The problem with having a capable camera is that it asks a lot of its user. That is precisely what stepping into a high-end DSLR like the Nikon D810 is like; if you are a conscientious user, you will be constantly asking yourself how this camera is better than the one that you had before. Why is that? The reason is because the Nikon D810 is perhaps one of the most capable sub-medium format cameras on the market, and its price tag gives pause for thought for many people. This is both true of those who have already been shooting with the D800 as well as those who have longingly lusted after a full frame camera. The problem is that cameras like the D810 usually require some form of justification, whether that be as a productive professional tool or as an admittedly non-professional but affordable hobby. Rise higher into the rarefied air of the Leica M system and the camera non longer requires justification: an M240 is indefensibly expensive; you either have it or you don't... there's no point justifying it. The D810 is premium but it doesn't command this kind of ...luxury.
Why should that matter? The problem is that the D810 is a massively capable camera that currently (the month after its launch) asks a premium price for its newness. That cost is quite hefty considering the price gap to the remaining D800 units. There isn't enough improvement to financially justify the switch to the D810 for the majority of D800 owners, but nevertheless, there are enough improvements to make the D810 a notably better camera.
Controls and Operation
The most immediate tactile difference between the D810 and the D800 is the new shape of the grip. For most people it is easier to hold; the benefit seems to be at the bottom part of the grip, where the shape is easier for your 4th and 5th fingers to grasp onto. Coming from the D7000 and D7100 DX cameras, the large size of the D810 surprisingly makes for a comfortable shooting experience. There's room for your hands to spread out, hold the camera steady and easily access controls without feeling cramped. The pro and semi-pro Nikon bodies are famous for not having mode dials, and not surprisingly, experienced shooters will not miss them, as altering the exposure mode is one of the most infrequent operations that experienced shooters do. Most shoot in aperture priority; of those that do, they do so the majority of the time. The ISO/WB/QUAL/metering control cluster on the left of side of the camera (where the mode dial is on the D7100) is easy to access, and more importantly, easy to use by touch. On the D7000 and D7100, you can access these controls on the left of the rear LCD, but finding these buttons by touch along requires a tad bit more effort than it does on the D810. Because the buttons are in a row on the DX cameras, you have to take an extra bit of time to give your fingers the proper position sense to land on the right button. On the D810 your muscle memory quickly remembers that WB is left, QUAL is front, ISO is back and metering is to the right. Is it a huge difference? No, but it is an example of how "professional" doesn't have to mean "harder to use.:
The rear LCD screen no-longer has the greenish tint to it. In truth, that was something that the D800 was often picked upon for, but was easy to get used to and ignore. The D810's screen is more colour accurate and has a higher resolution than before. The clarity is impressive when you first use the camera, then it becomes something of a transparent phenomenon: you stopping noticing how nice the screen and just get on with the business of using the camera.
The view-finder is brighter than on the D800, something that the Df also seems to have gained over the D610. Again, the clarity is something that strikes you when you first start using the camera, but draws less attention to itself with repeated use. One of the things that makes the viewfinder appear brighter is the switch to white lettering in the internal LCD display... it creates the mental illusion that because the foreground (LCD display) is white, the background must therefore be bright and clear.
The D800 and D800e were already the best image-quality cameras in the DSLR world, and the D810 improves on that. Though most people know the D800 for its ultra-high resolution, its other virtue was that it had considerable dynamic range at base ISO. Native ISO is now ISO 64, which is 2/3EV less than the D800's native of ISO 100. The D800 could drive that figure down to Lo-1 (ISO 50), but at the expense of dynamic range. The D810 can similarly drive it's Lo-1 figure down to ISO 32. Naturally, this is a benefit for videographers to control their shutter speeds in bright sunlight, but it does speak to the considerable amount of exposure latitude that the D810 has. For mission-critical, it makes contrasty light situations just a bit more carefree for the photographer. However, when shot under more creative circumstances, you find yourself looking for scenes with extremes of light in order to play up the available contrast.
|Nikon D810: ISO 64, f/5, 1/800s|
The Sony A7s has sung the conversation back to low high-ISO noise. The D810 won't match that camera, or its siblings the D4s and the Df if you look at your images at the pixel level. However, if you look at the noise characteristics of the image as a whole, the D810 is not that far behind the low-light specialists. Though image noise is partly about aesthetic appearances, the primary reason why it is a detriment is because it robs detail from an image. You can go about this in two ways: go the ultra-low noise route in the way that D4 and D4s have, or start out with a tremendous about of resolution like the D800 and D810. If you downsize the D810 files to match either the D4s or the Sony A7s, the difference is not as great as you might think, at least not below ISO 3200. The D800 didn't get enough credit in this regards, and likely the D810 won't either.
