The D780 Blog

D780 lineart 01

Camera blogs are only active as I’m working on my review for the camera. Once my review is posted, the blog pages go silent unless I discover something new that’s significant. 

The D780 has now been reviewed and the blog pages have gone silent.

More Bits and Pieces

Adding to my previous list:

  • We no longer have the ability to set Highlights to individual channels. Yeah, setting an individual channel for Highlights could catch someone by surprise if they weren't paying attention, but this is a "grown up" camera. Crippling a useful function because a casual user could get confused is not the right thing to do.
  • Peaking and Zebras again seem to be mutually exclusive when shooting video (Zebras aren't available in stills); when both are set if you take a lens to manual focus then peaking appears, but revert to autofocus and zebras appears instead. Moreover, I've found some third party lenses (e.g. Tamron 17-35mm) that don't focus peak when you override the focus ring.
  • HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooting has changed. For the better and worse. The better: you can use the function when shooting NEF, and you can output the individual images taken as NEF, as well. The worse: the blending and exposure options have been simplified into a less useful strength function.
  • This constant changing of small items results in bugs as Nikon keeps juggling the little details and teams don't communicate well enough. For instance, while the ADL indicator is available in the viewfinder, it isn't actually shown when you set ADL. Unless you set Active D-Lighting bracketing, then suddenly the ADL indicator appears (as does the BKT indicator). 

Some D780 Focus Comments

Yesterday I had my first chance to really push the D780 in a real life challenge: a college women's lacrosse match where the start of the game was in late sunlight, the middle of the game was under heavy cloud cover, and the end of the game was artificial light after the sun had set. This, by the way, is the reason why I don't jump to conclusions a couple of days after I've received a camera and post reviews (or other comments) as quickly as all those other "photography review" sites out there: you need real-world experience through a number of different challenging situations in order to understand what has improved and what hasn't.

bythom merrimack wlax vdrexel -32

Since a lot of you have been asking me about the D780's focus, and particularly since Nikon promotes "autofocus algorithm borrowed from the flagship D5," I thought it appropriate to make a few initial comments about the D780's focus abilities after I've now used it in a number of such challenging situations.

bythom merrimack wlax vdrexel -39
  1. In reasonable light, the D780 is clearly better than the D750. It does a better job of tracking focus on fast or erratic movement, it's a little more sure and quick to focus. 
  2. As light decreases, I can see the D780 start to struggle a bit. In the sun, the camera never struggled. Under the lights—admittedly not particularly bright as it forced me to ISO 6400—I could see the camera at times take a moment to figure out where to put the focus, and since I'm on AF-C Release mode shooting sports, that caused some initial focus misses before focus was found on the action. I'd characterize the performance as still better than the D750, but I'd guess that what I'm seeing in low light are the limits of the old CAM3500FXII sensor. 
  3. The D5 (and D500!) does clearly better in the same situations, but it also has far more crosshatch sensors across a slightly bigger area that it can focus in. Again, I think the limitation of the D780 is probably what the CAM3500FXII focus sensor can do. I'm comfortable in saying that the D780 has improved focus performance over the D750. Now I'm trying to figure out where it fits in the current Nikon full frame realm (e.g. Z6/Z7, D850, D5/D6). Of course, price tells me what the likely answer is: the D780 is down near the Z6/Z7, not up near the D5/D6 ;~). Still, there's the question of exactly where still to answer.
  4. Live View is pretty much the same as on the Z6. I haven't yet found any tangible performance differences in D780 focus while in Live View mode to what the Z6 does (disclosure: haven't gotten to the video testing yet).
bythom merrimack wlax vdrexel -46

That said, I was able to shoot the event and get a large number of excellent, tightly focused shots where there was plenty of foreground/background that might confuse it. That was true even once the sun had set and the lights came on. 

My biggest issue with the D780 is that its focus array is tightly grouped and mostly center of frame (doesn't reach 1/3 points), same as the D750. That has impact on what lens you use and how you frame if you're going to try to shoot sports with it. 

But a lot of you aren't trying to push a D780 that way, so wouldn't have that issue. Still, that tight central focus sensor array is a distinguishing trait of the D750 and now the D780. I guess one way of putting it is this: if you were comfortable with the D750 focus array, you'll be fine with the D780 array, and you'll get better performance from it in many if not all circumstances. So yes, there's been a clear advance. Just don't expect that you can get a cheap 24mp D5 now ;~).

Oh, and by the way: 772 photos took about 29% of the battery, and the camera was also connected to my iPhone via USB most of the time (fastest way to import images to a phone and then use the phone to transmit the images to the client's social network). Also: if you've got SnapBridge active, it can continue to drain battery with the camera power switch set to Off (it warns you about this when you turn the camera off). A quick check showed me that the battery was being brought down about 4% every 12 hours in this state, but that's without images being transferred via Wi-Fi.

Long Exposures

If you want to use an exposure time of more than 30 seconds, you need to set Custom Setting #D to On. When you do, you can directly set exposure lengths up to fifteen minutes in Manual and Shutter-priority exposure modes. 

On long exposures, the top LCD counts down the remaining exposure time, a nice touch. Curiously, despite Nikon supplying the usual slide-on eyepiece cover—the D780 doesn't have the eyepiece shutter that the D850 and D5 do—I didn't see the usual obvious light streaking on longer exposures with it off. I need to figure out what's going on there. 

Overall, the D780 looks well-behaved on long exposures, with very few hot pixels visible at ISO 800 and five minute exposures.

A Question and Answer

Question: "In the camera body upgrade marketplace, one of the key model distinctions between the D6xx and D750, and between the D750 and D850, is/was the autofocus capability and performance. I'm wondering how much of the D750/D850 AF performance gap remains with the D780. Nikon says both D850 (2+ years old) and D780 'inherit' D5-generation AF technology. Now that you've had some time with a D780, do you think the D780 AF performance is 2 years ahead of the D850 (give or take the AF module sensor differences)?"

Answer: It's not exactly a simple answer.

With the OVF, the D780 and D850 are near equivalent now, though the D780 uses a slightly smaller dedicated sensor grouping with fewer sensors. There also may be some slow lens differences I haven't gotten to noticing yet (as aperture gets above f/5.6 the systems shut down sensors that are used). Yes, the difference in 153 (99 crosshatch) versus 51 (15 crosshatch) focus sensors makes a small bit of difference in some situations, but for most uses, I'd consider the D780 and D850 near equal in autofocus performance now. That's particularly true for the event/wedding shooter, I think.

With Live View, the D780 blows away the D850. That's because the D780 is using the phase detect on sensor from the Z6 while the D850 is still using the old and slow contrast detect method. 

So the question would be how often do you use Live View?

Little Things

As I continue my thorough examination of the D780, here are few more things that I've noticed:

  • The February 2020 updates of Adobe Camera Raw to version 12.2 and Lightroom Classic to version 9.2 now support the D780.
  • Nikon left off the ADL indicator in the viewfinder for ADL bracketing. You can tell that bracketing is set, but not which kind. A strange change from the D750.
  • Live View does not have the Shutter Type option on the D780 (Mechanical, Electronic, Auto). Instead, it does allow Electronic First Curtain Shutter (EFCS) to be turned on, but that alone doesn't isolate the shutter open from the start of exposure. With a long exposure, EFCS, and an Exposure Delay, the shutter isn't opened until the Exposure Delay is complete. Thus, you're forced to use MUP to totally isolate the shutter opening from the image capture. This is true for Live View, as well.
  • Initial analysis: the D750 is ever so slightly better than the D780 at base ISO through ISO 640. When the dual gain boost kicks in on the D780 at ISO 800, the D780 is clearly better than the D750. If you use the DxO style measurement and analysis, it can hit a stop of difference. But you wouldn't do that, because the "floor" in DxO's world is a signal-to-noise ratio of 1:1, which is unusable. In practical terms, raw files will show between a third of a stop and half stop improvement above ISO 800 for the D780, depending a bit on how you define DR and tolerate noise.

D780 Raw

The raw files in the D780 are essentially the same as Z6 raw files. What that means is that they contain XMP data at the start of the file that is likely going to be picked up by Adobe raw converters. Since the last four Nikon cameras (Z6, Z7, Z50, and now D780) all do this, I suspect it to be in all future Nikon's as well.

As a reminder, that XMP data includes: Picture Control (profile) and all of its individual parameters including contrast and saturation, sharpening, noise reduction, and lens corrections.

