DSLR Matches Medium Format

NikonD800This blog post might come as a bit of a surprise to some readers for two reasons, only one of which is legitimate.

The first surprise (the illegitimate one) is that I, as a long-time user of Canon digital SLR cameras, am going to offer high praise for a Nikon camera (readers who know me know that I’m generally agnostic on the “brand of camera” front). The second (and perhaps legitimate) surprise is that a digital SLR has actually tested pretty much on par with medium format digital backs.

First, the simple (and dare I say, newsworthy?) fact: DxO Labs has announced that their DxOMark tests have demonstrated the image sensor in the recently announced Nikon D800 digital SLR performs remarkably well, in some cases better than the top medium format digital backs.

Let me say right from the start that this is a very engineering-focused (OK, geek-focused) evaluation of a camera (really just the sensor in this case). A great photograph is about much more than the camera and lens used to capture the image. But the camera does play a role, and the minutiae about sensor specifications and performance are of at least some interest.

But I’m not talking here about whether this or that camera will really help you get better pictures (for the record though, I’m one of those who thinks composition is infinitely more important than camera specifications). Instead, I want to focus on what these latest tests suggest for the world of digital photography.

Not too terribly long ago I wrote an article for Digital Photo Pro magazine, addressing the question of whether we had reached the proverbial “end of the road” when it came to the digital SLR image sensor. After all, more megapixels means smaller individual photo sites, which means more noise, lower dynamic range, and lower image quality, right? I very seriously went into the writing of that article assuming I already knew the conclusion, and that the end of the road was right in front of us.

After talking to several people much smarter than myself, I became convinced I was wrong, and that we perhaps had a long way to go for the digital SLR format image sensor (“full frame” and APS-C formats, in general). To be honest, I felt a little uneasy about presenting that conclusion. I had been presented with some very compelling scientific evidence, but that evidence seemed to go against my gut feeling, as well as the bias I had developed over the years. But I trusted the people who had shared the information about new (and future) technological developments and possibilities.

The latest test results from DxO Labs speak very highly of the quality of the image sensor in Nikon’s D800 digital SLR, and certainly make me feel more comfortable about what I wrote in that article. But it still feels a little surprising.

As seems to happen so often with all things technological, just when we think we’re reaching the end of the line, the limits of physics, or some other barrier, very smart people find a way to get around those limitations. I love when that happens. Perhaps that’s why from a very young age I idolized Chuck Yeager, who was first to break the Sound Barrier. More than a few engineers didn’t really think a pilot could retain control flying that fast.

As a photographer I think it is great that technology keeps advancing beyond what we think the limits are. As a self-confessed computer geek I think it’s really cool. I don’t think the Nikon D800 is going to destroy the market for medium format digital backs. In theory it might give pause to some medium format photographers, but in reality I think different tools attract different people for different reasons, and there’s a lot of inertia in place there.

What I take from all of this is that we can count on the tools available to us in digital photography to continue to get better all the time. That’s a very good thing. But as much as I love cool new technological achievements, I’m going to try my best not to get distracted. While not generally referred to as someone with tremendous humility, I am humble enough to know that my photography has much more room for improvement from the standpoint of composition and style than it does from technical attributes such as signal-to-noise ratio and exposure latitude.

What’s your take? How critical is technology to the quality of your photographs, and your enjoyment of photography? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

About Tim Grey

Tim Grey is in the business of making photographers smarter and happier. He is the author of more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has written hundreds of magazine articles, and publishes the Ask Tim Grey e-mail newsletter as well as the Pixology digital magazine. He also speaks at a variety of events and leads photography workshops around the world.
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26 Responses to DSLR Matches Medium Format

  1. Gary Larsen says:

    I think you’ve stated it exactly. Technical spec’s of the camera body are important for meeting the potential of a photograph. But composition, light and subject (among other factors) are what ultimately determine whether the image fulfills your vision. I shoot with a Nikon D700 for color and a D300 for infrared, and I never find the camera body to be a limiting factor on images up 16″ x 24″. It is unlikely that improving my photography will be a function of a new camera body. It will more likely be a function of fresh vision, imagination, ambition, experimentation and experience.

  2. R Thomas Berner says:

    It’s all about the image. The camera (technology) is a tool that helps me print a good image, but the technology does not create the image

  3. John Koerner says:

    I am in the exact same boat you are in, Tim. I too am a Canon shooter but cannot deny my growing respect, appreciation (and desire to switch to) Nikon, based on the degree to which their cameras have surpassed Canon in recent years.

    I do agree composition and lighting are skill outside of techno advancements, but the flipside to that is that (when you put those compositional skills and lighting perfection in place) it’s nice to know that every detail and subtle nuance has been captured to its uttermost, thanks to the impeccable quality of the instrument, rather than being lost because the tool was insufficient for the job.

  4. Joel Weiss says:

    While I totally agree with your comments, the DXOMark comparison of the D800 is with medium format digital cameras. I’d really like to see a 35 mm film (Nikon F6 with the same lens) vs. D4 vs. D800 comparison. While I could never go back to film, the amount of time that I take on the computer optimizing images with my older D3 made my “Time Required for Image Optimization” (TRIO) increase exponentially over that of film.

    Thanks!

    • Tim Grey says:

      Joel,

      I can assure you we’ve most certainly gotten to the point that digital can significantly surpass film both in terms of resolution and dynamic range. There are uses for film, and there is a unique aesthetic to film, but I don’t think there’s a legitimate argument that from a pure technical quality standpoint digital image sensors have far surpassed film.

      That said, you’re right about the additional time involved in processing digital. But for a control-freak like me, that’s not exactly a bad thing! ;-)

      Tim

      • Joel Weiss says:

        From one control freak to another – I agree! I spend the time on the computer because I can, and feel the need. When I see what I can do today with the click of a moused and compare that to the “darkroom days”, it’s miraculous! Thanks again!

      • Joel Weiss says:

        From one control freak to another – I agree! I spend the time on the computer because I can, and feel the need. When I see what I can do today with the click of a mouse and compare that to the “darkroom days”, it’s miraculous! Thanks again!

      • Lars V says:

        The one area where film has a huge advantage over digital is that the cost of sensor size grows linearly with size. You want more resolution, just shoot with a bigger format (in theory at least). I drumscan my 8×10′s at 320 megapixels (actual resolving power is slightly lower). There are of course some drawbacks like lack of pocketability, and a 20 minute shutter lag.

  5. Ted Willcox says:

    Pixel count has a lot to do with what your interests in photography are. I am a Bird Photographer and I am still using the Mark III and getting some remarkable images with this camera and only ten megapixels. Having said all this, I will be upgrading to the Mark IV or the IDX. I was holding out for the Mark V, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen?

  6. Alister Benn says:

    Having made the switch to Nikon from Canon back in 2009, I am coming to this from the other side of the fence. As I was working on my recent Night Photography eBook (the shooting started back in ’09) – I was impressed by the way the Nikon D700 at the time handled noise.

    I now shoot with a D3x (bulletproof tank that has survived multiple sea water immersions!) – I have been eagerly awaiting the D800(E). Ergonomics, reliability, no need to micro adjust focus to get sharp images straight out the box. Add to this the stunning 14-24/2.8 lens and the package becomes all too appealing!

    I’ll wait until the price settles here in China before buying my D800E, but it looks like a stunning landscape camera.

  7. greg mroczek says:

    Please provide more info on what you mean when you say, ‘medium format digital back’.

    Thanks

    Greg

    • Tim Grey says:

      Greg,

      With medium format cameras, there is generally a separate “container” used to hold the film, called a back. A film back was used with most medium format cameras rather than inserting film directly into the camera as you do with a 35mm SLR. A digital back is simply the digital version. So instead of putting a film back loaded with film onto a medium format body with lens attached, you put on a digital back and you have a digital camera.

      There are several manufacturers of digital backs for medium format, with just one example being the PhaseOne backs you can find here:

      http://www.phaseone.com/en/Camera-Systems/IQ-Series.aspx

      Tim

  8. Greg Miller says:

    I am a landscape photographer using a very capable D700. I still, at times, yearn for more pixels. Especially with a landscape photo full of small details (such as a scene with lots of varied color autumn leaves), I wish for more definition of the detail. The D3X would probably suffice, but the price tag is prohibitive. The D800E seems like an ideal combination of terrific image quality, resolution for detail, and price.

  9. Mike Curtis says:

    Too many photographers obsess over more pixels and DXOMarks. Producing a great image consists of so much more. Without a creative photographer a camera is just an object.

  10. John J. Mullin says:

    Technology is certainly a factor in photography as it helps us translate our vision into a format that can be shared with others. It also makes the the process, in the digital age especially, faster and more controllable, but as Ansel Adams said” The most important thing in photography is the 12″ behind the camera.”

    Thank you, Tim, for all of your technical help and sharing your introspective view of your own photographic work.

    Sincerely yours,

    John J. Millin

  11. Lars V says:

    I’m just glad that there now is an affordable camera that will wring ouf the most of my Nikon glass. Comparing with products at an unattainable price level never made sense to me. The most important criteria when shopping is almost always budget.

  12. Garry says:

    I agree that the artistry and creativity that goes into a great photograph generally trumps technology. But, at least in my case, the increased number of pixels and the improved sensitivity of the newer sensors helps to improve my images. I do a lot of travel and nature photography that requires capturing images on the fly-no tripod and little time to carefully comp0se. Consequently, I crop a lot in post to improve composition and to isolate details I didn’t fully appreciate at capture, or because I used the wrong lens (at age 76, I’vr given up lugging 2 cameras). Having 10+ megapixels left after the crop is great. And being able to shoot at night and indoors without flash with little resultant noise is a joy. Nikon rocks! Canon envy is gone.

    Garry

  13. Eric says:

    Got my D800 on Friday (thanks NPS!) and I have to say, the comparison to medium format is legitimate. The smoothness of tone and the fine detail reminds me of shooting with a Hasselblad. Not to mention the fact that the vastly more open range of possibilities with lenses from Nikon vs MF makers (the Nikon 14-24 is a truly remarkable bit of optics!) reminds me of an old article by Ernst Haas who talked about how architectural photography with a Leica was better than shooting medium format because you can do things with wide angles and telephotos that simply was not possible with the larger cameras.

    Wildlife photographers, landscape photographer and even photojournalists can benefit from this camera. ISO 6400 is amazing! And clean video out the HDMI port is going to make even the Canon 5D Mark III users jealous. (I shoot both Canon and Nikon at work.)

    But in the end, Canon will catch up and surpass the D800, though it’s going to take some time. Nikon went one way while Canon has been retreating on the ISO front. It’s going to be a while before they can shift emphasis again. Meanwhile, Nikon isn’t going to stop improving.

    And for all those folks saying that concentrating on equipment isn’t that important, that it’s the photographer’s eye. That’s a straw man argument. It’s not a zero sum game. Not either/or. A good eye will get better photos with the same gear than a weak eye. But better gear will get you better images than poor gear. If that weren’t true, then why isn’t everyone shooting with D3100s and Rebels?

    • Tim Grey says:

      Eric,

      Thanks for sharing. As for the zero sum game, I absolutely agree. My point was simply that there’s more room for improvement for most photographers on the composition front than there is on the resolution and technical quality front.

      Tools can absolutely make a huge difference in the right hands. But a bad 30 megapixel photo isn’t any better than the same photo at 10 megapixels. Of course, when I take one of my best photos, I always wish it had more pixels too!

      Tim

  14. Nazhiyath Vijayan says:

    Hello Tim,
    I am seriously considering purchasing a D800 or 800/E. Can you please explain the differences?
    I am a landscape photographer primarily.

    Thanks.

    • Tim Grey says:

      Nazhiyath,

      The difference between the D800 and the D800E is that the “E” version does not include an anti-aliasing filter. That means you can expect finer detail and greater sharpness, but it also introduces the risk of moirĂ© patterns. If you’re primarily a landscape photographer the lack of an anti-aliasing filter shouldn’t present a problem (and does offer some advantages). MoirĂ© patterns are most common with finely-textured subjects, such as clothing when photographing people.

      Tim

  15. My position has always been that folks should learn to make good images with the gear that they have rather than spending time and money on the latest greatest cameras and lenses. That said, I am loving my brand new 5D Mark III. See here for images and the story of my first morning with the new camera:

    http://www.birdsasart-blog.com/2012/03/28/the-canon-eos-5d-mark-iii-im-in-love/

  16. bill brennan says:

    Thanks Tim for a good discussion. Agree with Art that we need to make do with the gear we “brung”. Its encouraging to know that Nikon has made a breakthrough in the race with Canon. Can’t wait to see how Canon tries to leapfrog to new level.

    Bill Brennan

  17. Well stated. However, I do not think we have begun to hit the ceiling in technology or creativity. We just got a new tool in the gear bag. How we use it is the key. If taking a single photo is what this is about then maybe we have hit the ceiling as a individual photographer. IF we expand into multimedia to express ourselves then we have not yet started. We are blending motion and still photography into our tools. Now we add photography, illustration, animation, etc to our finished product. We use digital post processing tools like Photoshop, Lightroom, mosaic, and stitching to create. Digital has only begun. I was dissatisfied with my photos recently until I started stitching. Also, I added painting from a photo to clean up pictures. No end to possibilities. Larry

  18. David Wilson says:

    This comment is about the Nikon D800/D800e differences and tradeoffs which appear to be mis- or poorly understood in the photographic community. For reference, see Wikipedia “Shannon-Nyquist sampling theorem”. (Too hairy for you? Stick to film.)With a high resolution sensor, you must have strong image spatial frequency components near half the pixel spatial frequency to generate strong moire. Natural subjects typically have a large degree of randomness and therefore no strong spatial frequency component at any particular frequency. Hence, no detectable moire. Man-made items like checkered textiles have strong, narrow bandwidth spatial frequency components and therefore can cause visible moire. Of course, with a sensor with as much resolution as the D800 factors limiting image bandwidth such as lens resolution,diffraction,misfocus, poor quality lens filters,camera shake, etc. all serve as low pass filters and tend to minimize moire. The photographer has a degree of control over these factors. Conclusion: buy a D800e, inspect your image carefully in live view, and just defocus a tad if you see moire!

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