This article will not be a review in the conventional sense. I’ve covered the original D800 here, a mid-term report here, and a long term report of the D800E here; after more than 70,000 frames with one D800 and two D800Es, I think I can say I know these cameras pretty well. Instead, this report will focus on the important differences, and the reasons why I eventually caved and upgraded one of the cameras – and not just because I had that conversation with Lloyd Chambers. Whether these differences are significant enough is something that you will have to answer on your own, based on your own requirements.
Note: though I’ve completed enough bench testing to evaluate the camera’s image quality, between poor atmospheric conditions, testing of other prototypes (of course unpublishable) and family commitments around the festive season I have not had an opportunity to produce any images I’d consider worthy of publication. I aim to remedy this in the next couple of weeks, however; check my flickr stream for updates. So, I must apologize in advance for a review that’s somewhat lacking in the usual eye candy.
The D810, announced a couple of weeks ago, is an evolutionary upgrade of the D800 line. The body is similar enough that all of the accessories such as the MB-D12 grip still fit. The pixel count remains the same at 36 million or thereabouts. Most of the buttons are even in the same place. In fact, on the surface, this upgrade isn’t much of an upgrade at all; considering the D800E was the image quality flagship in 35mm DSLRs since the day of release, Nikon didn’t have to do much. Unfortunately, this lack of innovation seems to be endemic amongst large camera brands these days; it makes it difficult to justify upgrades (and will hurt their bottom lines) simply because for most users, there will be no difference.
- I’m going to start with the things I didn’t like about the original D800E:
- Focusing issues: even after they sorted out the left hand bank asymmetry, AF never really felt that positive or solid on locking.
- The viewfinder was a disaster for manual focus; with a mirror that was not properly zeroed, with a focusing screen not snappy enough for fast lenses, and frankly, not enough magnification even compared to my F6 and especially F2.
- Occasional lockups; this was fixed with a later firmware.
- Slightly blocky live view. I didn’t personally take exception to this, but I know a lot of others did – perhaps strange considering the amount of tripod-based precision work I do. I always racked focus back and forth and looked at the transition/ difference in focal plane rather than absolute sharpness.
- Mirror/ shutter vibration. Compared to some of Nikon’s earlier cameras like the F6, I felt the D800 had a rather poorly damped mechanism. This was made even more obvious by the camera’s resolution. 1/2x, or even 1/3x focal length is really required for consistent results.
- The bottom portion of the grip isn’t deep enough, resulting in cramped fingers and hands with larger/ heavier lenses.
Actually, all in all, that’s a pretty short list. Notice that image quality and reliability aren’t on it – which has made the D800/D800E pretty much the gold standard workhorse for pros everywhere. It completely rendered the low end medium format question irrelevant for me, at least; anything less than the Pentax 645Z doesn’t really push the envelope far enough to justify the price tag – and even then, you really have to be using it under very specific conditions on subjects that do actually have enough detail with impeccable shot discipline to consistently see the difference.
So, what’s new and more importantly, of notable significance, on the D810?
It’s supposedly now a new design and AA free rather than having the AA cancelled out; I honestly don’t see much of a difference in resolution. The D800E was already one of the highest acuity cameras (assuming the right lenses, of course) I’ve ever used. The sensor’s native ISO range now goes from 64 to 12800; extended range 32 to 51.2k (up a stop and down 2/3rds of one, respectively). The lower settings may be good for long exposures, but as with all pull settings – there will be a loss of dynamic range at the top end, as information gets truncated. However, for the most part, I’d want as high shutter speeds as possible especially when shooting handheld. I personally don’t consider this to be a significant improvement. If we really gain another usable stop at the other end, that would be a very useful thing in practice.
D800E vs D810, lowest ISO to ISO 200. Click here for 100% – screen capture of 100% crops in PS CC.
D800E vs D810, ISO 400 to ISO 3200. Click here for 100% – screen capture of 100% crops in PS CC.
D800E vs D810, ISO 6400 to ISO 25.6k. Click here for 100% – screen capture of 100% crops in PS CC.
As you can see from the comparison above, we don’t. In fact, the D810 looks a bit noisier to me, especially at ISO 3200 and up. What I see is the D800E loses dynamic range and the blacks block up; the D810 loses color and doesn’t block up (i.e. appears to maintain greater dynamic range), but adds noise in the shadows. There’s a magenta shift at 12.8k and above, though frankly I think 25.6k or higher on either camera is pretty useless, and even 12.8k is strictly for emergencies. I wonder how much of this is due to different hardware in the camera, and how much is due to ACR – remember that support for the D800E is mature, but the D810 is still preliminary release candidate only – which means no color profiling, for starters. Frankly, the 645Z does better than either of these cameras at the pixel level, let alone at equal output sizes.
DXO seems to think the new sensor is slightly better in color and dynamic range than the old one, but a little noisier. The D810 appears to have slightly more dynamic range (and as a consequence, slightly lower contrast) than the D800E, and also slightly less bite. I suspect much of the differences are going to be lost once final sharpening, tonal and color adjustments are made – that is to say, if you’re going to process for the same final result, I think you’re going to be hard pressed to tell either camera apart.
Finally, there’s also 9MP, 12-bit compressed SRAW size – though why on earth you’d buy a 36MP camera to shoot small files doesn’t make sense to me. Visually, the results are still better if you shoot at full resolution then perform the downsizing in post. Note that your buffer actually gets smaller!
Update, 30 July: I’ve discovered that the D810 requires more aggressive ACR sharpening settings to counter de-Bayering as compared to the D800E – I was happy with defaults on the older camera, but the same settings just look soft for the D810. I wonder if this is a consequence of the ‘new’ sensor – I find the same thing with the 645Z, too. That said, when all cameras are optimally sharpened, the D810/645Z still pull ahead of the D800E slightly.
Sharper live view
It is unclear if this improvement is a consequence of the new sensor of new image processing engine, but live view is significantly clearer; especially when magnified to 100%. There’s no question that it’s now much easier to see when things are in focus; the D800E appears to be jagged interpolated mush by comparison. I personally didn’t have an issue with the old camera, but I’ll certainly take the difference for tripod work.
Higher frame rates
We now get 5fps at full resolution (up from 4) and 6fps in DX mode without the battery grip (7fps with), up from 6. A bit extra – perhaps closing in on being more useful for action photography, though the photographers’ timing is always going to be more of a deciding factor than frame rates. Remember that with 1fps, your shutter is open for say 1/1000s. With 10fps, it’s 10/1000s. That’s still the vast majority of the time when you’re not getting the shot.
I’m now seeing ‘r18’ instead of ‘r15’ with the same settings, and slightly faster write speeds. In practice, with the increased frame rates, there’s a little increase in the burst duration. Still useful.
New mirror and shutter mechanism, EFC
This is perhaps the most significant change of all. Firstly, the mirror mechanism is significantly quieter and feels a lot more damped; I no longer feel mass moving around inside the camera when the mirror/shutter cycles. It is more like the D7100’s mechanism than the D4’s – soft and low pitched rather than sharp and snappy. It doesn’t respond any slower, though. Even with the mirror up, you can feel the recoil of the shutter itself is significantly lower; and completely zero if you use the electronic front curtain mode. This introduces a little delay as the mechanical shutter has to first get out of the way before beginning the exposure; so far as I can tell, EFC works in mirror lockup and timer modes, and any of the live view modes in combination with these. It does not seem to work in the normal S/CL/CH modes. Shutter speeds are limited, and you may well see rolling shutter effects with fast moving subjects. As usual, it’s a shame that Nikon did not implement auto mirror up with timer (something the 645Z has). There’s also a new QC (quiet continuous) setting on the dial. It seems to run at about 3fps and just slow down the whole mirror cycling speed, but not wait to release the mirror until you let go of the shutter button (like the regular Q mode). Further testing will be required to determine if this actually makes a difference to camera shake. But it certainly is stealthy.
You may be wondering why I’m making such a big deal over the mirror and shutter mechanism; it’s because the higher the resolution of the camera, the greater the impact of camera shake on image quality. It doesn’t matter whether this is induced by the photographer (insufficient camera mass), something in the optical system (bad VR) or the mirror/ shutter mechanism. In order to make the most of the imaging potential of the system, we have to eliminate as many of these problems as possible. Even if you’re on a heavy tripod, shutter vibration can still sometimes cause issues. Other cameras have been crippled by this problem in the past – the E-M1’s resonant vibration between 1/160 and 1/320s is a good example of this; it effectively cuts in half (or worse) the resolution of the camera in this shutter speed range because we get a double image.
