Nikon D810 – First Impressions

Secondary-1b-HandlingThe decision was made: I would keep my Nikon D800E camera bodies. The D800E has been such a superb solution for the bulk of my work that I’ve had a hard time imaging how Nikon would improve upon it. When I first heard that Nikon was releasing an updated 36-megapixel camera, I took a quick look at the specs and was underwhelmed. I had been hoping for a faster camera of the same resolution for wildlife work, but a frame rate increase of a single frame per second, from four to five, wasn’t terribly compelling to me. The most significant advancements seemed targeted at videographers, and I shoot stills almost exclusively. It seemed that I would be happily hanging on to my D800Es for a couple more years, until the next generation came along.

Then I actually handled a D810, and started digging into it a little deeper. What I found was a camera that isn’t merely a D800 with some minor tweaks. Its well-conceived refinements and highly useful new capabilities aren’t just insignificant hype. For me, they will solve real-world problems and facilitate my photography in meaningful ways.

Here are a few of the features of the D810 that ultimately changed my mind:

Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter – freedom from sharpness-robbing shutter vibration: Here’s an anecdote than makes clear the real-world usefulness of this feature. On the recent Visionary Wild Iceland expedition, co-leader Daniel Beltrá and I conducted a little experiment. We mounted my D800E with a Nikon 70-200 f/4 VR lens (one of the sharpest zooms of all time) and shot two frames, both zoomed to 200mm, at 1/40th second and f/11. The first was shot with the lens solidly mounted on a tripod (Really Right Stuff TVC-24L, BH-55 ballhead, and lens collar), with the mirror locked-up, a three-second exposure delay, and with lens vibration reduction turned off. The second image was shot hand-held at the same zoom and exposure settings, without mirror lockup or exposure delay, but with vibration reduction on. When we compared the images zoomed in at 100%, the hand-held image was noticeably sharper and slight motion blur was clearly visible in the tripod-mounted image. We repeated this scenario several times and found the same result. The 70-200mm f/4 does have excellent VR, but still, the tripod rig was rock solid. Why was this happening?

We determined that the culprit was the momentum of the first shutter curtain moving out of the way in order to make the exposure. Hand-holding the camera absorbed this energy (and the energy of the mirror slap, by the way) better than the tripod setup. The vibration problem was almost certainly exacerbated by mounting the rig to the tripod with the lens’ tripod collar, cantilevering the camera’s shutter out at one extremity of the rig.

Admittedly, we were pixel-peeping. All the images were still sharp enough for publication or prints in common sizes, but both Daniel and I make very large prints, so the shutter vibration of the D800E is something we’d seek to eliminate. I am delighted to find that the D810’s electronic front-curtain shutter does away with this problem. The D800e was darned good, but now the D810 allows us to make the very most of the resolution a 36MP sensor can capture. Keep in mind that the electronic from-curtain only works when the camera is set to Mirror-Up mode. If you are used to pre-releasing the mirror using Exposure Delay Mode or Live View, those modes won’t activate the electronic front curtain – in addition to setting Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter to “On” under setting d5 in the Custom settings menu, the camera has to also be set to “Mup” on the release mode dial.

Optically Optimized Sensor: Like the new electronic front-curtain shutter, the exclusion of an optical low pass filter and addition of micro lenses on the sensor’s photosites take the resolving power of the camera yet another noticeable step forward. If you thought you knew what 36 megapixel images looked like before, I encourage you to have another look. In theory, the micro lenses should also improve sharpness toward the edges of the frame, particularly in the case of wide-angles and older lenses that were designed for film rather than digital sensors. I’ll be interested to see if this proves to be the case.

The Most Helpful AF System Ever? Borrowed from the D4s, this system has an exceptionally well thought out feature set, and the performance is a significant improvement over the already impressive system in the D800/D4. The Group-Area AF mode deserves a special mention. It works beautifully, ensuring that the camera focuses on your subject, rather than on the background. Beyond the raw performance, I really like new options like the ability to restrict the available autofocus mode options only to those that you actually use. Don’t use 51-point Dynamic AF?  I don’t, so I just went into the menu and excluded it from the available set of options. It’s just one more way in which the camera gets out of the way. I also like the Store By Orientation custom setting (a9) which remembers where you had the sensor before you rotated the camera from horizontal to vertical and vice versa. If the composition calls for a horizontal with the subject on the left side of the frame, or a vertical with the subject at the upper right of the frame, the camera remembers and you can switch back and forth between orientations at will without having to reset the AF point each time. In practice, this is a wonderful feature.

Faster Frame Rate: At first I was disappointed with the five frames per second offered by the D810 (I was hoping for a somewhat greater increase in frame rate), but still, it’s nice to have 5FPS in full-frame mode and 6FPS in the 1.2x (24 megapixel) crop mode. Those of us who came up in the film days thought the 5.7FPS motor for the Nikon F3 as really fast, and I have used the “slow” D800E very effectively for wildlife by timing my shots carefully rather than blazing away, so 5FPS will do nicely.

New Processor, Buffer Doubled: This is huge. In essence, it means the camera gets out of your way. The obvious advantages for wildlife and action photographers are that blazing away at five frames per second will far less often result in being bogged down with a clogged buffer, and the buffer is faster to clear once it does reach its limit. Other aspects of the camera’s operation just happen faster, like the time it takes Live View to come back online after an exposure. The outstanding autofocus system is also made possible by the new processing power.

Quiet Shutter: The shutter sound on the D810 is much better dampened, both in terms of sound and vibration. Now, the camera seems much less obtrusive, whereas the D800 shutter called a lot of attention to itself. For what it’s worth, the sound is more pleasant too. What’s not to like?

Highlight-Weighted Metering: This feature works well and solves a common problem encountered by wildlife photographers. Imagine photographing a white Kittiwake in flight against a background of black basaltic cliffs on the coast of Iceland. With normal metering, this situation would typically require getting your exposure dialed in by checking the histogram and fiddling with exposure compensation or manual exposure to keep the highlights of the bird’s white feathers from blowing out. Now, just pop the metering into Highlight-Weighted mode, and voilá, the highlights are exposed properly. You’re basically telling the camera, “Forget about trying to protect shadow detail, just make sure you hold the brightest tones in the frame.” In the Custom Settings bank that I use for wildlife, I have the Function (Fn) button on the front of the camera set to instantly activate Highlight-Weighted mode, since applicable metering scenarios often develop in the blink of an eye.

Lower Base ISO: For those of us who like to make long exposures and find ourselves fiddling with strong ND filters regularly, the new lower native base ISO 64 is nice to have. The high end of the native ISO range is now 12,800, but I rarely if ever come close to needing that.

Other Niceties: There are a slew of other improvements that, while not necessarily game-changers, are certainly appreciated. The viewfinder is subtly brighter and crisper. More efficient power usage means 33% more battery life out of the same EN-EL15 cell. The position of the Bracketing button is more convenient. The video button near the shutter release can be set to be an ISO button, a great idea that hopefully earned some Nikon engineer in Japan a nice raise (this was also recently added to the D800 via firmware update).The interval timer and time lapse capabilities have also been significantly improved.

Conclusion to come…

I’ll be taking the D810 to Africa tomorrow to see how it handles the rigors of wildlife photography in comparison to my safari experience last year with the D800e. I expect to be pleased, but I’ll post again with the results at the end of the trip. In the meantime, thanks to Nikon for another phenomenal camera that demonstrates that they have been listening and paying attention to what we need as photographers.

Until next time!

Justin Black