When it comes to full frame, Nikon was first into the big megapixel game. Now both Canon and Sony have entered the pool, and Nikon has done a version upgrade from the original class opening D800 and D800e. What does the D810 bring and how does it fit the needs of the working photographer?
I've got a bit of a standard practice established for reviews by now. I pull the battery and charge it fully. I get a memory card from my spares kit and put it in the camera for formatting when the battery is full. Then I take the manual from the package and go read it. I spend a fair bit of time on the control layout and whatever new features that the manufacturer has specified and then go through each chapter. Nikon has improved on their documentation in the past couple of years as I have noted in other reviews and that is consistent on the D810. Once I have read the documentation and charged the battery, I format the memory card and check the firmware. Evaluation units tend to move around a lot so they don't often get back to service for updating and the D810 was no exception. Both the firmware and the lens correction data were out of date, but the files are easy to find on Nikon's support site, and the updates install quickly. This camera was evaluated using firmware C 1.0,2 and L 184.108.40.206 for the body and lens corrections respectively.
This unit was supplied with the well proven Nikon 24-70 f:/2.8G ED lens. I've had this lens several times for different evals and I will spare readers yet another write up on it. Suffice to say it is very sharp, quite quick optically and when focusing and has a passably usable range. I would personally not buy a 24-70 but that's me. Lots of folks love this lens and consider it one of the "Nikon Trifecta" of 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it other than I personally find the range too small.
The D810 is a large DSLR. In fact, I found it larger in the hand than the D4s. This may be subjective, I just did not find my index finger resting naturally on the shutter release as on the D4s. Small bit of acclimation required. It's also taller and heavier than the D750 that I like so much. It's got more of the D4s feel on the top deck and the rear than it's less expensive brother. If it were my prerogative, I would try to make cameras from the same manufacturer more alike in layout but sometimes sacrifices are made in the path to innovation. Still if one shoots multiple bodies as I do, a consistent layout would be better. In fairness to the D810, it is often the second body for a D4s shooter, rather than the first with a D750 as the second. I spoke very briefly with the incredible Moose Peterson in May and he is shooting the D4s as his primary and the D810 as his secondary. The eval unit did not come with a battery grip but takes one, and even though it increases size and weight, I like the better balance that they give and would definitely add one.
What sets the D810 apart from the D750 besides size is the sensor. This is Nikon's highest megapixel density sensor at this time delivering 36.3MP in full frame (FX) images. Nikon was first in the big MP space but now both Canon and Sony have gone higher. Whether one needs 50MP out of a 35mm sensor is a question to be defined by use case, but when we can get stunningly good 20x30 prints out of an 18MP sensor, one really must ask why we need more. More megapixels mean that each pixel is smaller and therefore less light sensitive. Where the D4s can be pushed to 204,800 ISO, the D810 tops out at 12,800. Quel dommage really, because the D810 is very good at 12,800 and if you are an old film person like me, you probably don't like going past ISO 800 anyway. Kodak 1600 made nice people look like dart team goalies so many of us still work for lower ISOs.
As you'll see in the specs, the D810 has a high speed burst rate maximum of 5 frames per second. So it's not a sports camera, or pray and spray camera. Shooting becomes a more deliberate act and there is simply a physical time limit placed by the large file size and getting them to the card. That assumes of course that you are shooting in RAW, and if you dropped the $3600 CDN MSRP for this critter, why wouldn't you be shooting RAW? This camera is DESIGNED for RAW, even if Nikon doesn't expressly say so and still gives you enough generic JPEG picture styles to satisfy the needs of the Instagram herd.
I've been disappointed by other Nikons in that they continue to use USB2 as their interface because big files just weren't moving slowly enough. Where USB2 is a horrible idea that never worked well, USB3 is a much better design and I was very pleased to find that the USB interface on the D810 is USB3. So yes it's a different cable and so if you are tethering your existing long USB2 cable won't do the job. There is also a cable retention clip to keep a tethered USB3 cable from accidental disconnection, similar to that found with the Canon 7D Mk II. Good on yer Nikon!
