Nikon D800 £2100

11th Jun 2012 | 12:15

Nikon D800

Are 36-million pixels too many?

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

Like:

Excellent detail resolution; Extensive dynamic range; Large images; Superb AF system

Dislike:

Large files sizes; JPEG HDR mode; No in-camera rating

Introduction

The excitement surrounding the announcement of the full frame Nikon D800 has been unprecedented.

The performance section of this review has been updated with a comparison to the Nikon D700.

One of the key topics of conversation about the new camera has been its class-leading effective pixel count of 36.3 million – perhaps proving that the pixel race is not over, and that numbers still really grab the headlines.

Could such a high pixel count be the D800's undoing though? The D700 below the D800 in the Nikon SLR line-up, has just 12-million effective pixels and until recently Nikon's mantra had been that 12-million pixels is enough if the images are clean. Nikon also has a strong reputation for its cameras' low-light performance and noise control. Could 36-million pixels be a step too far, too soon?

Features

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Although it has a more densely populated sensor, the 36.3Mp D800 utilises many of the new features of the previously announced 16.2Mp D4 in a smaller body and at a cheaper price. These include the same EXPEED 3 processor, the same Multi-Cam 3500 FX autofocus system, which offers 51 autofocus points and the same 91k-pixel metering system.

It's also capable of focusing right down to -2 EV, which coupled with its ability to shoot at up to ISO 25,600 (at the Hi 2 setting), should make the D800 a promising camera for low-light shooting if image noise is at an acceptable level.

Given its effective pixel count, it's not really a surprise that the D800 has a lower maximum continuous shooting rate than the D700; but at 4fps (the D700 can manage 5fps) at full resolution with the standard battery and 5fps (D700 8fps) with a battery grip it's no slouch. This can be boosted further by dropping the image size to capture DX format images.

Nikon D800 review: front

As with the D4, the D800's central 11 AF points are capable of functioning at f/8. This means that the AF system will still function when teleconverters are used to extend the reach of telephoto lenses. This is great news for wildlife photographer who want to avoid the expense and burden of carrying a selection long and heavy optics. For instance, a 200-400mm f/4 fitted with a 2x teleconverter effectively becomes a 400-800mm f/8, and unlike with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the D800's autofocus system will still function.

The Nikon D700 doesn't feature a video mode, but the D800 brings full HD functionality. It can record 1080p video at 30, 25 and 24fps frame rates, along with 60 and 50fps rates at 720p for shooting slow-motion movies. Both FX and DX crops are available in video mode, although the D800 lacks the D4's useful 1920x1080 crop mode.

Nikon D800 review

In another upgrade over the D700, the D800 features dual memory card slots. Unlike the D4, the D800 makes use of existing memory card formats, namely Compact Flash and SD/SDHC/SDXC. The decision to include two formats might prove frustrating for some pros, who will now have to carry two different sets of cards.

The shutter has been tested to around 200,000 cycles, while the battery life has been reduced from the D700 to around 850 shots at CIPA standard. While the D700 was capable of around 1,000 shots, the new battery has been made to comply with a new Japanese electronics law, hence the reduction in shot output. Since the measured battery life (850 shots) includes the use of flash, it's likely that the battery has the potential to last even longer, depending on the situation.

Nikon D800 review: flash

It's worth noting here that the D800, like the D700 has a built-in pop-up flash unit (GN 12m @ ISO 100) which is useful for providing fill-in light and triggering external lights wirelessly. The Canon 5D Mark III doesn't have a flash built-in.

The D800 is available in two versions: a 'standard' body, plus a special edition, called the D800E. The latter has a modified filter over the sensor that has no anti-aliasing qualities and comes with an extra £300 premium as a result.

Removing the anti-aliasing filter allows for a potentially greater amount of detail to be resolved and comes at the price of increasing the chances of false colour or moiré patterning, which may require some extra post-capture processing.

Fortunately, this type of interference is relatively straightforward to remove in photo-editing software packages, such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. Nikon's own Capture NX2 can also be used to reduce or remove the effect, and will come bundled with the D800E.

Altogether, Nikon claims to have included 36 new features or improvements to this full-frame SLR, when compared to the Nikon D700.

