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Announced: Nikon D800 with 36.15 million image pixel sensor
Monday, February 6, 2012 | by Rob Galbraith
Nikon has unveiled the D800, a new camera whose headline feature is its 36.15 million image pixel full-frame sensor which, as of this writing, makes it the highest resolution available or announced for a 35mm-style digital SLR camera, ever.

The D800 will be available starting in March, and is to be followed several weeks later by the D800E, a variant of the new model that has the slight blurring effect of the sensor package's optical low-pass filter cancelled out, for maximum per-pixel detail as well as an inevitable increase in certain digital artifacts such as moiré.

It's a fascinating one-two punch from a company that hasn't normally driven up the pixel count in its cameras this aggressively. At a price of about US$3000 for the D800, and US$3300 for the D800E, it's clear that Nikon is targeting a large swath of still photographers who want or need extreme resolution, including those who have opted for medium format digital systems in recent years.

It's also worth noting that the new camera's video recording abilities are essentially identical to the D4, at about half the price, so it's likely that video shooters looking at a digital SLR from Nikon are going to snap up the D800 in greater numbers.

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A shift in emphasis

The D800 represents a shift in emphasis for this segment of Nikon's digital SLR lineup. The D700 was effectively a junior version of the pricier D3, offering the same autofocus, same metering, same resolution, same high ISO image quality and, with Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D10 attached, nearly the same frame rate (8fps for the D700 vs 9fps for the D3). Sports or other photographers that bought the D700 and MB-D10 soon discovered they'd gotten the best of the D3 for a lot less money.

By incorporating the same 51-point AF system, 91,000-pixel RGB metering and video mode as the D4, the D800 partly continues the tradition. But, most similarities end at the image sensor, and traits that stem from it. These include high ISO performance, where the D4 is expected to be the undisputed king of Nikon's lineup, and frame rate, which will also favour the recently-announced flagship model, 10fps to 4fps (at the D800's full resolution). The D800, on the other hand, will reign supreme in sheer image enlargeability.

The D800 is targeting a different type of shooter, plain and simple. This is truer still of the more-detail/more-moiré D800E. This makes the potential of the new camera no less exciting of course, for those whose photography can properly capitalize on the resolution. This would include landscape, fashion and wedding photographers, as well as those, like myself and site co-editor Mike Sturk, who derive income from shooting large groups as well as helicopter aerials.

But if you were hoping for the D800 to be a D4 Lite, it isn't.

Nikon D800 feature summary

All of that said, there's certainly more to the D800 than just a high-resolution sensor. Both it and the D800E feature a 4fps top shooting rate (or up to 6fps when capturing DX Format photos and the new Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D12 is attached), a standard ISO range of 100-6400 (and an extended range of 50-25,600), a revised 51-point AF system capable of autofocusing with f/8 lenses, all-new 91,000-pixel RGB ambient/flash metering sensor, built-in flash with Commander Mode, CompactFlash and SD memory card slots, EXPEED 3 image processing, 1080p video capture with audio monitoring and optional uncompressed video output, in-camera HDR and time lapse creation, all in a dust and weather sealed magnesium alloy body that resembles the D700 but incorporates several control changes too.

Unless otherwise noted, all features and specifications for the D800 and D800E are the same. Here's the new camera, at a glance:
  • Magnesium alloy body with environmental sealing

  • While very similar in look and feel to the D700 overall, the D800 has reshaped front Fn and Depth of Field Preview buttons as well as a revised AF mode selector near the lens mount that allows for quick AF settings changes, a dedicated still/video and Live View control, a video start/stop button near the horizontal shutter release, a new Bracket button and more

  • 36.15 million image pixel, 35.9 x 24mm (FX Format) self-cleaning CMOS image sensor. Picture dimensions are 7360 x 4912 pixels on the [L] resolution setting, 5520 x 3680 pixels on the [M] resolution setting and 3680 x 2456 pixels on the [S] resolution setting

  • As noted, the camera will come in two versions, the D800 and D800E. The D800 is the standard model, and like all other Nikon digital SLRs it incorporates a low-pass filter over top of the image sensor. This is meant to reduce the instances of moiré and specular highlight artifacts, but at the expense of fine detail, which is blurred slightly by the filter. The D800E's sensor package has been changed to eliminate the softening effect of the low-pass filter, which means crisper fine detail but more moiré and perhaps more specular highlight artifacts too

  • Four image area (sensor crop) settings: FX (full-frame), 5:4, 1.2x and DX (1.5x)

  • A 4fps top shooting rate at full resolution. At image area settings other than FX, the D800 will fire at up to 5fps or 6fps, depending on the image area and the power source

