Nikon D780 Review - Astrophotography

April 05, 2020  •  11 Comments

Nikon D780 Review - Astrophotography

The Nikon D780 is the long-awaited replacement for the popular D750.  I've been using a Nikon D750 for the past 5 years for all of my astrophotography, landscapes, wildlife, portraits, and more.  The camera has done a phenomenal job, but it was starting to show its age.  There were also a few small problems with the D750, the main one being this annoying purple glow.  This purple glow was only visible if I didn't capture enough light to "cover it up", which is a pretty common occurrence when doing astrophotography.  After waiting for years to upgrade to a new camera body, I was very excited when Nikon finally released the D780!  In this review I'm going to focus on how the D780 performs specifically for nightscapes and astrophotography.


Camera Body Design and Ergonomics 

The D780 has a very similar design to the D750, both in terms of button layout and ergonomics.  If you're comfortable using your D750 at night, it will be very easy to switch to the D780.  The main difference is that the "i" button has moved from the lower left to the lower right.  The "info" button has also moved from the upper right to the lower left.  Finally, the Live View button has moved from the lower right to the upper right.  After using the camera for a day, it's pretty easy to get used to these small changes.  Click here to see the Nikon D750's button layout, and here to see the Nikon D780's button layout.

The most important change to the button layout is the ISO button.  Thankfully, Nikon put the ISO button up top, next to the "Record Movie" button.  This makes it very easy to find at night, and quickly switch the ISO.  On the D750, the ISO button was placed on the back, right between some very important buttons like "Quality" and "i".  It was very easy to accidentally switch from RAW to JPEG if you weren't careful, especially in the dark.

The Nikon D780 does have a touch-screen LCD now, although I rarely use it.  For those who like touch screens, you can use this to focus the image by tapping on the screen, scroll through photos and menus, change settings, zoom in, and more.  If you'd rather not have the touch-screen functionality, you can always turn it off in the menu.  

As you've probably heard, the Nikon D780 does not have a built-in flash, unlike virtually every other DSLR.  Nikon says this was done to help weather-seal the camera, but my D750 was in lots of very wet and dirty conditions and never once had a problem.  It is unfortunate that there is no longer any built-in flash, but if we're being honest it wasn't all that useful anyway (especially for nightscapes and astro).  

The camera grip is very similar between the two camera bodies, however the Nikon D750 is still more comfortable to hold.  Even having both cameras side-by-side, its hard for me to explain what the actual difference is.  All I can say is that the D750 feels a little bit better in the hand, the D780 almost seems maybe a centimeter or two less deep?  This isn't a big deal, but I did want to mention it.

One shortcoming of the D780 is the lack of illuminated buttons.  The D850 allows you to flick the "on/off" switch and illuminate the rear buttons temporarily.  This can be very handy at night, especially if you're still new to the camera.  Once Nikon developed this tech, you'd think they would include it on all new cameras.  The D780 has many features specifically designed for night shooting, so it seems odd Nikon did not include illuminated buttons.  This isn't that big of a problem, and you should know how to use your camera in the dark.  Still, it would have been a nice addition...

Finally, one of my favorite changes is the shutter sound.  The Nikon D750 has a very loud mechanical shutter, which I found to be a bit off-putting the first time I heard it.  I eventually got used to it though.  (I realize I'm nitpicking here).  The new D780 has a noticeably quieter and "lower pitched" shutter.  You can even turn on a Silent Shutter option when using Live View.  If Silent Shutter is enabled, the camera will take photos in Live View without making any noise.  The Silent Shooting mode should help to reduce some camera shake, since the mechanical shutter is not coming down after each photo.  (Although you'd be hard-pressed to ever see any shutter-induced camera shake in your astro images)  

All things considered, the Nikon D780 has an improved button layout that makes more sense than the D750.  However, I have noticed that the "d-pad" is somewhat "gummy" on the D780.  My D750 d-pad still acts like it's brand new, even after all these years.  The D780 d-pad tends to be very mushy though, and sometimes it's hard to press.  I'm not sure if mine is defective, or if this is a common problem with all D780s.


