“D” resolution tests

Published March 24, 2012

It’s been kind of an exciting couple of weeks, with 3 major new SLRs released and a couple of more on the way. There are plenty of people out there who are doing in-depth reviews, touting the greatness of the new cameras, and trashing them online without having touched one (My favorite so far is the guy who, after looking at online jpgs, stated it was obvious that the 5D Mk III and D800 weren’t a bit better than his T2i, so he wouldn’t be upgrading). I don’t have much to say regarding image noise, ergonomics, autofocus accuracy, image processing, etc. There are plenty of people doing that more thoroughly and accurately than I could.

But there was one question that was really eating my lunch and I was in a position to take a look at it: just how much better would the Nikon D800, with that gazillion megapixels, really resolve? Would it be 3 times better than a D700, and 50% better than a Canon 5D Mk III, which the pixel count would suggest? Would the lenses we have really be able to take advantage of that resolution? I wasn’t sure.

So when we got a bunch of Canon 5D Mk III’s and a few Nikon D800s in last week and I was able to divert a few over to our Imatest lab for a few hours. There wasn’t enough time to do exhaustive testing (generally the cameras arrived at 10 a.m. and had to be in packing to ship out by 3 p.m.) but I was able to get enough done to make some preliminary observations.

Comparing Camera Resolution

I arbitrarily chose two lenses to do the camera comparisons: the Zeiss 100 f/2 Makro Planar and Zeiss 25mm f/2.0. I chose Zeiss lenses because it let us put identical lenses in front of both Canon and Nikon cameras. These two particular lenses because both are exceptionally high resolution lenses and I wanted to be able to test at two different focusing distances, since that could make some difference. The copies used for this test had previously been tested and were known to be excellent and free of optical issues.

We tested each on D800, 5D Mk II, and 5D Mk III cameras (and one run on a D700 just for comparison). Otherwise things were kept as equal as we could make them: lighting and setups weren’t changed, etc. Time constraints prevented doing what I would have loved to do: testing a half-dozen copies of each lens on a half dozen copies of each body. But this should be fairly accurate.

I should note that we initially ran the Canon files through DPP to convert the raw images, since Imatest can’t directly convert the 5D Mk III files yet, but the results we got showed DPP was obviously doing some manipulation to the files as it converted them, making the results invalid for comparison since we test on unsharpened raw images. We then used Adobe’s DNG converter which handled the files with no problems and didn’t manipulate them at all, so we used RAW-to-DNG conversions for all the cameras to make sure things were equal.

The Zeiss 100 results first. The Vertical axis is the peak (center) MTF 50 (in line pairs / image height), the Horizontal axis aperture, and the cameras identified in the legend. The D700 and 5D Mk II results agree exactly with what we’ve seen testing these combinations for several months.

Results for Zeiss 100mm f/2. Makro Planar

Results with the Zeiss 25mm f/2.0 lens were very similar. I left off the D700 after the first test. I saw no sense beating a dead horse and, as I mentioned, time was short.

Results for Zeiss 25mm

The results certainly weren’t surprising: I expected the 5D III to be a bit better than the II and it was. I expected the D800 to be better than any 35mm camera we’d tested, and it was. Previous, only the Leica M9, with its no-AA-filter, CCD-sensor, using the $6,000 Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens and gets up in this range among 35mm cameras. For the couple of people, though, that seem to think the D800 is a medium format camera in 35mm clothing, I would point out that a Hasselblad H4D-50 with kit lens tests out at about 1,600 lp/ih, so no, we’re not quite there yet.

At Higher ISO

The above results are taken at ISO 200 which should theoretically giving best, or near-best, performance for each camera. I was curious how the D800’s resolution would hold up at higher ISOs so I repeated the ZF 25mm on D800 series at ISO 400 (where I do most of my shooting – it’s my test after all) and also at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200.

Again, this is done from raw images with no (as best I can determine) post image sharpening, although you can never be sure what is happening in-camera. But at any rate, there really is an amazingly small amount of resolution fall off at reasonably high ISOs. I was really surprised at this, especially at how well 3200 compared to 1600. Obviously I should have gone further, and need to do the same comparisons for the 5DIII, which I should get to next week.

What About Lenses?

Ah, now that is the question. At least it’s the question now. Lloyd Chambers had already mad some good suggestions for Zeiss and Nikon lenses that should be able to handle the D800’s resolution based on his experience. I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but it’s certainly the best starting list. I plan on testing each lens on the D800 and getting a list of our own together, but I was able to get some of the usual players tested before the last D800 left the shop.

The first graph plots peak (center) MTF 50 comparing the ZF 25, Nikon 24 f/1.4G, Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, and Nikon 70-200 f2.8 VR II. There’s a pretty significant difference between the primes and zooms at f/2.8. It’s not surprising, since the zooms are wide open there, but I thought the point was worth making: if you want best resolution with the D800, shooting at f/4 or f/5.6 is going to be necessary with most lenses.

Center only MTF 50

The second plots average resolution of the center, halfway to the corners, and corner MTF 50.  It becomes apparent that center resolution doesn’t mean corner resolution: the 70-200 VR II does much better in the corners than the 24 f/1.4. The Zeiss 25mm does superbly well, but I should point out that this lens seems to do it’s best work at close and medium distances (like where it is when we do Imatesting) and may not be as good at infinity.

Obviously, there are a lot more lenses that we’ll need to test just to make recommendations based on resolution. The only message I think to take away right now is that the D800 is playing up in the range of maximum resolution of even the best lenses. Putting anything less in front of it is going to limit the camera.


For the fanboys who don’t like the results: This concludes our test of the Emergency Resolution Testing Service. This was only a test.  If this had been an actual Fanboy emergency you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for official Fanboy disinformation and complete manufacturer sponsored reviews.

For everyone else, there’s no question the D800 can actually get those pixels to show up in the final product (assuming your final product is a big print – they’re going to be wasted posting on your Facebook page). But you’d better have some really good glass in front of it if you want to demonstrate all of that resolution.

In the real world, highest possible resolution is nice to know about and talk about, but usually not of critical importance compared to other factors. You’ll be able to make superb images with any decent lens for an 8 X 10 or even 11 X 16 print. But if you’re getting the camera because of the resolution, it makes sense to know which lenses will allow all of that resolution to be utilized. Just in case you get that job that needs billboard sized prints.


Roger Cicala

March, 2012

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Recommendations
  • Dennis Hardenburger

    Thanks a lot Roger.
    I really enjoy your posts they are very informative.
    I know it won’t happen but I would love to see you test some of the older lens with the D800.
    I use a 28mm f.35 AI and have found it matches the 28 f1.4 AFD very well stopped down.
    I also really like the 105 f2 AFD DC, and the 180 f2.8 AFD.
    I have had my D800 for three days now and I am totally thrilled with it, and feel lucky that I have one.

  • Roger Cicala

    Brian we absolutely will: that and the 45 PC-E are both intriguing. It’s just a matter of keeping the cameras in stock long enough to run the tests.

  • (the site’s html engine didn’t recognize the full link; copy and paste, instead of clicking)

  • If you’re going to compare with an APS-C sensor, to see if the actual lp/mm numbers work in their smaller pixels, I’d suggest to use a D7000

    Looking at the results at dxomark, the sensor in the D800 seems to be a bigger version of that in the D7000 (16 Mpix *1.5*1.5 = 36 Mpix):|0/%28brand%29/Nikon/%28appareil2%29/676|0/%28brand2%29/Pentax/%28appareil3%29/680|0/%28brand3%29/Nikon
    (click on “screen” instead of “print” too see how close these sensors come to each other, pixel by pixel)

  • Brian Potter

    Thanks for the review. Any plans to see how the Nikon 24mm PC-E lens compares? This combo would appear to be a match made in heaven for landscape work!

  • Roger Cicala

    I just want to thank all those who posted. The comments were enlightening and I learned a lot reading them. Craig, John, Bill and others – I really appreciate you taking the time to post these enlightening comments. It has added immensely to the value of this little thread.


    Roger Cicala

  • Craig Bingman

    Hi Roger,

    For sensors that are the same physical dimensions, the expectation is that increasing the number of pixels will increase resolution as the ratio of the square root of the pixel counts for the two sensors being compared. So for 5DMkIII vs 5DMkII, that ratio is 1.028, so you expect the MkIII to have at most a three percent increase in linear resolution. And you pretty much see that in your graphs. The ratio for the D800 vs. D700 is expected to be 1.732, but the actual observed resolution doesn’t improve that much (probably at least partially a diffraction-limited resolution effect.) The expectation is that the D800 would have a resolution of 1.276 that of the 5DMkIII, and it doesn’t quite make that, either. Still, a very interesting review and a collection of outstanding cameras. Thanks. I’d be happy to take photos with any of them (he says clutching his humble 7D.)

