After buying the Nikon D4s and Nikkor 800mm earlier this year I thought I was cured. I made it for months without a single sip of Nikon Rumors. Then I had a relapse. Thank goodness the only news was Nikon was releasing the D810, a camera I clearly had no need for as I like shooting wildlife, not lens charts. But one sip led to another and before I knew it I was on The Photo Website That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The pundit there gushed about the D810’s specs, then declared that nobody really needs a DSLR with such ridiculously high resolution unless they shoot for Arizona Highways. Whew, I just saved 3300 bucks. But hang on a second, I do shoot for Arizona Highways. Oh crap. I needed to check out the D810 to see how it performs in practical situations in the field. While I was at it I’d try my best to compare the 36 MP Nikon D810 side-by-side to the 16 MP Nikon D4s and 24 MP Nikon D600, other Nikon full frame offerings.
A week later I had a demo in my paws and was trolling the Wildlife Loop at Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills. With any luck we’d hear and see some buffalo. With even better luck we’d end up upwind of them.
Getting started with the D810
Buffalo are the biggest North American land mammal. A record book bull outweighs this Honda Civic and can run nearly as fast (40 mph).
1/800, f/6.3, ISO 250, 80-400mm @ 150mm, D810
Buffalo are basically huge lawnmowers that spend the day mowing down the prairie then re-fertilizing it. As a huge slow subject, they seemed a good warm-up test for the D810. But first a couple shots with the reigning king of Nikon wildlife bodies, the D4s.
1/800, f/8, ISO 1000, 800mm, D4s
The D4s is as big and manly and hefty as this bull. The bull knows it and respects it.
1/200, f/9, ISO 1600, 800mm, D4s
Zoom in to 1:1 and you can see the detail is as sick as those flies licking on the eye boogers.
Next let’s try out the D810. Wow, the first clicks with the D810 felt yummy smooth, with a soft confident mirror slap. And not too loud either. But will the buffalo respect your camera if they can poop bigger than it?
1/640, f/8, ISO 1000, 80-400mm @ 400mm, D810
Well this isn’t going to win any ribbons – the D810 has failed to encrust the buffalo’s face with snow. Nevertheless, at 100% the D810 really laps up the detail.
So no big surprise here. The D4s and D810 both do great with the buffalo and if you really want to print huge and stand way too close to view your results, the D810 gives you the extra resolution to do that.
Oh no, here comes the D600. C’mon, who invited you to a wildlife shoot? Your puny AF-array and outdated Expeed 3 processor make you a silly choice for wildlife. But if you must embarrass yourself we’ll give you the chance.
1/500, f/7.1, ISO 500, 80-400mm @ 360mm, D600
Hmmm, so you lucked out.
And at 100% you’re lapping up tons of detail and you beat the D810 when it comes to amount of saliva. Bottom line is even the cheapest Nikon full frame DSLR can excel at shooting big slow beasts. Lets try something smaller. How about prairie dogs?
Time to Pixel Peep
Perhaps the most famous prairie dog colony in the world is Devil’s Tower’s Prairie Dog Town.
1/200, f/7.1, ISO 250, 24-120mm @ 44mm, D600
Damn you D600, quit playing around with your cutesy shots. This is supposed to be a serious review of DSLR wildlife capability.
1/200, f/6.3, ISO 250, 24-120mm @ 28mm, D600
I said cut it out. Wildlife photography is not meant to be done with a 24-120mm lens. Period. Go home. This is adult stuff – big lenses, big cameras, okay?
Sorry about that readers. Now here’s some of the real deal. For these I found a nice drainage ditch to kneel down in so could set my tripod up and shoot at prairie dog eye level.
1/500, f/8, ISO 400, 800mm, D4s
Here’s the D4s with Nikkor 800mm strutting it’s stuff. Predictably awesome.
Zoomed in about 90% for the pixel peepers. No gripes here, but what I was really itching to try out was the following: how about slapping the Nikkor 500mm onto the D810 ($11800 together) then utilizing the D810s superior resolving power to see if we can crop our way to glory and compete with the D4s/800/$24K combo?
1/500, f/8, ISO400, 500mm, D810
This has been cropped to approximate the same image I took with the D4s. This results in a 12.8mp image, compared to the D4s’s 16mp image but looks just fine to me and has more than enough megapixels to be a 8.5”x11” 300 dpi magazine cover (that takes 8.4mp). Let’s zoom in to get an equivalent close-up view.
