Conclusion

Pros

  • Class-leading dynamic range at ISO 64 competes with medium format
  • 36MP sensor with no OLPF yields high image resolution
  • Pleasing out-of-camera colors, particularly warm yellows and greens
  • 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor enables class-leading AF subject tracking, face detection, and enough accuracy to track features as specific as eyes
  • Highlight-weighted metering biases exposure to protect highlights
  • Spot-metering linked to AF point
  • Well-damped mirror and shutter, with electronic 1st curtain in Mirror Up mode
  • 5 fps shooting in FX mode, 7 fps in DX (with battery grip + EN-EL18 / AA batteries)
  • EXPEED 4 processor enables snappy performance
  • Excellent ergonomics, menus, and build quality
  • Excellent programmable Auto ISO, with extensive minimum shutter speed settings
  • Viewfinder with OLED overlay offers 100% coverage
  • 'Split screen zoom' display in live view allows horizons to be leveled precisely
  • 'Flat' Picture Control mode for massive dynamic range capture in video
  • Uncompressed HDMI output with simultaneous recording to memory card
  • Time-lapse and interval shooting modes, with exposure smoothing

Cons

  • Electronic 1st curtain limited to Mirror Up mode, making it awkward to use
  • Mirror and shutter vibrations require workarounds at certain shutter speeds, particularly in combination with VR on some lenses
  • Autofocus hunts in low light more than expected, and accuracy is reduced
  • Non-central, non-cross-type AF points can hunt in challenging light
  • Low light, high ISO performance surpassed by peers
  • JPEGs not as sharp or detailed as some competitors
  • AF subject ('3D') tracking performance drops in performance when shooting bursts
  • Limited video performance relative to mirrorless peers
  • Slow AF in Live View, unusable AF in video

Field Test: Shooting the Stars with the D810/A

Overall Conclusion

By Rishi Sanyal

When it was released, the Nikon D810 might not, on the face of it, have looked like a terribly exciting camera. But if the D810 seemed unexciting at a casual glance, it's because its key selling points didn't necessarily jump out. The D800 and D800E set a high bar for 'wow!' simply because of their (at the time) unmatched pixel count. Although there's definitely less of a novelty factor this time around, the D810 is a solid, quiet consolidation of the basic concept and a better product overall than either of the two models it replaces.

In fact, the D810 might just be one of the best all-round full-frame DSLRs out there. But it doesn't stop there - the D810 introduced some revolutionary technologies, with its ISO 64 performance allowing it to rival medium format image quality. And we don't throw around terms like this lightly: we're basing that statement on actual signal:noise ratio analyses. That sheer image quality combined with responsive autofocus and class-leading '3D tracking' make the D810 a joy to use, as long as you can overlook its shortcomings with respect to low light focus and vibration issues.

The D810 rivals medium format image quality at ISO 64, thanks to its ability to capture as much light as a medium format camera would at ISO 100. View at 100% and tell us you're not blown away by the signal:noise ratio (by which I mean crispness). ISO 64 | Sigma 35mm Art | F2. Photo: Rishi Sanyal

Performance and Handling

The D810 is faster than its predecessor, both in terms of frame rate and general operation. The latter difference is more subtle but you can feel it in every menu action, and every time you review an image on the rear screen. There's a general finesse to the camera. Despite huge 36MP files, you can take a shot and check focus on it at 100% before you can even count to 2, with just a single button press. Scroll through faces instantly at 100% in a shot by turning the front dial. With this level of speed, you won't even remember you're shooting such high-res files. The sharper, brighter LCD is pretty nice too, as are the revamped grip and thumb rest that make the D810 much more hand-holdable than a D800/E.

When it comes to other aspects of ergonomics, even as a Canon shooter of 10+ years, the Nikon D810 just makes sense to me. Its menus are organized. The AF settings are all quickly accessible via the push of one button and the turning of a dial. I can quickly switch between 'Auto' and 'Manual' point selection in the camera's subject tracking AF-C modes, without diving into a menu like I have to on a Canon. Exposure compensation (EC) is available in all modes, including M with Auto ISO, and it's always accessible by pressing the dedicated EC button. Speaking of Auto ISO - Nikon has always been a leader here, with a bias-able 'minimum shutter speed' threshold, but I'd like to see a Sony-esque one-button access to this setting.

I never worry about taking the D810 out in adverse conditions and getting it wet. Falls Creek Falls, WA. Photo: Rishi Sanyal

Just about my only pet peeve with the D810's ergonomics is its un-assignable AF-ON button: with a class-leading 3D tracking AF system, I want my camera to focus more than I don't want it to focus. That makes the AF-ON button redundant - for me - yet I can't re-assign this well-positioned button to, say, AF-L, a button that's actually hard to reach with your thumb during one-handed shooting, yet necessary for those moments I need the camera to lock focus.

Autofocus

Focus is snappy, with initial focus acquisition a strong-point for the D810, and DSLRs in general. As is expected of DSLRs, the camera refocuses on approaching or receding subjects very well. What sets the D810 apart is its subject tracking ability. In '3D tracking' or 'Auto area' AF-C, the camera continues to track a subject no matter where it moves to within the frame by automatically shifting the AF point(s) as necessary. And it's not just a mode useful for sports. Say you want to shoot an off-center portrait - you can select an off-center AF point, sure, or focus and recompose, but in 3D tracking mode, if you target your subject’s eye using a single AF point and then recompose your shot, the D810 will track the eye around the entire AF frame and adjust AF with uncanny accuracy. This ensures your subject's still in focus if it changed distance to the camera, and avoids the focus plane shift inherent to recomposing. Try it - it could change your life in a tiny, hard-to-explain-to-friends way. It's what nailed this shot at F2:

Nikon '3D tracking' is addictive: once you've used it, it's hard to use a camera without it. I initiated focus on this toddler's eye, and as long as I kept the shutter button half-pressed, the camera always kept that eye in focus, no matter how I recomposed or how the baby moved relative to the camera. That sort of precision is something we've only seen in Nikon's own DSLRs, and in Sony's 'Eye AF'. ISO 100 | Sigma 35mm Art | F2. Photo: Rishi Sanyal

What's particularly great about 3D tracking is that it works for almost any subject, unlike Sony's 'Eye AF', which is also pretty eager to jump off to other eyes in the frame. Sony's 3D tracking equivalent, 'Lock-on AF', is less reliable in our tests. Canon's equivalent iTR really doesn't work for this type of tracking, although it fares better in more telephoto, sports-type shooting, where Nikon also does well.

In a nutshell? Nikon's 3D tracking is simply robust: on the D810, it works across a wide variety of scenarios, mainly faltering only during bursts, or in low light where it slows down. I find the system indispensable for candid portraiture, toddler photography, and weddings - all situations that require one to react quickly, often without the luxury of manually re-positioning an AF point. 3D tracking also frees up your composition: you don't have to re-frame to keep your point over your subject. And remember: the traditional focus-and-recompose technique doesn't work for moving subjects.

Focus in low light, however, can be frustrating with the D810. It wasn't too dim at this candle-lit dinner with my fiancée, but I found the D810 hunting occasionally, and mis-focusing in a number of these shots as well, almost as if accuracy or calibration were affected by the low (color-shifted) light. Granted, I was at F1.4, but accurate focus under these very conditions is what I've come to expect from a Sony a7R II, or recent Canon DSLRs. ISO 1400 | Sigma 35mm Art | F1.4. Photo: Rishi Sanyal

Unfortunately, the D810 is not without its issues. In our low light AF test, it trailed in comparison to its predecessor, giving up below -1 EV on a low contrast subject while the D800 focused reliably down to -3 EV, and sometimes even -4 EV. This was mirrored in the real-world: the D810 gave up in situations where I've come to expect modern high-end Canon DSLRs and cameras like the Nikon D750 and Sony a7R II to cope with. I found it failing by a campfire, then picked up my friend's D800, which focused just fine. It's odd, because ostensibly the AF module is unchanged, but after testing several D810 bodies, we saw consistently poor AF results in low light compared to the D800/E.

Furthermore, the relative lack of cross-type AF sensors can be problematic in challenging light: the peripheral, non-cross-type sensors tend to hunt more in backlit situations and in low light, often not focusing as decisively as the center point. This in and of itself hasn't been a deal-breaker for me personally: going from a 5D Mark III to a D810 to shoot weddings, my focus hit-rate increase due to 3D tracking with fast primes far outweighed any decrease in hit-rate due to fewer cross-type points. Still, I'd prefer more cross-type points, which Nikon's newer focus modules (D5, D500) offer.

Image Quality

The D810's Raw image quality is hard to beat (and trust us, you'll want to shoot Raw, as JPEG performance is disappointing). Sure a Canon 5DS/R out-resolves the D810, with the proper glass, but at ISO 64 the D810 has industry-leading noise performance. That means the cleanest, crispest images south of medium format, and dynamic range that matches even the Pentax 645Z. The D810 is able to pull off this little trick by extending its ability to capture light at ISO 64: it can tolerate up to nearly 0.7 EV more light before clipping the same highlights a traditional camera with base ISO 100 might. Assuming you can give the D810 that 60% extra light, it can compete with the 645Z's 66% greater sensor surface area, especially since its sensor noise floor is similar in performance to that in the 645Z. Indeed, we found it to match the 645Z's dynamic range in our real-world dynamic range shootout, beating even Sony's excellent a7R II, and handily crushing the Canon 5DSR.

