Last month, I took the Nikon D810 out on the Sierra High Route — one of the toughest adventures around. It got dirty, wet, and constantly banged around. Here’s how it performed.
Three years ago, my roommate bought a D800E. I’ve always shot Canon, but he let me borrow his Nikon for a couple of shoots. It was impressive to say the least. I vowed that when it was time for me to upgrade from my 5D Mk II, if Canon hadn’t released a comparable body, that I would give the D800 a shot.
Fast forward to this past April. While riding a $450 motorcycle through Vietnam, I lost my backpack with everything in it — including my trusty, dusty Canon 5D Mk II, and the only piece of glass that mattered. I started doing research on the current SLR market. Nothing out there seemed that impressive or able to meet the intensive demands of adventure photography — including the (at the time) recently-announced 5DS. That is, until I ran across the recently released 36 megapixel Nikon D810 ($3,000 Body Only.) It was time to give it a shot.
I shot this with my crappy phone from a plane window over Bellingham, Washington.
Most modern mobile phones are capable of producing stunning imagery — just take a look at the “Shot on iPhone 6” billboards that are everywhere. This isn’t an argument against shooting photos with a mobile phone. There are also a ton of in-depth reviews scrutinizing every possible pixel of the most powerful cameras out there; they already show that the D810 produces the highest Image Quality (IQ) of any DSLR, ever. This isn’t one of those reviews.
Is the Nikon D810 the ultimate camera for adventure photography? Pictured here with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E GD.
Instead, this review examines how the D810 performs in the field of adventure photography. What is adventure photography? It’s simply the act of photographing adventures, typically in the outdoors. It’s a niche defined by stunning landscapes, dynamic personalities, and challenging, ever-changing shooting conditions. That last part is key.
Typical shooting conditions for alpine adventure photography.
Often adventure photographers must work in the most volatile environments — ranging from ice sheets on Antarctica to blizzards in the Himalayas to swamps under the canopies of the Amazon. As such, an adventure photographer’s equipment must be durable and easy to use, while still possessing incredible image quality and dynamic range. Those are the categories that will be the subject of focus for this review. But first, a little about the camera.
The D810 is the successor to Nikon’s popular D800E. The “E” designator is an important factor here because it marks a key differentiation from the non-E model; that is the E model featured a secondary optical low-pass filter to cancel out the camera’s anti-aliasing filter (“aliasing” when related to digital photography refers to the presence of moire when photographing repeating patterns.) The result? The D800E produced slightly sharper images than the D800. And sharpness is incredibly important to photographers dealing with the medium-format resolution images that the camera creates. For the D810, Nikon got rid of the anti-aliasing filter all together, resulting in unprecedented detail and sharpness.
So how does the D810 perform in the realm of adventure photography? Let’s find out.
The D810 features robust weather sealing, allowing its use in wet or dusty conditions.
Durability is arguably one of the most important factors when choosing a camera for adventure photography. Will the camera still work if it’s dropped? Can its body handle getting banged around? Does it have enough weather resistance to shoot in the rain? Or near a waterfall? These are all important scenarios to consider, simply because they’ll often be encountered while shooting outdoors.
The D810’s body is fully constructed from magnesium alloy (magnesium is the lightest structural metal) and has been weather sealed to prevent both rain and dust from entering the camera’s interior. Its shutter has been tested to 200,000 cycles, which is 25% more cycles than the Canon 5D Mk III. All of those features work together to make a tough camera.
Out on the Sierra High Route, we spent more time climbing on boulders than we did hiking on a trail. As such, the D810 was exposed to the front lines of mountain abuse on a daily basis. Obviously, I don’t purposely bang expensive equipment against hard, rough objects, but it’s bound to happen. That’s the nature of the job. In those instances, the camera stood up to the abuse; aside from some very minor signs of wear on the finish, no damage was done.
We took a brief, but scare opportunity to shoot with the D810 in the rain. Photo by Gilberto Gil.
Due to the state of California’s historic drought, my opportunity to test the D810’s weather resistance was limited, however we did get caught in one rainstorm at the end of our trip. I threw on my rain jacket and seized the opportunity to keep shooting. While the rainy period which I shot in didn’t last more than 30 minutes, no signs of condensation appeared underneath any of the screens, in the viewfinder, or inside the lens. I wish I had this thing during The Time That Iceland Almost Killed Me.
The camera seemed to do well in keeping dust out too. Upon close examination of my images, only one small dust spot appeared after a month of general outdoor use, and two very intensive weeks on the High Route — an acceptable amount considering the conditions.
All of those factors worked great together; I’d be confident shooting with the D810 in any difficult environment that I have encountered on an adventure thus-far.
The placement of controls on the D810 is intuitive and they are easy-to-use.
All cameras should be easy to use, but this is an especially important consideration when shooting adventure photography. In most scenarios, the photographer will be actively participating in activities alongside the athletes — often scrambling ahead of their team to get a shot just as they cross a ridge, or rappelling down the side of a waterfall to grab shots of a kayaker just as he’s going over. To put it simply, the photographer’s hands will already be tied up, before having to worry about getting a shot. As such, it’s important that using the camera doesn’t get in the way of doing the adventure. A camera’s size, weight, and controls all play into that.
The D810 is about twice the size and weight of any camera in the mirrorless Sony A7 series.
First off, the D810 is big. And at 31oz for the body only, it’s heavy (but still comparable to the Canon 5D Mk III or 5Ds.) Stick a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED ($1,900) on there and you’re looking at 64oz or four pounds. That’s a lot of weight to have hanging around your neck, in your hands or, worst of all, in your pack. Especially if you’re already carrying loads of outdoors gear.
For comparison, the mirrorless, full-frame Sony A7S and 16-35mm f/4 weighs just 34oz or nearly half and is much easier to handle.
Due to the D810’s size and weight, there’s not really a great way to carry it through the backcountry. It’s cumbersome with a standard neck strap; it’s too bulky to take advantage a Peak Design CapturePro clip ($80.) The best way I found to carry it was with the Peak Design Slide ($60,) but even that wasn’t a perfect solution. This problem is not unique to the D810 however, but rather it’s an issue with all SLR’s; it’s only brought into light by the recent availability of much more compact, but still high-quality mirrorless cameras.
When talking about size and weight, it’s worth noting the Nikon D750 ($2,000 Body Only.) The D750 features similar image quality (but 12 fewer megapixels,) focal performance, and a faster burst rate (6.5 fps compared to 5 fps) when compared to the D810, but at 26.5oz, it weighs significantly less. While I haven’t personally tested the D750, on paper it seems to be a strong compromise of the D810’s features and bulk.
The number of shots left is displayed on the LCD even if the camera is turned off.
In my past experiences with Nikon cameras, the user interface was a major turnoff. It felt clunky, the buttons were hard to reach, and the placement never made sense. That’s not the case with the D810, however. The power switch is located around the shutter button, so all it takes is a simple flick to turn it on and start shooting. With the default control map, the shutter speed dial is located on the (outstanding) grip just below the shutter release; the aperture adjustment dial is located exactly where the thumb rests on the back of the body. The placement of those controls, combined with a kickass auto-ISO mode makes shooting in changing lighting conditions feel natural and intuitive.
A couple more nice features on the D810 are that the camera still displays the number of shots left on the card, even if it’s switched off and there is also an auto-off mode by default as well. These features are subtle, but useful. Switch the camera back on and it’s ready to shoot within half a second, allowing photographers to capture even the most fleeting of moments.
The D810’s impressive dynamic range allows it to maintain details in both highlights and shadows, even under harsh lighting conditions and environments — like when on snow. ISO 64, f/4.5, 1/160.
While we’re talking about capturing fleeting moments, the D810 borrows its renowned focus system from the top-of-the-line D4S, which utilizes a 51 point dynamic autofocus mode that features 3D tracking. Combined with a -2 to 19 EV focus sensitivity, the camera can lock onto subjects quickly; without hesitation, even in dark shooting conditions. While shooting on the High Route, the D810 would focus so quickly and quietly that oftentimes I didn’t even realize that it had already achieved focus.
A very fast and accurate focus system, combined with a respectable burst rate enables the D810 to easily capture fleeting moments. ISO 200, f/8, 1/500.
The fast, accurate focus system lent itself well to the 5fps burst rate and with a 47 frame buffer (and by switching the camera’s sensor to a 1.2x DX crop mode, 6 fps/100 frame buffer is achievable) the D810 could definitely handle action sequences. The high frame rate and buffer are supported by dual card slots (SD + CF) which allow for redundant file storage — or additional space — the latter of which is definitely needed. A 128 GB SD card ($50) will hold about 1,500 36 megapixel RAW photos.
The D810 features a large 100% analog viewfinder and a LCD monitor with a 170-degree viewing angle that auto adjusts to ambient light.
A 100% viewfinder visibility makes it easy to see what you’re shooting, while a 3.2” diagonal monitor with a 170 degree wide viewing angle make it easy to see what you’ve shot (and like most modern cameras, it has live view too). Reviewing your work in changing lighting conditions? An ambient brightness sensor will automatically adjust the monitor based on — you got it — ambient brightness.
Nikon estimates that the D810 will get 1,200 shots per battery charge; in the real world I managed to get about 700. The discrepancy was likely due to my use of the monitor, and potentially the cold conditions that I was often shooting in. If on an extended trip, expect to carry a lot of batteries (a two-pack of Wasabi Power batteries run about $40) or the five-pound Goal Zero Sherpa 100 for recharging — as the D810 (like other SLRs) doesn’t recharge from USB (whereas many mirrorless cameras like the Sony A7 line do).
