There's a lot of talk about how smartphones are gradually taking over the role of cameras. But if there's a camera class that's not going to be booted out by the Samsung Galaxy S6, it's the Nikon D810's.
This is a top-end DSLR with a full-frame 36.3-megapixel sensor. That's as large as a sensor can go before diving into the weird world of medium format, where cameras often look like they're taking a trip in a hall of mirrors. It's big and chunky in its own right, but the Nikons D810 is about as good as DSLR cameras get while still retaining the look and feel of a normal high-end camera.
It is really a case of refinement rather than revolution, though. You get fairly minor tweaks and changes from the two-year-old D800 and D800E, and perhaps not all the improvements you were hoping for.
Twins born two years apart
From a quick glance you could be forgiven for thinking the Nikon D810 is the older D800. They look extremely similar - they're large DSLRs, but not ones with the gigantic battery that makes cameras such as the Nikon D4S look like they've been chomping down on steroids.
What's new in the design? Nikon has altered the grips for your right hand on the back and front a bit, making them more pronounced.
You'd need to know this, or own a D800, to notice, but either way the Nikon D810 offers grip firmer than the handshake of a 5ft army general with short man syndrome. It is worth noting quite how large the camera is if you're upgrading from a compact system camera or lower-end DSLR, though.
On its own the D810 weighs 980g with battery. We tested the camera with the excellent 24-70mm f2.8 lens, which weighs about the same again. It's a hefty package, and we imagine many people eyeing-up this camera may be considering a real high-performance lens like this. However, even with the cheap, light and cheerful 50mm f1.8, you're still looking at a bulk of over a kilogram. That's as much as some laptops.
It's also the sort of size that fills rucksacks, especially if you're going to carry around a lens or two. However, as you'd hope, manual control is fantastic as a pay-off. There's a wealth of control dials and customisable function modes, and the current settings are all telegraphed with fantastic clarity through the top monochrome LCD and the optical viewfinder's OLED overlay.
The manual control dials all have the sort of reassuring clunky thunk that fits in perfectly with the lovely shutter sound and feel that you only really get with a real DSLR.
Build quality is fantastic, too. Aside from some plastic or rubber outer parts, the frame of the Nikon D810 is made of magnesium alloy, and it feels tough as nails. This should also help quiet any people complaining about the weight of the camera. Magnesium is harder and lighter than aluminium (although this is a magnesium-aluminium alloy).
Get this in your hands and you know instantly: this is the real deal. And it's weatherproof, too, perfect for shooting on rainy days, as long as the lens you use is also going to be safe.
Of course, all this applied to the Nikon D800E, and Nikon hasn't been silly enough to release a new camera without any improvements. One of the first you may notice is the new screen.
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Hand me the white LED
The 3.2-inch display on the back is the same size as 2012's models, but resolution has been increased from 921k dots to 1229k. Rather than a traditional increase in sharpness, Nikon has bunged an extra white subpixel into the usual red-green-blue sub pixel array.
What this means, for the non-screen-nerds out there, is that the D810 can dramatically increase the brightness of the rear display without using loads of extra juice - white pixels are perfect for doing this. Taking a further step back, this means the rear screen can offer great outdoors visibility even on sunny days without ruining the simply excellent 1,200 shot battery life.
While we tried the Nikon D810 out in Margate rather than Miami (yes, really), where the sun wasn't exactly dazzling, it is impressive stuff regardless. Of course, most of you will want to peer through the viewfinder 99 per cent of the time anyway. That's especially as the optical viewfinder offers a crystal clear view with an excellent read-out of what your camera's up to, settings-wise.
The viewfinder is great, but some might say the lack of an EVF is an oversight. These sorts of impersonation viewfinders generally look a lot worse than pure optical viewfinders like the Nikon D810's but they allow things like focus peaking as they're totally digital.
Focus peaking is where the crispy bits around in-focus objects are highlighted to make manual focusing easier but it's missing from the D810, even when the rear display is used to compose a photo. When going fully manual, you have to focus by eye a good deal more than we'd like.
Not quite features galore
There are also several other features missing from the Nikon D810 that are present in loads of cameras, including ones several orders of magnitude cheaper. You don't get Wi-Fi or 4K video recording. The former is just a niggle given how poorly Wi-Fi is normally implemented in cameras, but the lack of 4K video is a real bummer.
The Panasonic GH4 has become a real hero among video fans because of its good 4K video capture, and not having it here is a huge missed opportunity. This camera's arch rival the Canon 5D MKIII doesn't have 4K video either, but then that's two years old just like the Nikon D810's predecessors.
