Released in the spring of 2020, Nikon’s D780 marks their latest mid-range full-frame DSLR. And it takes inspiration from Canon’s 90D to prove that traditional DSLR cameras are equally competent hybrids. On paper, it brings an updated sensor, a touchscreen, better low light, and superior battery life, and continuous shooting performance. And for the first time in a Nikon DSLR, it also brings about reliable Live View autofocus, Eye-detection, and a wealth of other refinements taken from their mirrorless Z system cameras.
The D780 comes to market to replace the D750, released six years prior, which became Nikon’s most popular full-frame DSLR. And it’s a camera Nikon aims at enthusiasts and professional photographers wanting mirrorless level capabilities with DSLR ergonomics and handling. However, as the successor to their most popular camera, it has quite a legend to uphold. So, how does it stack up? Also, is there still room for a “bulky” DSLR in 2020? And how will this camera stand up against the ever-powerful mirrorless segment or Canon’s 5D Mark IV? Let’s find out.
“Tradition meets mirrorless.”
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Nikon D780?
It features a brand new 24.5MP full-frame CMOS sensor and the EXPEED 6 processor, a similar configuration as the Z6. However, the sensor now has Backside-Illumination (BSI) and the latest processing algorithms, improving low light performance, dynamic range, and fine detail retention. Additionally, it obtains the higher-end 180K-Pixel RGB sensor from the flagship D5 instead of the 91K TTL metering configuration.
With this new metering system, the camera has vastly improved scene recognition to take much of the guesswork out of proper exposure, white balance, focus, and metering. And overall, the image quality on this camera is excellent and on par with Nikon’s Z6. Images are sharp, with ample details, dynamic range, and accurate rendering.
Nikon’s also improved the camera’s selectable shutter speeds. And it now offers a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 or up to 900 seconds (15 minutes). So you can capture star trails or long exposures without the need for a separate remote. This was originally a feature reserved from the D810A but later given to Z6 II. And it’s a huge addition as it makes the camera more usable without attaching lens filters or using remote triggers.
It also offers improved continuous shooting functionality. And it now shoots 7 FPS using the mechanical shutter with full exposure and AF support. This is 17% faster than the D750’s 6.5 FPS maximum. Additionally, it even offers 12 FPS bursts using Live View and the electronic shutter, matching the Z6. And the camera provides a reasonably deep buffer at 24 RAW or 100 JPEGs.
This camera represents a significant improvement over its predecessor and now matches the Z6 in capabilities. With that, it now shoots 4K UHD 30p and 1080p Full HD video up to 120p for 5x super-slow motion.
By contrast, the D750 only offers 1080p 60p video. And it shoots videos using H.264 compression to the MP4 or MOV formats. It produces videos by oversampling from a 6K readout to render true uncropped 4K. And the video quality itself matches the Z6, where they’re equally sharp, with plenty of details and pleasing color rendering.
The camera does have recording limits to know, however. In this case, it has the standard 30-minute clip maximum and 3 minutes for 1080p 120p.
It obtains N-Log and HLG to capture flat footage to maximize the dynamic range or produce HDR content.
You can capture 8MP stills during video recordings.
It has zebras for highlight warning and clipping indication.
It has built-in Time Code for easy synchronization and logging across multi-camera setups.
It outputs a clean, uncompressed 10-bit signal via HDMI for use with external recorders or monitors.
Low Light Performance
Low light performance has substantially improved over the predecessor. Firstly, its predecessors extended ranges are now native. With that, it offers a native ISO range from 100 to 51,200. But, it also pushes to a high setting equivalent of ISO 204,800, eclipsing the D850.
Secondly, the camera’s metering now supports -3EV. And together, these have significantly improved general performance. Users can easily expect usable images up to ISO 12,800 or 25,600 with minor processing.
It obtains the Multi-Cam 3500 AF II sensor from its predecessor when working with the viewfinder. This system offers 51 phase-detection points, where 15 are dual cross-type sensors for even greater accuracy in low light conditions to -3 EV. It also obtains dynamic-area, group-area, and 3D-tracking, with overhauled processing and AF algorithms from the flagship D5.
The result is superior accuracy and consistency when tracking moving subjects or shooting at high bursts. And the camera’s exceptionally tenacious, so long as subjects remain within the covered range. Surprisingly, it even debuted both Face and Eye-detection in the viewfinder, adding a layer of accuracy here during portrait work.
