D800 Review – Build and Handling

My current work load has left me very little time to take my D800 out shooting and on top of that I had to deal with the fact that my new Nikkor 24-70 (replacing my DX zoom) turned out to be a bad copy. I have however been checking out the body, getting used to its handling, the buttons (old and new) and overall feel.

The treasure chest...

In this post I’ll share my thoughts on the build and handling, using my Nikon D300 as a reference point, but also comparing it to the D700, from which many of you might be planning to upgrade to a D800. I will not cover all of the options and features, but will mostly focus on the main features and those that have changed compared to the D300/D700. At a later point I hope to add a post on the performance and image quality of the D800.

Weight
The D800 is slightly heavier than the D300 at 1006g versus 937g (incl. battery, CF and SD card, excl. strap and body cap). However, when I first picked up the D800, it felt relatively light to me. This must be because the D800 is less dense: It is about 10% lighter than the D700, while having pretty much the same dimensions. I must say that I like the more “dense” feel (forgive me my subjective description here) of the D300 better; it just feels a bit more sturdy. This does not mean the D800 feels dinky, on the contrary, it’s still a nice and solid feeling body. As we’ll see in the rest of this article, if you have used the D300(s) or D700, the D800 will feel very familiar, just slightly different ergonomically and with a few changes in button function and positioning.

Dimensions
The D800 is about 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) taller than the D300 (measured at to the hotshoe) at 12.4cm (4.9 inch). The shoulders are actually pretty much at the same height, but the ones of the D800 incline up to the bigger pentaprism, required to accommodate the full frame sensor. The sloped shoulders give the D800 a bit more of a rounded, slouchy look compared to the D300/D700/D3 series. At 8.4cm (3.3 inch), the D800 is about 0.5 centimeter (0.2 inch) thicker than the D300, again primarily due to the bigger pentaprism housing, Finally, at 14.7cm (5.8 inch) they are almost exactly the same width. Altogether the dimensions are very similar to the D700, but with a more rounded look, mostly due to the aforementioned shoulders.

Hand holding
Upon picking up the D800, I noticed immediately that the grip isn’t as good as the D300. The bump on the right side of the rubberized thumb grip is not as pronounced as the one of the D300 (and the D700 if I remember correctly), which makes it easier for your thumb to slip off. Unfortunately, on this point Nikon seems to have decided to let design go over function. Personally it will take some getting used to, as I like to carry my camera in my right hand with no neck strap attached, rather than having it dangling on my neck with the neck strap. Having a good thumb stop makes holding a camera more relaxed and thus less straining. But then again, with my Cotton Carrier hand strap attached, I don’t really need my thumb on the body while walking – the strap and my fingers on the front do most of the holding.

The shallow "bump" at the thumb grip makes for a less solid grip on the camera.

The left side
Once I got over the minor disappointment of the grip, I went on to check out the Connector cover on the left side of the camera. I’ve been very frustrated with the one of my D300, which is a real pain to close normally and almost impossible with my L-bracket attached to the camera. I was happy to find a vastly improved cover on the D800. Instead of soft, floppy rubber, it’s made out of slightly harder plastic(?) and features a proper hinge, so it actually stays open fully when opened, rather than closing half-way by itself. A first push closes the cover, although it then still requires you to push the top and bottom to fully (weather) seal the cover. A good improvement, although only time will tell how it will deal with prolonged (ab)use.

The cover hiding the microphone, USB 3, headphone and HDMI ports. On the left, at the lens mount, we find the new type of AF and Focus Mode button/lever combination.

Behind the cover we find, from top to bottom, a Microphone jack, a USB 3 connector, a Headphone jack and finally an HDMI port.
Serious cinematographers will typically not use the built-in microphone, so a Microphone jack was a must-have if Nikon wanted this camera to be taken seriously for video (although the more advanced film folks will typically record audio on an external device). Luckily Nikon did not disappoint.
The USB 3 connector enables fast data transfer (only if the other end is a USB 3 connection as well, otherwise it will simply function as USB 2 or 1). Although I tend to just do some other stuff while my images are uploading, with the 75MB files this bad boy produces, the fast USB 3 connection is a welcome improvement. The connector seems more delicate than the USB 2 connector of the D300, but if you line up the cable and connector properly before inserting the cable, it shouldn’t be an issue.
The Headphone jack allows for monitoring the audio during video recording, another important video feature.
The advanced HDMI port (the D300 has the older, analog AV output) allows you to connect to an external viewing device like a monitor and most notably, allows you to get a clean HDMI out signal to an external recorder. Although I won’t go into the technical details of video signals, the latter is huge for cinematographers and something Canon users are very jealous of (they reserved this feature only for their more dedicated video cameras thusfar). Unlike the D300 (and D700), the D800 does not feature a 4-pin DC connector to connect the camera to an external power supply. If you want to use an external power source, you need to do that via the battery slot instead.

