D800E 100% crop

Shooting Fast Action with a D800E

When you think of fast-action photography, the D800E isn’t exactly the first camera that comes to mind – and with good reason. At a top speed of 4 frames per second and a buffer that will fill up pretty quickly with those massive 36MP files, it’s not a camera that lends itself to that kind of photography easily. If you’re in a pinch, however, and need to be able to use the D800E (or the D800) for a bit of fast-action work, there are a few things you can do to get a bit more performance out of this camera.

The first thing you can do is switch your D800/E to DX-mode. This accomplishes a few things.

  • It boosts your framerate to 5 FPS.
  • It makes your file sizes smaller, which gives your camera’s buffer the ability to handle more shots before it chokes your shooting speed.
  • It gives you more “reach” than the FX-mode, so you have the field of view of a 900mm lens when using a 600mm lens.

To do this, simply go to the “Image Area” option in the Shooting menu, as shown below.

Image Area

Select the “Choose Image Area” option, then scroll to “DX” and hit the “OK” button on your D800.

Choose Image Area

Chose DX

Now your image size has been dropped down to about 16MP, and if you look through the viewfinder, you’ll see a rectangle outlining the field of view for the cropped image size. Use that to frame your shot. At this point, you’ve already bumped your shooting speed by about 25%, but there’s another way to bump it even more. When using the MB-D12 battery grip for the D800, make sure you have the AA battery tray with it. You’ll need to use AA batteries with this (or an EN-EL18 battery with a cover). I like to use NiMH rechargeables. Once you’ve inserted the batteries and attached the grip, you have to tell the D800 to source its power from the grip first.

To do this, go to the Custom Settings menu in your camera, then select “Shooting/Display” -> Battery Order -> Use MB-D12 Batteries First.

Custom Function D

Battery Order

Use MB-D12 Batteries first

Then, you have to tell the camera exactly what kind of batteries you’re using in your MB-D12. For this, go to the same “Shooting/display” option from the Custom Setting menu, then chose option “d11” (MB-D12 battery type) and chose the kind of batteries you’re using.

Custom Function D

MB-D12 Battery Type

Select Battery Type

Once you’ve done this, switch your D800’s shooting mode to “Continuous High” and you’re set to go.

So what’s it like shooting fast action with the D800/E? In a word? Better. Two words? Way better.

Tracking birds in flight with the D800E.

Tracking birds in flight with the D800E.

6 FPS is respectable enough, and gives Nikon D800 shooters the same shooting speed their Canon brethren have on the 5D Mark III. Autofocus is pretty snappy, though I do think the 5D Mark III’s focus speed is a lot snappier, especially in continuous tracking mode. True, it’s no D4, or 1Dx, but the D800 will absolutely work if it’s the only body you have, and want to use it for the occasional trip out to the local wetlands for a spot of bird photography.

D800E exposure in DX mode.

D800E exposure in DX mode.

I was a bit afraid that in DX mode, the D800 wouldn’t have good detail or the image would somehow be otherwise be compromised. I needn’t have feared; as long as you can lock focus, you’re going to get a good image. In the shot of the seagull above, for example, a 100% view shows that it’s more than likely about to enjoy a piece of sourdough bread. for its dinner.

D800E 100% crop

D800E 100% crop

The D800 wasn’t built to be a primarily fast-action camera, but with the addition of the battery grip and an alternate power source, it can work as a pinch-hitter. Its top speed of 6 FPS might seem somewhat slow when you compare it to the D4’s top speed of 11 FPS (with focus and exposure locked) or the 1Dx’s 12 FPS, but nature photographers have been making pictures of birds in flight long before auto-winding systems let them rip through a 36-frame roll of film in a few seconds.

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  • Bruno

    Great stuff. I never explored the Image Area option until this article. I am very looking forward to trying it.

  • robhainer

    Using a battery grip will increase speed in FX mode. And you can get the same increase by using 1.2 crop mode as DX mode. That way, you can get 25 megapixels at a higher fps.

  • Sohail Mamdani

    Jeff, unfortunately, adding a battery grip doesn’t do anything for the shooting speed in FX or 5:4 mode. You still have to drop it down to DX for the speed bump.

  • Jeff Natividad

    What would the D800 be capable of if you leave the shooting format in FX (36MP) and use a battery grip? Does it up the speed in any way or does it have to be in DX?

  • Byron Chin

    Spec-wise, the D800 and the D800E are identical save for the AA filter. So all the info above relating to handling and shooting technique should be equally applicable to both models.

  • Sohail Mamdani

    Hi Daniel,

    Yep, sure does!


  • daniel spencer

    thinking of buying a D800, does this information apply to the D800 (instead of D800E)?

  • Byron Chin

    Great article! I do a good bit of bird photography, primarly with a D7000. I borrowed one of your D800Es last week, taking it out to Don Edwards NWR in Fremont and for a short walk along Pier 3 in San Francisco. It worked wonderfully with both my long lenses (the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 HSM, and the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S), both with and without 1.4x teleconverters attached (a Kenko 1.4 for the Sigma, and a TC-14E for the Nikon).

    I was really impressed with the D800E. I shot about 80% of the time in DX mode, but I also got a few frame-filling bird-in-flight shots in FX mode when the opportunity presented itself. The D800E’s autofocus definitely outperformed the D7000’s by a fair margin using both my long lenses, and my keeper rate for flight shots was much higher as a result. An unexpected perk of the FX viewfinder was that having a wider field of view than the DX frame made it much easier to track flying birds and anticipate their movement for frame-filling DX shots. The elimination of the AA filter also seemed to slightly increase feather detail on close-range shots.

    The slower frame rate, including the FX at 4fps didn’t really bother me. That said, I’ve never been terribly hamstrung by a low continuous frame rate. I like my D7000’s 6fps just fine, but I also do some bird photography at 3fps with a Sony NEX-5R and Alpha-lenses using the LA-EA2. I’m sure other people feel differently, though; it’s just my own quirk.

    All in all, I would be happy photographing wildlife with the D800E, and its specifications would definitely suit my needs. That said, about a day after I picked it up from your office, the D7100 was announced. I now have that on pre-order, as I suspect it’ll fulfill my particular needs and give me everything I liked about the D800E for almost a third of the price!

    Here are a few of my D800E shots, the first two of which were with the 500mm f/4.5, and the latter with the 300mm f/4 with TC-14E:

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