was announced early in 2012. This was evident by the fact that the D800 (and E variant) were hard to find in stock for the first 5-6 months after it started shipping to customers. What was it about the D800 that drew so much attention? Many would say that it was the massively pixel dense 36MP CMOS image sensor at the heart of the beast. Of course Nikon did not stop improving on the previous D700 by simply placing a 36MP sensor into the same camera, they also improved the handling, controls and added a video recording mode. Now, over a year after the release of the camera, anyone who is still saying that the D800 is not a true D700 replacement has either not used one, or simply needs a high speed action camera like the D4.

Most of the issues with the D800 are well known, but what about the strengths? So much of the chatter online about modern cameras today focuses on what is wrong with them, even I could be counted as guilty of this at times, rather that what is good about them. While the good, the bad and the ugly will be mentioned, the strengths of the D800 will not be ignored. The improved handling, amazing image quality, dynamic range, noise performance and colour reproduction will all be touched on. Throughout the review I'll be comparing the D800 to the D700, since that is the camera that it directly replaced in Nikon's DSLR lineup.

Handling, Controls and Build Quality:

While the D800's body might resemble the D700, there are some differences in the design and handling of the camera. First of all, the overall shape of the D800 is more curvy and sloped with smooth rolling lines. This change is particularity noticeable on the top plate of the camera, where the shutter is placed on a steeper slope, and a redesign drive mode dial can be found. The top LCD is still present, along with the front sub-command dial and the rear command dial. The mechanical release for the built in pop-up flash is also still present.

The top right hand side of the top plate now features four buttons, rather than the traditional three. Front most you'll find the shutter button, with the on off switch wrapped around it (pushing the switch past the ON position turns illuminates the top LCD backlight). You'll also find the exposure compensation button and the mode button here. The mode button is slightly farther back, due to the new video recording button. In my mind moving the mode button is the only real negative alteration that has been made ergonomically with the D800. Given the desire to place a recording button on the top plate, I cannot think of anything else the Nikon designers could have done to prevent this.

The hand grip itself is slightly less deep and more rounded than the one found on the D700. I have found the grip of the D800 slightly more comfortable to hold for extended periods of time than the D700, but I have average sized hands. The red swoosh on the grip is now more of a red line and is made of plastic, a trend that started with the D7000, rather than rubber. Making the red swoosh plastic was a little disappointing at first, but it doesn't seem to have effected the grip at all.

Thankfully most of the changes between the D800 and D700 are in important areas, like simplifying controls or improving on them. For example, on top of the drive mode dial there is a new BKT button, along side the traditional ISO, WB and QUAL buttons. For HDR photography, or those who need to bracket flash to get the correct exposure, this is a welcome addition, since it frees up one of the front function buttons for other uses.

On the back of the camera the grip has been changed slightly, in that there is a smaller thumb rest. This makes one handed holding of the camera slightly more difficult, but not overly so. Like all of the current generation Nikon DSLR's the +/- zoom buttons have been changed, which takes some time to get used to. Even now, after several months of use, I am still not fully adjusted to the change. Thankfully, like previous higher end Nikon DSLR's, the centre selector button on the multi selector can be set to zoom, negating the need to use the zoom buttons on the left hand side of the body.

Nikon has also changed how the AF-ON button functions, for better or for worse. On the D700 and previous semi/pro bodies the AF-ON button did not activate VR on VR lenses, while the D800 and other newer bodies it does. Personally I do not like the change, and would rather VR to only activate when half pressing the shutter button. Sadly Nikon has chosen not to make this an optional setting. 

The other marked changes are the design of the drive mode dial, AF selector switch and the removal of AF mode switch from the back of the camera. The AF mode switch has been replaced by the Liveview mode switch, more on this later. On the D700, and previous semi-pro Nikon DSLRs the drive mode dial was a flat disk that rotated. While the concept was good, it wasn't overly easy to use with large gloves or mitts on. The new design, which I can only describe as being taller, is much easier to use. The only change on the drive mode dial itself is the replacement of the Liveview position with the Q (Quiet) mode. The lock button to prevent accidental changes to the drive mode is still in place.