Predecessors? Yep, there are two cameras that the D810 is replacing: the Nikon D800 and 800E. One has an anti-aliasing filter (the non-E model), one doesn't. Like several other recent high-end cameras, the Nikon D810 ditches the anti-aliasing filter altogether and that's actually a good thing. It sounds like a positive feature, and does have its uses, but it's a compromise as the filter reduces sharpness ever-so-slightly.
The Nikon D810 takes both CF and SD cards, with two slots hidden under a flap. If you're going to shoot in NEF (Nikon's version of RAW), you'll want a massive memory card too, as photos can reach close to 80MB. Each. Even fine quality JPGs are 20MB or so.
Such massive amounts of data is what makes the USB 3.0 port on the side pretty handy. It's not going to cause as much fuss as (missing) 4K video, but if you have a recent laptop it'll speed-up transfers without you having to take out the card.
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- Sensor: 36.3MP, Full Frame, CMOS
- Lens: F Mount
- ISO: 64-12,800 native range
- Flash: yes
- Video: 1080p/60fps
- Connectivity: miniHDMI, external mic socket, microUSB 3.0
- Storage: SD, SDHC, SDXC, Compact Flash
- Dimensions: 146 x 123 x 81.5mm
- Weight: 980g (880g without battery)
And as you'd hope, image quality is otherwise absolutely fantastic. Despite having the same size and resolution sensor as the older Nikon D800E, the D810 actually has a new sensor and it's one that can render absolutely loads of detail with a nice, sharp lens.
The Nikon D810 provides really quite superb dynamic range too, meaning you get detail in bright clouds that might be overexposed in lesser cameras, for beautiful sunsets without using an HDR mode.
There is an inbuilt HDR mode in the D810, but we honestly found it too slow to use handheld. Unless you use a tripod, you'll find clear ghosting - something smartphones use clever programming to avoid.
Photos aren't going to be in a completely different league to the D800E, and we're not entirely sure it's worth the upgrade if you already own the older camera and don't make a living off your photos. Compared to cameras a little lower down the price/size scale, though, it's hard not to let your jaw drop.
The real benefit of a great full-frame camera is that you can dig deep into the higher ISO sensitivities without your photos looking like grainy garbage. And that means you can shoot in virtually any lighting condition, generally without needing a tripod for stability. As long as you don't need real pro-quality shots, that is.
As long as you know what settings not to use, it doesn't half make shooting fairly decent shots easy. ISO sensitivity goes from 64 all the way up to 12,800, an absolutely huge native range that can be expanded to 32 - 51,200. Obviously, you won't want to get anywhere near the top end if you want to avoid noisy photos, but with the Nikon D810 you can push the ISO setting far more than you can with an APS-C or smaller sensor camera. Like the Olympus OM-D EM-1, much as we love it.
Focusing is lightning fast, and there are 51 focus points, 15 of which are cross-focus. These cross points use a team of two phase detection sensors, analysing light horizontally and vertically for even better focusing reliability.
The Nikon D810 is very impressive on this front, although looking at the numbers the Canon 5D MKIII does get you even more, with 61 points, 41 of which are cross-type points. Of course, phase detection only applies when you're using the viewfinder. Switch to Live View, which uses the rear screen as the preview window, and the D810 switches to slower contrast detection.
Rather like the somewhat-unfriendly approach to HDR, the D810 doesn't have in-body image stabilisation. So while you can up the ISO to allow faster shutter speeds without huge underexposure, you can't indulge in slightly slower shutter speeds handheld unless you're using a lens with OIS.
The D810's Expeed 4 processor lets you shoot at 5fps at full 36.3-megapixel resolution. That's a full frame per second more than the D800E. Of course, if you want remotely fast burst shooting you will want to invest in a super-fast card.
Nikon D810 Verdict
The Nikon D810 is a monster camera. Its image quality and performance are hard to fault.
If you're a serious photographer willing to stump up the cash for at least a good lens or two, it's a fantastic buy.
However, it's not a dynamic or dramatic upgrade. Despite having a new sensor and screen, the experience and results are not all that different from what's on offer in the Nikon D800E. And you don't get features you might be expecting, such as 4K video and built-in Wi-Fi.
Do they matter? That depends on you. But it's a sign that this is a single-minded snapper, one that's all about photography and little else. If that suits your taste, there's perhaps no better camera.
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