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Nikon D800: my hands on pre-production review

So, it’s launch is not far off now but I’ve just had the chance to do a pre-production review of the new Nikon D800 (much in the same style as my pp D4 review) to see if this 36mp beast is as good as some would say, or bad as others would! One things for sure, it’s arguably the most anticipated camera in Nikon’s recent line up!

The Nikon D800 with 85mm 1.4 AFS

Bare in mind, much like my recent D4 (p)review, this was arranged by Wex Photographic (formerly Warehouse Express) and was also with a pre-production model. So I was unable to take any images away with me. Also, due to the unfortunate recent robbery Nikon suffered, they didn’t have an D800E or the MB-D12 battery grip for me to look at. In fact, if you went to Focus On Imaging, this sample unit I played with is the exact same one you’ll have touched at the show as it’s the only one they have at the time or writing!

MY THOUGHTS BEFORE I TESTED THE D800

I guess because I’m a wildlife shooter, the idea of 36mp hasn’t really grabbed me and I’ve been in two minds about if I liked the idea of it or not. There is an awful lot of resolution here in a slower, smaller body and also with those tightly packed pixels comes worse noise control. So you’ll understand why I’ve not really kept up too much with all the discussion online and focused my interest on the D4 instead.

But, with open mind I headed off to Nikon HQ as curiosity was still there.

COMPARING THE D800 TO…EVERYTHING?!

The D800 has a hard job, it’s going to be compared to the D4, because they are both new, the D3x because it’s got more resolution, the D700 because some thought it was it’s replacement (which it’s not) and the D7000 because the pixel density is close. That’s a lot of comparisons!

The Nikon D800 lined up against the D7000

As far as the D4 goes, they share the exact same focusing system and 91k metering and the same new larger rear LCD. But all that data to process for it’s huge images comes at a price, and that price is the D800 buffer, which will handle roughly 12 RAW and 25 jpeg (with a Sandisk Extreme 60mb/s card). And when you start to zoom in on those huge files on the rear LCD you really start to appreciate just how much information is in them, when objects you can barely see start to fill the whole screen. EDIT: It’s been pointed out the manual for the D800 confirms the buffer can allow up to 25 RAW images depending on compression and 12 or 14-bit settings. The pre-produciton model I was using certainly only allowed 12 though (as indicated by shots remaining when half depressing the shutter release). Great news that the buffer is LARGER than I first thought!

36mp means you can zoom a long way, further than this

But remember, they are two entirely different products aimed mostly at different types of shooting styles. This is not like the D3 v D700 situation and this is not the D700 replacement many thought it would be. The D800 is effectively in a whole new category of it’s own.

(But whilst I’m on the subject of comparisons, I expect the D800 will also see the complete death of the D3x)

D800 HIGH ISO, BETTER THAN THE D700

Despite the fact the D800 is not the replacement for the D700, it’s inevitable that the high ISO noise comparison will be made, after all they have similar native ranges. 100-6400 for the D800 compared to 200-6400 on the D700.

Obviously, my brief experience with the D800 at Nikon HQ shooting in a room with a lot of artificial light and only being able to view the images on the LCD, isn’t going to be the most scientific of tests! But it went a little something like this:

My Nikon contact Julian kindly went to get me a cup of tea so I set about taking some images of the room I was sat in. Depending on what I was aiming the camera at I was getting various exposures, with one in particular at 1/160, f3.5, ISO 3200 taken with the 85m 1.4 AFS. I set about zooming in on the image, of which you can zoom a LONG way with 36mp, and I was shocked to discover no noise. Not even in the black of a Nikon D4 brochure. Nothing. That can’t be right, it can’t be this clean can it!? I delved in to the settings and discovered what was going on, noise reduction was set to high! That explained it. I switched NR off completely and retook the same shot, with the same settings. This time zooming in on the image resulted in me being just as impressed than before! Of course, this time there was noise in the image, but it was very pleasing and well controlled, much like fine grain and free from ugly blotches of chroma noise. Like I said, you have to take this with a pinch of salt because it’s not an accurate test, however it is a very good start. When Julian returned (tea in hand), and I explained my surprise at how well the camera was handling the noise, he promptly (and proudly) told me the D800 has better high ISO ability than the D700 (and, as it shared the same sensor, safe to say the D3 as well). That explained that then! I’d not read up much on the ISO or even seen any decent test images, so it was certainly a welcome surprise!

