By now, you’ve already probably heard that Nikon announced the much-anticipated D800 DSLR last night. The big news: a 36 mega-pixel 35mm (FX) sensor. Thirty-six million pixels. In a $3000 DSLR. Keep in mind that the D3x, Nikon’s high-res flagship, is a 24MP camera that sells for nearly $8000. That’s pretty crazy stuff. For a few extra hundred bucks, you can opt for the D800E, a variant that eliminates the optical low-pass filter (anti-aliasing filter) for even more detailed images (but at the risk of moire or other artifacts that would need fixing in post).
I’m already getting messages and emails from people who are jumping at the chance to pre-order this new camera. But ask yourself this: What are you going to do with all those pixels? With this much resolution, Nikon is clearly pushing into territory once reserved for Medium-Format backs and such. If you’re someone who shoots the kinds of subjects that need that kind of a file, then the D800 might be an incredible solution. However, there are always things to think about with any new camera, especially one that carries this much resolution.
Getting the most from those pixels
If you want the most from a high-res camera, you’ve got to get a lot of things right. Otherwise, you have a lot of blurry pixels! Camera shake is a bigger deal than ever before, and small subject motion might be more easily detectable. You’ll also notice more CA and lens artifacts with a camera of such high resolution. You’ll definitely want to use Nikkor lenses with Nikon’s nano-crystal coatings for the best overal performance.
File storage suddenly becomes more of an issue with 36MP files. The NEF (RAW) file from the D800 is purportedly around 75MB. That means you’ll need bigger CF cards. An uncompressed, 16-bit TIFF of this size is roughly 200MB! Consider also the necessary computing horsepower and memory requirements to process such files. You’ll definitely want a 64-bit computer and processing software that supports 64-bit implementation (thankfully, Capture NX 2.3 offers this).
Pros & Cons
The main drawback with the D800, not surprisingly, is speed. The D800 has enough bandwidth to shoot 4fps continuously in 36MP FX mode. That’s fine for landscapes and studio work, but not so snappy for real action. You can, of course shoot at 6fps in DX crop mode, provided that you’re using the optional battery grip and EN-EL18 battery (or AA’s). But, using DX crop mode on an FX camera is a little clumsy; you get a much smaller, masked-off viewfinder, for example. If I were shooting DX most of the time, I’d prefer a dedicated DX body.
The other big deal about the D800 is the video. Now I’m no videographer, but I can see the appeal of a $3000 B-unit camera if I were running a movie production… Especially because the D800 has virtually the same video options as the $6000 D4.
The D800 represents a clear departure from Nikon’s previous camera placement strategy. Namely that the D800 is more of a D3x replacement (or 5D competitor) than a junior D4. That’s a huge deal. I have a D3s and a D700. The D700 offers me a great back-up option for the D3s, because it’s nearly the same sensor. But the D800 is not a D4 backup; it’s a totally distinct entity. Moreover, where the D700 is a great street camera (high ISO, small form-factor), the D800 probably isn’t well-suited for that style of shooting (we’ll have to see how the IQ stacks up).
The D800 is quite possibly the perfect landscape/portrait camera for people who really want this kind of detail and resolution in their images. Mind you, I can make really nice 16×24″ prints at home from my 12MP D3s, so the D800 images should truly shine when printed large. If that sounds like what you do, then this camera is going to really be special. If, on the other hand, you only post images to Facebook… you might consider saving your money.