Nikon D810 Review

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Introduction

The Nikon D810 is a mid-life refresh of the D800 cameras, which were lauded for pretty much the best 35mm DSLR you could get your hands on. The D810 consolidates the D800 and D800E models into a single variant, and adds a lot of small little improvements across the board. We’re going to take a look at the D810 and see how it performs!

Design and Hardware

The Nikon D810 at first glance looks pretty much like the D800 cameras before it. Nikon however have made subtle changes here and there, both on the outside and the inside. The biggest change inside is to the sensor stack: While it still uses that 36 megapixel sensor, there is no longer any anti-aliasing filter, unlike the D800E where it used a kind of anti-anti-aliasing filter to achieve a similar effect. Later we will see how well the images turn out.

Externally, the camera has a few subtle changes. The biggest for me is the slightly re-designed grip. While it looks the same it definitely does not not feel the same. It has a slightly beefier feel than the D800 grip and to me it feels closer to my old D300. The D800’s grip had a slightly thin feel to it, so this is a good upgrade.

Another new bit of hardware is the shutter and mirror assembly. It is immediately obvious when you fire the first photo with it: The D810 is a lot quieter than just about any professional-level DSLR on the market. The shutter mechanism also supports an electronic first curtain function for even less vibration when taking photos, but this is only available during live view. Still, a useful feature.

CK: Indeed, that’s my impression of it when I first tried it during the launch event. It’s almost as if you have turned on the Quiet Mode on the camera! Definitely a welcome change to the typically-noisy shutters of most DSLRs.

YS: One thing that some D800/E users have encountered was the rear LCD having a green tint to it. The D810 uses a new LCD, while still at 3.2”, boasts a RGBW matrix and thus has more dots at 1.2 million dots, and from my use of it I did not feel there was any sort of noticeable colour cast to it. It’s sharp, clear, and looks like a good screen. Just remember to discard the near-useless-first-to-get-scratched “protective” LCD cover.

Handling and User Interface

I have always liked the Nikon user interface save for a few minor quibbles, especially starting from the F5/F100 era, and the D810 overall is very similar. Like every new Nikon camera though, there is always some change to the UI. The first thing that is noticeable is the removal of the metering mode dial around the AE-L/AF-L button. Metering is now changed via one of buttons on the top left cluster, above the drive mode dial. I guess this is due to the new Highlight Priority metering mode, bringing about the number of metering modes to four, so the old method was deemed not serviceable.

CK: Yes, it took me quite a while to locate the metering modes button!

YS: This change also means that Bracketing is now on the shoulder above the lens mount, in-between the flash release button and the flash control button. Frequent flash users might want to make sure their muscle memory is re-aligned with this change. else there will be quite a few accidental presses.

As mentioned earlier, the slightly redesigned grip is much nicer to hold, and it makes the D810 a real nice camera to use. The camera has a nice hefty feel to it, though after using it with the 24-70mm f/2.8 I am not sure I want to use such a heavy camera again as my main.

CK: Tell me about it. I’ve been largely using a Fujifilm X-T1 for some time now, and I find it a chore to carry the D810 with the 24-70 f/2.8 mounted on it. It’s definitely not something I’d like to carry around for a long time. It’s also heavier than my D7000 with the AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8, a setup that I had been using for a few months.

YS: Overall the D810 is pretty great to use, and as a high-end Nikon it has a ton of custom options to make it really effortless to use. For instance my own preferred setup is to swap the front and rear dials (I like having aperture on my rear dial), turn on easy exposure compensation for the other command dial, and assign the ISO function to the movie record button while in stills mode. ISO control without having to move the left hand to that cluster of buttons on my left is just great, and removes one of my biggest peeves with the Nikon control setup, which required moving the left hand off the lens barrel to change ISOs.

YS’s Shutter Release Button Ratings

Good – Ah, the bliss of being able to hold absolutely rock steady and lash out a number of shots with a gentle squeeze of the shutter release button. More cameras should be built like this.

Performance

CK: Being a pro-level camera body, the D810 performs very well. AF speeds are excellent with the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 20mm f/1.8. There’s no noticeable lag when firing the shutter, everything just feels very responsive. I did not manage to try out the Group-area AF though, as I don’t shoot a lot of action.

