A (very detailed) first impressions review: The Nikon D800

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We all know the paper specs for the Nikon D800: 36MP, 4fps, full frame. Same ISO range as the D700 – 100 to 25,600. 100% viewfinder, full HD movies, and an improved 51-point AF system derived from the previous camera. And to boot, a D800E version with no anti-aliasing filter for even more resolution, as if 36MP with a weak filter wasn’t enough for you. What we don’t know is how it fares in the real world.

What follows is what I believe is the one of, if not the first, complete, real-world test by a photographer of a production D800. 8 hours of non-stop flat-out work – so, please leave a comment if you enjoyed it.

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I first heard D800-shaped noises way back at a Nikon event in March 2011, both locally and from my sources in Japan. These definitely wasn’t the same information as what was going around on the popular rumor sites at the time – I was told specifically D3X replacement, slightly higher pricing. An interesting strategy; too bad the initially planned May-2011 release got derailed by the tsunami. The Sendai plant that produces the D700, D800, D3S and D4 was inundated and had all of its precision machinery replaced; an amazing feat considering the magnitude of the disaster.

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Stall chef. D800, 85/1.4 G. 

All images in this review were shot as 14-bit lossless compressed NEF and converted in ACR 6.7/ PSCS5.5.

Still, the camera has finally arrived, and delivered precisely on the promised date – even in a small market like Malaysia. That’s impressive. I got mine through NPS; apparently there are around 200 members, 90 D800 orders, and…only 18 cameras to go around. Mine must be one from the very very first batch – serial number 234.

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Literally, Mickey Mouse color. D800, 85/1.4 G, DX crop mode.

Initially, I wasn’t going to order one. Then my high-mileage D700 began to give up the ghost, and I downloaded some sample images – which in short, blew me away. They were honestly better than the output from the Hasselblad H3D-39 I used a couple of years back in mid-2010 – and quite close to what I’ve seen out of the Leica S2 (I do have access to one, I will try to do some comparisons soon) so far. I called my local NPS rep and put in an order for the D800E; however, playing with both sets of demo files further, it became clear that a) you weren’t really giving up that much getting the regular D800, and as a bonus, it would arrive sooner – an increasingly important factor given this month’s shooting commitments – and b) lenses and diffraction would be the limiting factor for me, not the camera’s sensor. Furthermore, for most purposes outside the studio environment, I intend to shoot the D800 in 14 bit compressed RAW, but downsize by half to 18MP for manageable output, lower noise, and better per-pixel detail.

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Untitled. D800, 85/1.4 G

At some point, I will probably source a split prism screen and have the focusing screen and mirror precisely adjusted for manual focus planarity; for now, I’m relying on AF. I do really miss the focusing snap of the custom-cut F6 type-J screen on my D700; it’s just so much easier to tell if things are in focus or not. The standard D800 screen is bright but doesn’t have much snap. This may sound odd, but I’m having trouble getting used to the 100% finder again – I’ve become so accustomed to mentally adding a little bit around the edges of the D700 frame (97% finder) that now I’m chopping things off. Just one of those little differences between the two cameras, but important nevertheless.

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Minor copyright infringement hotel. D800, 85/1.4 G

First impressions on lenses
But this is a camera review! Glass matters. Two big things: a) AF fine tune matters a LOT; b) the optimal set of lenses for this camera is different to the D700, again. The 24/1.4 never quite focused properly on my D700 – I was at the extreme limit of AF fine tune adjustment – but it’s bang on with the D800 with zero adjustment, and incredibly sharp all over. The 85/1.4 needs a lot of shutter speed while handheld to shine; probably double what you’d expect – in the 1/125s range or higher. I’m also seeing a lot of edge CA that wasn’t there before (1-2 pixels worth; that’s probably less than a pixel on the D700). My 60/2.8 G Micro is soft until f5.6 and focus shifts, which isn’t something I’ve ever seen before. Oddly, the 28-300VR is actually rather impressive at 300mm on the D800 – NOT something that could be said about the lens on the D700. In fact, it performs much better on the D800 than it did on my D700 – curious considering the demands of this sensor.

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Mall performance. D800, 85/1.4 G

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And a 100% crop – this is a best case scenario for CA, with the lens wide open at f1.4. There were other, much worse shots; I suspect being ever so slightly out of focus also contributes to visible CA in a big way. The older 85/1.4 D is very likely going to be unusable wide open with any subject that’s even moderately contrasty.

The sole lens that has been outstanding on every camera it’s been mounted on is the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon – wide open, I think it has the highest resolution of any of my lenses. Makes me want to get the 2/100 Makro-Planar again, and possibly also the 4/18 Distagon. Generally, lenses I though were good wide open on the D700 are showing a slight but noticeable improvement stopped down, even if only by a stop – I’m talking about my workhorse AFS 24/1.4 G, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro and AFS 85/1.4 G here. Also, lenses that vignetted a bit before will vignette more strongly now; I suspect it’s because the individual photo sites are smaller, and there’s no trick offset micro lens array like in the Leica M8/M9 to counter it.

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Disposal. D800, 85/1.4 G

It was dark by the time I got the camera and had a chance to shoot with it, so take it as a worst case scenario and impressions will almost certainly improve when I have more light to work with. I will not be providing full size files, so please don’t ask. There may be crops. Clicking on any of the images will bring you to a larger version on Flickr; the EXIF data is all intact.

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Untitled. D800, 85/1.4 G

Seems to be about the same speed as the D700 in good light, no difference as far as I can tell in low light. Has issues focusing the 85/1.4 G accurately in low light; this may be true of the D700 but it’s a lot more noticeable here due to the higher resolution. Tracking ability seems slightly improved. More tests are required before I can reach a conclusion here. Contrast detect AF for live view subjectively seems at least twice as fast as the D700, and doesn’t require as many passes while hunting.

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KL Tower peeking. D800, 85/1.4 G

First thing you notice is the camera is lighter – about 100g, according to the specs. However, I personally find it not quite as comfortable as the D700; my fingers were cramping after use. This is because the lower section of the grip is thinner – not sure why, perhaps their testers had small 4th/5th fingers, or perhaps Nikon just really, really wants you to buy the vertical grip.

