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Nikon D780 Review

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The Nikon D780 is perhaps the best example yet of a DSLR reinventing itself for the mirrorless age. It’s a very traditional-looking full-frame camera with an optical viewfinder, but underneath that old-school skin lies some of the same tech that you’ll find in its cutting-edge Nikon Z6 cousin. In other words, it’s something of a DSLR-mirrorless hybrid.

When Nikon and Canon finally relented and committed to their Z Series and EOS R mirrorless systems, fans of optical viewfinders and generous battery lives were naturally worried that the days of new DSLRs were behind them. But the D780 proves that Nikon isn’t abandoning the DSLR – in fact, if you have a stash of F mount lenses or just prefer the way a DSLR handles, it might just be one of the best full-frame cameras the company has made so far.

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1 Nikon D780 Body Nikon D780 Body

Designed to sit alongside rather than fully replace the older Nikon D750, this is Nikon’s ‘entry-level’ full-frame model, sitting below the D850 and offering something for those who don’t need mega-high resolution, but who still want a good all-rounder.

With Nikon suggesting that it will run it’s mirrorless and DSLR offerings in parallel to each other, it’s possible that we might see other new DSLR models with mirrorless technology – for example, an equivalent to the APS-C Nikon Z50. But if it’s full-frame shooting you’re after, the D780 is a very compelling new option.

Build and handling

  • Satisfyingly chunky grip
  • Optical viewfinder, tilting screen
  • Traditional controls and top-plate LCD

If you’ve always preferred the spacious handling of a DSLR to their sometimes cramped mirrorless equivalents, then you’ll be thrilled with the D780’s chunky design.

You get a sturdy, magnesium alloy body that’s resistant to both dust and water, along with a satisfyingly chunky grip. The big range of dials and buttons also have lots of room to breathe. There’s not a huge amount of difference between this and the D750, so if you’re thinking of upgrading from the older model, you’ll be very much at home here.

The vast majority of shooting controls can be found on the right-hand side of the camera. These include the on/off switch, dials for altering shutter speed and aperture, and the ‘i’ button for accessing a quick menu.

You’ll also see a top-plate LCD which gives you an at-a-glance view of several key settings, including ISO, aperture, shutter velocity and how many shots you’ve got left on your memory card.

On the left-hand side, you’ll find the mode dial, the drive setting dial and a set of buttons which mostly relate to playback.

Using an optical viewfinder is a matter of preference, but if you prefer them to electronic versions then, again, you should be pretty happy here. It’s not quite as bright and clear as the one found on the D850, but if you’re not comparing them side by side you’re likely to be very impressed by it.

If you find yourself using the screen, you’ve got a tilting touch-sensitive display. Using a DSLR’s Live View was once a slow and painful affair to be avoided unless absolutely necessary; these days, the technology has improved so much that it’s a realistic option – especially in this case, where it offers an autofocus (AF) advantage. The only downside is having to hold the camera away from your body, which isn’t something you’ll want to do for extended periods with the D780.

A fully articulating display would also have been much handier for video shooting, but the tilt display screen (which you’ll also find on the D750) is still useful for framing stills from high and low angles.

One downside here, though, is that it’s a little bit of an annoyance to move between shooting through the viewfinder and working with Live View. With mirrorless cameras, that transition is instant, occurring as soon as you move your eye to (or from) the viewfinder.

Here, you’ll need to press a button to activate Live life View – and push it once again to switch it off. That might not sound like much of a deal-breaker, but it can occasionally be the difference between getting a shot or not really.

Features and autofocus

  • 24.5MP sensor and EXPEED 6 image processor 
  • Two autofocus systems
  • Two UHS-II memory card slotsThe D780 has been designed to be a good all-rounder, appealing to a broad cross-section of photographers. Keen amateurs are perhaps the main target audience, but professionals who don’t crave the huge resolution (and unwieldy file sizes) of the D850 may also find the D780 an enticing, and more than a capable, option. At its heart is a back-illuminated 24.5MP full-frame sensor, which is matched with the latest EXPEED 6 image processor – this is the same combination you’ll find inside its mirrorless relative, the Nikon Z6. Other interesting specifications include up to 12fps shooting (when in Live View, another specification inherited from the Z6), in-camera charging via USB and 4K video recording. Naturally, a full-frame DSLR has a much bigger body than a mirrorless equivalent, and one of the benefits this brings is space for two memory cards – here we have two UHS-II-compatible SD card slots. Viewfinders are a contentious issue – many like the ‘shoot what you see’ stylings of electronic viewfinders, but there are still plenty who prefer optical ‘finders. If you fall into the latter camp, then you’ll be happy with the 0.7x optical finder here, that is inherited from the D750.In terms of autofocus, there are two systems in play. The D780 uses the same on-chip phase-detection for the 273-point autofocus system as the Nikon Z6, but the crucial difference is that this only engages when you’re capturing via Live View, rather than through the optical viewfinder. Still, it performs in much the same way because of the Z6, including Eye-Detection AF, with the option of choosing which eye to focus on.

