Photographers everywhere loved the Nikon D800 and D800E, and now comes the Nikon D810 as the firm's latest high-resolution workhorse camera. Is it a worthy successor? Callum McInerney-Riley finds out in our Nikon D810 review
Nikon D810 review – Introduction
In the spring of 2012, Nikon announced two of the highest-resolution DSLRs ever made – the D800
and D800E. These cameras are practically identical, the only difference being that the effect
of the optical low-pass filter is cancelled out in the D800E. Two years on, Nikon is replacing both with a single model, the D810.
This new camera is the first full-frame DSLR not to have an optical low-pass filter at all, while it also features a new 36.3-million-pixel sensor design.
Nikon D810 review – Features
Inside the Nikon D810 is a 35mm full-frame (FX-format) CMOS sensor with 36.3 million pixels, the highest resolution currently available in a DSLR. With no optical low-pass filter covering the sensor, the D810 should resolve an exceptional level of detail.
The native sensitivity range has been increased ISO 64-12,800, which can be expanded further to ISO 32-51,200. The D810 uses the Expeed 4 processor, which is also featured in Nikon’s flagship DSLR, the D4S.
At full resolution, a shooting speed of 5fps is possible, which can be increased to 6fps by shooting in DX crop mode. This gives a 1.5x crop in the centre of the frame, resulting in 15.4 million pixel files. The downside comes when composing images, as the frameline indicating the active area can be difficult to see. A variety of other crop modes are also on offer, and with so many pixels to work with it makes perfect sense to use them.
One issue many photographers have with the D800/D800E is the sheer size of the files; it’s all too easy to fill a 64GB card in a day’s heavy shooting. This then requires more time in post-processing, exhausts more resources when backing up, and takes longer to upload full-resolution files.
Nikon has addressed this by adding a new S Raw format, a 9-million-pixel, uncompressed 12-bit raw file that gives a second option for photographers who don’t always need full resolution. This gives the D810 more diverse appeal. The S Raw files also offer sufficient resolution for 4K or HD video with the possibility of digital zooming, which is useful for animation and time-lapse work.
Wi-Fi and GPS are unfortunately not built into the D810, although additional adapters can provide this functionality if desired.
Another addition to the D810 is live view split-screen zoom, which allows users to magnify two separate parts of an image, positioned laterally across the frame. This can be useful for checking depth of field, or for levelling images. For this purpose, it can give higher visual accuracy than the onscreen pitch and roll level display.
Interestingly, the Nikon D810 features a small pop-up flash with a guide number of 12m @ ISO 100. The big advantage of this is that it can be used as a commander to trigger Nikon flashguns off-camera.
Video is available at 1920 x 1080-pixel Full HD, at frame rates of 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p and 24p. HD1280 x 720-pixel footage is available at 60p and 50p only. Normal and high image quality settings are available for each.
A new video feature is zebra pattern, which overlays stripes on highlight areas that are in danger of blowing out and losing detail. This helps videographers to more easily gauge whether their exposure needs adjusting. In addition, the Picture Control menu adds a Flat option, which removes much of the in-camera image processing to give more flexibility in post-production.
Build and Handling
Nikon D810 review – Build and Handling
Constructed from magnesium alloy, the D810 weighs in at a fairly hefty 980g. Its build quality is superb, and with improved weather-sealing it should withstand brutal conditions.
One of the key changes compared to the D800 and D800E is the refinement of button placement, which Nikon says comes as a result of feedback from professional and amateur photographers. The image review and delete buttons are less indented, and a new I button to the right of the LCD allows users to change a range of shooting settings, and access the retouch menu in playback.
The fiddly metering mode switch that surrounded the AE-L/AF-L button has been replaced by a button on the top left. This in turn displaces the bracketing button, which is repositioned on the camera’s side.
The grip has been remodelled, with a larger indentation for the middle finger. Around the back, the thumb grip is more pronounced, and the textured rubber now covers the card slot as well as a larger portion of the back. The differences are subtle, but if anything I found the D810 feels even better in the hand than its predecessors.
On the side of the camera are ports for HDMI, USB, mic and headphones. These are now housed under three weather-sealed flaps, rather than one single cover as before.
For current Nikon users, the D810’s menu system will take little time to work out as it’s very similar to other Nikon DSLRs. For photographers coming from other brands, Nikon menus can initially be confusing as the names of certain settings aren’t obvious, and can take a while to get accustomed to.
