D800 First Impressions

I was super excited when my D800 arrived yesterday, after 3 months on the waitlist with Amazon.com. I had been on the waitlist on Amazon for 3 months when I woke up one morning last week to find that Nikon Rumors had just Ā posted that Best Buy had a shipment of D800’s that they were selling for in store pickup! Excited, I raced over to BestBuy.com and managed to get an order through, for pickup at my local store. Upon completion of the purchase I was told the camera would be available for pickup the week of the July 17th. That same day I also got an email from Amazon saying that they would be shipping the D800 that I had ordered months ago during the same week as the Best Buy shipment! Eeeeecks — I needed to cancel an order … so I decided to save $250 in sales tax and went with Amazon!

My D800 finally Arrived
My brand new Nikon D800, shortly after being unboxed

I spent yesterday going through the manual and learning my way around the new D800. It’s very similar to the D700 but with a couple differences:

  1. The zoom in and zoom out buttons are swapped, which is going to throw me off for a while. On my D700 zoom out was above zoom in — on the D800 zoom in is above zoom out.
  2. A dedicated LiveView button has been added, which is super handy because it means I don’t have to switch from “S”, “Cl”, “Ch”, etc modes to go into Live View! On the D700 you actually had to move the shooting dial to get into LiveView, which was a pain!
  3. LiveView now changes the aperture when you’re in aperture priority mode. This is great because it gives you DoF preview on the Live VIew. Unfortunately Live View still sucks (see below).
  4. Addition of SD card slot, which is nice because I had SD cards for my D80/D300s.
  5. Changed the connector for the battery grip from an “L” shape connector to a “D” connector, which means my battery grip and L bracket tripod mounts no longer work šŸ™ Currently there aren’t any cheap chinese Battery Grip ripoffs, so I’m gunna have to hold off for now.
  6. New battery — same as the D7000, which is apparently impossible to purchase online at the moment.
  7. TheĀ bracketingĀ button has moved from by the lens to the top of the camera, near the ISO, WB, quality buttons. This keeps throwing me off, for now, because I keep hitting bracket button instead of ISO button. I’ll get the hang of it eventually.
Top view of the Nikon D800
Top view of the Nikon D800, showing how the bracket button has moved up top

The first thing I noticed when turning it on is that the graphical interface has become a bit crisper and more modern. Otherwise it’s still the same as the D700 and similar to the D300s. Navigating my way around choosing different options was still very familiar. The little beeps that the camera puts out are changed a bit, but I like the new sound, it’s a little bit less high pitched and annoying. The camera shutter also sounds pretty good, although I’m not sure that really matters šŸ˜› I threw my 24-70mm lens on and took a couple pictures at first and the camera is still very familiar, thanks to the D700. Immediately I enjoyed having a 100% viewfinder! The LCD is also crisp and pretty beautiful and a bit bigger (or at least it seems) than the LCD on the D700.

I customized the “Fn” and DoF Preview buttons on the camera to do 2 things: the Fn button shows me the “virtual horizon”. It’s a bit different than the virtual horizon from the settings menu, which makes it look almost like you’re flying an airplane. When you’re looking through the view-finder and hit the “Fn” button little arrows show up in the view finder on both the bottom and on the right to show you how you’re tilted. I’m sure this is going to be super useful when I’m composing shots and I want to quickly figure out if I’m level or not! I’m super excited for this feature!!!

Virtual Horizon displayed in the D800 Viewfinder
Notice the tick marks on the right edge and bottom edge -- if you hold down the "Fn" button, these will display how level the camera is and help align the horizon for you!


I also customized the DoF Preview button to do “bracket burst”. I don’t really use DoF Preview too much but I do bracket fairly often so that’s why I changed the setting. Bracketing burst doesn’t work exactly how i want it to, but it does make things nicer than normal. On my D700 if I wanted to bracket I had to switch the camera from single shot mode (“S”) to continuous shooting mode (“Cl” or “Ch”). Now, all I have to do is hold down the DoF preview button while I’m shooting and hold down the shutter and all the photos will be taken, even if I’m on single shot mode (“S”). Note that you do have to keep holding down the shutter. On canon cameras all you have to do is hit the shutter once and all the exposures are taken. Oh well, canon wins in that regard.

