Are 36.3 megapixels overdoing it? Experts say no way: In tests, the Nikon D800 balances record-breaking high-def detail with great color, clarity and everything else that makes images look splendid. Thus the D800 leapfrogs into our Best Reviewed spot, beating all other full-frame digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras under $6,000. There's just one caveat: It's a slow burst shooter, so don't buy this if you make your living shooting sports or action. Try the 10-frames-per-second (fps) Nikon D4 (*Est. $6,000 body only) or 12-fps Canon EOS-1D X (*Est. $6,780 body only) for that. The Nikon D800E (*Est. $3,300 body only) variant tweaks the camera to squeeze out even a bit more detail.
However, you can get a full-frame DSLR for less. The Nikon D600 (*Est. $2,100 body only) boasts most of the D800's features at a lower 24.3-megapixel resolution and a $900 discount, while Canon offers the EOS 5D Mark II (*Est. $1,900 body only) and soon-to-come EOS 6D (*Est. $2,100 body only).
Better stock up on memory cards. "This thing eats memory cards like the Cookie Monster eats cookies," complains one D800 owner at BHPhotoVideo.com, but calls it a "great camera" and gives it 4 stars out of 5 anyway. Plenty of D800 users, excited to start shooting with their new massive-megapixel behemoths, soon found themselves shopping for spare cards and big external hard drives to corral the equally massive files. If you like, you can step down to fewer megapixels in DX crop mode to save space.
Otherwise, experts and owners find the D800 generally easy to use. "It is simply a comfortable camera in-hand," like the Nikon D700 before it, say testers at DPReview.com. It feels lighter and sleeker than its specs would indicate -- much more compact than a big pro camera like the Nikon D4 -- with well-laid-out controls that are easy to operate by feel.
One exception: Unlike every competing DSLR, Nikon doesn't let you save your own user settings to the mode dial. You can't just flick the dial to call up U1 or U2. Yes, you can save your favorite settings, but you must delve into two separate menus to retrieve them. It's clunky, and it gets on testers' nerves.
Like its main rival the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (*Est. $3,455 body only), the D800 allows "almost complete control over the camera without having to go into the menus," which is a perk that TJ Donegan at DigitalCameraInfo.com particularly appreciates.
Both the Canon and Nikon also boast viewfinders with 100 percent scene coverage and big 3.2-inch LCD screens. But experts at DPReview.com say it's sometimes hard to see the Nikon's screen in glaring sunlight, and several owners complain that scenes look greenish on the LCD.
Glorious image quality, but it's not the quickest. This 36.3-megapixel beast really does capture incredible detail in tests. DigitalCameraInfo.com's Donegan marvels at how he can crop shots and still retain huge images with superb resolution, vast dynamic range and accurate colors. However, some users including Donegan report a greenish cast under fluorescent light.
Testers keep a sharp eye out for low-light graininess -- a common failing as megapixels rise -- but Nikon has apparently solved this old problem. Picky critics at DPReview.com rave about the "stunningly low" image noise up to ISO 6,400, and Imaging-Resource.com experts get a nice 8-by-10 print at the Nikon's upper limit of ISO 25,600.
HD video looks extremely sharp with full-time autofocus. Donegan does notice moiré and rolling shutter flaws, one reason reviewers generally like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III better for video. However, with the D800 you can skip compression and send full-quality, uncompressed footage directly out of the camera's built-in HDMI port, a feat that "may help endear the camera to the broadcast and movie crowd," DPReview.com says.
Two drawbacks do emerge in tests. First, the Nikon D800 is a pretty slow shooter: 4 fps at full resolution. You can kick it up to 5 fps, but only by reducing resolution to 15.4 megapixels and cropping to DX format. This is fine for most people, but "sports and action shooters need not apply," Donegan writes. Nikon says you can boost burst to 6 fps with an optional $600 battery grip or $130 wall-plug setup.
Second is the "infamous left-side autofocus point issue," Donegan says. Plenty of D800 owners have been frustrated by left-side autofocus points that never worked correctly out of the box. Although most D800 users report no problems, those who got dud models detail their return-and-repair sagas on Amazon.com. Nikon has reportedly fixed the problem, but flawed early-run models still draw complaints.
Still, the D800 performs so flawlessly in expert tests that all of our top sources recommend it wholeheartedly. Donegan acknowledges that the spotty left autofocus is a "very real" problem, but "the D800 is otherwise one of the best cameras we've tested and a real competitor for our 2012 camera of the year."