As one would expect, the D810 does video. It's good video but not spectacular because despite that wonderful sensor, it maxes out at 60p1080 FullHD and doesn't go below 24p720, so there is no VGA video option. Not that anyone will care at this point. It should do 4K and Nikon could have kicked major butt by putting 4K in a camera of this quality.
The camera feels good in my average sized hands. I would really like a battery grip because the AF/M body switch digs into the joint where my thumb meets the palm in my standard cradle grip. The camera is easy to hang on to and while I really dislike D-ring style strap mounts, they aren't in the way on the D810. With the 24-70 on, it is definitely nose heavy, another reason I would prefer a battery grip. The battery is the proven Nikon EN-EL15 and it can be brought to full charge from dead in about 3.5 hours.
The D810 includes Nikon's excellent Creative Lighting System and unlike its peer camera, the Canon 5D Mk III, the D810 includes a little popup flash to be used mostly as a CLS commander. It can of course be used as a flash, but it's a popup, so even when the exposure is correct it still looks like a booking photo. Nikon gives up a bit of pentaprism durability to provide the popup flash because the housing for it is plastic but I think that the tradeoff is acceptable given the flexibility created. Perhaps Canon will smarten up with the 5D Mark IV and take this page from Nikon, because they also have an excellent flash control system, but cost goes up if you want simple control because the camera cannot do what the D810 does right out of the box.
The LCD does not swivel or flip. It comes with a clear plastic cover. I'm not sure if this is a benefit or not. The D750 didn't have this, nor did the D4s and it's just another piece of plastic for my nose to press against. It is removable, and will be removed for the duration of the review. The viewfinder eyepiece is nice and large and there is a viewfinder shutter built in. I think that this is a very useful feature, often left out, that landscape, macro and long exposure photographers really benefit from. Diopter adjustment is like on the D4s, very much like a watch stem. I really like this design over partially hidden wheels that can be knocked out of position. As you'll see in the layout images, the left side "rewind" knob is like the one on the D4s. I commend Nikon for the effectiveness of the design, I just wish I could reprogram the QUAL button for something that I would use since I only ever shoot RAW, and don't need a speedy way to change the image quality setting.
Real World Use
Loading up the D810 is not hard. There are two card slots easily accessed by a door on the right side. Easy, that is, unless you use a hand strap, in which case the strap interferes with the door. Better that than putting the card slots on the bottom of the camera though.
About those two slots. One is CF and one is SD. Oh the flexibility and the chance to use all manner of old cards lying around. Oh the complete annoyance of having to own two different types of cards that have different performance characteristics. Love two slots. Hate two DIFFERENT slots. A really dumb idea whose time has passed.
Since the camera has a USB3 capable bus in there, you are best advised to go with the fastest cards you can get in order to get those large files out of buffer and onto storage as quickly as possible.
The controls are well laid out and you can do a lot without removing the camera from your eye. I particularly like the layout for manipulating exposure compensation for ambient and the quick button for flash exposure compensation. By default the two are linked together, but you can decouple them via an obscure menu setting (Flash Exposure Compensation - Background Only) Clear like mud.
I think I said that the D810 is not built for sports. The 5 fps does work for slower moving wildlife, but it's not a camera I would use to shoot hockey, tennis or a rodeo with, if I was looking to blast action. I did find the D810 quite quiet in continuous high, Nikon has improved mirror slap control from the D800.
Speaking of, you may recall that the D800 had a sibling called the D800e that did not have the anti-aliasing filter. The D810 doesn't have one either and there is no option to get one. So you risk a bit of moire in favour of more sharpness. I think that is acceptable but plan accordingly.
First round of shooting tests were done in the studio with my regular model Sondra, just to see how the AF performed when the principal lighting would be flash. I used one Profoto D1 500ws head triggered from the camera by a Profoto Air Remote in the hot shoe. The D1 was mounted to a Mola Mantti dish with a single layer of diffusion up front. I've yet to find a beauty dish that can compare to the Mola dishes and the Mantti, while cumbersome, is stunning. Camera was set to manual exposure with shutter speed at 1/250 and aperture varying by strobe output. All the test images were shot with the Nikkor 24-70 at apertures from f/2.8 to f/16.
Lightroom says each image is 36.2 megapixels. As I only shoot in RAW, this means a RAW NEF file size of an average of 75.4 megabytes, so the import was a bit slow compared to say the 18MP of a D4s.
Colour rendition was very good. I tried the camera in both AWB and Flash white balance settings while shooting RAW and I liked the warmer tone imparted by the Flash setting when imported. Sondra, as regular readers know, is very pale and I found the AWB out of camera RAWs to be a bit blue while the Flash RAWs were more akin to what I would get out of AWB with other sensors. Fortunately, by shooting RAW, the previews are just that, and you have the full range of colour temperature and tint to work with, without the precipitous data loss of baking the white balance into a JPEG.
The other thing I noticed right away is that this may not be the sensor to use for portraits if you are not into retouching. The detail level is very high, and while I admit that Sondra's hair could have stood to come within a kilometre of a brush, what I really noticed was how much retouching was needed for simple blemishes when the image is enlarged. While the core processing and RAW conversion was done in Lightroom 6, the retouching other than burning was done in Photoshop CC because it does a much better job than Lightroom, particularly when removing errant hairs. I think that this level of detail will be outstanding for landscapes or architecture, but I fear it would make more work if used for headshots.
The dynamic range is excellent. This is one area where Nikon continues to lead the marketplace without making the images look fake. DXOmark gave the D810 a score of 97 out of 100. They measured 14.8 stops of dynamic range and a colour depth of 25.8 bits. Canon's recent release of the 5Ds and 5Dsr have more megapixels but 2.4 stops LESS dynamic range if DXOmark information is to be believed. Although the D810 is older than the newest competing releases, when it comes to dynamic range it kicks major butt. With this much dynamic range, it really begs the question, who needs HDR with a D810?
Did I mention how quiet the D810 is? Compared to other cameras, particularly some consumer grade products that sound like a hippo falling in a bathtub every shot, the D810 is near silent. I can understand how it would be seen as less intrusive as a result.
The other bit of good news is that even with 36.2 MP of sensor capture and monstrous RAW files, when you mount Nikkor FX lenses up front, the glass quality shows through. On other high MP products from upcoming players, the reality of their native glass gets revealed as wanting. Fortunately for those customers, there is this company called Zeiss that makes lenses for that mount that are absolutely amazing. But if you are a Nikon owner and have invested in good Nikkor glass, this big sensor is not going to be exposing a sack of faults. While I am not nuts about the 24-70 focal length range, you could do well with a D810 and the Nikkor Trifecta of 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 as your core working kit. Add a 105 Micro and 2x III teleconverter and most anyone would be completely set.
In order to get a second opinion, I asked my good friend Bryan Weiss who was shooting the Orangeville RAM Rodeo with me if he would mind trying the D810 out to give me the perspective of a long time Nikon owner. The slideshow below was shot entirely by Bryan while he was testing out Tamron's 150-600 zoom. Overall he is very afraid that the D810 is going to cost him a bunch of money, and he has been considering trading his D7100 and D700 towards a D810. The D810 did a great job in the highly mobile world of rodeo and as you can see that Tamron lens is absolutely stunning in sharpness. Bryan's only complaint was that he did not like the position of the Mode button but acknowledged that is fixed with acclimatization.
