Nikon D800: Maximizing Sharpness

The Nikon D800 has 36 megapixel resolution, but that means nothing if your shots aren’t sharp.

With a 36-megapixel sensor, it’s no surprise that the Nikon D800 is capable of capturing images with utterly astonishing detail. In fact, the D800 is more like a medium-format sensor when it comes to resolution. Two advantages of files this large are big prints and the ability to crop in without losing detail. However, you won’t get either of these benefits if your shot isn’t sharp to begin with. There are several factors that go into making a sharp image:

  1. Focus Accuracy
  2. Lens Quality
  3. Depth of field
  4. Camera Shake
  5. Subject Motion
  6. Proper image sharpening

In today’s post, I’ll be examining the effect of Camera Shake with the D800e by comparing images captured hand-held and with a tripod.

Methodology

To eliminate the effect of depth of field on perceived sharpness, I used a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter to adjust the incoming light level. All shots were made at ISO 100 and f/4. The only variable that changed, then, was shutter speed. I extracted the JPEG previews from my RAW NEF files with Photo Mechanic. The D800e was set to Standard Picture Control with sharpening at +4.

Results

24-70mm Nikkor

My first set of tests was with the 24-70mm f/2.8 AFS G Nikkor at 70mm, and my subject was the house across the street (about 30m away).

Here’s the full-frame view:

Full-frame image with Nikon 24-70mm lens at 70mm f/4

The next sequence of shots shows the effect of shutter speed on the hand-held images. The shutter speeds went from 1/500s down to 1/25s. The fine detail starts to soften at 1/60s (approximately 1/focal length), and at 1/25s, I’m unable to get a sharp image.

Next, I used a tripod and performed the same tests. The images were quite sharp, all the way down to 1/15s. For the last shot, I also used Mirror Lock-up (MLU) to see if mirror slap affected the shot. Differences were quite marginal between the two shots at 1/15s, but the shot that used MLU is ever so slightly sharper.

Next page: testing the 70-200mmm Nikkor

70-200mm VR Nikkor

When I photograph landscapes, I often use my 70-200mm f/2.8 AFS G VRII Nikkor lens. I decided to perform the same test with this lens, and also examine the effect of VR on getting sharp shots. For this test, my subject was Pikes Peak, which is approximately 17 miles (27km) away from my house. There is a small building on the summit, which is visible in the shots.

Here’s the full-frame image:

The full-frame shot of Pikes Peak, Nikon 70-200mm lens at 200mm.

Next are 100% crops (1:1) from the hand-held sequence. where you can see the summit house on Pikes Peak. As you can see, the images soften significantly at shutter speeds slower than 1/250s, at least in terms of the finest details. In fact, my shot at 1/250s wasn’t as sharp as I would have expected, meaning that I probably didn’t hold the camera still enough while shooting.

Effect of Vibration Reduction (VR)

I then turned on VR and made the same sequence of images (VR was set to Normal). Using VR definitely improved the shots, but I still had softness in the images below 1/250s. These shots would be acceptable at smaller print sizes, but extreme cropping would show the lack of fine details.

Tripod and MLU

Next, I moved to a tripod and made the same sequence of shots, and I went all the way down to 1/15s. The last two shots show the effect of using MLU. In this case, even with a tripod, you’ll see the effect of mirror-slap. Turning on MLU helped significantly here.

Conclusions

For most of you, these findings will come as no surprise. If you are shooting a D800 hand-held and you want maximum sharpness (either for large prints or for cropping), then you’ll definitely want to use at least 1/2x focal length as your shutter speed. This can be done by using Auto ISO. Choose the “automatic” setting for minimum shutter speed, and then fine-tune it to “faster” (one notch to the right). Even if you set your camera this way, your technique will still go a long way towards eliminating camera shake. Always support your camera with one hand beneath the lens, and tuck your elbows into your body. When possible, try leaning on a wall or other sturdy object, like a doorframe, for support.

The drawback with using Auto ISO is that as light dims, you’ll find yourself using higher ISO sensitivities. With the D800, this leads to a reduction in overall dynamic range and an increase in visible noise. If detailed landscapes are what you are after, then you’ll want to use the D800 at base ISO (100) whenever possible. That means you’ll definitely want to use a tripod, and with longer lenses, use MLU too. These rules for getting maximum sharpness are nothing new, but you’ll really see it with the D800 and D800e. There’s really not much value in capturing 36 megapixels of data if they aren’t sharp!

Author’s Note: Some people claim to be able to get sharp shots hand-held at shutter speeds of 1/30s or slower. While this is certainly possible, what I’m discussing in this article are ways to increase the probability of getting a sharp shot. Even on a tripod, sloppy technique can cause soft shots.

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13 thoughts on “Nikon D800: Maximizing Sharpness”

  1. Good stuff Jason – am also interested in having your recommendation on the following :

    – ideal camera settings for sharpest output. ISO noise reduction, vignette correction etc. seems to deteriorate sharpness. What would you turn on / off ?

    – ideal capture sharpening settings on LR for landscape shots. I know capture sharpening settings are supposed to change depending on images but having a basic starting point could be good. I have been using on NX the ones that accompanied the NX ebook you did a while back and found them great. Any equivalent for D800E on LR 4.1 would be great !

  2. Great series! As obvious as it sounds now, I didn’t realize the extent you needed to “up your game” when it comes to the D800.
    For example, what’s your tripod setup?
    My tripod/ball head serves me well but I’m seeing softness in lens above 200mm even when using MLU.

    Thanks again!

  3. Good report, Jason. I am looking forward to your subsequent D800 investigation, especially lens quality. I hear a lot of concern that the D800 will make a lot of our old lenses obsolete, especially the less expensive ones like the 28-300mm.

  4. Jason, I shoot birds which are at about 200′-600′ away using a D800 with a 600mm f/4 supported on a Wimberly head and Gitzo 5542 LS trippd. No matter what I do I can’t get sharp photos of these birds. Then I use my Sony NEX7 with a Sony 70-400 mm G lens. And the photos better in sharpness than on the Nikon. Am I doing something worng? Or is it the result of mirror slap on the Nikon? I have tried using the MUP on the Nikon and the results are a shade better, but not not better than than by the Sony combo?
    Thanks

    Bhupesh

  5. Bhupesh-
    If you are trying to get sharp shots of birds at 200-600′, I’m afraid this is going to be a huge problem no matter what gear you use. As a point of reference, the majority of the bird shots I showcase on my site are taken with a 600mm lens at distances of 50′ or less. Sometimes much less.

  6. Great series of test shots to demonstrate your point! I can see where many people who have jumped on the D800 could be disappointed in the results if they do not religiously practise good camera technique. I appreciated the examples of using MUP as I had mostly ignored this feaure on my Nikons and have now started to use it with positive results. For me, I think I will satisfy my D800 curiosity by renting one for a day. Thank you for spending the time to prepare this article.

  7. Because I didn’t use VR on a tripod? Silly conclusion. I laid out my methodology. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. But VR can actually INDUCE softness when not used properly. With a tripod, Mirror Lock-up, and remote release, VR is totally unnecessary.

  8. the sharpnes problem maney have is sheep lenses like sigma fx lenses for the d800 use Nikons 14-24–24-70–70-200 all 2.8 and you wil geth max out off Your high res sensor dose sheep sigmas is no good for 36mg pixels

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