Camera Review: Nikon D800

Michael Clark (www.michaelclarkphoto.com) is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. His editorial and corporate clients include National GeographicSports IllustratedOutsideMen's JournalOutdoor PhotographerDigital Photo ProClimbing, Nike, Nikon, Adobe, Patagonia, Pfizer and DuPont to name just a few. He has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images of rock climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, and mountain bikers pushing their sports to the limit in remote locations around the world. We asked Michael to review the Nikon D800 that he has been using since its release in early 2012.

Michael Clark: "When Nikon first announced the D800, and its genre-busting 36 MP resolution, I think the entire photo industry was surprised—myself included. I didn’t really feel like I needed 36 MP resolution. Before it was announced, I was sure the D800 would be a 24 MP version of the Nikon D700. But it wasn’t, and thankfully the engineers at Nikon were smart enough to design and produce this camera. Previous to the D800 announcement, I had shot with the 39 MP Hasselblad H4D, so I had an idea of what that kind of resolution looks like. The D800 is every bit as good as the H4D-40, at least in terms of resolution, and it is also a lot easier to use. Once you see the phenomenal, detailed image quality of the D800, it is very hard to shoot with anything else. I have never, in my entire career, talked so exuberantly about any camera like I have the D800. On a recent trip to Dubai, where I was teaching a workshop with the Mentor Series Photo Treks with fellow pro photographer David Tejada, we talked incessantly about the Nikon D800. David had just gotten his D800 right before the workshop and every day we would remark on how incredible the camera, and its amazing image quality, was compared to everything else we had ever used. With that said, let’s move onto some of the other aspects of the camera since there is a lot more to talk about than just the excellent image quality.

I consider what the engineers at Nikon have done with the D800 to be a miracle of some sort. In general, when you increase the resolution of a camera, you also increase the amount of noise at high ISOs. Hence, I thought, as I am sure most of us did, that the D800 would be very noisy at high ISOs. Well, I was wrong. The D800 has significantly less noise at high ISOs than my Nikon D700, which has one-third the resolution and the same size sensor as the D800! I have no idea how Nikon did this. Amazingly, the lack of noise at high ISOs is not that far behind the Nikon D4. ISO 2,000 on the D800 is about the same as the ISO 6,400 on the D4. Considering that the D800 has more than twice the resolution, that is truly amazing. The Nikon engineers have redefined what is possible with high-resolution sensors. And obviously, the folks at DxO Mark were also impressed since they gave the Nikon D800 the top spot in their rankings among all digital cameras on the market, including all of the medium format cameras, some of which have 80 MP sensors!

The D800 also has one of the widest dynamic ranges of any camera on the market—as confirmed by the DxO Mark tests. In tandem with the D800’s phenomenal color fidelity, the dynamic range really helps out in all shooting scenarios and especially in contrasty lighting situations. This results in more detail in both the shadows and highlights of every image. Combine the wide dynamic range with the 36 MP resolution and the low noise at high ISOs and you start to see why this camera got the top spot in the DxO Mark rankings.

D800 VIDEO

On the video front, the D800 shines in a similar manner to the D4. I have not seen any huge differences in the 1080p HD video produced by the D800 versus the D4, save for the fact that there is marginally less noise at high ISOs in the video produced by the D4. If anything, the HD video produced by the D800 might even be slightly sharper than that from the D4. And the sensor in the D800 has a slightly wider dynamic range than the D4 sensor, which comes in handy in contrasty light. Again, I have to say that the video quality is unmatched by any other DSLR on the market in my testing.

D800 CONSTRUCTION

In terms of the camera body, the D800 is just as robust as the venerable D700. Even with a pop-up flash, which I use quite a bit to trigger my Nikon speedlights, the camera is well sealed from dust and moisture. The D800 overall is very similar to the D700. As with the D4, the autofocus has been improved slightly and seems a bit faster and more accurate. All in all, the D800 is a tough, pro-caliber camera and will not have any problems when it comes to taking on the elements.

