Nikon D800 review

5 out of 5
£2600

For

Image quality is insane, video is nothing short of superb, camera layout is practical and simple to use,

Against

Expensive, big images can cause buffer to fill too quickly, LCD panel hard to focus by, will cost you a fortune in lenses

Several years ago, Nikon announced the D90 - the first digital SLR that could record video. Clips were short, at under five minutes, and restricted to 720p, but it was the start of a revolution. And we’re not exaggerating, because SLR-based video has changed the world of TV and film production.

After the D90, Nikon should have gone from strength to strength, coming up with better and better SLRs that could produce video. But that didn’t happen. Instead the company fell asleep and let Canon swoop in and suck up lucrative video production customers with the likes of the 5D mark II, and now mark III. Nikon, it seemed, had either lost interest, or didn’t have the technology to keep up.

Now Nikon is back. Cameras such as the D7000 and, now, the D800 have put the firm back on the map for video and film production companies. To see how it performed photographically and filmically, we took it to New York city for three days. We photographed and videoed some of the most interesting things in the city, and got to know the camera inside and out.

Design

Following on from the D700, the D800 has logical controls, that, for the most part are located where you need them, and are easy to adjust. The top of the body has controls for the speed of shooting on a selection dial, with buttons on the top to adjust image quality, white balance, ISO and bracketing. On the right side there’s the LCD display, with status information that changes, depending on the mode. Unlike Nikon’s entry-level SLRs, there’s no dial here for selecting which shooting mode you want - instead this is handled by a push button, and a mode dial.

On the back is a bright, detailed LCD screen that provides a useful reference when you’re reviewing images. We found it excellent when checking work, and zooming in can reveal the truth about your photograph and how well focused it is. We found the screen less useful for video and, despite the D800’s strength in this area, the screen is a real weak point. It ideally needs to be articulated, so that videographers can get more use out of it. That will mortify some photographers, but this is a video-focused camera that doesn’t have enough flexibility built in to shoot video comfortably.

In New York, we also talked to some professional photographers about Nikon's decision to put a built-in flash on this camera. Some people seem to hate this decision. Mainly, it seems, because it doesn't perform like an external flash does. But this is nonsense, and we've used the built-in flash to great effect as a fill-in outdoors. This certainly saves on lugging an external gun around, and means that when you want a well-exposed background, and a well-exposed human in the foreground, you can get it. 

How you feel about the layout of the controls will quite likely depend on what cameras you've used before. For photos, we found everything was well located. In video, we had some minor grumbles. First, we don't think the setting for the shutter speed should remain on the rear rotary dial - that would be better used for the "gain" control (ISO). The default video recording button is also a massive pain, so we re-mapped it to be on the shutter release. This, however, would mean you wouldn't be able to drop out of video mode as easily to fire off a photo.

36.6-megapixel behemoth

One of the most controversial decisions Nikon has made with the D800 is to increase the sensor resolution to over 36-megapixels. If you read a lot of reviews here at Pocket-lint, you’ll know that higher-resolution sensors are a mixed blessing. While they can produce remarkable levels of detail, the pixel density can also mean that you’ll get extra noise in certain circumstances. The sensor used here is a Sony model, and from our tests, it produces pretty remarkable images.

There is one clear challenge with this camera’s images though. They’re massive. On the one hand, this is great, as it gives detail to professionals to use in projects where the output will eventually be printed on a large-scale medium. On the downside, it means that a lot of data is saved to your memory card – either SD or CF. Although modern cards are certainly fast, there’s still a significant wait to write an image once it’s taken. Shoot raw images with a large JPG and this can become a real issue when you’re trying to capture a fast-moving event in front of you. While testing our D800 on the Hudson river, there were several times when we had to wait for the camera to empty its write buffer on to the card. During this time, you will possibly lose the ability to take more photos – it depends on how full the buffer is – but changing modes and activating the liveview screen or switching to video is impossible.

Nikon’s decision to stick with CF and SD here is, no doubt, for cost reasons. The company’s top-of-the-range D4 has a new format XQD which has far higher write speeds and is far better set up for big files than the aging cards used here. Amusingly, the D4 doesn’t have a sensor this big, and therefore doesn’t need to write as much data as quickly. All of this means that the D800 can burst fewer images than the D700 that preceded it. That might bother some, and it might well be a reason to keep the older camera. But Nikon certainly gives us the impression it knows the market, and anticipates that the D800 user probably isn’t looking for a quick burst rate.

Aside from card write speeds, the other issue with large images is that they can be more of a challenge to work with. On a modest computer, raw images can be quite a handful. While most people will have a quick machine, it's well worth pointing out that our high-spec Dell laptop had a tough time when running on battery, in power saving mode.

With those reasonably minor concerns out of the way, there's one important thing that you need to remember when it comes to such huge images, and that's how much detail there is. For example, here's the US flag, there's plenty of detail and colour here, as you can see.

