The Nikon D800: Canon beware!

After 20 years of using Nikon cameras and lenses, it was HD video that made me switch to Canon (I’ve got three Canon EOS bodies I use for filmmaking). Nikon, the standard for photojournalism, never really got its HD video act together. While the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was revolutionizing documentary filmmaking with its full-sensor 1080p format, Nikon was putting out 720p on a smaller sensor.

I’ve got a dozen Nikon lenses that I use on the Canons via Novoflex and Cinevate adapters, but Nikon has never promised a ton that would make me want to rejoin. But, what seems late in the game, Nikon is finally introducing models that may try to wrench away dominance from Canon.

Nikon announced changes last week, moving its D700 and D300s models to its “Old Products” page. Then, yesterday, Nikon brought out a new model, the D800, a 36-megapixel full-frame sensor that, at $3,000, puts Nikon squarely in the DSLR video game.

What makes the news interesting is that the new Nikon adds a fix to one of the biggest problems for HDSLRs: aliasing. While Mosaic Engineering created an anti-aliasing filter for the Canon 5D, Nikon has built in a dedicated filter with its D800. (Nikon also has the filter-less D800E, which is geared toward those more intent on shooting stills.) The new Nikon has other bells and whistles, such as better audio capabilities and dual-card slots for both CF and SD cards that might create more choice in that market.

Nikon has always been the missing player in the pro video market. Back when I worked for newspapers (years ago), still photographers had a near contempt for TV news shooters. Video work, the print people thought, was cheap, fleeting and artless, and usually performed by guys who couldn’t hack it as still photographers. That tribal attitude may have had something to do with Nikon staying far away from the video market even as Canon plunged in.

Nikon, and Leica too, have remained mostly true to still photography, even as most still photographers I know are getting more and more accustomed to crossing over to the video side. In that time, some editors I know have swapped out Nikons for Canons to add video capability. Still photographers at newspapers and magazines now make it part of their job (whether by choice or not) to create video for their publication’s website. Many of them, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Leeson, have come to see the craft involved in making mini-documentaries.

So Nikon, with its flagship D4 and the new 800s, is changing with the times, and I wouldn’t think they can be discounted when putting their mind to a new area. I’d like to think they can continue to innovate and challenge in a way that pushes video technology forward. Should be interesting.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.