Update 2/9/2015: It’s been three years since the introduction of the Nikon D800/E, and with Canon’s recent announcement of the 50Mp 5DS and 5DS R, we felt it would benefit our customers to revive this article. If you are interested in these new Canon high-res DSLRs, simply replace “50MP” for “36MP,” “5DS” for every mention of “D800,” and “5DS R” for every “D800E.” Otherwise, the content of this article can pretty much be read word-for-word and is still as important (if not more so) than it was three years ago.

Since their acceptance as serious tools for photographers, digital cameras have evolved at a fast pace, creating milestones in performance for a myriad of specifications. Advances in autofocus, metering, color depth, and flash protocols are only a few examples.

With each new camera introduction, photographers have adapted by upgrading their gear and even computers and software so they can maximize the return on their new investment.  For the most part, these advances make photography easier.  Sometimes, however, there’s a learning curve involved, and in order to tap the full potential of new sensors they’ve had to consider improved lenses and shooting technique.  For photographers who want to get the best captures possible, this will likely be true of the Nikon D800/D800E.

The Nikon D800/D800E offers an unprecedented 36.3 million pixels in a 35mm full-frame format.  This is very exciting and is rightly garnering a lot of attention; D800 image quality promises to be spectacular.  Given Nikon’s usual high level of product quality, we fully expect it to deliver.  However, the potential of a camera with this kind of resolution can only be realized if lens choices and shooting technique are optimized. In addition to using a tripod (!!!), several aspects of this are discussed below.

1.  Better sensors demand better glass.  The D800/D800E will perform best with high resolution lenses that match, or even exceed, the resolution of the camera’s sensor. Perceived file quality on this camera will only be as good as the lens that paints the image.  Flaws in lenses that may have been “good enough” in the past will be more visible in the D800’s large files.  This will be most noticeable toward the outer edges of the image frame, especially at wider apertures.

2.  Lens diffraction effects will be more noticeable, sooner.  Diffraction is a law of physics and lens designers and photographers have struggled with the issue for decades.  It is seen as a softening of the image that occurs as lenses approach their most “stopped down” setting.  The effects are seen earlier on some lenses, and later on others, but as a general rule, images begin to soften across the frame at f/16 and smaller.  Diffraction also reduces the contrast of a photograph, and yields an image that looks softer and is missing the “bite” often associated with image clarity.

This dynamic works at cross purposes with stopping down for maximum depth of field.  While it’s true that stopping down increases DOF, at some point this improvement is offset by the softening effects of small-aperture diffraction. As ironic as it may seem, the further we stop down, the stronger the overall image softening effect becomes.  High-resolution sensors also have more tightly spaced pixel sites, which contributes to diffraction effects as well.  The D800/D800E has the finest pixel pitch of any previous model, and according to preliminary information from the manufacturer, diffraction-limiting could begin as early as f/8, whereas before, with the same lens, its effects might not be visible until f/16.

3.  Issues with “wide open” lens performance will be more obvious.  It’s well known that image quality, especially at the edges, often suffers at wide apertures for most lenses.  All but the most superior and costly lenses need some stopping down (usually about 2-3 stops) to optimize sharpness across the frame.  For example, the optimum aperture of a Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 is arguably f5.6, and there’s often a balance between peak image quality and seeking more depth of field.  A landscape photographer would likely push the limits of diffraction, whereas a low-light photographer is probably more interested in trading off edge sharpness for speed.  At some point, however, every photographer needs to think about how to balance these constraints and trade-offs in order to achieve the best images possible.

For more information on diffraction, you might find this well-written explanation helpful:

4.  The Nikon D800E’s lack of an AA filter offers benefits and trade-offs.  The key difference between the Nikon D800 and D800E is the lack of an anti-aliasing filter.  This may seem like a detail, but it will have a tangible impact on image-quality potential and how the cameras are used.  The advantage of the D800E is an increased potential for sharpness and detail, which appeals to many, of course.  However, there is a trade-off that affects certain subjects.  The issue I’m referring to is called ”moiré,” which is caused by fine repeating patterns. Although this can occur in nature, it is more prevalent when man-made objects such as a distant chain link fence, or a venting grill, are present.  In addition, woven materials such as clothing can generate a lot of this (unfavorable) visual effect.

Moiré is produced when a sampling system (the sensor and processor) cannot accurately reproduce a repeating pattern in the subject because the details are finer than the pixel pitch. Rather than yielding an accurate representation of the subject, you get an inaccurate “alias” of it.  Most DLSR cameras have been designed with a slight blurring filter over the sensor to mitigate this problem.  This may seem like a big trade-off, but camera manufacturers figure that sharpening the image after the shot is easier than trying to fix the strange and complex patterns created by moiré.

Moiré is also very difficult to remove in post-production. Filters that reduce moiré within software can soften an image and produce unattractive variations of the ‘aliasing’ that plagued the image to begin with.  The result can be hours of post-processing on the affected area.  Even so, for some photographers, especially commercial studios, having better sharpness in an image is worth risking occasional moiré artifacts.  For this reason, the best professional digital cameras such as Hasselblad, Mamiya or Leaf also lack anti-aliasing filters.  Instead, like the Nikon D800E, they use a simpler protective glass filter over the sensor.

Nikon’s approach of giving its customers a choice between having an AA filter and not having it is an advantage over the aforementioned medium-format systems. For most, the standard version of the D800 will be plenty sharp, and it has the added benefit of avoiding the moiré issue.  It will take less time for a photographer to apply sharpening to an image in comparison rather than battling moiré in post-production.  As the renowned Scott Kelby recently commented on his choice of the ‘normal’ D800 over the ‘E’ version, “…in short, in the race between a few percent of extra sharpness and fear of moiré; fear won.”

In closing, we believe the Nikon D800/D800E will be an exceptional camera, no matter what model you choose.  Its specifications are very impressive and it should offer all the resolution and image quality that one could want out of a camera.  In fact, it is positioned to become a new milestone in DSLR technology.  Considering the effects that come with advanced sensor technology, the Nikon D800/D800E will become an invaluable tool for photographers.

Written by Steven Marsh, Sales Associate.

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