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:


  • 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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There are 19 comments

Add yours
  1. Chris

    I got a Nikon D700 last year for its amazing low noise capability when doing
    Band shots,how do you think this one will be in low light situation?
    Many thanks

  2. Clay


    So where does this leave music photographers? Do you think the high ISO performance will at least equal the D700?

    Will your own upgrade path be the D4 as the D800 clearly wasn’t designed for our industry.


  3. Valerio

    hard choice for the ones who want to upgrade a D3/D700

    either to go 16mp 200000 ISO for concert/sport/action with the D4?

    or to go 6400 ISO for portrait/landscape/travel with the D800 at half the D4 price?

    if the price tag was the opposite I knew my choice right now, not sure what 36mp are for in practice, but with D800 being so cheaper I just don’t. Maybe keep the D700 for gigs and travelling with the D800 sounds a good compromise.
    one thing is sure, with D800 Nikon has killed the D3x and must have disappointed any recent buyer of a D3x body.

  4. Alistair Maitland

    Totally agreeing with you Valerio. Although I’m totally blown away with the potential of the D800, especially since it’s similarly priced to the D700. Smaller? Lighter? 100% viewfinder? Seriously tempted as I don’t machine gun when shooting live music.

    6400 ISO is exactly what the D700 offers now and I’m quite happy with it. If there were any problems I had before it was Autofocus in lowlight settings. The D4/D800 seem to be “cured” of that…

    Tempting…so let the fundraising begin! :)

  5. Paul

    Looks very interesting, would love to see some full size images to download. I am very tempted, but I would also have to factor in the additional storage costs.

    • Todd

      Hey Paul,

      There are full-res images in the sample pages I linked. However, they look medicore, just like the samples manufacturers always put out.

      I expect RAW files from the D800 to look excellent.

  6. aaron

    I’m buying one. I was just getting ready to buy a D700, but considering this is about the same price and adds video…I’m sold.

    • Todd

      The D800’s price is a nice point. Even lower would be even better, but it’s nice to see that we’ll be able to get superior resolution at $3k when surely Nikon will introduce a similar sensor in a pro body for much more later on.

  7. Nicolas


    Very nice review as usual. With Mansurovs website, you are my reference about tests for gears and photo tips.

    Therefore I wonder why you prefer D800E instead of D800. It is hard to understand if D800E will have problem with video and if it is the good choice for Studio/Fashion/Gigs.

    For me (but i can be wrong) it is a bit dangerous with gigs because you cannot always keep the moire. In a studio, it is easier to change the composition to hide the moire. For landscape it is clear it will be good.

    Just for information, in France, I thought that there will be a lot of D700 into occasion market but nothing at the moment. Lot of people choose to keep their D700 rather to upgrade. Maybe they want to see if images are clean at 6400 iso.

    Thanks for all and hope to purpose a cup of tea soon.

    Best regards,

    • Todd

      Hey Nicolas,

      I’ve moved your comment here, I hope you don’t mind.

      Overall, I would prefer the D800E for the extra detail, even at the expense of potential problems (and of course money!).

      I think for gig photography, moire is a non-issue. The conditions are so far from perfect as they are that I don’t think moire is likely to show up. With live music photography I’m so often shooting wide open at f/2.8, the depth of field is relatively shallow. Add to that that I’m focusing on the eyes/face (where moire is not likely to show up). The shallow depth of field eliminates most other instances on clothing and hair.

      For studio and fashion, you’re right, you can to a degree move and adjust to overcome moire. Even though I think the D800E’s extra detail may be problematic, I think that it’s always better to have more information to start with.

      Hope this makes sense, and thanks very much for reading, I appreciate it.


  8. Jeff

    Hi Todd,

    Great preview on the two models. I called B&H Pro desk and they basically said, “RAW Shooters should get the “E” model, jpg and video shooters get the regular model”.

    I started a flickr group with sample images ISO6400, links to other images I couldn’t download and other stories pertaining to the D800/D800E.

    Here is the link to my flickr group (hope you don’t mind?)

    Keep up the great work and join my Flickr Group! ;D

  9. Sean

    Hey Todd,

    With the release of the new D800, what do you think will be more practical for event photography, the D800 or the D4? Ive been shooting small events for some time now and am gradually moving up to larger and larger shows. I like the price point of the D800, but 36mp seems a bit overkill versus the 16mp of the D4. Which do you think would be a better investment?

    Thanks in Advnace!

    • Todd

      Hey Sean,

      I think it will depend on what your mix of shooting really is. If you’re shooting exclusively events, the D4 is definitely the better camera. It’s going to be faster and offer better image quality, no question.

      For big, well lit arena shows, I think the D800 will be just fine, however. I think that the high ISO performance will surprise many people.

  10. aaron

    For some reason , I feel like I should apologize. I canceled my D800 pre order and am switching to Canon. My friend, who works for Canon, said the 5D mark iii is unreal. usable ISO at 25600. I’d like to see it a little cheaper but it’s still only $500 more expensive than the original mark iii price. It’s worth it to me to finally make the switch before I have too much invested in lenses, which all sold immediately.

  11. Bobin James

    Thank for this detailed post on what the specs really mean, Todd.

    Have you had the chance to shoot some gigs with it yet? (Apologies in advance, if I am missing any posts about that.) Wondering specifically about the low-light performance of the D800 in the real-world.

    I am currently on Canon, but haven’t invested too much, and so will be able to shift to Nikon pretty easily. This will be my first full-frame, and the two choices (I think) are the D800 and the 5D MkIII. But the latter is about $950 dearer, out here in India.

  12. Adrian

    I plan to upgrade from a D90 imminently. I shoot mostly catwalk and concerts in low, often poor, light. Often I need ISO 3200 and at times 6400. Rarely, higher might be better. Flash mostly not allowed, or even desirable, and inevitably hand-held for flexibility. I shoot with Nikkor 2.8 24-70 and 70-200 90% of the time. I NEVER use video. The whole move from the D90 has been delayed largely because of recent and upcoming Nikon releases.

    Initially I held of an a D700 because the the (then) impending D800 release, only to find it’s not REALLY what I want, although it MIGHT be an option still.

    A great camera for me would of course be a D4 but mega-bucks that I can’t really justify, but STILL might. A D3S might be a better option but few used sales here and I doubt any left in the supply chain (waiting for a reply).

    Recently I convinced myself to wait AGAIN, this time for the D600 but I’m starting to get to the stage where my need for a new body is pressing. The more I think about it I can’t see (and I’ll kick myself if I’m wrong) the 600 replacing the 700 (for low light) any more than the 800 has. For me, IF the 700 ever gets replaced it will be better in low light than the 700, nudging D4 levels, so at least 1-2 stops better. Much as I’d like to wish I simply can’t see Nikon doing that with the 600 given the rumoured price level ($1,500 – 2,000). I suspect there are many people waiting for a new 700 and I can’t see Nikon giving it to them at that price. Likely to be around $3,000 if it ever surfaces I suspect, in the shape of a 900 or 800S. All pure speculation but while the 600 I’m sure will be a great body, I doubt that it will be a 700 replacement.

    So, I’m now pondering, do I spring the mega bucks on the D4, get brilliant high-ISO but also a ton of functionality (and size / weight) that I don’t need or just opt for D700 which I can get new here for $1,900? That way I could use the D700 for the next 1-2 years and THEN get it’s true replacement, hopefully with 1-2 stops better low-light over the 700 but without the D4 price tag or bells and whistles, using the 700 then as a back up.

    The other option of course is the 800. That’s not too much of push budget wise but the impression I get is that it’s only as good as, or marginally better, than the D700 in low-light and even then, only if down-sampled. Now I’m trying to get my head round this, but is it worth dropping an extra $1,200 (here) on an 800 to down-sample pretty much all the time? OK I could talk myself into it (higher MP for when I shoot landscape or wildlife, 100% VF, dual cards, better sensor etc etc) but I still get the feeling I’m talking myself into it rather than it being a good choice. As with anything there is also one thing to consider when buying the top of the line (D4 in this case). Firstly I can’t think of any situation you can’t cover and secondly, it will be good for a long time.

    Interested in any views, particularly from anyone shooting the same type of environment and who have gone from a D700 to an 800.

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