Nikon D810 Field Test Part II

The high-res full-frame shooter heads into the Knoxville night

By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 01/28/2014

I've tried daytime shooting, but what about a low light challenge? It was time to put the Nikon D810 thru its paces!
(ISO 12,800, 1/640 sec., 85mm f/1.8 lens @ f/3.2)

It's been a little while since I started my Nikon D810 review late last year. Shortly after the first Field Test went live, our review sample camera body had to be returned to Nikon as it was covered by a service program -- and then once it returned, we were hit by a triple-whammy of holidays, trade shows, and personal life intervening. I was pleased, recently, to finally get back hands-on with the D810, though.

After so long without the camera, a period of relearning was needed. I took the D810 around town with me, then brought it along to an ice hockey game and got some pretty nifty shots. Sports shooting isn't really this camera's niche, though, and its epic resolution was robbed by having to shoot through the dirty, scratched-up plexiglass around the rink. Nor, with a 14-24mm zoom and 85mm prime, did I have the best lenses on hand for getting up close to the action.

Time for some night shooting

Having already shot pretty extensively in the daytime, it was low light and night shooting that I was really keen to try. And once I was familiar with the camera again, I headed out on a cold winter night for some low-light shooting in downtown Knoxville.

First off, I wanted to get a baseline for the Nikon D810's high ISO noise characteristics -- and so I started in Knoxville's Market Square with an ISO sensitivity series to get a feel for where I stood.

The full scene (ISO 32, aka L 1.0)

(ISO 32, aka L 1.0)

(ISO 64)

(ISO 100)

(ISO 200)

(ISO 400)

(ISO 800)

(ISO 1600)

(ISO 3200)

(ISO 6400)

(ISO 12,800)

(ISO 25,600, aka H 1.0)

(ISO 51,200, aka H 2.0)

A quick ISO series in Knoxville's Market Square. It's pretty clear that noise isn't an ssue until the very highest sensitivities. Ignore the slight difference in depth of field between shots; I missed switching to Aperture-priority. At top, you'll see the full image from which these 100% crops were taken.

Results from in-camera JPEG were pretty impressive, as you can see in the 1:1 crops above. (Ignore the slight difference in depth of field between shots; I missed switching to Aperture-priority before the series.)

(ISO 6400, 1/80 sec., 14-24mm f/2.8 lens @ 24mm f/3.2)

Detail and noise levels all the way up to ISO 12,800 equivalent were very good, and even ISO 25,600 equivalent was pretty usable straight out of the camera. ISO 51,200 felt like a step too far for my personal tastes, but even that would prove handy in a pinch.

I felt that the Nikon D810's auto white balance system favored a rather too warm result under the (admittedly rather difficult) mixed lighting in downtown Knoxville. That's easily fixed when shooting raw, though.
(ISO 12,800, 1/50 sec., 14-24mm f/2.8 lens @ 24mm f/3.2)

And with that range of sensitivities available, I could get great photos in impressively low light. The shot of the soldier's statue below, for example, was shot handheld in low-enough light that I actually gave up on trying to focus manually. The Nikon D810's phase-detection autofocus system, too, struggled in such low light, but did manage to lock focus on the third or fourth try.

This shot of a statue was taken in low-enough light that I couldn't see well enough -- even despite the Nikon D810's bright thru-the-lens viewfinder -- to focus manually. Phase-detection did the trick after a few tries.
(ISO 51,200, 1/80 sec., 85mm f/1.8 lens @ f/3.2)

Unfortunately, the point where it managed to lock focus was just below the statue's waist, and with relatively shallow depth of field even stopped down a little to f/3.2, the top of the statue was a bit out of focus. It's still a perfectly usable shot, though, and a little trial and error would've gotten focus where I needed it. It's quite impressive what can be shot handheld with the Nikon D810 well after the sun has set.

The biggest struggle shooting in such low light, honestly, was the D810's white balance system. Admittedly, what light there was around downtown Knoxville tended to be rather mixed from a variety of sources, but auto white balance yielded consistently very warm results.

(Out-of-camera JPEG crop at ISO 51,200, aka H 2.0)

(DXO Optics Pro 9-processed raw file crop ISO 51,200, aka H 2.0)

(Out-of-camera JPEG crop at ISO 25,600, aka H 1.0)

Shooting in raw format expands your possibilities at the higher sensitivities. By throwing lots of processor power at the problem, DxO Optics Pro 9 has extracted quite a bit more detail than the ISO 51,200 out-of-camera JPEG, while providing noise levels quite similar to an ISO 25,600 shot from the camera itself.

That's a pretty minor knock, though, as I could have used preset or manual white balance, or simply adjusted white balance post-capture from my raw files. I just wanted to see how the D810 would manage by itself -- and to my taste, it kept rather too much warmth in these low-light handheld shots.

