When the Nikon D800 was announced earlier this year, its 36-megapixel resolution attracted its fair share of raised eyebrows and dropped jaws. At more than three times the resolution of its predecessor – the 12-megapixel D700 – and with 14-megapixels more than its nearest Canon rival – the EOS 5D Mark III – the D800 promises files of extraordinary size. Big enough in fact for A0 fine-art prints and extensive re-cropping without any huge loss of image quality.
To put things in context, before the D800 came along you would have had to spend between £10,000–15,000 on a medium-format camera to get this number of pixels. This, of course, prompted many to wonder if the new kid on the block could really perform as well as medium format big brothers from the likes of Hasselblad, PhaseOne, Leaf and Leica.
The comparison with medium format is even more inviting when one considers the D800E, a variant of the D800 with the effect of the anti-aliasing filter removed. All DSLRs and compact cameras have such an optical filter in front of the sensor that softens the image in order to remove artifacts such as Moire and false colour. Images are then sharpened electronically to compensate for this when JPEG files are created (or on your PC or Mac if you shoot Raw files).
Medium-format cameras do away with an anti-aliasing filter in order to provide startling crispness, which really does have to be seen to be believed. And now, so does the Nikon D800E.
We were curious to see if the new Nikon has what it takes to unseat medium format from its position as the king of image quality. To this end we’ve pitched it against a Hasselblad H4D-31, an entry-level offering from the legendary Scandinavian manufacturer costing around £8995 plus VAT (£10,794), including a 31-megapixel digital back and 80mm f/2.8 standard lens.
It should be pointed out that medium-format cameras like this were never intended to be a match for the likes of Nikon (or any other DSLR for that matter) in genres such as sports, photojournalism, etc, so for the purposes of this test we’re going to be looking primarily at the quality of the files that each camera is capable of outputting, rather than speed of operation.
Let battle commence!
Specification and handling
Pick up each of these two cameras and they couldn’t feel more different. The Nikon will be familiar to anyone who has used a DSLR before; in fact if you’ve previously handled its older sibling the D700 you’ll get up and running on the D800 without the instructions. The Hasselblad, on the other hand, is another breed of camera entirely.
Its roots lie in the modular medium-format systems that were the lynchpins of professional photographic studios in the fifties and sixties. The standard configuration is centered about a camera body that has a separate viewfinder, lens and digital back mounted on it, the idea being that each of these components can be swapped in or out as required. The H4D-31 differs in that it can only accept the digital back that comes with it – upgrades to backs with higher pixel counts or swaps with film backs are not possible.
The ’blad feels good to shoot with, with all the controls falling under the right fingers and thumbs. Its menu system is confusing though, with camera functions accessed on a tiny LCD display on the top of the camera. Digital back functions are accessed through a menu on the rear of the camera.
In terms of actually viewing the scene you’re photographing, the Nikon D800 now sports a 100 per cent finder, which is as clear and bright as you expect for a full-frame DSLR. Focus-point information is superimposed using transparent LCD technology and exposure information, and camera status is shown clearly underneath. You can also use Live View to compose on a 920,000-dot LCD display.
The Hasselblad viewfinder is even bigger than the D800’s, and using it is an absolute joy. A similar level of exposure information is shown, but there’s less focusing data, chiefly because the camera only has one focus point in the middle of the frame.
This is very common in medium-format cameras; only the Pentax 645D has more than one focus point. Compare this to the 51-point AF system of the Nikon D800E and you might think the Hasselblad technology is lagging behind. We hear unofficially that the multi-point AF sensors designed for DSLRs are ineffective in medium-format cameras as the larger format size means all the points are grouped in the centre of the frame and not spread out.
The Hasselblad does have a clever trick up its sleeve though, that levels the playing field somewhat. The True Focus technology found in the H4D series is an adaptation of the conventional focus lock that compensates for the very small change in camera-subject distance that occurs when recomposing. Using Yaw rate sensor technology, an APL processor accurately logs camera movement during any re-composing, then uses these exact measurements to calculate the necessary focus adjustment, and issues the proper commands to the lens’ focus motor so it can compensate. The APL processor computes the advanced positional algorithms and carries out the required focus corrections at such rapid speed that no shutter lag occurs. In simple terms, the photographer can concentrate on their composition, while True Focus takes care of focusing.
Aside from focusing technology, what caused such a stir on the D800’s release was its resolution – 36.2 megapixels courtesy of a CMOS sensor that operates between ISO 100 and ISO 6400, with a push setting taking sensitivity up to the equivalent of ISO 25,600. The sensor measures 35.9x24mm, corresponding almost exactly to 35mm film, though you’ll need to make sure you’re partnering the camera with FX format lenses; DX format lenses result in a 1.5x crop, applied automatically by the camera.