    You’ll also find that approximately 90% of the frame is covered by autofocus points. However, if you prefer to shoot in the traditional way you get a very decent 51 points, but you’ll notice that they’re all clustered in the centre of the frame.

    Performance

    • Burst shooting at 7fps / 12fps
    • Impressive buffer at up to 68 Raw files
    • A same metering system as the pricier D850

The D780 uses two different autofocus systems, depending on whether you’re shooting through the viewfinder or via the screen. This is one of the biggest differences between this camera and a mirrorless model like the Nikon Z6.

This is probably not a camera that will appeal to dedicated sports and action photographers, but if you’re photographing something with a relatively predictable movement pattern, then it can cope fairly well. Both AF systems are reliably quick and accurate, but if you’re capturing a moving subject then shooting via the screen is a little more responsive. Especially since you can shoot at 12fps when using the screen, compared to 7fps through the viewfinder.

The fact that the D780 has two UHS-II compatible slots is great news for clearing the buffer. You can shoot up to 68 Raw files or 100 JPEGs before it needs to take a breather. That’s not amazing for those in the “spray and pray” camp, but the buffer does clear pretty quickly allowing you to get back to shooting fast, well-timed bursts.

Being a few years old now, it’s no surprise to see technology from the more advanced D850 making an appearance on the D780. The same 180k RGB metering and scene recognition system is deployed here, which on the whole works to produce nicely balanced exposures. You might find you need to dial in some exposure compensation in a few particularly high contrast situations if you want to shoot JPEG only, but if you’re used to shooting in Raw format and producing tweaks after the fact, this will be less of an issue.

One area where DSLRs still very much beat mirrorless cameras is battery life. The quoted figures right here for the D780 are 2,260 shots, which far outstrips that of the Z6/Z7 mirrorless cameras.

That figure drops significantly if you’re consistently using Live View, but for those shooting through the viewfinder, it’s a nice feeling to not have to worry about having to bring spare batteries or find a PowerPoint to give it an extra boost in the middle of a crucial shot.

Specifications

Sensor: 24.4MP back-illuminated full-frame CMOS
Image processor: Expeed 6
Autofocus: 51-point phase detect (viewfinder), 273-point hybrid phase detect (live view)
ISO range: 100-51,200 (exp. 50-204,800)
Max image size: 6048 x 4024
Metering modes: 180k RGB sensor, Matrix, center weighted, spot, highlight weighted
Video: 4K UHD, 30/25/24p
Viewfinder: Optical pentaprism, 0.7x magnification, 100% coverage
Screen: 3.2-inch, 2359k-dot tilting touchscreen
Memory card: 2x SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS II)
Max burst: Up to 7fps (viewfinder), 12fps (live view)
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Size: 143.5 x 115.5 x 76mm
Weight: 840g (including battery and memory card)

Image quality

  • 24.5MP full-frame sensor
  • No in-body image stabilization
  • ISO expandable up to 204,800

We were confident that image quality from the D780 would be good, considering the sensor seems to be the same – or very similar – to that found in the Z6. It also shares some other specifications with that camera, such as the same processor, same metering system and exactly the same 273-point-on-sensor phase-detection AF program.

On the whole, image quality is indeed great. Colours are nicely saturated, while the overall impression of detail is fantastic. Dynamic range is excellent, while automatic white balance does a good job of keeping colours accurate.

Unlike the Z6, however, there’s no in-body image stabilization. Instead, you’ll have to rely on stabilization from the lenses. This means that occasionally you might see a little bit of blur if you don’t keep a good eye on shutter speeds, particularly in darker conditions. We’d recommend setting a minimum shutter speed if critical sharpness is an issue for you – and, of course, look out for lenses which include VR as standard.

Just like the Z6, the D780 is a good choice if you’re somebody who does a lot of low-light shooting. Images taken at mid-high ISOs maintain a good level of detail, without introducing too much in the way of image smoothing. We’d probably advise sticking to the native ISO range unless working in extreme darkness for best image quality, with good results all the way up to ISO 25600.

As this is an ‘entry-level’ full-frame option, you can buy it as part of a kit with a 24-120mm f/4 lens. This isn’t as high quality as something like a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, but it is a good value proposition that works well as an everyday performer.

If you have other Nikkor lenses, that’s when you’ll see the best image high quality from the D780 – we’ve been spending a lot of time with two particularly good performers, the 35mm f/1.4G AF-S and the 85mm f/1.4G lens. Use lenses of this calibre and you’ll generally be treated to sharper images that stand up better to intense scrutiny.

Verdict

There are no fireworks with the Nikon D780. It doesn’t bring radical new technologies, bar-raising specifications or wacky design features. It’s simply an excellent evolution of a great camera design that has something for enthusiasts and experts everywhere. Nikon has, at last, brought fast phase-detection to live view AF to its DSLR style, it’s added pretty advanced 4K video features, better continuous shooting speed and buffer capacity than we’d expect at this price, and you get Nikon’s typically comfortable, polished and balanced DSLR handling. Bravo, Nikon!

Nikon D780 Prices and Bundles 

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