I also pulled up LiveView to see how that worked. Instantly the LiveView came up and allowed me to zoom in anywhere on the screen. Previously I had to set LiveView to “Tripod” mode to get this feature. I also noticed that while in Aperture Priority mode, moving the aperture would actually change the aperture on the lens and preview it in LiveView. Unfortunately, Nikon has chosen to do RealTime LiveView — meaning that they try to show you on the LCD as soon as they can, what the sensor is seeing. The problem with this is that they have to pick a starting point and then adjust from there … so what they tend to do is bump the ISO up (this is all speculation), making things REALLY grainy … that or they’re throwing away a lot of pixels when they show you LiveView. So when you adjust the aperture, you can see the DoF change, but the screen also gets DARKER, to the point where LiveView almost becomes useless. Oh well, at least it’s a start. You can also adjust white balance from LiveView, and that works pretty well.

So you’re prob. all wondering about the PICTURE QUALITY (why has it taken me this long to get here?!?!?). I’ll start out by saying that it is PRETTY DAMN STUNNING!! The first thing I noticed, almost immediately, was the huge dynamic range that this sensor has. I had to really work hard to get this thing to clip on the highlights side! It did a really good job of keep things off that silly blinking highlight screen! The colors pop, the contrast is nice, and just the amount of detail is stunning. The 36mp that this sensor packs really isn’t lacking. I could zoom way in on a flower and see all the little pollen and other fine details. Pretty impressive! As you’ll see in some of the shots (link below), the camera does a really good job of pulling out the highlights and whites from the image. Just pulling down some sliders in Lightroom 4 really brought a lot of detail back!

Flower, Straight out of the camera
A flower as shown straight out of the camera. Notice how there's a lot of highlights that might be clipped


Edited version - look at how much highlight detail was pulled out!
Pulling down the highlights and whites sliders in Lightroom 4 pulled out a lot of the color / detail in teh flower

ISO quality was also VERY impressive. Yes, I said it … IMPRESSIVE! I bumped this thing up to ISO 6400 and then threw in some noise reduction and you pretty much can’t tell there’s any noise when viewed on a 24″ monitor! I know many people like to compare “RAW images” to see how a sensor stacks up but I don’t find those to be very useful because they’re not examples of REAL WORLD uses. In the real world we all do some sort of noise reduction (hopefully), be it in Lightroom, Photoshop, NoiseNinja, or whatever. So what I did was take some high ISO shots and then put it through either Topaz De-Noise 5 or Nik’s Dfine 2.0 or Lightroom’s Noise Reduction algorithm. The results were pretty damn awesome. Some of you might not know that I have a masters degree in Electrical Engineering, specifically digital signal processing (of which image processing is a subset). What this means is that I when I tell you the following, you can trust that I know what I’m talking about: noise reduction algorithms will work BETTER as the megapixels increase for a given sensor sizeĀ — there’s just more frequency and more data to help make the distinction between noise and real data. So when I threw Topaz De-Noise 5 at some of these images, I got some really great results!

ISO 6400 + Topaz De-Noise 5
This flower, shot at ISO 6400 shows very little noise after being processed by Topaz De-Noise 5


The D800 does have a quiet shutter mode but like many of the reviews have also said, I wouldn’t call it quiet. I think the actual shutter actuation is quieter, but the mirror movement is still just as loud. Overall I’d say it’s about just as annoying as normal mode, assuming you found the normal shutter sound “annoying” in quiet situations.

One weird thing that I noticed while walking around town today was that it had some trouble metering at f/9 and smaller apertures. At f/8 and bigger the photo was exposed fine, but at smaller apertures things got really blown out. I’m not sure if that was the camera, the lens, or the conditions fault. I went home, swapped lenses, and couldn’t recreate the issue. I’m not totally sure, yet, if it meters to the right or not. I’ll have to play around with it some more and experiment. In the case of my problem at f/9, it became COMPLETELY overexposed (to the point of it being mostly clipping) when I went from f/5 to f/9. I’m not sure why this happened. I had to drop the exposure compensation to -3.0 to get the photo to come out OK. And i also tried spot metering and that didn’t help. I can’t recreate the issue anymore, so who knows.Ā I’ll keep an eye on this and report back.

Overall I’m super impressed with the camera so far and really excited to take photos with it!!!

View my first D800 photos on my website


Aaron M Written by:

Aaron Meyers is a landscape and wedding photographer living in Silicon Valley, CA. His love of the outdoors makes for frequent forays into the Californian wilds, where he delights in the stunning vistas of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, and the Pacific Coast.