First Impressions: Nikon D800

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's so pretty.

The Long Version: I haven't spent much time with the D800 yet, recently purchased from Toronto's Aden Camera, but this isn't the time for patience and introspection. That can come later.

I'm trying to come up with a word other than 'awesome' to describe the D800's image quality. I may have to settle for 'astonishing'. My first reaction to each new photo has been "you have got to be kidding me". Detail, noise, dynamic range: I instantly forgot how much I paid for this electronic contraption. I used to call my D700 'the monster' for what it could pull off – just a few minutes with the D800 had me calling it 'the God Nikon'.

I'd happily use the D700 to iso3200 for semi-important photos, and 6400 for ones under more extreme conditions. With the D800, it looks like I'll be adding about another stop on top of that. The iso12800 boost setting, which I used on a dark street, produced results that I'd be quite pleased with – especially when the alternative could be no photo at all.

But like my D700, I didn't buy the D800 for its low-light ability. What I want is the ability to make high-quality prints, and the D800's images can be printed at 16x20" and 300dpi without upsizing. To reach that size with my D700, I would need to go through super-resolution software with a stack of photos, or tile multiple images. All of this requires forethought, careful execution, and a great deal of computer resources. With the D800 I skip the first two requirements, which is a huge advantage.

I've yet to take a photo with it that's worth the ten dollars in paper and ink, but I'm sure it will happen eventually.

Another interesting feature that I didn't buy the D800 for is its video ability. I've never really been interested in video; I have a hard enough time assembling a sequence of still photos without trying to learn a whole new language. But just for fun, I put the camera on a tripod and pointed it at something moving and moderately interesting. About the only thing that I changed from the camera's default settings was to enable video recording by pressing the shutter button, which let me use my cable release to start and stop the sequence. One minute of the results are on Vimeo here.

One thing to remember about the God Nikon is that its desire is to create as strongly detailed photos as possible. A lot has been said elsewhere about the D800 and its need for the best lenses and technique to pull the most out of the camera. That's true. But there's nothing that says that its needs should be the most important ones in the relationship. I recently spent a happy saturday taking photos at a wholly inappropriate aperture, forgetting that adequate depth of field is more important than peak sharpness. Lesson learned.

The payoff for good discipline may be greater with the D800, but it handles carelessness pretty well too. Yes, I can clearly see when I miss focus with my 50/1.4G when it's wide open, there's a massive difference between f/1.4 and f/5.6, and I'm aware of corner softness that I had never noticed before. But even in those times of trouble the D800 is still pulling everything the lens has to give – just because the D800 isn't at its best, it doesn't follow that using a lesser camera would give better results. The important thing is to use the right lens and aperture for the creative purpose, and if that happens to be a dazzlingly sharp piece of crystal at its optimum aperture, great. If not, still great.

One thing that I have done to accommodate the 36 megapickle sensor is spend the time to fine-tune the autofocus with the two AF lenses that I use on it. This has made a big difference, and now my AF photos have about a one-in-three chance of being as sharp – or even sharper – than ones that I manually focus with live view. The other two out of three will usually have the AF system miss just a tiny bit, which is typical for all cameras, but the God Nikon is unforgiving. When peak sharpness really matters I'll take a few redundant photos and let the AF find its mark anew for each. That works best with static subjects, naturally, but it's an easy way to squeeze the best out of the camera.

There were only three things that I didn't like about my recently-departed D700. The big one was the 95% viewfinder. I cut my teeth on the Olympus E-1 and E-3 4/3 cameras, which had exceptional 100% viewfinders despite their smaller sensor size. The other was the resolution – it was feeling like a bad dream that, despite shifting largely to Nikon, I was still in the universe of "12 megapixels should be enough". This was part of the reason why I moved a lot of my personal photography to film, because even if the actual resolved detail isn't any better than a 12Mpx camera, the high-resolution scans look a lot nicer than scaling up an all-digital file.

My third D700 quibble was the lack of easy access to exposure bracketing. I know: who cares when the dynamic range of the camera is this good. I do, if only a little, and the D800 fixes that oversight as well. I suppose there could be more complaints about the D700, because it doesn't have a catch to hold the battery in place and had a bad door design for its left-side ports. Yes, nits are being picked, but the D800 has made those right too.

In exchange for all of these improvements, there have been a few physical changes from the D700 body to learn. The hand grip has a different profile, making for a slightly longer reach to the shutter button, and the position of the buttons to zoom in and out on the LCD review/preview have been reversed. I'm amazed at how often that change has tripped me up, especially since I didn't think I was ever all that natural with the D700. Muscle memory is a funny thing, and can't always be predicted.

There are other things to get used to, like the different batteries and ways of selecting autofocus methods, both of which are inherited from the D7000. The bigger LCD screen is nice in an irrelevant way, but not nearly as impressive as the new mostly-accurate dual-axis electronic level. All told this new camera would be a substantial upgrade even if Nikon had stuck with a more conservative sensor – but what fun would that have been?

It's already clear that Nikon has a huge success on its hands, and it looks like it's well deserved. There's still a tremendous amount for me to learn about the D800, and I may have more to say in a couple more months. Until then, I'll be taking photos and reading lens reviews.

Added April 21: My one-month report on the D800 is now on-line.

last updated 21 apr 2012


  1. It might be too expensive for mere mortals such as I, but at least it's a good deal cheaper than an M-9, and looks to be a heck of a lot better.

  2. A killer camera no doubt. This, and a 85/1.4 and a 35/1.4 - oh my. Still there would be times like today, when I walked around with just a Pen and my wife's 20mm, where I would greatly prefer those...

  3. Bill, I've heard SLRs be called the 'Swiss Army Knife' of photography – and not entirely as a compliment – so to my mind that makes the M9, and all rangefinders, the equivalent of a scalpel. I know which one I'd rather have when I need to open a bottle or drive a screw, but they're both pretty sharp.

    Wolfgang, I know exactly what you mean about the value of small cameras. There are plenty of times when I'm happy to have anything at all with me so that I can take the photos that happen all around me, but somehow those rarely end up on my main blog, and never make it into a print. And just a few days ago someone barked at me for having my little Canon S100 out in public, so there's no telling what will earn a reaction from the people in the vicinity.


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