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Nikon D800 Gordon Laing, August 2012
 
 

Nikon D800 vs Phase One IQ160 Medium Format RAW quality

  Nikon D800 results
1 Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D3 Quality JPEG
2 Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D3 Quality RAW
3 Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D3 Noise JPEG
4 Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D3 Noise downsampled JPEG
5 Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D3 Noise RAW
6 Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D3 Noise downsampled RAW
7 Nikon D800 vs Medium Format RAW
8 Nikon D800 Sample images
 
With 36 Megapixels, the Nikon D800 comes closer to medium format territory than any DSLR before it, and at a much more affordable price too. Which of course begs the question how the D800 actually compares to a medium format camera in practice. On this page you'll see how 36 Megapixels measure-up to 60, but please bear in mind this was a casual extra test performed out of curiousity when the opportunity arose. In particular I didn't have access to the right prime lenses for a truly fair comparison, so please take the results for what they are: a fun side-by-side view giving a rough idea of where the leading technologies in each format are currently at.

While testing the Nikon D800 I had the chance to try it alongside a Phase One medium format body with an IQ160 back courtesy of Jackie Ranken and Mike Langford, authors of the rather fabulous Creative Landscape Photography eBook. The IQ160 features a sensor measuring 53.9x40.4mm and sporting 60.5 Megapixels, which delivers images with 8984x6732 pixels. Sure that's not quite as many as the top-of-the-range 80 Megapixel IQ180 (10328x7760 pixel images) that I've tested previously (see my IQ180 review), but it's still very impressive. Now let's see how it compares to the 36x24mm sensor in the D800 which delivers images measuring 7360x4912 pixels.

     
Nikon D800
Using Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 at 48mm
 
Phase One IQ160
Using Schneider LS 80mm f2.8
1/320, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 50 ISO
     

Above you'll see uncropped images taken with both cameras. The choice of lenses is always tricky in these comparisons as medium format bodies are invariably used with prime lenses that deliver a field of view which may not match any primes available for the DSLR system. So if you want a close match in coverage, the DSLR will almost certainly need to be fitted with a zoom.

I fitted the Phase One with a Schneider LS 80mm f2.8 lens and matched its vertical picture height with a Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 on the D800 set to 48mm; note the D800's aspect ratio is slightly wider, so we're effectively ignoring a thin strip of pixels at one side of the image. I then recomposed into the portrait orientation for a more pleasing image, so technically it's the image width that has been matched in the examples above. Both bodies were then set to their base sensitivities of 50 ISO for the IQ160 and 100 ISO for the D800, and both lenses set to f8. Ideally I'd have also wanted to shoot with the D800 equipped with a prime lens, but none were available on the day I had access to the IQ160 which offered a good match in field-of-view.

I shot both images in RAW (actually the only choice on the IQ160), then processed them both in Adobe Camera RAW using identical settings: Sharpening at 70 / 0.5 / 36 / 10, Luminance and Colour Noise Reduction both set to zero, and the Process to 2012 with the Adobe Standard profile. These settings were chosen to reveal the differences in sensor quality and isolate them from in-camera processing. The high degree of sharpening with a small radius enhances the finest details without causing undesirable artefacts, while the zero noise reduction unveils what's really going on behind the scenes.

Nikon D800 (36MP RAW using Adobe Camera RAW)
Using Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f2.8 at 48mm
 
Phase One IQ160 (60MP RAW using Adobe Camera RAW)
Using Schneider LS 80mm f2.8

f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO
     
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO
     
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO
     
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO

In my earlier comparisons against the EOS 5D Mark III, it was the D800 which enjoyed a higher levels of detail and overall crispness. Now the tables have turned and it's the D800 which looks somewhat soft and veiled alongside the IQ160. The Phase One crops above just look so incredibly crisp and genuinely contain a much higher degree of real-life detail. Now some of this is undoubtedly thanks to coupling the IQ160 with a much higher quality prime lens, but you still can't argue with the sheer sensor resolution and surface area. Some of the crispness can also be attributed to the absence of an anti-aliasing filter on the IQ160 which allows the sensor to record greater sharpness albeit at the cost of handing over management of moire to the photographer.

Interestingly the D800 is also available in a version without an anti-aliasing filter, and again there are sharper lenses in the Nikon catalogue than the 24-70mm f2.8. As such I hope to repeat this comparison in the future with a D800E and a higher quality lens, so long as I can find an alternative lens for the IQ160 which will deliver much the same coverage.

Once again this test was done for fun rather than a pure scientific exercise, but it clearly illustrates that medium format bodies still enjoy a significant advantage over even the highest resolution DSLRs in terms of sheer detail - and remember the IQ160 isn't the highest resolution medium format back either.

Before wrapping up my D800 tests though I have one more comparison to show you. While comparing sensor specifications between the D800 and IQ160 it struck me that sticking two D800 images on top of each other would actually come very close to the total resolution not to mention sensor surface area of the IQ160. It was too much to resist, so I rotated the D800, re-matched the field-of-view using a longer lens and took two more frames with the intent of stitching them into one 72 Megapixel image. Scroll down to see the results.

 

 
 
Nikon D800 vs Phase One IQ160 RAW quality, (D800 with two frames stitched together)
 
While examining the sensor specifications of the Nikon D800, it occurred to me that two images stitched on top of each other would in fact be roughly similar to a single frame from the Phase One IQ160 medium format back. The IQ160 sensor measures 53.9x40.4mm and sports 60.5 Megapixels, which delivers images with 8984x6732 pixels. Stitching two D800 images together with no overlap effectively generates a 72 Megapixel image with 9824x7360 pixels from a virtual sensor measuring 48x36mm. Okay, it's not a perfect match, but it again it's interesting to see how close the D800 can get to medium format quality.

So below are the two images I shot. The one on the right is the same single frame from the Phase One IQ160, while on the left are two landscape images from the D800 stitched together. For this comparison I found the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 wasn't quite long enough to match the coverage of the Phase One combination, so switched to a Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 and nudged it in a little. The EXIF reports 70mm, but it was a slightly tighter view than the 24-70mm at 70mm and required to match the Schneider 80mm on the IQ160.

     
Nikon D800 (two stitched frames)
Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f2.8 at 70mm
 
Phase One IQ160
Using Schneider LS 80mm f2.8
1/320, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 50 ISO
     

This time I've taken two crops from the images above and reproduced them here at 100% without any scaling. The cropped areas are marked with red squares. Ignore the third square to the right of centre on the IQ160 image above as it wasn't used again in this comparison.

In the crops below we're comparing 72 Megapixels against 60 which is why the Nikon crops show a slightly smaller area, but as you can see the coverage is roughly the same. At best the degree of real life detail is similar too, although the IQ160 crops still enjoy a crispness that's lacking on the D800 samples. In particular, look at the second row of crops of the Novotel hotel, where the fine detail is much sharper.

As above, much of the difference in sharpness is down to using a better quality lens with the IQ160, coupled with its lack of anti-aliasing filter, but it's impressive to see two of the D800 frames coming close in resolution.

If you're anything like me though, you may be wondering if any digital enhancement might help out the Nikon crops in this example, so to find out, I applied an extra Unsharp Mask to the D800 sample and repeated the crops. Scroll down to see!


Nikon D800 (72MP RAW using two stitched frames)
Using Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f2.8 at 70mm
 
Phase One IQ160 (60MP RAW using Adobe Camera RAW)
Using Schneider LS 80mm f2.8

f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO
     
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO
     
     
Below you'll find the D800 crops with extra sharpening applied, just to see if we can get a little closer to the crispness of the IQ160. As you can see, the fine detail on the D800 crops is now more apparent, although it's still lacking the ultimate crispness of the medium format shot.

But what this page of casual tests and processing does reveal is when two D800 images are stitched together, you're close to matching the resolution of a top-end medium format camera. Fit a decent prime lens and consider using the D800E version and you may even match the ultimate crispness and sharpness too. This is something I hope to do in the future and I will of course update this review. I hope you enjoyed this experiment. It concludes my tests with the D800, which only leaves me to share my Nikon D800 sample images and my final verdict page!

     
     
Nikon D800 (72MP RAW using two frames and extra sharpening)
Using Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f2.8 at 70mm
 
Phase One IQ160 (60MP RAW using Adobe Camera RAW)
Using Schneider LS 80mm f2.8

f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO
     
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 50 ISO


Nikon D800 results : Quality / RAW quality / Noise
/ Noise Downsampled / RAW Noise / Vs Medium format

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