Nikon D810 Follow-Up


As promised, here is the follow-up to the post in which I shared my first impressions of the new Nikon D810. During Visionary Wild’s recent safaris at Maasai Mara, Kenya, and Chobe River, Botswana, I put the D810 to the test as a camera for wildlife action. The camera got covered in dust, rained on, knocked around, and performed flawlessly through 10,000 exposures. In a nutshell, I am most impressed.

Autofocus: I had expected the AF system to be improved over the D800E, but this is a whole new animal. As anticipated, the “Group” sensor array worked well, but it was the 3D 51-Point Dynamic mode that was most improved. It did a superb job of tracking fast-moving birds against complex, contrasty backgrounds, and when it did lose track of the subject, it reacquired it much faster than the D800 or D4 would. Chalk one up to the D810. I would still like to see the AF sensor array distributed across more of the frame.

African skimmers at sunset, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4, ISO 1600, 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6. Photo © 2014 Justin Black


Optically optimized sensor: The D810 sensor, free of an optical low-pass filter and newly equipped with microlenses over the photosites does indeed appear to deliver marginally more resolution and sharper edges than the D800E’s. I haven’t had a chance to test whether the sensor responds better to older lenses that weren’t optimized for digital (wide-angle lenses in particular should benefit), but I am eager to do so.

Dust Repelling Sensor? Despite spending two weeks on safari in locations with lots of dust and plant particles in the air, I can hardly find any dust specs in my D810 image files. I’m not sure what to attribute this to, particularly since I tend to be pretty cavalier about changing lenses in dusty conditions, and I didn’t clean the sensor or even blow the camera out because I saw no need. Is it more effective in-camera sensor cleaning at start-up and shutdown? Does the sensor have a new anti-static coating that is better at repelling dust? I don’t know yet, but I’m going to try to find out whether Nikon made a change here or if I was just lucky.

Dynamic Range, High-ISO and Low-Light Performance: My plan for Africa was to use the D810 in “good light,” but to switch to a D4 for low light, high-ISO situations. What I found amazed me. The dynamic range is a little better overall, but beyond that Nikon has significantly improved the performance of the D810 sensor at higher ISOs, so much so that I would be happy using it as my only camera for everything I do. You might be asking, “But, isn’t the D4s still better at the highest ISOs and in the murkiest conditions?” Yes and no, depending on what you mean by “better.” The reality is that the noise, detail, and tonality in D810 files made at higher ISOs look a lot better than in comparable D800 images. Also, you can make a D810 file made at ISO 6400 look just as clean as a D4s file made at ISO 6400, simply by downsizing the file from its native 36MP resolution to the 16MP resolution of the D4 (along with some basic noise reduction of course). The image below was made at ISO 3200, but our recent Safari Update post features a portrait of a lioness that I made at ISO 6400. Talk about a versatile camera!

Malachite kingfisher in last light, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 3200, 1/640 sec @ f/5.6. Photo © 2014 Justin Black

Malachite kingfisher in last light, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 3200, 1/640 sec @ f/5.6. Photo © 2014 Justin Black


Processor – Buffer – Speed: Everything on this camera runs faster and less intrusively than on the D800, and even shooting long bursts of fast-and-furious wildlife action at 5 frames per second (14-bit, 36MP NEF raw files) I never buffered out. The increased frame rate was greatly appreciated, and I found myself using the 1.2x crop mode at six frames per second with some frequency. Score another point.

Balanced mirror: As mentioned before, I love the quieter and better-damped mirror. While this might seem like a small tweak, in practice it is a major improvement.

Electronic first curtain: I tested this feature (accessible only in Mirror-Up advance mode) and confirmed that it works. Gone is the subtle motion blur introduced by the inertia of the mechanical front shutter curtain. I found that the issue was only really noticeable when working in high magnification scenarios (telephoto or macro work) on a tripod, but this is a legitimate improvement nevertheless.

Highlight Priority Metering: As anticipated, this did indeed prove to be a very useful solution for holding highlight detail in wildlife subjects in dynamic lighting situations, particularly set up to be activated instantly on demand with the “Fn” button on the front of the camera.

Pied kingfishers fighting over fish, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 1250, 1/2000 sec @ f/8. Photo © 2014 Justin Black.

Pied kingfishers fighting over fish, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 1250, 1/2000 sec @ f/8, Highlight-Priority metering. Photo © 2014 Justin Black.


And finally, a HUGE improvement from a landscape photographer’s point of view…

Split-Screen in Live View: The feature isn’t of much use for wildlife, but it is immensely useful for my landscape photography, for which I use Nikon’s PC-E tilt-shift lenses 90% of the time. This enables us to zoom into separate points in the foreground and background simultaneously, facilitating the process of setting the position of the focal plane, both in terms of speed and accuracy. I will be using this feature a great deal.

The D810 goes way beyond simply being a refinement of the D800E. I have found it to be a very worthwhile upgrade with new capabilities that meaningfully enhance my ability to successfully execute the photographs I want to make. Well done Nikon!

Justin Black