Sunday, October 21, 2012

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The Big Switch: Nikon D800 Image Quality

D800 with AF-S 16-35mm f/4G VR zoom at 24mm, ISO 100, f/11 at 20 seconds  (original)

As many of you already know, back in July of this year I bought a complete Nikon system built around their superb new D800 body. I had been shooting with Canon DSLRs since 2004, so this really is a BIG switch. Much of my Canon gear has already been sold. I had written a fairly long article about my Nikon switch back in August already but I was never quite happy with what I wrote so it never got posted to this blog. I went through two more revisions and again, I was never quite happy.

So... I have decided to start fresh and this is a complete rewrite. In addition, now that I have been using the system for nearly four months, I have a bit more experience to draw on, over 7000 frames worth. For the images in this article, clicking on them will open a larger version. Also, each image has EXIF data and a link below which you can click to see the original, converted with my default Lightroom settings, in other words, how it looked "out of camera" prior to adjustment. The "original" versions may have some slight cropping, straightening or perspective correction applied to match the adjusted version in order to make it easier to compare them and see just how much the final image has been manipulated from a contrast and colour standpoint. For the complete article, containing many sample images, read on...

My first article heaped praise on the D800's image quality. In fact, one of the things I was unhappy with, was that my original article made me sound like a rabid Nikon fanboy. Hmm. This didn't seem right after shooting with Canon for eight years and being generally very happy with image quality and being very impressed with many of their lenses. Now, four months in, am I still so enthusiastic about the D800?

D800 with AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, ISO 400, f/8 at 1/320  (original)

Well, let's just say that when I open raw files in Adobe Lightroom, especially ones that are taken in challenging high dynamic range situations, and I tweak the shadow and highlight sliders and zoom in to see detail, my reaction is still "wow!" even after months of using the camera. I am not jaded yet and yes, I do feel it really is that good.

Hmm... I still sound like a fanboy, but honestly, I can't help it. The overall dynamic range and shadow detail at lower ISO's (and we're talking clean shadow detail) is so good that no other camera I've tested this side of a high-end medium format digital back that can touch it. Heck, even some of those can't. This isn't just idle speculation since I have compared the D800 to virtually every other high-end Canon and Nikon DSLR, as well as a medium format system. In all cases, I felt the D800 held up the best on the most challenging shots which pushed the dynamic range into territories where you'd normally start thinking of using multi-shot HDR techniques. The nice thing about having such incredibly flexible raw files is that one can achieve results that encompass deep shadows to bright highlights without looking overly processed or unnatural.

D800 with AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII at 70mm, ISO 100, f/13 at 58 seconds  (original)

The above shot has had its shadows brightened tremendously in order to bring out detail in the crowds on the beach at the lower right. It is a fairly long exposure, but much of the time I had the lens covered with a black card in order to accumulate different coloured bursts without blowing out the whole shot.

I have always liked dramatic, high contrast lighting situations and have always struggled with dynamic range, especially back in the day when I was shooting transparency film. It has been incredibly liberating to be able to get usable images so easily in challenging situations. In fact, I have been going out of my way to photograph difficult scenes to try and understand the limits of the D800, and it does takes a lot to overwhelm the sensor. In most situations, you can practically expose for the highlights with the confidence that you'll be able to recover all the shadow detail you might need. In fact, for me the temptation is often there to pull up so much shadow detail that the image ends up looking a little flat. Hopefully I've mostly managed to avoid that here!

D800 with AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, ISO 200, f/10 at 1/250  (original)

Okay, so enough talk of dynamic range... what out all those megapixels? Well honestly, when I heard that the D800 had 36 megapixels, I was rather horrified. While I was sure that detail levels at base ISO would likely be stunning (presuming Nikon's lenses held up), I was certain that high ISO shots would be noisy and dynamic range would be limited. Boy, was I ever wrong. Personally, I would never want a really high megapixel sensor if it meant substantially increased high ISO noise levels or especially if it meant reduced dynamic range, however it turns out there are no such compromises in the D800. Sure, at 100% zoom, a 36 megapixel 6400 ISO file from the D800 looks a little worse than the same from a 12 megapixel D700, but we're talking three times the pixel count! For any given size large print, the visible noise from a D800 will be smaller and tighter (more like film grain) and better looking than the noise from the lower megapixel D700. Put another way, if you were to downsize a high ISO image from the D800 to the resolution of the D700, the noise levels are going to be lower overall and better looking too in my estimation. I have tested this on a few shots and that is what I noticed.

D800 with AF-S 25mm f/1.4G, ISO 6400, f/5.6 at 20 seconds  (original)

The above aurora image required a bit of thought to capture how I visualized it. While I could have easily dropped the ISO down and done a longer exposure in order to minimize potential noise, doing so would have blurred out the relatively fast moving vertical bars of auroral light. Not only that, I didn't want the stars to trail visibly either, since I wanted this to look more or less as I saw it with my naked eye. In fact, the purple hues were extremely subtle visually and I was surprised how strong they showed up in the camera. Also, I shot this at f/5.6 even though I was shooting with an f/1.4 lens, so why didn't I drop the f-stop and doing the same length of exposure at a lower ISO? Well as good a lens as the AF-S 24mm f/1.4G is, I wanted pinpoint stars in the corners and shooting wider open would not have achieved that. In any case, yes the full-size original is a bit noisy being at ISO 6400, but all things considered, it turned out quite well I think.

The next image was shot by default as auto-white-balance at ISO 1600. The inside tungsten lights were way too warm and the outside evening light was oddly turquoise due to the truly awful way in which AWB was calculated, as you'll see if you click to open the original. Raw file and Adobe Lightroom to the rescue! The new AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is a superb performer, even wide open...

D800 with AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO 1600, f/1.8 at 1/125  (original)

Here is one more higher ISO shot in very dim restaurant lighting...

D800 with AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, ISO 3200, f/1.8 at 1/50  (original)

When you push the ISO way up, of course you start losing the ability to cleanly pull huge amounts of shadow detail out of an underexposed shot, but then other cameras wouldn't be any better either at that point. However once you start shooting over ISO 1600, there are many other current generation full-frame cameras that will keep up and once you get into the extreme high ISO range, over 6400, well then you are better off shooting with a Nikon D4 (or older D3S), a Canon 1D X or a 5D Mark III. However at ISO settings below 800, the image quality and malleability of D800 raw files is very nearly unbeatable. Here are a few more examples...

Localized colour correction and lots of shadow fill here...

D800 with AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, ISO 100, f/13 at 8 seconds  (original)

Exposed to preserve all the wonderful textures in the clouds but with a 30 second tweak of the raw file in Lightroom, the fall colours show in the severely underexposed foreground hills as well...

D800 with AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, ISO 100, f/8 at 1/1250  (original)

Can you tell I like shooting around the Olympic Village in Vancouver? There are lots of interesting shapes, lights and dynamic range challenges to be had there!

D800 with AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, ISO 100, f/11 at 10 seconds  (original)

So that about covers sensor image quality. The imaging hardware and processing that Nikon has put into the D800 makes the camera an absolute bargain in my opinion, the closest you can come to shooting with a much larger medium format sensor as far as dynamic range for example. So what about lenses? Sure, the D800 has 36 megapixels, but if lenses don't hold up to the resolution demands, then why bother with those huge file sizes? Well luckily, many of Nikon's latest lenses do indeed hold up quite well although sadly, some older ones that were considered excellent in the past, do not. First up, let's talk wide-angle zooms...

D800 with AF-S 16-35mm f/4G VR zoom at 18mm, ISO 100,  f/13 at 1/10  (original)

The Nikkor AF-S 16-35mm f/4G VR zoom is my ultra-wide zoom of choice. It performs very well as far as corner to corner sharpness on the D800 in the 18-28mm range. Outside of that range it does suffer from corner softness, even when stopped down. Indeed, even when in its optimal range, you'll want to be at f/8 or above to achieve the most consistent image quality from edge to edge. However it is a sharp lens even wide open, if you don't care about absolute corner resolution. It also has a 77mm filter thread up front, making it possible to use inexpensive thread-on filters. It does suffer from one flaw, and that's fairly obvious levels of barrel and/or pincushion distortion, however when processing with the latest Adobe raw software, this distortion can be automatically corrected for and it becomes, more or less, a non-issue.

D800 with AF-S 16-35mm f/4G at 18mm, ISO 100, f/13 at 30 seconds  (original)

Nikon's most extreme ultra-wide zoom, the AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G, turns out to be worse than the 16-35mm in terms of edge and corner sharpness. In fact, if you are going to shoot with that lens, you'll probably want to shoot "loose" and crop in afterwards. Even stopped down, the edges can be quite soft. The older AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 is also unimpressive as well as far as corner sharpness, although it is quite sharp in the central region.

Next up, wide-angle primes. Instead of going with the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G for my moderate wide-to-tele needs, I decided to go all primes and skip that very convenient zoom range. The reason again is lens performance. While the 24-70mm was a convincingly good lens on lower megapixel bodies, on the D800 I found it to be a tad weak. Certainly not a bad lens and still eminently usable when stopped down a bit, but since the bulk of my photography tends to be done in the 24mm to 85mm range, I thought I would go all primes for the best image quality. On the wide angle end, I chose to go with the AF-S 24mm f/1.4G and the AF-S 35mm f/1.4G. Both are spectacularly good (although the 16-35mm keeps up quite well at 24mm if it is stopped down) with excellent contrast and sharpness even wide open and tack sharp results right into the extreme corners when stopped down. Those two wide-angle primes were used for many of the previous shots in this article, but here are a few more...

D800 with AF-S 24mm f/1.4G, ISO 400, f/10 at 15 seconds  (original)

D800 with AF-S 24mm f/1.4G, ISO 200, f/11 at 1/250  (original)

D800 with AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, ISO 100, f/2 at 1/8000  (original)

D800 with AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, ISO 200, f/8 at 2.5 seconds  (original)

In terms of a normal focal length, I decided to forgo the 50mm options and instead, went with the AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G. Not only is this lens sharp wide open, with nice smooth bokeh, actually better I'd say than any of Nikon's 50mm lenses, but it is a macro as well and is small, light and is very sharp at longer distances too. I was disappointed in the lack of sunshine by the time I reached this spot to shoot the old barn, but a clarity boost in Lightroom made it look sunny after all! Check the original to see how flat the light was originally...

D800 with AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, ISO 200, f/8 at 1/250  (original)

D800 with AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, ISO 200, f/4 at 1/2000  (original)

D800 with AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, ISO 400, f/8 at 1/800  (original)

My last prime lens is the superb new AF-S 85mm f/1.8G. It is less than one third the price of the f/1.4G yet is probably 95% as good optically. The portrait shot earlier in the article was taken with it, wide open. Here are a few more with the 85mm...

D800 with AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO 800, f/2.5 at 1/400  (original)

D800 with AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO 100, f/10 at 1/320  (original)

D800 with AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, ISO 400, f/2.8 at 1/500  (original)

Finally we come to my longest lens, the AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. This is a lens I don't always carry with me since usually the 85mm will suffice and is much lighter. However the 70-200mm is extremely sharp at every focal length from corner to corner and the AF is dead accurate. I also use a TC-20E III 2x teleconverter with it, however from an AF accuracy standpoint, that combination does not work so well for me. I may need to send things in to Nikon to see if they can adjust. However when the focus is nailed, it is quite good as well...

D800 DX-crop with AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII at 200mm + TC-20E III, ISO 1600, f/10 at 1/400  (original)

D800 with AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII at 110mm, ISO 200, f/7.1 at 8 seconds  (original)

D800 with AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII at 200mm, ISO 400, f/5.0 at 20 seconds  (original)

D800 DX-crop with AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII at 200mm, ISO 800, f/3.2 at 1/320  (original)

The D800's resolution, dynamic range and well-controlled noise levels have been a revelation for me, but how is it to shoot with? Well, this blog entry has gotten far longer than I had intended originally, so the handling and ergonomics of the camera will have to wait for a future blog posting. Suffice to say for now that there is very little I don't like, and a lot that I do like. Apart from missing a few Canon lenses I was very fond of, the TS-E 17mm f/4 tilt-shift for example, I have no regrets on my switch. The camera continues to exceed my wildest dreams with regards to detail and dynamic range and generally, the lenses I have perform exceedingly well.

In addition, in the near future I will be posting a sampling of shots from the D800 at a much higher resolution, showing images with a Zoomify viewer. The small 1600 pixel wide shots certainly don't do the camera (or lenses) justice from a resolution standpoint of course! I finally have access to a 24" wide printer again (a Canon iPF6400) and I will be making some larger 24"x36" prints from some of my images soon. The small 13"x19" prints I've been making don't even come close to showcasing the camera's resolution.

Lastly, in the future, I will also cover a few topics discussing the D800 versus D800E question again, as well as some additional lens performance details. I had shot with both cameras and chose to go the route of the D800 myself although in the end it was a bit of a tough decision. I have also tested the new D600 and will be making a quick comparison with the D800 as well.

Anyway, for those that made it to the end here, thanks for reading and looking!


Wayne said...

A very interesting and comprehensive post. Thanks Mike.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Interesting article, Mike. Enjoyed your images of Vancouver and environs.

Anonymous said...

Some great photos here. I love my D800E, as well. I stumbled my way in here looking for reviews of the TC-20E-III.

Unknown said...

Dear Mike
Glad to see your worthy post. It affirms my trust in D800

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