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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.

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Even More Resolution
There are two versions of the D800, the second being designated the D800E. This is exactly the same camera in all but one area, namely the arrangement of the low pass filters (LPFs) located in front of the image sensor.

The standard camera employs two LPFs separated by something called a ‘wave plate’ which is mated with an IR filter. LPFs are designed to reduce aliasing patterns – which happen when the frequency of a pattern in the subject coincides with that of the pixel pitch – and manifest themselves as a moiré effect or false colours. They do this by slightly shifting the image – by no more than one pixel – in the horizontal and vertical directions which results in four ‘copies’ that are slightly offset. In effect, then, the image on the sensor is ever so slightly blurred which, with subjects in which no patterns or textures occur, represents an unnecessary loss of resolution.

On the D800, the first LPF shifts the image horizontally and the second shifts it vertically. The wave plate converts the polarised light into circularly polarised light and obviously the IR filter removes light in the infrared wavelengths. On the D800E, the first LPF shifts the image vertically, there isn’t a wave plate and the second LPF combines the image vertically. This means that, at the resolution-matching pattern frequency, the two LPFs effectively cancel each other out, but with all other patterns some anti-aliasing is still happening (unlike if the low pass filter has been removed completely). However, this isn’t at the expense of sharpness.Nikon says the D800E is aimed at photographers “...who can control light, distance and their subjects to the degree where they can mitigate the occurrence of moiré”, but it’s probably debatable whether the majority of non-professional users will find the standard camera doesn’t already deliver sufficient sharpness and definition. At the camera’s launch in Japan, Nikon suggested that the D800/D800E production split would be 98/2 percent, so the ‘E’ could well stand for ‘elusive’.

 

Not surprisingly, the D800 delivers unsurpassed levels of detailing and definition, but it also performs exceedingly well in the terms of the dynamic range (even without ADL processing) and noise levels. Noise is essentially negligible up to ISO 1600 and still comparatively low at ISO 3200 and 6400. The camera’s ability to crisply resolve the finest of details quickly highlights any deficiencies in camera technique… in terms of lens quality, focusing accuracy, aperture selection and, very critically, the avoidance of camera shake.



Files And Management
Due to the smaller pixel size, the sensor’s sensitivity range is a more sober ISO 100 to 6400 with a two-stop ‘push’ to ISO 25,600 and a one-stop ‘pull’ to ISO 50. However, while it doesn’t offer the stratospheric sensitivity settings of the EOS 5D III or the D4, the ‘reality test’ suggests that a useable ISO 6400 at 36 MP is going to trump a struggling ISO 102,400 which compromises the definition and sharpness of a lower resolution sensor.

The D800’s sensor is mated with a dedicated version of Nikon’s latest ‘Expeed 3’ processor which has to undertake some serious number-crunching, especially with the camera’s on-the-fly image processing functions such as the on-the-fly ‘Advanced D-Lighting’ and noise reduction corrections. Analog-to-digital conversion is performed at 14-bits per RGB channel with 16-bit image processing which is designed to help maximise the dynamic range.

As with the D4, images can be captured as JPEG, RAW, TIFF or RAW+JPEG. The JPEGs and TIFFs are available in three sizes – large at 36.1 MP, medium at 20.3 MP and small which is still at a size of nine megapixels. Three levels of JPEG compression are available, while the RAW files can be captured at 12-bits or 14-bits and lossless compressed, compressed or uncompressed. RAW+JPEG capture can be configured to any of the RAW options plus a large JPEG at one of the three compression levels. There’s also a choice of frame formats, namely full-size (which Nikon designates ‘FX’), ‘APS-C’ size (‘DX’), a 5:4 aspect ratio (a 30x24 mm image area) and 1.2x (30x20 mm). The D800 can be set to switch automatically between the FX and DX formats when one of the smaller format Nikkor lenses is fitted.

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The LCD read-out panel has built-in illumination, but the D800 lacks the D4’s back-lit buttons. The built-in microphone is monaural, but there are both a stereo audio input and an output (for connecting headphones). Audio channel level adjustments are possible and the LCD monitor displays L/R level meters.