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Fruit choices. D800, 85/1.4 G

That’s about the only bad thing ergonomically – I don’t know if it’ll be a deal breaker for extended use. Sadly I don’t find it anywhere near as comfortable as the D4, which is pretty amazing. Oh, there IS one more thing: the mode button is a stretch to access; I feel like I’m going to dislocate my index finger by pressing it. Too often I hit the movie record button by mistake and wondered why nothing was happening. A firmware fix to make the movie button change exposure mode when shooting stills would be a nice easy fix. I do like the new angle for the shutter button, though – it’s much more comfortable.

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Taxi man. D800, 85/1.4 G

There are a lot of nice touches though. Live view is a lot easier to access thanks to the button where the AF mode switch used to be; am I the only person who misses the AF mode switch though? That little button near the lens mount is not so easy to find, but at least you can see what the camera is set to in the finder. The new drive mode dial is also a lot easier to use – it locks and still has detents, so you can count positions and change modes in the dark – there’s a big difference between using CH and Q in a theatre, for instance. Speaking of the shutter, it’s slightly more hollow sounding than the D700; crisper, too. Sadly not as quiet as the D7000, which is nearly silent in Q mode. Interestingly, the mirror doesn’t cycle when shooting in live view – just the shutter – so the camera is actually very quiet, and doesn’t vibrate much. Although the maximum frame rate is 4fps, it doesn’t feel any slower than the 5fps D700. Mirror blackout time is the same, which is to say, effectively instantaneous.

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Dial-a-sunlight. D800, 85/1.4 G

I mention this because it seems that Nikon’s newest meter isn’t quite as accurate as the last one. My D800 definitely meters a bit hot compared to the D700, and seems a bit more erratic. Further investigation is required here.

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Plugged in. D800, 85/1.4 G

Turning AUTO ISO on and off is an option from the button, finally! You use the front command dial to toggle on/off, and the rear one to select ISO. There’s also an option to automatically select minimum shutter speed as a 1/focal length, with some fine tuning in either direction – sadly, the fine tuning isn’t granular enough. For example, the 85mm defaults to 1/90; adjusting this to ‘faster’ gives 1/200 rather than say 1/125, which would be perfect. Back to manually selecting shutter speed again, it seems. In short: you will be needing to use higher shutter speeds than 1/focal length would suggest. Think about what you’d set on a D7000, and that’s about right – remember, the pixel density is the same.

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Communist taxi. D800, 85/1.4 G

Image quality
Bearing in mind that I’ve only shot it under low light/ night/ available darkness conditions, I’m impressed. It’s doing a decent job for the pixel density – though I would not pick this over a D700 for reportage work. The few flash-based tests I have done have left me stunned. Color accuracy is slightly better than the D700, but resolution is out of this world. Dynamic range is about the same, subjectively; however, instead of being highlight-biased as with the D700/D3, it’s shadow biased – you’ve got to be careful not to blow highlights because there simply isn’t as much recoverable color information there. Still, I wish I’d had the camera earlier today for the food assignment I just shot; it would be the ultimate tool for things like that. No matter, because I’ve got several watch shoots in the coming weeks. Early impressions are that the pixels don’t have the same degree of elasticity/ integrity as the D700 (duh) and are probably somewhere between that and the D7000; probably closer to the D7000.

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The burden. D800, 85/1.4 G

See the following crops; they were shot under pretty dark conditions and tungsten light, i.e. a torture test. Subjectively, I think it’s ~1 stop behind the D700 at a pixel level; if you downsize to D700 size, it’s actually a stop ahead. Now if only Nikon would give us a pixel-binned half-resolution sRAW size for low light! If you are shooting full resolution, I recommend stopping your auto-ISO at 6400; anything higher than that has to be downsized to look good. 3200 is definitely acceptable, and anything below is good. The reality of printing, however, is that because you’ve got so many more pixels, a print will look a lot better than at 100% on screen. There’s no sign of banding, but beware of strong noise in one particular channel over another in the shadows, but it depends on the temperature of your light source – for instance, heavy shadow recovery or dodging under fluorescent lights is going to give you a red cast to that area.

Note that I didn’t bother with ISO 100 and 200, they look the same as ISO 400. Click to go see larger versions on flickr – the ‘original’ size is a 100% crop.

ISO 400-800

ISO 1600-3200

ISO 6400-25600

Here’s a real world ISO 6400 example, sodium-vapor street light. Yes, it’s noisy at 100%, but I’m fairly confident it’ll print just fine.

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And a 100% crop.

Movie mode
I’m not a huge video person, though I have dabbled (to be the subject of a future article). I do know what good quality footage looks like. The D800 is excellent. Dynamic range is great; noise is low, and above all, there’s no rolling shutter effect that I can see – even while panning rapidly under fluorescent light operating off a 60Hz AC supply.

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Battery life
Pretty darn good, I think – I just grabbed the battery that came with the camera; 36% charged; shot about 650 frames, and it went down to 6%. Extrapolating, that’s about 2,100 shots per charge. And that was with heavy LCD use and some live view. One battery should more than get you through a day – you’ll run out of card space far, far sooner. I can’t honestly say I’m pleased about the complete battery system change (I have plenty of EN-EL3es and EN-EL4as) – but at least the new power system lasts longer, and also has a little catch that allows for a spring loaded (read: easier to replace) battery.

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Salad days. D800, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

Buffering and file handling
The manual claims 25 images for 14-bit compressed raw – the camera shows r13, but I’m getting 17, using a UHS-I Sandisk Extreme 32GB SDHC card. Still trying to find out where the difference is; auto ISO gives back three more frames, but curiously NR makes no difference. The buffer flushes surprisingly quickly, and you never feel like you’re waiting for files to write – although there is a slight lag when playing back images, probably due to the file size.

It’s probably worth noting that file handling is a bit slower, but not 3x slower (despite 3x the resolution) – however some operations like brushes etc. and even converting in ACR definitely take longer, so budget time accordingly. I’m using a mid-2010 MacBook Pro with the 2.66GHz i7 and 8GB of RAM. I don’t even want to think about retouching files this big yet.

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100% crop of the above.

