It’s very easy to write a polarized review – positive or negative – about a new piece of equipment; it’s much harder to commit to really using and learning it inside out for months until you are intimately familiar with its peccadilloes and able to extract every last drop of performance from it. It’s obviously not practical to do this for everything; it’s clear that some bits of hardware just don’t quite make it as long term tools after a few days of use. But the ones that stick are probably the ones that are really interesting.
The Nikon D810 has been with us since the end of June 2014, and available from not long after that. I’ve had my own camera since the end of July – making it the better part of a year. Initially, my thoughts were that nothing much changed between the D800E and D810 – and an upgrade was not justified at all if you already had two of the former. Several conversations later with other pros and shooters I trust including Lloyd Chambers convinced me this was not the case: there were a lot of little changes, and they added up to something a bit more material. I took the plunge after holding one in hand and finding it ergonomically much more comfortable than the D800E, which caused cramps in my fourth and fifth fingers after extended use. Fortunately, most of the time it lived on a tripod, so this was not such a big deal in practice.
I initially envisioned it as a second body to be shot in parallel with the remaining D800E (I traded one in) when the situation required two bodies – either for documentary work or in parallel for on-assignment B-roll. The reality was not only somewhat different, but rather unexpected for me. I’m not superstitious, but I’ve always felt my first D800E has some special mojo – left focus and first batch warts and all. Probably because it’s shot the vast majority of my commercial jobs in the last few years, and because I know it inside out and could navigate the menus without looking at either LCD. At some point in the last six months, it’s been replaced by the D810. Somehow, that transition happened without me really noticing; reviewing files shows me picking up one and then the other interchangeably.
I put it down to the D810 really being what the D800/E should have been: AF that’s solid and back to having the tracking abilities of the D3/700 generation; ergonomics that are more comfortable in hand, and just a little bit more responsiveness in live view and for sequential shooting. The shutter and mirror assembly are quieter, faster and better damped – meaning a bit more handholdable shutter speed. The electronic front curtain is a big bonus for tripod work, and there is now no excuse for camera shake or shutter vibration – at all.
I thought I was getting everything out of that 36MP sensor with the D800E, but the D810’s files just have an extra little bit of crispness especially when tripod based – I put that down to some minor shutter/mirror vibration that’s now gone. There’s one final little difference that’s largely gone undocumented by I now hugely appreciate: the ability to use bulb and timer mode without a separate remote. You trigger the shutter (EFC, M-UP with 3 sec delay) with one press, then a light tap closes it – no shake because you’re at the end of a long exposure on (hopefully) a sturdy tripod anyway. That alone has made very long exposures more readily accessible. And the extended battery life – in practice, up to 50% – helps greatly too.
But by far the biggest difference is on the output and image quality side. There were claims of a new sensor, then a derivative sensor, and in the end I think nobody quite knows which precise bit of hardware is in it – but it doesn’t matter, because something fairly major in the image processing pipeline changed. In effect, the D800E was a conventional CMOS camera of the old generation; the D810 responds in a far more natural manner. And they cannot be shot in the same way for optimal results. Unfortunately, this is very confusing in practice, because you might land up with optimal exposures that differ between the two cameras by as much as two stops under certain situations.
Allow me to explain: the D800E has a very linear tonal response, with low shadow noise, and highlights that clip fairly abruptly. This means you want to expose to the right just to the precise point of clipping; your dynamic range maximization comes from bringing up the shadows – since there is minimal penalty in color accuracy or noise. The D810 is the opposite: it is nonlinear and all of the extended dynamic range appears to rest in the highlights. What appears to be clipped even on the flattest picture control setting (the histogram is read off the preview jpeg embedded in the raw file) often still has a stop or more of highlight recoverability in ACR 8x, process 2012*. So you effectively need to have quite a bit of the frame blinking to make the most of the D810’s extraordinary highlight latitude. However, it’s still subject to the laws of physics, so this headroom has come at the expense of the deep shadows – whilst you can still recover a surprising amount of information, this comes at the expense of mainly color fidelity and separation. Recovered shadows somehow just look muddy – I suspect something in the ADC conversion has forced a ‘toe’ curve upstream of writing the raw file. If you expose properly it’s a non-issue in practice.
*This is covered extensively in Photoshop Workflow 2
Personally, I find I really prefer the highlight rendition of the D810 to any other camera – at present – simply because it looks natural. Our eyes work that way: blacks do clip to black and lose saturation; whites have to get very, very bright before we are unable to make out any details. It shows in print, too: there’s something very transparent about D810 files that I find it nearly impossible to achieve with the D800E, and moderate to difficult with even the 645Z. That said, all three cameras still have enormous dynamic range – easily more than 13 stops, and perhaps as much as 15 allowing for some software recovery magic.
