Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Launch Review: Nikon D810 First Impressions

There are few opportunities to surprise and delight customers; the majority of the time, you would do well enough merely to satisfy them. The Nikon D800/800e surprised people; the D810 will have served its purpose if it merely satisfies them. To understand why the second time around is so tepid, it helps to think back to the end of the D700 era. The D3s had just been announced, with an unexpected high ISO bump that took many by surprise. Naturally, the fanbase wanted the D3s in the D700 body; it's not hard to image that such a camera would have sold well. But the problem with marketing is that there is a disconnect between what customers say they want, and what they actually end up buying. If Nikon had indeed delivered on the hypothetical D700s, it would seem a little long in the tooth compared to the Canon 5D Mark III of today. 

Nikon basically re-aligned their high-end full frame lineup with the D800. Gone went the D2x/D3x style pro-body, leaving only the high-speed D4 and D4s to maintain the high end of the professional market. Not by coincidence, Canon went through a similar re-alignment at the same time. Why? There isn't one particular reason, by a mixture of a number of factors:

  • Professional level APS-C cameras for professional use has waned with the increasing affordability of full frame cameras. Whereas semi-pros were using Nikon D300's and Canon 7D's before, it would be harder to maintain professional competitiveness today without full frame.
  • Conversely, casual users of semi-pro APS-C cameras have been slowly drifting downard to smaller and lighter alternatives. The crowd that was previously using the Nikon D300 and Canon 7D for non-paid use now has alternatives in cameras like the D7100 or 70D.

Though the 36mp resolution of D800 turned off some people when it was first launched, history has shown that it was more or less the right decision for Nikon in the long run, as the combination of ultra high resolution and extremely wide dynamic range made for industry-leading image quality. Up until the D810, the D800/800e was the best camera on the market from an image quality standpoint. Had the D810 not been launched, that would not have changed. However, in business, standing still means moving backwards, so
The headline specs are:

  • 36.3MP snsor
  • 3.2" LCD 1.3m dot screen:, new split-screen leveling mode
  • Expeed 4 image processing engine
  • 5 fps in FX mode
  • 7 fps in DX mode with battery grip
  • No optical low pass filter (OLPF)
  • sRAW option
  • ISO 64-12800 native
  • Shutter speeds: 1/8000-30s
  • Electronic first curtain shutter option
  • Group Area AF mode from the D4s
  • Video now to 50/60p, no 4k
  • Stereo microphones
  • "Zebra Stripes" video exposure aid
  • New "flat" picture controls for video
  • New shutter shutter/shutter balance mechanism for reduced vibration
  • Metering mode button now on main control dial
  • Redesigned grip

Even for "s" model upgrades, this isn't much to write home about. Even though the D810 hasn't joined the 4K generation, a good number of the improvements are aimed at making videographers' lives better. Cue the usual chorus of "I don't care about video"... but seriously, in today's wedding photographer market you would be a step behind if you didn't offer decent videography services. Certainly, the more dedicated video guys will been migrating to the Panasonic GH4, but at least in 2014, 4K is a nice-to-have feature, and is not mandatory.... yet.

The body retains the magnesium alloy shell of the D800, though overall weight has been reduced by roughly 20 grams. Though not  advertised in the launch specifications, hopefully the D810 shell has improved shock resistance over the D800, which many feel was not as durable as the D700 before it. There's a difference between being strong and being damage-resistant; the D800 is certainly the former, but at least in anecdotal instances, it did not appear to be as much of the latter compared to prior Nikons.

The grip has been re-profiled, but in truth, the D800 was not terrible. Like all of the modern Nikon DSLR bodies, the D800 has the prominent lip on the front of the grip to hook your middle finger around. Where it could have been improved, and what the D810 doesn't appear to address, is that the right side of the thumb-rest on the back of the camera wasn't prominent enough for your thumb to hook on to for comfortable extended use.

There's a modest re-alignment of buttons, but otherwise, the camera layout is similar to the D800. The exposure mode control is now on the left control cluster instead of as ring-switch around the AE-L button. (Previously, this was the bracketing button; bracketing moves up towards the flash button)) A modest change, but it makes sense, as exposure metering is one of those parameters that Nikon users tend to adjust before putting the camera up to eye-level. There's also a bit of a shelf between the AE-L and AF-ON buttons which is a tactile benefit for fans of back-button focusing.

There's even an "i" button, just like on the D3300...

The anti-aliasing filter is now gone, meaning that the D800 and D800e are now merged together in the form of the D810. It's an indication of how far the thinking has come on optical low-pass filters: when the D800e was introduced, it was a new thing and moiré was a contentious topic. Skip forward two years and filterless sensors are increasingly commonplace. However, the price premium for the D800e did not do it any sales favors. In any case, the regular D800 was more than enough for the majority of purchasers. In other words, the fact that the D810 does away with the anti-aliasing filter is probably more of a concession to the march of time than consumer demand.

There are a few items of note that still aren't available. WiFi connectivity for one, though to be honest, Nikon's mobile apps are rudimentary in functionality and performance. Another major feature that has yet to appear on any Nikon DSLR is focus-peaking for live-view.   

Dynamic range, which was already excellent with the D800, appears to have gone up somewhat. At least that is implied by the lower base ISO value of 64, though the exact nature of the sensor remains to be seen. The lower base ISO won't really help with long-shutter still exposures, but it is a nice-to-have for controlling shutter speed for video. If indeed the dynamic range has been improved, it would make the industry-leader even better. What made the D800 image quality excellent wasn't just the resolution, but also the dynamic range to make the most of that resolution. In other words, it's not the hard edges that makes the D800 and D810 special, its the ability to do that while capturing soft low-contrast detail at the same time.

If you've never used the D800e, then the lack of the OLPF made for a strangely anti-climactic experience.  There is a difference between the D800e and the D800, but it's not dramatic. The practical difference is that the D800e required less sharpening in post-processing compared to the D800, something that you also see between the D7100 and its predecessor, the D7000.

Overall, these changes keep the D810 relevant and up-to-date, but the D800 was in no danger of that happening. When Canon's 5D Mark III gets refreshed in 2015, it will leapfrog the D810, but that is the natural progression of product role-outs for the two companies. What is more important (for Nikon) is that the D810 restores the average selling price; U.S. MSRP is just under $3,300. In comparison, the D800 typically sells for below $2,800 CDN here in Canada as of June 2014. In other words, the last remaining D800's will be a bargain compared to the D810; the upgrades of the new camera aren't justified by the price gap.

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