The Nikon D800

But let’s just think about that some more…the D800 has better high ISO noise than a camera that, not that long ago, was the best camera in the world for high ISO, but now we have it with 3x the amount of pixels. That’s just incredible and no matter how against ultra high resolution you are, you can’t not be impressed by that!

D800 or D800E, WHICH ONE TO GO FOR?

Of course, we all know the D800 has another trick up it’s sleeve, in that it comes in two flavours, the regular D800 and the AA filter removed (well, redesigned, not removed) D800E.

I’ll argue that if you don’t know which one is best suited to your type of photography, what an AA filter does or what can cause moire in a photo, then the regular D800 is the one to go for (that’s not me being condescending, it’s just common sense). This is backed up I feel by Nikons decision to only allow selected retailers sell the D800E. And of those selected retailers, at least one member of staff needs to be trained by Nikon on how to handle moire, the possibility of getting it and how to shoot to avoid or reduce it, not just at the time of taking the shot but also with processing. This is good thinking, because there will be an awful lot of shooters out there that simply won’t know any of this. That’s not to say people are lazy or uneducated, it’s just that as all other camera’s with the AA filter reduce this issue without anyone ever having to worry, it’s not necessarily a problem that is encountered very often. But potentially that won’t be the case with the D800E. So limiting the ability to only being able to buy the camera from someone who can fully explain the potential negatives of the ‘E’, and how to work round them, will absolutely help customers make an informed choice on which version to get, without them feeling disappointed further down the line.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Well, you’ll just have to head over to my full pre-production review on the Wex blog. As this hands on was arranged by them for me to write up a review for them, the only place you can read it in full is on their blog. So head over there now to read more in depth thoughts and specification highlights on the areas covered here, as well as more that are not, plus my overall feeling towards the D800 now I’ve experienced it, albeit not in real shooting conditions. Read my full D800 write up on the Wex Blog.

D800 features the same rear LCD as the D4

Geoff Powell

Nice review Rich.

So let me ask you the question I asked before…will this replace your d7000 as your DX back up body? The way I see it, in DX mode you have nearly identical MP, you lose a fps or two on the d7k, but gain a pro AF system with the flexibility to go FX if you had to; all that and perhaps better noise handling as well….something to think about. I know for me my d7000 is going on the chopping block when this baby comes in, but I still have a bit of use to get out of the d7k yet and the lightweight is great.

Bob

Hi Richard,
Thanks for this review. Obviously I take what you say with a pinch of salt. You, appear to be a Nikon-man through and through and this review is clearly intended to boost Nikon sales at WEX. None the less I pre-ordered my own D800 at the first opportunity and look forward to getting it soon. (I am ~ 40th in line at Calumet, BTW). Sure I would like more ISO and more FPS, if the D800 was designed to do that… but it isn’t.
For the most part I am in charge of both, my subjects and my lighting, so the D800 wins hands down. In my case it’s a no brainer. At ~ just HALF the price and weight of the D4 I need the D800.
If I had no Nikon glass in the bank, no idea at of my intentions: if I was starting from absolute zero, then the new Canon D5MkIII might look more versatile. But I am not in that position and if I was I would not be buying a camera at this price anyway. ….. I know my own work, I don’t want low quality, machine gunned images, taken in the dark. I’m ‘a photographer’.
Nikon have always put handling above looks, buttons before menus and most remarkably of all, maintained backward compatibility with their pro-bodies and lenses, wherever possible. I bought my first Nikon F1 in 1970 and still have it. I can’t say I used use it much these days but I still love it. Pro Nikons bodies have always been, ‘tactile, friendly, tanks’.
As regard data processing and storage at 36.3-MG? Computers are now as much a part of photography as cameras. If you don’t want to keep up, don’t blame Nikon for moving on.
Bob Bridges.

