Updated: Sep 3, 2020
I made the shift from Nikon DSLR D850 to the mirrorless Z7 and have loved many of the features in the "new technology". Whilst the newly released Nikon D780 is classed as a traditional DSLR body, it actually packs many of the features found in the newer mirrorless bodies, making it somewhat of a hybrid.
As a travel photographer who shoots everything from portraits to wildlife and cityscape to studio, I need cameras with versatility in all situations. So I wanted to test out the D780 in a lot of different conditions and see how it fared.
Who will the D780 suit?
My first thought when looking at this camera was "who would this suit?", because when recommending cameras, it is more about how a camera suits an individual needs than the specifications of the camera! With the way the camera market is placed at the moment, I feel that people looking at buying a new camera are faced with a big decision - DSLR or mirrorless. The technology is certainly moving towards mirrorless and I think in coming years, this will become even more apparent. With that, comes a new lens mount (Z mount) for the mirrorless bodies, meaning you require an FTZ adaptor to use the DSLR F mount lenses. If you currently have some F mount lenses that you dont want to trade in, then upgrading to a new DSLR body like the D780 would be a perfect choice. Even if you are looking to make the transition and want to have a second body that will will use your F mount lenses, this would again be an ideal choice. For me, this D780 is a similar option to the Nikon Z6 when you compare them to the D850 and Z7. There are times when a D780 or Z6 would be the preferred choice to a D850 or Z7, despite the less expensive price tag! Read on to let me explain.......
One of the first thing people look at when comparing cameras is the megapixel count. Certainly high megapixel cameras like the D850 have an advantage when it comes to resolution and the ability to crop in. It is also important to keep in mind that as MP's increase on the same size sensor(all full frame cameras have the same sensor size), so does the production of noise. In general, lower MP cameras do tend to perform well in low light due to their ability to cope with higher ISO values. The D780 has a full frame, 24.5MP sensor, which unless you are looking to print in huge sizes should be enough resolution. Certainly something I did notice quickly with this camera was its performance in low light. I found it similar to using the Nikon Z6. For this reason, the camera also suits people who are looking to shoot video in addition to stills - where the low light performance becomes really valuable. The D780 takes 4K video and has some nice features such as the ability to shoot slow motion film. Unless you are producing cinema quality videos, anything more than 4K probably isnt necessary and only creates headaches in editing and file storage.
Moon: This image of the moon was taken using a 500mm lens and 2x teleconverter. The image quality and detail was really impressive.
One of the other things that is a big factor for me in camera choice is the auto-focus capabilities. The D780 uses on-sensor phase detection, which I found to be really quick and reliable - both through the view finder and the live view. I tested that auto-focus on some bird photography, dogs at the beach and on my 3 year old son, who moves almost as fast as wildlife. It features some of the newer auto-focus modes including 3D tracking, face detection and eye detection - which if you haven't used, are a great help it getting more shots in focus. The subject tracking in the newer Nikon cameras is something that has made getting more shots in focus much easier. The standard 7 frames per second was also great, which can be increased to 12fps (12-bit electronic shutter).
Animals in focus: The auto-focus of the Nikon D780 was fast and reliable with a variety of lenses (24-70mm, 500mm & 70-200mm).
One of my favourite features of Nikon bodies are the time-lapse options. The D780 has in-built time-lapse, which allows you to easily set parameters and create videos immediately. This is fantastic for learning how to create time lapses and produce videos that can be uploaded straight away. The interval shooting menu also allows creation of RAW file image series, which can then be edited and converted into high quality time lapse videos. As we cant use bracketing or blending to edit the RAW files, the dynamic range of the camera is really important. I was impressed with the ability to retain highlights and recover details in shadows from RAW files with the D780, allowing creation of nice time-lapse videos at night.
Time-lapse: With the dynamic range of the D780 I am able to underexpose the images to retain highlights and then recover detail from the shadows in editing. The interval shooting menu is perfect for creating time-lapse videos.
Dynamic Range: I was running a workshop and had loaned my tripod to a guest, when the sky caught fire with colour. I decided to use the rail to stabilise my camera to use a much lower shutter speed than I could use in "hand-held". One difference between the 780 and a camera like the Z6 is that it doesnt have in-body image stabiliser (so you will still need lenses with stabilisation). However, the sharpness of this image is surprisingly good. As you can see from the RAW file comparison, the recovery of detail in shadows (base of the buildings in the foreground) is extremely good and the highlights (colour in the sky) still very much retained.
Low Light: I certainly found that there was very little noise, even with higher ISO compared to higher MP cameras. One of the more challenging situations in photography is photographing people in low light situations, especially when you cant ask them to keep still. The image below was taken with the last bit of light. On the left is the unedited RAW and on the right with some simple corrections in Lightroom.
In Detail: Unfortunately I didn't test the D780 with a prime portrait lens and in any case I do find that portrait photography more than anything is about the lenses rather than the body necessarily. That being said, it is one of the main reasons I love using Nikon cameras - they make the best glass! This portrait is taken with a 24-70mm f2.8, which is the lens I would recommend for every single photographer have in their bag - it is the most versatile lens you can own.
Coupled with an off camera flash and remote transmitter in the hot shoe, the D780 takes nice portrait shots. It was easy to focus even in low light and provided sharp images with great detail. This image has been edited using Lightroom and quick retouching in Photoshop. How an image edits is usually a good indication of its quality to begin with.
Look & Feel:
Functionally I found that it feels and operates similar to DSLR bodies - I definitely noticed the increased size compared to the Z7. If you are coming from a D750 or similar, the transition will be almost seamless.
Having the room for additional buttons on the camera body is something I have missed on the smaller mirrorless. I have also missed having the dual card slots, which is present on the D780.
Conveniently the D780 uses the same battery as the D850, Z6 & Z7. The battery life was extremely good, although I didn't test it for long periods of video, which typically consumes battery the fastest.
Should You Buy The Nikon D780?
Where do I think it sits as a camera in the market? I think its a perfect mid price-range camera, especially if you’re looking for great low light capabilities or a camera for photography and videography. For me as a travel camera, it is an ideal set up. There are definitely advantages of having higher MegaPixels, but as mentioned, it’s important to remember that as MP increases, the sensor size doesn’t, so we generally see a reduction in low light performance. These mid-MP cameras like the 780 and the Z6 actually perform incredibly well at higher ISO. So if you’re not needing the really high MP for loads of landscapes or lots of cropping, then a camera with mid-20 MP’s might actually be ideal.
Many will see the D780 as an upgrade option from one of Nikon’s most popular ever cameras, the D750. I see the 780 as a similar DSLR option to what the Z6 in the mirrorless range - great low light, impressive versatility and value for money.
I still think the Z6 is just an amazing camera and having switched to mirrorless myself, I think its a great time to look at the Z range of cameras. That being said, if you have a number of F mount lenses then you might want to keep with a DSLR body rather than sell them or use the FTZ adaptor. This would make the 780 a perfect option! It makes itself a very easy option in being such a reliable and versatile camera. It would also partner perfectly with something like a D850 as a 2nd body - offering a low-light option that is functionally very similar to the higher megapixel 850.
Disclaimer: I was not paid or sponsored by Nikon to provide this camera review. I am an Instructor for Nikon Middle East, however I am free to share my independent thoughts on equipment.