When the Nikon D800 was announced, the specification that got everyone’s attention was – and to a large degree still is – the massive pixel count of its 36.3MP CMOS sensor. When a moderately-sized full-frame DSLR body aspires to go toe-to-toe with medium format cameras and backs at a fraction of their price, other attributes can seem secondary. But don’t be misled. Coming as a successor to the now 3 1/2 year old D700, Nikon has updated much more than just the resolution. The D800 has a significantly more advanced feature set than its predecessor, particularly in terms of its video capabilities that make it, on paper at least, a viable and tempting option for professionals.
The Nikon D800, in-depth tests, including a the iso macro function and a variety of tips, let’s start the test on the Nikon D800.
Buy to amazon Nikon D800 36.3 MP CMOS FX-Format Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
At the heart of the D800 is a brand new Nikon-developed sensor that boasts 36.8 million pixels in total, with a maximum effective output of 36.3MP. Its ISO span is 100-6400 natively, expandable to a range of 50 (‘Lo1′) to 25,600 (‘Hi2′) equivalent. Nikon’s highest resolution DSLR to date, the D800 more than doubles the pixel count of the flagship D4. The D800 is potentially very attractive to studio and landscape professionals, but should pique the interest of a great many enthusiast Nikon users too – many of whom may have been ‘stuck’ at 12MP for years, with a D300, D300s or D700.
|The D800′s 36.3MP CMOS sensor has by far the greatest pixel count of any non medium-format DSLR currently on the market. The ISO span is slightly wider than that of its predecessor the D700, at 100-6400, expandable down to ISO 50 and up to ISO 25,600 (equivalent).|
Of course, the D800 faces a competitive field that has made significant gains as well. Arch-rival Canon has recently updated its best-selling full-frame model to the 22.3MP EOS 5D Mark III. That the D800 has to prove itself a compelling upgrade for current Nikon shooters is a given. Yet a glance at the specifications indicates that Nikon has clearly been paying attention to the success of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and its video performance in particular. The hope among the Nikon faithful is that the D800 matches or exceeds the impressive high ISO performance of recent Nikon DSLRs while providing the resolution benefits of a much higher pixel count.
To Nikon’s credit, the D800 does not, at first glance appear to be a camera intended to protect sales of its big brother, the D4. Truth be told, apart from their sensors, the D800 and D4 share many identical specifications. Although the D800 offers a much slower maximum frame rate at full resolution (4fps, compared to 11fps in the D4) and lacks some of the pro-oriented ‘frills’ like built-in Ethernet connectivity, it shares the same revamped 51-point AF system which is effective down to -2EV, the same processing engine and almost exactly the same highly advanced video mode.
Whereas the D4 is intended as a specialist tool for professionals that need to capture images quickly in all types of weather and light conditions, the D800 has been designed to appeal to a much broader user base. For most of us, D4-only features such as ultra-high ISO shooting, very fast frame rates, QXD card compatibility, 2000+ image battery life and built-in Ethernet, are simply not that high on the list of must-haves. The same goes for many pros who earn their livings with their camera.
Wedding, event and studio photographers, for example are likely to be far more concerned with resolution at low ISO sensitivities than shooting at 11 fps at ISO 204,000. To them, a camera with the D800′s feature set, priced at less than half the cost of a D4 is an exciting prospect indeed.
And let’s not forget videographers. The D4 is Nikon’s most advanced video-enabled DSLR. And the D800 offers almost exactly the same video specification in a smaller, lighter, and significantly less expensive body, making it potentially much more attractive as either a primary or ‘B’ video camera on a low-budget shoot.