Over the years many D200, D300, D700 users complained that it was too easy to bump the AF selector switch into the wrong position. As a result Nikon changed the design of the AF selector switch, which now only has two positions, AF and Manual. The switch is stiffer, and thus less likely to be changed by mistake. In addition, the middle of the AF selector switch has a button which allows the user to change focus modes with the use of the command and sub-command dials. These settings now show in the viewfinder when the button is pressed, so you don't need to look away from the viewfinder to make adjustments. One of the best changes through this new button system is that you can change the number of focus points that are used in dynamic auto focus mode, without diving into the menu.

The placement of most buttons on the back of the D800 are unchanged from the D700, although in some cases the function has been changed. The most obvious change is the Liveview button/selector switch, which replaces the AF mode selector switch. The button turns Liveview on and off, while the dial allows you to switch between still photography mode and video mode liveview. There are few real differences between the two, but the video mode crops the frame to show what would be recorded, along with video relevant display information. The only other button change on the back of the camera is the reversing of the +/- zoom buttons. The new positions are actually more logical than previous generation bodies, but it takes time to get used to the change if you have been using Nikon DSLR's for any significant length of time.

The bottom of the camera is slightly redesigned, but even so some custom Arca-Swiss plates for the D700 will still fit the D800 snugly (the Markins P700U fits nicely on the D800). D700 L-Brackets on the other hand, will be an issue, due to the change in the accessory port door. The D800 uses the newer MB-D12 battery grip, which is why the connector on the bottom is a different shape than the D700. The D800 also uses the newer EN-EL15 battery, which was introduced partly due to changes in Japaneses battery laws related to exposed battery terminals. The newer EN-EL15 battery holds a charge longer, so you can easily get more shots per charge.

The Accessory Port Door on the side of the camera has also been changed, for the better. Rather than being covered by a hard rubber that kind of flops around and wont stay open on its' own, there is now a hinged rubbery plastic door. Users who shoot tethered will welcome this change, without a doubt. Behind the door you'll find headphone and microphone jacks, a micro-B USB3 connector, and a Mini-HDMI port. The Mini-HDMI port allows the user to not only show recorded video on an external TV, but also output clean (not RAW) video from the camera to an external recording device.

The card slot door is sill the same hinged design as the D700, for better or for worse. I still prefer the locking door design of the D200/D300 (non-S), but the current design works well enough. The biggest change here is an SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot in addition to the compact flash slot. While dual slots of the same type would be ideal, having both SD and CF card slots would be helpful for anyone moving to the D800 from a lower end camera like the D7000 or D7100.

In terms of build quality the D800 is almost identical to the D700, although the plastic cover over the metal frame on the D800 has a slightly tackier, almost cheap feel to it. The different feel may come down to the use of lighter weight plastics in some parts of the cover, and built in flash, allowing the D800 body to be slightly lighter than the D700. I also noticed that the 10 pin connector on the D800 is wobbly, almost mushy, rather than rock solid as it was on my D700 (and D300 before that). Once an accessory is tightly screwed in there is no issue. In simple terms that is not a big deal, you just need to be more careful when plugging in an accessory that uses the 10 pin connector to prevent breaking it (I have read reports from users who have done this simply by plugging in an external shutter cable!).

Those comments might make the D800 sound like a body that Nikon cheeped out on, but that really does not seem to be the case. The body can still take a beating, just like the D700 before it. While I think there may be minor compromises in some areas, I believe most of those happened out of a desire by the designers to lower the weight of the D800. While shaving approximately 50g off of the body weight compared to the D700 might not sound like much, you might notice it with the right camera lens combinations.

