Nikon D810 Full Review – The Repeat Champion Of DSLRs Indeed!
Nikon D810, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
10 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 3200
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When I first read the details about the new Nikon D810, I already knew we had a winner on our hands. Yes, incremental update cameras like this are usually not very well received, however, the Nikon D800 and D800E were already reigning champions in the DSLR world. Their claim to fame being their stunning image quality, and the fact that their sensors rank the highest on DXOMark’s overall sensor rating. (Even compared to some medium format digital cameras!) Most notably, they hold a downright shocking lead over any other competitor (especially Canon) in the specific category of dynamic range.
So really, all Nikon had to do with the D810 was not screw up. No shutter oil splatter? Check. No light leak recall that involves tape? Check! Indeed, despite a weird issue with long exposures and white dots, (which received a firmware fix before 99% of the photo world even knew it existed, let alone even had a D810 in-hand) …the D810 is a perfect DSLR in almost every way, and a very worthy update to the Nikon 800 series. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, so let’s jump right in!
Nikon D810, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Nikon SB7002x wireless flashes
1/80 sec @ f/3.5 & ISO 3200, 1.2x crop mode
Five stars, hands-down. As far as DSLRs go, the D810 has no peer, by a long shot. (Aside from its mommy and daddy!) I’m sure there are a few Sony A7R owners out there who might give the D810 only 4 stars, which is worth pointing out, but this camera is simply on a different playing field. In fact we’re working on an entirely separate article to discuss that, as I had a very hard time rating the D810 due to the whole mirrorless “situation”.
Image quality is this cameras’ greatest “pro”, and general performance, including autofocus and shooting speed, leaves very little to be desired. This camera isn’t meant for speed, and yet it still pulls off a rather impressive framerate considering the filesizes can range up to 70-80 megabytes. Most memory cards these days wouldn’t even be able to write ONE image per second from this camera!
Better Image Quality for the Nikon D810
Just as jaw-dropping as ever; it simply has the most incredible dynamic range, phenomenal image detail, and solid high ISO performance considering its absurd megapixel count. Also, thanks to the complete lack of an AA filter over the sensor (instead of “cancellation” which the D800E had), images are, in fact, slightly sharper. Probably not something you’ll notice often unless your shooting technique (and lens!) is utterly flawless, though the D800E already had great acuity.
Nikon D810, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
Original & Edited Image, 1/2 sec @ f/8 & ISO 64
Nikon D810, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 EX, Slik Pro 700DX Tripod
Single Exposure, 1/2 sec @ f/11 & ISO 64
As you can see in the above samples, the D810 handles extremely high-contrast scenes effortlessly, even without bracketing or GND filters. In fact, it’s pretty easy to over-process D810 image files, since you can literally grab any Lightroom adjustment slider and crank it as far as you want to go in any direction, and the image quality just holds on and enjoys the ride. More often now, I find myself having to throttle back on crazy HDR processing and letting shadows be, well, shadows!
Nikon D810 Speed: 5-7 FPS
Still not blazing fast, but definitely fast enough for all the complainers to “shut up” after they were (foolishly?) trying to use the D800 series as a D700 replacement for action sports photography. Now offering 5 FPS in FX mode and up to 7 FPS in 16 megapixel DX crop mode, (when using a battery grip and the right batteries), the D810 fits the bill quite nicely for an outdoor photographer who wants both absurd resolving power for landscapes, and decent speed for wildlife and stuff.
(Before you whine about having to shoot in DX crop mode to get 7 FPS, keep in mind that even the Nikon D4s offers “only” 16 MP, like the D810!)
Better Autofocus? Yes!
No, this wasn’t just marketing hype! The D810 is a step forward in AF performance.
I don’t know how much I’ll use the “group focus” mode that Nikon’s official press release brags about, however (A carry-over feature from the D4s). Simply put, the D810 is noticeably better at autofocus in general compared to its 800-series predecessors.
One obscure feature that might go unnoticed by most deserves a brief explanation:
You know how pros would never use the “auto AF point selection” mode, because it would just focus on the closest thing? Well, Nikon introduced a new 91,000 pixel meter in the D800 with face-detect built into it for use during phase-detect (optical viewfinder) autofocus. As with most technologies, the first implementation wasn’t that great so it kinda went un-praised, but the second iteration is pretty amazing!