Early conclusion
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that getting the most out of the D800 is going to require a lot more care than the D700; the resolution is so high, in fact, that I think the AF system may be letting it down slightly – not from a speed point of view, but from a precision standpoint. And I’m not sure it’s the AF sensor per se, but possibly the granularity with which the lens motors can move the elements small distances. I know that in live view, there’s a point of critical sharpness that’s usually very tough to hit using the focusing rings of AF lenses; the travel is simply too fast.

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Untitled soaking tomatoes. D800, 60/2.8 G Micro

I don’t think the D800 is a general purpose tool. It definitely isn’t a run-and-gun photojournalist’s camera; in fact, I find it more demanding to shoot street with this than the Leica M9-P. It’s probably at a two stop or more disadvantage to the D700 if you want critical sharpness at the pixel level – firstly, you’ve got a slightly noisier sensor, and secondly, you’re going to need higher shutter speeds to maintain pixel integrity and combat camera shake. Although downsizing the files to 12MP yields lower noise and more detail than the D700, I don’t think I’ll be using the D800 for photojournalism at the moment; I’m going to have to figure out the AF and lens foibles first.

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100% crop of the above.

Where the camera will shine is in the studio for work with controlled lighting, or landscapes – the resolution is outstandingly impressive, and dynamic range at base ISO seems subjectively on par with the D700 – no mean feat indeed. However, I need to do more testing in daylight (not experiments with flash) to determine for sure. Stay tuned for more images and thoughts over the next few days; at some point I want to try to get hold of a Leica S2 to do a head to head comparison. Please leave a note in the comments below if you’ve got any questions or have something you’d like me to test, and I’ll do my best. Right now, I’m going to get some sleep. MT

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  1. Ming, amazing cinematic shots of KL street scenes with the 85/1.4!

    I know you recommend the 85 1.8G now over the 1.4G, but do you find the 1.8G capable of rendering the creamy bokeh as shown in your wide-open shots featured here?

    • Thank you. Yes, I think the 85/1.8G is about 95% there…there are situations (mostly involving backlight and flare) where the 1.4 G will be creamier and smoother, but the 1.8 still has better edge definition up to f2.8 or so.

  2. Hello, I believe your site may be having browser compatibility problems.
    When I take a look at your website in Safari, it looks fine however when opening in I.
    E., it has some overlapping issues. I just wanted to
    provide you with a quick heads up! Aside from that, great blog!

    • Thanks for the feedback – how wide is your screen in pixels? To preserve large images and the sidebar, I had to make minimum screen width 1160px.

  3. Fabri mag says:

    Hi Ming, Ireally enjoyed your review. I have a D800 plus the 14-24 f/2.8 but I wonder which is the killer lens between te 14-24 and the older 17-35 f/2.8. Do you have any suggestion about it? Thank you.

  4. Fabrizio says:

    Hi Ming, Ireally enjoyed your review. I have a D800 plus the 14-24 f/2.8 but I wonder which are the killer lens between te 14-24 and the older 17-35 f/2.8. Do you have any suggestion about it? Thank you.

  5. Thanks a lot .Very useful review.

  6. a really nice an helpfull review — I am very pleased with my D800, too. My is SN in the 5000, got it the same time as you, prob. the diff. countries got diff. lots of preprod. cams…. DOC

  7. auslander says:

    great review. surley among the best on this subject out there. thank you!

  8. Love the colors in the zeiss 28 shot of the tomatoes! Can you post more Zeiss shots with D800 and more 24G shots pls.
    Nice honest review.
    Was wondering how you would compare the colors rendered by the D800 vs. the D3X?
    Any differences that you see?

    • Thanks Wayne. I’ll post as I use it – not much on the cards for the Zeiss at the moment; the 24G focusing issue I’m still trying to resolve (it doesn’t work well with my D800’s left side AF sensors), so it’s not being used either.

      D800 color is better than the D3x – not in a very obvious way, but more in terms of tonal accuracy than saturation. This is especially noticeable in the blues, I find.

  9. This is the best review of the d800 to date. Thanks

    • Thanks Robert!

      • Ming have you tested the ITTL system?

        • Yep – I’ve used it since the D2H days and love it. My studio work is done with four SB900s. Works fine on my D800, if that’s what you’re wondering – the only catch is the metering is like the D7000, i.e. very sensitive to what’s under the active AF point.

          • if it is focusing on the face I suppose it is good to be sensitive in the focus point. Nikon says that the d800 recognize faces even from the viewfinder and focus accordingly. can you confirm that?

  10. Excellent review, the resolution on this camera is a game changer

  11. Thanks for the writeup, and like the images on your site 🙂

    If you’re not already aware, the mismatch in buffer performance is likely due to options turned on that either hold images in the buffer or reserve buffer space that Nikon neglects to tell you will do so. Long Exposure noise reduction turned on will take a chunk away (good for 2-3 shots) as it reserves RAM for the black frame subtraction regardless of whether you’re actually shooting at a shutter speed that triggers it. The lens corrections (Auto Distortion Control) turned on will *really* murder the buffer. Would be nice if they made it clearer which options did what to the buffer.

    • I’ve actually turned all of those off and still can’t get the full buffer unless I shoot 12 bit – yes, it’s definitely misleading.

  12. socaltyger says:

    Hi Ming, Thanks for the very honest and real review of the D800. I appreciate how you give real world comparisons when reviewing the improved features of the D800. I was hoping the D700 successor would follow in the same path of being a mini version of their flagship camera body, but the D800 seemingly branched out in a different direction. It’s human nature to be curious about the improvements the next cameras may offer us, I was anticipating the D800 very much so, but in the end, I may just stick with the D700 for my needs (portraiture, weddings).

    I am bookmarking your blog and will be looking forward to future posts. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, it is very much appreciated.

    • No problem! The D800 is a different evolution of the flagship (and much closer in DNA to the D3x than the D3s) – think of it as a sniper rifle rather than a machine gun. See you again soon.

  13. Well thought out review. It puts the camera in perspective. Thank you.

  14. wow what a writeup! that camera is simply amazing!

  15. An outstanding review – which very down to earth. A casual shooter like myself can understand how demanding the D800 would need for both the person and the lenses.

  16. David Ralph says:

    I enjoyed very much your first impressions of the D800, and the images too. It remotely reminds me of my time in Bangkok, in my youth, last there 42 years ago. I am an American amateur, now living in a small city in rural New York State. It was the exotic, to me, scenes of Asia that first drove me to take up photograpy.