Also as on the D4, the D800 provides a choice of data management modes for its two memory card slots, including an automatic ‘overflow’ when one is full, the simultaneous recording of files to both for back-up or the separate recording of RAW files and JPEGs.

The maximum continuous shooting speed is 4.0 fps at the full frame size which is starting to look a bit modest among the growing crop of 10 fps screamers, but again it’s more than sufficient for many applications. In the DX format – which, remember, is still a healthy 15.3 megapixels – and with the optional MB-D12 battery grip fitted, the top speed increases to 6.0 fps.

Nikon 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.

Production Values
The D800’s video-making capabilities are pretty much on a par with those of the D4. Clips are captured at the Full HD resolution at either 24 or 25 fps (in the PAL standard, 30 fps for NTSC) using the MPEG-4/H.264 codec with B frame data compression which Nikon determines provides the best balance of rendering motion and maintaining manageable file sizes. There are high-quality and normal modes corresponding to 24 Mbps and 12 Mbps respectively.

In the high-quality mode the maximum clip length is 20 minutes, but in the normal mode it can reach 29 minutes and 59 seconds without exceeding the 4.0 GB file size restriction. Movie clips can also be recorded at 1280x720 pixels and either 25 or 50 fps, but the D800 only has the DX crop and not the D4’s additional ‘16:9 Movie Crop’ frame format. The built-in microphone is mono, but as expected at this level, there’s both a stereo audio input for an external pick-up (Nikon offers its own ME-1 unit) and a stereo audio output for connecting headphones to monitor sound. The audio channel levels can be set manually or automatically attenuated and the LCD monitor screen provides a pair of linear level meters.

Video recording start/stop is via a dedicated button which is located just astern of the shutter release, and the D800 has the same switching arrangement as the D4 for engaging live view and selecting the movie mode. Alternatively, the shutter release can be set to operate as the start/stop control when the D800 is in video recording mode.

Video functionality is similar to that of the D4 so it allows for the manual adjustment of apertures, shutter speeds and the sensitivity (across the extended range up to ISO 25,600) during recording. Continuous autofocusing with face detection, auto tracking and wide-area point selection is also available, so are the ‘Picture Control’ presets. Index marking is possible – up to 20 marks per clip – to make a frame easier to locate during editing, and this function can be assigned to the depth-of-field preview button. A ‘Power Aperture’ control – allowing for adjustments in very fine 1/8 EV increments – is available for manually presetting the aperture if recording onto the flash memory cards, but allows for on-the-fly adjustments if recording via the HDMI connection to an external device.

As on the D4, the D800’s live view operation has also been revised, abandoning the old ‘Hand Held’ and ‘Tripod’ choice of modes for autofocusing and replacing them with the contrast-detection method only (which, incidentally, requires an AF-S Nikkor lens with a built-in focusing motor). However, it’s still possible to choose between single-shot and continuous operations, and select one of four area modes – normal, wide, face-detection and subject-tracking. The AF focusing zone can be positioned anywhere within the frame while, with manual focusing, image magnification over five steps and up to 23x is available. A small navigation window appears in the lower left corner of the monitor screen to assist with scrolling. In practice, this maximum magnification setting is actually a bit too much as the image starts to become very grainy making focus difficult to gauge. Additionally, if not using a tripod, it’s impossible to hold the camera still enough. Backing off to the middle setting provides the best balance of magnification and image clarity.

The live view displays include a virtual horizon – which shows roll and tilt – a real-time histogram which works in conjunction with an exposure preview, and a grid overlay.

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Top panel control cluster allows for direct access to the settings for ISO, white balance, image quality and bracketing modes, and is encircled by the drive mode dial. Unlike the D4, the D800 doesn’t support the new XQD memory card format and instead has slots for CF and SD devices (with UDMA-7 and UHS-1 support respectively).

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A selected number of capture functions – ten in all – can be accessed via the information display. The LCD monitor screen can be switched to show a comprehensive set of read-outs, but this display doesn’t operate as a control panel.