Complementing this viewfinder AF system is a 273-point Hybrid AF system, taken from the Z6, for Live View or video recordings. This Live View system also provides sophisticated tracking technologies such as face and eye-detection.
And it covers approximately 90% of the imaging area with AF support to -5 EV or -7, with the dedicated Low-Light AF Mode. Overall, this Live View system is excellent. And it’s quite robust, providing fast and accurate focusing for both stills and videos.
As it stands, this is currently Nikon’s best focusing DSLR outside of the flagship D5 and D6. It’s the most tenacious, robust, and reliable system debuted thus far. And it’s easily strong enough for professional use.
The camera also obtains focus magnification and peeking, if you prefer focusing manually.
It uses the newer EN-EL15b battery, and battery life is excellent for a mid-range DSLR. Nikon rates the camera to deliver 2,260 shots per charge or 95 minutes of continuous video recording. Comparatively, its predecessor only offers 1,230, so this is nearly a doubling of performance here. And while this is technically the same battery as the Z system cameras, superior battery life is a significant advantage of shooting with a DSLR.
Display & Viewfinder
It obtains the same pentaprism optical viewfinder with 100% coverage and a large 0.7x magnification as its predecessor. And while unchanged, this viewfinder remains excellent for the class.
It also obtains the same 3.2-inch tilting LCD as its predecessor, which is helpful when working from high or low angles. However, it’s now fully touch-enabled and nearly doubled in resolution at 2.36M dots, matching the D850. The LCD also has an 11-stage brightness adjustment, and you can even adjust its color (WB). And it supports Nikon’s full suite of touch gestures, including touch focus, touch shutter, navigating in playback, and full menu navigation.
It obtains standard Nikon user interface and menus, which remain well organized and easily mastered. Both newcomers and long-time users should find them intuitive and easy to use.
It has two custom user settings on the Mode Dial, U1 and U2. These allow you to create and recall full shooting setups without having to recreate them manually.
It obtains the Custom Settings Menu, a dedicated list of all of the camera’s customizable parameters. And it’s a practical option that helps simplify customizing the camera to your needs.
It obtains the customizable I-Menu (info), which displays helpful shooting parameters. It’s also independent for both stills and videos.
It offers a dedicated Function (Fn) button, but several other physical buttons are also customizable.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
Physically, it’s almost identical to its predecessor. And it still uses traditional DSLR styling that remains much in line with most Nikon full-frame cameras. But that does mean it follows a proven button layout that’s strategic and comfortable.
However, Nikon opted for several key refinements over the previous model. These include moving the Live View Toggle, added a dedicated AF-On button, repositioning the Info button and the ISO button. They also redesigned the port covers, which are easier to access than before.
Lastly, they removed the Scene Modes. Instead, these options are grouped into the Effects and Auto Modes. Together, these changes make the layout more intuitive and easier to switch between stills and video.
Nikon’s even overhauled the camera’s weather sealing to make the camera more durable and rugged, particularly around any moving parts and the buttons. And it’s now quite resistant to extreme conditions given its magnesium alloy and carbon fiber construction.
Plus, they’ve recontoured the front grip, which is slightly larger but noticeably more comfortable. However, these two changes, in particular, have increased the camera’s running weight to 840g body alone. And this is a 10% increase over its predecessor. Even so, it’s a worthwhile trade.
But otherwise, the camera maintains its predecessor’s layout. And it still has a dedicated video record button by the shutter release. And it also has a locking mode dial, drive mode, and d-pad to prevent accidentally changing these.
It has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy connectivity, allowing you to transfer images or videos and remotely control the camera via the SnapBridge app. And you can even geotag with the optional GP-1 GPS unit.
It features a microphone input.
It has a headphone output.
It has a USB-C port, a notable change over the predecessor, which uses a Micro USB port by contrast. This USB-C port also supports charging when you use the EN-EN15b battery.
It has a Micro HDMI (Type-C) output.
It has dual SD cards, and now both support the faster UHS-II standard. And you can configure them for overflow, backup, or separate recording as needed.
It obtains Electronic VR, which adds electronic stabilization to help stabilize handheld video recordings.
