Nikon D800E vs Gradual ND filters?

Punakaiki Coastline

Weathered limestone formations in Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park, West Coast, New Zealand

Neutral density gradual filters have been an essential accessory tool for every landscape photographer since photography beginnings.
There has been a simple, well known reason for that – it’s been far to impossible for the film to record some particular scenes landscape photographer can often face – scenes with extremely wide dynamic range. What that is?

Simply put; its the span from the brightest to the darkest points in the scene. And this span can be in nature extremely wide even for the human eye.
Both human eyes working together for example can perceive range of approx up to 24 f-stops. I’m saying working together because should we look only with one eye, the ability of our single eye would drop to between 12-14 f-stops. There is more to this topic but its not a purpose of this post.

Now I’m getting to the core of this article.
With approx 5-8 f-stops, the ability of the film (negative or positive) to record those extreme ends of the light range is quite limited. Some may argue that this goes beyond 8 f-stops but to me, the resulting image quality after adjustments doesn’t support this. Therefore we need to use ND gradual filters to balance out these extreme ends of light closer together so we can capture as much detail of the scene as we can.

With an astonishing development of new cameras, photography techniques are developing and changing, as well.

Since my Nikon D800E arrived, I’m amazed again and again with capabilities of this technical marvel. It’s been said a lot about its DR capabilities, resolution etc but it is only when when you capture your own image and see the result you wouldn’t expect.

On my latest trip I encounter a scene which I decided to bracket exposure on. I took 5 images each with 1 f-stop difference and which I was going to process as HDR (although I’m not an HDR photography guy, I have to admit). I opened those files in LR4 and then processed them as HDR image. Well, like I said, I’m not an HDR kinda guy…image was ok but I didn’t like all that fuzziness in clouds and other artifacts which occur with HDR. Don’t get me wrong please, I’m not against HDR, but you got to have right image for it to work.
Anyway, then I though why not to try to process a single file from a stack with best suitable exposure using new LR4 and to compare results.
Well, when I did that, I immediately deleted the HDR version without even a blink of an eye. The result out of D800 are just amazing.

I used only 2 sliders – highlights and shadows. I didn’t even need to go all the way with either of them. With highlights slider I landed on 70 and with shadows on 70 also to be happy with adjustment.
One may object, ok but what about image quality, noise, sharpness, artifacts etc…well, judge for yourself below.

In my photography, I’m producing imagery which has to be suitable for printing. Suitable for printing large and I mean LARGE. Our images have been reproduced in sizes of up to 15m so it is my foremost objective to produce images in the highest quality possible.
With this in mind, I’d be more then happy to let this file to be blown up big.

Below, there are 2 images – first compares look on the entire image before and after adjustments.
The second comparison shows a crop out of the same images at 100%.

Punakaiki Photo

Untouched, out of camera file on left and highlights/shadows adjusted on right.

At small sizes many images look fine but the problems creep in when enlarged for printing. But that’s not the case with D800 files.
If exposed ideally with view in mind of further adjustments on file, note I’m not saying exposed correctly, and processed with care, the file looks amazing.
You would be hard pressed to actually find an issue with it. To my huge surprise, I can’t find any sign of any noise in the lifted up shadows. Image remains sharp with enough contrast and without any artifacts.

Please note that this file was taken as a single RAW file with no filter used.
It has 0 sharpening applied, no contrast, no noise reduction, chromatic aberration correction or any other adjustments apart of for this purpose lifted shadows and corrected highlights.

The lens for this shot used – Nikkor 16-35 with camera mounted on tripod.
Exposure 1/10s at f16, ISO100, -1EV for exposure compensation.

This second comparison shows a crop out of the same images at 100%.
Adjusted file for highlights and shadows on left – untouched out of camera on right.

Artifacts can often creep in after sharpening is applied. To show how this file holds up after a medium sharpening was applied, see the same crop below.

Punakaiki Photo

Nice and crisp detail without any sign of noise.

So what remains to be said;
Firstly, this post is only my personal opinion based on findings I’m getting with this fantastic camera.
Secondly, the purpose of this writing is to ponder over the use of Gradual ND filters or use HDR techniques while shooting with latest wave of digital cameras, especially with Nikon D800 with its DR of 14.4 f-stops. More on this you can read on DxO website.

Yes, there definitely will be a need for ND Gradual filters for some time yet. However, what I’m now certain of is that I’ll be thinking twice or tree times when I’ll be reaching for my filter, as I’ll be avoiding putting an extra layer of glass or plastic in front of my lenses every time I can.

I’d be happy if this quick comparison would help to those photographers still on a fence…upgrade or not…?

Thanks and Enjoy!

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