Ahead On Points
The D800 borrows its camera control systems pretty much lock, stock and barrel from the D4, starting with Nikon’s third-generation ‘3D Colour Matrix’ metering which uses a 91,000-pixel RGB sensor. Each pixel analyses colour and brightness information, but the 91K sensor is no longer only involved in exposure control. As with the D4, it works in conjunction with the imaging sensor to also drive autofocusing operations such as face detection, subject tracking and point selection. On the exposure side, it’s handling auto white balance adjustments, contrast control and i-TTL balanced fill-n flash control.

The two sensors also underpin the D800’s ‘Advanced Scene Recognition’ system which is designed to more precisely tune the AF, AE and white balance to the subject and/or lighting situation. Note this is only data analysis for scene recognition and doesn’t involve the setting of scene or subject modes (which, not surprisingly, the D800 doesn’t have anyway). Using data derived from either or both sensors, Advanced Scene Recognition performs light source identification to enable auto white balance control, highlight analysis to enable contrast correction via Nikon’s ‘Active D-Lighting’ processing, ‘3D’ subject tracking, face detection with backlight correction, the live view functionality and flicker reduction.

Multi-zone metering is supplemented by centre-weighted average or spot measurements; the latter concentrates on a 4.0 mm diameter spot – which represents just 1.5 percent of the total image area – while the former’s central weighting area is adjustable to 8.0 mm, 12 mm (the default), 15 mm or 20 mm.

The standard complement of ‘PASM’ exposure control modes is backed by program shift, an AE lock, up to +/-5.0 EV compensation and auto bracketing. The exposure bracketing sequence can be up to nine frames with adjustments of plus/minus 1/3, 2/3 or 1.0 EV per frame. As on the D4, there is also auto bracketing functions for white balance, exposure and flash, flash only and the ‘Active D-Lighting’ contrast control. This is preselected via one of the camera’s 50+ custom functions which include setting all the exposure adjustment increments to either 1/3, ½ or full stops.

The D800’s vertical travel shutter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 second and employs self-diagnostic monitoring to determine – and correct - when settings waver outside the accepted range. The unit has been tested to 200,000 cycles which is half that of the D4’s assembly. Flash sync is at all speeds up to 1/250 second and, unlike the D4, the D800 has a built-in flash which Nikon makes extra-specially useful by giving it a manual mode – so it can be wound all the way down to just 1/128 of full power – and the capacity to act as the commander for a wireless TTL flash set-up. The other modes include red-eye reduction (via a built-in illuminator), first/second curtain sync, slow speed sync and balanced fill-in flash with the exposure determined via pulsed, low-powered preflashes (and using the 91K sensor). Advanced flash control has always been a Nikon strongpoint and the D800 continues the tradition. Flash compensation is available over a range of -3.0 to 1.0 EV in 1/3-stop increments and can be combined with exposure compensation.

Focused And Balanced
The D800 also gets the upgraded ‘Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX’ phase-difference detection autofocus module as used in the D4 and which has 51 distance sensing points, 15 of them cross-type sensor arrays. These detect both vertical and horizontal contrast edges, and all the points work with lens speeds of f5.6 or faster.

Eleven focusing points are still available with lens speed of f8.0 (the centre point acting as a cross-type array) which means autofocusing can be maintained when using telephoto lenses combined with a 2x teleconverter. As with the D4, the minimum sensitivity is down to a remarkable -2.0 EV (at ISO 100) which is pretty much the limit of the human eye when using the optical viewfinder.

Four AF area modes are available, namely single-point (i.e. manual point selection), ‘Dynamic area’, ‘3D tracking’ and ‘auto-area AF’ (i.e. auto point selection). The ‘Dynamic area’ mode uses data from the points around the selected point to assist with keeping moving subjects in focus and this can be set to work over clusters of nine or 21 points or the full 51. Alternatively, in the ‘3D tracking’ mode, the points are automatically selected as the subject moves within the frame.

There’s an ‘AF Fine Tune’ function which allows the autofocusing to be adjusted for the particular focusing characteristics of individual lenses, over +/- 20 steps. This corrects for a particular lens which may suffer from slight front- or back-focusing when fitted to a particular camera body. The adjustments for to up 20 lens models can be stored and there’s a provision for identifying different examples of the same lens.
As noted previously, white balance control is performed via the 91K RGB metering sensor. The standard automatic correction has a range of 3500 to 8000 degrees Kelvin, but there’s the option of a ‘Keep warm lighting colours’ or ‘Auto 2’ setting which is designed to maintain warmer tones when shooting under incandescent lighting. There’s a total of 12 presets for different lighting types, including seven for the various different types of gas-ignition lamps ranging from sodium-vapour at 2700 degrees Kelvin to mercury-vapour at 7200 degrees Kelvin.

Fine-tuning of all the presets is possible in five-mired increments across the green-to-magenta and blue-to-amber colour ranges. Alternatively, the colour temperature can be set manually from 2500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin with the option of adjustments in extremely fine ten-degree increments or in mireds (separately for the green-to-magenta and blue-to-amber colour ranges). White balance bracketing can be in one-, five- or ten-mired increments and over two, three, five, seven or nine frames. Four custom white balance measurements can be taken and stored for future recall.

Process Worker
The D800 also shadows the D4 pretty closely in terms of its image processing functions, starting with a set of six ‘Picture Control’ presets. These are designated Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape. All the colour presets have adjustments for sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue while the Monochrome preset replaces the last two with B&W contrast filters and toning effects. Nikon continues to offer an impressive range of in-camera B&W toning options with nine colours, each with seven levels of density. Up to nine modified ‘Picture Controls’ can be created and stored with provisions for each to be named using titles of up to 19 characters in length. Alternatively, custom ‘Picture Controls’ can be created in Nikon’s ViewNX 2 or Capture NX 2 software and loaded into the camera via a memory card.

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A dual-axis electronic level display is available in live view and for shooting video. Level indicators are also shown in the viewfinder. Video clips are captured at the Full HD 1080 resolution and at either 24 or 25 fps (in the PAL standard, 30 fps for NTSC) using the MPEG-4/H.264 compression. There are high-quality and normal modes corresponding to 24 Mbps and 12 Mbps respectively.

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The D800 provides a high level of video functionality, including provisions for customising the key controls. A dedicated video start/stop button is located just behind the shutter release. It’s a feature that isn’t made much fuss of, but the higher-end Nikon D-SLRs all have built-in intervalometers rather than requiring an external timer.


Like on the D4, there’s a multi-exposure HDR capture mode which captures two images at a time – one underexposed, the other overexposed – which are subsequently instantly combined. The degree of exposure adjustment can be determined automatically (based on the brightness range in scene) or set manually to 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 EV. Additionally, smoothing adjustments (which work on the combined edges) can be set to High, Normal or Low. HDR capture can be set to self-cancel or continue until manually cancelled, and it can be combined with the D800’s intervalometer.

The ‘Active D-Lighting’ processing options are pegged back slightly compared to the D4 so there isn’t an ‘Extra High 2’ setting. ADL essentially works like the ‘Shadow/Highlight’ adjustment in Photoshop, and combines exposure and tone curve adjustments to optimise brightness and dynamic range, but without the provision for precise manual control. ADL bracketing can be applied over sequences of two, three or five frames which progressive cover more of the setting options. So the five-frame sequence captures frames with the ADL switched off and then on at the Low, Normal, High and Extra High settings.

The ‘Active’ part of the function’s title indicates the corrections are performed at the point of capture (so this additional processing will reduce the continuous shooting speed), but the alternative is to process the image in-camera later, using the ‘D-Lighting’ function available in the D800’s Retouch Menu. This creates a new file and, usefully, provides both a preview and a comparison with the original.

The D800 can also perform a number of in-camera correction routines for lens aberrations. ‘Vignette control’ and ‘Auto Distortion Control’ are selectable from the main Shooting Menu while correction for lateral chromatic aberrations is always applied automatically with JPEG capture. It works by compensating for the differences in the resolving index for each colour wavelength rather than just correcting for any colour fringing at a contrast edge. Consequently, it’s particularly effective at eliminating the chromatic aberrations that occur at the edges of the frame when shooting with older wide-angle lenses. The correction for brightness fall-off can be set to Low, Normal or High while the distortion correction is simply either on or off. Both only work with either D-type or G-type Nikkor lenses.