Battery life is rated at 900 shots per charge, on par with the rival Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Built tough, but not quite as tough as the flagship Nikon D4. With its all-metal, dust- and rain-sealed body, the D800 is almost as rugged as the range-topping Nikon D4. Yet because the D800 has a pop-up flash, "the weatherproofing cannot be of the same standard as found on professional models like the D4 or Canon EOS 5D Mark III," explain reviewers at Amateur Photographer. "That said, the D800 suffered no ill effects when it got a little wet while shooting landscapes" in their test. The shutter is rated to last for 200,000 cycles, half that of the D4.
The D800's full magnesium-alloy shell makes it tougher than cheaper full-frame DSLRs like the Nikon D600, which substitutes plastic panels on its front and bottom. "Build quality of the D800 is first rate," conclude experts at DPReview.com. DigitalCameraInfo.com's Donegan says the D800 delivers "the premium, durable feel you expect from a professional camera."
D800E may sharpen things even more. To stow those mammoth photo and video files, the D800 offers two memory card slots, one Compact Flash (CF) and one Secure Digital (SD). They're wonderfully flexible, critics say: You can set one card as automatic overflow, save everything to both cards as backup or designate one card for raw files and one for JPEGs. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III does the same thing.
If you don't feel like wrestling monster-megapixel files, you can capture photos and videos in a few smaller formats, down to a 15.4-megapixel DX crop. This boosts shooting speed by 1 fps, too, and experts point out that this "lower" resolution still beats some other DSLRs' best.
Unlike the Canon 5D Mark III, which lacks a built-in flash, the Nikon D800 has a pop-up flash that can command external flashes wirelessly.
If you crave even sharper images, the Nikon D800E variant disables the camera's anti-aliasing filter. Almost all DSLRs have one to blur the image very slightly to reduce flaws like aliasing, moiré and false colors. This really does boost sharpness and detail in tests at DPReview.com, but only at certain apertures between F4 and F5.6, and only a little bit. Of course, you risk color flaws, but testers rarely see any, and even then they aren't really noticeable.
DPReview.com and other top sources recommend the D800E just as highly as the D800, especially for portrait photographers who can work at the optimal apertures. Both cameras earn this site's rare Gold Award.
1. Amateur Photographer
Review Credibility: Excellent The Nikon D800 catapults into a top spot here after a full review. It shares plenty of specs with the $6,000 Nikon D4 for half the price, not to mention its unrivaled 36.3 megapixels.
Review: Nikon D800 Review, Tim Coleman, April 28, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good This exhaustive review covers both the Nikon D800 and D800E in minute detail. Testers are impressed, and it's one of the few cameras to win the site's Gold Award. It's not a very quick shooter, however, so sports/action photographers probably won't want it.
Review: Nikon D800 Review, Amadou Diallo and Barnaby Britton, June 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good "Are 36 million pixels too many?" experts ask at the beginning of this review. The answer is no: The Nikon D800 performs so well that editors name it Best in Class. TechRadar.com also publishes separate in-depth comparisons of the D800 versus the Nikon D600 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Review: Nikon D800 Review, Angela Nicholson and Amy Davies, June 11, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Massive megapixels prove to be an asset when Donegan tests the Nikon D800 in both the lab and the field. Even low light isn't a problem, although the huge file sizes drag down the camera's burst speed, and quickly stuff memory cards and hard drives. The site publishes a head-to-head comparison of the D800 and rival Canon EOS 5D Mark III, as well.
Review: Nikon D800, TJ Donegan, Sept. 30, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Imaging-Resource.com hasn't yet field-tested the Nikon D800, but its lab tests are incredibly thorough. Side-by-side shots demonstrate how the D800 stacks up against other DSLRs, including the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Sony A77, Pentax 645D, Sigma SD1 and the former pro flagships Nikon D3S and D3X.
Review: Nikon D800, Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins and Dave Etchells, Feb. 6, 2012
Review Credibility: Good More than 200 owners review the D800 here. Two-thirds love the Nikon D800, but the other one-third rates it mediocre or lower, usually because of faulty left-side autofocus. Some users say Nikon fixed their cameras, but others claim the camera came back from repair still broken.
Review: Nikon D800 36.3 MP CMOS FX-Format Digital SLR Camera, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of November 2012
Review Credibility: Fair Out of more than 280 reviews, far fewer customers here complain about autofocus problems with the Nikon D800. Most are extremely impressed with the quality of this camera's images, and several of the posts are very detailed. Each lists the user's level of expertise.
Review: Nikon D800 SLR Digital Camera, Contributors to BHPhotoVideo.com, As of November 2012