Compared to D700: Specification highlights
- 36.3MP CMOS sensor (compared to 12.1MP)
- 15.3MP DX-format capture mode (compared to 5MP)
- 25MP 1.2x Crop mode
- 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors, rated to -2EV* (compared to -1EV)
- ISO 100-6400 extendable to ISO 25,600 equiv (same as D700)
- 1080p video at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second, up to 24Mbps, with uncompressed HDMI output and audio monitoring options*
- 3.2″, 921,000 dot LCD with anti-fog layer* (compared to 3in, 921k-dot)
- Maximum 4fps continuous shooting in FX mode** (compared to 8fps in FX mode)
- Advanced Scene Recognition System with 91,000 pixel metering sensor* (compared to 1005-pixel)
- ‘Expeed 3′ Image Processing*
- Dual-axis Virtual Horizon (on LCD screen/viewfinder)* (compared to single-axis)
* Same or almost identical to Nikon D4
** Maximum frame rate in DX mode is dependant on power source
Compared to the Nikon D700
The D800 shares basically the same form factor as its predecessor the D700. Both models have a built-in flash and lack the integrated vertical grip of Nikon’s top-end DSLRs, which is available instead via an accessory battery grip. There are differences though – some minor, some major.
The most obvious differences from the perspective of core functionality are a massive increase in resolution – from 12 to 36MP – which comes with a significant boost in processing power, and the addition of video mode. The D800′s video mode is lifted almost completely from the professional D4 and boasts 1080p30 resolution with the option to output uncompressed footage via HDMI.
The ergonomic changes that have resulted from the inclusion of video are the addition of a video/stills live view mode control on the rear, plus a direct movie shooting button on the top plate. Among other refinements, a D7000/D4-style integrated AF mode/function control can be found on the front of the camera, and the door covering the ports on the side of the D800 is now hinged, and stays open when opened rather than flapping annoyingly against your fingers when you try to plug in accessories. The D800′s LCD screen is slightly larger than the D700′s, at 3.2 inches, but resolution remains unchanged. A Picture Control button now sits on the D800′s rear plate.
Compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III
One of the few obvious physical differences between the D800 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is that the D800 has a built-in flash whereas the 5D Mark III doesn’t. Both cameras share very similar proportions and the D800 weighs only 50 grams less. Both have 3.2 inch rear LCDs, with the 5D Mark III boasting a higher screen resolution of 1.04 million versus 921,000 pixels in the D800.
Under the hood of course is where the most notable difference lies. The D800′s 36.3MP sensor surpasses the pixel count of the 22.3MP 5D Mark III, as well as every other 35mm-format DSLR currently on the market. The D800 also offers a useful DX (APS-C) crop mode which captures 15.3MP stills. While the D800 inherits the 51-point AF system of the D4 with 15 cross-type points, the 5D Mark III sports a 61-point AF system shared with theEOS-1D X, in which 41 of these are cross-type points. The D800 has an edge in flexibility, however, when it comes to the aperture required for these cross-type points to function. While the 5D Mark III requires a minimum aperture of f/4, the D800 can utilize 9 of its center cross-type points at an aperture as narrow as f/8.
At 36.3MP the D800 offers resolution that in theory, rivals medium format cameras, but its sister model the D800E presents a much more serious challenge, boasting the same pixel count but without the stock D800′s optical low-pass filter (commonly known as an ‘anti-aliasing’ or AA filter).
Almost all digital cameras employ an optical low-pass filter over their sensors to slightly blur the image at a pixel level in order to avoid moiré patterning. This gives more usable images for general photography (moiré is annoying and can be time-consuming to correct) but comes at the expense of a slight decrease in critical sharpness. Removing the effect of this filter, as Nikon has done in the D800E, should result in higher resolution. Although the difference might not be critical to the average enthusiast, it could be of some importance to studio and landscape professionals (many of whom will be used to working with medium format cameras, which similarly avoid AA filters).
‘Cancellation’ of anti-aliasing filter
Nikon uses slightly curious wording about the D800E – that the anti-aliasing effect of the optical filter stack in front of the sensor is ‘cancelled’ – and the diagram below shows what this means (courtesy of Nikon). Anti-aliasing filters work by using a birefringent material to split light rays into two based upon the polarization of the light; a first layer splits it horizontally, the second vertically. The practical result is a slight blurring of the image, to avoid moiré and aliasing artefacts. In the case of the D800E, the first filter is instead directly counteracted by the second, resulting in no overall blurring.
|With the D800, light passing through the lens that is transmitted to the image sensor is separated into four segments using a low-pass filter to prevent moiré and false colour.
