Nikon D800 review: a 2017 perspective

New cameras are introduced one after the other and with every new model there are new features or improvements. But in the first few years of digital photography the steps between models were enormous. The last 8 to 6 years it seems the base is there and camera makers keep finetuning the technology, but there are fewer big steps. That means you may get a good deal if you choose to buy an older or second hand camera. Last year I wrote my 2016 perspective about the magnificent Nikon D700 (read that review here). But since the Nikon D810 was introduced the second hand prices of the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800e have dropped. Reason for me to write this 2017 perspective on the Nikon D800. In this review I’ll tell you about my experience with the camera and I hope I can help others who are thinking about buying this camera.

Nikon D800 review
Image copyright Nikon NL

Introduction of the Nikon D800

When Nikon introduced the Nikon D800 buyers were a little disappointed. They were hoping Nikon would give them a new kind of Nikon D700. The Nikon D700 was in essence a Nikon D3 for two thirds of the price in a small(er) body. They hoped the Nikon D800 would follow the same principle, a D4 for less money in a smaller body. But Nikon probably found out that introducing the Nikon D700 cost them a lot of D3 sales. So they weren’t going to do that again. Instead they went another direction, creating a clear difference between the D4 and the new Nikon D800 and Nikon D800e. The D4 was a low resolution, high speed and very durable pro camera. The Nikon D800 series was built for people needing high resolution and dynamic range, but didn’t need the pure speed of the Nikon D4.

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.

Autofocus and features

The MultiCAM 3500FX AF auto focus system of the Nikon D800 is very capable. It has got 51 auto focus points that are spread over quite a wide area in the viewfinder (compared to other full frame Nikons). The system works well when using it in single point continuous focus. 3d tracking also works very good, and you can see the influence of the high resolution meting system as the camera can track subjects more accurately. It is more accurate than I can remember from my Nikon D700. One problem I’ve had with the Nikon D800 is that the focus points on the edges of the focus field seem to work less accurate than the ones in the middle. So that is something to keep in your mind when using the camera.

Nikon D800 review
The 51 AF points are spread over an big area. Image copyright Nikon NL

Focussing in low light should be improved compared to the D700 but I haven’t really noticed a difference. Both the Nikon D700 and the Nikon D800 focus fast enough in low light, but start to struggle when you try to focus on subjects with low contrast. In most situations you can overcome that problem by focusing on something with more contrast and recomposing your image.

Nikon D800 review
Dual card slot. Image copyright Nikon NL

One of the big upgrades for professional users compared to the Nikon D700 is that the Nikon D800 features two card slots. There is one CF- and one SD-card slot. That makes it possible to automatically back-up every photo you take to the second card. You could also use the SD-card slot for an Eye-Fi card. I normally used the second slot as an overflow for when my primary card was full. I always set my CF-card as primary card because my CF-cards are faster than my SD cards. Typical 12 bit RAW images are about 30-40 MB, but 14 bit RAW’s can be double that size in some situations.

Image quality

This is where the Nikon D800 shines. Image quality is impressive. People were afraid that the high resolution would lead to low dynamic range and that there would be a lot of noise at high ISO. The dynamic range has proven to be class leading and still is higher than any of the newer Canon’s. DXO mark says the dynamic range is an incredible 14,4 EV. The closest Canon comes to 13,6 EV (the new 30 Megapixel EOS 5d Mark IV) and the only Nikon’s that surpass the Nikon D800 are the Nikon D810 and the Nikon D750 (albeit by just 0,1 EV). You should keep in mind that the DXO score for dynamic range is helped by a higher resolution. In practice the dynamic range allows you to do something like in the photo below.

