Designed by Italian industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, the D800 is one handsome beast. While the Canon DSLR flagships have always looked restrained to us, in line with the Japanese aesthetic, the Nikon flagships have always reminded us of Italian supercars, unapologetically straining at the leash with their powerful contours. Especially so with the D800, when compared to the D700, the D800's curves are smoother, the top plate slopes right up to the top hood, giving it a hunkered down and muscular look. We particularly like how the D800 logo sits on cut lines which swoop down from the hood to the side of the camera.
Elements of the flagship D4 are reflected in the D800, the shutter release button is tapered downwards at a lower angle, giving the finger a more comfortable place to rest. The red Nikon strip below the shutter release button has been slimmed down to a single line, and the D800 gains the movie Record button, focus-mode selector and Live View levers seen on the D4. Like the D4, you can now set ISO to Auto using the front command dial, without having to dig through the menus. The D800's interior body is made of magnesium alloy, which means it can take a few knocks - the body certainly feels solid in the hands. The body is weather and dust-sealed, and it is remarkably 10% lighter than the D700 while only being slightly wider by about 4.5mm.
Handling is superb; the D800 sits comfortably in the hands and the controls feel intuitive. Unlike on the Canon 5D Mark III where the Power switch is on the opposite side of the shutter release button, the D800 (and all Nikon DSLRs) has its Power switch sitting below the shutter release button, which means you can switch on the camera and shoot with just one hand.
The focus-mode selector lever, first seen on the D7000 and then the D4, reappears on the D800. The lever switches between auto and manual focus, while the unmarked button on top of the lever lets you switch between the different AF modes by pressing down and turning the command dials. While we originally didn't love it on the D7000, we've since grown used to it, and it does allow you to change AF modes by feel without having to take your eyes off the viewfinder.
The release mode dial has been raised, whereas before you had a slither of a surface to twirl the top-facing rotating dial, the dial is now much thicker and the commands are labeled on the side. One more command has been added to the top surface, where the D700 only had Quality, White Balance and ISO, the D800 gains a Bracketing button. Because of the new video Record button located to the side of the shutter release button, the Mode button has been shifted closer to center. Some have complained that this makes the Mode button harder to reach, but we didn't find the new placement uncomfortable.
If you're worried about the longer transfer times with the D800's larger image files, the D800 cleverly comes with a USB3.0 port, which offers faster transfer speeds.
The D800 uses the same Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX auto-focus sensor module as the D4, with 51 AF points, 15 of them cross-types. Which is why it's surprising that the D800 focuses more slowly than the D4 in low-light, likely due to the D800's larger 36MP resolution compared to the D4's 16MP.
In good light we found the D800's AF to be fast and accurate. It's in low light where the D800 hesitates, a breath slower than the 5D Mark III and slower than the D4. Once the D800 achieves focus however, it tends to lock-in dependably, and in AF-C mode it can track moving subjects reasonably well (although, like the 5D Mark III, it will sometimes get confused and track in and out in-between shots).
The D800's tendency to hesitate in low-light, together with its low four frames per second frame-rate, makes us feel that the D800 will not make for a dependable indoor sports camera. While it can be done, the margin of error is lower than on its competitor, the six frames per second 5D Mark III, which we are surprised to find focuses more quickly in low-light. The D800 can actually reach up to six frames per second using the optional MB-D12 Multi Power Battery Pack, but only at DX, not FX resolution. In comparison, the previous generation D700 nearly matches the 5D Mark III's frame-rate at five frames per second, and can shoot up to eight frames per second with the use of the optional MB-D10 Multi-power Battery Pack.
To be fair, sports photography is not what the D800 is built for. While it won't be able to track erratically-moving subjects as well, it should prove more than capable for subjects in dim environments which don't move about as suddenly, like subjects in weddings and concerts. Oddly, and we should preface this as a subjective rather than objective observation, the face recognition on the D800 seems more accurate than on the D4, we saw the camera concentrate focus on faces when in Auto AF mode more often than when we were using the D4.
While the D800 has the same nine, 21 and 51-point dynamic area AF area modes as the D4, the D800 loses the D4's ability to display all nine, 21 or 51 points while you're selecting them. Instead, it will only show the single point, and automatically choose focus from the surrounding points by itself. It's an odd omission of a simple and useful option.
We had no issues with the D800's metering system, which delivered balanced and accurate results during our use. In fact, we hardly found ourselves reaching for the exposure compensation button, except when adjusting for effect.
The D800's LCD monitor is slightly larger than the D700's, 3.2" versus 3". You can zoom deeply into the preview images, up to 46x, which is a great help when you need to check focus on the large 36MP images. The screen comes with an anti-fog layer and the same anti-reflective surface as that on the D4's. Plus, there's also an ambient light sensor next to the monitor, set the brightness to 'Auto' and the camera will adjust the screen's brightness based on the environment. One disappointment is that pixel count has remained the same even though the screen size has increased, at 921,000 dots the D800's LCD monitor is not as rich as the 5D Mark III's 3.2" screen, which has 1.04 million dots.
The D800 gains the convenient Live View switch from the D7000 and D4. When shooting with Live View, the camera stops down to show a live preview of current exposure settings, instead of an enhanced view where the view is always bright. This can be positive or negative, you get an accurate representation of what your final image will look like, but framing is almost impossible if your settings are underexposed, or if you're in a dim environment. Live View will briefly show a correct exposure if you half-press the shutter release to focus. Oddly enough, the D800 manual lists exposure preview as something which happens when you press the OK button, but in our experience it happened by default and we couldn't find an option to switch it off.
Like on the D4 but unlike the 5D Mark III, the D800 displays useful exposure information on the screen without cluttering it up. The D800 gains external microphone and headphone jacks, and can display audio levels in Live View. Audio recording levels can be adjusted, and (unfortunately) like the D4 but unlike the 5D Mark III, audio levels cannot be adjusted while recording.