Last updated on December 18th, 2020
The Nikon D800 is a professional-grade full-frame DSLR with a class-leading effective resolution of 36.3MP that is likely to appeal to professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts.
The Nikon D800 was supposed to be released in the summer of 2011, but due to several natural disasters that heavily impacted Nikon’s capability to provide cameras both in Japan and in its Thailand factories, its launch was delayed until February of 2012.
What is Nikon D800?
The Nikon D800 is a professional-grade full-frame DSLR with a class-leading effective resolution of 36.3MP that is likely to appeal to professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts. Rather than replacing the three-year-old D700 outright, the D800 will sit alongside its older sibling for the time being.
That said, it’s pretty clear from the outset that the two cameras are very different beasts. This is hardly surprising, given that the two models are separated by around three and a half years – an absolute age in digital camera technology terms.
Note that the Nikon D800 / D800E has been replaced by the Nikon D810.
The big news, of course, is that the D800 uses a new 36.3MP FX CMOS sensor. This firmly establishes the D800 as the leader of the professional DSLR pack when it comes to effective resolution, and by some margin too. Indeed, it even puts the D800 into the same territory as some of the medium format digital backs so beloved of commercial and fashion photographers.
But of course, there’s much more to the D800 than headline resolution. Indeed, coming so soon after the launch of the $6000 Nikon D4, it’s no surprise to find that the D800 shares some of the hardware found in its more expensive sibling.
This includes the EXPEED 3 image processor with its 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing, the 91k-pixel RGB metering/AF/scene recognition sensor, and the same Multi-Cam 3500FX 51-point AF module that includes 15 cross-type sensors.
- 36.3MP sensor produces bags of fine detail
- Pro-grade build quality
- Phenomenal image quality in all conditions
- 36.3MP sensor produces huge file sizes
- 4fps may be a tad slow for some pros’ needs
- Review Price: $748
- 36.3MP FX CMOS sensor
- Nikon EXPEED 3 image processor
- ISO 100 – 6,400 (50 – 25,600 in exp. mode)
- 1080p Full HD movies at 30fps
- 91k-pixel TTL exposure metering
- 51-point AF module with 15 cross-type sensors
Nikon D800 Review: Design and Body
Befitting its status as a professional-grade DSLR the Nikon D800 advantages from solid, tank-like construction. Encased within an aluminum alloy frame that’s fully sealed against dust and moisture, the D800 feels every inch the professional tool it’s positioned as.
In addition, the shutter has been tested to 200,000 cycles, which means it’ll give many good years of service. Professionals looking for a solidly built workhorse are unlikely to be in any way disappointed with the overall build quality and durability of the D800.
In terms of size, the D800 is claimed to be slightly smaller and around 100 grams lighter than the D700. While we didn’t actually have the older model to hand while working on this review, from memory this does seem about right.
Despite lacking the horizontal grip of the D4 the D800 remains a fairly large and heavy camera that really requires two hands to operate. That said, the handgrip is sufficiently large and deep enough to wrap your whole hand around. This enables you to get a secure and comfortable hold of the camera, even for extended periods of time. The rubberized finish is pretty grippy too.
As with all high-end Nikon DSLRs, the D800 sports dual control wheels along with a good range of physical buttons that allow immediate access to regularly used settings. As might be expected the in-camera menu offers an extensive array of advanced customization options, many of which will undoubtedly seem quite baffling to anyone without extensive photography experience and/or familiarity with pro-spec DSLRs.
Those that do will find plenty to tinker with in order to get the camera working exactly the way they want it to. Thankfully, the menu is quite neatly laid out, making it relatively easy to navigate and set things up as you want them. Of course, if you’re new to Nikon then you’ll need to familiarise yourself with where to find things, but for those who’ve used Nikon DSLRs in the past menu, navigation should be pretty much second nature from the get-go.
In addition to the jump in sensor resolution, the D800 also takes a big step forward in several key performance areas over the D700. This is primarily down to the technological and hardware advancements that have been made in the three years since the D700 was released.
