Nikon D800
Busting the Myth of Megapixels

Page 5

(June 2012)

       
 

Page 1 (Introduction, The test, Resolution, Chromatic aberration (CA))
Page 2 (Noise)

Page 3 (Picture Control, ADL and HDR, Vignetting control, Distortion control)
Page 4 (Diffraction and depth of field, Autofocus, White balance (WB) and monitor)

 
 
Nikon D800E
 
 

The Nikon D800E is a version of the D800 with a modified anti-aliasing (AA) filter in its image sensor, which works almost as if it wasn't there at all. I do not intend to go deep into technical details, since they are well-described elsewhere, for instance on Nikon's homepage.

Due to the modified AA filter, photos taken with the D800E are said to have an even higher resolution than those taken with the D800 (despite the equal amount of pixels!), however a certain degree of the moiré effect could also be present. The main task of the AA filter is to prevent the appearance of the moiré effect, for the price of slightly less sharp and contrast photos.

I was very interested to see how much pictures made with the D800E really differed from pictures taken with the "normal" D800. Nikon Slovenia was kind enough to lend me a preproduction model of the D800E to play with and compare it to my D800; sadly I borrowed it again on a rainy April weekend.

At first I decided to make the lab-test. I took a photo of the same test plate from the exact same distance with the same lens (AFS Micro-Nikkor 60 mm f/2.8) with both cameras, just as in the resolution test. This time the distance used was about twice as long, since I wanted to see how relatively thick lines on the test plate which are more accurately printed than the thin ones, would start to dissolve into one another. I took photos at different apertures in the range from f/5.6 to f/22. I did not shoot below f/5.6 because in lower settings lens errors and focusing errors could appear and influence the test. I was also interested at which aperture setting the diffraction effect becomes strong enough to nullify the effect of the modified AA filter and thus also the advantage of the D800E over the D800.
 
 
 
 
 
 

At f/5.6 both cameras show a high resolution and surprisingly – both show a high level of the moiré effect. It would be difficult to say, that the D800E shows any greater level of the effect, even though it should according to theory. I've noticed the moiré effect also in the noise test at lower ISO speeds, especially in the number "1" in the banknote. It was most prominent with the D4 and D3, slightly less with other cameras and least noticeable with the D7000. Obviously Nikon uses very weak AA filters in its cameras to achieve better picture sharpness. According to my assessment the lines flow into another approximately at the value 80 and with the D800E at the value 90, when shooting with aperture f/5.6. Additionally, the D800E has a different quality of grey (less constant).

At f/8 the moiré effect completely disappears with the D800 and is barely noticeable around value 100 with the D800E. Again the D800E shows a slight resolution advantage.

At f/11 the D800E still exhibits a minimal advantage in resolution, but on the other hand we still notice traces of a slight moiré effect.

At f/16 and f/22 the resolutions of both cameras are completely equal, however we can observe how the resolution at f/22 is noticeably worse than at f/16.

The "lab-test" helped me to discover the difference between the two cameras, but honestly, I was more interested in the applied difference, while using the cameras in real life. Unfortunately I really had no luck with the weather, since the light conditions changed with every passing minute. My plan was to shoot the exactly same compositions with both cameras under same settings and same light conditions. Despite the problems I had with the weather I still managed to shoot some equivalent shots.

At first glance photos from both cameras seem almost identical. They're so similar that when we put them next to each other it's hard to spot the difference (even on a good monitor!). In order to find possible differences, I made equal crops and placed them above each other. The crops bellow were taken with the D800, when you swipe the mouse over them, you see the crop from the D800E. Most suitable were photos taken with the AFS 70-200 mm f/2.8 II lens, because the lens remained static on the tripod, while I changed cameras. Obviously I did not edit photos in any way except cropping them. I just published them as they were created with the camera.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The comparisons above show, that photos made with the D800E really are slightly sharper, have more contrast and appear clearer. The effect is similar to sharpening the photos with photo-editing software. However, it is only possible to spot the difference if you have plenty of photographic discipline, top-notch lenses and use aperture f/8 or faster.

What about the moiré effect in real life? I haven't noticed it in a single photo, even though I photographed fabrics among other things. However, I admit that I did not make a special effort to create circumstances in which this effect would come to show. The only time I spotted the moiré effect was in the test plate, shot at f/5.6, and I have to add that the result of the D800 was very similar.

The D800E is a camera for specialists, who wish to achieve the maximum possible picture quality with a very discipline photographing technique. It's not a camera for people who work fast, shoot at events and usually don't use a tripod, seeing as they lose the added value of this camera in comparison to the "normal" D800.

Also in underwater photography the D800E could never be used to its full potential, considering that almost only stopped down apertures are used in underwater photography – for macro shots in order to achieve depth of field, for wide-angel shots because of optical aberrations caused by the dome ports. Considering all this, diffraction would appear and cause the slight sharpness advantage of the D800E over D800 to disappear.
 
 

What do I find problematic with the D800?

 

As everything in life, the D800 is not perfect. When I wrote a review of the D3 I was so amazed of his results with high ISO values, that I hardly managed to find any negative aspects of the camera at all. But man is a creature of habit and photos taken at ISO 3200 with almost no noise are considered the norm nowadays, and therefore I became much more critical towards photographic equipment. Despite the D800 being in most aspects a better camera than the D3, I do have some points of critique.

Considering that the D800 features countless picture editing tools, I find it unacceptable that the photos taken straight from the camera show such a high level of chromatic aberration. True, this effect can be successfully removed with picture-editing software in the computer, but in my opinion, the camera itself should include such a feature, at least as an option. This is definitely my biggest grudge towards this camera.

The second problem I see is the far shorter battery life if compared to the professional "single digit" models. Nikon claims that the camera can make approximately 900 shots with one charge. But battery usage is in a way similar to fuel usage in cars – The manufacturer’s statement is one thing, but in reality things look a bit different, especially if you drive dynamically. In the beginning when I was getting to know the camera and browsed the menus very often, I sometimes made as little as 300 shots following a single full charge. Battery capacity can be doubled if using the MB-D12 Multi-power battery pack, however this works only for land photography. All underwater photography housings will most likely only fit the camera itself, without the MB-D12 battery pack. That is also expected, considering that the housing would need to be bigger and heavier and that is undesired due to nowadays baggage restrictions in air traffic. But opening the underwater housing on a small boat on rough seas with wind and waves beating at its side just because you need to change battery is not a funny thing...

Some might be bothered by the relatively low maximum frame rate, however I am not affected by this issue. The frame rate of an underwater photographer is limited mostly to the speed of underwater flash recycling.

I've found the built-in HDR function useful not only in landscape photography but also in underwater photography (i.e. shooting from underwater caves). However, I can't imagine why the feature is only available for JPG pictures. I think it's of utmost importance to introduce this feature also for RAW (NEF) files, similar to the current built-in "Image overlay" feature.

The built-in vignetting control could include an Auto setting that would assess the current conditions considering the lens, aperture and focal length used.

It seems like two slots for memory cards became the standard for Nikon's upper class cameras, yet I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that the D800 is equipped with slots for two different memory card types: CF and SD. All my other Nikon DSLR cameras used only CF cards and I would be glad if it stayed that way.

I have no special comments on the handling of the camera, except that I don't support Nikon's decision to move the Mode button uncomfortably far away and put the Movie-record button in his place. Old Nikon photographers who are used to the configuration of buttons on Nikon cameras unintentionally move our thumb towards the Video button every time we want to press Mode. On the other hand, I quickly grew fond of the new AF system controls that are a relatively troubling matter for some other photographers.
 
 

As I already mentioned in the introduction, the D800 is in my opinion less sturdy and weather protected than the professional "single digit" models. In analogue times I did not find the F100 to lag behind the F5 when it came to sturdiness, nowadays there is a considerable difference in this matter between the D800 and the D4...

 
 

Conclusion

 

Despite the abovementioned drawbacks the D800 is an exceptional camera that is definitely worth considering. I recommend every owner of the camera, to study the almost 450-pages manual thoroughly, since only by knowing all of the camera's features and characteristics you can use all the options that this camera offers. I am convinced that with good photography technique astonishing results can be achieved with the D800, results that could not have been achieved with any other camera in this class. Additionally, Nikon published a Technical Guide in PDF format that includes several recommendations on how to use the D800 and in my opinion makes for a worthy reading.

The best picture quality can be achieved when shooting at ISO 100. This is not because we want to avoid noise – the noise is not problematic even in higher ISO speeds, it's because of the incredible dynamic range that makes photos look so astounding. For the best results, shoot with professional lenses, ideally with aperture between f/5.6 and f/8. The D800 can also be successfully used with f/11, however the D800E loses its advantage already at this aperture value. When using faster apertures optical aberrations of lenses can appear, when using more stopped down apertures diffraction will occur and reduce the overall sharpness of the picture. In any case we should prevent camera shaking – use a good tripod, raise the mirror before taking the shot (M-up) or shoot in Live view, in order to prevent shaking. This way extremely sharp photos can be produced, which are suitable for very large magnifications. A photographer with this kind of photographing technique might consider buying the D800E model.

I hope I did not scare off people who did not identify themselves with the described photographing technique. There's no need for fear: The technique I described before is just a recommendation for achieving the highest possible image quality that this camera can offer. Most of the time, however, there's no need for such extraordinary quality – smaller size pictures suffice, for instance enough to print A4 format, which allows us more freedom choosing our technique. With the D800 you can use ISO 3200 or even 6400 without a worry, since the noise will disappear when you reduce the picture size and this gives us more freedom when shooting without a tripod. You can stop down the aperture to a higher degree in order to achieve more depth of field without having to worry about the diffraction effect, because it will disappear when you reduce the picture size and photos will be clear and sharp. Even errors due to the camera shaking when shooting without a tripod disappear when you reduce picture size.

The D800 is truly exceptionally versatile camera that can satisfy a variety of different photographers. You can use it as a highly capable studio or landscape camera, or if you don't need a very large prints, it can be used as a reporter or even an action camera.

In any case, I am truly convinced that the D800 is currently the ideal camera for underwater photographers (at least within Nikon's array). One of the key characteristics that earned the camera its pole position is definitely the image sensor with an exceptionally high resolution that makes great cropping options possible, especially in macro photography. When shooting with a dome port in DX format (better optical characteristics), you can still work with 15.3 MP.

The camera's ISO characteristics are sufficient for most light conditions in underwater photography. In most cases we use a flash, and when shooting larger objects in greater depths (without a flash) we use longer shutter speeds – the water stabilizes the camera from shaking, therefore longer exposures can be used in underwater photography. A high ISO speed is important only in two cases – when photographing large and fast swimming animals (i.e. sharks) in greater depths or in worse light conditions, and in ultraviolet fluorescent photography, where fluorescent light is very weak. Considering that I've used even my old D2X in both cases, despite some obvious limitations, I do not expect the D800 to cause any problems whatsoever.

Additionally the D800 features an advanced autofocus system, which can be crucial for an underwater photographer. In underwater photography we often face extremely bad light conditions and environments with little or no contrast where fast fish and tiny macro life forms sometimes seem to mimetically merge with the background. The described situation presents a difficulty to the autofocus system. However considering my current experience with the camera, I am convinced that the autofocus system of the D800 will rise to this challenge.
 
 
 

Post Scriptum

 

When the first commercially available digital SLR cameras appeared on the market on the break of the millennium, most photographers frowned upon their low image sensor resolution which hovered between 3 and 6 MP. We knew very little about digital photography then, but as experts of film photography we were convinced that digital cameras could only achieve the quality of film at about 20 MP, seeing as a good slide film has approximately 20 to 30 million grains on 36 x 24 mm of surface.

That's how the myth of megapixels was born – the more pixels, the better the picture. But very soon we realized that pixels are a different image medium than film grains: grains are randomly spread on the film and pixels are intelligently spread into the final product (a photograph) by a great processing power. A digital photograph is comparable to a 35mm slide already at 6 MP, at 12 MP it enables a far better quality – a fact that I became aware of when testing the D2X.

Photographers realized then that 12 MP is more than enough and that it's the pixel quality that matters much more than the quantity. This is precisely the reason why many of us have been so pleasantly surprised with the D3, which produced a substantially higher picture quality with the same amount of pixels as the D2X in worse light conditions. Megapixels finally lost their dominant role and their ever increasing number stopped at around 24 MP. Soon another race started when cameras were fighting to reach higher ISO speed peaks.

But then like a bolt from the blue came the D800. 36 MP! Did Nikon lose its marbles? The moment that specifications of the new D800 were published self-proclaimed photography experts were flooding the internet with comments asking Nikon whether they never heard of the Megapixel Myth. But in the last years Nikon has proven more than once that they know very well what they're doing. Without a doubt that holds true for the new D800, despite the "ridiculously" high number of pixels. The camera features an exceptional image sensor that can be praised for many other characteristics besides its extreme resolution, for instance low noise, great color depth and astonishing dynamic range.

This is how the D800 became the complete opposite of everything we've learnt until now about megapixels, therefore we could say that it successfully managed to bust the myth of megapixels.
 
 
Page 1 (Introduction, The test, Resolution, Chromatic aberration (CA))
Page 2 (Noise)

Page 3 (Picture Control, ADL and HDR, Vignetting control, Distortion control)
Page 4 (Diffraction and depth of field, Autofocus, White balance (WB) and monitor)