On paper there are two factors to the D800 that scream out at you: 1080p video and a 36 megapixel sensor. For some, these are enough already to warrant a purchase of Nikon’s new full-frame DSLR. Others, however, may be erring on the side of caution at the camera’s £2599 price tag.
The predecessor to the D800, the D700, is a highly formidable camera and more than holds its weight in the stills department against the competition. But it lacks any sort of video whatsoever and has only a 12.1-megapixel sensor.
Having said that, there are no problems with the resolution of the D700. It's a brilliant low-light camera and more than up to the task of being used as a professional piece of kit. So why buy a D800? Having lived with one for more than a week, we feel we have an answer.
How does it feel?
The D700 is put together rather brilliantly. Its magnesium-alloy weather-sealed body is really tough and has withstood several years of press trips, being bashed about in our bag. The odd downpour hasn’t caused any issues and its 995g weight never really bothered us.
This was until we were handed the D800. Once you pick it up, its 900g weight makes it feel markedly lighter than the D700. There is also a significant difference in the way that every button and dial feels on the camera. Rather than the mushy buttons of the D700, the new Nikon uses a satisfying click for every keypress. Even things like the on/off switch have been beefed-up, presumably to withstand years of hard use. It is very noticeable and gives the D800 a highly premium feel, more along the lines of Nikon’s top-end, full-frame DSLRs.
One downside to this button redesign however is the way that Nikon has moved keys about on the camera. Take, for example, the AF-type selector tool on the back of the D700: this was something we used regularly to switch between full autofocus and manual focus point selection. No longer can you do this without going into a menu on the D800, the space being taken up instead by a switch to change between video and stills - something which could definitely have been put elsewhere.
A dedicated record button on the top of the camera is placed too near the shutter key, making switching accidentally to video commonplace - although you can change its function using the camera’s options. All in all, we like how the controls feel on the D800; we just want them in the same place as on the D700.
Nikon has been careful to update the menu workings of the D800 without moving too far away from the core of how all its cameras operate. This means that when we picked up the camera for the first time, we were instantly able to navigate to all of our usual settings. The D700 suffered from a slightly 1970s-style menu, looking like one of those early computer programs you used to learn spelling at school. This has been updated for the D700 with higher resolution fonts and an all-round level of polish. Again, it just feels more premium.
The screen has also taken a rather significant jump, going from 3 inches to 3.2 inches. Not a major increase in size, we know, but it appears to be far brighter with better viewing angles and much more saturated colours. It still suffers from viewing problems in bright sunlight but nowhere near as badly as the D700.
The included connectivity options with the D800 blow the D700 out of the water. First up, being able to send video to an external display live using micro-HDMI is very cool. Second, we love that you can record to both SD card and Compact Flash, telling the camera to do things such as send video to SD and stills to CF. It just makes the process of managing images after shooting much easier to handle.
Once we had built up decent muscle memory of the new control layout, it felt just as easy to use as the D700, if not better, thanks to the improved screen and menus. Then again, going back to our older Nikon for a day didn't feel unpleasant, leaving us feeling that, on this basis alone, the design rethink for the D800 really doesn’t warrant a purchase. That is if you already own a full-frame Nikon DSLR. If you don’t it handles better than pretty much any other camera we have used.
How does it shoot?
So now on to the meat of the thing. Whatever anyone tells you, 1080p video or not, the D800 like the D700 before it, is at its core a stills camera. These are top of the range prosumer or even professional-grade cameras. You should be able to take a picture in virtually any situation and be pleased enough with the results that you could sell it to someone.
For us, the D700 has passed this test a long time ago. Its high ISO performance is stunning, full 16-bit RAW images look beautiful and the frame buffer is, most of the time, more than enough for the most kinds of photography. Not once have we found ourselves thinking: “We wish the D700 could do this.”
To impress then, the D800 has its work cut out. Most who will be thinking about buying this camera are the most demanding kind of photographers. They want to be able to shoot in virtually complete darkness with no noise, or blow up images big enough to cover the side of a bus, all the while keeping things wrapped up in a compact and lightweight package. A lot of them may also be considering the 5D MK III, which is a hugely powerful camera. As such in testing the D800 we really made sure we pushed it to its photographic limits.
In the light
Using a combination of lenses, an 85mm f1.4, 14-24mm f2.8, 50mm f1.4 and 35mm f2, we took the D800 with us everywhere. First up was a trip to the park with the Pocket-lint pooch in order to get some daytime shots and test out the autofocus on the dog running.
The full-frame sensors on the D800 and D700 are quite beautiful things. They create a much broader dynamic range while also letting you use a lens to its full capabilities. Take our 35mm f2 for example: it's wider on a full-frame sensor than a DX crop, giving us more room to play with at a lower f-stop. This is very useful indeed, as wide-angle lenses tend to have higher apertures. For video it also makes a big difference, particularly when using our 85mm, which is just too tight on a DX sensor but looks great at f2 on full-frame.
The first difference we noticed between the D700 and D800 when out shooting was when adjusting ISO. It starts at 100 on the D800 and 200 on the 700, but can be scaled down to "low one" and "low two" on the earlier Nikon. Not a major bugbear we know, but it does mean that in bright light you know you are gleaming the maximum amount of detail from the sensor on the D800.
With the 14-24mm stuck on, a very heavy lens indeed, the D800 felt significantly lighter, not causing us the usual backache we get from half an hour of carrying that glass beast around on a D700. We also noticed -particularly when attempting landscape shots - that the viewfinder was a lot brighter and colours appeared more saturated. It's also 100 per cent coverage as opposed to the D700's 95 per cent. This makes a big difference to those who like to compose everything in the finder, which is the majority of professional photographers.
The more shooting we did, the more we noticed how much of an improvement the viewfinder was. It began to annoy us when holding our eyes up to the D700, as images just appeared a bit dull when looking through it. The same could be said for the screen, which in this freakishly good weather we are having, just couldn’t hold up in sunlight compared to the D800.
We know that what you really want to know is the difference that 36-megapixel sensor makes. And that question needs to be attacked in two parts. First, in bright light and second in low light, as the latter situation could pose all sorts of issues for so many pixels. Looking back at snaps shot in the park with both the D700 and D800, the resolution jump really didn’t bother us unless we zoomed in. Some will say it’s useful, as you have more detail to play with should you mess up composition in camera, but most photographers considering buying this camera will likely get it right when they press the shutter. Still it’s nice to have it.
What isn’t so nice is the absurdly huge RAW files that the camera creates, enough to fill our 4GB CF cards in just a few clicks of the shutter. This became such an irritation in fact that we ditched shooting RAW altogether and switched to JPEG. Because of this, shooting to the full potential of the D800’s sensor feels to us like it is reserved for the studio environment, where you have ready access to lots of memory cards. That or you could just blow a ton of cash on 32GB SD and CF cards. So for street shooting, at least in the daytime, it felt like the D700 was more than enough. The cosmetic improvements were definitely nice, but ultimately our D700 did the core job of snapping absolutely fine.
In the dark
This is the part of the comparison we were most excited about. If the D700 could hold up again the D800 in this department, then for most we would think the purchase of the newer model wouldn't be worth it. In order to make things fair as possible, we opted to test the two cameras indoors. It meant we could control the lighting situation a lot better and in theory, push the sensors to their limits.
One of the problems the D800 could face in low light is its 36 megapixel sensor. The higher the resolution, the harder it is for a sensor to cope with high ISO. So if the D800 can match the D700, then that's an incredibly impressive feat. It would also make the camera one of the best-performing high-resolution sensors we have seen.
So, D700 and D800 on a tripod, we proceeded to shoot the Pocket-lint pooch in various situations. The results were fairly incredible from both cameras. We wanted to make sure things were as sharp as possible, so the 50mm f1.4 was the best choice. Shot at F2, on both cameras maximum ISO settings, detail retained in every image was great.
The extra resolution however on the D800, particularly when shot in RAW, just gave us that extra space to play with noise cleanup later on in Photoshop. The result was a win for the D800.
Win aside, we still don't feel the difference between the 700 and 800's performance in this department is enough to warrant a purchase. Unless you are the sort of photographer who shoots everything about 6400 ISO, we just don't see it as a necessary. Then again, if you want the best possible image quality, at any ISO setting, then the D800 takes the win.
This is quite frankly incredible, given the cameras 36-megapixel sensor size. Nothing can even come close to that kind of performance at that resolution. Then again we are yet to properly test the 22 megapixel Canon 5D MK III, which may find the perfect balance between resolution and ISO performance.
It wouldn't be fair talking about the D800 without at least giving its video capabilities some mention. The D700 has no means to record moving images whatsoever, so this isn't so much a straight versus, just more something to muse over should you be wanting to make a purchase.
In a word, the video on the D800 is stunning. Check out our full review if you want to find out more about its capabilities. We absolutely love being able to switch to video and just grab a minute or two of footage. Colours look incredible without any tweaking or editing and the ability to select which card video saves to is brilliant.
Low-light performance is great and things like shutter wobble are kept to a minimum. If you are looking for a way to shoot video on your DSLR and already own a decent body of Nikon lenses, then the D800 is the best in the company's lineup.
So which to buy?
The D700 we used in this versus is our own. We had been hanging on for many months until the D800 came out, anticipating the delights it would bring to our photographic world. Most Nikon fans have been put through quite a serious amount of gear jealousy as the Canon 5D MK II's video became so commonplace. So the D800 had to impress technically in order to keep Nikon fans happy.
And it most definitely does. The sensor is brilliant, video looks incredible, the finder and screen are a big improvement. The problem is, that if you already own a D700, none of it is so great that the £2599 spend is worth it. Even if you were to flog your D700 and then use the cash to grab the new camera, unless you really, really needed video, we still wouldn't do it.
Which brings us on to our final part of the verdict. If you have an eye for shooting video and already own a few Nikon lenses, the D800 is easily our go to camera in the entire company's product line-up. In fact its so good, we would choose it over the more expensive D3s, simply because its more lightweight. So should you buy one? Well yes and no. Its a yes if you want video and a no if you are stills focused and a D700 owner. If you're rich enough to have a spare £2599, then without hesitation, our advice is: buy it and buy it now.
Which would you purchase? Let us know in the comments below ...