Russ

Interesting article Richard, thanks. 36megs still seems too much. Still thinking of finding a D3s though.

Richard Peters

Thanks for the comment Bob. I am of course a Nikon man though and through, but then I was reviewing a Nikon camera, and one that you yourself have pre-ordered, so I don’t see why you would choose to comment on that like it’s a negative! But to suggest the review is purely to boost Wex sales and the entire thing needs to be taken with a pinch of salt is, to be honest, quite insulting. Just to clear it up for you, yes they approached me to see if I’d like to get some hands on time with the camera ahead of release, and who wouldn’t say yes. But neither they, or any other company/manufacturer that approaches me to write reviews ever asks me to write a ‘favourable review’. If I was asked that, I’d flat out refuse. I write MY opinions on products, good or bad. And when it comes to the D800, I think it’s going to be a very very good camera and I was incredibly impressed with it (as you obviously are as you’ve pre-ordered yourself). If I had reservations, you can be very sure I’d have said so, regardless of who was asking me to write the review. I hope you enjoy your own copy when it arrives from Calumet (I took the liberty of turning your reference to them in to a hyperlink so others can click through to them more easily), I myself will be selling my D3s and getting a D800 as well – and no, not from Wex, but from Clifton Cameras.

Richard Peters

Thanks Geoff, yep it’s safe to say I think this will cover the needs I had of the D7000, and I am looking forward to putting the D800 in my camera bag as a backup body or, when the conditions are right, a main body!

Richard Peters

Hi Russ. Yes, there is no doubt that 36mp isn’t for everyone, but there are going to be those that will make the most of every last pixel. If your shooting requirements don’t need it though, and the D3s fills your needs then it’s definitely the one to go for.

Bob Bridges

Richard,
Please understand that no offence was intended, your review of the D800 was excellent and reinforced ‘everything I wanted to hear’. It was however exceptionally pro-Nikon, as befits a long time devotee of the brand. Clearly I am in the same boat or I would not have pre-ordered one myself, on the spec alone. I have no doubt what so ever, that this Nikon will exceed my expectations and in a few years’ time the file size will be common place. Sorry, I was not out to insult you or questioning your honesty in any way, it’s just that I have learned over the years, to be sceptical of such glowing reviews.
Bob

Richard Peters

Thanks for the reply and clarification Bob, much appreciated. It seems I miss-understood your intentions as you did my enthusiastic review lol. Rest assured though, that enthusiasm is genuine and not simply pro-Nikon. Before I spent some time with the D800 I was actually not overly excited about it, but in spending that time with it, to say my mind has been changed would be an understatement. Of course, there is still a chance that in real world use the initial high expectations and impressions will not stick, and if that’s the case I was absolutely say so when I do a full review. But as it stands right now, my only real complaint is that it supports SD and not XQD, because as a backup to the D4 it means three different type of memory cards are needed – CF, SD and XQD. A major pain, no doubt about it! :)

Bob

Just as an afterthought Richard,
The tsunami in Japan and the floods in Thailand, tragic though they were for all concerned, may have done the photographic world a big favour. They destroyed many of Nikon’s legacy production lines and that (IMHO) gave their designers some breathing space, to upgrade everything. I very much doubt the finished D800 we will have today, is quite the same camera Nikon would have delivered, a year or so ago.
My beloved Nikon-F remained in production form 1959-73 and I don’t think any modern digital DSLR, no matter what its durability and predicted shutter life is these days, will ever match that sort of production run.
Bob

Richard Peters

You may well be right there Bob and it’s certainly food for thought! There is no doubt the tragedies last year will have affected the company in more ways than one. I have to admit, I only started my journey with photography at the end of films run, although I did have a brief spell with the F5. I am actually quite envious of those who got to use the classic Nikons back when they were current!

Dileep Anthikad

Hi Richard,

Appreciate your efforts to share your views and impression on D800, one of the much awaited cameras in modern times. I’m glad to hear about high ISO performance as this was one if my concerns.

