The Nikon D780’s 24 megapixel backside-illuminated sensor is one of the best in Nikon’s lineup, leading to the same excellent image quality as is found on the Z6. Even though the D780 has the same resolution as the prior D780, the newer sensor is better in low light by about one stop at high ISOs.
Here is a set of high-ISO 100% crops from the Nikon D780, taken in RAW mode with no post-processing or noise reduction. Click to see full size:
This performance is quite good – in fact, best in class among 24 megapixel cameras. The first few settings, up to ISO 6400, are very usable. ISO 12,800 is noticeably worse, as is ISO 25,600, and after that point I would not want to increase ISO any further.
How does the Nikon D750 compare to the D780? Here’s how they compare – D750 on the left, and D780/Nikon Z6 sensor on the right.
Starting with ISO 3200 and 6400:
The differences in noise are quite minimal so far, although the D780 has a slight advantage in a few places.
Here’s ISO 12,800:
At this point, the D780 is noticeably better than the D750. The differences are most obvious in the red color swatch, but also in the green and gray swatches.
Next is ISO 25,600:
At this point, it is quite clear that the D780 on the right is much better than the D750. The red, green, and gray swatches are still the most obvious, but also take a look at the Storm Trooper itself – clearly better on the D780 image.
Finally, here’s a comparison at ISO 51,200, the highest ISO on the Nikon D750:
The differences here are immediately apparent, with the D750’s shadows looking totally discolored and noisy. It’s not like the D780 is clean here, exactly, but it’s salvageable for small prints with good noise reduction. To my eye, the performance at this ISO is about one stop better than the performance of the D750.
Now, here are some real-world 100% crops from the Nikon D780 at various moderate-to-high ISO settings:
These 1000 × 1500 pixel crops are from unedited 4024 × 6048 pixel images, representing an area of about 6.2% of the original. They have no noise reduction or sharpening applied.
As you can see, the ISO 800 and 2500 crops above look quite good. Even the ISO 12,800 photo is usable with noise reduction, although it is clearly rougher than the first two.
Taking everything into account, I personally am happy using ISO 6400 on the Nikon D780, and up to ISO 12,800 and maybe ISO 25,600 in a pinch. Don’t expect great image quality at that point, but if it’s the only way to get the photo you have in mind, it’s still workable. That is pretty amazing overall – among the best on the market today.
Like the Nikon Z6, the D780 has very impressive dynamic range – slightly better than Nikon’s previous generation 24 megapixel sensors.
In the field, I was consistently able to recover extremely dark shadow regions and bright highlights with minimal issue. Here is a before/after example of extreme shadow recovery at ISO 100:
And a 100% crop from the above image (no sharpening or noise reduction applied):
As you can see, although you still need to expose your scene properly if you want to maximize image quality, the D780 offers a lot of leeway for shadow recovery. The image above only has minimal noise that is easily correctable in post-production.
Dropped Frame Issue
One odd issue I found on the D780 was a single dropped frame in one of my high-speed continuous bursts.
Specifically, I shot a burst of five pictures at continuous high (7 FPS) with the mechanical shutter through the viewfinder. Four of the five came out properly, but the middle one was almost completely dark:
Each of the five images has the same settings (1/2500 second, f/2.8, ISO 100). Conditions were mild – about 24 Celsius / 75 Fahrenheit and low humidity. I was using the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, which we are in the process of testing at Photography Life. Brightening the dark frame significantly does reveal hints of an image beneath:
I don’t know what to make of this behavior. On one hand, under such mild weather conditions (and so early in the camera’s shutter life cycle), this is highly unusual to see. On the other hand, despite several attempts, I could not get my D780 to repeat that behavior. If it’s a one-time event without similar issues in the future, I really am not too concerned.
Still, I am mentioning it here just in case others have seen something similar on their D780, though I haven’t heard anyone else mention a similar problem so far. If this is not a widespread issue – which I don’t believe it to be – then I wouldn’t worry if you are considering buying a D780 for yourself.
Time-Lapse Shooting Improvements
One slightly hidden change I quite like on the Nikon D780 is an improved time-lapse shooting mode. To be specific, Nikon added two useful improvements here:
- “Focus before each shot” menu option
- Option to save time-lapse movie alongside individual interval timer photos
The first one is something that has annoyed both me and Nasim in the past. On previous Nikon cameras, if you didn’t switch the lens to manual focus, the camera would focus automatically for every picture in a time-lapse (even if you have disabled AF from the shutter release button and switched to AF-On). It can be a serious problem if you forget, especially when shooting time-lapses in dark environments; the first photo in your sequence will be sharp, but the rest may be completely out of focus.
Now, the D780 has a “focus before each shot” option in the menu (both in Interval Timer Shooting and in Time-Lapse Movie). Set it to “Off” once, and the D780 remembers your choice in the future. No more ruined time-lapses if you forget to switch to manual focus.
The second change is an even nicer improvement, in my opinion. Now, in Interval Timer Shooting, you have an option for the D780 to blend and save a time-lapse movie alongside your individual photos. It is found under Interval Timer Shooting > Options > Time-Lapse Movie.
Previously, interval timer shooting simply saved the individual RAW photos, not a fully blended time-lapse video. On the other hand, the “time-lapse movie” menu option only saved the time-lapse itself – no RAW photos. With the D780, you can do both at once.
The Nikon D780 is an excellent camera for video, shooting uncropped, oversampled 4K video with high levels of detail and minimal noise. This is better image quality than any Nikon camera other than the Z6, with which it is equivalent. (Even the Nikon Z7 is a tad worse, since it shoots 4K with line skipping rather than oversampling.)
I filmed many of the scenes in my Liwa Desert video with the Nikon D780 – specifically, the intro footage as well as the main camera angle of the portrait shots:
I’ve also compiled some footage showing the video quality on the D780 at various ISOs including ISO 32,000:
I shot the video above at 4K resolution with Standard Picture Control, and I enabled High noise reduction for the nighttime shots. Not all browsers may be able to play the 4K version of the video, but I know at least Chrome is able to do so.
As you can see, the quality is very good even at the higher ISO values. Up to ISO 6400 video looks excellent; noise is minimal, and the main artifacts of shooting in low light are flatter colors and somewhat softer details. Even at ISO 32,000, the footage is completely usable and looks surprisingly good. If you want to go even further with your image quality (especially dynamic range), the D780 can shoot up to 10-bit 4K video over HDMI and has N-Log capabilities.
Another important factor is the D780’s video autofocus. Because it inherits the on-sensor phase detection system and AF options from the Nikon Z6, the D780 has excellent video autofocus capabilities. The tracking system is fast and accurate, and although the 3D tracking AF area mode in live view is a bit awkward to use (just like on the Z cameras), it still makes for a great package overall.
Finally, the D780 has a number of additional video features that make your life easier: electronic VR, power aperture, focus peaking, and highlight zebras, to name the most important. It lacks a few others that you’ll find on some cameras at this price: IBIS, a fully articulating screen, and of course an EVF – but is still capable of better video than almost any other DSLR today (or mirrorless, for that matter).
There’s been a lot of talk recently about Nikon’s Z lenses, including from us at Photography Life, but the F-mount is still king for most Nikon shooters at the moment. With hundreds of compatible lenses covering every need you could think of, the D780 has a solid case over the Z6 and other mirrorless cameras just for the lenses alone.
For example, if you have any AF-D glass, it will autofocus on the D780 (which has a built-in focusing motor) and not with the Z cameras. Even if all your F-mount glass is more recent, you still don’t have to put up with the fairly kludgy FTZ adapter and can use it how it was meant to be used.
Then again, not all photographers have large lineups of existing F-mount glass, and even though the Z lineup is a bit sparse at the moment, it’s filling in quickly and may already be enough for a significant number of photographers. That leads to a tricky situation if you are on the fence between the D780 and its closest mirrorless equivalent, the Z6. The D780 has a much larger lineup of lenses, but the Z-mount glass that is available right now is pretty hard to beat.
For example – you can buy the Nikon Z6 and 24-70mm f/2.8 S for slightly less than the Nikon D780 and 24-70mm f/2.8 G VR ($4100 vs $4200 total at the time of this review’s publication). We recently reviewed the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and found it to be the best midrange zoom we’ve ever tested.
So, does the D780 have an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to lenses? It all depends on what you shoot. If you’re a general travel or landscape photographer who doesn’t need very specialized glass, the high-quality Z lenses could be your style. But if you tend to photograph a wide range of subjects or shoot something specific that requires unusual lenses, the F-mount is still much more likely to fit your needs.
With that said, let’s move into some more specific head-to-head comparisons between the D780 and other cameras you may be considering.
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