Wow, looks just as good. Not only that, but the 500mm at f/4 is a stop faster than the 800mm f/5.6 – that means in lower light I could shoot at half the ISO as I would with the D4s and compensate for the D810’s higher high-ISO noise. Hallelujah – at this point I’m not just itching to try out the D810, I’m itching to buy one. I mean I could feel the itch all over my body. I felt it so bad I was scratching and clawing behind my knees and on my back and in my armpits and other places we can’t mention on a PG-rated site. WTF??? This isn’t Prairie Dog Town – it’s CHIGGERVILLE!!!!!!!
As a West Coast boy, I wasn’t acquainted with these little vermin. And I mean little, as in 1/150th of an inch long, which is small enough you can’t see them crawling up your shins toward Chigger Promised Land. Why do I bring this up? Well if Wikipedia is correct (big if) and a human with 20/20 vision can resolve at 1 arcminute, then that person wouldn’t be able to see a chigger until it got to within 22 inches of his/her eye. For comparison my beltline is 27 inches below my eyes – I can give you the figures to do the math or you can just imagine it instead. So if a human with 20/20 eyesight can’t see an object 1/150th of an inch across until it’s closer than 22 inches away (average reading distance for a magazine from one’s face) then couldn’t you print magazine pages at 150 dpi and be fine? Unless you hold the print closer or put on reading glasses (or use the sometimes quoted 0.6 arcminute figure for 20/20 eyesight), the answer is yes. Now if you do the math, to get an 8.5”x11” print at 150 dpi you only need a 2.1mp image – if you’re just sharing on the web for computer screens with the standard 72 dpi you can use a lot less, but with the advent of retina screens I don’t think the 72 dpi standard will be with us much longer. All that said, why would anyone need an infestation of chiggers or a 36mp DSLR? Because wildlife doesn’t cooperate.
Cropping your way to glory
Some critters are small, others flighty and secretive, and others moving so fast you’re lucky to catch them somewhere in the frame. For most wildlife photographers, especially bird photographers, cropping is a way of life. Take this example.
1/640, f/7.1, ISO 250, 800mm, D810
I’ve got a flighty creature with a bunch of distractions about. Thank goodness I have the D810 to deal with this.
Ah, that’s better. What could have easily been mistaken as a shot of a pronghorn in its environment is now clearly recognizable as a fine shot about a fly in its environment.
For kicks, here’s an uncropped D810 shot of a pronghorn in its environment.
1/800, f/7.1, ISO 250, 800mm, D810
Let’s try cropping with the D810 again – here’s a Meadowlark shot with the D810/800mm combo and I’ve cropped away all but 9.8mp.
1/500, f/7.1, ISO 640, 800mm, D810
So you’ve dug under the couch cushions and came up short of the $18000 bucks it takes to make the 800mm your BFF? What about slapping a 1.4x teleconverter onto the 500mm ($9K combo) for a 700mm focal length and dropping that on the D810?
1/1250, f/10, ISO 640, 500mm/1.4x, D810
This is cropped from horizontal to vertical yielding a 10mp image. This next one is also the D810/500/1.4x combo cropped down to 10mp.
1/500, f/7.1, ISO 640, 500mm/1.4x, D810
How about trying the same image on the D4s, D600 and D810 and cropping to the same final shot? Before this osprey launched off she was kind enough to pose for some shots. This image is uncropped to give you an idea of how much the following shots were cropped. (Doesn’t look like this needs much cropping but ospreys have some of the biggest wings in comparison to their body size because they need amazing amounts of lift to exit the water with a fish in tow.) I’ve done all I can optically, slapping my 800mm + 1.25x on the tripod, so for a tight shot of the body alone I’ll have to crop like crazy.
First the D4s, cropped down to a measly 1mp.
Now the D600, cropped down to 1.5mp.
Finally the D810, cropped down 2.3mp.
No big surprise here, the D810 is the cropoholics dream, yielding bigger files that could be used for larger format output. One interesting thing of note is that all these pics got the exact same treatment in post (same WB, amount of sharpening, etc.) but the D810 file has a cooler tint. This is easily tweaked in post if you shoot RAW, but if you shoot jpeg you’ll want to experiment with your white balance settings if switching to the D810 from a different camera.
Many animals are most active around dawn and dusk. These are times when food is plentiful for predators, whether it’s a bug for a bird or a deer for a cougar. Dawn and dusk mean lower light levels. How do the Nikon DSLRs deal with low light? This Whitetail doe really wanted it’s picture taken and actually loitered about in one place long enough I could shoot it with the D4s/800 and the D810/500 combo both at ISO 6400, 1/1000, f/5.6, and braced on a padded car window.
Here’s the D4s with no additional noise reduction.
1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 6400, 800mm, D4s
And cropped in tight (~80% crop).
Both look dandy. And now the D810 with no additional noise reduction.