New and Improved Menu System

My favorite upgrade with the D780 is the new "i" menu, which gives you complete control over your quick-access menu!  You can now fully customize how you want the "i" menu to appear in both optical viewfinder mode and Live View mode.  For example, I've set my "i" menu to have a Delay option (where I can quickly set a 2 second delay), Interval Timer, LENR, Auto-Focus Mode, White Balance, Exposure Compensation, AF Area Mode, and more.  If I want to switch it up, I can always go into the menu and change things around.  I'm glad that Nikon is giving us this new freedom to setup the camera how we want!

The menu layout itself is almost identical to the D750.  We've still got the Playback, Photo, Video, Custom Settings, and Setup menus.  I'd recommend watching this very thorough video from Steve Perry if you want to see all the menu options on the D780.

One of the most exciting new features of the D780 is the Extended Shutter Speed Options.  Once you turn this on in the "Custom Settings" menu, you can now shoot longer than 30 seconds!  With virtually every other DSLR out there, you are limited to a max of 30 seconds on your shutter speed.  If you want to shoot longer, you need to put the camera to Bulb mode and attach a remote.  However, the D780 (with Extended Shutter Speeds turned ON) will allow you to keep scrolling past 30 seconds.  You can now do 60, 90, 120, 180, 240, 300, 480, 600, 720, and 900 seconds!  This is a game-changer for me!  I normally shoot 4 minute exposures at night, so I can capture a lot of light and have a clean photo.  The D780 makes this so much easier now, I can very quickly take my 10 second test shots, then scroll over to a 4 minute long exposure.  Thank you Nikon!!

If you'd like to do deep space astrophotography or timelapse photography, the D780 also has a robust Interval Shooting menu.  I've got the Interval Timer Shooting button mapped to my "i" menu, so I can quickly access the intervalometer.  As expected, you can set the interval to any time frame you want.  In my case, if I'm shooting 4 minute exposures, I can set the Interval to 04' 01".  This will make the camera take one photo after another, with no gaps in-between.  (Perfect for star trails!)  You can also turn on Silent Photography, Exposure Smoothing, Focus Before Each Shot, and more from the menu.   This is another great feature for astrophotography and completely eliminates the need for an external remote!


Live View Performance

Live View is critical for astrophotography, if your camera has a poor Live View you will be in a for a lot of headaches each night!  For example, many of my students use Canon DSLRs.  In my experience, many of these cameras have terrible Live View displays, making it almost impossible to find and focus on a star at night.  This complicates the process considerably, and turns a relatively straightforward technique into a guessing game.  Thankfully, most of the Nikon DLSRs have decent Live View systems, and you should be able to see the stars on your LCD screen.  This is one area where mirrorless cameras really shine!  On most new mirrorless cameras you can actually see the Milky Way galaxy in real-time on the LCD screen!  It really is remarkable the first time you experience it!  Unfortunately, DSLRs are still "old-fashioned" so we don't get this extra benefit.

With all that said, the Nikon D780's Live View performance is noticeably better than the D750.  The stars appear brighter and you should be able to pick out fainter stars and more detail.  Be sure to go into the camera menu and turn "Exposure Preview On".  You can also map this "Exposure Preview" to your Live View's "i" menu.  When you have "Exposure Preview ON", the Live View will update the image in real-time as you adjust the aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed (on Manual Mode).  This can actually help to make the stars even brighter at night.  Be sure to put the Shutter Speed to 30 seconds, and the ISO to at least 12,800 when you are trying to focus.  This should help quite a bit. 

Having used both DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras for astrophotography, the D780 seems to be at a unique spot between the two.  It's noticeably more sensitive in low-light than a typical DSLR, but nowhere near as sensitive as a mirrorless camera.  If you've been having trouble seeing the stars with your current DSLR's Live View, I guarantee the D780 will be a big step up! 

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Long Exposure Noise Reduction is a special camera setting you can enable at any time.  When it's turned on, the camera will take two photos (if the shutter speed is longer than 1 second).  The first photo will be a normal image, the second photo will be a dark frame.  This dark frame does not capture any light (the camera's mirror and shutter will close), it simply records the hot pixels on your sensor.  Once both the light frame and dark frame have been taken, the camera will analyze the two photos and attempt to remove any hot pixels.  From an end-user standpoint, your shutter speed will always be doubled when LENR is turned On.  Therefore, a 30 second photo will take 60 seconds to complete.

Unless you are shooting 60+ second exposures, I don't recommend turning LENR On.  In fact, the only time I use LENR is when I'm taking 4+ minute exposures for my foregrounds.  When the camera is collecting light for so long, the sensor tends to get very warm and produce a lot of hot pixels.  You can try to remove them in Post Processing, but it's usually better done in-camera.  (Especially for nightscape photography)  For those attempting deep space astrophotography with a telephoto lens or telescope, don't use LENR!  You'll just be wasting time!

One of the big problems I had with the Nikon D750 was the bugged LENR mode.  Click here to read my full article detailing this problem.  In short, LENR was causing the stars to turn weird colors.  Thankfully this problem has been fixed on the Nikon D780, however there are still some problems...

It appears LENR is still causing some artifacts in the sky.  This isn't too surprising when you consider what's going on behind the scenes.  The camera is likely overwhelmed by all the stars, thinking they may be hot pixels.  Therefore, I still recommend only using LENR when photographing foregrounds.  If you plan to photograph the sky, turn off LENR.


Low Light Performance

My biggest problem with the Nikon D750 was the annoying purple glow seen in every single photo I took at night (at least until I bought a star tracker).  This drove my crazy, and I had to edit my photos with a unique color balance to hide the problem.  Eventually I realized this purple glow was essentially "white noise" being generated by the camera.  If I took longer exposures, and captured more light, I was able to "cover-up" the white noise and have a clean, detailed photo!  I'm happy to report that the Nikon D780 does not suffer from this purple glow!  Even my test photos taken at ISO 25,600 and just 8 seconds long look really good!



Final Thoughts

I've used a lot of different cameras over the past 2 years as an astrophotography instructor.  Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji - DSLRs, Mirrorless, and even Dedicated Astro Cameras.  Every camera has its own unique benefits, quirks, and annoyances.  The Nikon D780 has great low-light performance, a well-designed camera body, customizable menus, a BSI sensor, extended shutter speed options, and a fantastic Live View display.  This combination of features makes the D780 an excellent camera for both wide-angle and deep space astrophotography!  If you are looking to buy a new DSLR, I would say that the D780 is one of the best options on the market!

There are only a handful of problems I can find with the D780.  The first problem I have is the price.  At $2,300, it's not a cheap camera.  To be clear, this is the same price as the Nikon D750 at launch.  I just feel that the new features in the D780 don't quite justify the premium.  If you are happy with your Nikon D750, there's not too much incentive to upgrade to the D780.  The second problem I have is the lack of illuminated buttons.  Nikon included some great features for astrophotography, so that makes it even more puzzling why they left out the illuminated buttons.  Again, not a big deal, but it would have been nice.  As we discussed in the LENR section, there are still some bugs when using LENR and photographing the night sky.  It's possible a firmware update can fix this, but you're better off just using different shooting techniques to solve the problem.

In terms of image quality, the Nikon D780 does a wonderful job at night!  In this YouTube video I discuss the problems I've found with various cameras over the past few months.  The short version is that almost every DSLR out there has some type of annoying problem.  For Canon shooters, you may notice an ugly banding across your photos.  Nikon shooters usually have to contend with this annoying purple glow.  All of these problems are caused by the camera sensor and the fact that the photographer isn't capturing enough light in their exposure.  Simply taking a longer exposure and capturing more light will fix these problems in most cases.  That's why I highly recommend using a star tracker for astrophotography!  

Out of all the cameras I've used over the past few years, the Nikon D780 is at the top of my list for astrophotography.  The mirrorless cameras, like the Nikon Z6 / Z7, Canon EOS R / Ra, Sony, etc... are all great options too.  In fact, they may perform even better than the D780, at least when it comes to the Live View display.  However, I still prefer DSLRs for a few reasons - optical viewfinder, comfortable camera grip, no lens adapter required. 

For more information on the D780, be sure to watch my YouTube video review below.


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