The introduction of the Nikon D780 answers two burning questions. The first is: “Will there ever be a replacement for the still-popular-after-all-these-years Nikon D750?” The answer is “Yes.” The second question is: “Does the successful reception of Nikon’s Z-series mirrorless cameras put the kibosh on future DSLR development from Nikon?” The answer turns out to be no—but you can taste the influence of Z-series mirrorless cameras on Nikon’s newest full-frame DSLR.
Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020
The Nikon D780, which is available as a body only or with an AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR zoom, is a refinement over the D750 on a number of counts, including advanced features previously reserved for Nikon’s flagship DSLR and newer mirrorless offerings. Included among these improvements are dual UHS-II SD card slots, the same video capture system used in the Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera, and algorithms borrowed from the Nikon D5 that improve the D780’s viewfinder AF performance.
The New 24.5MP Imaging Sensor (It’s the same one found in Nikon’s Z6!)
Like the D750, the D780 also contains a 24.5MP imaging sensor, but this time around it’s the same back-side illuminated sensor found in Nikon’s Z6, which features on-sensor phase detection, improved light-gathering abilities, and improved high-ISO performance. The new sensor also features a dual gain design, which facilitates less noise at higher ISOs, and faster readout that makes full use of the sensor width when shooting UHD 4K video @ 30 fps. The sensor’s dual gain design also facilitates a 12 fps maximum frame-rate when shooting 12-bit RAW files in electronic shutter mode, 7 fps when shooting in mechanical shutter mode, or 3 fps in Live View mode with the mechanical shutter.
The shutter-speed range of the D780 goes from an impressive 900 seconds (15 minutes) to 1/8000-second, which is a stop faster than the 1/4000-second top shutter speed on Nikon’s D750. Bulb and Time settings are also now available. The camera’s 51-point AF module, the same module found in Nikon’s D750, is used in the D780, but it’s now supporting the same 180K-dot RGB metering sensor found in the Nikon D5, along with a 273-point on-sensor PDAF in Live View mode.
ISO and Image Quality
During my time with the D780, I did manage to shoot an informal ISO test. What surprised me was how well the new sensor holds up to the higher 5-digit ISO sensitivity levels. Going from ISO 100 to 400 is a yawn, as is cranking the dial up toward ISO 1600 to 2000, where just a smidgeon of crunchiness starts becoming noticeable but in no way disturbing. Even at the higher 20,000 to 50,000 range, though noise and artifacting are plain to see, the image files remain quite usable for just about all but the most detail-critical applications.
The D780’s primary viewing system is an all-glass optical pentaprism with a 21mm eyepoint and a 100% image viewing field. You can also compose, chimp, and edit stills and video using the camera’s notably bright 3.2", 2.36M-dot tilt-touchscreen LCD.
According to Nikon, you can expect up to 2,260 exposures per charge from the camera’s EN-EL 15b battery when using the camera’s optical finder, though there’s no official exposure count from Nikon when using the camera’s LCD (it’s no doubt significantly lower). Batteries can be charged using the included Nikon MH-25A battery charger or in-camera using a USB-C cable.
Nikon’s EN-EL 15b is the same battery used in Nikon’s Z-series cameras. The D780 is backward-compatible with earlier versions of Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries, albeit with variant-specific limitations.
One feature found on the D780 that will, no doubt, disappoint a segment of the population is the inclusion of a low-pass filter, which is increasingly absent from many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Though the absence of a low-pass filter typically translates into greater resolving power, for whatever reasons, Nikon’s engineers decided to keep the low-pass filter in place. Regardless, the image quality you get from the D780 will not disappoint you.
Two things the D780 does not have are in-camera image stabilization and a built-in flash. As for image stabilization, it’s a nice feature to have, but do keep in mind Nikon currently produces more than two dozen VR-series zoom and fixed-focal-length prime lenses for DSLRs ranging from 24mm to 800mm, including a 105mm Micro-NIKKOR macro lens for 1:1 close-ups.
As for the pop-up flash, I personally never took a memorable photograph—let alone a flattering portrait—using a pop-up flash. More importantly, if doing away with the flash translates into a stronger, more weather-resistant camera body, which it does, sign me up!
Another reason I don’t feel a dying need for a pop-up flash on the D780 has to do with how far you can extend the camera’s ISO sensitivity and still end up with detailed and reasonably noise-free image files, especially when shooting with a fast prime lens. But then again, the above comments are based on my own personal experiences—your experiences might differ.
When comparing performance levels between the Nikon D780 and Z6, it’s important to note that even though the two cameras share many commonalities, including the camera’s imaging sensor, a Nikon Z6 with a Z-mount lens will deliver better performance than the D780 with a comparable F-mount lens. This is because mirrorless cameras by design have shorter flange mounts than DSLRs, which increases the volume of light striking the camera sensor, which facilitates quicker and more accurate AF and AE response times.
Like the Z6, Nikon’s D780 can capture UHD 4K at up to 30p or 1080 at up to 120p. In addition to improved video image quality and subject tracking, compared to the D750, the camera’s high-definition touchscreen, with touch focus, places the D780 leagues ahead of its predecessor when it comes to video capture.
Other noteworthy features found on the D780 include a very-welcome AF-On button, 10-bit video output over HDMI in a choice of N-LOG or the wider dynamic range HLG, microphone and headset ports, focus peaking, and zebra warnings. To speed up the workflow process, you can now employ a greatly improved version of Snapbridge Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for quicker transfer of stills (including RAW) and video. You can also program the camera to create and transfer 2MP JPEGs automatically for near real-time viewing on mobile devices.
A number of features originally introduced in Nikon’s Z-series mirrorless cameras can be found on the D780. Included are the same on-sensor 273-point phase detection AF system and Live View interface found in the Z6, and the same high-resolution tilt-design touchscreen LCD found on Z-series Nikons.
Another feature borrowed from the Z6 is the camera’s eye-detection AF system, which performed as advertised during our time with the camera.
Like the D750, the D780 can shoot in-camera time-lapse movies, but unlike the D750, which used a Time Lapse movie option, the D780 features a new Interval Timer Shooting mode, which, among other things, allows you to retain RAW files used to produce your in-camera movies. You also now have the option of superimposing preexisting images using the D780’s Multiple Exposure feature, as opposed to having to capture the image in multiple exposure mode.
The D780s Focus Stacking mode, which captures up to 300 images with incremental focus shifts between each exposure that are later combined together for greater D0F when shooting extreme close-ups, is the same Focus Stacking mode used in Nikon's D850. Another carryover from the D850 is the D780s Negative Digitizer mode, which is used for copying and inverting film negatives for digital output.
One minor, but notable feature in my book is the ability to shoot in a square (1:1) aspect ratio, which is a nice addition to the standard 2:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios found in most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
Even though I’ve been using reflex cameras for decades, more recently I’ve settled into a comfortable relationship with mirrorless cameras due to their smaller and lighter form factors and the beauty of being able to see a WYSIWYG image on a bright, high-definition EVF. Because the D780 borrows heavily upon the newer, workflow-friendly features found on Nikon’s Z-series mirrorless cameras, I found it easy to switch between traditional eye-level viewing with the camera’s bright optical viewfinder and the camera’s tilt/touch screen, depending on which viewing option was the best viewing method for the occasion.
Are you still prone toward using DSLRs? If so, are you looking for a DSLR with mirrorless attributes designed into it as Nikon has envisioned the new D780? Let us know your take on the subject in the Comments field, below.