HERE HAS BEEN A HUGE amount of excitement about mirrorless technology over the past few years and so much serious r&d going in that particular direction during that time that it’s encouraged some commentators to get ahead of themselves a little and to declare that the DSLR’s time is up and that we might have witnessed our very last high profile launch in the hallowed professional sector. And then of course both Canon and Nikon kicked off the New Year with big announcements that go to prove just how wrong you can be and there is without a doubt still definitely considerable life left in this sector yet.
And why shouldn’t there be? While perhaps not quite so stylish and just so downright compact and sexy as their mirrorless siblings, DSLRs aren’t ready for the scrapheap by a long way yet, and most pros I’ve spoken to are still happy with these cameras
ABOVE: The Nikon D780 is a mid range pro-spec DSLR that has on board many of the cutting edge features of its mirrorless siblings.
albeit with a mirrorless model or two in the kit bag to work with alongside. Without a doubt there is a sea change taking place, but it’s happening at a civilised pace and not in an almighty rush.
What is exciting is that the latest generation of DSLRs is now benefitting from the technology that’s spilling down from the mirrorless quarter, which means that we’re seeing big improvements in lots of key areas and cameras that, while they look traditional, actually have some very cutting edge features under the bonnet.
Take the D780, the latest arrival from Nikon and the successor to the highly venerated D750, to date the company’s T most popular FX camera. Full frame, packed with a mouth-watering feature set and still at a £2199 price point that’s relatively affordable this is a camera that’s going to be of serious interest to the professional or the professionally-minded. However, while it might look and even sound from a spec point of view a little like the model it’s replacing there are actually a lot of advancements that might not be immediately apparent that make this a significant upgrade.
However, there’s also an omission: the D780 has lost the built-in flash the D750 featured, so you can’t now add in a little fillin light if it’s required. Nikon suggests this was done to improve the weather-sealing qualities of the camera and it’s also had an impact in terms of improved battery life, which is now up from up to 2260 shots from 1230.That’s putting a positive spin on things but no doubt this change will not be welcomed in all quarters.
You might also feel a tinge of disappointment that the camera still features a 24MP sensor and a 51-point AF system, just as the D750 – launched a full five years ago now – did, rather than, say, one of those super powerful hi-res sensors that we’ve seen in the Panasonic S1R or the Sony a7R Mark IV. However, it’s not all about numbers, and the sensor the D780 now has at its heart is rumoured to be the same one that can be found in the Z6, which equates to a significant step-up.
It’s now a backside illuminated (BSI) design, which doesn’t in reality actually make a massive amount of difference but it does mean that the light-sensitive regions of each pixel are nearer to the front ofthe sensor, which can improve the light collection at the corners. More interesting perhaps is the fact that the sensor
now also features a dual gain design. This means that there are two readout modes, one with the maximum possible dynamic range and the other with more gain. The upshot of this is that you end up with a less noise at the higher ISO speeds where dynamic range is less of an issue. The sensor is coupled with Nikon’s latest-generation EXPEED 6 image processor, which replaces the EXPEED 4 found in the D750.
Sensors are an area where mirrorless models have made big improvements in recent years and it’s good to see a modern DSLR reaping the benefit. The influence of the updated sensor can be felt in other areas as well, such as in the 12 fps shooting speed that the D780 is capable of in Silent Live View – or 7 fps in AF/AE – and the fact that it’s now possible to shoot video at up to 30p from the full 6048-pixel width of its chip. All good steps ups from the D750.
Meanwhile, the maximum shutter speed is up a stop to 1/8000sec from the D750’s 1/4000sec, giving photographers the flexibility to sync with Nikon Speedlights, while in the other direction you can set a shutter speed as low as 1/900sec (15 minutes) if you’re after light trails or night shots. Or the Aureole Borealis perhaps, which is one of the subjects I’m hoping to capture with the camera while undertaking this review on a landscape-orientated expedition Nikon arranged around the spectacular and wild Icelandic scenery.
Another benefit to come from the direction of the mirrorless Z6 is the fast, dedicated Hybrid-AF system for Live View shooting, while the 51-point Phase-Detection AF system for viewfinder shooting is equally impressive. It’s possible to lock onto expressions with Eye-Detection AF and to take advantage of the new camera’s Low-Light AF facility, which enables reliable subject acquisition all the way down to -6 EV, so great for shooting in low light.
Other benefits over the D750 include the addition of a focus stacking facility similar to the D850, and
it’s possible to combine up to 300 individual frames to create a greater depth of field. However, this can’t be done in-camera and you will need to work with third party software in post to achieve the effect. The camera’s tilting 3.2in LED is now touchscreen and with a resolution of 2359K dots up from 1229K on the D750 and there’s in-camera USB charging, which can be useful. There’s also an increase in the high end ISO speed of 12,800 up to 51,200, which can be further pushed up to 204,800, while you can also now venture down to ISO 50.
ABOVE: Unlike the Z6, the D780 features twomemory card slots and accepts the SD format.