1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 6400, 500mm, D810
And cropped to the same image size.
Yeah pretty noisy, especially that horrid blob on the end of her tongue. (Actually, deer ingest clay-rich soils to provide minerals and help remove toxins.) Evidently, at high ISOs you can’t get away with cropping in with the D810/500mm to the same image size on the D4s/800 because you lose the noise reduction benefit of downsampling the file (because you already cropped away all those pixels to get an equivalent-sized image). However if we open up a stop with the faster 500mm to f/4 so we can shoot at ISO 3200 it’s a different story.
1/1000, f/4, ISO 3200, 500mm, D810
And peep away…
The D4s at 6400 ISO is still less noisy than the D810 at 3200, but not by much and the D810 produces decent images at 3200 ISO. Furthermore, the D810 images at 6400 ISO are usable if you’re not obsessed with zooming in 1:1 on all your shots (of course if you’re not into that, how have you made it this far in the review?).
Here’s a shot from the D600 at ISO 6400 with no added noise reduction, though the exposure was boosted 1/4 of a stop in post.
1/320, f/5.6, ISO 6400, 800mm, D600
Quite usable. A tad less noisy than the D810 at 1:1, but realize that to get to 1:1 on the D810 means zooming in more – if that buffalo had stayed put long enough to duplicate the shot with the D810, then we cropped in to the same image area, I think you would find the D810 looked no noisier.
The D810 hype says it can go natively to 12800 ISO. It’s rare to see a Wild Turkey in Arizona outside a liquor store, hence I was stoked to see this young South Dakota resident fly up into a tree.
1/800, F/4, ISO 12800, 500mm, D810
Some freaky cool light here but not much of it as it was very early on an overcast morning. At ISO 12800 the untreated noise in this shot is atrocious as the tight crop shows.
Lets see if we can cook this bird up and make it okay for consumption. We’ll marinate it in some strong NR, mask off any sharpening from the background and crop a wee bit and hope it could run full horizontal across a single 8.5” 300 dpi wide magazine page.
To my eye this isn’t quite adequate for ½ page, maybe a 1/3rd page.
Bottom line is the D4s is way better in low light and I really wish I had shot the turkey with the D4s instead of the D810. Here is a shot at 12800 on the D4s – ignore the intentional motion blur (1/15th at f/4, 500mm) and notice the noise.
1/15, f/4, ISO 12800, 500mm, D4s
Above is a 50% crop. Here’s the 1:1 with no noise reduction.
A lot less noisy than the D810, and in this case of artistic interpretation I don’t mind the fine grainy look.
And here’s the D4s at ISO 25600, 70% cropped away and no noise reduction.
1/6400, f/8, ISO 25600, 800mm, D4s
And with some tweaking in Lightroom this becomes pretty usable.
Above 25600, The D4s files start to show horizontal banding, the next stage beyond graininess when it comes to noise. Here’s an uncropped shot at ISO 204800 where it’s very apparent and vertical banding is happening too.
1/6400, f/22, ISO 204800, 800mm, D4s
Checking my 2014 Lightroom catalog, of the 66000+ images I’ve kept so far this year, only 2.2% of those were shot at ISOs greater than 6400. Granted, I’m based in Arizona, so not shooting in dense forest or jungle much of the time. If you shoot a lot in low light (say in the Costa Rican rain forest or Glasgow) the D810 will be a poor choice – get a D4s.
The other noise
The D810 is the quietest of the three bodies, which is good for certain subjects.
1/250, f/3.3, ISO 3200, 105mm, D810
This is Dewey and he’s a Western Banded Gecko being held against his will so he doesn’t really qualify as “wildlife”. Given the chance he’d attack his human tormentors and swallow them whole – if he wasn’t half as thick as my pinky finger. Anyway, this was shot in barely-controlled conditions. That means I removed the lid from his Tupperware home and stuck a 105mm macro in his face. When I first shot with a normal burst from the D810, he darted under his rock and into his man cave. He didn’t like the camera noise, even though the D810 is a real quiet camera. When he re-emerged I put the D810 in Qc (continuous quiet mode) and had much better luck getting him to pose.
The Qc mode however is slow. If you shoot in Q or Qc mode there is significant lag between pressing the shutter release and getting the capture. Call it Drizzle-and-Pray-a-lot. Still, not even the D4s offers this mode, so for real shy subjects, it could be the ticket.
After you experience the D4s 11 fps bursts, the D810 5 frames per second seems slower than a molasses glacier. Simply put you miss over half the action. Case in point, the D4s let me nail a nice wing/body position on this Turkey Vulture.
