Sunday, November 15, 2020

Nikon D810 Review Series Part I

Nikon D810 Review Series Part I 
November 2020, Carl Garrard

First, a bit of clarity. Although the title of this review implies that I may write further articles about the D810, please don't count on it. But also, don't discount it happening either. It's important to know that my impression of the D810 continues to evolve the more that I use it, thus, I may decide to have additional observations to note in the future. Consider instead that the title is a place marker. I won't rush or force myself into a writing review anymore, that time has long gone (thankfully). So my practice now is that an article happens when the time is right. After months of experience with the D810... I finally sat down this morning with a cup of black rifle coffee, motivated to condense my thoughts and experiences about the D810 into an article. I don't think I need to explain the reasoning why I'm reviewing an older camera, in my mind the point of relevancy for all interchangeable lens cameras came and went over 10 years ago, and many older cameras are just as relevant today as they were then.

My hope always, is that sharing my thoughts and experiences can help clarify some questions or curiosities about a cameras performance. In this case, the D810 has been a very interesting subject. First, I had to stop cross comparing it to other Nikon DSLR's I own or have owned, cameras such as the D700/800E/610, etc. When first using use any camera, its differences seem to stick out like a sore thumb for a while. I cant' stress how important it is to take the time to get used to a new camera, then later judge it independently based on the total sum of its merits.

That time has come. 
Incredible detail at 100% view.

And I'll say that the D810 is truly an interesting beast. Especially so if you are torn between buying it, or the newer D850. Being frank with you, I'll say that if this is true for you, it is because either you don't know what your photographic needs are specifically, and/or you are also concerned about what your needs will be in the future. Welcome to being human, it's not your fault! As long as you have a basic understanding of what role you want a camera to play for you, whatever that may be,  you'll be just fine making whatever decision you come too. 
Both cameras are fantastic and neither are perfect.

If I'm to give any specific advice, it is to never let the amount of money you pay for a camera justify your needs. And that goes both ways. Just because a camera is more expensive guarantees nothing in regards to increased user satisfaction. Likewise, this applies the same way if you purchased a camera for an incredible deal. Price alone will never guaranty increased user satisfaction. 
It is experience alone with a camera that will or will not satisfy you. So get over the money part.

Since we're on the topic of satisfaction, the D810 is the best high resolution interchangeable lens camera available for its price point based on it's relevancy, and my personal experiences. My own D810 tends to mainly play the role of a landscape machine. It's true at least as far as image quality is concerned, that its dynamic range and detail are its main selling points. My experience with it has also solidified that. But as I have found, it is so much more of a camera than that. It's also an excellent all in one camera too. 
In fact, far more excellent in certain capabilities than I will ever need. And that's likely true for most of us.

ISO 800, such subtle tones

It's all-in-one "status" if you will, has largely been overshadowed for two reasons; one the combined internet press with all the hype surrounding its sensor, and two, the subsequent release of its predecessor the D850. This is a camera touted as being the only true "all in one" DSLR ever made. Hogwash. Please ignore these distractions. Contrary, the truth is that I've found the D810 to be a better "all in one" DSLR that the internet press, now criticizing the D810, are actually saying. 
Trust me, initially I believed all the hype myself.

Time and experience however have provided true clarity. Oddly, the specs alone should have spoke louder to me than the over hyped opinion pieces out there. For crying out loud, the D810 is absolutely loaded for just about every task you can think of. It's capable of shooting up to 7 frames per second (in DX crop mode w/a grip) relying on a quick, and highly capable 51 point autofocus system. From studio work to fast action subjects, there's nothing the 36mp D810 can't do remarkably well. 
A camera review should be judged solely on the quality of a cat photograph that is included with it. Duh.

And I haven't even talked about how good its build quality is, its excellent ergonomics that add to its multi-faceted role, or lastly about it's appeal overall as just a great camera. Truly the D810 is a great camera, nobody can refute that. And if they do, they are selling something. Criticisms that I've read about the D810 from the industry mouthpieces online, remain to be nit-picking one of the best cameras ever to come to market. Not so oddly many of those same criticisms came out after a D810 successor was announced.
Ask yourself this: Why didn't more of these criticisms matter to those same mouthpieces before? 
None shall pass.

The fact is, they didn't. Most criticisms of any camera's predecessor are just masked justification for promoting new sales for a company that paid for hotel accommodations and dinner parties. They do not represent your best interests. But time and time again, reviews of  new cameras criticize their predecessors to the point of making them sound irrelevant.

Know that I'm aware of how hard it is to resist the allure of having the latest model. I'm not immune to that by any stretch of the imagination. The D850 not only looks fantastically tempting, it's specs and reputation are almost undeniable. At least, for now. Let me ask you a question; when has a camera, any camera for that matter, given enough time, been without its criticisms? The answer as you very well know, is never. If and when the D870 comes out, you'll hear all about the drawbacks of the D850.
I hope I've made my point clear. All cameras are just as relevant now as they ever were.

Just clouds. The tonal range and detail in this photograph is mind blowing at full size. I wouldn't be surprised to see individual water vapor droplets viewed at 100%. Yes I'm kidding about the second part.

