The battery grip has to be the most overpriced accessory in photography. Think about it – it’s a plastic/composite case filled with batteries and a few switches – that’s it. How come a Nikon MB-D12 costs $399 and the batteries aren’t even included? The Nikon D3300 body costs a bit more and it comes with a battery (and a 24mp sensor + EXPEED 4 processor, etc. etc). Heck, for 50 bucks you can buy a similarly-sized plastic case filled with batteries and switches that has 16 programmable modes, multiple movable parts and will do a heck of a job massaging your back when you are in pain, post-processing those wedding photos from the couple that will probably get divorced before you are done. So why use a battery grip?
The main benefit is in ease of handling when shooting in vertical (portrait) orientation – the extra shutter release, command dials, AF button and multi-selector allow one to shoot vertically and adjust exposure and focus with ease. Battery grips also take strain off one’s right wrist and both shoulders by providing a more ergonomic shooting position. This is the main reason I use one as I have shoulder damage and using a battery grip allows me to shoot for a longer period in portrait orientation before lowering the camera due to shoulder pain. If you shoot handheld with heavy lenses this is a real bonus and many users find that certain heavy camera/lens combinations feel more balanced with a battery grip attached. Another big advantage is that you have extra battery power for extended shooting. This really comes into play when shooting a lot in battery-gobbling live view mode or if you’re remote triggering and can’t conveniently change out batteries. Furthermore, some grips will boost the frames per second a camera can shoot. Lastly, most battery grips come with a second tray that allows use of AA batteries – helpful if you don’t own a bunch of dedicated Li-ion camera batteries.
1) Nikon MB-D12
The MB-D12 fits the Nikon D800, D800E and D810 models. It attaches snugly and all the switches do what they should, when they should as they damn well better for $399 (addendum: after writing this I had a few multi-selector freeze-ups with the MB-D12 – something for which I would return the item for replacement). You can remove the battery in the grip and it will still allow use of the various functions. If you insert 8 AA’s in the grip and shoot in DX mode you can boost the frame rate from 6 fps to 7 fps. The Nikon USA site only mentions this is possible with the BL5/EN-EL18 fitted, but thanks to an astute reader I went back and checked this myself and got 7fps in DX-mode with the lithium AAs I had.
2) Nikon BL-5 Battery Chamber Cover for MB-D1
The MB-D12 boosts the frame rate of the D810 from 6 fps to 7fps you are shooting in DX mode and insert a EN-EL18 or EN-EL18a into the battery grip. You can also do this with AA batteries so the value in using the EN-EL18 is more along environmental lines because you are using a rechargeable battery. To do this you need to fork out $24.95 for the BL-5 Battery Chamber Cover, an accessory that really should be included with the MB-DL12 in the first place. Of course you also need an EN-EL18a so add a cool $149 on top of that. Ouch. So to go from 6fps to 7fps with the D810 and EN-EL18s will cost you over $570 and you’ll be shooting 15 mp files and filling your buffer that much faster. For the environmentally-conscious sports or wildlife shooter that already owns EN-EL18s, this could be the way to go. I did not have any rechargeable AAs to test if this also gave a boost to 7 fps.
3) Vello BG-N7
Several third party manufacturers offer more economical battery grips for the D810. I tried out the Vello BG-N7, which costs $89.95. While the BG-N7 won’t massage your back, the savings compared to Nikon’s grip just might. Of course that depends on if it does the job. The BG-N7 attached just as snuggly to the D810 as the Nikon grip. So far, so good. The buttons and dials are in virtually identical places. The command and sub-command dials work fine, though seem to have a very slightly lighter click between stops than the Nikon. The AF-button works dandy. That leaves the multi-selector and this is the only dial that gave me problems. When using it to move the focus point it did fine when shifting up or down or to the left, but had trouble shifting to the right. Often I would try and scroll the AF-point to the right and it would jump to the center point because it thought I was center-pushing, not right-pushing. The Nikon multi-selector toggle felt more accurate and forgiving than the Vello’s. I played with the Vello and over time got better and scrolling the point around with fewer center-point mishits. If I set the custom setting f2 shooting mode to “none” it stopped the center-point jumps, but didn’t eliminate the need for precise thumb angles to get the AF-point to move to the right. Functionally, this is the only gripe I have with the Vello grip and for a $300+ savings, I think I could train my thumb to deal with it. Both grips have nice grippy rubber and are very similar ergonomically. Without shooting both grips for months or years, I cannot comment on durability. The Vello BG-N7 weighs 269 grams, the Nikon MB-D12 weighs 278 grams so there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in weight of materials used. Opening the case and staring in the chamber reveals a different story – the Nikon has thinner walls than the Vello. Nikon USA’s site states the unit is made of polycarbonate. I tossed the Vello and Nikon in my freezer and both came out equally cold, but the Nikon remained colder inside as they warmed up. This and the thinness of the walls inclines me to agree with MB-D12 users who claim the Nikon has a shell of metal alloy, not polycarbonate. If you really beat on your gear this might make the Nikon a better choice.
The Vello grip does not accept the EN-EL18(a) batteries. The Nikon BL-5 is not compatible with the Vello grip. However I did achieve 7 fps in DX-mode with the Vello fitted with lithium AAs.
4) Other considerations
The Nikon grip has groove in rubber on the bottom of the grip that may work better with certain Arca-Swiss L-plates (My Really Right Stuff D4s L-plate seems to sit in this groove so don’t be surprised if RRS and Kirk, et.al. machine their L-plates to fit the Nikon grip without allowing for third party designs). That said, if you’re shooting on a tripod a battery grip doesn’t offer any real advantages so you might as well just take it off and use a standard L-plate.
(NEW CONTENT UPDATE) One of our readers brought up a great point that if one were hanging $5000 worth of camera gear off the tripod socket of one’s battery grip, should one trust a third party grip? It bugged me that I didn’t have the answer for him so I did this test. I took the Vello grip, attached a RRS arca-swiss plate to the Vello’s tripod socket, attached that to the arm from a sidekick gimbal, then slung a dumbbell to the Vello grip and hoisted it up for this selfie.
That’s a 20-pound dumbbell and a pretty good A-sneer I’ve got going (pics of smiling people don’t win Pulitzers). In comparison a D4s plus 800 mm weighs about 13 pounds. So this is way more load than one should ever hang off a tripod socket. The dumbbell was swinging a bit, but not bouncing. I’m holding the gimbal arm near the end to apply a bunch of torque. The tripod socket held firm and showed no signs of distortion.
Nikon is seriously ripping off customers with the MB-D12. However, Nikon does have a sense of humor about it – just go to Nikon USA and see where they ask $616 for this glorified battery case. Unless you really desire the use of the Nikon MB-D12/BL-5/EN-EL18 combination or give your gear a hard daily beating, I would suggest trying the Vello instead and saving a wad of dough. If you can’t get used to the multi-selector within 30 days, take advantage of B&H’s return policy.
Before you do that though, consider this. The D810 packs so many megapixels into its files that you can shoot horizontal (landscape) orientation, then crop to a vertical image and still have a 16 MP file. If you are satisfied with this (my friend who shoots for that undersized mag with the yellow borders does this all the time), then maybe you don’t need a battery grip at all. Wow, with all the clams you save you can buy some other battery-driven gizmos sure to put a smile on your face.
6) Where to Buy
Vello BG-N7 Review
- Build Quality
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating