First Impressions:

Picking up the D810 for the first time, it becomes obvious the improvements are not just skin deep. On paper, the D810 appears to be an uneventful upgrade, but all those small refinements and features ad up to make a significantly improved and refined camera. The D810 is comfortable to grip and hold, live view is fantastic, and the camera’s shutter and mirror movements are amazingly quiet and dampened.

Having had such a poor experience across various D800 bodies, I created a short list of things to check when before buying the D810. As you might imagine, it included checking for the asymmetric AF behaviour, AF accuracy and consistency thereof, mount alignment, manual focus calibration, the pentaprism blur strip, and asymmetrical manual focusing between the top and bottom portions of the frame. You can read more about the last two issues on page 8 of my D800 review. Fortunately all units had accurate, consistent AF across all AF points. There were, however, units that showed either one of the last two problems.

I’m somehow over sensitised to the prism blur issue. I’m also overly sensitive to pattern noise, so perhaps it’s just easy for me to notice these patterns. Since I shoot a lot of manual focus lenses, a slightly blurry strip down the centre of the viewfinder can be quite nuisance. My first D810 unit had the asymmetric manual focus, and it’s replacement had the prism blur strip. This went on until camera number 5 was the perfect unit. It might sound bad to most readers, but considering I couldn’t find a single perfect D800 over the last two years, this is a vast improvement. Even then, the issue is inflated because I often manual focus lenses and have the DK-17m magnifying eye piece attached to the camera.

The D810 makes checking mount alignment easy, using the new split screen zoom feature in live-view. It’s a primitive test, but it helps the process of checking. I us my Zeiss Makro-Planar 100/2 ZF, focused on an infinity subject, as my go-to lens for this test. I’m pretty sure the lens is perfect, since I have only twice stumbled across mount misalignment, and the Zeiss MP 100/2 was very unforgiving on these cameras, more so than any other lens in my bag. One camera was a second hand D800, and my now dead beater D2x I modded to shoot infrared. One peculiar thing I did discover with all D810 bodies, is that the focal flange distance is definitely different to the D700, D800 and D3x bodies I’ve tried. It seems a tiny bit shorter, because the infinity stops on my lenses now focus a tiny bit further away. For my Zeiss Makro-Planar 100/2 the hard stop results in even more back focus, but for my Zeiss 35/2 ZF.2, with it’s subtle inwards field curvature, it allows the edges to be focused at infinity.

One other thing that I was concerned about was the D810 specific issue, where white dots appear in long exposures images. Looking back, it was completely blown out of proportion, and something Nikon quickly addressed and fixed. For those that don’t recall, the D800 had the same issue, but people made a lot more noise about it with the D810. After all, Nikon’s D600 debacle didn’t instil much trust with Nikon users, and rightly so.

All the units I tested didn’t show white dots, and all but my current unit, were recalled units with the black mark in the tripod socket.

The D810‘s low base ISO of 64 is a neat feature that many landscape photographers will appreciate. I would’ve been happy with ISO 100, but ISO 64 is a bonus for when longer shutter speeds are needed or when shooting fast lenses wide open in bright light. Looking at the long exposures I’ve made, ranging from 30seconds to 12 minutes long, the performance is by all accounts excellent. We must not get ahead of ourselves, expecting perfectly clean shots from very long exposures. A small improvement can be observed compared to the D800, but quite big improvement to the D700. More on long exposures on the next page.

Snapping off pictures with the D810 sounds really cool. The shutter is quiet and dampened, but aside from sounding cool, it greatly reduces vibrations brought on by the mirror and shutter movements. If that isn’t enough, Nikon introduced an optional Electronic First Curtain Shutter (EFCS) feature to the Mirror Lock Up mode (MUP).
Annoyingly, Nikon restricted the EFCS feature to MUP mode only. In addition to the quiet mirror and shutter movements, a new Quiet Continuous shooting mode has been added to the top left dial. Quiet mode has never really been very useful, but now that the shutter is inherently quiet, Quiet mode has finally become useful.

As someone who likes doing long exposures or taking landscapes shots that require a remote release, the D810 can be conveniently set up to be used without a remote, if one just happens to forget it. Unfortunately, I forget my remote more often than I care to admit :) I’ve programmed my AE-L/AF-L button to enable the shutter delay option, user definable from 1 and 3 seconds. With the delay enabled, depressing the shutter release button locks the mirror up, pauses for the selected duration, releases the shutter, and then lowers the mirror. This shutter delay can be conveniently used in combination with the self-timer feature, which incidentally can be customised to shoot a user defined number of shots at various intervals. Another cool addition to the D810 is a Time shooting mode, like back in the film days. This keeps the shutter open when actuating the shutter release button, which only closes when the release is pressed again. This is unlike Bulb mode, which requires the shutter release button to remain pressed for the duration of the exposure. I find this to be a very useful feature. Something even more practical would have been an extended exposure time selection bank, much like that in the new D810A. I’m hoping Nikon will integrate this into the D810 via a firmware update.

I use live view quite often to check focus, depth of field and occasionally the artificial horizon. A slight astigmatism in my eyes make it at times very tricky to achieve a perfectly straight horizon through viewfinder composition. The D810’s live view is greatly improved to that of the D800. Not only does the camera have a higher resolution LCD with perceptively better colour, but the live view feed is clearer and refreshes quicker. There is no line skipping, so magnifying the live view image doesn’t end up as a noisy fuzzy mess. Turning up the sharpening in the set Picture Control will directly influence the displayed feed in live view, making it a nice focus aid when needed - This is only practical if you are shooting RAW and editing in non-Nikon raw editors.

On the exterior, not much has changed from the D800, except the subtle ergonomic refinements and a few button revisions. Some rubber has been added to the memory card door, and the rear rubber has been slightly enlarged. The metering button has now been moved on top of the shooting mode dial, moving the the bracketing button to the front left of the camera, near the flash setting button. Nikon also added an “i” button to the rear of the camera, and while it can make things easier, it can get confusing remembering the function difference of the “i” and “info” buttons. On the D800, a double press of the “info” usually performs what the new “i” button on D810 does. The exception is that the “i” button brings up quite useful features in Live View, amongst others, Image Area selection, EFCS, Monitor Brightness, Split-screen Display Zoom, and Live View WB.

The left/right asymmetric AF behaviour of early D800/D800E cameras was a severe set back for many photographers. It was a major point of frustration, and Nikon’s slow response didn’t leave a good impression. Nikon took a long time to find the fault of this behaviour, and then when they issued a free repair to affected units, many were not effectively repaired. It was still evident on some new camera bodies sold a year after the issue was supposedly fixed. For those that were lucky enough to have properly repaired or unaffected units, AF issues didn’t necessarily end. Many users reported inconsistent AF accuracy, even with the centre point, which made proper AF fine-tuning quite difficult and frustrating. At the time, I didn’t see any dramatic inconsistency in centre AF consistency, and any errors I wrote off as user error... but the D810 made such a noticeable improvement, that it makes me think otherwise. All I can say is that AF has been accurate and consistent. My lens fine tuning values have been very small, and for most lenses not necessary. Again, unlike any D800 I had.

The D810 also promises a clearer viewfinder image than before, thanks to improved coatings applied to the pentaprism for better light transmittance. I haven’t noticed a big difference, but others have definitely put more emphasis on its improvement. The biggest difference in the viewfinder will be the white OLED information display, which I consider far nicer to the green LCD display in cameras before it.