Nikon D780 Underwater Review
The Nikon D780 is proof that Nikon is not done with their DSLR cameras..... yet. In fact, the release of the Nikon D780 is particularly exciting because the camera represents an elegant hybridization of mirrorless and DSLR technology. This is evident in the D780's new phase-detect AF system in live view that is capable of autofocus tracking.
With a 24.5 megapixel, full-frame sensor capable of shooting 4K video @ 30fps, the Nikon D780 is equivalent to a DSLR version of the Nikon Z6. For underwater photographers looking for diverse AF systems, including an optical viewfinder AF system similar to the D5, the D780 will be a great option.
Whether it's a better option for underwater photography than the slightly cheaper Nikon Z6, it's hard to tell. If you want the benefits mirrorless photography including edge-to-edge focus points, no need for expensive magnified viewfinders, IBIS, and z mount lenses, then the Nikon Z6 is going to be a future-proof option. If you're not quite ready to step out of the DSLR world, then the Nikon D780 is going to be the way to go. In fact, the new phase detect AF system in live view gives it a direct advantage over the Nikon D850.
In order to get a true sense of what a hybrid DSLR-mirrorless camera means for underwater photographers, we took the Nikon D780 diving in the warm, tropical waters of Maui, Hawaii with an Ikelite D780 underwater housing and dual Ikelite DS161 strobes. Overall we thought the system had the same great, ergonomic feel of a Nikon DSLR with a vastly improved live-view autofocus system. This enabled us to forgoe using magnified viewfinders if we so chose and opened a new world of DSLR video, similar to the amazing results we often see with the Nikon Z6.
Nikon D780 In the Field
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U.S. MSRP Nikon D780: $2,299.95
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The most exciting update made to the Nikon D750 has been the autofocus system. In live view, the Nikon D780 has the guts of a Nikon Z6 phase detect autofocus system. This means quick focus with AF tracking.
The 24.5 MP sensor itself appears to be the same as the Nikon Z6. It is backside illuminated with dual gain ISO. It is expected to perform much better at higher ISOs and has an improved ISO range of ISO 100 - 51,200.
The D780's video capability is also significantly better than the Nikon D750. It appears that the D780 has inherited video from the Z6 - with an ability to shoot 4K up to 30 fps, with the full width of the sensor.
Burst modes and slow shutter speeds have also been improved on the Nikon D780. The Nikon D780 can shoot 12 fps burst in the silent live view mode. Landscape and astro photographers will appreciate shutter speeds of up to 900 seconds, without the need for a remote trigger.
For underwater photographers, the largest considerations for upgrading from the D750 will be the value of having quick live view autofocus and a good focus system for underwater video (as well as excellent 4K video and color science).
Maui Green Sea Turtle Photographed with Nikon D780 in an Ikelite D780 housing, dual Ikelite DS161 strobes, and Nikon 8-15mm lens
Key Upgrades from the Nikon D780
• Updated 24.5 MP BSI CMOS sensor
• Extended ISO range (now 100-51,200)
• Increased burst shooting rate - now 7 fps and 12 fps in live view (silent)
• Changes in max and min shutter speed (900 sec to 1/8000 sec)
• Live view focus system - new 273 point on-sensor phase detect AF system
• 4K video up to 30fps
•Improved LCD resolution - 2.4 million dots
•Improved battery life - 2260 shots
Key Nikon D780 Specs
• 24.5 full frame BSI CMOS sensor
• Expeed 6 processor
• ISO Range - 100-51,200
• Burst shooting: 7fps viewfinder, 12 fps live view (silent mode)
• 51 AF points (15 cross-type), 273 points in live view
• shutter speed (min/max): 1/18000 sec / 900 sec
• Dual SD (UHS-II) card slots
• Video: 4K up to 30fps. 10-bit N-log over HDMI
• 3.2" 2.4 million dots LCD
• 28 RAW image buffer
• Battery Life: 2260 shots
• Weight: 840g
Body and Build
The Nikon D780 is built like your standard Nikon DSLR. It's durable, ergonomic, and completely weather-sealed. The largest physical change from the D750 is that the D780 has an additional dedicated AF-on button. At 840 grams it's not particularly light weight or heavy. As with any DSLR, it has an optical viewfinder which many photographers still prefer to the EVF of mirrorless cameras due to the benefits of clarity.
Pro Tip: Before taking your Nikon D780 underwater, it's a good idea to customize your i menu so that all essential controls (e.g., ISO, Focus Area Selection, AF modes) are just one button press away. If you forget this the you can end up having to push the ISO button while turning the back dial, which can be very annoying to do in an underwater housing.
A Radical New Live View System and Improved AF
For the entirety of their existance, DSLRs have been plagued by slow live view autofocus. Because of this, generations of photographers rarely consider using live view systems in their photography. However, for underwater photographers, view finders are difficult to look through, and magnified viewfinders can be prohibitively expensive. This is one of the big reasons why mirrorless cameras are a benefit to underwater photographers. Well, the D780 is slated to be just as good as a mirrorless camera in live view - featuring a 273 point phase detect AF system capable of AF tracking. This is going to open up a world of possibilities to underwater photographers and videographers. This new system basically makes the Nikon D780 a hybrid DSLR-mirrorless camera. Beyond of the live view AF, the 51 point AF system through the viewfinder is said to be borrowed from the flagship D5.
The Nikon D780 has the unique benefit of offering two entirely different AF tracking capabilities - the traditional 3D AF tracking through the viewfinder and AF tracking in live view. Both can be fairly useful while shooting underwater - especially when trying to keep track of subjects that move suddenly or predictably. We tested the Nikon D780's AF tracking capability quite extensively during our Hawaiian dives. The AF tracking worked very similarly to the Z6 - it works great in some situations and not in others. It's necessary to be close to the animal being tracked, and even then it isn't always the most accurate. The Sony A7R IV still has some of the best AF tracking on the market. But the important takeaway from the D780 is that you can freely choose live view and viewfinder AF and both are excellent.
Better Burst and Expanded Shutter Speeds
For an entry level full-frame DSLR, the D780's burst rate is quite alright at 7 fps. In live view, using silent shutter, it's as high as 12 fps! This should be pretty exciting for underwater photographers that shoot quick pelagic subjects who don't want to spend the extra money on a faster camera.
For landscape and astro photography, the expanded shutter speed range of 900 seconds to 1/8000 seconds is exciting. Photographers won't need to use a remote trigger for long exposures under 900 seconds!
Red Pencil Urchin patterns photographed with Nikon D780 in an Ikelite D780 housing, dual Ikelite DS161 strobes, and Nikon 105mm macro lens
Improved Video Capability
The video capability of the Nikon D780 is one of the most exciting features it has to offer. At 4K resolution up to 30 fps, it's a serious upgrade from the outdated D750. The video capability and quality is similar to the Nikon Z6 which uses the full width of the sensor to shoot 4K - producing very detailed video. The excellent live view AF system will contribute to the great continuous AF in video mode. The D780 should also have improved color compared to it's predecessor. Finally, the Nikon D780 is capable of shooting 10-bit N-log or HLG picture profiles - which preserve detail after processing. It is, however, important to note that the D780 doesn't have in-body image-stabilization, which is a huge benefit of the Nikon Z6.
We thought the video we captured with the Nikon D780 on par with the video from Nikon's recent mirrorless offerings. This officially makes the D780 Nikon's best DSLR for underwater video, and a serious contender for the underwater video camera market - despite not having IBIS.
What can we say....the D780's battery life is great! At 2260 shots, it's rated almost 7 times longer than Z series cameras! For underwater photographers and videographers that means more shooting time underwater and less worry about having to change batteries topside.
When we shot only in live view, we found the battery life to be reduced and similar to the battery life with the Z6 - as would be expected. That being said, we were able to get 3-4 dives out of a battery even if we were shooting just in live view. When shooting through the viewfinder, it should be possible to get significantly more dives. This is a big positive for anyone who wants to stick to DSLR's for the added battery benefit - especially photographers that dive in remote locations and don't have an easy way to change batteries on the fly.
Wide shot of wire coral in Maui, Hawaii with D780, 8-15mm Fisheye Lens, f/11, 1/125, ISO 200 Photo by Jenna Szerlag
The Nikon D780 is a very exciting DSLR for underwater photography. With a vastly improved live view AF system, it is a cross between a DSLR and mirrorless camera. Users will reap the benefits of both designs. With AF tracking a phase detect AF, it will be a good camera for underwater photographers that want to track there subjects and don't want to use a small viewfinder. For photographers that like the clarity and dynamic range of an optical viewfinder, they'll get that too....along with an excellent 51 point AF system.
The image quality from the Nikon D780's sensor has proven to be excellent for a mid range full-frame DSLR, as it is likely tried and tested with the Nikon Z6. Improvements in low light capability should be noticeable which will be welcomed especially by cold water divers.
Shooting the D780 underwater was an excellent experience. The camera adapted nicely to a wide range of dive conditions. The Nikon 8-15mm fisheye was a great choice when diving in the deep blue waters of Molokini. The Nikon 105mm macro was very useful for capturing macro patterns and tiny critters on hte reef. Overall we thought the images speak for themselves - the image quality is excellent. We thought the details and dynamic range in the images stands up to other professional Nikon DSLRs and mirrorless cameras of the same full frame resolution. The D780 will be an easy transition for any DSLR and full frame shooter. It has the iconic look and feel of a Nikon DSLR with the potential of a mirrorless camera.
Ultimately, the Nikon D780 gives photographers who aren't ready to leave the DSLR world for mirrorless cameras, time to adjust to a changing world. It's certainly a worthy upgrade from the D750 that places it on the other side of the mirror from the Z6.
Close up of Barred Shrimp on same wire coral as above. Nikon D780, 105mm Lens, f/18, 1/200, ISO 100 Photo by Jenna Szerlag
Nikon D780 for Underwater Video
The Nikon D780 just might be Nikon's best DSLR for Underwater video. It offers 4K video using the full width of the sensor (downsampled from 6K). This ensures a higher level of detail than normal 4K video. Nikon's colors have improved quite a lot in their video from previous generations of the camera. The D780 also offers 10 bit logarithmic recording which should please anyone who likes to post process their video to bring out as much detail as possible. Finally, the phase detect live view AF system is one of the best on the market for underwater video.
Compared to the Z6, the Nikon D780 is similarly capable when it comes to video. However, it does not have any in-body image-stabilization. For this reason we recommend the Z6 over the D780 for underwater video.
The Nikon D780 is the perfect camera for any underwater photographer looking to step into a full frame system and doesn't want to go mirrorless. The D780 has a huge selection of F mount lenses with plenty of great options for underwater creatives. It offers an amazing AF system, including a groundbreaking AF system for live view. This makes it a good upgrade for DSLR users who are looking to use their LCD underwater and don't want to be hindered by slow AF. The D780 doesn't quite have the resolution of the D850, but the sensor is tried and true and brings truly excellent image quality to the table. The video is also the best of any Nikon DSLR. So for DSLR users that want a Nikon with good video, this is the camera for you.
Red Pencil Urchin. Nikon D780, 8-15mm Lens, f/11, 1/160, ISO 200 Photo by Jenna Szerlag
- Nikon 60mm 2.8G Macro: Great all around lens and especially great for blackwater diving
- Nikon 105mm 2.8G VR Macro: Great for small and shy subjects, giving you more working room than the 60mm and essential for super macro
- Nauticam Super Macro Converter: the Nauticam super macro converter (SMC-1) is a wet diopter perfect for taking sharp super macro images. In fact, it is the strongest, sharpest diopter on the market. For the best super macro results, use it with the Nikon 105 mm 2.8G VR lens.
Endemic 2" long Hawaiian White Spotted Toby. Nikon D780, 105mm macro Lens, f/13, 1/200, ISO 100 Photo by Jenna Szerlag
Wide Angle Fisheye
- Nikon 8-15mm: Get creative with the full circular image, or zoom in for a more standard fisheye lens. Read the Nikon 8-15mm FX AF-S f/3.5-4.5E ED Zoom Fisheye Review by Mark B. Hatter.
- Nikon 16mm 2.8 Fisheye: Also a great lens, and a popular choice for full-frame
Diver on Molokini's Back Wall. Maui, Hawaii Nikon D780, Nikon 8-15mm Fisheye Lens, f/11, 1/125, ISO 200 Photo by Jenna Szerlag
Wide Angle Rectilinear
- Nikon 16-35mm 4.0: Great for large animals and extremely sharp lens, but requires a larger dome to get sharp images
- Nikon 20mm 1.8G: Small, compact, sharp, doesn't need as big a dome as the 16-35 mm
For further reading, check out Bluewater's guide to the best Nikon lenses for underwater.
Currently, Ikelite offers an excellent housing for the Nikon D780. Ikelite is one of the top makers of polycarbonate underwater housings. Their housings are very intuitive, user-friendly, and generally lighter underwater which makes for better buoyancy. We also anticipate an aluminum housing for the D780 from Nauticam. Nauticam is one of the world's top makers of aluminum housings. Their housings are elegantly engineered so that all controls are within reach of the handles.
Ikelite is one of the world's top housing manufacturers of ABS-PC polycarbonate housings. The Ikelite Nikon D780 housing is easy-to-use and very lightweight underwater compared to other manufacturers. Its a very durable housing and uses Ikelites elegant dry lock port system. A vacuum valve comes with the housing for added protection from floods underwater. The housing is ergonomic and all controls are easy to reach and operate. Did I mention that the housing is less expensive than the camera body? If you're new to underwater photography....that almost never happens!
Our staff took the Ikelite D780 diving during our tests in Maui, Hawaii. Underwater Photography Guide editor, Jenna Szerlag, commented that "the Ikelite D780 housing was super easy to use, a lot of fun, and second nature - being a full-frame DSLR shooter."
Nauticam is a leader in machined aluminum underwater camera housings. The Nauticam NA-D780 housing for the Nikon D780 is an ergonomic, elegant, and effective housing designed to provide full functionality to the D780 underwater. The housing is crafted from high quality aluminum and all controls and dials are within reach from the handles. The housing is depth rated to 100m. All buttons are clearly labeled; it includes two fiber optic ports and a leak sensor. The rotating housing latch is secure and easy to use.
The Nikon D780 is truly one of the most exciting DSLR camera offerings from Nikon in a long time. With phase detect live view AF migrated from Nikon's mirrorless cameras, the D780 is a revolutionary mix of DSLR and mirrorless technology. Underwater Photographers are finally going to have a solution to poor live view AF in a DSLR. The video specs are excellent and the Nikon D780 will be Nikon's best DSLR for video yet! For any underwater photographer or videographer who is looking to move up to a full frame DSLR with great all-around performance for a reasonable price, the Nikon D780 just might be the best option out there.