Wetpixel D800 camera review

Nikon D800 camera review.

1. Introduction.

Nikon seems, of late, to be bucking predictions and trends in its SLR releases. The D3 series was their “entry” into FX sized sensors in late 2007, blurring the lines between them and their chief competitor, Canon. This was followed by the release of the D700, a pro FX body, that really pushed the boundaries with its low light/high ISO shooting ability. However, this push seemed to taper off, with no significant new models being released until the D7000, a prosumer DX body, in late 2010.

The Canon 5D Mark II, released in September 2008 had revolutionized the integration of HD video capture into SLR cameras. Nikon introduced this into their range with the D90 in 2008, but it was not in the same performance league as Canon’s offering. It was improved with the D3S and D7000 but, many felt Canon still had a significant edge on video performance

2012 has proven an interesting year for new SLRs, with Nikon announcing the D4 in January, the D800 in early February and Canon announcing a replacement for the 5D Mark II in March. The D4 has been comprehensively reviewed by Wetpixel Associate Editor Alex Mustard here on Wetpixel and reviews of the 5D Mark III will be carried out in due course.

Nikon actually announced two versions of the D800, with the D800E featuring a new optical anti-aliasing filter with no low pass filter effect (no blurring) to obtain the sharpest images possible. Nikon claims that possible aliasing effects (moiré) caused by the lack of low pass filter can be lessened by software-processing in camera or post-capture processing. Please note that unless noted, I plan to refer to both versions as the D800 and will specifically note when this is not the case.

The D800’s 36.3 megapixel sensor.

Headline specifications for both versions are very impressive. It features a Nikon-developed 36.3 effective megapixel FX (full-frame) CMOS sensor combined with a new Expeed 3 processor. This gives it the highest resolution of any “35mm” sized SLR camera in production. This level of resolution gives the potential of “close to” medium format resolution in an SLR body. Practically, this means that the smallest details can be faithfully captured in an image, or the image can be significantly cropped and still retain sufficient resolution. It has the option of shooting in a DX mode too, which gives a 15 megapixel image. In many ways, this option is a throwback to the “high-speed crop” mode of the D2X/D2Xs, but it does give underwater DX shooters the opportunity of using the camera with their beloved Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zooms.

The D800 shares many features with the D4, including its autofocus sensor. This is the Advanced Multi-CAM3500FX auto-focus sensor with 51-point, 15 cross-type, and with 11 points sensitive at maximum apertures as small as f/8. In addition, both cameras use the same 91,000 pixel RGB metering sensor with Advanced Scene Recognition System for exposure metering. During this review, I will refer and link to sections of the Wetpixel D4 review where technology and performance are similar.

In terms of movie setting, again both cameras have similar capabilities. They both have HD filming in 1080p at 24/25/30 fps and 720p at 24/25/30/50/60 fps although the D800 does not have the D4’s 2.7x crop mode; i.e. native 1080p footage streamed directly from the central part of the sensor. Of note as well is both cameras’ ability to output a “clean” signal via HDMI, allowing them to be used with an external recording/monitoring devices like the Atomos Ninja 2. This is a definite attempt to compete with Canon’s, until now, superior movie performance. They also have stereo out, to enable the monitoring of audio via headphones.

The D800 also features a setting for the function (g1) and preview (g2) buttons on the front of the camera known as power aperture. This opens or closes the aperture in a continuous mode rather than in stop increments.

The D800 does not have the frame rate of the D4 (4fps vs 11fps), nor the in-built ethernet port or the maximum native ISO of 12800 ( the D800 boasts 6400 native).

The body is significantly smaller than that of the D4, and immediately physically recognizable as the successor to the D700. Many of the controls are similarly positioned and the camera, although 10% lighter, has a similar weight to that of its predecessor. It is not true, however to look at it as a logical successor to the D700 as this shared a 12.1 megapixel sensor with its D3 series brethren. The D800 is a stand-alone model, with unique capabilities and is intended to offer different creative opportunities from those possible with the D4.

Fiber optic strobe triggering has, over the past 5 years or so become the rule rather than the exception. Whilst there will be units available to convert the cameras hot shoe into an optical output, having an integrated flash on the camera does simplify this. The D800 has an pop-up flash and is, as you might expect, also equipped with an electronic flash trigger (hot shoe) for those who prefer (or need) to trigger their strobes via electronic cables.

The D800 is also significantly less expensive than the D4. US retail is $2999.99 as opposed to $5999.99.

After the D800’s release, there was much discussion about whether this camera would be suitable for underwater photography, and whether its massive resolution would be a help or hinderance, especially due to the inevitable degradation of optical performance when shooting through dome ports and water itself. There is no doubt that the D800 represents an exciting departure for Nikon, and the level of interest in it that has been shown by housing manufacturers suggests that it will be a very important camera for Nikon users.

Shortly after the camera’s announcement, we approached housing manufacturers to get as early as possible an opportunity to shoot the camera underwater. Nauticam were able to provide a housing within 5 weeks of the actual physical release of the camera, an amazing achievement. Many thanks to Edward Lai, Alex Tattersall and the rest of the Nauticam team for pulling out all the stops to get us a housing as quickly as possible.

Nauticam’s NA-D800 housing sporting camouflage for the review.

This review will attempt to emphasize what this camera can and can’t do. We have been using it in “real-world” underwater situations for the past three weeks, and will continue to do so over the next three or so. It is not a replacement for empirical camera image quality testing like that of DxO Labs (where the D800 gets top marks), nor will it cater to everyone’s individual shooting styles. We will be updating it as we shoot the camera more, and in differing conditions, so please keep checking back.

FTC Disclosure/acknowledgments. The D800 camera used in this review was purchased by Wetpixel for the review. The Sigma 15mm lens used in the review was kindly loaned by Ryan Canon of Reef Photo, along with a Zen Underwater 230mm dome port that had been previously supplied by him. In order to get this camera underwater, we were very lucky to have the support of all the major housing manufacturers. We simply chose the first production housing available for it. This was kindly loaned by Edward Lai of Nauticam and Alex Tattersall of Underwater Visions. At the time of writing, Nauticam and Ikelite are the only two manufacturers to have housings on the market. Wetpixel wishes to extend heartfelt thanks to all those who supported this review, we couldn’t do it without you!

  1. Introduction.
  2. The Nikon D800 body, controls and overview.
  3. Resolution, ISO and tonal range.
  4. Image size and “shooting to crop”.
  5. Autofocus, teleconverters and built-in processing.
  6. Conclusion.