Moreover, how did you find hand-held shooting and so much talked about motion blur this beast expected to,cause?

I noticed your settings… 1/160 and 85mm focal length. Was this on tripod?

I mostly do handheld shots especially for birding. And my lens is 500mm f/4 VR + TC 14E. Have done even 1/30 shots and got away with reasonably sharp images. Also, I do a lot of BIF shots, again handheld.

Pls let me know your thoughts on this what I can expect in terms of motion blur?

Kind regards
Dileep

Giovanni

loved the review Richard.

feb 7th i preordered the d800e till i read so many things about the moire artifacts.. so i eventually about a month later preordered the d800 instead… all i know is i wish i was there testing that camera… how was the autofocus ? i just sold my d7000 so im curious.. also when you viewed the image on the screen and blew it up .. could you tell it looked better than say what you would look at on your d3s ? or a d700 ? curious if you ever used a d3x as well.. lol lots of questions i know but i am in such anticipation over this camera.. it will be my first full frame camera. i am buying the 24-70 2.8.. i started out with a d5000 then a d7000 with the 16-85vr. so now i am without a camera…lol (big mistake)

Richard Peters

Thanks Dileep, appreciated. Images I took were handheld and seemed to be acceptable sharp, but this is an area where the end result will vary based on the users own technique. Given the pixel pitch of the D800 is slightly larger than the D7000, and people generally don’t seem to complain about it with the D7000 it should in theory be slightly easier to maintain sharp images with the D800. I’ll admit I’ve certainly noticed you can’t be as sloppy with the D7000 as you can with the D3s so there is no doubt it WILL catch some people out and force them to improve their technique. But again until people start using these cameras in real world situations, it’s hard to know just how much it will affect any given user.

Richard Peters

Thanks Giovanni. Autofocus is exactly the same as the D4, so very good, a big improvement on the D7000. Image quality can’t really be judged accurately enough to say for certain in the conditions I was in. But I would say it’s somewhere between the D700 and the D3s – but until proper tests can be done there’s no real definitive answer. What I can say, is stepping up from a D5000 and a D7000, you’ll be very happy with the D800!

Rene de Heer

Richard comparing a D7000 with a D800 seems a bit harsh. You are comparing a mid market camera, aimed at a TOTALLY different market with a camera aimed at the pro market. The D700 can still hold its own, yes it has some drawbacks but i think it is still a great camera as back up for a D4 or D3S.

Without a shadow of a doubt the D800 is a superb camera but didn’t you say sometime ago that you thought 35mio pixels was overkill? I am curious to know what made to change your opinion.

If Nikon doesn’t come up with a replacement for the D300S, then i would maybe look at the D800 as well but i would prefer a D300 upgrade.

Rene de Heer

Bob

Let’s be quite clear about this…
More pixels do NOT CAUSE motion blur, they merely resolve and reveal it.
You had it before, you just couldn’t see it.

Richard Peters

Rene. You are quite right that the D7000 and D800 are aimed at very different markets, and my comparisons of the two are not to say that these are out right competing cameras so apologies if you miss-understood. But there is also no doubt that there are comparisons to be made in certain areas, especially as the DX crop mode is about the same size as the D7000, so for some, that’s a reason to consider the move to FX for the first time, especially those who need ‘more reach’ of DX but would benefit from full frame as well. I’m also comparing it to the D7000 in terms of pixel pitch, because they are similar and there has been a lot of talk about the fear that it will be hard to get sharp images with the D800. In the comments above the D7000 has been referenced by other people so I’m answering their questions. The reason for the size comparison was for my benefit as I was concerned the D800 was quite a small camera, so I took the 7000 along to see what the difference was. Hope that helps clarify it a little. With regards to 36mp, it IS an awful lot of resolution and I was sceptical for a long time. However, having now seen the image quality (which is better than I expected it to be), the DX crop mode that allows, and the price point of the camera, I think it’s a very capable all round package and I’m happy to admit I’m way more excited about this camera than I was to begin with. But, I understand why it’s not for everyone, and when a true D700 (or D300) replacement arrives I have no doubt they’ll also be very good cameras and will generate just as much interest as the D800 is doing.

