The Nikon D4 or the D800: What will it be?

The Big Guns: Nikon D4 Vs D800 - Is the D800 the better camera?

The Nikon D4 or the D800With all the new DSLR’s coming on the market this year the lines have been blurred once again for those interested in the Semi-Pro and Pro range of gear. The Canon 5D Mk III, a cracking camera, just released and the talk about the 1DX certainly gets people excited but being a Nikon shooter myself I wasn’t too interested in the Canon offerings. It was the D4 that first caught my eye and then the subsequent release of the D800. Being honest about it the release of the D800 went a little unnoticed because I was so fixated on the flagship D4. However when I did a little research it didn’t take long to see why I may have been looking at the wrong camera.

I had been contemplating buying a second camera body for the last couple of months. There were a couple of reasons behind it. The first is convenience. A second camera with a different lens at the ready in moments. If you are simply walking around a city the beauty of being able to change cameras is so handy. No longer is there any need to stop shooting and carefully change lenses. Apart from the convenience aspect, it also saves wear on the lens mount and reduces the probability of getting dirt on your sensor. But it was the joy of being able to go from a tele zoom to a macro in seconds that convinced me a second body was necessary.

Being a Nikon user it meant one of two cameras, the 16MP Nikon D4 or the 36MP Nikon D800. There was the choice of the D800e but this camera is truly for the megapixel maniacs. With its anti-aliasing filter removed it means slightly more clarity on the image that is recorded by the sensor. The sensor is the same as the D800 but the lack of anti-aliasing filter has its own drawbacks. So as a consequence this was removed from the “buy list” as it would have had limited use outside the studio.

There are literally thousands of articles on the net covering the merits of both the D4 and D800 but after months of research it became clear that the two cameras could not be compared. They are aimed at completely different individuals with completely different shooting requirements. So, how did I end up going for the D800 and not the D4?!

The first factor is the cost. At around €6000 the D4 is one expensive piece of kit. The D800 on the other hands is less than half the price. In fact, I managed in the end to pick up the D800 and the Nikon branded vertical grip/battery pack called the MB-D12 for a shade over €3000. This coincidence in price (my modified D800 being half the price of the D4) will help in the comparison as the vertical grip changes some key specifications of the D800.

The second big factor for me as a portrait/wedding/landscape photographer was the low light ability of the sensor. The D4 has (according to Nikon) the best light sensitivity of any 35mm camera available. The extendible ISO range is 50 to 204,800. That is a HI3 of 204,800. Amazing on paper but what are the photos like at that ISO? Very noisy! Would you shoot at that ISO? Not me! The D800 has three stops less on the extendible ISO front, but is it important? Not for me! It must also be noted, all these wonderful ISO numbers are only numbers and I don’t trust numbers. I trust fact. I looked at the official DxO Mark measurements of both sensors and both the D800 and the D4 provided almost identical quality images (from a noise perspective) up to ISO6400 and then the lower megapixel count of the D4 shines above 6400. But the differences are not huge. After absorbing the ISO data the main question I asked myself was, would I ever shoot at anything near the upper ISO limits of any of these cameras and the answer to that for me was no.

As I have been the very proud owner of a D700 with MB-D10 grip, the step up in megapixel count is astonishing. At 12MP the D700 is no antique but the step up to the 36.2 MP sensor on the D800 is just crazy. Although you might think the D800 is the natural successor of the D700, it simply isn’t. It is a completely different camera. The D4 on the other hand at 16MP is a nice step up from its predecessor, the D3s, which is 12MP. But where did the mad scientist that envisioned the 36-megapixel D800 sensor come from? What was Nikon thinking? Where did they hire him/her?!

So, the third big thing for me was the megapixel count of the D800. Now, knowing that the ISO handling of the D4 and D800 are similar up to what I would regard as a required higher range of 3200ISO and an absolute upper limit of 6400ISO (for me) why am I going to pay €3k more for a camera that has less than half the megapixel count when the quality of its images has no bearing on my ISO shooting limits. Or in other words, in my normal shooting range of 100 to 3200ISO, why am I going to buy a camera that takes lower quality photos than a camera half its price!

