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Nikon D810 review

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When Nikon announced the D800, the camera’s 36MP was a big surprise and quite opposite to Nikon’s low resolution, big pixel trend back then. But it became a big success and the D800 quickly became the camera everyone go for when you want the best picture quality, no matter you are a enthusiast or professional photographer.

At the same time Nikon also announced the D800E, a twin brother to the D800. The only difference was that the filter in front of the image sensor was modified to remove the effect of the antialisiing, and that gave us sharper image. While I’m not too sure what D800E’s E officially really stand for, to me it means “Experimental”. It’s an experiemental product to test the results of removing the anti-alising filter.

So 2 years have passed and it’s time for Nikon’s engineer to show us what they can do to improve the D800, and the new camera is called the D810.

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D800 and D810 (right),  similar but different.

“Most of these are actually quite small changes, but when combined together they make the camera feel better and more refined.”

The D810 is largely based on the D800 (and of course D800E). It has the similar weather sealed metal body. In fact, when I first saw the camera, I thought the D810’s body is exactly the same as the D800. But once I picked it up and had a closer look, i realised that’s not the case. The camera feels quite a bit lighter and fits better in my hands. I noticed there is a new “i” button at the back of the camera. The bracketing button that was at the top of the D800 has been replaced by the metering button. The focus mode selector button now has some texture pattern on it. On the left of the camera, the big rubber cover for the connection ports have now being divided into three smaller one so they can be open/close separately. The memory card door is covered by rubber and provides better grip. Most of these are actually quite small changes, but when combined together they make the camera feel better and more refined.

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The rubber cover for the connection ports is now seperated into three smaller one. Also notice the new Qc mode

As mentioned earlier, when the D800 was released, Nikon also released a D800E, which outputs sharper photos than the normal D800 (but downside is you have a higher chance of visible moire effect). This was achieved by having a special filter in front of the traditional low pass anti-alising filter which cancels the effect.

Now this time with the D810, there is only one version of the camera and Nikon have completely removed the low pass filter.

In theory, the complete removal of low pass filter should give us even sharper images and I’ve seen some photos on other websites showing the D810 output sharper photos than the D800 and the D800E. But my quick comparison with D800’s RAW files didn’t reveal any difference in terms of image sharpness. So whatever the improvement is, it is quite small and probably not noticeable in most daily photos. On the flip side, I didn’t notice any increase in moire effect caused by the absence of the low pass filter neither.

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 The 36MP D810 captures insane details.
Top: Full Photo
Below: Small Center Crop (click on photo to see it at 100%)

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“I’m mostly excited about the fact that the minimum ISO that has been decreased to ISO 64 “

While the images from the D810 may not look any sharper than the D800(E), the camera can capture insane amount of details, as long as you have the right lens and settings. But what really excited me is the wider ISO range.
D810’s maximum ISO is increased one stop to ISO 12800 (expands to 51200). Comparing the results with a D800, if you shoot in RAW, D810’s high ISO performance is actually very similar to the D800. But if you shoot in JPEG, thanks to D810’s improved noise reduction algorithm, the high ISO output is noticeably cleaner. But to me, I’m actually most excited about the minimum ISO that is now reduced to ISO 64 (expands to ISO 32). That is around ⅔ stop lower than the previous ISO 100 limit.  I’m excited because finally this allows me to shoot wide open with my f/1.4 lenses under bright sunlight without the need of any external help. Previously I have to either use a ND filter (that means I have to carry multiple ND filters for my different lenses!) or stop down to f/2 to avoid blowing the highlight. Also, when shooting landscape photos, I can nearly double my exposure time for smoother waterfall or sea effect. In the last few years, camera manufacturers have been battling on who can do high ISO the best. As a result, even the entry level APS-C DSLR today have very decent high ISO performance. So while it’s always good to have better and better high ISO performance, I’m even happier to see Nikon shift it’s focus on improving low ISO and other areas that is just as important to us photographers.

The camera’s autofocus system remains the same 51 point system.  Nikon has finetune and improved the autofocus performance. I found AF tracking more reliable than D800 when shooting moving target and performs very similar to the D4s. There is also a new “Group-Area” AF mode that has less chance of missing a smaller target.

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The D810 has no problem handling high dynamic scenes

While I do wish the 51 autofocus point can spread out a bit more and not all of the cross type AF point are placed at the center, the autofocus performance is very good and there isn’t really much I can complain about. So let’s see if we will see a new autofocus system when Nikon release the D5 in a few years time?

“I found that I can indeed shoot at slower shutter speed with the D810 and still manage to get a similar percentage of sharp photos.”

