D4 Buyers May Want To Give The D800 A Second Look

D4 Buyers May Want To Give The D800 A Second Look

As a wedding photographer I was really never interested in the D800. 36mp in ideal light for commercial jobs sounds fantastic but shooting thousands of images in a dark reception hall and having to deal with massive files horrified me. Because of this I purchased a D4 hoping for high ISO performance in a more manageable 16mp file. After I tested the performance of the D4 in low light and finding it was no better than the D3S, I am giving the D800 a second look. 

The D2H, D3, D3s, and D4
The Nikon D3 was announced in August of 2007 and was a massive improvement from the Nikon D2 series. In 2009, Nikon announced the Nikon D3s which added about one stop of ISO performance and video functionality. Two years later Nikon released the D4, which many assumed would be a major jump in image quality (at least more significant than the D3 to D3s). Instead, the D4 has major improvements to the hardware, focusing, and video features but according to our test has very little improvement in image quality, if any at all.

D800 ISO performance
Now going back to the D800; the camera has not yet been released to the public, but there are many test shots from the camera floating around the internet. The general consensus seems to be saying that the D800 files will look better than D3 files if they are scaled down from 36mp to 12mp. This means that at 100% the D800 file will look noisier than a D3 file shot at the same ISO, BUT if you print the file or shrink it down for web the D800 file will actually look better than the D3.

If the D3S has approximately 1 stop better ISO performance than the D3 and the D800 will supposedly handle noise "better" than the D3 (when scaled down), why does the D4 cost twice as much? If these assumptions are correct, the difference in ISO performance between the D4 and D800 will be less than one ISO stop.

Is the D4 worth double the price?
Normally you might say that the D4 is worth double because it has a new focusing system, but in this case the D800 has the exact same system. You might say that the D4 has incredible features for videographers, like clean video output, audio monitoring, and lossless video zooming, but the D800 also has these features. I assumed the D4 would be around three stops better in terms of ISO performance but people are claiming that it will be less than one stop. So my question is: "Why then is the D4 $3000 more than the D800?" The fact that it can shoot 11fps? I have never shot more than 3fps in my whole career, so that one improvement has never appealed to me.

I thought it was strange that Nikon released a D800 and completely killed the need for their $8000 D3X. Now I'm beginning to think that the D800 may also kill the D4 for everyone except professional sports photographers. At this point I am going to buy both cameras and test them out before I make a decision. If the D800 really does perform as well as people say, I will be very excited to sell my D4 and get 2 D800s.

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Michael Kormos's picture

You don't get a 36mp body only to downscale the images.  D800 will hog up memory cards, slow down the transfer process, and fill your stack of hard drives in no time. Not to mention that RAW workflow will be slower in PP when working with 36mp files, which, technically, shouldn't be downsized until the very end in one's workflow.  Even then, you're gonna want to keep the original RAWs, so your storage requirements just doubled.

Besides, I think it's unrealistic to expect monumental leaps in ISO performance like we've seen with D2 -> D3.  If every generation of cameras improved 1-2 stops in ISO, then in another 10 years, we'll all be shooting at base ISO of 12,800.  The laws of physics can't be broken, and I think we're starting to see a gradual leveling-off when it comes to cameras and light sensitivity.

D4 and D800 are two different cameras for two different markets, but most people seem only fixated on ISO performance. 

It's like looking at a Chevy Camaro and Porsche, and comparing only their 0-60 mph times. 

I'm really enjoying my D4 so far.  I think the D3s to D4 comparison is not really apples to apples, as the D4 has over 30% more MPs.  So at any given iso, if the D4 is looking the same as the D3s, that's technically an improvement over the D3S, since higher MPs means more noise.  Same amount of noise at higher MP count and higher resolution = improvement.  I had a D3 and a D3S, so I was due for a new body to replace the D3 and the D4 makes sense as a logical progression, given that I need the high ISO quality for what I shoot. I have a D800 on order.  I've never really thought of it as an either/or thing with the D4 and D800.  I think they will each find their own niche in my shooting, with the D4 in my bag when I'm shooting live music, or any action subject, and the D800 getting pulled out for portraits, landscapes, and general daylight shooting.  

