Nikon D810 Review

July 23, 2014 | Mark Goldstein |


Boasting a brand new 36.3-megapixel FX format sensor with no optical low pass filter, the Nikon D810 promises the highest image quality in Nikon's history, at least according to Nikon. The Nikon D810 offers a rugged, weather sealed magnesium-alloy body, a very similar control layout to the D800/800E, an ISO range of 32-51,200, 1080/60p video recording, latest Expeed 4 image processing engine, Multi-CAM 3500FX 51-point auto-focus system with new Group Area AF mode, 5fps burst shooting at full resolution, new electronic front-curtain shutter and an improved LCD monitor (3.2-inch with 1299K dots). Other highlights include a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port, microphone and headphone jacks, dual CF/SD memory card slots, an intelligent self-diagnostic shutter rated for 200,000 actuations, a user configurable Exposure Delay Mode, a dual-axis Virtual Horizon, uncompressed 12 bit RAW Size S format (9 megapixels), Live View split-screen zoom and in-camera HDR exposure blending. The Nikon D810 replaces both the D800 and D800E models and is available body-only for £2699.99 / €3299 / $3299.95.

Ease of Use

The Nikon D810 is the successor to both the D800 and D800E cameras. With a new 36-megapixel, the D810 remains the highest resolution 35mm size digital SLR camera in the world. Outwardly, the Nikon D810 is very similar to the D800/E. It features a redesigned, deeper and narrower hand-grip, while the overall shape of the camera body is as rounded and streamlined as its predecessor, with near identical dimensions. Weighing in at 880 grams the D810 is very slightly lighter, feeling reassuringly hefty in your hand.

The control layout is broadly similar to that of the Nikon D800, which is a good thing in our book - but there are some differences. Th PV and Fn buttons on the front are now round and smaller, while microphone holes and the bracketing button have been added to the front plate. There's a new "i" button on the rear, and a new metering button on the release mode dial on the top of the camera. On the left-hand flank, the various ports are now covered by three seperate flaps, rather than one large one, while the memory card door has been rubberised. That's about it for the visual differences between the new D810 and the older D800/E, so upgraders will feel instantly at home with the latest iteration.

The focus mode switch has two positions only, AF and M. Cycling through the available options (single, 9-, 21- and 51-point dynamic, 3D tracking, auto area and group area) is done in a similar vein as on the D4 and D7000. To wit, the focus mode switch has a small button at its hub. You can toggle between AF-S and AF-C modes by holding down this button, with the switch in the ‘AF' position, and turning the rear control wheel. To cycle through the available AF Area modes, use the sub command dial instead. The settings are displayed in the viewfinder and the top-mounted status LCD. New to the D810 is the Group Area AF mode, which lets you assign 5 AF points that can be moved across the 51-point array as the subject demands, making it easier to track smaller moving subjects. Face Detect AF can also now be toggled on or off while shooting through the viewfinder.

The Live View button on the rear is encircled by a two-way Live View mode selector. This lever can be set to either “live view photography” or “movie live view”, each of which is denoted by a little, self-explanatory icon.

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Front Rear

The Nikon D810's Live View implementation features only a single Live View mode where the mirror is locked up, and AF is performed using the contrast detection method. (Note however that unlike the Nikon D4S the D810 does not feature a completely silent Live View option, which is a bit of a pity as this was one of the things we liked most about that camera.) Upon entering Live View, the mirror is raised and the lens is stopped down to the working aperture, allowing for an accurate depth of field preview. A new optional electronic first curtain shutter eliminates the need to physically move the shutter at the beginning of the exposure, helping to reduce shutter vibrations.

As with other Live View enabled Nikon dSLRs, there is a red rectangle that you can position anywhere within the frame, so you can focus precisely on the part of your subject that you want to appear sharpest in the resulting photo. Live View auto focus speeds aren't stellar, particularly if compared to the latest generation of compact system cameras, but are decent for a DSLR. As far as manual focusing is concerned, you can magnify into the live view feed up to 23x - but it's worth noting that this magnified view is at least partially interpolated, which is a bit of a shame. Also there is a live histogram - though in order to actually see it you'll need to remember to push the OK button first to enable the Nikon D810's Exposure Preview feature. Architectural photographers will be glad to hear that the optional virtual horizon is a dual-axis version showing both pitch and roll. The new Live View split-screen zoom displays magnified areas of the left and right sides of the live view frame, making more precise adjustments even easier than the virtual horizon.

“Movie live view” enables you to accurately preview framing for videos, which have an aspect ratio of 16:9 rather than 3:2. The Nikon D810 offers Full HD movie capture at five different frame rates (24/25/30/50/60fps) and two quality levels with a built-in stereo microphone. Additionally, 720p is also available at 25, 30, 50 and 60fps; and again at two quality settings, High and Normal. For movies, you can also choose from two crop modes, 1.1x and 1.5x; referred to as “FX-based” and “DX-based” movie formats in the manual. The Nikon D4's 2.7x crop mode - i.e. native 1080p footage streamed directly from the central part of the sensor - is missing from the D810. The maximum length of a clip is generally 29 minutes and 59 seconds for Normal and 20 minutes for High quality videos, unless you're using an external recorder hooked up to the camera by way of an HDMI cable. New to the D180 is a 'flat' Picture Control mode for producing the greatest dynamic range possible, and Zebra strips for checking blown highlights.

Manual exposure adjustment is available for movies - note that ISO and shutter speed are only adjustable in 'M' mode, while the aperture can be set in both 'A' and 'M' modes. The Nikon D810 features a built-in microphone but for professional-grade audio recording you'll definitely want to use an external one. In order to monitor the audio during movie capture, you can also connect a pair of headphones to the camera. As is now the norm for virtually every digital camera, from compacts to CSCs to DSLRs, there's a dedicated red movie-record button on the D810, located right next to the shutter release (much like the D4, D3200 and D5100). We found this button a bit too small for our taste - your mileage may of course vary, but chances are you'll often push this movie shutter release inadvertently instead of the Mode button, which is located further to the left. The depth-of-field preview button found on the front panel of the camera can be used to add indices to specific frames during recording so that they are easier to locate in the editing phase.

Nikon D810 Nikon D810
Top Side

At the heart of the Nikon D810's live view and movie live view experience is an upgraded 3.2” LCD screen. Its resolution of 1299K dots is up from the 921K dots of the older 3” panel found on the D800/E, and it now has an RGBW panel for brighter reproduction plus customizable color. It features a design that incorporates a gel resin between the cover glass and the screen itself to combat the fogging that may result from sudden changes of temperature, and also makes use of a light sensor to allow for automatic adjustment of the screen's brightness, contrast, gamma and colour saturation.

Of course the Nikon D810 is, first and foremost, an SLR camera - so let us now take a look at how it performs at its more traditional functions. The optical OLED viewfinder, which is one of the most important parts of any SLR, is big and bright with 0.72x magnification and approximately 100% frame coverage. Like the D4, the Nikon D810 comes with a Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark VIII focusing screen. The excellent on-demand viewfinder grid display (Custom Setting d6) has been carried over from the older model.

When using the optical viewfinder - as opposed to shooting in Live View mode - you  can take advantage of the Nikon D810's outstanding 51-point phase-detect AF system. Similarly to the D4, the D810 features an upgraded version of the venerable Multi-CAM 3500FX auto focus module, which boasts improved sensitivity (down to -2EV) and support for lens-teleconverter combinations as slow as f/8. In use, we have found the system to be highly capable, even in low-light situations. Under normal light levels and with the right lens mounted, the speed of the auto focus system is blazingly fast, meaning you can capture even the fastest-moving subjects with ease.

