Tech News: Eric Meola Field Tests the Nikon D810

By Eric Meola   Wednesday August 13, 2014

Vast tracts of undulating wheat and hills of dark earth meet in chamfered planes to form America's most sinuous and sensuous landscape, the Palouse of southeastern Washington State.

This month, I traveled to the Palouse—returning to a place I had photographed before—to drive amid the doves, the deer and the ubiquitous combines, to again experience the dusty roads and wheat chaff, the sound of gravel grating under tires, birds walking on wires, the rustle of wind. In this place, waves of light cast a warm pellucid glow that limn each landscape in mystery and in permanence. It is one of the most visually haunting corners of America.

I had also come to field test Nikon’s newest camera. The recently introduced D810—an update and amalgam of the D800 and D800E bodies—is not as quiet as a Leica M. But it’s getting close. What is most startling about this upgrade is the thoroughness that Nikon has lavished on what is arguably the world’s best full-frame digital camera.

Shooting the Palouse with the Nikon D810

After using the camera for the past week, I’m left with two conclusions—this is one of the quietest DSLR’s ever made, and it also delivers the sharpest images I’ve ever seen from a full-frame camera. Although Nikon’s claim of a full stop better high ISO noise level is probably correct for JPEGS, RAW files show less of an improvement, closer to 1/2 of a stop. What is evident, however, is that I can consistently shoot a full shutter speed slower without any motion blur, which I attribute to the quietness of the shutter and the damping of vibrations within the mirror box assembly. 

Although Nikon nullified the effect of the anti-aliasing filter on the D800E, the D810 eliminates it entirely, which means the full potential of the 36-megapixel sensor is not compromised. One of my favorite improvements is the OLED viewfinder display—data in the viewfinder is now bright white instead of a pale yellow-green. Along with the higher-resolution LCD at the rear of the camera (same as the D4s), the net impression of the JPEG previews (of RAW files) is startling: a 100-percent preview of images shot with a great lens, such as Nikon’s 70-200mm f/4G VR, leaves no doubt that you’ve not only nailed the shot but that this is a camera that makes no compromises when it comes to delivering all the detail possible. Although images on the new LCD display appear crisp and neutral, the D810 is the first of the D800 series to include color control for the monitor, allowing the photographer to set the LCD screen using an intuitive color quadrant to change its apparent color balance.

The buffer size has been increased dramatically—it’s now double that of the D800/D800E, which allows 60 RAW images at full resolution, at five frames per second over a period of 12 seconds, before the buffer fills. This is an astonishing achievement. I decided to bring a single lens on my trip—the 70-200mm f/4G VR, and use the massive 36-megapixel real estate in 1.5X “crop” mode whenever I needed to compose at an effective focal length of 300mm. I chose the f/4 version of the 70-200 over the 2.8 because I prefer the smaller size and weight, and it focuses closer. OK, I did bring along a 24-70mm f/2.8G lens, as well.

Portrait photographer Gregory Heisler, known for his wit as well as his Time magazine covers, recently summed up his knowledge of video by sardonically stating, “I have a Netflix account.”  But in a world where new still cameras are judged by their video capabilities, Nikon’s D810 can now shoot full HD video at 60p. As well, there is now a new video “Flat” picture control, audio levels in Live View mode, and “Power Aperture” for smooth lens aperture control while recording video. The D810 also incorporates “zebra stripes” (for highlight control) and an Auto ISO feature in manual video mode.

There’s a new “i” button on the back, largely dedicated to video, for quickly changing camera settings. In live view, pressing the "i" button activates a side panel on the right side of the screen, allowing quick access to various settings, and you can make changes in real time while recording.The new EXPEED 4 processor allows for snappier autofocusing with little if any searching, even in dim light. The default “out of the box” Picture Control setting of “Standard” now includes a new Clarity “slider” set at +1.

An orientation sensor, and menu item a9 ("Store by Orientation”), allow you to set different focus points and AF areas depending on the way you’re holding the camera. I use this in AF-C (continuous autofocus); for horizontals, I use the center AF point with 3D focus tracking, which tracks a moving subject and literally "moves" to the AF point nearest the subject in motion. For verticals, with the camera held either 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise, I have a four-point focus group jump automatically to the topmost section of the AF area (for portraits). I don't have to think about any of this—the camera changes AF points and AF areas automatically. I did find that if the camera shuts off automatically, the last “Store By Orientation” mode is retained, although a simple light tap to activate the camera’s meter quickly triggers the correct settings for whichever orientation is currently engaged.