The D810 has massive dynamic range, and is essentially 'ISO-invariant'. That meant that even though this shot required ISO 1600 for a proper exposure of my subject at 1/640s | F4, I could keep my highlights from blowing by dialing the ISO right back down to 140. Pushing shadows 4 EV in post, while holding back the highlights, I was able to tonemap the scene to my desired vision, without tones becoming any noisier than they would've been had I shot at ISO 1600. Meanwhile, had I done so, I would've blown the warm skies in the background, because they would've been clipped right out of the Raw file.

What's great about that extra light is also that it increases signal:noise ratio for all tones in your image. It's not just about dynamic range; your images just hold up to drastic processing better. You can push and pull tones, add contrast, saturation, etc. with less of a risk of making underlying noise more visible -- because there's less noise to begin with. It's the whole reason you expose-to-the-right, and the D810 allows you to do so better, so you don't get the noise visible at 100% in this low dynamic range shot that had a lot of processing done to it.

Pros go medium format for a reason: in addition to resolution, the extra light capture just yields better images. As long as you can give the D810 that extra light at ISO 64, you can get that medium format advantage on it as well. And like most Sony sensors, you can expose for highlights at will, even if it means a 4 or 5 EV underexposure in the traditional sense. The great thing is that this ability isn't just useful for landscapes: have a look at the shot of the girl riding a horse on the beach above. And if you haven't already, read our deep-dives into:

The Final Word

The Nikon D810 is now nearly two years old, and yet its core technologies still challenge many cameras today, and Raw image quality is unmatched. We still haven't seen another full-frame camera capable of a true base ISO of 64, which gives the D810 medium format levels of clean, noise-free images with comparable dynamic range to boot.

Those yellows popping out of those greens are one reason I love Nikon files for landscape photography. The colors and tonality are second to none. Falls Creek Falls Hike, WA. ISO 64 | 1/10s | F8 | 22mm | Tamron 15-30mm F2.8. Photo: Rishi Sanyal

What does this mean? It means you can underexpose your images to protect your highlights as much as you'd like. Leave your graduated ND filters at home or, better yet, sell them while they're still worth something.In fact, images are so devoid of (shot) noise at ISO 64, that sunset gradients in the sky with huge tonal ranges don't have enough noise to dither their smooth gradients before they're displayed on an 8-bit screen, potentially leading to banding that disappears on a proper 10-bit display. We rarely see this sort of thing, but it is a testament to the cleanliness of the D810's files, which no other full-frame camera can match. At base ISO, the Sony sensor in the D810 even beats the newer Sony sensor in a7R II, and despite improvements in the EOS-1D X II and 80D, no Canon DSLR even comes close.

Of course, the D810 isn't perfect, not by a long shot. Its AF system is oddly hesitant in poor light compared even against its predecessor, and focus accuracy is now superseded by on-sensor phase-detection. And despite the redesigned mirror and shutter, which by the way offer the most pleasing sound at actuation I've ever heard in any DSLR, mechanical vibrations can severely reduce resolution in some situations, particularly with certain VR lenses. The D810 isn't unique in having these vibration issues (and it's better than the D800/E), but they are real, and they can be frustrating. There are workarounds, but they're prohibitively awkward, and they needn't have been - Nikon should've offered a drive mode where a shutter button press lifts up the mirror and shutter, with the exposure initiated electronically a fraction of a second later.

Admittedly, these focus accuracy and vibration issues do make me reach for a Sony a7R II more these days, but every time I do, I miss the raw crispness of ISO 64 and rock-steady reliability of 3D tracking on the D810. So however frustrating the D810's faults are on occasion, they don't detract from the incredible performance of the camera as a total package. This review has taken a long time to complete, but it's testament to the camera that even after two years, the D810 remains a benchmark in many respects for other models in its class. As such, the D810 earns our coveted Gold award.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Nikon D810
Category: Semi-professional Full Frame Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Nikon D810 is one of the best-rounded DSLRs we've ever tested, and as a camera that we've lived and worked with for almost two years, we're confident that it will remain relevant - and useful - for many years to come. The D810 offers medium format-esque dynamic range at ISO 64, and more than enough resolution for almost any application. Its well thought-out ergonomics, build and speed make it as versatile in the field as in the studio. We do have some reservations - mirror and shutter shock can still be an issue in some situations, particularly in combination with VR lenses, and we wish focus was more reliable in low light - but these do not detract unduly from the quality of the total package.
Good for
Landscape and studio photographers who need resolution and dynamic range, and enthusiast shooters who want an 'everything' camera without spending flagship money.
Not so good for
Low light work is hampered by poor AF responsiveness and mirror-induced vibrations can reduce resolution in telephoto images with VR activated.
86%
Overall score