After what feels like a long drought, this quarter looks like a desert flood of pro cameras, with a host of great models arriving that really improve on the already-great models that came before. The first of these to cross my path is the Nikon D800, a terrific full-frame model that's targeted at nonsports professionals such as wedding, landscape, and architectural photographers whose subjects generally don't sprint across the scene except for maybe a runaway bride or two. Any judgments about Editors' Choice Award-worthiness will have to wait until I've shot with some competitors, most notably the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
The D800 actually comes in two versions, standard and a more expensive D800E model that incorporates a modified low-pass filter system that results in little to no antialiasing, and therefore generally sharper photos. The latter will probably be unsuited for video; aliasing can be a real problem in video and it's much harder to correct in post-production, so you need that filter.
I wouldn't expect the photo quality on this camera to be less than spectacular, and it delivers. It's impossible to apply a hard upper limit on the usability at any particular ISO sensitivity because unlike a lot of cameras the D800 has no noise where it doesn't "need" it; I'm sure it's probably gaining up the sensor uniformly, but the photos simply don't look it. Plus, at less than 100 percent view in a lot of cases you simply won't see the noise. And when you scale down, the higher resolution of the sensor compensates for any sharpness loss due to noise reduction.
At about ISO 1600, I do see a significant enough divergence between JPEG and raw quality for darker images that makes it worth processing raw to get better results. Between ISO 400 and ISO 1600 it depends upon the content of the image, but for the most part the JPEGs look pretty clean and intelligently processed. Even in the extended ISO ranges you can get reasonably solid images if you're not averse to some smoothing to even out the serious grain and a lot of clipping in the highlights and shadows. That said, I can't imagine any photo from this camera that wouldn't be usable in some way.
The dynamic range is impressive. While JPEGs have unsurprising clipping in the highlights of high-contrast photos, there's plenty of detail recoverable in the raw; I didn't see much in the way of clipped shadows, but there's plenty of recoverable detail in the dark areas as well. And it handles bright, saturated reds, pinks and purples very well, without blowing out any detail. All the exposures are dead-on. The automatic white balance is just a touch cooler than I like, but that's eminently tweakable to your taste, right down to an option to preserve the warmth of indoor lighting in full AWB. Overall, the photos just have beautiful tonality.
The video looks really good, though I can't yet say whether or not it's better than many of the alternatives. While there's some moiré, there's no rolling shutter to speak of, it's reasonably sharp, and the tonal range in both light and dark looks very smooth and broad. It might need some grading -- right out of the camera into a player contrast is exaggerated, but in an editing application it looks correct. Low-light video (about ISO 3200 or so, as in the frame grab below) isn't noise-free at full size but I think most commercial shooters will find it acceptable if they need to shoot in ambient light, and even some indie video pixel-peepers will be quite happy with it.
For a pro camera that's not intended for sports, the D800 delivers excellent shooting performance. It powers on and shoots almost instantaneously. In good light, it focuses and shoots in about 0.1 second, increasing a bit to 0.4 in dim light. Sequential shooting of JPEG or raw files takes just .25 second; though we didn't test the TIFF speed, it feels about the same, and raw+JPEG feels fast and fluid in both single- and continuous-shooting modes. With flash recycling, shot-to-shot time increases to just 0.7 second. Its relatively modest burst won't win any speed awards at 3.9 frames per second, but it's serviceable. (I tested with the SanDisk 100MBps Extreme Pro CF card.)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||JPEG shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Single-shot autofocus operates decisively and accurately. I couldn't exhaustively test all the various continuous AF configurations, but found it generally more hit than miss. The tracking AF area would occasionally (and bafflingly) jump off the subject for no apparent reason, but that's par for the course in AF. One of the incidental benefits of the D800's higher resolution, however, is that even out-of-focus shots look sharp when scaled down even just a little. The full-time AF for shooting video, on the other hand, doesn't work consistently well. It works best when the subject is stationary -- but then you might as well just manually focus -- and even then it pulses occasionally.
The D800's performance only disappoints in one respect: battery life. The battery seems to drain faster than that of almost any high-end dSLR I've used in recent memory, dropping a few bars on the indicator every short shooting session. If you plan to shoot a lot of Live View or video, I'd spring for an extra battery or upgrade to the EN-EL18. Also, like many of the high-resolution cameras, it has some annoying lagginess when reviewing photos. And while the LCD is larger, it doesn't seem up to the high-resolution images for judging sharpness, and it's difficult to use in direct sunlight.