In the midst of a mirrorless wave, the release of Nikon’s latest DSLR, the D780, has gone largely under the radar. But, for some photographers, it might just be what the doctor ordered.
In a previous article, I discussed why the D780 and Nikon’s continuing to produce traditional DSLRs was a good move for the company in spite of the growing prominence of mirrorless. Rather than trying to make an argument for the superiority of DSLRs over mirrorless cameras, the objective of the article was to point out the business case for continued investment in the “old” platform.
From a personal standpoint, I have both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. On paper, my mirrorless cameras are lightyears ahead. But, in practice, I rarely use them for professional work. It’s not because they are not technically capable. It’s simply that due to what I shoot, and, more importantly, how I personally like to shoot and connect with my subjects, I just really don’t like electronic viewfinders. For walkaround photography or shooting for fun, I don't mind. But, when my paycheck is on the line, and I really want to create something special, I always seem to opt for the DSLR. This is 100% subjective and not a knock on mirrorless cameras. It’s just that I personally feel more disconnected from my subjects and less in tune with the moment when looking at a mini-TV screen versus looking at the actual subject via an optical viewfinder. So, all the legitimate benefits of electronic viewfinders like being able to preview your exposure or edge-to-edge autofocus, are lost on me because my primary objective, connecting with my subject, is compromised. Again, I will repeat. This my own personal reason for preferring DSLRs when it’s time to shoot in earnest. That is not a technical evaluation. But, as I learned long ago, all the technology in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if it doesn’t work for me in actual practice. Your shooting needs may be exactly the opposite.
Where mirrorless cameras do really work for me, however, is in the realm of video. When shooting stills, I have my face pressed firmly to the back of the camera, trying to block out all of the world except for what I can see through the viewfinder — trying to find that perfect individual moment. When shooting video, on the other hand, I very rarely would ever do so while looking through the viewfinder. Instead, I would almost exclusively shoot video using live view or an external monitor. So, in this scenario, the exposure previews and TV screen presentation of mirrorless cameras just makes far more sense to me. The camera manufacturers have also placed far more video advancements into their mirrorless lines while often leaving their traditional DSLRs in the dust when it comes to capturing motion.
For someone like me, who provides clients with both stills and motion content, this means that I almost always have to carry two distinct camera setups. One for still and one for motion. It’s not the end of the world, considering the fact that I tend to travel to most sets with enough bags and cases to require their own skycap. But, especially on a smaller budget or personal shoots, there are definitely times when I would prefer to be able to travel light and pack all I need into one body. Mirrorless cameras can do this. But, again, just for me personally since I don’t enjoy using electronic viewfinders, it means I have to compromise on my still shooting experience in the name of the video. Or, if I opt to bring only my DSLR, it means there will be added considerations and certain limitations in my video capabilities.
Enter the Nikon D780. It’s been described as something of a gateway drug for DSLR users to introduce them to mirrorless. I can’t help but think of it as the photographic equivalent of a mullet haircut. Business in the front, party in the back. Except, in this case, the D780 offers all the things I want as a still photographer on the front side, and all the mirrorless features I want as a filmmaker on the back side.
With this in mind, I got a hold of the new Nikon D780 to do a little experiment. My intention was to go an entire month using only the D780 as my primary shooter for everything from stills to motion and see how equipped it would be to do the job. I took it with me everywhere I went. I walked around with it as a street camera and went hiking in the woods to shoot landscapes. I took it on vacation. I used it to create casual video footage. And I used it to do a bit of vlogging. The only thing left was to take it on a professional shoot with a subject. Then, the coronavirus happened.
Depending on where you are when you are reading this, you may or may not have spent the last three months confined to your house as a result of stay-at-home orders. Where I live here in Los Angeles, neither myself nor my models have seen much sunlight in the last few months. So, setting up a large-scale shoot with cast and crew proved increasingly difficult since none of the aforementioned people was allowed to be under one roof. My initial plan to use the camera for a month slowly evolved into three months before our governor opened up just enough of the city for me to sneak off and do a socially distanced photo and video shoot with my friend, Marquis.
Just finally, last week, I was able to package the camera up and send it back (it was on loan), having way more experience and perspective on the camera than even I had planned on. This also leads to a far more in-depth review than I might have been able to provide in only a month, so this review will be a lengthy one. So, for those of you who just want the Cliff Notes version, you can skip to the summary at the end of the article. For those of you considering purchasing a D780 and want to know all the nuts and bolts, continue reading on.