1/400, f/10, ISO 1600, 80-400mm @ 360mm, D4s
My favorite shots from the couple weeks I spent doing this test were the action ones – ones that the speed of the D4s made possible. Like this prairie dog getting nailed by dirt being dug out from the burrow by his compatriot.
1/250, f/9, ISO 200, 800mm, D4s
1/250, f/9, ISO 200, 800mm, D4s
There’s simply no comparison – the D4s wins hands down when the action gets fast and furious. Like when buffalo get frisky.
1/800, f/11, ISO 1600, 80-400mm @ 130mm, D4s
All I can say is I’m glad I don’t drive a brown Mini Cooper. Joking aside, I might have got this shot with the D600 or D810, but the D4s let me grab a sequence where I could pick just the right frame that captures a good body position, a nice catchlight on the eyeball and so forth. Ditto with bird in flight sequences where more fps lets you pick a shot with the best-looking wing position.
One of the nice things about the D810 though is you can enter 1.2x or 1.5x (DX) crop modes and shoot at 6 fps instead of the 5 fps full frame mode. The difference seems small but is definitely noticeable. I assigned my fn button to switch between crop modes so I could quickly go from full frame to 1.2x or 1.5x depending on how far off or how difficult it was to frame my subject. An added advantage to this is it creates smaller files (24mp for the 1.2x mode and 15 mp for the 1.5x) and this gives you more shots before your buffer fills up. The better you get at choosing when and how long to spray-and-pray, the less often your buffer fills up. That said I shoot RAW and several times I missed shots waiting for my buffer to clear. This happens with the D4s too, but takes longer so happens less often.
I ran some buffer tests at full resolution shooting all the cameras set for 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images. I got varied results due to sloppy smartphone stopwatch technique, but the overall gist was clear. The D4s would go just over 10 seconds at 11 fps before filling up. The D810 could only go ~6.5 sec, and then only at 5 fps. Switching to 1.2 crop mode didn’t help this – the files are “only” 24mp, but the extra frame per second ran enough data through to fill the buffer just as fast. However, it was a different story at 1.5 crop mode (also 6fps) where the D810 bested the D4s by not buffering out until over 12 seconds. The D600 is crippled with a buffer that fills in just under 3 seconds – not a good trait for a wildlife camera.
One thing I haven’t been able to check out, but hope to soon, is adding a MB-D12 battery grip ($399 – ouch) to the D810. Slap the Nikon BL-5 battery cover in this and it will let you use the EN-EL18a battery (the one for the D4s – $149 – ouch again) on the D810 and get you to 7fps in DX mode (yay!). Every fps you can squeak out is another chance you get to nail the shot, so if you choose to go the D810 route and shoot wildlife, I’d consider adding these accessories.
The D600 in FX mode can shoot 5.5 fps (6 fps for the newer D610), hence has a slight edge on the D810. However, in practice the small AF-array of the D600/610 results in a lot of focus-then-recompose situations unless your subject is centered in the frame. This slows you down and if your subject is moving it can be hard to recompose before it goes out of focus. This is especially true when using long lenses with their inherently slim depth of field.
Looking at the stats, the D600 and D810 are much lighter than the D4s. For wildlife photography though, you’ll be slapping on some big heavy glass and likely carrying the whole rig around on a sturdy tripod. Rolling with the D4s, 800mm and tripod with gimbal head slung over one shoulder and D810 with 80-400mm over the other shoulder could have been the 13th Labor of Hercules. Picking a body for lighter weight then doesn’t make much sense, and the heavier D4s balances better with big lenses like the 500mm and 800mm and the extra weight adds stability for less camera-induced blur.
More important are the configuration of the buttons and dials, how they fit your hands and such. All three bodies here have the controls in different places so I had trouble at times adjusting things when I went for the wrong button. For instance, with the D600 it’s easy to hit the QUAL button instead of the ISO button and end up shooting jpeg instead of RAW. Pretty much it just takes time to get used to the position of all the buttons and I haven’t had much time with the D810 to make it second nature. I don’t like how close the AE-L/AF-L lock and AF buttons are on the D810 – hard to go from D4s AF spacing to D810 and not hit the AE-L/AF-L by mistake. Another thing is I plaster the body against my face for added stability – on the D810 my nose would hit the Multi Selector and send my focus point scurrying across the viewfinder. This is nothing a little rhinoplasty can’t fix.
