DSLR Supertest

This really is an extraordinary time for professional photographers in terms of equipment launches, with both of the 'big two' camera manufacturers choosing this point in time to launch not one, but two, huge new products each, with every one of the new models capable of making a massive difference to the general landscape of professional gear that exists out there.

You already know what they are, but just for the record over the past six months we've received news about the EOS D1x and EOS 5D Mark III from Canon and the D4 and D800 from Nikon and, curiously enough, it's the first one of these that we heard about, the D1x, unveiled at the Canon Pro Solutions Show last autumn, that is the only one not to fully make it to market yet, with the revised availability date now being mid-June.

The other three big new arrivals all turned up at our offices at the same time so we've taken the chance to send out our team of experts - Will Cheung, Roger Payne and Ian Farrell - to give them a thorough testing, which has included everything from helicopter rides over the New York skyline through to night time football matches under the floodlights at a Championship football game.

It's quite a moment, because it's the first time in the history of this magazine that the timings of launches has given us the chance to put together a super test of this magnitude and, at this point, the idea is to give an appraisal of the D4, the D800 and the 5D Mark III on their own merits and to leave any subsequent head-to-head type encounters for future issues. Those who are dedicated to either the Canon or Nikon system will doubtless want to know what the camera, or cameras, that have been newly introduced to their chosen system have to offer and whether they need to start saving to make the investment, and our priority has been to try to answer that question in every case and to give our honest feedback on the innovations that lie behind each and every one of these new models.

Big new professional models don't come along too often - in the case of the 5D Mark III, for example, it's taken nearly four years for the update to arrive - so this really is a moment to savour and we don't expect to be seeing a D5 or a 5D Mark IV anytime soon.

It's time to enjoy the changing landscape of professional DSLRs and to take in what the new models can offer a business, and then to make a decision regarding whether the breakthroughs that have been achieved with these launches are enough to make you go and raid the bank.

Each of these models is an amazing piece of kit that gives us a new set of flagships from Canon and Nikon that are better than any DSLR the professional world has previously seen. It's an exciting time and, with the EOS 1Dx set to be the next big arrival, this is a period to savour.

Nikon D4

With the Olympics just around the corner, Nikon's pro-spec DSLR is a welcome arrival for the sports photojournalist. Does it deserve a gold medal or is it a false start?

In 2007 Nikon announced the D3 - a camera that changed the world of photojournalism and sports photography forever. Leapfrogging its nearest rival, the D3 offered full-frame photography at fast frame rates and low light sensitivity the likes of which had never been seen before. This was a winning formula and it served to make the D3 one of the definitive digital cameras of our age, ensuring that it would be a hard act to follow.

Enter the Nikon D4. Aimed at the same kind of photographers as the D3, resolution is up from 12 to 16 megapixels, low light sensitivity now peaks at ISO 12,800 (extendable to ISO 204,800) and it's possible to shoot continuously at a staggering 11 fps. There are also plenty of specification improvements behind these headline figures, like HDR, re-engineered AF and an all-new exposure metering system.

All this specification makes the 1.2kg Nikon D4 a hefty beast, and not something that could really be described as portable in any sense of the word. That said, when fitted with a pro-spec lens, like the 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED standard zoom, the package is well balanced and comfortable to hold at the eye for decent periods of time.

The general design will be familiar to anyone who has used a Nikon DSLR before, and it was possible to start using the camera without reference to the manual. The back of the camera is home to a large 921,000-dot viewscreen surrounded by buttons and controllers. On the left are four buttons used for reviewing images and displaying menu and help screens. At the bottom is a secondary LCD screen and controls for ISO, image quality, white-balance and Live View operation. On the right a redesigned multiway selector is joined by a secondary joystick, which can be used for operations like focus-point selection. Many of these controls are duplicated in the vertical shooting position when the user holds the camera by its alternative grip along the bottom of the camera body.

Behind the D4's memory card door next to the Compact Flash (CF) card slot is a second slot for a XQD card. The D4 is the first camera to use the new memory card format, developed jointly between Nikon, Sony and the Compact Flash Association. At the moment XQD technology is in its infancy but promises faster read and write speeds.

