First Blush Review of the Nikon D810. Like.

The Nikon D810 is currently the best all around digital camera on the market. According to DXO the sensor inside is the highest performing one on the market (excepting the newest Sony medium format sensors, maybe...). The camera is rugged, designed to be weather resistant, uses all Nikon lenses sold since 1977, functions in automatic modes with older manual focus lenses and is available for around $3300.

Why did I want one and what am I doing with it? Hmmm. (warning, long explanation) When we hit the times of the great recession the downturn in the economy hit photography businesses harder than it hit the traditional occupations of the middle and upper middle classes in the U.S. If you had a real job and were not laid off chances are your salary did not drop even though your fear quotient may have spiked. Your direct deposit from your employer hit your bank account each month and maybe you defensively saved a bit more and spent a bit less money. You were cognizant of the pain in the general workforce. You became more practical.

As freelance photographers came to grips with the sliding economy they started to realize that, to some extent, their services and products were discretionary. A company could go on using their CEO portrait from last year or the year before. If cuts were to be made it would be in the budgets usually dedicated to external suppliers who delivered discretionary items. The heat, light, water and basic salaries of the internal workers needed to be paid for the company to continue to exist. 

Revenues for freelancers plunged as ad agencies, corporations, brides, car dealerships and just about anyone else who could pulled up the drawbridges and opted in to the siege mentality. We were like lepers or people with the black plague soliciting at the gates. In the darkest times of the great recession we had quarters where our income was reduced by half. We even had a quarter with no income. None. Zero. It was a very scary time but it was also a time of fast changes in the camera market and we were desperately concerned about being left behind as products changed and improved. We needed to be able to compete if the market offered a chance.

When I started in the business the income of a good corporate photographer, after successfully launching, was very good and the expectation was that the income would grow, month after month and year after year. Part of the model of success was that we used the very best gear and that cost a lot of money which created a lot of barriers to entry into the field. At the top of the great recession the barriers were gone, the technology was egalitarianized and there was no longer a need to own the very best gear. Especially in a market where nearly all of our output was destined directly for the web at tiny sizes and high compressions. 

While I kept my hand in the game with cameras like the Canon 5D mk2, the various (three different) Sony full frame cameras, etc. I economized where I could and made ample use of elegant, capable and less expensive, smaller format cameras. Most notably the Olympus and the Panasonic lines. But I had grown up with full frame and larger cameras and I've always liked the way various medium telephoto lenses on those bigger formats drew for portraits. 

The economy made a good recovery for me in the last two years. Clients got braver, stock valuations rose dramatically and the purchase orders flowed more smoothly and reliably than they had in the previous five years. Clients were no longer demanding to do everything on the tightest imaginable budgets. They were (are) cycling back in some sectors to the idea of higher quality as a brand signifier, higher production values as marketing differentiators. And as a supplier to them I've learned to read the tea leaves and turn on a dime. Which often makes me the target of brand loyalists who presume that I should just buy a damn camera brand and stick with it through thick and thin---like a marriage. 

But we don't run the business to please one of the brand camps. We run it to make money while doing work we really enjoy. Which brings me back to why this camera and why now.  The bigger clients have come back to roost and they are back into the pre-recession habit of demanding the best. They are also willing to pay for the best because unlike local clients they are comparing prices internationally and with those comparisons come comparisons of every facet of the production business. 

The D810 isn't the "best camera in the world" it's the best, reasonably affordable, high performance camera in the world. My psychological damage from the last downturn precludes me from being comfortable enough to rush out and buy a Phase One or the Leica S2 that I would really like but I've conquered enough of my fear to be able to spend more and get more than I did several years ago.

Several of my current clients are heading back to trade shows and returning to producing high end print collateral, point of purchase posters and the like. They don't care about the religion of the format wars they just want to pull the largest resolution files they can get into InDesign and not have to do extreme interpolations to get where they need to go. To a certain extent all of the 24 megapixel cameras are a move in the right direction but the 36 megapixel camera is in a different class and the files are demonstrably more detailed for those kinds of uses. I sweated bullets delivering multiple files destined to be 24 by 36 inch posters last Summer using the Panasonic GH4 and its 16 megs. In late Fall, when a similar project arose I decided not to use the Nikon D7100 (24 megapixel) camera I had in hand but to rent a medium format, 40 megapixel camera for the project. What we accomplished with a Panasonic GH4, with sweat and technical brinkmanship we accomplished with ease in the final delivery of files that started out nearly three times as big from the MF camera.

Late last Fall I began testing the Nikon D800 to see how close it would come to the medium format cameras and I was pleased to find that it was within striking range for my uses. Tightening up technique on my part would narrow the distance even more. 