FRAMES PER SECOND

With all that resolution, you might expect a few limitations on the frame rate, and you would be right. The D800 can only shoot at 4 fps at full resolution. In DX mode, which provides a resolution of 15.2 MP, the camera can fire at up to 5 fps. As a sports photographer, 4 fps is not that exciting. It is quite slow. But this isn’t a sports camera. By comparison, the 1.2 fps of the Hasselblad H4D, seems glacially slow when compared to the D800. For some adventure sports, like rock climbing and mountaineering, the 4 fps framing rate is plenty fast. For other sports like surfing, mountain biking and kayaking, it seems glacially slow. Hence, as you can imagine, I am still working out when to shoot with the D800 and when to switch over to the D4. Obviously for portrait, lifestyle and landscape photography I am going to reach for the D800. For fast action sports, I will be shooting with the D4.

I would have thought that the high-resolution sensor on the D800 would tax my lenses a lot more than it does. To be sure, if you are not using the top-end glass available from Nikon, you will see it in your images. My Nikkor zooms, including the 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8, are all stellar on the D800. I will say that you also have to use exceptional camera technique to get the best image quality out of this camera. The camera is especially susceptible to motion blur. Hence, it is a good thing that there is very low noise at high ISOs. In low-light situations, I don’t hesitate to crank up the ISO up to 1600, 3200 or even 6400 when needed. Shooting with the D800, one needs to think of it as a large 6x7 medium format camera or even a large format camera since its image quality is on par with those larger formats.

IMAGE QUALITY

In terms of image quality, the D800 is likely the best DSLR ever produced by any camera manufacturer so far. And, yes, I am aware of how extreme that statement sounds. But if you shoot with the camera for only a few minutes and then download the raw files, you too will understand what a revolution this camera has ushered in for digital SLRs. I am not the only one who has made bold statements about this camera being the best I have ever used. Michael Reichmann, who is a meticulous photographer and the founder of the well-known and respected website Luminous-Landscape.com, has made similar statements in his review of the Nikon D800. He has stated, 'In fact, I believe that this camera is so exceptional, in so many ways, that it will force the rest of the camera industry to up its game—big time. No, it’s not perfect. The grip will be found to be too small for some, and the frame rates too slow for others. But other than that, and a few quibbles, this is a truly excellent camera. When used casually with ordinary glass, it will satisfy just about anyone. When used with meticulous technique and the very best glass, it is simply awesome, and I have never used that word in print before in relation to any camera or [medium format camera] back. The D800/E really is that good.'  In every sense, Nikon has hit more than a home run with the D800. It is a game changer for digital SLRs. And because of the amazing dynamic range and resolution, I have to say that I am quite a bit more excited about the D800 than I am the D4. The D4 is a great camera, don’t get me wrong, and it will serve me extremely well for my adventure sports work. But, in terms of image quality, the D800 is in a league by itself.

The D800 is also a medium format killer. I don’t know why anyone would spend the money on a $40,000 medium format camera unless they need more megapixels or really want that medium format depth-of-field look. For some, medium format will still be worth it, but I am betting the number of people that opt for a medium format back just dwindled to a very low number. I don’t want to see Hasselblad or Phase One go out of business, but the playing field has just changed and they better get their R&D teams working overtime to figure out how they can differentiate their cameras from the D800. The price tag of $3,000 for a D800 or $20,000 for a Hasselblad H4D-40? In my testing, I would be hard pressed to tell the images apart. Here’s hoping Hasselblad and Phase One can figure out how to get exceptional high ISO performance similar to that of the D800, because this is just one of many areas where the medium format cameras suffer badly. I realize I am completely gushing about the D800 here, like I have never before gushed in any other equipment review before. You literally have to shoot with the camera and see the images to believe just how amazing they are. There is a very good reason it got the top spot in the DxO Mark testing—it is just that good!"

This article is an excerpt from Michael latest Newsletter. To read the full article download his Spring 2012 Newsletter here: http://www.michaelclarkphoto.com/spring_2012.pdf

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