. . . continued

August 2012

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The D800 is probably not the best choice for photojournalists, news photographers or event photographers who are dependent on fast continuous frame rates, forgiving autofocus and relatively compact file sizes for uploads, fast editing and inevitably smaller final image sizes for publication online or in print. I found, as did my research associate Cary Levitt who used the D800 on a fact finding trip in Hungary for one of our manufacturing clients, that the D800 provides rather brilliant results for just about any photographer who takes just a tiny extra bit of time considering exposure, composition, lighting and shot framing before pressing the shutter button. While that can be said of most cameras theses days, the technical image quality produced by the D800 is often truly remarkable. Cary and I have both found that we're making fewer shots on any given walkabout, research project and personal project (compared to what we've shot over the past few years with the Nikon D700 and D3, and with the Canon 5D, 5DMK II and 1D MKIII), but getting more keepers. Don't be put off though, because the D800 is most definitely not a slowpoke. The 4-5 fps frame rate is more than fast enough for an enormous range of photography. It's also more than fast enough, especially at 1/500s, to freeze action at home plate, around the goal mouth, at the backboard or net and so on. I'm not recommending the D800 as a sports shooter's dream - go for a Nikon D3 or D4 instead - but it obviously works well anyway. The biggest drawback for continuous shooters who mash the shutter button and hold it there is that the massive D800 files fill up the camera's internal buffer rather faster than 24, 22, 18 and 16mp cameras and even the fastest SD and CF cards can't write data fast enough to keep up.

The autofocus system is remarkable in low light - in any light actually. The advertised -2.0 eV autofocus sensitivity is not just technical hype. It really works, and it's fast. In normal light or the golden hours of exotic light just before and just after sunrise or sunset, the autofocus system picks out and locks onto subjects and difficult focus targets instantaneously. My D700 helped me come to grips with the best sort of nighttime street photography in a variety of cities around the world, but with near-identical ISO performance and vastly better resolution the D800 elevates nighttime street work to a whole new level.

The D800, as with all of the top-of-the-line SLR bodies from the best makers, will become an extension of your hand and eye within a very short period of time. Nikon has slightly improved the shutter button angle (I found the D300, D700 and D7000 naturally comfortable but the D800 is even batter), improved still/video selection (by implementing a selector lever) LiveView activation (a concentric button in the selector lever), video start/stop (separate button on top near the shutter button), focus type selection (single, continuous - which are now selected by pressing a concentric button in the AF/M switch on the front of the body and then turning the rear command dial to select), and extended the Fn button customization choices. The point is mainly that Nikon designers have, as usual, been listening to advanced amateurs, enthusiast, semi-professional and professional photographers and have made accommodations which feel right and seem to a slight improvement over the D700 and D3.


Whatever conventional format (APS-C or full frame) camera you had, coming to a 36mp SLR body may provide a revelation. Choose your lenses wisely. I've been shooting the D800 almost exclusively with a Nikkor 24-120 f/4 VRII zoom lens and I'm delighted with the combination. Resolution, sharpness, bokeh, just enough aperture versatility to get the depth of field I need for a very wide variety of subjects in all different kinds of light, wonderful contrast, color accuracy, vibration reduction (which other makers refer to variously as IS, OS and VC) - what more could a photographer want? I also tested the Nikkor 85mm 1.4 (the old AF-D and the newer AF-S - both excellent), Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 (superb results - slightly better than the 24-120 f/4 and with notably less barrel distortion, albeit giving up the longer zoom range I prefer for street shooting), Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the f/2.8 VRII (both indistinguishably superb), Nikkor 16-35 f/4 VR II (also superb, but with the same sort of barrel distortion as the 24-120 f/4 VR II). Most other late model Nikkor lenses will work appreciably well - you won't be disappointed - but the bunch I've mentioned here seemed to mate particularly well with the D800. Nikon publishes a preferred list of lenses for the D800.

Movie mode is, well, movie mode. There are two main settings: 1280 x 720 at frames rates from 24-60fps, or 1920 x 1080 at frame rates from 24-30fps. The D800 is not a camcorder, or some continuous autofocus compact that is ideal for recording the kids baseball or football game on Saturday morning, or a music recital at school. The D800 is instead a professional video camera in most respects, so don't ditch your camcorder just yet. Handheld (okay) or on a tripod (much better), use the LiveView selector lever to switch to video mode, press the LiveView button, frame and focus using the rear LCD (manually or using contrast-detect autofocus - your choice), then press the record button. In 1920 x 1080 at 24fps using a decent Nikkor lens, captured video is almost indistinguishable from the finest digital video recordings you'll find anywhere. The files are recorded in H.264/MPEG-4 format. There are limitations to the digital SLR mind you, which prevent the D800 from being an all-purpose professional video camera. First and foremost, panning at anything but extremely slow speed can reveal a hint of rolling shutter effect. So stop panning - it's amateurish most of the time anyway. Pick your shots and your focal length carefully, watch your lighting, position the camera, shoot your clip. Reposition the camera for the next shot, adjust for lighting, shoot your clip. Repeat as needed. That's how pros do it, and that's how you should do it. Approached that way, all you budding (and existing) wedding, event and concert photographers out there can add professional video production to your range of services. Audio recording is another matter, because the built-in mic picks up everything just like a built-in camcorder mic, including the sound of you smacking your lips, sniffling, handling the camera and humming to yourself. The solution is to go at least semi-pro, with an off-camera mic and a separate digital audio recorder. Believe that the D800 with a suitable set up can be used to make a documentary movie, a feature, a television show episode, a spot or commercial, a promo, a marketing piece - almost anything at all, as long as you're willing to dedicate to video the same amount of time you've already put into becoming a decent still photographer.

I've been bouncing around Toronto, southern Ontario, upstate New York, central Pennsylvania and northern Ohio for several weeks with the D800. The camera has been just as easily and intuitively usable as anything you'll find. Moving from my trusty D700 to the D800 was completely uneventful. The D800 has performed flawlessly and helped me make thousands of photos. On a run & gun at Pearson International Airport (to get some photos of returning Olympic athletes), the private and press photographers scrum turned into a severe crush, dash, bang and smash affair. As usual, the professional Nikon body came through without a scratch and performed perfectly. The camera also performed flawlessly, in & out of airconditioned rooms into 95F/35C mid-summer heat in the Niagara Falls area on a couple of truly brutal 90% humidity days. Weather sealing offered protection in a variety of humid, damp, rainy conditions in which I got caught. The Nikon D800 has now fully replaced my D700 (a camera I thought I'd never give up for any reason). Nobody with whom I've been in review contact has provided any report about use of the D800 in winter cold conditions, but with the normal cold weather precautions in place for photography I doubt you'll have any problems.


A $3000 (euro, pounds, etc.) camera better massage your feet after a long day's trampon a conrete studio or event floor, through urban canyons, hiking trails, wilderness trails, conservation areas, tours or national parks. The D800 won't do that, but if you're careful with framing, composition and light, the image quality results you can extract from the camera will be nothing short of stellar. The Nikon D800 is a trailblazing piece of photo and video technology. The D800 will tolerate all sorts of hard use and come back for more, time and time again. Nikon has always made durable cameras, and this top-of-the-line model is no exception. It may take some time and plenty of photography to begin getting the best out of the 36mp sensor, but when that happens any lingering doubts about the camera's true value will disappear very quickly.

Cons: The DX crop sensor mode is a blessing in disguise for long-term use because of my suspicion that differentiation will occur between the part of the sensor used for DX vs. the less-used full-frame portion beyond the DX area. Nikon says it's highly unlikely, and certainly time will tell. So far, no reported issues. Then again, if you spent this much money to buy a D800 only to use it in DX mode (at 15mp) because you like the narrower angle of view for wildlife photography, for a lot less money why on earth didn't you buy the Nikon D7000 (with its wonderful 16mp sensor) instead?

Your old, full frame Nikon lenses will work on the D800, but all that sensor resolution will go to waste when using consumer-grade lenses that can't provide enough resolution to allow the magificent sensor to stand head & shoulders above the rest (where it should be). The 36mp sensor puts a lots of sensor elements on each square millimeter of your subject, so you better have either remarkably steady hands or (more sensibly) increase your shutter speed even when using vibration reduction (VR) lenses in order to reliably and consistently get the staggeringly sharp and detailed images that the D800 is capable of capturing. Nikon does not bundle decent photo or video editing software with the D800, but then neither do any of the other high end camera makers. It's about time for that to change. Your last-generation CF cards (40MB/s) and SD cards, if used in the D800, will make you think there's something wrong with the camera because the huge files generated by the D800 will seem to take forever to save. Upgrading to the latest, fastest SD and CF cards will eliminate the problem but obviously at additional cost. Trust me - with the D800 you shouldn't be using anything less than 60MB/second cards and faster is definitely better.

A couple of initial teething problems at the factory resulted in the release of a relatively small number of D800 bodies with a problem at the left-most focus point in the viewfinder (but not in LiveView). The problem has long been resolved, but if you decide to buy a used D800 being sold by an early adopter, confirm with the seller that the camera does not have the problem, and if it did, that Nikon made the appropriate calibration correction under warranty.

Nikon continues to cluster its viewfinder autofocus points just inside the rule-of-thirds cross points, something which has irritated me for years. The AF point cluster is versatile enough, but it still doesn't cover enough of the viewfinder. Canon isn't much better with its viewfinders either, but that's a hopeless comparison. Nikon should enlarge the autofocus point viewfinder array design for future cameras.

Pros: Prepare to be dazzled by still image quality and HD video quality. On a tripod, the Nikon D800 is peerless at this time (although some Canon 5D MK III users will loudly disagree, particularly on the video side of things). Steady, well-focused photos of any sort of subject result in images which can be heavily cropped, so much so that you'll be shocked in some situations at how well a genuinely sharp photo with great depth of field can retain that sharpness at severe crops approaching 100%. Video stills can be pulled as individual frames in-camera, a nice feature which avoids the need to laboriously do a frame grab in your video editing software. Despite my lens recommendations and critical assessment of older Nikkor lenses on the D800, the camera will capture more resolution through an average quality lens than you ever thought possible, which means that some older lenses you like might actually produce technically better images when used on the D800). The better lenses from Nikon, Tamron, Tokina and Sigma will get a new lease on life with the D800. Studio and location shooters can pull uncompressed video and stills directly from the HDMI port to an external hard drive. Anyone familiar with Nikon's previous digital SLR interfaces and configuration menus should have no problems at all working their way through the new camera. Tough, professional, able, intuitively usable, feature packed, powerful, and above all else capable of delivering superb images of amazing resolution and quality. The D800 gets our highest recommendation.



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