What's new and how it compares

The D780 looks a lot like its predecessor (and like a lot of other DSLRs) on the outside, but it's been significantly re-worked on the inside. Let's take a look.

Key takeaways:

  • Updated sensor won't offer image quality head-and-shoulders above its predecessor, but faster read-out speed gives other enhancements
  • New shutter reaches 1/8000 sec (vs 1/4000 sec on D750)
  • Updated metering sensor and algorithms from the D5 should improve viewfinder AF
  • Dual UHS-II SD card slots
  • Much-improved video features, essentially matching the Z6

New BSI 24.5MP CMOS sensor

The D780 promises essentially the same pixel count as the D750 did, a little over five years ago, but its sensor (almost certainly shared with the Z6 and a host of other cameras) features just about every update that's become widespread since that point.

Perhaps the least exciting feature is that it's a backside illuminated (BSI) design. This is unlikely to have a big effect on image quality, other than that the light-sensitive regions of each pixel are nearer to the front of the sensor, which can improve the light collection at the corners of the sensor (which is unlikely to be a major problem on an F-mount camera).

Dual gain technology has underpinned most of the improvement in high ISO performance in past years

The thing that's more likely to have an impact on image quality is the move to a dual gain design. This features pixels with two readout modes: one with maximum possible dynamic range, and another with more gain, delivering improved noise performance at higher ISOs where absolute dynamic range is less critical. This technology has underpinned most of the improvement in high ISO performance seen in the past five years.

The new sensor also has faster readout, which is what lets it deliver the camera's UHD footage at up to 30p from the full 6048-pixel width of its chip. It also helps provide the camera's 12 fps maximum frame rate (in e-shutter mode, when shooting 12-bit Raw).

Metering and shutter

Like its predecessor, the D780 uses a 51-point AF module when you shoot through the viewfinder, but it gains the 180,000 pixel RGB metering sensor and AF algorithms used in the D5 to provide more sophisticated subject tracking.

The D780 also has a more advanced shutter mechanism, which can provide a minimum shutter speed of 1/8000 seconds, rather than the D750's 1/4000 minimum. Shutter control has also been reworked, so that you can now shoot with a maximum controlled duration of 900 seconds.

The new shutter isn't as well-optimized for live view shooting though: you can only shoot at up to 3 frames per second in live view with the mechanical shutter. Moving to electronic shutter increases the camera's shooting rate to 8 fps or 12 fps for 14 and 12-bit Raws, respectively. As you'd expect, the electronic shutter mode comes with a greater risk of banding and the distorting effects of rolling shutter.

Gains from the Nikon Z6

Many of the camera's most significant improvements over the D750 come in live view mode, primarily because they've come directly from the company's Z6 mirrorless camera.

The live view AF system can focus down to –4EV (one stop lower than the viewfinder AF system) or –6EV in the slower 'low light AF' mode.

The first, and most obvious, is the on-sensor phase detection system lifted directly from the Z series. This helps to deliver a system with 273 AF points ranged across 90% of the frame. Incorporated into this is the eye-detection AF system introduced to the Z6 via a post-launch firmware update. The live view AF system can focus down to –4EV (one stop lower than the viewfinder AF system) or –6EV in the slower 'low light AF' mode.

The user interface in live view mode is also borrowed from the Z-series cameras, which will be pretty familiar to Nikon DSLR users, but also contains a few inconsistencies that will need to be navigated around.

Essentially this makes the D780 a chance for F-mount users to experience many of the developments Nikon has made for its mirrorless cameras, letting Nikon DSLR shooters experience the ease and precision of eye-detection AF.

Video

The D780 is features twin UHS-II type SD slots, rather than the Z6's single XQD slot. This doesn't have any impact on its video capabilities, though.

The other major area of Z6-derived improvement is video shooting. Rather than being constrained to 1080/60p, as the D750 was, the D780 can shoot UHD 4K at up to 30p or 1080 at up to 120p.

Again, the autofocus improvements we saw in live view stills shooting carry over to video mode, providing the D780 with very usable video AF, including pretty dependable subject tracking. So not only can the D780 shoot better-looking footage than the D750 could, its AF and touchscreen make it much easier to do so.

The D780 offers both mic and headphone sockets, focus peaking and zebra warnings and, if you're getting a bit more ambitious in yours shooting: 10-bit output over HDMI. On the D780 this comes in two flavors: N-Log footage designed to provide optimal color-grading flexibility or Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG), intended as a ready-to-use video format that conveys a wider dynamic range on the latest HDR TVs.

The way the video features are implemented is rather good too, as we'll cover on the next page.

Interval shooting / Focus Stacking

Nikon has enhanced the camera's in-camera time lapse features. Rather than having to use the 'Time-lapse movie' option to create a movie in-camera, the D780 can generate movies from folders of files generated using 'Interval Timer Shooting' mode, which gives you more control over the process and means you can retain Raws of all the images that make up the movie clip.

It's also now possible to superimpose already-shot images using the camera's multiple exposure feature, rather than having to shoot them while in multiple exposure mode.

The camera also gains the D850's focus stacking mode that shoots a series of up to 300 images with slight focus shifts between each one. These images can then be combined in off-camera software to provide high levels of detail with increased depth-of-field, for landscape and macro shooting.

The 'Negative Digitizer' mode for capturing and inverting film negatives also makes its way over from the D850.