Nikon D800 – Half-Year Edition

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Like the world needs another D800 review.

The Long Version: I was intending to do a six-month D800 update, but given how much has already been said about the camera I found myself at a loss. So, a month late, I've decided to just quickly touch on the enduring highlights of what I've learned from this incredible camera.

First of all, that whole "megapixels don't matter" thing is a myth perpetuated by people who are selling old cameras. The D800 lets me take photos that no other camera has, including the excellent D700. Compared to the ten and twelve megapixel cameras of my past its resolving power is just spectacular. My personal hallelujah moment came when I went to clone out a speck of dirt, and on enlarging the image to 1:1, I saw that it was actually a gnat – and not only could I count its legs, I could see their shadows.

The sensor is so good that I occasionally use DxO Optics as a front-end for Lightroom 4. It has superior lens correction and differential sharpening, among other benefits, which squeaks better photos out of Nikons' non-phenomenal lens lineup. The cost of the software is about the same as the difference between the D800 and D800E, so I'm happy with that trade.

My personal best battery life was 1600 photos on one charge. Conditions were good: a warm day, using an 85/1.8D and 50/1.4G, only occasional LCD use, and no live view. But a few days later I burned through half of a battery by taking 120 shots and letting my Eye-fi card transfer the small jpegs. Life is complicated, battery life doubly so.

Now I just plan for one battery per 64GB memory card under normal conditions. It works out pretty well, and I only carry a spare under exceptional circumstances. If I really want to squeak the most power out of a battery then I'll add on the grip, which lets me run one all the way down without missing a shot. That's also a great addition for Live View, which is power-hungry and slow, but worthwhile for precise focusing. Life's a barter.

With the notable exception of Live View, the D800 is a very snappy little camera. I'm thrilled to say that despite its slower burst rate the actual shutter-mirror mechanism of the D800 is just as quick as the D700, if not even faster. I judge my shutter speed by the sound of the camera and the mirror blackout, so this is something I care about a lot.

But in Aperture-priority and with Auto Iso enabled the shutter speed almost never drops into the range where I can hear the difference in its duration. And the best part of Auto Iso is that setting a new minimum value, or turning it off, doesn't require a trip into the menus. This is a huge improvement from the previous generation.

I let the camera automatically run up to iso6400, and if it goes that high then it clearly needed to do it. While I watch my dynamic range a bit in very low light I never worry about noise.

A lot has been said of the need to upgrade hard drives and computers for a D800. My 2007 iMac isn't the happiest these days, but it's not about to be replaced, and boosting the capacity of my Drobo is a non-issue. All that I really need from my existing photography support equipment is a way to put bigger paper through my Epson 3880. That's not a bad problem to have.

I started using film cameras because I wanted digital files that would print better than what my 12Mpx digital cameras could do. Even though 135 format resolves less detail than those cameras could, a 4000dpi scan holds up to a lot of enlargement. But now that I'm used to the D800, those little 20Mpx scans seem quaint. My medium format gear doesn't make it out of the house much, either.

The new 24Mpx D600 is promising camera, but if someone offered me a brand new one and $1000 cash for my lightly used D800, I'd say no. Cameras like this are something special.

last updated 23 oct 2012


  1. Great stuff! I've spent all year (2012) thinking about whether I should splash the cash on a D800 and now the time's right. Your brief review has been just what I needed, a "real world" view of the camera. Thanks very much!


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