Nikon D800: first impressions


DSC_2347I’ve had my Nikon D800 for two weeks now, and below are a few of my first impressions. This was not an attempt to do a comprehensive review, not least because I don’t know or care about many of the D800’s features, and I don’t have enough high-end DSLR experience to know how those features compare to other cameras. Instead, this is just one guy’s first impressions, for what that’s worth. If you want to read professional reviews of the D800, here are a few popular ones:

I usually don’t find camera reviews very helpful. They seem to often be written for hardcore gearheads or professionals, and I’m not really interested in the technical trivia of cameras. They also seem to get caught up in the game of trying to provide data-driven quantifiable opinions, which sounds silly to me at times. The TechRadar review above, for example, informs us that “large images” is a plus for the Nikon D800, but “large file sizes” is a minus. Not real insightful stuff, in my opinion.

I get more satisfaction out of reading the subjective reactions of a large number of users of a camera, by browsing the comments on sites like Amazon. Your mileage may vary.

Comparing the D800 and D700

Having used a Nikon D700 daily for the last four years, I can’t help seeing the D800 in terms of how those two cameras compare. I can’t do any direct comparisons of the same photograph, since I don’t have my D700 any longer, but I had gotten to know the D700 well enough that I notice whenever the D800 feels like it’s somehow different from the D700.

To put those differences in context, I think it’s worth noting that the D700 and D800 are extremely similar, and downright identical to one another in many ways. They’re both sturdy, reliable, easy to use full-frame DSLRs, and they’re both 100% compatible with all of the lenses I own. But some things feel different to me, and here are some of the differences that stand out:

Nikon D800 Nikon D700
Announced 1/26/2012 7/1/2008
Purchased 6/17/2012 8/30/2008
Ease of use Same as D700, plus niceties like SD+CF cards, facial recognition, improved auto-ISO features Very good, but some things buried in menus (e.g., custom configurations)
Low-light performance Great, but not quite D700 for me Amazing
What annoys me Autoexposure inconsistency, pompous shutter click Poor construction on rubber parts
Resolution 36 megapixels 12 megapixels
Video 1080p (full HD) none

I included in this table the dates announced and purchased, because that has turned out to be a pretty big issue with the D800. I walked into Glazer’s Camera and bought a D700 a few weeks after it was announced, but there are people who have been waiting for months to get a backordered D800 now. I ordered one from Adorama in April, and in June I gave up on that and picked one up at Tall’s Camera in Tukwila (a few miles from home). My friend Alex had told me they had some in stock, and due to their no-returns policy they weren’t sold out, so I rushed over to pick one up.

I also included a row above about what annoys me. No camera is perfect.

The D700 had a tendency for the rubber parts to come loose, especially if you held it in your hand for long stretches as I tend to do. I had the rubber parts replaced several times, and it was in desperate need of another replacement when I lost it. Although my D800 is brand-new, it looks to me like they may have a different approach now for securing the rubber parts. It seems sturdier, but only time will tell.

The D800’s annoyances so far are minor. There’s an auotexposure problem (described below), but I’m hoping that’s something a firmware upgrade will take care of eventually. And I don’t care for the shutter click – it’s just a bit too macho for my taste.

On to more substantial details …

New features (to me)

The D800 includes several features that I’ve never had before. I’m still getting to know them, but here are some first impressions of a few features that I’m finding useful or interesting.

The D800 has slots for both SD memory cards and CF memory cards. CF (compact flash) is the older larger format, and that’s what the D700 uses. There were a few laptop computers that came with CF card slots a few years ago, but now most laptops have SD slots instead. So now I don’t need to have a card reader handy to download the camera, since I can just insert the SD card from the camera directly into my laptop. A minor thing, but I sometimes do that move many times in a day so I appreciate it.

You can set up the D800 to write to both the SD card and CF card, or raw files to one and JPEGs to the other, or use them sequentially for more storage, but none of that interests me. I doubt I’ll ever put a CF card in mine.

DSC_2654The D800 has Nikon’s latest face recognition technology, which makes the autofocus lock on to the nearest eye in a face and keep the focal point on that eye, even when other things move around in between the camera and the eye. I didn’t think I’d care about this, but I’m finding that I’m getting sharper shots of the dogs (it seems to work on canine faces just fine), because the eye is usually in perfect focus.

