2012 Camera of the Year: Nikon D800

Over the years,  digital cameras have become more homogenous with manufacturers slavishly copying other’s innovative ideas. My rule for  this award is that it is presented to a camera that I actually used and shot under all kinds of conditions and mot all camera companies are forthcoming with review models for a no-holds barred test. But for those companies who do and who’ve taken the extra step of producing clever and exiting cameras, I would like to present the “Ernie” award for digital innovation. The late Earnest E. Mau was a photographer, computer pioneer, and a friend who didn’t live long enough to get his hands on a really good digital camera and it is awarded in his honor this year to the Nikon D800.

Nikon D800

Despite have a learning cure that’s not so much steep as long, Nikon’s D800 is more than just a camera; it’s an imaging instrument that can be configured to photograph whatever and however your heart desires. There seems to be more electronics in the D800 than in a new Mercedes SLS AMG and makes my old Nikon F2SB, which was sophisticated for its time, seem as antiquated as a Model T Ford. The Nikon D800 is the single most impressive SLR that I’ve tested in all my time reviewing cameras and represents a commitment to delivering imaging excellence at a relatively affordable price. At $2995 (or less, I recently saw it for $2,796.95)  it’s far from cheap but it won’t break my piggy bank like a $7000 D3X or a $5999 D4.

1/160 sec at f/9 and ISO 100

1/160 sec at f/9 and ISO 100

The D800 is a sophisticated camera whose tactile controls, menu options and long list of custom functions (there’s 50 of’em) provide what seems like an endless amount of customization. After unboxing, take the time to make sure that all of the camera’s features work the way you like. This means diving into the 445-page, 11-ounce—a Nikon J1 weighs 8.3 ounces—User’s Manual but take my advice and do it, especially before an important shoot, so you’re not fumbling with the extensive array of options in the camera’s menus.

I took the D800 into my studio for a portrait session with Alice Iver. It’s a professional camera and as such has a synch  connector along with a hot shoe where I mounted a Pocket Wizard Plus III to trip the monolights in the studio. Tip: A good idea is moving the AF focus point in the viewfinder, placing it on the subject’s eyes. This is easy to do on the D800 by using the multi-selector button on the back that acts like a flat joystick. Unlike images made out of doors, the limited color palette of my studio portraits produced smaller (for the D800 anyway) unretouched JPEG files that ran at approximately 15MB. By comparison files shot under the same lighting conditions using my Canon EOS 5D were 4MB. Speaking of colors, the files shot both outdoors and in the studio were the most neutral that I’ve seen from any SLR that I have tested.

1/320 sec at f/9 and ISO 100

1/320 sec at f/9 and ISO 100

I took the D800 into the town of Parker, Colorado (est. 1864) for a stroll and familiarize myself with the capabilities of the 24-120mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S VR II Nikkor lens. I enjoyed shooting this lens because of its fast aperture, useful zoom range, and vibration reduction capabilities. Some camera manufacturers have finally seen the wisdom of incorporating a pop-up flash in professional cameras and the D800 features a built-in flash (GN 39 at ISO 100) that’s compatible with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System including having a built-in Commander mode for controlling wireless Speedlights. It’s useful for fill flash or just a quick snapshot.

The D800 is everything a professional shooter needs to deliver maximum image quality to their clients and advanced amateurs who can afford one won’t feel camera envy for a long, long time ever after newer models are launched. (At least in Internet years, which are like dog years.) Color me impressed.

Author: Joe Farace

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