  17. have you test the face recognition? for both autofocus and exposure.

    • Works only in live view – it’s not bad, but can get fooled by other face-like objects. I still recommend sticking to normal AF.

  18. Hello Ming
    Fantastic your review of the D800.
    And great photos from your blog
    At the same speed, I wonder if you find more trapidation at low speed (not too low) in the D800 than the D700.

  19. Hi Ming – great review! Could you briefly describe your AF calibration setup (for AF adjustments)? Many thanks.

    • Nothing complex – rule out camera shake and changes in positioning by using a flash and tripod; set AF-S single point; pick a high contrast subject at an angle where it’d be a) easy to focus on and b) easy to see if it’s front or back focused. Use maximum aperture. Take one shot focusing using live view to set an optimal baseline. Then take a shot using normal AF and VF and compare. Adjust AF fine tune setting until you can consistently get the same quality as live view (live view focuses directly onto the sensor). Make sure you defocus between attempts. Finally, try again with AF-C single point to confirm your settings are okay.

  20. Bravo!!!!! I have scoured the web for days and nothing compares to this review of your – Top Notch Pro! I so appreciate this review. I do have one question- well, two- are you going to shoot everything at 14 bit and are you suggesting to leave the Auto ISO on (6400 cap) or do you think it is preferable to leave Auto ISP off?

    Thank you again for your generous review!

    • Thank you! I want to maximize quality, so yes, I shoot everything in 14 bit raw because I also edit every file individually. I’m using auto ISO 6400 but of course turn it off for studio work.

  21. I relate well with the real world perspective of your impressions .
    Thank you , very interesting .

    I recently lost 5D2 to salty water infiltrations and I’ ll update to 5D3 .
    I bookmark your website…. a similar review of 5D3 , would be appreciated .

    • Sorry to hear that. It’s unlikely that I’ll review the 5D3 because a) I only buy gear I’m going to use for my commercial work, it’s too expensive otherwise; b) I don’t use a Canon system, so even if I did have access to the camera, I don’t have the same level of familiarity with the lenses etc as I do with Nikon – I don’t think it’d be a very useful or fair review in that sense. Sorry!

  22. Excellent review and it backs up my own assumptions on the usage for the D800.
    I was looking for the D700 successor and ready to move up to full frame after D300, D300 and D7000.
    I had a D800 on order and then I readNikon’s own technical manual which basically tells one everything you have verified in actual testing.
    Yes it’s got the best sensor ever tested on DxO and it has huge resolution, but that a general camera it does not make.

    I need something with high ISO capabilites and auto focus before I need huge megapixels.

    It was a tough decision for me, but I sold all my DX lenses and D7000 and switched to Canon with their 5D MK3.
    Nothing is perfect and the grass is never greener, but if BMW doesn’t product the car I want, I’m going to buy an Audi 😉

    • Thank you. Choice is probably the best thing about where the industry is today. I’d probably have gotten the D4 over the 5DIII though, no need to change lenses. How are you finding the 5DIII? Is it what you expected?

  23. can you please do some tests with on camera flash? do you get more accurate flash exposure than with the d700?

    • I use the CLS system extensively for my studio work; I do have a couple of shoots scheduled for the next week using this, so please check back for my studio work with the D800 update soon.

  24. Terry Baker says:

    Ming, very nice job. Thanks for the hard work. I’ve ordered a D800e to replace my D700 and will only have one camera. Maybe the instruction manual will answer my question: You state, “I intend to shoot the D800 in 14 bit compressed RAW, but downsize by half to 18MP for manageable output, lower noise, and better per-pixel detail.” How is this done? Thanks, Terry

    • Thanks Terry. Simple – choose a different output size in ACR. However, I’m sticking to the full 36MP for now – the files aren’t that big, I suppose…

  25. Great real worlds tests, mate and thanks for the effort!

    Was initially very close to putting down my name on the list for the D800 but now you’ve made it clear that a D700 would suit my needs more since i shoot everything from portraits, landscapes, action, sports, abstract, street, etc and want a more versatile, forgiving and less fuss camera, but also want good High ISO results as well as decent AF speeds on an FX body. To top it all, i don’t print my images but mostly on-screen viewing so high resolution is not very crucial.

    But out of curiosity, how is the AF image lock-down speed of the D800 compared to the D3S and D700 especially in low light. I was made to understand that the D3S is much more faster than the D700 which may hunt more in low light. Is that true? Thanks.

    • You’re welcome.

      Under low light, AF speed is about the same or very slightly faster than the D700. Precision is better on the D800 when using single point, not so good when using 3D tracking – could just be the lens (85/1.4G) and its demanding razor-thin DOF though. It’s faster than the D700 under good light. I’d say subjectively, from fastest to slowest, we’re looking at D4, D3s, D800/D3, D700, D300/D300s. The pro bodies will always be fastest because of the higher drive voltage from the larger battery.

  26. Wow, a great review and the images and composition on the street shots are just top notch dude. On my D3s and D700, I have found the 85 f1.4G to have some issues with the dreaded purple CA shot wide open, and also similarly, the 24 f1.4G can be susceptible depending on background contrast and light positioning. To be honest, the only Nikon Lens I have found with no CA issues whatsoever is my 200 f2G. But I absolutely love the colour that has come out in the images you shot with the D800. For the moment I do not see a “need” for the D800, but I reckon that I will get one next year to experiment and enjoy. I shall look forward to your further efforts and thank you for the time and energy devoted to the testing and above all posting of your results.

    • Thanks Husaimee! Yes, both 24 and 85 can show CA at high contrast edges even on the 12MP FX bodies – especially if your focus is slightly off (I presume you’ve checked your AF fine tune, and are using AF-C?)

      There’s definitely a difference in color between the D800 and previous 12MP bodies – it’s as though we have a lot more subtle gradation especially in blues and reds, which is a great thing.

      • Husaimee says:

        Yes, all my lenses are fine tuned and I run AF-C by default in Aperture mode. On retrospect, the D800 will be also be interesting for my macro work, since I sometimes prefer to use my D7000 with my 105VR for the pixel density it offers, so its great that we can get the same density in FX now. Hmmm it may be that I will get this body a little sooner than I first thought after the first flood of orders gets cleared and more bodies hit the market. I look forward to your watch and product photos too.

