Damien Demolder - former editor of Amateur Photographer Magazine

There is a rule in the cruise ship business that you never go on a vessel’s first voyage. The ship is just out of builder’s yard, the crew is new and unfamiliar with the layout of the decks, and the toilets and/or air conditioning are almost guaranteed to fail the moment you are too far from land to turn back. It makes sense to allow others to experience all the problems, to do all the pointing out and complaining, and to give the cruise line time to complete the fixes that will make the ship the way it was originally intended. Then you can actually enjoy the trip. 

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The same principle applies to new technology - we all appreciate the cost of being one of those people the electronics industry flatters as ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced’ by labeling them ‘early adopter’. Unkind people might say that ‘early adopter’ is a polite way of saying ‘guinea-pig’. 

It is usually easy enough to avoid becoming an early adopter by simply not buying anything when it first comes out. But sometimes the presence of new technology, new ideas or new concepts is well enough concealed below a layer of trust and excitement that we can become early adopters without realizing. The pixel-count of the Nikon D800/E was ground breaking when the cameras were launched in early 2012. Now, with all the benefits that hindsight brings, perhaps we can all see that fact alone should have alerted us to wait a while. To wait for a better view of what the issues were going to be. 

Wait for the Compromising to be Over

For me it was enough that there were two versions of the D800 launched at the same time. I’ve never been a fan of this-one-or-that-one products, as history has proved that when a company produces twins it is because it can’t get something right or can’t make up its mind. It annoyed me when Nikon used to produce H and S versions of its pro-end bodies, offering either resolution or speed. I knew that what we all wanted, and would eventually get, was both. Tandem models will always amalgamate, then into X cameras, and now into the D810. 

Amalgamations are often less obviously exciting, because they contain less that is new. They are equally-often considered a little dull and uninteresting by journalists and photographers alike – who naturally crave giant leaps and new technological territories. In the D810 though there are some serious strides of progress, and while they may not quicken the pulse of those who study spec sheets, those who spend time in the field with these products may appreciate more fully their use and meaning.

Lower ISO - at Last!

The change that first grabbed my attention, and that which still excites me most, is the D810’s ISO range. No, not that it can be set at ISO 12,800, but that for once we are shifting down a gear into the territory of Kodachrome and high resolution films. My goodness, wasn’t it hard enough to get Nikon to bring down its native ISO settings to 100? But now we have a non-expansion mode that allows ISO 64. With this step Nikon puts some distance between itself and the rest of the industry – as well as, crucially, between its DSLRs and the capabilities of the compact system camera – not all of which have yet been blessed with a proper ISO 100 setting. Now we can more easily use fast aperture lenses wide open in daylight hours to enjoy the dramatic separation of extremely shallow depth of field and selective focusing. Perhaps Nikon will help to relieve the pressure on manufacturers of 10-stop ND filters, as soon landscapers will be able to achieve the same effects with less powerful and more common versions – and less infrared-tinting too!

The D810's sensor lacks an OLPF for optimal resolution - this is in contrast to the D800E, which had the effect of its OLPF 'canceled'.

The removal of what was left of the AA and low pass filters is certainly a significant move. Now we may be able to see a much greater difference in the detail-rendering abilities of this model and the D800 than we did between the D800 and the D800E. It amazed me at the time that Nikon thought it necessary to offer its users a choice between convenience and resolution. Surely it understood, after 24 years of making DSLRs, that most its high-end users would fly to the moon and back if it meant gaining an extra couple of pixels. Incredibly, Nikon was ‘taken by surprise’ at the uptake of the ‘anti-aliasing properties removed’ D800E - had the price of the two bodies been the same it may have been even more surprised!

It's all in the Detail

Those who implied that camera shake made handheld resolution somehow worse (rather than just easier to inspect) with 36 million pixels than it is with less-densely populated sensors will be pleased with Nikon’s electronic first curtain option. Indeed, I am myself, as the absence of internal vibrations will make images sharper all round. The cruelly ironic loss of detail is the most prevalent complaint of the D800/E user. With this fix, along with a softer mirror action, Nikon appears to have found a sensible way to address those issues. 

I’m not yet a great movie maker, but welcome the idea of the ‘Flat’ picture control mode, and the migration of clarity adjustments from Adobe Camera Raw into a camera body. These are really positive steps towards allowing better quality processed JPEGs direct from the camera. Taking us in opposite directions, the concepts of ‘Flat’ and ‘Clarity’ offer on one hand a clean, clear JPEG that can be worked in software with reduced danger of disintegration, and on the other a really sensible way of increasing the appearance of contrast and sharpness without losing extreme tonal values or adding white halos around high contrast edges. And highlight metering (‘hardly a new idea’, says Mr Olympus) might help to take the guesswork out of exposure compensation in dramatic lighting conditions. 

Life-enhancing changes

Do all these things add up to an exciting upgrade? While there are no fireworks and marching bands, the adjustments that Nikon has made are genuinely useful and will enhance the life of the user. This is the finished and polished D800E; the ship with flushing toilets; the General Motors Malibu with the brakes replaced; the Apple Maps with the bugs fixed (maybe that’s going too far…) 

So there’s no 4K video, but perhaps Nikon would have had to have used a different sensor, and a sensor more tuned to movies than to stills. The D810 is, after all, primarily a stills camera. At this end of the pixel-peeping market, Nikon needs to take that stills role very seriously indeed.

The company took a certain amount of flak for its dull upgrade of the D3200 – the D3300 - though to me the camera seemed a logical, if unspectacular, step along the path to enlightenment. The D810 comes to us in the same vein, but with somewhat more significant introductions and solutions. We don’t always need the dramatic leaps and eureka-moment technology. Sometimes we need a gentle polish, a tidy-up and a fix for the things that didn’t work so well the first time. And in the D810, that is exactly what we are getting, with a little bit more besides. 

Damien Demolder is a senior contributing writer for DPReview and the former editor of Amateur Photographer Magazine, the world's oldest weekly photographic publication. www.damiendemolder.com