  • In a quick test with a preproduction D800 body set to ISO 100, we were able to rattle off 20 NEF (14-bit, lossless), 37 full-resolution JPEG Fine and 15 NEF+JPEG continuous frames, at 4fps with a fast CompactFlash card loaded

  • A revised shutter mechanism with a durability rating of 200,000 cycles; the shutter, mirror and aperture diaphragm control mechanisms are independently driven in the D800

  • A standard ISO range of 100-6400 in 1/3 step increments, plus an extended ISO range down to ISO 50 and up to 25,600

  • A shutter speed range of 30s-1/8000 plus Bulb, configurable 1/250 or 1/320 x-sync shutter speed and support for Auto FP Sync, Advanced Wireless CLS and other Nikon-standard Speedlight functionality

  • Release modes are single (S), low-speed continuous (CL), high-speed continuous (CH), quiet (Q), self-timer and mirror lockup

  • Built-in pop-up flash with a guide number of 39/12 (ft/m, ISO 100, 68°F/20°C), plus i-TTL, Manual and Commander Mode operation. (Both the built-in and external Speedlight features appear to be unchanged from the D700)

  • A startup time of 0.12s and a shutter lag of 42ms

  • A revised 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system that integrates a new AF sensor module. The new AF sensor, which is 20% more light sensitive than its equivalent in the D700, is capable of low light focus acquisition down to levels as dim as EV-2 (compared to the D700's EV-1). The D800 is also the latest Nikon digital SLR that can autofocus with lenses or lens + teleconverter combos whose maximum aperture is f/8. All previous 51-point AF Nikons, up to and including the D3S, have been able to autofocus to f/5.6; beyond that, the AF system either works less reliably or not at all

  • Viewfinder is a pentaprism type with 100% frame coverage (compared to the D700's 95%), 17mm eyepoint (-1.0mŻą), 0.7x magnification, non-interchangeable focusing screen, optional grid display and diopter adjustment
  • 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion and 16-bit EXPEED 3 digital image processing

  • 91,000-pixel RGB ambient/flash metering sensor; the algorithm processing the light and colour information from the new sensor has been revised and is now called 3D Color Matrix Metering III. This sensor is also at the heart of the D4's new face detection capabilities, which form part of the exposure calculation as well as the automatic selection of active AF point(s) when the autofocus mode is set to Auto-Area AF

  • Dual-axis Virtual Horizon level, viewable in both the viewfinder and on the rear LCD

  • HD video capture at resolutions up to 1080p/29.97fps and 720p/59.94fps. A headphone jack enables live audio monitoring, uncompressed video can be sent out the HDMI port for transcoding by an external recorder and both the rear LCD and an HDMI-connected external monitor can display simultaneously. First the D4, and now the D800, represent the company's most serious attempts to date to woo filmmakers to Nikon

  • 3.2-inch (diagonal), 921,000-dot rear LCD with reinforced, scratch-resistant cover glass

  • In-camera HDR, automatic time lapse movie creation and intervalometer

  • Two memory card slots, CompactFlash Type I and SD/SDHC/SDXC. The CompactFlash slot supports the UDMA Mode 7 data timing protocol for promised faster write speeds than the D700, while the SD slot can utilize UHS-1 for expected fast write speeds with this card type

  • Eye-Fi wireless/SDHC combo cards are officially supported. This includes the ability to enable/disable transmitting via the camera's Eye-Fi Upload menu

  • The D800 is powered by the 7.0V, 1900mAh EN-EL15, which is slightly smaller and has more rounded corners than the D700's EN-EL3e. The battery, which is also used by the D7000 and the V1, is replenished with Battery Charger MH-25. Other power options are AC (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)

  • d800_ports.jpg
    Connection options include USB 3.0, Type C Mini-HDMI, 3.5mm headphone jack, 3.5mm powered stereo mic jack, PC sync and 10-pin remote socket. The D800 does not have an Ethernet port

  • Compatible with Wireless Transmitter WT-4 (wireless capabilities are to exactly mirror those of other Nikons that work with this transmitter), GPS Unit GP-1 or other GPS device that's compliant with the NMEA0183 (version 2.01/3.01) specification. Most GPS devices other than the GP-1 requires GPS Adapter Cord MC-35 and a cable with a 9-pin d-sub connector
Feature highlights: body

The Nikon D800 is very similar in size to the D700, and in overall appearance, though the top left and top right "shoulders" are more angled and the Release Mode dial is noticeably different. At 1.98lb/900g (without battery and memory card), the D800 is also lighter than the 2.19lb/995g D700. It has the same environmental sealing as its predecessor, and definitely the same solid, substantial feel. If you know and like how the D700 handles, you're going to feel right at home when you pick up the D800 for the first time.

