Thursday, May 28, 2015

Nikon D810A Review

Nikon just got star struck with the new D810A. As a long time Nikon photographer working as a professional photographer with a passion for astrophotography, I was really excited when this new camera was announced in February this year. Could it be the answer to all my dreams?

Recently I’ve been testing the new Nikon D810A camera, Nikon's first DSLR dedicated to long-exposure deep-sky astrophotography. I was contacted by Nikon Nordic and asked if I could test the new camera and give my thoughts on it.

The new D810A has a specialized image sensor that is four times more sensitive to H-alpha red tones than an ordinary DSLR. Due to this sensitivity in red light, Nikon says it’s not suitable for general photography since this could give you some reddish looking photos. When doing astrophotography you want this sensitivity in H-alpha so you can capture more data/colors in nebula.

Nikon D810A

For comparison I’ve been using the Nikon D800E since it arrived in 2012. I haven’t used the newer D810 so I can only compare the new D810A to my D800E. Nikon Nordic provided me with a couple of dark frames from the D810 so I could compare the noise levels with the D810A.

This will not be an in depth review of the entire camera. I will only focus on features that could be of interest for astrophotographers and how the camera performs in that area. Also I will give you my thoughts on how it performs during more general photography.

Physically the new D810A pretty much look and feels like my old D800E. Nikon added another info button on the back that acts like if you were to press the info button twice on the D800E. On top of the command dial the bracketing button has been changed to metering method instead.

When it comes to new functions specialized for astrophotography, Nikon added a new Manual exposure mode called Long exposure M* mode. It allows you to set exposure times between 4 and 900 seconds, very handy. The standard Manual exposure mode is still there allowing you to set exposure times between 1/8000 and 30 seconds. Both exposure modes also have a Bulb setting.

 Long exposure M* mode

Another great new feature added is the Virtual Exposure preview in Bulb/Time setting. This will let you see a preview on how the photo will look like when using long exposure times. This is very good for focusing on dim objects (Stars etc) and when composing your shot in dark environments. When I did some infra red photography with the D810A, using a Hoya Infrared (R72) filter, I found this new feature to be very good when composing the image. I could clearly see how the shot would look like. Otherwise it is pitch black with the IR-filter looking through the viewfinder or in normal live view. My only complaint against this new boosted live view is that the preview can be a bit noisy and in some cases it can be difficult to see fainter stars.

The Nikon D810A also features the Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter setting that was introduced with D810. A function I miss on my D800E since it helps reduce blurry images due to mirror shake when using longer exposure times.

Another nice little feature is that the colors on the back LCD can be inverted if the camera is being used during daytime or nighttime. Features like this are not that important but very appreciated.

A new option is available to invert the colors on the back LCD.

There are two things I would like to have on this new camera. It would be nice if the back LCD was tiltable like on the Nikon D750. I would also like the camera buttons to be backlit like on the Nikon D4. Both of these options would be nice since the camera is meant to be used under dark skies with the LCD mostly pointing downwards. You can do without them but they sure would make things a lot easier.

When the D810A first was introduced earlier this year I was quite curious why the ISO range on the camera started at 200 instead of 64 like on the D810. Since I do a lot of solar photography I need to be able to use a low ISO so a camera with a lowest ISO of 200 could perhaps cause some problems. The higher base ISO could perhaps indicate that Nikon has done something to the sensor/camera to get better noise performance at high ISO levels.

General photography

These first photos are taken during daytime and around sunset to test if they look reddish due to the cameras more sensitivity in red tones. I wanted to see if this camera would cause me some problem in that type of photography.

All photos in this review are shot in RAW and processed and converted to TIF using Nikon Capture NX-D and final touch in Photoshop. No noise reduction is applied to the images if not stated otherwise.

This is one of the first shots I took with the camera. I wanted to test the noise levels and colors. Straight of the camera I couldn't see any indications of a red tint. No noise reduction is done to this image.

1/3200 sec, ISO 6400, Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4 G @ 50mm f/1.8

A daytime shot with a snowy mountain and cloudy sky, a good test to see if there's any red tint. To me it looks very good.

1/5000 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S VRI 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 120mm f/4.0

Another daytime shot this time with green and blue colors.

1/4000 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S VRI 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 125mm f/4.0

This is a photo I took during a very red sunset. The photo pretty much looks like what I experienced, perhaps a little bit more purple than I remember.

