After more than two years since the successful launch of the Nikon D800 and D800E cameras, which shook up the photography industry with the high resolution 36.3 MP full-frame sensor, Nikon finally introduced an update to the cameras and combined the two into a single camera body. Although the new Nikon D810 has the same 36.3 MP resolution as its predecessors, it features a new sensor with an expanded native ISO range and comes with significant improvements to camera features, performance and ergonomics. In this review, we will take a closer look at these improvements and compare the performance of the D810 to other Nikon cameras.
So far our team at Photography Life has been shooting with the Nikon D810 for over a month (since the day it became officially available) and we have tested three samples of the camera to evaluate its performance for different types of photography including portraiture, wedding, landscape, astrophotography and wildlife. Hence, the review is a collective effort and will be presented from different perspectives of our contributors.
Before I delve into the review, let’s first go over the camera’s technical specifications and compare them side by side with the predecessors, the Nikon D800 and the D800E.
1) Nikon D810 Specifications
Main Features and Specifications:
- Sensor: 36.3 MP FX, 4.8µ pixel size
- Sensor Size: 35.9 x 24mm
- Resolution: 7360 x 4912
- DX Mode: 15.3 MP
- DX Mode Resolution: 4800 x 3200
- Native ISO Sensitivity: 64-12,800
- Boost Low ISO Sensitivity: 32
- Boost High ISO Sensitivity: 25,600-51,200
- sRAW File Support: 12-bit uncompressed
- Processor: EXPEED 4
- Metering System: 3D Color Matrix Meter III with highlight weighted metering
- Dust Reduction: Yes
- Weather Sealing/Protection: Yes
- Body Build: Full Magnesium Alloy
- White Balance: New White Balance System with up to 6 presets
- Shutter: Up to 1/8000 and 30 sec exposure
- Shutter Durability: 200,000 cycles, self-diagnostic shutter
- Camera Lag: 0.012 seconds
- Storage: 1x CF slot and 1x SD slot
- Viewfinder Coverage: 100%
- Speed: 5 FPS, 6 FPS in DX / 1.2X mode, 7 FPS in DX Crop Mode with optional MB-D12 battery pack
- Exposure Meter: 91,000 pixel RGB sensor
- Built-in Flash: Yes, with Commander Mode, full CLS compatibility
- Autofocus System: Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX with Group Area AF
- AF Detection: Up to f/8 with 9 focus points (5 in the center, 2 on the left and right)
- LCD Screen: 3.2 inch diagonal with 1,229K dots
- Movie Modes: Full 1080p HD @ 60 fps max
- Movie Exposure Control: Full
- Movie Output: MOV, Compressed and Uncompressed
- In-Camera HDR Capability: Yes
- GPS: Not built-in, requires GP-1 GPS unit
- Battery Type: EN-EL15
- Battery Life: 1200 shots
- USB Standard: 3.0
- Weight: 880g
- Dimensions: 146 x 123 x 82 mm (5.75 x 4.84 x 3.23″)
- Price: $3,299.95 MSRP
A detailed list of camera specifications is available at NikonUSA.com.
A quick glance at the above specifications reveals that the D810 is similar to the D800E. And one would not be wrong in making that assumption, since there is nothing truly revolutionary about the D810 – many of the specifications are either the same or very similar. However, if you take a deeper look at the D810, you will see a different picture:
2) Nikon D810 vs D800E Comparison
|Camera Feature||Nikon D810||Nikon D800E|
|* The Nikon D800E has an optical low pass filter that “cancels” itself|
|Low Pass Filter||No||Yes*|
|Base ISO||ISO 64||ISO 100|
|Native ISO Sensitivity||ISO 64-12,800||ISO 100-6,400|
|Boosted ISO Sensitivity||Down to ISO 32, up to ISO 51,200||Down to ISO 50, up to ISO 25,600|
|Image Processor||EXPEED 4||EXPEED 3|
|sRAW File Support||Yes||No|
|Viewfinder Type||Pentaprism with improved coatings||Pentaprism|
|Continuous Shooting Speed||5 FPS, 6 FPS in DX mode, 7 FPS with MB-D12 battery grip||4 FPS, 6 FPS in DX mode with MB-D12 battery grip|
|Electronic Front-curtain Shutter||Yes||No|
|Highlight Weighted Metering||Yes||No|
|Full aperture metering during Live View for stills||Yes||No|
|Face-detection Analysis||On/Off||Always On|
|Spot White Balance in Live View||Yes||No|
|Preset White Balance||1-6 possible||1-3 possible|
|Autofocus System||Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX with Group Area AF||Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX|
|Video Maximum Resolution||1920×1080 (1080p) @ 24p, 30p, 60p||1920×1080 (1080p) @ 24p, 30p|
|Memory Card + External Recorder Simultaneous Recording||Yes||No|
|Selectable Audio Frequency Range||Yes||No|
|Highlight Display (Zebra Stripes) in Live View||Yes||No|
|Interval Timer Exposure Smoothing||Yes||No|
|Timelapse Exposure Smoothing||Yes||No|
|Number of Images in Timelapse / Int Timer||9,999||999|
|Power Aperture Control using Internal Memory Cards||Yes||No|
|LCD Resolution||1,229,000 dots||921,000 dots|
|Picture Control||Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape, Flat||Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape|
|Unlimited Continuous Shooting||Yes||No|
|Redesigned Sequencer / Balancer Mechanism||Yes, Operates in Quiet or Quiet Continuous Mode||No|
|Battery Life||1200 shots (CIPA)||900 shots (CIPA)|
|Weight (Body Only)||880g||900g|
|Dimensions||146 x 123 x 81.5mm||144.78 × 121.92 × 81.28mm|
Please note that the above table only shows differences in specifications between the two cameras. For a more complete list of all camera specifications, please see my Nikon D810 vs D800 / D800E comparison article.
The first thing you will notice in the above table, is that the Nikon D810 completely omits the Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF), while the D800E has a slightly different design, with an OLPF that cancels itself out. Contrary to what some people think, although there is no low pass filter on the D810, it does not mean that there is no filter stack at all – the D810 still has a filter to cut off UV and IR. Does the omission of the OLPF actually increase sharpness in the Nikon D810? I ran a number of tests on both D810 and D800E using Imatest and came to a conclusion that there is practically no sharpness difference between the two cameras in the center of the frame. In the corners, however, the D810 resulted in sharper mid-frame and corners with some lenses, particularly the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.8G lenses. My detailed findings are shared in my “Is Nikon D810 Sharper than D800E?” article, where you can see comparisons between the two, with some additional commentary on flange distance variances.
There is also very little difference in noise performance between the two cameras, as shown in the camera comparisons section of this review. And as shown in my Nikon D810 vs D800E dynamic range comparison, there is practically no difference in dynamic range either (at same ISO levels). Thus, we can conclude that the D810 does not bring significant changes to image quality.
At the same time, we must understand that further improvements to image quality probably require new sensor technologies and we are almost hitting the innovation wall during the past few years when it comes to noise and dynamic range performance. We have seen this with the D3S and the D4 and subsequently with the D4 and D4S, where noise performance did not seem to improve as dramatically as it had before. It is getting tougher for Nikon and other manufacturers to set new image quality records with each camera announcement and hence, the Nikon D810 release is not focused around improvements in that area.
The Nikon D810 is all about features and that’s where it truly shines. Nikon might not have delivered much better image quality, but it certainly did deliver a very useful feature – decreased base ISO of 64, which is 2/3 of a stop lower than ISO 100. Why is this useful? Because 64 is a native ISO, which means that you are getting a real hardware change and not a software “boost”. This makes ISO 64 as good as ISO 100 (actually even better, since there is a bit more dynamic range) and better yet, you can now go all the way down to ISO 32 when needed. As far as I know, the D810 is the first modern DSLR that allows going below ISO 50 – the last DSLR camera that could do that was the Kodak SLR/n, which could go all the way down to ISO 6.
Arguably the best improvement in the D810 is its 30% faster EXPEED 4 processor. As I reveal in the Autofocus Performance section of this review, the faster processor results in much faster autofocus speed for acquiring initial focus and tracking moving subjects. The difference is quite drastic and something our team was able to feel while photographing wildlife. In addition, the new processor allows for faster data throughput, which translates to a number of improvements such as: faster frame rate for stills and video.
The addition of sRAW format is also relatively new – the D810 is the second Nikon camera after the D4S to get this format. Although we have previously covered the problems of sRAW format in detail in various articles, you can see our summary in the Image Sensor, RAW and sRAW Options sections of this review.
Another welcome change is the completely redesigned mirror and shutter mechanisms, which significantly reduce both camera noise and mirror slap / shutter vibration. The shutter mechanism on the D800 / D800E was very noticeable when shooting with telephoto lenses at slow shutter speeds, resulting in often blurry photographs. The D810 shutter is much more damp, which not only improves sharpness at slow shutter speeds, but also does not spook wildlife. In addition, for the first time in DSLR cameras, Nikon provided the “electronic front-curtain shutter”, which can be used to completely get rid of any traces of shutter vibration.
The increased resolution on the LCD improves the quality of displayed images and those who have previously complained about the “green tint” issue on the LCD will be happy to know that Nikon is now allowing to change the color balance of the LCD screen through the Setup menu, so you can manually calibrate the screen and change it to any tint of color you like.
Last, but not least, is the number of additions and improvements for videographers and timelapse shooters. Timelapse shooters will be happy to know that there is now timelapse and interval timer exposure smoothing and the maximum number of images has been bumped up from 999 to 9,999. Videographers will appreciate such new additions as Zebra Stripes, simultaneous memory and external card recording, selectable audio frequency range, power aperture control for smoother changes in aperture and a “Flat” picture control for flatter “RAW” video footage that gives more room for editing during post-production.
What we don’t see in the above specifications list is ergonomic improvements, which certainly make the D810 more comfortable to hand-hold and use, especially with prolonged use. These changes are covered in detail next.
As you can see, the number of improvements and new features is fairly long, and I have not covered them all. If you would like to see a complete list of changes, please see my “24 things you need to know about the new Nikon D810” article.
Let’s now go over the camera in more detail.
3) Camera Construction and Ergonomics / Handling
The Nikon D810 went through small, but important ergonomic changes. The most important change is the grip, which makes the D810 much more comfortable to hand-hold than the D800 / D800E cameras. Nikon reduced the size of the “Pv” and “Fn” buttons on the front of the camera, which gives more space for fingers. The grip shape has also been changed to be a bit more curvy and it extends a little further for added comfort. The back of the camera and the memory card door have also been modified ergonomically. The hump on the back of the camera that separates the thumb has been enlarged and the memory card door is now also covered in rubber, which not only helps to keep a good grip on the camera, but also reduces the chance of potentially dropping the camera.
To follow the trend of the recent DSLRs, Nikon has moved the BKT (Bracketing) button from the top left dial of the camera to the front. Another welcome change is the textured surface of the Autofocus mode button on the left front of the camera, which makes it easy to locate it with your fingers when looking through the viewfinder. Here is a comparison of the front part of the D810 and D800E:
You can notice the slightly bumpier look of the grip on the D810 from top to bottom and the increased space for fingers.
The most notable change on the top of the camera is the large dial to the left of the viewfinder. The Nikon D810 gained a new “Qc” (Quiet Continous) mode, which allows shooting the camera in Quiet mode continuously. As mentioned above, the Bracketing button has been moved from the dial and its placeholder has been replaced with the Metering button. Speaking of which, I am glad that Nikon changed the Metering switch to a button and moved it completely from the back. The previous metering switch was painful to use, especially when wearing gloves. Now you can just push the button on the top of the camera and use the back dial to switch between different metering modes.
My biggest complaint is the “QUAL” (Quality) button – I don’t know why Nikon does not swap it with another function. When wearing gloves in the cold, I once accidentally switched from RAW to JPEG without knowing it and did not realize that I was shooting in JPEG mode for a few hours. I believe it would have been better if Nikon replaced it with something less critical, such as Info or Live View.
Aside from the changes to the left dial, the D810 only got a slight ergonomic change on the top of the camera. The On/Off switch / Shutter Release button, along with the Exposure Compensation button have been angled down a little and there is now a slight bump that separates the index finger from other buttons, which surely makes the D810 more comfortable to use.
When I talked to our wildlife and rock climbing guru John Sherman, he complained about the D800 / D800E / D810 cameras not having a feature to allow adjusting ISO with one hand while looking through the viewfinder – something he could easily do with his D4S camera. What he did not know, was that the D800 / D800E cameras actually had that feature delivered as a firmware update earlier this year: one could program the video record button on top of the camera to do just that by going to Custom Setting Menu -> Assign movie record button (f13) -> ISO sensitivity. The Nikon D810 also has this capability, so once you make the above change, you will be able to modify Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO with just your right hand. Big thanks to John Lawson for providing this useful information.
The back of the camera also went through very light changes. Nikon added an “i” button, which provides access to the most important camera settings. Although the button is new, the function access is identical to that of the D800 / D800E. On the D800 / D800E cameras, you have to press the “Info” button twice to get to the same menu. Instead, Nikon disabled the double press function on the “Info” button and moved it to this dedicated “i” button. Personally, I was perfectly fine with just a single button on the D800 / D800E and I do not feel like this function separation adds any value to the already excellent ergonomics.
Another positive change is the LCD screen. Although the screen size stayed the same at 3.2″, the resolution has increased from 921K dots to 1,229K dots, which means that you can see more details in images. In addition, as mentioned earlier, you can now actually adjust the colors on the LCD screen by going to “Setup Menu” -> “Monitor color balance”. This is a neat feature, because you can actually take a picture of a color chart and calibrate the screen to give you more accurate colors. If you see any color tint in images, you can quickly make quick corrections without having to load any software.
Overall, the camera handles very well – better than any other standard profile DSLR I have used in the past for sure…
The build quality is stellar, something one would expect from a high-end DSLR. Just like its predecessors, the D810 has a full magnesium-alloy frame and is built to last. The buttons and access doors on the camera are weather sealed for dusty and humid environments.
4) Improved Viewfinder
Another boost the Nikon D810 received when compared to the D800 / D800E is its superior pentaprism with a coated surface for more brightness and clarity. Indeed, the viewfinder on the D810 is amazing – it is both brighter and clearer when compared to my D800E viewfinder. This was especially noticeable when photographing in low light situations. In addition, Nikon actually changed the digital screen inside the viewfinder. The Nikon D810 is the first Nikon FX camera that features an OLED viewfinder display (the first Nikon DSLR to have one was the Nikon D7100), which has brighter white colors than the traditional green we see on the D800 / D800E.
5) New Mirror / Shutter Mechanism
If you have been using a Nikon DSLR, you already know how loud Nikon’s shutter is. Well, the biggest contributor to noise and camera shake is in fact not the shutter – it is the mirror. When the mirror is raised before each exposure, it results in a “mirror slap”, which generates a lot of vibration that can be felt, especially when using long lenses. That’s one area where Canon has traditionally been superior, thanks to their quieter mirror and shutter mechanisms. With the D810, Nikon has finally caught up with Canon in that regard – the D810 has a much different, dampened mirror mechanism that produces much less noise and vibration. In addition, Nikon also redesigned the shutter, which also significantly reduces noise and vibration. These two changes together amount to drastic changes when the D810 is compared to the D800 / D800E cameras.
This change alone has made the D810 worth upgrading to for some people. I personally found this change to be quite important for wildlife photography. Wild birds did not seem to mind the shutter sound from the D810, whereas the D800 / D800E and even the D4S (which is specifically targeted for sports photography) would often spook them after just a single shot. I really hope that Nikon will continue dampening the mirror and shutter mechanism on all future DSLRs, similar to what they have done on the D810.
Now if you find yourself in a situation where you really need to go as quiet as possible, the “Q” (Quiet) mode on the camera is actually pretty neat – it raises the mirror slower than usual, which produces even less noise. And the nice thing is, you can now switch to the new “Qc” (Quiet continuous) mode if you are after wildlife and do not mind the slower frame rate.
6) Electronic Front-curtain Shutter
I was very excited when I first found out that the Nikon D810 has an electronic front-curtain feature, also known as “electronic first-curtain”. This is something I have been longing for and I never thought that I would actually see the feature implemented on a Nikon DSLR (a number of Canon DSLRs, Sony SLT and mirrorless cameras have had this feature for a while). Basically, once you turn the Electronic front-curtain shutter “On” in the Custom Setting Menu (a5), the camera will be able to start the exposure without using the shutter mechanism, which helps a great deal in completely eliminating camera shake resulting from the shutter. Since the mirror and shutter must be raised for this feature to be actually useful, Nikon only enabled it in two settings: when shooting in “Mup” (Mirror lock-up) mode and in Live View.
When shooting in Mirror Lock-Up mode, the behavior of the D810 changes when compared to the D800 / D800E cameras. When you press the shutter release button, the mirror is raised and the camera waits for you to trigger the camera. Once triggered, the camera starts recording the image right away and once it is done, the shutter closes and the mirror is lowered at the same time. If you do not have a remote and you are shooting at very low shutter speeds, the camera will still vibrate from your hand releasing the shutter. In such situations, my advice would be to use the Exposure delay mode, which delays the beginning of the exposure by a set amount of time (1, 2 or 3 seconds). You can access this via “Custom Setting Menu” -> “Exposure delay mode” (d4) (I usually set mine to 3 seconds).
If you prefer to shoot in Live View mode, the Electronic Front-curtain shutter is even more useful, since the mirror is already raised. Well, that’s where Nikon screwed up, since it also requires you to be in Mirror Lock-Up mode to work as intended. If you are in any other mode, the camera will still close the shutter before the start of the exposure, which does not make any sense. This is certainly a bug and something Nikon should fix via a firmware update. Until Nikon fixes this problem, my recommendation is to use the Mirror Lock-Up mode in Live View.
Here is the typical behavior of photographing subjects in Live View mode (Nikon D800 / D800E / D810):
Nikon D800 / D800E / D810:
- Pressing the Live View button Raises the Mirror and opens the shutter
- Shutter quickly closes and opens as soon as the shutter release is pressed at the beginning of the exposure
- Sensor records data
- Shutter closes at the end of exposure and immediately opens back up to continue in live view mode
- Mirror is lowered when Live View is turned off
With the Electronic Front-curtain Shutter feature turned on, step #2 should not include any shutter action, since the shutter is already open. This is the part that Nikon needs to fix via a firmware update.
Now here is what happens when you use Mirror Lock-Up in Live View on the Nikon D800 / D800E:
- Pressing the shutter release button closes the shutter and awaits for exposure start
- Pressing the shutter release button again opens the shutter
- Sensor records data
- Shutter closes at the end of exposure and immediately opens back up to continue in live view mode
With electronic front-curtain turned on, the Nikon D810 works a bit differently in comparison:
- Pressing the shutter release button does nothing – it awaits for the exposure to start
- Pressing the shutter release button again starts the exposure without any mechanical movements
- Sensor records data
- Shutter closes at the end of exposure and immediately opens back up to continue in live view mode
As you can see, the Mirror Lock-Up feature in Live View is super effective, as it does not require the shutter to close and open again at the beginning of each exposure. The neat thing is, Exposure delay mode works even in Live View mode, so if you forget your remote camera release cable, you can set a 3 second delay as well.
This is how I captured the moon, while it was quickly moving at 1350mm focal length (see this post for more details):
When I photographed the moon with my D800E before, I had a hard time stabilizing the setup, even with a 3 second exposure delay mode. Vibrations at such long focal lengths are insane and sometimes require more than 3 seconds to completely settle. With the D810, I fired up Live View, used contrast detect to focus on the moon, then used the Mirror Lock-Up mode with a remote shutter release. As you can see, I was able to get excellent details – something I had not been able to do before.
7) Live View
One problem that I absolutely hated on the Nikon D800 / D800E cameras was live view interpolation. Unfortunately, Nikon completely screwed up the magnified view on those cameras and what you saw at 100% magnification was not pixel level, but an interpolated view that looked like fuzzy mess. This was a huge problem for me and many others, because it made live view practically useless for very precise focusing. This problem also made the job of testing lenses in my lab much more difficult – I often resorted to focus bracketing, as I simply could not clearly see how properly focused a test target really was.
Nikon fixed this annoyance on the D810 – it now has a true 1:1 pixel level magnification. This proper live view implementation was alone worth the upgrade from the D800E for me. Not only is it much easier to test lenses now, but it is also easier to acquire precise focus on distant subjects in landscape and astrophotography. If you attempt to use a 2x teleconverter with a slower lens, contrast detect AF might no longer be functional. In those situations, being able to see clearly in Live View is important for obtaining critical focus.
A neat new feature that Nikon introduced in the D810 is “Split Screen Zoom”. When activated, the camera shows you a magnified area from both left and right sides of the frame side by side, which can be used for accurate leveling of the camera. This is a great feature for correctly aligning the horizon when photographing landscapes. Architectural photographers will also appreciate this feature, because they can align buildings and other lines / objects in the frame perfectly.
8) Video / Movie Recording
Movie shooters will probably be happy to see drastic changes in movie recording capabilities of the D810. Nikon introduced a new “Auto ISO” feature in Manual Mode for video shooting, which should make it easy to keep the shutter speed and aperture the same, while letting the camera adjust brightness levels depending on the scene. Full HD recording has been increased to 60 fps and the D810 now comes with a slew of options for movie makers. In fact, Nikon is pushing the D810 heavily for videography needs, thanks to the many video recording options and simultaneous recording of footage to memory cards and external devices. Nikon now even bundles a special “film maker kit” as described in this article, which includes the Atomos Ninja 2 external video recorder. Sadly, there is no 4K support, which is quickly becoming the standard in videography.
From what I have seen in various Internet resources, the quality of videos produced from the D810 is amazing – much better compared to what the Canon 5D Mark III is capable of. I personally have not done much video recording with my D810 yet, but I am happy to see that it is also a superb camera for shooting movies.
9) Image Sensor
As I have previously mentioned, the Nikon D810 has the same resolution 36.3 MP full-frame sensor as the D800 / D800E cameras. However, despite having the same resolution, the physical sensor is actually not the same. Not only does the D810 have a different native ISO range of 64 – 12,800 (compared to ISO 100 – 6,400 on the D800 / D800E), but as you will see from the Camera Comparisons section of this review, noise patterns and white balance performance at various ISOs are also quite different.
I have been working hard on assessing the performance of the D810 sensor and have published numerous articles in regards to high ISO performance, dynamic range, colors and RAW file conversion options. Below, is a summary of my findings, with links to previously published articles that show each assessment in detail. Let’s first start with RAW converter performance.
10) Nikon D810 RAW Converter Problems
Initially, I was quite shocked to discover that the D810 actually produced more noise at high ISOs. I photographed different scenes (both indoors and outdoors) over and over again, only to see the D800E outperform the D810. How could it have been? I could not believe that Nikon would produce a DSLR that was inferior to its predecessor, so I knew that something was wrong with my setup. I suspected that the RAW converter that I was using was perhaps bad (Adobe Camera RAW / Lightroom Beta at the time) and it certainly turned out to be the case, as reported in this article. Just take a look at what Adobe Camera RAW was doing to the D810 images at ISO 12800 (Left: Nikon D810, Right: Nikon D800E):
And compare that to how Capture NX-D rendered the same files:
Despite the fact that I hated using the Capture NX-D software due to its limited features, messy interface and other problems (it crashed on me several times while I was working in it), it was pretty clear that Adobe’s RAW conversion was terrible in comparison. I really hoped that Adobe would actually fix the RAW converter with the final release of Adobe Camera RAW 8.6 and Lightroom 5.6, but sadly, that was not the case. Unfortunately, rendering of RAW files at high ISOs is only half of the problem – recovering highlights and shadows is comparably worse as well, especially when working with the sRAW format (more on that below).
Does this mean that I would not recommend to use Lightroom or Photoshop to process Nikon D810’s RAW files? No, not really. Please note that such differences in RAW rendering performance can only be seen when exposure is pushed very high. For most standard shots in the normal ISO range and when not working with extreme highlight/shadow recovery situations, one would not see much difference in RAW conversion between Adobe CR / Lightroom and Capture NX-D. Plus, I hate the idea of completely switching my standardized workflow process just because Adobe is worse at extreme exposure settings. If I take a picture of something at ISO 6400 and above, or have a complex scene that I need to aggressively recover, I might switch to Capture NX-D to recover the image, convert the RAW file to TIFF, then switch back to Lightroom / Photoshop for further processing. Other than that, I would continue to use my standard software and hope that Adobe will eventually fix the problem.
11) Image Quality and ISO Performance
Without a doubt, the Nikon D800 / D800E sensor has been the best high-resolution full-frame sensor on the DSLR market since it was released two years ago. It was a resolution king for quite sometime, until Sony eventually released the Sony A7R mirrorless camera, sporting the same sensor. When the Nikon D810 was announced, I wondered what Nikon would do to improve the already superb image quality of the 36 MP sensor. With the increased maximum native ISO of 12,800, I hoped that Nikon would be able to improve ISO performance by a full stop.
When I put the D810 and D800E side by side and shot at different ISOs from ISO 64 all the way to ISO 51,200, I realized that I was dealing with a completely different sensor and not just a remake with a few software tweaks. First, the “native” ISO range (which is the true sensor performance without any software “boosts”) is different, as pointed out earlier – the D800 / D800E has a native ISO range of 100-6,400, while the D810’s range is 64-12,800. Second, the exposure was a bit off between the cameras – the D810 produced brighter exposures, by about 1/3 of a stop. Third, white balance was also completely different. Even when converting RAW files and using the same gray card, I could not quite match the colors between the two. And it is not a bad thing by any means – in fact, as revealed in the next section, I actually find white balance performance of the D810 superior when compared to the D800 / D800E, as it renders colors more naturally. Lastly, noise performance also turned out to be different. After messing with a couple of RAW converters and analyzing dozens of RAW images as described above, I came to a conclusion that the D810 did not dramatically improve at high ISOs – its performance is very similar to that of the D800E, with only around 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop of difference in favor of the D810 at ISO 3200 and above; not a full stop, as I had hoped to see. Well, I guess 1/3 – 1/2 of stops is still better than nothing on the already superb performer. I am sure Nikon did everything it could to push the current sensor technology to its limits, so unless something groundbreaking takes place in the sensor industry, I do not expect to see significant improvements in the near future…
12) sRAW Format
Similar to the Nikon D4S, the Nikon D810 also shipped with the sRAW format option. While sRAW is practically useless on the D4S due to massive loss of resolution (sRAW files are only 4 megapixels), the sRAW option on the D810 initially seemed like a good option, since it produces 9 megapixel images. If you have never heard of the sRAW format, it is basically a down-sampled / down-sized version of the full RAW file to 1/4 the resolution. As you may already know, taking a large resolution file and down-sizing it in software results in reduced noise. In addition, this process also potentially hides such problems as camera shake and slight focus problems, because you are looking at a much lower resolution file. Many photographers that did not want to deal with massive 36 megapixel resolution RAW files were excited by this option, as they thought they could shoot at 9 megapixels and have very clean RAW images. I decided to test the sRAW format in different scenarios and see how it compared to a RAW file. My research lead to the sRAW format explained article, where I shared disappointing results, showing that sRAW was in fact not a real RAW file, but rather an 11-bit processed (demosaiced) file with limited options.
12.1) sRAW Format: White Balance and Recovery
I conducted several studies, the first of which was to compare the sRAW format with RAW and JPEG in terms of white balance and highlight recovery. For the white balance test, I changed white balance to 2500K to make the image appear very blue. Next, I attempted to recover white balance to 4900K, which was the correct white balance. The results were interesting to look at – although sRAW definitely did lose some colors when compared to RAW, its WB recovery was much better than JPEG. Take a look at how RAW compared to sRAW:
And then compare sRAW WB recovery to JPEG:
It is pretty clear that 8-bit JPEG files are bad for recovering white balance. It turns out that 8-bit versus 11-bit is a big and visible difference.
This was even more noticeable when white balance was set to the other side of the spectrum, at 10000K:
Here, you can see that the JPEG format completely lost many colors – for example, it converted blue to magenta and white to light blue.
White balance recovery differences were much more evident when I took the D810 to outdoor environment. Take a look at how sRAW dealt with 2500K to 5600K conversion in comparison to JPEG (Left: sRAW, Right: JPEG):
This was an interesting discovery, as it meant that sRAW was not a bad option for recovering white balance, especially when compared to JPEG.
My next task was to see how sRAW could deal with highlight recovery when it was pushed to +3 stops from normal exposure. Take a look at how RAW recovered highlights compared to sRAW (Left: RAW, Right: sRAW):
Unfortunately, this is where sRAW clearly struggled. Many colors were lost and lots of highlights were never recovered. JPEG was a bit worse, since it had even less data to work with (Left: sRAW, Right: JPEG):
My last test was to see how well sRAW compared to RAW and JPEG in situations where an image was underexposed heavily by 5 stops (practically a black image). sRAW did quite well there, but I made another discovery – it turns out that Adobe Camera RAW was terrible at working with the sRAW format, as demonstrated in the below image on the right:
Hence, if you choose to work with the sRAW format, you should avoid using Adobe CR / Lightroom until the sRAW conversion is fixed.
For more information on this study, along with many more examples, I recommend to read the sRAW White Balance and Recovery Study.
12.2) sRAW Format: Noise vs Down-Sampling
The next study was to evaluate noise levels when shooting sRAW, versus shooting in RAW and then down-sampling / down-sizing images in software like Lightroom / Photoshop. This was an interesting study, because it showed how well Nikon actually performs in-camera down-sampling. At ISO below 6400, I did not see much difference in noise patterns between sRAW and down-sampled RAW files. However, at ISO 12800 and above, sRAW actually performed better in comparison, as demonstrated below (Left: sRAW, ISO 12,800, Right: Down-sampled RAW, ISO 12,800):
The same behavior was observed at ISO 25,600 and 51,200, where sRAW outperformed RAW in terms of noise levels.
12.3) sRAW Format: 12-bit RAW vs sRAW
The above test results presented conflicting information about the sRAW format. On one hand, it seems to be a viable option for producing clean, 9 megapixel images that can be recovered fairly well in terms of white balance. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that there is a loss of colors, especially when recovering overexposed images. So what is our summary? Is shooting sRAW a good idea? To give my final answer, I decided to analyze sRAW files and see how they compared to 12-bit RAW files. The results are quite interesting to share:
- On average, sRAW files were approximately 27-28 MB in size, no matter how under or over-exposed the images were. In comparison, a full-resolution 14-bit Lossless Compressed RAW file varied between 30 to 42 MB! Considering that sRAW has 4 times less resolution, I expected files to be much smaller in comparison. So you are essentially losing 3/4 of pixels, with not even 50% space savings.
- Things get even worse for sRAW if you decide to shoot in 12-bit Lossless Compressed RAW. With 1 more bit of data (which translates to better highlight and shadow recovery options) and a full resolution 36 MP file, the average file size was between 28-30 MB, which is practically the same size as sRAW. This means that you are basically throwing away all those pixels for no practical gain.
- Lastly, sRAW files take a toll on both battery life and frame rate of the camera. Since the camera processor has to do all that heavy down-sampling from 36 MP to 9 MP, the camera is simply not fast enough to process many images at once, resulting in significantly smaller buffer. For example, the buffer when shooting full-size 12-bit RAW files fits approximately 47 images. If you switch to sRAW, the buffer will be reduced to just 18 sRAW images! That’s worse than even shooting 14-bit uncompressed RAW files, which are over 70 MB in size. So forget about using sRAW for continuous shooting. With such long processing times, your battery will also drain much quicker.
In summary, shooting sRAW does not make much sense – you are much better off with the 12-bit full-size RAW option.
13) ISO 32 and ISO 64 Benefits
You might be wondering who would ever need ISO 64 or 32. Well, if you like using fast f/1.4 lenses in broad daylight, you will quickly discover that a neutral density filter is very useful in those situations. The same is true for photographing long exposures during the day, say moving people, water, etc. Sure, you can always stop down the lens to a smaller aperture, but at the expense of diffraction. Anything past f/8 on a high resolution sensor negatively impacts image quality. If you compare the D810 with the D700, there is a 1.66 stop difference between the lowest allowed ISO setting on both – a significant difference. If your starting shutter speed at say f/8 is 1/250 of a second at ISO 100, going down to ISO 64 will reduce the shutter speed to 1/160 and going down to ISO 32 will reduce it to 1/80. That’s almost equivalent to using a two stop ND filter in front of the lens. It is nice to have these options when working in the field. The difference is obviously diminished to 2/3 of a stop when you compare the D810 with the D800 / D800E, but it is still an advantage. Cameras usually struggle with highlight recovery a lot more than shadow recovery, so that 2/3 of a stop advantage can sometimes save the day.
In addition, flash photography fans will also appreciate the ability to lower ISO when using fast lenses and wanting to isolate the subject from the background. Since flash sync is limited to 1/250 of a second, the shutter speed cannot be pushed beyond that, or part of the frame will be rendered dark. And 1/250 in broad daylight means that one would have to stop the lens down to a smaller aperture like f/5.6 or smaller in order to avoid overexposure. Well, f/5.6 is a pretty small aperture for a fast prime lens – it obviously translates to larger depth of field, which is not always desirable. What if you want to have a nice portrait, with the subject isolated from the background? Or perhaps you want to make those Christmas lights in the background appear like blobs with nice bokeh characteristics? Well, the only way you can do that without altering ISO is by using a neutral density filter. By blocking some of the light, you can essentially open up the lens more and decrease depth of field, which means more of the background appearing out of focus. If we look at the same 1.66 stop difference example mentioned above between Nikon D700 and Nikon D810, by changing from ISO 200 to ISO 64, you would be able to maintain the shutter speed at 1/250 of a second, while being able to open up the lens from f/5.6 to f/3.2, which is a huge change in depth of field. And sometimes even 2/3 of a stop of exposure makes a difference in darkening the sky a little when overpowering ambient light.
14) Autofocus Performance
Although Nikon has not delivered a newer autofocus system than the Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, it has been doing a great job at tweaking and increasing its performance with the newer generation DSLRs. A good example of this change was the Nikon D4S, which is noticeably better in autofocus performance (as observed by a number of our team members: Tom Redd, Robert Andersen, John Sherman, John Lawson and myself). When I asked our team what they thought was the perceived increase in AF performance when compared to the D4, the assessment was between 15% and 30% – that’s how much difference they saw in performance. Everyone reported noticeable improvements in subject tracking. Interestingly, Nikon did not specify significant increases in AF performance on the D4S in any of its marketing materials. We collectively believe that the noted autofocus improvements result from the faster EXPEED 4 processor, which is able to process data quicker. Nikon claims that the EXPEED 4 processor is approximately 30% faster than EXPEED 3 – roughly how much we thought autofocus improved by.
The Nikon D810 gained exactly the same autofocus system as the D4S and has the same EXPEED 4 processor as well. So when I received my copy of the D810, I wanted to test its performance for photographing wildlife, specifically birds in flight. After coming back from several bird photography sessions, I came to the conclusion that the Nikon D810 indeed has the same autofocus speed and accuracy as the Nikon D4S, which is remarkable. I tested the Nikon D810 with the new Tamron 150-600mm lens, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR and a few other telephoto lenses and I was amazed by the results. The camera not only acquired focus faster compared to my D800E, but it also tracked subjects much better in comparison.
This autofocus behavior was also confirmed by John Sherman, who used the Nikon D810 with a number of high-end super telephoto lenses such as the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E VR and Nikkor 500mm f/4G VR. He also did not see any differences in AF speed and tracking between the D810 and his beloved D4S. In fact, after testing the D810 out for photographing birds and other wildlife, he decided to buy a Nikon D810 for himself, since he saw the cropping potential.
Nikon has provided a number of crop options to increase the speed of the camera, decrease file size and magnify the image by reducing the field of view. In 1.2x crop mode, image resolution is reduced to 25.1 MP, but the speed of the camera is increased by 1 fps to 6 fps, which is nice. If you want to shoot at a faster frame rate, I would recommend to switch to 1.2x crop mode, since you are not losing much resolution. Another more aggressive crop mode is the 1.5x DX crop mode, which reduces resolution to 15.4 MP. Unfortunately, unless you use an MB-D12 battery grip with larger capacity EN-EL18 battery (or AA batteries), you will not be able to push the speed to 7 fps in 1.5x crop mode. The added benefit of using a crop mode is expanded buffer space for those moments when you need to shoot non-stop for prolonged periods of time during peak action. If you choose to use a crop mode, don’t forget to turn “AF point illumation” to “OFF” in Custom Setting Menu – this setting will darken and blur the area outside of the center crop in the viewfinder, making it much easier to frame your shots.
To read my detailed report on the autofocus performance of the D810, please see my Nikon D810 for wildlife photography article. A number of images from that article are presented in this review for your viewing pleasure.
What about AF speed and accuracy in photographing portraits, especially in low-light conditions? I had a chance to photograph a wedding with the Nikon D810 and I was equally impressed by the AF performance. Compared to my D800E, I came back with a lot more in-focus images than before. I used a number of different lenses that day such as Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G and Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II – all lenses performed amazingly well in both daylight and low-light situations, although I found AF accuracy on the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art to be a bit worse compared to Nikkor lenses.
If you are wondering whether the Nikon D810 is free from the Left AF issue that plagued the Nikon D800 / D800E cameras, you do not need to fear – all three samples of the D810 that we have tested were good. In addition, many of our readers that purchased the D810 were kind enough to test their cameras and report their findings to us, confirming that the focus points were indeed accurate in most cases. Looks like Nikon has fixed this issue for good and QA has been tightened on the D810, which is certainly great news.
15) Group-Area AF
The latest tweaks to the Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX also brought us the new “Group-area Autofocus”. When compared to the regular single point AF mode, Group-area Autofocus activates five AF points to track subjects. We found this focus mode to be great for initial focus acquisition and tracking of subjects when compared to a single focus point or Dynamic 9 AF, especially when dealing with smaller birds that fly erratically and can be really hard to focus on and track. In such situations, the Group-area AF mode seemed to give better results than Dynamic AF, showing better accuracy and consistency from shot to shot.
How does Group-area AF work? Basically, within the viewfinder you see four focus points, with the fifth one (the middle one) hidden. You can move all four focus points by pressing the multi-touch controller on the back of the camera (ideally, you want to stay in the middle, because the focus points in the center of the frame are cross-type and the most accurate). When pointed at a subject, all five focus points are activated simultaneously for the initial focus acquisition, with priority given to the closest subject. This differs from the the Dynamic 9 AF mode quite a bit, because D9 activates 8 focus points around the center focus point, with priority given to the chosen center focus point. If the camera fails to focus using the center focus point (not enough contrast), it attempts to do it with the other 8 focus points. Basically, the camera will always prioritize the central focus point and only failover to the other 8 if focus is not possible. In contrast, Group-area AF uses all 5 focus points simultaneously and will attempt to focus on the nearest subject, without giving preference to any of the 5 focus points.
Group-area AF is especially useful when photographing birds and other wildlife. Imagine a perched bird sitting on a stick and you are looking at it a little from above, so the ground behind the bird is clearly visible. With Dynamic AF mode, whatever you are pointing at is where the camera will initially attempt to acquire focus. If you are right on the bird, the camera will focus on the bird. If you accidentally point to the ground behind the bird, the camera will focus on the background instead. This can get quite challenging when photographing small birds, especially when the branch or stick they are sitting on is constantly moving. Getting initial focus point is important and the quicker you do it, the better the chance of capturing and tracking action, especially if the bird decides to suddenly take off. As I have mentioned above, with Group-area AF, there is no preference given to any focus point, so all 5 focus points are active simultaneously. In this particular situation, since the bird is closer than the background, as long as one of the 5 focus points is near the bird, the camera will always focus on the bird and not the background. Once focus is acquired, Group-area AF will also track the subject, but again, only if one of the 5 focus points is near the subject. If the subject moves fast and you cannot effectively pan your camera in the same direction, focus will be lost, similarly to what happens in Dynamic 9 AF mode. In terms of tracking, I personally found Group-area AF to be pretty fast, but it is hard to say if it is as fast as Dynamic 9 AF. In some situations, Dynamic 9 AF seemed to be a bit faster, but I could be wrong.
Another important fact I should mention, is that when you use Group-area AF in AF-S mode, the camera will engage face recognition and attempt to focus on the eye of the nearest person, which is neat. For example, if you are photographing someone between tree branches and leaves, the camera will always attempt to focus on the person’s face instead of the nearest leaf. Unfortunately, face recognition is activated only in AF-S mode, so if you photograph fast-moving group sports and you need the camera to lock and track on a subject’s face (and not on the nearest object), your best bet will be to use Dynamic AF instead.
16) AF Performance with Fast Prime Lenses
When the Nikon D800 and D800E cameras were released, a number of photographers previously reported AF accuracy issues when fast aperture prime lenses such as the Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G and 35mm f/1.4G were used at various distances (especially medium to long). Many more reported other AF calibration issues, where lenses required more than the maximum allowed +20-20 AF Fine Tune changes. I was similarly quite unhappy with my Nikon D800E camera – its AF system was a disaster with some lenses, particularly my Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G, 50mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.4G lenses, which never focused right even with modified AF Fine Tune settings. I ended up sending my D800E to Nikon USA for service and after several repairs and adjustments to adhere to factory standards, most of my lenses started properly focusing. The only exception was the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, which was still pretty bad and I could never get that lens to reliably focus (it works perfectly fine on D700, D3S, Df and D600 cameras).
The Nikon D810 that I received does not have problems with all of my lenses. In fact, even the 50mm f/1.4G that did not properly focus after adjustments on my D800E works very well with the D810! So far autofocus accuracy has been great with every lens and that list includes the 24mm f/1.4G, 50mm f/1.4G, 50mm f/1.8G, 85mm f/1.4G, 85mm f/1.8G, 24-70mm f/2.8G, 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and 200-400mm f/4G VR. To my surprise, I have not seen the need to AF Fine Tune any of my lenses – they all appear to be quite sharp! I have also used the D810 with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art and Tamron 150-600mm lenses, both of which did not need any AF adjustments either. There might be a need to adjust focus slightly on some lenses to get even better sharpness results, but it does not bother me at this point.
I don’t know what changes Nikon has implemented in their calibration process, but the AF accuracy seems to be much better on the D810 compared to what it was on the D800 / D800E.
Overall, I am very impressed by the autofocus system on the D810 – it is surely the best of the breed.
17) Lens Selection
To get the best out of the 36 megapixel sensor, we have been advising our readers to use high quality lenses that are actually capable of resolving that much detail. A high resolution sensor not only requires good technique to get superb pixel-level sharpness, but it also needs lenses that can truly outresolve the sensor. The good news is, after two years of testing lenses on the Nikon D800E camera, I can say that most modern lenses, as well as many of the old Nikkor lenses do not have resolution problems at 36 megapixels. However, the big difference between modern lenses and their older counterparts turns out to be their performance uniformity, or how well they are capable of resolving detail throughout the frame. Interestingly, I discovered that many of the old, film-era Nikkor and even old third party lenses perform amazingly well on a 36 MP sensor, especially once they are stopped down a bit. However, many of them suffer from different optical problems such as spherical aberration, distortion, field curvature, chromatic aberration and focus shift. And with poor or lack of coating technologies, many of them were prone to heavy ghosting and flare issues as well. As a result, although such lenses could technically produce quite sharp results on the 36 MP sensor, their sharpness quickly deteriorated away from the focused area. Aside from poorer glass molding and coating technologies back then, the primary reason for such differences in performance was actually the fact that those lenses were designed for film, which was curvy in nature compared to flat digital camera sensors. So the effect of field curvature, for example, was really not an issue back in the day.
While this is not a problem for portrait photographers, as they mostly focus on a particular part of the frame, landscape and architecture photographers would have a hard time with sharpness uniformity, unless modern lenses that are optically corrected for high resolution sensors are used. Super telephoto lenses can be excluded, because they rarely ever suffer from field curvature issues – the biggest problems are ultra-wide to normal lenses, especially cheaper zoom lenses. If you buy pretty much any full frame lens that was introduced in the last 3-4 years, you can expect it to perform very well on the D800, D800E and D810. For example, all modern f/1.8G prime lenses such as the Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G, 35mm f/1.8G, 50mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G are capable of yielding superb sharpness from center to extreme corners, especially when stopped down. The same goes for such zoom lenses as Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G (although it has weak corners at wide apertures), 24-120mm f/4G, 70-200mm f/2.8G and 70-200mm f/4G. The new Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED proved to be optically stellar on the D800E, even surpassing the older 16-35mm f/4G lens in resolution.
Lenses that presented challenges were mostly the ones dating back before 2010. For example, the Nikkor 24mm f/3.5D is quite poor optically. Its center performance is sub-par, even when stopped down and its corners are very weak for such an expensive lens. The Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G is a sharpness monster, but it has noticeable focus shift that one must be careful about. The Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G is quite weak at large apertures in the corners and needs to be stopped down to f/8 to yield relatively good sharpness. Super-zoom lenses such as the Nikkor 28-300mm have all kinds of optical issues at varying focal lengths. One has to understand these problems and limitations when using older lenses.
The good news is, Nikon and other third party manufacturers are working hard to produce high-quality lenses with lots of resolving power. For example, Sigma’s 35mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 Art lenses perform remarkably well at maximum aperture on the Nikon D800 / D800E / D810 cameras. The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 was an absolute monster in terms of sharpness and optical quality, surpassing all other lenses we have tested to date. That lens will probably outresolve a 50 MP+ full-frame sensor in the future. I expect to see many more lenses that are specifically designed for high resolution sensors in the future. I am sure Nikon is working on such lenses as we speak…
18) Shooting Speed (FPS) and Buffer
Thanks to the newer EXPEED 4 processor and faster memory technologies, the camera gains 1 FPS improvement in speed, jumping to 5 FPS continuous shooting in full resolution, 6 FPS in DX / 1.2x crop modes and 7 FPS with the MB-D12 battery grip. In comparison, the D800 / D800E shoot at 4 FPS in full resolution and require the MB-D12 battery grip to get to 6 FPS in DX mode. As pointed out in the previous section, this is certainly a positive change for wildlife photographers, because every FPS matters for those fast-action shots.
And if you are wondering how long you can shoot continuously without filling the buffer, check out the below table that compares the buffer size of the D810 to the D800 / D800E cameras:
|DSLR||Image Type||FX Size||DX Size||FX Buffer||DX Buffer|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||31.9 MB||14.6 MB||47||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||32.4 MB||14.9 MB||21||38|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||40.7 MB||18.3 MB||28||97|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||41.3 MB||18.6 MB||17||29|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 12-bit||29.2 MB||13.3 MB||58||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 12-bit||29.0 MB||13.2 MB||25||54|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 14-bit||36.3 MB||16.4 MB||35||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 14-bit||35.9 MB||16.2 MB||20||41|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 12-bit||55.9 MB||24.4 MB||34||78|
|Nikon D810||NEF (sRAW), Uncompressed, 12-bit||27.8 MB||16.4 MB||18||23|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 12-bit||57.0 MB||25.0 MB||18||30|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 14-bit||73.2 MB||31.8 MB||23||46|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 14-bit||74.4 MB||32.5 MB||16||25|
|Nikon D810||JPEG Fine (Large)||18.1 MB||8.6 MB||100||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||JPEG Fine (Large)||16.3 MB||8.0 MB||100||100|
Looking at the above table, Nikon shows the buffer to be almost double in size compared to the D800 / D800E in certain cases. For example, shooting lossless compressed RAW images in 12-bit on the D800/D800E yields 21 images, which with the 4 fps speed basically translates to 5.25 seconds of continuous shooting before the buffer gets full. With the 47 image buffer at 5 fps on the D810, we are at about 9.4 seconds of total continuous shooting time before the buffer gets full. That’s almost twice longer – a huge difference! And if you are willing to cut some corners and reduce image quality to 12-bit compressed RAW, the camera will be able to accommodate 58 images, which is almost twelve seconds of continuous shooting time.
Keep in mind that the above chart is based on fast UDMA 7 CF cards that can do 160 MB/sec speeds. If you want to reach similar numbers, I would recommend to get one of those SanDisk Extreme Pro 32 GB CF cards (preferably even larger if your aim is to use the D810 for wildlife photography).
Speaking of memory cards, the D800 / D800E cameras had a nasty and annoying memory card write bug, where the memory access light would occasionally light up for no reason and the camera would freeze for 5-6 seconds. Although Nikon supposedly fixed this problem with a firmware update, my D800E continued to behave erratically with all memory cards, occasionally freezing up. I have shot over 5000 frames with the Nikon D810 and I am happy to report that the D810 does not seem to have this problem!
19) Metering, Colors and Exposure
Although the metering system on the Nikon D810 has the same “3D Color Matrix Meter III” name as the Nikon D800 / D800E, Nikon has clearly made a few tweaks to it to make it even better. First, I found the D810 to be more accurate than the D800 / D800E in metering performance, especially when dealing with difficult and fast-changing situations (photographing moving wildlife, etc). I got an impression that this affected Auto ISO performance in a positive way as well. When photographing people, the D810 seemed to pay more attention to properly exposing people’s faces and it certainly did a good job. During wedding and portraiture sessions, I rarely found the need to use exposure compensation, since the camera performed so well, both indoors and outdoors.
Nikon added a new “Highlight Weighted Metering” mode to the D810, which can be useful in situations where a bright beam of light hits part of the subject. Instead of letting the camera overexpose the bright area and completely lose all the details, the Highlight Weighted Metering mode will automatically darken the exposure in attempt to preserve the highlights. This mode can be useful when shooting concerts or when dealing with a single bright source of light when photographing a subject. For more information on the Highlight Weighted Metering feature, check out this detailed article.
I could not help but notice differences in brightness as well – the D810 seemed to produce images a bit brighter than my Nikon D800E, by about 1/3 of a stop, even with exactly the same exposure settings. I am not sure why there is a change in brightness, but I noticed this when using several samples of the D810.
When it comes to colors, there is a very noticeable difference in rendering of colors between the D810 and the D800E. Whether I was performing indoor out outdoor tests, the D810 consistently showed different color / white balance performance, with the D800E typically rendering warmer colors. Interestingly, I could never really match white balance perfectly between the two cameras, even when using a color chart with neutral gray colors. In my opinion, this is a positive change, because colors and skin tones from the Nikon D810 appear more natural to my eyes.
20) Dynamic Range
When Nikon lowered its base ISO from 200 to 100 on the last generation DSLRs, the change came with a significant boost in dynamic range at ISO 100. Since Nikon lowered base ISO to 64 on the D810, I wondered if we would see even higher dynamic range at ISO 64 when compared to ISO 100 on the D800 / D800E. As I expected, ISO 64 indeed turned out to have slightly more dynamic range than ISO 100 when recovering shadows, as demonstrated below. For this test, I heavily underexposed the scene by 5 stops, then recovered the image in post-processing (Left: Nikon D810 ISO 64, Right: Nikon D810 ISO 100):
As you can see, ISO 100 appears a bit noisier in comparison. DxOMark measured this difference at approximately 0.4 stops, which seems about right. It is not a huge difference in dynamic range, but it is certainly there. With this change, the D810 takes the dynamic range crown, which was previously owned by the D800 / D800E cameras for over two years.
Now if we compare dynamic range of the D810 to the D800E, that’s a mixed situation. As I have demonstrated in this article, the actual difference in dynamic range is very small, with D800 sometimes taking over at some ISOs. If one were to compare ISO 64 on the D810 to ISO 100 on the D800 / D800E, the Nikon D810 obviously looks better. However, at ISO 100, both cameras produce about the same dynamic range.
Hence, to get the best possible dynamic range, I would recommend to use ISO 64 on the Nikon D810.
And if you wonder how Nikon DSLRs compare to Canon, take a quick look at this article that compares the Nikon D800E to the Canon 6D, which has the highest dynamic range among Canon DSLRs. Canon does not even come close in dynamic range performance when compared to Nikon for both highlight and shadow recovery. And with even higher dynamic range at ISO 64 on the D810, Canon DSLRs simply do not stand a chance.
21) Battery Life
The interesting fact about the Nikon D810, is that it has significantly longer battery life than the D800 / D800E. The Nikon D810 can shoot a total of 1200 shots (CIPA), while the D800 / D800E is limited to 900 shots (CIPA) – that’s 33% longer battery life with the same EN-EL15 battery. Well, it turns out that the battery is actually not quite the same. Although the battery on my Nikon D810 shows “EN-EL15”, the lithium technology used on the new D810 battery is different – the marking on the battery right next to the recycle sign indicates Li-ion20, versus Li-ion01 on the D800 / D800E. A number of our readers have previously asked us if it is possible to use the new battery on the D800 / D800E cameras to yield more shots – yes, you certainly can.
During the wedding, I was shooting as much as possible to see how many shots I could squeeze out of a single charge. The battery lasted all day and I still had a single bar left after leaving the wedding. I shot exactly 1747 frames and I am sure I could easily do 200 more. Keep in mind that the CIPA rating of 1200 shots is based on use of the camera in different conditions, including use of built-in flash and Live View (which I only used a little), so if you use the camera only for stills and turn off image preview, you can probably get over 2000 shots on a single charge. This is great news for those of us that spend a lot of time on the road – no need for constant recharging of the battery!
See the next section to see examples of Nikon D810’s ISO performance, along with comparisons to other cameras, including the Nikon D800E.
22) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
Some technical information:
- White Balance: Custom
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW (14-bit Uncompressed)
- Converted with Capture NX-D 1.0.1
Let’s take a look at how the Nikon D810 performs at low ISOs. Here are some crops at ISO 64, 100, 200, 400 and 800 at pixel level:
The images look very nice with no noticeable noise between ISO 64 and ISO 400. At ISO 800, we can see a slight hint of noise, but it does not affect any details or colors.
23) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-51200)
High ISO performance is a very important measure of DSLR sensor quality for low-light photography. Here is how the Nikon D810 performs at high ISO levels between ISO 1600 and 51200:
Every step up in ISO adds a slight amount of grain. We can see that shadow areas start to get impacted at ISO 3200.
At ISO 6400 there is a lot more noise throughout the image, but the shadow areas still look relatively clean. Unfortunately, ISO 12800 basically doubles the amount of noise and the shadow areas are now badly affected.
The last two ISO settings, ISO 25600 and 51200 are pretty much useless, thanks to the severe loss of colors and details. You might get an OK image at ISO 25600 if you are willing to heavily down-sample, but I don’t think you will get far at ISO 51200, as it looks bad even at sRAW, which has 1/4 the resolution.
It is hard to judge the performance of the Nikon D810 without direct comparisons to other professional cameras, which is why you should definitely check out the next section.
24) Nikon D810 vs Nikon D800E ISO Noise Comparison
First, let’s take a look at how the Nikon D810 compares to the previous generation Nikon D800E, starting from ISO 64. For this test, we will be comparing both cameras at 100% crop without any down-sampling. Since the D800E does not have ISO 64, the below crop was shot at ISO 50 (Low ISO boost):
There is not much to say about low ISO performance – both cameras produce superb results at low ISOs. Except the D810 does not have to boost anything at ISO 64, since it is its start of the “native” ISO range. I have not performed any dynamic range tests yet, but hopefully this means more dynamic range for the D810.
Next, here is ISO 100 (Left: Nikon D810, Right: Nikon D800E):
Performance at low ISOs is excellent on both cameras, so there is no need to look here – let’s skip to ISO 800 and above.
Noise patterns look a little different between the two, but I cannot say that one is better than the other.
The same for ISO 1600.
At ISO 3200, we can see that the D800E starts to develop more patches of false color in some areas of the image.
As we push ISO higher towards 6400, we can now see that the shadow area on the D800E is clearly more affected with noise patterns.
And this is much more evident at ISO 12800, where the D810 is clearly better in handling noise throughout the image.
ISO 25600 is just too much for both cameras, but once again, the D810 appears visibly better.
And the D810 comes with a useless ISO 51200, which I personally would never use due to severe loss of details, colors and way too much grain.
Please note that all of the above are 100% crops from the center of the frame. No processing was performed on images, including sharpening, contrast, levels, etc.
25) Nikon D810 vs Nikon D800E ISO Noise Comparison Summary
Judging from the above ISO crops, the performance difference between the two cameras is between 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop at ISO 3200 and above. Although Nikon pushed native ISO a full stop higher, I do not see a full stop of difference between these cameras. Now I do have to say that the brightness difference that I noticed and showed above between the two cameras (the D810 being brighter) is actually in favor of the D810. If I were to equalize the brightness levels of both cameras by darkening the D810 images, noise levels would appear even better in comparison.
As stated before, it appears that we have hit the wall in terms of pure ISO performance for such a high resolution camera. Soon enough, unless something drastically changes in sensor technology, such comparisons might become useless, since we are seeing less and less improvements with the newer generation cameras. It does not mean that we are done with innovation though – the primary factor for competitive advantage now lies with features and other technological advancements. And that’s where the D810 certainly does deliver, as highlighted in the previous sections of this review.
26) Nikon D810 vs Nikon Df
When comparing a high-resolution sensor to a lower-resolution one, it only makes sense to compare both at the same size. For the below comparison, I down-sampled the D810 images to 16 MP to match the resolution of the Nikon Df. Let’s take a look at the comparison (Left: Nikon D810, Right: Nikon Df):
At low ISO levels, noise characteristics of both sensors are very similar. However, the Nikon D810 images show more detail due to the above-mentioned down-sampling process. The Nikon D810 also renders colors a bit differently in comparison.
Up until ISO 1600, it is practically impossible to distinguish between the D810 and Df performance at similar resolution. At pixel-level, the Df obviously looks a lot better.
At ISO 1600 there is a bit more noticeable grain on the D810, but the detail level is very high.
Similar behavior can be observed at ISO 3200.
Pushing ISO to 6400 reveals a little bit more grain and artifacts on the D810, while the Df seems to handle noise a bit better in comparison.
ISO 12800 is a bit grainy on both cameras, but the Nikon Df appears cleaner in comparison and does not seem to have as many artifacts.
Pushing further down to ISO 25600 makes things look rather bad on both cameras, as expected. Both cameras lose too much dynamic range and details. However, the Nikon Df still handles noise clearly better in comparison.
Finally, at ISO 51200, the Nikon Df still shows quite good handling of noise in comparison, but it is too noisy to be actually usable.
27) Nikon D810 vs Nikon Df ISO Noise Comparison Summary
As we have seen before, the Nikon Df handles noise very well, thanks to its large pixels and superb pixel-level performance. While both cameras do very well at lower ISOs, it is clear that the Nikon Df’s 16 MP sensor performs visibly better at higher ISOs, particularly above ISO 6400 in both noise performance and dynamic range.
28) Nikon D810 vs Fuji X-T1
Let’s see how the Nikon D810 compares to the Fuji X-T1, which has a smaller APS-C sensor (Left: Nikon D810, Right: Fuji X-T1):
Just like with the Nikon Df, the image from the X-T1 appears a bit softer in comparison to the D810 image, since the D810 image is down-sampled. Noise levels are very similar on both cameras.
Pushing to ISO 400 does not change much – both cameras perform admirably with no noticeable noise.
The same thing happens at ISO 800.
Even ISO 1600 shows impressive performance on behalf of the Fuji X-T1, which shows just how good modern APS-C sensors have gotten. The D810 looks better, but not by a big margin.
ISO 3200 shows visibly more grain on the Fuji X-T1 and we now see patches of artifacts in the shadows. There is also visible loss of colors and dynamic range on the X-T1, while the D810 retains both quite well in comparison.
The last comparable ISO is 6400, since the Fuji X-T1 does not shoot in RAW at higher ISOs. Here we see that the Fuji X-T1 lost a lot of details and its noise is much worse when compared to the D810. In addition, there is heavy loss of colors and dynamic range, which is expected from the smaller APS-C sensor.
29) Nikon D810 vs Fuji X-T1 ISO Noise Comparison Summary
The above comparison shows that the difference in performance between the Nikon D810 and the Fuji X-T1 is quite minimal at low ISOs and only becomes obvious once the cameras are pushed to ISO 1600 and above. The Fuji X-T1 demonstrates impressive performance at pixel level, with very little noise visible, even at higher ISOs. Where the D810 takes over is in sharpness, thanks to its massive megapixel count and the effect of down-sampling. It also produces visibly better images with more dynamic range, colors and details at ISO 1600 and above. Sadly, Fuji does not allow shooting in RAW above ISO 6400, so we could not show performance differences at higher ISOs.
As you have seen from the previous sections of this review, there is a lot to say about the new and improved features of the Nikon D810, whether comparing it to the previous generation D800E or other Nikon DSLRs. Although I have used the camera for a little over a month, I feel like there is still a lot to discover and learn about this amazing tool. Without a doubt, Nikon put a lot of effort into making the Nikon D810 a very appealing camera for photo enthusiasts and pros.
Some might argue that the Nikon D810 is what the D800 should have been from the beginning. True, the D800 was plagued with the asymmetric focus issue, had green tint LCD problems, memory card compatibility problems, occasional lock-ups and had other limitations that were finally fixed on the D810. However, those people should also understand that bringing a revolutionary camera like the D800 to the market over two years ago was a big task on its own, let alone make it completely problem-free. You might remember that before the D800, the highest resolution Nikon DSLRs had 24 megapixels (with the similar class D700 only having 12 MP), so jumping to 36 megapixels was a huge step up for Nikon that came with its own set of challenges and issues.
The Nikon D810 took two years in the making. During those two years Nikon not only took measures to address the difficult autofocus issue (which I am sure required significant QA changes and very tight manufacturing tolerances), but also listened to customer feedback, fixed many bugs and annoyances, improved performance and provided plenty of new appealing features. Not to mention pushing the image quality envelope even higher with world’s highest dynamic range, even when compared to medium format cameras.
Although Nikon put a lot of effort into making a problem-free camera, we did discover a thermal issue that affected images at long exposures and quickly reported it to Nikon. Thankfully, it did not take long for Nikon to acknowledge this issue and offer a solution, which takes care of this issue completely. Despite the fact that a number of people were angry at Nikon for another flaw, we never looked at the issue as a serious problem in the first place, because it was only visible at very long exposures and it could be taken care of by turning the Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature on. Now that the problem is taken care of, aside from the poor implementation of the electronic front-curtain shutter in Live View mode, there is really nothing else to complain about.
Is the Nikon D810 worth upgrading to? It depends on a number of things, among which is your current equipment and the type of photography you do. If you already own a D800 or a D800E, you need to consider if the autofocus system, speedier operation, larger buffer, better handling/ergonomics, much quieter shutter and other improvements are worth the investment for you. I would say landscape and architecture photographers might be better off by skipping a generation. If, however, you shoot sports, wildlife or do lifestyle photography, the faster and more accurate autofocus and the larger buffer on the D810 might be worth looking into. Now, if you have anything other than D800 or D800E and need a high resolution camera for your work, then by all means, go for the D810 – you will not regret it.
All things considered, the Nikon D810 is the best general purpose DSLR Nikon has produced to date in my opinion. This conclusion is also shared by the rest of our team at Photography Life – five of our contributors have purchased the D810 since it became available and continue to be impressed by its superb performance.
31) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon D810 body only for $3,296.95 (as of 08/21/2014).
32) More image samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Movie Recording Features
- Dynamic Range
- Speed and Performance
Photography Life Overall Rating