Hands-On Review: Nikon D810
Two years after the introduction of the D800 and D800E, Nikon announced their successor, the D810, which was billed as the new high-resolution DSLR solution for still photographers and videographers. Upon release, one of the first issues to come to mind with this statement was: how does one improve upon a camera that was viewed by many as still the top in its class? Nikon’s answer was to simply refine the aspects that many already viewed as flawless, and to add in some of the missing features many seemed to be clamoring for.
f/2.8 at 1/500 sec, ISO 800. Open at full resolution.
With this seemingly simple premise in mind, Nikon set out to challenge the bounds of hyperbole by upping some of the most impressive specs of the D800: a welcome one-stop boost in ISO sensitivity; an added frame-per-second in continuous shooting modes; full HD 1080/60p video recording, up from 30p; extended battery life; a RAW SIZE S format; and other improvements to AF performance, color balancing, and overall handling. And in regard to the D800E, the D810 improves upon it by entirely removing the optical low-pass filter in order to attain even greater sharpness and resolution.
f/2.8 at 1/160 sec, ISO 6400. Open at full resolution.
Taking into account these specifications provided by Nikon, I set out to perform a hands-on review of the D810 to see exactly what these improvements meant in practical terms. As an owner of a D800, and having worked with a D800E on several occasions, I had my own benchmark from which to compare this new offering. Before delving into the imaging aspects, one of the more immediately noticeable changes on this new body was the slight tweaking of control placement. The overall form factor and weight is familiar compared to its predecessor, but minor updates to how some of the rear and top buttons were set within the control scheme was a bit puzzling at first. The AF and AE Lock button and AF On button now protrude slightly more from the body, and the AE metering area selector has been moved to the top of the left-hand dial, as opposed to surrounding the AE/AF Lock button. The Bracketing button has been moved near the pop-up flash button, and a second i info button has also been added to the back panel. All in all, these were some pretty modest changes that took me all of five minutes to re-learn, but after spending time shooting with the D810, I grew to appreciate how certain controls were more easily accessible due to this new layout. Additionally, I should point out that the rear LCD monitor, which remains a 3.2” screen, has an improved resolution of 1,229,000 dots, and can now be color-configured to your own preferences. In comparison to the D800/D800E, it's quite a noticeable difference. The imagery appears sharper and brighter for more precise evaluation and live view monitoring.
f/5.6 at 1/1600 sec, ISO 400. Open at full resolution.
The D810 also features a slightly deeper grip and a bit more tack to the rubberized covering, which seemed to make it a somewhat easier to handle and comfortably switch between vertical and horizontal shooting orientations. This new model also felt a bit tighter; the shutter noise was a bit quieter, switching between settings and navigating throughout the menu was faster, image processing took less time, and things just felt zippier all-around.
f/5.6 at 1/30 sec, ISO 200. Open at full resolution.
After adapting to the slightly modified layout of the new body, I set out to photograph lower Manhattan for an afternoon to get a better feel for how everything worked in practical use. Immediately, even without viewing my imagery on a computer, I felt that same excitement I did the first time I worked with a D800. The large 36.3MP stills offer a great sense of visual depth and edge acutance that is immediately visible on the rear screen, and still holds true when finally viewing on a proper computer monitor. The new OLPF-less design certainly adds to this increased sense of sharpness, but at a minute level that isn’t immediately perceivable. This reminded me of the same difference between the D800 and D800E, initially; the difference between the two models was hardly detectable in most cases, but under certain circumstances it was quite clear how the D800E was able to out-resolve by just a bit. The D810 is doing the same thing here, albeit it is improving upon the D800E.
f/2.8 at 1/1600 sec, ISO 1600. Open at full resolution.
Color and tonal representation, along with the ability to record such a wide dynamic range, was also a strong point of the initial D800-series. Again, the D810 seems to edge out its predecessors in the way it handles a broad color gamut and scenes with increased contrast. Aided by tools such as the highlight-weighted metering, the D810 is able to preserve greater detail in both the highlights and shadows in bright, midday light. When working with this metering mode, though, I noticed that my JPEGs all appeared slightly underexposed by about 1/3 to 2/3 a stop; seemingly to ensure highlight detail is retained in the RAW files.
f/8 at 1/320 sec, ISO 64. Open at full resolution.
Another corrective tool that I could definitely find myself using in more of a studio- or landscape-type setting is the live view split-screen focusing aid, which displays a configurable, magnify-able portion of the image next to a full view of the image to permit fine-tuned focusing control without losing sight of the entire composition. I tried working with this while shooting during the day, but found it easier to revert to simply using the optical viewfinder in the brighter, as well as hand-held, conditions. If working from a tripod, and especially with perspective control lenses, I could see this feature helping out with matching planes of focus throughout the image.
f/8 at 1/640 sec, ISO 64. Open at full resolution.