While this is likely to make an Adobe-based raw conversion look more like the in-camera JPEGs, there are serious differences in Adobe's color, sharpening, and NR models to Nikon's. The XMP data is thus approximations of the equivalent Adobe settings.

As before, if you need a raw conversion that is exactly the same as the camera would produce for JPEG, you'd need to use Nikon Capture NX-D.

You might very well want to do that at times, particularly on noisy files. There's nuance in Nikon's NR routines that is lost in Adobe's. At least using the default conversion, but maybe even doing slider tweaking. I'm still looking at that. 

Note that the D780 does something I've been recommending Nikon do for awhile now: it drops Uncompressed as an option. You now select between Lossless Compressed and Compressed. The only thing an Uncompressed option gave us in the past was a larger file. While some complain about the loss of an absolute, straightforward data format because they think that some far future date may have them scrambling to understand Lossless Compressed formats, I don't perceive that to be the case. Lossless Compressed is well understood and documented enough that third-party support is near ubiquitous.

Based on initial evaluation, I don't think my Z6 advice is going to change for the D780:

  • At base ISO to ISO 400, always use 14-bit Lossless Compressed
  • At ISO 500, start using 12-bit Lossless Compressed
  • If you absolutely need to conserve card space, use Compressed

A pity that Nikon—and other camera makers for that matter—haven't figured out that this is something we photographers actually do in real time and would appreciate either (a) being able to automate that drop-down, or (b) do it manually with buttons/dials instead of the menu. If we had programmability in our cameras, I'd be doing (a):

     CASE ((IsoValue <= 400) AND (FramesRemaining))>200) SET 14-bit, SET LosslessCompressed;
     CASE ((Iso Value <= 400) AND (FramesRemaining))<200) SET 12-bit, SET LosslessCompressed;
     CASE ((Iso Value > 400) AND (FramesRemaining))>200) SET 12-bit, SET LosslessCompressed;
     CASE ((Iso Value > 400) AND (Frames Remaining))<200 SET 12-bit, SET Compressed;

If you're still waiting for Adobe to update their converters, you can use the following command on D780 files: 

    exiftool -model="NIKON Z 6"
   (followed by a space and then the image file location/name, e.g. c:\images\DSC_0001.NEF)

Of course, you need exiftool, a knowledge of how to use it, and your command line entry must be exactly as indicated (case, space, and punctuation sensitive). 

Bits and Pieces

A few short takes on things D780:

  • The camera doesn't come with a hot shoe protector. That seems contradictory to the weather sealing aspects of the camera.
  • Yes, you get the usual Let Me Advertise Nikon neck strap. There are better ways to carry the camera, IMHO.
  • I've verified that the EH-7P USB Charging Adapter works (charge light is top-left back of the camera). No, you can't shoot with USB power. If you're shooting, you're not charging.
  • The tilt/shift mechanism on my D780 is stiffer than on the other Nikons I own. I'm going to have to check to see if that's just a sample variation or a real modification.
  • I would have liked a little more distinction with the AF-ON button's size/feel. Particularly with gloves on. 
  • The Direction pad location and lack of a thumb stick or touchscreen cursor control makes the D780 a bit of a two-hand camera when you're in the frenzy of changing focus modes/areas. That's not terrible, but it's not optimal.
  • Both the Mode dial and the Shooting Method (frame rates) dials are locking, exactly the way I want them to be.
  • A curiosity: if you change the exposure mode from EFCT to something else while the camera is turned Off, EFFECT still appears in the viewfinder ;~).
  • The Image Area cropping is by overlay line in the viewfinder only; no gray shading area.

An Interesting Question

So someone asked me this: what if Nikon had put out the D780 two years ago and saved the Z6 until now (i.e., the product releases reversed).

Don't scoff. That would have been entirely possible, as the two cameras use the same sensor and same Live View/video capabilities. It wouldn't have mattered what camera you did that R&D for.

If you're at all into product marketing or product planning, you should try answering this question without my help first. Market transitions are always tough to get right, and Nikon's switch will probably be looked at by business schools asking the same question. Did they get it right?

I'm not good enough to know the answer for sure. But I'll give you my thoughts.

