Looking at the Nikon D700 and D800 side-by-side, it's clear just how far the company's DSLR body design have come in a little more than three years. The D800 features a vastly improved grip, with a more ergonomic shape to its top plate. The camera's button layout has not undergone massive changes, though, with the differences mostly relegated to adjustments for ergonomics and aesthetic design.

The D800 features a rear 3.2-inch LCD with playback and navigation buttons along its left side. The center of the camera is occupied with the camera's optical viewfinder, while to the right of the screen is the flat directional pad for scrolling through the menu. The top of the camera houses the secondary LCD, with the mode button, on/off switch, and shutter release. The left side of the top plate includes the shutter drive/release mode dial, with WB/ISO/bracket adjustment buttons on top of that, where you might expect to see a mode dial.

The front of the D800 includes a couple programmable function buttons, along with the autofocus mode switch located just below the lens where your left hand lays along the camera's lens. The most noticeable update from the D700 to the D800 is the grip, which is now much more comfortable to hold, as it is set further into the body, with an indentation for the index finger to better rest on.

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The menu on the Nikon D800 is almost identical to the Nikon D4 and other similar models. The camera menu is organized into groups, with symbols on the left-hand side of the screen for playback, shooting settings, custom settings, retouch menu, and recently used settings. Within each group all the options are displayed in a vertical list, usually multiple pages long.

Nikon continues to design their menus this way, and it will feel instantly familiar to those who have used Nikons in the past. Unfortunately, it's not great from a usability perspective and a long list design means that getting from the first page to the last option in shooting settings requires scrolling through around 20 other options first—assuming you know exactly where it is and don't dive into the custom menu first.

This is a real headache when you're trying to get to two options in the custom menu, because that single list covers such a vast collection of important (if obscure) functions. There's nothing wrong with tabbed menus, but even a simple page up, page down function would be much better than leaving options hidden off-screen within a tab.

While the Nikon D800 can match the D4 for sophistication, the D800 has a much simpler button layout than its more expensive full-frame cousin. The D800 is also—rather obviously, given the nearly four year difference in release date—much more sophisticated than the D700, adding more modern features such as live view and video recording.

Where the highest-end cameras in Nikon's lineup seem to court professionals almost exclusively, the D800 is priced and designed to be available to amateurs looking for specific high-end features and performance. The D800 is relatively simple to operate, with several keys that can be customized to the user's preference. We would've liked to have seen the joystick from the Nikon D4 on the D800, with the camera instead using the same flat directional pad that was used on the D700.

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The D800 rises slightly above the D700 physically, with a design that incorporated more ergonomic slopes and curves that aid handling. The differences are small, but together the result is a camera that handles profoundly better than the D700 in most situations. Altogether, the D800 is also slightly lighter than the D700, with a body-only weight of just a hair under two pounds (2lb, 3.3oz with battery and card). It's heavy, to be sure, but for a full-frame professional tool it's downright svelte compared to cameras that have an included battery grip.

The highlights from a handling perspective are the orientation of the shutter release and power button, the indentation and shape of the grip, and the addition of a focus mode switch to just below the lens where the left hand falls. All three improve the ergonomics of the camera, and are reminiscent of the kinds of body styling that have typified Nikons over the past few years.

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All the usual program auto, aperture/shutter priority, and manual exposure modes are offered on the Nikon D800, with the current mode indicated primarily on the secondary LCD on the top plate of the camera. The control over the mode is the same as on the D700 (and other similar models), with a dedicated mode button right by this top LCD. Users switch between modes by holding down this button and then rotating the control dial to change between shooting modes.

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The Nikon D800 meters automatically utilizing the same 91k-pixel RGB sensor as found on the Nikon D4. This sensor is greatly improved over the one found in the Nikon D700 and, massive sensor resolution aside, might be the best improvement between the D800 and its predecessor. The user can adjust the camera's auto exposure on a +/- 5 stop scale or 2-9 frame exposure bracketing, with either option in whole, 1/3-, or 1/2- stop increments. The D800 also includes Nikon's "active d-lighting" to enhance tonal range, with ADL bracketing of two frames or three to five frames using a preset value.

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Comparing the video mode between the D800 and D700 shows just how far DSLR video has come in just a little over three years. The D700 does not have any kind of video recording functionality—DSLRs simply didn't record video when it came out—while the D800 includes the kind of high-end video functionality that will certainly appeal to professional videographers.

The D800 can shoot up to 1080/30p full HD video utilizing B-frame compression, contrast detection autofocus, and the ability to output an unmarked, uncompressed full HD signal to an external monitor or recording device. The D800 also includes a 3.5mm mic jack with full manual audio level control available, and the ability to adjust exposure while recording (including aperture) using the uncompressed HD output signal.

The D800's video compares well with the D4, with almost all of the same functionality and feature set at about half the price. The camera records 1080p video at 30, 25, or 24 fps, with options for 720p video at 60 (59.94), 50, 30 (29.97), 25, and 24 (23.976) fps. Video is recorded with B-frame compression with H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, with audio recorded in Linear PCM and the video stored in a .MOV container.

With 36.3-megapixels of data to capture with each image, the D800 was never going to be a speed demon. When you put it up against similar competition, however, its four frames-per-second burst rate is actually very fast. The 40-megapixel medium format Pentax 645D, for example, manages just 1.1fps when continuously shooting. The 645D's sensor is much larger (1452mm2 against just 861.6mm2), but that's a considerable speed gap.

Drive mode is selected with a dedicated dial on the top plate of the camera, just beneath the white balance/iso/bracket hub. The camera has the option for single shooting, continuous low, continuous high, quiet shutter, self-timer, and mirror up modes. The self-timer can be adjusted to the user's desire, with custom settings allowing up to nine frames taken with a user-defined delay between each.

The playback mode on the D800 is rather sparse, with options only for reviewing images, playing them back in a slideshow, deleting, and ordering prints. Playback is accessed by pressing the dedicated button on the back of the camera, just to the left of the optical viewfinder. There's also a dedicated delete key here, along with zoom in and zoom out buttons aligned to the left side of the rear LCD. Users can zoom in on a single image or pull back to view an index of four, nine, or 72 images, with the option to add a comment of up to 32 characters to an image.

The D800's 36.3-megapixel maximum resolution leaves a lot of options for cropping down in order to better manage file size or decrease field of view. The camera records still images in 14- or 12-bit lossless compressed .NEF files, or in compressed JPEGs with normal (1:4) or basic (1:16) options along with RGB TIFF files. The camera can record images at a maximum resolution of 7360x4912, along with the following options: FX-format: (M) 5520x3680, (S) 3680x2456; 1:2 format (30 x 20): (L) 6144x4080, (M) 4608x3056, (S) 3072x2040; 5:4 format (30 x 24): (L) 6144x4912, (M) 4608x3680, (S) 3072x2456; DX-format (L) 4800x3200, (M) 3600x2400, (S) 2400x1600.

The D800 inherits the new 51-point autofocus system that was seen in the Nikon D4, using their Multi-CAM 3500FX sensor module. The system includes 15 cross-point sensors, with the option to fine tune focus performance. The center cross-type sensor and 10 other central senors are even functional down to f/8, which will be a huge boon to those who work with teleconverters that naturally limit the aperture diameter of any lens they're attached to.

Users can select from single-servo, continuous-servo, and manual focus modes by the use of a dedicated switch on the front of the camera where the left hand sits. The D800 can also use contrast-detection autofocus when the mirror is up for video or live view shooting. Focus lock available through pressing the shutter or using the dedicated AF/AE-lock button.

When using the D800, users can let the 91k-pixel RGB metering sensor do its thing or adjust manually if they so desire. Users can meter using spot, center-weighted, or matrix metering. Matrix metering meters across the frame, with spot metering picking out a specific user-specified spot to pull brightness values from. Center-weighted pulls brightness from around the center of the frame, with the user able to select how far afield that data is pulled from. In center-weighted and matrix metering the camera can effectively meter between 0 and 20 EV, though in spot metering this rises to 2-20 EV.