  • Great test! Can’t wait to see the D800E results.

  • Roger Cicala

    Doug, how do I go about drooling online? But I will send a groveling email immediately to see if that could really happen.

    Just when I started thinking I’d collected the whole set . . . . . 🙂


  • Roger Cicala

    Fazal, I agree with you about the graphs, but the format this blog works under limits the size of images pretty severely. With zero origin graphs on a full page image the differences would be easy to see, too, but with 500 pixel maximum widths the graphs get too small on this blog to display properly if I drop down to a zero origin.


  • Jon Rista

    Thanks for the review. The results look spot-on to me, as there shouldn’t be any question the D800 resolves more in the same physical sensor area as any lower-resolution FF sensor. I would have liked to see the 7D thrown in the test, just for comparison’s sake, however (despite being an APS-C sensor.)

    When it comes to spatial resolution, your favorite internet fanboy who said he would be sticking with his T2i wasn’t really all that far off the mark. The D800, with its 4.8um pixels, resolves about 102.33lp/mm in terms of spatial resolution (rather than lp/ph.) Conversely, the 7D/60D/600D all use an 18mp APS-C sensor with 4.3um pixels, which resolve about 115.97lp/mm in terms of spatial resolution. I wouldn’t expect the 7D to vastly outperform the D800 at f/4 (and maybe f/2.8 and f/5.6), however I would expect that, assuming the lenses still had more resolution to offer, the 7D would eek more performance out of them than the D800.

    In terms of lp/ph, the D800 will still win since it has a physically larger sensor that has more actual rows of pixels, but the 7D and its kin should win in terms of raw spatial resolution and ultimate fineness of detail that can be resolved. I would expect the 7D to perform less than ideal, however…it seems to either have an overly aggressive low-pass filter, or it simply expects too much from lens and photographer, as it produces softer results than I would expect for its spatial resolution.

  • If you’d like to test the phase IQ180 with a few lenses (which flash sync at 1/1600) we’D be happy to help out. 740.707.2183

  • D800 is a game changer for 35mm FF. No doubt this is a thought provoking professional level platform and will require concerted efforts of those who possess it to produce photos up to its fine resolution capability. This will generally mean a very modest cost layout to obtain the highest resolution lenses available. The idea of f/4 -f/5.6, maybe f/6.3 to achieve peak resolution, even with the most costly lenses attached, means that only in ideal circumstances will output files actually equal the full capability of this fine instrument. This makes me wonder if we have indeed arrived at the limits of FF resolution capability? I mean at 4.8um pixel size (D800), I think that even smaller pixels for the sake of even more MP’s becomes highly unlikely due to the general degradation of signal to noise inherent with smaller pixels.

    I can’t wait to see the 800E. Great reporting as usual!

  • Dave

    Excellent comparisons with the time constraints you were under. Interesting comment regarding the Pentax 645D. If I understood your comments correctly, with one or some of it’s better performing lenses. it reaches approx 1500 lp/ih? If so the difference between it and the D800 is roughly 67% the difference found between the D700 and D800. Thats quite astounding since the difference between the D700 and D800 is roughly 3x the actual # of pixels whereby were only talking about a difference of 4MP difference between the D800 and 645D. Of course the comparison takes into account more than this as we’re comparing different formats and different sized sensors. Still thats somewhat of a significant difference. Just a dislaimer…I shoot with both the 645D and Nikon system, so I’m not biased to their relative merits in performance to one another.

  • Thanks for testing. First objective tests I’ve seen.

    1. Your comment about theoretical 50% increase in resolution versus 5d3 is wrong. The vertical pixel count of the d800 is 4912, the 5d3 count is 3840, a so d800 has a 28% theoretical increase in lp/ph. Max lp/ph for the d800 is 4912/4 or 1228 (divide by 4 – two pixels per line pair and 2 pixels since Bayer sensor and AA?). You’re getting pretty close with some lenses at the center. For the two lenses you’ve shown comparisons for it looks like the d800 out performs the 5d3 by 14-23%.

    2. 645D has a vertical count of 5440 or 1360 lp/ph but since it has no AA filter I would suspect real world would be higher. It will be very interesting to compare the d800 and d800e when they come out, and the d800e with the 645D. Note that 4/3 sensors have an advantage when it comes to lens testing since they tend to have more vertical lp/ph even if they have the exact same total megapixels. Horizontal lp/pw favor 3/2 sensors. The d800 actually has more horizontal pixels than a 645D!

