D810 Announcement Followup

(commentary)

One thing that was clear in the press materials is that someone new is writing the press releases. While they follow the usual lead, quote, details formula that most Nikon press releases follow, the wording was very different. In general the differences are two: clearer claims ("next benchmark in D-SLR image quality”) and a lot of very strong adjectives (powerful, extreme, staggering, intense, amazing, immersive, and so on). 

But one key thing that was a bit different was how many times the user was mentioned in the press release (“gives professionals,” “lets photographers wield,” “users will see”, and so on). Overall, the D810 press release was probably the most photographer-centric I’ve seen out of Nikon recently, though it still has a heavy sprinkling of technology mentions, a Nikon staple.

Nikon’s advertising also changed recently, and it’s getting better at making a point about why you would want a DSLR (or even Coolpix) instead of a smartphone for certain photos, but frankly the execution still leaves a lot to be desired. What they really need are photographers better able to execute the headline, as many of the recent attempts fall flat in the one thing that could lock the sale: the photo demonstrating the point. 

And another thing: the timing of the announcement was botched. The official embargo time was 3am EST on the 26th. Nikon Japan jumped that embargo time by almost three hours! Now, it may have been that the early posting that was quickly taken down on the 25th by a UK site caused Nikon corporate to decide to change their timing slightly, but I think that just sends the wrong message. You can’t hold the press to embargoes when you jump them yourselves, lest you make those that are covering you look slow and unprepared. Thus, I published shortly after Nikon Japan did. 

More details are becoming available about the D810, so here are some followup items and thoughts:

  • Picture Controls changed. We get a new Picture Control called Flat, which tries to preserve the full tonal range the camera is capturing. We also get a new parameter, Clarity, which allows you to change the mid-tone contrast within a Picture Control. Another change is that many Picture Control parameters can be changed in smaller increments than before (though this is one of those places where Nikon’s marketing fails us: a “.25 step increment” means absolute nothing without context; what’s a “step”).
  • The sensor is indeed new. If you look carefully, it’s aspect ratio has changed from being fully wide (36mm) to now being fully high (24mm) instead. It’s interesting that the new base ISO is 64 instead of 100. This seems to indicate that a different gain strategy is being applied. Sony’s recent A7s had an interesting new gain strategy that keeps higher ISO results from degrading as fast as previous cameras, and I have a strong suspicion that Nikon is doing something similar with the D810 given the boost to 12,800 as a directly settable ISO value.
  • Video got a lot of attention. First, we have the addition of 50 and 60 fps for 1080P, something that was expected. The HDMI stream can now output uncompressed video at the same time as you record compressed video in the camera, a welcome change as it gives us a built-in backup option when doing external recording. Zebra stripes are now available as an option, allowing you to see “overexposure” in real time. The autofocus performance has been improved while recording video (though the claim is vague). Nikon also now has a “video bundle” that consists of the D810, 35mm/50mm/85mm f/1.8 lenses, the ME-1 microphone, 2 additional batteries, and interestingly the Atomos Ninja-2 and two Tiffen ND filters. This is the first time in a long time I recall Nikon having an official kit offering that included third party products. Let’s hope that this is an indication that Nikon will stop trying to “go it alone” for everything. 
  • The D810 has a new metering option: highlight weighted. This may explain the change from the dial to a button, and Nikon even managed to point out the user benefit in their press release: “useful when capturing spot-lit stage performances or shoots with harsh direction lighting.” (Did I just write that? Nikon mentioned a user benefit in announcing a new feature?)
  • The changes to the frame rates are nuanced. 5 fps at FX and 5:4 crop, 6 fps at DX and 1.2x crop, and 7 fps in DX crop when the MB-D12 is used with the appropriate batteries. Nikon seems to ascribe the changes to the use of EXPEED4 (i.e., the camera isn’t sensor constrained, but processing constrained). Nikon has also lifted the 100 shot constraint on shooting JPEG: you can shoot continuously to the end of a card now.
  • On the back of the camera the LCD gains resolution (now 1.3m dot), but also can be changed in Color Space. We get a new “split screen display zoom” ability, which magnifies two areas simultaneously, one of the left and one on the right, which Nikon purports helps maintain straight horizons. Frankly, Fujifilm’s split focus function seems more interesting and useful to me.
  • Inside the camera, the shutter and mirror mechanisms have been changed, though they still have 200,000 cycle ratings. Nikon appears to be trying to remove as much of the shutter slap photographers sometimes experience as possible. To that end, the mirror itself has a new balancing unit, and when you’re in Live View you can use an electronic first curtain shutter instead of having the physical shutter close/open for a shot. In shooting landscape work, this may now give us a mirror-up like result but with full preview of the shot. The D800/D800E had minor shutter shock mostly from the first curtain impact, and it was mostly in a single axis. This new ability means that’s likely gone.
  • There’s more subtle changes to features than you might at first expect. You can spot meter white balance in Live View mode, you can turn off Face Analysis used in the matrix metering system, we can set up to 6 preset white balances, continuous shooting is now supported with long exposures up to the card limit, the intervalometer and time-lapse functions now have smoothing available for automatic exposure, over ten years after I asked the intervalometer now supports 9,999 images, the viewfinder prism is now coated differently for brighter viewing, and one I like: the CIPA rating for the battery is now 1200 shots instead of 900.
  • Ship date is currently identified as “late July.” I hope that’s correct, as I take off for Africa in early August, and I’d want to take the D810 with me. 
  • Capture NX2 users beware: as part of the D810 press release Nikon mentioned that NX-D will official ship as a free software option beginning in mid-July. If they stick to their word, that means no further updates to NX2. It’s time to virtualize your system with NX2. As part of the change to NX-D we’ll also get Picture Control Utility 2 software.
  • I’m not sure what to make of this text in the press release: "Nikon will also be making a Software Developers Kit (SDK) available in the near future for the D810. This SDK will give third party developers the resources needed to create applications and enhance the flexibility of the D810.” Nikon already has a nascent SDK. It’s unclear whether this is something new or just that the D810 will be added to the current SDK.


