Nikon D810A: Review for Landscape Astrophotography



In May of 2015 Nikon provided me with their brand new D810A to give it a workout for landscape astrophotography.  Check out my article on Nikon’s Image Chaser website.


The Short Answer

In my experience the D810A matches the high ISO performance of the D750.  The D750 has a 24MP sensor and until the D810A came out the D750 was the cleanest high megapixel DSLR, about a stop better than the D810.  But the D810A, like the D800/D800E/D810, has a 36MP sensor and appears to have the same high ISO performance of the 24MP D750.  With some other nice features, the D810A is an amazing landscape astrophotography camera.


The Long Answer

Read on!

Monument Cove
Nikon D810A
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens
Star stacked sky from 10 x 10s f/2.8 ISO 12800
Foreground multiple exposures at ISO 1600 f/2.8 15 minutes

 


ISO 12800 Comparison

For shooting landscape astrophotography when you’re not using a star tracker or star stacking (see Star Stacking section below) for pinpoint stars and lower noise, you want to use the highest ISO possible with your camera that produces a useful image when taking your sky exposures.  (I take separate exposures for the sky and foreground at different ISOs and blend them to get the best depth of field and a cleaner foreground.)

Generally speaking, a more brightly exposed shot with a high ISO will be cleaner than an underexposed shot with a lower ISO, even if the difference is only 1 exposure stop (half the brightness).  Boosting the exposure in post of the lower ISO image to match the higher ISO image may show a similar result, but upon close inspection there is often a distinct difference, with the higher ISO shot having less noise.  This is a result of an increased signal in the higher ISO shots, the noise floor is closer to the exposure in the lower ISO shots and thus you end up with more visible noise after boosting the exposure in post.

This result will depend on your camera.  Test various ISOs for your use.

For my tests with the D810A, D810, and D750, I used my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens @ 14mm and f/2.8 with a 25 second shutter time for all ISO test shots.  You need to chose a low enough shutter time to limit star trails, and when not star stacking I prefer to use 25 seconds when shooting at 14mm. I find this results in acceptable star trails while still getting a bright enough exposure.

I chose to use ISO 12800 for my primary tests because it is the highest native ISO of all 3 cameras. And since, in my experience, a 25 second ISO 12800 exposure will be cleaner than a dark 25 second ISO 3200 exposure, I have been using ISO 12800 for most of my sky shots while testing the D810A. I even used ISO 12800 for panoramas without using a lower ISO for the foreground and with enough balancing of noise reduction and sharpening the foreground can work out amazingly well.

Here are the ISO 12800 shots from each camera.

Note that the raw NEF files for all shots in this article were processed with Capture NX-D 1.2.1.  As of this writing Capture NX-D is the only raw editor capable of reading D810A files.  My usual raw editor is Adobe Lightroom.

 

Nikon D810A, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 12800, 25 seconds, 14mm, f/2.8
Nikon D810, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 12800, 25 seconds, 14mm, f/2.8

 

Nikon D750, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 12800, 25 seconds, 14mm, f/2.8

Now lets take a look at 100% crops from each camera.  Note that there has been NO noise reduction whatsoever applied to these images.  Noise reduction in Capture NX-D was not used.  Realistically, you would at least apply some color noise reduction.  If you use Lightroom, color noise reduction is always enabled by default.  For a fun experiment, go find a high ISO, say 6400 or so, raw image in Lightroom, zoom into 100%, and turn the color noise reduction slider to 0 and watch how splotchy the image becomes.

Nikon D810A, 100% crop, no noise reduction

 

Nikon D810, 100% crop, no noise reduction

 

Nikon D750, 100% crop, no noise reduction

As you can see, the D810A and D750 are pretty close in noise, although the D810A has more color in the sky.  The D810 clearly has more noise.  Although arguably the noise difference isn’t that dramatic and can certainly be cleaned up in post.  And remember that if you’re star stacking it doesn’t matter.

Now how about the darker foreground areas?  For these examples I applied color noise reduction to TIFF files in Lightroom.  The TIFF files were exported from Capture NX-D.  Capture NX-D has color noise reduction but Lightroom’s color noise reduction appeared to work much better.  I used a value of 100 in the Color noise reduction slighter in the Detail panel of Lightroom for each image.  This a realistic value that I might use for such noisy foregrounds.  There is no point in comparing the images without any color noise reduction as that is an unrealistic application.  I may not use such aggressive color noise reduction on the entire shot and only apply that to the foreground section if I’m not using separate foreground exposures.

 

Nikon D810A, ISO 12800, 100% crop, Lightroom color noise reduction of 100

 

Nikon D810, ISO 12800, 100% crop, Lightroom color noise reduction of 100

 

Nikon D750, ISO 12800, 100% crop, Lightroom color noise reduction of 100

For whatever reason the D750 exposure came out darker than the others.  I’m not sure why, perhaps it is an issue with the D750 itself, or Capture NX-D.  I brightened the D750 exposure by 1/2 a stop to better match the brightness of the other exposures.  Without brightening it the color noise is far less visible.

They’re all pretty darn noisy, but the D810 is certainly much worse off than the D810A and D750. This difference alone is a huge boost for using the D810A or D750 for when you don’t have time to take additional shots for the foreground at a lower ISO, or low enough ISO.  I like to use ISO 1600 or lower for foreground shots when I can, but in a pinch I know I can rely on the performance of the D810A or D750 to get by with a higher ISO and more clean up in post.

 


Star Stacking

While not specific to the D810A, I feel that it is important to show how much of a difference in noise you can get by using the star stacking technique.  This applies to any camera and can take images from a very noisy camera and still produce a clean sky.

Star stacking is a technique that involves taking multiple very high ISO short exposures to capture pinpoint stars without any visible trails, and then stack, align, and average them in software to vastly reduce the noise.  I use Starry Landscape Stacker for Mac, available in the Mac App Store for just a few dollars.  You can do it in Photoshop, but Starry Landscape Staker makes the process much easier.  Deep Sky Stacker is a Windows program that might work for this but I’m not sure how it will handle the alignment process with foreground elements.  Deep Sky Stacker and similar programs will align multiple images based on the stars but Starry Landscape Stacker is designed to handle the foreground and only align based on the stars.

Using this technique with both Starry Landscape Stacker and Photoshop is demonstrated in my video tutorial.  The Photoshop technique is also shown in this YouTube video.

Using 14mm on full frame, I generally take 10 exposures at 10 seconds each at ISO 12800 or whatever the highest native ISO is on the camera I’m using.  However on many cameras you may need to use a lower ISO to avoid excessive magenta color noise on the edges of the frame.  On the D810 you might want to use ISO 6400 instead.  On my D800E I had to use ISO 5000 or 4000.  This color noise is due to both under exposure in the corners from vignetting of the lens and sensor noise from heat and other electronics in the camera.  On the D810A I’ve been able to get away with ISO 12800.

Here is an example:

Nikon D810A, ISO 12800, 100% crop, 10 seconds, f/2.8

 

Star stacked result using 10 exposures of 10 seconds each at ISO 12800.

Now you can see why I use this technique whenever I can!

 


Effects of the IR Filter

The D810A is really designed with deep space astrophotography in mind due to the special IR filter that is optimized to capture the H-alpha narrowband infrared light emissions from nebulae.  This results in red nebulae that really pop in the image, but also has the side effect of causing other light sources to shift.  Daytime photos can sometimes result in a red cast.  Light pollution at night can take on a yellow glow instead of orange.

Here is an example of how the IR filter pops red nebulae:

 

Nikon D810A, ISO 3200, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens, f/2, 30 seconds, iOptron SkyTracker (camera mount for star tracking)

 

Nikon D810, ISO 3200, Nikon 50mm f1/4G lens, f/2, 30 seconds, iOptron SkyTracker (camera mount for star tracking)

Even without zooming in the difference should be noticeable.  The red nebulae are more noticeable and the Milky Way takes on more color with the D810A.  But lets take a closer look:

Nikon D810A, 100% crop

 

Nikon D810, 100% crop

Big difference!

IR and Light Pollution

Now let’s look at the difference with light pollution.  This difference can also be seen in the uncropped images at the start of this article, look at the glow in the lower left of the frame and on the D810A it looks yellow vs orange on the others.