The H4D-31 packs slightly fewer pixels – the least you’ll find in a medium format camera, in fact. The sensor in this camera is a 33.1x44.2mm CCD version, meaning it doesn’t have the ISO range of the Nikon. ISO 100 is the base setting, with ISO 1600 being the top value. The camera does shoot genuine 16-bit files though, meaning it records more brightness levels than 14-bit DSLRs, including the Nikon D800E.
Comparing other features (frame rate, metering patterns, file formats) reveals the different end users that these products are aimed towards. A trump card for the Hasselblad H4D-31 is its ability to synchronise with studio flash at any shutter speed up to its maximum of 1/800sec – crucial for those mixing flash and daylight or freezing motion in the studio. The D800E only synchronises to 1/250sec, though its fastest shutter speed is 1/8000sec.All said, however, the Nikon is by far the more versatile camera. It has the specification to challenge the Hasselblad on its home territory; the opposite cannot be said.
We used both cameras on location and in the studio, shooting portraits of our test subjects under a variety of conditions. The Nikon D800E was very responsive and so simple to use that it quickly became intuitive. The viewing screen is excellent and offers the ability to check for that ‘critical sharpness’ easily. Focusing is pretty accurate too. Going for shallow depth of field portraits with a Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 used wide open, we achieved roughly 90 per cent of shots with our model’s eyes pin sharp.
The H4D-31’s True Focus feature worked very well indeed here, never really missing a trick. In general, however, the Hasselblad’s AF is not as fast as the Nikon, nor does it feel so assured. Sometimes the camera felt like it was hesitating to lock after finding focus. The AF-assist light was keen to activate too, whereas the Nikon could focus in the light of our modelling lamps without assistance.
Tethered shooting is, traditionally, full of stability problems. It’s popular with those shooting medium format in the studio though, particularly when make-up artists and art directors are involved. With the H4D-31 this is done with a FireWire connection and Phocus software, which ran very well on our Intel i7 MacBook Pro with 16Gb RAM.
Tethered shooting with DSLRs is usually as simple as plugging them into Adobe Lightroom and then clicking a few menu options. Sadly, the D800/E is not supported by the software yet, though we’re sure this is in the pipeline. There is no excuse for Nikon’s own software not supporting the camera though: we downloaded a trial of Nikon Camera Control Pro and couldn’t get the D800E to respond at all. It’s also surprising that Nikon is still requiring users to pay for this kind of software (and the full version of Capture NX2 Raw processing software too). Considering the extra functionality Canon users get from free included software, it’s time Nikon considered giving users spending over £2500 on a DSLR body better value.
In use the Hasselblad was picky about memory cards. Take a card out of the Nikon and put it into the Hasselblad and it will insist on formatting it before you can shoot. There is no excuse for this since other camera systems (with the exception of Leica) are nowhere near as fussy about their choice of storage medium.
Exposure metering was decent for both cameras, with the Hasselblad probably erring on the side of over exposure if anything. Auto white balance made a good job of getting near the mark with both cameras, and only small tweaks were required in Raw processing. Skin tones are warmer on the Hasselblad than the Nikon, producing a more pleasing result.
The Hasselblad H4D-31 loves shooting in the studio and produced image files of excellent quality. Hasselblad was keen to point out to us that the 31-megapixel back is the oldest in their range and the newer 40-megapixel version gives better results in terms of sharpness and noise control. But they needn’t worry too much: the H4D-31 delivers files that are packed with detail and have that medium-format look that comes from not having an anti-aliasing filter.
Dynamic range is excellent too. Pushing and pulling about a .3fr Raw file in Photoshop gave loads of flexibility to recover detail in highlights and shadows and produce high-impact results full of local contrast. The Hasselblad H4D-31 records slightly more dynamic range than the Nikon D800, although both cameras perform well in this department. When shooting window-lit portraits on location, we could even-up the dramatic difference in exposure between the left and right sides of the picture more easily with Hasselblad .3fr files than with Nikon’s .nef. This is almost certainly because of the 16-bit nature of the H4D-31’s electronics.
Moire is a problem with any camera that lacks an anti-aliasing filter, and we saw some of the swirly psychedelic stuff in the fabric of our models’ outfits. The anti-moire correction in the supplied Phocus does a good job of removing it though.
On first inspection, there is not much to separate the files we achieved with the Nikon from those shot with the Hasselblad. The D800E produces resolution in bucket loads; from a three-quarter-length portrait, for example, it’s possible to zoom in and see our model’s contact lenses. As with the H4D-31, the lack of anti-aliasing filter also gave the images added bite. When comparing the two cameras side-by-side, the Hasselblad produces more sharpness in real-world situations, but you have to look closely to spot this. We can’t imagine many clients being upset at the lack of resolution from either camera.
