By Ellis Vener
Prior to the official launch of the 36-megapixel Nikon D800, Lindsay Silverman of Nikon came by the Professional Photographer office to let us have a quick hands-on demonstration with a “ready for production” prototype. While we were not allowed to keep any of the shots we made with the prototype, we are able to share our immediate impressions.
Physicality and ergonomics:
- The first thing you notice is the size of the camera. Without the optional grip with extra batteries and vertical release, it feels like a slightly beefed up version of the now venerable D700. Without actually sitting a D700 down beside it, the body felt roughly the same height and length but slightly deeper and maybe a little heavier.
- In FX (Nikon’s full-frame mode) approximately 100 percent of the vertical and horizontal image area can be seen through the viewfinder with camera control information in the surrounding black bezel.
- The control layout on the back of the camera, in the menus, and on the right hand side of the pentaprism is another evolutionary step from the D3 to the D700 to the D7000. New on the camera’s back side is a separate button for activating live view. There is a switch around the button to go from Live View for stills to video mode. The meter patterning control (Spot, Matrix, and Center-weighted) is now a smaller crown-type switch surrounding the AE-L / AF-L lock button.
- The controls on the top deck to the left of the pentaprism are different with a couple more options, again not a huge change, but the goal is to make more of the controls that photographers are likely to use physical rather than menu driven.
- On the front of the camera, the focus mode switch has been simplified to just two options, auto-focus and manual focus.
- The D800 uses the same EN-EL15 battery as the D7000. This will make life easier if you use the APS-C format D7000 as a second camera.
- As with the recently announced D4, once again Nikon goes with a mixed media card strategy: CF (Type I up to UDMA-7 compliant CompactFlash) and one SD. The SD slot can handle standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.
- For tethered shooting there is a USB 3.0 connection. Why they did not go with a faster FireWire 800, Thunderbolt, or gigabit Ethernet connection (as with the D4) is anyone’s guess, but unless they know something that we commoners don’t know that isn’t great news for Mac computer users. But you can stream an uncompressed feed to an external drive through the high-resolution HDMI output if there is no media in the camera. The HDMI-ported signal can be viewed on an external monitor in parallel with the live view controls on the camera’s 3.2-inch (diagonal) 921,000 dot LCD.
- The built-in electronic level now has an indicator for pitch (fore/aft) as well as lateral leveling, and these are both now visible in the viewfinder as well as on the rear LCD.
To state the obvious, the D800 and D800E have lots of resolution—36.3 megapixels to be exact—in a 7,360 x 4,912 pixel array spread over a 24x35.9mm Nikon-engineered CMOS sensor. Put another way, this FX camera has 50 percent more detail-gathering resolution than the highest resolution small-format DSLRs to date, the Nikon D3X, Canon ESO-1Ds Mark III and EOS 5D Mark II and Sony Alpha A700, A900 and A77. More pixels means you can print larger or at higher resolution for standard sizes without interpolating, and you can also crop and retain image quality. If you photograph products or landscapes, or are just not are worried about moiré patterns, the slightly more expensive, limited edition D800 E variant with its less aggressive anti-aliasing filter may be more to your liking.
The native sensitivity range starts at ISO 100 and goes up to 6400 with two “Hi range” boosts. Hi-1 takes you to 12,800 and Hi-2 takes you to 25,600. There is also an ISO 50 equivalent Lo-1 setting. Image processing is done through Nikon’s EXPEED 3 processing engine. To rapidly push all of this information through the EXPEED 3 system, Nikon is using a 16-bit data pipeline with a 14-bit analog to digital (A/D) conversion. Output can take the form of 12 or 14 uncompressed; losslessly compressed, or lossy compressed NEFs, plus RGB TIFFs and JPEGs. There are three smaller format options available as well: a 5:4 ratio, a 1:1.2 “crop” and 15.4-megapixel resolution Nikon DX (APS-C) format. Full-frame continuous frame speed is 4 frames per second.
The D800 sports an “enhanced” Multi-Cam 3500-FX AF processing system matched with 51 AF sensor points, 15 of which are cross-type sensors. The autofocus range is said to be good down to -2 EV, light so dim that at ISO 100 it would take a 4-second exposure at f/1.4 for a subject to be rendered as medium gray. The system is optimized to recognize and lock on a human face even as it moves across the frame. In our brief tests it did this very well. One of the methods this is accomplished is by tying the AF system to the new 91,000-pixel sensor used by the new 3D Color Matrix Metering III system. By comparison, the D700’s 3D Color Matrix Metering II system used a 1,005-pixel sensor.
Judging by the video we were shown, this is the best looking digital video we have seen out of a DSLR, no rolling shutter problems, terrific dynamic range, and very solid blacks.
Pricing and availability:
Nikon has set the MSRP for the D800 at $2,999.95 and the D800E’s MSRP at $3,299.95. The D800 should start showing up on shelves by the end of March with the D800E variant available starting in mid-April.