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Review: Nikon D750 and D810

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For more info and purchase of the Nikon D750
For more info and purchase of the Nikon D810

If you’re like me, you read camera reviews by skipping to the conclusions first, so I’m going to start with the spoilers: The Nikon D750 and D810 are both great cameras. How good? Well, I’ve used them constantly since purchase, with first one and then both Nikon D4‘s sitting to the side.

So are these cameras better than the much more expensive Nikon D4? It’s more complicated than that, and that’s why this review will be deeply seated in my personal experience as a photographer. I nearly always shoot 13-hour weddings 65+ times a year with two cameras. While the D4 is ergonomically perfect when it’s in my hands, it’s way too big and clunky when it’s a 2nd camera hanging on my side. Using two D4s feels like dual-wielding howitzers. After two wedding seasons marked by lower back ache, it’s time to look for something lighter, something that makes me feel I can dart to whatever position I need to get the perfect angle without bashing a six-pound camera into chairs, floors, tables, or small children (all of which have happened).

Fortunately Nikon has been listening to the demands for “smaller, lighter, and professionally capable” equipment for the past few years, releasing a slew of light, small f/1.8 primes from 20mm to 85mm. (I beg them to continue that to 135mm, that would not be very light or small.) They also put out cameras like the D610 and Nikon Df, which produced beautiful images even in low light but had several caveats in their use, most notably a mediocre AF system. The D800 was astounding in its image quality and had pro AF but also felt sluggish to me in its buffer and Live View.

This year, Nikon said “no more caveats.” The D800 line has always had a bit of schizophrenia – the super-high resolution sensor and fantastic dynamic range at low ISO are aimed squarely at the medium format market – studio portraits, landscapes, product and still-life – but Nikon also markets it as the replacement to the beloved D700, a low-resolution camera aimed at photojournalism and documentary work. The D810 seeks to improve both uses – for the medium format crowd, it takes away the AA filter, which should allow for sharper images when every other part of shooting technique is perfect, and it changes the base ISO from 100 to 64. For the documentarians, it increases the buffer speed and significantly shortened the annoying delay in using Live View.

And now comes the D750. There are a number of ways to see this camera in the lineup – the name suggests it’s a D700 replacement, but really it seems to be a toughening up and professionalization of the D610. It is nearly exactly the same size and weight as the D610 but adds the professional 51-point AF system. Better still, it’s been tweaked enough that Nikon’s own rating suggest it is the best low-light autofocus across the entire camera lineup, better than even the D4s. And about that D4s? The D750 only weighs 63 percent as much, and it only takes up 54 percent as much cubic space. That’s a big deal, and a lot easier to have hanging at your side. For example, it’s about the size difference between a Smart Car and a regular sedan:

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Of course, shooting with a mirrorless system or even just my iPhone would be even smaller and lighter, so here are the real questions I want to answer: How good are these cameras anyway? What kind of trade-offs are there compared to the much more expensive D4s? Which of these cameras might be better for you? And finally, what are the benefits and trade-offs of owning and using both? To answer all of these, first we’ll discuss the common denominators of both cameras, then we’ll drill down on each one separately, and finally talk about how I use them together for my own work.

The D750 and the D810

These cameras have a lot more commonalities and differences. I’ll leave aside the obvious ones (yes, they both take the same lenses and flashes), since the important part is they sit right in the middle of Nikon’s “prosumer” line and thus are Nikon’s newest cameras with any professional aspirations. Thankfully, Nikon has corrected some of their previous prosumer mis-steps with these cameras, including my personal pet peeve – not having an exposure preview in the Live View of the D600, D610, or Df. When used right, Live View is one of those transformative technologies that says “Digital cameras can feel like more than just an instantly scanned film camera.” Being able to instantly see the correct exposure before you shoot is a leap ahead in functionality, and kudos to Nikon for enabling it in both the D750 and D810. The D800 had this functionality but it also felt like it took forever for the Live View to even turn on.

Although the D810 and the D750 take different battery grips (which I haven’t yet used), they take the same En-EL15 battery. Nikon rates them at about the same battery life, but I’ve found the D750 to burn through them much faster (this may be individual model variance, or simply that with the flip screen I use battery-killing Live View even more on the D750).

Both cameras have nice, deep grips, and I found even the smaller D750 to be a pleasure to hold, significantly better than the Nikon Df. But there is a huge ergonomic caveat here – like all smaller cameras without vertical grips, they’re only ergonomic wonders as long as they’re paired with lighter lenses and flashes. Put something like a 24-70 and a Nikon D810 on and any time I use the setup one-handed, I feel painful pressure on my wrist. It’s made me more likely to move my flash off-camera onto stands when possible, and even lenses like the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art feel unbalanced on these cameras, particularly the D750, leading me back to the old, cheap Nikon 50mm f/1.8.

But for my use, the biggest change in these cameras is metering. Nikon changed the recipe in sometimes fantastic, sometimes frustrating ways. The most obvious change is a new metering mode: highlight-weighted spot metering. The closest way to explain how this works is that your camera says “whatever you’re focusing on, I’m going to pretend that you put the spot-meter right at the brightest point in the frame.” So in any backlit scene, this mode is basically “instant silhouette maker.”

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I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this metering mode is rolling out now. All of the others – matrix, center-weighted, and spot – are also on Nikon’s film cameras like the F6. Highlight weighted metering would be almost useless on film cameras, unless you really, really liked silhouettes. But recent Nikon pro cameras, especially from the D3s on, have had a hidden trick: there’s a lot of information in those shadows. With film and cameras like the Canon 5D or Fuji S5, it was always a good idea to err on the side of overexposure, but with Nikon’s it’s the opposite. You don’t have to go too far for a blown highlight to be unrecoverable, but you can raise shadows as much as five stops on some models while still getting a fairly clean image. So the other way of looking at this mode is “cram as much of the tonal range of the scene as possible into the file and let the photographer process it later,” which can allow us progress toward the holy grail of cameras that see scenes with the same sort of dynamic range as the human eye. For example, here’s different processing of the same shot above:

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I wouldn’t recommend this metering as a default mode, the way I used normal spot metering on the Nikon D4, since there will be plenty of scenes where a light bulb or bright backlight make the scene way darker than you want, and there are plenty of times where it’s A-OK to let some highlights blow out to white. But it’s a great option to have when you’re trying to focus on a groom wearing a tux and you don’t want to turn the wedding-dress-clad bride into a luminescent spirit.

The only problem is that they also seem to have changed the recipe on the normal spot mode a bit. My only evidence is taking hundreds of thousands of photos with the D3, D3s, D4 and D4s and saying that these cameras seem to meter differently. Because of the existence of highlight metering mode perhaps, spot mode seems even more calibrated to say “who needs highlights?” Even metering on skim-milk-colored Irish skin like my own will tend to blow out the rest of the scene unless you use exposure compensation. Worse, they seem widely variable. Five to ten percent of the time with normal spot metering, a shot come out about five stops overexposed out of nowhere, even the darkest shadows pushed into the upper highlights. It’s not that the D4’s metering is perfect, but it’s repeatable – if it’s going to mess up a scene I can anticipate exactly how it will mess it up before I shoot it, and use EV compensation or manual mode to get it right. I’ve seen this happen on both cameras, but it seems to happen a bit more with the D810.

The D810:

Like the D800 before it, the D810 is defined by its 36 megapixel sensor. And yes, it’s sharp, sharp-sharpity sharp. In fact, this is the wrong place to look for a review of this aspect of it, because it’s much sharper than I need. In fact, I was fine with the 12MP of the D3s until this morning, when an iMac showed up at my doorstep with a 14.7 MP screen (and it’s still not bad). Henri Cartier-Bresson said “sharpness is a bourgeois concept” and to some extent he’s right. Not all bourgeois concepts are bad, and whether an image is in focus or not is different than whether it’s critically sharp pixel-for-pixel, but when I’m looking at a documentary image, critical sharpness is nice but way, WAY down the list of factors that make it a good photo to me or not. Every once in a while I take a huge group photo or landscape where the sensor is nice, but generally the 24MP of the D750 is already more than enough, and the D810 just likes to clog up my hard drives and increase my upload times. But it’s not terrible – in 12-bit compressed mode the RAWs come out to about 33MB, which is just 15 percent more than the file size of the 6-megapixel Fuji S5 I shot in 2007.

D810 at ISO 4000:
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The D810 sensor has other benefits too. ISO 64 plus 1/8000th of a second makes this the best light-killing camera in Nikon’s lineup, with almost two stops more power over the sun than the D750’s ISO 100 and 1/4000th max shutter. If you like shooting in the middle of the day at f/1.4 – say if you’re a fan of a certain panoramic portrait method – then this is the camera for you.

The D810 has one more advantage that is a big deal to photographers: in the words of Bjork, “it’s oh so quiet.” Even in normal mode the shutter is soft, and in quiet mode its barely there at all. I feel comfortable using this camera to take pictures close to the head of a priest, which would have made my skin crawl to try with the clacking D4.