1/500 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S VRI 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 155mm f/4.0

The full moon is rising behind the mountains, no problems with a red tint.

1/2000 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4 II @ 600mm f/4.0

 Another sunset with lots of red colors. Also a bit more purple than I remember the sunset.

1/400 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S VRI 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 82mm f/4.0

This solar halo photo is so far the only photo where I can see traces of a more purple tint that shouldn't be there and that I’m having a hard time to get rid of in post processing. It’s visible within the city and in the foreground. 

1/8000 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm f/8.0

A few hours after sunset waiting for some northern lights to appear. The aurora forecast looked really good and the activity was quite high but the sky was too bright for us to see it.

10 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm f/4.0

Update 2015-05-30 - Sunlight soccer test

A test during a soccer game for kids. Both these images are straight out of the camera, white balance was Direct sunlight and metering mode matrix with -1 EV compensation. No post processing or sharpening are done, NEF to JPG conversion done with Captur NX-D.

D800E, 1/2000 sec, ISO 100, Nikon AF-S VRI 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm f/4.0

D810A, 1/2500 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF-S VRI 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 155mm f/4.0

To me both these soccer photos look quite similar, perhaps I can see a really faint tint of purple in the one from the D810A but with some minor post processing I'm quite certain I would get colors I'm happy with.

To sum things up using the D810A for more general photography. For my type of photography I wouldn’t hesitate to use this camera during daytime, sunset or sunrise. For day to day photography, like capturing skin tones, flowers etc, it could be totally different. If it's a situation where I wouldn't gain anything from using the D810A, I would probably use my D800E just to be on the safe side and the ability to use a lower ISO.

What could you gain using the D810A over D800/D810 during daytime photography? I can see some situations where it could be better. Many atmospheric phenomena includes red colors so it would be interesting to do more tests on halos, rainbows, iridescent and nacreous clouds. The halo I shot wasn’t that strong so I can’t tell any difference between the shots from the D810A and the D800E.

Also it will be interesting to see what it produces during an aurora with red colors in it and how the green and purple colors will look like.

Infrared photography

Since the D810A is more sensitive to red light it should be a good camera for infrared photography so I did a quick comparison with my D800E and this is what I got. I'm not an experienced infrared photographer so I can't really tell how good this is but I can see more details in the image from the D810A.

D800E, 8 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF 24mm f/2.8 
@ 24mm f/4.0 with a Hoya Infrared (R72) filter
D810A, 8 sec, ISO 200, Nikon AF 24mm f/2.8 
@ 24mm f/4.0 with a Hoya Infrared (R72) filter

H-alpha solar photography

The final daytime test was to see the H-alpha sensitivity in the D810A through my solar H-alpha solar telescope. Here's a comparison with my D800E. These images are unprocessed.

D800E, 1/30 sec, ISO 200, Lunt 80mm f/7 H-alpha solar telescope @ 560mm 

D810A, 1/30 sec, ISO 200, Lunt 80mm f/7 H-alpha solar telescope @ 560mm 

You can see much more details on the Sun in the D810A photo as expected. After doing some post processing on the D810A image I got this final result. I've included a scale sized Earth in the image to show how big the Sun really is.

D810A, 1/30 sec, ISO 200, Lunt 80mm f/7 H-alpha solar telescope @ 560mm

This is the best image of the Sun I've gotten with a DSLR so far. There was quite some turbulence in the air when I shot the image so it should be possible to get an even sharper image when the weather conditions are better. I will still prefer doing solar photography with a high speed monochrome CCD since color cameras aren't as good as monochrome cameras for solar photography.

Below is a photo taken using my monochrome CCD on the same day. It gives a much more detailed images but I'm really impressed of what the D810A produced.

Point Grey Grasshopper 3, Lunt 80mm f/7 H-alpha solar telescope @ 560mm

The color in the finished solar images are my own artistic presentation of the Sun. The image from a H-alpha solar telescope is red on a color camera and black and white on a monochrome camera.

Deep sky photography

Time for the main event, how does the camera perform under the stars.

I wish I gotten the camera earlier since the astronomical nights have ended here in the northern hemisphere (I'm on latitude 63°). Now I was only able to test the camera on the North American Nebula (NGC7000) and the circumstances were far from great. Not only was the sky bright due to the season, the moon was also 80% lit at the time. Here’s one 60 sec. shot straight out of the camera showing the area around NGC7000.