When shooting photo with a D800/D800E handheld, most user would use higher than normal shutter speed to avoid image blur caused by camera shake. With the D810, Nikon has redesign the shutter/mirror module and also added an electronic 1st curtain to reduce the internal vibration. I found that I can indeed shoot at slower shutter speed with the D810 and still manage to get a similar percentage of sharp photos. This means I could use lower ISO and get better quality picture.
And because of the new shutter/mirror design, the shutter sound is much quieter and better dampened. It’s almost as quiet as a D7100. While some users may prefer D800’s more crisp and louder shutter sound, the quieter D810 is definitely great if you want to shoot without attracting attention.
The Q (Q for quiet) mode is still available if you want even quieter shutter sound, and there is also a new Qc (Quiet Continuous) mode as well.

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The D810 ‘s shutter sound is much more quiet. than all the previous FX cameras. I shot this photo with a 58mm lens and the shutter sound didn’t wake up my newborn baby from his sweet dream.  I wouldn’t dare to do this with my D800.

The camera uses the same metering system as the D800 which is as good as you can get from any camera.  There is a new ‘highlight-weighted’ metering mode, which is designed to preserve highlight detail in contrasty scenes. If you have shot stage/concert photos before where your main subject is always under strong spotlights, you would have found it very hard to get the correct exposure using the normal metering modes. Matrix metering would overexpose your main subject easily. Spot metering and lock the exposure wouldn’t work as well as normally the stage lighting is changing constantly and quickly. This new highlight-weighted metering mode would be perfect for shooting this kind of photos. I also found this new metering mode useful for shooting sunset/sunrise landscape photos so you don’t get completely blown out sun and highlight area.  Now Nikon, how about share some love to us D800 users and release a new D800 firmware with the highlight-weighted metering mode? I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t require any additional processing power compare to the existing metering mode.

d810review_09Top: Matrix Metering
Bottom: Highlight-weighted Metering

Live view mode always feel like a last minute added feature on most Nikon DSLRs. While Nikon has improved their cameras’ live view mode quite a bit in the last few years, it is still slow and clunky. I’m glad to tell you that D810’s live view mode is a lot more usable when compare to the D800. Turn on the live view mode is quick and everything in live view mode just works a little bit smoother. Most importantly, taking a photo in live view is a lot faster and doesn’t lock up the camera for 2-3 seconds like other previous cameras. There is also a new ‘Split screen zoom’ display in live view which allows horizons/lines to be leveled precisely. Overall, te whole live view interface is just a lot more refined.  Because of that, I found that I actually used the live view mode a lot more when reviewing the D810.
Now if Nikon can improve the autofocus performance in live view mode and make it as fast as some of the best mirrorless cameras, then the live view mode would be perfect

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The new split screen zoom mode is quite handy when shooting landscape

The D810 has a sRAW output option which outputs 9MP raw files. To be honest I’m still not too sure why people want to buy a high resolution camera and shoot in small size as memory cards, storage space and fast computer are so cheap these days. But anyway for those who wants to use sRAW,  thanks to D810’s high resolution sensor, it’s 9MP sRAW is a lot more useful than the D4s’s tiny 4MP sRAW. With a good 9MP image,  a decent size and quality print is possible even after some minor cropping.
I’ve also compared the sRAW and full size RAW file taken at high ISO, and I didn’t see any advantage in picture quality with the sRAW files.

D800’s maximum burst rate is 4fps, this is largely because of the high resolution output. While 4fps is not painfully slow, sometimes I do wish it could go slightly faster. So I’m quite happy when I heard that the D810’s maximum burst rate is increased by 25% to 5fps. Or 7fps if you shoot in DX mode with supported batteries (which requires the optional battery grip). It’s still not a 11fps D4s, but it makes shooting fast actions a lot easier.

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Nikon D810 + Nikon 58mm f/1.4 – f/1.4 1/8000s ISO64
This is not a wedding photo, (not wedding season at the moment) but wedding photographers shooting with prime lenses would love the new ISO64 setting!

For people who want to upgrade from a D800, you are lucky because the D810 uses the same battery and same optional battery grip as the D800.  Not only that, Nikon tells us the rated battery life has been improved from 900 shots per charge to 1200 shots per charge. This is probably due to the more efficient EXPEED4 processor and it’s great for wedding or event photographers who need to take thousands of photos per day.

Just like the D800, the camera has dual card slot, 1 SD and 1 CF. I completely understand why Nikon choose this setup.  But after using the D800 for 2 years, I would really prefer a single card format for both slots. Either make it both CF or both SD.  It’s just a lot easier when you don’t have to carry 2 type of cards.

The D810’s 100% viewfinder is pretty much the same as the one on D800. It’s large and bright. But it now has a OLED display panel which has higher contrast and easier to read.

