How does the Nikon D800 stack up against its competition the Canon 5D Mark III Check out our in-depth comparison in the Buying Guide.
When the Nikon D700 hit the market in 2008, it fought off competition from Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II with a much fancier autofocus system, a slightly faster burst rate, and comparable sensitivity settings. Despite its lower resolution (the Nikon’s 12.1MP sensor trailed the Canon’s 21.1MP), the D700 offered plenty of bang for the buck—with a pop-up flash to top it all off.
Now Nikon’s new D800 ($3,000, street, body only) leaps forward with a 36.3MP sensor that leaves Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III playing resolution catch-up. But the D800 shoots at a slightly lower burst rate and produces more noise at very high ISOs than the 5D Mark III, which has smaller image files and fewer pixels to contend with.
Are the D800’s incredibly detailed images enough to make you forget about the Canon’s charms? Ultimately, it depends on your priorities as a photographer.
In the Test Lab The Nikon D800 earned an Excellent rating in overall Image Quality from ISO 50 through ISO 800. The camera’s limiting factor was noise: With its record-setting number of pixels (for a 24x36mm full-frame sensor) noise proves to be a challenge as sensitivity rises.
The benefit of all those pixels is the highest resolution we have seen yet from a 35mm-format DSLR. The D800 has enough resolution for an Excellent rating through all but its top ISO of 25,600. At ISO 50, it served up 3510 lines per picture height. That’s almost 300 more than the Sony Alpha 900’s 24.6MP sensor delivered at its lowest sensitivity of ISO 100. It’s also more than Nikon’s D3X, which turned in 3180 lines in the same test.
The D800 held resolution above 3000 lines all the way to ISO 3200, where it resolved 3330 lines. At ISO 6400 it fell to 2900, then 2720 at ISO 12,800, and 2470 at ISO 25,600. Even at its worst, the D800 out-resolves the D700 at its best—that camera delivered 2420 lines at ISO 100.
While the D800 managed to hold noise to a Low or better rating only up to ISO 800, it remained in acceptable territory up to ISO 3200. If you apply heavy noise reduction, you should be able to bring ISO 6400 down to acceptable levels while maintaining a lot of resolving power. If you don’t plan to print an image very large, you will occasionally be able to get good results at ISO 6400.
In our autofocus test, the D800 proved slightly slower than the D700 in very bright light, but either the same or faster in average and dim lighting. It managed to focus in less than a second in the dark of EV –1, which is quite impressive, though the same can be said for the Canon 5D Mark III. In fact, the Mark III proved a bit faster than the D800 in very bright light. At the brightest levels used in our test, the Canon focused in 0.37 sec, compared with the D800’s 0.43 sec. The difference was most significant at EV 6 (think a well-lit kitchen) where the Canon beat the Nikon 0.45 sec to 0.54 sec. The D800 returns the favor at EV 1 though, beating the Canon 0.78 to 0.89 sec.
Both provide adequately fast AF and both do an exemplary job of tracking during bursts.
In the Field As is almost always the case with Nikon’s DSLRs, the D800 is a pleasure to hold. The grip is sculpted with a nice divot on the inner portion for your fingertips. Two assignable function buttons adorn the front of the camera body, and there are dedicated buttons and dials for all the major settings you’ll need while shooting. (Canon’s 5D Mark III has a minor edge in control customization, thanks to the handy menu that shows which buttons you’re changing as you assign them.) Both cameras offer top-notch control systems with plenty of opportunity to tailor them to your shooting style.
As it did with the D4, Nikon has enabled uncompressed 1080i video output through the HDMI port of the D800. This gives the Nikon an advantage over almost any other DSLR in the video department. And the compressed video is quite nice, too, as is typical of a DSLR in this class. The D800 also has a stereo microphone input with level controls and a headphone output for monitoring that sound. The built-in mic is mono.