Viewfinder and Metering:

One of the improvements of the D800 over the D700 is increased viewfinder coverage, 100%, vs 95%. While that difference in coverage isn't huge, being able to see everything that will be in the final frame is a nice addition. In terms of brightness there is no noticeable change. The in viewfinder displays are basically unchanged, with the exception of the virtual horizon, which now uses an arrow on the bottom and right side of the display rather than taking the place of the exposure meter along the bottom LCD panel as it did in the D700. This means the virtual horizon can be displayed along with other shooting information, making it far more useful in practice.

How does the D800 do in terms of light metering? About the same as the D700, for the most part. To me that is good, because it means I don't need to think about that when switching between the D800 and D700 during a shoot. While Nikon boasts about the inclusion of a new, higher resolution, metering sensor, the D800's metering system seems unchanged from the D700. While there are some changes, they aren't noticeable from a real world standpoint. I have found that Matrix Metering is slightly more accurate for some scenes, but overall there are no changes that I can consistently reproduce. Centre Weighted and Spot metering work just as they did with the D700.

Auto Focus:

Most photographers today use auto focus lenses, so the abilities of a cameras auto focus system is an important feature. The D800 inherits an updated Multi-Cam 3500FX from the Nikon D4, featuring 51 user selectable points, 19 of which are cross type for superior performance.

As noted, the centre 19 points are all cross type, as long as there is a lens with a maximum aperture of F5.6 attached. In addition the updated system also allows the camera to focus using the centre cross type AF point, even when lenses with a maximum aperture of F8 are used. That will prove useful for anyone who wants to use the TC20E III (2X) on an F4 telephoto lens (AF-S 70-200mm F4G VR, AF-S 300mm F4D IF-ED, AF-S 200-400mm F4G VR, AF-S 600mm F4G VR). While it might not always be practical to use the TC20E III on the F4 lenses, due to degraded image quality, in a pinch the ability to do so may be advantageous.

The overall performance of the D800's system is very good, faster than any entry level or consumer grade Nikon camera that I've used to date. Focus speed with high performance lenses (like the 24-70mm F2.8G) is virtually unchanged from what was possible with the D700. The speed difference would have to be measured in milliseconds at best. The only time that users will see a difference between the two cameras is when using a teleconverter in low light conditions. The D700 was rated to work at -1EV, while the D800 is rated to -2EV. I can say without a doubt that the D800 focuses more accurately in low light, without an auto focus assist beam, than the D700.

Additional Notes On Auto Focus:

My D800 suffers from the widely reported left focus issue. I have not sent the camera in for adjustment yet. My testing of the issue showed that the centre focus points are accurate, while the left points back-focus heavily, beyond what auto focus fine tune can correct. The right side focus points also back-focus, but not to the same degree as the points on the left.

Menu System:

The Menus of the D800 are virtually unchanged from what could be found in the D700 and other previous Nikon prosumor DSLRs. The most notable change is the ability of the user to adjust the Auto ISO settings. While previous models allowed the user to set a minimum shutter speed, the updated controls allow the user to set the speed to auto. In auto mode the camera tries to keep the shutter speed at least as fast as the focal length of the lens attached. This setting can also be adjusted to keep the shutter speed faster or slower if so desired.

Another addition is improved in camera RAW editing. For some time now Nikon has offered in camera RAW conversion, but the adjustments were rather limited in scope. The user can now adjust the exposure, white balance and other basic settings without having to save a JPEG after each change. While these adjustments are by no means able to replace post production software (Aperture, Lightroom), it can produce better results than using RAW+JPEG mode to get JPEG files from the camera.

Image Quality and Noise Performance:

When it comes to image quality the D800 stands above any DSLR that I have used or tested to date. In addition to pixel sharpness, the dynamic range and colour reproduction the D800 is simply unmatched in this class. While I'm sure the D800 will not be the highest resolution DSLR on the market for long, at this time it is and the results are stunning. The improved level of detail over the D700 is something you simply have to see to believe. If you are looking for a huge improvement in desktop sized images for the internet, you might be a little disappointed, unless you crop a great deal. To be clear, unless you are viewing large prints or images at 100%, you wont notice the resolution difference in most cases. That is why, from my point of view, the D800's greatest strength is not in pure pixel density, but in the area of dynamic range.