The D800E required very high shutter speeds to handhold consistently; even lenses with good VR such as the 70-200/4 I found could be used down to perhaps 1/focal length at best; everything else was 1/2x (borderline) or 1/3x + (consistently sharp). This obviously limits the shooting envelope of the camera significantly. In fact, I can use the same speed limits on the 645Z and still obtain pixel-perfect results – despite that camera having an increase of 20% in pixels per degree field of view.
So far, early testing seems to suggest that the D810 is a significant step forwards in this regard; it’s difficult to test conclusively, but without changing anything in the way I shoot, I’m finding myself with an extra half stop to full stop of shutter speed before I see camera shake creeping in. Extended high ISO capabilities aside, this represents a very usable increase in shooting envelope.
The D810 inherits the new group dynamic tracking modes from the D4s, along with other supposed improvements to the whole AF algorithm. All I can say is that in practice, it feels a lot more ‘positive’ and noticeably quicker than my D800Es, and even my D4. I find a lot fewer false positive locks, and there’s less shift in position if you refocus without moving the camera. I found that tapping the shutter button a few times in AF-S mode, for instance, used to result in two or three different distances with the previous cameras. Even worse, the lenses would lock at different distances depending on whether focus was being racked from infinity or the near limit. This doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. Continuous tracking (I only tried it briefly) appears to be significantly improved, and no, we don’t have asymmetry or the left-AF issue anymore. It appears the machines have now been calibrated properly.
A new metering mode
Previously, we had matrix (far too focal-point weighted in every camera after the D3/D700), centerweight with adjustable circle size, and spot. Now, matrix has the option of being face-weighted, and there’s a new highlight priority spot; effectively, what it does is add some positive exposure compensation to the spot meter reading as it assumes you’ve put the spot over a highlight area, something in zone 8 as far as I can tell. (Normally, the spot meter will expose to middle grey.) This is actually very useful and matches my preferred method of shooting: spot meter and focus on subject, lock exposure, and recompose as required. Having said that, it’s also possible to achieve the same effect with any other Nikon by using the custom function option to permanently bias the spot meter by a stop and a half.
Ergonomic changes: buttons, dials, grip
What you need to know is that the camera feels quite different in hand; more like the D4 and less like the D800E. In my book, they’ve finally got the grip shape about perfect – both with the vertical grip added and without. The bottom portion is now quite a bit deeper, which means your fourth and fifth fingers don’t feel cramped, nor do they butt up against the camera body. It’s especially noticeable with longer/ heavier lenses. It’s also gained an ‘I’ button on the back under the four way controller to instantly change some settings from the back LCD status display; similar to the lower end cameras. I don’t see myself using this much.
That’s the good news. The not so good news is that there’s still no user memory modes, and they’ve moved the sensible position of the metering switch (around the AE-AFL button and under your thumb) to the cluster of four on the left shoulder; whilst this makes sense now there’s a fourth metering mode to choose from, I really liked the position of that switch – it was so easy to switch between matrix and spot without having to think about it. Bracket has now moved to above the flash mode button – and making it quite difficult to find and press especially if you plan on using either of the ports on the front of the camera. Port selection on the left remains the same, but they’re now under individual doors and a bit more intelligently grouped – mic and headphone monitoring share a cover, for instance.
The D810 now adds 1080p50/60 modes, stereo microphone ports, plus uncompressed HDMI out. I find it interesting that Nikon is now pushing the camera heavily for video work; it seems like far too much of a knee-jerk reaction to Canon. Too little, too late – they’re not going to get the amateur/ semi-pro video market back at this stage in the game.
The back LCD might have the same VGA resolution, but we have a bonus luminance pixel now for a total of about 1.2 million, plus the ability to fine tune color. Not a significant difference, but the new monitor does seem to have a higher maximum brightness and appears to be more usable in daylight outdoors.
The display at the bottom of the finder is now bluish-white instead of green. Illumination looks a bit more even, but that’s about it. Curiously, it shows highlight-biased spot as center weighted. There is no way to tell the difference between the two modes without looking at the top panel LCD.
Longer battery life
Nikon claims a ~20% improvement in battery life. Given the previous camera was pretty parsimonious with power to begin with, it’s a nice to have but hardly a decision-maker. I could easily see up to 2,000 shots per charge from the D800E, and even 400+ in the studio with live view running continuously. I think I’ve only ever needed more than one battery on a handful of occasions during particularly long studio shoots. Though the new camera does appear to be more power efficient, I’d still highly recommend carrying a spare.