That said, Nikon has made several outwardly-visible changes to the D800's buttons and control layout, changes that do improve the operation of the camera nicely. These include:
  • A revised AF mode selector near the lens mount, derived from the D7000, adds a button within the AF/M toggle. By holding down the button and turning the Sub-command (front) dial, it's possible to choose between single and 9, 21 and 51-point Dynamic AF groupings, enable 51-point 3D tracking or select Auto-Area AF. Turning the Main (rear) dial toggles between static (AF-S) and continuous (AF-C) modes.

    All this can be done while looking through the viewfinder (the information display below the viewfinder image, as well as the AF array itself, show the settings being chosen). Or on the top LCD, or within the Info display on the rear LCD.

    (If you choose 3D tracking, while looking through the viewfinder, the AF array lights up to spell "3 D" in large AF-point letters, just as it does in the D4.)

    The streamlined access to basic AF options means it's no longer necessary to enter the camera's AF Custom Settings menus to change the number of active Dynamic AF points or flip on 3D tracking (though the Custom Settings for these things still exist in the D800).
  • d800_release_dial.jpg
    A redesigned Release Mode dial that makes its options (CL, CH, etc.) easier to see and select. The new design also gave room to expand the number of buttons within the dial from three to four. Joining ISO, Quality and WB is a button for accessing Bracket functions.

  • A dedicated still/video switch and Live View on/off button to the right of the rear LCD.

  • A video start/stop button near the horizontal shutter release. This location was determined to be optimal because it causes a minimal amount of camera disturbance at the very start or very end of a video clip as your finger moves to the button, presses it, and then moves back.

  • When the camera is not in playback mode, and not displaying menus, the Protect button pops up a Picture Control chooser overlay on the rear LCD.

  • A new 3.2-inch (diagonal), 921,000-dot rear LCD with manual and automatic brightness adjustment. When set to automatic, a small sensor to the right of the screen reads the ambient light and sets the brightness accordingly.

  • In a first for Nikon, and perhaps for a digital SLR from any company, the D800 is outfitted with a USB 3.0 port. When connected to a USB 3.0-equipped computer, this should result in shorter waits to see the just-shot picture in tethered workflows, relative to USB 2.0, as well as quicker offloading of pictures when the camera is serving as a card reader.

    The D800 will come with USB Cable UC-14, which connects to the camera's USB 3.0 Micro-B port at one end and to a computer's USB 3.0 (or USB 2.0) Standard-A port at the other.
The D800 has also gained some of the expanded configurability of the D4, though the latter camera will remain by far the most customizable in Nikon's lineup. For instance, the D800's shutter release can be set to start and stop video recording, which enables any triggering device that's compatible with the camera's 10-pin socket - including PocketWizards - to remotely begin and end video capture. Also for video use, the front Fn and Depth of Field Preview buttons can be set to work the camera's Power Aperture feature. Both of these things were first introduced in the D4.

Unlike the D4, however, certain D800 buttons can be set to jump to the top item in My Menu, but not to the top level of My Menu. Plus, it's not possible to configure the D800's Sub-selectors and vertical Fn button, since the camera lacks these controls altogether. The D800 is a highly-configurable digital SLR, just not to the same extent as Nikon's new flagship.

Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D12 Accompanying the release of the D800 will be a new vertical grip accessory for it, the Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D12.

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The design and controls of the MB-D12 are identical to the MB-D10, which means it has a lockable vertical shutter release, Main and Sub-command dials, an AF-ON button and a mini Multi-selector, plus a shape that makes for especially comfortable vertical shooting (or at least this is true in my hands). The differences lie in the supported batteries. The MB-D12 comes with battery compartment modules for a single EN-EL15 as well as eight AAs, plus it will also accept the D4's EN-EL18 battery (with the help of the separately-purchased Battery Chamber Cover BL-5).

Shutter, mirror and frame rate

The D800 incorporates a newly-developed shutter with a 200,000-cycle durability rating, compared to 150,000 for the D700, and it has a revised mirror mechanism too (the main difference being the motor that drives the mirror).

When the camera is switched from still to video mode while Live View is engaged, the D800 doesn't flip the mirror down and up again during the switch. This makes for a quick and seamless change from one mode to the other. The same is true when going the other direction, from video to still.

Officially, the D800's mirror also stays up throughout the capture of a sequence of still pictures in Live View. But, for a reason we haven't yet figured out, the shutter activity and noise associated with each Live View exposure is more than the D4 when set to do the same thing.