Nikon D810 review – Autofocus
The Nikon D810 uses the same Multi-Cam 3500FX autofocusing module as the D4S. When coupled with suitable lenses like the AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, I found it delivers exceptionally fast autofocusing even in low light.
The 51 autofocus points cover around 50% of the width and 30% of the height of the frame. The AF can be changed between single (AF-S) and continuous (AF-C) modes by pressing the AF button and scrolling the front dial. Turning the back dial then controls the number of AF points in use.
When the camera is set to AF-S, users can select group area AF, auto (51 points) and single-point AF. In AF-C mode, auto (51 points), 30, 21 or nine points, group area AF and 3D tracking are selectable. The 91,000-pixel RBG metering sensor also helps with tracking by recognising shapes and detecting faces, then sharing this information with the AF system to help follow the subject.
In live view mode, the mirror is locked up so the D810 must rely on contrast-detection AF. The focus point can be positioned anywhere in the frame. This is usually a problematic area for DSLRs, but thankfully the D810 is quite fast, although it still can’t match the best compact system cameras.
The live view display can be enlarged up to 23x, allowing very accurate manual focus. Compared to the D800/D800E, the D810 gives a notably more detailed magnified view, thanks to a better sensor readout.
Nikon D810 review – Metering
For metering, the D810 uses the same 91,000-pixel RGB sensor as the D800/D800E. When shooting in a dark music venue with quickly changing lights, I found the D810 achieved accurate exposures most of the time. The metering also worked well for high-contrast landscapes, giving a good balance between shadows and highlights.
One important new addition is a Highlight mode, designed to avoid blowing bright areas. As the sensor has such a large dynamic range, users can then recover a lot of detail from shadow areas. Wedding photographers in particular will like this, as it will help to preserve details in white dresses.
Nikon D810 review – LCD and viewfinder
The D810 boasts a 3.2in LCD monitor with a 1.23-million-dot RGBW display. This includes a fourth, white dot per pixel as well as the usual red, green and blue.
This aids visibility in direct light by enabling brighter illumination, and reduces power consumption in lower light. It’s a big improvement over the screen on the D800/D800E, with visibly better contrast and colour, giving previews that are very true to the scene and accurate to the final image.
A light sensor automatically adjusts the screen brightness, contrast and saturation to optimise the viewing accuracy. Older Nikon DSLR cameras have this technology, but the D810 makes great use of it with its excellent display.
Nikon D810 review – Image Quality
With its 36.3-million-pixel, full-frame sensor with no optical low-pass filter, the D810 delivers an impressive amount of detail that’s matched only by the D800E and Sony Alpha 7R. You’ll need impeccable technique to exploit this fully, though: using sharp lenses at their optimum apertures, perfectly focused, and shot either on a tripod or at high shutter speeds to avoid blur.
On this note, the D810’s electronic first-curtain shutter should help to keep to a minimum any sharpness loss from mechanical vibrations.
Dynamic range is very high at low ISOs, which in practice means you can extract lots of detail from deep in the shadows in raw processing. The camera’s highlight metering mode can help to get the best exposures for this approach to shooting, by minimising clipping in bright areas of the image.
At higher ISOs, image quality deteriorates, but only the 12.2-million-pixel Sony Alpha 7S is likely to give obviously better results.
Overall, it’s fair to say that the D810 is one of the most accomplished performers we’ve tested in terms of image quality, though with the caveat that it’s not massively better than the D800E. Only medium-format cameras have the potential to deliver obviously better images.
Resolution, Dynamic Range and Noise
Nikon D810 review – Resolution, Dynamic Range and Noise
Nikon D810 – Resolution
The D810 resolved around a maximum 4000 lp/ph on our applied imaging test chart, which is a stunning result. This test was shot at f/5.6 with the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens, which we use for all our testing and have in all available fittings – this is the best performing aperture for the lens. At ISO 6400, the resolution is still high at 3600 lp/ph, but at higher sensitivities noise reduction inevitably reduces the sharpness that is achievable, with 2800 lp/ph a more realistic figure.
Nikon D810 – Dynamic Range
The D810’s sensor delivers superlative results. At ISO 50, the peak dynamic range is 12.9EV, and the sensor is still performing well at ISO 3200 with a range of 9.7EV. This is comparable to the Nikon D800 and Sony Alpha 7R, but shows improvements in settings above ISO 3200. It means the D810 is very capable of capturing a wide range of tones in shadow areas, particularly from raw files. It’s still important to avoid highlight clipping and to reap the benefits of the full, available dynamic range.