One thing you will notice over the D700 is a smoother transition between whites and blacks. Tests have shown that at ISO100 the D800 has a dynamic range of 14EV, which simply means it can capture a greater range of light than almost any other DSLR's on the market. Users of the D800 will quickly notice detail in the shadow areas of images that the D700 simply could not show, even with a hefty amount shadow recovery in post production. The D800 also does a remarkable job of capturing colour, and not just that, but the tones of colour. While the D700 captures colour well, the D800 makes it easier to notice the transition of colours, likely due to the increased pixel count and dynamic range. Like the D700 before it, the D800 still has a tendency to loose detail in the reds under bright conditions, but to a much lesser extent than previous Nikon cameras.

ISO Performance:

The D800 has a native ISO range from 100-6400 (expandable to ISO50-25600) while the D700 has a native range from 200-6400 (expandable to 100-25600). While the change in the native ISO range is minimal, the ability to shoot at ISO100 natively with the D800 is a welcome change for anyone who uses large aperture lenses in daylight.

Noise performance is another areas where the D800 steps on the toes of the D700. While many thought bringing in such a high resolution sensor would cause noise issues for the D800 that turned out not to be the case at all. In fact the D800 is at least a stop or at the very least half a stop better in terms of noise, at high sensitivity settings, than the D700. Below are test images showing the difference. Click on the images to see a larger size. The images are crops of the same section of a larger image, to show how noise effects the same area of the frame between the two cameras. This displays how much noise performance has improved, even though the resolution has been greatly increased with the D800.

While the D800's base ISO is 100, for the sake of comparison we'll start at ISO200, since that is the D700's base ISO.

D800 ISO200
D700 ISO200
As you can see there is no noticeable difference in noise at ISO200. The improved dynamic range of the D800 is shown, but very slightly, since the shadows in this scene are very soft. You see similar performance in terms of noise right up to ISO800, where the D800 starts to gain an advantage. At ISO1600 the cameras are still very close, and only at 100% will you notice a difference.

D800 ISO1600
D700 ISO1600
Once you get to ISO3200 and above the D800 takes the lead, and will be visible even at standard desktop resolutions. What you will also see is slightly better saturation and contrast at high ISO with the D800.

D800 ISO3200
D700 ISO3200
At ISO6400 the difference between the D800 and D700 really start to show.

D800 ISO6400

D700 ISO6400
The noise in the D700 is clearly more visible, and the colour loss at this sensitivity, while subtle, is greater. Nether camera shows as much dynamic range at ISO6400 (this is typical for all cameras), but the D800 is slightly better. There is still greater shadow detail in the D800 images.

D800 ISO12800
D700 ISO12800
At ISO12800 the D800 really takes the lead, with noise being more of a smaller grainy constancy than the files from the D700. While I wouldn't consider files at ISO12800 overly usable from either camera, the D800 would be fine for black and white conversion at this setting.

D800 ISO25600
D700 ISO25600
The files from the D700 show at lot more colour noise, although neither camera is going to produce usable images at ISO25600.

While the D700 is still no slouch, even 5 years after being introduced, the D800 does have a slight edge in terms of noise performance. The D800, thanks to the higher resolution sensor, can have images down sampled to reduce the visible effects of noise even more.

Video Performance:

While not being an expert on shooting or recording video, I felt this review would not be complete without at least touching on the subject. The D800 is a very capable video capturing device, and I'm sure that in the right hands it could be a great tool for movie makers. While the D800 might not be considered the best video DSLR on the market, it is one of the better cameras for those who are heavily invested in Nikon lenses and want to either improve or step into the realm  of video recording.