I think all of the "scared of the megapixels" discussion surrounding the D800 is really interesting to watch.  I'm not trying to suggest D800 is for everybody, but I'm surprised by how much it seems so scare some photographers.  Things like transferring from cards to computer, editing, etc.. do they really make that big of a difference for most?  If the comparison for many people buying the D800 was to something like the new 5dMk3, then we can call it roughly a 50% increase in resolution.  I know this is crude, but per couple thousand shots, files can still be transferred overnight so small to no difference there, and "dead time" in the editing process (while PS or other apps are "thinking/processing"), etc., adds up to -- what -- maybe an additional hour after editing hundreds of images if it takes 50% more time to process the files?  Storage will definitely take a hit, but it's a lot cheaper for big storage than it used to be with 3TB drives being only $250.  And beyond the obvious "more resolution" benefits of shooting in a 36MP format (amount of detail), there are other less obvious benefits:  Noise reduction software works better on higher resolution files, having more resolution for higher ISO shots makes them appear less noisy when downsized, leaves lots more cropping options open, and I think we'll likely see that when skilled photographers get an image perfect in-camera that the 36MP file looks absolutely insane.  There are lots of reasons the D800 may or may not be a fit for each person, but with the exception of pros that have much more specific scenarios in mind, I think being being blindly scared of the resolution is a silly reason to write off the camera.

Being a wedding photographer, I was really excited to upgrade my D700 to the D800 until I heard the file size. I'm a RAW shooter, and if there isn't a small or medium RAW size like they've got on the Canon 5D II and 1D series cameras, the D800 is not going to be added to my arsenal, no way no how. Triple the storage requirements, LR and PS choking on 36mp files, having to shoot with 16 and 32gb cards? C'mon Nikon, are you trying to kill me here?

Does anybody know for sure if there are S/M/L settings for RAW on the D800?

What I keep hearing about the D4 is that the DR up to about 3200/6400 or so exceeds the D3s, and from there it is about the same.  Plus the AF system is supposed to be even better. 

I've seen some 12,800 pix at night handheld that are pretty crazy on a D4, but if it were me, I'd probably buy a D3s used and get a D800, too...

There seams to be no acceptable cameras manufactured anymore.  People complain about resolution, camera makers bump up MP. Noise? We get better high iso performance, among other things,  like better dynamic range, longer lasting shutters, 11fps, etc. People can complain about a fast 32gb card costing $180? Remember film processing costs? Remember a 1gb card costing $1000? I'm 25 and I certainly do (not that I could afford that stuff back then).  You can retouch photos on a laptop with under a grand (or far less) in software. Storage too expensive these days to store those HUGE raw files? A decent 1TB hard drive costs around $100. I get it, there are still 'some' barriers to entry but come on, does anybody remember what things were like even 5 years ago.

Seth Smobley's picture

Cool comparisons!
I don't understand why people are worried about the high megapixel count of the d800.  You can always shoot at a lower rez like 24 or 16 mp for most things.   Then when you get to a situation where you need the extra resolution you can crank it up to 36mp.   . . . this camera goes to eleven!


Only photographers who shoot in RAW are worried. We can't scale down those file types.

★☆★ Tam Nguyen ★☆★'s picture

All this makes sense, but a bit disappointing. http://froknowsphoto.com/nikon-d4-studio-fail/

5D3 (left) vs D800 (right)
D800 still holds up, my future camera :)

Andrew Gregg's picture

Is it just me or does the D800 look better.?

No it's not just you.  I actually own a D800 and I misread above and thought the 5D3 was on the RIGHT.  I looked at the images and thought each time the RIGHT was a better sample (less colour noise and more details).  I was a bit miffed because I thought the 5Diii was better than the D800, BUT I had to be honest with myself and acknowledge the RIGHT images are better (remember I thought the 5Diii was the RIGHT image).  

Then when I rechecked I saw that the D800 was the images I actually preferred. :o

Adrian can you tell me if there are S/M/L settings for RAW on the D800 like they have on Canons? This would help alleviate all the fear and loathing about the huge file size produced by the D800 and put a lot minds at ease...

RUSS's picture

:) 36MP! NICE! (Be glad they didn't match Hasselblad's 50mp file size)If media card and hard drive space is your concern, BUY BIGGER AND MORE OF THEM TOO! Things are progressing!
YOU must progress with them to keep up.
WHich means, investing in faster computer (using ssd hard drives in raid0 configuration for speed boost, and raid 5 for onsite backup), larger storage capacity systems as well as the latest greatest gear.
:) aint all this new tech stuff fun? :) HEHEHE

Andrew Gregg's picture

dXomark tested the D4. the D3s iso performance is actually .15 stops better than that of the D4.