Nikon D800 Review
2012 Best High-End System Camera
When the Nikon D800 was first announced, there were some serious questions asked about Nikon's product strategy. Its predecessor, the 12-megapixel D700, was a fast-shooting full-frame body, so more than a few eyebrows were raised at the D800's remarkable 36.3-megapixel sensor, which seems to focus on sheer resolution at the expense of speed.
As the test scores began rolling in, however, it became clear that Nikon's gambit paid off—for a certain kind of photographer, at least. While the $2,999.95 (body-only) D800 isn't all that fast, its high-resolution sensor provides photographers with flexibility that no other full-frame model on the market can match. It became our camera of choice for capturing many events, with a combination of comfort, control, and image quality that we felt comfortabe relying on.
Design & Usability
The D800's 36.3-megapixel sensor is complemented by tons of control and a familiar physical design.
The Nikon D800 offers just about everything the professional or high-end hobbyist photographer could ask for in terms of design. For a full-frame body, it's relatively compact and lightweight (especially when compared to the flagship D4), and it's very very sturdily built. The refined ergonomics, perfected over many generations of Nikon DSLRs, make it comfortable to hold, even for long periods of shooting.
Many of the common adjustments you might make on the fly—white balance, ISO, metering, and drive mode—are all placed on the top plate, on dials to the left of the optical viewfinder. The back of the camera is nearly identical to that of the D700, save for a more compact directional pad and updated controls for triggering live view and video recording.
It didn't take us much time to get used to the D800's handling, and we found that most of the adjustments we wanted to make were immediately available. Some of the changes were more complex than necessary—we're looking at you, custom white balance—but all were easy enough to remember, with dedicated buttons and switches for nearly everything. We're still not fans of the somewhat archaic Nikon menu system, but that's a venial sin when taken in the context of an otherwise sterling design.
The best feature is undoubtedly the high-resolution sensor, though it comes with some drawbacks.
The big headline draw for the Nikon D800 is not a specific mode or option, but simply the hardware that's included for its $3000 price. Look past the camera's durability and its high-resolution 36.3-megapixel image sensor, though, and you'll see a full-featured camera that offers enough for both professionals and enthusiasts. The D800 includes features like built-in timelapse, full HD video, in-camera HDR, in-camera editing, and multi-exposure shooting. These aren't unique to the camera, but they're nice extras that complement the full level of control offered in the D800.
There's still no getting around the fact that 36.3 megapixels is an incredible amount of resolution for a full-frame camera. It puts the D800 closer to most medium format backs than rival full-frame DSLRs, and it's certainly a bold gamble by Nikon. Prior to its release, the common notion seemed to be that sensors had rightfully topped out at around 20 megapixels, with anything beyond that providing diminishing returns, particularly in low light.
If there is an upper limit on the usefulness of increased resolution, the D800 hasn't hit it. We consistently found that the increased resolution provided benefits, specifically in low light—an area where many people predicted the D800 would suffer. The ability to shoot at up to ISO 6400 and downsample to reduce noise naturally, with little penalty, became one of our favorite tricks at dim trade shows like Photokina 2012.
Despite its slow burst speed, the D800 produced excellent lab results, and its real-world performance is even better.
The D800 came through our image quality tests with flying colors. The camera's high resolution sensor excelled in the sharpness test, even taking into account the edge enhancement that's part of Nikon's default JPEG processing. It lagged behind the top Canon bodies for color accuracy, but not by a wide margin. We also found that the camera produced excellent results in our high ISO and dynamic range tests. The D800's 36.3-megapixel, full-frame sensor isn't quite as solid at high ISOs as the Nikon D4, Canon 1D X, or Canon 5D Mark III, but it outpaces all three at the minimum ISO speeds due to its massive resolution.
Of course, test results only tell part of the story. The high resolution sensor allows for considerably more editing leeway, as you simply have more information to work with. We also don't downsample test images to a consistent size for all cameras, which we feel lends an inherent disadvantage to high-resolution models. The D800's shots show more noise when viewed at 100% magnification, but if you're planning on using the images for any normal print size or web display, this noise is hardly visible up to ISO 6400.
There are two specific performance areas that do need addressing, however: shot-to-shot speed and video. The D800's rivals are hardly the fastest cameras in the world—the Canon 5D Mark III only shoots at 6.3fps, while medium format, high-resolution cameras barely top one frame per second—but it's still slower than many would prefer. At 4.14fps, the D800 is just a bit slower than the 5.5fps D600 ($2199.95 body-only), but it leaves Nikon without a new fast full-frame option, except for the $6000 body-only D4 flagship.
In video mode, we also found considerable issues with the D800. While the sensor's output is very sharp and renders motion well, that sharpness comes with an incredible amount of moire. Moire is the ugly coloration you get in patterns as the camera takes 36.3-megapixels of information and samples it down to a normal 1080p video frame. This aliasing is difficult to remove and really mars the D800's otherwise fine video, especially with slanted patterns.
An impressive, reliable, professional full-frame body from Nikon
The Nikon D800 is a beast of a camera, an extraordinarily high-resolution land mine, strategically placed amid the abandoned battlefield of the megapixel war. The 36.3-megapixel sensor is easily the D800's greatest asset, making it one of the most flexible, enjoyable cameras we've ever shot with.
If you follow the rumor mill, you know that the D800 was supposed to be a successor to the D700; the D800 was supposed to excel in low light, offer exceptional operational speed, focus quickly, and yet remain light and compact by the standards of bulky full-frame bodies. When it was actually released, though, it was derided by some as an exercise in excess, a body that would necessarily suffer in low light because so many pixels can't fit on a sensor without sacrificing somewhere.
Nikon made some sacrifices with such a high-resolution, but none that impact low-light performance. In addition to our usual round of lab testing, we took the D800 to Photokina in Cologne, Germany for a week. Shooting on dim trade show floors and sparsely lit old town streets, the D800's pixel count turned out to be its greatest advantage. With so much resolution, we were able to edit very effectively throughout the week; softer images could be sharpened up, noise could be reduced, and even cropped images still left plenty of room to work.
Resolution was the biggest advantage in our lab tests, too: The sensor simply provided more data for the processor to work with. This led to some very sharp images, huge dynamic range at low ISO settings, and a very low signal-to-noise ratio—on par with even the Nikon D4 and Canon 1D X. Of course, with all that resolution comes the D800's real limitation: file sizes that limit burst shooting to just 12-15 shots before the camera's buffer fills up.
Otherwise, the D800 is a fantastic camera with exceptional handling and solid design. We'd still caution sports shooters to look elsewhere (like the D4, 1D X, or a used D3), but from dimly-lit streets to trade show floors, the D800 performed as well as we could've hoped. Megapixels have developed a bad reputation over the past few years, but there's no doubt they're a boon to this camera. There are some hitches—spotty left-side autofocus reliability and a distinctly green tint under fluorescent light are very real problems—but the D800 is nevertheless one of the best cameras we've tested, and a real competitor for our 2012 Camera of the Year award.
Get Our Newsletter
Real advice from real experts. Sign up for our newsletter
Thanks for signing up!