Here’s an example to the right, a point and click shot where the autofocus locked on to Alice’s eye instead of her paw in the foreground.

The D800 has the same auto ISO capabilities as the D4, which is a step up from the D700’s. This is the feature that lets the camera pick the ISO sensitivity to use, so that it will use ISO 100 (say) for a bright sunny day when you want the best colors possible, but will pick a much higher ISO in a low-light situation to assure faster shutter speed and less blur. Without getting into all the details, here’s the high-level summary: the D700 had great auto-ISO features (best I’ve ever used), and the D4/D800 take that to a new level, allowing more sophisticated tuning of this behavior. For example, the D800 can automatically pick a faster shutter speed when I’m using a telephoto lens (which tends to exaggerate camera motion) than when I’m using a wide-angle lens. Very cool.

The D800, unlike the D700, has a Live View mode that’s very quick and simple to use. Live View is a feature that owners of inexpensive point&shoot cameras take for granted, but has never been as prevalent in high-end DSLRs. It refers to the concept of seeing on the camera’s LCD the picture you’re about to take, rather than needing to look through the viewfinder. The D700 had this feature, theoretically, but it was such a convoluted pain to use that I never used it except when I had the manual handy to look up the details. On the D800, I just press the LV button on the back of the camera and it’s ready to use.

The D800 also has big improvements over the D700 in dynamic range and resolution. Dynamic range is a complicated subject, but in photography high dynamic range means having good detail and color in the really bright areas of a photo as well as the really dark areas. In the past you could increase the dynamic range of a photo by using a technique called HDR, but the results usually look artificial and heavy-handed. (example) The D800 captures more dynamic range than previous cameras, without any need to use those sorts of tricks.

Resolution is a much-discussed aspect of the D800, because it’s the highest resolution DSLR ever at 36 megapixels. I have mixed feelings about that. It’s great to have all the extra resolution if you want to crop a photo and still have plenty of detail, but it’s also a pain to have such big image files. A raw+JPREG capture with the D800 can take up 60 megabytes of disk space!

Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t make fun of TechRadar’s comments on image size and file size – I think I just paraphrased them. Anyway, here’s an example of the D800’s 36 megapixel resolution:


Low-light performance

A few years ago, when I got my D700, I was doing a lot of international travel for work. My days were usually filled with meetings and social events, so most of my photo safari opportunities on those trips occurred late at night, during “hours more inclined toward the shadows” as Jim Carroll might say. (No smack involved, however.)

The D700 was an absolutely amazing camera for those late-night situations. Many times, I would see an interesting (to me) scene, snap a picture, and find that the photo looked even better than anything I had dared hope for. Here are a few examples of the types of late-night shots I loved to take with the D700:


Many reviewers have found the D800 to have even better low-light performance than the D700. This seems a bit counter-intuitive to me, because the D700 packs a third as many pixels into the same size (FX) sensor so it should have less grain and lower noise, but the D800 includes improvements in noise reduction technology. Another factor is that if you resize a D800 photo to D700 resolution for a fair apples-to-apples comparison, it smooths out the grain and you theoretically end up with an even better result than the D700.

I’m not yet convinced that this is true. I’ve seen the tests, I’ve read the reviews, and I know that this isn’t the politically correct (or perhaps not even technically correct) thing to say, but the D800 doesn’t feel like a match for the D700 to me, in low light.

Now, I’m no expert on any of the technical details involved, and maybe I’m reacting to something other than low-light performance per se. But from from a subjective point of view as a person who took 120,000+ photos with a D700 over the last few years, I haven’t yet taken a low-light shot with the D800 that has blown me away like the D700 did so many times. The low-light performance I’ve seen isn’t bad, it’s definitely the second-best I’ve ever experienced, but just not quite up to the D700 for me so far.

I’ll have to spend an evening focused on low-light shots some time soon and post some samples. Or perhaps the act of getting serious about low-light shots for a while will teach me to achieve the same results with the D800 that I enjoyed with the D700.

Perhaps I’m just getting tripped up on a subtle difference in how the two cameras handle autoexposure. Speaking of …

Differences in D800/D700 autoexposure

The matrix metering in modern Nikon and Canon DSLRs is simply amazing. It handles a huge variety of situations flawlessly, delivering reasonable or attractive exposure in situations that required an expert with a light meter in the not-too-distant past.

Because matrix metering works so well, I’ve gotten in the habit of shooting most of my photos in P (Program) mode, where the camera picks a shutter speed and aperture setting automatically. I override that in A (aperture priority) or S (shutter priority) mode sometimes, if I want a particular depth of field or shutter speed, but the vast majority of my photos are in P mode and the only setting I change very often is exposure compensation – I spin that up or down if I want a different exposure than the camera has calculated for a scene. (And as explained below, I’m spinning the exposure compensation dial less often with the D800 than I did with the D700.)

The D800 has some improvements in how it handles autoexposure. More than the D700, it seems to nail the exposure correctly for the foreground subject. I know nothing of the details of how this works, but it feels to me like the subject itself takes a slightly higher priority with the D800, whereas with the D700 the exposure was more often optimized for the scene as a whole. With the D700 I would often have an intuitive sense of much much to spin the exposure compensation up or down for a scene, and with the D800 that’s not necessary. In fact, I’ve sometimes messed up a photo because I cranked the exposure compensation up needlessly, and the D800 would have handled the scene as I wanted if I had just trusted it to do so.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. These two photos were taken during a drive out to the mountains with the pups yesterday. They’re both available light (no-flash) photos taken in Program mode with matrix metering, autoexposure, autofocus, and no manual adjustments. Note that their faces are both roughly the same “whiteness,” while the background exposure varies considerably between the two shots.


On the left, Alice was softly lit by light from the windshield (although not direct sunlight), so in order to get her face at the right exposure and not washed out, the background needed to be pretty dark. On the right, however, Jamie had bright sunshine behind him, so in order to get his face (the shady side of his face) at the right exposure, the background had to be over-exposed.

These photos surprise me when I take them, coming from a D700 mindset. When I saw the shot on the left, my first reaction was “damn, it underexposed that one.” And for the shot on the right, I had to control the urge to spin up +1EV or so exposure compensation, as I would have done with the D700. But now that I’m starting to get used to the D800, I’m appreciating that I can just let the camera do the work in these situations. If the D700 did 90% of the technical thinking for me, it feels like the D800 is raising that to 95%.

Getting back to my comments about low-light performance, I’m open to the possibility that these sorts of differences explain my disappointment at times on low-light shots with the D800. More research needed … and it’s always great when the research that’s needed is exactly what you love to do for fun anyway, isn’t it?

As a final note on autoexposure, I’ve had a few times when I felt the D800 clearly screwed up. The pattern seems to be that it shoots a scene too dark, but if you try again it usually gets it right. I don’t have a quality pair of photos to demonstrate this, but here’s an example from a snapshot I took of Fish, Alice and Tom:


Those photos were taken just a second apart, with no changes in settings or conditions, so I feel the one on the left can only be called an error. And this particular error is something I don’t recall seeing with the D700.


I’ve never paid much attention to video, primarily because there aren’t enough hours in the day to fit in the hobbies I already have. But with a high-quality video camera built right into the D800, I can see that I’m going to be learning a lot more about video. It will be a great option to have handy the next time the dogs decide to herd some freeange cattle, for example.

There are some aspects of DSLR video that are clumsier than most video cameras, most notably the lack of autofocus. The ability to use high quality lenses with short depth of field means you can take videos that look very slick and professional, but that also means you have to take responsibility for getting the focus right, and doing it manually without appearing heavy-handed to the viewer. This is hard to do well.

I’m not any good at any of that yet. But the summer is young, and the dogs are going to give me many opportunities to practice. Meanwhile, if you want to see what the D800 is capable of, here’s a simple amateur video that shows the quality quite well. And here’s the official promo video from the D800 launch, which shows what video experts can achieve with a D800:


The D800 is a phenomenal camera. It’s way more camera than I’ll ever need, and so far beyond my own capabilities that the details don’t really matter. My photos will never be limited by what this camera can do, so I just need to get out and take lots of pictures and keep learning, and having fun – as an amateur, having fun is the whole point of owning a camera after all.

We have road trips planned this summer for Montana and Canada (all the way up to Yellowknife), so I should have plenty of opportunities to put the D800 through its paces soon. And although the sunshine hasn’t aligned very well with my work schedule the last two weeks, there are always lots of things to photography right here at home in Seattle.

To that point, here are a couple of Seattle-area shots: a rainbow that appeared the day I got the D800, and a flower in our front yard that I snapped on the way out the door one rainy morning this week.




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