23 February 2012

Nikon D4, D800 & D800E hands-on

Being a Nikon Professional has its advantages, besides shooting with great equipment (Nikon), you sometimes get to see products before they are available on the market.

Today I was at Nikon NL to preview the new Nikon flagships, the D4, D800, and D800E. Together with a presentation listing the highlights of these new cameras and their underlying technique, I was able to actually play with them. Very exiting and quite unique as these previews are only available to a select group of Nikon professionals. What makes the event even more unique is the fact that I was holding the only D4, D800 and D800E cameras in the Netherlands!

Note that even though I was able to play and take pictures, I was not allowed to take any of the pictures home for further analysis. This is the restriction you have to live with if you get to see pre-production cameras (because that's what they were). Nikon is still tweaking things till the last moment and they simply do not want people to base conclusions regarding e.g., image quality and high ISO behaviour on things that are still changing. So I am sadly only able to show you pictures of, not taken with the new cameras…

As the specs of the new cameras are freely available on the internet (e.g., on the official Nikon D4 and D800/D800E pages), I will not bore you with repeating those here. Instead I will mention some of the things I found particularly interesting or think you'd like to know.

First of all (as everyone seems obsessed with this), noise, especially noise at high ISO. How do the new cameras hold up in that department?

Based on some of the leaked stuff on the internet as well as my own experience today with the (albeit pre-production) cameras themselves, I think it is safe to say that you can easily use the new D800/D800E up to ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 without any real problematic (colour) noise in your pictures. Considering that you have 36 megapixels (3 times the current high ISO champion, the D3s) to play with and can downsample quite a lot, the usable ISO range extends even further to probably even 12800 or higher, whilst still leaving you with a great looking image. Even at large print sizes. In this sense it is probably on par with the current benchmark, the D3s (but now with many more pixels). For the D4 a similar story holds true and ISO 12800 definitely seems usable without any issue, making it about a stop better than the D3s in that respect (but now with 16 instead of 12 megapixels). Heck, even the ridiculously high ISO HI4 (ISO 204800 equivalent) is usable (for newspaper prints that is).

All in all, Nikon hasn't let us down here at all, and they have now set themselves up as the true high ISO/low noise champions. Trumping the old champion, Canon, for a couple of years in a row now.

Though I don't yet shoot video myself (none of my current cameras are capable of shooting video), I have really been in anticipation of the video capabilities of these new Nikons. While Nikon was the first to introduce video in a DSLR with the D90, they soon lost the (professional) market to Canon's 5D as none of their cameras supported full HD (the D7000 was the first model capable of full HD, but that is more a camera geared toward the consumer than the professional).

The new D4 and D800/D800E are about to change that, I think. Not only do they offer full HD at up to 30fps progressive (60fps is possible at 1280x720), they also offer this stream as uncompressed video at 180Mbps (!) from the HDMI port. To make things even more useful, they have made it possible to have it completely free of the visual clutter (e.g., informational icons, settings, etc.) that is normally included in the HDMI output. This really is a boon to professional videographers who can now shoot full & uncompressed HD, something that previously was only possible with the much more expensive dedicated professional video cameras. To help post production/editing, it is now also possible to set up to 20 markers in the video stream. Audio has also been professionalised, not only can you hook up a stereo mike and headphones, the new vu meters allow you to fine tine their recording level. Oh, and if you want you can (of course?) make use of a separate PCM audio recording stream as well. Great features for the (professional) videographer!

Funny thing: Note that video recording on memory cards is restricted to just below half an hour, this is not a restriction of the hardware (recording from the HDMI stream doesn't suffer from this restriction), but purely driven by import regulations; equipment capable of recording video for more than 30 minutes are import-taxed much more heavily, thus making them much more expensive than equipment that doesn't.

I've always liked the handling of my Nikon cameras, but these new cameras have improved this even more. Especially the minor changes to the layout of the D4 as compared to the D3/D3s are very nice. Buttons are even better positioned and, the D4 held vertically now handles (almost) exactly as when held horizontally. Both the D4 and the D800/D800E are slightly (±100 grams) lighter than their “predecessors”, the D3s and D700 (though strictly speaking the D800 is no successor to the D700).

Memory Cards and Speed
Both cameras now have two card slots, but contrary to the D3, they are of different formats. The D800 and D800E have room for an SD (up to UHS-I) and a Compact Flash (UDMA) card. In the D4 on the other hand you have room for one Compact Flash and one XQD card. This latter format is the new card form factor developed by a.o., Sony. Though current XQD cards are roughly the same speed (or only slightly faster) as the very fastest CF cards, the specs allow for much faster and bigger (up to 1 TB) cards in the (near) future.