The built in microphone in the D800 is not the greatest, but at least you can control how sensitive it is with the level controls. There is a distinct hiss or hum with auto recorded by the camera, but that is nothing unusual for a microphone of this type. In addition the sound of auto focus can also be heard when using the built in microphone. To avoid this issue I simply auto focus before recording. To improve sound quality an external microphone or recording device is needed. In the second sample video I have used hum reduction to minimize the hiss.

The first example is noise test, displaying how the camera handles noise at 1080p. There is no audio from the in camera microphone in this video.

The second video shows real world clips, not testing, of the camera.


Comments and Conclusion:

The Nikon D800 is a solid performer by almost all accounts. The level of detail that can be captured by the 36MP sensor is outstanding, and the dynamic range of the D800, over the D700, also stands out. The camera is well made, even if there are some issues. Considering that some of the quirks with the D800's build, like the 10-pin connector being not overly robust, one would think that the build quality of Nikon's high end cameras was sliding, but I do not believe that to be the case. I say that because not everyone with the D800 has experienced that issue.

Nikon has also made improvements in the areas of metering and auto focus speed. While the newer AF sensors may not be as big of a leap as when the 51 point auto focus system was first introduced, it does preform better in low light conditions. The most valuable aspect of the updated auto focus module is the ability to focus with all modern Nikon teleconverters, with select F4 lenses even if the maximum aperture becomes F8.

I found moving to the D800 from the D700 to be a smooth transition, although I am still getting used to the reversed +/- buttons in image playback. The D800 is less usable as a sports/action camera than the D700, due a slower continuous shooting rate and a buffer that fills faster. That being said, the D800 is still usable for action shooting in good hands. The user needs to be more proactive, rather than reactive in order to achieve similar shots. I have used the D800 for bird photography, and while the loss of the ability to shoot at 8FPS with the grip is a downside, I have still been able to achieve good results. You can shoot faster in DX crop mode (15MP), but doing so does throw away a great deal of resolution.

The video recording features of the D800 are advanced enough for anyone who wants to really dive into recording via a DSLR. The advantages of a DSLR, such as excellent low light performance, narrow depth of field, and a wide range of available lenses is where the D800 shines. While it might not be as richly featured as the Canon 5D MKIII, the D800 can hold it's own in the area of video recording. If nothing else the superior dynamic range of the D800 could prove useful to film makers.

The D800 quickly became my primary camera after I added it to my bag, even though there are some areas where the D700 could be considered better. The number of advantages the D800 has over the D700 makes it no contest when I go to reach for a camera to shoot with. The D800 is simply a superior camera, making the choice an easy one. While the D700 remains in my camera bag, as a backup, the amount of use it has seen in recent months is far less than I expected.

  1. Class leading resolution (36MP Sensor)
  2. Class leading dynamic range (14 stops at ISO100)
  3. Excellent high ISO performance (1 stop better than D700)
  4. 100% Optical viewfinder, no more guessing what will be in corners of the shot.
  5. Dual card slots (CF and SDHC/SDXC), although it would have been nice if both slots were both CF.
  6. Improved auto focus performance with teleconverters (vs D700)
  7. Improved auto focus controls
  8. Improved hand grip the vs D700 (personal preference)
  9. Improved drive mode dial
  10. Improved Liveview focusing speed (vs D700)
  11. Improved virtual horizon display in optical viewfinder
  12. Dedicated Bracketing button 
  13. Large RAW files offer a great deal of room for correction in post production editing. 
  14. High quality 1080p video recording

  1. Some minor build quality issues (10-pin connector)
  2. VR kicks in when you press the AF-ON button (older bodies don't do this)
  3. Less forgiving of mistakes, camera shake is more evident due to the greater resolution (when viewed at 100%)
  4. Large RAW files can be slow to load in image editors, unless you are using an SSD. 
  5. Lacks the shooting speed of the D700, and the buffer simply cannot handle as many shots in a burst. Without the use of top of the line high speed memory cards, the D800 is not as well suited to action shooting as the D700.
  6. Mirror slap and shutter vibration can be an issue for shutter speeds under 1/25s.