Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t often write about equipment. Equipment is necessary, and important, but not the most important thing in photography.
However, equipment does matter in some situations, like when trying to capture fast-moving subjects, or the faint light of stars, or when you want to make a large print that’s sharp and noise-free.
My regular camera is ancient by the fast-moving standards of the digital age. It’s a 16-megapixel Canon 1Ds Mark II, first introduced in 2004. I haven’t felt a compelling urge to upgrade. Newer models like the Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III have a little higher resolution (21 and 22 megapixels, respectively), but the difference isn’t that significant. They also handle noise better, but again, the advantages are relatively small.
One of the reasons I’ve been slow to upgrade to a new model is because while Canon has been making these modest improvements in image quality, Nikon has been making big leaps. For several years the Nikon sensors (some of which are made by Sony) have outclassed Canon in handling noise – something I could see clearly when looking at student’s photos during workshops. And last year’s introduction of the 36-megapixel Nikon D800 and D800E set a new standard for resolution in a 35mm-style DSLR. All this makes me think about switching, and hesitant to invest in more Canon equipment.
Although impressed with the image quality of student’s photographs made with the D800 and D800e, there’s nothing like actually using the camera yourself. Thanks to my friend Jim Goldstein, and the good people at Borrowlenses.com, I was able to try out a Nikon D800e and three lenses during a recent night photography workshop. I’ve written about Borrowlenses before, but I just want to say again how impressed I am with their service: quick, easy, efficient, friendly, and reasonably priced. A first-class operation.
Night photography is demanding of lenses and sensors, so I thought this workshop would be a good test. In the field, the D800E performed well both day and night. It’s always challenging adapting to a new camera, but I found the transition to be pretty painless, perhaps because I had become so familiar with the Nikon controls and menus when working with students.
Looking at the images later, my tests confirmed what I had seen with student’s cameras: that more megapixels do make a difference – if you have lenses sharp enough to take advantage of that resolution. I made 26×40-inch prints of two images, and in both cases I thought the prints easily surpassed the sharpness of other DSLRs I’ve tested, including the Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III. The D800 prints actually approached the quality of 4×5-inch film. Yes, a high-resolution scan of a sharp 4×5 transparency will be sharper, but not by much, and the D800e has much better dynamic range than transparency film, and far superior high-ISO performance.
The noise performance was also excellent, despite packing all those photo sites into a 24x36mm sensor. At 25,600 ISO the color shifts became problematic, but I made some Milky Way photos at 12,800 ISO with good color and relatively little noise. Here’s a comparison of the noise at 12,800 ISO with two Milky Way images, one with a Canon 5D Mark III that I used last year, the other with the Nikon D800E.
With both images, I used my standard Lightroom sharpening settings (Amount 40, Radius 0.5, Detail 70, Making 0) and no noise reduction. Both photos are shown at 100% (1:1, or one pixel in the image equals one pixel on the screen). The grain size is a bit smaller in the D800, and there’s less color noise, but remember that, because of the difference in megapixels, the noise in the D800 will be even smaller and less noticable than the noise in the 5D III when you make a print of equal size. You don’t have to enlarge each pixel as much to make the same size print with the D800 as you do with a lower-resolution camera, because you have more pixels to start with.
Shadow noise with the D800E is also very well controlled. Here’s another comparison with the 5D III; in both cases I used images made at 100 ISO, and cranked up the Exposure slider in Lightroom to +2.00 to bring out shadow detail in water, a smooth area where noise would be readily visible. Again, I used my standard Lightroom sharpening settings and no noise reduction. You’re seeing a 100% view again in both cases. The noise in the 5D image isn’t bad, considering the extreme lightening and magnification, but the noise is virtually non-existent in the image made with the D800. Now, I can’t imagine when I would lighten shadows that much, but it’s nice to know I could. The D800 has almost bottomless usable shadow detail at low ISOs.
Of course there is more to a camera than image quality. I could go on an on about the features that Canons have that Nikons lack, and vice-versa. I wish I could combine the best features of both into one camera, but alas…
And there’s a lot of value in just being familiar with your camera. The less time you spend thinking about the operation of the camera, the more you can concentrate on more important things, like light, composition, and mood.
But when looking at image quality alone, the D800 and D800E are outstanding. To me they’re a clear step above any other 35mm-style DSLR.
Does this difference in image quality really matter? Only if you make large prints, and are persnickety about sharpness and noise. If you never make prints larger than, say, 11×14 inches, you’ll probably never notice the difference. And even with a 16×20 print you’ll have to look closely. For those of us who make big prints, and care about fine details, the D800 and D800E are great options. If you rarely make big prints, then other features are probably more important.
Should I sell my Canon gear? Rumors keep surfacing about a higher-resolution camera from Canon – but then we’ve been hearing such rumors ever since the D800 was announced, and we’re still waiting. Even if Canon does announce a higher-megapixel camera, will they be able to pack that many photo sites into their sensor without creating too much noise? And will this higher resolution only be available in a top-of-the-line $8,000 body, or will they make something that’s a true competitor to the $3,000 D800? We’ll see. Of course I don’t expect Nikon and Sony to stand still either.
It seems likely that Canon will announce new models soon, so I guess I’ll hang on a bit longer. But I have to say it was hard to send that D800E back to Borrowlenses.com! I miss it already.
Oh, and the workshop was wonderful. Our second night I took the group up to an alpine lake to photograph star trails and the Milky Way. After sunset, the wind died completely, and the lake turned to glass – a rare occurrence at a large, high-altitude lake like this. As we waited for our star trail sequences to finish we watched Perseid meteors overhead, and reflections of stars shimmering in the water below. Then we capped the evening off by photographing the Milky Way reflected in the lake – the photograph at the top of this post. That experience was worth more than any camera or lens.
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.