A Viewfinder Darkly

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Nikon D800 High Resolution Digital SLR Review

April 19 2012

by Philip Northeast

The Nikon D800 breaks new ground for a DSLR, with sensor resolution of 36 megapixels making it comparable to digital medium format cameras. It is the ideal camera for Nikon owners with an investment in Nikon premium lenses who want to move into high quality landscape or studio photography.

Amassing a collection of premium lenses is not cheap, so the ability to make a dramatic step in resolution without having to invest in new premium lenses is a business decision that will appeal to professional photographers.

D800 front

Nikon D800 front view

Even more pleasing is the price of the D800. Nikon have used a normal DSLR body and this helped keep the price to under $US3000, about half the price of the new Nikon D4, even it is  better value than the old Nikon high resolution DSLR, the Nikon D3x, that has a recommended price of around $US8000.

Dynamic Range

The DxOMark dynamic range tests show it is a top performer, and unlike some of the other top DSLRs, including the new Nikon D4 the dynamic range increases as the ISO setting is lowered. The others have a plateau so that lowering ISO settings produces the same dynamic range. Although at higher ISO settings the Nikon D4 has better dynamic range.

DxOMark dynamic range

DxOMark dynamic range comparison Nikon D800, D4 and D3x

This dynamic range characteristic points to the intended use for the D800 in landscape and studio work. Here the subjects are usually static and photographers have more control, or time, to get the lighting right. Landscape photographers often use a the lowest ISO setting and small apertures with the camera mounted on a good tripod because of resultant slow shutter speeds. In photographic studios elaborate lighting set ups are used, so low ISO settings are normal as the lights are adjusted, not the exposure settings.

ISO and Noise

The large increase in the number of pixels means a reduction in pixel size and consequently less light for each pixel to collect. At lower light levels digital noise in the image becomes more of a problem. According to the DxOMark noise tests  the D800 has similar or slightly less noise than the D4 and D3X.

DxOMark noise

DxOMark noise comparison Nikon D800, D4 and D3x

Although the D800 has a very wide ISO range most landscape and studio photographers usually use the lower end of the ISO range. The D800’s wider range is the result of using normal Nikon technology and the D800 is shares this basic technology with their other cameras. The D800 is aimed at a price point so as far as practical Nikon have reused their base technology to minimise costs.

Colour Sensitivity

This is the range of colours that the sensor reproduces before the digital noise prevents accurate interpretation of the RAW image data. The DxOMark results confirms the D800 matches its more expensive siblings in this area of performance.

 

DxOMark colour sensitivity

DxOMark colour sensitivity comparison Nikon D800, D4 and D3x

 

The Nikon D800 is not a Medium Format Camera

Despite its impressive laboratory test results it is difficult to compare the D800 with medium format cameras that use significantly larger sensors and are many times the price of the Nikon.

There is an issue with the DxOMark testing based on RAW image data where the performance of medium format sensors is not measured exactly the same way as DSLR sensors. DxOMark try to turn off all noise reduction systems in the camera to measure the performance of the sensor without correction by camera software. However, this is not always possible as DSLRS often apply noise reduction systems before they store the RAW data as Michael Reichmann from the Luminous Landscape  explains:

“The main problem is that DxO is analyzing raw camera data, which does not include any correction of fixed pattern noise. DSLR cameras remove these noise sources before storing their raw data. Medium format cameras do not. DSLRs also apply a lot of noise reduction algorithms before storing the data. I’m not sure about Hasselblad and Leaf, but I know for a fact that with Phase One digital back files both fixed pattern noise and other forms of noise reduction are applied in the raw processing software, such as Capture One, rather than on-chip.”

Nikon D800 Features

The D800 does not have the new high speed memory card introduced with the D4. The D800’s dual card system uses Compact Flash and SD cards. These are available in high capacity and professional ruggedness but lack the high speed transfer capability of the new XQD memory card. The D800 does not need the fast transfer rate to support the higher frame rates used by the D4.

The D800 also has a very sophisticated metering system based on top end Nikon DSLR systems. Although typically landscape and studio photographers take test shots to check exposure and lighting set ups, reviewing images on the cameras display screen and the exposure histogram.  For this slower more precise shooting style metering is only a guide.

D800 back view

Nikon D800 rear view

For the anticipated applications of the Nikon D800 its Live view capabilities will be  useful when photographing using a tripod. These are often situations where photographers sit back and consider the composition, and even rearrange elements in the shot or adjust the lighting. The ultimate live view is using the D800’s tethered shooting capabilities and display the view on a large screen monitor in the studio.

Full HD Video

The D800 offers a range of video resolutions and frame rates, including Full HD 1080 at 30/24p and HD 720 at 60/30p. Importantly Nikon have not forgotten the sound system. The D800 has facilities for external microphones and headphones to  monitor the recording. The D800 has adjustable recording levels for the sound levels.

According to Nikon the D800’s “ optimized CMOS sensor reads image data at astoundingly fast rates, which results in less instances of rolling shutter distortion.”

The D800 has an Autofocus system that works while recording in movie mode making it easier to work with moving subjects.

Rugged Body Construction 

Do not let the compact size of the Nikon D800 fool you, this is still a serious body. It is built around a tough and lightweight magnesium alloy structure, with sealing gaskets to resist the entry of water and dust, important for a landscape camera. The lenses still need some care, while the manufacturing tolerances make them fairly resistant to moisture and dust, many Nikon lenses are not fully weather sealed.

 

D800 Magnesium body

The Nikon D800’s magnesium alloy body

Worthwhile Addition to a Nikon Professional’s DSLR system

The Nikon D800 offers professional photographers with a budget a good second camera body. It allows them to extend into high quality landscape and studio work and the D800 is useful for sports or action events, as it can be set with a lens and settings for atmosphere shots or wider overall impression of the event.

This is not Nikon’s ultimate camera, the D800 is built to price using off the shelf software and systems, making it god value for money for current Nikon DSLR users.

Price and Availability

The D800 can be ordered from Adorama for $2999.95 and they will ship when limited stocks arrive.

 

 

 

 

 

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