Question: It’s time for me to replace my Nikon D90, and I'm trying to decide between the Nikon D7000 and the Nikon D800. The D800 has a full-frame sensor, and that’s supposed to be a real advantage. Do you agree? And if so, why are we not seeing more new digital SLRs with a full-frame sensor?
Answer: Well, the newer Nikon D800 has other advantages over the much more affordable D7000, including 36.3 vs. 16.2 megapixel resolution, a larger viewfinder and a slightly larger LCD screen, more advanced technology and some additional features. Of course, it's also larger and 210g heavier. I would recommend reviewing the full specs for the D800 and for the D7000.
Like all full-frame DSLRs, the D800 employs an oversized 24 x 36mm sensor while the D700 uses a chip of a more typical size, 15.6 x 23.6mm. Cameras with an oversized sensor have some benefits, but also some drawbacks, as discussed below.
Frankly, unless you really need more than 16.2 megapixels – for frequently making 16x24" prints, for example - the D7000 would be an excellent choice. Yes, it has a smaller sensor like most digital SLRs. However, because the D800 packs a full 36.3 million pixels on the chip, the size of each pixel is roughly the same as it is with the D7000. By comparison, the 12 MP full-frame D700 boasts massive pixels that provide the ultimate in image quality at high ISO.
The huge 24 x 36mm sensor in the D800 provides one obvious benefit. A multi-format lens, called FX by Nikon, provides the same angle of view as it did on a 35mm SLR. So, the D800 - or any full-frame DSLR - would be great for anyone who already owns a multi-format ultra wide lens and does not want to buy a new lens, such as a 10-22mm model. On the other hand, a telephoto lens has greater effective “reach” with a camera that employs a smaller sensor, like the D7000. (Of course, you could crop the 36.3 MP images made by the D800 to fill the frame with a distant subject and still have plenty of pixels left.)
Note: Any full-frame DSLR was designed for use with the large multi-format lenses, while most owners of small-sensor DSLRs have purchased only the smaller lenses, called DX by Nikon. Moving up to a full-frame DSLR would require a significant investment in new lenses. Not everyone can afford to do so, and hence, the manufacturers are not developing many new full-frame DSLRs. Granted, the D800 does allow for using such lenses but in DX mode, the resolution drops to under 16 MP. That's still plenty but that negates the primary benefit of the D800 vs. the D7000. Note, too, that Sony's full-frame DSLRs can also be used with the smaller DT lenses at reduced resolution while a Canon full-frame DSLR can be used only with the large, multi-platform EF lenses.
Both the full-frame 36.3 megapixel D800 and the D7000 with a 16 MP sensor of a more common size are very highly rated. Of course, as in any brand, the full-frame DSLR sells for more than double making the small-sensor camera more popular among photo enthusiasts. However, pros and others who often need huge image files, and already own FX lenses, will gravitate toward the D800.
And there's another reason why there are not many consumer-level DSLRs with a full-frame sensor. The cost of a 24x36mm CMOS chip - plus the other components required to support that size - prices the cameras above most photo enthusiasts' budgets. The D800 will sell for $3000 and the new Canon EOS 5D Mk III for $3500, while you can get a D7000 for under $1200 (USA prices). By all means, go for the full-frame model as I have, if you need its features and the ultra-high resolution, especially if you already own some FX lenses. Otherwise, you'll be more than satisfied with the D7000, a fabulous camera in all respects. It's very fast, versatile and reliable, a strong contender for the best in its category.
- Check out Peter Burian's two photo courses - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - that he teaches at BetterPhoto's online digital photography school.
- Also, Peter is a contributor to The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light (due out in April 2012). Both of these how-to photo books are co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager.