Nikon D800 – Medium Format Resolution in a DSLR?

About that time when I said about the megapixel war being over with the release of the Nikon D4 and Canon 1D X? Well forget it. Nikon has just officially announced the Nikon D800, a 36-megapixel full-frame DSLR that's even than smaller and lighter than the D700 it “replaces.” Or in other words, medium format resolution in a DSLR form factor, and not even a full-body camera like the D4 or 1D X.

While the Nikon D3 and Nikon D700 featured essentially identical 12mp sensors, the D4 and D800 mark a distinct divergence in Nikon's line. No longer is the Dx00 series simply the “baby brother” to the Dx line, but a different beast entirely.

Both the Nikon D800 and the Nikon D800E are available for pre-order through B&H Photo Video:

Specifications

  • 35.9 x 24.0mm CMOS FX Format Sensor
  • 36.3Mp Resolution
  • EXPEED 3 Image-Processing Engine
  • ISO 100 to ISO 6400 (Expandable to ISO 50 to 25,600 Equivalent)
  • 3.2″ LCD Monitor
  • 100% Viewfinder
  • Eye-Level Glass Pentaprism Viewfinder
  • 1920 x 1080/30/25/24p HD Video Capture in FX and DX Modes
  • High-speed CF and SD Dual Card Slots
  • USB 3.0

Key Features

Goodbye Anti-Aliasing Filter

For me, the most interesting part of the D800 announcement is the slightly tweaked D800E, which features no anti-aliasing filter over the sensor. The high-resolution 36mp sensor alone might make some pause in choosing between a 35mm DSLR and medium format, but I think the increased detail offered by the D800E option will make the difference even smaller.

Stupid Resolution

At 36mp, the D800 and D800E are the highest resolution DSLRs we've seen yet, trumping the 24.5mp sensor of the Nikon D3x and Sony a900. This truly begins to bring some of the very high resolutions we've seen in digital medium format cameras into a much smaller and widely available systems (DSLRs, F-mount, etc).

Dual Card Slots

The D800 and D800E feature dual card slots – the pro-standard CF and SDHC. While I love having two slots of the same format on my Nikon D3, the split slots of the D800 are important for video, especially with the ubiquity of SDHC for video. This inclusion is also an interesting gateway for people upgrading, as many pro-sumer and entry-level DSLRs feature SDHC instead of CF.

100% Viewfinder

While this might sound like a minor specification, the 100% viewfinder of the D800 and D800E is a beautiful thing. Personally, the 95% coverage on the Nikon D700 is my least favorite thing about that DSLR, as it makes precise framing impossible at worst and guesswork at best.

Surprise High ISO Performance?

While the D800 and D800E are squarely aimed at portrait, studio and landscape photographers, I can't help but wonder about the high(er) ISO applications for these cameras. In particular, how the RAW files downsample – maybe not Nikon D4 quality, but perhaps interesting enough?

Moreover, we have some clues. The D7000 that was released at the end of 2010 features a 16-megapixel DX sensor, which is roughly the equivalent in terms of pixel pitch as a ~35mp sensor. Or in other words, a very similar pixel pitch offered in the D800. So, at the very least we have a baseline for performance – the D800 won't feature worse high ISO performance than the D7000. Not a bad start.

Given the performance of the D7000 and the fact that we have over a year between the release of these cameras and time for Nikon to squeeze even more quality out of those tightly packed photosites, I'm going to go out on a limb. Not only will the image quality be as good as the D7000,  I'm going to bet that the D800/D800E offer high ISO performance on par with the D3/D700. Maybe a little worse, but not by much, if at all.

Full HD Video

For the videographers out there, the fact that Nikon has rolled out full-frame camera with full HD video at 1920 x 1080 at 30/25/24p is a nice thing. Better yet, the camera records 1080p in both FX and DX modes, making framing and lens choice a little more flexible (and interesting). The fact that you can save a time-lapse of still photography as a movie file? Bonus.

Canon has eaten Nikon's lunch on HD video for years in their cameras, especially with the Canon 5D MK II and Canon 7D cameras. The D800 looks as interesting as any option Nikon has put up for F-mount video lovers.

Awesome Autofocus Engine

The Nikon D800 and D800E feature Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, which is an update to the CAM 3500FX found in the Nikon D3s, Nikon D3x, and D700. It's also the same AF module as in the Nikon D4 that's been recently announced. Why is this a key feature? Because this AF engine actually works (Canon 5D MK II, anyone?) and has for years. My Nikon D3 can see in the dark, it's fast and it's precise.

Price, Price, Price

While the US pricing of $2,999 and $3,299 for the Nikon D800 and D800E, respectively, is not cheap, it does maintain the pricing of the Nikon D700 when it was introduced. Considering the expected performance of these cameras and the fact that the sensor is the highest resolution we've seen yet in a compact DSLR format like this, the price looks great to me.

Sample Images

Nikon has made a selection of sample images available for download on its official site for the new cameras. As always, these are compressed JPG files – we will wait to see what the RAW files of these cameras can produce before we can even begin to really judge the quality. Still, interesting nonetheless.

Nikon D800 Sample Images

Nikon D800E Sample Images

Pre-Orders Now Available

Both the Nikon D800 and the Nikon D800E are available for pre-order through B&H Photo Video:

First/Final Thoughts

This looks like an amazing camera. Or more precisely, two amazing cameras. I have to wonder whether Nikon's choice to split the line between the standard and non-AA versions of the camera will lead to some buyer indecision, but I applaud them for giving buyers the choice.

Spec-wise, the D800 looks incredibly good, and while $2,999 isn't cheap, I do think that it's a fair price for what this camera promises. Will you be getting one? I know I will be. Now, D800 or D800E?

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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