Nikon D800 Camera: New Capabilities and Possibilities for DSLR Video
Nikon boldly jumped into the HD DSLR market in 2008 with the D90, which was able to record 720p video. Four years later and Nikon’s D800 leads the pack with more megapixels than any other camera in its class and the option to shoot 1080p video at an affordable price point (MSRP $2,999.95).
Having had the new Nikon D800 for a few weeks, I’d thought I would put it to an extreme test: How would it handle shooting video and stills in the humid tropics?
The Nikon line of cameras is outstanding, and I have been a user for almost 20 years. In this review I will be focusing on the video capabilities of the camera and not so much on its still photography pedigree. Also I will concentrate more on how the camera performs in the real world under difficult shooting conditions than on its specs, although it’s easy enough to find a list of its impressive specs online.
I was fortunate in that I was asked to shoot a web video for one of the premiere resorts on the Caribbean island of Nevis, the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club. The two-and-a-half-minute video needed to capture the essence of the island, its beauty, and all there is to do while vacationing there.
Of course, shooting in July in the West Indies means a lot of heat and humidity. With the Nikon D800 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, I believed I was ready for it.
The Nikon D800 FX (full frame) sensor boasts 36.3 megapixels captured on a CMOS sensor measuring 35.9mm x 24mm. In still mode, that means you can shoot raw, compressed or uncompressed TIFF, and JPEG files (fine, normal and basic). The fine JPEG files measure 7,360 x 4,912 pixels, which is quite large.
With two card slots—one CompactFlash (CF) and one Secure Digital (SD)—to handle your captured files, you have the option of selecting where you would like your files to reside.
ISOs range from the extremely slow 100 all the way up to the lightning fast 25,600. In the motion mode, you still have just 20 minutes of continuous shooting of H.264 MPEG-4 MOV files before the sensor needs time to cool. Speeds include 1920 x 1080p at 30 fps and 24 fps, and 1280 x 720p at 60 fps and 30 fps. A built-in microphone allows you to capture a scratch track, but you do have the option of attaching an external microphone, and you can monitor the levels with 1/8-inch jack headphones.
The LCD is the standard 921,000 pixels, but at a slightly larger 3.2 inches. The camera looks and feels much like any other Nikon of its type, but there are a few added features with this model that I wanted to try out. The D800 allows you to export AVCHD video uncompressed via an HDMI cable; while using that cable, you can view the images on an external monitor and Nikon’s LCD simultaneously. (Canon DSLRs allow viewing compressed video on an external monitor and nothing on the camera’s LCD if an HDMI cable is attached.)
Nikon’s new addition also shoots time-lapse images. In the menu, set how often you want the shutter to fire and the duration of the time lapse—the camera does the rest. I thought images of clouds shot through the palm fronds would be a great example of the feature. In the still mode, you can process high dynamic range (HDR) images in-camera, with the Nikon taking several images at once and merging them.
There were certain things I knew before I traveled to the tropics. With a sensor of this size, anything and everything will stick to it if given half a chance. The camera does have a self-cleaning sensor that can be activated at startup and shutdown, so I decided to keep lens changing to a minimum. Also, no cameras enjoy huge swings in humidity, and I knew going from an air conditioned room into a rainforest might cause some camera problems. And lastly, even shooting at ISO 100 in 1080/24p with a shutter speed of 1/40th of a second, I would still need something to stop the lens down beyond its f/22 limit. I chose a 77mm circular polarizer to cut reflections and give me two extra stops.
The first test of the camera was shooting a secluded beach in the late morning. With the camera mounted on a tripod, shooting at f/20 with the polarizer, the image looked stunning once I got into a darkened room to view it.
Activating the D800 for shooting video is a simple process. Set the camera to manual mode, push the Live View button on the back of the camera and dial in your f-stop and shutter speed. Once you’ve focused, activate record by pressing the red dot tipped button near the shutter and you see the countdown from 20 on the LCD monitor. In the brilliant sun it was extremely difficult to see any detail, even while shading the viewfinder. I used the viewfinder mainly for framing and exposure.
Everywhere I looked on this island I saw another photo op. The polarizer is essential in this environment, as the lens cannot handle this much light. In my film days, I would often shoot at f/64 in similar conditions.
Hiking up the side of a dormant volcano allowed me to see if the camera could handle these extremes better than I could. (Actually, most 12-year-olds on the hike could, but that’s another article.) With temperatures in the high 80s and humidity in the high 90s, shooting video in the rainforest went almost flawlessly. Only once while shooting did the camera stutter, giving me a white frame in the middle of a shot. The humidity and sweat seemed to be no problem as the D800 is sealed very well against the elements (mostly my elements).
The camera also handled itself well in low-light conditions. Shooting a beach party at 9 p.m. required an ISO of 6400 and my 50mm prime lens set at f/1.6. The colors were sharp and vivid, and even though the depth of field was nonexistent, dark-skinned people were still exposed well with a gentle rack focus.
I was also amazed with the contrast range of the sensor. When shooting several people on the beach (white sand), in the full sun (f/16 and above), with people with extremely dark skin next to people with glowing white skin in a backlit environment, I was faced with quite a challenge. The video was amazing in that all the skin tones were evident in the same shot.
I found just two real difficulties with this almost perfect camera. First, even though I rarely changed lenses, and when I did I was extremely careful, I still got “dirt” on the sensor. This “material” could not be removed by the automatic sensor cleaning at power up and shutdown. The only way I was able to get rid of the spots was by setting the camera to manual sensor clean mode. The larger the sensor, the more you are going to notice these imperfections. If this had not cleaned the sensor, a manual cleaning would have been my only other option.
The other real issue was the size of the video files. Having 2GB or 3GB files may not sound that big, but my Apple Final Cut Pro system bogged down trying to read them. The video would skip slightly on initial playback. It was fine once edited into the timeline, but selecting an in and out point was a long process. I did have several hundred gigabytes of footage, but even with quite a bit of RAM and a fast processor, I knew I was editing 36.3-megapixel files rather than the 21 I usually captured with my Canon.
Is this the only camera you’ll ever need to shoot stills and video? For the time being, yes. The Nikon D800 may be overkill if you are shooting stills for the web, but you can compress the file size for online use.
It difficult to show examples of 1080p HD footage in a magazine, but if you can wait until late September, my video should be on Nisbet Plantation’s web site (www.nisbetplantation.com). Although compressed for web use, you can get a good idea of what this camera is capable of in extreme conditions. Believe me, it handled the problems better than I did, without needing all of the sunscreen.
Product: Nikon D800
Pros: The D800 shoots 1080p video and offers an uncompressed output. Other features include extremely sharp video and stills, Nikon dependability and a robust body that handles temperature extremes.
Cons: Sensor extremely sensitive to dirt and dust. File sizes are very large, bogging down all but the fastest computers.
Bottom Line: Just about perfect for all your video and still needs, with only a few flaws.
MSRP: $2,999 (body only)