Nikon D810 Field Test Part I

The quest for sunshine and razor-sharp detail

By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 08/25/2014

After days of waiting, I finally got some decent weather in which to try out the Nikon D810's prodigious detail-gathering capabilities!

Although I'll happily shoot with just about any camera you care to hand me, I am first and foremost an SLR shooter. I'm a big fan of the optical viewfinder, and I like a camera body that feels molded to my hands. Although I haven't yet gone full-frame -- I can't personally justify the cost, in part because I spend a lot of time shooting with the cameras I'm reviewing, rather than my own personal cameras -- I'd love to switch to a full-frame camera at some point.

The Nikon D810, then, is a camera whose design speaks to me.

As far as I'm concerned, you just can't can't beat a big, bright through-the-lens viewfinder image for the sense of attachment it gives to your subject. (I find it doubly nice when shooting active subjects, as I can keep both eyes open, framing with one and anticipating my subject with the other. That doesn't work as well with an EVF, because the lag inherent in an electronic view of the world means both eyes aren't seeing quite the same thing.)

The first thing I did after taking the Nikon D810 out of the box, once I'd mounted a lens and removed the caps, of course, was to bring the camera to my eye and revel in the view through its finder. It's big, bright and -- for full-frame shooting, at least -- accurate. Score one for the D810, and I'd only had it unpacked for a matter of seconds!

I found its nice, clear on-demand viewfinder markings to be a very nice touch, as well. They didn't distract me from my subject, but they appeared when I needed them. When focusing, for example, black outlines appeared indicating the points which had achieved a lock, rather than the more distracting red illumination typical of most cameras. (The D810's viewfinder can still add red illumination, but by default does so only in low-light or against dark backgrounds, where the on-demand displays would be hard to see.)

Switching over to one of the sensor-cropped image modes, an on-demand viewfinder frame appeared, making it quite clear what portion of the image would be captured. Accuracy of these markings could be a little better -- although the viewfinder itself has 100% coverage, the crop lines have just 97% coverage -- but they do the job. Pretty quickly, though, I realized they do have two shortcomings.

Accurately framing against a darker background like this one, in a shaded alley, would be tricky if I were using one of the sensor-crop modes, which adds an on-demand guideline that is only illuminated very briefly.

If you're framing against a dark background, the frame area is visible only briefly after half-pressing the shutter button, as it shares the same light source used to illuminate AF points.) And there's an option to gray the entire area outside that used for image capture, rather than just to add a border -- but while I personally preferred this option, it was available only with illumination completely disabled, something I wasn't willing to live with.

As it happens, neither of my lenses is a DX-format optic, so the only reason for me to shoot with a crop would be to save editing later on my PC, if my subject was distant and I couldn't get close enough for the framing I wanted. If you plan to switch back and forth between FX-format and DX-format lenses, though, it's something to be aware of.

When I'm enjoying shooting a camera, as I have been this one, I find myself noticing new shooting opportunities. Here, I liked the natural frame provided by the trees, and the contrast against the bold colors and details on the buildings behind.

Those quirks aside, though, I immediately fell in love with the D810's physical design. It's just a little larger and heftier than my own DSLR -- a Pentax K-5 -- but very comfortable and reassuringly solid, and exudes quality, with not a hint of creak or panel flex. Its many buttons and controls all had good feel, and most were very well positioned, as well, although I'd prefer the rear dial to be a little further from the edge of the camera. (As-is, you have to reach past the thumb grip a little to roll the dial, which isn't easy to do single-handed with anything more than the lightest of lenses mounted.)

Initial familiarization done, I couldn't wait to get outdoors and shoot with the D810 -- but weather made me do so for a fair few days, during which I had to content myself with just fiddling around with random shots at home, and continuing to get to know the camera. Finally, I spotted some sun in the afternoon of a day which had been predicted to rain nearly non-stop. (I don't envy weather forecasters their jobs one iota!) Cognizant of the fact that the sunshine likely wouldn't last long, I ran for the door and headed to the nearest reasonably-photogenic place: downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.

Take a look at Nikon's marketing materials and its clear that the key feature of this camera is clearly image quality, and especially its high resolution, with the possibilities that brings for detail capture. Hence, that was first and foremost what I wanted to get a feel for. I checked on our sister site, SLRgear.com, and selected the sweet spot of both lenses I have access to for this review, the AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED and AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.

It looked like both lenses should provide good results around f/5.6, so I simply camped out at that setting in Aperture-priority mode, using Auto ISO sensitivity. I also enabled a minimum shutter speed of around double the reciprocal of the focal length (1/160th second for the 85mm lens, 1/50th for the 14-24mm) for whichever lens was currently mounted, just to be on the safe side, and then got right down to some shooting.

Does the Nikon D810 love detail? Does it ever! This shot of a colorfully-painted brick wall is packed full of fine details, and it really pops with just the slightest touch of unsharp masking.

