Nikon D800 – 18 months later

I’ve had the Nikon D800 for a while now and used it in a lot of different situations as a general hobbyist. After 25,000 actuations I thought it was worth summarising my thoughts (positive and negative) so far.

I’ll start with the good so far.

Things I love about the Nikon D800:

The raw image quality is outstanding

Detail, dynamic range and high ISO are all fantastic. The raw files can take a LOT of manipulation and still look great. As I showed in my original hands-on Nikon D800 review you can add five stops of exposure to a raw file without destroying everything. It’s pretty amazing.

Nikon D800 Long Exposure

68s exposure (10x ND filter), f4.5, ISO100. Click for full size

 

D800 ISO Performance is great up to ISO6400

I feel confident using anywhere between ISO100-3200 without even thinking about it. 6400 is fine too under most circumstances, but it’s slightly less impressive under incandescent light or street lighting. 12,800 is totally usable, but not pretty at full size. 25,600 is for emergencies only. There’s a strong purple cast at ISO25,600 which you can only get rid of by converting to black and white or seriously messing with the colours.

I’m more than happy with this level of performance. The D800 is a high resolution camera and high ISO isn’t the main selling point. For those who absolutely need the best high ISO performance, Nikon make the D3s and the D4. The D800 gets 90% of the way, and it makes more detailed pictures at lower ISOs. Shooting comfortably up to ISO6400 covers 99% of my needs as a photographer. I’ll never say no to better ISO performance, but how often do any of us honestly need ISO25,600 anyway? It really shouldn’t be a major factor in the decision of buying the camera.

Nikon D800 ISO2500

1/400s, f4.0, ISO2500

Nikon D800 ISO2500

100% crop of focus area. There is a lot of detail even at ISO2500. No noise reduction.

 

ISO 25,600 is usable, sometimes

Here’s a sample image at ISO25,600. That’s as high as the D800 goes. It’s pretty grainy up close, you could could definitely make an A5 print out of it after some processing. I don’t see the point in posting un-edited images (since we all edit all images anyway) so I’ve adding sharpening, noise reduction, removed the purple tint, adjusted the white balance and colours and tried to make it as good as I can. So this represents pretty much the best you can get from ISO25,600.

Nikon D800 ISO25,600

1/100s, f5.6, ISO25,600. Click for full size

 

The D800 has amazing resolution and detail

Any time I open a file from my X100 (or indeed any low resolution camera) I feel disappointed now. They are just lacking something in comparison. Truthfully, I don’t need all of the detail the D800 gives, but I definitely like having it. I can still feel impressed with the images, even after 18 months of ownership.

Nikon D800 Long Exposure

20s exposure (10x ND filter), f9, ISO100

100% crop D800 image

100% crop view of focus area

 

The D800 resolution makes it useful for closeup work too. This was taken with the Nikon 16-35/f4 VR (i.e. not a macro lens), but the shot is extremely detailed. You could easily crop a piece out and use it to show closeup detail.

D800 Closeup Performance

2.5s, f10, ISO100. Shot with Nikon 16-35/f4VR. Click for fullsize

 

D800 Durability, Build Quality and Weather Sealing

I’ve had no problems at all with my d800. I’ve read stories about dodgy build quality, dials falling off and the d800 10-pin connector going into the body, but I have had no issues with my d800 body at all. I’ve been out in soaking wet conditions several times now with a variety of lenses (Sigma 50/1.4 HSM, Nikon 70-200/2.8 VR I, Nikon 16-35/4 VR and even the cheapo 35/1.8 DX) and I’ve had no issues there. Of those, only the 70-200 is strictly counted as weather sealed. I’ve used the 10 pin connector with a cable release many times, and no issues. The only weak part of the camera is the battery door which I discuss below.

Nikon D800 Weather Sealing

I haven’t had any problems getting the camera wet on multiple occasions

The D800 Autofocus is fantastic for moving and still objects

The D800 autofocus is excellent, and auto AF point selection is very intelligent. Basically, I have no real complaints in this area. The autofocus isn’t perfect 100% of the time, but it works most of the time under most situations. It’s not reasonable to expect any camera to be 100% accurate all the time. It’s also important to choose the right mode for whatever you’re shooting. I have also switched the way I use autofocus and I now prefer to use AF-C constantly with the rear AF-ON button to focus and the shutter release set to release shutter only. This works well, and allows for flexibility in shooting stationery and moving targets.

