pixels, pixels, everywhere

As with all new camera releases, very little is left to surprise anymore. The internet is a rumour mill that churns out a mix of speculation, assumption with self-appointed authoritative figures giving their exact predictions and plenty chipping in with their fantasy wish list. The new Nikon D800 was ‘officially’ launched on the 7th Feb to the delight and dismay of many.

Here in Belgium, the 7th February was a day clutched in a rather ‘chilly’ European winter. Compared to the previous days the -5c seemed rather balmy. A barmy balmy day to have an outdoors release of the D800. Yes, outdoors.. We were invited to The Fallon Stadium, an outdoor athletics training stadium in a Brussels suburb to get our cold hands on the new D800. Not only to see the D800, but to have a hands-on test of its recently released big brother, the D4. The very athletic Borlée family were there to train and kindly let a bunch of Nikon testers point a multitude of lenses at them.

Thirty Six point Three Mega Pixels.

The staggering number that heads just about every document mentioning the D800. Staggering because that sort of number of pixels on a sensor is straying into the world of medium format resolutions. Nikon has dared to squeeze all those pixels onto a 35mm sensor and stick a big toe into another sector of photography equipment. Will they be welcome and will they score?

Like the D4 launch, there were some immediate reactions of love and hate for the D800. For some the pixel count is a serious over-kill, for others a welcome step up in capture detail. Nikon have firmly declared that the D4 and D800 are intended for totally different markets. The D800 is aimed specifically at studio use and for end users that need large file sizes for printing, advertising, etc. Human nature is to compare things and being the younger brother of the D4 it’s hard not to compare them. However, looked at in it’s own right, what do we have here in the D800?

A compact and robust body with optional grip if desired. Good ergonomic tweaks, Fabulous video options with uncompressed live feed out via the HDMI socket, blisteringly fast AF speed and accuracy, CF and SD card compatibility, bigger/better LCD screen, continuous 4 fps. The list of specs can be found everywhere online. It’s not my intention to be another specification quoter. All in all, a fully kitted out ‘compact’ professional level DSLR that really can’t be knocked on any point. It’s all there, it does it all and it does it all well. The problems only really start when we dare to compare. We look at what the big brother can do and what the opposition can do and then the comments creep in. 3 comments I’ve heard are: ‘only’ 4 frames/ sec, ‘only’ 6400iso, ‘only’ 36mp output. They’re ‘only’ an issue if you’re going to use the camera in an environment outside it’s design brief. It’ll still work, but not as we photographers have been used to.

The usual release day rules applied, no memory cards to be inserted for testing but that’s no problem as you can get a good idea of the image quality on that nice new LCD screen. What did I, and everyone do? Bang the ISO to 6400 and shoot with the lens wide open. Yup, useable. In fact, on-par or even better than the 6400ISO output of my D3 and streets ahead of the D3x, the first of the multi-super-mega-pixel Nikon cameras. 6400ISO though. Hello? my first pro body was a D2x and that bottomed out at 400ISO and I still got the job done. We’re spoiled rotten now.

There’s more.. The D800 can be bought in 2 flavours. The D800 and D800E. To me this is a big point for Nikon. For those who don’t know, generally cameras have a filter over the sensor that essentially blurs the image a tiny amount to avoid possible Moiré effects. Medium format cameras don’t have this ‘Anti-aliasing’ filter either. As Nikon clearly want to nip at the heels of the medium format market they’ve given us the choice to play it safe or to live on the edge! By removing the filter the images become noticeably sharper, zooming into a D800E file is like a scene from CSI where they seem to be able to enhance and zoom to infinite levels of detail. Ok, I exaggerate a bit but the difference is noticeable.


Along with the high pixel count on the D800 comes some warning. Not just from me but from Nikon. The very fact that so many pixels are there to record the image will show up even the slightest movement in camera or subject. Extra care is going to have to be taken to make the super-sharp images we all love. I noticed this fact event from the step up from 6 to 12mp. It took some getting used to, you can’t cut corners and get away with it so easily, especially when the pixel count has jumped to drastically from 12 to 36mp. I don’t envy the dealerships or Nikon when the barrage of ‘this camera isn’t focusing right’ comments come in. It’s going to happen and to some extent the photographers are going to have to slow down and think about what they are doing more.

Back to the comparison.

The D800 and D4 share a remarkable amount of features. The AF system, exposure system and the video system (bar a few options) are the most obvious and essential components. Features that were jaw dropping at the D4 release are just taken for granted in the younger brother. CF and SD card slot instead of the CF and XQD format in the D4. XQD being the new kid on the block and as yet, the unknown quantity. (On a side note, I read that Sandisk and Lexar, 2 of the biggest memory card players have expressed no interest in producing cards of this format… Could this be another Sony invents, Sony dictates and Sony loses senario? )

Pricing. Well this was the big surprise to me. The D4 weighs in at a rounded up € 6000,00 the D800 at around € 3000,00 Half the price of its big brother. You get all the same essentials as the D4 plus a whopping great 36mp sensor for ‘just’ 3 grand? Ok, € 3000,00 is a lot of anyone’s money but in the photography world that is peanuts. Especially when you think they’re paddling in the medium format pool where relatively speaking, 3 grand wouldn’t even buy the sensor to put in a camera. € 3000,00 is an aggressive pricing that is going to appeal to many people, professional and amateur alike. I’m pretty sure Nikon are going to have to find a way to squeeze more than 24hours into a day to get D800’s produced quick enough too meet demand. On the other hand, they might have done it as strategy, aggressive pricing with high demand to get in the orders quick and try to take a bite out of the DSLR video sector that is already dominated by the Canon 5D MKII. As someone who wants to do more DSLR video work, for the price of a D4 I could buy a D800, video rig and various video related accessories. Not a bad choice to make when you consider that the camera can also produce stunning still images, is it?

The bits that make me scratch my head..

Personally this is huge to me and I can only suspect a deliberate effort by Nikon to force the differences between the D800 use and the D4. RAW files can only be recorded in the full 36mp size. There is no option to save a smaller RAW file. Ouch! That means everything, even photos that are not intended for bill-boards are recorded at a whopping file size. That is barmy and the main reason that the D800 isn’t a clear cut choice for my newest investment. Nikon, if you read this, on behalf of myself and many colleagues. AARGH! Next up, the lack of support for the new WT-5 transmitter. Ok, possibly a luxury to have but a cheaper and more effective solution than the dated and unstable WT-4 solution.

What do I do now?

I’ll have to buy a new camera this year. That’s how it is. What do I buy though? My first and accurate reaction would be, I will buy both. I’m not in the position to drop the fat end of € 9000,00 on camera bodies this year though. Although the year is still young… So what will I choose? The beast of the D4 that just bludgeons its way though work or the smaller and meeker little brother? I still have no idea. Both cover the work I do, both provide features and power I’ll never be able to exploit to the maximum and both would be very welcome. I’ll tell you one thing though. IF the D800 finds it’s way into my camera bag, it’ll be the D800E version. I’ll live on the edge, live a little and risk a little Moiré.

I have one last question: Who is going to buy a D3X now?

Once again thanks to the team at Nikon Belgium for letting us play with the new tools and thanks to the team at Hill & Knowlton Strategies for organizing the event, a warm-ish tent to shelter in and the usual trimmings that make up a very smooth presentation day.

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