Both high ISO and long exposure noise reduction is provided, the former with four settings – ‘High’, ‘Normal’, ‘Low’ or ‘Off’ – although ‘Off’ doesn’t actually mean off because noise reduction is automatically applied with any of the boosted sensitivity settings.

The D800 has an expanded ‘Retouch Menu’ which includes a number of special effects presumably considered beneath the D4’s dignity. These comprise ‘Fish-eye’, ‘Colour Outline’, ‘Colour Sketch’, ‘Miniature Effect’ and ‘Select Colour’. The D800 also has something called ‘Quick Retouch’ which automatically boosts the saturation and contrast with the choice of ‘Low’, ‘Normal’ and ‘High’ settings. The other offerings in the Retouch Menu include straightening, distortion control, perspective control, red-eye correction, adjustments to colour balance (using RGB histograms for guidance), trimming, B&W conversion (with the option of either sepia or cyanotype toning), skylight or warm filter effects, image overlay (for two RAW files with the capacity to balance the exposures as required), resizing, in-camera RAW-to-JPEG conversion and basic movie editing. Many of these editing functions are adjustable and, of course, the effects can be previewed. The D800 adopts the D4’s more streamlined method of in-camera RAW (or TIFF) file conversion which provides all the adjustable parameters alongside the thumbnail image and it’s simply a case of using the camera’s four-way ‘Multi-Selector’ control pad to navigate through them and, if necessary, change settings. Exposure compensation adjustments are reduced to a maximum of +/-2.0 EV.

In The Hand
Although considerably more compact than the D4, the D800 is still a pretty chunky D-SLR. It has an all-new bodyshell which incorporates a number of styling elements from the D4 and has the same 8.1 cm LCD monitor screen – although as a clip-on plastic protective cover for this is supplied, it may not have the same heavy-duty scratch-resistant faceplate.

The external covers are magnesium alloy and there’s extensive sealing to provide protection against moisture and dust, but the D800 isn’t intended to be as rugged as the D4… the built-in flash compromises structural rigidity for starters. Nevertheless, it’s still undoubtedly built to work and it looks like it too… the external design is all about practicality rather than looking pretty, and functionality takes precedence over any other consideration. That said, the handgrip still provides the expected Nikon level of comfort and this is a camera that still feels extremely well balanced even with a big lens attached. The top panel retains a monochrome LCD read-out panel and, while it has built-in illumination, the D800 misses out on the D4’s fabulous back-lit buttons.

The control layout is decidedly no-nonsense with a heavy reliance on external keys and selectors which are operated in conjunction with the Multi-Selector pad and/or the front and rear input wheels known, in Nikonese, as ‘Command Dials’. It’s old school, but it’s old school that works and, like the D4, the logic of it all makes for a high level of efficiency. Indeed, the D800 actually improves on the D4 in a couple of areas. The selector on the top panel expands to accommodate four function keys – for ISO, white balance, image quality and bracketing modes – and is encircled by the drive mode dial which also has settings for the self-timer, mirror lock-up and the ‘Quiet’ shutter release. In ‘Q’ mode all the audible signals are disabled as is the reflex mirror’s instant return, and it won’t drop back to the viewing position until the shutter button is again pressed down to the half-way metering and autofocusing position.

Live view activation is via a dedicated button with a selector switch to move between the still and video modes. Talking of the reflex mirror, the D800’s optical viewfinder provides virtually 100 percent scene coverage in the ‘FX’ format at a magnification of 0.7x. It uses a proper glass pentaprism and the resulting brightness and clarity help re-enforce why the D-SLR is going to remain the preferred choice of many photographers despite the enticements of compact system cameras. The latest Mark VIII version of Nikon’s ‘Type B BriteView Clear Matte’ focusing screen is fitted and, while it looks to be interchangeable, no alternatives are mentioned in the camera’s list of accessories.
The viewfinder display includes illuminating focusing points, AF area frames, vertical and horizontal level displays, a pretty comprehensive set of read-outs and the option of a framing grid. The monitor screen can also be switched to serve as an information display with a choice of colour schemes, but it’s not a full control screen. Instead, two rows of ‘soft’ buttons at the bottom of the display provide direct access to a small selected capture functions, including the ‘Active D-Lighting’ settings, the noise reduction settings, the colour space settings and a couple of the assignable buttons. It’s also possible here to switch between the ‘Shooting Menu Banks’ and ‘Custom Settings Banks’ (four of each) which are set up via the menu system. An ‘Extended Menu Bank’ allows for the addition of adjustable exposure modes, shutter speeds and/or apertures to the customised ‘Shooting Menu Banks’.

