Buying a D800

I bought a Nikon D800 from eBay in April, a 36 MP full frame camera released in 2012. Why would I buy a decade old camera that’s older than my first Nikon, my 2014 D750? Resolution. The D800 was the first camera to offer that level of resolution and it’s a stepping stone to the 46 MP resolution that my next full-time camera might have.

Higher resolution sensors provide additional cropping capabilities, which is great for animal photography. They are much more sensitive to camera shake, however, and require better lenses to get the best results. I snagged a D800 for $355 so that I could test out my lenses and stabilization capabilities before going all-out on a new camera. It’s a good way to determine which lenses will work well and how sensitive the higher-resolution sensors are to vibrations and my shaky hands. The pixel density of a 46 MP full frame sensor is almost the same as the density of my D500’s 20 MP crop sensor so I’m curious if my strategies with my D500 will be enough for the D800 and above.

My D800 is unique as it fits into two categories: it’s a “museum” camera like my D1H, D2x, D70, and D100, but it’s modern enough that I can use it on a daily basis. It’s also unique because it is my second ever full frame camera. All of the other cameras I’ve purchased for use or history – the D1, D2x, D100, D70, D500, Z50, and a6100 – are all crop sensor cameras. I’ve never needed another full frame camera because my D750 was so good, but the D800 offers full frame perspective and higher resolution. It has also fallen far enough from its original $3,000 price that I can justify experimenting with it.

I snagged a deal on my D800, paying only $355 including shipping. That is a humongous savings, as D800s still sell for around $700 on MBP and around $600 on eBay. I was able to snag this deal partially because I was lucky, but partially because the camera is what you’d call “well used”. It has scuffs on the body, wear on the grips, looseness in the multi selector button, a non-locking shooting mode dial, and a missing battery door. Its shutter has been fired 280,000 times even though it’s rated and warrantied for only 150,000 clicks. That’s probably the biggest reason I got such a discount – I’m taking on some shutter failure risk. For less than $400 I think it’s worth it.

Otherwise the camera is in fair condition. All of the buttons work, the screen works fine, the sensor is in good condition (though it needed a cleaning), and it works with my lenses including my G lenses, AF-D lenses, and third party lenses. The autofocus is a bit off, but programming AF Fine Tune for each lens addresses most of it. The multi selector is pretty loose but still works to move focus points around. Overall I think I snagged a great deal on a usable camera. If I get 10,000 photos out of it I’ll be happy.

The D800 is very similar to my D750, which makes it very easy to use. It’s a bit larger and heavier, but the buttons are mostly in the same places. It has the same metering sensor, the same 51 point autofocus system, the same field of view, the same viewfinder layout, uses the same memory cards, and has very similar menus and settings. It is missing an articulating screen and a few settings that I like, including the ability to assign a button to the My Menu, but otherwise I’m right at home.

The only downside to the camera is that its continuous shooting rate is abysmal at 4 fps. My D750 shoots at 6.5 fps and my D500, (dearly-departed) Z50, and a6100 shoot at 10 fps. I can’t fault it since it was pushing more data than any other camera at the time, but even so, 4 fps is difficult to stomach for bird photography. Its successor the D810 does a tiny bit better at 5 fps, and the D850 can do 7 fps, or 9 fps with a battery grip.

So what am I doing with it again? Trying to see if a higher resolution camera is a worthy investment for me. Megapixels aren’t everything, but they are very useful when it comes to cropping images. Sometimes you just can’t get as close as you want, especially with birds and other animals, so cropping in post is the only option. Cropping my 24 mp D750 images usually results in 11 – 12 mp images, which are still above what’s needed for a 4K desktop background but not by much. The higher resolution images from the D800 allow me to get higher resolution cropped images or allow me to crop further into those resulting 11 – 12 mp images.

As I said, more megapixels mean a more dense sensor that is more sensitive to vibrations and needs high quality lenses to provide the most detail. Since the 36 mp of the D800 is about half way between my 24 mp D750 and a 46 mp D850 / Z7 II, I think it is a good place to test this out. If I can’t get sharp images on a D800 then there is no reason to invest in a higher resolution camera unless I’m going to learn to steady myself / buy better lenses.

I have several lenses that should be able to maximize the resolution of the D800 including my 24 – 120mm f/4, 85mm 1.8, 50mm 1.8, 70 – 200mm f/4, and my 90mm f/2.8 macro. Initial results are promising. I’ve achieved many images with critical focus when zoomed all the way in. I’ve had to adjust most of my lenses for back focusing, but once it’s been done they take great images.

So far I’m still happy with my purchase. My D800 certainly has some, character, to it, mostly around autofocus accuracy. AF Fine Tune works great for my prime lenses – my 50mm, 85mm, 90mm macro – and even my short zoom 15 – 30mm. It struggles with longer zooms like my 24 – 120mm; it’s better tuned at the wide end and still back focuses after about 70mm. That’s the problem with AF Fine Tune – you have to tune it against you most used range as one value can’t cover the entire thing.

Having a camera with focus issues probably sounds like a reason not to be happy with it, and it would certainly be a much larger problem if I didn’t have three other cameras. I can use the D800 for what it’s good at – higher-resolution macro shots with my 90mm, landscapes with my 15 – 30mm, and portraits with my 50mm and 85mm. I can use my D750 for the rest of my lenses. I can use my D500 for rapid-fire shots and a deep buffer.

Otherwise it’s good enough for what I’m using it for and I paid a few hundred dollars under market value for it in the first place. That’s value in my book. I’m enjoying it and use it fairly frequently. Below are some of the photos I’ve taken with it to prove that I’m not nuts.

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