With the D800E, the effect of the low-pass filter is removed, and the light is transmitted to the image sensor with no blurring, achieving higher-resolution images.
This seems like an odd way of doing things; why not just remove the filter altogether? Our best guess is that it simply makes manufacturing the two models side-by-side easier: instead of having to make an entirely different filter stack for the D800E, Nikon just needs to change the first low-pass filter in the overall assembly. Crucially, this also maintains the same infrared blocking and anti-reflective properties across the two cameras.
|The D800 boasts the same degree of weather-sealing and shock-proofing as the D700, which although not in the same league as the D4, should ensure that it survives a reasonable degree of exposure to the elements. In this image, weatherproof seals are shown in yellow.|
|The D800 inherits Nikon’s simpler ‘new style’ combined AF/MF switch and AF mode control. This switch has two positions – MF and AF, with AF mode and AF Area mode options selected by pressing in the button at its hub and rotating the D800′s control dials.|
|The D800 has a dual mode live view system. You can compose still images or preview framing for video with precision. A press of the ‘Lv’ button at the hub of the switch activates live view mode, offering a significant usability improvement over the D700.|
In addition to video-driven changes like the addition of a direct movie shooting button, the D800 brings other welcome refinements. The live view control has been revisited and is much more straightforward to operate than on the D700 and even the D3S. This control – which is shared with the D4 – now offers two live view modes with their own aspect ratio crops – ‘still image’ and ‘video’. These are selected with a simple mechanical switch on the rear of the camera. The first-generation live view activation system of the D700 was particularly clunky, and required unlocking the frame advance mode dial, rotating it to ‘Lv’, then pressing the shutter release to initiate the feed.
Upgraded LCD Monitor
The D800′s LCD monitor is the same as that used in the D4 and is upgraded compared to the D700′s – it’s a slightly larger 3.2″ 921000 dot unit, but according to Nikon has a substantially expanded colour gamut that’s close to sRGB. It also has a light sensor to detect ambient light levels, and adjust not only the screen brightness, but also the saturation, contrast and gamma as well, in an attempt to give optimized output. The monitor also has a gel resin layer between the LCD and the cover glass to minimise any risk of fogging when the camera is exposed to rapid changes of temperature.
In a first for digital cameras, the D800 features a USB 3.0 port. USB 3.0 is the second major revision of the USB standard, and offers two-way communication (like FireWire) and a maximum data transmission speed of 5 Gbits per second with lower power consumption than USB 2.0. Although not yet widely adopted, ‘Superspeed’ USB 3.0 is being included in an increasing number of ‘new generation’ computers. Until then, the standard is backwards compatible with USB 2.0 (so you could plug the D800 into a USB 2.0 port using the supplied USB cable, and transfer files at the standard USB 2.0 speed).
As you’d expect from an enthusiast/professional oriented DSLR, a wealth of external buttons and adjustment dials grace the D800. Exposure and other shooting-related parameters can be confirmed via the LCD on the camera’s top plate. The 3.2″ rear LCD screen provides access to setup and customization menus where you can fine-tune the camera’s behavior to your liking.
Top of camera controls (right)
The controls arranged on the top right of the D800 are nearly identical to those in the same position on the D700. The exception is a new direct movie shooting button, tucked to the left of the shutter release and within easy reach of the index finger. Although conveniently placed, the movie record button is hard to distinguish from the shooting mode button by touch alone. We can envisage this causing confusion for some D700 owners, at least until they get used to the new arrangement.
Around the periphery of the shutter release is a collar-type on/off switch with a sprung ‘illuminate’ position which activates the a backlight on the D800′s top LCD screen. The D800 does not offer the backlit controls found on Nikon’s flagship D4.
Top of camera controls (left)
The D800 has a four-button arrangement atop the drive mode dial, with the addition of a ‘BKT’ (bracketing) mode. In the D700, auto bracketing was accessed (by default) via one of the two customizable buttons around the lens throat. The lockable drive mode dial is where you’ll find the continuous shooting, normal and silent single-frame advance modes as well as mirror lock-up and self-timer. In comparison to the D700, we’re very pleased to see live view mode control moved from this dial onto a dedicated control on the rear of the D800. This makes live view much easier to activate solely by feel.
We do find it a pity that the ISO button hasn’t been moved as well. Its current location means that reaching it is, quite literally a bit of stretch when the camera is held to your eye – it’s especially inconvenient when shooting with a large lens that requires support from your left hand. We much prefer Canon’s now-standard ISO button placement, adjacent to the shutter button.
The D800′s rear controls have been reshuffled a bit compared to the D700. The most obvious changes being the deletion of the AF Area mode selector and the addition of a dual/mode live view switch for framing stills and videos. The D800 inherits its LCD screen from the D4. At 3.2 inches, it is slightly larger larger than the 3 inch screen of the D700. The resolution stays basically the same though, at 921k dots. As with the D4, the LCD incorporates a gel resin layer to resist fogging in damp and humid conditions.
Eagle-eyed readers will also notice that the ‘lock’ button on the D800′s rear performs two additional duties. It acts as a ‘help’ button when navigating the D800′s menus and also provides direct access to Nikon’s Picture Control presets. This latter functionality helpfully saves a trip into the menu system when you want to quickly swap picture styles for stills or video, in either viewfinder or live view mode.
MB-D12 Battery Grip
Like the D700, the D800 lacks an integrated vertical shutter release, but for those photographers that need one, an accessory battery grip – the MB-D12 – is available.
|The MB-D12 grip adds a set of vertical controls, including a duplicate shutter release and front/rear dials to the D800. It also expands the power options of the camera, and allows the D800 to achieve its maximum frame rate of 6fps in DX format (15.3MP) mode (see below).|
Of interest to D4 owners considering the D800 as a second body, the MB-D12 battery grip provides the option of running the camera using the D4′s EN-EL18 battery, which will fit the battery grip via an optional adapter. Using the D4 battery will allow for 6fps shooting speed in DX mode versus 5fps with the camera’s native battery. The gain of an additional 1 fps aside, we can’t envision many D800 owners opting to use a D4 battery, outside of those who already own a D4 and want to carry just a single battery charger.
The rear LCD of the D800 is identical to that found on the Nikon D4. At 3.2 inches it offers slightly more real estate than that of its predecessor, the Nikon D700 but at virtually the same resolution. The screen offers good visibility when shooting outdoors, though glare can be an issue in direct sunlight. Of course, with a large, bright optical viewfinder that offers 100% coverage, we suspect that in the field, most stills shooters will rely on the LCD primarily for reviewing images.
Press the info button in shooting mode (except in live view) to show a full screen ‘information display’. Introduced by Nikon as far back as the Nikon D40, having a single screen with comprehensive shooting information logically arranged can be very useful. By default, the information screen automatically switches between the two contrast modes shown below, based on ambient light levels; though you can manually configure it to use one or the other. The monitor will turn off with a half-press of the shutter button or after a user-specified period of inactivity (the default is 10 seconds).
|‘Dark on light’ setting (bright ambient light)||‘Light on dark’ setting (low ambient light)|
With the information display active, press the info button a second time to adjust the parameters represented in the two rows of icons along the bottom of the screen. Using the multi controller, you can cycle through 10 available items and press the center button (or the OK button) to access and change a setting. You can switch the shooting and custom banks, adjust high ISO and long exposure noise reduction and enable Active D-Lighting. You can also define the behavior of the Preview and Fn buttons.
|Navigate the two rows of icons using the multi controller. Pressing its center button…||…takes you to a menu screen where you can adjust the chosen parameter either with the multi selector or the front and rear camera dials if they’ve been so configured in the custom menu.|
The D800, like its predecessor features a ‘Virtual horizon’ with distinct iterations in the viewfinder and rear LCD. An aircraft-cockpit type virtual horizon on the rear LCD (shown below) updates in real time indicating the current orientation of the camera. A level horizontal or vertical camera position results in green – versus yellow – reference lines. By default, the Virtual horizon is displayed with a press of the Info button while in live view. It can also be shown on the rear LCD via an option in the Setup menu.