One other live view feature that did actually make sense to use during daylight conditions, and would still function quite well in the studio, is the Spot White Balance tool, which has been carried over from the D7100. When using this tool, you simply pick out a known neutral point within the scene to set accurate white balance settings. Once accustomed to using this, it can be quite handy to quickly set a gray point within a scene and begin shooting rather than trying to dial-in different Kelvin values based on a shoot-then-evaluate type of method.
f/5.6 at 1/500 sec, ISO 200. Open at full resolution.
I ran through the various autofocus modes and noticed no issues regardless of working in single-point focusing in various portions of the scene or if working with the new Group Area AF, which bundles five points together to aid in tracking moving subjects.
f/9 at 1/500 sec, ISO 64. Open at full resolution.
Lastly, one of the final aspects I set out to test during the daytime was the increased burst rate, which now claims up to 5 fps continuous shooting at full resolution. I wasn’t working with too many fast-paced subjects, but for fun decided to just test out a few scenes to see how the improved processing capabilities of the EXPEED 4 processor held up. Compared to the D800-series, I didn’t feel a great improvement in sheer speed, and could not confirm the ability to achieve 5 fps shooting, but I did notice much better buffer performance that allowed me to shoot over 20 frames in a row before filling the buffer. Considering that I was working in RAW + JPEG most of the time, and recording approximately 100MB of data per exposure, I was quite impressed with how many consecutive frames I could fire off without slowing down.
With the handling tests finished and now feeling completely comfortable working with the new camera, I retreated to Brooklyn to perform some more tests in regard to the new RAW SIZE S file format and run through the ISO range to see how noise performance and dynamic range held up as the sun went down. For these more measured field tests I chose to work from a tripod, usually shooting in live view, and worked on generating sequences of imagery that would highlight the imaging performance and quality. Additionally, in working from a tripod, I was able to make use of the new electronic first curtain setting, which reduces potential camera shake during exposures. By using an electronic shutter the chances are greatly reduced that any mirror slap affects the image sharpness, which can be a noticeable issue when working with such a high resolution and pixel density.
Earlier in the day one of the features that had most stuck out in my head was the very low native ISO 64 setting, versus the more typical ISO 100 or 200 settings found in most cameras. Since this lower speed was not the most conducive to hand-held shooting, I saved it for the tests where I photographed the Manhattan skyline across the East River. Running through the different sensitivities, from ISO 64 to 12800, I noticed that dynamic range performance was significantly stronger at the lower values, with noticeable blotchiness and noise coming in around ISO 6400 to ISO 12800. The true low-light performance is much like the D800-series, but with an added stop of wiggle room around the top of the native range, just before entering the Hi expanded sensitivities.
Lo 1 (ISO 31) to ISO 100
ISO 200 to ISO 800
ISO 1600 to ISO 6400
ISO 12,800 to Hi 2 (ISO 51,200)
Working with the lower values like ISO 64 and 100, I could easily picture myself having the added freedom of longer shutter speeds in brighter conditions, as well as the flexibility to work with different lighting configurations and output values in a studio setting. On the top end of the scale, between ISO 6400 and 12800, the camera can certainly hold its own if shorter shutter speeds or narrower aperture settings are required. However, this camera isn’t destined to be the low-light go-to option as other cameras, such as the D4S, are designed to be.
During these low-light tests I also had the chance to work with both the conventional RAW file size, which yielded approximately 77MB files, as well as the new RAW SIZE S files, which are 9MP 12-bit uncompressed image files saved in the NEF format with a file size around 27MB. This new format was specifically designed for photographers wishing to save a bit of size on the memory card or to expedite one’s post-production workflow since handling of these files should be approximately 400% faster than the 36.3MP full-resolution files. While this addition to the D810 is certainly welcomed by many, I tended to not find as much leeway in working with these files during post-production as I had with the full-res versions. I found that working with a camera like the D810 and approaching it with the mindset of recording such large file sizes, that I never came across the need to be recording in RAW SIZE S. I had already assigned myself to, and looked forward to, working with the large, rich 36.3MP files. This is certainly the D810’s greatest asset over many other options, and to not use it seemed to strip away some of the uniqueness offered by the camera.
Among some other points I worked to address during my nighttime shoot were to push the dynamic range and to test the new OLPF-less design to try to introduce aliasing or moiré in a realistic setting. The dynamic range tests were conducted using a scene with an expansive range of tones, from the highlights of the city lights to the shadows of the river and negative space in between the buildings. When shot through the sensitivity range, I felt like I could achieve slightly more detail with the lower ISO values while still retaining a similar amount of mid-tone and shadow detail. When I worked up to the higher sensitivities, shadow detail increased, but at the expense of the highlight values.
When testing for some realistic aliasing, I worked with a long brick wall, photographed at an angle that led to infinity focus. The camera was capable of resolving the brick details all the way throughout the range of focus without blurring details at the hyperfocal distance, in both RAW SIZE S and full RAW formats. This was a welcomed sign since I had already remarked at the small, but noticeable, increase in sharpness. Compared to the D800E, the new D810 is able to remove the entire optical low-pass filter assembly while still suppressing moiré and aliasing. The D800E achieved a similar feat; however, it used an additional filter in order to counter the effects of the OLPF rather than actually just removing the OLPF.
|RAW||RAW SIZE S|
|CLICK FOR RAW 100% CROP||CLICK FOR RAW SIZE S 100% CROP|
|RAW 100% CROP, DETAIL||
RAW SIZE S 100% CROP, DETAIL, IMAGE SIZE ENLARGED TO 200%
When the D800 was released in 2012, it set a new standard for HDSLR video shooters on Nikon cameras by offering full 1080p recording on a full frame sensor, and features like uncompressed HDMI out for using external recorders. The D810 furthers this drive to add greater overall video performance through the addition of some new refinements, including a Flat Picture Control setting intended to make post-production grading a lot more flexible, as well as higher resolution 60p video recording. In order to better grasp how these video-specific updates performed, a number of tests were run to compare the differences between the D810 and D800.
First I worked to test the new 1080p60 performance of the D810 by shooting a fountain in Brooklyn and conforming the 60p into 30p for true slow motion playback. To counter this, I also shot with the D800 in 720p at 60 fps, and scaled it up to 1080p to help visualize the difference in detail between the two cameras. Furthermore, I again shot the same scene in 1080p30 on the D810 to see if there was any loss of detail when shooting in 60p as compared to 30p, which is common on many cameras. As expected, the D810's 1080p60 is much sharper than the D800 720p60, and there is greater aliasing and loss of detail in the D800. However, even though the 1080p60 mode does have a less detail in it than the 1080p30 mode, it can still be considered a viable option if you want to shoot slow motion footage.
Slow Motion Test- Both Cameras
- 1/125th of a Second Shutter Speed
- Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF.2 at f/11
- ISO 100, Daylight WB
- Standard Picture Profile with sharpness at 0, everything else at default
Next I worked with the new Flat Picture Control profile on the D810 to see how it compared to Portrait, the D800's flattest Picture Control setting. Both cameras were also set to the lowest saturation, contrast, and sharpness positions possible. I shot a difficult scene with a sunlit sky behind a monument with dark, shadowed statues. The Flat profile was able to retain greater color information along with a greater dynamic range. When the shadows were exposed at the same level, things that were midtones on the D810 were already approaching highlight territory on the D800, making it look more overexposed. Surprisingly, the Flat was also slightly more saturated out of camera then the Portrait profile, though without any loss of information.
Flat Picture Profile Test
To test the overall detail rendering capabilities, I worked with a wide-angle lens in a meadow, and stopped the aperture down to f/11 for a larger depth of field. The results showed no noticeable difference in detail when shooting 1080p at 30 fps on both cameras.
Detail Test- Both Cameras:
- 1/200th of a second Shutter Speed
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED at f/11 and 24mm
- ISO 100, Daylight WB
- Standard Picture Profile with sharpness at 0, everything else at default
Finally, brick walls were again used to test out the aliasing and moiré susceptibility of both cameras. The D810 performed rather well despite the elimination of the OLPF. The aliasing and moiré can still be spotted if you look for it, but the lack of any large, distracting rainbows along the wall is always welcome. I did notice some moiré on the grille of a truck that was present on the D800 but not on the D810, but other than that small difference the D800 performed at about the same level as the D810 in this regard, which isn’t surprising since the overall detail of both cameras is similar and the D800 does feature an active OLPF. Overall the video performance of the D810 is very similar to the D800, though in a few areas, most notably when shooting in 60p, the D810 does outperform its predecessor.
Frame grabs from 1080p 30 fps video clips 100% scale
|Nikon D800||Nikon D810||Nikon D800||Nikon D810|
Beyond the improvements to video image quality, the D810 also sees a few more additions that benefit operation and handling. For anyone using an external recorder, the ability to simultaneously store your footage to a memory card will be an appreciated addition. The D810 can also output 4:2:2 1080p60 when recording in 60p internally. Additionally, Power Aperture Control is now available, using the front-facing Fn and Pv buttons at any time in live view. Previously, this feature was relegated for use with an external recorder.
Also relating to video, an update to the time-lapse recording feature now permits shooting up to 9,999, sequential frames (up from 999) with automatic exposure smoothing between frames for easier playback. Coupled with the new electronic front curtain, a redesigned balancer and sequencer mechanism also works to minimize vibrations during shooting to lessen the likelihood of camera vibrations for consistently sharp imagery.
Looking back on the short time I spent with the D810, I am surprised by how much Nikon squeezed into this cycle’s update. On paper the differences between the D800-series and D810 do not completely reflect the actual differences I felt during use. Similar to upgrading the RAM in a computer or cleaning and lubing a bike chain, overall performance when working with the camera felt smoother, more measured, and precise. Many of the smaller points of the update—the added ISO 64 sensitivity, electronic front curtain, and complete removal of the OLPF—seemed to outweigh some of the more touted facets of this update, including the boosted frame rate. These smaller changes are what defined the camera as Nikon’s high-resolution offering; the camera best fit for landscape, studio, portrait, and still life photographers. These well-thought-out additions benefit photographers in truly useful ways and stray from the tendency to simply throw new technology at something in order to gain an additional marketing point.