One thing the D600 has that’s lacking in the D810 and D4s is User Modes – the U1 and U2 on the MASP dial. This is a great feature for wildlife photography. Say I’m shooting a Golden Eagle perched on a sunlit branch. I want a super-detailed portrait so I want the lowest ISO I can deal with and a slowish shutter speed. But I see the eagle eying a poor wiener dog with a limp. That eagle could be blasting off any second so I want to have my bird in flight (BIF) settings ready (e.g. 1/1250, f/11 and auto-ISO in case it flies in and out of shadow). On the D7000/7100/600/610 I can be shooting slow at say 1/250, f/11 ISO 125 for the portrait. When I see the eagle poop, I know it’s about to take off and I can quickly switch to U1, my BIF mode. Wow I’m nailing the shots and thinking that poor wiener dog is going to Hot Dog Heaven. Suddenly, out of nowhere a pack of mastiffs comes in to chase the eagle off. Wow, if I get this on video it will be my ticket to shooting for Discovery Channel. With one click of the dial I’m over to U2 and my video settings are there. My flick becomes a You Tube sensation and I get to shoot hillbillies noodling for the rest of my career.
Why Nikon doesn’t provide a firmware update to allow the D810/D4s Mode button to choose pre-programmed user settings is beyond me. Their customs settings banks on the D810 and D4s are a joke – they don’t store the exposure and AF settings you need for action photography. Please please please Nikon with sugar and wasabi and single malt on top give us user modes on the D810 and D4s.
For the cost of a D810, you could buy a D610 and Tamron 150-600mm lens and be out the door shooting great shots right now (or as soon as the Tamron gets off backorder).
For the cost of a D4s and Nikkor 800mm you could buy two D810s and two Nikkor 500mms – one for you and one for your spouse. As shown above it is possible for the 810/500 combo (with cropping) to compete with the D4s/800mm combo at low enough ISOs. Throw in a 1.4x teleconverter (Nikon recently announced a new version), switch to DX mode and you can crank out 15mp files at 1050mm focal length – a strong wildlife combo for sure. Get the battery grip and EN-EL18 battery to juice it up to 7 fps. Beware though that the D810s big 36mp files chew up memory real fast. Add in another $600 or so to get a couple each of fast 64GB CF and SD cards, then toss in 3 grand for the new faster computer, buy two new external harddrives to store those huge files, then read Nikon’s lens recommendations for the D810 (highlight and add link and realize you need new sharper wide angle and mid-range glass as well and pretty soon you’re throwing away money so fast you’d swear you were dating a Kardashian.
A D4s and Nikkor 800mm will run you a cool $24500, budget in another $1500 – $2000 for a top-notch tripod and gimbal head and another 15 grand for the divorce and you’re looking at over 40 large. For that much you could buy the missus a new BMW and still be married. Of course you have to balance that with the fact that the D4s/800mm will love you unconditionally for a long long time, ripping off burst after 11fps burst of gloriously rich detailed animated wildlife shots and it will never get fat.
You might be asking what about the D4s and 500mm combo? This is an awesome combo, but without much reach if you shoot small or distant animals. Before going full frame, I shot a lot with the DX Nikon D7000 and a 500mm sometimes with a 1.4x or 1.7x teleconverter attached. When you switch to full frame, you miss the extra reach the DX body gave you. At 16mp, the D4s doesn’t leave a lot of cropping leeway. One way to get the reach back is to buy an 800mm. Throw on the supplied 1.25x teleconverter and you’re back to 1000mm of reach.
The D810 and D600 use the same EN-EL15 batteries (~$45 each and the same battery used in the D7000 and D7100). Nice if you already own some of these. The D4s batteries run $149 each. The D4s also takes XQD in addition to CF cards so add in an XQD card reader. Hardly any devices use XQD, an expensive format that looks like it might die out soon. The new CF cards are as fast as XQD, so I’d just stock up on them as you’ll probably be able to use them later in other devices. Nobody said wildlife photography was cheap.
An important question to ask when picking a wildlife kit is what species will you be photographing and where? If you want to shoot lions and elephants, 800mm will be too much – an 80-400mm could suffice. Ditto if you’re going to the Galapagos or other area where you can walk right up to the wildlife. If you are shooting Warblers or other small birds, you’ll probably want the 800mm and a D810 so you can crop in. If you’re shooting cheetahs running or osprey diving you’ll want the high fps of the D4s. If you’re shooting in the jungle you’ll want the high ISO ability of the D4s. Birds in flight – D4s or D810.
Birds in Flight
Ah, the ultimate test of a wildlife camera – the flying bird. Fortunately I found an immature Red-tailed Hawk that wanted to become famous. I was shooting with the 800mm (pretty long for BIF) on the D4s and side-by-side I had the 500/1.4x (700mm) on the D810. The D600, feeling bad about its Lilliputian AF-array, bowed out of this test.
