The release of the Nikon D800 in March 2012 was a genuine game changer in the pro DSLR world. Its 36.3MP full-frame sensor eclipsed the resolving power of the competition by nearly 12MP, and it offered a better dynamic range, colour depth and low light performance than Canon’s equivalent model, the 5D MkIII. A few months later, Nikon followed it up with the D800E, which was essentially the same camera but with the anti-aliasing filter removed for slightly sharper results. But despite the world-beating image quality, the cameras as a whole certainly weren’t beyond criticism, and pro Nikon users soon identified a range of features that they felt were ripe for improvement. Two years on, and Nikon is replacing both models with the new D810, which is available to buy now.
As expected, the camera has the same 36.3MP resolution as its predecessors, which is more than enough for anyone. Nikon claims there have been some ‘developments’ to the sensor, though we can assume these are more to do with the electronic circuitry rather than the photosites themselves. However, one important point to note is that the optical low-pass filter has been removed completely, so images will appear to be very slightly sharper than on the D800E.
Pop the hood of the D810 and you’ll find the same powerful EXPEED 4 engine as the one in the more advanced D4S, which Nikon claims is a whopping 30% faster than the EXPEED 3. This gives the D810 significantly enhanced performance in several areas. Of these, perhaps the one that Nikon users will most welcome is the improved ISO range, which was slightly disappointing on the D800 and D800E. The D810 has a maximum native ISO of 12,800, up from 6400, and a minimum ISO of 64, down from 100. This makes the camera more competitive with rival DSLRs and CSCs in both very bright and very dark conditions.
Thanks to the more powerful processing engine, the D810 boasts a faster maximum shooting speed, which was also considered a little on the slow side on the D800. Now users can shoot frame bursts of 5fps with full AF and metering for each frame, or 6fps in DX mode. With an added grip, 7fps is possible in DX mode. While this is still some way off the 11fps of the flagship Nikon D4S, it does make the D810 better suited to fast-action subjects such as sports and wildlife. Users can now even shoot unlimited full-size JPEGs at any shooting speed for as long as the battery or memory card allows, which is perfect for light trail photography. The more powerful EXPEED 4 engine has also facilitated numerous other enhancements, including video functionality, AF, metering performance, image sharpness, tonality and colour reproduction.
While the 3.2in LCD screen is exactly the same size as the one found on the D800 models, its resolution has been updated from 921k-dot to 1229k-dot, and it has brightness and colour adjustments built in. Unfortunately, we found the screen lacking in contrast and quite hard to see in bright conditions. The screen comes with an all-new split-screen display feature when zooming in Live View, allowing users to check that levelling and sharpness in two different areas of the frame simultaneously. Split-screen functionality is easily accessed via the D810’s new i button, and the technology is currently exclusive to this model. It will be of particular interest to architectural, product and landscape photographers, or anyone shooting static subjects from a tripod. Live View also now comes with zebra stripes functionality, which is a real-time highlight alert used mainly by videographers.
The D810’s AF system is largely the same as the one found in the D800 and D4S, namely the 51-point Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX AF. However, the D810 and D4S share more advanced focusing features such as Group Area AF (like single point, but with five selected points) and revised AF algorithms for rapid focusing in low light. In testing the camera was exceptionally fast and accurate in darker conditions, even when the subject was near the edge of the frame.
While the D810’s massive sensor resolution is a big plus, it does mean huge file sizes that can quickly add up to hundreds of gigabytes of storage space. To get around this problem, users can now shoot in a small RAW format that produces 12-bit uncompressed RAWs of half the resolution and a quarter of the file size. It’s useful for shots that will only ever be used for web or printed at A3 size or smaller. Canon has had this option on its DSLRs since 2007, and it’s curious that Nikon has only now taken it on.
As expected, the D810 comes with Nikon’s usual three metering modes, though a fourth highlight-weighted metering mode has been introduced, which exposes only for the brightest areas of the frame, ensuring there are no burnt-out highlights. This is particularly useful when shooting movies. Other new features include an interval timer for easier time-lapse shooting, time-lapse exposure smoothing, spot white balance in Live View, and a 25% improvement in battery life, which is now an impressive 1200 shots from a single charge. It’s a shame Wi-Fi isn’t built-in, though wireless image transfer is possible via Nikon’s rather expensive WT-5 wireless transmitter.
Broadcast-quality HD video
Nikon has been keen to point out that the improved video functionality should appeal to the increasing number of pro videographers picking up DSLRs. The D810 shoots Full HD (1080p) at both 30fps and 60fps thanks to its new EXPEED 4 engine. Users can also record uncompressed Full HD to an external recorder via HDMI, and compressed Full HD to a card simultaneously. The full ISO range of 64-12,800 is available in video mode, and auto ISO can be used during recording so the same aperture can be maintained should the light change. Advanced features such as zebra highlight alert and highlight-weighted metering help videographers get exposure spot-on. Flat picture control is a superb new setting that records low-contrast, high dynamic range footage for maximum processing possibilities.
The shape and feel of the D810 is virtually identical to the D800 and D800E. There is a slightly improved grip, a new memory card slot door, and the body is a touch lighter, but other than that, there’s really very little difference at all. Similarly, the button and dial layout has hardly changed, with the exception of the new i button for quick access to menu settings and the new split-screen display. Overall handling is good, with the most important controls and dials within easy reach. The only exception is the ISO button, which is found on the left-hand side of the top-plate. We think a button as important as ISO should always be in easy reach of the right hand.
ISO performance test results
The D810 has a maximum native ISO range of 12,800. This will be music to the ears of those upgrading from the D800 series, many of whom felt the maximum ISO of 6400 was not competitive enough for a pro-level camera. The D810 also has a lower minimum ISO of 64, perfect for using wide apertures in bright conditions or shooting long exposures without an ND filter attached to the lens. In testing, the D810 performed very well at higher ISOs, producing practically noise-free images right up to 1600 and displaying very acceptable noise at 3200. Images are usable at 6400, though noise is noticeable. At 12,800, noise is fairly severe, though this setting could be used when there is absolutely no alternative.
The D810 is an outstanding pro-level DSLR with the highest resolution on the market, extremely impressive autofocus capability, a long battery life, a fast processing engine, and a wide range of other features for both stills and video. After testing the camera thoroughly in the studio and in real world shooting conditions, we fully support Nikon’s claim that it offers the best image quality of any DSLR in its history. Arguably, it’s the best in anyone’s history. Nikon has clearly listened to user feedback from the D800 and D800E, and has successfully addressed and improved the most commonly raised issues and complaints. A few users will be disappointed that 4K video functionality and Wi-Fi wasn’t added, and some were expecting an increased sensor resolution, but in the grand scheme of things these are hardly core issues. Overall, very highly recommended.
- Body price: £2139 (As of June 2016)
- Effective resolution: 36.3MP
- Sensor type: 35.9x24mm full-frame CMOS
- AF: 51-point incl. 15 cross-type
- ISO: 64-12,800
- LCD: 3.2in 1229k-dot tiltable
- EVF: 1440k-dot, 100% coverage
- Shooting speed: 5fps FX (6-7fps DX)
- Video: Full HD (1080p) at 60fps
- Battery life: 1200 shots
- Card type: SD, SDHC, SDXC, CompactFlash
- Size (WxHxD): 146x123x82mm
- Weight: 980g with battery & card
- Visit: www.nikon.co.uk
This review was first published in the September 2014 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.