It obtains Nikon’s extensive playback and retouching functionality, including rating, red-eye removal, cropping, trimming, perspective control, and more.
It obtains the silent electronic shutter from the D850, which uses the electronic shutter for entirely silent operation.
It obtains AF fine-tune, with plenty of options to refine the focusing of the attached lens.
It obtains Focus Stacking, which automatically shifts the focus between a maximum of 300 shots, a feature taken from the D850. This is a great option when you want sharp focus throughout the entire composition. But, you will have to compose the final result using third-party software.
It has several bracketing options, including AE, Flash, WB, and Dynamic Range bracketing.
It has Multiple Exposures. And you can create them traditionally by shooting or combine them after the fact using the Retouch Menu.
It has built-in time-lapse. And you also create the resulting lapse in-camera if desired.
This is more of a note, but do know that shooting continuous bursting in Live View drops RAW files from 14-bit to 12. So you’ll see a slight loss in color and tonal information. To maintain color, use the mechanical shutter instead.
It lacks ProRes RAW output via HDMI. If you want this feature, consider the Nikon Z6 instead.
Since this is a traditional DSLR, you’ll experience somewhat of a downgrade in AF performance when using the viewfinder. Primarily, all of the AF points are clustered in a diamond configuration around the center of the frame, which means you’ll have to recompose for proper framing. And this becomes somewhat limiting when you compare it to the widespread coverage available to the Live View system.
Despite the 11-stage brightness control, the rear screen easily washes out during bright sunlight. And this makes it quite challenging to compose in Live View. Thus, you’ll find yourself forced to use the viewfinder and take a slight downgrade in capabilities in these situations, which may not be ideal.
Despite the high-end price tag, some design aspects feel somewhat plastic and cheap. And while the camera is extensively weather-sealed, the exterior finish feels slightly less robust than you’d expect.
It lacks an AF joystick.
Nikon removed the built-in pop-up flash to improve the camera’s weather sealing. And it’s a change that will upset some users since they’re no improvement to the viewfinder. Nope. It’s the same as before. So, it seems to be more of a cost savings change than anything.
Nikon also removed the connecting port on the bottom plate to interface with external battery grips. Thankfully, battery life is excellent, so using one isn’t a necessity.
It lacks in-body image stabilization. For this feature, consider the Z6 instead.
Is this a good beginner camera?
Better options in Nikon’s lineup exist for far less money. Consider the Nikon D5600 or D7500 if you want a DSLR, or the Z50 or Z6 if you want a mirrorless camera.
Is this a good camera for you?
With the updated viewfinder AF system, 7 FPS burst, and long battery life, this camera is a solid contender for moderate sports, wildlife, and photojournalism.
This camera is also a solid option for videographers wanting a more robust DSLR based package that couples many of the high-end features first seen in the Z6. And it’s exciting to see Nikon put their latest and most powerful video features into a mid-range DSLR. The only real advantage of the Z6 is it offers sensor stabilization and ProRes RAW via HDMI. Otherwise, this is Nikon’s best hybrid and DSLR video camera outside of the flagship D6.
Current Nikon owners should consider an upgrade, particularly if you have the D750. This camera provides substantial improvements across the board with updates to the viewfinder, Live View, 4K video, battery life, and refined ergonomics. And it’s quite a powerful camera.
In the end, Nikon’s D780 mixes new power with traditional DSLR form and functionality. And it proves itself as yet another example of a split personality hybrid that melds the best technologies between both worlds. It’s a camera that’s ideal for those who prefer DSLR styling and ergonomics but someone who wants a competent 2-in-1 experience.
Sure, it takes some minor downgrades compared to a mirrorless camera. Nevertheless, it’s the camera to get if you want a Z6, with a more robust design and proper handling. And if you’re not entirely convinced or ready to move mirrorless, it’s arguably Nikon’s most powerful DSLR. The D750 was famous for a good reason. And this latest update not only improves but simultaneously catapults this tradition. And Nikon succeeded in their goal to place the lessons learned from mirrorless advancements packaged into a DSLR. Really, this is a huge win on their part. And a well rounded and worthy successor indeed.
Nikon’s D780 excels and proves itself as a competent 2-in-1 hybrid DSLR. And not only does it continue the tradition of this line, but it, simultaneously, breaks new ground as their best all-round DSLR yet.