        • I was thinking about a D7000 for the same reasons – it actually makes a lot more sense since I use high magnification for my watch photography. But since we can have the best of both worlds now…why not?

  27. Very detail review! Looking forward for some watches shots with the D800.

  28. I like your rich blog. great information. I hope you produce others. I will carry on reading

  29. Thanks for the great early review. Your photography is excellent.

  30. Regarding the crop of the woman in the mall holding the mike. You talk of the CA issue being worse case. I assume you are referring to the purple fringing on her fingers and arm, right? You do realize that there was a purple gelled spotlight hitting her from high left though…….

    • Yes, perhaps not the best example in hindsight – I do have others where there’s definite CA all around highlight edges and nary a gelled spotlight anywhere. It’s something I’ve noted with the 85/1.4G on the D700 too – if your focus is slightly off, you’re probably going to start seeing purple fringing.

  31. Thank you for the review! If you could take some long lens, >200mm, shots, and report your experience, will much appreciate it.

  32. Nicely done! Nice to read a review that is informative without a bunch of crap attached. Keep up the good work! i’m looking forward to the daytime shots / review.

  33. Great review. I got my D800 yesterday. You talked about the importance of calibrating lenses with this camera. Could you please briefly elaborate on what you mean by this. Is it color calibration or focus microadjustment or both? Do you use some tool to do this?

    • It’s the AF micro adjustment. Just lock it down on a tripod, focus with live view wide open (that gives you optimal focus) and adjust the setting until you can match it consistently using AF with the mirror down (i.e. using optical finder) – make sure you use single AF mode and defocus the lens manually before each attempt.

  34. Thank you for the review. I am looking to upgrade to FX for ISO and crop reasons. Could you give an advice on whether to get d700 or d800? Video, pixel count, and cost differences are not a major concern, but ‘impeccable technique’ is.

    If d800 is set to lower resolution, can I still use my sloppy techniques that I acquired shooting 12mp and get acceptable results?


  35. Bob Christensen says:

    Excellent review.

  36. Jim Watkins says:

    Ming, very good review, best I have read, thank you. I am awaiting my D800, but what I am really interested in is the Zeiss 28mm. The colors are just outstanding on the Zeiss tomatoes shot, by comparison the onion and peppers shot with the 60MM Micro Nikkor look washed out. Is that “pop” typical with the Zeiss?

    I am debating to get the Nikkor 24 f/1.4 or the Zeiss 28 (or maybe 25 f/2). I have the Nikkor 24-70 and 17-35 f/2.8 and liked the idea of a smaller and faster fixed prime. Any thoughts?

    Thanks you


    • Thanks Jim. The Zeiss 2/28 Distagon is possibly my favorite lens, ever – I think it’s a combination of the unique signature afforded by its curved focal plane, plus the color transmission and micro contrast – which I suppose is an artifact of the superb coating. The first few elements simply aren’t visible – there are few reflections off the element surfaces, which is a sign of high transmission in all spectra.

      In short, yes – this ‘pop’ is typical with Zeiss, but it may also be an artifact of the lighting.

      I’ve got both the 24/1.4 and the 2/28 (obviously) – the 24/1.4 gets more use because it’s AF and a little wider, but the Zeiss signature is unbeatable. If cost isn’t a concern, get both. They’re different animals. The 2/28 isn’t so easy to focus with modern screens (and I’m going to need another modification to my D800’s finder, to match my D700) unfortunately.

  37. Thanks a lot.
    You are a fine photographer.

  38. All very nice for this kind of shooting, high ISO, reportage style. Yes, I will replace my D700 with one for this kind of work (on the rare occasions I need to do this).
    However, does it come even close to my Phase One IQ180 on either my DF camera and Schneider glass or my mainstay, the Alpa STC and Rodenstock HR lenses for the vast majority of my work, when the primary criteria is image quality? (For the record, I am a pro based in KL and working globally and have been shooting MF Digital since 1995). Not on your Nelly!. The fact is, the two systems are intended for different applications, but on a pure image quality argument, the D800 is a mere pretender to the world of MF. Sure, Nikon would like its customers to feel good about their purchase, but does it stand up to their claim of MF quality? Sorry, no it doesn’t. It’s a shame the marketing hacks at NIkon were so insecure about the many things this camera really IS awesome at that they felt the need to make the MF comparison. Awesome AF, great high-ISO performance, wide range of focal-lengths available etc, etc. These are all things that should be lauded, but this was not enough for these twits, they had to go and make claims that don’t stack up. Silly.

    • No, it won’t replace an IQ180 – agreed. It’s also nowhere near as expensive. But it does handily match the low end MF bodies, and is far more versatile (as you’ve pointed out).

  39. Very good, one of the few practically useful reviews I’ve seen.

    Can you give us an update on your computer specs and time it takes to process an image, convert it, retouch, etc. Maybe not in seconds, but relative to something else, say D700 images, or D4.

    Thank you, brilliant job.

    • I’m using a 2010 MacBook Pro 15″, 2.66 i7, 8GB RAM, 512 VRAM, 500GB hybrid HDD/SSD, and PS CS5.5. I’d say subjectively it’s about 1.5x-2x as long to finish an image compared to a D700 image, and obviously I can open fewer before the computer dramatically slows – does this help?

  40. parameteres says:

    Brilliant review and amazing feat to complete all in one day!

  41. Phitenless says:

    I see that Japan has a kit version of the D800 with a 28-300 lens, any idea if this is available locally?

  42. Thank you for this test, I looked forward to my D800E.

  43. Thanks for the article.

  44. Its great to read a review that focuses on the comparative benfits/disadvantages of using of a camera supported by clear technical understanding instead of the usual “more pixels the better” or “more cross type sensors the better” arguments that flood most blogs and review sites. Thx for making the great effort in getting this out to the community.

  45. Thank you for your report

  46. Gauchdogg says:

    That´s a wonderful review. You have done great. The D800 first time after a lot of reviews has been described by someone really using it. Thank you very much.

  47. Apfelopfer says:

    Thanks for the review!
    Helps me to understand why Canon stopped at 22MP with their new 5D MKIII.

