The Image and Image Editor:

The resolution of the D800 is simply incredible. It’s amazing to work with files that show such a level of detail, as well as boasting an impressive dynamic range and colour depth.

One of the first things one notices, is the significant drop in the image holding capacity of one’s memory cards (CF or SD). With a 16gig card, my D700 showed a 550 shot capacity, while the D800 only showed 200. This indicated amount reflects the capacity of RAW files shot in uncompressed mode. While the capacity indication doesn’t change when switching to lossless-compressed RAW, it’s in fact considerably more than the number indicated.

As one shoots with the lossless compressed RAW mode engaged, the shots remaining adjust un-proportionally to the shots one has already taken. For example, with every 10 shots I take, the indicator reflects a number of between 6 or 8 shots less than before.

Adobe’s ACR modules, versions 6 and 7, work very nicely processing the D800 files. There is no longer the clutter associated in choosing a camera profile as with the D700. Previously, the camera profiles available for the D700 were a mess, with one treating colour worse than the other. I didn’t delete the old versions of the D700 camera profiles for a reason, because there were times when one version rendered better results than the other.

The D800 is capable of producing extremely detailed results, but not all lenses are capable of resolving the detail that 36mp FX sensor can record. While high centre resolution isn’t a difficult feature for many lenses, it’s towards the edges where they usually show their weaknesses. The perceived differences of centre and edge performance are much greater on the D800 than on the D700, and one may get the impression that some lenses are not as good as one originally thought they were.

The resolving capacity of the D800 gives people the ability to magnify their images to great extents. With higher resolving power, the perceptive depth of field of an image changes, since it’s inevitable that images are viewed at a pixel level magnification. DOF is based on a number of factors, and the resolution of the recording medium plays a major role in how we perceive this depth. For landscapes, I often just choose the sharpest aperture that is able to deliver the detail I want from centre to the edge. I don’t often shoot past f/11, since diffraction softens up the image too much. Depth is all relative, and I’d rather place my point of focus where it matters, rather than sacrificing detail for depth.

For real depth, do what photographers have been doing for decades with large format cameras. Use lens movements, such as tilting, to alter the plane of focus. Nikon has the PC-E 24, 45 and 85 lenses, which are supposedly all very good optically. Tilt / Shift lenses are better than employing focus stacking, unless one uses a camera on rails and working in a controlled environment. Lenses often change focal length and/or magnification when adjusting their focus ring, which makes focus stacking a nightmare.

The 36mp files are fortunately not as painful to work with as I originally anticipated. While there is an increase in time it takes to process a file, the change isn’t significant, and my workflow hasn’t suffered much as a result. Talking of workflow, I must say that NX2 has pulled the short straw for the last time. I’ve never been much of a NX2 fan, but now it’s just pathetic. I’ve always worked with ACR, and as much as I’m aware of it’s shortcomings, I’ve used it to edit most of my commercial and personal work. At times, I resorted to using RPP, RAW Converter, or Capture One Pro. Nikon’s software has always been clunky and slow, with a layout that doesn’t promote an efficient workflow, but worst of all it often failed to be the best RAW converter. Below is a comparison showing the differences in detail between ACR 6,7 and NX2 v2.3.0. Processing was done on the same RAW file, with sharpening set to zero in both RAW converters, and both files receiving exactly the same amount of smart-sharpen in photoshop (200%, 0.3 radius). The original image was taken with the D800 mounted on a tripod, with the Zeiss Makro-Planar 100/2 ZF attached. The exposure was 1/125 at f/8, ISO 100, using mirror lock up and a remote release.

On the left you’ll see two 100% crops. Each one representing the same area of the identical RAW file, but with the left sample processed by ACR 6,7 and the right by NX2.

Drag the slider to compare the images.

The detail lost in the NX2 conversion is significant!

DxO Mark claim a 14,4 stop dynamic range, which tops the 13.1 stop rating of the new D4. I don’t take DxO markings for granted, since I’m not entirely convinced they accurately reflect real world shooting scenarios. The graphs are convenient at illustrating differences which can then be compared to one’s own findings.

On the right you can see the DXO Mark graph, which represents the dynamic range of the D800 (orange) and the D700 (red).

Right off the bat with no adjustments, it’s clear the camera has an impressive dynamic range. The level of detail recovery has definitely improved, and this is very evident when pushing shadows. I’d say the shadow recovery is significantly better than the D700, and best of all, the D800 is virtually free of pattern noise. In certain low light, low contrast and low detail areas, the D700, D3 and D3s can show vertical pattern noise, which I’ve been told is read out noise at 12 pixel intervals. Often very feint, and hardly noticeable, unless pushing shadows too far or shooting at very high ISO values.

Click each image to see larger versions

showing 100% crop samples.

With such a high resolution sensor, it’s important to pay more attention to your off centre details than before. It’s important to be familiar with the behaviour of one’s lenses in order to take full advantage of the scene. For instance when I shoot landscapes; There are certain lens attributes, such as field curvature, that influence my choice of focus and aperture value. Since the depth of focus is usually different at the centre than at the edges, I prioritise focus on image edges over that of the centre. Many lenses, especially wide angle lenses, often have some form of field curvature. No matter how subtle, one should take advantage of it to achieve maximum depth and edge to edge sharpness.

Using the Distagon 35/2 ZF.2 as an example. The field curvature of this lens is very subtle, and it runs inwards towards the outer edges. When shooting a landscape, I focus my edges to the most distant part of what I want sharp. I then choose my aperture to control how the depth moves forwards at the centre. So, instead of initially focusing my lens closer and allowing depth to increase backwards, I focus further away and allow the depth to move closer. Since the depth of field at the centre is usually greater than at the edges, this method ensures that I get sharper edge to edge landscapes. However, not all lenses expand their depth of focus in the same way...

Before moving on to ISO performance, I want to touch on the subject of hand-held shooting at slow shutter speeds. While many people exaggerate the fact that this camera needs to be used on a tripod, it’s true that motion blur is far more evident than before. In order to obtain sharp hand held images, one has to employ faster shutter speeds than before. Even for tripod work, the D800 demands critical technique, especially when shooting with lenses that have flawed tripod collars, such as the AFS 300/4.

For hand held shooting, one can no longer choose the inverse reciprocal value of the lens’ focal length when determining the minimum shutter speed. For example: Using the D700, I can shoot with a 35mm lens at a minimum hand-held shutter speed of 1/40sec (rounded from 1/35) - assuming one takes best care to avoid camera shake. With the D800, the minimum value would be around 1/80sec at best, if not faster... If the D800 has 1,7x the linear resolution of the D700, then simply halving the exposure time should be sufficient! Or not?

On the right I have illustrated the differences of the average RAW file size, with variables depending on chosen bit depth and compression type...

I set my D800 to 14-bit lossless compression, which is what I set on all my supporting Nikon DSLR’s.

Compared to uncompressed, the saving is significant, while only a fraction larger than compressed files. Seems to be the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, halving the shutter speed doesn’t always ensure a sharp result. I’ve had unsatisfactory results at shutter speeds 1,333 stops faster (2,52x) than the values I would be comfortable shooting my D700 at. Click the above right image to see how camera shake blurred my image at 1/80sec with a 35mm lens.