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Nikon has DSLR cameras such as D5, D3x, or D4s which are rather expensive, but they offer less resolution than D810 or D750 which are more affordable. I have been comparing these tree models with D810 or similar full frames and I do not find any specific advantage in these 3 models. All offer less mega pixels and dynamic range. I have been thinking why they are so expensive and in what scenario they would be more proper than a D810? I know that Nikon manufactures them for a purpose but I have not been able to find any rational reason.

I know that D5 offers extreme ISO but nobody really uses anything above 6400 and even 6400 is used often to just capture something and not for a good quality photo. But are these really worth the extra 4,500 USD ?

Any help on why someone would need a D5 instead of D810 would be appreciated (in terms of performance and strength).

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    Megapixels aren't everything. Sometimes they're a disadvantage. – Michael C Aug 27 '16 at 16:35
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    "nobody really uses anything above 6400" except those that think differently about that. I might find it worth it to spend 4500$ to get a photo quality at ISO 6400 that I consider good. You might not. Quality is not a matter of black or white (pun intended) either, what applies to a certain type of photograph not necessarily applies to another. – null Aug 27 '16 at 18:43
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    I've seen photos published in newspapers that I know were shot at well over ISO 6400 because a few times I've asked the person that shot them what ISO he was using when he was standing next to me shooting some of them. – Michael C Aug 27 '16 at 23:19
  • The more expensive cameras are more solidly built. This could even save your life. (OK, I'm cheating a bit: that's a 1960s Nikon F and you're probably not intending to photograph the Vietnam War.) – David Richerby Aug 28 '16 at 12:56
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The Nikon D5 and its predecessors are mainly intended for action and sports photographers. They are designed for speed and sensitivity in order to freeze fast moving action and capture it at its height.

This is the main reason why these models traditionally offer fewer megapixels. This lets the camera shoot faster, have better throughput and fit more images in its buffer. The D5 for example has a 20 MP sensor which can capture images at 14 FPS with the mirror locked up or 12 FPS normally for up to 200 JPEG or 170 RAW files.

Dynamic-range used to be better in the Dx series but I found the D5 does not quite match the D610 or even the D4S before it. However once ISO is raised, which is often the case for action photography, the D5 delivers better dynamic range than most full-frame DSLRs.

News and sports photography are events where time to publication is crucial, so these cameras offer many features to speed delivery. They have Ethernet ports, built FTP servers and a huge battery. The D5, for example, can capture 3780 image on a sinlge charge, which makes it less likely to miss a shot while changing batteries.

If you want all the details, you can read my detailed review of the Nikon D5 XQD, just published this week, or my review of the Nikon D4S. There are differences in performance between both models which means that the D4S still has an edge in some areas and conversely.

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They're designed for different use cases.

The D810 and kin are designed for wedding, event, and landscape photographers who need maximum resolution; flagship models like the D5 are designed for sports photographers and photojournalists who need maximum speed and low-light image quality. This is reflected in the pixel counts: the D810 has 36 megapixels while the D5 has 20 megapixels.

Continuous shooting on the D810 is a mere 5 fps at full resolution, whereas the D5 can fire at 12 fps (and even 14 fps with the mirror locked up and focus fixed). Higher frame rates means more chances to get precisely the shot you need when the "decisive moment" happens. Buffers are also much deeper, allowing high speeds to be sustained for longer periods of time.

To facilitate high performance, the D5 has an extremely fast image processor and takes faster memory card formats (a choice of CF or XQD is available). Because every second counts when delivering images for publication, the D5 (and other recent flagships, like the Canon EOS-1D X) have a built-in Ethernet port for immediate upload of images.

Sports photographers and photojournalists also tend to work in harsher conditions and need a camera that can keep up. Hence, while the D810 does have a solid build, it doesn't quite match the D5 in overall durability or weather resistance. The shutter rating is also higher on the D5 at 400,000 shots, as opposed to 200,000 shots on the D810; this is necessary due to the extremely heavy use that sports photographers subject their cameras to.

Flagship models have integrated vertical grips to accommodate larger batteries and extra electronics as well as provide space for an extra LCD below the main display. See: Why do the cameras Canon 1Dx, Nikon D4, Nikon D5 have a different form factor than other DSLRs?

Other factors, like autofocus, are less notably different between the flagships and lesser full-frame cameras. Hence, a D5 (or other professional flagship DSLR) is not necessarily better for your use case. If you need high resolution, don't routinely shoot sports or other fast action, and aren't under pressure to deliver images in real time or within minutes after an event, you would probably be better served by a D810.

  • Over half of the things you cite as advantages of the flagship models are also found in the cameras like the D750 and D810 that the question specifically wants to compare directly to the D5/4/3 series. – Michael C Aug 27 '16 at 23:21
  • @MichaelClark: answer rewritten. – bwDraco Aug 28 '16 at 0:04
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In addition to @Itai's excellent answer with regard to performance shooting action and sports, the pro lines for both Nikon and Canon are built to be much more durable and take the constant punishment they absorb in the hands of the pros who use them day in and day out. They have shutters that are rated to last longer. They have more extensive weather sealing. They have magnesium alloy external body panels.

Cameras like the Nikon D800 series, or the Canon 5D series are built tougher and more durable than their entry level counterparts. But comparing them to the D4/D5 series or the 1D series is like comparing an armored Humvee to an M1 Abrams tank.

Photojournalists have never needed the ultimate in resolution. It has always been about getting a photo good enough for newsprint where 2-4MP is good enough for a half page at the resolution most newspapers are printed. In the more recent era it is about getting a photo good enough for the web where anything over about 3MP at fairly high compression is overkill.

What photojournalists need is a tool that always works in whatever conditions they are needed, and that is the primary advantage of cameras like the Nikon D5/4/3 series or the Canon 1D series of cameras.

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