I've questioned the need for enormous megapixel cameras and to some extent still do, especially when megapixels appear to be the only measurement of importance. For me, and my use cases, I would trade megapixels for dynamic range any day. Nikon has done it right with the D810. You get tons of detail AND superb dynamic range. Other big MP vendors, especially those with much newer releases should be spending a lot more effort on dynamic range. You know who you are. I like the balanced approach that the D810 delivers in this regard. Certainly I would like a faster burst mode, 5fps being a bit slow for fast sports and airshow flybys. The AF is fast and accurate so blurred images can mostly be attributed to very poor light or the problem existing behind the viewfinder. I do wish Nikon would stop the silliness of using different card slots. While I get the idea behind preserving customer investment or making it easier to buy cards, let's not forget that an uncompressed RAW in this beast is about 75 megabytes per image. If you can afford to invest in the D810, you can afford to invest in some very large capacity, screaming fast cards. We learned the hard way the impact of crappy cards in the D810. I had misplaced my card wallet and the only card handy for the rodeo was a Transcend 400x 32GB CF. While it did manage to capture images and save them, thank goodness, it was so grindingly slow, the camera would stop after 4-5 shots in burst mode as the buffer could not write to the card quickly enough, and we won't talk about the nearly 11 hours it took to get the images off the card through a USB3 reader. Yes I know you can shoot compressed RAW or even JPEG for smaller files, but that's not why one buys a D810. Put fast cards from Sandisk or Lexar in this beast only, not el cheapo cards no matter what is written on them. You care about sustained write not burst write and very few manufacturers actually publish sustained write performance.
So if I were in the market, would I buy one? Yes I would. I would still prefer a D4s as my primary because it fits my use cases better, but as body #2, the D810 rocks it for my needs. Sadly it is on its way back to the good people who represent Nikon in Canada. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take a longer look at this amazing product.
Full Specifications (Courtesy Nikon Canada)
Single-lens reflex digital camera
Nikon F bayonet mount
Image Sensor Format
Image Sensor Type
Image sensor cleaning
Image Dust Off reference data (optional Capture NX 2 software required)
Dust-Off Reference Photo
Image Area (pixels)
(L) 7,360 x 4,912
(M) 5,520 x 3,680
(S) 3,680 x 2,456
1:2 format (30 x 20)
(L) 6,144 x 4,080
(M) 4,608 x 3,056
(S) 3,072 x 2,040
5:4 format (30 x 24)
(L) 6,144 x 4,912
(M) 4,608 x 3,680
(S) 3,072 x 2,456
(L) 4,800 x 3,200
(M) 3,600 x 2,400
(S) 2,400 x 1,600
File Format Still Images
JPEG: JPEG-baseline-compliant; can be selected from Size Priority and Optimal Quality
JPEG: JPEG-Baseline compliant with fine (approx 1:4), normal (approx 1:8), or basic (approx 1:16) compression
NEF (RAW): 12 or 14 bit, lossless compressed, compressed, or uncompressed; small size available (12-bit uncompressed only)
NEF (RAW) + JPEG: Single photograph recorded in both NEF (RAW) and JPEG formats
CompactFlash© (CF) (Type I, compliant with UDMA)
1 CompactFlash© (CF) card and 1 Secure Digital (SD) card
Compliant with DCF (Design Rule for Camera File System) 2.0
DPOF (Digital Print Order Format)
EXIF 2.3 (Exchangeable Image File Format for Digital Still Cameras
Eye-level pentaprism single-lens reflex viewfinder
Viewfinder Frame Coverage
FX (36x24): 100% Horizontal and 100% Vertical Approx.
1.2x (30x20): 97% Horizontal and 97% Vertical Approx.
DX (24x16): 97% Horizontal and 97% Vertical Approx.
5:4 (30x24): 97% horizontal and 100% vertical Approx.
