The D800 sits smack in the middle of Nikon's professional line-up of cameras, where it combines a compact chassis with the company's highest resolution to date.
It's heavy and chunky but very balanced, with well-spaced controls and the kind of features that make a pro camera both easy and fun to use. Better yet, it's keenly priced for a top spec snapper. It will surely tempt the full-time photo brigade, but it may also encourage the über-ambitious hobbyist to take a step up.
The Nikon D800 is available to buy for £2,600 for the body only.
Let's start with the biggest stat of them all -- the resolution. The D800 is a monster, with 36.3 megapixels to call on, arranged on an FX-format sensor. That's 24x36mm, which is the same size as a frame of 35mm film, and it's the size of the sensor used in the 18-megapixel, £8,500 Leica M9.
Such a high resolution obviously means it can record more information, allowing for tighter crops in post-production.
Of perhaps greater interest though is the flexibility delivered by the full-frame sensor.
It offers two major benefits. Most obviously it allows manufacturers to deliver higher resolutions without compromising performance. This is because they needn't ruthlessly shrink the photoreceptors -- the actual cells on the sensor that detect the incoming light. This makes them sensitive to a wide range of illumination for more subtle, detailed images, with a particularly better response in areas of highlight and shadow.
The results are obvious right from the off, with the D800 consistently producing balanced shots when faced with stark contrasts.
In the snap below, the underside of a railway viaduct is cast in shadow, yet the sky around it is very bright. When exposed at ISO 400, the whole frame remains balanced, with the four points I've picked out for comparison accurately and evenly exposed. It would be easy to draw out further detail within the brickwork in post-production by manipulating the RAW file.
Furthermore, from a usability point of view, full-frame sensors make a lot more sense when you're choosing and buying lenses, as you no longer need to do a quick spot of multiplication to know how each lens will behave.
Smaller sensors, such as Nikon's DX sensor, have a crop factor which requires that you multiply the lens' focal length by a number -- usually around 1.5x -- to see how it will work in practice with a regular lens. As a result, long zooms often over-perform, with a 210mm lens acting as though it were a 315mm attachment since only the central portion of its view can be accommodated by the sensor.
On the one hand, this is a good thing as it means you can often buy a cheaper telephoto lens to reap the benefits of a longer equivalent lens. However, it also means that very wide angle lenses don't live up to their full potential with, say, a 28mm lens on a smaller-chipped camera acting like a 42mm lens on an FX camera. Any savings you make on the zoom lens might therefore be lost when shopping around for a wide-angle lens, which will inevitably cost more to achieve the same effect.
With a full-frame sensor, you can take your lenses as face value.
In every respect then, this is a serious camera, with serious specs to boot. The 36.3 megapixels equates to a staggering 7,360x4,912 pixels. To display one single frame at full resolution without any cropping, you'd need to lace together a dozen regular 27-inch monitors -- four across and three deep, each running at a native 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 6,400, but you can push it in either direction to ISO 50 and ISO 25,600, and exposure compensation gives you adjustments of +/-5EV in 1/3EV steps. It's an HDR photographer's dream, with three bracketing options covering exposure, flash and white balance, taking between two and nine shots for each.
I performed my tests with the D800 set to aperture priority, adjusting sensitivity as the situation required and saving all results as RAW NEF files, which averaged around 40MB apiece. The dynamic range of the results was impressive, with plenty of detail in both shadow and highlight areas
At higher sensitivities, the results were very clean, and in most cases there was no evidence of dappling caused by the introduction of digital noise. The image below was shot at ISO 500 in overcast conditions, with the subject of the shot shaded still further by the overhanging first floor of a building.
Examining it at 100 per cent magnification, the grain of the wooden structure and carving remains sharp and clear right across the frame.
The D800 sports 51 auto-focus points so you can isolate your subject precisely, and a maximum shutter speed of 1/8,000 second. The longest exposure time is 30 seconds.
With so many focus points you'll have no trouble framing your subject precisely, and it quickly becomes second nature to move the focal selector each time you shoot. Switching back to a consumer dSLR with nine or fewer focus points feels limiting, as you spend more time setting the focus and exposure on one point, then reframing to take your shot. If you're using a wide aperture with a short depth of field, you risk throwing your subject out of focus, but that's not a problem here.
It has not one, but two media card slots, and you can use either for primary or back-up storage, or split them so that JPEGs are written to one and RAW files to the other. One takes SD cards and the other CompactFlash, so if you have a lot of CF cards left over from previous cameras, this is a neat way to recycle them.
There are buttons everywhere, but rather than overwhelming you, they're very carefully placed and fall exactly to your fingers. There are wheels front and back for changing aperture and shutter speed, direct access to ISO, white balance and quality, shortcuts to selecting the focal point… even buttons inside of the grip, including the customisable fn button.
It takes no time to get used to where they all lie, and when you do, handling comes as naturally as driving a car or playing an instrument.
There's loads of useful feedback, both in the eyepiece and overlaying the live view, if you choose to use it. The horizon view is particularly neatly implemented, with discreet bars in the eyepiece margins showing you which way to tilt it left, right, up and down to keep your subject level.
I tested the D800 with a 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens, so the focus results achieved reflect that particular set-up. Pairing it with another lens will achieve different results, so in this instance the standard macro test I would normally do is irrelevant.
However, the D800's impressive resolution is sufficient to render a high level of detail, and when exposed through a wide aperture -- in this case below f/2.8 -- subjects are rendered extremely finely.
It didn't take long to get into the habit of shooting at higher sensitivities, even in situations where smaller cameras would start to encounter problems.
The court house, below, was exposed at ISO 400, and there's a wealth of detail in the stonework where you'd usually expect to start losing detail through over-exposure at that level.
This is true at either end of the scale, with the areas of deep shadow clearly visible in this untouched RAW shot (it's been converted to JPEG), where the darker parts below the table remain clear, despite the exposure measurement being taken from the white door reflected in the mirror.
Colours were bright and vivid throughout the tests, and in many instances you may want to slightly desaturate the results when you get them into post-production. Reds and blues were particularly bright, with skies highly reminiscent of those produced by the Leica M9.
Nikon claims that the D800 shoots 'broadcast quality video', and the specs certainly support that assertion.
Native movie resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels at 30p (frames per second, progressive), 25p or 24p, and 1,280x720 at 60p, 50p, 30p and 25p. Movies are stored in MOV format and have a maximum single-shot running time of 29 minutes 59 seconds.
The quality of the results is excellent, with sharp detail and a clean soundtrack. You can see how much importance Nikon has put on this aspect of filming, as there's a sound meter on the live display while recording. You can change the recording level using the four-way controller and, by tapping the focal point selector, switch to setting the video exposure instead.
The D800's results speak for themselves. They're colourful, vibrant and packed with detail. The 36.3-megapixel resolution is enormous and it's far more than a marketing stat. In this body, paired with such versatile controls, it's well up to the job of delivering first-class results with plenty of opportunity for cropping down to the details you need, should your lens not deliver sufficient zoom.
It's a joy to use, and clearly built with humans -- not simply functions -- in mind. The layout of its controls can't be faulted, and once set up, you'll barely need to touch the menus in a whole day's shooting.
All this at £2,600 is a fair bargain. It's not pocket money, but compare it to the price of a medium format digital camera -- many of which boast similar resolutions while remaining out of the reach of all but the most dedicated photographer -- and it's clear what great value it is.