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‘Active D-Lighting’ processing for balancing exposure and dynamic range is available with automatic correction or a choice of four manual settings (one less than is offered on the D4). In-camera lens correction is available for vignetting and distortion.

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As is the case on all Nikon D-SLRs, there’s a wide choice of playback screens, including a thumbnail with a full set of brightness and RGB histograms and three pages of image data which increases if copyright details are included and/or the optional GPS receiver is fitted. The highlight warning can be cycled through the RGB channels separately. The other playback options include 4/9/72 thumbnail displays, zooming up to 46x and a slide show with variable image display times.

Speed And Performance
As noted earlier, the D800 is no speed machine, even if 4.0 fps is still pretty impressive given the large file sizes involved. No digital medium format camera system in the same resolution range can go much quicker than a tortoise-like 1.0 fps so, in comparison, the Nikon is definitely a hare.

Card speed is important in achieving the best possible performance in terms of the burst length, although with JPEG capture the D800 will go shooting after the buffer is full, but at a slower rate. With RAW and TIFF capture, there is a delay while the buffer clears the decks.

Hardly surprisingly perhaps, the D800 wipes the floor with the competition in terms of resolution… and this isn’t even the ‘E’ version. The level of crisply-defined fine detailing is simply phenomenal, but the camera’s potential in this regard quickly highlights any deficiencies in camera technique… in terms of lens quality, focusing accuracy, aperture selection and, very critically, the avoidance of camera shake. Quite simply, there is nowhere to hide and any sloppiness will be punished by less than acceptable results. Such is the increase in resolution over anything we’ve seen in this class of camera before, it requires a completely new mindset and that’s one that  requires considerable more care and attention in camera set-up and settings. The Nikon D800 is, indeed, a whole new ball game.

Noise levels are exceptionally low all the way up to ISO 3200 which is remarkable given the pixel size. In reality, the D800 does almost as well in this regard as the D4 – no mean feat in itself – and easily matches the EOS 5D Mark III despite the Canon’s significantly lower resolution. At ISO 3200 there is some slight softening of fine detailing which becomes more noticeable at ISO 6400, but the overall contrast and colour saturation is still exceptionally good so these higher sensitivity settings are still quite useable. Both the ‘push’ settings exhibit increased amounts of colour noise to the detriment of colour saturation, and the definition is also significantly diminished. Consequently, the enlargement potential is markedly reduced.

Interestingly, in terms of dynamic range, the D800 also pretty much matches the characteristics of its big brother, again despite the smaller pixels.

With no ADL corrections applied, the D800 still delivers some tonality even in the brighter highlights which is then progressively increased at the higher ADL settings, although it’s hard to see too much difference in an image – as opposed to a greyscale step wedge – between ‘Off’, ‘Low’ and ‘Normal’. The shadow detailing appears to be largely unchanged at any setting which is actually to be expected given the exposure adjustments and tone curve tweaks would cancel each other out here.

The Verdict
For the time being at least, the D800 is the best performing D-SLR in its category as far as image quality is concerned… actually, in any category for that matter. However, there is much more to it than just its remarkable sensor. Like the D4, the D800 is the complete package of features, specifications, ergonomics and handling. In terms of a direct comparison it’s not as strong – so, presumably, not as durable in the long term – and it’s obvious a lot slower in terms of shooting speed. It also lacks some of its big brother’s finesse… like the backlit buttons, but it really makes up for all of this with its unbeatable balance of performance-versus-price. The best D-SLR on the market right now is also unquestionably the best value.

