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Announced: Nikon D800 with 36.15 million image pixel sensor - Continued
91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor

A new ambient/i-TTL flash metering sensor was first introduced in the D4, and the identical component has made its way into the D800 as well. With 91,000 pixels it's effectively a low-resolution image sensor unto itself, though it's used principally for exposure and duties related to the camera's Advanced Scene Recognition System, and not image capture per se.

By far the niftiest trick it can perform is to detect faces, then send their location(s) to the AF system (while set to Auto-Area AF). The camera then activates the corresponding points within the AF array as you watch through the viewfinder. We've tried this feature on several occasions now, with preproduction D4 and D800 bodies, and it appears to work quite well.

51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF


A new, more light sensitive AF sensor module underpins the AF system in the D800. Like the D4, which was the first model to get this improved AF sensor, the D800's AF system retains the same Multi-CAM 3500FX name, the same 51-point arrangement with 15 cross-type points and many of same AF options such as single point as well as 9, 21 and 51-point Dynamic AF clusters. There are two notable specification improvements, however, relative to the D700:
  • The minimum light level for AF detection, at EV-2, is one stop better than the D700's EV-1. This is promised to result in improved focus in low light, including outdoors at night and in places such as dim hotel ballrooms, as well as speed up initial focus acquisition.

    Autofocus with lenses or lens + teleconverter combos whose maximum aperture exceeds f/5.6. With the D700, and many other Nikon digital SLR models past and present, attaching something like a 600mm f/4 + 1.7x teleconverter would result in sub-par autofocus or no autofocus, because this combination is beyond the f/5.6 AF limit of most Nikon models. The D800 can autofocus properly to f/8, as long as your composition keeps the subject within a subset of the AF array's 51 points.

    If the maximum aperture of the lens or combo is between f/5.6 and f/8, the number of AF points that retain their cross-type performance drops to nine, while six others, left and right of centre, operate with single line sensitivity only. The remaining 37 AF points in the array may function, but may not detect focus distance properly if they do.

    If the maximum aperture of the lens or combo is f/8, the total number of properly-operating points is 11, with the centre-most AF point retaining its cross-type sensitivity. Again, other points might function, but might not function well.
d4_af_array_01.jpg
d4_af_array_02.jpg
d4_af_array_03.jpg
Into Focus: The optimal AF points available to f/5.6 or faster lenses, left, between f/5.6 and f/8, middle, and f/8, right. Orange indicates cross-type sensitivity (Graphics courtesy Nikon)

Note that the D800 doesn't prevent the user from selecting a non-optimal AF point. If you plan to hook up a long lens and teleconverter that puts you into the beyond-f/5.6 territory, you'll want to pay special attention to which of the 51 AF points work best.
The D800's AF system is, in all the important ways, the same the D4. Not all ways, though; Nikon has kept a few AF-related features exclusive to the higher-priced model. The ones we're aware of are:
  • The D4 can optionally show all the active points in a Dynamic AF grouping. If, for example, the camera is set to 9-point, the main point in the group will appear as a red square, while eight small red dots will light up around it. The D800 doesn't do this, it will light up just the main point.

  • AF-C Priority Selection, the Custom Setting that dictates whether priority will be given to release or focus when tracking a subject, has four options in the D4: Focus, Release, Release + Focus and Focus + Release. The D800 has only the first three (making it the same as the D700).

  • The D4 can be set so the active focus point will automatically change with the orientation of the camera. The D800 lacks this ability.
Video

The D4, and now the D800, represent Nikon's biggest push, by far, to establish its digital SLRs as tools for filmmakers. If you're familiar with the video capabilities of the D4, then you already know a lot about what's coming in the D800, since the two models share an almost identical set of video capture features. Here's a rundown:
  • Video can be recorded at the following output settings:
    • 1080p: 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30fps (actually 29.97fps)
    • 1080p: 1920 x 1080 pixels at 25fps
    • 1080p: 1920 x 1080 pixels at 24fps (actually 23.976fps)
    • 720p: 1280 x 720 pixels at 60fps (actually 59.94fps)
    • 720p: 1280 x 720 pixels at 50fps
    • 720p: 1280 x 720 pixels at 30fps (actually 29.97fps)
    • 720p: 1280 x 720 pixels at 25fps
  • Clips can be up to 20 minutes long, regardless of the resolution and frame rate chosen, when the D800 is set to High video quality. Switching to Normal quality extends the clip length to a maximum of 29:59.
  • The D800's H.264/MPEG-4 video quality is said to be noticeably better than earlier video-capable Nikons like the D3S. Promised improvements include crisper fine detail rendering and fewer instances of jaggies within clips, thanks in part to the use of a B-frame compression scheme. The rolling shutter or jello effect has also been reduced, a lot. The D800 performs real-time noise reduction during video capture.

  • Up to 1080p video can be recorded from nearly the full width of the sensor, or from within a 24mm-wide central portion of the sensor if the D800's image area is set to DX.

  • It's possible to output uncompressed (8-bit, 4:2:2 colour sampling) video for the best possible quality. By removing the memory cards from the camera, and connecting an external data recorder (such as the Atomos Ninja) to the HDMI port, the D800 will automatically send an uncompressed 1080p signal through the HDMI connection. Set like this, you don't actually start and stop recording with the camera itself. With Live View on, the D800 streams its uncompressed signal continuously, and the record start/stop controls on the external recorder take over responsibility for beginning and ending the capture of that signal.

    This also means that the D800's clip length limit doesn't apply. The continuous recording time for a single clip will instead be capped by one of three things: the external recorder's capacity, the battery life in both the camera and the recorder (if working away from AC power) and the duration for which Live View can be kept active, which is generally about an hour but is dictated in part by the camera's internal temperature.

  • When an HDMI monitor is connected, the rear LCD doesn't turn itself off and stay off. Both it and the external monitor remain on and active simultaneously.

  • The D800 has both an internal mono mic and a powered 3.5mm stereo mic input jack. Audio levels are set automatically, or manually in 20 increments. While in video mode, an audio overlay on the rear LCD shows a stereo levels meter and provides direct adjustment of audio recording levels.

  • Listening Device: The D800 and Stereo Microphone ME-1. Click to enlarge (Photo courtesy Nikon)
    Headphones or speakers, for monitoring audio as it's being recorded, can be plugged into the camera's 3.5mm stereo output jack. Volume is adjustable, in 30 increments, via an overlay on the rear LCD.

  • Shutter speed, aperture and ISO can be changed manually and independently, both before and during recording (plus the camera can be set to automatically adjust exposure and sensitivity as well).

  • The range in which the camera will automatically adjust ISO, when the D800 is capturing video, is 100-25,600.

  • Manual focus as well as full-time autofocus with face detection is possible as video is being captured.

  • As already mentioned, the D800 body has new, video-specific controls, including a recording start/stop button near the horizontal shutter release.

  • The aperture diaphragm can be smoothly driven from one aperture setting to another with the Power Aperture feature (in use, the Function and Depth of Field preview buttons on the front of the camera open and close the aperture while pressed).

  • Index marks can be set. The D800 does not have the ability to embed timecodes.

  • Both the D800 and D800E can record video, but it's possible, even likely, that the D800E's greater tendency to exhibit moiré and other colour artifacts could be a significant drag on video quality. Especially if, as also seems likely, the unwelcome colour is far more difficult to remove from video clips than it is from still photos.
Nikon has held back almost nothing from the D800's video mode, relative to the D4. A couple of the differences we've spotted are:
  • The D4 can record video at 640 x 480 pixels; the minimum resolution for the D800 is 720p (1280 x 720 pixels).

  • Among the image area options available in the D4's video mode is an actual 1920 x 1080 pixel crop. This was not implemented in the D800, says Nikon USA's Heiner, because the camera's much smaller pixels means a 1920 x 1080 pixel crop would be such a tiny capture area that it would be impractical to use.
Memory cards

Not so long ago, the only double card slot models in Nikon's lineup were its flagship digital SLRs. With the introduction of the D800, all of the company's cameras from the D7000 upwards can take two memory cards at once.

One slot in the D800 is for CompactFlash Type I, and it can take advantage of the UDMA Mode 7 data timing protocol for promised faster write speeds than the D700. The second slot is for SD/SDHC/SDXC, and it can utilize UHS-1 for expected fast write speeds with this card type.

Eye-Fi wireless/SDHC combo cards are officially supported.

