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:
- Focus Accuracy
- Lens Quality
- Depth of field
- Camera Shake
- Subject Motion
- 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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.