Much like a plague victim in a Monty Python film, the SLR isn’t quite dead yet, at least in the eyes of Nikon. Its latest take, the D780 ($2,299.99, body only), updates the aged D750 with some modern features, including a newer version of its 24MP full-frame sensor with much improved focus performance when using Live View, along with better Wi-Fi and a touch LCD. But it costs more than the mirrorless Nikon Z 6 ($1999.95), a camera with the same sensor, but with an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one.
A Tried-and-True Design
The D780’s broadest appeal is to longtime SLR owners who aren’t yet ready to make the move to a mirrorless system. As such, Nikon has taken a conservative approach to its design. The D780 looks and feels almost exactly like its predecessor. There are few changes to button placement, though the new model doesn’t offer a built-in flash.
It has the same basic frame, 4.4 by 5.5 by 3.1 inches (HWD) and 1.7 pounds, with an internal chassis that is mostly magnesium alloy, but has some carbon fiber for better wireless connectivity. Internal seals keep dust and moisture from getting inside.
Nikon sells the camera as a body only, or in a kit with the AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm for $2,799.99. I primarily used an AF 50mm f/1.8 prime, a lens with screw-drive focus, something the company’s FTZ mirrorless adapter doesn’t support, as well as the much newer AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF.
Control at Your Fingers
Nikon’s engineers take full advantage of the D780’s surface area, placing controls on almost every flat surface. There are Depth of Field Preview and Fn buttons on the front, between the handgrip and lens mount. The focus mode toggle switch and button combination is at the left, under the lens release button, and controls to adjust external flash power and bracketing are above it.
The Mode dial is on the top, to the left of the viewfinder prism. It has a lock that must be pressed down in order to change settings. The Drive control dial is nested directly below, and has a similar lock, with the release positioned right next door.
The right of the top plate is dominated by the monochrome information LCD, a backlit panel that gives an at-a-glance overview of exposure settings, battery life, and more. The shutter release and power switch are where you’d expect, atop the handgrip, and are flanked by Record, ISO, and EV control buttons—a slightly different configuration than the D750, but one that matches the more recent D850, Nikon’s high-resolution offering.
Rear buttons are split into two big groups, with the tilting LCD the dividing line. Delete and Play are above it, at the left corner, and the Menu, Help/Lock, Plus/Quality, Minus/Metering, and Info buttons run in a column at its left.
The D780 adds an AF-ON button to the rear, a welcome addition for photographers who split autofocus drive away from the shutter release. It’s above and to the right of the display, next to the repositioned toggle switch to enter Live View and swap between still and video modes. The four-way d-pad, AE-L/AF-L, OK, and i buttons are below, to the right of the display.
Front and rear dials are there to control aperture, shutter, and EV, depending on your mode and settings, and also work to change focus modes, ISO, and other functions in conjunction with button presses.
If you have any serious time behind the lens of a Nikon SLR, the controls will prove familiar, though there is one useful tool made conspicuous by its absence. The D780 doesn’t have a dedicated sub-selector to move the focus point, instead moving that function to the directional pad. It’s not as pleasant to use as the small joystick found on the D850 and Z 6, and it’s a mistake for Nikon not to include it here.
Physical controls are supplemented with an on-screen menu, accessible via the i button. It provides quick access to up to twelve functions, and is readily customizable. You’re even able to set up a different set of options to display in Live View than when using the optical viewfinder. It doesn’t go as far as to offer up a discrete bank of options just for video, though.
The LCD itself is mounted on a single-axis hinge—it tilts up and down, a boon for waist-level photography. Autofocus using the screen is as fast as you get with the mirrorless Z 6, a huge step forward from the slower contrast detection of the D750 and D850.
The screen is 3.2 inches in size, with good viewing angles and adjustable brightness and color brightness. Its 2.4-million dot resolution is double that of the D750, so you’ll have an easier time manually focusing and reviewing images. Our review sample picked up a scratch on the display, likely from bumping up against another camera or lens in a bag, so be sure to handle it with care.
The optical viewfinder is a glass pentaprism with a 0.7x magnification rating. Exposure information is displayed at the bottom in blue OLED text, and there’s an outline to show the area of autofocus coverage at the center of the finder. You’ll also see the focus point move, and you can project a framing grid in the finder if you want to. Black outlines glow red when focus is activated in dim light, so you can still see where the camera is setting focus.
Dual UHS-II Slots and USB-C Charging
The D780 ships with Nikon’s latest battery, the EN-EL15b. It’s the same size and shape as the EN-EL15 bundled with the D750, but is housed in dark gray plastic instead of black or light gray. You can use any of Nikon’s batteries to power the D780, but only the EN-EL15b can charge in camera via USB-C.
An external charger is included too, so you can charge any which way you want. I love the ability to top off the D780’s battery with my MacBook Pro or iPad Pro charger, along with the freedom to travel without packing extra accessories.
The battery is rated for 2,260 shots using the optical viewfinder, though you should expect much less life if you primarily use the rear display to frame up images. The mirrorless Z 6 uses the same battery, sensor, and image processor; its CIPA rating is 380 shots per charge. Even the mirrorless camera in this class with the best battery life, the Sony a7 III, is only good for about 700.
Like the a7 III, the D780 has dual memory card slots. It’s something missing from Nikon’s Z 6 and Z 7, which only offer a single card slot. Both D780 slots support the fastest SD media, UHS-II SDXC cards. The card door is at the right, integrated into the handgrip, and places the slots in a column.
Ports are on the left. The D780 is a fairly formidable video capture device, so it offers 3.5mm jacks for an external microphone and headphones for monitoring, as well as a mini HDMI connector for use with an external recorder, like the Atomos Ninja V. Also included are the aforementioned USB-C connector and a proprietary connector for a wired remote control. The D780 doesn’t have a PC Sync socket—if you’re still relying on cables to trigger studio lights, consider it a sign: It’s time to move to the 21st century and get a radio trigger.
Nikon puts its own wireless communication system in for data transfer. SnapBridge connects to your Android or iOS device to send web-resolution photos over a Bluetooth connection. Full-size transfer is available via Wi-Fi, as is remote control, complete with a live view from the lens.
Limited Focus Coverage
An SLR gets you an optical viewfinder, comforting long-time photographers who, for whatever reason, have opted not to embrace electronic viewfinders. But there are drawbacks, notably limited autofocus coverage when working through the optical finder.
The D780’s 51-point focus system has the same spread as the D750, with the points bunched together in the central third in the frame. If your subject moves outside the area of coverage, the D780 will no longer be able to use it as an autofocus target. The camera can be set to drive focus until it’s acquired (AF-S) or continuously until the shutter is released (AF-C). A third option, AF-A, switches between AF-S and AF-C for you.
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In AF-S you’re limited to automatic, single, or Group AF point selection, the latter clusters five focus points together. Switching to AF-C opens up more, including Dynamic AF; it works similarly to Group but will change the active focus point to one of those surrounding if the camera think it’s necessary. The camera offers 9, 21, and 51-point spreads for the Dynamic AF mode.
There’s also 3D Tracking, the mode I most often use with a Nikon SLR. It uses a single point to acquire a subject, but the point moves to follow it as you adjust camera position or it moves through time and space. It works quite well—the best you’ll get outside of going mirrorless—but you will have to take care to keep your subject within the area of the frame covered by the autofocus system.
The D780 does support face detection through the optical finder. It works well, even when combined with tracking or continuous focus. The camera’s RGB meter isn’t pixel dense enough to detect eyes, but the focus is tuned to aim for upper area of the face, improving the odds of perfectly focused eyes.
Focus behaves a bit differently when you use Live View. Here you get an autofocus system similar to that found in the mirrorless Z 6. Focus coverage is extended to nearly the edge of the sensor, and the addition of on-sensor phase detection delivers much speedier response than the D750 and other SLRs that rely solely only contrast detection for LCD framing.
At press time, though, the Z 6’s focus system is a little more capable. With its recent Firmware 3.0 update, the Z 6 adds eye detection for pets and improves the subject tracking interface. I asked Nikon if the D780 would get the same update, and was told “Nikon refrains from commenting on actions it might take in the future. However, we will consider all possibilities and pay attention to market response and user feedback.”
Still, the D780 gets the basics of Live View right. Focus is speedy, you can tap to select a point, or use physical controls if you prefer. It adds eye detection (for people) to the mix, and supports wide, single point, or zone areas when working in AF-S. Switching to AF-C adds a Dynamic mode to the mix, one that works as it does in the viewfinder.
Subject tracking is there in AF-C too, but it’s not as well implemented when using the optical finder. You have to activate it, for one, by pressing the OK button at the center of the directional pad; otherwise the D780 just picks its own point of interest, and doesn’t follow an object once it’s locked in.
A gray box, sized larger than a single point, appears on screen. A half-press of the shutter tells the camera to look for a subject within the confines of the box. Once locked in, the D780 locks onto and tracks as you move the camera or the subject itself moves. It works well, but is a little cumbersome to use, especially when you need to switch subjects. You’ll need to tap the screen to change the tracking subject, or press the Minus button to the left of the LCD. If you opt for the latter, you’ll need to press OK again to reactivate the system.
It’s a shame Nikon didn’t make its Live View tracking focus work just like the optical system. Sony does that instead, with its Real-Time Tracking, available in its higher-end a7R IV and a9 II models, as well as more recent APS-C cameras.
Tracking is likely to be used in conjunction with continuous drive. The D780 tops out at 7fps when using the mechanical shutter, and offers a 12fps drive mode with an electronic shutter in Live View. Initial focus lock is nearly instant in either mode, though you may have to wait a beat in very dim light or when the lens has to drive across its range to reach the focal point.
The buffer is ample, good enough for 100 shots with minimal delay to clear to a card when using Raw or JPG capture. It is limited to 35 images when using Raw+JPG, though. Buffer tests were performed using a 300MBps UHS-II Sony Tough memory card.
Full-Frame Imaging and 4K Movies
The D780 sports a BSI CMOS image sensor with full-frame dimensions and 24MP of resolution, powered by an EXPEED 6 image processor. The sensor isn’t stabilized, but is otherwise identical to what you get with the mirrorless Nikon Z 6.
It doesn’t have a huge pixel count, so you’re not enjoying a big resolution advantage over APS-C cameras—the D850 and Z 7, with their 45MP sensors, are better fits if that’s what you want. Instead its pixel sites are physically bigger than APS cameras with comparable pixel counts, netting shots with more dynamic range, smoother changes in tone, and clearer results in dim light.
The image sensor has a standard range from ISO 100 through 51200, with extended options to ISO 50 and ISO 204800. The former will come at the cost of some dynamic range—more of a concern for Raw than JPG capture—and the latter ultra-high settings introduce noise and curb detail. Still, Nikon puts them in there, in part for customers in law enforcement and investigation who are more concerned about getting a read on a license plate in the dark than absolute image quality.
There are a number of in-camera looks available in addition to the default, including processing tuned for portraits and landscapes, a monochrome setting, and a vivid option. Nikon also has a load of artistic filters—it calls them Creative—ranging from basics like Sepia, to more artistic filters like Melancholic, a vintage Polaroid film look. In total, there are twenty creative profiles available.
We look at camera-standard JPGs and Raw files in our testing lab. If you use JPG format, you’ll enjoy clean, clear shots through ISO 800. There’s a very slight drop in clarity at through ISO 6400, and while there’s definitely some loss of fine detail through ISO 25600, images are usable. Pushing beyond that, though, is a lot to ask for JPG—smudging gives way to blur, and colors suffer.
The D780 does lets you dial back noise reduction for JPGs—a plus for photographers who don’t mind a grainy look when shooting at the high end of the ISO range. You can also work in Raw format. Not only does it cut off noise reduction, pushing the function to more capable desktop software like Adobe Lightroom, but it retains more data, so you have flexibility to edit images without degradation.
Video recording is available at 4K, with a maximum 30fps capture rate; 24fps is also an option. Faster frame rates, up to 120fps, are available at 1080p. You can record footage with the standard profile, or opt for vivid, monochrome, and many other creative looks for your footage—the same ones available for stills.
A flat profile is also an option, a plus for anyone who wants some freedom to color correct when editing. Nikon offers an LUT for grading flat footage. The mini HDMI port sends a clean signal out, so you can pair the camera with an Atomos Ninja V or similar external recorder for higher-quality compression.
The Z 6 is a little better suited for filmmaking. It adds five-axis stabilization to its sensor, providing versatility for handheld work. It can also be upgraded to support Raw output over HDMI, though you’ll need an Atomos to take advantage.
An SLR for the 2020s?
There’s little question about the quality of the Nikon D780. It’s a better camera than the D750, a body that’s proven to be a workhorse for pros and hobbyists alike. If you’ve been waiting for an upgrade, this model offers a bit faster frame rate and slightly better autofocus, as well as an image sensor that’s more modern, with superior clarity when pushing to higher ISO settings.
There are some handling updates too. The LCD adds support for touch control, and if you’re already traveling with chargers for your laptop and phone, you’ll appreciate being able to top off the battery via the USB-C port. The button layout has some changes too, but we wish Nikon had squeezed focus sub-selector on the back, as it does with the Z 6 and D850.
Still, the question has to be, should you buy an SLR in 2020? The Nikon Z 6 delivers the same level of image quality, and adds stabilization to the sensor. Even when you take the cost of the FTZ adapter into account it’s priced less, and is more of a step forward for D750 owners than the D780.
If you’re absolutely averse to electronic viewfinders, though, the D780 is a welcome port in the ever-growing sea of mirrorless options. You can pick it up and not miss a beat if your muscle memory is tuned to the D750 body, and if you’ve still got a stash of Nikkor AF screw-drive lenses, they’ll work just as they always have.
For customers without a collection of Nikon lenses and accessories, our Editors’ Choice around $2,000 is the Sony a7 III. If you want to spend less on a full-frame camera, the Canon EOS RP and Sony a7 II can be found for around $1,000.