Nikon D800 review: a 2017 perspective

Specifications

Looking at the specifications of the Nikon D800 makes clear this is a high-end and high specifications piece of equipment. The Nikon D800 and Nikon D800e have a high resolution sensor with a whopping 36 megapixels. At the time the Nikon D800 was introduced back in 2012 it was the first full frame camera that was in the same resolution range as medium format cameras. First thing people said after the introduction was that with such a high resolution the camera would probably have terrible noise at higher ISO and low dynamic range. I’ll tell you more about that later on in the review. The sensor is made by Sony and they have done an outstanding job. Even today a tweaked version of this sensor is being used in the Nikon D810 and it can still hold its own.

Nikon D800 review
The 36 Megapixel sensor. Image copyright Nikon NL

The sensor is also the thing where the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800e differ from each other. The D800e is a special version of the Nikon D800 with an tuned down AA filter. That means the camera is capable of capturing even more detail with its 36 megapixel sensor. This also means there is more risk of moiré in your photo, especially when your subject has small repeating details. For instance fabrics of clothing with a fine woven pattern or railings on buildings in the distance. I’ve only owned the D800 and have never compared it to the Nikon D800e directly. But the general consensus is that the difference between the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800e is quite subtle. Yes, the Nikon D800e will capture even more detail, but the difference isn’t really worth the difference in second hand price between the models (at the moment the difference here in the Netherlands is about 400 euro’s). So for most applications I’d say your best off with the Nikon D800. In this review I’ll talk about the Nikon D800 and where I write Nikon D800 you could also read Nikon D800e as they are the same besides the sensor.

But there is more to the Nikon D800 than just its sensor. The Nikon D800 still has the same high quality body with pro-lay out as the Nikon D700 had. One big difference is the weight. The Nikon D700 was built like a brick, but it also weighs as much with just about 1 kilogram (2 pounds). De Nikon D800 is built a little lighter and weighs about 10% less: 0,9 kilogram. It still has a pop-up flash that can also be used to trigger other speedlights and that is compatible with the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System).

Nikon D800 review
It might be lighter than the D700 but this is still a sturdy piece of equipement. Image copyright Nikon NL

The Nikon D800 has got the same 51 point MultiCAM 3500FX AF system that was in the Nikon D700. Just like the D4 it is a upgraded and finetuned version of that system in the Nikon D700, but the difference is small. It should be able to focus in lower light (-2 EV) compared to the D700 (-1 EV). But in practice it feels just as good as the Nikon D700, fast and accurate in almost every situation. The Nikon D800 uses the newer 91000 pixel metering system for light metering and to aid in 3D focus tracking. That is a very high resolution system that is way more advanced than the Nikon D700’s 1000 pixel system. It makes light metering very accurate.

The shutter in de Nikon D800 is a professional grade system that offers shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second. Combined with the new lowest ISO setting of 100 (compared to ISO 200 in the D700) the camera can handle more light, which is an advantage for shooting bright primes in daylight. The shutter is rated for 200.000 actuations, so buying a second hand Nikon D800 with quite a few clicks doesn’t have to be a problem. The shutter / mirror combination makes a distinct high sound, sort of ‘Ka-Chinggg’. It isn’t as loud as the Nikon D700, that has a shutter that sounds like a barndoor being opened and slammed shut, but it is still far from quiet. The Q-drive mode makes that you can choose when you want the mirror to close, but doesn’t really make it more quiet.

Nikon D800 review

One thing where the Nikon D800 can’t compete with the Nikon D700 is frames per second. The Nikon D700 could take 6 frames per second without grip and a whopping 8 with grip. The D800 is limited to 4 frames per second, that can be too slow for some situations (for instance fast paced sports). You do have to realise that at 4 FPS in 14 bit RAW the camera has to handle about 240 MB per second! That is a downside of the extremely high resolution sensor.

The ISO range of the Nikon D800 goes from ISO 100 up to ISO6400 native. It can be extended to ISO 50 in the low range and ISO 25.600 at the other end of the scale. The usability of those extended ISO settings is of course limited.

Build and Design

The Nikon D800 looks the same as the older Nikon D700. The body has been tweaked and upgraded a little, but the basic shape and ergonomics have been preserved. That is good news for people upgrading from other pro-style Nikons, the Nikon D800 will feel familiar. The body is about 100 grams lighter than the older Nikon D700. That may sound like a small difference, but it feels quite substantial when you feel them side by side. When you are lugging your camera around the whole day every gram counts. Luckily Nikon didn’t save the weight by making the body less durable. It still feels like you could use it as a hammer to hammer nails in a board. Although I haven’t tested that myself.

Nikon D800 review
The top contols are (allmost) the same as the Nikon D700. Image copyright Nikon NL

The Nikon D800 still uses the Pro-layout from the Nikon D700 and other models and doesn’t have the PASM-wheel you may know from cheaper Nikon body’s. You switch between PASM with a small ‘mode’ button and the control wheel on the back. The place where you’d find the PASM wheel on the cheaper Nikon body’s is now used to change the drive mode (Single, Continuous low, Continuous high, self timer, quiet mode, mirror up). On top of the wheel are four buttons to quickly change ISO, White Balance, Image quality and activate Bracketing. If you aren’t used to this pro-layout it will take you some time to get used to it, but once you’ve got the hang of it this is a magnificent way to change settings. It is faster and easier than the normal system Nikon uses, and you can easily change settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder.

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