Product Review: Nikon D810

October 2, 2014

By Theano Nikitas

With the introduction of the D810, Nikon has consolidated its D800- series cameras (D800/D800E) into a single offering. Outwardly, the new model, which falls between the D610 and the D4 in Nikon’s full-frame lineup, isn’t a major update to its predecessors. But the D810 provides enough under-the-hood improvements to pique the interest of current—and potential—full-frame DSLR photographers and videographers.
The D810’s new 36-megapixel CMOS sensor bests all of its full-frame DSLR competitors in terms of sheer pixel count, and its lack of an Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF) promises higher resolution and sharper images. While the D800E had an OLPF that was disabled, the D810 has no OLPF at all. Faster burst shooting, improved video features, expanded ISO and Zebra patterning all complement the D810’s core strengths.
The D810 retains its predecessor’s sturdy magnesium alloy build and weathersealing. Getting caught in a rain shower or doused with beer at a concert isn’t going to stop you from shooting confidently with the D810.
The D810 measures 5.8×4.9×3.3 inches and weighs 31.1 ounces (body only), roughly the same size and weight as the D800/E. The grip has been refined from the D800/E, with a little more wiggle room between the grip and the lens. While it’s comfortable to hold, if your hands are small, you may have trouble taking full advantage of the extra space, but most of the controls can be reached without too much stretching. We shot for fairly long periods without much discomfort, but larger lenses like the 70-200mm f/2.8 caused some strain.
Nikon users should feel right at home when they pick up the D810, with a few exceptions. As with the D800/E, the D810 is outfitted with a wide array of external controls that are conveniently arranged. Other than the re-positioning of a few controls, not much has changed. Nikon added a useful “i” (information) button, perfect for an at-a- glance overview of camera settings.
Enhancements to the already excellent viewfinder include a prism coating designed to improve clarity and an OLED panel for a crisper view of shooting data. The 3.2-inch LCD gets a resolution bump up to 1.2 million dots thanks to the addition of a white-pixel layer, which is more power-efficient. Like the D4s, the LCD screen can be color- balanced, and a new split-screen view is available, making it easier to fine-tune focus in two areas of a scene simultaneously.
Unsurprisingly, the D810 picks up a few of its new features from the D4s, including Auto ISO. Allowing the camera to smoothly adjust exposure via ISO is particularly useful for time-lapse and video projects, when it’s difficult (if not impossible) to make manual adjustments in response to unexpected lighting changes. Although the D810 doesn’t have the high ISO capabilities of the D4s, it bests its predecessors with an ISO range from 64-12800, which is further expandable to ISO 32 at the low end and to 51200 at the high end.
Another useful feature that has trickled down from the D4s is group AF points. Four additional focus points wrap around the main AF point, which helps ensure accuracy in single or AF continuous mode.
Otherwise, the 51-point AF system is identical to its predecessor. Wedding photographers and other shooters who have to contend with spot-lit subjects can make good use of the new highlight- weighted metering. In our experience, it delivered more even and accurate exposure than spot or center-weighted metering would under similar conditions.
Nikon has made a few changes to Picture Control, as well. For one, Clarity—designed to tweak midtones—has been added to the list. Picture Control adjustments can now be made in 0.25 increments, allowing for more fine-tuning, and a new Flat Picture Control profile has also been added, designed to be post-processed for the broadest possible dynamic range—very useful for color-grading video.
While the D810 doesn’t support 4K video, Nikon has expanded the available frame rates to include 60p and added a stereo microphone for improved audio recording. On the D800/E you could output uncompressed video to an external recorder via HDMI (and view it simultaneously on the LCD and an external monitor); the D810 adds the ability to simultaneously record compressed footage to a memory card while outputting uncompressed video.
Nikon claims a 30-percent boost in performance thanks to the inclusion of its EXPEED 4 processor. On paper, the camera is faster than its predecessors, clocking in at 5 frames per second vs. the D800/E’s 4fps at full resolution. In our field test, we got about 20 uncompressed RAW + Fine JPEGs on a SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro UDMA 7 card before the buffer filled. Shooting just Fine JPEGs, the D810 showed no signs of slowing after 60 frames at top speed. If you’re willing to trade some resolution for speed, the D810’s new 12-bit, 9-megapixel RAW
S Small format produces files that are about half the size of the 12-bit, 36-megapixel RAW L Large files (approximately 28.5 MB vs. 59.5 MB).
We found the autofocus to be speedy in both single-shot and continuous AF modes. It’s spry enough to stop moderately fast action, but it’s also not the D4s, so it might not be up to the fast-action challenge of a Formula 1 auto race or a hockey game.
In terms of resolution, you’re not going to do any better with a full- frame DSLR than the D810. And while high pixel counts and image quality don’t always correlate, the D810 delivers where it counts—at least when coupled with optics that make good use of all that resolution. We tested the camera with several different lenses, including the Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G, 85mm f/1.4G, 24–70mm f/2.8 and 70–200mm f/2.8. Each lens paired well with the D810, though it was difficult to handhold the 70–200mm without some noticeable camera shake.
Overall image quality from both JPEG and RAW files is excellent, helped by the myriad in-camera controls over image parameters and the leeway offered by post-processing in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). When using the Neutral Picture Control profile, the colors seemed duller in comparison to the Standard setting, but it was still clear that the camera delivers natural-looking colors.
Detail capture and resolution were unsurprisingly impressive, particularly at lower ISOs. While only the brightest days will provide enough sunlight to use ISO 64 with a hand-holdable shutter speed, studio photographers should be able to make excellent use of the extremely low (for a DSLR) minimum native ISO.
In terms of high ISOs and low-light shooting, it’s helpful to remember that this camera has smaller pixels than the D3s or the D4s. Noise levels were under control up to about ISO 1600, though some noise was visible in shadow areas. When viewed at 100 percent, images taken at ISO 3200 had much more noise, but responded well to noise reduction in ACR. Given the camera’s extreme resolution, it’s easy to spot image noise at 100 percent, but it’s much less noticeable when the image is used for standard-sized prints. Caveat emptor: Use the extended high ISO settings at your own risk (i.e. posting small images on the Web). For most uses, ISO 51200 should be avoided.
For current D800/E owners, the D810 may not offer enough improvements to justify the upgrade costs. The exception may be D800/E videographers, who may be more motivated given the addition of a 60p frame rate, simultaneous recording to a media card and an external device, as well as the Flat profile, which is ideal for color grading.
Stills shooters who want to step up from the D610 or a cropped- sensor model should take a serious look at the D810. Its image quality is exceptional, and while it’s not designed for sports shooting, the camera’s burst rate and autofocus are extremely responsive and accurate. For photographers who want extreme detail, whether they’re shooting in the field or in the studio, the D810 is an excellent choice.
PROS: Excellent image quality and resolution; speedy performance; native minimum ISO 64; solid improvements to video recording.
CONS: Aggressive in-camera noise reduction; requires top-level optics for optimal image quality; no built-in Wi-Fi or GPS; no 4K video.
PRICE: $3,297 (body only)