I tried hard to really love the D800 and its D800E cousin, I really did. The image quality was sublime when you got it right. But it didn’t always get it right. After more than a year of professional use, Nikon’s D810 is proving itself a worthy successor to the D800 and a genuine upgrade. I’ve shot models in the studio and on location, commercial work for a variety of clients, world championship motocross racing and custom motorcycles in action. I’ve had the camera tracking fast-moving subjects – before being soaked in a thunderstorm. And I’ve had the camera locked down on a tripod with mirror up and cable release, shooting a tilt and shift lens for perspective correction. Pretty much the whole gamut of professional work! And the D810 had come through as a truly stunning camera that is far more flexible than the old D800. And for some situations, it could even replace the flagship D4S.
For the clients I have, the increase in image quality is not a deal-breaker. The images from my old D800 and D800E were already truly stunning and the D810 does not improve on that hugely. The big issues I had with the old D800 were its frame rate, autofocus performance for fast-moving subjects and its buffer size. I often used the D800 for magazine editorial work on motorcycles and cars, and many times had the camera freeze up at the critical moment as it wrote the images to the card. I bought the fastest SD and CF cards I could, but even then the camera buffer was the bottleneck. Compounded with an AF system that was good but not good enough for really fast-moving subjects, and a frame rate that felt too slow, the D800 was of limited use in certain situations for me.
So I’d definitely switch to the faster D4 or D4S for speedy subjects, then use the D800 for slower subjects or when I could use a tripod. But the D810 is a much different beast in quick-moving situations. The buffer is much, much bigger. You have to be really rattling through shots for a long time before it fills up and slows down. That’s a huge benefit. The frame rate is now 1fps faster, which is a difference you can really feel. But the biggest change for me is in the AF system which is far faster and more accurate.
The new Group Area AF system, which allows you to set a cluster of points, is also fantastic and is shared with the flagship D4S. Once you learn how to best use it and the situations it’s best for, it is very accurate. With lots of different and customisable AF modes, the D810 can take some getting used to and trial and error is needed to make the very best out of its autofocus. But persevere and there are some ground-breaking features that give an amazingly high hit rate.
The low base ISO of 64 is also a benefit, as it means you can user wider apertures for a shallow depth of field more easily. And the results at ISO 64 are smooth and detail-rich that no other camera can match outside medium format. The new screen is an improvement, too, especially as you can dial out the infamous green cast that many D800 owners reported. And the shutter is far quieter which could make the camera worth the asking price for certain working pros.
What the changes from the D800 to D810 have done is make the camera a much better all-round tool for pro use. It’s not only a slow-speed studio or landscape camera but now is far more capable in action and for fast bursts. The build quality may not be as sturdy as the D4S and the ergonomics not quite as refined, but it’s much cheaper and, without the battery grip, lighter. And there’s nothing to match it for image quality made by Nikon.
Of course, the new Canon 5D and even Sony A7R MkII may have more resolution, but the D810 is king of the Nikon hill. It’s not even that expensive, as it’s wrapped in a semi-pro body rather than the full pro D4S body. I hate that the pop up flash sometimes pops up, and using a tilt and shift lens is tricky as it can foul the pentaprism. But for image quality and price, nothing can beat it.
For more shots per charge, I use the battery grip and swop the standard battery for the Nikon D4S battery which requires an adapter. But it means I can use Nikon D4S batteries across the board, but of course there’s still a small battery in the D810 in case of emergencies. I also fit an L-bracket around the bottom, with an Arc Swiss plate to fit my tripod heads. This means the D810 combo is heavier than a D4S, which is not ideal. Of course, I can run the body “bare” without the grip – and often do when it’s fastened to car rigs for lightness. But for all other times, I still wish Nikon made a D4S with a D810 sensor inside. It makes no sense that they don’t!
Now that the price of the D810 is down to sensible levels, it’s the camera that can do just about everything well and at a reasonable price. It’s a do-all camera that may not have the high ISO or frame rate of the D4S but does just about everything else. It’s my go-to camera for most editorial work.