I'm a month into owning and using the D810 and here's what I've experienced so far: The camera with good lenses is as big and heavy as I remembered full frame cameras being. The files are enormous and converting a file folder full of raw images takes a lot of time even on a fairly fast computer. From a workflow point of view I'm still inclined to grab a 16 megapixel camera whenever I know we won't be going really large. The workflow is just so much faster. 

But when we need quality I grab for the D610. If we need more image quality I fire up the D810. While the cameras are larger and a bit unwieldy for a guy with small to medium sized hands the quality of the files makes up for the clumsiness of the package.

Recently I used the D610 and the D810 to document the dress rehearsal of "Peter and the Starcatcher." It's a play/musical at Zach Theater. I was delighted with the performance and more than one blog reader wrote to ask if the lighting had been totally different for this play (no) because the images were the best they had ever seen in all the years that I've been posting live theater stage shots. 

The two main differences that I saw had to do with how well the cameras nailed the white balance (really good flesh tones that did not require much correction in post) and how much sheer dynamic range there was in the files. The highlights in scenes were much less prone to blow out and the shadows were more detailed without the attendant encroachment of noise.  That was one test with about 450 images shot on the D810. One thing I did notice is that at 3200 ISO the D610 handles shadow noise better than the D810. 

The next shoot I did was different. All the variables were removed. I used the D810 on a tripod and I used studio strobes in soft boxes to make a series of images of three actors for an upcoming play. The combination of the hefty tripod and the brief exposure of the flash, along with a custom white balance and calculated exposures at an ISO of 200 was eye opening. From a three quarter shot of three actors I could zoom into a part of one actor's face before I hit 100%. And at that magnification the file was relatively noise free and highly detailed. It was amazingly good. And in the least compressed raw file at 14 bits each individual file was also 72 megabytes. Again, a trade off that is not always practical or necessary. 

In the end I've come to understand the D810 (at least here in the early days) as a substitute for a medium format camera. In this analogy my Olympus EM-5 cameras are like the 35mm film cameras of yesteryear (the film years...). They are the cameras of reportage and journalism because they make high quality files and can be carried (comfortably) everywhere. Not every file will need to go up past 16x20 inches. Not every situation will allow for large, intrusive gear. It's nice to have options. 

Finally, I spent yesterday testing the video on the Nikon D810. There is one thing I already know I dislike and that's the way the audio is set up. You can use external microphones and you can even set manual levels but you can't change the levels while you are recording. That's too bad because sometimes you really need to ride the levels with vitriolic speakers in sessions.

At the highest quality settings the video from the camera looks good. I experimented using the Flat Profile which is engineered to be something like an S-log profile in a professional video camera. Flat produces files with lots of dynamic range but they look flat. You have to interpret them in whatever editing software you use. It takes a little time to get right but the files look very good and very natural when you take the effort. The files straight out of the camera are the usual 24 mbs AVCHD variants but the camera is set up to output uncompressed files via HDMI for people who need higher imaging quality in video. The low budget fix is to buy an Atomos Ninja Star digital recorder and capture the uncompressed signals onto Cfast memory cards (a new video standard memory solution). You can set the Ninja Star to record them in three different variants of ProRes which is the editing file format of choice for Final Cut Pro X. While the uncompressed files take up more space on the CFast card (you'll need more storage) they don't need to be converted to be used in editing so it makes the editing process easier and faster.

The GH4 produces a sharper looking video file and has tons more options to use. It's the better camera from a set up and use point of view as well. The Nikon drags one right back to the age of putting a loupe over the screen to see what you are getting in live view. With the GH4 you have an EVF that tells all. At lower ISO settings the GH4 is the best choice in the lower priced video arena. The only parameters where the D810 wins by a clear margin is that it has less noise in higher ISO settings and the depth of field control gives one more options. While I am not a proponent of having just a narrow slice of stuff in focus with everything else turning to anonymous mush one of my friends to whom I sometimes lend the GH4 had a heck of a time sloughing off enough focus to do an interview and drop the screen of a monitor that showed in the background far enough out of focus to obscure some information on the screen. He was restricted to shooting in a tight space and a bit less DOF would have been aesthetically more appropriate. That might have been a time and place for the larger format camera.

I am not Philip Bloom and I don't work in the rarified atmosphere of feature films or narrative television programming. I'm okay with the idea that most of my video productions will be consumed on the web at a compressed 1280 by 720. With that in mind the D810 is a good production camera for industrial work and the inevitable interviews. That being written I am also looking forward to see what kind of progress the people who create hacks for various "hybrid" cameras will do with the Nikon cameras. There is a site called, Nikon Hacker, that is publishing hacks for various Nikons that vastly increase the video bit rate of the cameras with attendant increases in image quality. I'm looking forward to the day when they have a safe D810 hack that doubles the bit rate. And I'm hoping even more that Nikon will do the hack themselves in the firmware. I'd rather have strong, mature 2K than quick and dirty 4K but I'm sure the next generation of all the cameras will deliver 4K just to keep achieving parity. 

