Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Is it time for patience and introspection yet?
The Long Version: I've had the good fortune to be using a D800 for almost a month now, and have been able to use it in a pretty decent variety of situations. But rather than describing scenarios or shooting styles, there's an easier way to know if it's the right camera for you. Consider this:
"16x20 at 300dpi"
If that doesn't make sense, stop reading. Seriously. The Nikon D800's ability to make big prints is unchallenged by any camera costing less than four times as much – with the sole exception of the D800E – so buying it without the plan to print really big is a waste.
That's not to say that the D800 is a limited or specialized camera, though. It's perfectly capable of handling a huge variety of challenging conditions, and its high-iso performance, autofocus, dynamic range, viewfinder, metering, and design are all improved over the D700, which was already one of the best all-purpose cameras ever made. Frankly, the D800 would be a worthy upgrade even if it didn't accomplish it all with triple the pixel count.
Demanding conditions, no?
Sure, the God Nikon isn't really being challenged by photographing an available kitten, but it's a realistic test for what most SLRs end up being used for. The image above is cropped down to about a quarter of the original, letting an 8x10" print stand-in for a full 16x20. There's enough detail to check the catchlight in his left eye and see what was on TV. If I play with the exposure and fill light in Lightroom, I can see how the room is furnished. At iso3200.
To do that all in exchange for giving up just one frame per second over the D700 is amazing. Yes, the D800 actually loses two frames per second when both cameras are using AA batteries in their multi-power grips – six versus eight – and the D800 has to drop down to DX mode to do it. Even then, it still has more resolution than the D700. But now the new entry-level D3200 has the same resolution as the previous $8K D3x flagship, so perhaps pixels aren't worth what they once were.
The competing Canon 5D3 also has a six-per-second frame rate, and does it at full resolution and without needing a booster battery pack. Perhaps it even has a smidge faster autofocus, but considering how badly the 5D1 and 5D2 lagged in the AF department, let's not get too smug about that.
There are a few ways that the Canon 5D3 is decisively and unquestionably better than the D800. For one thing, it has three separate IR receivers to work with the cheap and abundant Canon RC-6 wireless remote – the idea of spending some $200 on an exotic Nikon ML-3 might take some of the shine off of the price differential for unsuspecting D800 buyers. Sure, the 'Modulite' ML-3 is a neat remote, but it would be nice to also have a $20 option.
The 'silent' drive mode on the Canon camera makes a complete mockery of Nikon's 'quiet' setting. If your photography involves events, weddings, TV or stage productions, music, skittish wildlife or non-professional models, buy the Canon 5D Mark III. It's not even a decision. In exchange for a slightly slower release and longer blackout – very slightly – it makes the camera almost disappear. It can even do burst shooting. If that mattered to me I would use this all the time, just so that its timing becomes second nature.
The battery door on the Canon 5D mk III is also vastly better than the D800. Nikon's is a flimsy affair held on by narrow pins with a fiddly latch; it's also very easy to remove from the camera despite the fact that it never needs to be taken off. The Canon battery door has a very secure spring-loaded hinge pin that's released with a convenient lever – it needs to be removed to use the BG-E11 battery grip – a secure but easy-to-use release to open it, and the door itself is larger and more solid.
The 5D3's battery door even has a flange that incorporates the pass-through cover for the AC power adapter's cable; on the D800 this is done by an annoying rubber nubby thing that sticks out from the camera body. My little finger rubs against this when I hold the camera normally, turning it into a nagging reminder of poor design.
While this is somewhat more subjective, the Canon 5D mk III also has a hand grip and thumb rest that I vastly prefer. In fact, everyone I know who has tried both prefers the Canon. It just allows a more solid hold with less fatigue, even when there's a heavy lens on the front of the camera, and that's something that makes a big difference over the long term.
The grip on the God Nikon is one of those things that takes some familiarization. My first reaction was that I didn't like it, and that's something that I've heard from other people as well. But I, like them, quickly adapted to the new grip that moves the shutter button much farther away from the rest of the hand grip, and now it feels quite natural. The shutter button on the D800 is reached from the side, instead of from the front, and it looks like that will become standard for each new Nikon SLR.
Another new ergonomic design that's expanding across the line is the AF mode selector switch. It took me a while to adjust to the D7000-style selector, but now I like it much better than the D700's three-position switch. The middle position is always less accessible than the two ends, so having the Nikon-standard button-and-dial system is an improvement.
And in other happy news, after taking nine hundred photos, I've finally adjusted to the new playback zoom in/out button positions. Yay!
Setting a custom white balance has always been needlessly difficult with Nikon cameras. The process for measuring a preset white balance takes three pages in the manual to outline its six steps, involves both command dials, and pressing the WB button at least three times. With my D700 I'd usually just give up, take a reference photo, and fix it in post – and I can't see that changing, no matter how useful it would be for the raw+jpeg recording that I do with the D800.
So while the D700 was already bad, the D800 is actually a bit worse. The D800 is incapable of taking a direct white balance measurement when custom function "g4" is enabled. What's this setting "G4" that's so fundamental to the D800's operation, you ask? It's the ability to start video recording, exclusively while in the Video Live View mode, by pressing the shutter button. And lest anyone think that this is an understandable restriction to avoid conflicting use of the shutter button, the camera can't even take a white balance reference exposure in Live View in the first place.
Incidentally, having the shutter button set to sart video recording is actually incredibly useful, since it lets the 10-pin remote work as a start/stop button. The only reason to not have this setting turned on is for people who may need to also capture a high-quality still during recording. Or, unfortunately, people who need accurate colour.
But if this review seems unreasonably negative, there's a very good reason for it. I've been trying to find problems, and this is the best that I've come up with. I'm sure there will be other issues that arise with more use, and I know that others will also come up with their own lists. But really, this is all just buzzing around the edges: the camera is outright awesome.
I'm still expecting to do a third instalment about the D800, perhaps in the early summer, when there's a chance that they could actually be in stock somewhere.
Until then, the biggest problem with the Nikon D800 is that it really is as good as its boosters say it is. No, it's not Magical And Revolutionary, and it doesn't create great art automatically, but it's a significant step up from the D700. That means that it's going to be in short supply, and sustain its launch price, for quite some time.
last updated 21 apr 2012