The D750 stayed on the market too long. Nikon has had this problem before, particularly with the D300. What happens when you don't produce an 18-month, two-year, three-year, or even four-year update of significance is that your customers start reading that the product is no longer relevant and that you've shifted your product focus in some way. So the customer buys a different product instead of continuing to wait.

In the D750's case, the three cameras that were bought the most by those D750 customers that were jilted at the development altar were Sony A7's, Nikon D850's, and yes, the Nikon Z6. 

The first of those migration targets answers the question of why the Z6 before the D780: Sony was stealing Nikon customers. In particular, Sony was stealing full frame customers paying top dollar for products, a customer Nikon had been targeting since the D3/D700 and had made inroads against Canon with.  

Despite what everyone—cough, Sony Fans—say about Z6 sales, my impression from the data I have at hand is that the Z6/Z7 did put very strong fingers in the dike. 

That wasn't without some problems, though. Realistically, the early Z6/Z7 firmware was missing one of the features that was compelling the leaks to Sony in the first place: near automatic focusing, particular with people in the scene. 

While I write about accuracy, speed, and precision of focus systems, most of the people buying cameras just want "better" autofocus than they've been achieving with their older cameras. You won't believe how many people tell me "my mirrorless camera focuses perfectly and doesn't need AF Fine Tune," but when I look at their images, their focus plane is not where it should be. Thing is, it's in a better place than it was with their previous camera, so they're happy. Very happy. Meanwhile, Nikon originally delivered a mirrorless system that took study and learning to make it match or better what the Sonys were doing, and the YouTubers amplified the negative aspects of that big time. 

So there's no perfect answer here. With the extra two years and two years of experience on the D780 using PD on sensor for Live View, Nikon could have flushed out all the wrinkles with the Z6 focus system before launch and had something regarded as basically equivalent to an A7 m3 as they launched the 2020 Z6. But they also would have had a big, heavy DSLR trying to hold serve against a smaller, svelte mirrorless camera for two years. 

I've said before that Nikon's failing is almost never engineering. They design cameras well, no questions about it (though I don't like my cheese moving as much as it does). Their R&D is keeping up with or exceeding their competitors. 

What Nikon struggles with, and it's a big time struggle, is marketing. Thus, whether the Z6 or the D780 launched first, the issue was always going to be how well they could tell the story of why you needed/wanted said new camera. Had it been the D780 first, it would have been trying to market bigger, heavier DSLRs against smaller, lighter mirrorless. In post mortem, we know that the marketing problem for the Z6 was that the can-it-focus story got out of control from nearly day one. So I'd guess that Nikon would have had just as much problem launching the D780 first as they did the Z6, and the problem wouldn't have been an engineering or specification one. Marketing is about controlling messaging. Nikon's just not very good at that.

I do believe there's a product management failure (design) in all this, though. The D780 is basically a bells-and-whistles camera. It's pretty much everything Nikon knows how to do at that product level. The feature set is extensive and the performance is high. The Z6? Well, you know what I'm going to write: it's not the equivalent. For some reason Nikon thinks that they need two 24mp full frame cameras that are specified differently in the feature set, but not really in performance. If they really need that difference, then they aren't managing to get the marketing message across to users as to why that was necessary. 

I still believe that the right thing to do was to make the very best last DSLRs you could—call those the D580, D780, D880, and D6, though I personally would have skipped the D780—and make the very best mirrorless cameras you could—a Z70, Z6, Z7 and Z9—and let them determine how fast the transition to mirrorless goes based upon sales. In that way, no customer can complain: you're giving them everything you've got and letting them make the camera style choice they prefer. You still keep them as your customer ;~). Moreover, the duplication of R&D and parts means that you're being fairly efficient about the cost side of things while offering such a choice.

Since this is the D780 blog, let me bring things back to it. Like the D850 before it, Nikon seems to have put together a really well-rounded camera. Had there been no such thing as mirrorless, we'd be having serious conversations about just how good DSLRs have gotten. 

Meanwhile, the Z6 is not nearly as well rounded—though it's a fine camera—so we're not saying just how good mirrorless has gotten because of it. Yet Nikon wants to staunch Sony's competitive progress. See the issue?

Low Light

Since everyone is asking, I'll give you a sample that probably won't tell you a lot ;~).