So, here's my list of what I like about the Nikon D810:

1. Flat Profile. Cool and it works well. 
2. 36 megapixels of good imaging, no AA filter. Files that clients love.
3. Nice finder.
4. Quiet shutter (thank God!).
5. Good rear screen. 
6. Amazing auto white balance.
7. Feels very rugged.
8. Fairly priced. I'm happy this sensor and camera performance came in a  "non-pro" body. The last pro body I bought from Nikon was the D2xs at nearly $6,000. The D810 is clearly at least twice the performance for half the cost. 
9. The movie mode is very uncomplicated which means less to set wrong in fast moving situations.
10. Works with a big range of my existing Nikon lenses (nods to the 105 f2.5, the 25-50mm f4 and all the wonderful micro lenses).

Here's what I am less happy with:

1. It's heavy and big. But I knew that going in. 
2. The files are huge and require a lot of processing power and storage to use. But I knew that going in. 
3. I miss the feedback and information of a good EVF.
4. I am reminded every time I use it in the street (not on assignment) that it is obvious, intimidating and big. It screams: "Baby boomer with bigass camera." Instead of: "Cool guy with small camera."
5. I wish there were more codec choices in the video. Would love an "All I" format...
6. Um. What slow witted audio designer decided that we wouldn't need to adjust audio during a take? Fire him. Get that Sony guy who put the rotary control on the front of the a99 to do one of those.
7.  Buying new lenses. 
8.  The battery life sucks compared to the pro Nikons (and even to a well broken in Panasonic GH4 battery. In fact the Nikon SUCKS down battery juice in video to a startling degree in comparison).
9.  Bigger format means bigger and heavier lenses.
10. Ignites desire for Sigma Art lenses or Zeiss Otus lenses. 

Here's my advice: If you are a working professional with clients who like traditional imaging then you might want to have one of these around for demanding projects. Or stuff where you and the client really want to drop backgrounds out of focus. Get one if you are a Nikon user and you want to upgrade from a DX camera to a full frame camera. Get one if you are a medium format shooter and need to downsize because your clients are no longer willing to pay for the benefits derived from the larger format and you still need to make money. 

Don't buy it if you are happy with the camera you are shooting right now. If you are a portrait photographer only you'll do just as well with a 24 megapixel camera like the D610 or the D750. If you are a Canon shooter you should seriously wait to see if the Canon rumors are correct and their new 50+ megapixel camera is coming soon. It's supposed to be a direct competitor to the D810 and you probably already have lots and lots of their very good lenses. Don't buy one if you are shooting Fuji or Olympus or Panasonic because you like the smaller sizes and the amazing range of lenses. It's the opposite. 

Finally, if you are mostly a video shooter don't buy this camera unless you've already got your GH4 for day to day production work. Once you've mastered that camera then consider the big Nikon for DoF control and some high ISO work (although the D750 would be a better choice for lower noise...).

I bought the camera because I'm 59 years old, the recession is over and I wanted to shoot with a camera right now that no client can object to. That's a whole different metric than shooting with a camera for one's personal enjoyment exclusively. It's a business decision and every business decision has a psychological component. I can't be more honest than that.


Christine Bogan said...

that's a real honest writing! Thanks for that.I enjoy it to read.

Unknown said...

Kirk - Thanks much for all that you do and share . I think your perception may be off even looking at this from a Numbers point of view ....... I like small things - phones tools etc but when I see a guy with one of those little cameras I see anything but cool or professional. EVERYone is different.

Going in a different direction just to be different is laced with insecurity ...... that's how we swallowed goldfish and pierced our noses and such.

Be one's self and as you do friendly with everyone and the camera is seen as a second thing or third or ...

I shoot Architecture and in the field with a Canon 6D makes me look like an amateur ..... in the field with a MF Technical camera makes me poor and tired. ( so it's not worth it to look cool huh ..... I guess not) Where is my 4x5.I miss the deliberateness.

I know we all know all this but .... jus sayin.

BTW ... such a great job with the boy !!

Anonymous said...

Good to see you have the D810. Really appreciate your review of it as could be my next camera. You also have the D610 recently, will you be keeping it as well, or trading up for the D750 at some point, how are you liking it after using it awhile? After renting the D610 myself, the only thing that bothered me was the AF speed in low light had too many unfocused images for my taste in event coverage (like 5 percent maybe at times), where I preferred not to miss photos, compared to other models with better AF system. Other pros I have read in forums have said the same about AF of D610. However, the D610 did perform well in good to mid afternoon lighting, not quite as well indoors in low light. D750 and D810 have better AF systems.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I like the D610 a lot and will keep it as a back up. Will I get a D750? Maybe someday. Spending me quality time with the D610 because it just works. And the files look nice.