Also new in the D4 is built-in gigabit Ethernet connectivity. This is a nod to those sports photographers that work pitch side in stadia equipped with wired networks. Pictures are sent directly from photographer to picture editor for instant captioning and transmission to waiting clients. Remote shooting functions via a web enable device, including tablets and smart phones, offers all manner of creative possibilities, especially when you consider that Ethernet connections can be hundreds of metres long.

There are some changes that will take getting used to, though the most significant is the movement of the focus area control from the back to the front of the camera. Now a single focus mode selector falls under the left thumb with the camera in shooting position. This can be flicked easily between AF and M, but to change between single and continuous AF requires a button to be held in while one of the two controls dials is rotated. Nikon says that this system is simpler and enables photographers to change focus settings with the camera at the eye, but we found the system less intuitive than the D3's method.

The focus system is described as 're-engineered'. It still comprises 51 focus points and these can be used singly, in groups of 9 or 21 or as a 51-point area. The central 15 points are cross-type, detecting vertical and horizontal lines. The 3D focus tracking mode has been improved from its previous terrible implementation on the D3 to take advantage of the D4's 91,000 RGB exposure sensor, which offers face recognition and tracking of moving objects across the frame. This new sensor plays a part in white-balance determination, flash control and, obviously, exposure metering.

A useful feature of the D4's AF system is its ability to perform in low light, and with lenses that feature a maximum aperture of just f/8: typically you might encounter such situations when shooting with an f/4 telephoto lens fitted with a teleconverter. The central 15 focus points operate under these conditions and Nikon should be applauded for taking the needs of sports photographers into account in this way.

The D3's party trick was its ability to shoot in low light at ISO settings that had not been seen before. The D4 carries on this ability but not quite to the same extent. Maximum sensitivity now tops out at ISO 12,800, one stop more than the D3 managed. This can be pushed to ISO 204,800 with an in-camera underexpose-and-correct software solution. ISO 12,800 is good, but this is now one area where Nikon lags behind the competition: the Canon EOS-1D X manages ISO 25,600 as a true hardware ISO sensitivity, relying on a software push for only the last three stops to ISO 204,800. But this is being pernickety, and it should be pointed out that the ISO range now extends down to ISO 100 and can be pulled to ISO 50 too.

Performance and image quality

In use the Nikon D4 soon becomes intuitive. Focus is amongst the fastest we have ever seen and seems more confident in locking on to detail in shadows. Tracking objects moving horizontally is no problem at all, and even diagonally most frames are pin sharp. When tracking our test-subject dog running at full-tilt towards the camera, the D4 struggled sometimes, but we've not yet found a camera that could track with 100 per cent accuracy in this situation. In short busts of ten frames or so, around seven or eight were in focus, with more accuracy coming from narrowing down the complete focus area into just a single group of nine points. When another dog crossed in front of our test subject the camera maintained focus on what we were shooting without jumping around, which is impressive. The sensitivity of the AF to new objects entering the frame can be customised in the camera's menu system. When shooting action like this you realise what a phenomenal shooting speed 11fps is, and it's a good job the shutter unit is guaranteed for 400,000 actuations! The camera maintains this speed for at least the claimed 100 frames, providing the bit depth of the Raw files format is dropped from 14 to 12-bit. For continuous shooting with AF and AE you'll have to settle for 10fps.

Just as important as burst speed, though, is the responsiveness of the camera. Nikon says that the D4 starts up in 012sec and shutter lag is just 0.042sec. While our stopwatch isn't quite that accurate, the D4 feels extremely quick when shooting.

In low light the D4 does well. Noise is well controlled, only becoming noticeable around the ISO 3200 mark, and even then not significantly so. At ISO 6400 and above JPEGs from the camera seem to have more chroma noise than Raw files processed through Lightroom, but even up at maximum setting of ISO 12,800 plenty of detail is present and image quality is good.

Push settings take the ISO up to the equivalent of ISO 204,800 and this is certainly a setting to use for emergencies, but there is currently only one other camera around that can shoot at this sensitivity - the Canon EOS-1D X. At ISO 51,200, image quality is still good enough for newspaper and magazine use.

Where we thought the D4 really shines is in its ability to capture a wide dynamic range. Nikon's Active -D lighting technology has really come of age and makes it possible to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows under normal, but high-contrast, conditions. For more troublesome situations HDR shooting captures two frames separated by up to 3EV and tone-maps them together for a reasonable result.