Nikon D810A, ISO 3200, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens, f/2.8, 30 seconds

 

Nikon D810, ISO 3200, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens, f/2.8, 30 seconds

Notice how the light pollution glow in the D810A image looks yellow instead of orange.

IR and a Lighthouse

I tried the D810A at a red lighthouse (Bass Harbor Head Light) and a white lighthouse (West Quoddy Head Light).  I didn’t see any noticeable differences at Bass, not surprising given how intense the red light is already from the lighthouse.  But at West Quoddy there was a very noticeable difference, with the D810A producing a heavy red cast around the lighthouse.

 

Nikon D810A, ISO 12800, 10 seconds, 24mm, f/2.8
Nikon D810, ISO 12800, 10 seconds, 24mm, f/2.8
The white balance on both of these shots was set to 4000K (0 tint) in Capture NX-D.Notice the red cast around the light tower in the D810A.  This can be largely removed in post but it is something to be aware of when shooting lighthouses.

IR and Daytime

The IR filter in the D810A really means that the camera is best suited for the dark night sky, and there will be a red cast during daytime shots, but how noticeable or problematic it is will depend on the situation.  Here is an example.

Nikon D810A, ISO 200, 24mm, 1/50s, f/11

 

Nikon D810, ISO 200, 24mm, 1/50s, f/11

The white balance on both of these shots was set to Direct Sunlight in Capture NX-D.

Notice in the D810A photo how there is a reddish tint to the rocks and trees in the foreground and background, the water is a warmer blue, and the hazy distant horizon also has a reddish tint.

M* Manual Mode – Exposures Longer Than 30s Built In!

One of the most welcome D810A features for long exposure photography is the ability to choose exposures longer than 30 seconds in camera without the need for a remote timer.  Put the D810A in M* manual mode and after 30s you can choose 60, 90, 120, 240, 300, 600, or 900 seconds.  I really wish there were more options but at least it’s a huge step in the right direction.

If you enable Exposure Delay mode and very gently hit the shutter button on the camera you can try to get away without using any remote at all as long as you don’t need other long exposure times. While testing out the D810A in Acadia I shot for almost the entire week and a half without the use of a remote.

M* Manual mode on the D810A with a 240 second exposure selected.

 

Capture NX-D Astro Noise Reduction

Capture NX-D, as of version 1.2.1 (released in time with the D810A) has a new Astro Noise Reduction checkbox in the Noise Reduction panel.  Enabling this will remove the majority of hot pixels from an image.  It’s not 100% perfect though, but it works pretty darn well.  On the other hand Phase One’s Capture One raw converter has VERY good hot pixel noise reduction.  It has some built in by default, and gets better with enabling color noise reduction, and then using the Single Pixel slider can get rid of all or almost all hot pixels.  There’s also PixelFixer (Windows program) for doing the same thing with or without supplying your own dark frames.  These are all very useful tools, and if you don’t have time for Long Exposure Noise Reduction in camera you can use one of these tools to fix the hot pixels in post, or at least get most of them and spot clean the rest yourself.

And let’s not forget the Dust & Scratches filter in Photoshop.  That can produce excellent results with care and doesn’t require a big change in your raw editing workflow.

Further Reading/Watching

If you’re new to landscape astrophotography you might want to check out my various tutorials on the subject for how I blend star shots with long exposure foreground shots:
I also have a video tutorial available that goes over my entire editing workflow:

I also have outdoor workshops available:
http://www.awoodworth.wpengine.com/workshops

Conclusion

The D810A is a landmark camera for astrophotography, with amazing high ISO performance and the convenience of (limited) exposures longer than 30s in camera.  The IR Cut filter is both a plus and a minus depending on the situation, but the nice pop and increased color that it brings out in the Milky Way is very nice.
Happy Shooting!Written by Adam Woodworth
www.awoodworth.wpengine.com

This entry was posted in Uncategorized.

14 Comments

  1. Bluemarlin June 10, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Dear Adam, you write: "but at least it's a huge step in the right direction" I dont understand why this is such a buig step if you are using stacking when ever you can. When do you need exposure longer than 30s. please advice.
    regards
    Juergen

  2. jens June 10, 2015 at 9:16 am #

    Thanks for your review. Does the D810A provide true raw files without internal preprocessing ? (deleting faint stars due to hotpixel elimination like other Nikon Cameras)

    • Adam Woodworth June 10, 2015 at 11:37 am #

      I have never had a problem with a Nikon camera deleting a faint star. I assume you're talking about Long Exposure Noise Reduction? I use that for most shots that aren't my short 10s exposure star stack shots and have never had a problem it on any Nikon camera that I've used.

  3. VisualUniverse June 11, 2015 at 2:11 am #

    I do wish the 810a had the same pull-out LCD screen as my D750. When I shot Comet Lovejoy with the D750 and had the camera aimed almost straight up, that adjustable pull-out screen made it easy to focus and review results. I also have the 60Da with full swivel, which is even better.

  4. Charles LeGresley October 16, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    Hi Adam and thanks for the review and tips! I have a D800 and getting some pretty good results too. Thinking of getting starry landscape stacker. I have a question: Should I use the long exposure noise reduction in camera setting or is it better to do it in post?
    Charles

    • Adam Woodworth October 31, 2015 at 1:11 am #

      Hi Charles, thanks! If you're not using star stacking then in my opinion it's best to use Long Exposure Noise Reduction in camera for star shots, and always for your foreground shots. However if you're using star stacking you can turn it off because the hot pixels will be blurred out with the alignment and averaging of star stacking, unless you have really really noisy images. For foreground shots I use it as often as I can unless I don't have time, but there are ways to reduce the hot pixels in software, it's just easier to do it in camera if you can.

  5. Ollie Taylor January 22, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

    Hi Adam, I have been using the D810 pretty much since it came out following on from a D800, i use long exposures for my foreground and let the camera clean up with NR, Close the lens up a little and I get great detail in the foreground. I was wondering how the foregrounds compare with regards to detail with the D810/810A vs the D750? A friend and I pitted the D3s against the D810 and the D3s way out performed it, however naturally is restricted by its pixel count; in the quest for ever improved nightscapes, im wondering if its worth selling off my back-up D610 and replacing with a D750? Cheers, Ollie Taylor.

  6. Ollie Taylor January 22, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

    Hi Adam, im interested in how well the 750 renders the foreground detail in comparison to the D810/810A, to be fair, more so the D810 as iv'e used this as my primary unit since it came out, is the detail in the foreground noticeably different between the 810/750 with a long exposure after closing up the lens a little with NR switched on? I pitted the 810 against a friends D3s some time back on a night shoot, and the D3s wiped the floor with it, amazingly smooth images with far less noise, alas a very low pixel count. On a quest tor more perfection within my nightscapes I would consider a downgrade if the 750 produces the same pristine foregrounds I can achieve with the 810, or sell off my back up 610. Cheers, Ollie

    • Adam Woodworth June 1, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

      You’ll get a better foreground out of a higher pixel count camera if you can use a low ISO and wait for the very long exposure, you’ll have more detail, you just have to use an appropriately low enough ISO or long enough exposure. Look into ISO invariance.

  7. Unknown January 23, 2016 at 8:00 am #

    Hi Adam, i just recently bought my Nikon D810 and i am deeply passionate about Astrophotography and the lense a am using is AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm f3.5-4G ED VR.
    i have set my ISO to 12800 and focus ring to infinity but still not getting the results right like i mean to actually see the whole starlight, i can only see a bunch of stars but not the whole milky way. If theres any advise i would love to here from you.

    Joe.

    • Adam Woodworth June 1, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

      I’m not entirely sure what you mean, but at 24mm that’s not wide enough to see a big part of the sky. Setting the focus ring to infinity isn’t good enough, you have to use live view mode and center the lens on a bright star or very distant bright object and focus until it looks sharp. The infinity mark on the lens should never be trusted, unfortunately!

  8. Jovesa Kasami January 23, 2016 at 8:08 am #

    Hi Adam,

    I just recently bought my Nikon D810, and i am deeply passionate about Astrophotography and seen your work is just amazing. Anyways, got this lense called NIKKOR with AF-S nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR.
    i want to ask you can this lense can do the job for Astrophotography or do i have to buy a new lense that has f/2.8?
    Joe.

    • Adam Woodworth June 1, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

      A lens with an f/2.8 or brighter aperture will be a lot better for dark sky photography, and a 14mm lens will be very nice for capturing a large view of the sky.

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