Nikon's D800 and D800E caused great excitement when they were first announced in February 2012 largely because of their groundbreaking 36 million pixel count. These two full-frame SLR cameras are identical apart from the fact that the D800E's sensor has a weaker anti-aliasing (AA) or optical low-pass filter (OLPF) to enable it to deliver sharper details straight from the camera.
Thanks to their impressive detail resolution the two cameras quickly went to the top of the wishlist for many professional and enthusiast photographers, especially those looking for a comparatively lightweight camera for landscape, still life or macro photography. They have remained firm favourites ever since, setting the bar for resolution by which other cameras are judged.
Now the replacement for these two cameras has been announced in the form of the 36.3Mp Nikon D810, one camera without an anti-aliasing filter to replace both models. Interestingly, we have been told that while the D800E was widely reported as having no AA filter, the filter over the sensor did actually have some anti-aliasing element and this has now been completely removed from the D810's filter. This should enable the new camera to record even more detail than before, and Nikon is claiming that the D810 produces 'the highest image quality in Nikon's history'. Omitting the AA filter brings increased risk of moire patterning in images, but it hasn't been found to be a major issue for D800E users.
Given the high pixel count of the D800 it's no surprise that the D810 has the same count, but we are told that it uses a newly designed sensor, which usually means improved noise control. It has also been coupled with Nikon's EXPEED 4 processing engine instead of the EXPEED 3 engine of the D800 and this too should be good news for noise control.
Other changes from the D800 include a higher resolution LCD screen, the ability to record smaller raw images as seen with the Nikon D4S and the introduction of Group-area AF mode, also seen in the D4S. The move to the EXPEED 4 processing engine also enables an increase in the maximum continuous shooting rate at full resolution to 5fps, this was previously 4fps. Alternatively, the D810 can shoot at 7fps in DX format and record 15.3Mp images.
We are awaiting information about the raw file burst depth when shooting at the maximum continuous frames rates, but they are believed to be similar to the D800's. However, it's possible to shoot JPEG images continuously until the card is full, the D800 maxed-out at 100.
Sensitivity may be set in the native range ISO 64-12,800 and there expansion settings stretching from ISO 32 to ISO 51,200, giving greater scope for shooting at wide apertures or in bright conditions as well as better low-light capability.
In addition, the D810's video capability improves on the D800's with the ability to shoot at 50 and 60p and a Zebra display mode that shows areas close to burning out. There's also a new Flat Picture Control mode that has reduced sharpening and contrast to maximise dynamic range for better post-capture grading. This new Picture Control mode is also available when shooting stills.
Video (and stills) may be shot in FX or DX format and there's a clean HDMI out, plus the ability to capture full-resolution footage in-camera and on an external recorder simultaneously. When shooting video in manual mode, sensitivity can be set from ISO 64 to ISO 51200 while the Auto ISO function allows you to specify the maximum sensitivity setting to be used. This is especially useful when combined with the ability to use power aperture and set the two buttons next to the lens mount on the front of the camera (marked Fn and Pv) to open up or close down aperture. It should also ensure steadier footage with less operation noise.
Further video-centric improvements include greater control over audio recording to allow the user to select the sound range (wide/voice) and for wind noise to be reduced when recording with the built-in microphone. Audio levels can be fine-tuned in isolation before and during recording.
In another change to the Picture Control options it's now possible to adjust image clarity or micro contrast to give an impression of greater (or reduced) sharpness without over-emphasing strong edges.
Like the D4S, the D810 has Nikon's 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system which adds Group-area AF mode to the usual options (9-,21- and 51-point dynamic-area AF and 3D-tracking). Group AF mode is designed to help when shooting subjects that are comparatively small and close to a high-contrast or distracting background. When it's activated the user selects an AF point and the camera uses it and the ones immediately above, below, left and right to keep the subject sharp.
Nikon has given the D810 a new shutter/mirror box mechanism that is claimed to reduce vibration giving a steadier viewfinder image with less blackout for better autofocusing and sharper images. Internal vibrations can be further reduced by a new electronic front-curtain shutter. Both of these points should enable users to get greater benefit from the camera's potential resolving power.
Like the D4S, the D810 can record smaller sized uncompressed 12-bit raw files. This is of particular interest to animators and those producing timelapse sequences who want the quality and control of raw files without the huge files size of a 36Mp image.
While the size of the D810's monitor remains the same as the D800's at 3.2-inches, its resolution has been boosted to 1,229,000-dots and the colour balance and brightness can be tuned to the photographer's preference or the shooting conditions.
In a first for a Nikon SLR, there's a new Live View split-screen zoom mode that allows photographers to check sharpness in two areas at the same time. This could be especially useful when shooting landscape and macro scenes when depth of field is very important.
It's a shame that Nikon hasn't included Wi-Fi connectivity in the D810, instead users wishing to transfer images wirelessly have to use the optional UT-1 Data Transmitter together with the WT-5 Wireless Transmitter.
Build and handling
Any D800 user that picks up a D810 is going to find themselves right at home because there are only a few fairly subtle design changes introduced with the D810. The grip, for example, feels a little more solid and the memory card door more durable.
The metering switch on the back of the D800 has also gone to make the AE-Lock/AF-Lock and AF-on buttons easier to reach and operate with the camera held to the eye. The metering options are now accessed via what was the bracketing button above the drive mode dial on the top of the camera.
The most noticeable difference, however, is the introduction of an I button on the back of the camera. This gives access to some key settings and works in the same way as it does on Nikon's other recent SLRs. It is particularly useful when shooting in Live View or Video mode and it provides the means of accessing the Split-screen view.
I haven't been able to shoot any images on the D810 yet, but Nikon is making bold claims for the new camera, saying it produces the best image quality of any Nikon camera. This is largely down to the fact that the camera should be able to resolve more sharp detail than the D800E because all of the anti-aliasing effect has been removed. Plus, the newer processing engine should enable better noise reduction. Naturally, we'll have to wait and see until we get a full production sample in for testing.
I'm really looking forward to investigating how the D810 handles noise, because although the D800 is good for a 36Mp camera, it is still a limiting factor. If Nikon has managed to make significant improvements it should make the new camera more versatile.
It will also be interesting to see how much impact the changes to the shutter makes to the sharpness of images. With the D800 we found that you generally need to use a shutter speed of at least 1/125 sec when handholding the camera to avoid image blur from spoiling the image at 100%. It seems unlikely that this will be changed as the shutter vibrations are more likely to cause blurring when the camera is on a tripod, but you never know.
When I tested the Nikon D4S I found that the AF system was incredibly fast and accurate, with the Group-area AF mode seeming very reliable in many situations, even in low light. My short time with the D810 indicates that is likely to be true with the new camera, but we will test it fully when we get a sample in for testing.
While it's disappointing that Nikon hasn't included Wi-Fi or GPS technology in the D810, it still seems like a good, solid upgrade that promises to deliver what's most important to photographers – better image quality. Few would've expected an increase in pixel count, but a potential increase in detail and improved noise control along with a few handling and video enhancements should make it an enticing option for many.