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October 2014
Issue: April 1, 2013

Review: Nikon D-800 DSLR camera

By: Dave Frederick. SOC
By Dave Frederick, SOC

When you need to put a nail into a board, you need a hammer. There are so many different types of nails for so many different types of boards and materials and, as a result, a great many hammers to choose from. This is a direct metaphoric connection with photo and cinema imaging products. A great many cameras for a great many purposes are now available across the market.

Not too long ago, the news wire services, AP and Reuters, were seeking a digital still reflex camera to not only create beautiful images but also enable field photojournalists to capture video images of covered news stories the editors could post to meet the growing online news demand. Thus, the Canon DSLR with HD capture was born.

Filmmakers of every ranking grasped this new technology that offered stunning HD imagery and began to create features, television, documentaries, music videos and commercials with these incredibly affordable, lightweight, unobtrusive “image capture” marvels. Nikon saw an opportunity as well. The result, the Nikon D-800 HD DSLR, is a product of R&D, patience and user feedback.

My friend and colleague, Post Magazine editor Randi Altman, asked me if I would be willing to review it. I had no experience with this model, but I had fond feelings for the camera manufacturer — as a young adult photographer I called on my trusted and beloved Nikon F2AS.

For the review, Nikon sent me a body and lens to try while shooting a Discovery Channel reality show in San Diego called The Devil’s Ride. Series executive producer Adam Vetri commented, in a recent Post article on reality TV, that in the show’s edit process he was thrilled with some of the “grab shots” captured with the D-800.

Before I dig in, I must say I had become fond of shooting The Devil’s Ride on the Canon C-300; our production camera team had five fully outfitted packages, with a couple of Canon D5 Mark II packages. The demo Nikon camera they sent me was the solo interloper in a Canon camera club. All eyes were upon it, eager to see just how it measured up in comparison with the familiar, tried and true. The Canon C-300, with its Cinema EOS styling and ease of use in our documentary/reality-style of shooting wowed me with its amazing exposure latitude and ease of use. So the Nikon would have to really impress, and it did.

THE CAMERA    
Nikon shipped a new D-800 FX format body with the 24-120mm F/4G ED zoom lens, directly to the show’s San Diego production office. Out of the box, lens on, both Compact Flash card and SD card inserted, I started to snap and do HD video immediately, before reading the manual. Having experience with menus and some technical abilities allowed me to proceed easily. I did however, spend an entire evening with the manual and learned all kinds of cool stuff. I tried timelapse and was thrilled to be able to see my efforts right away, with instant playback on the camera so I could see my success or failure. Instantly making the adjustments, I was able to then create better work. I like that.

Metering is great, easy to read and it offers quick access to the waveform monitor for video as well as the stills.

As a professional motion picture camera operator, I am used to an adjustable viewfinder. That is the only drawback, but when I witness the stunning resolution, lack of black blocking, lack of clipping noise, the stunning color palette and sharpness of the Nikon optics, I am thrilled.

Focusing is still a challenge, as I am accustomed to large format lenses, and even the larger EF G primes are still persnickety in manual focus mode. You need an auxiliary larger monitor with focus assist, such as peaking to be certain that you are sharp where you want to be. The HDMI connections are easy to get to and the hook up is simple.

My AC, Kim Palmer, would shoot with the D-800 while I was using our C-300 during action driving sequences. I’d playback what she shot and saw that she got some incredible cuts with little effort.

For one late evening shoot, we were on our third company move. I had the Nikon in hand, waiting for my other camera when two of our reality cast started up a heated discussion. I quickly pulled up the Nikon, white balanced to the sodium vapor lit white wall next to them and started rolling. It looked great. Eventually the other cameras appeared, but I had the jump on the scene.

The camera has amazing image sharpness of the 36MP FX format CMOS sensor. It offers full HD 1080 progressive video at 24p/25p/30p with crisp clean stereo sound recording built in that is user friendly and intercuts beautifully with the professional major motion picture digital cameras.

It offers an outstanding ISO range that delivers clean elevated ISO levels that stand in the face of reason — it is almost unnoticeable going from 100 to 6,400, with the secret weapon gain affording up to 25,000 ISO that brings potential shooting in near complete dark situations.

FINAL THOUGHTS
I just rented a few Nikon D-800 rigs from Alan Gordon Enterprises through Panavision to do mounted plate shots for a Fox TV pilot, The List. These cameras came fully outfitted in cages with on-board monitors, matte boxes and pro follow focus devices. I depended on the virtual horizon “on-screen” level display. This feature is helpful for plate shots. The intercutting with the Arri Alexa show footage is indiscernible. For next week’s 2nd Unit shoot I will have six fully outfitted D-800 cameras for wrap-around stunt car plate shots. That is a testament to the camera’s success and my refreshed brand loyalty.

VITAL STATS
PRODUCT: Nikon’s D-800 SLR camera
PRICE: $2,995.95 (body only)
WEBSITE: www.nikonusa.com
·    easy-to-read metering
·    an ISO range that delivers clean elevated ISO levels
· full HD 1080 progressive video at 24p/25p/30p with crisp, clean stereo sound recording built in