The Nikon D800/E's physical metering mode selector has been retained in the D810, but is now found in a new location on the release mode dial. However, the meter itself features the very same 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor as the D800/E. Aside from being very sensitive - down to -1EV in 3D Colour Matrix III and centre-weighted modes - the sensor also assists the camera in tracking subjects, detecting faces (when not using live view) and focusing. A new 'highlight-weighted' metering option promises to preserve highligh detail in especially contrast, backlit scenes.

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Front Pop-up Flash

Unlike its main competitor, the venerable Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the Nikon D810 features a pop-up flash, which can also act as a master controlling up to two groups of wirelessly slaved system flashes. In addition, the D810 has a standard Nikon hot-shoe and an ISO 519 compliant Prontor-Compur flash sync terminal for connecting cable-contact flash units such as studio strobes. The PC sync socket is protected by a rubber flap, as is the proprietary 10-pin connector that sits directly below it. The latter is used to attach an optional wired remote release or GPS unit to the camera.

Similarly to the D4, the D810 has a user configurable Exposure Delay Mode - you can set the length of delay between mirror up and image capture (1, 2 or 3 seconds). Although the camera has a proper mirror lock-up mode too, the Exposure Delay Mode comes in very handy whenever you don't have a remote cord to hand. Auto ISO sensitivity control works the same in the new model. You can have the camera determine the minimum shutter speed based on the focal length of the lens in use. This means that the camera may raise the ISO sensitivity if the shutter speed drops below 1/200 second when using a 200mm lens but leave it unchanged down to 1/50 second if a 50mm lens is attached (this can be fine-tuned by the user). Usefully Auto ISO is also now available in the manual exposure mode.

Also on the Nikon D810 is a Quiet release mode, in which mirror return is delayed until you let go of the shutter release. First seen on the Nikon D5000, this mode isn't quite as quiet on the D810, as the larger mirror is inherently louder, but it's still useful whenever a greater degree of discretion is required than usual. Still on the topic of release/drive modes, the Nikon D810 offers a maximum continuous shooting speed of 5fps in FX mode, which is a step forward from the 4fps of the D800/E. Considering the amount of data that needs to be moved during a quick burst, this shooting speed is nothing short of phenomenal. In the DX crop mode, the maximum frame rate increases to 7fps for 15.3 megapixel images with the battery grip and EN-EL18 / AA batteries fitted for an unlimited number of frames.

Nikon D810 Nikon D810
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

What hasn't changed is the rather clumsy way of storing and retrieving combinations of frequently used settings. The Nikon D810 has separate Shooting Menu Banks and Custom Settings Banks, and even if you use both you still cannot store all of your settings, much less activate them at the same time. This is rather strange as even the more enthusiast-focused Nikon D7100 has two easy-to-access user settings, labelled U1 and U2. While we are aware that many photographers don't use memory banks / user settings at all on their cameras, we would still love to see this fixed in a future firmware update.

The Nikon D810 has dual CF and SD memory card slots. The implementation of the two-card system is exemplary: you can tell the camera to record every image simultaneously on both cards for instant backup, designate one card to store raw files and the other JPEGs, use the secondary card for “overflow” - you name it. The camera is compatible with UDMA compliant CompactFlash, UHS-I compliant SDHC and SDXC memory cards.

On the left hand flank, if viewing the camera from the back, we find three commendably firm, hinged rubber doors that stay open until you close them. Sheltered behind these is a pretty extensive array of connection ports including a mini HDMI connector, a USB 3.0 port, as well as both microphone and headphone jacks. The Nikon D810 also now features an Ethernet port and is compatible with the WT-5 wireless transmitter. Note that in order to use the mini HDMI port you'll have to buy a separately sold Type C HDMI cable, as none is included with the camera.

The Nikon D810 draws power from a proprietary EN-EL15 battery, as used by the D800/E. In the D810, this battery is CIPA rated for 1200 shots, which is excellent. Those that need more power and/or want to speed up their continuous shooting in DX mode might want to take a look at the optional MB-D12 battery grip, which takes the Nikon D4's EN-EL18 battery as well as the D810's EN-EL15a and even allows the camera to use standard AA size alkaline cells.