Richard Peters

Yes. They don’t cause it, the person holding the camera causes it :)

Kevin

Richard,
Great article (Blog), I however did not “opt” in for a D800, I currently have a D60, D5000, D7000. D3s and a D700. The thing that I am displeased about is that they all can shoot Movie, Problem – I am a Photographer. I wish they would come out with a camera like the D700 in high MP’s and fps that does not shoot movies.. Then I would absolutely purchase this. Although I wish everyone who purchased this the best of luck… Happy Shooting to all
Be safe be well
Kevin

Richard Peters

Thanks Kevin. I think there are a lot of people out there who would agree with you that they want a video-less DSLR, however I suspect that is a thing of the past now for those who wish for it :(

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Aldo

Hello,
When D7000 cames out, I didn’t find enough improvement to change from my D300. At that time, I was wondering for a D700x with 24Mp, but hopefully, it didn’t come.
The only drawback I can see in D800, is a smaller AF frame coverage in full frame than D300 in DX. I would be glade to get a 120 AF sensor with at least 40 out of DX zone. It would be nice, also to get a quick start for video mode (eg af-on and the red video button may be in a future firmware update)

Sory for my french-english grammar, I hope to improve too.

Thank’s for this clear review.

JOSE COHE

“But all that data to process for it’s huge images comes at a price, and that price is the D800 buffer, which will handle roughly 12 RAW and 25 jpeg (with a Sandisk Extreme 60mb/s card).”

EXTRACTED FROM D800 USER´S MANUAL
FX MODE NEF (RAW), COMPRESSED, 12-BIT BUFFER CAPACITY 25
DX MODE NEF (RAW), COMPRESSED, 13-BIT BUFFER CAPACITY 54
ALL THAT WITH A TOSHIBA R95 W80MB/s UHS-1 SDHC
FOR ME, IS ENOUGH, 9sec. at 6fps, on DX MODE much better than my D3
What do you think of this information?

Colin Pearce

36mp might not be good for me, but I happily use my SLR at 6mp most of the time, then when I’m about to take important photos I simply change it up to its maximum.

Richard Peters

Thanks for the update Jose, good to know the buffer handles more images in 12-bit than it does in 14-bit uncompressed. Also, remember I was using a pre-production model, so these things are always subject to little changes here and there. But the model I used certainly only allowed for 12 RAW images before the buffer was full.

flo

The D800 is pretty close to the noise-performance of the D4/D3s according to dxomark.com

Andrew

Thanks for the interesting writeup Richard.

I am looking at upgrading to a FX body and have been waiting for the D800 for some time now. Clean images at high ISO is one of the features I am looking for as I would like to shoot astrophotography landscapes. Something (hopefully) similar to this.

Given your brief time with the D800, do you think it will deliver similar or better results than the D700?

Thanks,
Andrew

charlie

Hey richard so i know you are fussy about having the sharpest image possible like all of us so will you go for the 800e or just the 800 and why ?. I’m sold on the idea of the 800e but do you think you would ever see distortion on subjects with feathers or fur.

cheers mate.

Richard Peters

It’s a VERY good question and one that I’ve been curious about myself. Me personally, I’m going with the standard issue D800 as I know full well at some point I’m going to end up with a great image that has moire that I can’t remove easily, and that will drive me crazy! But I’ll be keen to see results from the D800E with feather detail in mind, once wildlife photographers start using them.

Richard Peters

Hi Andrew, I used the D3 and D3s in Hawaii to photograph the Milk Way and the D3s was far better at producing cleaner images at the higher ISOs needed. The D3 did do a pretty good effort though (same sensor as the D700) and given the D800 is superior to the D700 and supposedly as clean as the D3s or D4 when you downsize the images from 36mp to 12mp, at least according to dxomark.com it could be a superb astrophotography camera. But I wouldn’t make a purchase based on lab tests alone and would wait to see some real world samples just to be on the safe side.