None of these cameras are as good as the D810 at base ISO: the superiority is sublte but the benefit is there. Take for example "GumHead" by Douglas Coupland. This is a giant Lenin-esque head sitting outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. That along would place it in the kitsch category, but Mr. Coupland has asked the public to stock their used chewing gum on the sculpture. You can see the difference that a couple of weeks has made by referring to this post. For a multi-coloured pastiche of modern art, the sculpture is prone to having blown highlights because the majority of passersby apparently chew white coloured gum (mint or spearmint apparently). Given the harsh afternoon light, the D810 does a commendable job of holding onto colour information in both the brightest and darkest regions of the scene.
|Nikon D810: ISO 64, f/4.5, 1/800s|
In case you are wondering why the girls appear to have some trepidation about adding their used chewing gum to the collection, it's not just because the act of it seems unhygienic. It's also because all the sugar content in the gum is attracting bees and hornets to the statue... it's now a constant cloud of them. Also, the gum is melting into an ooze:
|Nikon D810: ISO 64, f/5, 1/640s|
For the record, the artist (of "Generation X" fame) seems rather pleased with himself....
The 51-point AF system has always been a top selling point of Nikon's professional bodies, left-side D800 AF issues notwithstanding. Compared to the 39-point unit in the D610, the D810 tends to produce more keepers and is more functional in lower light levels. The new Group Focus mode works well for maintaining focus on steadily moving subjects, but for erratic movements, 3D-Tracking is still the best. Group Focus mode is really more of a "closest priority" version of 9-point dynamic mode; it works best in sporting situations where he motion is relatively linear and predictable. It's somewhat less useful for sports like soccer and basketball.... or salsa dancing for that matter, which does better with 3D-tracking.
|Nikon D810: ISO 500, f/4.5, 1/250s|
As written about before, Sunday Afternoon Salsa is just about the most fun you can have for free in Downtown Vancouver during the summer. It's open to the public, all dancing levels welcome. The afternoons draw an incredibly diverse group of people and the atmosphere is best described as "sexy in an innocent way, and family friendly."
In situations like this, the re-designed shutter mechanism is an event shooter's dream. In normal operation, the D810 is quieter than the D800, and in silent mode the shutter noise is just a bare whisper. This is different from the quiet mode on the D610, which doesn't truly reduce the amount of shutter noise so much as it changes its timbre. The D810 is quite shutter mode is delightfully unobtrusive and if you are shooting in a room with a quite din in the background (soft conversation, air conditioning, etc) the camera will be barely audible above the ambient noise. Even in this day and age, there are still wedding officiants who barely tolerate the clicking of a camera while they are conducting a ceremony: the redesigned shutter of the D810 is quiet enough that it will annoy only the most sensitive of ears.
One lazy afternoon with the D810 only reveals a part of what the camera is about. It's like a sports car taken for a leisurely tour; yes it will do it, but the thoroughbred nature of the machine is lurking underneath. It does many casual things well... extremely well... hinting at how well it can handle more tricky situations.
Ostensibly, the Nikon D810 is not a causal camera; that much is obvious. However, even though it is a "semi-professional" camera, the majority of people who buy this type of machine are not working pros. For recreational shooting, the heft and size of the camera it is made bearable by switching to primes, but it is simply too conspicuous a camera to use in casual settings with its natural mate, the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED.... for most people anyway. There's noting stopping you from using that lens as a "walkaround lens", but for a normal lens, it's as long and heavy as some medium-range zooms.
There's a considerable amount of image quality and handling variables to come to grips with when using the D810. If you are upgrading into FX and you've got reasonably good shot discipline, then its very likely that you will immediately be able to reap most of the image quality rewards that the D810 has to offer. However, this is an extremely adaptable tool, and it does take some time to acquaint yourself to all of the operational parameters. This brings us back to the idea that the D810 asks a lot of its owner; you can't help but think of ways in which you could be a better photographer in order to match the capability of the camera.
Yes, that's the venerable (aging) Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4D. This lens shows its age on the D810, not so much because of the high resolution of the 36mm sensor, but because we are spoiled for choice with modern lenses that work well even when shot wide open. The 50mm AF-D is dreamy at f/1.4 and becomes acceptable at f/2, but it doesn't deliver the overall acuity bite of the modern AF-S lenses. By f/4 it doesn't really matter anymore, but it is illustrative that full frame is not just an expensive on the camera side of the equation. You can save up older lenses for newer high end cameras, but in doing so, you don't realize the potential of the newer technology.