Letting the camera do it's thing (default settings other than JPEG fine) with a gray card I put under the desk in my office lit only by ambient light on a dark day, here's what the camera did:

bythom D780 lowlight full

For reference, that's f/4, 1/40, ISO 12800. As you'd expect, the camera tried to put gray at gray for the most part (the light change comes from a window to the right of my desk; still, it's pretty dark down there).

Pixels, you say? Okay, let's try that (remember, this Web site is responsive and can resize things on you, particularly on small devices):

bythom D780 lowlight crop

I don't have enough experience with the D780 yet to know how it fits into the grand scheme of things in terms of dynamic range or noise propagation. The one thing you can tell from that sample is that there's very little chroma noise. 

First Impressions

As I work on my book and review for the D780, I'll be making some comments and answering some user questions here in blog form. This is an important camera for Nikon, and maybe for many of you users, as well, so I want to provide useful information early and often.

I have to admit, my very first impression after taking the D780 out of the box and holding it was "holy cow DSLRs are big and heavy." 

That isn't exactly a fair assessment, as the cameras I've been using most recently have been small and light mirrorless ones, such as the Z50. Still, it was a bit of a shock to get back closer to D850 level size and weight. Moreover, it's important to note that the D780 did gain some in size and weight compared to its predecessor, the D750. Specifically, about four ounces extra weight. But you can't get an all-metal frame with full weather sealing without some penalty, I guess.

So let's move to something positive. 

That's 7 fps mechanical shutter, 14-bit Lossless Compressed NEF with a fast Sony UHS-II card in the camera, the shutter release held down. Don't pay attention to the shutter sound. The camera and recording device are sitting on a glass table surface, which is making for a bit of extra resonance to the sound. Unfortunately, I only have two hands and multiple things to manage. That, plus I was too lazy to go find a tripod for each and set up a controlled sound environment. So please don't judge the D780's shutter sound on this recording.

What we're really interested in here is buffer. What that little recording tells you is that for 10 seconds, the D780 is churning out the biggest possible NEF with no problem. So something near 70 frames NEF (Nikon's manual says 68). 

But note what happens when the buffer first presents itself full. This is the first Nikon I've found that truly hiccups for a moment. There's a really significant pause before things start up again, and then there's an erratic burst of another 10 images, then a hiccup, then only a couple of images, and so on.

I don't judge this to be a problem, but it's something to be aware of if you're a shutter masher. The transition from uninterrupted continuous to less continuous is more abrupt and likely to lose critical timing of shots than say, the D850, with its faster XQD card with apparently lower camera overhead.  

JPEG shooters? You'll get the full 100 shots before the camera shuts down and you have to lift your finger off the shutter release and re-press it. Why 100 shots? Most cameras have a built in maximum they'll allow in order to not overheat. On most of the top pro Nikon's, that number is typically 200. On the rest it's always been 100. 

But again, if you're mashing the shutter that long, this might not be the camera you're looking for. Indeed, you might not be looking for a still camera at all.

Next up, the internal flash. Oh, wait, there isn't one. 

When I first saw the D780 I wondered about why there was a flash options button still if there wasn't a flash. But you know, this is actually a nice touch. You can change flash compensation (button plus front dial) or flash options (button plus back dial) on the fly without having to take your eye from the viewfinder and drop down into the menus or dial those in on a flash on the hot shoe. The wedding photographer group will probably bemoan the loss of the internal flash, but they'll like that Nikon kept the physical control. 

Another thing that surprised me with the controls is how much I missed the the Focus Mode button on the Z's. Oh, I've said I miss it. But shooting in Live View on the D780 made me realize just how much I missed it. Yep, in Live View you can quickly select Autofocus Area Modes (button plus front dial) or Autofocus Modes (button plus back dial). Which revealed another surprise: AF-A is back, and it's the default. Yuck. Even though it seems faster to change (from essentially what's AF-S to AF-C) than the Z50 I was just using, that's still too slow to rely on.

The Pv (depth of field preview) button is in a good place, the Fn button (function) is not. Moreover, neither is as easy to find as on the Z cameras, and the Fn button, in particular, is very tough to find by feel (and probably impossible with gloves).

More, as I get more use of the D780. As the headline suggests: first impressions only.

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