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Review: Nikon D800 DSLR Camera, Part 1

In this two-part series, we'll examine how well Nikon's much-heralded D800 DSLR works as a video camera, in terms of operability and functionality. In part two, we'll report on some audio and video tests comparing the D800 to another highly regarded DSLR, and to a more traditional prosumer camcorder.

The D800's grip is nice and big. It even has a nice well on the inside where you can tuck your fingertips into its rubberized surface. I wish it had more of an indent for my thumb to assist with the holding. For right-handed shooters capturing video, the left hand is typically pulling focus, or adjusting some other settings, so it's not holding the camera up. In the end, it's probably best to always use some sort of monopod setup where you can plop the camera down at eye level and let the monopod do the lifting. Your right hand just holds the camera steady.

Also, unless you're using an external monitor or electronic viewfinder, there's no easy way to see what you are shooting if it's above or below your eye-line. Most any camcorder would have a rotating eyepiece, or external tilt-swivel screen to enable the operator to see the camera's shot no matter where the camera may be. The D800 has a fixed rear screen, meaning you need to add an external monitor, or find a way to get your face right behind the camera to see the framing, the histogram, and the audio meters.

On the D800 there's a dedicated button for video, and while shooting video, you can force the camera to autofocus by using a half-press of the still shutter button. But this activity is best used when the video is not going to be used, but you want to keep recording audio. The DSLR pushes and pulls the lens quite dramatically to assess the proper focus. Again, nothing like leaving a camcorder in manual and tapping the "auto" button. Doing that with a camcorder usually just makes the image snap into clearer focus, if it wasn't focused already. With a DSLR, it always goes dramatically out of focus first.

The Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f4 G ED N VR lens I had as a loaner with the camera was simply stellar. The VR was quite good--better than even some prosumer camcorders I've used. I could zoom in all the way (admittedly, it's only 120mm) and you could hardly know it was handheld. It was a very quiet lens, with minimal focusing noise. The focus is very responsive in manual. It felt like it was mechanical, and the rotation of the distance dial further implied that, but you don't hear any mechanics moving in manual focus like you do with autofocus. I did not notice any breathing in the lens when racking focus. The zoom is smooth, but any attempts at trying to perform a smooth, slow zoom while recording were awful. Consider the zoom a handy way to carry around every prime lens from a 24mm lens to a 180mm lens (with DX crop on) without having to ever swap anything.

When you shoot video with the D800, there's an onscreen red dot and REC indicator that blinks in the upper-left corner. But from the side, front or even some distance away, it's hard to tell the camera is recording video. I'm one of those shooters that like a good, bright, discrete red LED to light up to make it clear to me, and to others, that I'm recording. The counter in the upper right counts down from the maximum recording time (20 or 29 minutes) as you record. I would have also liked a count-up timer as well, so I can easily know how long each shot is, without having to subtract from the total.

A count-up timer is also good for taking notes while shooting. For instance, at 2:36, the CEO makes a great quote. With only a count-down timer, it's much harder to make those kind of notes while shooting, or you could estimate where they are by using a stopwatch separately.

HD Flavors, Battery Life, Record Time, and Other Tech Notes

The D800 records seven flavors of HD video:

  • HD 1920x1,080 p30
  • HD 1,920x1,080 p25
  • HD 1,920x1,080 p24
  • HD 1,280x720 p60
  • HD 1,280x720 p50
  • HD 1,280x720 p30
  • HD 1,280x720 p25

Interestingly, there's no 720p24 option.

The D800 records each H.264 .mov file into the same folder as the still photographs (not buried in some byzantine file structure like AVCHD videos). Video clips are recorded with linear PCM audio.

I was able to record about 1 hour and 50 minutes of footage with the included EL-15 battery pack--give or take a few minutes when one or two clips finished recording and I didn't notice it right away to resume recording a second clip. Shot-to-shot video recording is extremely quick- faster than my other DSLR and even faster than some solid-state professional camcorders I've used. About one whole second between hitting the button to stop, till when you can hit the button to record again. Another half-second to see the REC appear in the corner of the screen. That's very fast.

The maximum time the camera will record is 20 minutes at highest quality (about a 3.24 GB file), and 29 minutes, 59 seconds at normal quality (about a 2.9 GB file). It stops and finishes the file automatically. I recorded several 30-minute files in a row and the camera became warm to the touch on the back face and the bottom in an air-conditioned 75 degree room. The camera seemed to have no problem recording as long or as much at this temperature. I did not try it in the 100° heat outside.

The D800 won't shoot slower than the lowest natural "still" shutter speed above the frame rate of the video format you have selected. So 720p60 minimum shutter speed is 1/60. 1080p24 minimum shutter is 1/25. This means there are no "slow shutter" effects possible in-camera. Nor can you use the slow shutter to get an extra stop or two of light without cranking up the ISO--a tack I've taken on video cameras many times.

Image Profiles

The camera has several in-camera image profiles and each can be customized with contrast, brightness, sharpening, saturation, and hue. There are other effects possible as well. For example, if you're shooting monochrome, you can select how the camera converts color into monochrome accentuating certain colors, attenuating others. You can create up to 9 tweaked profiles in the camera and you can load and save these customized profiles to a memory card.

A memory card can store up to 99 customized profiles and you can custom name them anything you want- up to 19 characters long. You can also create custom profiles with Picture Control Utility on the computer.

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