Video on the D800 is fun, but not easy

I actually didn’t care about video and I didn’t even mention in it my original hands-on Nikon D800 review, but I’ve been playing around with video and it’s fantastic fun. Even just making and editing together a basic scene like making coffee or putting my shoes on is great fun and stretches my creativity. It’s also a whole new skill to learn which definitely helps my still photography too. Whereas it’s possible to “spray and pray” with photos, you absolutely can’t do that with video. You need to pick your shot, focus, depth of field, exposure, composition and everything else beforehand. For me it’s a whole new way of thinking, and it’s refreshing to slow down sometimes and think a bit more about what I want to achieve. Quality-wise, the video seems nice, though I don’t have any other video experience to compare again. The D800 video is a bit noisy once above ISO2500 and gets noisier the longer the video is on.

The main downside to mention is that video isn’t “pick up and shoot” at all. I wouldn’t recommend a D800 for casual home video use. A camcorder is still better suited for that purpose in my opinion. Handheld video is incredibly shaky apart from at the wide end of the 16-35/4 VR with VR enabled. Hand-holding 50mm is pretty shaky, and anything longer than 50mm is a total mess without stabilisation or a tripod. It’s also hard to zoom or focus on the fly. Zooming isn’t smooth at all if you do it by hand and the small, non-tilting LCD screen doesn’t facilitate easy focusing. There are no “peaking” or zebra-line focus aids built in either to help you. I’ve shot several bits of video out and about and later found them to be slightly back or front focused. To get smooth video with nice zooming and focusing, you’ll need all sorts of bits of add-on equipment. The sound quality will also suck unless you use a proper mic.

Basically, don’t expect to pick up the camera and shoot awesome videos. If you want to shoot casual video and do it easily, get a camcorder. But if you take the time, choose your shots and edit your clips, the video can be very fun and rewarding and the quality is clearly good enough for use in professional broadcasting.

Things I dislike about the Nikon D800

After using the Nikon D800 for a while, my list of complaints has grown as I learn more about the camera.

The metering is unpredictable because it is linked to focus point

I find the d800 metering to be quite unpredictable. Matrix mode is linked to AF point, rather than trying to “average” the whole scene. This seems unnecessarily complicated and means that I can’t predict the correct exposures well or rely on the meter in contrasty situations. With the camera locked on a tripod, changing AF point makes the meter jump around all over the place, proving this effect. The d800 also uses scene recognition and face detect too in matrix metering mode. This is a nice touch, but it makes exposures quite unpredictable. For instance in a backlit portrait, I know that I should need to “overexpose”, but the d800 will sometimes pick up the face and expose it correctly without any exposure compensation. Any further exposure compensation then completely blows out the image. However, sometimes face recognition doesn’t work, and a light face against a dark background will be totally blown out when the d800 ignores the face and tries to make the black background brighter. I’ve found that in outdoor cloudy conditions (typical for the UK where I live), the d800 underexposes quite a lot, presumably because it gets confused by bright grey clouds. I can live with metering that isn’t 100% correct, but the problem is that it is very inconsistent, and some shots are great while others come out maybe 1 stop underexposed. My Sony a850, with a much less “advanced” metering system, never did this. The d800 with the supposedly “helpful” metering system often gets it wrong, leading to more LCD and histogram checking than necessary.

D800 metering overexposure

This was the metered exposure in matrix mode. The auto-AF focused on the faces correctly, but the metering is overexposed

D800 Corrected exposure

Thankfully the dynamic range is good, and the exposure can be rescued

I hate Nikon colours

I detest Nikon colours. Compared to my Fuji X100, or my old Sony cameras (a580 and a850), the d800 is definitely the worst I’ve used in terms of producing pleasing colours. At default settings, everything has this yellowy-green tint to it that means tweaking the “calibration” panel in lightroom to try and get rid of it. Setting the auto white balance to add more magenta does correct this to an extent, but the result is a purple tinge sometimes visible in skies and whites. Even shooting with a colorchecker passport and viewing on a calibrated IPS monitor, I can’t shake this “Nikon” appearance to some pictures, especially under incandescent light.

