I’ve been wanting to write about the D810 pretty much since I got it. It the most exciting camera upgrade in a long time where almost nothing has changed, but the few changes that have resulted are so significant that it actually surpasses other cameras which are a radical reworking of the original concept. As ever this presents a chance for me to present some of my favourite photos taken with the camera while I waffle on 😀 .
To understand the D810 (and my reaction), we need to go back to the D800/E. It was an astounding camera with some quite serious issues, particularly in terms of its live view implementation, focus issues and vibration/noise.
What that added up to was a camera that was temperamental and sometimes hard to get the best results from. It was also a camera that could cause frustration when wrestled with to achieve the best results. It was slow – not an action camera. Of course it was very capable as well and in controlled conditions and good light the results were often mind-blowing. There was very little more satisfying than using the D800E for landscape photography. Properly exposed photos very much had a medium format look to them. It was sometimes harder to get the colours to my liking for portraiture, particularly in non-natural light, but some of that may come down to the “drabness” of the camera standard profile as it applies to Nikon cameras. Equally, high ISO performance was sometimes lacking vs other 35mm cameras – the noise performance wasn’t too bad, but the images could sometimes be inexplicably flat at higher ISO.
Sadly, during my initial period of owning the D800E I felt like I had made a mistake in selling my D600 to fund the D800E. This is partly because it was bigger/heavier etc, but also because results were often frustratingly and unexpectedly affected by vibration. Eventually, I bonded with it more and had workarounds for its weaknesses (one way or another, keeping the shutter speed above 1.5x focal length). Despite that, I would often pick up another camera having contemplated the D800E.
Which brings me to the D810. Initially I wasn’t impressed. I told myself the camera would need to have wifi in order to pursuade me to switch. Then I read about the damped shutter and electronic first curtain shutter. Then I read about the redesigned grip and improved AF. I was in two minds. It all sounded interesting, but I questioned the value to me. Then I heard about the extended ISO range (and the implicit promise of more DR at ISO 64) and I was almost there, subject to cost. A quick scan of eBay left me in two minds, but a promotion Nikon UK ran for trade in price plus £150 took the value of my D800E £100 over the eBay value of the camera. Now, if I waited a couple of months I would likely get the D810 cheaper, but the D800E might have fallen in price. That is of course what promotions are for 😉 .
First impressions were positive, but not stratospheric. The first thing I was looking for out of the box was whether the build quality had suffered in the shift of production to Thailand. If anything the D810 felt better constructed than my previous D800E! I was particularly impressed with the card slot door/cover, it just feels more substantial and integrated than the flimsy equivalent on the D800E. The next thing was the grip, which reported had improved ergonomics. Out of the box I didn’t like it. Then I used it for some extended shooting sessions, and began to love it. The camera feels lighter and more comfortable in hand, and this significantly improved the overall shooting experience for me.
I don’t do tests myself, I interpret them and comment on my own experience. In short, both the data published by DXO and my own observations would seem to confirm expanded dynamic range at lower ISOs. The RAW files can be cooked to a ludicrous degree. If you have something like a Leica or a Canon you would not believe the malleability of these files. What’s also interesting, in a “you cannot cheat physics” kind of way is that from about ISO 100 through to ISO 1600 the D800E shows better dynamic range in the tests published by DXO (likely the result of adding ISO 64). I can’t say I observed this in use overmuch, so I would classify this in the realms of something that’s demonstrable but not a practical problem.
Turning to high ISO performance, it’s very difficult to see a material difference in this. Possibly a bit less of the amplification glow the D800E suffered from. Otherwise, the sensor is very similar.
Other changes include an impressive new highlight weighted metering mode, which allows for spotlit subjects (e.g in concerts etc), and even more usefully an electronic first curtain shutter for mirror up mode that substantially reduces vibration. The changes to include highlight weighted metering include moving the metering selector to a button on top of the camera (which in turn shifts bracketing to a button on front of the camera). Live view at 100% is no longer interlaced (its very clear) and the clarity of the screen has improved over the older model (it has additional white pixels for improved performance in bright light).
Perhaps the biggest and most impressive change is the revision to the mirror and shutter. These have been wonderfully damped to reduce both vibration and noise. The D800E suffered badly from both vibration and noise and this issue is largely gone in the D810. In effect it’s not very different (possibly better) from using my Df or any canon full frame body. Where is gets ridiculous is in quiet mode, which I think is quieter than my M240!
So how does it compare to my Df? Pretty well. The points where the Df won over the D800E are to my mind reduced. In particular the Df does not have as much of an advantage in low light shutter speeds. In fact, the EFCS of the D810 allows the use of lower shutter speeds than the Df. The Df is still smaller, lighter, has the best low light sensor and has (in my opinion) better controls. However, the advantage the Df has in colour tonality and transitions over the the D800E is to my mind whittled away partly by the D810, which produces impressive results in this regard. Neither camera “gets in your way” while shooting, in the way the D800E sometimes did for me.
All in all, the improvements are much, much more significant than meets the eye. They aren’t about an amazing new sensor, they are all about getting the image and improving the shooting experience.
They take a camera (D800/E) which was better suited to landscape and studio work and turn it into a outstanding all round camera (D810) that really does outperform (I) every other 35mm sensor DSLR*; and (II) almost all medium format bodies/backs. It likely won’t read like that in the photographic press or the majority of the forums. People will insist the D810 is a minor spec boost and the camera is no different. People are wrong if they say that. This IS one of the most impressive cameras I’ve used in a while and I expect it to sell by the bucketload. No indications as yet but sitting in the top 3 cameras on amazon.com suggests good US sales at least.
I’m happy to heartily recommend this camera as about the best all round picture taking machine that exists at this point in time. It’s worth observing that I don’t think this is a beginners camera, nor a camera for those who prefer convenience and a small, light form factor. But if you do take your camera out of P (for professional 😉 ) mode occasionally, the D810 is very much an excellent choice.
*It’s OK guys, I get that some people still need 11+ frames per second….
The Nikon D810 is available here from Amazon UK