Nikon users who felt stifled with 12 or 16 megapixel can relax! Nikon’s super-high-resolution D-SLR – the 36.3 megapixel D800/E – was announced sometime in February 2012. The D800 may eventually replace the ageing 12.1 megapixel D700 that was introduced roughly 3.5 years ago in 2008.
Up-till now, Nikon’s 24.5 megapixel D3x was heading the pixel count, which was closely followed by Canon’s 21 megapixel 5D Mark II. Nikon decided, or so it seems, to once-and-for-all raise the megapixel bar to a level that would be difficult to catch-up with. In doing so, they have superseded their own ‘megapixel king’ by a wide margin, and inviting the competition to catch up. Photography circles are buzzing with excitement; how good will the new model be? How large will the files be? What about the digital noise – won’t a 36.3 MP camera be noisy, especially at higher ISO sensitivities? What about the D800E which has a modified sensor assembly (with modifications to its anti-aliasing filter), won’t it create more moiré? How fast will the D800 be able to shoot? How large will its buffer be? All these and many more questions need to be answered.
Design and Build Quality
Streamlined, sexy, and superb! The chassis is made from tough-but- lightweight magnesium alloy and dust/weather-sealing is imparted at certain critical points. The body is approximately 10-percent lighter than the D700 body. The camera feels robust, though the overall weight, depending on the lens you use, can be a pain in the neck (pun intended).
The D800 uses Nikon’s EXPEED 3 image processor in combination with a newly designed full-frame (FX) 36.3 megapixel (effective) CMOS sensor that offers a maximum output of 7360 x 4912 pixels. This relates to a print size of 24.53 x 16.37 inches at the industry standard 300ppi. As per Nikon, the D800 is capable of resolution that rivals medium-format digital SLRs and digital backs. Based on CIPA guidelines, the start-up time for the D800 is approximately 0.12 seconds and the Release Time-lag is approximately 0.042 seconds. Roughly speaking, the D800 has about 75 percent more pixel count than the D700, the model that it may eventually replace. The user can choose between sRGB and Adobe RGB 1998 Colour Space. The wide-angle viewing LCD monitor on the D800 measures 3.2-inches diagonally and has a resolution of 921,000 dots. A double-axis Virtual Horizon graphic indicator can be used (through the LCD as well as the Viewfinder) to check if the camera is levelled.
The D800 uses a lot of technology from the recently released D4, considered to be the new king of low-noise sensor technology. The autofocus sensor used in the D800 is the same that is used in the D4 and can focus in light as dim as -2 EV (EV -2 is equal to an exposure of 8 seconds at f/1.4 at ISO 100). Even when using slow lenses, the D800 can offer superior focussing since certain cross-type AF sensors get activated. Autofocus area modes on the D800 are Single Point AF, 9-point AF, 21-point AF, 51-point AF, Auto-Area AF, and 3D Focus autofocus. The camera uses Phase Detect (when using the Viewfinder), and Contrast Detect when using Live View/Movies.
When using Live View, the focussing time is shortened by approximately 40-percent as compared to the Nikon D3S and full-time AF Servo is employed to achieve focus on moving subjects. Live View shooting offers a variety of AF-Area modes: Normal-area AF, Wide-area AF, Face-Priority AF, and Subject-tracking AF. Drive modes available are Single Shot, Continuous Low (CL), Continuous High (CH), Quiet Shutter (Q), Mirror-Up (MUP), and Self-timer.
In Continuous High, the D800 allows a maximum of 4 frames per second in full-frame and up to 6fps in DX mode. Since the camera is basically designed for advanced users, it has done away with the frivolous Scene modes; we now have only Program (with Shift), Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes. The D800’s newly designed shutter is tested for 200,000 cycles with the shutter actually loaded (for those interested in comparing the figure with film rolls, it is 5,555 36-exposure rolls!). Shutter speeds on the D800 range from 30 seconds to 1/8000 sec plus ‘B’, while ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 – 6400 (in 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV step). With boost, the ISO range can be expanded from 50 (Lo 1) -25,600 (Hi 2) equivalent.
The D800 offers 12 White Balance Presets and 5 Custom White Balance. Images can be shot in RAW (12 or 14-bit, lossless compressed, compressed, or uncompressed), TIFF, or JPEG (Fine/Normal/Basic). Compared to the D3x, the D800’s sensor has approximately 50-percent higher pixel count. This will allow users to make larger prints with finer details. It will also allow for cropping without substantial loss of image quality. When used in DX mode, the D800 offers an output of 15.4 megapixels, thus making it more lucrative than the 12 MP D700. The pixel pitch of the D800’s sensor is similar to that of the D7000, which could mean finer results in FX as well as DX modes.