With the D4 the only camera to support XQD cards and Sony as the only company that makes them, Nikon has taken a gamble. However, CF is nearing the spec limits, XQD on the other hand still has lots of room for growth, Nikon's gamble may yet prove to be a visionary one.

Fast and big cards are a must for video, but also action and wildlife photographers will benefit from fast cards; the faster the card, the faster and longer you can shoot consecutively. Note that the buffer of the D4 is already big enough to hold up to 98 NEFs and 200 JPGs. Even with a slow card this allows you to shoot about 10 seconds at 10fps before slowing down due to a full buffer. Wow, that is five times better than a D3 (more even when using faster cards)!

Though I don't really like the different memory card formats in the new cameras (if you have both a D800 and a D4, you end up supporting 3 different card types), I can understand why they did so. The D800 now nicely bridges the consumer (SD)/professional (CF) gap (and according to Nikon they simply didn't have room in the D800 for another CF slot), and the D4 simply couldn't only support QXD cards as that would force everyone to buy new (and not yet readily available) memory cards.

My memory card gripes, however, are nothing compared to the worst thing about both the D4 and the D800 cameras: new batteries. This way you end up with another two new chargers in your bag if you carry both the new cameras and your old gear. Plus, you investment in the “old” batteries (which aren't cheap by the way) is now down the drain; you won't be able to use them in your new bodies, forcing you to buy new and extra spares. These new batteries are also lower in capacity than the old ones. Bad, bad, bad.

However, Nikon had no choice: three years ago Japan introduced new regulation regarding (the safety of) Li-ion batteries, basically forcing everyone to lower their battery capacities. As Nikon was able to reduce the power consumption of their new cameras quite a bit too, though, you can expect (nearly) the same number of shots from the new batteries.

So yes, I'm very unhappy about the new batteries and chargers, but there wasn't really much that Nikon could have done here.

Auto Focus
They've gone and improved an already great autofocus system even more!

Auto focus now works reliable still under even darker conditions (1 stop darker than before). Plus instead of working reliably with up to f/5.6 lenses, 11 of the 51 focus points now work reliably with up to f/8 lenses. Great news as that means you can now reliably use a 2.0 teleconverter on e.g., a 600 f/4 lens and still have the full power of the AF system. Sure, you could do so previously too, and it would work, but not reliably and with lots of focus “hunting.”

Canon really has some catching up to do here; only recently did their AF start to come close to match Nikon's. But now with Nikon's new AF system they've fallen behind a lot again. Note that this is not at all saying that Canon's AF is bad (ok, let's not talk about a certain 1D series), just that there is still room for improvement. Hey, and a little bit of competition between the two major brands is a really good thing. Look what it got us so far: super low noise sensors (thank you Canon for besting Nikon here for years), video (thank you Nikon for introducing it, thank you Canon for taking it further and professionalising it), great new (zoom) lenses, lots of great features, etc.

D800 versus D800E
This is probably going to be one of the most asked questions regarding the new D800 camera. Which one and why?

First let me explain the difference between the two. The D800 has an Anti Aliasing (AA) filter in front of the sensor, the D800E does not. Why does this matter? Well, the AA filter takes care (ok, reduces the likelihood) of two problems caused by digitisation: moiré and colour artifacts. The AA filter basically blurs the image a bit before it hits the sensor. This is also why you always have to perform some kind of sharpening on your images to counteract this. A camera without an AA filter inherently takes sharper images with more detail (the blurring removes detail you can't get back with sharpening). But as I said, at the expense of potential moiré and other artifacts.

So, what to choose? The D800 with AA filter, or the D800E without? Here are a couple of things to consider:
  • The higher the resolution of the camera, the less likely moiré will be a problem. With 36 megapixels, chances of moiré are very slim. None of the super high resolution digital backs for medium format cameras have an AA filter (and neither does the “only” 18 megapixel Leica M9 by the way).
  • Moiré becomes an issue only with regular patterns. Nature doesn't have those, so if you shoot landscape, the D800E may be your best option as this offers you (even) more detail. If on the other hand you shoot fabrics (fashion), and perhaps architecture, a lot, the D800 may be best.
  • Distance matters, so changing the distance or position of the camera only slightly can already get rid of moiré (the change may introduce moiré somewhere else though). Of course, the problem here is that you must have noticed the problem at time of shooting before you can do something about it so this is not always an option.
  • Most moiré can be dealt with in post processing but as this is not really an option with video, video shooters may want to opt for the D800.
  • Because there's no AA filter to slightly blur the image, the D800E is capable of capturing slightly more detail and contrast than the D800 (only a minute difference though).
  • The D800E will be about $300/€300 more expensive (you get Capture NX2 worth ±$150/€150 with it too though, but this doesn't really help if you already own NX2…)

With the new D4 and D800 cameras, Nikon sure has put forward some great and very capable cameras. Real dream cameras and cameras I really would like to own as soon as possible myself!

Does that mean there is nothing I'd like to see differently? Sure, as I already mentioned there's the issue with the new batteries as well as the different card types, but these are explained and I can live with them.

There's other things I'd liked to have seen differently too though. For the D4 I would really have loved to have had even higher frames per second. 10fps is only one more than the 9 I now have, and that definitely isn't always fast enough, so likely 10 isn't fast enough either. I had hoped for 12 (like the latest Canon 1Dx). The 12 megapixels I now have in my D3 is enough for most circumstances, but it's good to have more as that allows for more (cropping) freedom. 16 megapixels on the D4 is getting there. The 36 megapixels as on the D800 is really great (especially since they have made it perform very well at high ISO), but the D800 is way too slow for me; only 4fps at full resolution (up to 6fps when cropped). Definitely not enough for my wildlife shooting. I like the body of the D4 with its built in vertical grip) more too (yeah, you can add a grip to the D800 too, but then the buttons will not be as conveniently placed as with the D4).

So I guess what I was basically hoping for was a hybrid between the D4 and D800. To be honest, however, this is probably technically not feasible at this moment. Ah, well, there's always something to wish for. For now I guess I need to find the funds and get both cameras.

More views and (technical) info on these sites:

Update 14/03/2012Nikon releases IPTC Preset Manager software for the D4


  1. Nice report, Hayo. It's good to read that the ISO performance of D800 is not an issue (as many people assume). Now it's time to start saving money.

    1. Hi Marcin, thanks!

      The true power of the D4 and D800 can of course only be judged when they are officially available. But, indeed, from what I've seen so far myself is that noise is not going to be a problem with these cameras.

  2. Hey Hayo,
    I was wondering if the 800E could get in trouble with macro of insects. I tend to go to more then 1:1 magnification (lenses back to back) and facet eyes are like patterns.
    What about wildlife: 'close-up' of fur can look like a pattern too.

    1. I don't think macro shots of insects or other things with a supposedly repeating pattern (e.g., feathers) are going to be a big problem for the D800E; though the patterns may seem regular to us, it is very unlikely they are precisely and mathematically regular. A slight irregularity is already enough to not cause any moiré, so we should be fine here.

  3. Thank you for the fine report. I have a question: I called Nikon USA to ask specifically about the capability of the D4 to shoot with lenses down to F8. This would allow me to use the 2X teleconverter that I have wih the 200-400 lens without having to accept that the combination does not focus about half the time now. I asked Nikon if the D800 would have that same focusing capability. The rep checked and told me that the D800 would NOT have that capability. Do you know the answer to this? Thanks very much.
    Cheers, Jim

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the feedback. Strange Nikon USA doesn't seem to know their own product… The D4 and D800 share the exact same 3500FX AF module and would therefore have the same ability as to fully supporting lenses up to f/8.

      So yes, you would definitely be able to use a 2X teleconverter on your 200-400 and still have the full (predictive) AF at your disposal (albeit for 11 of the 51 sensors). Note: I would advice to use the new TC-20E III for this, and not an older model; the optical quality of the new TC-20E III is really much better then the old ones.

      The new AF capabilities (for the D800) are actually stated on the Nikon USA website as follows: “Nikon Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module with TTL phase detection, fine-tuning, 51 focus points (including 15 cross-type sensors; f/8 supported by 11 central sensors), and AFassist illuminator (range approx. 0.5 to 3 m/1 ft 8 in. to 9 ft 10 in.)”

    2. Many thanks, Hayo. I do have the TC-20EIII. When I can encourage it to focus, it produces very sharp images. :-) Unfortunately, this is not the only time that Nikon USA has given me incorrect info.

    3. Hi Jim, Good!

      I'll make note of the incorrect info from Nikon USA to my Nikon NL NPS contact. If you have further examples of incorrect info and/or people who gave you the wrong information, could you let me know? (info@hayobaan.nl) Perhaps there's something that can be done about it…

  4. first of all, great review, thank you very much.
    Second, you talked about the buffer size on the D4, how big is the buffer on the D800? being a 36Mpx camera, it look like it will be really small,
    thanks, Javier

    1. Hi Javier, thanks.

      Actually the buffer doesn't seem to be too bad at all.

