[Resolution Test] How Does The Nikon D800 Compare To Medium Format?

[Resolution Test] How Does The Nikon D800 Compare To Medium Format?

Perhaps no DSLR camera has caused such a stir as Nikon's new 36mp DSLR camera. Not only does it provide the most megapixels of any compact DSLR yet, but it also falls below the $3,000 mark! But the question everyone has is "can a small 35mm sensor really come close to the quality of a large medium format camera?" The guys over at DSLR Magazine put the Nikon D800 up against the Hasselblad H4D-40, Leica S2, and Sigma SD1 to find out. The results will most certainly shock you!

Obviously it's tough to do any sort of test between different brands because differences in lenses, sensor design, RAW file edits, and other variances in workflow can create all sorts of unintentional bias. With that being said, the results from DSLR Magazine's tests are pretty remarkable. To my eye, the Nikon D800 stands up well to the slightly larger 40mp Hasselblad H4D-40 and completely blows it away by ISO 800 and up. The biggest disappointment seems to be the Sigma SD1 which captures 15.3 MP in 3 layers. Even small this camera doesn't not seem to produce very good results. Here are the specs on the four sensors tested:

Nikon D800

Type: CMOS
Size: 24 x 35.9 mm
Size: 861 mm 2
Number of photodiodes: 36.3 million
Density of photocells per mm 2: 42,160

Hasselblad H4D-40

Type: CCD
Size: 33.1 x 44.2 mm
Size: 1,463 mm 2
Photodiode No.: 40 million
Density of photocells per mm 2: 27,340

Leica S2

Type: CCD
Size: 30 x 45 mm
Size: 1350 mm 2
Photodiode No.: 37 million
Density of photocells per mm 2: 27,407

Sigma SD1

Type: CMOS
Size: 16 x 24 mm
Size: 384 mm 2
Number of photodiodes: 15.35 million (three coats = approx. 46 million) (2)
Density of photocells per mm 2: 39 974 (2)

If you want to read to full article, head over to DSLR Magazine's Hasselblad H4D-40 / Nikon D800 Test Page and be sure to translate it for easy reading. I've included their two sample images below for reference. Click the small images to view the full comparison.

And for a more real world example, check out this photo from Dragan Stanojebic that has been making the rounds lately. The detail throughout the guy's jacket is pretty impressive!

photo by Dragan Stanojević
Log in or register to post comments


Patrick Hall's picture

The question I always have had is this:  If larger photosites are way better for low noise, then why do medium format cameras suffer at High ISO way more than smaller DSLR chips? Shouldn't medium format be amazing at ISO 6400 just like Full Frame destroys Cropped Sensors?

Ruairidh Patrick Fli's picture

More than anything though Patrick, Medium Format cameras just aren't designed for Low Light performance. The noise reduction in camera etc just isn't built into the sensor or firmware because there isn't a need for it.

Patrick Hall's picture

well they need to start considering it!  I know with Peter Hurley's 4 bank Kinoflow system, he doesn't like to shoot above ISO 800 and that's a pretty massive set of lights.  If resolution was the trump card in the medium format's bag, then they better figure out some new tricks :)

Patrick you you seem to hit the nail on the head with that statement!!!  I'd love to move to a medium format just for the high sync speed (not high speed sync) and other advantages but they suffer badly at high ISO and for weddings that's a deal breaker!

Patrick Hall's picture

yeah I forgot about the high sync speed....that is nice but it might be more like a Jack of hearts rather than an Ace :)

I'd really like to know why Nikon got rid of the high speed synch.. It was there on the D70 and D70s but they said it was too costly... really? That bad? C'mon on who wouldn't want to be able to shoot at 1/1600 with their Einstein head????? C'MON :)

Casey's picture

I'm probably wrong but i think it had to do with moving towards CMOS sensors

Patrick Hall's picture

you are right Casey, apparently CCD can only go so far with ISO noise vs MP.  The CMOS was the next step but it having an electronic shutter on it caused other problems

They were using electronic shutters. My old D50 had it, I could sync up to 1/500. At that point my Pocket Wizards became the limiting factor.

Medium format has room on their larger sensors for over 120mp(a h4d-60 sensor at 4micon's holds 150mp).and the lenses have higher resolution to take advantage of this,cmos is already planned for medium format,next year it will start appearing ...

Medium format cameras haven't traditionally (and still usually aren't) used in situations where light isn't under the control of the photographer.  The development just hasn't been focused on situations where shooting in uncontrolled conditions exist.

Simple. Since MF is slower than turtle, the camera engineer doesn't have any reason to boost the high ISO. And since the main focus is the base ISO, they then use CCD which in turn also significantly lowered the high ISO performance.

The myth that less megapixel means better ISO performance is already busted anyway. Right now 36mp D800 and 16mp D4 are hand in hand in ISO performance while D800 wins in overall image quality, by a huge margin.

Good Job NIkon !! ... 


>.>   *Looks at Canon 5d Mark III*   *Looks at Nikon D800*   *Looks at all of my Canon glass*


Patrick Hall's picture

looks at Draw Something ....

Michael L's picture

Good detail in the jacket but also a lot of moire!

It's really hard to judge how the cameras compare when the examples are mainly pixel peeping. The real difference is seen when you compare an entire medium format image with a similar DSLR image. It's often here you will see the big difference in overall sharpness, detail and smooth tones.

Patrick Hall's picture

Well the jacket photo was taken with the d800e so the moire is expected...again I don't know why anyone would buy that version for normal portraits

That explains a lot. I was wondering if the moire was because of the D800E, because if not, that would be a serious issue. 

Michael L's picture

So the whole comparison has been between the Hassy and a D800e which i suspect most people won't be using due to the heavy moire problem. So in reality the difference between the medium format and the Nikon will be even larger.

That full res sample is not from D800 but from D800E big diference...

Yes, I confirmed it on Adobe Bridge, that Nikon photo is DEFINITELY from the D800E. Amazing resolution, but holy moire!

Lex Arias's picture

The resolution of the Nikon is awesome 

I dont know what I should think about all these sensor comparisons. First of all, for the most photographers are these little differences not even noticable! And its not only about the sensor. What kind of camera you use, will depend on your needs. I`ll skip all these comparisons and go shoot instead with my D3s, which is still a great camera!

Why don’t people understand that the biggest advantage of medium format is that the image produced by the lens is better to begin with (larger size = shift to lower spatial frequencies = using the lens in a better “zone” of its MTF). You can keep on pixel peeping, comparing dynamic ranges etc… it ‘doesn’t really matter! The image of a scene produced by 35mm lens will always be less impressive (less micro-contrast, etc...) than the same scene on a larger format. Compare entire images!

Yeah, but Edouard...there are a lot of guys like me who are looking at the D800 because when you do shoot with a medium format camera but also either back up or shoot additional images with a DSLR. at least with the D800 it seems like the images will be CLOSER to the medium format files. My current 5dmkII leaves a lot to be desired.

Nicholas's picture

I've said it before here on stoppers (and to myself in my dreams): They day our dslr's can shoot with leaf shutter style lenses, the medium format market would be less than an elite niche than it already is. 

Nicholas, Panasonic (and I guess others) are working on a global shutter for there m4/3 cameras.. While this is great for video (no more rolling shutter) it should also do away with the need for a mechanical shutter and give you high speed sync with flash's just like you used to get with the d70 and its CCD.

Marcus's picture

I think a lot of people will buy the D800 assuming that more res = better images and then be amazed and annoyed that people using 12Mp cameras are still producing better images than they are..!

Patrick Hall's picture

shhhh, don't give that away!

More comments