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 the 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 the 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.
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.
If we compare the dynamic range of the D810 to the D800E, it is a mixed situation, because it all depends on what ISO you use for comparison. Below is a detailed comparison between the two.
Nikon D810 vs D800 / D800E Dynamic Range Comparison
Since the D810 has a base ISO of 64, we decided to provide ISO 64 and ISO 100 samples to see if there is any discernible difference between the two. We also provided ISO 3200 samples to show differences in dynamic range at high ISOs between these cameras.
First, let’s take a look at how ISO 64 compares to ISO 100 on the D810. For the below comparisons, we specifically overexposed and underexposed X-Rite’s ColorChecker by up to five stops, then recovered details in software. Here is a normally exposed image of the ColorChecker:
The top portion of the first row of colors was slightly underexposed on purpose.
Nikon D810 ISO 64 vs ISO 100
First, let’s take a look at how ISO 64 compares to ISO 100 on the D810 when an image is overexposed by 4 stops, then recovered in post (Left: Nikon D810, Right: Nikon D800E):
I cannot see any differences between the two – it looks like colors are equally lost on both and there is no advantage of ISO 64 when compared to ISO 100.
Here is a comparison of ISO 64 and 100 when an image is underexposed by 5 stops, then recovered:
In the above case, we can see that there is a slight difference in performance between ISO 64 and 100 when recovering an image. It looks like ISO 64 looks a bit cleaner in comparison to ISO 100, which translates to slightly higher dynamic range.
Nikon D810 ISO 64 vs Nikon D800 / D800E ISO 100
Now let’s see how the D810 compares to the D800 / D800E at base ISO. Here is a set of underexposed images, recovered by four stops:
Again, hard to say which one looks better. Let’s push both by +5 stops:
The Nikon D810 appears better in my opinion, with less visible noise and more accurate colors – an indication of superior dynamic range.
Nikon D810 ISO 3200 vs Nikon D800 / D800E ISO 3200
Let’s push both cameras to ISO 3200 and see what happens. Here is Nikon D810 and D800E at ISO 3200, pushed by -4 stops:
The situation is a bit different at ISO 3200, with the D800 / D800E preserving colors a little bit better. And here are both cameras underexposed by five stops, then recovered in post:
The Nikon D810 seems to have a bit more artificial color and a different noise pattern. In my opinion, the D800 / D800E appears a little better here.
Nikon D810 vs D800 / D800E Dynamic Range Summary
After going back and forth looking at images from D810 and D800 / D800E, I honestly cannot say that one is clearly superior to the other – it looks like the dynamic range performance is very similar overall at the same ISO settings. The D810 appears a little better at base ISO 64 than the D800 / D800E at ISO 100, but seems to be a bit worse at high ISOs. Although the above image crops were extracted from Lightroom 5.6, I also compared both at ISO 3200 on Nikon’s Capture NX-D and it showed similar results.
Based on the above, I would recommend using ISO 64 on the Nikon D810 to get the best possible dynamic range.
If you are wondering 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 the even higher dynamic range at ISO 64 on the D810, Canon DSLRs simply do not stand a chance.
The interesting fact about the Nikon D810 is that it has a 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 the 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 page to see examples of Nikon D810’s ISO performance, along with comparisons to other cameras, including the Nikon D800E.
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