Tonal rendition aside, the D810 has the most accurate native color I’ve seen from a DSLR so far; my calibration profile with an Xrite Passport requires the smallest shifts of any camera I’ve calibrated (and I make a profile for everything I shoot, even my iPhone). It also has extremely high pixel integrity with the right lenses; acuity is excellent but punishing of optics that aren’t well corrected or lack resolving power. I find myself using it with the PCEs (24, 45, 85) or apochromatics such as the Zeiss 55 or 85 Otuses, 2/135 APO Planar and Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar. Some of the Nikon zooms aren’t too bad, but they lack the optical correction and can’t deliver the same performance. That said, VR helps immensely with shooting envelope – so there are actually situations in which I’d prefer to use the zoom simply because I know I won’t be able to achieve better results from lack of stability or shutter speed. Here, I liked the 24-120/4 VR, 70-200/4 VR and 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR G. Regardless, it’s pretty punishing of poor shot discipline.
Although the D810 is perhaps the most accessible high resolution machine yet – Canon’s untested 5DSR and the smaller-shooting envelope Pentax 645Z aside – it really shines when used with the care and deliberation befitting a larger format, even if you can run and gun and get away with it some of the time. It seems the benefit of proper support and shot discipline are far more noticeable with this camera than say a D750; I’d still shoot the latter handheld almost all of the time, but the D810 conversely lives a good portion of its life with L-bracket mounted on a tripod. It’s nice to have the option of flexibility, though: the reason I’ve sold all of the other system cameras is because there is really no need for a D4 if you have a D810: just downsample the files in half if you have to work under marginal conditions, and you’ll actually land up with comparable pixel quality. The D750 is a bit of an exception because it’s slightly cleaner at the pixel level even at comparable output sizes, and the presence of an AA filter is actually a good thing for video.
This brings us to a somewhat surprising conclusion. I’ve always thought of my Nikon system as the Swiss Army Knife of photography; whilst I might have specific scalpels for certain things, if I need something done with minimal risk, I go back to the Nikons. The D810 has actually changed the way I shoot; I find it encourages me to work in a far more deliberate, considered way – very much the role medium format previously played. But at the same time, it’s at home shooting documentary work and even film snippets with the Zacuto and Otuses; if anything, its repertoire is even wider than its predecessor. Nothing is perfect, though, and I leave with a list of things I’d like to see in the next generation:
- Live view still needs to be improved. There should be an option to switch the camera on and have it go straight to live view; shot to shot times and blackout duration has to be much, much faster. We need another way to return to center if the multi selector has been assigned to magnify (or give us another button to assign to magnify).
- A histogram that represents the actual raw exposure is needed. When you’ve got 1-2 more stops in the highlights than what the histogram is telling you, you’re leaving a lot of image quality on the table since you’ve got to do some recovery afterwards.
- A tilting screen, please – both for varied-height shooting and video work.
- Add U1 and U2 settings to the virtual mode dial – everything that can be changed in software (e.g. exposure delay, LV on, EFC, auto-ISO on/off) should be allowed for these modes. Why can I switch quickly between a tripod setup (base ISO, exposure delay, manual) and a documentary one (aperture priority, auto ISO) by turning the dial one position on a D750, but you can’t on any of the pro cameras? I’ve got to dig into menus and change things manually. It’s actually annoying enough that I thought about buying a second D810 and leaving one set up to run and gun, and one for tripod.
- The built in flash rattles and feels a little loose –this is a build quality issue.
Occluded observation (a few limited edition Ultraprints remain)
What does bother me is the relatively minor nature of most of these improvements and the changes between D800/E and D810 – surely a lot of these things would have been ironed out with a little real-world testing time. Either they’re not hiring photographers, the photographers aren’t doing their jobs, management isn’t listening, or they just want to have an intermediate generation because we’ll be frustrated enough and invested enough to buy it. At least third parties have stepped up to the plate to solve the lens challenge – the Otuses are obviously the stars, but there are some capable zooms, and if you want AF, Sigma’s Art series has you covered. Aside from those actually relatively minor things, it’s probably the best all-round camera you can buy right now. And as mine rolls over the 25,000 mark, I’m still not really tempted by anything else out there. I do admit to some curiosity about the 5DSR, but it depends on whether the camera can match the D810 on dynamic range. No doubt Nikon has some competition up its sleeve. I suppose the real acknowledgement is that the D810 has now become the first thing I reach for. MT
The selection of images in this article is somewhat random – but represents some of my favourite D810 images shot in the last 9 months.
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