Live view is poorly implemented on the D800

You can’t take multiple pictures in live view without waiting for the card to stop writing. It’s very annoying when you’re seeing a great moment in front of you, mashing the shutter button, and nothing at all is happening because the camera is taking 3 seconds to write a single image to the card. There is no logical reason for this. Why doesn’t it use the same buffer capabilities as when you shoot “normally” using the viewfinder? The D800 is an incredibly responsive camera, except when in liveview mode when it turns into a total sloth.

The D800 live view quality when zoomed in leaves a lot to be desired. I guess this is a technical limitation due to the readout rate of the d800 sensor, but it’s still annoying if you want to use magnified live view to carry out accurate manual focusing. Thankfully contrast detect AF is very accurate so you don’t need to manually focus often. However, with an ND filter and/or small aperture, you will sometimes struggle to get a decent image on the LCD, even in relatively bright daylight. One solution would be to focus with liveview in the same way as through the viewfinder – with the lens opened up to focus, then stopping down to take the picture. You could then press the DOF preview button to stop the lens down to check focus and depth of field. If these modes could be switched between that would be even better.

Auto screen brightness sucks

It’s the worst of both worlds – far too dark indoors and not bright enough to see properly outdoors. I cranked the brightness to +2 and rely on the histogram to judge exposure. It’s still annoying though and it’s a silly problem that should have been fixed.

Video crop modes are too limited

Video crop only goes to 1.5x (DX crop). The 1.2x and 1.5x modes are fantastically useful for video to get closer to the action. I wish the d800 had a 2x crop, or even 4x crop mode for 1080p video. By my maths, since the D800 sensor is 7360×4912, a 1920x1080p frame needs less than 1/4 of the sensor area. So why won’t Nikon give us a higher magnification crop mode?

Odd button positions and design choices

I already talked about this in my original D800 review but these some of my gripes have turned out not to be a problem, and some of them are developed further.

ISO button placement. I hated this when I first picked up the camera, and I still hate it. There’s just no logical reason to put such an important feature (one of the big three – shutter, aperture and ISO) on the top of the camera on the left. There is no convenient way to reach the ISO button while shooting, especially with longer lenses that need the support of your left hand. I wish the ISO function could be assigned to another button such as the front fn button or the video record button (which is completely functionless unless you are in video mode with liveview on, ready to record video). The video record button just seems like Nikon marketing to say “look! this camera has video!!”. There is no need to have a dedicated video record button in such a prominent place which is useless most of the time.

Bad design choice. The video record button only works when in video mode with live view on. The rest of the time, it does nothing.

The video record button only works when in video mode with live view on. The rest of the time, it does nothing. Meanwhile, the ISO button, which is used all the time, is in an inconvenient location

 

Switching between AF modes is slow and unintuitive. The tiny button is hard to find and press with gloves and you have to rely on touch alone to find it. It also means that you have to look at the screen or in the viewfinder to check the current mode or change modes. An actual hard switch (like the metering area selector switch) would have been preferable, rather than the “press + scroll” system utilised in the D800. It can take several scrolls with both wheels to get the mode that you want, although it gets easier with familiarity. It just isn’t intuitive.

The battery door doesn’t inspire confidence. It pops on and off very easily, which I assume is deliberate so that it doesn’t break anything if you knock it while open. However I’ve found it in the bottom of my camera bag a few times which isn’t great because it could easily get lost. Aside from detaching easily, the door itself is very flimsy, clatters a bit and never actually feels that “tight” when closed. If you press on it while closed, it gives a little bit. By comparison, the door on my Sony a850 was around 2x thicker, and was tightly spring loaded with a very secure feeling when closed. It could also detach for fitting a battery grip if necessary. The d800 battery door feels extremely cheap with thin plastic and a poor quality hinge and it stands out because the rest of the camera is well made.

Battery life is strictly mediocre

Video eats the d800 battery very quickly, and so does picture reviewing on the LCD. I’ve had as low as 100 shots from my d800 on a full charge. The most I’ve ever had was around 800 from a single charge (lots of shooting, no reviewing or videoing), which isn’t that good. For a day of shooting, or where you will be reviewing pictures a lot, a second or even third battery might be a necessity. Timelapses with the D800 absolutely demolish battery too. I’ve found that around 500 shots will take the battery down to 20%. The battery meter on the D800 does seem to be accurate at least. And for reference, one of my batteries now shows its age as 1/4 – i.e. not brand new any more.

 

Some D800 Mythbusting and FAQ

I thought I’d finish by dispelling a few myths that I keep seeing repeated everywhere online.

