5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On Part 2: Initial Impressions (D800)
Monday we talked in-depth about the 5D Mark III, and today we've got the D800. Nikon definitely surprised a lot of people with this one, and it's interesting that Canon didn't really see them coming - or they are afraid to hurt their higher end sales (which could include a possible 4K camera priced below the C300). Either way, you can't go wrong with clean 4:2:2 HDMI out of the Nikon D800, and still photographs which rival medium-format backs costing $20,000 or more. So let's get down to it.
Nikon D800 - The Design
The D800 continues on the traditional Nikon form, just as the 5D Mark III did with the 5D Mark II. I have to say, I always enjoyed holding Nikon cameras, but button placement isn't nearly as friendly for my thumb as the Mark III. I can't seem to find a good spot without resting it on some buttons, which I never like to do. The big control pad on the back could ideally be a bit lower - this might not bother someone with small hands but I like to really hold on to my camera tight with one hand and I can't really do that with my right hand. Aside from that it is well-balanced.
Nikon hasn't done anything too drastic compared to the D700 in terms of button placement. It's all pretty much the same except the AF selector has been replaced with a photo/video selector and live view button. This is obviously a necessity on a camera that is taking video seriously - it's a lot more problematic trying to shoot video without one of these selectors - and it also gives you piece of mind that you're in the right mode when you need to be.
For all of those Canon shooters who are upset that the magnify/reduce has moved (my problem is the combination into one button), Nikon still has theirs on the left side, just like on the D700. So it's really more a matter of habit, not of functionality. I have no problem with these functions being on the left side of the camera, because you have to operate the camera with two hands most of the time anyway. If you're handheld - you're other hand has to go somewhere - and if it's underneath the lens, the magnify and reduce buttons are in a great place for your thumb. ISO is still on the top left, in contrast to the 5D Mark III which is on the top right. Again, most of these problems that people have are related to habit - which shouldn't take too long to break if you're shooting enough.
One hugely positive difference over the 5D Mark III are the side ports. Nikon's port cover is much better designed, and it opens in a more sensible direction for keeping cables attached. It's also quite a bit easier to open than Canon's - I have not struggled once trying to get it open. Nikon also upgraded the camera with a headphone jack, and they are looking towards the future and have placed a USB 3.0 port in the camera. While not really an issue for video shooters - it's a welcome addition, and proof that Nikon is pushing the technology a bit less conservatively than Canon.
Nikon D800 - Operation
Having never used the menu on the D700, this just feels like a typical menu that you'd find on a Nikon DSLR - or any DSLR for that matter. Canon's menu is much better - and it's also prettier to look at (even though that doesn't mean anything). It's really as good as it needs to be - but you've got to be aware of a couple settings that could affect you greatly.
One huge difference between the 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800, which hasn't gotten much attention, is the fact that the D800 in live view does not record the full sensor cropped to 16:9, like the Mark III does. Nikon has an additional crop in live view, rather than just cutting off the top and bottom of the frame to get to 16:9. The Nikon camera actually just takes a more centered crop, at 32.8 x 18.4 and then uses that to record video. Effectively this means that the field of view is slightly reduced compared to the Mark III. In practice it's not really a big deal, and it's effectively a 1.1 crop - this has been confirmed by placing both the Nikon and Camera cameras at the same spot and comparing the focal length with the same lens attached. It's just something to keep in mind if you are ever mixing the Nikon with any of Canon's full frame cameras.
Shooting video actually feels a bit snappier than the 5D Mark III, as the mirror seems to be much faster in snapping up into place. Overlays can be removed on the HDMI out, and Nikon has been able to keep the LCD on even when a monitor is attached. This is essential for DSLRs in 2012! Canon needed to figure out a way to keep the LCD working even when a monitor is attached - but thankfully Nikon has come through - and we can get a reference picture on the LCD with the full output coming from the HDMI to an external monitor. Speaking of HDMI, this is where things get a little tricky.
Nikon's only HD options for HDMI out in the camera are 720p and 1080i - which seems rather odd for a company that is touting it's ability to record the clean output. Nowhere in Nikon's manual does it describe actually recording that output (another glaring omission). When the camera is set to 1080i, it really is 1080i - the Ki Pro I had attached saw the output of the camera as 1080i 29.97. This absolutely was baffling to me. Setting the HDMI out to 720p actually gave 1080p 23.98 - but this is not the correct setting. Buried deep in the internet there is a thread with a response from Jon Thorn of AJA:
The Nikon D4, with no QXD or CompactFlash card inserted, can be configured to output clean HDMI 1080p 23.98. The AJA Ki Pro Mini, beginning with version 3.0 firmware, which was recently released, will correctly interpret the D4's output and will report and record 1080p 23.98. A few things to keep in mind: the camera must be set to Auto for the HDMI output format and Live View must be activated for the "handshake" to happen properly. (It is doubtful that all external video recorders will behave in the same way as the "handshake" requires some work to achieve.) Also, it is good to be aware that when entering Menu on the camera, be aware that 1080i will be output. Another thing to keep in mind, noted in some very brief initial testing (so not completely quantified), is that it appears that Live View audio may not be delayed to match Live View video so some compensation in post may be needed for a/v sync when using an external video recorder. (If double-system sound is being recorded, likely this isn't an issue since there are software tools that provide compensation and "auto" a/v sync that are available.) Additionally, this has only been very briefly tested with the Nikon D4, not the Nikon D800.
Also from that thread is confirmation that the PIX recorders will do 1080p when the cards are removed. The Atomos Ninja should also be able to do the same, but this little bit of info seems to throw a wrench in the mix:
Ninja's 2.1 firmware update includes the following:
Nikon D4/D800 support - added custom handling for Nikon 1080p24 pulldown mode.
NOTE: When connected to a Ninja, the Nikon D4/D800 HDMI output must be set to 1080i when the movie setting is 1080p30, 1080p25 or 1080p24. The Nikon D4/D800 HDMI output must be set to 720p when the movie setting is 720p60 or 720p50 (See page 281 in the Nikon manual: "HDMI Options". Also note on manual page 74: "Movie Settings" – the *actual* frame rates used by the camera, for example, the actual frame rate of the camera when set to 1080p24 is 1080p23.976.)
Shouldn't the Ninja be able to record 1080p with the cards removed by setting to Auto? I would think so, but it's quite possible that Nikon is doing something funny that must be recognized by the recorder when the camera is set to Auto. This is going to take a bit more investigation to confirm, but it's unfortunate that Nikon has made this so complicated - and failed to mention anything about recording the HDMI in the manual.
You can use the shutter release to start movie recordings, but it must be set in the custom settings menu, under g4: Assign Shutter Button. The big difference here that certainly gives the Mark III an advantage, is that the D800 manual audio settings cannot be changed once you press record. Nikon has historically been difficult about manual settings while recording video, but thankfully you can change all of them while recording except for the audio.
Regardless, the Nikon has been a pleasure shooting video - and from what I've seen so far, I think the D800 is actually outputting more resolution than the 5D Mark III (D800 was recorded through the AJA and the Canon recorded ALL-I). How much more is hard to say, but I saw a clear difference between the two. I'm not posting anything yet because I want to make sure that the test is rock-solid and there are no possible reasons for the discrepancy - which will probably come early next week when I have done the full test. It's definitely true that the D800 has moire - much more than the 5D Mark III, but how will that play out in reality, again, will take more testing.
Things are certainly getting interesting...