Nikon D750 Review – Balancing act

by | Sep 25, 2014

It’s the summer of 2008. Nikon has just introduced the D700, a camera that takes the sensor of their first FX-format DSLR, the powerful D3, and puts it into a smaller, lighter, less expensive body. Photographers who couldn’t afford the $5,000 price tag of the D3 could now get the same class-leading, high-ISO performance for just $3,000, and in a body that was actually light enough to carry around for more than five minutes. It became the go-to camera of wedding and event photographers. Six years later, the D700 is still in use by many of these professionals, if for no other reason than the lack of a true replacement. So when Nikon announced the D750 for Photokina this year, many people had reason to pay attention. Well, the verdict is in: the D750 both is and is not the camera you are looking for.

Despite the sequential numbering, Nikon doesn’t really intend the D750 to be the direct successor to the D700, but there are many reasons why D700 shooters should opt for the D750 compared Nikon’s other full-frame offerings. The D810 (and the D800/e before it) is more similar in form and function to the D700, featuring Nikon’s “professional” control paradigm. The D750 uses the more “consumer” control layout found on the D610 and D7100, including a traditional mode dial with scene and effects modes. I put “professional” and “consumer” in quotes here because I honestly feel like either set-up can be used effectively by pros; once the camera is in manual exposure mode, you won’t be bothered by the presence of scene and effects modes. The inclusion of those functions, though, may help make the D750 appeal to more casual photographers who want creative photography options right in the box without having to spend time editing on a computer.

Nikon D750 top deck

The actual design of the body also walks the line between consumer and professional. On the consumer side, it is the smallest and lightest full-frame DSLR Nikon currently offers save the Df, but still features a 100% accurate viewfinder. However, it also features a new monocoque body design that is a hybrid of carbon fiber and magnesium alloy—professional grade materials through-and-through. It is actually an intriguing advancement, which saves space as the skin itself does the job typically done by a separate frame. The sensor is now mounted right to the inside of the back panel, making the body thinner overall while (somehow) still leaving room for the articulating monitor to lie flush with the back of the camera. That thinner body has allowed for a deeper hand grip without actually making the grip larger, and the D750 definitely feels better in my hands compared to the D610, despite being the smaller of the two. I still prefer the grip of the larger D810, but the D750 feels significantly lighter, and that’s a huge plus for anyone who will be carrying it around all day. Nikon has also promised that the D750 offers the same level of dust and splash resistance as the D810.

I usually don’t spend too much time talking about specs in my reviews, but in this case I think it is important as the specifications themselves are a balance of professional and consumer features, and it can be somewhat confusing whether you should choose a D610, D750, or D810.

The 6.5 FPS burst rate should make event shooters happy who were underwhelmed with the slower performance of the D800/810 and its huge files; the 1/4000 sec. minimum shutter speed is a little strange on a camera of this caliber, however. (Although, how often do you really shoot at 1/8000 of a second?) The shutter itself is rated for 150,000 cycles; less than the D810 but still 50,000 more than the original D700. Also of interest to event shooters, battery life has been improved thanks to the Expeed 4 processor, and, like the D810, CIPA rates the D750 at over 1200 shots per charge, easily beating the D610 (and the Canon 5D Mark III and 6D for anyone who’s keeping track). CIPA testing includes using the flash on cameras that have it, and Nikon has said that in internal tests without using flash, the D750 pushes beyond 4,000 exposures. This is good, because at the time of writing, extra EN-EL15 batteries are notoriously difficult to get ahold of. As for my testing, I shot a little over 400 images and didn’t notice the battery indicator drop at all, and this included quite a few images using the built-in flash as a commander (more on that later).

Nikon D750 tilt screen

The autofocus system is a modified version of what’s in the D810, featuring the same number of points (51) but now with the ability to focus down to -3EV. So in that sense, it’s better than the D810, and event photographers and photojournalists who often work in low light will really appreciate it. In my own tests, I was impressed. Even shooting glass surfaces in low light, the D750 had no problem locking on, but I have not done a direct comparison with another camera to see if this is necessarily better than the competition.

On the imaging front, the newly-designed, 24MP sensor offers a larger pixel pitch than the 24MP sensor found in the D610, and includes an optical low-pass filter, an interesting move from Nikon which has removed said filters from so many of their other cameras. My guess is this was done to keep moiré under control, both in stills and video. Speaking of video, you get the same specs as the D810: flat picture profile, 1080/60p, uncompressed 8-bit output with simultaneous internal recording, and more. The biggest benefit for video recording, though, is the new tilting LCD screen, making the D750 a great run-and-gun movie camera. (I didn’t get a chance to test the video quality of the D750 yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it to be one of the best Nikons in this regard.)

Then there’s the matter of the pop-up flash. If you peruse the image gallery below, you will notice a couple of pictures shot with the new SB-500 speedlight, fired remotely and triggered by the D750’s onboard flash. When people complain as to why Nikon continues to include pop-up flashes on high-end cameras, I always point to this feature. If you can include such functionality without sacrificing weather sealing or durability, then why not? My test with the SB-500 was not extensive by any means, but at $250, this tiny flash is pretty great for creative lighting on the cheap. It is super easy to use, and while I wouldn’t recommend one as a primary on-camera flash, the SB-500 is perfect for anyone who needs portable, off-camera TTL lighting that won’t break the bank. (The SB-500 also has an LED video light, which I did not test).

So all of these features and specs add up to what I guess we can call a consumer-friendly professional camera. (Yes? Maybe?) The D750 seems to defy classification, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think it muddles the water, somewhat, in that photographers now have another full-frame camera to choose from, and salespeople have the challenge of differentiating the various models for the consumer, but it is also a camera that Nikon was missing from their lineup. In fact, I feel that the D750 is what the D610 should have been. In my mind, it represents a more natural upgrade from the D7100, Nikon’s DX flagship, which also uses a 51-point AF system (the D610 has 39 AF points). This leaves the D610 in kind of a weird limbo, as it doesn’t have any clear advantages other than price. It is bigger, heavier, and less well-equipped than the D750, and the latter still includes all of the consumer-friendly features of the former (plus more, like the articulating screen and built-in WiFi).

And this is where I stop trying to figure out for whom the D750 is intended, because it really doesn’t matter. I was worried it would be easy to dismiss it as a “compromise camera,” one that tries too hard to please too many different demographics and instead ends up failing everyone. This is simply not the case, however, and my first realization of this came with the price. The D700 was a $3000 camera six years ago; the D750 is a $2300 camera today, and is inarguably a much better choice for everyone—wedding photographers, photojournalists, enthusiasts, soccer parents, you name it (and certainly for videographers—the D700 was the last pro-level Nikon DSLR sold without a video mode, Df notwithstanding). The one demographic it won’t please is professional sports shooters, who need more than 6.5 FPS. If that’s you, Nikon (sadly) still only has one real choice for you: the $6500 D4s. With Canon’s recent announcement of the 7D Mark II, all eyes are on Nikon to see whether the D400 becomes more than a myth. Don’t hold your breath.

Of course, how do you test a camera that seems to target so many different types of photographers? Let’s go back to the specs: 24MP, larger pixel pitch, OLPF included… To me, this says dynamic range, good moiré control, and low-noise, high-ISO capabilities are all important; but not the extreme pixel-level detail of the D810. I have no idea how Nikon tested this camera internally, but to me it looks like they were aiming for a camera that, above all else, will take as-close-to-flawless portraits as possible, especially under uncontrollable or dark lighting situations. Seeing as I also hadn’t yet tested a camera for portraiture, I decided now would be a good time. But I also wanted to test the camera in a real-world environment that would require me to carry gear around for several hours. So I called up a friend to model for me; packed the D750, 16-35mm F/4, 24-120mm F/4, and 70-200mm F/4 into a backpack; loaded my bike into my car; and headed out into the Gorge for Hood River and the Mosier Tunnels along the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Nikon D750 Mosier Tunnels

The Historic Columbia River Highway currently connects Hood River and the Dalles, and is open to cyclists and pedestrians only. While I wouldn’t make it all the way to the Dalles, I still needed to cover several miles with everything on my back. The first thing I noticed is that carrying all that gear is significantly easier than carrying, say, a D810 and the F/2.8 equivalent lenses. I’m not going to say I didn’t break a sweat while riding with it all on my back (I did), but I also didn’t feel like it was slowing me down. The D750 is perfectly balanced for the lighter-weight F/4 series glass, and I especially enjoyed shooting with the 70-200mm, which is not only a sharp lens, but also has some of the best vibration reduction I have ever seen. I would be hard-pressed to go back to shooting the F/2.8 version, unless lighting demanded it. The 16-35mm is also great, but I was little less impressed with the 24-120mm, which is the kit lens with the D750; it’s sharp enough, and has a great range, but the VR isn’t nearly as good as on the 70-200. That said, as a kit lens, it sure beats the 24-85mm kitted with the D610.