The D800's maximum frame rate varies based on the selected image area and power source:
  • EN-EL15 With this battery either in the camera or in the MB-D12, the maximum frame rate for FX or 5:4 is 4fps. On 1.2X or DX, this increases to a maximum of 5fps.

  • AC Adapter EH-5b + EP-5B The maximum frame rate is 4fps when the image area is FX or 5:4. This rises to 5fps on the 1.2x setting, and 6fps on DX.

  • EN-EL18 in the MB-D12 The maximum frame rate is 4fps when the image area is FX or 5:4. This rises to 5fps on the 1.2x setting, and 6fps on DX.

  • AAs in the MB-D12 The maximum frame rate is 4fps when the image area is FX or 5:4. This rises to 5fps on the 1.2x setting, and 6fps on DX. In cold temperatures or when the AAs are low, the maximum frame rate will be slower.
Sensor, image quality and the "E" version of the D800

The D800 incorporates a 36.15 million image pixel CMOS sensor that's 35.9 x 24mm in size, has a pixel pitch of 4.88µm and includes an optical low-pass filter over top. The sensor package has a self-cleaning mechanism as well. Promised image quality improvements coming from the new image sensor and EXPEED 3 processing are expanded dynamic range, improved colour and, obviously, a massive bump in resolution, relative to the D700.

Reducing the pixel pitch from 8.45µm in the D700 to 4.88µm in the D800 probably means the D700 will be the somewhat better high-ISO performer of the two, despite the fact the D800 has been given the same ISO upper limit. Conversely, if you're assuming that the D800's many small pixels will lead to lousy-looking photos at higher sensitivity settings, another Nikon camera with about the same pixel pitch might put your mind at ease.

That camera is the DX Format D7000, and based on the fairly clean and completely usable ISO 3200 and 6400 pictures we've taken with it and its 4.78µm pixel pitch sensor, there's reason to think the D800's low light shooting abilities might actually be alright. That's because its pixels are about the same size as the D7000's, there's just a lot more of them spread across a larger imager. Here's hoping that D800 high ISO image quality is as good as the D7000 suggests.

The high-resolution sensor in the D800 also helps make the camera's complement of image area options quite useful. For example, even the camera's smallest image area - the 24 x 16mm DX Format setting - still generates 15.36 million image pixel photos, which is plenty of resolution for all sorts of uses. If you combine this image area and a power source configuration like the MB-D12 + EN-EL18, you have a 6fps digital SLR with the extra reach of DX, for those times when you need the D800 to be a more action-oriented camera than it was otherwise built to be.

This flexibility is an interesting byproduct of the D800 sensor's ultra-high pixel count, and it carries over to 5:4 and 1.2x also. The D800's image area and resolution settings are:

FX (35.9 x 24mm)
  • [L] 7360 × 4912 pixels (36.15 megapixels)
  • [M] 5520 × 3680 pixels (20.31 megapixels)
  • [S] 3680 × 2456 pixels (9.04 megapixels)
5:4 (30 x 24mm)
  • [L] 6144 × 4912 pixels (30.18 megapixels)
  • [M] 4608 × 3680 pixels (16.96 megapixels)
  • [S] 3072 × 2456 pixels (7.54 megapixels)
1.2x (30 x 20mm)
  • [L] 6144 × 4080 pixels (25.07 megapixels)
  • [M] 4608 × 3056 pixels (14.08 megapixels)
  • [S] 3072 × 2040 pixels (6.27 megapixels)
DX (24 x 16mm)
  • [L] 4800 × 3200 pixels (15.36 megapixels)
  • [M] 3600 × 2400 pixels (8.64 megapixels)
  • [S] 2400 × 1600 pixels (3.84 megapixels)

The ISO range is 100-6400 in 1/3 step increments (the camera can be configured for 1/2 steps and full steps too). In its expanded ISO range the camera can be dialed down to ISO 50 in 1/3 steps, up to ISO 12,800 (Hi-1) in 1/3 steps and up to ISO 25,600 (Hi-2) in a full step.

Most of the remaining key image-quality related settings carry over with little or no change from the D700, including NEF options (12 or 14 bits, compressed, lossless compressed or lossy compressed), TIFF and JPEG settings, Picture Controls, High ISO Noise Reduction, output colour spaces (sRGB and Adobe RGB) and more.

Some of the changes that are loosely related to image quality include:
  • The Color Temperature WB setting can now be adjusted in increments of 10 Kelvin throughout its 2500-10,000K range, rather than in varying and much larger increments, as before.

  • The Auto WB setting is now divided into Auto1 and Auto2; the latter is meant to preserve more of the warmth in warm lighting conditions.

  • Gone is the d-0 slot from the Preset WB, and with it the step of first loading the Preset into d-0 and then copying it into slots d-1 to d-4, if desired. Now, you choose the d-1 to d-4 slot at the outset, then set a Preset into that slot. This is a simpler process, though it effectively cuts down the total number of available slots from five to four.

  • An additional increment, Extra High, has been added to Active D-Lighting.

  • A new parameter has been put into the minimum shutter speed setting within the ISO Sensitivity Auto Control. Also called Auto, by default it sets the minimum shutter speed to at or just above the inverse of the focal length. For example, if you have a 500mm lens on the camera, Auto will select 1/500 as the minimum shutter speed. If you have a 35mm lens on, then the minimum shutter speed will be 1/40. This can be biased to choose a somewhat faster or slower shutter speed as well.
The D800E The standard version of the D800 is the one that Nikon expects to sell the most of, at least in the U.S., says Nikon USA senior technical manager Steve Heiner. For those who, in Heiner's words, "want a little extra edge in resolution," Nikon has developed the D800E.

The D800E is the same as the D800 in all respects, except one: the optical low-pass filter's blurring effect has been nullified. The result will be crisper and more finely-detailed photos, accompanied by moiré patterns appearing in fabrics and the like. This is the unavoidable tradeoff.

The underlying image science involved is a bit mind-bending. The image sensor in the D800, like nearly all other digital cameras today, is inherently monochromatic. To determine the colour of incoming light, an array of (usually) red, green and blue filters is striped over the sensor. Then, during the subsequent processing of an image's RAW data, a complex interpolation algorithm determines the RGB value for each pixel. It's magic, and it works incredibly well, but it's not perfect: the algorithm can be tripped up by fine patterns in a scene, as well as small points of light such as specular highlights. The resulting interpolation errors show up as swirls of moiré or specular highlights that are not white but some other colour, such as red or blue.

The low-pass filter (also referred to as an anti-aliasing filter) in the standard version of the D800 (as well as every other digital camera with a similar low-pass filter design, which is nearly all of them) alters incoming rays of light so that most instances of moiré and other colour errors are prevented or at least muted significantly. The low-pass filter is made up of two separate layers of optical material, each designed to split an incoming light ray into two parallel rays. One layer creates two horizontal parallel rays, the second creates two vertical parallel rays, the result being a tight cluster of four light rays exiting the filter for every single light ray that enters. This optical transformation results in a scene's smallest elements being spread or blurred slightly as they arrive at the image sensor. It has the effect of making fine detail thicker, which in turn helps drastically reduce the number and severity of interpolation algorithm errors.

The D800E has a low-pass filter too, but its two layers don't take a ray of light and split it into four. Instead, the layers have been re-oriented, relative to each other, so that the first splits a ray into two vertical parallel rays, then the second recombines them into a single ray. The net effect is that little to no optical transformation occurs and fine detail remains fine as it exits the filter. There is also no brightness loss (or gain), compared to the standard D800, and the sensor package's IR rejection and anti-reflection properties are the same too.

The graphic below illustrates the behaviour of the low-pass filters in the D800 and D800E. The Nikon Imaging website includes an example of D800E moiré.

Passing Through: The D800 and D800E low-pass filter (Graphic courtesy Nikon and by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

We don't know why Nikon elected to rework the low-pass filter in the D800E rather than remove it completely or replace it with something else. Whatever the reason, our briefing on the camera made this point clear: the D800E will act as if the filter weren't there at all.

Why they chose to create the D800E is easier to figure out. The pixel count of its sensor is encroaching on medium format digital territory, where blurring low-pass filters are all but nonexistent and crispy-sharp picture detail is the order of the day. The D800E is meant for the photographer seeking all the resolution its 36.15 million image pixels can deliver, and is prepared to tolerate - and incorporate workflow corrections for - moiré and other colour artifacts that will pop up more often in D800E photos.

Capture NX2, among others, includes a moiré reduction tool, while specular highlight colour artifacts will be dealt with automatically (and effectively) during the RAW conversion process, both in NX2 and in the camera when its set to JPEG or TIFF.

SLR and medium format digital cameras stand apart from one another not just because of the number of pixels their sensors contain. The relationship between sensor size, focal length and depth and field is also part of it, as are intangibles such as the slower and more methodical approach that medium format cameras generally require. The D800E is Nikon's bet there are plenty of shooters who'd like medium format resolution coupled with the handling and features of a digital SLR body, and that the cost of medium format digital has been a barrier to entry that will make US$3300 for Nikon's new camera an irresistible deal for some.

Continued on the next page...
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