Nikon D810 review for underwater photography

A look at macro, wide-angle, lenses, focus & more
By Scott Gietler

With 36 megapixels, lightning fast auto-focus, and one of the best sensors on the market, the Nikon D810 is a formidable camera. How does it stack up for underwater use? Pretty darn good! I've shot the camera on about 30 dives these last 2 weeks during my 5th annual Anilao underwater photo workshop for Bluewater Photo / Underwater Photography Guide, and I'm in love with the camera.

All of the following photos had minimal processing in Lightroom, usually adjustments in contrast, clarity, blacks, cropping, etc.

All photos were taken with either the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, or the Nikon 105mm VR lens.

This review covers:

  • NIkon D810 wide-angle performace

  • Focusing speed

  • Macro

  • Supermacro

  • Nikon D810 colors underwater

  • Nikon D810 bokeh

  • Cropping with the D810

  • File sizes

  • Info for cropped sensor upgraders

  • Nikon D810 underwater lens selection

  • Nikon D810 underwater housings

 

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Ribbon Eel, F10, 1/250th, ISO 100, Nikon 105mm VR lens

 

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Cuttlefish, F14, 1/250th, ISO 125


100% crop of above cuttlefish photo, with part of the eye in the lower left corner

Nikon D810 - exceptional wide-angle underwater

Using the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens and the small 4-inch Zen glass dome port, I found the image quality & sharpness to be exceptional, and getting close for close-focus wide-angle was a breeze. I just left the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens at 15mm.

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Starfish & sun, F16, 1/320th, ISO 100, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens

 

NIkon D810 review with lenses, auto-focus, underwater housings
Crinoid & sun F18, 1/320th, ISO 100


100% crop of Crinoid/Sun photo above

 

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Lionfish & boat, F14, 1/320th, ISO 100

Nikon D810 review
Clownfish & sun, F16, 1/320th, ISO 100

 


Trumpetfish, photo by Helen Brierley

 

Nikon D810 - wonderful auto-focus for behavior

The auto-focus on the D810 was nothing short of a miracle. Huge improvement over my NIkon D7000. None of my wide-angle photos were ever out of focus, for wide-angle I never had to think about auto-focus.

Using the Nikon 105mm VR lens, endless hunting was mostly a thing of the past. Even squid floating by at night were easily focused on - and I remember my lens hunting endlessly with my D7000.

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Cardinal fish with eggs brooding in mouth F10, 1/250th, ISO 200

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Coral banded pipefish, focus on eye F16, 1/250th, ISO 200

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Cardinal fish with eggs brooding in mouth F14, 1/250th, ISO 250

 

Nikon D810 underwater macro - a brave new world

Using the 105mm VR lens on the D810 is like using both the 60mm and 105mm lenses at the same time on the D7200. Use the entire image to get the angle of view you would have with the Nikon 60mm lens on a D7100/D7200, or crop to get the image you would have had with the D7200 + 105mm VR lens with absolutely no loss of pixels or image quality.

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Phyllodesmium nudibranch F18, 1/250th, ISO 200

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Tiny pink-eyed goby F14, 1/250th, ISO 160

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Crinoid shrimp F22, 1/250th, ISO 100

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Gobies on tunicates feeding in current F16, 1/250th, ISO 100

 

Nikon D810 - Supermacro and beyond

Supermacro with the Subsee +10 or the Nauticam SMC was a breeze, just flip, move the lens forward, aim and shoot. Detail and sharpness was incredible - no, mind blowing.

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
X-mas tree worm closeup, F22, 1/250th, ISO 320

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Face of shrimp on anemone F29, 1/250th, ISO 160

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Mantis shrimp eyes, slightly cropped, taken with the Nauticam SMC diopter F20, 1/250th, ISO 320

 

Nikon D810 - great colors underwater

Using my dual Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes, I got great colors with the D810 as long as I was close to the subject and not shooting through too much water. Since I like to keep my subjects just a few inches away, this was generally not a problem. Increasing the vibrance in lightroom often resulted in a more pleasing image without additional noise, unlike using the slider with my D7000.

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
X-mas tree worm closeup F13, 1/250th, ISO 100

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Soft coral crab F25, 1/250th, ISO 200

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Janolus nudibranch F14, 1/250th, ISO 125

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Parrotfish, photo by Helen Brierley

 

NIkon D810 - great bokeh underwater

The shallower depth of field of a full-frame camera means you can get great "bokeh", or background blur, in your underwater images.

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Jawfish with eggs switching holes F13, 1/250th, ISO 100

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Small goby F16, 1/250th, ISO 100

 

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Male Anthias fish F9, 1/250th, ISO 100

 

Nikon D810 underwater - crop until you drop

Cropping is almost mandatory with the D810. With 36 megapixel images, 40 megapixel RAW files, and JPEG 7360 pixels wide - you have a lot of data. Unless you are Ansel Adams, you probably don't need it all. You can crop without fear, without shame, without losing detail.