The right side
All we have on this side is the Memory card slot cover. It opens by pushing it away from the body, releasing the spring release, just like in the D700. The D300 has a separate switch, which I like, but I don’t mind this system, as it saves a space for other buttons and I don’t think it’s likely to knock the card cover slot by accident, for instance when taking it out of a bag.
Opening the cover reveals two memory slots: A CF- and an SD card slot. You can set the camera to either card as the primary card and have the other card function as an overflow, backup and/or video storage card. I would have preferred to have two CF cards instead of this mix.

The D800 features both a CF- and an SD card slot. Be prepared to invest in some cards of decent size and speed to deal with the 75MB images and large video files this camera will produce.

I’m not sure why Nikon chose to have this mix (just like the Canon EOS 5D), perhaps they hope that it will appeal to upgraders that have either CF (e.g. D300/D700)  or SD cards (e.g. D7000) in their current camera.

The back
The back of the D800 will feel very familiar to Nikon users, be it with a couple of major and a bunch of smaller changes. The most prominent feature on the back, the LCD display, went from 3.0 inch on the D300 and the D700 to 3.2 inch.
To the right of the display we find an Automatic LCD brightness control sensor.

At first sight, the back of the D800 will look very familiar to D300 and D700 users, reveiling few, but significant changes.

To the left of the LCD we find pretty much the same controls as found on the D300s and D700, with two changes. From top to bottom we see the: Menu, ProtectZoom in, Zoom out and OK buttons.
The Zoom in and Zoom out button have switched position. Having the zoom in button above the zoom out button definitely makes more sense, but it takes getting used to if you come from an older generation Nikon camera – I still keep hitting the zoom out button (granted that I haven’t used the camera that much yet).
The other change is that the Protect button now not only doubles as a Help button (see the question mark of to the top right of the button), it now also triples as a Picture Control button (indicated by a little symbol of to the top left of the button). This function can be used while in live view mode. On top of this row of buttons we find the Playback and Delete button in their usual spots, the latter doubling as a Format memory card button when pressed together with the Mode button.
The Viewfinder is obviously a lot bigger and brighter than the DX viewfinder of the D300. Like the D300 it covers a 100% of the frame, unlike the D700, which “only” covers 95%.
A little switch off to the top left of the viewfinder, the Eyepiece shutter lever, lets you drop down a shutter like curtain to prevent unwanted light to enter your camera when you shoot images in live view or during long exposures.
On the right side of the pentaprism housing is a Diopter adjustment control knob, used to correct the viewfinder image to your eye (by pulling it out, turning it and pushing it back in).
Below the diopter button we find the Exposure and Autofocus lock (AE-L/AF-L) button, surrounded by the Metering button and alongside the AF-on button and the front dial, exactly like the D700. The only thing different from the D300 here is that the metering modes indicators are above the AE-L button, instead of off to the side, due to the fact that the pentaprism housing is bigger and leaves no space for it off the side.
Next to the AF-on button we find the Main command dial.
To the right of the display we find the Multi selector button, which (like the D300s and the D700) features a separate Set button in the center, rather than having to press the selector button itself, as in the D300. As in previous models, the focus point selection option of the multi selector can be locked with the lock button surrounding it.
Below the multi selector we no longer find the AF area selector, but a Live-view (LV) switch- and button combination. This is the biggest change on the back. Although I will need to get used to the new way of selecting the AF area and mode (more on that below), the change of the live-view from the top dial, is a welcome one, especially given the added video ability. At any point during shooting, you can now hit the LV button to switch to live view. The surrounding LV selector lets you toggle between still and video live view.
Below the LV button we have an Info button (not present on the D300) which toggles the camera settings info on the LCD on and off as well as the small Memory card access LED, which indicates when the camera is writing or reading data (not to be confused with the Automatic LCD brightness control sensor).
Finally, the Thumb rest features the “grippy” rubber finish we got used to in this class of cameras, but it got less surface area allocated which might make it a tight squeeze between the multi selector and the bump for big thumbs. As I mentioned earlier, the bump on the right side of the rubberized thumb grip is not as pronounced as with the D300 and the D700

