A couple more Nikon D800 images, and some commentary

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Shadows. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

One of the big questions that’s been running around the internet is whether the D800 can replace medium format – the answer isn’t quite as simple as you might think. Firstly, the resolution is definitely there to compete with the lower pixel count options – and even more so once the D800E joins the fray. However, a very large part of the medium format ‘look’ is a product of the interaction between lenses, sensor size (i.e. angle of view) and tonal response of the sensor. Remember that almost all medium format sensors are CCDs, which have a very different – and less linear – tonal response to CMOS sensors. For comparison at the 35mm/FX size, the D700 and D800 both have a different tonal palette to the CCD-based Leica M9. Undoubtedly the look is different already due to no other factors.

However, once you consider the angle of view vs DOF equation, then things look different again – it’s similar to the difference between APSC and full frame – for a given angle of view and aperture, you’re going to have ever decreasing depth of field (and quicker transitions between in-focus and out of focus areas) with the larger sensors.

Some of the other things which have been of concern to shooters – like having enough light and decent support – are nothing new in the medium format world, especially to users of very high resolution backs like the IQ180 or H4D-MS; this is perhaps why a lot of people are crying ‘so what?’. Even so, good support pays off for both medium and smaller formats – even compact shooters have something to gain. The tradeoff is always weight and flexibility.

A quick note on color reproduction: the D800 has the most accurate color I’ve ever seen. This seems to be corroborated by the recent batch of DXOMark tests, which rank the D800 first (!). Most cameras have trouble accurately reproducing the blue-green-cyan tone of glass reflections (due to UV transmission/ reflection issues) – but the D800 required only minimal corrections. Furthermore, the very fine repeating patterns between the squares on the textured floor panels do not show visible moire, but plenty of detail. It’s also worth noting that nothing is blown out, and I crushed the shadows for the visual effect – there weren’t any blocked up blacks, either.

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The look. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

Again, I was very pleased with the quarter tone reproduction quality here. I’m actually finding that for a lot of images – especially those with less contrast – you need to apply a curve with a very long, shallow shadow tail in order to get the right ‘look’. This is undoubtedly due to the D800’s huge dynamic range at low ISOs. As for detail, you can see the weave in the man’s shirt and my reflection in his glasses.

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Bike traffic. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

This shot was a test in many ways – extreme highlights and shadows; lots of fine detail; tonality of B&W conversions. The short answer is, the camera passes. The image (which looks much better on a large monitor at full size, by the way) retains good detail even into the extreme corners, despite being shot with the weakest end of the 28-300VR, and has nice rich quarter and half tones, which make for a good B&W image.

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The reader and the thinker. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

This portrait is a little deceptive, because there was a lot less light than it appears – 1/125s at ISO 1800, f5.6 and 150mm. Yet the camera held on to shadow details well – with remarkably little noise, I might add – and I can read the text in the newspaper at full size. I don’t think the files make as outright punch B&W conversions as say the Leica M9-P, but black and white conversions from the D800 seem to have a unique signature of their own – perhaps best characterized by subtle tonal gradations and deep shadow detail. In short, I like what I’m seeing, but I’m going to need to adapt the processing style a little to get the most out of it. MT


  1. While waiting for my d800e I’ve read most things that can be found on the web about the d800, and your articles are the most valuable ones I’ve come a cross by far. I would like to thank you very much for the time and effort you put into this. Also your eye for photography is very impressive and instructive.

    I’m doing mostly street photography and some portraits and am upgrading from a d300, and a 50/1.8 which is what I use 90% of the time. I’m struggling a bit in deciding which prime to pair with the d800e, initially I was planning of getting the manual 50/1.2 but I’m thinking of keeping my current 50 and getting the 105/2 DC instead. However it’s a bit old, has no nano coating and isn’t recommended by Nikon. Have you used the 105/2 DC, and what would your thoughts in that case be about pairing it with a d800? In any case any articles about d800 and lenses would be very interesting.

    • Thank you. I’ve used the 105DC in the pre-AF fine tune days – my copy was a bit off at f2 because of the DC elements, but I remember that it was excellent when you did manage to focus it – used it on a D2H and D2x.

      So far, I’ve found the D800 pairs very well with Carl Zeiss glass; the 24/1.4, the 60/2.8 G macro. The 85/1.4 is good but requires some care with focusing, and excellent if stopped down a little. The 28-300 is surprisingly good for what it is but of course it cannot compete with the primes.

  2. Leonard Hobbs says:

    Ming –

    Thank you for all your efforts and undoubtedly many hours you have invested in this review. It is quite helpful to me – I am trying to decide to upgrade to the 5DMarkIII or the D800 or 800E. One thing I have been noticing more and more of late is looking D800 images (perhaps it is been there all along in digital like the D700 and MarkII) is that the images appear FLAT. Maybe its just me. I do know that I can almost always spot an image made with a Leica M9 and Leica lensed even before I open it up to see the Exif. Am I off base or is this the case?

    • Many factors contribute to images appearing flat – more dynamic range is the culprit usually. Screens still display mostly 6, or at best, nearly 8 bits of tonal info per channel – but if you’re trying to stuff 14 stops of dynamic range into that, there’s no way any display – let alone print – can replicate that. So more dynamic range isn’t always a good thing. The Leica has about 11 stops of dynamic range vs 14-14.5 of the D800, and about 12.5-13 on the D700 (in my experience). It could also be the lens choices – micro contrast makes a huge difference, and Leica and Zeiss glass are very good at preserving the micro contrast structure of the image because they generally choose simpler optical formulae that require fewer air-glass surfaces (and thus less light transmission lost). Nikon glass has great macro contrast (edge sharpness) but isn’t so hot at the subtle tonal variations.

      • Leonard Hobbs says:

        Best answer/explanation I have ever read on the subject. I was thinking about trying the Zeiss 35mm f/2 or perhaps the 21mm. I have read nothing but good things about both lens either on the Canon or Nikon. Oddly DXOmark does not seem to be impressed with the Zeiss lenses

        Best Regards,


        • The Zeiss 2/35 is even better than the 2/28 technically, but I prefer the rendering of the 2/28 – I owned both for a while. It should do just fine on the D800. Can’t comment on the 21, but I too have heard nothing but good things. I’d probably go with the 4/18 as 21 is a bit too close to the 24/1.4 for me. Zeiss lenses don’t test well on flat charts because a lot of them have curved planes of focus – this makes for great 3D imagery of real life subjects (and background separation) but poor test chart results except in the center.

  3. The final shot is pretty nice, from a compositional perspective.

  4. That last photo of the man and his reflection is lovely, though more from a compositional perspective rather than because it came from a D800. 🙂

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