Nikon D810 review for underwater photography
Hairy squat lobster, heavily cropped to 1/4 the original image size, but this image is still 1800 pixels wide and very sharp when viewed at 1:1.
F20, 1/250th, ISO 160

 

Nikon D810 file sizes

At first, I have to admit I was a little intimidated by the large file sizes of the D810. However, I quickly found out that a single 32 GIG card easily held a full day of 4-dive shooting in 14-bit RAW + small JPEG for myself, and loading RAW images into lightroom was not any slower.

Regarding storage, I don't have the need to store thousands of images I never look at, each day I scan my jpegs, select 10 - 20 of the best images, load the RAW files into lightroom and delete the rest.

 

Info for D200 / D300 / D7000 / D7100 upgraders

Can I use my lenses?

Yes you can, including the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye, 60mm macro, 105mm VR macro. However, "DX" lenses like the Nikon 10-24mm, 12-24mm, or Sigma 17-70mm will put the camera in "DX mode' which will only (ha ha) give you 15.4 megapixels. However, you will dislike the smaller viewfinder image that DX mode gives you.

How will macro be different?

It will be better, totally awesome. When I use the 105mm on the D810, I have almost the same angle of view of the 60mm on a D7000, but with 36 megapixels instead of 16 megapixels.

I also have the exact same image as a D7000 shooter using the Nikon 105mm lens (if I were to crop the center of my larger image), but I also have all these extra pixels they don't have around that image, which gives me extra compositional options. So in effect, it is like I was shooting with the 60mm and 105mm macro lenses at the same time.

Can I use my existing ports?

Absolutely! Please note that wide-angle images will be slightly softer in the corners at the same aperture. You can either stop down more, or use a slightly larger dome port.

How will the viewfinder be different?

The viewfinder on a Nikon D800 / D810 is larger than the viewfinder on a cropped sensor camera. How much larger? I will try to quantify this an update this section shortly.

 

Compared with the Nikon D800

Images taken with the Nikon D800 and Nikon D810 are going to be very similar. The D180 does have many advantages -  differences are in the better video capability, improved auto-focus speeds, faster shooting speeds (5 fps vs 4 fps), expanded ISO range (64 - 12,800 vs 100 - 6,400), longer battery life (33% better), much larger buffer capacity (up to double the size), quieter shutter and better LCD resolution (33% higher resolution).

With regards to sharpness, at 100% crops the D810 will be slightly sharper than the D800, although differences between the D810 and the D800E will be harder to detect.

If you don't own either camera, the D810 is the clear choice - especially for people like myself who will also use it for wildlife and therefore will take advantage of many of the improvements. But like I said - no perceivable differences in image quality.

 

Nikon D810 underwater lens selection

Wide Angle

  • Tokina 10-17mm fisheye - excellent choice - all wide-angle photos in this article were taken with the Tokina 10-17mm lens

  • Sigma 15mm fisheye - excellent choice

  • Nikon 16-35mm F4 - good choice, esp. for sharks, whales, dolphins

  • Sigma 12-24mm - good choice, esp. for sharks, whales, dolphins

Pool work

  • NIkon 24-70mm - good mid-range option

Macro

  • NIkon 105mm VR - awesome! All macro shots in this article were taken with the Nikon 105mm VR lens

  • Nikon 60mm - will work great, but I never feel the need to use it, the 105mm worked well for all my macro/fish shooting

 

Nikon D810 underwater housings

There are several excellent underwater housings for the Nikon D810. All of the housings are excellent, as the housing manufacturers have really stepped up their game in recent years.

Ikelite D810 underwater housing $1,800

Polycarbonate housing, includes built-in TTL converter for Ikelite strobes, great value. See recommended lenses, ports and strobes

Aquatica D810 underwater housing $3,530

Aluminum housing, holds up excellent in extreme conditions. Large control dials. See recommended ports, lenses & strobes

Sea & Sea D810 underwater housing $3,500

Aluminum housing, optional internal TTL converter, smaller size, solid ergonomics. See recommended ports, lenses, & strobes.

Nauticam D810 underwater housing $3,700

Aluminum housing, optional flash trigger for faster shooting, great ergonomics & easy port changes. See recommended ports, lenses & strobes.

Aquatech D810 Surf housing $995

Good, inexpensive option for surf shots, pool work where ability to use all controls or going deep is not as important.

 

Nikon D810 for underwater - conclusions

I had several concerns about moving to full-frame - I would lose the flexibility of the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye; I would have less ability to do supermacro; fill sizes would be unwieldly. It turns out none of these concerns were valid - I can do equal or better supermacro as a cropped sensor camera, and I still have the same flexibility with wide-angle as cropped sensor users - just via cropping instead of zooming, but with no less resolution. File sizes were not more difficult to store/process.

Although the Nikon D810 costs more, and the setup is slightly heavier, the pros are huge and I give it a huge 2 thumbs up.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Santa Monica, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

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