Nikon D800: A Filmmaker's DSLR


By J.R. Hughto

Not since the release of the D90 in August 2008 has a Nikon DSLR camera hit the market with outstanding video capability. The D90 was the first DSLR to record in high definition, but it was eclipsed almost immediately by Canon’s release of the 5D Mark II, which has dominated the video DSLR market. Now Nikon introduces the D800, a camera that not only matches the performance of Canon’s new 5D Mark III but in some ways surpasses it.

For still photographers, the D800’s 36.3- megapixel FX-format sensor is the party piece. Its high resolution translates into incredible sharpness; great news for videographers, this resolution does not go to waste. Even when video is recorded internally in the camera’s h.264 format, the capture’s sharpness is high while the moiré is slight. The major leap in resolution hasn’t hurt the signal-to-noise ratio at high ISO settings. Video quality is quite good up to ISO 3200—which isn’t even blazingly fast compared to the camera’s maximum ISO of 25,600—remarkable for a camera with such high resolution.


The most powerful new feature for video—and unmatched in its price class—is the D800’s ability to stream uncompressed 8-bit, 4:2:2 progressive video from its mini-HDMI port without overlays of any kind. This allows recording to an external device for as long as the batteries last. I used a Sound Devices PIX 240 video recorder with the camera. Setting it up was a straightforward, three-step process: remove the memory card from the D800 (which triggers progressive output over HDMI), set the camera to automatic output in 1080p24 mode, and set the PIX 240 record ing mode to Same As Video Input (to record whatever frame rate and raster it detected). The only drawback of external recording is that the camera cannot record internally and externally synchronously. When recording internally, the HDMI tap automatically down-converts to 720p60. Though the difference in quality between internal h.264 and external ProRes HQ is immediate and obvious, the h.264 implementation is quite good considering the compression.

There have been some hiccups in the firmware when used with external recorders, but Nikon has been proactive in dealing with the manufacturers of these devices. For example, the recording errors due to firmware incompatibily with the Atomos Ninja were fixed within a matter of weeks. Clearly, Nikon is engaging with filmmakers and responding quickly to user requests. Unlike Canon, Nikon has no video division to worry about undercutting, which could enable further advancements with third-party devices and increase the camera’s utility for video production.

Until now, Nikon hasn’t drawn the attention of third-party companies such as Technicolor in terms of picture controls. However, Nikon is aware of DSLR shooters’ desire for profiles that maximize the camera’s dynamic range by providing settings for custom color, contrast, and sharpness. Several users are already crafting their own custom settings, and with the bundled Nikon software Picture Control Utility, it’s easy to create or download them from the Web and load them into the camera. The D800 can handle up to nine custom picture control settings internally and store up to 99 per memory card. Users can create and store custom settings on-camera and save them on a card for easy online sharing. As the camera technology matures and attracts a dedicated user base, many more custom picture control options are sure to follow.

Nikon also took a step beyond previous DSLR generations with audio features, adding both a headphone jack and powered mic input as well as both automatic and manual audio level controls. Although the audio levels cannot be altered during recording, the on-camera mono microphone is an upgrade from previous models. In my tests, the automatic setting could not keep up with a large dynamic range, frequently clipping, so I recommend thoughtfully limiting the mic input in manual mode.


Autofocus is available in movie mode, too—both continuous and focus assist—by holding the trigger halfway down. The camera’s focus is based on contrast, so while it sometimes works well in brightly lit or highcontrast situations, in low light, the camera has to hunt for focus, sometimes unsuccessfully. The D800’s face-tracking feature is also available, but while it’s impressive as a technical demonstration, it isn’t practical for video. The focus motor is simply too loud if the mic is mounted to the camera, and the hunting in lower-contrast situations may render autofocus anything but.

A surprising but welcome addition is the D800’s ability to use either full-frame (FX) or crop-frame (DX) viewing areas in video recording. That allows you to use DX lenses or those that cover only the area of a motion picture 35mm negative. With FX lenses, you can capture a 1.5X zoom without losing recording resolution, as it retains the recorded frame size of 1080p.

Perhaps the only negatives with the D800 are its internal recording limit—20 minutes for high quality, 29:59 for normal quality— and that its rolling shutter wobbles, so far common to all video DSLRs. The rolling shutter seems better than that of both the Canon 7D and 5D Mark II, and careful control will allow for handheld shooting, but the camera’s video performance can’t match the newest large-sensor video cameras such as the Sony NEX-FS100, the Panasonic AG-AF100 or the more expensive Red Scarlet, the Sony NEXFS700 and Sony F3, or the Canon C300. On the other hand, none of these video cameras has the still photography abilities of the D800, and they all come with a far greater price tag.

Nikon is also releasing a version of the D800 without an optical low-pass filter, the D800E, which allows increased sharpness at the expense of greater moiré. Asked about any differences in video capture between the D800 and D800E, Nikon claimed their performance should be nearly identically, due to the extreme down-conversion it takes to get a 36.3-megapixel sensor to 1080p. The company continues to test both models and could not yet give a definitive answer, but added that the results will also depend on the lens and f/stop used.

Nikon users have been waiting for a camera that could compete on video, and with the D800, that camera has arrived. Given its fantastic sensor, early adoption by thirdparty vendors due to its clean HDMI output, and Nikon’s demonstrated quick support of those vendors, it seems that the D800 will get the red carpet treatment from the independent film community, event shooters, and photojournalists alike. 

J.R. Hughto is an instructor at the California Institute of the Arts, where he teaches in the film and video and film directing programs.


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