Solid exposure calculation is what you would expect from Nikon: accurate in 95 per cent of cases and when it is fooled its mistakes are predictable and easy to anticipate and correct.

This accomplished performance makes the D4 great at producing image files that look good straight from the camera with no need for post-production. The ability to process Raw files in-camera means that alternative versions can be generated quickly and saved alongside the original file.

Conclusion

After reviewing in a variety of situations it's obvious the camera is more a generalist than a specialist. Anyone producing photographs in available light will love the D4 for its ability to capture images in any conditions. Despite its £5290 price tag, the camera is just as suitable for those shooting available light wedding photography as those lucky enough to be at the Olympic games. The D4 is not the game-changer that the D3 was, but it's more of a step up than the D3s was. As a generalist picture-taking machine that delivers great results straight from camera, this is a fantastic piece of kit.

HD video

No DSLR these days is complete without some implementation of HD video, and the Nikon D4 is certainly no exception. The camera can capture video in automatic or manual exposure modes, and plenty of manual control is given over parameters like exposure, focus and ISO. Even sound level is user adjustable, and external mic and headphone sockets are both included. A separate video capture button is included alongside the main shutter release, and focusing during Live View and movie mode is via an AF-on button on the rear of the camera. This triggers a very jerky but effective focus action that is more suited to finding focus before a take than creative pull-focus effects while filming.

A variety of resolutions and frame rates are available too, with 1080p DX and 2.7x cropped modes also available for a slightly closer view. Results are good, with the usefulness of the camera's dynamic range control showing its true colours in video mode too.

Files are saved as the now de-facto H.264 codec, which is seamlessly compatible with most non-linear editing applications.

AF and tracking ability

The AF and tracking capability of the D4 is excellent, and focus is amongst the fastest we have ever seen, with the D4 seeming to be confident about locking on to detail in shadows. Even when tracking our subject running full tilt towards the camera most frames were pin sharp. In short bursts of ten frames or so around eight of the shots were sharp and usable, and it's possible to narrow down the complete focus area into a single group of nine points to achieve an even more refined focusing performance.

ISO comparison

The D4 handles noise well and at ISO 100 it's undetectable, with files remaining good and totally usable right up to ISO 3200. Moving on to the maximum setting of ISO 12,800 plenty of detail is present and image quality is still very usable. A software push takes the ISO a further four stops if required, and for those press photographers who might need to work at ISO 51,200 the results are still acceptable for newsprint purposes. At the maximum setting of ISO 204,800 noise is very apparent but it's still an amazing result.

Spec

Resolution
16.2-megapixels. Image size: 4928 x 3280 pixels

Sensor
36 x 23.9mm CMOS (Nikon FX format)

Image processor
EXPEED 3

ISO sensitivity
100 to 12800, expandable to 50 or 204800

Lens mounT
Nikon F

Autofocus
51 points with 11 cross-type sensors, phase detection and contrast detection (Live View mode)

LCD screen
3.2 inches, 921,000 dots

Shutter speed range
30 seconds to 1/8000sec, plus B. Flash sync 1/250sec

Continuous shooting
Up to 11 frames-per-second

Metering
3D Color Matric Metering III, spot and centre-weighted options

Exposure compensation
+/- 5 stops in 1/3 or stop increments

Exposure modes
PASM

White-balance
Auto (two types), Incandescent, Shade, Cloudy, Fluorescent (7 types), Flash, Preset Manual, Colour temperature. White-balance bracketing

Video file format
MPEG-4, H.264

Video resolution
1920 x 1080 (full HD) at 30, 25 or 24 frames-per-second, 1280 x 720 (HD) at 60 or 50 frames-per-second, 640 x 480 (SD) at 30 or 25 frames-per-second

Connectivity
USB, Mini HDMI

Battery
EN-EL18 battery pack, approx. 2600 shots per charge (CIPA standard) or 5500 shots per charge in continuous shooting mode

Dimensions
160x156.5x90.5mm (WxHxD)

Weight
1180g (body only)

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

The EOS 5D Mark II may have been a huge success, but it wasn't without its critics. Have they been listened to, or is the new EOS 5D Mark III simply more of the same?

