I realize that there are hundreds of reviews of the Nikon D810 out there already. I am certainly late to the game here, but I was on the fence for a long time as to whether or not it was worth it to upgrade to the Nikon D810 from my venerable D800. If you didn’t see my review of the Nikon D800 in my Spring 2012 Newsletter, I suggest that you give it a read as a primer for this review. Everything I said about the D800 applies to the D810 save for the focusing issues. I also compared the D800 to the Phase One IQ180 in the Winter 2013 Newsletter. Since there are so many excellent reviews of the D810 online, I am not going to go into every feature of the D810 or pixel-peep the image quality and noise characteristics of this incredible camera. In this review, I will present what I have found to be the key features of the D810 that make it worth the price of the upgrade.
One thing to note here is that if you just look at the specs and compare the D800 or D800E to the D810, the D810 doesn’t seem that different. It is only when you shoot with the camera that you will find out the array of new features add up to a significant improvement in terms of operating speed and also in terms of the number of sharp images this camera can dish out when mated with a top-end Nikkor lens.
Suffice it to say, the D810 is an incredible imaging machine. Thanks to B&H Photo & Video, over the last month I have been testing out the D810 and I have come to the realization that Nikon took the D800 and basically solved just about every issue we had with that camera in the D810. Just in case you were wondering, I have already put my order in for a D810 and will be selling my D800 here shortly.
Body and Build Quality
The D810’s ergonomics have been tweaked ever so slightly from the D800. Honestly if you didn’t have the two side by side you probably couldn’t tell the difference. With them side by side, you can tell that the grip on the D810 is a little different and more comfortable in my opinion. The grip fits my large hands better than the one on the D800. It is a bit narrower and deeper than the grip on the D800. As you can see below, the layout of the D810 is nearly identical to the D800 and D800E.
Other, more significant changes to the layout include a new info button, individual doors to the ports on the side of the camera (instead of one big pop-out door on the D800), a new Quiet Continuous mode, and a much sharper LCD on the back of the camera. The new LCD screen sports 1,299K pixels on a 3.2 inch diagonal compared to the 921,000 on the D800. This results in a noticeable difference in sharpness on the LCD. See my note below on the ability to check focus on the D810 LCD.
Similar to the D800 series cameras, the D810 has extensive weatherproofing via gaskets that hold back moisture, dirt and grime. This isn’t really any different than the D800. Both cameras have a solid heft to them and a professional build quality. In the past ten years, I have shot with the Nikon D300, D700, D800 and now the D810 – all of which have similar body styles and a pop up flash – and I have had these bodies unprotected in sideways rain for days on end. They never missed a beat. I am certain the D810 is just as tough as those other camera bodies. Also of note, the D810 is 20 grams lighter than the D800 series cameras.
Overall, the build quality and finish of the camera is very similar to previous models, which is to say that it feels comfortable, solid and fits my hands very well.
The image quality produced by the D810 is just as good if not slightly better than the D800E, and noticeably better than the D800. The caveat here is that all three have stellar image quality. The differences in image quality alone are not a reason to upgrade. Honestly, I could not really tell that much of a difference in the image quality from the D800E to the D810. Comparing the D800 to the D810, the D810 has a slight advantage, mostly because of the lack of a Low Pass Filter in the D810. Nikon, and all of us, found that there was very little moire seen by the D800E and followed suit by doing away with the Low Pass Filter (a.k.a. the Anti-Aliasing Filter) in the D810. I have yet to see a single image with moire issues in over 3,000 images shot with the D810.
Considering that I have made insanely stunning 60-inch long prints from the D800, I have no doubt that the D810 image quality is as good as it can get right now – save for the new 50 MP Canon that has yet to ship. It remains to be seen if that camera will dethrone the D810 on DxOMark.com, where the D810 has been at the top of the pyramid since it’s introduction. The fact that the D810 is at the top of the heap should tell all of the pixel peepers out there everything you need to know about the image quality of the D810. It is simply stunning.
Redesigned Mirror and Shutter Mechanisms
One of the major issues I have had with the D800 was a loss of sharpness due to the resounding mirror slap and shutter vibrations inside the camera. This issue forced me to use very high shutter speeds to overcome the vibration from both the mirror and the shutter. When I first starting using the D800, I figured it was because of the extreme resolution of the camera and it was just more sensitive to camera shake than my lower resolution cameras. When the D810 first came out, I tested this theory and found that the camera is certainly still susceptible to camera shake, but the mirror and shutter vibrations were a much larger part of the issue than I had first thought.