  48. Thanks for the review!
    I’d love if you could elaborate a little bitmore on the diffraction issues. This is probably one of the few reasons holding me back from buying a D800. 20 Mpixel could have been the sweet spot, shifting the diffraction impact at f11/f13 from f8…

    • I haven’t been past f11, to be honest – will find out next week, I’m shooting some watches – f27 is normal territory for me on the D700. I’m just as curious as you are about this.

  49. Great fast review! Thanks for putting it together. Can’t wait for more info and daylight shots. Do you also have an 800E on order? I can’t wait for mine to arrive! Thanks!

    • Pleasure. Daylight shots are now up here. I cancelled my 800E and got the regular 800 instead – I needed a replacement camera more than I needed no AA filter. In either case, there’s more than enough resolution in the regular 800. Not regretting it one bit.

  50. Thanks!

    I’m interested in the Maximum DR of a ISO 100 shot; shomething like an urban scene where there are stong highlioghts and deep shadows, both showing detail. I have the D7000 and the DR is incredible, but the D800 should be about 1 stop better yet.

    • I’ve got a torture test shot coming right up in the next installment of the review – check back tonight, still editing the images! 🙂

  51. Superb review Ming very informative and detailed
    I’m a photographer and cinematographer is there any chance you could post an original movie file shot with the camera somewhere ?
    I’m particularly interested in how the d800 handle scaling….( any visible moire or aliasing…. What about noise in video ?

    Thanks again for your review

  52. George Jensen says:

    Thanks for your frank and comprehensive hands on review – as I am interested in street and impromptu photography, the D4 with better ergonomics seems a better choice for me, despite my age (70). Ergonomics are also important to me.

    Your help in sharing your findings is greatly appreciated.


  53. Azahan Azad says:

    Really great review… Using a D3100 at the moment and one day planning to get a full frame

    • Thanks! That day might be sooner than you think, new D700s are now quite cheap, and used ones even cheaper…still an absolutely fantastic camera, and a lot more forgiving than the D800.

    • Joe Leong says:

      I know somebody who is parting his D700 for RM4K. Still in great condition

  54. Dan Wade says:

    Also, what are your views on the 85mm 1.4g for portrait and another work? I heard its super sharp, even at 1.4, but is very slow to focus like the 50mm 1.4g. I just thought it would be a great lens for the D800 as apart from the lovely boken, you get to use the light gather of the f1.4 to get a higher frame rate than you really need to use with this resolution. Like you said, the d800 is not an all rounder camera like the D700, but designed for a very specific type of shooting.

  55. Dan Wade says:

    Hey Ming,
    another feature i was curious about was the HDR mode. If i remember correctly, the camera can take 2 photos at the same time with the mirror up, at up to 3 stops difference. How do they combine? Do you just get 2 images, or does the camera so how try to combine both exposures into one image?

  56. Great review Ming! I’d love to see more 100% crops especially at ISO100 under studio lights to see how much Nikon lenses and this sensor can resolve. It could stand to save me from investing in MF.

    • I’ll be shooting studio assignments in the next couple of weeks, so I’ll see what I can do. Have a look out later today for some daylight samples at base ISO (with crops, of course). Not as good as studio light, but it should be quite representative. In short: I’m very, very impressed with what I’m seeing.

  57. Dan Wade says:

    Hey Ming,
    great in field production review.
    One of the big selling points from Nikon was the increased Dynamic range of this camera compared to the D700. Have you found this to be the case? Realistically, with the D700, with shooting 14bit, the only different was slightly more details in the low end blacks, is the D800 any better with more range coverage? I was just curious, as apart from the resolution, this is the big claim to faim for the digital medium format market, when compared to digital 35mm.

    Im mainly a studio portrait and landscapes shooter, so am waiting for the D800E.
    Im guess Nikon will do what they did with the D700. Maybe in 12-18 months release a D4 in a smaller body with decreased frame rate.

    • Hi Dan, the DR at base ISO is definitely better than the D700, by 1-1.5 stops I’d say. However, it’s delivered differently – the D700 was highlight biased, the D800 is shadow biased; meaning to say you’ve got less recoverable headroom at the top end, but cleaner information at the bottom. So you need to be careful with your exposure and watch blown channels.

      I’m not sure you want the D800E for portraits, it’s going to be very unflattering unless you’ve got a) lots of time to retouch or b) models with perfect skin. Should be great for landscapes though. Even if Nikon did release a D4 in a D700 body, I don’t think I’d bite – the D700 is sufficient for those kind of assignments.

  58. angelo bufalino says:

    I really enjoyed your review. Very, very informative. I have a D800 on order but am considering switching to a D4 after this review. Shooting mostly sports/aviation, with some glamour, I am thinking of keeping the D700 for now and waiting, albeit a loooong time, for a D4.

    PS, could you share what photoshop action you use for your border? I very much like the elegant look and feel.


    Angelo Bufalino

  59. Thank you for the awesome message….. terrific job, thank you. Now I really can’t wait for the ordered D800E in my hands.

  60. andrew lubetkin says:

    You’ll have to tolerate my ignorance here but i’m interested in the dialog you were having with an earlier poster with regard to pixel per pixel sharpness vs downsizing. I don’t understand what that means with regard to usability of the camera and his comments about having to use a higher shutter speed when not using a tripod. I shoot a lot of portraits but candids never on a tripod. and more photo journalistic style. IS the idea that the sensor is so sensitive that to get pixel for pixel sharpness you have to be perfect but on the print side of things it will always be superior to say the d700 even in low light ?

    • andrew lubetkin says:

      when of course i am downsizing to say less than 19×13 inch

    • It’s more about the pixel density meaning small changes in angle of view due to camera shake become far more noticeable than with larger pixels – basically, edge destruction and blurring. If you downsize to the same resolution, yes, it will be superior to the D700 *IF* you don’t have motion blur/ camera shake affecting your image integrity. Pixel noise is another thing altogether.

  61. Hello Ming, thank you for writing an excellent review after using the camera as many photographers would. Really nice job! I picked up a body for myself today and am happy with the first outing. I am fine with the idea that this camera will force me to keep my technique up if I want to realize it’s full potential in my imagery.

    I love the Stall Chef frame.

    I have a 14-24mm and a 50 1.8G, both performed very, very well today. I was on the fence between the 85mm 1.4G and 1.8G; after seeing the fringing at 1.4 in your examples I might try the 1.8G before spending more on the 1.4

    Thanks again,

    Jay from Boston

    • You’re welcome! Good to know the 14-24 and 50/1.8 work well; to be honest I was far more impressed with the 50/1.8G than the 50/1.4G – I guess that aspherical surface really helps.

      The 85/1.4G only has fringing if the focus point isn’t perfectly nailed AND you’ve got a very high contrast subject. Haven’t used the 85/1.8G so I can’t say if it’d be any better; but I do know it doesn’t have the nano-crystal coating, so flare performance and contrast won’t be as good as the 85/1.4G.

    • Joe Leong says:

      Jay, the 85mm 1.4 is a superb lens. You won’t regret

    • Thanks guys. Considering the 85mm prime is typically my favorite lens after a good ultra-wide, I doubt I will cheap out. I was wondering how much of a difference the Nano coating really makes? I know the 14-24mm is simply a stunning lens and the main reason I am shooting Nikon these days.

      Keep writing and shooting, this is a fantastic resource and beautiful as well.

      • A lot – especially for contrast and flare resistance. Color transmission is about the same.

        Check back regularly, I’ve got plenty of content already planned for the next couple of months 🙂

  62. Great Review – If you had to choose between one lense for the D800 out of 24mm 1.4 or 85mm 1.4 what would you go for?

    • That’s a tough call. Depends on what you shoot – both are excellent; the 85/1.4 G needs a bit more care. The 24/1.4 really shines on the D800. I’d throw a spanner into the works and suggest a Zeiss 35/1.4 😛

  63. alan cheong says:

    I love your “real life” review as compared to many “techinical” reviews with mtf charts and what not. I can’t seem to relate to those reviews in real life but i find yours a refreshing read and gives me a better real world impression. great job. i also enjoyed your photos a lot and was impressed with the “sharpness” and “clarity”. Are these straight out of the camera or sharpened subsequently in CS5.5? Again, thanks for a great review.

  64. Peter Oxley says:

    Just out of interest is KL a good place to buy the D800 pricewise and which shop would you recommend. I’m based in Cambodia and I hugely doubt that there would be any D800s coming out here in the next several months.

    • Very, very short supply here. First batch already spoken for, as far as I know. Our prices are higher than the US, I think the local distributor made a boo-boo when hedging RM against Yen.

  65. Luis Castro Solla says:

    Just want to thank you for the review and pictures.
    You do not have to reply 🙂

    Luis Castro Solla
    Lisbon, Portugal

  66. Great review.
    Love the images but the simplicity of your frame around each is great – gives you a brand and a copyright message but does not intrude. Can I ask how you created the frame/border

  67. Thanks very much for posting this detailed review. About 95% of my shooting is landscapes and 100% of it is tripod-based. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this is the camera for me and I’m inching ever closer to sticking my name on a waiting list.

    Thanks again.

  68. Joe Leong says:

    Thank you Ming for putting us on the forum map. This is an excellent review. I, for one, do not use high ISO. But just in case, I am ordering a D4 as well.

  69. Dominique Dierick says:

    Weird that you find the AF of your 24mm spot on with the D800. Or maybe not weird: my 35 1.4 required finetuning on my D3s, D700 and D7000. On the D800 it is perfect, without fine tuning. Maybe this is part of what Nikon wants to say with better AF? More precise, higher tolerances. Who knows. I don’t believe in coincidence in these matters 😉 Nice review by the way.

    • I think the difference is that each camera body has a range of calibration for which it is considered ‘in spec’; same with each lens; if the ranges overlap completely you’re in luck, if they’re at the extreme ends – well, that’s where AF fine tune comes in. 🙂

  70. Dennis S says:

    nice review.. very detailed as titled

  71. Awesome review!

  72. rich cower says:

    Thanks for taking the time to post this. Very interesting. I’d like to see more from you as you go forward with this camera.

    • Thank you – check back regularly, I’ll be posting updates – the main one to address daylight performance, because I haven’t had a chance to shoot with it during daytime yet.

  73. You make it sound like higher pixel count makes the camera LESS usable than the D700. For example, and I quote you saying “It’s probably at a two stop or more disadvantage to the D700 if you want critical sharpness at the pixel level – firstly, you’ve got a slightly noisier sensor, and secondly, you’re going to need higher shutter speeds to maintain pixel integrity and combat camera shake”

    Your statements are wrong when comparing to same images printed with D800 to D700. The D800 has the resolution advantage for when one wants to take advantage of 36 MP, but.. along with the resolution advantage, if one wants to shoot at high ISO and down sample to that of a D700 image size, the D800 will win here too.

    Camera shake is no worse with D800 than a D700.. it’s just that 36 MP allows one to zoom in more. You make the camera sound less usable in situations, but I would say it’s MORE usable. You pick. Take your time and care to get the most out of 36 MP ( studio, landscape etc ) by using a tripod and live view. And when you want to do street shooting and/or action, just understand that you will need higher shutter speeds and might not be able to print 40x60cm, but by no means will it ever output less desirable images when compared to D700.

    This to me is flexibility.

    • I think the camera is less useable IF you want to maintain the same pixel-level quality – there’s no arguing that it’s noisier on a per-pixel basis; however, more pixels means yes, more cropping flexibility, or the ability to downsize and retain both fine detail AND good pixel integrity/ low noise.

      For the same print size, the D800 wins hands down. However, if you’re looking at 1:1, the D700 has an advantage.

      Otherwise, I think we agree. It was 2am while writing this (and I’d been shooting an assignment since 7am) so forgive any confusion, please. 🙂

  74. Neil Morgan says:

    I don’t often read blog reviews, they tend to be fanboy-ish but happily your review is balanced and very indicative of the type of performance I was expecting. I guess the point is too that it is not worse than say D700 under these trying conditions, more on a par but you can pixel dump and get a better image where as in landscape or studio you can expect better but you need to be more careful and precise about the way you go about shooting.
    Great stuff.

    • Absolutely. I’m not a fanboy – I’ll use whatever works for me, I don’t have time to muck around with gear that doesn’t. I think the D800 passes the studio test with flying colors, not sure about low light PJ. But, I might change my opinion later. Time to go out and shoot in daylight.