Learn to ignore all that, and instead focus on what you want from a camera, and you'll be much happier. And if your needs change in time, that's okay too. At least they are your needs, and not someone else's gear lust masked as hyperbole.
As for my experiences with the D810, it's a camera that has forced me to become a better photographer. At least, in terms of paying attention to fine details in my routine. If you're going to get the most out of the D810, at least in terms of it's dynamic range and detail, you better be paying attention to your routine. Personally, I've learned the following:
First of all, the D810 can out perform any modern lens made today. Meaning, no matter how sharp a lens is, more detail potential still lies within the D810. It is not the bottle neck in the detail equation, but your lens will always be. Pick the best lenses, and you'll get the most out of it possible.
Second, set the camera to electronic first curtain shutter, and never change it unless you absolutely have too.
For the sharpest handheld landscape, macro, or still life shots, I use mirror up mode at the viewfinder level. I'll compose, then half press the shutter for autofocus, fire, wait a second or two, hold steady, then lightly press the shutter softly again. 
For even sharper shots, I'll use live view hand held so long as there's ample light where I'm guaranteed higher focus accuracy. And lastly, is of course using a sturdy tripod with vibration compensation turned off on the lens, using a 2-10 second mirror up delay and/or combination of that with a cable release.  
I use each of these techniques depending on the available light and subjects. All this goes out the window for action subjects, of course. But with the D810, you can never be too careful about eliminating minor vibrations that will blur your image at the pixel level.

For the most dynamic range, I use ISO 64, almost always. But 32 (low1) and 100 are also very very good. In my experience the D810 raw files are neutrally biased towards shadow's and highlights, so I'll tend to expose highlights as far to the right as possible, and bring up shadows/bring down highlights, later if needed. Most of the time that means I'll be bringing up shadow and black slider levels. I find that using a low ISO setting and this technique provides ample dynamic range for most high contrast  scenes with one exposure. I've not yet had to use multiple exposures for one scene to date. Although I'm aware that technique could eek out even more quality if needed.
Call me lazy, I can take it.
Ergonomically, the D810 is a pleasure. I used to think I could live without the exposure metering switch prevalent on many Nikon bodies such as the D700/800 cameras. But I keep the D810 in the highly reliable matrix metering mode most of the time, when I need to spot meter I just use the preview button to whit I have assigned this task. Much faster than switching metering modes!
And I cannot say enough about the grip. I love how it feels in hand compared to my other Nikon bodies, especially when compared to the D800E I had previously. It's cool all metal body is rock solid with smooth curves that melt into my hand. And all the buttons and dials are in just the right location. Being able to assign the video record button to ISO is also another wonderful addition that saves a lot of time and missed opportunities, since I don't have to take my eye away from the viewfinder to find the ISO button on the  back of the camera. I just reach over with my index finger, press, and move a control wheel.

Just a few changes to a design can make huge differences in how you shoot. Sure I can and do get by with other cameras that aren't as ideally designed, but it begs the question: why should we have too?
I'd like to comment more on it's 36mp sensor for low light use. If I do shoot in low light hand held and need to use higher ISO's for whatever reason, I tend to consider the D810 to be an 18mp camera. I will downsize the resolution later on my developed raw files to 18mp. This still gives plenty of image to make larger prints if needed, and they exhibit lower noise without losing per-pixel acuity. In this case I'll use the D810 through any of the native ISO settings up to 12,800. Above that things get a bit dicey since hi-1 and hi-2 are just software "push" settings, not real ISO increments.
ISO 6,400. Downsized from 36mp to 18mp then, a very minor crop.

I don't reach for my D810 for action, but if I did I'd have no issue using the 1.2x crop mode. This increases frame rates to 6fps in camera without the need for a grip. You may not think there is a big difference between its standard 5fps and 6fps, but you do feel it and it makes a difference. Getting 18 images in a 3 second burst vs. 15 increases your odds of getting more keeper images greatly. That's not far off from my D610 which shoots at 6.5 FPS and I've used that for birding quite often with fantastic results.

One thing I do wish is that the D810 had an eye sensor like the D7500 that would automatically switch off the LCDs when I brought my eye to the finder. Its really  nice to be able to do a quick diagnosis of all settings by looking at a 3.2" panel. As is, the top LCD does a pretty good job of packing in a lot of information at a quick glance. But still...the user should still have the option of keeping it on full time without having to push an info button or sliding the on/off switch to the illumination setting.
The dynamic range and pixel level acuity are mind blowing in this full size image, this is common with the D810. Be prepared to be blown away when you do everything right. 100% crop below.

As is the D810 is a fantastic machine. If I choose to shoot timelapse or video with it, I know it's capable. If I want to take several exposures into one raw file, I have that covered too. It's fantastic battery life, weather sealing, and reliability mean that I'll take it on any adventure, harsh weather or not, bitter cold or blazing heat, with complete and utter confidence. I can't say that about most of my cameras.
Sealing, robust. Take it anywhere above water.

And that is why I feel the D810 has such tremendous capability, and why too it is such a good value. Currently I see no reason at all to spend two to three times as much on a D850. I would only if it was a much more capable camera than the D810 and, my needs had dictated such. At this point, neither are true.

Stay focused.


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