(ISO 12,800, 1/320 sec., 85mm f/1.8 lens @ f/3.2)

Speaking of raw shooting, even better results were possible here, with sufficient desktop processor power thrown at the problem. I tried DxO Labs' Optics Pro, which features the company's impressive PRIME denoising engine, and you can see a side-by-side comparison above. My ISO 51,200 shots were not dissimilar from what the camera itself managed at ISO 25,600 in JPEG mode.

Great results with long-exposure photography

Having enjoyed giving the D810's high ISO chops a workout, I switched to some long-exposure photography. Here, I tried a variety of exposures with shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds, and again got some very nice results.

With that said, I was glad to have chosen a reasonably sturdy tripod. With these long exposures, it turned out that just the slight vibrations from light traffic crossing Knoxville's Gay Street Bridge were enough to destroy the finest detail in a shot, and I'm not convinced my travel tripod would've been up to the task, even though the D810 plus lens were well within its capacity limit.

Once I'd realized that traffic was going to be a problem shooting from the bridge as I wanted to, I spent a little while trying shots over and over until I hit a long-enough pause in traffic. And I'm glad I did so, because the result was one of my favorite shots of the night -- a brightly-lit downtown Knoxville with Sunsphere peeking in at the background, and the whole lot reflected in the Tennessee River in the foreground.

Once I realized that vibrations in the bridge I was shooting from were going to be a problem -- and managed to time my shots between the traffic -- I got some very nice long-exposure shots of downtown Knoxville.
(ISO 64, 30 sec., 85mm f/1.8 lens @ f/7.0)

Zoom in, and you can make out every brick in the structure that connects Volunteer Landing to the pedestrian footbridge behind it. (That's the little structure just left of center at the bottom of the photo.) And yes, there's just a little moire visible in some of the bricks too, although you really do have to get up close to notice it. But boy, is it ever accompanied by a whole lot of detail!

Looking for some motion to add to the photo, I turned my camera to the bridge itself, and moved near enough to one end so that the traffic vibrations were minimized. With the traffic tapering off in the late evening, the results out-of-camera weren't as visually interesting as I'd hoped, but in one particular shot I managed some fairly neat light trails. (Zoom in all the way on the headlights at the bottom left corner, and you can see the sidelights actually show up as a tight cluster of parallel trails, which was a bit of a surprise!)

Playing with light trails: This shot could use the shadows brought up a bit so you can see the distant buildings, but we mostly show out-of-camera results in our reviews, for obvious reasons. Both raw and JPEG versions are available in the gallery if you want to give it a bit of a play yourself, though!.
(ISO 32, 6 sec., 85mm f/1.8 lens @ f/6.3)

All in all, quite a fun evening's shooting was had, but there was still one more item on my checklist: Video. I headed back towards the Tennessee Theatre for some quick night clips of traffic passing in front of the buildings, which you can see below alongside daytime clips from a different day.

Stills done, it's time for movies!

The first thing I realized was that the lenses available to me were less than ideal for video shooting. I had a choice of an 85mm prime lens that was too tight -- and I didn't have enough room to get back from my subject -- or a 14-24mm zoom. The latter is what I went with for the night shoot, but it's not well suited to full-time AF, both being rather slow to respond and making quite a bit of audible noise on the soundtrack of my test videos.

Full HD video: The Nikon D810's full-time autofocus didn't provide great performance with the specific lenses available to me -- your mileage with other optics might vary -- but in other respects its high-definition movie capture performed well. Noise levels were low at night, and detail quite good overall, with minimal moiré or false-color artifacts.

That's a shame, though, because detail was pretty good. Not the best I've seen, and obviously not the equal of 4K-capable cameras, but the D810's video was sharp and clear, with relatively little noise even in fairly low light, and little noticeable moiré or false color either.

The 85mm prime lens, too, left quite a bit of audible noise in my videos when adjusting focus automatically, and it too took quite some time to make focus adjustments. But then, a camera at this pricepoint is going to be used by pros and enthusiasts, who will doubtless pull focus manually or simply arrange their shot so that a focus adjustment isn't necessary.

That being the case, while I was a bit underwhelmed with the full-time AF with the lenses I had available, I don't consider it a knock against the D810, just something to be aware of.

Final thoughts on my time with the Nikon D810

Although the end of my review has been rather too long coming, I've definitely enjoyed shooting with the Nikon D810. There's no question that this is a camera aimed at pros: The ergonomics and handling are superb, and quickly become second nature. And the D810 can turn out some truly spectacular images, absolutely jam-packed with razor-sharp detail.

(ISO 64, 13 sec., 85mm f/1.8 lens @ f/7.0)

With a burst capture rate of five frames per second at full resolution, it's not a camera you'll turn to for sports or other subjects where performance is the be-all and end-all, but for landscapes, studio work, or any other subject where the maximum detail is key, the D810 offers it in spades -- and with a much more compact, go-anywhere body than a medium-format camera.

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