|When activated via the Setup menu, a dual axis Virtual horizon appears onscreen over a black background. It measures both roll (left/right) and pitch (up/down) of the camera.||When the camera is perfectly level along an axis, the reference line turns green. The Virtual horizon disappears with a half-press of the shutter button.|
The Virtual horizon can also be displayed inside the viewfinder if it is assigned to the Fn button. Unlike in the D700, which offered a single axis tilt indicator, you can confirm both horizontal and vertical axes in the D800′s viewfinder. The downside of this change is that the tilt indicators are now superimposed over the image area (shown below) as opposed to residing in the status bar, making them nearly impossible to see in low light. We also miss the ability to view at least a single axis tilt indicator in the top LCD panel, as was the case in the D700.
|The Viewfinder Virtual horizon offers dual axis indicators (highlighted in red) superimposed over the image area.||With the camera perfectly level, the tilt indicators disappear, leaving a single horizon indicator on each axis.|
In live view, a Virtual horizon viewing mode can be accessed by pressing the Info button in either still image or movie record mode. The Virtual horizon is superimposed over the image area, as shown below.
|The live view Virtual horizon offers the same dual axis icon as seen in non-live view mode. This view is also available with the camera set to movie record mode.|
Press the playback button to review images stored on the SD and/or CF card(s). You can cycle through several different photo information screens (shown below) by pressing the up or down arrows on the multi selector. In the playback menu you can enable/disable several bits of photo information, pruning the number of information screens down to two, if you wish. By default, you browse images using the multi selector’s left/right arrows. The command dials can also be configured to perform this function, however, via custom menu f9.
|The default screen in image playback is a ‘file information’ view which displays frame number, folder name, filename, date & time, image quality and size. Optionally, you can also choose to display the AF frame and selected focus point (shown above) as well. You can cycle through the additional screens shown below by pressing the up/down arrows on the multi controller.|
|A ‘highlights’ view overlays blinkies where data is clipped. You can cycle between a composite RGB or single channel clipping views.||The ‘RGB histogram’ view provides highlight blinkies for composite and single channel histogram data. You can cycle through each channel in turn.|
|There are a minimum of three ‘shooting data’ screens in which you can review exposure settings and image adjustments.||An ‘overview’ screen provides a comprehensive amount of image and shooting information along with a small image thumbnail.|
In addition to the examples shown above, additional screens are available if you add copyright data or shoot with an optional GPS device attached to the camera.
Playback magnification and thumbnails
In playback mode you can press the zoom in button to move step-wise through the D800′s magnification levels and then use the arrows on the multi selector to move around the magnified image. There are 12 zoom levels. The last two of which show pixelization, presumably exceeding a 1:1 pixel view, making them of questionable use in evaluating focus. The most efficient way to get to a usable screen view is to first configure the multi selector’s center button to zoom in to what is labeled ‘medium magnification’. You do this via the camera’s custom setting menu f2.
|By pressing the zoom in button you can cycle through 11 additional levels of magnification (shown above). The last two views show pixelated results, which would suggest a greater than 1:1 magnification.||You can also configure the multi selector button to jump instantly to a preset magnification. Here you see the ‘medium magnification’ view.|
The D800 has three levels of thumbnail view. Press the thumbnail button to switch to the initial 2×2 (4 image) view, press again for the 3×3 (9 image) view, and once more for a 9×8 (72 image) view. A fourth press will give you the option to switch between storage cards and image folders. Use the multi selector to move around the index. Note that if you have the ‘Rotate Tall’ option enabled, images taken in the portrait orientation are displayed vertically. Rather curiously, the thumbnail views are sticky, meaning that even after powering off the camera, pressing the playback button will return to the last selected thumbnail grid.