Shooting people running in the rain is easy with the D810's fast AF and the Group Area AF activated.
Shooting people running in the rain is easy with the D810’s very fast AF.

YS: I also tried the D810 with my own AF-S 70-300mm f/4-5.6G. While as expected the lens really is not a star at 300mm, the focusing managed to work well enough. The increased frame rate to 5 FPS just about makes it a decent speed for use in action sequences, and Nikon’s 51 point 3D AF tracking and dynamic AF systems work just as well. I had a go with Group-area AF and it basically seemed to be like a super AF point. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to test out all the possible scenarios with Group-area AF, but at least it worked well enough when shooting at speeding cars and tracking a very fidgety bird. Indeed the mature state of the Nikon AF system means that all three modes are effective enough that each of them have their own use cases.

Fidgety cockatiel in action
Fidgety cockatiels are trickier to capture than you think.

I also want to stress again on the difference the increase to 5 FPS from 4 FPS in continuous shooting mode makes. It might only be 1 FPS, but it actually feels somewhat speedy now, and properly usable for action. Maybe it’s because I cut my teeth on my F100, which had a 5 FPS mode when used with the battery grip.

Image Quality

CK: The D810’s 36-megapixel sensor, which truly has no anti-aliasing filter (unlike the D800e) delivers loads of detail. You can crop quite a bit on the resulting image file and still get crisp detail in the picture. This is provided you use a capable-enough lens of course.

A short of Clarke Quay from the D810 with the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED-IF
A short of Clarke Quay from the D810 with the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED-IF. Click on the image for a larger view.
100% crop of the shot above. You can clearly read the MasterCard logo and part of the Brewerks logo next to it.
100% crop of the area marked by a yellow box above. You can clearly read the MasterCard logo and part of the Brewerks logo next to it. Click on the image for a larger view.

YS: Going to 36 megapixels from my usual 16 megapixel GH3 (and CK’s own 16 megapixel shooters) is quite the treat. That’s on average an increase of 50% in linear terms i.e. if you were happy with printing at 12” x 18” before, you can expect to take it to 18” x 27”.

Resolution is a real treat on this with the right lenses. Shooting anything that had a lot of detail made me appreciate what a high resolution sensor can really do. If you like to print big, this camera is for you.

(Also, if you like to crop, please just get a high resolution DX camera instead)

Speaking of right lenses, shooting with the D810 reminds me how the 24-70 needs an update. It comes off looking not particularly well for its money.

Another area where this camera really shines is in its dynamic range. Nikon did not choose to implement highlight priority metering mode by accident; the newest sensors from Sony feature such great dynamic range performance that including such a mode makes sense. Basically this is the “shoot-first-edit-later-without-worry” mode.

CK: The downside of this of course, is that people will no longer find the need to shoot and expose properly in-camera. We are already seeing the “shoot first, edit later” mentality even with the other cameras.

That said, I found that even without the highlight-priority metering mode, I can still recover a fair amount of highlight detail from my shots in RAW.

Straight out of camera, with only lens corrections applied.
Straight out of camera, with only lens corrections applied.
After highlight recovery in Lightroom. There's a fair amount of detail I can still bring out from the sky and from the shadow areas as well.
After highlight recovery in Lightroom. There’s a fair amount of detail I can still bring out from the sky and from the shadow areas as well.

YS: As for highlight priority itself, it works pretty well. However I cannot say if it absolutely preserves every bit of highlight, but in the most extreme example that I tried, with about 5% of the scene as the highlights, there certainly was no clipping in the scene as far as I can tell. I pretty took it beyond the limits of the sensor – there was at least 15 stops of EV difference between the highlights and 80% of that scene, which was the interior of a darkened room. I can see a lot of wedding and event photographers being very happy with this new metering mode, provided they remember it will do so to a fault!

CK: Yes, Highlight Priority metering will surely help with the classic white dress and a dark background kind of shots, which are kind of challenging to expose correctly.

