Nikon D810A - A ≠ only astrophotography (please be prepared for a technical talk illustrated by a lot of photos (04.10.2015)


Text and photos: Sven Začek

The digital era has made night photography into something reachable. You no longer have to limit it to an hour long exposures of the star tracks. Thanks to the development of the sensors, you can now take photos like you would look around with your bare eyes and the truth be told, the camera sensor can often see better than the human eye in the dark because the sensor can gather light gradually. It takes long steps until the human eye momentary visual ability can be developed.

Everyone who photographs in the dim light or in the dark has been aware of Nikon D810A camera for a while. This camera is an updated version a very good D810 camera and it takes the maximum out of low light conditions. D810A is four times more sensitive than the other cameras especially when capturing the red colour.

Nikon’s idea is to simplify photographing the nebulae in the night sky. True, taking photos of nebulae is nice but this activity is mainly the domain of photographers dedicated to astrophotography – photographers who do not use ordinary lenses for shooting but telescopes instead. I have always been interested in testing the technology not only in targeted circumstances  and through that, come to conclusions whether this camera is not meant for this other kind of usage or to discover new usage opportunities. With Nikon tech, the latter version tends to be true. New approaches ensure new kind of captures.

To prevent the claims of ordinary photographers, Nikon has said that D810A is not meant for everyday photography. A couple on nuances provoked me to use D810A in ordinary circumstances because I could feel a certain tiny revolution. The internet is full of analysis based on the astrophotography needs that clearly say that when photographing the night sky, stars, planets and nebulae, the colour transmission of D810A is much better than this of all the other cameras. Thus, if your certain wish is to photograph at night, then there is no point on reading further – you should immediately walk into I AM Photographer Pro Shop and purchase Nikon’s D810A.

The best analyses of D810A from the astrophotography point of view can be found from here.

Since I am an omnivore when it comes to photography, in addition to photographing the night, I am also interested in how the camera performs in ordinary circumstances. And not only its performance but hopefully, a way better performance in certain circumstances compared to ordinary cameras. D810A costs 900 euros more than D810. My logical sense says that to justify that number, it should have some extra values precisely when it comes to everyday situations – then the purchase would justify itself. Again, only when your interests go beyond night photography and D810A is going to be your only camera. Anyway, a couple of nuances caught my attention on the paper that hinted to the hidden capabilities of D810A.

The first is the possible range of the sensor’s sensitivity –  ISO. The ISO sensitivity of the ordinary D810 is in the range of 64-12800, but the range of D810A is 200-12800. Considering the number of megapixels of the D810, its ISO quality is very good. It is actually so good that my D4s has to wait its turn longer each day. Because despite of a bit more noise, the 36 megapixel file gives better final results than the 16 megapixel with less noise but with lower resolution file. As a quality fan, I have always made my life more difficult when it comes to using the tech and used the cameras rather meant for landscape photographers ((D3x, D800E and D810) also when photographing mammals and birds.

Sure, some of the photos have been ruined due to slow shutter speed of using low ISO but those images that have been successful, have a better quality. In some ways, the ISO range shows which way the camera is optimized. For example, Nikon D3 and Nikon D700 that revolutionized in 2007 started from ISO 200 which was probably half of the reason why back then, those cameras offered very good results with higher ISOs. Some landscape photographers complained about not having ISO 100 but mostly, everyone was satisfied with is unprecedented quality with higher sensitivity and for getting slower exposure, they put a neutral grey filter in front of the lens. By now, the milestones of that time have been reached but for example, D810 meant for studio and landscape photography, starts from ISO 64 and D4s meant for a bit faster jobs, starts from ISO 100. The difference is not that big, only 2/3 steps but it is enough for the D4s to produce a cleaner file in addition to smaller pixel numbers when using higher ISOs.

D810A starts from ISO 200 which compared to, is D810 1 2/3 steps higher. The direct conclusion would be that D810A produces the same clean results while being higher. It is actually the truth. How does it look like on the photo? The best example of this has been brought out in the article I mentioned before. So, I decided not to test it any further myself.

It is worth noticing that with longer shutter speeds (30 seconds), the overall level of noise increases quite a lot compared to 1/100 for example. With even faster shutter speed, the level of noise is even lower and the difference between the cameras is even smaller. That is why; we have to consider that when taking test photos in the daylight, we might not notice the difference.

It is logical that the test needs to be done in the conditions we actually use it. Formula 1 machines are also tested on the circuit not on the gravel road. Unfortunately, in the Internet, there are test photos of ISO quality taken in good light conditions. We should forget about those quickly. Test photos taken in good light conditions show weaker cameras from a better side and do not bring out the real domination of great cameras. So, the facts I read from the paper about the ISO quality were actually true in real life as well. The camera with the best level of noise, highest resolution, and quietest shutter click and derived from this, the best camera to photograph animals is Nikon D810A!

Another aspect is the red colour. As a landscape photographer, I am always looking for special light moments and you can see red in the sky more rarely than other colours. When photographing on the slide, there were no problems with the red colour because the slide was very capable of transmitting the red colour. There were even arguments about whether some of the films were not too capable (there are the same arguments today about turning on too much colour in Photoshop).

Anyway, when you come home from photographing a very cool red sunset and discover that the RAW file that you open in your computer is yellowish orange, the disappointment is huge. Most likely, this is more due to the weak interpretation of the RAW file by the software than the incapability of the sensor but as a result, I then have to start forcing the photo to be as I actually saw it in the nature. Mostly, it means creating many different layers and assigning each of those the colour temperature. Why? Because the software does not want to believe that this morning, I was welcomed by this kind of powerful and red sunrise. With D810A you will not face such a situation as its sensor is able to save correct red color. 

It is even more difficult when the red colour is presented as especially pink. When opening the RAW file, there is no pink at all and you have to start chasing that with your software. So, when I saw that this camera is optimized to the red wavelength, it gave me hope that the tortures of chasing the red and pink sky with the software, are over. 

Giving in somewhere else

It is clear that while getting these good qualities, we have to give in somewhere else because otherwise, the cameras would be the same without the A sign.

The first thing is the ISO 64 of the D810 compared to ISO 200 of D810A. Who is more used to not using the filter while taking landscape photos while using slower shutter speeds, it now becomes even harder and in certain light conditions, it becomes impossible. We can get help from the neutral grey filters but this additional equipment costs and takes the price of D810A even higher compared to D810. But this is only the problem of sea landscapes with demanding waves or other subjects that demand a very precise shutter speed. With static landscape photos, there is no negative moment. When using it elsewhere, you tend not to use ISO under 400, so you wouldn’t notice the absence of ISO 100.

Another thing is the green turning into purple. Those who have photographed in the dim forest on a cloudy day know how later, you have to fight with the purple corrector on the computer. With first software versions that could open the D810A files, the files were even more purple but now, at least Adobe Lightroom has added a stronger purple corrector that intervenes more forcefully with green photos.

The third moment is yet to be discovered because the winter testing has not been done yet. For the last month and a half, Nikon D810A has been my main tool and it has earned me well. When the winter comes, the environment changes drastically and the time of especially gentle colours is ahead. Will see…



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