It has been a long time coming. Nigh on four years, give or take a few months. But the EOS 5D Mark II's successor is finally here and it has to be one of 2012's most hotly anticipated launches. Granted, the brace of Nikons that we're also testing here have got some specification highlights to set the heart racing, but the EOS 5D Mark III is the one that's got everyone talking.

The reason for this is simple. The 5D Mark II has been an unprecedented success. Canon's decision to bolt on the capacity to shoot full HD video onto the Mark II transformed the original 5D from being a great camera for the social and wedding photographer into the camera for any photographer wanting to shoot high quality stills and, crucially, video. At its 2008 launch, the Mark II's 21.1-megapixel resolution was market leading; more than enough to keep the stills brigade on side, while the video capability coupled to the full-frame sensor soon had moviemakers reaching for their wallets. The Internet has subsequently been awash with video content extolling the limited depth-of-field effects created by the format/sensor combo, plus the 5D Mark II has even made it on to TV.

Soaraway success, yes, but it could be argued this was more by luck than judgment. The decision to put full HD video capture on to the EOS 5D Mark II was a late call from Canon's R&D department. They could never have anticipated the reaction the camera got, but no doubt were thankful for the sales it generated. With the Mark III, however, Canon has the weight of expectation on its shoulders. Stills photographers are expecting to see some improvements in the issues surrounding the contrasty sensor and (occasionally) laboured autofocusing system on the Mark II, while moviemakers are expecting increased versatility. In short, this needs to be right. No pressure there then.

Being honest, when I first read the specfication on the Mark III I was a little underwhelmed. As an existing Mark II owner, the prospect of 'just' one more megapixel, some extra autofocusing points and handy additional features (Highlight Control and HDR modes among them) simply wasn't enough to warrant the £3000 asking price. But within minutes of having the camera out of the box, it became apparent that judging the Mark III on its spec is akin to judging a book by its cover.

Cosmetically and ergonomically, the Mark III is a noticeable step up from the Mark II. More rounded and substantial than the Mark II, the Mark III bears more than a passing resemblance to the EOS 7D, complete with On/Off switch behind the main exposure mode dial on the top-plate. Two controls have had locking mechanisms introduced, the aforementioned exposure mode dial, which didn't really need one, and the rear vertical input dial, which did.

The general layout of the buttons and switchgear has an air of familiarity about it, but there are some changes. The three main function buttons in front of the top-plate LCD are present and correct, as are the focus mode selector, AE lock and AF-On buttons just above where your thumb comes to rest. But elsewhere, the rear of the camera has been given some new design thinking.

A Q button, more commonly seen on Canon's consumer DSLRs, has appeared above the rear input dial and provides quick access to regularly used functions when used in conjunction with the multi-controller. In addition, Movie shooting/Live View is now selected by a switch surrounding a Start/Stop button which, handily, starts and stops movie capture or Live View.

To the left of the (0.2-inch larger) rear LCD, button functions have been re-assigned and the buttons themselves are now colour coded; blue indicating post-capture options, white for pre-capture, plus there's now a Creative button which is used to access the new HDR and multiple exposure modes, along with familiar Picture Styles functions.

A greater range of options has led to a rethinking of the menu system on the 5D Mark III's rear LCD. Whereas before on the 5D Mark II there were multiple red camera icons for camera settings, multiple blue icons for playback settings etc, these have been replaced by single icons and sub-menus. This approach has been necessitated by the Mark III's specification, but does actually make moving between menu options marginally slower. Getting from the four camera setting menus to the three playback menus, for example, can only be done via the five AF menus. Hardly a labour-intensive activity, but some extra dial twirling is required.

Performance and image quality

When it came to using the 5D Mark III, I concentrated my attention on the still image side of the camera's performance. If it's the definitive verdict on the movie capture that you're after, take a look at pages 38-42 of the HDSLR Moviemaker supplement that came free with this issue of Photo Professional.

You'll notice some further key improvements over the 5D Mark II from the moment you start taking pictures. The whole picture-taking action, for example, is much improved. Gone is the clunky mirror action of the Mark II and in comes a dampened, altogether more civilised action on the Mark III. The frame rate has been increased as well, with the new 5D capable of shooting at up to six frames-per-second, plus there's also the addition of a Silent release option. While 'silent' is pushing it a little, the action is distinctly quieter than the standard release option and I ended up using it as my default choice.