Another characteristic of a sensor is the noise at high ISO. The Nikon D800 can’t compete with the Nikon D700 when it comes to high ISO performance when looking at the images at full resolution. When you zoom in on high ISO photo’s you’ll notice quite some noise in images of ISO 5000 and up. Resizing the image to a smaller resolution will make them look better and will reduce the difference between the Nikon D700 and Nikon D800. But all in all the Nikon D800 may not be the best option if extremely low noise is a priority (for that situation the Nikon Df and Nikon D750 are better). In all other cases I’d say the noise level in the Nikon D800 is very acceptable up to ISO6400. Yes, there will be some noise in your photo but with a little noise reduction in post processing you’ll end up with an image that still has enough detail for large prints. See the image below taken at ISO6400 and converted to JPEG without any extra noise reduction (did do some editing to the photo, highlights / shadows). In the zoomed image you can see the noise.

Using the Nikon D800

The Nikon D800 feels good in hand. The grip on the body is very deep and gives you good control over the camera, even when using heavy lenses like the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art. In most situations the camera feels about as fast as the Nikon D700 in operation, start-up times and shutter lag are low. When reviewing images and starting live view the camera is a little slower than the D700. When reviewing images the lag is noticeable but doesn’t bother me. The lag in starting the live view is a little annoying. There are situations where I pushed the button for a second time because it was so slow the react. Live view is a nice feature, but there is a downside to it. It seems a little more choppy and less responsive than with other Nikon cameras. The resolution also seems a little lower and interpolated. This makes the live view a little less usable for accurate focusing.

Nikon D800 review
The Nikon D800 also works great with big and heavy lenses. Here with the Venus Lens Laowa 105mm f2.8 STF lens.

One thing I’ve noticed and that surprised me a little was how hard it is to take really sharp photo’s with the D800. Because of the high resolution it is very important you don’t have any motion blur and that your auto focus is tuned perfectly. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed. That also means your technique has to be very good to make full use of the D800, something I hadn’t realised when buying the camera. It meant I had to adjust my way of taking photos. You have to make sure you have a steady grip before taking any photo.

Nikon D800 review
The Nikon D800 is perfect for landscape photography

The other things I had to do was to fine tune my autofocus for every lens I own. My Nikon D800 needed quite some adjustment to get all my lenses sharp. I had my focus adjustment set to -15 to even -18 on all my lenses. If I had kept the camera longer I would have sent it to Nikon for focus adjustment since normally all your adjustment should be somewhere close to 0. The last thing I did to make sure my images where sharp was adjust the auto ISO setting. The D800 luckily has got the new type of auto ISO setting, meaning the minimum shutter speed is relative to the focal length of your lens. In the normal setting the camera would choose 1/35th of a second as minimum shutter speed when I’d use my 35mm lens. In practice I found I needed faster shutter speeds to get sharp photo’s in most situations. You can set that in the Auto ISO setting, I chose to set the minimum shutter speed to ‘faster’. That way the camera will choose 2x the focal length as minimum shutter speed (1/70th for my 35mm lens). The only lens where I could work with the standard setting of 1/focal length was my 105mm Macro with VR. These faster lowest shutter speeds do make the camera choose higher ISO settings, generation a little more noise.

Nikon D800 review
Image of the Nikon D800 with my Sigma 35mm f1.4 ART lens

Last thing you need to take full advantage of the high resolution of the D800 are sharp lenses. My 35mm f1.4 ART lens was sharp enough for the Nikon D800. My 105mm AFS f2.8G Macro VR also coped well with the Nikon D800’s resolution. My old 50mm AF f1.8D would struggle a little wide open, but was very good at anything above f2.8. So if you are mainly using consumer or prosumer zoom lenses you may not be able to take full advantage of the Nikon D800’s capabilities.

Al things combined the Nikon D800 is quite a hard camera to use to its full potential. I never thought about that before buying it. It does reward you with amazing images when you do everything right though.

Battery life is a little poorer than the Nikon D700 or other Nikon DSLR’s I’ve used. It is way better than any mirrorless camera though. I guess I normally took about 500-600 photos per charge, given you don’t do (extreme) long exposures and don’t have live view on all the time. I always had one back-up battery with me. I’ve never been able to deplete one battery in one day of shooting, so the backup was just to be sure I wouldn’t run out of juice half way through. The Nikon D800 uses the EN-EL15 batteries that are used in most other Nikon DSLR cameras like the D750, D610, and D7x00 series.

Nikon D800 review
The Nikon D800 in action with the CamFi on top.

Editing the RAW’s in Lightroom isn’t a problem on any modern PC or laptop (recently I’ve been using a 7th generation Intel Core i5 with 16 GB internal memory and a 512 GB SSD drive). I’ve read people complaining the images slow down Lightroom a lot, but I found the difference between the 36 Megapixel files from the Nikon D800 and the smaller 24 Megapixel RAW’s from the Sony A7 (read my review about the Sony A7 here) and other cameras small. Both take some time to import, and zooming to 100% takes a fraction of a second for both sizes. The Nikon D800 files may take just a fraction longer. If you are a professional editing loads of images at once that may be enough to annoy you, but for non-professionals I wouldn’t say it is big a problem.

Lenses

Since I’ve bought the Nikon D800 I’ve used it with several lenses. My most used lens has certainly been the Sigma 35mm f1.4 ART. That lens is extremely sharp, so it can make the most of the D800’s high resolution. The Sigma works perfect on the Nikon D800 and I never had any problems with focusing on the Nikon D800. The lens also balances very well on the D800, as do all heavy lenses. The Nikon D800 has a generous grip that helps with holding big and heavy lenses. Other lenses I’ve used over the past period are the Nikon 50mm AF f1.8D, Nikon 28mm AFS f1.8G N, Nikon 85mm AFS f1.8G, Nikon 105mm AFS f2.8G Marco VR. Of course the Nikon D800 works very well with the modern AFS lenses. One thing you’ll notice about the pro bodies is the focus speed with older non-AFS lenses. Those lenses use the focus motor in the camera body to focus, and the Nikon pro bodies have a much more powerful motor so the lenses can focus a lot faster. The difference is small with a light lens like the 50mm AF f1.8D, but I’ve also used an old 105mm AF f2.8D lens and that is night and day compared to a prosumer body like the D7100. Something that may be of interest to you if you still have older Nikon lenses.

Nikon D800 review
The Nikon D800 with Sigma 35mm f1.4 ART and B+W soft grad filter

Photos

In this gallery you’ll find a small selection of the images I’ve taken with the Nikon D800.

Conclusion

The Nikon D800 still is a very impressive camera. Even today the resolution and dynamic range are high-end even compared to newly introduced cameras. That is very impressive for a camera that was introduced 5 years ago. The Nikon D810 is a refined version of the original D800 and still is the go-to camera for professionals that need high resolution images. That say a lot since the D810 still uses (basically) the same sensor and AF system as the older D800. The camera is built to last and very durable. It is big and heavy, something you must be able to accept when you buy one. And to take full advantage of this camera you’ll also need sharp lenses, and most truly sharp lenses aren’t small or light either adding to the bulk and weight. Furthermore you need your shooting technique to be on the top of your game, use high shutter speeds to make sure you don’t have motion blur. And you have to fine tune the auto focus for all your lenses to make sure it is spot on. Only then you will see the magnificent image quality this camera is able to deliver.

Nikon D800 review

After using the Nikon D800 for about a year I’ve decided to sell it and buy a Nikon Df (read my earlier review about the Nikon Df here). I made that choice more because I really like the Nikon Df than because I didn’t like the Nikon D800. I must admit that the weight and bulk of the Nikon D800 did help in making the decision to switch. I’m not a professional photographer and don’t need the extremely high resolution the Nikon D800 gives me. If you are looking for a camera for high resolution (studio-) work, or a camera for landscape photography I’d say this is one of the best second hand cameras on the market. If you are a casual photographer like me, and don’t need the resolution the Nikon D750 is probably the better alternative.

Want to buy it? Use the following link to buy a refurbished D800 at Adorama (affiliate link)

Nikon D800 refurbished

 

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