DUDLEY WILLIAMS | Nikon D800: Six months in the field. A real user review

Nikon D800: Six months in the field. A real user review

June 05, 2013  •  3 Comments




20/09/2013 - UPDATE - 5:4 Aspect Ratio in Viewfinder issue SOLVED

One of my gripes in my D800 review was that the viewfinder didn't dim at the edges when I used the camera in 5:4 crop mode. Instead I am shown extra gridlines but can still clearly see the entire FX frame. A friend of mine told me that when he used the D800 in 5:4 mode his viewfinder dimmed at the edges. So why didn't mine? I did a bit of digging and found the answer on Ken Rockwell's site. I quote Ken here -  "To get the D800 to do this, set MENU > CUSTOM (pencil) > a5 AF point illumination > OFF, which then lets the outer areas go dark instead of just have a line around them. The D800 does this because it makes more sense to illuminated frame lines in the dark, and the D800's AF area illumination isn't with individual LEDs as it is in the D3 and D4; the D800 simply uses one LED that lights the entire finder's LCD overlay." Here is a link to Ken's own review of the D800 http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d800.htm

Thanks for stopping by my blog! This is a user review of my Nikon D800. It's not a technical review and I'm not being paid to write it. I'm also not a technical expert. I am a real user and I like to write about my experiences to record them for posterity and just in case anyone finds it useful now. It's also just a quick review of my first impressions. I will add to this in later posts. 
I look after my kit but I use it in the field in all weathers and I use it at hectic events like weddings where it needs to be robust enough to keep up with what I throw at it. My dad photographed me as a baby back in the early 70's with a Nikon and I bought my first one in 1988 and have been faithful ever since. I have never been let down by a Nikon body and the flash system is, and always has been, superb. 

Anyway, the D800. I bought the D800 primarily as a landscape camera due to the huge resolution on offer from 36 megapixels.  I have a few clients that ask for very large prints to display in offices and hospitals and my 12mp Nikon D3 just wouldn't make prints that size. If you look at my landscape gallery you will notice that my style isn't really about fine details and textures; it's more about mood, tone, colour and composition. The reason I say that is because when I was looking at buying the D800 I felt that people were obsessing about it's resolution in terms of revealing detail. Yes, I suppose increased resolution brings with it finer detail and also some photographers will need and love that but for me it was simply about print size. My 12mp D3 made wonderful images but I really wouldn't want to print them much larger than 20 inches.


Aspect Ratio

There are a few things I would change about the D800. I rarely use the camera in it's native 3:2 aspect ratio. I much prefer the shape of 5:4 and this is present and available for selection in the menu. However, the implementation in the viewfinder is not as good as the D3. In 5:4 aspect ratio the D3 viewfinder was dimmed significantly at the edges leaving you in no doubt that you were viewing in 5:4 aspect ratio. The D800 just uses grid lines meaning you can still clearly see the areas that are not actually going to be recorded. When using the camera for landscapes I am necessarily precise in my composition so it is not a big issue but I would prefer not to have to even think about it. Dark grey edges are preferable to clear areas and extra gridlines. I would like to see a 1:1 aspect ratio as that is my preferred shape for landscape images. I have to pay very careful attention to my composition in 5:4 as I know I will be cropping to 1:1 later. 


Battery Life

I was so alarmed at the battery life that I immediately ordered three extras. Most of my landscape images are made in the winter and photographing in the cold robs a battery's power quickly. I keep my spare batteries in my breast pocket when out in the cold just to keep them warm. At a wedding I am continually focussing with my eye at the viewfinder. I don't review images much on the rear screen but the batteries still seem to drain quite quickly. In fairness I have been spoilt by using a D3 where I could, very nearly, photograph a whole wedding on one fully charged battery. 


Memory Banks (custom settings & shooting menu)

Using the cameras memory banks I have set up two different modes of use. One for landscape and one for action. In the Landscape mode the camera has the following settings; Quality = RAW, 5:4 Aspect Ratio, ISO 100, Exposure Delay mode = 3 seconds, Self Timer = 2 seconds, Picture Setting = standard (this only affects the rear LCD image as I capture RAW), Long Exposure Noise Reduction = On. My settings for 'Action' are very different so it's great that I can program the camera and switch between the two uses when needed. I have a major gripe about this though. It takes me nine button pushes to switch between the two meaning I have missed photo opportunities. I was on a deserted beach in Scotland making landscape images when four white horses walked around the spit of sand nearby. By the time I had got the camera into action mode the moment was lost, their interest in me had waned and they were walking off showing me their backs. I was extremely frustrated that I didn't manage to record it as it was happening; it was a magical moment at dusk. I think some cameras have very quick switching via a button or switch on the camera's top plate but not on Nikon Pro and Prosumer models. 