Metering proved to be typically Canon. That means that it's accurate in most situations, but on those occasions when it may struggle to choose the optimum exposure, it errs on the side of underexposure, ensuring details can be rescued in post-production. There's the added buffer of the Highlight Control function, which is accessed through the menu system (see panel on page 93). It seems to work well and will be handy for those shooting weddings in contrasty lighting conditions.

While we're on the subject of exposure, it's worth mentioning the light leak issues, which are the talk of the Internet. If you're not aware of them, it appears that light is leaking through the top-plate LCD when the body cap is attached. While our test sample did show the tell-tale characteristics of this issue, it didn't lead to any problems.

I'd never really considered the autofocus on my Mark II to be ponderous, but having used the Mark III it's evident that the focusing system has come on in leaps and bounds. The 61-point system is faster, sharper and more accurate. This could be down to the huge leap in focusing points (there are just nine on the Mark II), but could also be down to the fact that focusing was a key point for improvement between the two models. . In fact, Canon has gone so much to town on the autofocus system that it's got a menu all to itself. For more details on how it performs see the AF panel (page 95).

I remember crossing the ISO 25600 threshold with the Mark II for the first time and being truly astonished, but the Mark III is a cut above. ISO 25600 on the new model displays noise akin to ISO 6400 on the Mark II. Likewise, the newly expanded ISO 102,400 is very similar to ISO 25,600 on the old model. You may consider it rare that you'll need to shoot at such high ISOs, but this capability opens up new picture-taking possibilities. I spent a tripod-free evening at a fair, for example, and came back with shots that I'd be happy to enlarge up to A3.

Conclusion

Being a 5D Mark II owner I never thought I'd look at another camera with envy, but the Mark III has turned my head. It's hard to put a finger on any specific feature that improves it as a stills picture-taking machine, but the combination of added features, upgraded components and a general increase in build quality make it one of the most complete cameras I've ever used. The sticking point - for me at least - is the price. As I write, the EOS 5D Mark III body has a street price of just under £3000, virtually twice the price of the Mark II. If it was just an extra £500 investment I'd already have my name on the waiting list, but £1500 more? I'd struggle to justify that cost to myself, let alone my bank manager.

Highlight control

One of a number of new features designed to help the 5D Mark III deal with a wider dynamic range, Highlight Control could be very handy for wedding photographers wanting to preserve details in wedding dresses. Initially, I thought the camera simply underexposed by a third of a stop, but there's more to it than this, including the fact that Canon warns it might increase grain. I had no such problems and these images show how the feature works, albeit subtly. Look at the highlight on the bodywork.

Field Test: Matty Graham

The EOS 5D Mark II could never cut it as an action photography camera. Even when shooting in JPEG-only format, the burst rate of 3.9 was just too slow to capture fast moving sports action. Would the Mark III prove any different?

I tested both cameras against each other at an evening Championship football match, using my Canon 70-200mm f/4 L lens and changing bodies at regular intervals so the light levels were the same, I shot in JPEG-only format with the drive mode set to continuous and the focus mode to AI Servo. Within the first trigger of the shutter, it became clear that the extra frames-per- second have totally changed the way sports photographers will think about the 5D line. Before, the sluggish Mark II was ignored in favour of the 8fps 7D, or the new 1DX, but the Mark III can shoot sport. This isn't just down to the improved frame rate - the Mark II benefits from a new menu system and, more importantly, the same 61-point AF system that can be found on the flagship 1DX - a massive improvement on the Mark II, which could only offer nine user-selectable AF points and six assist points.

The result is quicker and more accurate focusing produces a better 'yield rate' when shooting in burst mode. But it's not just the AF that makes the Mark III a viable sports option; the higher ISO range (up to 102400, compared to the 25600 from the Mark II) allows fast shutter speeds during low light.

Lastly, although the menu screens are more in-depth, allowing users to choose from a range of variable autofocus modes, and are easier to cycle through thanks to the use of the control wheel, you'll have to digest the thick manual beforehand to learn the new functions and get the most out of
this system.