Of course, when this all began, the overarching question I wanted to answer is whether this is the only camera that people like me, who prefer optical viewfinders, would ever really need to handle the tasks of a working photographer. So, here is what I found.
The Shooting Experience Versus the D850 and D750
If you are a lifelong Nikon DSLR shooter like myself, you will find the experience of shooting stills with the D780 quite familiar. I own both a D850 and a D750 and experienced zero learning curve to get up and running with the D780. Nikon DSLRs are a bit like trumpets. Once you learn to play one, you can pretty much pick any of them up and be able to create a tune.
The body is based on the D750. It’s a bit heavier, but you won’t notice. Due to my unexplainable inability to properly attach a camera strap without injuring myself, I opted instead to go strapless with my loaner D780 for the three months. My size 12 high tops logged a lot of miles with a camera in hand doing street photography around the city over the course of a number of long days, yet my hand never really got tired. The neck strap definitely would have been the smart way to go, but the comfortable grip of the DSLR allowed the camera to cradle nicely in my hand without a great deal of strain on my fingers.
I mentioned earlier that, for me, photography is about being able to lift the viewfinder to my eye, allow the rest of the world to go silent, and just experience the moment with the subject within the frame. I am thoroughly aware that this may sound a bit wishy-washy to some readers. But, that connection through the lens is almost a spiritual experience for me. It’s a temporary bond where my energy is fusing with the subject in front of me. The final result is almost an afterthought. I just want to be there, in that exact moment, and have a camera that allows me to experience the moment and mark it when I press down on the shutter. The D780 definitely delivered on that experience.
In terms of image quality, you will see very little difference between the D780's 24.5 MP sensor and the 24.3 MP sensor of the D750. So, if stills are your thing and you are only going to shoot video as an afterthought, you might be advised to either stick with the D750 you have or purchase one now for a heavily discounted rate as opposed to the D780. The stills quality is basically going to be the same. That’s less a knock on the D780 and more credit to the D750, whose image quality would rival pretty much any 24 MP sensor on the market today.
The D750 actually has a couple of advantages over the D780. For one, it has a pop-up flash. Personally, I never use a pop-up flash aside from the rare moment I am using a Nikon speedlight and need the flash to trigger it in commander mode. But many people do use the pop-up and will miss it on the D780.
What I do miss on the D780 is the ability to assign the Fn and Pv buttons on the front of the camera to different autofocus modes. One of the biggest hacks of the D850 and D750 that has saved me a lot of time is to assign different autofocus modes to different buttons. So, for example, I will set up my camera so that the back AF button will be in 25-point dynamic autofocus mode. But I will assign one of the other buttons to press for single point autofocus. And I’ll assign another to be 51-point autofocus. Or 3D autofocus, or whatever. This option allows me to flip quickly between autofocus modes depending on the shot without having to go into the settings menu. For whatever reason, the D780 doesn’t have this functionality. Perhaps it can be fixed in a firmware update.
Of course, this minor inconvenience is more than made up for by the fact that I can now flip from still mode into movie mode literally just by pushing a button. Hit one button, one single button, and I immediately find myself shooting video with all the advanced capabilities of the mirrorless Z 6.
A couple of years ago, when I began to transition back into doing more hybrid video work, my biggest gripe was that switching from stills to video required me to continually change my settings. When working quickly, which is my usual modus operandi, I would often forget to change a setting or two and ruin the next take or set of images. Usually, it was forgetting to change the shutter speed when going between stills and motion. The D780 fixes that by remembering all of my video settings when changing between DSLR stills mode and mirrorless video mode. It remembers everything from my aperture to my white balance to my color profile.
When I first got the D780, my first step was to create my custom settings. For me, this is usually one standard group of settings for “walkaround” photography with natural light, then a separate set of settings for flash photography. I program these to U1 and U2 on the camera (or more in the four menu bank system on the D850). I also set up my base video settings in the D780 for what I will be using most of the time. These things change, of course, but they are general starting points for natural light stills, flash photography, and videography that I almost always use as my base. So, once I programmed those things into my U1 and U2 settings on the D780, all I had to do was pick one or two based on what I was shooting and start snapping stills through the optical viewfinder, then hit one button and automatically be taken to a live view Z 6 with full-time autofocus to cover the scene in the video. I hit the button again, and I’m taken right back to my preferred still settings, and I’m back ready to shoot stills without having to worry about changing anything else.