One feature that I have come to appreciate in modern cameras is the presence of built-in WiFi, which allows for remote control via smartphone — as well as the ability to instantly transfer photos to a phone (and in-turn, the cloud) without having to deal with card readers or cables. It’s a feature that is incredibly useful; it’s present in many mirrorless cameras and in the D750 as well. Unfortunately, it’s not a feature that is present in the D810. (Though WiFi support can be achieved through an expensive, awkward adapter) Perhaps Nikon left the feature off in order to differentiate it from the very similar (but lower-end) D750. Regardless, it’s lack of presence is a shame.
The D810 is capable of capturing an unparalleled level of detail and color. ISO 6400, f/8, 1/400.
Adventure photography pulls in elements from landscape, portraiture, and sports; as such sharpness, color reproduction, and dynamic range are all huge factors that play into image quality. And this is where the D810 really shines.
As previously mentioned, the D810 does not have an anti-aliasing filter. The result — unprecedented sharpness for a digital SLR. The downside of not having an AA filter is a susceptibility to moire. However, moire is not usually an issue when shooting natural environments (it’s more akin to man-made patterns) and I didn’t have any issues with it while testing on the High Route.
There is no anti-aliasing filter built onto the D810’s sensor, allowing it to capture sharper images than its predecessor, the D800E. Straight-from-the-camera RAW. ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/640. A tight crop reveals incredibly sharp details on the PVC material and on Gil’s face. Straight-from-the-camera RAW.
Images captured with the D810 are incredibly sharp; the sensor does a great job rendering even the most minute details. Those elements are crucial for producing large prints; while I haven’t had a chance to make any tests yet, viewing the images at 100% on-screen reveals as much.
RAW images captured on the D810 feature incredible latitude for post production. ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/320.
The D810’s color reproduction is very accurate as well. Customizing the camera’s color profile to shoot at baseline RAW settings will produce an image that looks alarmingly flat — but at the same time allows for amazing latitude in post production when working with camera raw settings to create a treatment. I’ve never worked with more dynamic files; the post production possibilities are astounding.
The D810 features an exposure value of 14.8 — meaning that a great deal of detail can be recovered from both the shadows and highlights. ISO 64, f/5.0, 1/250.
The ability to heavily modify the D810’s RAW images is largely due to its dynamic range. In photography, DR is the difference between the lightest light and the darkest dark which can be seen in a photo. Once a subject exceeds the camera’s DR, the highlights wash out to white and the darks become black blobs. (Ken Rockwell goes more in-depth here)
A tight crop reveals minimal noise, even in areas where shadow details have been fully recovered. ISO 64, f/5.0, 1/250.
For landscape photography, an exposure value of 12 is considered excellent. The D810 has an EV of 14.8. Having such an expansive dynamic range enables a great deal of recovery of shadow and highlight detail in post, so much so that it’s possible to create HDR (high dynamic range) photos, which usually consist of several bracketed shots overlayed with each other, out of a single image. While the heavily-stylized look of HDR photos is often not the most desired application, having the ability to recover lost details is very useful for making the most out of less-than-ideal shooting conditions that are often encountered outdoors.
When zoomed out, you can’t even tell that this image has noise. ISO 12,800, f/8, 1/400. However, a 100% crop reveals a very clean, usable noise pattern, even at ISO 12,800.
Additionally, the native ISO goes down to 64, allowing for even less noisy images in bright lighting conditions. Even at its maximum native ISO of 12,800 (expandable from ISO 32-51,200,) the D810 still produces sharp, clean, usable images.
The D810 is tough; it felt right at home among the granite monoliths.
The D810 is an incredible camera that excels in many different types of photography, including landscape, portraiture, and action — all of which lend themselves to the niche of adventure photography.
The camera is built like a tank and designed to take serious weather and abuse, all while delivering astounding image quality that’s usually only found in cumbersome medium format cameras. Though the D810 is big and heavy, a fast, sensitive focusing system allows it to capture fleeting moments without hesitation.
Only a few cameras on the market can compare to the D810’s image quality, including the Sony A7 line. Though the A7 cameras feature similar IQ and USB charging in a package that’s nearly half the D810’s size and weight, they are much less responsive, have poor battery life, and are not nearly as durable.
Disappointingly, the D810 does not feature built-in WiFi like its smaller, lighter counterpart, the D750, which has the same image quality but 33% fewer megapixels and costs $1,000 less.
If money is not your greatest consideration and your work requires massive 36 megapixel resolution files and the ultimate in durability and weatherproofing, go for the D810.
If resolution isn’t your biggest concern, you’d like to save some ounces and $1,000, and if having built-in WiFi is useful for keeping your social media accounts up-to-date from the field, go for the D750.
Top Photo: Gilberto Gil
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.