Build quality and handling

In terms of size, shape and weight, the differences between the D800 and D700 are subtle. It's 10% lighter than the D700 and the body has a more 'contoured' look and feel. Like the D4, the shutter release has been slightly repositioned for better ergonomics, while a number of the controls have been tweaked.

Nikon D800 review: live view

There's a new video record button near the shutter release and a new switch to the right of the rear screen that enables you to toggle between stills and video live view. While it is possible to capture a still image when the Stills/Video switch is set to Video, video recording can only be started when the switch is at Video. These controls are mirrored on the D4, which should make switching between the two bodies a relatively straightforward process for pros with both cameras.

Nikon D800 review: AF select

Just to the left of the lens mount is a focus mode control switch and button, as on the D7000 in Nikon's DX SLR line-up, this is used in conjunction with the camera's two control dials. Rotating the rear dial enables switching between Single AF (AF-S) and Continuous AF (AF-C), while the front dial can be used to toggle between the AF point selection options available in each mode.

Nikon D800 review: rear

Although it may be surprising to hear that such a video-focused camera doesn't come with an articulating screen, the D800's fixed 921,000-dot 3.2 inch LCD panel is very good. As with the D4, it features automatic monitor brightness control and during our testing, we found it provides a clear view of images. Reflections aren't a major issue, but they are more noticeable with the D800 than on the Canon 5D Mark III's screen.

While the D700's viewfinder offers 95% frame coverage, the D800's gives a 100% view, which is especially useful when there is no time or opportunity to crop images before they are published. A dual-axis electronic virtual horizon is also a useful addition for outdoor photographers. This can be viewed either on the LCD monitor or through the viewfinder, and it continues to be displayed, even when the shutter release is half depressed.

Nikon D800 review

Anyone familiar with Nikon SLRs, especially the D700, or D3 S/X professional series, will be at ease with the menu and operation of the camera. There are no major changes other than the addition of video recording options and the change to the D7000-style focus mode switch and button.

While the AF system is advanced and there are lots of AF-point selection modes available when shooting continuously, the options are made very clear in the viewfinder and in the top-plate LCD, so it's easy to select the one you want. However, it's about time that the AF points were spread a bit further across the frame and not clustered within the DX crop area.

Performance

Our tests reveal that the Nikon D800 is capable of resolving a huge amount of detail, in fact it's not far behind the medium-format Pentax 645D, which has a 40Mp sensor that measures 44x33mm. This is an impressive feat, as although it's full-frame, the D800's sensor is considerably smaller at 35.9x24mm.

One risk with packing so many pixels onto a sensor is that the photosites have to be very small, and this can lead to increased image noise levels. The good news is that Nikon has struck a successful balance between resolution and noise.

Nikon D800 review: top buttons

However, we would recommend sticking within the native sensitivity setting (ISO 100-6400) wherever possible, and the upper expansion sensitivity values (equivalent to ISO 12800 and ISO 25600) are reserved for needs-must situations.

Nikon D800 review: shutter release

The visibility of coloured speckling (chroma noise) varies somewhat depending upon the lighting conditions. For example, in our shots taken a gym that was dimly lit by sodium lamps, chroma noise is clearly visible from around ISO 2500 when the images are viewed at 100% on the computer screen. In other situations, however, noise is only visible in the shadows from around ISO 3200-6400.

On the whole, though, ISO 3200 and even ISO 6400 images look good when sized to make A2 prints. The shadows of some images taken at ISO 25600, however, have a distinct purple or blue cast that is visible even in thumbnail images.

Nikon D800 review

We might expect dynamic range to suffer as a result of the sensor having such a high pixel count, but the D800 impresses here as well. Images have a good range of tones straight from the camera, but ironically this means that quite a few of them of them benefit from a slight boost to the contrast.

Nikon D800 review

Given that it has the same Multi-Cam 3500 FX autofocus system as the D4, which is a tweaked version of the one in the D3S, it's no surprise that the D800 is capable of focusing quickly and accurately when the need arises, even in low indoor light.

When shooting moving subjects it's worth investing a bit of time thinking about the subject and the shooting conditions as the D800 has a wealth of continuous shooting options. When following a moving subject around an area where objects such as pillars or posts may momentarily obscure it, for example, it may be sensible to set the camera to respond relatively slowly to avoid the lens from focusing on the obstruction and then having to refocus on the subject.