“After using so many cameras and smart devices with touchscreen, I do really want a touchscreen on the D810. “

The camera’s main LCD screen has been upgraded from a 3.2” 921k screen to a 1229k RGBW screen. The increase in dot count doesn’t actually increase the resolution, instead the new screen has better brightness and that makes screen easier to see at outdoor. After using so many cameras and smart devices with touchscreen, I do really want a touchscreen on the D810. Imagine you can just pinch to zoom when reviewing photos, or touch on the screen to select AF position in live view mode. It would make reviewing photos and liveview operation a lot quicker and easier.

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D800 (Left) vs D810 (Right)

Just like the D800, the D810 doesn’t have built-in WIFI support. Instead, it requires you to buy the optional Wifi adaptor.  Not only the Wifi adaptor is expensive and more importantly it’s another piece of accessory you have to carry and add externally to the camera. A few years ago when D800 was released this was not too bad but it’s now already mid 2014. Having the ablility to wirelessly transfer photos to other computer or smart devices and to the internet is very useful for both professional and consumer users. Even a lot of compact cameras comes with built-in WIFI these days  so come on Nikon, make the Wifi built-in and make it standard feature for your future DSLRs please.  Similar but maybe slightly less important is the  GPS  receiver for geo-tagging photos.

” if you are a videographer, you will definitely find the D810 a lot more attractive than the previous Nikon DSLRs.”

For the videographers, there are tonnes of improvements for you You can now shoot 1080p video at 60fps, there is zebra display, a new flat picture control for maximum post-processing flexibility, auto ISO is now supported in manual mode, the built-in mic is now a stereo one. You can also record to memory card while simultaneously outputting video over HDMI. While I haven’t really done too much testing on the camera’s video features, but if you are a videographer, you will definitely find the D810 a lot more attractive than the previous Nikon DSLRs.

The camera has many more little touches and improvements here and there that you may not notice straight away. For example, the top LCD displays a looping animation when you are doing a long time exposure. While some are quite minor, they all add up to a more refined shooting experience.

 

Summary

As a D800 user, when the D810 was announced and I read about the press release, to be honest I was not that excited. I thought it’s just a D800s, a small update to the D800 and there are only a few things I really want that my D800 can’t give me.

Now, after using the camera for two weeks, in some way that’s still true. There are a few things I really want, for example the ISO 64, the highlight weighted metering mode, the faster FPS. But there are so many other improvements that individually may not be too important, but when you add them up, the sum equals to a much better camera than the orignal D800.

I’ve used the word “refine” a few times in this review, and this is exactly what the D810 is.   It’s not a revolutionary new camera, it’s not a camera that would WOW us (unless you never heard about the D800), instead the camera is all about refinement.

The D810 has a better image sensor, handles better, autofocus better, responses faster, is more quiet, battery last longer. The camera is just does everything a bit better.

A lot of these improvements are not really noticeable if you just read the spec sheet, but after you spend some time shooting with a D810, you’ll then see the efforts and improvements Nikon has put into the D810.

If you have been thinking of upgrading to a D800 for a while but still haven’t done it, do yourself a favour and go order a D810 now.  It’s not a flawless camera, but it’s pretty damn close.

 

Pros

  • that insane 36MP output!
  • native ISO 64 
  • excellent image quality
  • More quiet and better dampened shutter
  • Much more refined than the D800
  • The new Highlight-weighted metering mode
  • Long list of improvements for video recording
  • Better battery life
  • Refinement!

 

Cons

  • Liveview autofocus speed is still nowhere as fast as the mirrorless cameras
  • A touch screen LCD would be nice
  • No built-in Wifi/GPS
  • The SD/CF dual slot configuration

 

 

Sample Photos
All photos RAW ->Converted to DNG and edited using Adobe Lightroom 5.5, to taste. (click on the photo to see a larger version)

 

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 Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G – f/2 1/40s ISO12800

 

d810review_12Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS 85mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/8000s ISO100

 

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 Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/8000s ISO64

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Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS 85mm f/1.4G – f/5 1/400s ISO100

 

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 Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS24mm f/1.4G – f/6.3 1/500s ISO64

 

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Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS 85mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/2000s ISO100

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Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS 58mm f/1.4G – f/2.5 1/4000s ISO64

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 Nikon D810 + AFS 85mm f/1.4G – f/1.6 1/8000s ISO100

 

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Nikon D810 + Nikon AFS 58mm f/1.4G – f/6.3 5s ISO64

 

 

Reviewer: Richard Wong

Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand.  Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PhotoByRichard

Richard is also a contributing writer for the D-Photo and ProPhotographer magazine.

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