ISO comparison

The EOS 5D Mark II was certainly no slouch when it came to ISO performance, but the Mark III is a step up. And we're not talking a small, baby step up, it's more of a giant leap, in much the same way as the Mark II was over the original 5D. Take a look at the shots below, which prove the point perfectly. At ISO 100 there's no great difference, but select ISO 25,600 and you can see the gulf between the two. On the Mark III this is a genuine ISO, whereas on the Mark II it's an expanded speed. The Mark III also has ISO expansion up to 102,400 and at this speed it's similar in quality to the Mark II's ISO 25,600. In short, buy the 5D Mark III and your tripod-free picture taking options broaden substantially.

Spec

Resolution

22.1-megapixels. Image size 5760 x 3840 pixels

Sensor
36 x 24mm CMOS

Image processor
DIGIC 5+

ISO sensitivity
100 to 25600, expandable to 50 (L), 51200 (H1) and 102400 (H2)

Lens mounT
Canon EF

Autofocus
61 points with up to 41 cross-type points depending on lens attached, phase detection and contrast detection (Live View mode)

LCD screen
3.2 inches, 1.04 million dots

Shutter speed range
30 seconds to 1/8000sec, plus B. Flash sync 1/200sec

Continuous shooting
Up to 6 frames-per-second

Metering
63-zone TTL full-aperture metering. Evaluative, partial, spot and centre-weighted options

Exposure compensation
+/- 5 stops in 1/3 or stop increments. +/- 3 stops on AEB in 1/3 or stop increments

Exposure modes
PASM, Scene Intelligent Auto, three custom shooting modes

White balance
Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, White Fluorescent, Flash, Custom, Colour temperature. White-balance bracketing and compensation.

Video file format
MPEG-4, AVC/H.264

Video resolution
1920 x 1080 (full HD) at 30, 25 or 24 frames-per-second, 1280 x 720 (HD) at 60 or 50 frames-per-second, 640 x 480 (SD) at 30 or 25 frames-per-second

Connectivity
USB, Mini HDMI

Battery
LP-E6 battery pack, approx. 950 shots per charge (CIPA standard) or 90 minutes movie recording

Dimensions
152x116.4x76.4mm (WxHxD)

Weight
860g (body only)

Nikon D800

Rumours about the arrival of an upgraded D700 had been doing the rounds before the D800 was officially announced back in February. Will Cheung asks if it's been worth the wait

We may only be just into May, but 2012 has been a landmark year for Nikon, with the launch of the D4 followed shortly by the D800, a DSLR with a class-leading resolution of 36.3-megapixels. Not only is it top of its class in the 35mm full-frame category, its resolution compares directly with medium-format digital but without the inherent disadvantages of that camera type. It's more portable, has slicker handling, a supporting lens and accessory system without peer and the benefit of selling at a fraction of the price.

Uniquely, the D800 is available in two options. The standard D800, the one tested here, has a body price of £2600 while the D800E sells for £2900. The D800E is identical to the D800 is every respect except that it does not have an anti-aliasing or low pass filter, enabling it to deliver ultimate image quality and detail from the 36.3-megapixel sensor. Removing the low pass filter would affect the thickness of the sensor and the focal plane, so the D800E has a filter arrangement that cancels the effect of the anti-aliasing filter. Of course this increases the risk of moir®, so the D800E comes with the latest version of Nikon's Capture NX2, which has a moir® reduction function to resolve such occasions. All of this comes at a price of course, and the D800E carries a premium of £300.

Pick up the D800 and it feels solid and reassuring but without being overly bulky or heavy. Control layout and menu design will be very familiar to established Nikon users, and if you put the D800 next to the D700 the external similarities are there for all to see. Physically the size difference can be measured in millimetres.

There are some differences in terms of controls. The most obvious one is the red record button right next to the shutter release, which gives you an idea of the significance attached to the camera's video recording function, at least as far as Nikon is concerned. Actually, Nikon makes no secret of the fact that it sees the D800 as its first serious competitor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (and now the Mark III). Indeed, at a recent press event, some direct and detailed comparisons between the D800 and the Mark II regarding their competing video capabilities were made, and Nikon appears to be ready for the challenge.

Video functionally of the D800 is very similar to that of the D4. It offers shooting in 1080P with the option of four frame rates, direct output via its Mini HDMI socket and the ability to monitor sound via a headphone port.