But zoom to 1:1, and you'll see just how much detail is captured by this remarkable sensor. Illustrated here by the fibres frayed at the edge of the flag.

On more than one occasion, during our test, we found that this high resolution could completely save a photograph that on a lower resolution camera just wouldn't have enough detail. It's fantastic to have this kind of flexibility.

FX and DX

Should you want to reduce image size, there’s always a DX mode to switch to. This produces 15-megapixel images, but will also introduce a crop to your photos. That might appeal to some, especially if you want to save card space, and get a “magnification” factor on your lenses. For most, this mode won’t have much appeal, but it has some uses when it comes to video.

Unless space is desperate though, there's not a huge use for DX photos on D800, as it's easier to just crop your photos later in Photoshop. On the plus side, the mode does allow you to use DX lenses, which might be popular with those upgrading from small sensor cameras.

Photos

It would take a hard heart indeed not to fall in love with the image quality from the D800.

We've shot hundreds of images over the past week and results have been impressive. The full-frame sensor is a fantastic asset for serious photographers and is essential to many people. The huge increase in resolution over the D700 remains a bone of contention. Some think it's a welcome boost while some argue that 12-megapixels is more than enough. Even so, we never felt that the 36.6-megapixel sensor was anything but a brilliant addition to the already brilliant D700.

Of course, it results in much larger images. For many, shooting a JPEG at high resolution will be more than enough - if you add RAW in to the mix at the same time, it can mean each photo, comprised of a .jpg and .nef can require 65MB of storage. In four days we shot 52GB of photos and videos. 

Mostly, we used manual, choosing to adjust the aperture and shutter speed manually. We used the camera's autofocus extensively though, and it has to be said that it's excellent. The camera locks on quickly and almost never makes mistakes. That's not to say never, as there were times when it would get things a little wrong, and we also noticed that its ability to lock-on was sometimes a slightly lacking, leaving the camera refocusing long after we thought it was locked. 

Switching to aperture priority results in well-exposed photos too. The D800 might need some exposure compensation to meet your preferences, but overall we liked it. Spot metering was sometimes a little tricky, but letting the camera assess the scene and change the shutter to expose usually resulted in a good results. We think metering on this camera is better than the D700 too.

High ISO images also work well. You can shoot at 1600 without any major noise issues. This is good, because with this increase of megapixels there could be issues with noise. Crank it up to the maximum of 25,600 in its boosted mode and you get an image with considerable noise. This isn't unexpected, and although it's not as graceful as film noise, it's not awful either. 

We're also big fans of where video meets stills in the timelapse feature. This is a dream of simplicity to set up. Tell the camera how long you want to shoot, how often you'd like images and it will tell you how long your finished clip will be. Then you press the shutter button, wait, and at the end you'll get a lovely quicktime movie, in 1080p, with your timelapse.

You might not have tried this feature before, but when you do it becomes so compelling, we'd be surprised if you don't use it a lot more. We're already planning to leave the camera pointed at the night sky for a bit, to see what results we can get.

Video

If you’re looking for some spectacular quality video, then this may very well be the camera for you. The output is some of the most amazing video we’ve seen from a device in this price range, and we can see certain groups getting very excited indeed about the potential here.

We shot video at 1080p using 24fps. You can chose 25p or 30p if those modes suit you better. On the whole, TV production will use 25p, while 30p is for countries where that is the prevailing broadcast system – notably the US and Japan. Drop down to 720p and you get 50/60fps options too, which technically gives you “overcrank” which you can use in post production to slow down footage by 50 per cent, without any resolution or motion problems.

Having used the movie mode on the D90, we're quite aware of how much Nikon needed to improve to attract professional users. And the D800 has managed to achieve everything we could have asked. For a start, this movie mode is fully manual. You have control over the shutter, aperture and ISO. This means that you can get an image balanced through the built-in screen before you start shooting and don't have to worry about anything changing once the action starts.

The big problem we had with video was nothing to do with quality though, it was more because the camera doesn't restrict the shutter speed you use with it. What that means is, you can end up compensating for a lot of light with a fast shutter speed. This is a big mistake. Really, we'd like to see the camera warn you of stepping outside the 180-degree shutter that's so important with video.

To get the best results, you should keep the shutter speed at twice the frame rate. So for 24 and 25p that means using a shutter speed of 50. You can get away with 100 at times, but that will have a very specific look that won't suit a lot of uses. It can be handy, but don't overuse it.

When you're shooting indoors too, you'll probably want to make use of the "ISO" setting. In video terms, the name ISO is a bit misleading. TV cameras have a "gain" instead, and remembering how the ISO number relates to gain is handy, and should prevent you introducing too much noise to video. In TV production, it's generally acceptable to add 6db of gain, before the image becomes to grainy - and video grain is nowhere near as artistic as film grain. That gives you up to ISO 800 on the D800.

