As expected, the clarity coming from the D800 is phenomenal - we've never seen so much detail and dynamic range coming from a DSLR camera before. But the high amount of information contained in a D800 image file comes with a price.
The challenge with increasing the number of megapixels while keeping the sensor size the same is that each individual pixel on the sensor becomes smaller. By tripling the megapixel count, pixel size has been nearly halved, from 8.45µm in the D700 to 4.88µm in the D800. Generally speaking, larger sensors with larger pixels produce better looking images with less image noise and higher dynamic range. This is not always true, because you need to take into account just how the sensor and its surrounding electronics have been engineered, as well as the algorithms used in the camera's image processing engine. But if nothing else changes, increasing the number of pixels while keeping the sensor size the same tends to introduce more image noise and reduce dynamic range.
In the D800's case, we've actually found that while image noise has been increased, so has dynamic range. While talking about image noise on a 36MP sensor though, it gets complicated, because down-sampling - when a large image is scaled down to a smaller resolution - also plays a part. Such a big part that we're going to go into it more deeply on the next page, and we're going to focus on the clarity and dynamic range of the D800's images on this page.
As we mentioned earlier, the amount of detail you can get in the D800's images are astounding, measuring a high 2800 LPH (vertical and horizontal) on our resolution chart. It makes the camera suitable for high-resolution work, and also handles cropping well. At the same time though, each image's size is significantly larger, JPEG files are an average of 20MB, while RAW files are around 40MB, and Nikon has said that RAW files can go up to as high as 75MB per file. That means you not only can shoot less on your existing memory cards, you might be looking at a complete back-end upgrade if your current workflow cannot support the D800's output.
The files' large sizes also means that it's hard for us to offer full-resolution image downloads like we usually do with our reviews, so we've substituted them with 100% crops to illustrate our points.
The high resolution not only places higher demands on your workflow, but also on lenses. While we found no optical problems using the D800 with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, photographer Ming Thein has tested eleven Nikkor lenses with the D800 and found that:
If you plan on getting the most out of your D800/D800E, you’re going to have to rethink your lens lineup. What worked brilliantly for me on the D700 - as in I felt I couldn’t get any more image quality out – isn’t working on the D800.
You'll also need to be tighter with your shooting technique, as we've found that slight off-focus errors or movement which may look sharp in lower resolution images are magnified and revealed as soft in the D800's large photos.
The D800's images have an impressively high dynamic range, at low ISO sensitivities even JPEGs behave like RAW files from lesser DSLR cameras. This corresponds with DxOMark's review of the D800 image sensor (which has achieved the website's highest score ever). There's an incredible range of detail which can be pulled out of the D800's images in post-production, as long as the highlights are not completely blown and the shadows lost. So much so that when pushed to the maximum, images can take on an almost HDR-like quality.
Shooting JPEG, we found that the D800's images tend to look flat out of the camera on the default Standard Picture Control, and can always use a bit more contrast and even a little more saturation in post-production. This is in contrast to the 5D Mark III and D4's JPEGs which look good straight out of the camera, it looks like the D800 holds back on image processing to retain more detail for photographers who prefer to have as much to work with in post.