One such component is the 91k-pixel RGB sensor that sits at the heart of both the D800 (and D4) and which links the camera’s Metering, Advanced Scene Recognition System, and AF modules together, thereby enabling them to work in tandem to produce the best possible results.
Nikon D800 Review: Image
Clearly, anyone who is considering shelling out the best part of the camera is going to want to know that it’s money well spent. Thankfully in the case of the D800, we can assure you that this is absolutely the case. In fact, put it easy, the D800 offers some of the very best image quality we’ve yet seen in a DSLR.
As I mentioned earlier, shooting in Raw will result in huge 80MB files, however, these can be adjusted and tuned to get your images to look exactly how you want them using either the supplied Nikon Capture NX2 software, or something like Lightroom 4 (there’s no support in Lightroom 3 though, so those with an older version will need to upgrade).
Raw images do come out of the camera slightly softer than their JPEG counterparts, however, with some careful sharpening, it’s possible to end up with something far sharper than a straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG.
In terms of color and tone, Raw files are again a bit more muted than JPEGs that have been processed in-camera, although again the abundance of sensor data contained in Raw files (whether lossless compressed, compressed or uncompressed) means you have much more scope for processing tone and color as you see fit.
Although we suspect the majority of D800 users will prefer to shoot Raw, there’s a lot to be said for the quality of the JPEGs it produces too. During our test period, we primarily used the D800 with Nikon’s 50mm f/1.4 prime – a fantastic lens that’s as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel and capable of producing exquisite bokeh when opened right up.
Shooting around f/8-f/11, however, produced really quite spectacular levels of detail, with images appearing to jump out of the screen. Used on the ‘Standard’ Picture Control setting, the D800 produces a pleasingly vibrant (yet lifelike) color, excellent tonality, and good levels of contrast. Of course, you can invariably choose to ramp this up via the ‘Vivid’ setting or tone it down via the ‘Neutral’ option.
Metering proved particularly accurate, as did automatic white balance and we didn’t experience any issues with either – even in tricky lighting or when shooting under mixed natural/artificial lighting.
You can choose between Matrix (multi-zone) metering, center-weighted, and spot and there’s also a highly customizable AE-L/AF-L button to call upon when you need it. Dynamic range especially impresses with the D800 able to reveal glorious levels of shadow detail in high-contrast scenes while retaining the highlights.
While many observers and potential purchasers were understandably worried about how such a high-resolution sensor might impact ISO performance, we have to say that in our experience these fears are largely unfounded.
On the contrary, the D800 excels at controlling noise, particularly at middling to high sensitivity settings. Below ISO 1600 and noise really isn’t an issue at all, while at ISO 1600 the D800’s images are right up there with the very best we’ve seen, with noise barely making an impact on overall image quality – even when pixel peeping at 100% or more. At ISO 3200 a small amount of softening does begin to occur as a hint of noise creeps in (especially in processed JPEGs), although overall image quality is still very good.
ISO 6400 is where noise becomes more noticeable, although yet again it’s perfectly possible to make good images at this setting – especially if you are shooting in Raw and processing out the noise yourself. Above ISO 6400 things do take a bit of a downturn with the two extended settings of ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600 both displaying a fair bit of chroma as well as luminance noise. Overall though, for a camera with such a high resolution and such fantastic overall image quality, we really can have no great complaints.
The Nikon D800 is a professional-grade 36.3MP DSLR that delivers phenomenal image quality at around half the price of Nikon’s flagship D4 model. Overall, it’s a fantastic addition to the Nikon range that easily justifies.
Build quality is superb, handling is excellent and despite the huge range of customization on offer, the D800 remains relatively intuitive and easy to use. In terms of image quality, the D800’s 36.3MP sensor can capture huge amounts of fine detail, which in turn allows you to make billboard-sized prints.
For this reason, we can see the D800 finding favor with landscape and commercial photographers, although that’s not to say that its appeal is limited. On the contrary, the D800 represents a solid investment for just about all professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts looking for a serious tool to make professional standard images with. See the current price of Nikon D800 And Nikon D800E.