The D800 has the same two-card configuration options as other Nikons, including writing different file formats to each card, mirroring the same files across both and switching to the second card automatically when the first fills up. You can also choose which slot is to be the destination for video files specifically.

Battery

The D800 is powered by the 7.0V, 1900mAh EN-EL15, the same as the D7000 and the V1. The included charger is the same too: Battery Charger MH-25. The battery life specification for the D800 is 900 shots. This is based on CIPA's test method, which includes use of the built-in flash for 50% of pictures.

Other power options are AC (this requires the optional AC Adapter EH-5b + Power Supply Connector EP-5B) and the accessory Multi Power Battery Back MB-D12 (which accepts the EN-EL15, AAs as well as the D4's EN-EL18).

Other changes

Nikon has woven several other changes into the D800, including:
  • The self-timer can be configured to take up to nine pictures in a row, at intervals of 0.5s, 1s, 2s or 3s, after an initial delay of 2s, 5s, 10s or 20s.

  • A new feature, in-camera HDR, automatically blends two consecutive JPEG frames shot at different exposures.

  • A clever new time lapse feature handles both the shooting and the creation of a time lapse movie, right in the camera. You choose the interval between pictures, how long you want the camera to keep shooting, the output resolution and frame rate of the video to be created and the camera does the rest.

    The camera assembles the movie as the pictures are being shot, so at the end of the process it only takes a short time for the movie building to complete. It can be played back in the camera, or transferred to the computer and viewed there. The original still pictures are not kept in this mode, however, so you can't manually build another time lapse from the same source files later. For that, you're better off using the camera's intervalometer to shoot the timelapse sequence.
Only in the D4

Nikon has brought a number of the D4's feature tweaks and smaller feature additions to the D800, including things like automatic time lapse creation. It has also reserved a few goodies for the top-end model alone, including:
  • The delay interval for the D4's Exposure Delay Custom Setting can be set to 1s, 2s or 3s. In the D800, it's fixed at about 1s. Update, March 28, 2012: Production D800 bodies have the same 1s, 2s and 3s options as the D4.

  • A full set of IPTC metadata can be embedded into D4 picture files as they're shot. This capability is not in the D800.

  • A setting in the D4 enables you to choose between having ambient exposure compensation applied to on-camera Speedlight output or to have ambient exposure compensation affect the ambient exposure only. This option doesn't exist in the D800.

  • While in Live View, the D4 can be configured to shoot up to 1920 x 1080 pixel JPEGs, at either 12fps or 24fps, without making a sound. This is also not to be found in the D800.
Menu screenshots

A gallery of menu screenshots, highlighting some of the D800's new or updated features, is below.

Screenshot
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Price and ship date

In the U.S., the Nikon D800 is slated to ship late-March at an expected street price of US$2999.95. The D800E is to follow, in mid-April, at an expected street price of US$3299.95. A release date for Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D12 in the U.S. has not been set, while the expected street price has been announced at US$616. Update, February 28, 2012: The U.S. street price for the MB-D12, based on a price check at B&H Photo, is actually US$449.95.

The D700 has not been discontinued in the U.S., though it's likely that the body is no longer being manufactured (and it has already been officially put out to pasture in Nikon's home market of Japan). The older model will continue to be sold alongside the D800 at U.S. Nikon retailers until all stock of the D700 is gone, says Heiner. Update, February 17, 2012: New information suggests that Nikon now plans to keep manufacturing the D700 until demand wanes.

In Canada, the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for the D800 is CDN$3149.95. Shipping is scheduled to commence on March 22. The D800E is to arrive in stores about three weeks later, on April 12, at an MSRP of CDN$3449.95. Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D12 is tentatively scheduled to ship at around the same time as the D800 in Canada, at an MSRP of US$429.95.

Note: We're aware there is an odd discrepancy between the U.S. and Canada pricing on the MB-D12, and that the U.S. price seems on the high side for an accessory like this. That said, we've confirmed with Nikon USA, twice, that the US$616 price is the correct expected street price. Update, February 28, 2012: The U.S. street price for the MB-D12, based on a price check at B&H Photo, is actually US$449.95.

Inside: A cutaway view of the Nikon D800. Click to enlarge (Graphic courtesy Nikon)

Links

Thanks to Mike Finch, Steve Heiner, Mark Cruz and Geoff Coalter for their assistance with this article.

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