Now for some further refinements over earlier models. When using Auto ISO on earlier Nikon models, the user can indicate a minimum low shutter speed, after which the ISO would boost automatically. With the D800, this feature is further refined by allowing the user to specify a minimum shutter speed in accordance to the focal length in use. For example, with the D700, the user may specify that once, say, 1/60 sec shutter speed is reached, the ISO sensitivity may be automatically boosted. Note that this is regardless of the focal length being used. With the D800, the user could specify, for example, that with a 300mm lens, boost the ISO after a minimum shutter speed of 1/200 sec is reached. At the same time, he could specify that when using a 50mm lens, the ISO should be boosted only after 1/60 shutter speed is reached! With the D800, Auto ISO can be selected through the ISO button on the camera’s top plate.
Quality, as well as functionality of video recording has been improved. Full HD Movies can be shot in 1920 x 1080/30p at 24, 25, or 30 fps for 30 minutes. Movies can be shot in FX as well as DX formats. Using a built-in HDMI port, you can send uncompressed HD video to an external drive. Uncompressed live view movies can be edited on connected equipment using ProRes (Movie compression technology by Apple Inc). During video recording, audio can be monitored through the headphone port. When shooting movies in Aperture Priority and Manual exposure modes, aperture can be changed during the recording.
Some other key features of the D800 include the ability to do HDR, Active D-Lighting, Picture Controls, Vignette and Auto Distortion Control, Multiple exposures, Interval Timer, and Time-Lapse photography. The D800 incorporates a iTTL compatible built-in flash with a Guide Number of 12 m /39 ft at ISO 100. The flash can cover up to 24 mm lens. The flash supports Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and can be used in Commander Mode and also as a repeating flash.
Images can be stored in the two card slots provided for CF and SD card. Both cards can be set to record in various ways. The CF card supports UDMA 7 that is faster than UDMA 6; the SD card slot supports SDXC and the new UHS-1 too. Still images and movies can be transferred to the computer using a fast high-speed interface (USB 3). The system is backward-compatible with USB 2. (The transfer speed for USB 2 is 480Mbps whereas that for USB 3 is 5Gbps). The camera is powered by an EN-EL 15 lithium-ion battery. The body weighs 900 g and measures 144.78 (W) x 121.92 (H) x 81.28mm (D).
A Note on D800E
The 800E is basically the same camera with a modified sensor assembly. A sensor assembly generally has what is known as Anti-aliasing filter (also known as Low-pass filter). The purpose of this filter is to eliminate/reduce moire (which you could consider as a defect/problem of digital image sensors). While the anti-aliasing filter generally does a good job, it also ‘eats up’ very fine details. On the D800E, Nikon engineers have re-designed the sensor assembly, which works as if there was no anti-aliasing filter. By doing so, the image sharpness would be slightly more but with increased occurrence of false colour and moiré.
Nikon cameras are known for their ease of use and easy-to-understand user interface. The D800 is no different. But don’t let this statement fool you; unless you are well-versed with its vast array of features, it can be daunting to handle this beast (this of course is true for all modern Juggernauts). We tested the D800 with a variety of lenses. Somehow, I find the grip on other Nikon D-SLRs to be a bit better than on the D800; on the D800, I found it a bit uncomfortable to have the index finger directly on the shutter release button. But this is a personal observation, and others may not necessarily feel that way.
The Nikon D800 provided very high resolution images. Our test was primarily done using a 70-200 f/2.8 VR and a 85mm f/1.8 lens. Pictures were also shot using other lenses but the main tests were with the two lenses mentioned. Since most users would use a camera hand-held, we did the major part of our tests without a tripod. Autofocus was fast when using ‘fast’ lenses, but we did feel it slow down with ‘slow’ lenses, especially in less than favourable light. Even then, AF was accurate. AF-S (autofocus single) or AF-C (autofocus continuous) can be selected by holding down the AF M button on the left of the body and then turning the rear command dial. In AF-S mode, by holding down the AF M button and then turning the front command dial, you can select between Single autofocus point (S) or Auto AF point. In AF-C mode, by holding down the AF M button and then turning the front command dial, you can select Single point (S), 9-point, 21-point, 51-point, 3D, or Auto AF points. When you look through the Viewfinder, you will not see the number of AF points you have opted for unless you press the AF M button. When you half-press the shutter release button (keeping the AF M button pressed), you will be able to see your selected AF point. Very neat indeed!
