D800 v. D800E: Real world resolution comparisons

While our resolution tests provide information about a camera's ultimate capabilities, its obviously important to examine a camera's performance outside the confines of our studio. In the examples that follow, we'll compare the D800E's detail rendering against that of the stock D800 in real world scenes.

Urban Landscape

In the samples below, we compare the same scene photographed with identical exposure settings using both the Nikon D800E and the stock D800. We shot using the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens at f/4.5 - the aperture at which we know this lens delivers maximum sharpness. We also shot at f/16 - a more practical aperture for a landscape photographer who wants to maximize depth of field.

Both cameras were shot on a tripod, using mirror lockup and a three second exposure delay to minimize vibration. The raw files were processed through ACR 7 with both sharpening and noise reduction set to 0. The converted raw files were then sharpened in Photoshop with our standard USM settings of Amount 100%, Radius .06 and Threshold 0.

D800E @ f/4.5 ACR 7 100% crop D800 @ f/4.5 ACR 7 100% crop
D800E @ f/16 ACR 7 100% crop D800 @ f/16 ACR 7 100% crop
D800E @ f/4.5 ACR 7 100% crop D800 @ f/4.5 ACR 7 100% crop
D800E @ f/16 ACR 7 100% crop D800 @ f/16 ACR 7 100% crop

These crops are taken from very small areas of the scene (indicated in red) and it's clear that both cameras deliver outstanding detail resolution. At an optimal lens aperture, the D800E can indeed render fine detail - like the chain link fencing shown above - that turns to mush in the D800. Note though that when looking at buildings and foliage across the lake - shown in the second set of crops - the difference between the two cameras becomes a bit more subtle. The D800E file does show marginally more crisp edge detail. Yet as you can see from the balcony railings towards the top of the lower set of crops, color moiré is more pronounced, a side effect of the D800E's 'cancelation' of the AA filter.

When you stop down the lens to a very small aperture, however, all meaningful advantages of the D800E essentially disappear, as you can see in the f/16 examples above. This diffraction-induced softness also minimizes the color moiré in both the D800 and D800E. You'd be hard pressed to choose one file over the other.

It's also important to note that even the more pronounced differences you see above in the 100% views are minimized once you put ink onto paper. You can make satisfyingly detailed large prints from either camera's files. In side by side print comparisons, we found that that discerning an improvement in D800E output over the stock D800 required examining 20 x 30 inch prints at very close viewing distances. In fact, when holding those same prints at arm's length, the differences were all but impossible to detect. Safe to say that if you're deciding between these two camera versions with an eye towards print output, you'd need to be producing very large prints or do significant cropping to gain much practical benefit to the D800E's increased resolving capabilities.

Sharpening

With such small differences in output between the two cameras, the obvious question is whether you can close the gap simply by applying additional sharpening to the D800 file. Below, we're comparing two sets of crops from the D800 and D800E where we've applied an additional round of sharpening to the D800 to try and achieve a perceptual match with the D800E results shown above.

D800E @ f/4.5 with no additional sharpening D800 @ f/4.5 with additional Photoshop USM: Amount 250%, Radius 0.3, Threshold 0
D800E @ f/4.5 with no additional sharpening D800 @ f/4.5 with additional Photoshop USM: Amount 250%, Radius 0.3, Threshold 0

The first crop shows a low contrast scene area and the D800 can easily handle a more aggressive sharpening adjustment on top of what we've applied originally. In the following crop from a higher contrast background area - with strong diagonal lines - you can just begin to some edge halos and slightly more pronounced stairstepping; two characteristic signs of oversharpening. The artifacts are really very minor, though. And the result is D800 output that - for many users - will lack nothing in comparison to that of the D800E (at our original sharpening settings).

Of course, should you opt for the D800E, there's nothing to stop you from applying additional sharpening to its files. As you can see below, applying slightly less aggressive sharpening to the D800E (200% vs 250%) yields output that appears marginally more crisp than the D800 without incurring the stairstepping and edge halos we begin to see in the D800 file.

D800E @ f/4.5 with additional Photoshop USM: Amount 200%, Radius 0.3, Threshold 0 D800 @ f/4.5 with additional Photoshop USM: Amount 250%, Radius 0.3, Threshold 0

Simply put, with optimum sharpening applied to raw files from both cameras, the D800E still nudges ahead of the D800, albeit by a very narrow margin, and one that is arguably academic for normal everyday photography.

Comparison between Raw converters

Although we use ACR for the bulk of the raw file conversions in our reviews, there are a variety of professional level options, each with their devoted users. Below we take a look at a single D800E file as processed via ACR 7, Nikon's Capture NX 2, Capture One Pro 6 and DxO Optics Pro 7, all at their default settings.
D800E ACR 7 default settings D800E Capture NX 2 default settings
D800E Capture One Pro 6 default settings D800E DxO Optics Pro 7 default settings

As you can see in the 100% crops above, the default settings of Capture One Pro yield noticeably crisper edge detail, without producing obvious sharpening artifacts. It should also be noted that while Capture One Pro and Nikon's Capture NX 2 each offer color moiré removal tools, we've generally found more success on the D800E's files using Capture NX 2, which managed the task of removing false color with far less de-saturation of similar colors in other areas of the scene.

Note that Nikon is bundling its Capture NX 2 software with the D800E in some, but unfortunately not all, regions. Buyers in the UK can expect a free version, for example, while those in the US must pay separately for the software.

Of course, we encourage you to experiment with raw converters of your choosing. Use the links below to download the raw files from each camera and draw your own conclusions.