All in all, there are a lot of changes to the D810. This wasn’t a quick-and-dirty update: the camera is subtly better than its predecessor in many, many ways, and quite a few of those address photographer complaints. I wish I could write that about every Nikon update. 

Finally, a few words about pricing. Generally on this site I tend to write only about US pricing. Most of my audience is North American based, and it’s the market in which I live and have plenty of sources for how products are or aren’t selling. Thus, I can make considered statements about US pricing. So let’s do that before dealing with the rest of the world.

Rumor here was that Nikon was going to price the D810 just above the D800E price, something like US$3400 or US$3500. In the end, the D810 came out at the D800E price point, and I think that’s partly due to the inventory situation: there aren’t a lot of the previous model floating around in the US, though there are some. NikonUSA has been tightening the D800/D800E price recently back towards the suggested retail price, dropping incentives, which usually indicates minimal inventory with an update coming. 

Unfortunately, European pricing for the last couple of years has been triggering complaint after complaint, at least at product introduction. Nikon Europe’s pricing seems to be to introduce at a very high price and let the retailers drop it down. I don’t know enough about the back story on that to make much of a comment other than to say if you’re in the UK or Europe or the Europe-bordering nations you should generally just wait to purchase. 

That’s the part I don’t understand about this practice: essentially Nikon Europe is conditioning users to not buy on release, but to wait a couple of months (or more) to get a price more in line with the US price (plus VAT). This has to be deliberate on Nikon’s part, but without more access to actual European retail sales numbers I can’t really figure out what Nikon’s incentive is here. I can say that Nikon has a huge number of number crunchers in their employ. I don’t think they’d be using the approach they are unless they saw it maximize their sales/profits. 

Bottom line: in Europe, wait for the street price to drop. It will drop. Every new product from Nikon has had substantive three-month street price drops over the last couple of years. 

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