[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
Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of Fstoppers.com and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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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?

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.

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!

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 :)

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

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*


looks at Draw Something ....

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.

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. 

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!

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.

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.

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..!

shhhh, don't give that away!

 Hahahaa. YES. :) Without a doubt.

How does the Nikon D800 compare to 120 film?

Film? Qu'est-ce que c'est 'film'...?!!

Marcus only if you are talking about high iso.

No, not just that. Focus error will be far more apparent, as will poor glass and any mistakes in technique.

I posted a crop of a portrait I shot this past weekend with the D800.  Really amazing resolution, though it is overall a slower camera to work with than the D4.  http://tinyurl.com/6qygxqv

You did something whit the second image or maybe first, the second image is more blurry. 
1. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150754497386253&set=a.5578...
2. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150754491836253&set=a.5578...

Facebook is unreliable in its uploads.  I don't know what their compression algorithm is, and I think it varies from photo to photo.  Same photo on both.  A lot of times, my colors vary, as well, when uploaded to FB

Well the real question is, what does it matter to 99% of people? I've seen portraits or photos with this much detail from lesser cameras than the D800 or 5D Mark III, but just not AS BIG, still the same quality of detail and amounts... more or less. And when you can still print massive images with 12MP, and have great quality, I don't see where "most" people feel the need for more. It certainly has a market, where it's required, no one can say it that doesn't exist. It does, but honestly, not for very many people at all.

A friend has the D3s, he was wondering about upgrading, but now he's holding off. It's a beast of a camera, and that's coming to another point, a camera is a whole hell of a lot more than pixels and other features. It's about handling and how it performs in your hands. It's about doing what you require.

Again, as for details and such, the files are big, giving you a bigger view at 100%, but when all is said and done, pretty much no one is ever going to know any difference, technique, skill, lighting, ISO levels and creativity are going to make images better, not pixels. :) Unless you're cropping images insanely, or needing to print really huge, for viewing closer up... I mean they've printed bill boards for years with 10MP cameras. Haha.

I think the above test shows that the Leica produces the nicest images, no?

Exactly my thought, too. I would prefer better image quality over higher ISO. So, for me the Leica S2 is the real winner here.

Don't forget the aspect ratio of the MF differs (2x3 for DSLR vs 3x4 for MF). That makes a difference when it comes to making a 16 x 20 print, for example where cropping would be needed with a DSLR. 

At first I was a bit taken back with the D800 image results (I shoot with dual D700s for much of my wedding work). However, I like my PhaseOne 645DF with a refurb P30+ back for so many other reasons, shared here: 


Unfortunately those test samples above do not help me in my thoughts about the D800. 
I do know that the H4D and Leica S2 has physically larger pixels (h4d-6.8 microns, S2-6 microns) and the D800 has 4.8 micron sized pixels. Nikon compensated for the lack in micron size by uping the MP count. 

For Example: print size straight from the cameras
7304 x 5478 pixels - 24.347in x 18.26in

Nikon D800:
7360 x 4912 pixels - 24.533in x 16.373in

The D800 produces just a hair smaller image than the H4D. Now does that mean that one could consider that the pixel size of a sensor is like the 72 ppi vs. 300 ppi ratio when it comes to sensor size? i.e. a MF that's 40 MP with a 6.8 micron sensor is really like a 36 MP Full Frame DSLR sensor with a 4.88 micron. That's up to how the individual person perceives it.

Now, there are some bells and whistles that can pull a person one way or the other. The H4D-40 has a 40 MP digital back, whereas the D800 is a given camera. You can't switch sensors, so you have that as a drawback. The Medium Format guys can switch from a 40 to an 80 MP or even use the 200 Multi-shot sensor. But they would not have the all-adapting capabilitIes of the D800 like shooting sports, low light, weatherous conditions, etc.

Anyone else notice the Moire on the jacket photo? Just below his right shoulder ( from our view the one on the left )

The Big difference is in the prints. The MF cameras scream on paper. The only FF camera that scratched the surface was the Nikon D3X and it was still a far cry. The D800e will get even closer in quality pound for pound.

I think the photo cells make the greatest impact on ppi to dpi conversion. Larger photo cells on the sensor make better transition to printing from inkjet and offset process printing. This is the primary advantage that the MF will have over the D800 (and beyond), but that gap is slowly decreasing. 

Hassy and Phase1 are not scared by the D800, but Pentax should be feeling nervous about now. Who is going to spend 10 grand plus lenses on their MF when the 3 grand on D800 gets you that close?

Lot of rave lately about the D800. I got my camera last weekend, had time to take few shots. I am very pleased with the results. I don't know yet how would I have been able to afford D3x, it has just that high price tag. On the other hand I am passionate about my portraits and D800 produces similar quality which I have before seen only done with MF cameras. Whats there not to like :)
Here are few headshots:

Uncropped image at 100% can be downloaded from here:
taikochao.com/Ajutine/D800 Feelings Orig.png

After doing few tests I noticed how well D800 handles hilights, did few examples. 
http://www.blog.taikochao.com/index.php/2012/04/05/3543/Everyone is raving about the high pixel count compared to MF. Being a D3s shooter I can say that D800 high iso capability is way better. More pixels means you get more detail, grain happens on pixel level in sensor. If you compare 100% D3s shot to D800 shot in same size there is not much to talk about anymore.I mean, I could have gone to print with D3s iso 4500 shot, never with portrait though but I sure can go to print with D800 iso 4500 shot.I am planning to do few high iso portraits over the weekend.Should start new thread about that maybe :)

I'm publishing information about Nikon D800 in my blog: http://www.jmallorqui.com

Are you guys considered the fact that this is $20k vs. $3k  camera?

CCD's are 16bit, 8,000 levels, CMOS is 14bit, 2,000 levels...No one paying for Medium format would be fooled by resolution, and not pay attn to bit depth.