Now, if you set the AF points to “auto,” the D810 will magically find the faces in your photo, not just in live view, but also in the optical viewfinder! Even when DOF is very shallow, it can pick the right face during candid shooting environments. I used this for general group portraits at weddings, and it works amazingly well, even when shooting wide open on lenses like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. Impressive indeed.
The D800-series bodies always seemed to be difficult to focus reliably at fast apertures, for anyone who was used to the D700’s autofocus and its highly forgiving “mere” 12 megapixels. The D810 delivers both pin-point accuracy, and consistent reliability.
Again five stars, as far as DSLRs go. And again, I hate to have to caveat “as far as DSLRs go” but that is the bottom line these days. No other DSLR offers some of the features the D810 offers…
Nikon D810 Native ISO 64
Is it 2/3 of a stop less noisy than ISO 100 on a D810 or D800E? I can’t really tell, but that’s not the point in my opinion. In the real world, the point of having native ISO 64 is simply to be able to hit a wider variety of shutter speeds and apertures. At sunset/sunrise, landscape photographers can now blur water, etc. a little more. In broad daylight, portrait photographers will find it easier to hit a fast aperture and shallow depth.
Nikon D810, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
Water: 2 sec @ f/22 & ISO 31 (LO)
Sky: 1/15 sec @ f/11 & ISO 64
Nikon D810, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
1/8000 sec @ f/1.4 & ISO 64
(No ND filters required!)
NO, not marching ants, AKA focus peaking. Just zebra stripes. What the heck am I talking about? Live view exposure & focus aides. Zebra stripes are a blinking highlight warning that you can see in real-time during live view. Marching ants/focus peaking, on the other hand, are a real-time indicator of your plane of focus/sharpness. The Nikon D810 has one (exposure warning), but not the other (focus peaking). This is a huge step in the right direction, (especially since Nikon doesn’t have Magic Lantern as an option). However, these are both features that mirrorless cameras have always had. Sooo close, but not quite…
Right-Handed ISO Control
Canon shooters, roll your eyes all you want, but the D810’s ability to re-program the REC button to control ISO during still photography capture is a major change in Nikon operation. For ages, adjusting your ISO required taking your left hand away from your lens and finding a button on the far side of your camera. Maybe for some this isn’t a big problem, but personally, it was one of the only things I still envied about Canon pro semi-pro bodies. Now, it’s finally a non-issue.
Nikon D810, Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX, DX crop mode
Face-Detect Scrolling During Image Playback Zooming
Another feature that deserves huge praise in this D810 review, despite already being debuted in the D800/D800E, is face-detection during image playback zooming. How does this work? Say you click a waist-length group photo of 5 people, and you want to check each face for sharpness and blinking. Just a few years ago, this would involve about 30 seconds worth of zooming and scrolling, for every single image. This may not sound like much, but it is agonizing for wedding guests/families, trust me! Now with the D810 (and yes, also the D800 / D800E), all it takes is one tap of your joypad’s center button, and a twirl of the front command dial. You’re taken directly to 100% magnification, and then magically scrolling from face to face. This one feature alone (on my D800E), has spoiled me so much that for the first time ever I truly dislike using any other camera for shooting portraits/ weddings. Yes, even my beloved D700 is frustrating to use now, after just one season of getting used to those two features, right-handed ISO and face-detect image review.
Really, the question is, what feature does the D810 lack, that Nikon could have possibly crammed in, without bursting the envelope of price / profit, or size & weight? We’ll have to wait until the D900 (or D850?) to see if Nikon can figure out mRAW and marching ants, but other than that, I’m at a complete loss to think of any feature “missing” from the D810.
As a long-time Nikon user, and as someone who put the outdated D700 on quite a pedestal, I have to say that he design of the D810, in conjunction with the feature set, is amazing. In fact, it’s downright difficult to live without, once you customize the camera to your liking.
Flagship Body (Mini-Flagship)
The body itself is full-featured, offering practically everything that a $5,000 flagship camera would offer, including pro weather sealing, pro autofocus, and all sorts of advanced functions. Heck, forget $5K and D3/D4 territory, the D810’s images also surpass the D3X’s 24 megapixel sensor, and that was an $8,000 camera! (Then again, the new Nikon D750 is probably going to also match/surpass the image quality of the D3x…) Simply put, the only reason to buy a D4 or D4s would be if you absolutely need those frames per second, or the incredible low light & high ISO quality.