Overall, any given lens combo with the D750 is not as compact as a mirrorless system, but if you want a full-frame camera, I would actually lean toward the D750 for its ergonomics (not to mention battery life) over a Sony A7-series. In fact, while shooting it, I continually related the experience more to shooting a mirrorless camera than a DSLR (if a mirrorless camera gave you a great optical viewfinder.) Now, primarily this was due to my choice of using the smaller, F/4 lenses (and the fact that I had just returned from three days in Las Vegas shooting a D4 and 70-200mm F/2.8 for 12 hours a day), but the design of the D750 cannot be understated—it is smaller, lighter, yet more comfortable and better-built than most any other DSLR. It might be a little too small for people with larger hands, but I guess that’s why we have battery grips.

Nikon is touting the ISO capability of this camera, which extends a full stop beyond what’s available in the D610 to 12,800. I ran a simple test (results in the gallery below) and found the outcome to be more-or-less on par with the D810 (which is to say, it’s very good). There’s still plenty of noise (including the less-attractive chroma noise) at 12,800, but this to be expected. At any rate, pictures at 3200 and 6400 ISO are perfectly usable; you might want to reserve 12,800 for smaller, web-only uses. (The gallery photos are just 1080 pixels wide; let me know if you can tell the difference at that size.)

While I didn’t encounter any situations requiring super-high ISO out in the field, I did find myself in some very contrasty lighting in the Mosier tunnels. Keep in mind, the pictures here are all JPEGs straight from the camera—you’ll be able to pull more detail, dynamic range, and color out of a raw, but I prefer to test a camera when I test a camera, not a raw converter (or my own skills at image manipulation.) What I found is that the D750 is dialed-in to give you near-perfect images right out of the camera: smooth, properly saturated skin tones, nice light falloff, rich blacks, great color. This is especially true when you remember to use the correct picture profile: “portrait” for portraits, “landscape” for landscapes, etc. (Note: picture profiles are different from scene modes; they simply tell the camera how to interpret the information recorded by the sensor. They are a method of immediate, in-camera raw processing, not a shooting mode.)

I also found that Nikon’s matrix metering was surprisingly good under tough conditions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise now, but I had never really tested it. The D750 also includes the new “highlight metering” option introduced on the D810, but I didn’t even bother using it. I had my friend stand at the entrance to a tunnel, in bright light, but with near-absolute black in the background. This situation should result in a significantly over-exposed image on most zone meters, which try to average-out the entire scene, but not with the D750. I did notice a smidgeon of highlight clipping, but certainly not enough to be distracting, and well within recoverable range had I been shooting raw files. Granted, I was shooting in manual exposure and may have ignored shifts in the metering as I changed framing, and I can’t rule out that this was just a lucky fluke in this particular setting. Nevertheless, I was impressed with the results.

In fact, I was so impressed with the D750 overall, that I can pretty safely say, if I were to buy a DSLR today, it would be this one. Now, that’s my personal opinion—as I’ve said, it’s not the perfect camera for everyone, but given what I like to shoot (portraiture) and how I like to shoot (in the field, on the go), the D750 just makes sense. I would have complete confidence taking this camera on a job if, say, I wanted to start shooting weddings again (not going to happen!). If you are a D700 shooter who has been holding out for a real replacement, well, this might not exactly look like what you had in mind—but it is a camera that will do everything you want it to do better than the D700 did, and it’s easier to carry with you, to boot. Sure, I miss the pro-style control layout of the D700, but once the dial is set to M, it doesn’t really matter.

My only real gripe is that it took this long for Nikon to make this camera. There are likely many photographers who bought a D600 or D610 to replace their aging D700 when they didn’t want the hassle of the 36MP files of the D800/810, who are now wishing they had waited. That said, the D750 is here now, and I have to say, it’s really quite good. It is not what I’d call a revolutionary product, but it is a cleverly-engineered, feature-rich, high-quality camera that manages to breathe new life into the DSLR market, and it’s making me question my decision to sell all my Nikon glass last year.

Gosh, this was a long one.

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