No camera, whether it be a DSLR or a mirrorless model, can get by these days without decent video shooting capability built in and the D780 is no exception, inheriting many of its vastly improved filmmaking features from the Z6 once again. The new camera uses its 6K image sensor resolution to produce ultra-high-resolution 4K/UHD footage at 30p/25p/24p with zero crop factor. Additionally it can capture Full HD up to 120 fps for excellent slow motion footage. shooting time, however, is not unlimited, with sustained video recording capped at 20 minutes for the highest quality footage and 29 minutes 59 seconds for normal quality – probably not a huge deal for most photographers – and video is recorded in MOV format with H.264/MPEG-4 compression and Linear PCM Audio.
Meanwhile for high end shooting and additional video workflow support the D780 can capture 10-bit video with N-Log or HDR (HLD High Log Gamma) video support out via the HDMI connection. Other high end video features include focus peaking, highlight display (stripes) and time code support. Also on the video front, though slightly at a tangent, it’s also now possible to create 4K timelapse movies in-camera using a batch of still images, which is a useful feature.
The camera in use
In the hands the D780 doesn’t look or feel significantly different to the model it’s replacing, which is actually a good thing from the point of view of continuity. It means that if you’re trading up there won’t be a significant learning curve since the smooth contouring and the deep handgrip and the general button and control layout are all pretty much in the same place, apart from the addition of a dedicated ISO button directly behind the shutter release, much in the style of the D850. There’s also a slight change on the backplate, with the Live View (still/video) toggle moved up to the rear of the viewfinder and the AE-L/AF-L button shifting downwards near the top corner of the rear LCD.
However, things that have traditionally been appreciated, such as the excellent weather sealing and build quality, comprising a magnesium alloy chassis, metal lens mount and a carbon fibre-reinforced front panel, are all still there and no compromises have been made. So it’s essentially the same but different to the D750, but with Nikon hoping that the improvements will encourage existing users to trade up and new users to come on board.
The D780 feels very solid and well made, is highly responsive and is great in the hands, with the grip on the right hand side feeling natural and adding to the stability. It might be a different matter if you happen to be left handed, but then again that’s the way of pretty much all DSLR models.
In use it didn’t feel a whole lot different to the D750, which is intended as a compliment since this has been an extremely successful camera and the art of a successful upgrade is to make things better without changing things so much that you risk alienating the fan base. Many of the changes will not be immediately obvious – the extended ISO range and the higher maximum shutter speed for example, though there will doubtless be times when these added features could make a big difference to the way you work.
What you will notice is a big improvement in AF speed, particularly in low light situations, thanks to the upgraded sensor that’s on board. When shooting in Live View the camera’s 273-point Hybrid-AF system covers approximately 90 % of the frame horizontally and 90 % vertically, while the tilting monitor now offers touch shutter release and AF. Other improvements that have come across from the Z6 have resulted in vastly improved video capability and this is probably Nikon’s most serious DSLR for video yet.
This is a very capable mid-range DSLR that will prove to be a reliable partner for the professional photographer shooting everything from weddings through to commercial jobs, while its improved video capabilities make this much more of a hybrid proposition than the D750: that’s the difference that five years has made, and this is what’s expected of a workhorse higher end camera these days.
However, I also took along with me the mirrorless Z6, the camera that shares so much in common with the D780 and it was a good chance to compare the feel and scale of the two models. The Z6 is considerably smaller and yet still offers most of the feature set of the D780, including a full frame sensor. The main differences – aside from not having a physical mirror to move up and down – is the fact that the Z6 doesn’t feature dual SD card slots, offering a single Xqd slot instead, while it also has a different lens mount, meaning that you can only use your existing FX lenses via an adaptor, although this is relatively easy to do.
Both cameras deliver great results and I wouldn’t put one above the other performance-wise, though being the older of the two the Z6 has been reduced in price over time – it’s currently available for £1600 at Wex Photo Video – and there are some decent second hand Z6 buys out there at the moment, such as a ‘like new’ model from MPB with a six month warranty and a price tag of £1040. That’s a lot less than a brand new D780, but then again it’s not a DSLR and there’s undoubtedly still an audience that prefers mirrored models. There will also be street price discounts on the D780 over time that will position it much closer to the Z6’s brand new price, while used supplies
will slowly become available.
What it boils down to is that Nikon is testing the water to get a feel for the mood of the camera buying public, which is exactly what a responsible company should be doing. DSLR sales still massively outstrip mirrorless sales at the moment but there is a clear swing towards the latter going on. By putting a state-ofthe-art DSLR model out there Nikon has given those who prefer to work with this system an opportunity to declare their allegiance through their buying decisions. Quite simply, if DSLR sales hold up Nikon will continue to develop and supply them, but if sales are migrating rapidly towards mirrorless at any stage down the line then it will slowly make a graceful withdrawal.
In the meantime, if you’re working with a DSLR and want to stick with that format for now then you’ll be very happy with what the D780 has to offer. This is a very well equipped model that can cover a variety of genres, and it will deliver everything the D750 did while bringing performance bang up to date. Live View shooting via the dedicated Hybrid AF system was simple and highly effective and this is a great way to work, while the Phase Detection AF system for viewfinder shooting was similarly reliable.
So, in short, this is a big enough step up from the D750 to warrant an upgrade but you could find that your true choice might boil down to whether you go mirrorless with the Z6 or stick with a DSLR model and go with the D780. Whichever way you jump you’ll have a very capable piece of kit in your hands but it might just help to decide how long Nikon invests in DSLR technology.
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