You don’t need the best lenses. I said this in my hands-on d800 review, and I still stand by it 18 months later. The little 35/1.8 DX is great, and the inexpensive 85/1.8D is also fantastic on the d800. You don’t need the best tilt shifts and Zeiss manual focus primes to enjoy the resolution advantage of the D800 compared to a camera like the D700. The D800 with a cheap lens will give far more useable detail than the D700 with an expensive lens. That said, the D800 will make you notice things like focus errors, purple fringes or poor lens performance more easily if you view at 100%. My 16-35/f4 VR is weaker wide open at the 35mm end and it is more noticeable on the D800 when viewing full size compared to a 12mp image. However, good lenses stopped down give incredibly sharp and detailed images as you’ve seen above.

You don’t need a tripod or super fast shutter speeds to get sharp images. A tripod definitely helps you get sharper shots, and so does a super fast shutter speed. But the d800 will never be worse than any other camera for any given shutter speed. The larger resolution simply means that at 100% you will notice more motion blur. However the amount of blur itself is the same. You can see above and below a mixture of handheld shots with fast shutter speeds, slow shutter speeds, and tripod shots with many different lenses. To my eyes, they all look sharp.

Conclusion

Ok, so a lot of that was negative, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the D800. It’s normal for excitement over a product to subside over time, and small problems can turn into larger ones when you have to live with something every day. Overall I do love my D800, but it’s not a perfect camera.

 

Some more sample pictures

Two caveats. Firstly, I had to compress the jpegs to get them less than 10mb. Full quality jpegs from D800 raw files are normally about 28mb. Secondly, when evaluating files at 100% bear in mind how massive they would be.

Nikon D800 ISO6400

1/40s, f8.0, ISO6400. Daylight. Click for full size

In daylight, with plenty of light, ISO6400 is very clean. I used it here so that I could get plenty of depth of field.

 

Nikon D800 ISO6400 Street Lighting

1/60s, f2.8, ISO6400. Street lighting. Click for full size (check out the detail on the car bumper)

In another well-exposed image, ISO6400 looks pretty clean. Plenty of detail in the focus area, and noise is not distracting

 

Nikon D800 ISO100

1/80s, f2.0, ISO100. Click for full size

The super thin depth of field is the limiting factor in this shot (with the Sigma 50mm at f2.0)

 

1/125s, f4.0, ISO6400. Incandescent light.

1/125s, f4.0, ISO6400. Incandescent light. Click for full size

Again, ISO6400 looks pretty good, even in the dark shadow areas

 

1/40s, f1.4, ISO3200. Handheld.

1/40s, f1.4, ISO3200. Handheld. Focus point is the bridge. Click for full size

In this shot, the lens is wide open, so only the very central point is sharp. However, the image is totally useable for most purposes. A tripod would have been better, but we already know my policy about traveling with tripods. The grain/noise is most noticeable in areas of plain coloured sky. Also considering that viewing at 100% is like standing 30cm from a huge print. Try viewing it from further away, or resizing the image to 12mp and it will look fine.

 

25.0s, f11, ISO100. 16mm. Click for full size

25.0s, f11, ISO100. 16mm. Click for full size

Bear in mind that this is a 25 second exposure, so there is movement in the grass. See how the sharpness in the centre of the image is high and gets worse towards the edges. That is normal for this lens.

 

1/25s, f4.0, ISO6400. Click for full size

1/25s, f4.0, ISO6400. Click for full size

This shot looks better than the Paris bridge photo because there is more light available. Focus area is on the gondolas right in the middle. Again, a tripod would have produced better quality but this handheld photo works just fine for most things.

 

I hope you enjoyed the review. Please comment below, like, share etc if you enjoyed reading it and found it useful!

 

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Garland - November 27, 2013 - 10:59 pm

Want better, more pleasing default colors from NEFs? Use Capture One rather than Lightroom. Adobe has never gotten default colors right for any camera, though with Nikon, results are particularly poor. Capture one makes short work of NEFs by simply getting the color right from the start.

Agree on the ISO placement: Totally inane! As is NOT making the lame duck video button programmable for ISO.

David (admin) - November 28, 2013 - 2:25 pm

This is a good point. I have tried Capture One, and it does get nicer colours. I just can’t stand the workflow which isn’t efficient at all!

I made my own D800 profiles under various lighting conditions with an X-rite ColorPassport and use those in Lightroom now for more neutral colours.

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