High ISO Performance

CK: I find the high ISO performance to be generally good, but perhaps due to the pixel density of the 36 megapixel sensor, there appears to be more noise than say, the Nikon Df which we reviewed previously. I guess this is the trade-off you have to make if you want a higher resolution camera—either you have very low noise at a lower resolution (larger, therefore more sensitive pixels) or slightly more noise at a higher resolution (smaller, less sensitive pixels.)

Sushi shot at ISO 1600.
Sushi shot at ISO 1600. The D810 renders colour pretty well, even in low light.

YS: Well, that is when you view it at 100% on a per-pixel basis. If you downsize it to a lower resolution the D810 is still fairly respectable to about ISO 1600, maybe ISO 3200. At ISO 6400 I do feel a high ISO specialist like the Df is much better. It’s still perfectly usable at ISO 6400 though, if you ask me. At 12k and 25k the background noise pretty much makes it very less than ideal.

Here are crops from a series of ISO progressions. Be sure to click on them to enlarge them.

Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 100
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 100
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 200
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 200
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 400
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 400
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 800
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 800
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 1600
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 1600
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 3200
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 3200
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 6400
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 6400
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 12800
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 12800
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 25600
Nikon D810 100% Crop @ ISO 25600

As you can see, noise starts being noticeable at ISO 1600 and ramps up from there. Personally my threshold is at ISO 6400; at ISO 12k there is significant loss in colour information due to noise overwhelming the photo. 25k is really there for a marketing bullet point.

Now, what about downsizing them, to say, 16 megapixels, which is what the Df and D4 sensor is at?

Nikon D810 16 MP 100% Crop @ ISO 1600
Nikon D810 16 MP 100% Crop @ ISO 1600
Nikon D810 16 MP 100% Crop @ ISO 3200
Nikon D810 16 MP 100% Crop @ ISO 3200
Nikon D810 16 MP 100% Crop @ ISO 6400
Nikon D810 16 MP 100% Crop @ ISO 6400

If you compare them, there is definitely an improvement, but not quite a stop. The difference ISO 6400 seems even less. Personally I feel it does not quite approach that of the Df when at ISOs 3200 and above. Moral of the story: Get the best tool for the job.

Other Points of Note

Time Lapse

CK: The D810 features a Time Lapse feature where it’ll produce a .MOV file directly from within the camera. This meant that you no longer have to use the intervalometer and then manually produce the final time-lapse file yourself. Nikon has also provided a “Exposure Smoothing” function in the time-lapse mode to reduce the much hated flicker in time-lapse movies when using an exposure mode like Aperture Priority. This meant that you can shooting using Aperture Priority to automatically adapt to rapidly changing lighting conditions (e.g. when shooting an incoming storm) and not have that annoying flicker in the final output. Here’s a couple of time-lapse movies of rolling storm clouds that I did with the D810.

Autofocus Improvements with Older Lenses

YS: A few users have mentioned that their older lenses that had issues with previous Nikon DSLRs are working better with the D810. Given my switch from Nikon I no longer have lenses that I can test this theory with, but some of you might to take note. Rent or borrow a D810 to test drive with your prized but problematic lenses.

Conclusion

Put simply, the D810 is a camera that does a lot right. It takes top quality images in nearly every situation up to ISO 1600, is competitive up to ISO 6400, has fast and sure autofocus and autofocus tracking, is great to use, and so on. Compared to the D800 it makes a lot of small adjustments that are seemingly minor but when put together make it the D810 a much better camera compared to its predecessor. I think Nikon have really nailed these minor iterations well; not big enough to be a whole new generation, but significant enough that it does not feel like a re-badge of a previous camera.

CK: Not everybody will need the D810’s 36 megapixels, though I am sure a lot of people will snap it up just for bragging rights. If you are a commercial/wedding photographer in need of the extra resolution, the D810 hits all the right notes. All the small improvements over the previous D800/D800e made it a much better camera, like YS mentioned above. Although we did not test the video mode, Nikon has also made several improvements to the video side of things, so that’s also a plus point if you want to be able to shoot great video as well as photos.

YS: If you don’t mind the weight and bulk, this is just about the best all-rounder camera you can get. It does a lot, and outputs some incredible files while at it. It’s not the best low-light high-ISO camera, around, but only because there are monsters like the D3S and the Df. If you want it all, the D810 is for you.

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