      According to Nikon “it holds more frames than the D700”, but I have not yet seen the official numbers for the buffer size. From other well-informed sources, I conclude the buffer size is between 16 for 14-bit uncompressed NEF and 21 for 12-bit lossless compressed NEF, both at full 36MP FX. Only slightly worse than the D700 and similar to what you have on a D3. Not bad at all!

  5. With such a high pixel count, I just don't understand how the D800 can be any good in low light!

    1. Hi Jen,

      It is indeed quite amazing how they have pulled-off this high quality at high ISO/low light. I was quite surprised to see such low amounts of noise, even at the higher ISOs.

      It's a real pity I was not able to take some test pictures with me and analyse the at the computer; now I only had the LCD of the camera and some of the samples they showed on the beamer.

      I have seen tests on the internet comparing the D800 with the D700, which it beats easily. There wasn't any info on how they performed their tests though, so it's hard to be conclusive about this. It sure looks promising though!

  6. HOW SLOW IS SLOW REALLY. I GET MAYBE A RUNNING CHEETAH MIGHT BE PROBLEMATIC? But where in the real world will this 800e becomeless happy. I do good deal uw pix. Aloha. Jim krueger

    1. Hi James, you're totally right of course.

      Personally I have sometimes found 9fps too slow (composition-wise I would have liked an intermediate shot better perhaps; better leg/wing formation for instance). On the other hand, I still shoot with the D200 too, and that gives me only 5 fps, slower than the 6fps in DX crop of the D800 (with the right battery). So it goes to show you can get good (wildlife) results even with slower framerates (but as said, I'd prefer the higher count for wildlife if I'd have the choice).

  7. Thanks, Hayo!

    I do a lot of night work with long exposures at low ISO. One of the problems with the digital sensors is that they "fill-up" with light which reduces the amount of time you can expose per shot. With the smaller sensors on the D800(E), I am curious if you think that the exposure times at night will be less because of the smaller sensors?

    1. Hi Harvey, you're welcome!

      What exactly do you mean with they “fill-up with light”?
      Do you mean those sensor “pixels” are (overly) bright spots in the scene (certainly compared to the rest of the almost dark scene), and therefore become (severely) over-exposed after a longer exposure, thereby causing problems because the excess photons “spill over” to neighbouring pixels?

      If this is what you meant, then my guess would be that max time would be similar if not the same; though the pixels are smaller there would be a proportionally smaller number of photons to fill them as well, so this would all even out.

      Of course the new design of the pixels may actually be an advantage or disadvantage to this, so without some real testing it will be hard to say exactly what will be the case.

    2. Your reference "excess photons "spill over" is exactly what I mean, but articulated more succinctly. I used to have a lot of problems with my D200 where I would get purple fringing on the images if exposed too long. The D300 & D700 were better in this regard.

      I am hoping that it will all "even out"! I hope someone will do some long exposure testing once they start shipping.

      Thanks for the response.

  8. D800 is perfect for what I shoot. I shoot slow and well thought out images. Wish they had sent me one to test for them...Thanks for the informative post.

    1. I so understand your wish here. I too would have loved to be able to test drive either of the new bodies. Ah well, I guess we need to become a Joe McNally or similar before that happens…

  9. Which Canon beats the D3s in low-noise shots at high ISO? From everything I have seen, the 3Ds is king.

    1. In the currently available line-up of both Canon and Nikon (or any other brand for that matter), nothing beats the low noise at high ISO of the D3s.

      The D4 is even better and I expect it to beat the new Canon EOS-1D X still, I haven't been able to do a side by side comparison, nor seen one, to be sure about that yet though.

  10. Nice Giveback to community Hayo!

    D800 is promising, If I understand correct D800 is going to have better IQ/sharp images compared to D4 for studio shoots or daytime photos (small pixels collect finer details)?

    Also since in DX mode D800 gave 15MP image, it should be having better IQ/sharp images compared to D300S or D7000, and obviously better faster focus, so one camera gave dx zoom when must needed otherwise FX as usual, what do you say?

    1. Hi Prakash, Both D800 cameras indeed capture (much) more detail than the D4 (with the right lens and shooting technique that is).

      As there are more (and better) pixels available, even in DX mode, than the D300S has, IQ will be better. The D7000 has slightly more pixels than the D800 in DX crop, but I still expect the D800 to have a slight edge here (especially the D800E). Also due to better/faster AF.

      So in that sense, the D800 can indeed give you two cameras in one: a great DX camera with enough pixels and quality to suit almost every need, and an FX camera with (yet) unbeatable detail and resolution.

      If only it could give me 10 or more fps, it would almost be the ideal camera ;-)

    2. Thanks Hayo, just placed D800 order....they say you dont get everything so I am okay with a little compromise of ISO and FPS compare to using Dx zoom when needed and better IQ and wall posters....

      I am very happy to hear AF is super fast on D800 ...cant believe its better than D700

      Thanks again...

  11. Thanks for the great write up! I'm curious... you mentioned that the D800 handles noise well at 6400, would you say it's the same, better, or not as good as the D3s? Also, how does it render skin tones, vibrance, contrast etc at the higher ISO's?

  12. Thanks for the great write up! I'm curious... you mentioned that the D800 handles noise well at 6400, would you say it's the same, better, or not as good as the D3s? Also, how does it render skin tones, vibrance, contrast etc at the higher ISO's?

    1. Hi James, you're welcome!

      Viewed at 100% the images of the D800 will have more visible noise than the D3s. However, when taking into consideration the much higher resolution of the D800 (i.e., match resolution when comparing images), you will likely find they are indeed comparable. There may even be slight edge for the D800E here as there you wouldn't need to capture sharpen the image (or at least not as much) to get sharp looking results. Sharpening exaggerates noise, so the less sharpening necessary, the less problematic the noise will be.

      However, with all this, please be aware that as I was not allowed to take any images home with me, I have not been able to do a real side by side comparison of the (raw) images on a computer. The validity of these statements is therefore yet to be confirmed in further testing with real production cameras.

      From information from other sites/testers as well as my own impressions from handling the cameras, I would say skin tones and contrast are rendered very very well, even better than with the previous models (and with a slight edge to the D800E in the contrast department). Colours are rendered nice as well, certainly the same as with previous cameras.

  13. Excellent Blog with tons of information, THANK YOU.
    My question is long Exposure time on the D800/E, would the massive amount of Pixels slow the writing significantly ? Would color artifact be more significant ?
    What's your opinion

    1. Hi HM, thanks and you're welcome!

      Uncompressed 14-bit raw files weigh about 75MB each and writing that amount of data does take time. It definitely pays to use a very fast memory card with the D800 in this respect. On the other hand, the buffer of the D800 is quite big (between 16 and 21 shots depending on raw format chosen) and as it is not really meant for fast shooting, I don't think even a slower card will be too slow and prevent taking your next shot.

      I you use lossless compressed raw (which I would recommend), your file size is heavily reduced (±40%) without losing any information. Reducing write times and increasing buffer size.

      There's always the risk of colour artefects, but with the high resolution of the D800 and the way it has been designed, chances of really problematic artefacts have been reduced a great deal. In a comparison of the D800(E) with some other high res cameras (e.g. the 645D 40 MP medium format and the Sigma SD1 “3*15.4MP” foveon sensor), the Nikon was clearly the winner regarding sharpness and cleanliness of the images…

  14. Hi Hayo, I believe Nikon does NOT include Capture NX2 with D800E in any market except some European markets. May I ask if you confirmed this to be true? I've been looking for a confirmation from Nikon, and they seemed to have confirmed that D800E will NOT include Capture NX2 in the US.

    1. Hi Wes,

      The Nikon (NL) rep I spoke to said Capture NX2 was definitely included with the D800E. It could be that he only referred to the Dutch/European market and that this is not the case in other markets, but this seems odd to me. I'll verify again to confirm.

      One thing I noticed is that not all (NL) resellers list the inclusion of Capture NX2 in the box, so not finding it listed isn't a guarantee it isn't included as it may just be an oversight from the resellers. Also from the comments here and on other forums it seems Nikon USA has an issue with providing correct information so it could be that they are wrong in this case too…

      Anyway, as soon as I know more, I'll post here.

    2. I just got the confirmation: Nikon Capture NX2 is indeed shipped with all D800E bodies.
      Note: NX2 is not included with the D800 (unless the reseller decided to add it as part of a package deal, of course).

  15. Hello Hayo,

    Wonderful review. I have a rather rudimentary question, but one that I can't seem to find the answer to: when you shoot with the D800 in DX mode, can you use a DX lens with it, or do you still have to use a full-frame lens since it's a full-frame camera?

    Many thanks, Jim from Iowa

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thank you for your feedback!

      You can use your DX lenses just fine with the D800.

      In fact you are not even restricted to using the DX crop mode (which still is 16MP by the way) with these lenses!

      Most DX lenses will, however, vignette heavily in non DX mode. But it can still be useful to do so. For instance, I sometimes use the 10.5 DX fish-eye on my D3 in FX mode as this gives a nice circular view – once you remove the built-in lens hood from this lens (which I haven't done yet myself though). Other lenses are even fully usable, from a certain focal length. A good example is the 17-55/2.8 which is fully usable from 26mm onwards.


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