Nikon D800: Lab Test Results & Comments

The Nikon 36MP D800 has a “full-format” sensor with a resolution normally associated with digital backs, making it a competitor with medium format cameras made by companies such as Hasselblad or Phase One. The camera will be available in two versions: a standard version, which was used for this test, and an additional version dubbed the D800E, which does not have a low-pass filter. The conventional thinking on use of a low-pass filter is that it avoids color moiré, although inclusion of the filter can create a certain amount of softening of image details. To avoid this soft look many medium format cameras or digital backs do not use it. In those cameras with the filter the effect is reduced via digital filtering in their Raw converter software. (We will do another resolution test on the D800E when it becomes available.)

The Nikon D800 is a full-format sensor camera (35.9x24mm, Nikon’s FX format) with an extremely high resolution of 36MP. The camera is available in two versions. We did a test on the standard D800; a D800E without a low-pass filter will be tested soon.

The large LCD screen (3.2”) has a high resolution and shows a bright and brilliant image, even in very bright situations. An eight-way cursor field and parameter dials are used for menu navigation.

All technical test shots were done with the AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm 1:2.8G ED. The camera offers a built-in flash system, activated by pressing the “FLASH” button near the front.

The D800 uses a combination of function buttons and a setup dial on the left. The buttons are used to set up ISO speed or white balance, for example, while the small dial below the buttons handles drive modes. A status LCD on the right shows the most important image parameters (aperture, shutter speed setting, ISO speed, and more).

The D800 features a large (3.2”) LCD screen with high resolution (921,000 RGB dots) for menu navigation. The LCD screen is fixed and is covered by a transparent cover, which protects it from dust and scratches. For menu navigation the camera uses an eight-way cursor field and setup dials near the shutter release button and on the back of the body. The whole navigation system isn’t as flexible or intuitive as found in the Nikon D4, but it is still very convenient to use. A second shutter release button and setup dial for shots in portrait orientation are also lacking.

The D800 has two slots for memory cards, with both SD/SDHC/SDXC and CompactFlash card compartments. The camera can be set up to use one card for JPEGs and the other card for Raw images, or the user can use the second card as a backup system for the first card, a very flexible arrangement. (The D800 does not make use of the XQD card system, with its extremely fast read/write speeds, as found in the Nikon D4.)

The camera is more like a successor to the Nikon D700 and offers similar handling. Unlike other professional full-format cameras it offers a built-in flash system with a guide number of 12 (meters), suitable for fill at a distance of between 7 to 10 feet. The D800 is fully compatible with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and can work with their flash systems like the SB-910.

The camera offers Full HD recording, including uncompressed video output to the HDMI interface. Manual setting of sound recording level, an interface for an external microphone and a headphone will help record better sound quality. What’s missing for video recording is motor zooming and smooth, continuous autofocusing. These are standard problems for SLR systems, currently solved by CSC cameras like the Panasonic GH2. In our opinion the Nikon D800 is a video camera for professional video productions (advertising, music videos) and not for recording home videos or shooting videos during vacation.

The camera offers standard interfaces like USB and HDMI. In addition, it has interfaces for microphones and headphones for better sound recording and sound control when shooting videos.

Image Quality
Color:
The camera offers very precise color reproduction. The automatic white balance system exhibits a slight tendency into more yellow-colored areas for bright white colors, but this effect is extremely low. The darker gray patterns are located exactly in the center of the test chart. Skin tones are also perfectly matched, with only some boosted blue and green nuances, which caused a slightly higher saturation rate (103.5 percent), which is still very good. The differentiation of red colors is excellent, evident in the red spool and in the red and orange brushes in the standard test box image. The standard test box shot also shows very natural and realistic-looking colors, with the gray background reproduced with very neutral nuances.

The model shot shows the very high sharpness and resolution of images taken with the D800. The focus area was the left eye of the model. The very good differentiation of red colors is noticeable in the model’s T-shirt.

The standard test box is perfectly exposed (automatic settings in P mode). The colors are neutral and realistic, the red nuances (spool and red-colored Kodak pattern) show a little shift into the more yellow-colored areas.

The camera offers very precise color reproduction. The automatic white balance system exhibits a slight tendency into more yellow-colored areas for bright white colors, but this effect is extremely low. The darker gray patterns are located exactly in the center of the test chart.

Sharpness: The sharpness is very good, even though the camera uses a very conservative sharpness filtering in standard image mode when recording JPEG images. The standard test image (box shot) shows a lot of details, evident in the fact that even the extremely small numbers in the small Siemens stars in the lower right are almost readable. The resolution tests were shot with the AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm 1:2.8G ED.

The ISO chart was reproduced with 4642 lines per picture height, which is almost the nominal resolution of 4912 lines per picture height for the sensor. It is the highest resolution ever achieved in our tests for an SLR system. (We will see whether or not the D800E version without a low-pass filter will exceed that.) The very high resolution is also visible in the portrait shot, which was shot with a studio flash system and a manual aperture setting of f/8.0.

Noise: The results in our noise tests are very impressive. Even though the camera uses a standard full-format sensor it offers extremely high resolution, which causes very small pixel sizes for every red, green, and blue CMOS element. The luminance noise, especially in lower ISO speed settings, is only a bit higher than the results from the Canon EOS-1D X, which offers 18MP on a sensor with the same size. (See our lab test on the Canon EOS-1D X in the Image Tech section at www.shutterbug.com.) This is remarkable. The images are very clean up to ISO 3200; only images taken with the highest speed setting (ISO 6400) display some color clouds in homogeneous-colored areas.

The dynamic range results are also very good: the camera gained a maximum of 11.1 f/stops, but keeps a very high level even in images taken with ISO 200 to ISO 3200. In pictures taken with ISO 6400 the dynamic range level declines to under 10 f/stops, which is still very good.

Scorecard
Pro
• Extremely high-resolution sensor
• Very high dynamic range, even in images taken with high ISO speed settings
• Large LCD screen
• Uncompressed, Full HD output of video for high-quality external recording

Con
• Supplied with the simple Raw converter ViewNX 2, while the more sophisticated Capture NX 2 is offered as an option
• Only 4 frames per second in burst mode
• Handling of 36MP images needs very fast memory cards with high capacity, large hard discs, and a fast PC/Mac for Raw image conversion

Image Tech
Please visit the Image Tech section of our website at www.shutterbug.com for tests on other pro cameras. Latest additions include tests on:
• Canon 5D Mark III
• Canon EOS-1D X

Addendum
To add to the comments on the D800, another test site we resource, DxOMark, has released this unedited statement:
DxOMark has released its in-depth analysis of the new Nikon D800, as of now the best camera ever tested by DxOMark in terms of image quality.

Incredibly, the Nikon D800 even surpasses the best medium-format cameras, which are priced more than 10 times higher! The Nikon D800 comes out almost 1/3 of a stop higher than the best medium-format camera scored on DxOMark, the Phase One IQ180, which features a double-surface sensor and more than twice the pixel count (36 vs. 80 MP).

“The new sensor featured in the D800 achieves the best dynamic range and the highest color sensitivity ever measured, taking the lead on the DxOMark scale with 95 points,” explained Dr. Frédéric Guichard, DxO Labs’ Chief Scientific Officer. “This camera illustrates the consistent improvement that digital camera manufacturers have been able to achieve in the last few years, mimicking Moore’s law that has ruled the silicon industry for decades now.”

Mining DxOMark data, one can see the amazing progress of sensor performance over the past decade, from the Canon 1Ds released in 2002 with a DxOMark Score of 63, to the Nikon D3 and the Canon 1Ds Mark III, which both reached a DxOMark Score of 80 in 2007 (+17, i.e. approx. one stop in sensitivity), and now the D800 that adds the equivalent of one more stop in sensitivity performance with a DxOMark Score of 95.

Source: www.dxomark.com.

Lab results and test images by BetterNet, our TIPA-affiliated testing lab. Edited by George Schaub.

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