The Nikon D750 vs D780: Should you upgrade?

The Nikon D750 was one of the best enthusiast-and-up DSLRs on the market at the time it was announced and is still a popular workhorse for many photographers today. Its 24MP sensor is still very competitive but its video specs in particular are looking very outdated.

If I were a D750 shooter today, ‘should I upgrade?’ would be a question on my mind. Our own Dan Bracaglia had some thoughts of his own on this, but let’s take a slightly deeper dive into just what Nikon’s updated, and whether those updates are worth it.

Autofocus

Probably the first thing most D750 owners will start to notice if they move across to the D780 is the improved autofocus. The D750 is certainly a capable camera in this regard but the D780 gains a couple of updates that should boost its performance.

In conventional DSLR mode, the D780 uses the same 51-point AF module as its predecessor but the AF system is informed by information from a 180,000 pixel metering sensor, rather than the 91,000 pixel sensor in the D750. This, combined with algorithms derived from those of the D5 professional sports camera, should significantly improve the D780’s AF performance, particularly in terms of subject tracking.

Even more significant will be the autofocus improvements in live view mode, which we’ll come to in a bit.

Newer sensor and JPEG engine

Although both cameras have sensors that come with 24MP, the unit in the D780 is a newer design, either identical or closely related to the one in Nikon’s existing Z6 mirrorless camera. This means it has a BSI (backside-illuminated) design and, more significantly, dual-gain architecture. In essence, this allows the camera to have maximum dynamic range at base ISO with improved noise characteristics at higher ISO values where absolute DR isn’t as crucial a consideration.

We would expect the D780 to produce better JPEGs compared to the D750

We’d expect the D780 to offer a slight upgrade over the D750 for Raw shooters, but one that’s only really visible in comparison and that won’t come close to justifying upgrading.

On the other hand, Nikon’s JPEG engine has improved by leaps and bounds over the past five years. We’ll have to do some more testing to be sure, but we’d expect the D780 to produce JPEGs with better sharpening, more pleasing color and more sophisticated noise reduction compared to those from the D750. And that also makes those JPEGs that much better for sharing over the updated Snapbridge wireless system that the D780 supports.

But that 24MP sensor isn’t all about BSI and dual-gain architecture. It also comes with…

On-sensor phase detection

The D780 has on-sensor phase detection, which provides the kind of distance information needed to quickly drive DSLR lenses. It also gains the AF tracking system from the Z-series cameras, including Face and Eye detection modes. The Face and Eye detection will be a distinct improvement for portraits and people pictures, compared with the D750.

The D780’s live view interface is directly borrowed from the Z-series cameras. This means it works slightly differently that the through-the-viewfinder system: AF tracking needs to be actively cancelled, and always resets to the central position, rather than a pre-selected one, and the Face / Eye detection modes feels like it’s been glued on top of the interface rather than designed to be part of it.

But if you’ve only shot with a DSLR before, you’re likely to be immediately impressed by how well the live view AF performs. Particularly for taking pictures of people, it can be fast, simple and dependable, in a way that even Nikon’s 3D Tracking system isn’t.

Video

Along with live view autofocus, one of the clearest enhancements on the D780 is its video performance. This is immediately apparent from the fact it can shoot up to 4K/30p or 1080/120p, rather than the 1080/60p of the D750, but it runs a lot deeper than that.

For a start, the vastly improved AF and tracking of its live view mode extend to its video shooting, meaning the autofocus is faster, smoother and more reliable (the difference between being usable and unusable, basically). In addition, the D780 gains Nikon’s latest approach to video settings, which lets you configure different settings, including different button customization, if you wish. You can have the video mode mimic your stills settings if you like, but you can also set it to use a different color mode, or white balance setting if you prefer, meaning it’s easy to jump back and forth between stills and video shooting.

Overall, the D780 is a very capable video camera. It’ll even output 10-bit Log footage to an external recorder, if you’re taking things really seriously. Panasonic’s S1 and S1H are some of the only full-frame cameras to offer significantly better video specs. That’s a huge step forward from the D750.

What’s similar?

Many of the rest of the D780’s specs are broadly similar: it’ll shoot at 7fps rather than the D750’s 6.5fps, but that’s unlikely to make much of a difference. Switch to live view and electronic shutter mode and the D780 will deliver 8fps or 12fps if you’re willing to take the slight dynamic range penalty of dropping to 12-bit mode. However, electronic shutter risks movement being distorted by the rolling shutter and increases the range of situations in which you’ll see banding from the flicker of artificial lights, so it’s not useful for all applications.

The optical viewfinders are the same, too: pentaprisms with 100% coverage and 0.7x magnification.

Also, the D780 still has an in-body (screw drive) focus motor and AI tab, to allow its use with a broad range of older F-mount lenses. The D750 had both features, but notably the FTZ mount adapter for the Z-mount cameras doesn’t.

What’s different

The D780’s rear screen still tilts up and down on a rugged-feeling cradle like the D750’s did, but the dot-count has doubled and it’s now touch-sensitive, making the camera much more usable in live view mode.

The other big difference is that the D780 uses Nikon’s Snapbridge communications system, rather than the more conventional Wi-Fi system on the D750. Snapbridge maintains a constant Bluetooth connection between a smart device and the camera, which makes it quicker to establish a Wi-Fi connection.

We weren’t impressed with the early implementations of Snapbridge but it’s gained a lot in the way of features and stability since then. There’s an option to auto-send 2MP versions of every image you shoot, you can set the camera to transfer images you’ve marked in playback mode (these transfers will happen even when the camera is off), or you can browse the images on the camera from your phone. It now supports Raw and video transfer over Wi-Fi, along with geotagging of images based on phone location and extensive remote control of the camera.

The D780 has a new shutter mechanism, capable of 1/8000 sec exposures. The downside is that its shutter shock at moderate exposures is more pronounced than on the D750. You can work around this by selecting ‘Electronic front-curtain shutter’ in the menus and always shooting in Quiet mode (apply the minimum 0.2 sec exposure delay when resolution is really critical), but it’s worth being aware of.

What’s missing?

Not all of the D780’s specs are an improvement on the older model, though. The D780 repeats some of Nikon’s recent product planning decisions that omit some features that were included in the D750.

The most immediately apparent difference is the lack of internal flash. Nikon says the camera can be better weather-sealed if you don’t include a pop-up flash, but anyone looking to use the D780 with off-camera flashes will have to consider the significance of that trade-off for their shooing. You can mount a variety of flash commanders to the hot shoe or push a WR-R10 radio transceiver into the Remote socket on the left of the camera, if you have the latest radio-controlled Nikon Speedlights.

The other obvious omission on the D780 are the connectors to allow duplicate controls on an accessory grip. There’s nothing on the base of the camera and nothing in the battery compartment meaning that, if Nikon does decide to offer a battery grip, it’ll be like the one for the Z6 and Z7, that just adds room for a second battery.

We suspect a lot of users will find the D780’s rating of 2260 shots per charge more than sufficient (especially considering it’s common to get more than twice the rated number, depending on your usage). However, there will be some users that liked the extra reassurance or improved portrait-orientation ergonomics that an accessory grip offers.

Batteries and memory cards

The D780 uses the latest EN-EL15b battery. It looks like a slightly more angular version of the existing EN-EL15 batteries, the distinction being that the ‘b’ variant can be charged over the camera’s USB socket. The D780 can still use the older 15a and 15 batteries but without USB charging, and with significantly reduced battery life if used with the original EN-EL15 batteries not marked Li-Ion20.

Interestingly, like the D750, the D780 continues to use twin SD card slots, now compatible with the newer UHS-II cards. This may seem odd, given the closely-related Z6 uses the more exotic XQD card format. But there’s not much that the D780 does that would demand higher throughput that the 90MB/s rates maintained by the latest v90 SD cards.

Equally, if we see the D780 as an F-mount alternative to the Z6, then it makes sense that it should maximize its backwards compatibility in terms of cards as well as lenses and (to an extent) batteries.

Should I buy a D780?

Considered in isolation, the D780 is a tremendously well-rounded, capable camera, much as the D750 was, but with that capability now extending to video as well as stills shooting. However, it’s also worth considering the question ‘why would you buy this instead of a Z6?’

The Z6 was launched for $300 less than the D780 and that was over a year ago, so the current price difference is even greater. The Z6 uses Nikon’s latest lenses, and clearly represents the direction the company and its development efforts are going in, so what would prompt people to still buy a DSLR?

The most compelling reasons would be either because you have a significant investment in F-mount lenses, your style of shooting demands an optical viewfinder, or simply that you prefer using an optical viewfinder. In which case, the D780 looks like a great do-everything option, and one that has been appreciably improved, compared with the D750.

We suspect this is a trend we’ll see from Canon and Nikon for at least a generation or two of camera releases: a variant of their latest mirrorless cameras, built into (perhaps modestly updated) versions of their DSLR bodies, since both companies have die-hard DSLR users. The breadth of the model range might contract, over time, making it less likely that there’ll be a model at the price you want to pay, but there are enough Nikon lenses out there that there’ll be an audience for Nikon DSLRs for a while yet.

Should I upgrade from my D750?

Whether it’s worth upgrading from a D750 is a more difficult question. If you primarily shoot stills, it might not be. There are certainly improvements in terms of image quality particularly on the JPEG side of things, but these alone are unlikely to justify the cost of upgrading. If you only shoot stills through the viewfinder, and haven’t found yourself hankering for improved AF tracking, then it probably makes sense to stick with the D750.

If you only shoot stills through the viewfinder then it probably makes sense to stick with the D750

However, if you would like a camera with the simplicity and accuracy that eye-detect AF brings, it’s well worth a look. It’s also certainly an easier camera to shoot at high and low angles, thanks to its much more usable live view. Most of all, if you have even the slightest interest in video, the D780 is a significantly better camera. If nothing else, it’s a great way to get that familiar DSLR feel with the option of experiencing what Nikon’s Z-series cameras are like to use.

But then, if it’s the video and mirrorless features of the D780 that make you want to upgrade, maybe you’d be better off with a Z6.

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