The result, as you can see in the gallery -- and in the images I've highlighted throughout this Field Test -- were some very finely-detailed photos, even when viewed 1:1 on-screen. And that's when looking at results straight out of the camera, too. Add just a very slight touch of unsharp mask, and these photos really pop, even at 1:1 resolution. My photo printer isn't capable of very large, poster-sized prints, but if it was, this camera would certainly be up to the task of providing the source material: Consider that even at a fine 300 pixels per inch, a full-resolution D810 image would print at approximately 24.5 x 16.4 inches.

I found it tricky to see the LCD live view so low to the ground, and would have preferred shooting this scene with an articulated LCD, or perhaps a remote Wi-Fi live view. As was, it was hard to get the framing as I wanted it.

For almost two hours that afternoon, until the weather finally faltered, both camera and I were one, roaming around town shooting everything in sight. There was but one time that I found myself wishing for any features the D810 lacks. That moment came when I spotted a cool-looking motorcycle for which I wanted to get a low-to-the-ground shot. Because of where it was parked, and the lenses I had on hand, the only way to get that angle was to position myself in the edge of the road. Unless I was willing to actually lie down -- which I wasn't, given that there was a fair bit of traffic -- there was no way I was going to get my eye to the viewfinder with the D810 as low as I wanted it, so I opted for live view instead.

It helped, and focus seemed reasonably fast and confident too, but even seeing the LCD monitor from an angle so low to the ground was a tough task. Time and again, I thought I had successfully framed as I wanted it -- a nice, tight composition with the bike just a little above center -- but when I looked at my shots, I realized I'd clipped just a little out of almost every shot. That experience left me wishing for either an articulated screen or a Wi-Fi live view function, neither of which the D810 offers.

Another shot that's jam-packed with razor-sharp detail and accurate, convincing colors!

I should note that Wi-Fi with remote live view is at least possible, with an accessory, but it negates the camera's weather-sealing when in use, and adds close to US$600 to your purchase price for the camera itself. You'd need to use it pretty regularly for the cost to be worthwhile. But then realistically, neither Wi-Fi nor LCD articulation are commonplace yet in higher-end cameras, so while I'd like to see them added I won't complain too strongly.

I'm finding color quite pleasing and representative of what I saw in person, as well, although for my tastes the defaults tend just slightly high on contrast and saturation. But that's easily adjusted in-camera, something I'd do if I were a JPEG shooter. Typically I shoot raw, however, and for reviews like this one, raw+JPEG, usually with three-shot bracketing. Although to be honest, I could probably have skipped the bracketing for the D810, because so far I'm finding its metering system to be uncannily accurate. Only a handful have shots needed any exposure compensation, and of those few that did, they were all ones with difficult subjects that would confuse any metering system out there.

I've yet to shoot any long exposures or high-sensitivity images -- and as it turns out, our D810 review sample needs to go back to Nikon for a recent service advisory, so I won't be able to do so until its return -- but I will say that the few images I've shot beyond ISO 1600 so far look quite good in terms of noise and detail. (The highest-sensitivity images I shot were in a shaded, narrow alley filled with graffiti-style murals that I'd been meaning to check out, and you can see a few examples in the gallery, although the highest of these so far is at just ISO 2000.) I'll check on high sensitivity and long-exposure shooting in a later report.

Although this isn't really a camera aimed at sports shooters, with its five frames-per-second limit at full resolution, performance is pretty good and the Nikon D810 feels quite snappy. I never really found myself waiting for the camera, shooting regular, short bursts of raw+JPEG frames as I wandered all over town. Focus also seemed swift and responsive, although I've yet to try it in very low-light conditions.

The D810 did a nice job with this extremely contrasty scene. I focused off the sign board in the foreground.

I have, however, had a few shots that were just ever so slightly blurred when viewed 1:1, and I've yet to determine whether that was down to focus being just slightly off, or a very subtle motion blur. (It has a look more like the latter, but that would surprise me given my intentional safety margin on shutter speeds.) I'll be trying to replicate this on a tripod, to see if I can get an answer either way, but even for those shots where it happened, the softness was only noticeable when viewed 1:1 on a 24-inch, Full HD display. (And honestly, it was only a small minority of shots in the first place.)

Another very contrasty scene nicely handled by the Nikon D810. Shooting with this camera is lots of fun!

So in terms of handling, image quality and performance, although it's early days yet, I'm definitely enjoying shooting with the Nikon D810. I'm eager to see how it handles in low-light or some more active subjects, now I know what I can expect under ideal conditions in terms of real-world sharpness and detail. I'm also looking forward to trying out some of the camera's more advanced features, but I can say for certain that the Nikon D810 is a whole lot of fun to shoot with, and well worth getting your hands on -- especially if you're already a Nikon shooter with full-frame glass.

Watch this space for more in my next Field Test, and if you have any particular features you want to see tested, sound off in the comments below!

Detail where you want it, creamy bokeh where you don't. (And now that Adobe's Camera Raw and Lightroom support the D810, you can play with the raw files I've provided in our Nikon D810 gallery to see how much latitude for bringing up the shadows or restoring lost highlight detail.)


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