17mm (-1.0 m¯¹)
Viewfinder Diopter Adjustment
Built-in diopter adjustment (-3 to +1 m¯¹)
Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark VIII with AF area brackets (grid lines can be displayed)
Mirror Lock Up
Lens Compatibility at a Glance***
AF-S or AF lenses fully compatible
Metering with AI lenses
AF NIKKOR lenses, including type G, E, and D lenses (some restrictions apply to PC lenses) and DX lenses (using DX 24 x 16 1.5x image area), AI-P NIKKOR lenses, and non-CPU AI lenses (exposure modes G and H only).
Electronic rangefinder can be used with lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or faster (the electronic rangefinder supports the 11 focus points with lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/8 or faster).
IX NIKKOR lenses, lenses for the F3AF, and non-AI lenses cannot be used.
Electronically controlled vertical-travel focal-plane
1/8000 to 30 sec.
Fastest Shutter Speed
Slowest Shutter Speed
Flash Sync Speed
Up to 1/250 sec.
Synchronizes with shutter at 1/320s or slower (flash range drops at speeds between 1/250 and 1/320s)
Bulb Shutter Setting
Shutter Release Modes
Continuous low-speed [CL] mode
Continuous high-speed [CH] mode
Mirror-up [Mup] mode
Quiet Shutter Release
Quiet Continuous Release
Single-frame [S] mode
Continuous Shooting Options
CH: Up to 5 frames per second
CL: Up to 1-5 frames per second
CH: Up to 5 frames per second
CL: Up to 1-5 frames per second
CH: Up to 6 frames per second
7 fps in DX-crop mode when using optional MB-D12 battery pack and EN-EL18a battery
CL: Up to 1-6 frames per second
CH: Up to 6 frames per second
CL: Up to 1-6 frames per second
Top Continuous Shooting Speed at full resolution
5 frames per second
2, 5, 10, 20 sec.; 1 to 9 exposures at intervals of 0.5, 1, 2, or 3 sec.
Timer duration electronically controlled
Exposure Metering System
TTL exposure metering using 91,000-pixel RGB sensor
Centre-weighted: Weight of 75% given to 12mm circle in centre of frame
Matrix: 3D Colour Matrix Metering III (type G, E, and D lenses); Colour Matrix Metering III (other CPU lenses); Colour Matrix Metering available with non-CPU lenses if user provides lens data
Spot: Meters 4mm circle (about 1.5% of frame) centered on selected focus point
Highlight-weighted: Available with type G, E, and D lenses; equivalent to center-weighted when non-CPU lens is used
0 to 20 EV (3D colour matrix, centre-weighted metering or highlight weighted metering)
0 to 20 EV (spot metering)
Exposure Meter Coupling
Programmed auto with flexible program (P)
±5 EV in increments of 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV
2 to 9 frames in steps of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 or 1 EV
ISO 64 -
Lo-1 (ISO 32)
Hi-1 (ISO 25,600)
Hi-2 (ISO 51,200)
Lowest Standard ISO Sensitivity
Highest Standard ISO Sensitivity
Lowest Expanded ISO Sensitivity
Lo-1 (ISO 32 equivalent)
Highest Expanded ISO Sensitivity
Hi-2 (ISO 51,200 equivalent)
Expanded ISO Sensitivity Options
Lo-1 (ISO 32 equivalent)
Hi-1 (ISO 25,600 equivalent)
Hi-2, (ISO 51,200 equivalent)
Long Exposure Noise Reduction
High ISO Noise Reduction
2 frames using selected value for one frame
3–5 frames using preset values for all frames
Single-point AF Mode
Dynamic AF Mode
Number of AF points: 9, 21, 51 and 51 (3D-tracking)
Auto-area AF Mode
Nikon Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module with TTL phase detection
-2 to 19 EV (ISO 100, 68°F/20°C)
Autofocus (AF): Single-servo AF (AF-S); continuous-servo AF (AF-C); predictive focus tracking activated automatically according to subject status
Manual focus (MF): Electronic rangefinder can be used