What both cameras do reveal, however, is shortcomings in lenses. Hasselblad’s 80mm f/2.8 standard lens takes some stopping down to maximise sharpness, but between f/4 and f/22 it’s very good. The Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 we used with the D800E was good from f/4 to f/11. Newer Nikon lenses fare well, while the older optics get shown up a little. Even the Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G was lacking in terms of edge detail at f/4, being comfortably outperformed by the (admittedly less flexible) Hasselblad optic.
Medium-format cameras don’t traditionally do too well at high ISO settings, though the HD4-31 performed better than we expected in this respect, especially when paired with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Noise creeps in at ISO 400, though you’ll only see it with ACR’s noise reduction turned off completely. At ISO 800 there is more noise, but depending on what you are shooting this need not be a deal breaker. Noise at ISO 1600 is more significant and we’d steer clear of this setting.
The Nikon does lots better despite having more pixels crowded into a smaller space. The ‘emergency use only’ status of the H4D’s ISO 1600 is reached at around ISO 4000 on the D800E, which is impressive. We’d have no problem with using material shot at ISO 2000 across a double page spread.
The Nikon’s high ISO sensitivity is for more than sports photographers and photojournalists. It frees up portrait photographers to shoot with daylight where they would have previously had to use flash, and without a tripod too.
Value for money
Headline figures indicate that the Nikon should thrash the Hasselblad in terms of affordability, but it’s not quite that simple. The Nikon’s £2700 list price is for body only. Add a 50mm f/1.4 to that and you are looking at nearly £3000. Then if you want tethered shooting control you’ll need Camera Control Pro when Nikon has fixed this (£200) or Adobe Lightroom (£250). If you are an existing Nikon user there might also be extra outlay when you realise you need to upgrade your lenses, too.
That said, £10,794 is still a lot of money. Extra lenses are going to cost a substantial amount too. The H4D-31 may shoot better quality pictures in studio and controlled location conditions, but is this worth the extra, before you look at additional lenses?
What starts out as a simple question quickly becomes a can of worms once the real-world issues of a photographic shoot are considered. When pixel peeping at images in the studio, the Hasselblad just has the edge in terms of raw image quality. Sharpness and resolution is higher and the 16-bit nature of the files makes them more robust when retouching.
Outside of the studio, the versatility of the D800E starts to shine though. Noise levels at ISO 2000 are the same as the Hasselblad H4D-31 at ISO 800, meaning photographers have more options for hand holding, using available light and working with small apertures. Focusing is faster, as is shooting rate. There are more lens options too, with some primes, like the newer Nikkor 85mm f/1.4, offering superb performance.
Medium-format manufacturers have, for years, been trying to give professional photographers a camera that has the integration and handling of a DSLR. They must be a little worried, then, that Nikon has started targeting the very same people with a DSLR that produces image that come close to medium format quality.
Of course there’s more to this head-to-head comparison than sheer pixel count: in its favour the H4D-31 houses a sensor that is physically twice the size of a 35mm chip, supporting the shallow depth of field shooting that is so in favour right now. There’s also the little matter of dynamic range, which will always be far greater in medium format models than in their 35mm rivals. Recent substantial price drops and interest free long-term payment deals have also made the financial pain of acquiring the H4D-31 just a little more bearable.
Medium-format manufacturers will doubtless continue to think about how to come back at Nikon on other fronts, and we have no doubt they will. As we commented at the start of this test, medium-format photography is one of the most competitive markets out there, and the need for the highest quality images which these systems can deliver is ever present. We can’t wait to see what Hasselblad come up with next.
Anti aliasing filter
Almost all DSLR cameras have an anti-aliasing filter (sometimes called a low-pass filter) in front of their sensor. This eliminates moire patterns – coloured swirls that occur when the regular bayer pattern of the pixels coincides with the spacing of detail in the frame, like brickwork or checked fabric. To get round this problem the anti-aliasing filter blurs the image a little, but in doing do robs us of some of that biting sharpness we all crave.
Medium-format cameras traditionally do away with such a filter in order to provide more sharpness. The higher the pixel count the finer the repeating detail in the picture needs to be to cause moire, and medium format is very high resolution indeed!
Other cameras that do away with anti aliasing filters include the Leica M9, Fuji X-Pro1 and cameras with a Foveon sensor. And now, of course, the D800E.
Increasingly, moire can be dealt with by using specialist software. Nikon’s new version of Capture NX2 can fix it, as can Phase One’s Capture One and Lightroom 4, which allows the correction to be painted on. In Photoshop Moire can be reduced (but not eliminated) by duplicating the image layer, blurring it and changing the blending mode to colour. Use a layer mask to paint in the correction where it’s required.
Taken from the October 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine