First impressions using a Nikon D810

Started Dec 20, 2014 | User reviews thread
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Peter Evans Junior Member • Posts: 43
First impressions using a Nikon D810

I've been getting to grips with my new D810 over the past couple of months. I used it on a couple of occasions during the last week of my tutoring at Painting-Photography-France, shot the last of a special fashion project in Bordeaux....

taking advantage of the D810's brilliant dynamic range

.... and since then I've also had chance to check out the video capabilities. And my first reaction to the camera is simply... Wow! Wow! and thrice Wow!

Plenty has been written by others about the quality of the D810's 36 megapixel images so to go into great detail on the matter here would be a waste of your time and mine; suffice it to say that I can confirm that the images it produces are simply stunning.

I came to the D810 from the D300 because, to be honest, I simply got tired of waiting for a D300 replacement. After almost seven years I had reached a point where I needed better low light performance, I needed a greater dynamic range, and I needed high quality video. So I took the plunge.

Like all high end Nikon cameras, the D810’s ergonomics are great and the menu system is intuitive. To be perfectly honest, even with Nikon having moved a couple of buttons, and added some new ones (compared to the D300) everything is all so familiar and intuitive that nothing has annoyed or frustrated me and I have only glanced at the manual twice.

The new LCD screen is a huge step up – very bright and crisp - and for me, even though the screen size is only a little larger than the D300, it’s like looking at a 42” HD plasma TV after living with a 32” Trinitron. The screen brightness can be altered separately for image review (when shooting stills) and for live view (photo and video) and both brightness levels are remembered and held by the camera until reset.

The shutter is remarkably quiet, even without using the two ‘quiet’ modes provided, and the sound of the mechanism reminds me of the ticking of a Rolex; it just sounds like quality engineering.

The magnesium alloy body is solid, not overly heavy (only 77g more than my D300) and completely weather-sealed. The design of the battery door is much better than the D300, as is the (dual SD/CF) card slot door. The CF facility is very welcome as I have a whole ruck of CF cards which I can use.

The newly designed grip is very comfortable ; it’s deeper than my D300 which makes it easier to carry hung from my crooked fingers, it also means that the DOF Preview and Function buttons are perfectly placed for the second and third fingers of my right hand when shooting. I have long fingers and, on the D300, the shallower grip made using these buttons just a tad awkward. On the D810, I have set the Function button give me a level indication in the viewfinder when pressed, and the Preview button I have programmed to give me a spot meter reading. In real life shooting, I have always found 'depth of field preview' to be virtually useless due the obviously necessary darkening of the image when it's used. Nowadays, if I have a DOF concern I just look at the DOF app on my smartphone, therefore the ability to reprogram that button is a godsend.

As I said earlier, the 36 mp images are stunning, but in addition to full frame, the D810 also offers a 1.2x crop and a 1.5x DX crop. I'll discuss the usefulness of the DX crop further down this post but, for still photography, it’s the 1.2x crop that has grabbed my interest.

The 1.2x crop gives me 6 fps (shooting in 12 bit RAW) which is as fast as my D300 and, in practice, plenty fast enough for most people, including me. It also gives a 25 Mp image which has a file size around 25 Mb. Again, the images are superb and, to be honest, 25 Mp images are going to provide all the image quality necessary for magazine publication or an A3 coffee table book. I think, therefore, that for much of the time I'll settle for the 1.2x crop and keep the option of FF for any images which I think I might want to print super large, or for those occasions when I want to capture the complete field of view from my lenses. When shooting stills, therefore, I have programmed the ‘Movie’ button to give me instant switching between shooting full frame or shooting with a 1.2x crop. Admittedly, using a 1.2x crop means that I’m only seeing 80% of the potential area in the viewfinder but, as the image is still bigger and brighter than the one I’m used to in the D300, that doesn’t bother me.

One quirk which I find completely bizarre and unnecessary is that you have to switch off ‘AF Point Illumination’ (Autofocus menu item ‘a6’) in order to get the unwanted area in the viewfinder to go dark grey when shooting in one of the two crops. Why this area just doesn’t darken automatically is a mystery because it’s absolutely essential (the alternative has you seeing the whole viewfinder and trying to find the relevant frame within that to compose the shot, which just doesn’t work)

Talking of the viewfinder, it is really bright and crisp, as is the information readout (now with vertical and horizontal level indicators superimposed at the side and bottom respectively, when activated).

Nikon’s 51 point AF system has always been excellent, but the D810 takes the AF system from the D4s and adds some useful improvements. For example it now comes with a new five point ‘Group’ mode for moving subjects. The five points (all cross type) are fairly close together and the group is movable across the frame. I’ve tested this on a friend who is a Tour de France type cyclist and the focus was bang on every time.

My trusty and vital (for me) AF-ON button is right there where it should be but has now been given a small and nicely curved rest to its left which nicely fits the edge of my thumb. It’s a subtle design change but it feels great.

The D810’s native ISO of 64 is amazing, offering 2/3 of a stop more flexibility in bright light, and super clean too. This is a true ISO, incidentally, not one produced by electronic trickery like the ‘Lo 1’, ‘Lo 2’ found on the D300 and other cameras.

And on the subject of ISO, coming from a camera that maxed out a very noisy 3,200 ISO and which was unusable for all practical commercial purposes beyond 400 ISO, the D810’s noise free images at up to 400 ISO and almost noise free images from 500 to 1,600 ISO are breathtaking. And to be honest, the ability to say, “OK Auto ISO, do your thing but don’t shoot higher than 6,400 ISO” is amazing! Of course I could set the ISO to 51,200 but that would be just silly

Dynamic range too is excellent and absolutely streets ahead of the D300 ( the D810 has three more stops of DR than the D300 – 14.8 EV compared to 12 EV)

One of the new buttons on the D810 is an ‘i’ button and it took me few minutes to figure out the real usefulness of this. Pressing it in normal photo mode merely brings up a screen of shooting data and some options to quickly change a few things that you can otherwise access in the menu system. However, select Live View / Video and then press the ‘i’ button and you’ll see a bunch of options that don’t exist at all in the menu system! Zebra striping for blown highlight monitoring in video, for example, or autofocus face recognition, for another (which I’ve yet to experiment with).

‘Highlight weighted metering’ is an addition that caters for situations that Nikon describe as useful “whenever you are faced with uneven lighting and a background that is much darker than the subject”, so it might also have been called, ‘Theatre/Concert/Fashion Show metering’, because that is what it seems it would be really useful for. I was hoping to try this out at the above mentioned fashion show; unfortunately, however, the lighting turned out to be normal department store overheads and so that exercise will have to wait until another day.

Matrix metering with face recognition is another new addition to a Nikon metering system; I’ve yet to try this out but I’m not really sure what the value of this would be. I suspect it’s a solution to a problem I didn’t even know I had.

Live view was very poorly implemented on the D300 (in fact I never used it) but it works extremely well on the D810. Manual focusing with a magnified view is a doddle and the new ‘split-screen’ feature will be great for architectural and landscape photographers. Mind you it would have been even better if there was a choice of splitting the screen vertically (i.e. separate top + bottom) as well as horizontally (separate left + right)

The provision of easy HDMI out for Live View and Video is an excellent option, enabling me to use my 7" Black Pearl 'Quadcopter' monitor for such purposes, if I need to.

The new semi-electronic shutter option with mirror up will allow much smoother (i.e. shake-free) operation on a tripod in live view - great for landscape purists wanting every last nano-particle of definition from their images.

And so to video. I shot a lot of video in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s but, for various reasons, I’ve done no video work for about twenty years. However, shooting aerial footage with my quad-copter this summer has brought me back to it, and I have the movie-making bug once more. I can’t wait to shoot some D810 footage, making use of the ‘Auto-ISO’ facility whilst locking in the shutter speed and using the ‘Power aperture’ feature to smoothly and seamlessly change aperture whilst shooting. Those are two fabulous, professional features. In 'Movie' mode, I have the 'Preview' and 'Function' buttons programmed to change the aperture in this way.

Which brings me to the 1.5x DX crop. I’ll shortly be selling all my current DX lenses except for the 18-200 VRII which I bought as a ‘walkabout’ lens for a Roman holiday three years ago. It may seem odd for me to say that; I mean why buy an expensive full frame camera and then stick a DX lens on it.? Well, the answer is video. The D810 shoots broadcast quality HD video at up to 60 frames per second and, unlike the D800, there is no difference in video quality between FF and DX footage. That means that I can use the 18-200 as an effective 27-300 video zoom with no loss of resolution, as well as my super fast full frame lenses. Brilliant! Of course, in still photo mode, the camera automatically switches to a 1.5x DX crop when a DX lens is attached and that shows in the viewfinder (i.e. 33% of the viewfinder is greyed out, but switch to Live View video mode and the monitor (camera or external) shows you exactly what the lens sees over the whole screen with no vignetting, even though the lens in use is DX.

There are a few shortcomings of course, especially at this price point:

I would really like to have several series of settings that can be remembered and recalled simply and quickly, why Nikon think that professional photographers don’t want this facility but amateurs do never ceases to amaze me. Their tired old system of ‘Shooting Menu Banks’ that can’t remember the default settings I give them is really just not good enough. This could easily be fixed with a firmware change.

The ‘Flat’ picture control operates on both stills and video. Although it can be changed later in Capture NX-Dud or Photoshop CC 2014, I’d still like to be able to set it only for video. Again this could easily be fixed in firmware

I’d like to be able to control three groups of speedlights and not just two

There are times when I wish that I could record voice memos with each shot. (Hey Nikon, you have a stereo microphone installed there already for goodness sake! So how hard can that be?

The ‘sRAW’ file option seems a complete and utter waste of development time which could have been better spent implementing the deficiencies I’ve noted above. I just cannot imagine who would want to use this. Unless my maths are off, it seems to me that you’re throwing away 75% of your image data in exchange for a 10% saving in storage space* Crazy!

* This assumes normal shooting of 12 bit lossless compressed RAW, which gives a 32 Mb file. Uncompressed 14 bit RAW files are 73 Mb! On this point, to be honest there is no real discernable difference between 12 bit and 14 bit files, or between lossless compressed and uncompressed. Obsessive pixel-peepers are welcome to disagree but, in all honesty, I would only ever shoot 14 bit uncompressed if I were shooting large commercial photos and needed to wring every single detail out of the image; for 90% of my work, 12 bit lossless compressed RAW will be absolutely fine.

All of the above shortcomings are the reason I deducted half a star from my rating.

So, after just a couple of month's use, those are my first thoughts on the camera. To sum up, it’s a beautifully built, almost perfect camera for both stills and video, and it is an absolute delight to use. Despite its shortcomings (for me), it is so very good that, when I couple my foreseeable photographic / movie-making needs with the law of diminishing returns regarding camera technology, I think I might actually be in possession of my ‘last camera’

 Peter Evans's gear list:Peter Evans's gear list
Nikon D810
Nikon D810
36 megapixels • 3.2 screen • Full frame sensor
Announced: Jun 26, 2014
Peter Evans's score
Average community score
bad for good for
Kids / pets
Action / sports
Landscapes / scenery
Low light (without flash)
Flash photography (social)
Studio / still life
= community average
Nikon D300 Nikon D4S Nikon D800 Nikon D810
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