We took the D800 beyond ISO 800 in our tests, and the footage did indeed become quite noisy further up the range, but we were amazed by how tolerant footage was to these boosts.

There is also the issue of CMOS sensor wobble to consider. All cameras that use these chips will suffer from this to some extent. The D800 has managed to avoid the worst of it. In Nikon's tests, it's much better than the Canon 5D mark III, but on very fast movement it's still quite noticeable.

But in all the time we spent filming actual events with the camera, we never once found it to be an issue. Our clips mostly show that whip pans are a relative rarity in normal shooting, and this is now the main area you'll see CMOS wobble. It is, however, also visible when there is a lot of flashing in-frame either from other flash guns or theatre strobe lights.

We also want to point out that the autofocus on the D800 is a little troublesome. In video mode, there is no automatic focus. There is, however, a button on the back that allows you to use the camera's autofocus to get a lock while you're recording. This isn't very good though, although it usually does get a lock after a little hunting. For the best results, you're going to have to use your eyes, which works well once you get used to it.

Microphone input and HDMI output

One hugely important aspect of the D800 is the microphone input - along with the headphone output - and the clean HDMI with uncompressed 1080p output. 

HDMI output is essential to anyone recording video for a broadcaster, as all major UK outlets need around 50mbps for the majority of delivered content. The camera records at quite a bit less than that, although it always looks stunning. Nikon's codec and processing seem to be very, very well designed. Using the HDMI allows you to hook up a Nanoflash or similar recorder, and grab a high-quality feed from the camera. It also allows you to use an external viewfinder for video, something that's very helpful. 

Do remember that in order to get 1080p out of the HDMI you need to have removed both SD and CF cards from the camera. This is a bit of a shortcoming, as it would be handy to record a backup in-camera too. If you do this, your output will be restricted to 1080i. 

The built-in microphone is a bit whispy and hollow-sounding, as you would expect. An external microphone - like Nikon's own ME-1 - will improve things. Even so, we found there was still a lot of handling noise, and this was especially noticeable when adjusting the aperture and shutter speed. The 3.5-inch jack isn't ideal for professional audio equipment, although adaptors are a possibility to handle XLR jacks. Even so, audio recording in-camera can be used for a guide track, with an external recorder doing the heavy lifting. But the in-built system doesn't disgrace itself - just invest in a good microphone and isolated grip. 

The screen

We do need to mention the built-in LCD screen too. For photos, this panel is ideal. It's bright enough to be seen in sunlight, and sharp. The camera responds quickly when you're viewing images, and you can always see, by zooming in, if you've got the shot you wanted. There is more than enough detail here, and we think it's one of the best screens we've seen on a camera. 

Nikon also keeps the screen as a 4:3 ratio, unlike the Canon 5D MK II which has switched to a 3:2 panel. In use, this is great for proper photography - this is a stills camera first and foremost - and doesn't cause any huge problems when it comes to shooting video. 

Video, though, does present some problems for this screen. It's quite hard to use the screen to focus when shooting. With practice, things get better, but you'll still blow some shots because what you thought was focused, was not. Buying an external monitor or viewfinder is a must here, but the HDMI feed out makes it a less-expensive proposition than on some cameras.

Verdict

There is little doubt that the D800 is a terrific camera. Photographically speaking, the 36.6-megapixels is an amazing leap forward, images have an awe-inspiring level of detail and this gives a lot of flexibility over using the camera. Shoot something that’s good, but a little poorly framed, and there’s room to tweak and improve. Likewise, the high resolution will give opportunities to photographers who want the option of printing their photos in large sizes.

Happily, the large, high-resolution sensor doesn’t suffer with excessive noise as a result of the pixel density. Indeed, the D800 image performance, even in low light, is one of the most impressive things we’ve seen. Images are usable right up to ISO 3600 and even in to the extended range they have some value, though there is significant noise. Having said that, despite the noise, image sharpness is incredible, which makes for very likeable shots with an interesting grain that could have some artistic merit.

Video too is mind-blowing. Broadcasters might not leap on this camera, as the bit-rate is too low – although you’d never know it to look at the video - and to reject footage because it doesn’t hit the magic number of 50mbps is little more than snobbery. But for low-budget filmmakers, or professionals in need of something cheap but flexible that has a wealth of very capable lenses, this really is a beautiful performer. Our test footage looked breathtaking at times. Use a good lens, keep the shutter to 50 and adjust the “ISO” and aperture to compensate for light, and you’ll turn in some remarkable video.

To use, like all high-end Nikons, the D800 is very good indeed. The biggest issue is that buffer writing 36-megapixel images to SD or CF, something that inevitably takes a long time. We found this hampered us when we were reacting to events over which we had no control. This means the D800 won't suit sports photographers especially well, but studio users will be unlikely to have any issues. Nikon continues to make cameras that are well-designed and exciting to use.

The D800 has served us well in the time we’ve used it, and we’re really not thrilled about giving it back, which is the greatest endorsement we could ever give a product.