When outside of manual mode the user can adjust the camera's auto exposure on a +/- 5 stop scale or 2-9 frame exposure bracketing, with either option in whole, 1/3-, or 1/2- stop increments. The D800 also includes Nikon's "active d-lighting" to enhance tonal range, with ADL bracketing of two frames or three to five frames using a preset value.

The native ISO range on the D800 is limited compared to the recently-announced Nikon D4, with a native range of just 100-6400. The camera is mostly designed to appeal to those looking to do low ISO, high-resolution work (such as landscape and studio work, where lighting conditions aren't as variable or demanding as in sports or news photography), so this isn't a huge issue to the camera's target base. The camera's ISO can be pushed all the way up to 25,600 if needed with the use of the Hi-2 setting. The camera's pixel size is smaller than the 16-megapixel Nikon D4, but with vastly more resolution, dynamic range and noise performance shouldn't be much different when downsampling to similar resolutions.

The D800 offers two types of automatic white balance, with presets for incandescent, seven types of fluorescent light, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual (up to four values savable) and direct kelvin entry between 2500K and 10,000K. Fine-tuning is available with every option, on a four-way color balance scale.

As with all Nikon DSLRs on the market, the Nikon D800 does not include stabilization built into the body. The camera instead relies on stabilization that Nikon builds into their lenses, called vibration reduction. Nikon's reasons for using in-lens VR instead of in-body stabilization is that they can tune VR to function better with individual lenses, and by applying the correction before the light strikes the sensor, the image is stabilized through the optical viewfinder as well.

The D800 includes Nikon's usual measure of picture presets, called "picture control" settings. These include the usual suspects: standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, and landscape. Each setting can be fine-tuned to the user's liking, with options for adjusting saturation, tone, contrast, and sharpness.

The D800 uses Nikon's usual F-mount for interchangeable lenses, the same mount they've used for over 50 years (with slight modifications, of course). The camera's sensor is really the star of the show, though, as it has an astounding 36.3 megapixels of resolution on its full-frame image sensor. To compare: the Nikon D3x, considered the flagship of their entire line and a popular landscape and studio portrait camera, has just 24.5 megapixels of resolution. For the D800 to outpoint its flagship by such a large degree, and to do it at half the cost, is a marvel. We'll have to get the camera into our labs to test its capabilities, but it's a bold move by Nikon, leaving the D800 in a very unique position in both the market and their own camera lineup.

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The D800 gets a big upgrade in the form of a 3.2-inch 921k-pixel TFT-LCD rear screen. The screen is built directly into the body, with no articulation for tripod users—though the camera's ability to use its uncompressed HD output on an external monitor will help there. The LCD is nice and bright, with an ambience lighting sensor adjusting the brightness of the screen automatically depending on what conditions you are currently standing in. The camera also includes a secondary screen on the top plate of the camera, which offers a quick readout of all the current shooting settings.

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The viewfinder in the D800 is the same as in the D4 and other high-end cameras from the company. It's a 100% coverage eye-level pentaprism (when shooting with an FX lens), with a 0.7x subject magnification, 17mm eyepoint, and a diopter adjustment range of -3 to +1m-1. The focus screen is a clear matte Mark VIII with AF area brackets and a framing grid. The viewfinder is bright and clear, as we've come to expect. With users likely to crop down from the 36.3-megapixel resolution it's important to mention that when shooting at the 1.2x crop or when using a DX lens that viewfinder coverage drops to approximately 97% horizontally and vertically.

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The D800 includes a built-in flash, which manually flips up from the top of the body just above the optical viewfinder. The flash has a guide number of approximately 39 feet/12 meters at ISO 100. The camera can use a Nikon Speedlight SB-910, -900, -800, -700, or its own built-in flash as a wireless master commander for a creative lighting setup. The camera also has a hot shoe and the ability to use the 91k-pixel RGB metering sensor to newer attached Speedlights. The camera has flash exposure compensation of -3 to +1 EV in whole, 1/3-, and 1/2-stop increments.

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On the left side of the camera there's a rubber flap that pops out of the body to reveal the camera's USB, HDMI, mic, and headphone jacks. On the front of the camera the ten-pin remote commander and flash sync terminals are housed behind a separate rubber flap that wraps around the side of the body. The D800 is the first camera to support SuperSpeed USB 3.0, which has the ability to be much faster than USB 2.0 for faster transfer of images.

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The Nikon D800 includes an EN-EL15 removable, rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, with a dedicated external charging cradle. The battery slots into a compartment on the bottom of the camera, similar to the location on other DSLRs. The battery is rated to 900 shots by CIPA standards, according to Nikon reps here at CP+ 2012 in Japan. This is slightly less than the 1,000 shot rating that the D700 had, but CIPA ratings are very out of whack compared to what most people would consider normal usage, so the new battery actually performs better, especially in colder temperatures.

The camera can also be used with the optional MB-D12 multi-power battery pack, which can use an EN-EL15, EN-EL18, or eight AA-size batteries to power the camera. With an EN-EL15 in the battery pack, the camera can fire up to 6fps with a DX-format lens (with resolution restricted to around 15.1 megapixels) as opposed to the four fps available when shooting with the battery alone.

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Images are stored on memory located behind a plastic compartment on the right side of the camera. Behind this flap the D800 houses dual card slots, with one slot for SD/SDHC/SDXC and Compact Flash each. The camera supports newer UHS-1 compliant SDHC cards, which again should aid in speedy transfer of images and enhance workflows. The D800 lets the user select to which card (SD or CF) images and video are stored, depending on their workflow.

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It seems every six months as the rumor mills heat up about another impending Nikon DSLR announcement, more and more people clamored for a Nikon D800 that houses every "wow" feature they've seen over the last few years: incredible high ISO range, video capability, ultra high-speed shooting, all in an affordable package and a full-frame sensor.

Instead, Nikon took the D800 as an opportunity to create a low native ISO, ultra high resolution, comparably affordable full-frame camera that is as much an update to their D3x flagship as it is the aging D700. Talk about turning the narrative right on its head.

Thus there are two ways to look at the Nikon D800: affordable high-resolution camera that brings many of the D4 and D3x's best features to a sub-$3000 price point, or a camera with more resolution than an advanced amateur needs, less speed then they want, and an ISO range too limited to amaze their friends anymore.

For landscape, architectural, and studio photographers, however, the Nikon D800 (or really, the Nikon D800E) is a rather revolutionary camera. The level of precision and detail that you can achieve with 36.3 megapixels is just what they're after, and they rarely require (or desperately avoid, anyway) ISO settings above 200. A camera with nearly as much resolution as the medium format $10,000 Pentax 645D and more than the 24.5-megapixel Nikon D3x with a few thousand dollars in change left over? Sign them right up.

The D800 will also appeal to those looking to do high-quality DSLR video but don't want to shell out the $6000+ for a Canon 1D X or Nikon D4. It still remains to be seen what Canon's 5D Mark III looks like (or costs), but we expect the D800's uncompressed HD signal out, headphone jack, and live aperture control to appeal greatly to them if the 5D Mark III fails to impress. Regardless, how effectively the camera downsamples from 36.3 megapixels to the paltry 2-megapixel signal of 1080p video will be a major factor.

With many enthusiasts shouting down megapixels as a useless metric for measuring camera performance, the Nikon D800 is surely to hit the wrong notes on forums and in comment sections. That's a shame, because the Nikon D800 isn't meant for the Facebook and Flickr crowd; Sadder still, in terms of its abilities and price relative to its competitors, the D800 is a far more revolutionary camera than the Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X even tried to be.

We'll have to get the camera back to our imaging labs in Boston to see how well its performance really stacks up, but in the right hands the D800 has every chance to be the game-changing DSLR you didn't ask for, but have been waiting for all along.

Meet the testers

TJ Donegan

TJ Donegan

Executive Editor

@TJDonegan

TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.

See all of TJ Donegan's reviews

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