When Nikon introduced the D800 in 2012, it challenged not only the existing DSLRs of the time but also medium format digital cameras with a sensor that clocked in at over 30 megapixels. Thanks to its ability to use the full range of Nikkor and Nikon-compatible lenses, the D800 was a hit with portrait shooters, wedding photographers and architectural photographers everywhere.
It was not, many agreed, a fast or quiet camera. The autofocus was slower than Nikon’s professional D4, which was released just a month earlier, and the buffer filled up after just a few shots, making it impractical for sports photography or other high-paced situations. The D800 rendered brightly lit scenes incredibly well, but as the light levels dropped and the ISO started to rise, the camera produced distractingly grainy images.
Still, the D800 and the simultaneously released D800E were breakthrough cameras because they provided super-high resolution images at a price less than the D4 (and vastly less than medium format) and gave photographers an alternative to medium format that maximized their lens inventory. A photographer that needed an occasional high-resolution studio shot didn’t need to shell out $20,000 or more to buy a medium-format body and lenses.
If Nikon simply tackled one or two of the shortcomings of the D800 and D800E they would have done enough, but the D810 feels more like a brand new system than the incremental update that the model number indicates.
The D810 is also one of the DSLR cameras on the market to have dropped the "anti-aliasing" filter that has been an integral part of digital photography since its inception, and have done so with great success, making the D810 a milestone camera in terms of image sharpness and resolution.
Less is Moiré
Digital cameras are prone to an optical issue called "moiré" that’s painfully visible where closely spaced lines or geometric shapes appear to blend together creating an optical illusion of waves. Moiré is visible to the human eye (usually occurring when someone wears a tight pinstripe fabric) but is accentuated by digital imaging sensors. For an architectural or fashion photographer, moirés are a nightmare. Many common fabric patterns will create a moiré in an image as will common building elements such as bricks, grating and window treatments like Venetian blinds.
In order to reduce the occurrence of moiré, digital cameras traditionally use an Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF)—a technical name for a piece of glass that slightly blurs the light hitting the sensor in order to break up the sharp symmetry that causes the effect. The double-edged sword of reducing moiré by blurring the image is obviously that the resulting image is slightly blurred. For a camera like the D800 where sharpness and resolution are the selling point, any reduction in sharpness is undesirable.
The Nikon D800 included an OLPF, as did the D800E, though the D800E included technology to re-sharpen the image that had been softened by the OLPF. Instead of tweaking the OLPF, the D810 has removed it entirely. Ultimate sharpness, but the risk of moiré occurring.
How well the D810 performs in the face of moiré-prone scenes will naturally be a major point of attention, and I’ll address the moiré results in our image quality section below.
Inside You Can Feel The Difference
The D810 has changed relatively little on the surface—it features some button tweaks and a newly designed grip—but underneath it’s really a brand new camera.
The sluggish autofocus system has been replaced with the same incredible 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus system as found in the Nikon D4s, providing it with astoundingly fast focus and the ability to lock onto even fast-moving erratic subjects. Having just finished a review of the D4s, I was struck by how similarly the D810 performed. It felt (in terms of autofocus) like a D4s in a smaller form factor. The D810 can capture up to five frames per second in FX mode and seven frames per second in DX crop (with the accessory grip).
That feeling of compact power is enhanced by the combination of the D810’s massive new buffer, which is twice the size of the buffer in the D800 and that’s coupled with the same EXPEED 4 image processing engine from the D4s, which allows the D810 to blow through images incredibly quickly.
For photographers working in real-world lighting conditions, the D810 has much better low-light performance and ISO ranges from 64-12,800 (expandable to 32-51,600) and much less noise at each ISO setting than the D800, as I’ll discuss.
The final major overhaul Nikon performed on the D810 is to replace the noisy, slow and vibration-prone shutter with a new system that uses carbon fiber and kevlar to create what is one of the quietest shutters I’ve ever seen on an SLR.
Nikon have also packed a wide array of additional upgrades into the D810 including a new, bright OLED viewfinder, face detection AF in the optical viewfinder, dedicated covers for the various connectors, and a number of improved video features.
For memory, the D810 has both an SD and CF card slot, something that’s welcome after my recent rant about the D4s and its combination of XQD and CF slots. With high-speed CF and SD cards available, I’d much prefer a common (and cheaper) second SD slot over the rare and pricy XQD slot in the D4s.
A Bird In The Hand
Anyone that shot the D700 during the D3 era will remember that the D700 was a scaled down D3 in a smaller body and was a great option for a photographer that wanted the power of the D3 but didn’t want the weight or the size of the body. This made the D700 the camera of choice for street and for travel photographers, neither of whom wanted to draw attention to themselves with the larger body of the D3.
There’s a similar feeling with the D810, though in some ways this camera does more than the D4s and in some ways slightly less. Still, the feeling of having the ultimate professional body in a smaller size is welcome.
Place a sticker over the D810 logo (and get a different camera strap) and the D810 looks to all the world like a prosumer (read: less desirable to steal) camera.
The D810, though, is actually a more powerful camera (in terms of resolution) than the D4s, so having the same relative focus performance and incredible buffer performance is a bit of a shock. It made sense that the D800 was slower than the D4 because it produced such a big image, so it never seemed a problem to have the camera take a while to crunch through the big native files.
The D810 turns these expectations on their head and instead becomes a viable alternative to the D4s as a primary body for the high-end pro shooter that doesn’t need the 10 frames-per-second capture rate of the D4s or its spy-camera-like ISO performance but wants the increased resolution for landscape or portrait work.
Thanks to the super-quiet new shutter, I was able to use the D810 for some clandestine street photography tests—something that would have been impossible with the D800, known for making an audible "thunk" each shot. The D810 also shakes much less when the shutter trips that it’s possible to handhold the D810 at much s
The lighter shutter is also what makes the D810 capable of capturing five frame-per-second stills at full resolution, which opens the D810 up to the possibility of shooting sports.
There’s another shutter-based advance in the Nikon D810: the ability to use a first curtain electronic shutter when capturing images in LiveView. In traditional digital camera designs there are two mechanical shutters that move in concert to expose the sensor to light. The first curtain moves from left to right to expose the image and the second curtain follows to end the exposure by covering the sensor. Each portion of the sensor is only exposed to light for the time between the passing of the first shutter and the following pass of the second shutter.
With an electronic curtain, one of these is replaced by the sensor’s ability to read sensor data one vertical line at a time so each row of the sensor is read from left to right and then the mechanical shutter follows and stops the recording. While this is an oversimplification of the process, the upshot is that with only one curtain moving across the plane, the camera produces vastly less vibration with each shot and less vibration equals sharper images.
Again, this is only functional in LiveView shooting, but it enabled me to capture some great shots of moving subjects without bumping up the shutter speed to do so.
The speed of the D810 is partially a result of the high-speed shutter, and partially a result of the EXPEED 4 processing engine, which can churn through RAW files just about as fast as it can create them.
I tested the Nikon D810 with the new Lexar 128GB UDMA 7 Compact Flash card, and I managed to capture up to 20 frames of 14-bit uncompressed RAW+JPEG images before the camera dropped to a rate of around two frames per second. It took under 20 seconds to completely clear the buffer at this point.
When capturing RAW only, I could bag about 25 frames before the capture speed dropped and about 15 seconds to clear the buffer. Compressed (lossless) RAW settings ended up with about 30 frames before the shooting rate dropped, but after just a few seconds, I was able to shoot at the full rate again.
Shoot in JPEG fine and the camera can capture more than 100 frames before the capture rate slows and then after a few seconds’ pause the camera turns to full-speed.
The frame rate increase wouldn’t be so powerful if it were not for the new autofocus system in the D810—after all, five out-of-focus frames per second doesn’t do anyone any good.
The D810 is preternaturally good at focusing. The 51-point AF system can be configured as a single point, as groups and as a 3D detection scene, evaluating both depth and motion to pick the primary focus point.
The AF was incredibly accurate and capable in both optical shooting and in LiveView. I even tested the D810 by setting up the camera with face detection AF and handing it to my three year old son, who managed to capture burst after burst of in-focus pictures despite his less than stable movements. From a focusing standpoint, the Nikon D810 might as well be a D4s.
The face detection AF is especially important because of the one chink in the AF armor of the D810’s focusing system—the occasional inability to track key facial features of a subject without face detection active. As a longtime Nikon shooter, I’m used to dropping the single-point autofocus area right over the eye of a subject and getting a good percentage of shots where the eye is in focus even when shooting with a shallow depth of field and a moving subject.
With the D810, I found a surprising number of my shots would have focus on areas on the face, but not the eyes. I’d see teeth, hair and ears in focus but a lack of critical sharpness in subject’s eyes.
The Nikon D800 offered face detection focus when using the LiveView mode, but the D810 can perform face detect focus when using the optical viewfinder, and the differences in results when shooting with the function enabled are significant. With Face Detection enabled the D810 correctly focused on the subject’s eyes for majority of the shots, even at aperture settings as wide as 1.4 where it would pick the closest eye to the camera. For portrait shooters this is a huge deal, because a photo subject with a tightly focused lock of hair but an out of focus eyeball is useless.
The Nikon D810 provides incredible image quality and unrivaled sharpness in the 35mm format. Like the Nikon D800/D800E before it, the D810 challenges some medium format cameras in terms of image sharpness. For close-up portrait work the D810 provided super-crisp detail in things like eyelashes and even the details of the iris and in wildlife photos details like a bird’s feathers popped with intense clarity.
The quality of the sensor in the D810 quickly reveals any image quality issues with a photographer’s lenses. The excellent 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor doesn’t hold up as well on the D810 against prime lenses like the Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 G nor the 58mm f/1.4G as it does on cameras with a lower resolution. In some cases I could see lens aberration issues that would likely not have been visible on a D4s or earlier body.
With the increased resolution comes a diminished dynamic range though. Nikon doesn’t publish the dynamic range of the D810 as it does for the D4s, but in practice we found about 1-2 fewer stops than the D4s on the shadow side—meaning that the D810 seemed to lose detail in the shadows more quickly than did the D4s. That’s not at all surprising or a negative as it’s part of the physics of putting more pixels on a sensor, it’s just something to keep in mind.
This increased sharpness makes sense in light of the fact that the camera has no OLPF to reduce subject sharpness during capture and no subsequent filter to re-sharpen the image after the OLPF has gotten its job done.
A few months ago I did some extensive shooting with the D800 as part of a test of the Hasselblad H5D 50C and, while I loved the D800, I noticed its poor performance at ISO ranges starting at about ISO 400. The D810 seems to perform at least a full stop better than the D800, and sometimes even better. At high ISO ranges with enough available light (where the ISO is pushed to achieve a high shutter speed) the D810 seems largely noise free up past ISO 1000. In low light, noise starts to become noticeable above ISO 640, but doesn’t become an issue until well above ISO 1000.
That’s not to say that the D810 is a low-noise camera—at least in comparison to the top-end D4s—because the D810 certainly exhibits much greater amounts of noise than the flagship camera, but that camera has a 16.2 megapixel sensor. Photographers that specialize in low-light photography would be better off skipping some pixels and picking up the dynamic range and ISO smoothness of the D4s. But the D810 is much more versatile than one would think based on sensor size alone.
The camera also has a new low-end ISO of 64, which makes it more versatile in brightly lit situations thanks to the extra stop of overhead. On the high end, the camera now is officially listed as shooting up to 12,800 (versus the 25,600 for the D800).
Since the most obvious feature (or lack of feature) of the D810 is the omission of an OLPF, a lot of the success or failure of the D810 will come down to how well the camera handles scenes with moiré-inducing patterns. Commonly, cameras will create moiré when photographing details like brick walls and narrow metal grating, some clothing patterns and any closely spaced repeating horizontal or vertical lines.
It was not easy to get the Nikon D810 to capture images with moiré issues. I spent a day in New York City (a typical hotbed of repeating geometric patterns and textiles) and was almost incapable of getting an obvious moiré pattern in my images. After much time spent photographing walls, cloth, mesh screens and brick buildings, I found a series of grates at the Highline Park that caused a slight bit of moiré, but to be fair, the grates were so narrow and so closely spaced that my own eyes registered a moiré pattern when looking at them in real life.
I spoke with Nikon about this incredible moiré performance and asked how this was achieved. As I expected, the imaging sensor and the processor work together to detect and eliminate moiré. In other words, the smarts of the processor works better to eliminate moiré these days than does a piece of glass.
A Spotty Record
As I was reviewing the D810, Nikon issued an advisory saying that some units were producing white spots when capturing long exposure images and when shooting at a 1.2x sensor crop. The company had already caught and begun correction on this issue (corrected units feature a black dot in the tripod mount screw) though our unit was not one of those fixed at the factory. Anyone familiar with Nikon’s sensor issues with the D600 will be familiar with the hit-or-miss distribution of these affected cameras. While our unit wasn’t corrected, I couldn’t get the camera to produce these artifacts no matter how hard I try. It’s likely that only a very small percentage of the units are creating spots.
In Its Place
The Nikon D810 is more than an incremental upgrade to the D800/D800E. The new autofocus and processing engines inside the camera have breathed new life into what I call the compact-professional body. So good are the updates to the D810 that it has become a serious contender for the primary body for Nikon shooters. Certainly the D4s has faster capture rates and wider useable ISO and more dynamic range, but it’s also around $3000 more expensive.
Since the D810 provides an incredible image at roughly half the price of the D4s, it becomes an attractive solution not only for photographers that make their living shooting portraits and architectural but for general purpose travel, sports and news use as well. After all, the week rate for renting a D4s is around $300, which gives a shooter a D810 as a primary body and around ten rentals of a D4s before that equals the price of a D4s alone.
In any case, Nikon have packed more into the D810 than the 10-digit model number belies. The D810 is now the camera that the D800 always wanted to be, and that’s great news for photographers.