Nikon D800… decisions, decisions.

With 36 megapixel resolution, the Nikon D800 is competing with medium format cameras

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 Conundrum

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.

Official D800 & D800E Sample Images from Nikon

Pre-order the Nikon D800 here

Pre-order the Nikon D800E here

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17 thoughts on “Nikon D800… decisions, decisions.”

  1. I think Nikon have missed the plot. I also have a D3s and a D700 and I cannot see how the D800 can be considered as a replacement for the D700. As my interest is wildlife photography I put ISO performance way ahead of pixels. I can only surmise that there will be some more announcements over the next few months before the Olympics.

  2. It isn’t a D700 replacement in that sense. But it makes the current lineup a tough choice for wildlife/bird photographers. I’m not interested in a D7000, and the D300 sensor is getting old.

  3. What a great pair of new Nikon cameras announced only weeks apart! Jason, you did not say which you might prefer, the D800 or the D800E.

  4. There was a time when people shooting sports would have been quite happy with 4 fps. And 36 megapixels will never make any of your lenses worse than they were on a 12 megapixel camera, for instance.

    Unless you’re sure you’re not printing large, it’s hard to see who wouldn’t benefit from such a large jump in megapixels, all else being equal.

  5. Is there an option to set the lower resolution of NEF file from the D800 (not by crop factor but the pixel merging technique, provided by the internal camera software).
    At the dpreview.com they show the following list:
    Other resolutions 6144 x 4912, 6144 x 4080, 5520 x 3680, 4800 x 3200, 4608 x 3680, 4608 x 3056, 3680 x 2456, 3600 x 2400, 3072 x 2456, 3072 x 2040, 2400 x 1600;
    but I’m afraid it concerns the jpeg output and not the NEF file….
    Am I right ????

  6. I definitly agree with your thoughts.
    We saw with the D7000 that having that number of photosites has a real impact on the motion blur of the photographer. You’ll have to set a higher speed than what the “rule” states (ie 1/F_fullframe).
    Anyway, I think that when the D700 stops being supported, there won’t be any FF camera for enthusiast. Such a shame!

  7. The only way to reduce RAW (NEF) resolution is via crop modes. There is no pixel binning or “small RAW” option.

  8. Nick-
    It’s not that 36MP makes your glass worse. It’s that if you aren’t using top-glass, you won’t get the detail and resolution you’d want from a 36MP camera.
    And there are PLENTY of people I know who aren’t interested in 75MB NEF/200MB TIFF files.

    These are not reasons to avoid the D800. They are things to consider that will impact your current workflow unless you’ve prepared accordingly.

  9. D800E makes plenty of sense for landscape. This is why I’ll probably go with E rather than not E.

    Why Jason do you say it is not for street photography? Doubts about low-light and action photo? Look at these high ISO samples (I have no idea how they compare to D700 which is a good street photo camera): http://www.ferra.ru/ru/digiphoto/review/Nikon-D800-preview/print/

    Jason, do you think the Nano coated f/4 glasses will be OK with this camera (some samples are with the 24-120) or would you strongly recomment to go with only the top f/2.8 and wider ones (14-24, 24-70, 70-200, etc.)? Do you think VR is precise enough for that level or resolution?

    BTW, I see the size of files as a good reason to keep using Capture NX !

  10. Jason,
    Thanks a lot for your clear explanation of reducing the NEF resolution in the D800 camera.
    BTW I am frequent reader of your excellent guides concerning the optimal use of Capture NX2 software. Thanks again for all your competent support.

  11. Yvan-
    By “street” camera, I mean one that performs well at ISO 1600+ for hand-held work, etc. I’m certainly not saying that the D800 won’t have good IQ at higher ISOs, but the D700 is a real standout in that regard.

  12. Will the lack of an optical low-pass filter be apparent in nature subjects such as leaves, blades of grass, or bird feathers?

  13. With this much resolution, it might not be as bad as you’d think. However, until we see some samples, it’s all speculation at this point. I’m sure there will be some situations where moir√© could be problematic, but trees and leaves probably won’t present problems. I’d be concerned if I were a fashion photographer shooting fabrics.

  14. D800 with 36MP? Does this really work well for wildlife photography or better to wait for D400? Well, in field i never thought i will be in need of 36MP. I have 70-200 f/2.8 VRII, and 200-400 VR. Do you really think D800 will be a good option?

  15. Mahesh-
    In theory, the D800 delivers enough pixels in DX mode (~15MP) to deliver better results than the current DX bodies (D300s). However, as with all things, there are other factors to consider.

    1) In DX mode, you’ll have to use a cropped viewfinder. That’s not as easy to use as what you’d get from a DX body. Think “tunnel vision.”
    2) Focus accuracy is a little harder as the apparent image in the viewfinder is magnified less. Obviously, we’ll have to see what the D800′s AF system can do, but that’s based on my experience of cropping in on images.
    3) The D800 tops out at 6 frames per second. Most of the time, that’s plenty. However, for burst action it’s nice to have 8+ fps. That’s why I use the D300s with the MB-D10 grip and EN-EL4 batteries.

    In my experience shooting Nikon digital bodies (since 2005), I rarely enjoyed shooting in one of the crop modes unless I absolutely needed to. With all previous cameras, the benefits of cropping were typically outweighed by the lower resolution files. The D800 is the first camera that offers plenty of resolution in either mode, so it will come down to other features (frame rate, AF, etc) to help discriminate whether it is a good choice for a wildlife photographer.

    I personally have a D4 on order, but I’m still weighing the D800. I’m also keeping my D3s for now as a birding body. It’s really good for that.

  16. I was confused about the mention of a “64-bit computer”, a bit if research cleared things up nicely… my 17″ MBP is i7 so I’m good… http://support.apple.com/kb/HT3696.

    I could still use some more screen real estate but that’s just going to have to wait a while… I can’t see purchasing a larger monitor for a non Thunderbolt equipped computer, then not being able to use that same monitor on a future computer.

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