The Nikon D800 offers a considerably more robust live view feature set than its predecessor, the D700. The most obvious improvement is a dedicated ‘Lv’ button on the rear of the camera surrounded by a lever that toggles between still image and movie mode.
|The D800 has a dual mode live view system. You can compose still images or preview framing for video with precision. A press of the ‘Lv’ button at the hub of the switch activates live view mode, offering a significant usability improvement over the D700.|
When live view is activated, the camera’s mirror flips up and a through-the-lens view is displayed on the rear LCD. The lens is automatically set to the taking aperture, which means you can accurately preview depth of field. Manual exposure adjustments are updated in real time in the preview image on the LCD. You can press the ‘OK’ button to display an onscreen exposure indicator along with the option to display a histogram, both of which update in real time. Of even more importance though, is that pressing the ‘OK’ button is necessary to preview the effects of any exposure compensation adjustments that you make.
In situations where the scene is too bright or dark to present an accurate preview of the final image, however, the preview histogram will not match that of the final image. The only indication of this mismatch in live view mode is that the exposure indicator will blink, signalling that the camera cannot provide an accurate preview.
After taking an exposure in live view, the rear LCD remains blacked out until the image is written to the card, a delay that can last several seconds when shooting in RAW+JPEG mode. While access to all of the menu screens is locked out during this period, you can, however, change parameters available via the camera’s top plate controls such as shooting and drive modes, ISO sensitivity, image quality, white balance and exposure compensation. These can all be verified on the camera’s top plate LCD.
In live view you have the option of using all of the D800′s additional crop modes, such as 1.2x, DX (1.5x) and 5:4. The preview fills the frame with these crop modes, with the ‘mis-matched’ 5:4 ratio displaying black bars along the side of the screen area. Note that switching among these crop modes requires you to first disable live view. The menu option is actually grayed out while live view is active.
The D800, by default offers four separate information displays, with an additional exposure indicator/histogram view available if you first press the ‘OK’ button. You cycle through these views by pressing the Info button.
|By default, live view does not preview exposure compensation adjustments. To do that…||…you must press the ‘OK’ button, which gives an accurate exposure preview along with an exposure compensation indicator.|
|A grid view is available.||You can also display a histogram.|
|The dual axis virtual horizon can be displayed.||An ‘information’ view displays key camera settings.|
Live View autofocus
When live view is activated the D800 is limited to using contrast-detect autofocus. This is a departure from D700 behavior. On that camera, in addition to the contrast-detect AF ‘tripod’ mode in live view, you have the option of a ‘hand-held’ live view mode in which a half-press of the shutter momentarily disables live view, lowers the mirror and uses a phase-detection autofocus system to acquire focus.
While allowing for a continuous live view feed that doesn’t black out during focus aquisition, the D800′s contrast-detect AF is much slower than the phase detection AF the camera employs when live view is disabled. In fact, D800 AF aquisition in live view is far more sluggish than most of the mirrorless cameras we’ve used. To be fair, we imagine that for most D800 users, live view will be reserved primarily for critical focus applications like landscapes, still lifes and product photography, where maximum AF speed is somewhat less important than accuracy.
The AF point can be manually positioned anywhere inside the frame via use of the multi selector arrows. You can choose between static and full-time AF modes, with the latter option allowing the camera to continuously adjust focus until the shutter button is pressed. In addition you can select one of four AF area modes. In Face-priority mode, the camera attempts to detect and lock focus on the face positioned closest to the camera. This works as advertised with faces that are fully turned towards the camera and can actually be quite useful for quick snapshots, although we doubt owners of a $3000 camera will be using live view in Auto AF mode much of the time.
A Wide-area AF mode provides a larger focus point than the Normal-area AF. A subject tracking mode allows you to identify an element of the scene for the camera to follow as it moves within the frame. With the slow autofus performance we cited above, we find subject tracking to be eminently more useful in non-live view shooting modes, as you can see on our AF performance page of this review.
