Nikon D810 Digital Camera Review
Nikon polishes up yet another great full-frame camera.
Professional cameras typically break down into two camps: those that favor high resolution and those that favor speed. It makes sense; Some photographers focus on controlled, relatively motionless subjects (landscapes, studio scenes, models) while others must combat the unpredictable (news, wildlife, your drunk uncle at a wedding). Generally speaking, you have to pick one or the other.
The new Nikon D810 (MSRP $3,299.95) certainly isn't a speed demon, but it better splits the difference than its predecessor. It reprises the same jaw-dropping 36-megapixel resolution that defined the Nikon D800, but features improved continuous shooting and low light capability. Though it's still only half as fast as Nikon's pro sports and wildlife camera, the D4S, the D810 and its 6fps maximum capture speed is a massive upgrade that allows you to capture high resolution shots at a respectable clip.
Of course, Nikon hasn't stopped there. The new D810 also features an improved Expeed 4 processor and sensor, which translates into snappier all-around performance, 1080/60p video shooting, and an extended ISO range. Additionally, Nikon saw fit to include better battery performance and a higher resolution rear screen, making the D810 one of the best all-around DSLRs under $4,000.
We ran the D810 through the gauntlet in and out of our labs to see if all these performance improvements really made a difference.
Design & Handling
A Nikon is a Nikon is a Nikon
Design-wise, the D810 is very similar to the D800. That's no surprise, because just about every Nikon DSLR on the market is remarkably similar to its predecessor; Nikon knows what Nikon shooters like, and only makes major revisions when absolutely necessary. The only notable changes? There's a new "i" button for quick changes to shooting settings, the metering mode button is now on the top control cluster, and the bracket button is now located next to the flash release.
There are also some subtle changes that aren't immediately obvious, but are still very welcome. The viewfinder now has a blue OLED information screen underneath that's similar to the D7100 and the grip has been reshaped to be slightly deeper. That said, if you're a D800/D800e user then there's nothing major to worry about—you'll still feel right at home shooting with the D810.
If you haven't used a D800, the first thing you'll notice is just how heavy the D810 is. Like most other full-frame DSLRs it's built for serious performance first, portability second. If you're upgrading from a smaller DSLR it'll take a little while to adjust to such a bulky body. The deep ergonomic grip mitigates a large amount of this, but compared to high-end mirrorless options the D810 is chunky.
That weight comes from the camera's extensive use of magnesium alloy. The entire chassis is made of the stuff, giving the body very little flex and plenty of durability. It's noticeably heavier than the new Nikon D750, but not a massive departure from other full-frame Nikon cameras. In addition to the magnesium alloy chassis the D810 is fully weather sealed to protect against dust and moisture, protecting you as long as you use weather-sealed lenses. The D810 also features a built-in autofocus motor, letting you focus with Nikon AF lenses that lack the AF-S designation.
The control scheme follows Nikon's general format, and doesn't do much to rock the boat. On the top of the camera you have your shutter control, below that is the power lever and shutter release on the same mechanism. A dedicated record button and exposure compensation button below the shutter release, and a mode button just southwest of that. The monochrome LCD screen is also on top, under those controls. It gives you a quick read on all of your key settings, with a backlight for viewing them in the dark. On the left side of the D810 is your main control cluster, with quick buttons for image quality, white balance, ISO, and metering on top and a dial for drive mode.
Moving to the rear of the camera–which is mostly dominated by the 3.2-inch LCD screen–you have menu and playback controls on the left side. These allow you to quickly zoom in and out on shots viewed in playback, or access the main menu. On the right side of the screen is a directional pad for browsing menus, aperture control, AE lock, live view button, info button, and the aforementioned "i" button.
The viewfinder itself is massive and crystal clear. It's bright, has 100% frame coverage, and offers you a much nicer shooting experience than even the best electronic viewfinders on the market. Other than the new OLED informational display this is the same viewfinder as on the Nikon D800/D800E, so you can expect the same great experience as before.
Generally speaking, shooting with the D810 is very enjoyable and straightforward. Truth be told, the new grip didn't make a huge difference over shooting with the older D800. The higher-resolution screen is nice when shooting video or using live view, but most of the time we shot through the viewfinder so it didn't matter much. Perhaps the biggest change is the new "i" button, which works well to cut down on the amount of time we had to spend in Nikon's byzantine menu system—always a good thing in our book.
Small pixels, massive dynamic range
The D810's performance is almost entirely improved thanks to the new Expeed 4 image processor and updated image sensor. What can simply adding a new processor do for a camera? Well in short, it's faster. Burst frame rates have jumped to (5fps from 4fps) in FX mode, jumping up to 6fps in DX crop mode or with the battery grip attached. It also has a wider ISO range of 64-51,200 with low noise throughout, a wider dynamic range, the ability to capture 1080/60p video. It's even more efficient, granting 1200 shots per charge instead of the D800's 900 on the same battery. It's an across-the-board improvement that should certainly tempt anyone who was put off by the D800's relatively slow, power-hungry ways.
In our testing we saw much more accurate colors on the D810 over the D800. This is in spite of what is still a pretty iffy white balance system. Where the D800 had a questionable auto white balance system to begin with, the D810 didn't improve it too much. The auto white balance on the D810 is tuned well to account for 5500K daylight temperatures, but fluorescent and tungsten settings still give it fits. Custom white balance is right on the nose in all color modes–as it should be. That said, you should stay away from auto white balance in any lighting other than outdoors or just shoot in RAW and deal with it later.
Of course, the true calling card of the D810, like the D800 and D800E, is the sheer resolution provided by the 36.3-megapixel sensor. The sensor is sharper than the D800 thanks to the lack of an anti-aliasing filter, but it should be about on par with the D800E. It's worth noting that while several APS-C cameras in Nikon's lineup also lack an AA filter, the new D750 still has one because it has a larger pixel pitch. That gives the D810 a bit of a leg up, especially if you're looking to capture all the fine detail you can.
One area we didn't expect to see huge strides, however, was in noise levels. The D810 improved over its predecessor with laudably low noise levels at both low ISO speeds and on the high end. The base ISO range was extended from 100-6,400 on the D800 to 64-12,800 here, with 32-51,200 as an expanded range. Where most extended "low" ISO speeds are just exposure tricks that better control highlights, we saw functional differences with the D810.
This lets you use larger apertures (and see less noise) on bright days, while still getting nearly noise-free images up to ISO 1600 without noise reduction active. And of course, because you've got 36 megapixels to work with you can also downsample the images to a lower resolution to reduce the appearance of noise further. Even at higher ISOs, the D810 improves on the D800. The noise levels stay to a manageable level through ISO 12,800, and the noise itself has a fine, uniform look to it with minimal banding. It's not quite filmic, but it's closer than other cameras.
For action shooters, continuous shooting was improved as a result of the higher processing speed. We consistently saw shooting rates over 5 fps as opposed to only 4fps on the D800. This still isn't breakneck speed—and we wouldn't recommend using it for shooting sports—but it does help capture things a bit faster than the D800 did. Nikon kept the same excellent 51-point autofocus system as well, adding in the new "Group Area AF" mode that we loved from the D4S.
Video is also a beneficiary of improvement with the new hardware, increasing quality from a max of 1080/30p to 1080/60p, with framerates from 50p on down to 24p. We saw increased sharpness both horizontally and vertically, while low-light performance was also improved with the ability to shoot in light as low as 1 lux. Even in near complete darkness, you can get video images–though it won't be the highest quality, it'll be usable in a pinch. Moire is still quite visible, but only with very fine patterns.
Far and away, however, the D810 is most impressive when it comes to dynamic range. The worry with having a sensor with so many pixel sites on it is that dynamic range would be limited. This is absolutely not the case here. The D810 manages a whopping 14 stops of dynamic range at ISO 32. Even by our higher standard (which only counts stops that are above a signal-to-noise ratio threshold of 10), the D810 manages over 10 stops at base ISO. That's a full two stops more than most cameras and one of the best performances we've ever seen.
Got 99 problems but megapixels ain't one
The main selling point of the D810–like the D800 before it–is easily the sensor. The 36.3 MP sensor is beginning to approach medium format levels, where 50-megapixel cameras like the Hasselblad H5D-50C are common. It's not quite on that level, of course, but it's only about 14MP off and about $25,000 cheaper.
There were a few features added outside of the new sensor–such as a higher resolution rear screen and a built-in stereo microphone. The screen gets a bump from 921,000 dots to 1,229,000 dots, and the better screen gives you a better view of the insanely large images that you capture. Videographers also have a new built-in stereo microphone. It's not very good, of course, but it's better than the D800's built-in mono microphone.
The new processor allows users to shoot continuously with no buffering issues whether you're shooting RAW, JPEG, or RAW+JPEG together. Basically this means you can fire away until your memory card(s) fill up or your battery dies. Nikon has also aped one of the more useful features from Canon: small RAW files. These are RAW files that have the full-frame field of view but have been downsampled to a lower resolution, reducing file size. This is absolutely essential on the D810, because the RAW shots take up quite a bit of space and it's easy to run low on long shoots.
Though the D810 doesn't feature many creative scene modes like lower-end Nikons do, the D810 retains the timelapse and interval shooting modes of its lower-end brethren. These let you easily set up timelapse shots. You only need 8 megapixels stills to produce a 4K shot, so with the D810 you could theoretically produce the 33.3-megapixel stills needed for an 8K timelapses without breaking a sweat.
A few other small things that people may or may not notice are zebra stripes in video live view, split screen live view mode, the new "Flat" color mode, and an increase of preset white balances that can be saved from four to six. The flat color profile, especially, makes life easier for videographers who want to integrate the D810's footage into a workflow with high-end cinema cameras. We'd still recommend the D750 (or the Panasonic GH4/Sony A7S) if you want to do video with a system camera, but they're not bad features to have.
One of Nikon's best gets even better.
When the Nikon D800 dropped two years ago it instantly became known for its absurdly high-resolution sensor and excellent image quality. The ability to crop zoom or downsample and retain a high-resolution final image is still something that is unrivaled among full-frame DSLRs. The D810 doesn't alter what has proven to be a winning formula, but enhances it with improved processing and some updated hardware.
Like other recent full-frame cameras like the D610 and D4S, Nikon isn't out to fix what isn't broken. The D810 still offers an absurdly high-resolution sensor, but it shores up some of the weakest parts of the D800's resume. It's faster, it has better high ISO image quality, and it offers a better all-around feature set to lunatics who want to shoot video with a 36-megapixel sensor.
We shot with the D810 around the streets here in Boston and couldn't be more impressed with the quality we saw. The images were insanely sharp, and the area that we thought the D800 would perform weakly in–high ISO noise–was improved even further with the new sensor. That results in incredible levels of dynamic range, with images that stretch even the best Nikon lenses to their limit. Video has also been improved, but moire issues persist. If that's a primary focus for you the D810 is fine, but there are better, more economical options out there.
If you skipped over the D800 because it was too slow, then the D810 is just fast enough that it's worth the trade-off to get all that sweet, sweet resolution. Though video shooters will absolutely be better served with something like the Panasonic GH4 (or if you're after full-frame video, the Nikon D750 or Sony A7S) instead, the Nikon D810 should appeal to professionals of all stripes.
For most photographers, however, it's very difficult to beat the D810's package. It takes incredible photos, it works with almost any Nikon lens from the past 50 years or so, and it's fast enough for all but the most demanding news and sports photography work. It's a superb camera in every way, and one of the best Nikon DSLRs we've ever tested.
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