New DSLR releases used to be met by massive throngs of rabid fanboys and girls, frothing at the mouth in anticipation of the latest and greatest new thing. This is how it was in 2007, when Nikon announced their first full-frame digital SLR, the D3, and the pro-level, DX-format D300. Then they blew people away again with the D800/D800e just two years ago. Writing a review of that camera would have been easy. Reviewing the D810, however, is a much more difficult task. That’s because most of the important things to be said of the D810 have already been said of the D800/e. Things like the gargantuan megapixel count and what the heck an antialiasing filter is good (or not good) for. (Note: I don’t think anyone knew what an antialiasing filter was before the D800e. I didn’t. At any rate, apparently you don’t need one as the D810 forgoes it entirely.)
I’ve already written about what’s new in terms of specs (“Refining a Revolutionary Camera”), so I won’t spend a lot of time comparing the D810 to its predecessors. But for those of you who are considering moving from another system and aren’t already intimately familiar with the D810’s offerings, here’s the gist: it’s a 36MP, full frame camera. That was a lot of pixels in 2012 and it remains a lot of pixels today. It’s so many, that even when shooting in DX crop mode, you still get about 16MP. It’s like having two cameras in one.
So instead of focusing solely on specs, I’d rather talk about what it’s like to actually use this camera. This is my 7th camera review for Pro Photo Supply, and the first one featuring a DSLR. That’s a little indicative of what’s happening in the industry right now. There is certainly a trend away from large, cumbersome cameras to smaller, more agile ones. But shooting the D810 reminded me of why we still have big DSLRs. It’s not just the image quality of that full frame sensor, nor the weather-sealed magnesium body—it’s the entire experience. After shooting live view cameras for so long, I found it reassuring to watch my subjects snap into focus in that large, optical viewfinder. Even the shutter sound was comforting, and now much quieter and faster than on the D800. But above all, and despite the autofocus, autoexposure, matrix metering, TTL flash, burst mode, and all the other features that aim to make using the camera easier and faster, the D810 excels in inviting you to slow… down.
If you love the classic shooting experience of lugging around 20lbs of lenses, a tripod, and a bunch of filters, then this is the camera for you. I realize that sounds like I’m making fun of it, but I’m not. There is a reason some of us choose to put time into our photographs: we love the experience of making them. And the D810 rewards you more than any other camera when you’re willing to give it the time it deserves. You can’t just shoot all willy-nilly and expect those 36 million pixels to work for you. You have to practice finesse. This isn’t the camera for tourists or soccer parents, it’s the camera for people who take photography seriously.
It is, for better or worse, the camera for the type of people who probably already own a D800 or D800e.
I previously mentioned how the D810 smoothed out the wrinkles in the D800/e, and I still believe that to be true. It is, undoubtedly, a superior camera. Nikon has even updated the shaping of the grip to be more ergonomic, and shaved off 10 grams of weight. But I’m not sure that it is superior enough to influence current D800 owners. It’s kind of like when I upgraded to the iPhone 5s from the iPhone 5—I know it’s better, but unless I pull out the spec sheet, I can’t really remember why. My favorite new feature of the D810, in fact, is something basic: the shutter. It is quieter, more responsive, has a shorter blackout time, and creates less vibration. On a technical level, it helps squeeze out a little bit more resolution by removing a microscopic amount of blur caused by vibration. But it matters more to me on an experiential level, as its responsiveness keeps me actively engaged with my subject. I should also note the new base ISO of 64, which is especially helpful in video mode when you don’t have enough ND filters (you can even extend the ISO down to an equivalent of 32). For those who do decide to upgrade from the D800/e, Nikon has at least made it very easy for you: you can use the same batteries, vertical grip, and memory cards.
One demographic the D810 should appeal to that the D800 struggled with is wedding photographers. Canon’s 5D Mark III, while it didn’t match the technical sensor performance of the D800, offered space-saving small raw files and an incredibly quiet shutter, making it a popular event camera. With the D810, Nikon has significantly reduced the shutter noise, added a “quiet continuous” shooting mode, and introduced a 9MP small raw which, unfortunately, I was unable to test as third party raw support for the D810 was unavailable at the time of writing. Combined with a new high-ISO of 12,800 (which looks strikingly good, at least for JPEGs) I expect those 9MP Raw Size S files to be great in low light, and that should make wedding pros very happy.
Another improvement for event photographers: greatly reduced power draw. In official testing, which includes firing the built-in flash on a percentage of exposures, the D810 achieved 1200 shots on a single battery. That’s amazing. What’s more amazing is that I’ve heard reports of around 3000 shots when not using the flash. Not only does that put the D810 ahead of its direct competition by a safe margin, it also further emphasizes the biggest problem with mirrorless cameras: battery life. The Sony A7r, which uses a very similar 36MP sensor, has an official battery life of just 340 shots.
Interestingly, the main demographic Nikon has targeted with their marketing for the D810 is not any subset of still photographer, but filmmakers. To their credit, they did introduce some great features for video shooters, like the new “flat” picture profile which captures more dynamic range and is suitable for color grading (see my sample footage below). Also new is the ability to record up to 60fps at full HD resolution, great for conforming to lower frame rates for slow-motion (or playing back at regular speed if you happen to be in Japan where they like that sort of thing). But, there’s still no 4K resolution, and while the clean, uncompressed HDMI signal can be recorded via an external recorder, like the Atomos Ninja, it’s only 8-bit. This lags somewhat behind more video-focussed cameras like Panasonic’s GH4, which features 4K recording and 10-bit output. The upside of the D810, of course, is that you get that large, full frame sensor, plus the option to shoot in DX crop mode to get a 1.5x magnification while maintaining 1080p resolution. Despite how much work is going on to downscale the D810’s 36MP to the 2MP required for HD video, the video image is still sharp, and the dynamic range is not bad at all. Image quality in video mode is really only held back by the h.264 codec, which can be overcome by recording externally, but again, only at 8-bit. Bottom line: if you’re buying a new camera just for video, there are many other options out there, especially with a budget of $3299. But if you want a best-in-class still camera and you’ll accept decent video functionality, the D810 will deliver. A GH4 may give you more options, as well as a sharper image, for video, but it can’t hold a candle to the D810’s still image quality. Now, if only Nikon would make some cinema-style lenses based on their f/1.4 primes…
I think it’s safe to say the D810 is the best 35mm DLSR on the market right now for professional still photographers, unless you shoot sports, in which case you’ll likely opt for the greater speed of a D4s or Canon 1D X—but both of those are about twice the price. And if you do want to shoot sports with a D810, simply switch it do DX crop mode, attach the MB-D12 battery grip with AA batteries, and now you can shoot 16MP images at 7 frames per second. Not too shabby.
With the original D800, I thought that digital photography had all but plateaued. I mostly still feel that way. The D810 adds some very welcome enhancements, but at its core is the same camera that photographers already know (and love). Should you trade in your D800 for a D810? Honestly, I can’t answer that. For some people, professional event shooters and videographers, I think it is definitely worth it. After all, if you are actively using your gear to earn an income, there’s no reason not to if you’ve got room in your budget this year. But for that other group, for those of us who don’t mind spending half a day just finding the right spot to set up a tripod, I think we’re probably okay sticking with the D800 or D800e. Then again, you might also still be okay with your F100. The main reason I love the D810 so much is the same reason I loved the D800: it taught me how to take my time. By focusing on how to achieve a technically good image, I learned how to make an aesthetically good one (despite how poor my review images may be.)
The D810 is a masterful camera, representing the current pinnacle of digital imaging technology. It is a camera that will give you more the more you put into it, and it has been refined to appeal to a wider array of users. But it also represents the maturation of digital photography. The time of frothing at the mouth over a new camera is over. Despite whatever exciting technology comes next, I doubt we’ll ever experience another shock-and-awe moment to compare to the number of jaws that dropped when people first heard that the D800 would have 36 million pixels. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. The D810, for all it’s technical wizardry, is an invitation to get back in touch with your photographic roots. To take your time, plan your shot, and slowly build up to the moment the shutter clicks. (And yes, I sort of stole that line from Joe McNally.)