Live view manual focus
The manual focus implementation during live view is pretty straightforward. As with image playback, the zoom buttons on the rear of the camera can be used to change magnification of the image preview. You scroll through magnified areas of the image by using the multi selector’s left/right up/down arrows. In live view, the highest magnification level yields a pixelated image preview that is not useful for manual focus adjustment. It is the penultimate magnification level that provides a preview most suitable for critical focus. It should be noted that the live view preview reflects the taking aperture of the lens. So in many cases you may benefit from temporarily opening the lens up while focusing.
|You can customize the behavior of the multi selector button to toggle between the fit to screen view…||…and one of three levels of magnification (‘medium’ is shown here) to make critical focus adjustments.|
In the custom ‘f’ menu you can configure the multi selector’s center button to automatically toggle between this magnification level (designated as ‘medium magnification’) and the default ‘fit to screen’ view. Frustratingly though, even at this magnification level you must contend with what appears to be interpolation-generated artefacts that can make critical focus a bit more difficult when viewing patterned objects of fine detail. The view of the same image area at the same magnification level in playback mode displays none of these artifacts.
High ISO noise and shadow detail
The D800 offers ISO sensitivity up to 25,600 (equivalent) which, combined with a fast lens allows for shooting in very low light at hand-holdable shutter speeds. The default JPEG processing at these top ISOs is rather impressive, striking a reasonable balance between noise suppression and image detail. The camera is capable of noticeably superior results, however, when shot in Raw mode. As the examples below illustrate, processing a D800 raw file – even at ACR 6.7′s default settings – allows you to effectively eliminate chroma noise while producing better-defined high and low-contrast edges compared to the in-camera JPEG at its default settings.
|ISO 16,000 (equiv), in-camera JPEG at default NR and sharpening settings||ACR 6.7 Raw at default NR and sharpening settings.|
ISO 25,600 (Hi2)
Like its predecessor the D700, the D800′s ISO sensitivity span tops out at ISO 25,600 (equivalent) – marked in the camera as ‘Hi2′. While not a match for the D4′s highest ISO sensitivity setting of 208,400 equiv, 25,600 is probably higher than most people will ever need to shoot. But what if you do need to go this high? Well, image quality at this setting isn’t great, not surprisingly, but it’s not awful either, and it’s perfectly possible to draw results out of raw files which look more than acceptable even in extremely poor light. The image below was shot in a bar, using auto white balance mode, in light so low that the viewfinder image was almost indiscernible. But we’d still be confident in using the processed raw file for a small-ish print or web gallery.
|ISO 25,600 (equiv), in-camera JPEG at default NR and sharpening settings||ACR 6.7 Raw processed ‘to taste’|
Compared to Canon EOS 5D Mark III
On paper, the Nikon D800 has a resolution advantage over the 24MP Canon EOS 5D Mark III; one which you can explore for yourself in our studio comparison tool. We thought it would be interesting to see how these two cameras compare in terms of low light performance at an identical output image size. To that end we processed raw files from each camera with ACR’s sharpening and noise reduction set to ’0′. The 22MP Canon EOS 5D Mark III image was then upsampled to match the 36MP resolution of the D800. Identical amounts of low-radius sharpening were applied to both images in Photoshop.
The scene below was shot at ISO 6400 under low color-temperature (approx. 2600K) artificial light, designed to be representative of typical indoor lighting. This accentuates the appearance of noise due to the low level of blue light in the spectrum of the light source. This means that to achieve accurate white balance the blue channel has to be amplified strongly, and the green channel to a lesser extent – thereby increasing the visible noise. Each camera was used at its default noise reduction and sharpening settings.
ISO 6400 1/30 sec., f/8.0
|Canon EOS 5D Mark III
ISO 6400 1/30 sec., f/8.0
Upsampled to 36 MP using Bicubic
In looking at these files it is clear that precious little separates these cameras at ISO 6400 when their output size is equalized. To the extent that you can see any consistent differences, the upsampled Canon EOS 5D Mark III file looks slightly less-detailed – just as you’d expect. Yet this subtle difference could be minimized even further with a touch more sharpening applied to the Canon file in Photoshop. And its important not to lose sight of the fact that both of these cameras are performing extraordinarily well, showing fine detail with a level of chroma noise that is far from objectionable considering the ISO sensitivity and pixel count of both their sensors.