As noted earlier, the ultra-high resolution comes with a price of a different sort, namely the need to tighten up shooting techniques and possibly also invest in new computer hardware that can support the much bigger file sizes. It’s also possible many purchasers may have to think about updating their lenses as the D800’s sensor is very much tuned to Nikon’s current-generation FX-format AF-S Nikkors, among them the constant-aperture zooms. This could make the upgrade a much more expensive exercise overall, but nevertheless the D800 still represents the most affordable route into a whole new world of truly eye-popping image quality. It’s a gold medal, personal best and new world record all rolled into one.

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Vital Statistics

Type: Semi-professional digital SLR with Nikon F (D-type) bayonet lens mount
Focusing: Automatic via 51-point wide-area system using phase-detection type CCD sensor with 15 cross-type arrays. Focus points may be selected manually or automatically and either as single points or in groups (9/21/51). Points re-orientated for vertical shooting. One-shot and continuous modes both with a predictive function. 3D Tracking mode. Sensitivity range is EV -2 - 19 (ISO 100). AF assist provided by built-in illuminator. AF micro-adjustment for individual lenses (up to 20). Contrast-detection AF in live view and video modes.
Metering: 91,000 pixels RGB ‘3D Color Matrix III’, centre-weighted average (with variable diameter weighting – 8.0mm, 15mm or 20mm), spot (4.0mm/1.5%), and i-TTL flash via 1005-pixel sensor. Metering ranges are; 3D Color Matrix and C/W average = EV 0 to 20, spot = EV 2 to 20 (f1.4/ISO 100).
Exposure Modes: Continuously-variable program with shift, shutter-priority auto, aperture-priority auto, metered manual, i-TTL auto flash and manual flash.
Shutter: Electronically-controlled, vertical travel, focal plane type, 30-1/8000 second plus ‘B’. Flash sync to 1/250 second. Exposure compensation up to +/-5.0 EV in 1/3, ½ or one stop increments.
Viewfinder: Coverage = 100% vertical/horizontal. Magnification = 0.70x (50mm lens at infinity). LCD displays and LED focus point indicators. Standard focusing screen has AF zones and on-demand grid lines. Eyepiece strength adjustment and built-in shutter provided.
Flash: Built-in pop-up unit with GN 12 power (ISO 100). Auto, fill-in, red-eye reduction, front/rear sync and slow speed sync modes. Commander mode for wireless TTL control of compatible external flash units. External flash units connect via hotshoe or PC terminal. Flash compensation range of -3.0 to +1.0 EV in 1/3, ½ or one stop increments. Manual control down to 1/128 of full power.
Additional Features: Magnesium alloy bodyshell sealed against dust and moisture, auto exposure bracketing (up to nine frames), depth-of-field preview, AE lock, flash compensation, all exposure adjustments in 1/3, ½ or full stops; variable delay & multi shot self-timer (two to 20 seconds, up to nine frames), mirror lock-up, quiet and silent shutter modes, two external LCD read-out panels with built-in illumination, audible signals, wired remote control terminal, wireless remote control, 54 custom functions.

DIGITAL SECTION
Sensor: 36.8 million pixels CMOS with 35.9x24.0 mm area. Sensitivity equivalent to ISO 100-6400 (extendable to ISO 50 and 25,600).
Focal Length Increase: None.
Formats/Resolution: Three JPEG compression settings (1:4, 1:8 and 1:16), and lossless compressed, compressed or uncompressed RAW files. Three resolution settings at 3:2 aspect ratio; 7360x4912, 5520x3680 and 3680x2456 pixels. Three resolution settings at 1.2x image size (30x20 mm); 6144x4080, 4608x30560 and 3072x2040 pixels. Three resolution settings at 5:4 (30x24 mm); 6144x4912, 4608x3680 and 3072x2456 pixels. Three resolution settings in ‘DX’ format (24x16 mm); 4800x3200, 3600x2400 and 2400x1600 pixels. Additionally, still images can be captured in the movie mode in the ‘FX’ and ‘DX’ formats and the 16:9 aspect ratio, again at three resolution settings. RAW (NEF) images are captured at 7360x4912 pixels, in either 36-bit or 42-bit RGB colour. RAW+JPEG capture is possible (with all JPEG compression levels). TIFF (RGB) capture at 7360x4912, 5520x3680 or 3680x2456 pixels.
Video Recording: Full HD = 1920x1080 pixels at 25 or 24 fps (PAL, progressive) and 16:9 aspect ratio. HD = 1280x720 pixels at 50 or 25 fps (progressive) and 16:9 aspect ratio. SD = 640x480 pixels at 25 fps and 4:3. MPEG 4 AVC/H .264 compression. ‘FX’ or ‘DX’ frame formats. Mono sound recording with auto/manual adjustable levels. Stereo microphone input and headphone output provided. Clip duration limited to 29 minutes and 59 seconds at normal quality (12 Mbps) up to 20 minutes at high quality (24 Mbps). File size limit is 4.0 GB.
Video Features: Index marking, power aperture control (preset only), time lapse recording, auto flicker detection, uncompressed 8-bit output via HDMI connection.
Recording Media: Two slots for CompactFlash (UDMA-7 compliant) and SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-1 compliant) memory cards. Overflow, Backup and RAW Primary, JPEG Secondary file management modes.
Continuous Shooting: Up to 56 frames at 4.0 fps in JPEG/large/fine mode, up to 20 frames in RAW mode (14-bit, lossless compressed). Low speed continuous shooting mode can be set from 1.0 to 4.0 fps. Up to 100 JPEG/large/fine frames at 5.0 fps is possible when shooting in the ‘DX’ format.
White Balance: TTL measurements using 91,000 pixels RGB metering sensor. Auto/manual control with 12 presets and four custom settings. White balance fine-tuning available for AWB and all presets plus manual colour temperature setting (2500-10,000 degrees Kelvin, in ten degree increments or mired units) and white balance bracketing (up to nine frames). Warm AWB setting maintains a warmer hue under incandescent lighting.
Interfaces: USB 3.0, HDMI output (Type C), 3.5mm stereo audio input, 3.5mm stereo audio input.
Additional Digital Features: Active sensor cleaning, dual-axis ‘virtual horizon’ display, live view functions (with contrast-detection AF), 8.1 cm LCD monitor (921,600 pixels resolution) with histogram displays (brightness and/or RGB channels) and highlight alert; ‘Active D-Lighting’ contrast control (Auto, Low, Normal, High, Extra High), ADL bracketing, six ‘Picture Control’ presets (Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape), adjustable ‘Picture Control’ parameters (Sharpening, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation, Hue), B&W filters and toning
effects, nine user-defined ‘Picture Control’ modes, multiple exposure facility (up to ten frames with Auto Gain), intervalometer, HDR multi-shot capture (Smoothing: High/Normal/Low, Exposure Differention: 1/2/3 EV), sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces, long exposure noise reduction (Off, On), high ISO noise reduction (Off, Low, Normal, High), auto ISO with auto minimum shutter speed control, auto distortion control (Off, On), vignetting correction (Off, Low, Normal, High), image comments input (up to 36 characters), auto image orientation, adjustable image display time, slide show, 4/9/72 thumbnail displays, playback zoom (up to 46x in ‘FX’ format), in-camera editing functions (D-Lighting, Red-Eye Correction, Trim, Monochrome, Filter Effects, Colour Balance, Image Overlay, RAW Processing, Resize, Quick Retouch, Straighten, Distortion Control, Fish-eye, Colour Outline, Colour Sketch, Perspective Control, Miniature Effect, Select Colour, Edit Movie). May be fitted with optional WT-4 wireless data transmitter and GP-1 GPS receiver.
Power: One 7.0 volt, 1900 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (EN-EL15 type). Optional MB-D12 battery grip accepts EN-EL15 or EL18 li-ion packs or eight AA-size batteries (alkaline, NiMH or lithium).
Dimensions: (WxHxD): Body only = 146.0x123.0x81.5 mm.
Weight: Body only = 900 grams (without battery pack or memory card).