On top of the D800, a small Record button invaded the space between the Shutter Release, Mode and Exposure Compensation buttons.

On the right shoulder we once again find a mostly familiar layout: The Control panel, the Mode-, Exposure compensation– and Shutter-release button, the latter surrounded by the Power/Display Illumination switch.
So what’s new? A little round button with a red dot on top maneuvered itself in between the shutter and the mode button. This is the new Movie-record button, used to start and stop video recording. I’m not at all happy with the position of this button. Coming from a D300 (or D700), it’s right where I expect the Mode button to be. Although the profile (a slight dent) allows you to feel it’s not the mode button, it’s simply too close to the Mode button to get it right from the start. This may cost precious time when you need to quickly change your shooting mode, at least until you got used to it. On top of that, the mode button now is just a bit too far for a comfortable reach with my index finger, coming from the shutter button position. Finally, I don’t really see why this button needed to be on the top in the first place. When you want to shoot video, you will practically never be looking at the top of the camera. Instead, you will either be checking the LCD (which is in live view mode during filming) on the back of the camera, or an external monitor. As such, they should have put the record button on the back of the camera. One last, small change on the top right is the angle of the shutter button. It now not only has a front-back angle to it, but also a slight left right angle, which supposedly makes for a more natural positioning of the shutter finger. It does indeed seem a little bit more comfortable.
The left shoulder
On the top left we find the Release mode dial changed for the better. Instead of the shallow, hard to reach dial on the bottom as in the D300 and D700, we now have a dial that surrounds the top buttons completely. I’m very happy with this change, as it makes changing the shooting mode without taking your eye of the viewfinder a lot easier. Since  the dial is now higher, Nikon has put the markings on the side, which makes that you can see your release mode setting from the back.

The greatly improved shooting mode selector also features one extra button on top of it compared to the D300 and D700.

Additionally, turning the dial now goes in nice clicks between each mode, so that you’re less likely to have it set in between two modes. The selector does however still require you to push the small Release mode dial lock button in the front to unlock it. Why Nikon thinks this is necessary I don’t know: I don’t think you would knock it by accident that easily, but alas.
Within the ring of the release dial, we now find four instead of three buttons: The QUAL button, for setting image size/quality, the WB button, for setting white balance, the ISO button, for setting ISO sensitivity/auto ISO sensitivity control and the BKT button, for bracketing.
The QUAL button also functions as a Settings reset button in combination with the Exposure compensation button on the right shoulder. It’s nice to have an extra button on top, although I had rather used the QUAL button for another function, as I hardly ever change the image size/quality. I would’ve liked to have a Dedicated custom settings button instead: I love the idea of being able to switch a whole range of camera settings with one press of a button, for when you quickly need to change. For example: You are doing single focus, matrix metering landscape photography, when all of a sudden a deer appears right in front of you. Now you would need to switch AF and Focus mode, Metering mode and ISO/shutter speed all as quickly as possible, before the deer sniffs you out. Apart from a quirky Shooting Menu bank with limited control, there is no way of quickly doing this with Nikon bodies right now, which is a real shame.
The front
Below the shutter release button on the left we find the Sub-command dial, to its right the AF assist illuminator and below that the Depth-of-field preview- and Function buttons. Nothing new there.

Front view of the D800. Note the right-left angle of the shutter-release button.