(Note, of course, that the previous Nikon D800/D800E have roughly the same flagship body design, with just cosmetic changes and a couple button moves, so this assessment is mainly in comparison to other competition.)
This is a made-in-Japan quality, professional tool. But who cares where it’s made, the bottom line is that the D810 is rock-solid. Hobbyists and pros alike, if you abuse your gear and are tired of wearing out anything less, then look no further.
This is also one area where I do feel like the Nikon flagship and semi-flagship / semi-pro DSLR bodies have a clear lead over most of the mirrorless market still. Sony’s 7-series cameras, as we have mentioned, simply don’t feel as rock-solid and well built as Nikon and Canon’s high-end DSLRs. Yes, they have some metal parts, and they look and feel very professional at first. But the D810, you could pound nails with, or use for self-defense, probably without even accused of voiding your warranty. (wink wink)
Is $3,300 a lot? Yes. Is this camera worth every penny? Absolutely . However, I recently bought a used, mint condition D800E for $2,300, by comparison. Then there’s the D750, which offers much of the image quality and general performance of the D810, for under $2300 brand new! So ironically, Nikon’s own competing options are what keep the D810 from being as good of a value as it could be, for me. If you already own a D800 or D800E, you’ll probably just wait till it dies or gets really old, before you replace it with a D810.
Considering the other review criteria though, especially quality and design, not to mention the image quality compared to any other non-Nikon competitor, the D810 maintains the same steady improvement of value that this line of cameras has held at the ~$3K mark since the D700 first came out. So yes, it is still absolutely worth buying if you have the money to spend. I’m just personally loving the options at the $2300 mark too much right now.
Summary: Pros & Cons
- Better Image Quality
- Nikon Skin Tones
Also on a more subjective note, does anybody remember how Nikon used to stink at skin tones, and how Canon images had “that look” when it came to creating beautiful portraits? Well, that chatter seems to have really died down over the past year or two, and the D810’s overall colors (including skin tone) are fantastic. In fact, I now prefer Nikon skin tones over Canon, even when shooting RAW and processing in Adobe software. Like I said, this is largely a personal observation, but either way, I’m loving the images from this camera- both portraits and landscapes!
- More Speed: 5-7 FPS
Nikon’s original 800-series attempt at a “quiet” mode was pretty laughable, especially compared to the Canon 5D Mark III‘s downright stealthy quiet mode. I still wouldn’t try to click photos during the quiet moments of a pro golf tournament, like I might with a 5D mk3, but at least the D810 is noticeably quieter in normal operation, and significantly quieter with its new “Qc” mode. Feel free to click away during quiet church wedding ceremonies!
- Electronic 1st-curtain during Live View
Also, finally, Nikon has implemented true electronic 1st-curtain shutter during live view, for shake-less image capture at those pesky slow shutter speeds. (Eat your heart out, A7R!)
The Nikon D810 Con
Yes, that’s con, not cons. This is going to be a pretty short list, but man-oh-man, Nikon sure goofed it up.
Small size raw capture, or “mRAW / sRAW” as most people know it, was one of the features Nikon seemed very excited to promote. A ~9 megapixel raw file, with 12-bit compression. (most cameras now use 14-bit) Embarrassingly, sRAW is something that Canon DSLRs have offered for many generations now.
Unfortunately, Nikon’s endeavors with their sRAW format are a complete failure. In our testing, we found that these “small” 9 MP raw files are almost exactly the same file size as a 36 MP RAW file that has 12-bit lossy compression turned on. In other words, there’s absolutely zero reason to use Nikon’s sRAW.
But wait, it gets worse! In Adobe software, the sRAW images also deliver significantly diminished image quality compared to a true NEF file. Dynamic range is indeed extremely diminished as you can see. It doesn’t matter though anyways, since like I said you’re not saving much space on your memory cards.
Then again, Canon’s mRAW files have their own failures too. They also significantly damage the dynamic range of files, while only offering a 10-20% file size savings at a 50% megapixel reduction.