    3. The H50 has 6132 pixels / ph or 1533 lp/ph, again no AA filter so real world could be higher.

    4. What focal length was the 70-200 tested at? This lens is sharper at 70 than 200.

    Thanks again, nice work.

  • great read-up, as always
    looking forward to the 5D3 high-iso tests; from the samples at dpreview, noise is not a problem, but there are some sharpness issues at very high ISO (beyond 6400):

    also: how much of your business is now video-oriented? enough to grant an imatest session in video mode? 🙂

  • I really, really would like to see you test the 105 2.8 VR.

    You know you want to…

  • The non-Tufte-compliant graphs are a bit misleading because the origin is not at zero, thus artificially amplifying differences that are not that major (e.g. between the 5DII and 5DIII).

    The DXO tests show it has the same SNR as the 5DmkII, despite having 50% more pixels. Granted, the 5DII is 3 years old, and it will be interesting to compare with the 5DmkIII when it is tested.

    A more practical problem is that to get this level of resolution for real-world photography, in addition to top-notch lenses, you need absolutely perfect technique, including the use of tripods (or very high shutter speeds, well above the usual 1/f rule of thumb), and possibly even mirror lock-up.

  • Roger Cicala

    David, I have no disagreement the D800 is coming closer – it’s more resolution than I’ll ever need.

    The Pentax (the only MF I enjoy shooting with) comes pretty close to the Hassy, resolving around 1500 lp/mm. Neither of those begin to approach what some of the Phase backs are resolving, not that I’ve had the chance to test those myself.

  • David Stock

    “For the couple of people, though, that seem to think the D800 is a Medium Format camera in 35mm clothing, I would point out that a Hasselblad HD50 with kit lens tests out at about 1,600 lp/ih, so no, we’re not quite there yet.”

    Fair enough. But not all MF gear reaches that 1,600 level. (What does a Pentax 645D reach with the lenses available?) Meanwhile, the jump from 750 lp with the D700 to over 1200 lp with the D800 puts the latter an awful lot closer.

  • A

    As ever interesting work Roger, thankyou!

    WRT the discrepancies with Lloyd’s lens list, if the zooms form the majority of the differences between your lists you may find that he tends to shoot at a different end of the zoom range to you when using a particular lens.

    I once had a debate so to whether a lens was good or not, and I held a different view of the lens in question (which tends to help in a debate). In the end it turned out that we were both right, because we were almost always using them at opposite ends of the zoom range.

    Partly that was down to shooting style, but some of it was also the other lenses we carried. I always used the 17-40 at 17, because I had the 24-105IS for longer shots. Meanwhile he carried the 17-40 and then an 85mm prime and tended to shoot from a greater distance, so most of his use of it was at 40mm.

    I note that the best results on most (all?) Canon bodies are at ISO100, whilst Nikon is best at ISO200. I’d be interested to see what happens if you shoot both at ISO100 instead.

    I’d be particularly interested to see how the 5D3 performs against the D800 in RAW at higher ISO.

    And the main question: Any idea when you’ll get a D800e in for testing?

  • Roger Cicala

    Michael, I absolutely plan to test it, but we’re hearing up to another month before we get any to test.

  • Michael

    Roger, you don’t mention the D800E in your blog post. Any plans to test it as well or are you still waiting for them to arrive?

  • Roger Cicala

    intrnst, you just made my day 🙂
    Thx, I needed that.

  • Keith

    Nicely done.
    Can’t wait to see how the D800E compares to D800 !

  • Interesting data. Keep it coming. I was wondering when we would start seeing cameras that max out a lot of the lenses.



  • You could have at least finished with “The D800 eats Canons for breakfast.” Or “I’m switching to Nikon.” Or maybe “I’m worried Nikon will bring out a D900 that’s even better. Shoudl I get the D800 now or wait for the D900?” Because, let’s face it, sitting on a computer debating what is the best camera around is much more fun than actually taking photos 🙂

  • intrnst

    That’s outrageous! This test is biased.
    You didn’t put the T2i data in the charts!

  • Roughly, do the D800/5D3 comparison show that doubling the pixels improves resolution by about 15%?

  • Werner Orwat

    Don’t forget: the D800 has an AAA-filter, the Hasselblad has none.

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