Nikon D800 vs Nikon D4: 2 different concepts, 2 different jobs

It’s a cliché, yes, but comparing the Nikon D4 and the Nikon D800 truly is comparing apples and oranges: these two professional-level Nikon DSLR cameras are designed for two different and very distinct kinds of photographer, and both cameras deliver the right tools to their respective users.

Extremely robust, the D4 is built for fieldwork and action shots, not only because of its speed and very high sensitivity, but also because of the ease with which it can be integrated into a workflow and into real-time production. Intended for photojournalists, cable news agencies, etc., one typically sees these cameras being used on the edges of athletic fields — and we will doubtless find them in abundance at the 2012 Olympics in London. D4 photos show up on the internet within minutes — even seconds— after being taken. Sports, war, news of all kinds… the domain of the D4 is information.

By contrast, the D800 is more sedate. Certainly less adventurous than the D4, the D800 approaches photography at a different speed and with different intentions. At the price of speedy internal RAW processing, Nikon instead gave top priority to resolution and reproduction of the finest details. And this new ability to produce enlargements of unpredented size and quality gives this DSLR the opportunity to encroach upon the flowerbeds of medium-format cameras — in any case, that’s Nikon’s avowed intention. Landscapes, fashion, portraits, large-format publicity packshots — this is the world of the D800.

Below are the principal features of each camera.

  Nikon D800 Nikon D4
Resolution 36,8 megapixels 16,2 megapixels
ISO latitude 100 to 6 400 (expendable to 25 600 ISO) 100 to 12 800 ISO (expendable to 102 400 ISO)
Autofocus "enhanced" Multi-Cam 3500-FX AF system with 51 focus points 15 of the points are cross-type sensors 11 midpoints can operate at f/8 "enhanced" Multi-Cam 3500-FX AF system with 51 focus points 15 of the points are cross-type sensors 11 midpoints can operate at f/8
Exposure Metering Scene Recognition System with 91k pixel RGB metering sensor Scene Recognition System with 91k pixel RGB metering sensor
Video 1080p Full HD mode up to 30 fps, HDMI video output, audio out, and mic. Input. 1080p Full HD mode up to 30 fps, HDMI video output, audio out, and mic. Input.
Viewfinder 100% - magnifiction 0,7x 100% - magnifiction 0,7x
Screen 3" / 921 000 dots with 170° viewing angle 3" / 921 000 dots with 170° viewing angle
Frame rate 4 fps (6 fps in DX format -15 MPixels crop- with MB-D12 grip and EN-EL18 batteries) 10 to 12 fps
Built-in flash Yes No
External flash sync Yes Yes
Connectivity USB/HDMI USB/HDMI/Ethernet
Weight 0,900 kg 1,340 kg
Battery life 850 photos 2600 photos
Price $2,999 $5,999
WiFi transmitter WT-4 WT-5

Crossing lines

When Nikon lifted the veil on its pro reflex D4 this past January (2012), no one expected that several of its key functions would also be put within reach of even more photographers by being included in the more “plebian” D800. But such was the case for the D4’s 51-point autofocus (of which 15 are in a cross-array, with the centermost 11 sensitive down to f/8). Further, the D4’s Multi-Cam 3500 FX module, capable of focusing in low-light at 2EV (the brightness of moonlight) is also included in the D800, as is its new 91,000-pixel advanced scene recognition system, and as is its full-frame video mode capable of streaming uncompressed video flow via an external HDMI recorder at 4:2:2. These technological advantages allow the D800 to cross over into the realm of professional DSLRs, as does its magnesium-alloy construction, its tropicalization, and its optical viewfinder that allows for framing shots at 100%.

Even so, Nikon seems to have wanted to create the impression of having two distinct product lines and of preserving something of a hierarchy among its cameras — not just by using a different sensor and by giving it a less-luxurious finish, but also by depriving the D800 of certain other refinements, most having to do with being able to integrate it with one’s workflow. While it’s true that building the D800 without an ethernet jack makes sense insofar as its body is supposed to be more compact than the D4’s, it seems more likely that omitting WT-5 wifi transmitter compability from the D800 is a deliberate design choice to allow the D4 to protect its own market.

Further, the D800’s very-high-resolution sensor plunges us into the unknown:

  • What will its image quality be like at medium and high sensitivities?
  • What kind of lenses will be required to bring out its best? What lenses should be used?
  • We will have to wait on the full DxOMark test results to answer these kinds of questions.

in DX format