There’s also a new electronic shutter feature that eliminates vibration entirely, but its functionality is limited to using the camera in “Mirror Lockup” mode—it can’t be used with the shutter-delay mode, as Nikon intends the electronic shutter to be used primarily with an electronic cable release. A new shutter, made of Kevlar and carbon fiber, along with the new processor, now delivers five frames per second (up from four on the D800/D800E), and 6fps in 1.2X or DX (1.5X) crop modes, or 7fps with the MB-D12 battery grip.

The new processor also allows for better implementation of energy saving: The same EN-EL15 battery from the D800 and D800E will now deliver 1,200 frames per charge (compared to the D800E’s 900). Menu item b7, which has always allowed changes to the camera’s built-in “null point” for metering, now includes the ability to compensate for highlight clipping—in effect, changing the tone curve of the NEF files, which already boast the highest dynamic range of any current full-frame camera.

Not content to be the only full-frame manufacturer to include a built-in intervalometer, Nikon has improved the time-lapse shooting options—increasing them by a factor of 10, from 999 frames to 9,999 frames.

The camera’s grip is now sculpted more deeply, especially near the index finger, and the AF-ON button now sits in a slightly more sculpted plate, which is great for those photographers, including myself, who default to “back button” autofocus. The bracketing button is now dedicated and has moved to a position adjacent to the flash-bracket button. Its position in the cloverleaf dial has been replaced by the metering-mode button. Bracketing options have also increased, allowing the photographer to bracket up to nine frames in half and full stops, and five frames in 0.5, 1, 2, and 3 stops.

Whereas the D800 and D800E show a tiny blinking “GPS” logo, the D810 shows a much more legible facsimile of a satellite beaming a GPS signal, clearly indicating a signal “lock.” As I have become addicted to GPS data embedded in my files, this is a small but welcome improvement.

The overall feeling I have when handling this camera is that it has pushed the limits of what is currently possible, with state-of-the-art attention to every aspect of its operation. Its quietness is, at first, remarkable, and there is a very real and palpable sense that this is the first DSLR camera to come close to a rangefinder in eliminating vibration at the moment of exposure. 

I also suspect that the incorporation of the D4s’s autofocus mechanism has resulted in close-to-zero “search” when in continuous autofocus mode, and I think this contributes, in turn, to sharper images. Nikon has also taken the massive dynamic range of the D800/D800E files and done its homework: Processed files from the D810 are gorgeous.

The Overview

While the ever-changing world of megapixel one-upmanship takes a breath, I’m gratified that Nikon has made an already great camera better. The improvements are, for me, significant: a much quieter shutter, increased battery life, an LCD that can be adjusted for color balance, a frame or two faster framing rate (depending on crop mode and battery grip), a much larger buffer (great for shooting in bursts), even better autofocus with Group mode and the ability to preset autofocus modes and points, a more sculpted grip, and improved Live View and video functionality.

After a week of shooting several thousand frames with the D810, I’ve found the improvements to be significant and far more important than a casual side-by-side comparison of specs reveals.  The decision whether to upgrade from either a D800 or D800E might seem superficial, but now that I’ve shot with it, there’s no going back.

Here is a summary of many, if not most, of the changes incorporated into the D810:

*Much quieter shutter
*Addition of “Quiet Continuous” mode
*Mirror bounce balancer, less vibration
*No AA filter
*Uses the D4s Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module
*f/8 autofocus with 11 of its AF sensors
*“Native” ISO range from 64-12,800 (expandable to 32-51,600)
*Much larger buffer (double the D800/D800E)
*Higher frames per second
*New “Group” AF mode
*New processor (EXPEED 4), faster AF
*New pentaprism coatings for better viewfinder clarity
*OLED viewfinder display
*Full HD video at 60p
*Zebra stripes in Live View
*Auto ISO in Manual video
*“Power aperture” feature for video recording
*New “Flat Picture” control
*New Small “RAW” file type
*Audio levels in Live View
*Built-in stereo mic (previously it was mono)
*Extremely clear Live View without interpolation
*New Kevlar/carbon fiber shutter
*Dedicated port covers for 3.5mm mic, headphone, USB 3.0 and Type-C Mini HDMI jacks
*Orientation sensor for AutoFocus points and AF areas
*Monitor color settings
*Higher-resolution rear LCD
*Improved high ISO noise (+1/2 stop) in RAW
*More bracketing options
*Highlight weighted metering mode
*Nicer, more sculpted grip
*A split-screen mode to level your camera faster
*Back button AF now set in a sculpted flange
*BKT button moved adjacent to the flash compensation button
*Metering mode button substitutes for BKT on the “cloverleaf” dial
*300 more frames of battery life
*Clarity setting in Picture control


Photographer Eric Meola is a recipient of the 2014 George Eastman “Power of the Image Award.” His latest book is “India: In Word and Image”(Revised and Updated, 2013).





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