Review: Nikon D780
I currently have three Nikon camera bodies, a D5, a D850 and D750. When people ask me what my favourite is, I often find the best way to answer is by reframing the question and asking myself “If I could only have one Nikon DSLR body, what would it be?"
Over the last few years, my unequivocal answer has been the D750. As a professional conservation and wildlife photojournalist, it has pretty much given me nearly everything I need. When I look back at images that have been published or won awards, most have been taken with the Nikon D750.
Sure, if I need a frame rate of say over 10 shots per second, or I know that I’ll be shooting consistently over ISO 6,400, I’ll probably take the D5. If I suspect I’ll have to crop or I know the final image will be printed bigger than A1 (and that’s rare), I’ll consider taking the D850. But really, most other times, I go straight for the D750.
So, when I got my hands on a D780, I was really curious to know what it could offer me that the D750 couldn’t. Well it turns out a few things, which not surprisingly, make the D780 a better camera than the D750. I spent a couple of weeks testing the D780 in bushfire affected Gippsland, and here’s what I found.
At first glance the external control layout and body is pretty close to the D750. I don’t like change for change’s sake, but there are a few differences worth mentioning.
Some buttons have been moved (e.g. the Live View button has been moved up) as well as some allocations changed, but probably the most significant is there is now a dedicated AF-On button for back-button focusing. Also, the top metering button has been replaced with an ISO button.
Additionally, the built-in popup flash has now been removed. I never really used it, and with many flash systems now being radio triggered, I don’t think this is a negative, but I would have loved the space saved to have allowed for either a built-in flash radio trigger or GPS location data unit, as on the recently announced D6.
If I was to be really picky, the profile of the front two programable function buttons seem to have been reduced, making their use not so easy and I can’t fathom why Nikon would have done that - they didn’t get in the way of anything.
One thing that used to bother me about the D750 was the eye cup. It always came off so easily, and after losing several, I simply ended up gaffer taping mine on. This issue now seems to have been partly addressed, and whilst the new eye cup is not attached as securely as on a D850 or D5 (these are screwed on), it’s definitely better.
Two improvements in the body that really stood out for me were the LCD monitor and the noticeably quieter shutter.
The image quality on the LCD monitor is greatly improved. Nikon have nearly double the resolution from 1,229,000 dots to 2,359,000 dots, and when zooming in and reviewing images, you can really see the difference.
The D780 also inherits the shutter mechanism of the D850, and it was a nice surprise to hear just how much quieter it is. The improved quietness seemed to result in less mirror slap as well, and that’s always a good thing if shooting at low shutter speeds.
It’s worth noting that with the D780 and using Live View, you can also shoot silently. I rarely use Live View and so this is not such a big deal for me, but of course when you need to, it’s great to have.
The D780 offers a 51-point AF with 15 cross-points that employs an algorithm equivalent to the fantastic D5 autofocus system, and it worked well. It also gains the AF tracking system from the Z-series cameras, including Face and Eye detection modes, which are welcome additions.
With Live View photography, the D780 now uses a 273-point hybrid AF system, which automatically switches between focal-plane phase detection AF or contrast-detection AF, allowing for better Live View focusing in moving environments, as well as eye-detection autofocus.
Shutter speed and continuous shooting
The D780 has a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000s (vs 1/4000s on the D750). What is interesting is the maximum exposure duration has increased from 30 seconds to a whopping 900 seconds in Bulb mode. This will really appeal to landscape photographers and those who do light painting.
In silent shooting Live View mode, the D780 offers 12 fps. The maximum viewfinder continuous shooting rate has also been increased from 6.5 fps to 7 fps, now matching that of the D850. I’m sure this is fast enough for most people most of the time, and I am going to assume that this is partly due to the fact the battery just isn’t powerful enough to allow anything higher.
But that brings me to a disappointment. It would be great if you could attach a battery grip like you can with the D850 and shoot at a higher frame rate (i.e. 9fps). For me, having this, a viewfinder shutter speed of 9fps, the benefit of being able to take more shots between battery changes, and the solid high ISO capability, would have made this a serious competitor in many ways to the D5. But having said that, I may have just answered my own question as to why it’s not offered!
The D780 sensor size is virtually identical to the D750, weighing in at a little over 24 million pixels, and is likely closely related to the one in Nikon’s Z6 which is backside-illuminated and features dual-gain architecture for better noise performance.
In use, I couldn’t notice a big difference in a head-to-head comparison shooting RAW, however JPEG seemed to be processed better at higher ISO.
At about an ISO of 6,400 the D780 started to show less noise, and at 10,000 the difference was obvious. Speaking of ISO, the D780 also allows you to shoot up to ISO 51,800 (vs 12,800 with the D750).
This higher ISO capability and better high ISO noise performance will be welcome for those who shoot indoor sport or astrophotography.
I rarely shoot video and so I honestly can’t make an expert opinion here, but speaking to those who do, being able to shoot 4K (3,840 x 2,160 at 30p), 1080p at 120p, as well as being able record to an external device as a 10-bit N-Log profile, is a really good thing and certainly brings the video features up to date. In my limited testing, what I shot looked absolutely fine.
The wrap up
Launched nearly six years after the D750, the D780 is a superior camera in many ways, but for about $1,500 more, it would have to be. But is it worth it? As a professional, the quieter shutter and improved focusing system makes the D780 really something to consider, but I can’t say I’d sell my D750 to upgrade just yet.
I am waiting to have a good look at the D6. But if you’re serious about video and want a full frame DSLR with the capability to shoot 4K or 120 fps at 1080p, the decision between this and the D750 will have been made for you.
But if I was to put price aside, and went back to answering my original question, “If I could only have one Nikon DSLR body, what would it be?”, I think the answer would now be the D780. ❂
Handling ★ ★ ★ ★
The lower profile programable front buttons bothered me, and I would have appreciated a deeper grip (it seems a little shallower now). But in the hand it’s a comfortable camera to use.
Features ★ ★ ★ ★
For an entry-level semi-professional DSLR, the features in the D780 are excellent.
Autofocus ★ ★ ★ ★
Inheriting the Z-series features of face and eye detection, as well as the D5’s autofocus algorithms, the D780 offers a good autofocus experience.
Image quality ★ ★ ★ ★
24MP is the sweet spot for me, and when combined with the solid high ISO capability, the image quality is very good.
If you don’t need more than 24 megapixels (and let’s be honest, how many people do?), the D780 is a great DSLR. If I owned one, it really would now be my go-to camera for most assignments.