On the right, on the pentaprism housing, we find the little Flash pop-up button (the flash features the same GN as D300/D700, 12 at ISO 100).
Below that we find the Flash Mode/Compensation button and right below it a raised white dot, a new type of Mounting Index. The D800 still has the more subtle white dot we find it older models, right at the base of the mount, but I guess this new dot helps to switch lenses by touch (e.g. in the dark). The latest generation of Nikkor lenses also feature such a mounting index dot.
Below the model name print (D800), we find the Built-in Microphone, which obviously wasn’t present in the D300/D700.
Underneath two adjoined rubber covers we find the Flash Sync– and Ten-pin Remote connections, right on top of the Lens Release button.
Finally, we find one of the biggest changes in the body: The new AF mode button and the Focus mode switch. On previous models like the D300 and D700, this switch would let you select AF mode (AF-S, AF-C or M) and the AF area was selected with a lever on the back. As mentioned before, on the D800 the lever on the back has been replaced with the LV button, so Nikon moved both the AF mode and AF area selection functions to the same place, just like in the D7000. The AF Mode lever lets you switch between auto focus and manual focus (AF/MF). The lever no longer lets you switch between AF-S and AF-C modes. This is now done by holding the AF mode button and turning the Main command dial. Since moving the AF mode button on my D300 without taking the eye away from the viewfinder is a bit awkward, this will definitely be an improvement, although it will take getting used to, which can be a bit problematic for such an important function. The Focus mode switch also feels a bit dinky, compared to the one on the D300 and since the switch now only lets you select between AF and MF, I’d rather have seen it removed altogether, since all AF lenses have AF/MF switches anyway (but perhaps having this function on the body might work better with off-brand lenses or older lenses, I don’t know). Holding the AF mode button and turning the Sub-command dial lets you set the focus mode from Single, 9-point, 21-point, 51-point, Auto and 3D mode (in AF-C) or from Auto to Single AF point (in AF-S mode). What I miss in the Single AF setting is the option to change the size of the AF point. Now the AF area is small and precise, but that means that when your aim is off a bit, or the camera can see no contrast there, it will not focus properly. In such conditions I set my D300 to the larger spot AF setting. I hope that I simply overlooked this function, but I’m afraid the D800 doesn’t have it.

The bottom
On the bottom of the camera we find the Battery-chamber cover which opens up to reveal the slot for the new EN-EL 15 battery.

The bottom of the D800.

This is the same battery as used in the D7000, but unfortunately D300(s)/D700 owners will have to upgrade to the new type. Regulations imposed on the Japanese market forced Nikon (and other manufacturers) to change their batteries.

The D800 uses the same battery as the D7000, meeting the new technical requirements imposed on the Japanese market.

Just off to the side of the battery cover is a small cover that hides a DC-connector. Finally we have the Tripod socket and the Contact cover for the optional
MB-D12 battery pack. The latter seems a bit looser than the one of the D300, but as long as it doesn’t have a loose edge, it shouldn’t come off by itself.

Menus
I won’t go into the details of the menu: Compared to other brands, I find Nikon’s menus to be among the better (more logical) ones. The menu of the D800 is, like previous generations of Nikon bodies, quite okay, but with some quirky structuring and toggling of settings at times.

Conclusion
For those that upgrade from a previous generation Nikon body, the D800 will feel very familiar, with just a few significant changes. The main changes are the new AF/Focus mode selectors, a dedicated LV button, the added SD card slot and the improved release mode button. Otherwise the button placement is as we are used to from Nikon, mostly very intuitive and practical. Also the size and weigh are very much the same. Although the changed thumb grip makes it slightly less comfortable to hold, it’s still a great camera to hold and handle. Once I’ve got accustomed to the new positions of some of the buttons, it will be just as natural to work with as my trusty D300… but then full frame, at a much higher resolution and the ability to shoot video and record audio: A truly amazing camera. In a later post I plan to cover the image and video quality, but until then I will mostly just post images to showcase what this amazing camera can do.

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2 thoughts on “D800 Review – Build and Handling

  1. Thanks for the review and your thoughts on the design and handling of the camera. I’m still waiting for the 800E (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting)… What issue were you having with the Nikkor 24-70?

    • Hi KenTi,

      The 24-70 had a small fragment of some sort on one of the back elements, which was of such a size that it showed in images. On top of that, manual focusing had a weird sound to it, unusually loud. I sent it back to the store and just heard that they’ll send me a replacement.

      I hope your waiting will soon be over – I’m sure you’ll enjoy the camera a lot.

      -Jan

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