On paper this could go either way. Most BIF shots require cropping, favoring the D810. But birds are fast, favoring the speedster D4s. Both share the same AF-system and processor.
First the D4s. (Image cropped to 2.1mp.)
Looks swell. Now the D810. (Image cropped to 2.7mp.)
Looks in focus, but I like the body position in the next frame from the D810 better. Pity it is out of focus on the face.
Several possible reasons for this:
The bird is coming at me, which is harder for the AF to track than one flying perpendicular to the lens axis.
The AF decided to focus on the talons instead of the face.
Even though the D4s and D810 have the identical AF-system and processor, the D810 AF might be slowed a tad by other demands on its processor (file crunching, metering, and a bunch of stuff I probably don’t even know about – heck I thought Al Gorhythm was an R&B singer before I started reading Nasim’s posts). I’ve heard some whispers that the D810 AF is not as good as the D4s, but in my experience so far I can’t say if I agree or disagree with this yet.
The 500mm/1.4x combo might focus slower than the 800mm.
Or my BIF technique might just suck.
Which brings us to this point – a lot of successful BIF shots are the result of spray and pray. At 11fps the D4s would have another frame captured between these two that might have had better body position and focus. I utilize the D4s burst rate frequently for pre-focused situations – say focused on a branch I think the bird will land on – then nudge the focus one way or the other hoping to have the bird fly through that plane of focus on the way to the branch and having a frame fire off just then. Obviously I have double the chance of success with that shot and the D4s.
Summary (AKA will this guy ever stop yakking)
If we learned nothing else from this exercise, then it’s that viewing wildlife images at 1:1 is stupid and boring. What really counts is your final output – the images that you share with friends, clients, the world or just yourself. Once tweaked and sized for any final output 11”x17” (two page truck) or smaller, the differences in image quality in uncropped images shot at 3200 ISO or lower between the D600, D810 and D4s is negligible. That’s because at realistic viewing distances the human eye simply can’t resolve more. (I hope to write about this in detail later this year.) Oh, I hear the screams of outrage right now – “Verm’s full of buffalo chips. The D810 is God’s Own Camera – DxOMark says so.” Well if that’s correct, check out the following images and if you can ID which body shot which image drop us a line in the comments.
So it comes down to what you can afford and what you shoot. The D600 is the bargain alternative, but I’d probably wait until this fall to see if Nikon releases a new DX body (or economy FX body – both are rumored) with a superior AF-system and decent buffer and if so get that. The D810 is the choice if you’re a cropoholic or insatiable pixel peeper (for more on my struggles with cropoholism see my blog). The D4s rules for action shots and low light scenarios. Aw hell, just buy one of each – they’re all great cameras. And above all remember that buying a D810 won’t get you published in Arizona Highways – good light, good composition and good timing might.
That’s my eagle shot on the back cover of this February’s Arizona Highways and horrors, it was shot with the crop-sensor D7000 and a 500mm/1.4x combo.
(I’ll be floating down the Grand Canyon from Sept 1-18 and unable to respond to comments during that period, but hope to have some great material for you when I get back.)
Article and all images Copyright 2014, John Sherman. All rights reserved. No use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.
first of all thank you. I don’t know if you will ever read my (very late) question but let me try anyway.
For a number of reasons, while I started moving toward the D850 in mid September, it’s still out there and in the meantime I had the opportunity to try both D850 and an (used) D4 at very short distance in time. I do realize they are two very different cameras however while I found the D850 (at a first sight/feeling) “only” “OK-GOOD” I was amazed ( WOW ) by the D4 and by chance I found after a few days an apparently very good copy of D4s used (which brought a number of improvements over the D4) for basically half the price of a new D5 and having already the shutter unit replaced, plus CLA’ed. Now, I heard a lot of people using the D810 complaining its hunting in low light and having you tried both, I’d like you to spend a word or two here. I’ll be using for both sport and portraiture and while I don’t need 45 MP I definitely need a reliable and sensitive AF for when light goes down (Europe, Carrie, anyone?) – I had the D600 and (let alone the sub-par body) its AF performance was truly disappointing as you too found out: focus and recompose must not be a rule as it was in my case. So, I’d really like to hear from you (as I expect) that D4s AF module is OVERALL better and more light sensitive than the same unit mounted on D810 because of some tweak and in general the whole thing is truly reliable. I don’t mind losing one shot or two on an average of 100 – probably only the D5 can manage that, but really having to use also MF lenses that don’t benefit from any AF assist help would be great. Thanks in advance, I hope you’ll see this comment !
A very late comment, does it worth to buy a Nikon D700 for mid distance/macro stills? (I guess if it made good pictures in the past ,it didn’t go wrong, but I guess 12mp doesn’t give you playground for cropping.) On the other hand I am an amateur, with interests to macro and birds ( and sometimes landscape) and there is just no camera what would be good for me. For macro I would prefer some flippable lcd mirrorless, crop sensor good iso noise. For close and landscape a full frame (maybe landscape would be good for D700 ?)For birding a D7200 would give additional reach, but hey I have a j5 and v2 for the reach. But despite I do like nikon 1 above iso 800 pictures getting bad ( I am not Thomas Stirr, i just can not bring back iso 1600 pictures from the grave) I was almost crying when the lizards i was picturing in Taiwan were blurred, or unusable because of the weak ISO handling of my nikon 1.
And now i see a nikon d810 very used 300.000 pictures etc rated to grade 6 on 10 scale, but just a bit over the budget. Of course then comes the problems, why buy d810 if after i can not buy the F2.8 lens.
So what kind of set would You suggest me for that? Cheap fx with average- good lens next to the nikon 1. Sell everything buy a d7200 and few good lens to it, or buy that over-its-prime d810 (oh no they are selling a d800 in grade 8 almost same price as the half dead d810) and then give that set a not pro grade f4 lens set, and keep the nikon 1 where reach is the main thing matters.
Thank You very much for the help in advance
The D700 is an excellent camera still, but yes you are correct about limited croping. It is a great camera for studio portraits and what not though.
Many thanks for your article — I’m off to Kenya and Tanzania for about month in the new year and am vacillating over what get to take.
Having not been on a proper safari before I am struggling not to take a lot of kit with me. I have done a lot of looking for guidance and am taken by comments need for speed (fast auto focus/focus tracking and need for excellent low light capabilities) and a desire for tack sharp high resolution images.
I own both a D4s and a D810 and will take both with me, but what I not sure about is what lens to take or how much of a challenge changing lenses will be at this point of the dry season — DUST being the challenge. Having suffered from dust greatly in the past – I am a little nervous of changing lenses on a D810 on the trail / game drives – dust really shows up on this sensor, even with auto-cleaning. I guess taking a few bin liners could help.
I follow a number of wildlife photographers and they seem to like the 200-400mm f/4 on a fast body. This lens is a little out of my budget. However, I recently picked up the new nikon 200-500 f/5.6 and believe this will be an ideal companion for my D4s. I am less worried about dust with the D4s than the D810 and the D4s’s better ISO range and lower noise would suit itself better to an f/5.6. It works really well with TC-14E II. But having made the long zoom choice – what else long to take – I have access to the following lenses 400/2.8, 300/2.8, 200/2.0 and having a long lens with 2+ stop or better than the f/5.6 is very attractive – but which – one, some, all of these to take. I never leave home without a 70-200 VR II and at least one wide angle lense.
So the challenge is out at 200mm +. I’ve seen a number of reviews of what folk have used across their gear and 200-400 seems to be the target range – so a 200-500/5.6 and a 400/2.8 with the option to add TC-14 to reach out to 560mm at f/4 or other TC’s for longer reach is attractive. The TC-20E III on the 200-500 gives an effective 1000m at f/11 and not bad results at all — but the light needs to be quiet good and/or shots taken from a stable platform.
BUT – my 300mm is much lighter than the 400mm, really quick and I’ve had great results in the past.
AND – we will be close to elephants in a Amboseli and i really really like the 200/2 for portrait style shots.
I have no internal flights so weight is not a problem – having said this I will always want to bring my most useful/expensive kit on to the plane with me and I physically cannot carry-on a lot more than 2 big lenses, 2 cameras and related gear – even in a thinktank roller. So the balance would need to be checked in.
So — i’m about 95% convinced to leave the 300 and the 200 behind. BUT they each on weigh about 2.9kg/7lbs and so ??
With the options you mentioned I’d leave the 200-500 on the D4s and put your 70-200 on the D810 and try not to change lenses. If you obsess too much over obtaining tack sharp images you will miss out on the magic that is Africa. Keep the kit small and you’ll see much more and come back with superior images.
PS For elephant shots check out Nick Brandt’s work – done with a 50mm equivalent. Best elephant shots ever I’d say. More reach can equal less intimacy – Brandt knows that and his shots are amazing because of it.
