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The Nikon D800: Nikon’s Medium Format Killer

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 thank God 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 6400 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 and D800E the top spots in their rankings among all digital cameras on the market, including all of the medium format cameras, some of which have 80 MP sensors!

[Note: The Nikon D4 now ranks fourth on the DxO Mark sensor rankings. The Nikon D800E was in first place, the D800 was in second and third place was taken by the 80-megapixel Phase One IQ180 Digital Back. That is pretty amazing considering the D800 sells for less than 1/10th the price of the IQ180. All of the other high-resolution medium format cameras scored worse than either of these new Nikons!]

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 the 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.

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.

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.

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.

Above (left) is a portrait I shot in Dubai. The image was cropped square—only the sides of the image were cropped out. Above (right) is a 100% crop of the model’s eye so you can see the detail. Of course, in this screenshot, the image is not at 100%. But even here you can get a sense of just how much detail is present in the image. The detail this camera produces is astounding.

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 6×7 medium format camera or even a large format camera since it’s image quality is on par with those larger formats.

In terms of image quality, the D800 is highly 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, 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.” To read the rest of his review check out his D800/E Initial Field Impressions article.

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. $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 in this newsletter 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!

Wrapping Up
Making Sense of the New Gear

Nikon has hit two home runs with the D4 and the D800. It is certainly a great time to be a Nikon shooter. As I said in the D800 review, I am still figuring out which camera to pull out of the camera bag when shooting some sports. Honestly, the image quality of the D800 is so good it overshadows the speed and versatility of the D4. I find myself shooting with the D800 quite a bit more than the D4 these days, but that may just be because I have been shooting lifestyle, portraits and architectural landscapes lately—as can be seen in the images from Dubai in this newsletter.

Of note, once I got these new cameras, I sold my old Nikons immediately. The image quality from the new cameras is far superior to my old gear, and hence, I didn’t feel the need to hold onto the D700 and D300 I have been using for years now. I cannot say enough good things about these new cameras. I am completely blown away to be blunt. As a pro, I know it isn’t the camera that matters, but when you are striving for the best image quality possible the camera matters in this digital age.

I am sure there are some that will ask, and with good reason, do we really need a camera that shoots 36 MP? I understand, and on some level I agree with the premise that 36 MP might be a bit over the top. But when you see the images, any thought as to whether or not you need the 36 MP resolution of the D800 flies out the window. The latest Nikon ad is the most truthful ad I have seen in a long time. It says, “Sorry, but you’re going to want to  re-shoot everything you’ve ever shot.” And, well, I do and I wish it were possible! End of Story.

For more information on the D800 visit the Nikon website. Note that I did not discuss the D800E version here, as I have not had the opportunity to test it out. I am sure it is, like the D800, similarly amazing

Michael Clark is an internationally published photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nikon, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside and Outdoor Photographer.