The D800 takes a different battery from the D700, a move guaranteed to upset all those D700 owners looking to upgrade. Annoyingly, Nikon has also done the same thing with the D3/D3S/D3X and D4 too. The D800's battery is the same as that found in the D7000 with a claimed capacity of 900 exposures.

There are two storage card slots, for SD and Compact Flash, which is not, interestingly, the Compact Flash and XQD combination that the D4 offers. On the D800 you can assign JPEGs to go to one card and Raws to the other, have one backing up the other or the second card as an overflow.

Fit a G-series Nikon zoom such as the 24-70mm f/2.8 or 70-200mm f/2.8 on to the D800 and the combination feels balanced and comfortable. If you prefer a deeper body there is an optional power grip available, the Multi-Power Battery Pack MB-D12. This gives greater capacity but does nothing to speed up the relatively sedate 4fps basic shooting rate of the D800.

The shooting rate does vary according to the chosen image area. The default FX format measures 24x35.9mm, the DX format is 24x16mm and there's also the option of 5:4, which measures 30x24mm, and 1.2x, 30x20mm. In FX and 5:4 formats, maximum shooting rate is 4fps with or without the MB-D12 while in 1.2x and DX modes the basic shooting speed is 5fps but this does increase to 6fps with the optional battery pack.

The D800 is not a speed machine, and the selling point is clearly its megapixel count. In this regard it scores massively. Compared with the D4, the D800 has 36.3-megapixels against 16-megapixels and having to deal with all that extra information is the reason for its modest shooting speed. That said, we found that the D800 can still shoot around 16 full-size Raws at 4fps before the buffer cries enough.

Having all these megapixels is very much a double-edged sword. Yes, on the one hand you can make 24x16in prints at 300ppi without any software interpolation and the test prints we made were impressive. It also means that if your compositions were not as tight as they should be, you have plenty of pixels to crop into.

The downsides are practical. An uncompressed 14-bit Raw file from the D800 is typically around 76-79MB while compressed Raws average 40MBs. Of course, this means fewer shots per card, and to give you an idea of how this works in practice an 8GB card in a D800 will take 100 full-size 14-bit Raws compared with 222 shots on a D4. Naturally big files also means more work for your computer.

We used a 2.66GHz Intel iMac with 8GB RAM and Adobe Lightroom 4 to view and process our Raws, and even the simple processes just took so much longer. If, for example, you zoomed into the image to check quality you had to wait some seconds for the image to refresh and sharpen up.

Full-frame 8-bit images open up to 03MB and, of course, you can double that time for 16-bit files. Everything is slower, and if you have an older computer you may find yourself wanting to upgrade your hardware, as well as finding that you need to buy more external drives.

To make the most of the D800's resolution Nikon in its technical guide recommends good technique. For example, it recommends using a faster shutter speed than normal, because even the slightest camera blur will be made more obvious by the camera's high resolution. It also suggests that you don't stop down too far, because diffraction will soften the image.

Nikon might be being overly cautious here and we got many perfectly good results with slower shutter speeds hand-held. We also did shots at wide and small apertures and, yes, there are quality differences but that's normal and nothing beyond the boundaries of acceptability. We suspect this is probably Nikon managing user expectations here, ie if the pictures aren't great, it's not the camera's fault but the
user's technique.

Generally, performance of the D800 was very impressive. The 3D Color Matrix metering system proved consistently accurate for exposure while AF, with its 51 sensors, was responsive and accurate, easily managing to keep up with fast action. White-balance performance also proved consistent and the camera can be left in AWB for daylight work.

Verdict

Just imagine medium-format resolution in a 35mm DSLR body, with all the system and handling benefits that the smaller type camera brings. That's the big selling point of the D800, and it's one that it satisfies very well indeed. With competent technique and good glass, image quality is truly excellent. We did comparisons with a variety of full-frame Nikons just to check out the difference and the benefits are clear.

Of course, whether the D800 truly competes with medium-format in terms of the detail you can squeeze out of a scene we will have to wait and see, and that's grounds for a future test.

The other selling aspect of the D800 is its video functionality and here again it rates very highly. Nikon has fared less well in this field and consequently the Canon EOS 5D Mark II has made hay, selling in big numbers with a great many going to video makers rather than still photographers. On the flipside, many still photographers have found that there is money-making potential in its video capabilities.

I've put together a dedicated report of the D800's filming capabilities that you can read on pages 32-36 in the issue of HDSLR Moviemaker magazine that accompanies this month's issue of Photo Professional.

The Nikon D800 could enjoy similar commercial success across a very broad range of users, and with its 36.3-megapixels it will find fans simply keen on squeezing every ounce of image quality possible from the sensor.

At its price of £2700 body only, you could argue it is very competitively priced, whether you make that comparison with a medium-format model or top-end 35mm DSLR. It's true that few photographers need, want or can appreciate such a high resolution, but we defy anyone not to be impressed with the D800. Sometime in the distant future when historians look back at this exciting - but still early - era of camera advancement, it's very, very likely that the D800 will be hailed as a defining camera. Yes, it's that good.

Movie matters

The D800 and D4 are similar in what they offer keen video shooters. Its respective price level and features sets the Nikon D800 up as a potentially strong competitor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (and Mark III).

The D800 offers full 1080P HD resolution with the option of three frame rates, 24, 25 and 30fps.

The camera has a Mini HDMI interface which allows you to output footage direct to a hard drive such as a Atomos Ninja. If you take this option you must remember to take out the storage card, otherwise you will find footage is being recorded at 720P and not the 1080P that you might have been expecting.

The built-in mono microphone is okay and the optional £120 ME-1 mic is worth a look. It has a low-cut filter, is stereo and is powered by the camera's battery.

Nikon has worked hard at image quality and is claiming better texture, colour rendition, sharpness and tonal gradation. Rolling distortion - which can occur while panning - is also said to be well controlled. There was some evidence of moir® at 720P resolution, but generally image quality was very good.

Digital noise performance

Nikon has enjoyed tremendous success recently for any number of reasons, but foremost is the excellent ISO performance of its cameras, with products like the D3S excelling even at high speeds of ISO 12,800.

The D800, as with its frame shooting rate, is not claiming to be a speed king in terms of its ISO qualities. Its range is 100 to 6400, selectable in 0.3, 0.5 or 1EV steps, expandable down to 50 and up to 25,600, the same rating as the D700. It's for this reason we shot the same scene with the D700 and the D800 to check out their respective abilities. On the D800, noise starts being a significant factor at a relatively modest ISO 800. The shadows start looking noisy and while it's not enough to be off-putting it's noticeable at high magnifications. Image fidelity falls away with each step up in rating, and by the time you get to ISO 6400 the noise is surprisingly coarse and fine detail is being lost.

Further on, to be frank, H1.0 and H2.0 aren't really worth using unless you want the noise or are shooting in desperately poor lighting - the banding, artefacts and detail loss are more than a little significant.

ISO comparison

These pictures are from the Nikon D700 and D800 at the top true ISO and the highest extended rating. The D800 is slightly superior with a little less banding and slightly finer noise. To be frank, neither is especially good at the equivalent of ISO 25,600.

Spec

Resolution
36.3-megapixels. Image size: 7360 x 4912pixels

Sensor
35.9 x 24mm CMOS (Nikon FX format)

Image processor
EXPEED 3

ISO sensitivity
100 to 6400, expandable to 50 or 25600

Lens mounT
Nikon F

Autofocus
51 points with 15 cross-type sensors, phase detection and contrast detection (Live View mode)

LCD screen
3.2 inches, 921,000 dots

Shutter speed range
30 seconds to 1/8000sec, plus B. Flash sync 1/250sec

Continuous shooting
Up to four frames-per-second in FX format, 5fps in DX

Metering
3D Color Matrix Metering III, spot and centre-weighted options

Exposure compensation
+/- 5 stops in 1/3 or stop increments

Exposure modes
PASM

White-balance
Auto (two types), Incandescent, Shade, Cloudy, Sunlight, Fluorescent (7 types), Flash, Preset Manual (up to four values), Colour temperature. White-balance bracketing

Video file format
MOV, MPEG-4, H.264

Video resolution
1920 x 1080 (full HD) at 30p, 25p or 24p frames-per-second, 1280 x 720 (HD) at 60, 50, 30, 25p frames-per-second

Connectivity
USB 3.0, type C mini HDMI

Battery
EN-EL5

Dimensions
146x123x81.5mm (WxHxD)

Weight
1000g (body only)

Taken from the June 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine