Benchmark Performance: Nikon D810 review
The Nikon D810 offers 1080p video at up to 60p (24p is also available), and has a range of video improvements, compared with lower-end Nikon bodies. Not only does it have a headphone socket, as well as a mic input, but it also has zebra highlight warnings and the ability to adjust aperture while in live view mode (absent from more basic models). Auto ISO also now functions in video, and a new 'Flat' Picture Control can be very useful to deal with high contrast scenes.
Things to bear in mind, though: a ~1.1x crop factor is applied to FX video, so you don't get the full-frame image, and bit-rates are fairly low so severe grading can magnify compression artifacts. There's no focus peaking, and although a highlight warning exists (access it by 'pressing' i in Live View video mode), there's no way to set thresholds.
The D810 appears to be line-skipping: the Siemens Stars are aliasing at different frequencies horizontally and vertically, which means the camera must be sampling those two dimensions at different frequencies. This is a bad sign because it not only means that the video is more prone to moiré but it also means the camera isn't using its full sensor to capture the video, so it'll perform less well in low light.
Compared to its nearest DSLR rival, the 5DS R, the D810 footage appears more sharpened, and aliasing and moiré are less well handled. While it is possible to output uncompressed video over the HDMI port, the simple truth is that there are alternatives (Sony's video-focused a7S models, for instance) that will give much better results.
vs. Canon 5DS R
We shot a few side-by-side videos of the D810 vs. its nearest DSLR rival, the 5DS R. In the video below, you can see that the Nikon's footage appears fractionally sharper than the Canon's. The D810's ~1.1x crop factor means its footage appears cropped relative to the 5DS R, despite being shot with equivalent focal length lenses. The 20Mbps bitrate on the D810 is comparatively low though, which can become particularly obvious when grading (the 5DS cameras offer up to nearly 90 Mbps All-I footage). Helpfully for slow-motion, the D810 shoots 60p at up to 1080p, while the 5DS maxes out at 720p for 60p capture, looking far less detailed.
Overall the footage is fine but not particularly impressive. The D810 is primarily intended for a stills-shooting audience.
The D810 uses contrast detection when shooting video, which means it essentially has to hunt for focus by a process of trial-and-error. The best contrast detection systems are optimized to minimize over-shooting the target during this hunting process but the D810 really struggles (it's not helped by a lens range that isn't designed to be focused this way - via 'wobbling'). As you can see in the following video, the D810 jumps around, looking for focus in a way that's highly visually distracting. The 5DS R, despite being contrast detect-only, refocuses in a visually far less distracting manner. It's also worth noting the noise the 35 F1.4G, and many Nikon lenses, make when refocusing: it's very distracting.
So, while the camera does offer Face Detection and tracking options while video recording, you'll usually be better off manually focusing. Except, sadly, there is no focus peaking option to judge focus and you can't magnify the live view while the camera is recording, so it's difficult to pull focus with any accuracy.
Flat Picture Control
New to the Nikon D810 is Flat Picture Control, which we used to shoot the time-lapse video above. As its name suggests, this profile - available in both stills and video - has very low contrast. For high contrast scenes though, such as the one shot here, 'Flat' can often look more natural compared to the clipped whites or completely black foregrounds that 'Standard' Picture Control might show. Flat PC packs a lot of scene dynamic range - almost the entire dynamic range available in Raw - into the final video (or JPEG still). This gives you the freedom to selectively grade or process the footage later, which might not have been possible if, say, tones had been pushed down to very dark values or even clipped to black.
|This edited video shows a time-lapse taken with the flat Picture Control before and after mild color grading. 720p, 41 secs, 29.9MB. Click here to download original file|
The flat look usually necessitates some grading, which we've done here in Final Cut Pro X. We've brought down the shadows (-11%) and midtones (-17%), and brought up the highlights (+42%). This makes the scene look more natural by giving it a bit more pop (albeit at the cost of clipped tones around the setting sun in this case). You can read more about how the Flat Picture Control affects dynamic range in our Nikon D750 review.
There's no free lunch though, and packing all that range into an 8-bit JPEG or video does mean that grading possibilities are limited, especially considering the additional artifacts introduced by the low bit-rate video engine.
The D810 offers a time-lapse feature that can record the final output in the form of a movie (an intervalometer for stills is also built-in), as we've done above. You can record using any of the resolution or frame rate options available for video. All of the interval, shooting time, and exposure smoothing options available for the intervalometer are available for the time-lapse movie. Exposure Smoothing aims to limit the camera to small, gradual exposure changes between shots, to prevent the dramatic shot-to-shot changes that can result in flickering video when the images are combined. This feature also appears to make some attempt to blend between these brightness changes, again to reduce flicker in the final video. Exposure Smoothing really helped smooth the nearly 8 EV exposure change that occurred over the course of the above time-lapse (camera was set to Aperture Priority mode, with Highlight Weighted Metering).
There are three major downsides to using the D810's timelapse feature. First, there's that pesky 1.1x video crop - which is strangely applied to a time-lapse assembled from still images. Second, the images are heavily compressed, which is occasionally visible in the final footage. The final thing is that the camera saves only the video and none of the original images. It would've been nice if you could save the Raw frames as well, but for now you have to choose between using the intervalometer for still images, or the time-lapse option for video.
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