Great to read this, I am a wildlife photographer here in South Africa and go on a number of Safari trips every year. Mostly shoot from my 4×4 and hides. My main focus are the bigger animals, predators like Lion, leopards and Cheetah and general game. Birds not a main focus area but when the occasion presents and my equipment can do I would go for it. My longest lens is a 300 f2.8 vr2 that I use with the different TC’s. I have a 300f4 as second lens that I only use at 300 no TC on second body. My main camera is the D810. To me the most flexible of the lot. I can shoot it with the 300f2.8 with TC 1.4 so 420f4 shot in 1.2 crop. Thus a 500f4 at 22 mp. This I can do with the naked lens and all 3 converters. I often use the Df with the 300f2.8 in low light. I don’t have the budget or the justification to spend the money on a D4s and a 600f4 or 800 lens. So my view, know your equipment and optimize otherwise temptation will stop your progress and destroy your bank
Below Images all taken with D810 and Nikon 300f2.8 vr 2 plus TC1.4 ii
that was perhaps the most informative but definitely the most enjoyable article on wildlife photography i’ve ever read. appreciate your sense of humor and no-BS approach. awesome. thanks.
I have a Canon 2ti 18MP and want a longer lens – in the 500-800mm range and thinking instead of staying with Canon, I need to switch to Nikon. After reading this (thank you!) I understand better the trade offs of the various controls, but not enough to decide! Maybe just putting money in a great Canon lens still makes sense. I live in a bird preserve and it seems a shame my photos are so bad!? What say anyone?
Not putting the T2i down it’s a good camera up to iso 800, but i would consider getting a full frame camera for better low light performance. The D600 is hard to beat for the price it can be had used less than $500 on places like Keh.com. i used to have one and am always kicking myself for selling it
This is the most informed, practical, and entertaining review I’ve ever read. Nice work! I am a curious Canon user who can’t decide after over 30 years of shooting what kind of shooting I like the best. Congratulations on your images as well.
Good question. I have a D600, which is slightly better than the D610 for high ISO (2980 vs 2925 according to DXOMark), but comparable. In my bench tests of the D600 vs the D810, the images produced by the D600 were cleaner than the ones produced by the D810 at every ISO above 800, even when down sampled to the same 24MP. The odd thing though, is for some reason the noise in the D810’s images was somehow easier to remove in PP. There must be some different algorithm in the sensor design (or something else, I’m no engineer) that allows for this.
If I absolutely HAD to make an important shot in low ambient light, there is no question I would choose my D600 over my D810.
You might consider the DF model which is outstanding for low light, rated 3279 by DXOMark…
For the reply. Yes Nikon Df is now the ultimate low noise camera in the whole Nikon series but, I think it’s really hard to handle the camera with 24-70 f/2.8 or 70-200 f/2.8 lens.
I have a Df. It is not any harder to handle than any other camera with any lenses. You get adapted to dials very quickly, especially easy if you are old school.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. After reading the whole article it’s clear that Nikon D4s is winner in terms of every aspect but, it’s not fit my budget. I am a event photographer in India & like to take photograph with ambient light so, low noise is the main issue for me. Please suggest me between Nikon D810 or D610, which is less nosier with higher iso value.
As I already know down sampling is the helpful to reduce noise. For example if I down sample a Nikon D810 image from 36mp to 24mp at 3200 iso is it produce cleaner image than Nikon D610 with same parameter. So, thanks in advance & also awaiting for your upcoming article.
I agree with Duffy’s comments below. In low light I prefer the D600/610.
This must be the best photography article I’ve ever read. The way you wrote it forced me to read it to the end. I’m fairly new in the game but absorb great info like a sponge. The way you compare the models was great and reminded me on what I was thinking when I made my choice of body. I own a D7100 and love it for now, great shots is DX and 1.3 crop. The only thing I don’t like is the buffer as I love bird photography. I was hoping that if I upgrade to a full frame camera like the D810 this would solve my problem but the buffer is almost the same if not worse. I agree that the hardware is important but as “Sceptical1” said, a lot hinges on the man behind the camera. I just belief that the price difference between the D4s and the D810 is too great and even though I would love to own a D4s, the D810 is a bigger bagain for my budget. With the D810 as my primary body and the D7100 as my secondary, I should be OK for now. Again, a great article, looking forward to the next!!!
The D810 buffer is actually bigger than the D7100 – in DX-mode shooting 14 bit lossless RAW files it has a 29 shot buffer (or 33 large fine jpegs). (In Fx mode this shrinks to 19 shots at 14-bit lossless RAW). By going to 12-bit RAW mode you boost that buffer to 37 shots in DX mode or 44 shots is you shoot compressed files. Of course these tricks can be used to boost the D7100 buffer too. They do result in a lower quality file, but you may or may not see a difference. I suggest trying those different settings yourself to see if it makes a difference for how you shoot. Also using faster memory cards will help the buffer clear faster after it is filled – The D810 has a CF slot and currently CF cards are faster than SD.