Friday, March 10, 2023

Nikon D800 Review: A Legendary Nikon DSLR

Nikon D800 Review: A Legendary Nikon DSLR
March 2023, Carl Garrard

Back in November of 2022, I wrote a small piece about my four favorite Nikon DSLR's. Some of my opinions have changed a bit since then, and some have remained. The reason for these changes is due to spending more quality time with those cameras in that article. I have also added a few more Nikon DSLR's during that time as well. So yeah, I've been busy shooting with a lot with Nikon gear in the last couple of years. And through trial and error I have also continued to fine tune my lens lineup as well. I've ironed out what I want each camera to do for my photography. Much experimentation has resulted in setting up my Nikon's DSLR's with an ideal combination of custom configurations and settings. And during that process something wonderful has happened... an increasing understanding, respect, admiration, and appreciation of the Nikon D800. As it turns out, the D800 happened to be quite a surprise all rounder- something I didn't understand it to be when I first purchased one. NIKON D800 Used Prices

In my mind it's official, the Nikon F mount has now been permanently cemented as my main photography system. The irony is, this is about the same time that Nikon has quietly been moving away from the F mount and swiftly towards the mirrorless Z mount. But this transition certainly didn't happen intentionally, oh no, quite the contrary in fact. At one point I had almost completely traded out my entire F mount system, opting to just go all in on my Canon EF mount gear and just call it a day. 

But then something wonderful happened with Nikon's service department when they repaired my broken Nikon Df that would forever change the way I look at the F mount system. Just that one experience set the stage for a big change in how I set up my camera gear.

Image quality is another reason why I went with the Nikon F mount. There's a slight edge compared to Canon's EF mount for most types of photography because of the use of Sony's awesome sensors (the only thing Sony really does well). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Figuratively speaking, Nikon's service department tipped over the first domino that has resulted in a chain reaction of  F mount momentum that continues to this day. First and foremost, they had treated my  broken Df  (that had become a paperweight) with absolute professionalism. I never asked for a favor or special treatment either. I'm just like any customer out there, any professional who may need service on their gear. 

From that point on, I had began to seriously regret my decision to nearly leave the F mount because I realized how good the service could be to professionals. Besides, I was really bummed when my near new Df needed an entirely new shutter mechanism replacement, I really did and do like that camera. So instead of doing the dumb thing by selling it all, I've instead gone in a completely reverse direction and have now traded out much of my Canon gear that was  no longer getting use. I certainly won't part with it all though, I've kept my best DSLR's and lenses from that collection because Canon has made a couple really good DSLR's that I just can't part with.

Sorry for the long back story here, I haven't forgotten about the star of this article. I just needed to give some context to what I'm about to say about this wonderful DSLR from Nikon.

A Little Luck, and a Lot of Experience

Sometimes serendipity can be one of the greatest teachers of our lives. And it just so happens that there were several serendipitous events that lead me to see the D800 in a completely different light than I had previously. For example, I used to look as the D800 as a specialty camera, a high resolution and dynamic range monster best suited for landscape and more pedestrian sort of work. Just like many others did. However my experiences since have taught me that this camera is much better suited as a multi-dimensional photography tool that I had ever thought before. I mean, it's really fricken good.

Nikon's D800 is good for Birds in Flight? Really? Yep, indeed it is... who knew.

Before I get ahead of myself, please know that I am aware of the past issues the D800 had (has any DSLR not had it's own unique issues?). A large batch of D800/E's went out with misaligned auto focus modules which simply put, resulted in a slight blur in images using the left side auto focus points. Nikon service has since fixed a huge percentage of that batch of cameras, so the likelihood you'll get one like that is minimal (and they will still fix it to this day). It's called left side autofocus (just tell them that if you ever encounter it).

The other issue was far less wide spread, and can be chalked up to user error more than anything else- cracked internal frames. All of the accounts I saw were very similar, people using large and heavy lenses on the D800 were mounting the combination on the tripod mount screw on the camera, and not the tripod collar of the lens as they should. Subsequent spills being mounted on a tripod resulted in the stress of the fall cracking the frame when hitting the ground. Camera's aren't indestructible, read your manual and use them correctly. To me, this is not a fault of the D800's design, it's just reckless use of your camera equipment.

D800's full magnesium and steel frame. Can you imagine the kind of misuse that would crack this beastly frame?

There were also some complaints about the camera's vibrations ruining fine detail when viewed at 100%. I used to believe that was true until I started using the D800 and compared it to the D810 and D850 that both were supposed to have fixed this error. To my surprise, the D800 images looked just as detailed at every shutter speed as the D810 and D850. I've had no problems at all getting ultra fine detail with the D800. Use your camera right, and stop complaining. 

100% view crop from the image below. Shot with a mid range telezoom at 400mm (Tamron 100-400). An amazing amount of detail, can you imagine what an expensive 400mm Nikon Pro prime lens could do? Make sure you click to see the full size. Those radio towers are seven miles away from where I took this shot.

Original image to the above. 

In short, I see no real issues with the D800 at all. It's got a bad rap from some folks but I am left with having to question their motives or skill being unable to replicate any issues the D800 was supposed to have (and I've owned three of them!).

Why the D800, and not the D810 or D850?

If you ask me which camera I prefer, either one that is slightly more capable but slightly less pleasurable in use, or, one that is slightly less capable, but slightly more pleasurable in use... Likely I'm going to choose the latter 99.9% of the time. Of course the type of work I'm doing weighs heavy on that decision, but in the use case where two cameras are relatively close overall, I'll prioritize the user experience over a slight capability advantage almost every single time. I have used cameras time and time again that may not have the most leading edge technology, and yet I find I get better photographs with them. The reason for that, is simple.

When I'm not spending energy trying to fart around with a pain in the ass complicated camera, that normally wasted energy is then diverted to productively making photographs instead. I cannot stress to you just how valuable that is, or should be, to a photographer. If you hate your gear, get rid of it and find something you enjoy using. Then use the hell out of it. 

The D800 is a very pleasurable camera to use, it strikes a near perfect balance of capability and pleasure of use that always leaves me with a fond impression when I'm done shooting. 

A good example here is my experience with it versus the D810. This is a camera I certainly like quite a bit, but despite some fancy marketing pumping up the D810, there were some omissions and changes to that camera that resulted in a less overall satisfied experience than I have with the D800. This, without being any more capable overall. Of course that opinion is based on extensive practical experience with both cameras. To me the D810 stepped back more than it stepped forward in key areas of design I prefer (and to its credit there were some improvements too), so off it went.

American Robin. D800 and Tamron 100-400. The shutter sound has never bothered wildlife that I've shot with the D800.

Recently I've owned the D850 as well, for round-about three months of extensive usage. And while the D850 is obviously one of the most well rounded and capable DSLR's in the world from any manufacturer, I found the minor (practically speaking) areas of improvements weren't adding up to the value of the D800. So I was left with a camera that, although I really like it, was just overkill in areas that the D800 already made happy with or, there were improvements that I simply did not need. You could say that the D850 is probably the best DSLR that I've ever used that I simply don't need to own. For those photographers that want a no-brainer, single camera body that can practically do almost everything (and do it extremely well), the D850 is a great choice if you have the funds to drop on one.

Even with the list of minor improvements over the D800 ( such back lit buttons, touch/tilt screen, new AF system, and larger magnification optical finder, etc.) I found myself enjoying the D800 more. 

"But the D850 has an ISO button!" you say.  Everyone made such a big deal about this, and at first I thought it was a big deal too. Until I used the D850. And yes it finally does have one, but that fact also eliminated the option of relegating the ISO settings to the front or rear control dial via the "easy ISO" custom menu setting. 

The good news for button pressers is that you can relegate the video record button on the D800 to set as an ISO button too. Yep. And it's nice to have both options on the D800 where you only have one option on the D850.

Since I actually prefer to use the front dial for ISO which, by the way, is much faster than a button press/then scroll option the D850 offers, I don't miss the ISO button at all. Since the matrix metering of the D800 is so good, I rarely need to change exposure compensation at all. The D850 offers easy exposure compensation in lieu of easy ISO. That's backwards for my needs actually. 

The D800 has an exposure comp button on top instead of an ISO button, and many people complained about that thinking they had to use the ISO button on the back/left row of buttons only. Obviously, this isn't the case. So to me at least, it's actually more ideal to set up than the D850 was overall because I usually set the exposure comp to matrix metering with a +.3 to .7 compensation in aperture priority mode and leave it. I use the ev button much less than the ISO setting, making the front dial an ideal quick change solution. 

I also change my metering type from spot to matrix quite often, so the metering dial around the AEL button is vital. The one addition I like about the D850 is the highlight weighted metering which almost (key word here) eliminates the back and forth I'm used too, it's really that good. This is the best metering of any kind of automatic metering I've used, including the metering in any mirrorless camera. It's something I got used to using, and was difficult to give up. 

Highlight weighted metering is awesome, and something I do wish the D800 had. But, in the end I can live with out it because of the three changes that I didn't appreciate sacrificing with the D850. The removal of the pop-up flash, removal of the dedicated af-assist lamp, and lastly the removal of the metering dial around the AEL button (a big change for me). All three changes left me a little mopey honestly. 

Less physical design features that I use often equates to a big frown on my part, despite the advantages of the D850.

Physical controls are so important in the outdoors, especially colder climates when wearing gloves is vital. This is something a spec-sumer (Iike that? A specification consumer?) would not even have on their radar and miss entirely.

Also, and this is a bit picky to some I'm sure, however I just like the way the D800 sounds when I release the shutter. Although the D850 sounds better than the D810, it still doesn't live up to that glorious mechanical analog sound the D800 makes. To show fairness, I think the D700 sounds even slightly better than the D800, but they are much closer overall than those other two cameras are. What can I say? I'm an analog freak, I like physical buttons, dials, and sounds. I don't like simulations or menu diving, or less physical controls that equate to more immediate photographer control over the camera.

Balance is important to me as well, the way a camera feels in hand (or hands), it's density, build, and feedback from the dials buttons and switches, and of course the sound of it too. In this respect I felt the D800 definitely has an edge as well. It's almost like how an old muscle car has the appeal that a newer mock up of its design cant replicate. Or how a hand made mechanical wrist watch makes modern watches feel cheaply made in comparison. Both tell time, but one is much more special than the other. 

Kind of like that, but not exactly.

Although the grip is certainly not as deep as the D810/850s, I don't need such a large deep grip. Fitment to the hand is a personal thing, and therefore that is not a criticism or compliment to any of the three cameras- it's just preference. Goldilocks had a favorite chair, bed, and porridge too. Just as I have favorite cameras that feel just right. And the D800, it feels just right.

If a camera is too complex, festooned with too many menu items or additions that I'll never use, I'll avoid it like the plague. Really, it gives me the heebie jeebies and I want nothing to do with it. It's the same reason I cannot stand any of Sony's mirrorless cameras that handle like crap, are unnecessarily unintuitive and complicated. They are the anthesis of good camera design in almost every way to me (I do like Sony's tight engineering and finishes on their cameras though- tis a shame everything else sucks.

A complex camera ends up being way too much to work, requires much more brain energy, and can get very frustrating the more I use it. I've never faulted a camera for being too simple, as long as the basic design implementations are there....I'm covered. Experience will take over where a lack of features may leave behind. A good example of what I'm talking about, is my Leica M8. Simple as they come, yet I have made some very good photographs with that camera based on practice and skill alone. 

I just need a camera that is easy to use and is reliably consistent. If it is more feature laden, and still remains that way, then I am literally in camera heaven. The D800 is quite configurable to shoot with, and it's loaded with features, but it never feels like it's too much camera. There's a learning curve getting to know how to get the best out of it for sure (or in customizing it), but it can be set up very quickly right out the box if you need it too as well. 

This shot is even better than the one above in the article. Neither would be possible if I wasn't so dialed into the D800. The circumstances were such that required quick reactions to get these shots of a once in a lifetime Bald Eagle in my city. Had I not been paying attention, or dialed into my camera, I would have fumbled this opportunity.

It's a camera that excels as a camera that you can grow into, and one that can adapt to your shooting style. I cannot stress how important that is in the real world.

Most of the adjustment's you'll need to make while shooting can  be handled by external controls on the outside of the camera, and quite a few of them can be customized to tailor to your individual needs or preferences. Compared to the most advanced and newest cameras, the D800 does not feel like it's over a decade behind.

That is what I call the D800 as the point of diminishing returns. To me it represents the peak of that point, and subsequent models (marketing removed) really struggled to show any significant improvement upon it. Again, remove the marketing, and the D800 is very close in terms of how it performs to its two successors, the D810 and D850 at least as a stills only camera- and in some ways it's even more pleasurable to use as well in this respect.

So why the D800 and not the D810 or D850? That's why.

There's Something Classic About It, Isn't There?

Another thing I like about the D800 is that it doesn't feel so new or modern that it loses some classic shine that harkens back to the classic F mount film days. The fact that it's a little less featured or capable in some respects means there's more you in the camera, than the camera is in you. I don't want a camera to do all the thinking for me all of the time, automation completely removes the challenge and fun from photography for me. That is unless of course I'm working under severe stress and need a camera to do most of the thinking so I don't have too. Even then the D800 is a camera that I wouldn't hesitate to bring to any kind of gig or paid job. It will get things done.

I think it's the density of the build, the sound of the shutter, and all of its design points that cater to the still image shooter that really make an impression on me. As time marched on and sales started to slump, camera companies reduced this build quality in increments as each new model was announced- to help preserve profit. The D800 was built and sold around the peak of DSLR sales, therefore it feels like the era it was built in. A pinnacle in build quality for it's class of camera. It's not quite D3s or D4s level, but it's close enough to feel like a high level pro product that can handle any kind of shooting in any environment.

I only buy two of my very favorite cameras, and the D800 is one of my very favorites. Here I have one set up for landscapes and close ups, and the other for action and compressed landscape shots. It's nice to have two of the same body, re-configured for the kind of shooting you will do with them most. This eliminates fiddling with menu items and changes in settings, and less dust on your sensor. I can buy four D800's in great shape for every one D850.

For example, the D700 is no doubt considered a cult classic by now, one that almost feels more like a film camera than a digital SLR when you use it. And those are some of the very same reason's that the D800 appeals to me too. Comparatively, it didn't lose much of the D700's "soul" while it simultaneously managed to improved upon almost everything around it (barring maximum frame rate of course). I feel the D700 has an edge with the sound of its shutter/mirror, and it's capability of a unique image quality fingerprint (if that appeals to you). If you want a more classic and unique camera the D700 is a very wise choice too, I also own one. Nikon should have made a D700s, but I digress.

Getting to the bottom line here... the  D800 is my favorite 700 or 800 series camera from Nikon when all things are considered. I do like them all, and each has its own set of unique qualities, but if I'm going to pick one, price or no price, the D800 is the one that makes me want to use it the most. I live by that a simple rule: The one you want to pick up most often is the one that you should pick up most often. Don't doubt that logic, ever. To me at least, that makes the D800 a candidate for legendary status.

What do you think?

Stay focused.


Saves some money and kick some ass with the D800.  NIKON D800 Used Prices


  1. I get it. I’ll give up my D3 when they pry it from my cold dead hands.

  2. Great read thank you. What lens and settings did you use to snap the bald eagle. Fantastic photo? Greetings from Dusseldorf, Nicholas