60 sec, ISO 800, Nikon AF-S 300mm/f2.8 @ 300mm f/4.0

As you can see the sky was far from black and you can hardly see the nebula.

I did a quick test between the D810A and the D800E on NGC7000. Here’s a 60 sec. exposure at ISO 800 from both cameras. The original photos looked like the above bluish photo so I’ve done some post processing to bring out the nebula and remove the blue sky color.

Nikon D800E, 60 sec, ISO 800, Nikon AF-S 300mm/f2.8 @ 300mm f/4.0

Nikon D810A, 60 sec, ISO 800, Nikon AF-S 300mm/f2.8 @ 300mm f/4.0

It’s quite clear that the D810A is more sensitive to H-alpha red tones than D800E which was expected. Nikon says it has four times greater sensitivity to the 656 nm wavelength than a standard DSLR

As I mentioned earlier I got the camera just a few days ago which is too late in the season so I haven't been able to test it taking wide angle Milky Way images, one of my favorite motives. The sky was just too bright at night.

One thing that struck me when I processed all the light frames on NGC7000 was how clean from noise they were compared to the ones from my D800E. It's hard to tell by the images above since they have been processed to bring out the nebula from one single 60 sec. exposure. The dark round spots in the D800E image are dust particles on my sensor.

After these test shots I took several exposures on NGC7000. In total I got 50 minutes of exposure time on the nebula using 76 shots with 30 sec. exposure and 12 shots with 60 sec. exposure. All of them at ISO 800. For calibration I took 10 dark frames, 5 bias and 5 flat frames. All images were then stacked, aligned and calibrated using PixInsight. I also did some background calibration and color calibration in PixInsight. Final post processing was done in Photoshop CC 2014. This is the final result.

50 min. (76 x 30 sec + 12 x 60 sec), ISO 800,
Nikon AF-S 300mm/f2.8 @ 300mm f/4.0

I think the final image looks really good regarding how much nebulosity the D810A captured in 50 minutes under these circumstances. It will be very interesting to see how it performs during the dark season and without the interference of the moon.

For me the biggest upside of using a DSLR for deep sky photography versus a dedicated CCD camera, is that I don't need to bring my laptop to take pictures. I like to keep it as simple as possible. Less equipment often equals less trouble and more photos.

Finally I did some test to see the noise levels of the D810A compared to the D800E, D810 and my old D3s camera. All shots are shot in room temperature. No in-camera or post noise reduction is made. All photos were taken in raw format.

Update 2015-05-29: I posted down scaled noise images earlier. These are now updated with 100% crop images to better show the noise.

30 seconds +4 EV ISO 3200

30 seconds + 4EV ISO 6400

When compared to D810 it sure looks like Nikon has done something with the camera/sensor to better handle noise at high ISO. It looks like the D810A is about 1-2 stops better than the D810 and it outperforms my old D800E by a landslide. When using my D800E I seldom go above ISO 1600 but with the D810A I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at ISO 6400 and even 12 800 in some situations.

Speaking of ISO 12 800, here is a comparison between ISO 6 400 and 12 800 on the D810A.

30 seconds +4 EV ISO 6 400 and 12 800

Update 2015-05-30 - Internal long exposure noise reduction

Here's a test with the internal noise reduction for long exposures switched on. Each exposure is 120 seconds at ISO 6400 using raw files.

120 seconds +4EV ISO 6400 with and without Long Exposure NR

The internal noise reduction seems to do a good job removing hot pixels. Remains to be seen how the long exposure noise reduction handles stars.

Update 2015-06-03 - Longer exposure noise test.

Another interesting test was to see how the D810A handles longer exposures. Here's a comparison between D3s and D800E on a 600 second exposure with ISO 1600. No noise reduction is done in camera or post.

600 seconds +4 EV ISO 1600


So what are my final thoughts on the new D810A? In February of this year when the D810A was announced, I read the specs and thought that this wasn’t a camera for me, despite my profession as an astrophotographer. A more H-alpha sensitive camera with a lowest ISO at 200 wasn’t really what I was looking for. Surely I would like to get more colors in nebula when shooting the Milky Way, but I could always modify my existing D800E to gain more H-alpha sensitivity at a much lower price.

But now after using the camera and seeing the result, I have changed my mind. I would love to have D810A and be able to shoot at ISO 6400 and get a clean 36 megapixel photo. As a big bonus I will also get a camera that delivers more colors in the Milky Way. A lowest ISO of 200 could perhaps cause me some problem but I think the upside of the noise levels and H-alpha sensitivity are so much better. I mostly work at night so a higher ISO noise performance is much better for me.