Eric Rose said...

Nice to see such a cogent explanation of a working pros thought processes. We working photographers have a totally different view on gear than the average resident on photography forums. Amateurs and even many serious amateurs seem VERY defensive when it comes to brand loyalty. As you explained the camera is simply a tool to make money. It must perform it's duties well in more areas than just IQ. Like they say don't show up to a gun fight with a knife. In my market many of the people I work for or photograph have top of the line cameras for their vacation photos. Image is important, and I'm not talking about photographic image. I'm referring to stature and status. If the client has a better camera than you do, you've already shot yourself in the foot in most cases.

Anonymous said...

I'm a young architectural photographer that still uses a D300/D700 using 12mp, shhh don't tell my clients.

Kaspar said...

Thank you for sharing your views, they are a nice and very interesting read! I really liked your analogy where you compare the fullframe/m43 pairing as the film medium format/35mm team from film days.

Anonymous said...

"Why did I want one and what am I doing with it? Hmmm. (warning, long explanation)"

So, the long explanation in short;
You bough it because you wanted one and can afford one. Simple as that. ;)

As for your recent escapade with the mFT gear, is it too early to start saying "we told you so?" ;)

Seriously though...

"It's a business decision and every business decision has a psychological component."

Agreed, and that's a point worth highlighting. Even though our purchasing and other decisions always have a substantial emotional element, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, buying new gear should always be a business decision. Regardless of one's brand of choice. (Even if it's a Nikon;)

Unless one is indeed buying gear for personal pleasure and as a hobby only, not handling our gear acquisition as a business decision would become a tricky and expensive obstacle course soon enough.

Gato said...

A very timely post for me, as there is a "new" used D800 on the way to my door.

Although I am about 99% retired from pro photography I am seeing and feeling the sort of thing you describe. As someone who likes to do portraits I have to compete with other photographers, if not for money at least for my subjects' time and attention.

The super-cheap portrait and family photographers seem to have almost disappeared from my area. Those still working are raising prices to the point a person might be able to build a real business. And the quality of the work I see is far better than a couple of years ago. Mostly the photographers are better, but they are also using better equipment.

In fact prices are high enough I'm considering making this a business again. But the competition is very tough, both as to concept and creativity and on technical quality.

I have used 4/3 and m43 since 2005 (when I switched from Nikon APS to Olympus) and the last few months have been the first time I ever felt threatened on technical quality. A couple of years ago I was saying small sensors would rule, that FF just would not deliver enough additional quality to be worth the money and trouble. Now I doubt that.

I tried a 24mp FF (Sony A99) a couple of years ago and decided it was not worth the expense and hassle - especially comparing the flexibility and accuracy of my Panasonic focus system to what I see as a somewhat primitive system, limited to a smallish portion of the frame.

At the time I wondered if the extra pixel count of the D800 would have tipped the balance. At the current used prices and seeing the way the market is changing I have to try it. There is no question I'll like the sensor. It is a matter of whether I like it well enough to go back to DSLR with optical finders, primitive live view and limited focus coverage.

If I like it I'll be out digging to put together an affordable lens kit. If I don't I expect I can sell it in 6 months and recover everything I have in it.

If I really like the big sensor and high MP, maybe Sony will get their FF mirrorless system sorted out and maybe I'll build enough business to afford it.

We live in interesting times.

MikeR said...

I am really glad that you made a sharp distinction in your narrative between "business" motivations and criteria, and that of "hobby" photographers (like me). I'm not immune from salivating over the latest and greatest products, and would probably churn through a lot of gear if I could afford to. And never be happy.

Your arguments for your choices help me to avoid succumbing to gear lust.

Thank you.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Mike, Thanks for writing that. If I didn't do this for a business my sole shooting camera would be the Olympus EM5. It's a wonderful tool and for the hobbyist in me it represents the sweet spot between very good image quality and wonderful nimble-ness and just plain pleasure.

neopavlik said...

Enjoyed the post.

I think its very brave to admit that you had a bad or tough financial quarter, especially if it was $ 0. I'm guessing that was the quarter immediately following the Lehman Bros collapse.

The flip side is that I remember saying you are a terrific saver; you had/have enough $ saved to weather somewhere between 6 months - 2 years of downtime. That's almost unbelievable but that is very similar to my financial habits.

I might get the D810 but I told myself I have to start doing more prints before I do that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,

I agree with all your pluses and minuses. I add a general comment about 35mm. Will manufacturers ever abandon this silly format? I would love to see an 810-like camera with a 35mm by 28mm format. All that pixel density, 20% more pixels and more complete coverage (1mm) for all those 35mm lenses that have difficulty maintaining high resolution on the 36mm wide frame.

I know - whine, whine, whine.


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