9, 21 or 51 point Dynamic-area AF
3D-tracking (51 points)
Focus can be locked by pressing AE-L/AF-L button
Focus can be locked by pressing shutter-release button halfway (single-servo AF)
Auto AF-S/AF-C selection (AF-A)
Face-Priority AF available in Live View only and D-Movie only
Full-time Servo (AF-A) available in Live View only and D-Movie only
Manual (M) with electronic rangefinder
Single-servo AF (AF-S)
Maximum Autofocus Areas/Points
-2 to +19 EV (ISO 100, 20°C/68°F)
Autofocus Fine Tune
2 to 9 frames in steps of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV
Built-in Flash Distance
12m (ISO 100)
Top FP High Speed Sync
Up to 1/8000
TTL: i-TTL flash control using 91,000-pixel RGB sensor are available with built-in flash and SB-910, SB-900, SB-800, SB-700, SB-600, SB-400, or SB-300; i-TTL balanced fill-flash for digital SLR is used with matrix and centre-weighted metering, standard i-TTL flash for digital SLR with spot metering
Flash Sync Modes
Auto FP High-Speed Sync supported
Front-curtain sync (normal)
Red-Eye reduction with slow sync
Slow rear-curtain sync
-3 to +1 EV in increments of 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV
Lights when built-in flash or optional flash unit is fully charged; flashes after flash is fired at full output
Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS)
Flash Sync Terminal
Auto (2 types)
Choose colour temperature (2500K–10000K)
Fluorescent (7 types)
Preset manual (up to 6 values can be stored, spot white balance measurement available during live view)
White Balance Bracketing
2 to 9 exposures in increments of 1, 2 or 3 EV
Live View Shooting
Photography Live View Mode
Movie Live View Mode
Live View Lens servo
Autofocus (AF): Single-servo AF (AF-S); full-time-servo AF (AF-F)
Manual focus (MF)
Live View AF-area mode
Live View Autofocus
Contrast-detect AF anywhere in frame (camera selects focus point automatically when face-priority AF or subject-tracking AF is selected)
TTL exposure metering using main image sensor
Movie Maximum recording time
20 minutes at highest quality
29 minutes 59 seconds at normal quality
Movie File Format
Movie Video Compression
H.264/MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding
Movie Audio recording format
Full HD 1,920x1,080 / 60 fps
Full HD 1,920x1,080 / 50 fps
Full HD 1,920x1,080 / 30 fps
Full HD 1,920x1,080 / 25 fps
Full HD 1,920x1,080 / 24 fps
HD 1,280x720 / 60 fps
HD 1,280x720 / 50 fps
Built-in microphone, stereo
External stereo microphone (optional - sold separately)
3.2 in. diagonal
Wide Viewing Angle TFT-LCD
Monitor Angle of View
170-degree wide-viewing angle
Brightness, 5 levels
Brightness control using ambient brightness sensor
Virtual Horizon Camera Indicator
Also visible in LiveView Modes
Also visible in Viewfinder
Auto Image Rotation
Full-frame and thumbnail (4, 9, or 72 images)
Playback with Zoom
In-Camera Image Editing
NEF (RAW) Processing
HDMI Output: Type C mini-pin HDMI connector
Stereo Microphone Input
Super Speed USB 3.0
GP-1 GPS unit (sold separately)
GP-1A GPS unit (sold separately)
Save/Load Camera settings
Total Custom Settings
Yes with customization
Chinese (Simplified and Traditional)
Date, Time and Daylight Savings Time Settings
The camera clock is powered by a separate, non-rechargeable CR1616 lithium battery with a life of about two years.
World Time Setting
Battery / Batteries
EN-EL15 Lithium-ion Battery
Battery Life (shots per charge)
1,200 shots (CIPA)
EH-5b AC Adapter; requires EP-5B Power Connector (sold separately)
MH-25a Quick Charger
Approx. Dimensions (Width x Height x Depth)
camera body only