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The D750

The D750 is an incredible camera burdened by its own name. As the camera that took the D610 to the next level, it probably should have been called the D700. But wait, there already is a D700, and its users love it. The D700 was such a good camera for the price that it almost didn’t make sense – especially with the battery grip, it did nearly everything the D3 did at a lower price. So a lot of people can only see the areas where the D700 is slightly better – 1/8000th of a second shutter speed! 8 fps with battery grip! The viewfinder is not my preferred shape! These are a fanatical lot, so I want to make sure everyone knows I say the following as someone who used and loved the D700 for many years: For wedding work, the D750 slaps the D700 silly. First, here’s the D750 at ISO 12,800:

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I’ve used the D700 many times at 12,800, and it doesn’t look like that.

Also, the D700 only uses one CF card. You might say “Well, I’ve never had a card fail!” All I can say is “Shoot more.” It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. I have had clients memories saved only because every image was being shot to two cards. In the D750 and D810, I just keep a large SD card in the 2nd slot and write JPEGs to it. That card does not get formatted until all the weddings on it are delivered, so that even in the worst-case scenarios where my other six backups somehow fail I can still deliver and edit JPEGs (which is just fine for 95 percent of images, but takes a little more processing time). You can never be paranoid enough.

And yes, the D750 only has 1/4000th of a second, but it also goes to ISO 100 whereas the D700 starts at ISO 200. Unless for some reason you’re trying to stop bullets in your wedding photographs, this comes out to the same thing. The D810 does win handily in this regard, but you still can shoot at f/1.4 outside in the sun with the D750, as long as you’re careful, like so:

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Also, the D750 is Nikon’s first full-frame camera with a tiltable review screen. As someone who has lied down in goose poop and broken glass at the same time to get a shot, this is really exciting for me. I don’t use it very often in photojournalism, because the AF speed during Live View just still isn’t where it needs to be, but it is fantastic when getting the right angle for portraits. One of my favorite adages in photography is this: “When you look at the portfolio of a good photographer, you should have no idea how tall they are.” MAYBE the best height to take a given photo is in the six-inch zone around where your eyes are, but usually there’s a better vantage, and a tilting screen will help you find it without nearly as many dry cleaning bills.

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Then there is the sensor. It’s hard to be definitive about the sensor because Adobe still hasn’t released an update for Lightroom that will work with it, but even with what we can tell now the sensor looks like a winner. It looks better at high ISO than the D810 (which is also pretty darned good, especially when the giant files are resized to print), it produces all the file size you need while gumming up your hard drives a bit less – everything just feels balanced for the kinds of variety you need in wedding work.

The only disappointment for me is the shutter sound – and I was only disappointed because I’d been using the D810. It’s quieter than the D4 or D3s, but definitely louder than the D810 or D610, and the quiet mode seems to even make it slightly louder, sounding like you’ve stepped on a small twig every time you take a picture. It’s not bad, but the D810 had set my hopes high.

USING THEM TOGETHER

This is my setup right now. I stumbled into it, because I bought the D810 before the D750 was announced, but for now it works well for me. You can infer from the rest of this review that if you took the best things about the D810 and the best things about the D750 you’d have a near-perfect wedding camera, and this is the simplest way to get the advantages of both. The D810 is used as my main camera for ceremonies is quiet churches, for example, and also leads the way for most of the portraits, while I pick up the D750 when I need the tilting screen or for fast, constant action on the dance floor.

I am loving these smaller cameras; in fact I love them enough that they’re making me rethink my lens system. I’ve recently bought an old 180mm f/2.8 as a sometimes-replacement for the Nikon 70-200mm VR II and a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 as a sometimes-replacement for the amazing-but-heavy Sigma 50mm f/1.4. I’d already preferred the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 to either company’s 35mm f/1.4’s, and it balances like a dream on the D750. Yes, this is all giving me Gear Acquisition Syndrome for cheaper equipment, but all of these are sharp and fast-focusing.

The one major annoyance to using both cameras is that the D810 uses the “Pro” control layout, and the D750 uses the “Prosumer” layout. Buttons in the same place on each camera do entirely different things. For maximum speed as a photographer, it’s important to build muscle memory with your camera system, and it’s a major stumbling block to say “Ok, which camera is this? Do I change ISO on the top or on the back?” If I do end up selling one to start using two of the same camera, that will be the reason why.

And if that happens, which camera will I keep? Drumroll please… the D750. I will just have to live with the snapping twigs.

MORE PHOTOS FROM THE D810

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MORE PHOTOS FROM THE D750

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For more info and purchase of the Nikon D750
For more info and purchase of the Nikon D810


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