The Nikon D4 or the D800OK, it’s not really that simple. The D4 will focus more accurately and more quickly. Its focus tracking is supposed to be the best out there. It can shoot at 11 frames per second (fps), it has fantastic build quality and weatherproofing. It’s a workhorse camera. But hey, I am not a diehard 10 frame per second sports shooter that sleeps with his camera under his pillow and shoots 1000 shots a day in thunder storms. I’m a weekend photographer. Do I need these things? Not really. OK OK, I'll be honest, there may be two of those features that I wanted. Thankfully that mad scientist at Nikon knew this. The mad scientist gave me the option of adding a battery grip, the D800 secret weapon. After owning the D700 with battery grip for a couple of years I would be fairly intimate with the advantages a battery grip gives you. In the case of the D700, the battery grip if loaded with AA batteries will give you the ability to keep shooting until you run out of AA’s. This is really smart because if you plan right, you could have a constant supply of AA’s without ever having to recharge the supplied Nikon battery. Great advantage! But there is more, the AA’s in the battery pack combined with the Nikon stock battery in the camera body increase the frame rate on the D800 from 4 to 6 fps. This is a big plus. It is the same on the D700. The frame rate goes up from 5 to 8 when you use the combined battery power. These are the two distinct advantages of having the MB-D12 on your D800. A lot of people will look at the frame rate on the D800 and when they see 4fps they will begin to look elsewhere. Then when they see how terrible the stock battery life is they will most certainly look elsewhere. Nikon for some bizarre reason does not advertise the fact that the battery grip will add 50% to this base fps figure and will effectively remove the battery life issue.

The final big advantage for me is that the battery grip gives the camera a vertical grip position with full controls and also gives that professional ergonomic look and feel to it. OK, the downside is it makes the camera more bulky, but for those that have big hands or like a vertical grip position then a battery grip is a worthy solution.

When looking at the video qualities of the two cameras you will not find any differences. Both record full 1080P HD video, they both have headphone and mic connections. They both stream uncompressed video over HDMI. They both have the same time lapse functions built in. So to me, on the video front they are equal.

On the memory card front, the D800 uses CF and SD. The D4 uses CF and this odd-ball highly expensive new SSD format that is sure to be replaced on the future D5. Why they added this I will never know. SD cards on the other hand are inexpensive. So for the photographer after coughing up for a D800, the accessory cost is minimised. Some might say the SD record speed is poor. I don’t see this being an issue unless you are shooting at 6fps constantly. Also, the CF slot will manage 6fps without a problem. Once again the D800 wins.

So, “on-paper” the advantages of the D4 over the “modified” D800 are 1) the frame rate is 11 versus 6fps, 2) the ISO handling is better, 3 stops better in fact and 3) the build quality is slightly better. Are these advantages worth €3000? I can safely say not in my opinion. The D4 is built more for the 1000 shots a day photographer. I can also safely say I am not one of them.

The D800 on the other hand has the following advantages: 1) It is €3k cheaper, 2) It has sensor resolution that kicks the D4’s ass, 3) the shutter lag is far less, 4) the sensor dynamic range is significantly better than the D4, 5) the color depth is better and it starts up quicker. It also has a handy built in flash like the D700. Sometimes this can be overlooked but for those with only one speedlight you can set up the built in flash as a commander and control your speedlight off camera without fancy radio wizards. Another feather in the D800’s cap is the DxO Mark rating. DxO Mark, the sensor experts have given it the highest rating of any 35mm sensor ever made.

So what is the downside then, is there one, there must be, it is too good to be true? Well, yes there is a downside, and it is a rather big one. Shooting in RAW the average file size is around 60 to 70MB. For a lot of normal users this file size will prove unmanageable. Think of the processing power required for Capture NX2 or Photoshop processing. Thing of the vast number of terabyte hard drives you will need to store all your images. It is the one thing that stopped me in my tracks before buying as I did not want to have to go out and buy a bigger and better computer. However, if you have a machine with a quad core processor and a minimum of 4 GB of RAM then I believe it is manageable. I will report when the D800 actually arrives but I am confident that my laptops will manage.

Suffice to say, the D800 with battery pack is a monster of a camera with incredible capability. It makes the D3x essentially obsolete and for those waiting on a D4x, well, the D800 has killed that off. I don’t think a D4x will arrive unless it is a medium format camera and that would be a monumental change for the Nikon range of cameras.

As soon as I get familiar with the D800 I'll write a review versus my trusty D700. Check back on the site in a few weeks or alternatively check out and “like” our Facebook page and you will get details of new articles posted straight to your newsfeed as soon as they are posted on our site. You can also find us on Google and Twitter. Author: Imagen Estilo

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