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There has been a swag of significant new cameras released over the last few months, but one really stands out from the crowd… Nikon’s giant-killing D800 is redefining the semi-pro D-SLR and, very possibly, the pro-level D-SLR too.

Quite frankly, it’s a bit surprising that more fuss isn’t being made about the Nikon D800. With its 36.8 megapixels 35mm-sized sensor, it’s the most significant thing to happen to ‘small format’ D-SLRs for quite a while and, with this amount of resolution, to medium format D-SLRs as well. Everybody was taking a breather from the ‘pixel race’ when Nikon popped out its record-breaker, but it’s quickly become apparent that the D800 is about a lot more than its pixels. It’s not so much about the megapixels you have, but what you do with them… etcetera, etcetera. The processing power behind the D800’s sensor is arguably as impressive as the imager itself so it’s not been simply a case of going for a bigger number than anybody else.

Short supply and plenty of competition for media attention – Nikon alone has two other very important new D-SLRs in the D4 and the D3200 – have perhaps conspired to rain on the D800’s parade, but none of this should be allowed to diminish the camera’s importance. Encounter any professional photographer who is using a D800 and each of them looks like the cat that got an extra helping of the cream. What’s also not been immediately obvious among everything else that’s been going on is that video-makers – as well as still photographers – are also discovering that the D800 is capable of resetting the expectations of an HDV D-SLR. Consequently, Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III isn’t having things nearly so easy in this sector as its predecessor.

As was the case in the relationship between the D3 and the D700, the D800 inherits a good deal from the D4, but it doesn’t have the same tough-as-nails strength as Nikon’s current professional flagship. After all, it’s close to being half the price so some things have to have been downgraded somewhere. However, as with the D700, the key to the D800’s success is the way in which Nikon has balanced its capabilities, performance and pricing... only much more compellingly than before courtesy of that sensor and an impressive suite of video-related features.

Pixel Power
Let’s look at the sensor first. Developed by Nikon, but probably fabricated by Sony, it’s a 35mm-sized CMOS device with an imaging area of 35.9x24.0 mm and a total pixel count of 36.8 million. This makes the D800 the first ‘35mm’ D-SLR to exceed 30 megapixels resolution and consequently the first to potentially challenge digital medium format camera systems in the 30 to 40 MP category.

The effective pixel count is still 36.3 million, delivering a maximum image size of 7360x4912 pixels which, Nikon says, represents enough data to create A1-size enlargements (i.e. 59.4x84.1 cm) at 200 dpi. More practically, such a high resolution provides the ability to crop images quite extensively without sacrificing unacceptable amounts of either detail or tonality.

Having 36 MP on tap in a 35mm-format D-SLR may be ground-breaking in itself, but it has significant logistical implications in terms of data handling and management. Put simply, the D800 generates big files and for anybody who has only been dabbling at 20 MP or below, these may well put pressure on the post-camera systems, particularly data storage. For anybody who hasn’t been accustomed to using digital medium format equipment, the D800’s ‘big numbers’ come as a bit of a shock.

For instance, loading a fresh 8.0 GB memory card into the camera for the first time we were surprised to see the frames-remaining counter flash up ‘237’ and immediately assumed that the camera must be set for RAW capture or even RAW+JPEG. Nope, it was set at JPEG/large/fine. In comparison, using the same card and capture mode in the D3, the remaining exposures display reads ‘732’. A RAW file captured in the D800’s lossless compressed mode with 14-bit digitisation is typically in the order of 42 MB, while an uncompressed NEF at 14-bits per RGB channel is around 75 MB depending on the image content. Consequently, it’s easy to see an 8.0 GB card being chewed up pretty quickly, and the demands made by the D800 on computer processing speed and data storage capacities are beyond what most D-SLR users will have experienced before. It also really requires the highest-speed memory cards available, especially as, unlike the D4, it doesn’t support the faster XQD format and instead has an SD port to supplement its CompactFlash slot. However, the latter is UDMA-7 compliant and the former supports UHS-1 devices. Like the D4, though, the D800 streams a ‘clean’ (i.e. no display overlays) uncompressed Full HD 1080p video output to its HDMI connector which requires an external recording device such as the Atmos Ninja as recording this feed internally isn’t possible (nor, given the enormous amount of data being delivered every second, practical). More about the D800’s video capabilities later on.

The sensor’s very high resolution also places new demands on lenses and Nikon has published a list of current AF-S Nikkors that it considers are up to the job. These include the f2.8 and f4.0 constant-aperture ED zooms (such as the 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 24-120mm) and a number of fast primes from 24mm to 600mm, plus the latest 60mm macro. Nikon also recommends shooting at the mid-range apertures to avoid diffraction minimising definition if the lens is stopped down too far. Yes, the D800 does require some rethinking of long-held workflow practices.