It is incredibly convenient and really allows me to do 100% of my job, in the method I prefer to perform it, without ever picking up another camera.
Why Not Just Buy a Z 6?
So, without question, many people reading this article would wonder why it wouldn’t make more sense to just buy a Z 6. And those questions would not be without merit. After all, the main advantage the D780 has over the D750 and D850 is the video capability inherited from the Z 6. In fact, the Z 6 adds to that by offering the option to upgrade to a raw video workflow. This option is not available in a D780, and I’m not sure whether or not there are plans to even make it available in the future. And as much as I love the ability to quickly switch between stills and motion on the D780, that too is something inherited from its mirrorless brethren.
Buying into the new mirrorless system will allow you to take advantage of both the F-mount lenses via the adapter as well as the newer Z-mount lenses natively. Presumably, future R&D will go into the Z-mount. This means that in the long run, you might get marginally better glass. Of course, the caveats with that being that F-mount glass is darn good, it will take Nikon decades to have a range of Z-mount lenses to rival their F-mount collection in terms of breadth, and this issue of whether the Z-mount glass is incrementally sharper might lend itself more to photography forum debates than actual client effect in the real world.
There are many theories as to why the majority of Nikon users have still not made the switch to mirrorless cameras. Many point to the large install base of F-mount lenses for existing DSLR users and existing photographers being in no hurry to invest in new lenses. Even though the FTZ adapter works wonders, it’s likely that switching to mirrorless ultimately means purchasing new lenses at some point. By all accounts, the focus acquisition and performance via the adapter is almost identical to native performance with Z-mount glass, but there are other considerations.
One advantage of getting a D780 versus a Z 6 is that you don’t need to spend extra on an adapter as it will take F-mount glass natively. However, one thing I did notice when shooting video with the D780 and F-mount lenses is that all my current F-mount lenses are relatively loud when focusing. This makes sense, as they were not built to be video lenses. But, if you are planning on recording both video and audio with the built-in microphone, you will quickly notice the sound of autofocus adjustments on the soundtrack. I almost never use the internal microphone on a DSLR or mirrorless camera anyway. But, if you were in a situation where you just wanted to record ambient sound with the camera itself, you might want to opt for manual focus. I asked a friend who owns a Z 6 with adapted lenses if he has the same problem, and he said yes. All of which leads me to think that, if the video on the Z 6 was your primary goal, you would likely eventually find yourself buying Z glass either way since the focusing mechanisms are built more with video in mind.
Regardless of my own personal preference for DSLRs, I am also aware that mirrorless market share is only going to increase. This sense of inevitability is often reflected in vloggers and camera reviewers openly wondering why anyone would buy a D780 instead of a Z 6, especially when the D780 currently retails for $2,300, whereas the Z 6 can be found for around $500 or $600 less. Why would you pay more for what, on paper, seems like a camera with fewer new features? Well, for me, the answer is simple. Newer features are not always better features for every individual’s workflow. That doesn’t mean that one way of working is better than another. It simply means that one size doesn’t always fit all. So, for me, the reason why someone would pay an extra $500 is obvious. They are paying more for the optical viewfinder.
I realize this may sound crazy to some photographers who have fallen in love with electronic viewfinders or who have only ever owned cameras with electronic viewfinders. But for some photographers, like myself, having to look through an electronic viewfinder as opposed to an optical one is more of an annoyance I have to deal with to get the other features as opposed to a benefit. I realize that’s completely a personal preference. But so is buying one camera versus another. And you should buy a camera based upon how it fits your shooting style as opposed to someone else’s opinion. That includes my own.
I have my reasons why I like optical viewfinders. For one, as described earlier, I simply prefer to look through a lens rather than look at a digital screen. I try to look at digital readouts as little as possible, whether that be a camera or a cell phone. Another reason I like optical viewfinders, aside from me being old, is that I shoot mainly athletes in motion. I’m not a sports photographer, but I share a lot of similar needs. Timing a subject's fast-paced movements is critical for me. Something as simple as catching a runner’s leg at a 90-degree angle as opposed to an 89-degree angle can make a massive amount of difference to me. And while it is absolutely possible to get this level of micro-precision with an electronic viewfinder, I find it significantly easier to do when I can just look at the real subject rather than a digital representation of a subject. With an optical viewfinder, there is no EVF lag to factor in and little blackout to have to worry about. It’s just easier. And while mirrorless EVFs have come a long way, they are still behind when it comes to shooting sports and fast-moving action.
And while developments like eye autofocus and face detection set mirrorless cameras apart in terms of autofocus, they also take a lot of the decisions out of the hands of the photographer. I find this useful when shooting relatively stationary subjects like portraits. But for fast-moving or erratically moving athletes, I find that I get far better results using the tried and true Nikon 153-point autofocus system in my DSLR.
Those are just a few of my own reasons for preferring an optical viewfinder, but other photographers would surely have their own list. Of course, others may also have a list of why they prefer electronic viewfinders over optical viewfinders. It’s simply a matter of taste, which is what makes the D780 the perfect balance for photographers like me, but maybe not ideal for a different kind of photographer.
You’ll notice throughout this article that I keep using phrases such as “photographers like me.” That’s because I can only base my opinion on my own experience in an effort to give you the most honest opinion. And, for photographers like me, I can see a number of reasons why one would choose this camera over the Z 6. However, I can also make a pretty persuasive case for why one might choose the Z 6 instead.
It would start with the value proposition of costs versus how you are going to use it. The best customer for the D780 would be an existing Nikon photographer who already owns a significant amount of F-mount lenses who needs to shoot video in addition to their still work. The most likely buyer will be someone like me who already owns a D750 and is deciding whether or not to upgrade for the additional video benefits.
Well, let’s look at the numbers in comparison to what you’re getting with them. Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I use a Nikon D850 as my primary professional camera and a Nikon D750 as my secondary camera and personal walkaround camera. Both cameras focus primarily on stills, while I have both cinema cameras and mirrorless cameras that handle the majority of video activities. The cinema cameras and mirrorless cameras are both from different brands and thus require their own sets of lenses and accessories in addition to my Nikon equipment.
The reason why I would buy a D780 is so that I could put it into a bag with my D850, use it for video, and as a backup camera to the D850, which would focus on stills. Having a D780 would allow me to combine what my D750 provides with what my smaller mirrorless cameras provide into one body, and thus, I would have less to carry and be better prepared in the event that a video request comes up unexpectedly and perhaps I didn’t bring along my separate video bag. This scenario actually played itself out in real life on my shoot with Marquis as I originally didn't intend to do video at all, but had to switch gears at the moment. Also, because the D780 uses the same lenses and accessories as my D850, I would not have to worry about bringing along multiple sets of lenses as I do now on integrated productions. In short, I could carry less while still keeping myself covered in both still and motion situations.
In order to get the camera, I would either spend $2300 to purchase it new and put it into the bag alongside the D850 and D750, or I would trade in my mint condition D750 to offset costs. That means the total costs of purchasing a D780 would be roughly $1800 (including trade-in discount) and result in me having two Nikon bodies, a D850 and a D780. Not bad. Light, efficient, and covering my needs.
However, there is another option. Purchasing the Z 6 brand new with the FTZ adapter included would cost roughly $1,800. That’s only about $500 less than buying a new D780. However, you can find used Z 6 cameras on the market for roughly $1,500, including the adaptor to save even more (or $1,600 brand new as part of Nikon's current promotion). However, in that scenario, I would end up with three cameras instead of two, as I would now have the D850, D750, and Z 6. I would also have even better video capabilities, because the Z 6 is capable of shooting raw video. True, I wouldn’t have an optical viewfinder with the Z 6. But, in this scenario, I would have two primary DSLRs with optical viewfinders, and the Z 6 camera would essentially only really be used for video, so the viewfinder, for me, becomes far less important.
Both scenarios would allow me to keep my existing F-mount glass and reduce the need to carry multiple sets of lenses. Both would accomplish my business objectives. And both would cost about the same level of investment, but the Z 6 investment, it could be argued, would be more valuable as I would have more capabilities and more cameras in the end. So would it make more sense to buy a Z 6 than a D780?
So, after all that ink, what decision should you make. The short conclusion would be as follows.
- If you like optical viewfinders and only care about stills and video is an afterthought, then purchase a D750 or D850 depending on your resolution requirements.
- If you like electronic viewfinders and only care about video and stills are an afterthought, then purchase a Z 6.
- If you prefer optical viewfinders, need to shoot both stills and video, are already in the Nikon ecosystem, and like 24 MP, then look no further than the D780.
Nikon has provided three amazing options, and you can’t really go wrong. It’s just a matter of preference. But, if you are a photographer who prefers the added connection an optical viewfinder offers with your subject when shooting stills, but needs to step up your video game over the D750, then the D780 is simply a camera that allows you to do everything.