In Movie mode, you can select AF-S (but not AF-C for obvious reasons), or AF-F (full-time AF). You can also select Normal-area AF, Wide-area AF or Face Detect AF.
The 3 metering modes (Center-weighted, Matrix, and Spot) provided spot-on accuracy, though we did find a few pictures in shade somewhat overexposed when using the Matrix meter. White Balance was on the dot in Sun, Flash, and Incandescent light. In Shade, the Preset showed a slight yellow cast but Auto WB was perfect. We ignored the fluorescent light White Balance though there are 7 presets for fluorescent lights. This is because in almost all situations of fluorescent lighting, individual tubes have different light characteristics.
Now lets come down to what everyone must be waiting for – the ISO performance. For this test, images were shot in JPEG Large/Fine, and the subject was a part of our office and included some dark areas. The native image size at the industry-accepted norm of 300 pixels per inch was 16.373 x 24.533 inches. At 12.5 percent screen size, we found no problem of digital noise at any ISO setting. At 25 percent screen size, very little noise was seen at ISO 3200. H1 (ISO 12,800 equivalent) was noisy but could be used if required. H2 (ISO 25,800 equivalent) was definitely noisy. At 50 percent screen size, noise performance was acceptable up to ISO 1600. Above that, all ISOs were noisy. At 100 percent screen size, even ISO 1600 showed some noise but I would not hesitate to use it if needed. Kindly note that how much digital noise one may tolerate or accept, depends on the standard that one may have laid out for oneself. We did one more test – compared ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 with similar images from a D7000. This was done because the pixel pitch is almost the same in both the models. We could not find any difference in the noise.
Do remember also, that RAW converters have noise reduction features, and if you are a RAW shooter, and use Photoshop CS5, you can take the maximum advantage of the RAW Converter’s excellent ability to reduce noise.
Setting the D800 to JPEG Large/Fine, we could fire about 32 frames before the firing speed slowed down; similarly, after about 16 RAW frames the camera stopped firing because the buffer was full.
Was there anything I disliked about the D800? You bet there was. I found the maximum burst speed of 4fps very restrictive. Agreed, the D800 is a 36 MP model but 4fps is even then too restricted. Second is the battery life. After shooting about 13GB (about 320 frames, NEF and JPEG (Large/Fine) mixed, the battery showed about 50 percent drain. Granted, being a new toy, there was a fair amount of ‘playing’ with the autofocus to see how fast and how accurate it was.
And of course, till you can get yourself a RAW Converter, you’ll have to make do with the Nikon View NX2 software (that comes along with your camera). Using View NX2 you can convert your D800 RAW files to TIFF or JPEG. Converting to TIFFs is a slow process.
Let me also give you an idea of how long it could take you to transfer these large files to your computer (see my computer specs below). An 8GB Sandisk Extreme SD card (20MB/s) with 98 JPEGs (L+F) and 83 RAW (14-bit, uncompressed) files took 6 minutes and 50 seconds to download (using a Kingston card reader). A 16GB Kingston Ultimate 266x CF card with 68 JPEGs and 66 RAW files took 2 minutes and 55 seconds to download using the same procedure (for those who are not aware, CF cards are always faster than SD cards; hence it is not a reflection on the make of the card).
Computer: Processor – Intel Core i5 CPU 760 @ 2.80 MHz, 64-bit Windows 7 Professional Operating System, 8GB RAM.
Value for Money
The Nikon D800 is available at an MRP of Rs.1,49,950. At this price and performance, we would say it is good value for money.
+ High resolution
+ Built-in flash
+ Dual memory card slots
+ Very good video quality
– Poor burst rate
– Buffer not adequately large
– Battery life
– ‘On/Off’ switch too recessed
Design and Build Quality 17/20
Key Features 17/20
Noise Control 3.5/5
Extra Features 4/5
Value for Money 8/10
Grand Total 83/100
The Nikon D800 will allow you to get your shots in almost any lighting condition; how good those shots will be in terms of image quality will depend not only on the optics, but also on the standard you set for yourself. Know very well, that the D800 is very unforgiving; any lens defect will be seen as a sore thumb. Also, if you are not in the habit of using a (firm) tripod, you might be disappointed. The amount of hand shake that a 12 megapixel camera can tolerate before it gets too noticeable is much more than what a 36 MP camera can. So if you get the D800, make sure you use top-end lenses, and above all, get ready to improve your shooting techniques.