Nikon D810 – Noise
The grey-card images shown above are JPEG files shot with the D810’s default noise reduction and colour settings applied. The 300ppi images are shown at 100% magnification to reflect the noise that would be experienced when printing an image at maximum size. The results show the D810 has acceptable, well-controlled luminance noise up to ISO 3200. It is more apparent at ISO 6400, but by ISO 12,800 colour and luminance noise are beginning to kick in, with ISO 25,600 and ISO 51,200 significantly worse. However, there will always be situations where the extended settings will obtain shots not otherwise achievable.
Nikon D810 – Colour
This 3D graph compares the colour shift from the reference colour to the photographed chart: the higher the peak, the greater the shift from the original colour. In the default JPEG colour setting, colours are well rendered across the range with slight saturation increases in the blues. The balance of colours indicates that skin tones will be particularly well rendered. Test images display good natural colour rendition with average contrast in standard JPEG mode. Colour settings can of course be adjusted in the picture control menu settings.
Nikon D810 – JPEG and Raw
The images above have a resolution of 300ppi and are shown at 100% magnification, reflecting a full-resolution print size. The resulting images indicate that smooth, good-quality images from raw files are obtainable up to ISO 3200, and that JPEG files with in-camera processing are similar, with noise patterns slightly more visible. At ISO 6400, the raw image starts to show more luminance noise in the shadow areas. I would be very happy to shoot raw and JPEG images at sensitivities up to ISO 3200, with middle range from ISO 3200-12,800 which I’d use while being very aware of their limitations. The extended ISO 25,600 and 51,200 settings are still usable for low-light emergencies.
Nikon D810 review – Verdict
It’s easy to look at the Nikon D810 and dismiss it as a small upgrade to the D800/D800E. However, what Nikon has done is take some of the slight issues from the previous cameras, fix them, and then add a host of new features. The LCD screen has been greatly improved and the colour accuracy is far better than on the earlier models.
The D810’s body feels more comfortable in the hand and the buttons have been tweaked to give a more intuitive handling experience. The 9-million-pixel S Raw format goes some way towards tackling the issue of huge image files, though it would have been nice to have a file of around 16 million pixels that isn’t a digital crop.
For landscape photographers, the combination of extremely high resolution and a large dynamic range should allow them to record a huge amount of detail all the way from highlights to the deepest shadows. Fashion and studio photographers will also be pleased with the 36.3-million-pixel sensor, as well as the native sensitivity of ISO 64. For these kinds of photographers, low-ISO shooting is their staple, so it’s encouraging to see them being catered for.
Serious wildlife and sports photographers could well be hindered by the large file size and for many, 5-7fps shooting may not be fast enough. However, the D810 isn’t really designed for this and should be perfectly sufficient for the enthusiast wildlife photographer, as will the very fast 51-point AF system.
It was clear to see with the positive response to the D800E that there was a big demand of a full-frame camera without an optical low-pass filter. Equally, it proved that many photographers value the added resolution gain over the prevention of moiré patterning. Therefore, the D810 is likely to be a very well-received camera.
Hands-On First Look
Richard Sibley’s Nikon D810 Hands-On First Look
Heralded by Nikon as providing the ‘Highest image quality in Nikon history’ the new Nikon D810 is a refinement of the excellent D800 and D800E DSLRs it replaces.
Like its predecessors the D810 is made from magnesium alloy and is fully weather sealed, with the memory card door now made of rubber, rather than the plastic used on the D800 and D800E. Although the body remains largely the same there have been some tweaks. A slightly larger handgrip has been added, and new locations found for the bracketing and metering buttons to make them easier to access.
The screen sees an improvement. It remains 3.2-inches in size, but the change from an RGB array, to and RGBW array has increased the resolution from 921k dots to 1,229k dots. The addition of the white pixel should increase brightness, contrast and colour rendition. Those who wish to adjust the colour of the screen can now tweak the colour balance and white balance to their preferred tone.
To make it easier to frame and focus images, a new split image view is available. This mode shows a full view of the scene on one side and a magnified pull-up on the other.
New Features of the Nikon D810
Although the 36.3 million-pixel sensor of the Nikon D800 and D800E remains, the core sensor is in fact new. Unlike the D800E, the D810 has no anti-aliasing filter. Although the D800E was said to have no AA filter, it actually had two, with the second worked to negate the effect of the first. The new D810, has no such filter at all.
Also new is the Expeed 4 image processing system that has previously been featured in the recent Nikon D4S. The combination of the new processor and sensor gives the D810 an impressive extended sensitivity range of ISO 32-51,200. Such a low minimum sensitivity will no doubt appear to those wanting to shoot in bright light using wide aperture settings, and for landscape photographers wanting to take long exposure images.
With better processing the Nikon D810 offers improved noise levels compared to its predecessors. Auto white balance is also said to be improved, as well as a 1fps faster shooting rate of 5fps, or 7fps if shooting in the 1.5x crop DX mode. Importantly for those who use the camera heavily, the new sensor is also more efficient, which should help to improve battery life. Nikon claim that under CIPA testing conditions the 1900 mAh EL-15a battery can capture up to 1,200 still images. However, we will have to put the camera through our real world tests to see if there is much noticeable difference.
What will be noticeable is the the improvements to the shutter and sequencer mechanisms. These have been completely redeveloped, not only to help the camera’s shooting rate, but also to make quieter and with less vibrations. With a 36.3-million-pixel sensor, any slight movement, be it camera shake or shutter vibration can be noticeable. Anything that can be done to help reduce shutter slap is a real benefit to photographers, particularly those who shoot macro or long exposure images. With this in mind there is also a new electronic front curtain shutter mode, which those wanting to squeeze every last ounce of detail will benefit from.
The new Kevlar and carbon fibre-composite shutter unit has a 52 ms shutter lag time, and retains the 200k shutter actuation life of the Nikon D800.
Besides the improved noise reduction, there are other new additions to images themselves. The two main ones are the addition of a new Clarity control setting with the Picture Style controls. The works by adjusting the micro-contrast in an image, in much the same was as it does in Adobe Photoshop products. This should allow photographers to create smoother images or to increase local contrast to create a more HDR style effect, particularly when combined with Nikon’s Active D Lighting.
Obviously the 36.3 million-pixel sensor creates very large files, and those who want the flexibility of raw images, but without the need for the resolution, will be pleased with the introduction of the new raw Size S files. These 12-bit uncompressed Nikon NEF files that are a quarter of the resolution and half the file size of a standard raw file. Nikon claims that this was requested by animators and those who shoot time-lapse video footage.
The next image addition is the new Flat image style. Those who want a very neutral, low contrast image as the initial starting point for editing will be pleased with this mode. With a lower contrast it should leave more detail in highlight and shadow areas for post processing, and Nikon were particularly keen to push its use for video grading purposes.
Speaking of video there have been more improvements here, though not the 4K video capture that some were hoping for. The camera now shoots at 50/60p at full 1920×1080 resolution, with full control over the ISO sensitivity. Another benefit is the fact that video can be both recorded to a memory card and externally, at the same time. This also makes it possible to broadcast live footage from the camera, which Nikon boasts the new London Live Tv Channel is currently doing.
Experienced videographers will be pleased to learn that a Zebra pattern highlight warning feature has been added to the video capture mode. The audio recorded by the internal microphone has also be improved with a new noise and wind filters to offer clear soundtracks to recorded footage.
The AF system hasn’t been forgotten the 51 point AF system has also been improved, with the new system sensitive down to -2EV. When in the DX crop mode, the 51 AF points actually cover almost the entire frame, which makes the camera a interesting option for wildlife photographers, particularly as the cropped files are still 15.3-million pixels in size. Also for wildlife and sports photographers, the Group AF point feature that was introduced with the Nikon D4S, also makes an appearance in the D810.
Landscape photographers will be pleased to hear about the new metering mode in the Nikon D810. Highlight Weighted metering is now on hand to make sure that all highlight details in a scene are preserved, removing some of the need for spot metering and EV adjustment in many situations. It is an interesting metering mode and it makes you wonder why no one has done it before, though Nikon came close many, many, years ago when it introduced highlight and shadow spot metering.
We are big fans of the Nikon D800 and D800E and it is hard not to be excited about the new D810.
Whilst it was the high resolution that was the real talking point of the original cameras, with the Sony A7R now also offering the same resolution full frame sensor in a compact system camera, the resolution alone is no longer enough. What Nikon seems to have done is make the D810 much more of an all-rounder. Where-as the D800 is popular amongst studio and landscape photographers, the improved AF and shooting rate will make it more appealing to sports and wildlife photographers, and videographers too are well catered for.
On paper, at least, it looks like the D810 ticks all of the right boxes, and the price seems reasonable for its target market. It is a camera that we are looking forward to putting through its paces when we test it in one of our August issues.
The Nikon D810 goes on sale on 17th July, priced at £2699.99 body only.