Comments on overall QC and build
There was some concern early on over build quality and tolerances now that Nikon has moved production to Thailand. I’d expect price to come down a bit because of this, but they’ll probably tell us it stopped it from increasing, instead. That said, I think those concerns are entirely unfounded. I have not seen or felt anything to suggest that the D810 is any less solid or well built than the D800E; if anything, looking at AF calibration and my personal experience with consumer bodies, it’s the opposite.
I’ve had plenty of niggling QC-related issues with pro bodies built in Japan, but none whatsoever with consumer/prosumer bodies – starting from the D70, including the D50, D80, D90, D200, D3100 and D5100. If anything, those cameras appear to have fewer issues. Whether this is due to lower complexity or simply higher tolerances, I cannot say. But it seems to me that – so far – Nikon appears to have upped their game a little with the D810. Everything seems just a little tighter; even my lenses required far less fine tuning than on any other Nikon body so far. Too bad they didn’t bother to precisely align the mirror – I’ve pretty much given up hope on that.
Personally, I’ve swapped one of my D800Es for the D810; partially after [the discussion with Lloyd Chambers] – I had initially intended to skip this one – but mainly after handling it in person, the mirror and grip really did make enough of a difference to me, especially considering a lot of my corporate documentary and personal work is handheld. However, I didn’t swap both cameras at the same time because I’ll never take two unproven bodies on a job – call it paranoia or prudence, but I like to be fully confident with my equipment before unleashing it on a client*. At some point I may well upgrade the other one; the handling differences between the two are significant enough that they may cause some fumbles and cost some images under the kinds of conditions which I’d be shooting with two bodies at the same time.
*The same applies to pistols.
There are two other observations which I haven’t been able to fit in anywhere else – firstly, sometimes the D810 can exhibit a bit of a delay from power on to menu access; on further investigation it appears that one of my D800Es does it, but the other does not. I have no idea why as all three cameras have near as identical settings and are all equipped with the same cards (Sandisk 95MB/s Extreme Pro SDs, and Lexar 1066x CFs.) Secondly, adoption of the D810 means I’ve had to switch over to Photoshop CC for good; migration of presets and ACR calibrations from 5.5 is something I’ve been avoiding for some time now. I suppose that’s more inertia on my part than anything else.
The million dollar question for the rest of the audience – or $3,300 in this case – is whether the D810 is worth the money. I see three scenarios here. Firstly, if you’re coming from any other Nikon (or DSLR for that matter) than the D800/D800E, the answer is a very simple yes providing you need and can deploy the resolution. This means right lenses, right shot discipline, and right workflow. If you’re just posting on the web…probably not. I think the D810 can actually replace the D4/D4s for most things; you lose out a bit on frame rate, but image quality is higher (resolution, acuity, noise and dynamic range) if you downsize a D810 file to the same output size. AF performance is not a reason, either; the D810 is as far as I can tell pretty much identical to the D4s in this regard. If you have a D800, the differences in image quality are enough that I’d say the upgrade is worthwhile; it’s as though a veil has been lifted off the images.
For those of you who have a D800E…this is the most difficult question to answer. I think it depends on a few things: if you do a lot of live view work, then yes. If you shoot a lot of action and tracking of moving objects, then yes again; if you shoot handheld under marginal conditions, then yes; if you do any combination of these, then most certainly yes. However, if you are considering the upgrade solely on the grounds of image quality, then my answer would be no: under ideal conditions, there’s almost nothing to choose between the two. Whatever the case though, I’d make my decision now rather than later – if you wait, the residual value of the D800E will only get lower.
Is the D810 a better camera? Unquestionably. Is it a huge leap over its predecessor? In a few ways, yes; in most ways, it’s an incremental but solid upgrade. Is it the best camera Nikon makes right now? Yes, until they put this mirror/shutter/sensor into a D4s body for the ergonomics. Is it the best 35mm FF DSLR right now? Quite possibly. All hail the new king… MT
Update: As at 20 August, Nikon has issued a service advisory that requires cameras suffering from the ‘white dot’ problem – random hot pixels with long exposures and crop modes – to be sent in for sensor recalibration and new firmware. I can only assume this may well improve the high ISO performance too; I plan to send mine in when I get a chance and will update here accordingly.
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