  75. Thanks for the post, gets me excited to get mine. I preordered at my local store in Canada, hope to have it next week. The shots look good, even in low light.

    • Reality is we’ve long past the point of sufficiency. But we are approaching territory where you need to have impeccable technique to get the most out of the camera, especially at the pixel level.

  76. Nice review!

  77. Great review. Superb performance. As I’ve previously suspected – the D800 is about equivalent to the D3S when downscaled to 12MP – which makes sense given that the sensor is the next generation. ISO 6400 is very impressive indeed. Well done Nikon.

  78. andrew lubetkin says:

    For more of a run and gun shooting style how do you think the D4 will compare ?

  79. Thank you Ming! Very good review indeed! D800 looks very demanding to the lenses you use. CA are strong with 85 f1.4 at at 1.4. Have you used AF microadjustment for 85mm f1.4 ?

    • One of the reasons I missed the sunset shooting window was because I was running calibration on all of my lenses – the 85/1.4 G was just plain old stubborn. I think calibration is mostly there, but I’ll need to do some more tests under better lighting conditions to be sure.

  80. Great initial review, thank you!

    Roughly how big were the initial raw file sizes?

    Am really looking forward to taking delivery of mine. I’m curious on how my 85 f/1.4D and 80-200 f/2.8D would fare on this body. I’ve also got a couple of new Ai-S lenses which am hoping will get some use.

    • Bloody enormous, to put it politely. At least 40mb and sometimes as much as 50mb for 14-bit compressed NEF.

      I think the 85/1.4 D will have visible CA, until f2; the 80-200 depends on which version. I was definitely seeing soft performance at the far limit close up on even my D200, but it could be a focusing issue – I’m just as curious as you to find out. Please report back and let us know how the older glass holds up.

  81. Brilliant write up and well done in one day. Love the shots as well – great photography!!

  82. Enjoyed your detailed review. I’m a canon shooter, but can’t help but admire the D800 and other Nikon offerings. Sure is a lot of camera for the price!

  83. Great review, very informative. Thanks.
    Sounds like it takes some skill to master.
    I’m getting mine soon, what are your top 3 tips for good shooting?

    • Thanks! #1. Check your focus calibration. #2. Use a higher shutter speed than 1/focal length. #3. If you can’t do #2, use a tripod or flash. Bonus: good lenses will pay off big dividends.

  84. Thanks for the extra effort to get this out. Great review and a good read. Glad there were no real negative surprises.

  85. Hi Ming,

    Long time! Epic effort!. Thanks so much for this. Very useful to hear what lenses suit. I will be running my trusty old MF 50mm f1.2, but I have to wait 1 more wk 😦



  86. So now that you are using the D800, how would you say it compares to the Hasselblad H3D-39?

    Great review BTW!!!

    I appreciate it very much

    • Thank you! I think resolution is definitely comparable – high ISO performance, no contest (even though the H3D-39 has a larger sensor). Operation speed is pretty amazing given the size of the files it shunts around – I was mildly horrified to find 45-50mb compressed not uncommon…


  1. […] two questions were on the mind of the Nikon enthusiasts and pros after the launch of the D800 (full review here) and D800E (which curiously, I’ve never actually reviewed): firstly, was this the D700 […]

  2. […] Nikon D800 (Apr 2012) – Best dynamic range of any 35mm format DSLR at the moment; incredibly accurate color, and shunts around those enormous files like it’s nothing. Video quality catches up to Canon 5DIII, and offers headphone monitoring, adjustable audio input and uncompressed full HDMI out feeds. This camera has moved the bar for 35mm DSLRs. In fact, it’s so good that most lenses can’t keep up with the sensor – every optical flaw is revealed. The lenses that work well on the camera are just as surprising as the ones that don’t (compared to the 12MP FX cameras); the 85/1.8 G for instance is better than the 85/1.4 G, and the 28-300VR becomes pretty good. Pixel-level noise performance is probably a stop behind the D700, but you’re actually going to lose a bit more than that because of the shutter speeds required to negate camera shake at these pixel densities. A non-issue if you downsize, but then why would you do that after having to suffer huge file sizes? Highly recommended to spend some time calibrating your lenses using the AF fine tune function. Watch out for AF issues with side focus points. […]

  3. […] – the D800 – on 22 March. (My initial review is up, here) It’s now time to close the book on the D700 – […]

  4. […] You can find plenty of my thoughts on the nearly identical D800′s detailed first impressions review. […]

  5. […] One of the very first independent hands on reviews of the Nikon D800 – serial number 234. After receiving the camera, Ming Thein explores the evening with his new camera, taking pictures and posting them along with his initial thoughts. A great read with nice photos and a good first chance to see how the Nikon 85/1.4G proforms on the D800. View his blog post.. […]

  6. […] Las fotos ya saben, cortesía de Quesabesde.com. Aquí un par de buenos análisis: Canon 5D y Nikon D800 ambos llevados a cabo por fotógrafos Share this:CompartirFacebookLinkedInTwitterMe gusta:Me […]

  7. […] Ming Thein First Impressions review – Some amazing street photography using the D800 – and probably some of the first real life images […]

  8. […] 1625 times Here is an interesting write-up of the D800. Has lots of low-light candid street shots done in Malaysia, as well as a couple drool-worthy food shots that show the **incredible** detail the D800 creates. A (very detailed) first impressions review: The Nikon D800 […]

  9. […] I received it’s successor – the D800 – on 22 March. (My initial review is up, here) It’s now time to close the book on the D700 – its days as my primary workhorse are […]

  10. […] the camera. Some of the images do look very promising especially the ones with a Zeiss ZF lens. A (very detailed) first impressions review: The Nikon D800 – Ming Thein | Photographer The size in relation to the M9 is revealing to see. A big black blob next to a gem of industrial […]

  11. […] promised, here’s an update to the Nikon D800 first impressions review I posted last night. I’ve now had the chance to shoot with the camera for several hours under […]

  12. Anonymous says:

    […] MIII es mi camara y no la nikon….(solo digo k se ajusta mas a lo k busco, no k sea mejor o peor) A (very detailed) first impressions review: The Nikon D800 Saludos http://www.nicolasreusens.com/ http://500px.com/snic320 Responder Citando […]

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