Jul 022012

The Nikon D800 is a full-frame DSLR announced back in February 2012 and launched in March 2012. The camera was exceedingly popular when it was announced and some sites like B&H had so many pre-orders that people who didn’t get their order in the first hour of it being available were waiting several extra months to receive their camera. Nikon was always usually behind Canon in the megapixel war so they came out with this 36.3 MP beast.

Important specs:

  • MSRP: $2999 USD / €2829 EUR
  • Resolution: 36.3MP / 7360 x 4912 pixel image size
  • Sensor: Full-frame CMOS manufactured by Sony (but in all likelihood Nikon had a big hand in designing it)
  • ISO sensitivity: 100-6400 (50-25,600 with boost)
  • 51-point autofocus
  • 3.2″ 0.92MP LCD
  • Shutter speed: Bulb – 1/8000 sec
  • Video format: MPEG-4 / H.264
  • Video size: 1920 x 1080 (30, 25, 24 fps), 1280 x 720 (60, 50, 30, 25 fps), 640 x 424 (24 fps)

Full-frame vs. Crop sensors:

If you own a DSLR chances are it’s one with a smaller APS-C sized sensor (or “crop” sensor). Full-frame sensors are physically the size of a frame of 35mm film, while crop sensor is approximately 2/3 the size of a full-frame sensor. In compact digital cameras and cell-phone cameras the sensors are much smaller than that.

If you took a picture with the same lens at the same focal length with a full frame and crop camera, you would have results like the ones above. That is why lenses designed for crop sensors can usually not be used on a full-frame camera because there would be heavy vignetting on the corners of the image. The two main benefits of a full-frame sensor like the one in the D800 is shallower depth of field (often desirable depending on your subject) making the background and foreground blur more and the second benefit is a higher signal-to-noise ratio due to bigger pixel pitch. Bigger pixels = more light reaching the sensor and less noise.

The downsides to a full-frame sensor are that generally you need more expensive lenses, and if you are upgrading from a crop sensor camera some of your lenses may not be full-frame compatible. Also, precise focus is much more important with a full-frame camera. Even being off slightly will make your picture look blurry and out of focus where on a crop sensor you have a much higher margin for error. Often new owners of a full-frame camera will be disappointed with blurry shots until they learn to change their technique and probably use a tripod more often. You can also take advantage of the low-noise characteristics and shoot at higher ISO for handheld shots. So what are the benefits of a crop sensor then on cheaper DSLRs? The main one for me would be the crop factor on telephoto lenses. A 300mm lens on a full-frame becomes a much tighter 450mm lens on a crop sensor.

What to do with all those megapixels?

Most people will never need images this large. I mean, how many of you print poster-size images every day? I’ve seen plenty of good looking shots blown up that large from 10-15MP camera anyway. I think the biggest benefit to the extra megapixels is cropping capability. Maybe you are shooting a bird and couldn’t get as close as you want? With the D800 you can heavily crop the image and still have an image the same size of one that came from previous generation cameras like the D700. Also if you are shooting at very high ISO (3200 and above) you can downsample your entire image to clean it up and still have room to work with. Just be sure to have a lot of 64+ GB memory cards as RAW files from a D800 can reach up to 75MB in size each (around 40-50MB if you use lossless compression).

Another thing to keep in mind when shooting such a high resolution camera is even the slightest movement or vibration can ruin fine details. A heavy duty tripod and shooting in mirror-up mode will probably be necessary when doing critical work at a slower shutter speed. You really want to keep that shutter speed as fast as possible when shooting handheld which is why it’s so great that the D800 has such excellent high ISO performance.


Many D800 users report having autofocus issues, especially with left side focus points resulting in blurry images even under perfectly controlled conditions. Some have returned their cameras and received replacements without the same issue and some people have gone to other lengths such as focusing in live-view mode (which uses contrast based autofocus unlike the viewfinder AF) while they wait for Nikon to fix the problem. Another option is to focus using the center point and recompose. Whether or not affected cameras will require servicing by Nikon to fix or can be simply fixed with a firmware update is unknown at this point. I have heard rumors that Nikon has a fix for affected cameras but it does require a trip to a Nikon service center to fix. I will update this section when I hear something concrete.

The D800E:

The D800E is identical to the D800 except it costs $300 more and has the optical low-pass filter removed (also known as an anti-aliasing filter). Most cameras have this filter to help produce more usable images in general photography where moire artifacts can be a problem. Moire is very difficult to correct and the low-pass filter almost always eliminates it but at the cost of some high frequency detail. The D800E does away with this filter to allow the photographer to have the sharpest image possible but with the risk of moire. Moire typically does not appear in nature but more in man-made objects like clothes or patterns on a building. For photographers who do not typically photograph moire-prone subjects or know how to avoid it, the D800E gives them that extra bit of sharpness. Click the below image for an example of moire.

Bottom Line:

If you are in the market for a full-frame camera it will likely be between this and the Canon 5D MK III. If you already have Nikon glass the decision is easy. If you have Canon glass the decision is also easy. If you are jumping into DSLRs for the first time, the D800 is a better buy in my opinion. The Canon is no slouch but the D800 just puts more features on the table for a cheaper price. Though honestly if you are a total newbie when it comes to photography I think it’s best to start out with a low-cost DSLR. It might be all you are looking for and you’ll save thousands of bucks.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

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