Build Quality

Like all Nikon Pro and prosumer bodies the D800 is solid and well built, it feels good in the hand and inspires confidence. Ok, I've only had it 6 months but it hasn't missed a beat and does what it's told. I was worried that I would find it too lightweight after the rugged, brilliant D3, but it's not at all. The battery cover feels a little flimsy but not a lot can happen to it tucked away underneath the body and it is weather sealed. I took the screen protector off as soon as I took it out of the box and never put it back on. I want to be able to see as much as possible when reviewing an image and the protector just adds another layer. The screen is tough and completely unscratched. I don't bother with protectors on anything, particularly my lenses. I have a Kirk L Bracket attached permanently to the body which adds to it's solid feel and certainly adds some protection. I am enjoying the weight decrease since moving from a D3 and I don't feel quite as much like Popeye after a whole day at a wedding.


Image Quality

I use the following Nikon lenses: 50 f/1.4, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 VR2 f/2.8. I also use a Zeiss 21 f/2.8. There are plenty of technical reviews of lenses with the D800 so I will simply say that image quality is the best I have seen of all the equipment I have used over the past twenty years. I'm absolutely confident that my set up is at the cutting edge in terms of delivering image quality. The most surprising, and satisfying, thing is the dynamic range available at low ISO settings. A RAW file from the D800 at ISO 100 is capable of being developed almost like an HDR image. I was shocked at how much detail I could recover (or uncover) in the shadows. It's extraordinary to grab the shadow slider in Lightroom and drag it to the right and see detail being delivered that is barely perceptible out of the camera. In use I ensure that I don't clip the highlights of anything I deem important. I can then adjust shadows to where I feel happy. 



The D800 is a well built, prosumer DSLR with an enormous pixel count that delivers wonderful RAW files with huge scope for post development. Am I happy? Yes, definitely. But I would not choose it as a wedding or action camera. For Landscape and Portrait work it is the best tool available in 35mm. But 36 megapixels is too much for a wedding. The rule of thumb that your shutter speed should roughly equal your focal length to achieve sharp images needs to be modified due to the pixel count. When using a 50mm I like to shoot at 1/125th second to be sure of a crisp image. With the D3 I could brace myself and get a sharp image at least three stops lower. 

I miss my D3 when I'm at a wedding or covering an event. It has fantastic battery life, it is better at high ISO, it has a vertical shutter button and it takes two CF cards. I use the back up function, shooting to both cards simultaneously and I'd rather they be the same format; the D800 takes one CF and one SD card. In my opinion the Nikon D3, and by extension the D3s, is the best 35mm camera ever made. As soon as I can fund it I will get another D3. But I will keep the D800 for Landscape and Portrait work. 

I hope you have enjoyed reading my brief review. I'm not an expert but I do use the D800 professionally and if my comments have helped you I'll be very pleased. We are all still learning and the quest to better our skills and knowledge will never end. If you have any questions, advice or anything to say please feel free to leave a comment.

It's a beautiful summers day here on the south coast of England so I'd better head into the downs with the D800.

All the best














Jaimie - I forgot to mention that you are a braver man than me if you shoot a wedding in JPG. I know people have different opinions but I am firmly in the RAW only camp. Unfortunately there is no option to shoot a smaller RAW file than the full 36+ mega pixels. If data storage were much much cheaper and I had the new Mac Pro I might consider the D800 but I just feel that it's taking a sledgehammer to a nut. Thinking about it a D700 with dual card slots and a pocket full of batteries would probably be my top choice. I won't give up the dual card slot requirement though so it has to be the D3. I bought a replacement recently. Man, did I miss that camera. They'll have to prize this one out of my cold, dead hands : )
Hi Jamie - I suppose it really comes down to what the D800 will offer over the D700 and if that's important to you. If you only make prints up to, say 16-20 inches I would save your hard earned or spend it on travel. I specifically wanted to be able to print up to 100cm and retain very good quality. I agree on keeping the D3 - the best camera ever made : )
Let me know what you choose to do and how you get on.
hi Dudley,
Have really enjoyed reading this post I am currently a d700 and d3 user I love them both equally if there were to be an edge comparison I would have to give it to the d3 because of the vertical grip, battery life, and dual slots.
Like you I shoot weddings but probably a lot less than you maybe around 8 a year I am a hobbyist and after 30+ years of using Nikons I would never go anywhere else (other than Fuji I have a x100 for when I am on my pushbike).
Would you in my position buy the d800 and use it at weddings? My thoughts are I can use it to it's full potential when doing landscape and portraiture and drop down the file size to medium jpeg for wedding I am thinking I will still get big but not huge files so I can crop as needed that said I don't do much cropping I prefer to call it trimming I try to get it to taste in camera it's a discipline that's paid dividends in saving workflow time in post. I would still keep the D3 just wondering what your thoughts would be like all of us I have read every thing I can on the camera.
Thanks in advance
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