With the D800, I basically couldn’t handhold the camera at a shutter speed below 1/500th sec with any of my f/2.8 zooms (14-24, 24-70 and 70-200) and expect consistently sharp results. I could fire off a burst of frames and get the occasionally sharp frame at 1/250th sec or even 1/125th sec but not reliably sharp frames every time. With the D810, I have found that I can consistently get sharper images at 1/250th sec with those same lenses, and even had a solid percentage of images sharp at 1/125th sec. Effectively, this means I have one more stop of room to work with. It also means that I can easily handhold the D810 when syncing with Speedlights or strobes at 1/250th sec.
Click on the image above to see a full resolution version of this screenshot.
One of the other issues with the D800 was that at slower shutter speeds, when I had the camera on a tripod, the mirror slap and shutter vibrations would not allow for sharp images without locking up the mirror and playing some games. This was a huge hassle. The above image shows a comparison of a D800 image alongside a D810 image, both shot on a tripod. The D800 image was shot at 1/80th sec with a 70-200 and the D810 image was shot at 1/20th sec with a 24-70. It is easy to see here that the D800 image is quite soft and the D810 image, shot at one quarter the shutter speed of the D800 image, is tack sharp. This shows the huge improvement offered by the dampened and redesigned shutter and mirror mechanisms quite clearly. To see the full resolution version of this image click on the image or on this link. With the D810, Nikon has effectively solved the issues we had with the shutter vibrations and mirror slap in the D800 and D800E. Of course, if you lock up the mirror and use an external trigger these issues on the D800 could be overcome.
One of the biggest issues with the D800 series cameras is that many folks had serious trouble getting sharp images. The D800 series cameras are brutal when it comes to camera handling, paying attention to details and also using sharp, top-of-the-line lenses. Any lapse in attention to any of these details and the images would be rendered soft or downright muddled. This upgrade of the mirror and shutter mechanisms is in my view the biggest improvement in the D810 alongside the autofocus improvements. If this was all that was updated in the D810, it would be worth the price of the upgrade. The shutter and mirror dampening is so drastic that I notice it every time I shoot with the D810. It has a completely different sound and feel when you press the shutter release. In comparison, my D800 feels like a thundering heard of buffalo when I mash down on the shutter release. Trust, me, I didn’t want to shell out another $3,000 dollars for this camera but after shooting with it for a month, going back to my D800 was going to be a bit rough.
The D800 and D800E were cutting edge. We all knew that going in. The D810 feels like they got it right after experimenting with the D800 and D800E. I have no beef with Nikon on this. I produced some stunning images with the D800. I just feel with these improvements, I will be able to produce even better images with the D810.
Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter
In addition to the new shutter and mirror mechanisms, Nikon went a step farther and included an Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter option in the Custom Settings Menu (CSM > d5 Electronic front-curtain shutter > Enable). This option is only accessible in the Mirror Locked-Up mode (Mup) or in Live View. When the Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter is enabled and you are in Mup mode, the first press of the shutter button lifts up the mirror and opens the shutter so that the camera is ready to start the exposure. The second push of the shutter release fires the camera. After the image is recorded the shutter closes and the mirror drops back down. If you aren’t using a remote trigger with the camera then this method still introduces some amount to vibration because you have to touch the camera.
To overcome this, Nikon has also included an Exposure delay mode (CSM > a4 – Exposure delay mode > 3s), which will delay the exposure for one to three seconds depending your settings. With these two features engaged, you push the shutter button to raise the mirror and the shutter, then push it again and the camera waits 3 seconds to take the photo. This coupling of features allows us to completely eliminate any camera shake or vibrations when shooting long exposure images. Normally, one would use a remote trigger so that you don’t touch the camera and introduce any vibrations but this is a great alternative if you don’t have a remote trigger. It also solves the issues shown above when using slower shutter speeds with the camera on a tripod.
Improved Autofocus Speed and Accuracy
One of the other issues that befuddled users of the D800 and D800E was autofocus accuracy. I had one of the first D800 cameras in the USA way back in March 2012. When I got it, none of the focusing points save for the center point could actually achieve accurate focus on a stationary or moving subject. Such are the issues faced by early adopters of new technology. Luckily within a few months, Nikon had a fix for the issue and I sent mine back in for repairs. When I got it back it was noticeably better but it was never what I would have called crazy accurate. Part of this issue was that at slower shutter speeds there were multiple issues going on, as mentioned above. Aside from focusing issues, there were also mirror and shutter vibration issues and a greater sensitivity to camera shake because of the 36 MP sensor. Add all of those issues together and it was hard to tell if you had an AF issue or some other issue in addition to the AF issues. Once I calibrated the AF using the AF Fine Tuning feature in the Setup Menu, most of my AF issues were taken care of with the D800.
From what I can tell so far, Nikon has addressed a lot of those AF issues with the D810. With the D810, I am getting a far greater number of keepers than I ever did with the D800. I believe this is not only an improvement in the AF, as stated in the marketing materials, but also because of the dampened mirror and shutter mechanisms. The marketing literature says that the AF is 30% faster than in the D800 and D800E. I can’t quantify how much faster it felt but it was noticeably faster. More important, the AF is noticeably more accurate as well and that is more important than the speed. The marketing materials also note that the D810 has the same AF capabilities as the D4s, which is good news for us sports photographers.