Nikon d800

Nikon isn't new to producing digital SLRs, and the D800 uses the company's know-how to ensure that white balance and colour are good straight from the camera in most situations. This is not to say they are infallable, however, and there were quite a few occasions during this test when the exposure compensation facility was required, in a couple of situations the reason wasn't obvious.

One small criticism is that it is strange that such an advanced camera as the D800 should have an HDR (high dynamic range) mode that only operates when shooting JPEG images. Furthermore, the only image that is saved is the merged version. Canon's approach with the EOS 5D Mark III is much more useful to advanced photographers, as the three images that make up the final HDR image are recorded and raw file shooting is possible.

Nikon D800 vs D700 autofocus performance

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The Nikon D800's 51-point AF system is updated compared that found in the D700. The centre 11 focusing points function with apertures as slow as f/8 on the D800, whereas the D700 requires a maximum aperture of f/5.6 to function properly. This should help when using a tele-convertor with a lens that has a small maximum aperture, but does it also help with its performance in low light conditions?

Using the central bunch of cross-type focusing points, the D800's AF system certainly seems very sure of itself, locking on to subjects very quickly, and for the most part, accurately. Using a screw-driven lens with a fast maximum aperture, such as the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D, the in camera focusing motor drives the lens slightly faster, but in low light conditions it misses critical focus about as much as the D700, which isn't very much at all.

However, when using the linear-type focusing points towards the left and right sides of the frame, it can be very difficult to get the D800 accurately focused with lenses that have a maximum aperture faster than f/2.8.

Compared to the D700, which performs reasonably well with these focusing points, the D800 is a little disappointing in this area. The issue is effectively magnified by the high pixel count, which shows up any focusing errors much more than the relatively low resolution of the D700. When shooting in low light conditions, it is probably best to stick to using the cross-type AF sensors on the D800, locking focus and recomposing for composition.

Nikon D800 vs D700 in low light

Comparing raw and JPEG images from the D700 and D800 (both with the noise reduction set to the default value) reveals they are virtually inseparable until ISO 6400. At this point, in-focus edges are broken down slightly more due to noise with the D800. This is true even after resizing the 36Mp images down to the same dimensions as the 12Mp files from the D700.

At ISO 6400, flat areas of colour look slightly less noisy in images produced by the D800, which indicates the in camera noise reduction is more aggressive than with the D700.

At expanded sensitivity settings, differences in images are very much the same, with the D700 producing detail that is slightly more clearly defined, at the expense of the image containing more speckling due to noise. Contrast and colour fidelity remain excellent on both cameras, right up to ISO25600, where noise takes over, fine detail is lost and shadows become quite snowy in appearance.

Any differences in high sensitivity (ISO) performance between the two cameras are minimal, and any performance lost by the extra pixels can be mitigated somewhat be resizing the image down. Edge definition lost to noise starts to improve as images are resized, although at 12Mp, edges do look slightly clearer at sensitivities of ISO6400 and higher with the D700. Only slightly though.

Nikon D800 vs Nikon D700 file handling

Another issue to be faced by having such a high-resolution camera is how dealing with those 36Mp files may clog up your computer and slow workflow. This can be very important, depending on how patient you are, or how time-critical your work is. Various common workflow tasks have been compared for speed against the D700, to asses how the larger files may affect workflow.

Time taken to copy 100 raw files - Lexar Professional 300x UDMA CF card

Kingston USB 3.0 card reader: D700= 41.37sec, D800 56.51secs
USB 3.0 to camera: D700=3:09.68, D800=1:14.77
USB 2.0 to camera: D700=3:04.08, D800=2:15.93

It isn't overly surprising that it takes less time to copy over 100 raw files from the Nikon D700 via a USB 3.0 card reader. What is surprising, is how little difference there is in the copy times between the D800 and D700 files. The fact it only takes 15 seconds longer to transfer the files isn't going to cause much distress.

As the D800 sports the latest USB 3.0 interface transferring those files straight from the camera is quicker, despite their size. Surprisingly, this is also the case if using a USB 2.0 connection on the computer.

Time taken for file handling in Capture One 6.4 – 64bit

Capture one 6.4 has been used to asses how much the larger file sizes will affect workflow, when compared the D700. The program was first left to completely generate previews on all of the 100 raw files imported, then processed as a batch and the times taken for each process noted. Two different computers have been used for testing. A high-powered tower PC, sporting a six-core AMD processor and a lower powered laptop.

Tower PC - AMD Phenom II X6 1055T @ 2.80GHz - 6GB RAM - 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F1 HDD – 64bit Windows 7 Professional

Generate Previews: D700=1:17.36, D800=3:33.70
Process to TIFF: D700=5:24.96, D800=17:19.16

Laptop - Lenovo Thinkpad x121e - Intel i3-2367m @ 1.4GHz - 8GB RAM - Crucial M4 256GB SSD - 64bit Windows 7 Home

Generate Previews: D700=02:16.48, D800=06:10.06
Process to TIFF: D700=13:21.89, D800=32:27.43

Looking at the times, it is evident that if the computer used for handling files is powerful enough, then although it does take over double the amount of time to generate previews and process the files, the time taken is still fairly respectable, and shouldn't pose too many issues for most people.

However, if images are required as fast as possible, whilst working in the field, the extra time spent dealing with the files may become a problem. The total time to taken to process previews and high resolution TIFF files from the D800 weighs in at over 38 and a half minutes on the laptop used for testing, whereas the same tasks only take 15 minutes and 38 seconds with files from the D700.

Resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon D800 we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the D800 is capable of resolving up to around 36 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files. It produces some of the best results we have ever seen from a full-frame SLR.

See a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 100

JPEG images

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 50

ISO 50, score: 36 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 100

ISO 100, score: 34 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 200

ISO 200, score: 34 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 400

ISO 400, score: 34 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 800

ISO 800, score: 32 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 1600

ISO 1600, score: 30 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 3200

ISO 3200, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 6400

ISO 6400, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 12800

ISO 12800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: resolution ISO 25600

ISO 25600, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw images

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 50

ISO 50, score: 36 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 100

ISO 100, sore: 34 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 200

ISO 200: score: 34 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 400

ISO 400, score: 34 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 800

ISO 800, score: 32 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 1600

ISO 1600, score: 30 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 3200

ISO 3200, score: 30 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 6400

ISO 6400, score: 30 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 12800

ISO 12800, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon D800 review: Resolution ISO 25600

ISO 25600, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

We have compared the Nikon D800 against the Nikon D700, Nikon D4, Canon EOS 5D Mk III, Canon EOS 5D Mk II and Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III.

JPEG Signal to Noise Ratio

Nikon D800 review: JPEG signal to noise ratio

JPEG images from the Nikon D800 have a signal to noise ratio that compares well against, but cannot quite match, that from the Nikon D4 and Canon EOS 5D Mk III. At lower sensitivities results compare closely to Nikon D700, however from a sensitivity of ISO 800 there is a definite improvement.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Nikon D800 review: TIFF signal to noise ratio

TIFF images (after conversion from raw) show that the D800 handles noise well at lower sensitivities and the results compare well against the Nikon D4. Above ISO 3200 noise becomes more of an issue.

JPEG dynamic range

Nikon D800 review: JPEG dynamic range

This chart shows that the Nikon D800's JPEG files have a high dynamic range only just beaten by the Nikon D4. Compared to the Nikon D700, the results show a big improvement across the sensitivity range. At ISO 3200 the Canon EOS 5D Mk III just over takes the dynamic range of the D800.

Raw dynamic range

Nikon D800 review: TIFF dynamic range

The D800's TIFF files (after conversion from raw) score some of the highest dynamic range results that we've seen from a DSLR, just beating the Nikon D4 and showing a huge improvement over the Nikon D700. At the lower end of the sensitivity scale, the D800 is the clear leader, but by ISO 800 the Canon EOS 5D Mk III takes the lead.

Sample images

Nikon D800 review: rose image

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Taken at ISO 200 using an aperture of f/8, this shot has bags of detail, but the exposure had to be reduced by 1EV to get the colour looking right.

Nikon D800 review

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The D800's AF system had no trouble keeping up with this cyclist peddling at full-speed.

Nikon D800 review

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Nikon's Matrix metering was fooled by the light subject and under-exposed this shot.

Nikon D800 review

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A Levels adjustment in Photoshop has brightened the image and retained the atmosphere.

Nikon D800 review

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Including so much sky in this image fooled the Matrix metering into under-exposing, but as the image below shows, there plenty of information in the foreground so it can be lightened effectively.

Nikon D800 review

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Five minutes work with Photoshop has brightened the foreground while retaining the darkness of the approaching storm in the sky.

Nikon D800 review

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Taken at ISO 2500 and in low artificial light, this image has more noticeable noise than some taken at higher sensitivity settings in more natural light.

Nikon D800 review

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Taken at ISO 200, f/8 and 1/125, but exposure was compensated by -1EV to retain the tonal gradation in the sky.

Nikon D800 review

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There's plenty of detail in the brickwork of these buildings.

Nikon D800 review

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The delicate details of the blossom have been captured well in this ISO 200 image.

Nikon D800 review

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The dark foreground mean that -1EV exposure compensation was required to get this image just right when Matrxi metering was used. There's plenty of detail in those shadows.

Nikon D800 sample image

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The JPEGs straight from the Nikon D800 display an impressive colour range - this image was shot on Auto White Balance.

Nikon D800 sample image

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We needed to boost the exposure compensation by +0.7 to capture this scene.

Nikon D800 sample image

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Nikon D800 sample image

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Lots of detail has been resolved in this image, while colours are also naturally represented.

Nikon D800 sample image

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This image displays the very restricted depth of field effects that are possible when using a full-frame camera such as the D800.

Nikon D800 sample image

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This image was shot using the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G lens.

Nikon D800 sample image

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Nikon D800 sample image

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In this image shot at f/8 you can really see the amount of detail that is able to be captured by the D800.

Sensitivity and noise

Nikon D800 review

Full ISO 50 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 50

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 100

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 200

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 400

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 800

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 1600

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 3200

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 6400

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 12800

Nikon D800 review

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ISO 25600

Verdict

It's great to find that the D800 isn't just a triumph of numbers, and that the 35.3Mp sensor actually delivers on its promise – capturing bags of detail. The surprise bonus is that noise is actually pretty well controlled and the dynamic range is very impressive.

For those interested in stepping up to a full-frame camera, the D800 represents a good investment. You get pretty much all of the best features of the D4 in a more compact and lighter body, with a much higher pixel count for just shy of half of the price.

We liked

Many images are suitable for making superb A2 prints straight from the camera or with a minimal amount of adjustment.

We disliked

Sport and action photographers will find that the large file size limits the continuous shooting rate and burst depth in comparison with the Nikon D700, Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D4 - although these can be boosted by selecting DX format images and the battery-grip.

Understandably, the signal to noise ratio is a little lower than from some competing cameras with lower pixel counts.

Final verdict

Many see the Canon EOS 5D Mark III as the D800's natural competitor. While the average serious enthusiast is likely to think long and hard about switching manufacturer, professional photographers are less loyal and will go with whichever option works best for them.

The D800 will be very attractive to photographers who need a comparatively light camera that is capable of capturing a lot of detail and producing large prints. As it is an especially good choice for those who shoot in normal or daylight conditions or at low sensitivities, we think the D800, or perhaps the D800E, will be a big hit with landscape and studio photographers.

Meanwhile the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is perhaps a bit of an all-rounder that will appeal to enthusiast photographers who want to shoot a range of subjects in lots of different conditions.

Given the level of detail that the D800 can capture and its impressive dynamic range there may be a few studio and landscape photographers who will choose it instead of a bulkier, heavier, slower and more expensive medium format camera.

It's clear that the D800 is an excellent and very capable camera. The metering, white balance and autofocus systems all deliver the goods and the image quality is superb at the lower sensitivity settings. While we'd love to see a couple of niceties such as the rating option and more flexible HDR system found on the Canon 5D Mark III, we find Nikon's AF point selection options clearer in continuous AF mode.

Although the D800 can't quite match some of its competitors for signal to noise ratio at the lower sensitivity settings, it comes close and the much larger images have an impressive dynamic range.

Nikon has managed to produce a camera that delivers exactly what many enthusiast and pro photographers want.

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