Also, it is important to note that Nikon’s own processing software, such as View NX 2, seems to be better at recovering shadow detail than third-party software. However, the vast majority of people reading this review are going to be Lightroom/Bridge users.
Anyways, I’m not going to deduct points from Nikon on this one. Nobody can get mRAW / sRAW right just yet, and I’m still eternally grateful to Nikon for continuing to offer 12-bit raw as well as three different compression options, which can effectively allow me to shoot 36 megapixel raw files that are about the same size (30 MB) as raw files from the 22 megapixel Canon 5D Mk3. That’s consistently more than a 50% savings versus the 14-bit lossless / un-compressed NEF files that average 70-80 MB! I’m glad I have this option at all, compared to other systems that simply force you into one RAW quality option per megapixel number.
Did Adobe Rush Compatibility Of D810 Image Files?
Okay, so I guess this is part two of that one and only “con.” This is something that I suspect will be very quickly remedied by Adobe, but it still needs to be mentioned. As of now with Lightroom 5.6 and Camera Raw 8.6, Adobe’s D810 NEF processing capability is a bit weird. In addition to the inability to process Nikon sRAW files properly at all, Adobe’s special camera profiles (Landscape, Portrait, Vivid, etc.) are very clearly incompatible with all D810 images, period. This may be of no concern to most, but camera profiles are something I personally use quite a lot so this was a major bummer. See the below sample of clear artifacts when turning on the “Camera Vivid” profile. We’ll update you when Adobe remedies this issue!
Summary: Who Should Buy the D810?
Landscape shooters who are still happy to lug around a heavy DSLR system, for its advantages in lens compatibility and other features, the D810 is your champion. If you’re a bit more of a lightweight traveler who shoots more adventurous landscapes and general travel, sure you might consider the likes of the Sony A7 / A7R, or the Nikon D750 / D610. Or if you’re really on a weight-savings kick and a serious budget, do like I did and consider the Nikon D5300, D3300, or the Sony A6000 all which have a gorgeous 24 MP sensor that delivers 80-90% of what the D810 has to offer in a package that weighs about a pound and costs well under $1K for an entire kit.
Portrait and wedding and editorial / commercial photographers, again if you require what a DSLR has to offer, the D810 is again an un-paralleled champion. The Sony A7 and A7R give it quite a run for it’s money, though, and for the more active wedding shooter who cares more about high ISO than megapixels or dynamic range might prefer a Canon 5D Mk3 or even a Canon 6D. That doesn’t mean the D810 isn’t still the right choice for many, though.
Action sports photographers, the D810 is fast but it’s probably not the best camera for you unless you have a special reason to want sooooo many megapixels. Instead, get yourself a Nikon D750, or a D4 / D4s if you have the cash. Or a Canon 5D Mk3, or a 7D mk2, or a 1DX, etc. etc…
Casual photographers, general hobbyists, etc. etc. …this camera is probably going to be severe overkill for you. Unless you live in the Yukon or the Amazon and don’t trust the weather sealing of anything less, you’ll be much better off with the likes of a Nikon D610 or D750.
What about folks who already have a D800 or D800E? Some of you might really need what the D810 offers, others may not care as much. It’s your job to weigh the new features I listed against those the original 800-series already has.
Anybody on an extreme budget? Get a used D800E or a new D750 for $2300, and be happy! The D810 may be the best DSLR ever, but it’s not the only option and Nikon has been churning out some killer cameras lately.
Additional D810 Sample Images
FX 100% Crop, zero noise reduction & minimal sharpening
Nikon D810, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
1/1000 sec @ f/1.4 & ISO 64
SLR Lounge Preset System V6: Bright Wash – Apricot
Technically, 24/25 stars is 4.8/5 stars. That’s good enough for me! If you’re in the market for a high-end digital camera, anywhere from $2K to $5K, you owe it to yourself to strongly consider the D810. Even if you’re fully invested in another system, I’d argue. Yes, mirrorless systems are increasing in popularity, but the differences and advantages of each have been pointed out a hundred times so you probably already know what you’re in the market for. If you’re looking for the most powerful camera on the market, with jaw-dropping image quality and flagship grade overall performance, look no further than, in fact, save yourself the trouble and go straight to….the D810.
Take care, and happy clicking,
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