The D810 also includes the new Group AF option, which groups five focus point together to aid autofocus. In this mode the five points are equally weighted meaning the center point is considered just as much as the surrounding four focus points. This new AF mode is great for action photography and it seems to lock onto the subject quite a bit faster than previous AF options. It also seems to give a higher percentage of in focus images as long as you keep the 5 points on your subject as in the image above, where I used the Group AF mode to track the mountain biker as he came up to the jump and launched off it. I precomposed the image by placing the five Group AF points on the left side of the frame.
The Group AF mode differs slightly from the 9-point Dynamic AF mode so it is important to understand how they operate and the differences. In the 9-Point Dynamic AF mode, the chosen focus point has priority and the surrounding eight points help achieve focus but are not called upon unless the chosen focus point cannot achieve focus. In the Group AF mode, all five point work together to achieve focus. Dynamic AF is still a good choice if you need to track your subject and the focus point may not stay on them, which is what the “dynamic” part of that naming convention is referring to. Dynamic AF is also a good option if you want to focus on a smaller subject and need more accurate focus on the subject itself.
Also of note, the D810 has the option to engage Face focus in the Live View mode. To engage face focus in Live View, push the AF button under the lens and rotate the front command dial until you see the face appear in the upper part of the LCD. This mode will automatically find any faces in the frame and lock focus on them. When not in Live View mode, using the Group-area AF in AF-S mode the camera will prioritize faces if the five points cover a face. If the five points are not on the face then they will focus on whatever they cover. But if there is a face behind some foreground clutter, like say a tree branch for example, the Group AF will focus on the face instead of the foreground. In both Face focus modes, the camera will attempt to focus on the eye that is closest to the camera.
Faster Framing Rates and Larger Buffer
The D810 ups the ante in terms of framing rates as well. Out of the box, the D810 will shoot at 5 fps in full raw mode or at 6 fps in the DX and the 1.2x crop modes. If you attach the MB-D12 battery grip and use the the EN-EL18 battery then you can get up to 7 fps in the DX crop mode. In the DX crop mode the resulting images are 15.3 MP, which is still quite respectable. The 7 fps framing rate makes the Nikon D810 a legit sports camera in my book. It may not be the machine gun that is the Nikon D4s at 11 fps, but it is almost the same as the 8 fps of the older Nikon D700. When using a telephoto lens, as when shooting surfing or a wide variety of sports, this combo works pretty well and extends your reach.
Not to be forgotten, the D810 also has a massively improved buffer with the new EXPEED 4 chip. For 14-bit Lossless Compressed NEF files you can shoot 28 images before the buffer locks up, which is almost double that of the D800 at 17 images before the buffer locked up. If you are shooting in DX crop mode then you can shoot 97 images with the D810 before the buffer locks up compared to only 29 with the D800. That is a huge difference! That means the D810 is not far off from the buffer in the Nikon D4s. The faster framing rate and the new extended buffer make this a much more versatile camera than the D800 ever was. For more on the buffer size check out the chart on PhotographyLife.com’s website here.
An LCD that shows 100% Pixel-for-Pixel Images
Ok, this new feature is huge for me. The LCD on the back of the D810 has a setting where you can zoom to 100% and see a pixel-for-pixel display of the image. This is the first camera I have seen where you can actually tell on the back of the camera if the image is tack sharp or not. This feature alone is worth the price of the upgrade. The D800 had dubious zoom settings and I could never tell if the image was actually sharp or not.
I have never seen any camera where this was possible. I am not sure why it took so long for this to come along but now that we have it there is no going back. To set up this feature in the Playback mode go to the Menu > Custom Settings Menu > f2 – Multi selector center button > Playback mode > Zoom on/off > 1:1 (100%). Once you have this set, when you are playing back images on the LCD simply push the center of the multi selector button and your image will instantly zoom to 100% wherever the focus point was placed.
The new battery in the D810 now allows for up to 1200 images per charge, which is a 33% increase in battery life over the Nikon D800 that got only 900 images per charge. That is a pretty substantial increase in battery life and is very welcome for the long expeditions I find myself on where taking extra batteries to get me through a few weeks of shooting is the norm.
Better Video Quality and 1080p Capture at 60 fps
From what I have seen Nikon has made quite a few improvements to the video capture modes in the D810. Not only does the D810 now allow for capturing slow motion at 60 fps in full 1080p, but we also have zebra stripes added to the Live View video mode showing us areas that might be blown out in the highlights. There is also a new “Flat” Picture control that lowers the contrast recorded allowing for greater dynamic range during video capture. Lastly, you can now record to a memory card and to an external video recorder simultaneously. Overall, the video seems sharper than that produced by my D800. While these aren’t huge changes in the video features they are an upgrade.
All of the above features, when added up result in a significantly better camera than the D800 and D800E. For someone like myself, who specializes in adventure sports, my main camera is the Nikon D4. But now, with the new features of the D810, I can also use the D810 for action photography as well as lifestyle and portraits because it is much more versatile than my D800. These new features make the D810 a worthwhile upgrade for my work. Whether or not these features make the D810 a worthwhile upgrade for you is a matter of what you shoot and of course, whether you want to buy or trade out your existing camera.
With the Nikon D800, I use to say that it was a future proof camera. I think that same statement is even more true of the Nikon D810. There are rumors of 50+ MP cameras from Sony flying around these days and I am sure at some point Nikon will match or exceed the 50 MP Canon 5DS. But the question all of us need to consider is if we really even need a camera with that much resolution. I don’t plan on printing images much larger than 60-inches on the long side and even those are giant prints. The D810 (and the D800 series cameras) produce phenomenal prints at that size. It will be very interesting to see the reaction and real world images from the Canon 5DS and 5DSr. Basically, unless the camera manufacturers improve the noise characteristics at high ISOs there will be very little reason to upgrade from the D810 for many consumers. Of course, when the D800 and D800E were announced, my first reaction was, “Why would I ever need that many megapixels?” As it turned out, when you see images with the quality of the D800 and D810, all reason flies out the window and you wonder how you ever got along without that resolution.
In short, as I said at the outset of this review, the D810 is a significant upgrade to the D800 and D800E. There were several new features that solved existing issues with my D800 and the bump in video options, autofocus performance and the new shutter and mirror mechanisms were enough to get me to upgrade. The Nikon D810 is highly recommended if you need this kind of resolution and have the lenses to support it.
What could be improved or added?
The D810 is a great upgrade to the D800 and D800E, but I thought I would shoot for the moon here and dream a bit about what a D820 (or whatever the next iteration of this camera will be named) might look like. What follows are a few features that could make the next iteration of these cameras appeal to all of us:
4K Video: I am pretty sure we’ll see 4K video recording in the next round of top-end Nikon DSLRs. If we don’t there are going to be a lot of disappointed people out there. Adding 4K video to the D810 or the D4s would make for a very compelling feature set for all who want top-end video without having to own a separate video camera.
Even faster framing rates at 36 MP: I would love to get a camera that can shoot at 8 fps with the same 36 MP sensor in the D810. If the 50 MP Canon 5Ds can shoot at 5 fps at full resolution, I bet the technology is already available to allow the next version of the D810 to shoot at 8 fps using a 36 MP sensor.
Focus Peaking: With the D810, Nikon added Zebra Stripes to the video features. It would be great to go that extra mile and get Focus Peaking in the Live View mode as well.
A moveable LCD screen: I realize by allowing the LCD screen to pop out away from the camera body there are some durability issues that come into play but having used these type screens on other Nikon cameras it would be great to see this added to the D810 and would be a huge boon for videographers.
Built-in WiFi: It is about time all DSLRs had built-in WiFi. I wouldn’t use this feature that often but it could come in handy for lots of situations like wirelessly tethering to a laptop.
Built in Stabilization on the sensor: Not all Nikkor lenses have Vibration Reduction (VR) technology. It would be nice to see Nikon add in-camera image stabilization to their cameras as that will help overcome the camera shake issues even further, especially if they choose to increase the resolution of this camera.
A smaller form-factor mirrorless version of the D810: I’d really love to see Nikon come out with a full-frame mirrorless version of the D810 along with smaller f/4 lenses to go along with it. It seems pretty obvious to me that mirrorless cameras are the future of photography and I am sure Nikon and Canon are working on these style cameras right now. For some of my expedition work where I am lugging everything on my back, a smaller, lighter camera is what I have been dreaming about since the dawn of digital photography.
Better late than never Michael :-). Love my 810’s. Best of the breed so far.
Thanks for the well written review. Mine have been working under less than ideal conditions this month in both Peru and France. Neither body has missed a beat !
Thanks Michael. That’s a great review and very helpful. I’m definitely going to upgrade to the D810 now. You’re advice is well taken. Can’t wait to get it going. Dan
Thanks for that Michael. I only bought my D800 a few months ago, having stuck with my trusty D700 for a long time. I was blown away by the image quality but at the same time disappointed by the number of ‘missed’ shots I had. I mostly shoot weddings, portraits and landscapes and it seemed great for the latter but again I found it much more hit n miss. So I’ve literally this week sold my D800 and am in the process of hunting for the best offer on a D810. Your review has helped confirm I’ve made the right decision.
Very interesting review! Thanks!