There are several small tweaks and features I like, some of which were introduced already in D810. But in the end the one thing that stand out the most is the good high ISO performance. With the D810A I would get about the same noise levels at 12 800 as I'm getting at 1 600 with my D800E, that's quite amazing.

It will be interesting to see some more scientific tests that measures the noise levels and dynamic range of the sensor. Hopefully we will also learn what Nikon has changed from the D810 to push the ISO performance forward.

It looks like the D810A will start selling for SEK 38 000 here in Sweden (~ €4000 / $4 500). At first glance it might feel quite expensive for a camera like this, but compared to a full frame color CCD camera, the price isn't that high. For example, the ATIK 11000 C full frame 11 megapixel CCD camera costs SEK 52 000 here in Sweden. (~ €5500 / $6000). Also you would need a computer/laptop to be able to take images with a CCD camera so that adds up to the total price.

There are companies that modify your existing camera to be more sensitive to H-alpha light. So if you're just looking for a more H-alpha sensitive camera that could be a cheaper option. The downside would be that you won't get the great high ISO performance that the D810A offers.

Compared to a DSLR, CCD cameras often includes cooling to offer better noise performance and their electronic components are usually optimized to generate low electrical noise. Monochrome CCD cameras with filters will still be king of the hill capturing the most detailed images of the night sky.

For me a DSLR is the best solution. I live in a light polluted area so I need to travel to a dark site every time I'm doing deep sky photography. I prefer to be mobile and to quickly be up and running taking pictures, so a CCD with a computer aren't my cup of tea.

The camera isn't the answer to all my dreams but it sure fulfills some of them and I would most certainly sleep much better with one of these cameras in my bag. It would make a perfect match alongside with my D800E, replacing my old D3s as a high ISO performer.

Anyone looking for a used D3s in good condition ;-)

  • Very good high ISO performance
  • More sensitive in H-alpha
  • No need for a computer when doing astrophotography
  • Boosted live view
  • Long exposure M* mode
  • Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter 
  • Good battery life

  • No tiltable LCD
  • No backlit camera buttons
  • Boosted live view can be a bit noisy
  • Higher sensitivity to red light could cause some problem for general daylight photography

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  1. I wish I had the budget and the time for this level of astrophotography!!! I get out with my D610 once in a while - but to have a solid tracker/scope/good long lenses would be awesome! Thanks for the review.

  2. Have you compared its noise level to that of the D750?

  3. Very nice review. Thank you. Also, very nice photographs.

  4. Wow - extremly well done. Thorough and meticulous and even interesting for someone like me, who is not really into astrophotography.

  5. Thanks for this nice review. It goes to show that nikon has truly made something that's a tiny bit step better than even the D810 ! Maybe with some filter you can get rid of some of those purple tint stuff? Maybe the whole wording "not for general photography" from Nikon is to make statement that using the camera for general photography wont work without some filter to filter out some wavelengths?

  6. Thanks for your review!

    Just one question: Does the D810A provide real raw- files without any internal pre-processing?

  7. Thank you for the review, it was very useful to me. I was one of that guys that was thinking to modify the camera to get more H-alpha sensitivity, but with Nikon cameras I have found that the procedure is not as common as Canon. Also about the possibility of getting a color CCD or even using Canon. After thinking a lot, I made the effort and I bought the D810A :) I am eager to try it.

  8. Fantastic pictures!!!

    One question - are the high ISO long exposure pictures all sampled to 12 MP? Reason being that I have a D700 and a D800 and i consider the D800 - when down sampled - to at least meet the D700. But your pictures show a dramatic better D3S (which should be approx 1 stop better than D3/D700). Or is this due to the very long exposure time?


  9. wow thank you to you and Nikon

  10. Hey very nice Review! Exactly what I was looking for. Nikon Germany says that it is not possible to take "normal" Daylight pictures with D810a. I see, its going

  11. I'm very new in photography and I've been scouting around for a new camera. I've never thought there's quite a lot to choose from. Although I'm harping on quality and I'm willing to invest in a top brand. My brother is into astrophotography and has this expensive camera that really takes my breath away. I believe he has the Orion brand and I'm reading a lot of reviews for other cameras of the same calibre. For more information, see:


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