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Nikon D800E review v.s Hasselblad H4D40 review: the end of medium format superiority?

Nikon D800E review v.s Hasselblad H4D40 review: the end of medium format superiority? Round One

Why to compare 35mm and medium format DSLRs?

Nikon D800E review

For many years Medium Format DLSRs were separated from 35mm DSLR cameras by a huge gap in image quality and resolution (besides a price of course), and this seems to be always like this: twice larger medium format sensors without AA (blur) filter did not leave any chances for 35 mm cameras to match the resolution and image quality.
I own an old Phase One P25+ medium format digital back on Hasselblad H1 camera, and ¬†I’ve seen a big advantage of this old digital back over to a much younger 35mm Canon 1Ds Mk III and 5D MKII cameras. Here are my in-depth review: Canon 1Ds Mark III vs. Hasselblad H4D50

However, with the new Nikon D800E everything might be changed: with 36 Megapixel sensor without AA filter (only in D800E model), this is first time when non¬†expensive¬†(D800E is not the top-of-the-line of Nikon cameras) 35mm DSLR can compete with medium format.¬†Theoretically…

This is why I was so interesting in running this review-comparison between Nikon D800E review and¬†Hasselblad¬†H4D40: Both has similar resolution sensors, both do not have AA filters. Other than a “scientific¬†interest” in such test, I have my own very practical reason for it, because I am selling my old H1 with P25+ medium format bundle in order to get a replacement with more megapixels. In studio photography I do (especially liquid) 22 Mpx is way to low and does not provide a freedom of crop and extra resolutions I need.
So, the question I had in mind was this:

Will 36 Mpx Nikon D800E produce comparable image quality to a similar medium format system? 

Nikon D800E review

Nikon D800E vs Hasselblad H4D40 test review, part one

I did a series of studio tests, from a simple portrait to highlights and shadows recovery from overexposed and underexposed images from both cameras. I was not interested in hight ISo performance of both cameras, as well as focus performance or a shooting speed (fps). Being a studio photographer I shoot almost exclusively at lowest native ISO and use manual focus most of the times when shooting still life.
The only thing I was really interesting is the image quality and true dynamic range.

Test Equipment

Many thanks to my friends from Hasselblad USA and Hotwire Digital as well as BHphotovideo.com to provide me with these great equipment to run this test.

Cameras and lenses:

  • F11, 1/250 sec, ISO 100 for portraits
  • F16 1/250 sec, ISO 100 for still live composition
Note: ISO 100 is a ¬†minimal “native” ISO for both cameras, meaning the maximum dynamic range and minimum noise levels.

First test, a child portrait

Nikon d800e test review sample image

Test cameras has a different aspect ratio (and I love more square medium format frame), and model was moving as well, so I was trying to align the shots as close as possible. Below are 100% crops from the image above. Both images were converted using Adobe Camera Raw with default settings, on both white balance was set using grey wall behind the kid.

Nikon D800E review
Hasselblad H4D40 review


NikonD800E test shot sharpness cropHasselblad-h4d40-vs-fNikon D800E face-crop-2



There is difference, Hasselblad produced slightly more details and color was more balanced to a girl skin tone. On a first sight the difference in image details seems to be so minimal that it will be hard to notice it.  However, more I look at these images, more I see the difference in fine details: look at hair, areas under her eyes, etc. Twice as big 16 bit Hasselblad sensor delivers more texture and colors over 14 bit Nikon sensor. It is simply a matter of physics: 6 micron v.s 4.7 micron of a pixel size, and  much larger sensor area along with additional color information (16 bit v.s 14 bit) makes a difference.

However, I have never seen such a great¬†details¬†and resolution in $3200 35mm DSLR before! Will it be any visible difference between large prints from both cameras? May be, if we’ll look at those prints with the loupe. But how many idiots use loupe to enjoy large prints? :-))


Second test, Underexposure and Shadows recovery

For this test I’ve set a “normal” exposure for the test shot and then dialed lighting 4F stop down (from 180 total Ws to 12Ws) without touching camera’s exposure controls.

Note: I found Nikon to be slightly more sensitive (about 0.5 F stop) than Hasselblad, so I had to adjust the lighting to get exposure as close as possible on both cameras.

First hiccup with Adobe camera RAW converter:

To test underexposure recovery, I started from using ACR to convert camera RAW files, knowing that the latest ACR does an amazing job of pulling details out of camera RAW. However, it appears that it was not the case for Hasslblad: simply adjusting exposure to +2 or higher was producing a tremendous amount of noise in dark areas. Basically I was using a combination of exposure, highlights and shadows to pull the best result. Even when I tried to use a noise reduction (and I am not suppose to do this by test rules), it did not help much.

The surprise was when I tried to convert Hasselblad raw files in Phocus software: what a difference! It pulled much better details and less noise levels without loosing much of details. I did not touch anything else except exposure and recovery sliders.

When I tested Nikon ViewNX the same way,  I did not find any difference between it and Adobe ACR, so I used View NX for underexposure recovery tests as well.

Below are results. “Before” is un-adjusted, camera default RAW conversion, and “Ater” is my recovery attemt by using exposure and highlights/shadows sliders.


Nikon D800E: Underexposed and recovered, full shot


Nikon D800E: Underexposed and recovered, 100% crops

Nikon-d800E-underexposure-recovery-dynamic-range-test2Nikon-d800E underexposure recovery dynamic range test1

Nikon d800E shadow recovery dynamic range test2Nikon d800E shadow recovery dynamic range test2

Nikon d800E shadow recovery test2Nikon d800E shadow recovery test

Hasselblad H4D40: Underexposed and recovered, full shot

Hasselblad H4D40 underexposure recovery test Hasselblad H4D40 underexposure recovery test

Hasselblad H4D40: Underexposed and recovered, 100% crops

Hasselblad H4D40 vs NikonD800E test dynamic range recovery Hasselblad H4D40 vs NikonD800E test dynamic range recovery

Hasselblad H4D40 vs NikonD800E test dynamic range recovery Hasselblad H4D40 vs NikonD800E test dynamic range recovery

Hasselblad H4D40 vs Nikon D800E test shadow recovery Hasselblad H4D40 vs Nikon D800E test shadow recovery


Both cameras did a great job recovering very dark areas of the image, with slight advantage on Hasselblad’s side: Phocus software were able to handle noise better than Nikon’s ViewNX and ACR, and delivered less contrast (which is good) and more detailed image.

Does it means that Nikon’s noise can’t be removed at all? I think it won’t be a problem, as there are many noise removal tools like¬†Topaz DeNoise¬†(our favorite), but this is out of scope of this test.

Oh, one more test on shadow detail recovery and overal dynamic range of Nikon D800 I have :

Nikon D800E dynamic range/shadow recovery sample

Nikon d800e shadow recovery and dynamic range testNikon d800e shadow recovery and dynamic range test

This was an ISO 100 hand-held shot from our living room, and exposure was metred on a spot outside the window. Then I pulled shadow recovery on raw Converter (same results with ACR and ViewNX). A square on recovered image is 100% crop to represent noise levels.
Still quite impressive!

Even though high ISO performance test was not planned, I’ve got this image below at ISO 6400 to show how Nikon D800E does job in out-of-studio sterile environment:

Nikon D800E review ISO 6400

Nikon-D800E -high Iso example
Nikon-D800E -high Iso example

Not as good as what ii’ve seen with Canon 5D Mark III, but still good enough:-)


There is a difference in IQ and very low difference in shadow recovery between both cameras, which was a¬†surprise for me. Knowing the¬†difference in sensor technology I expected to see more¬†advantage¬†of Hasselblad¬†over the Nikon. And if we consider the price difference, the Nikon become a true hero: $3200 (body) and $1000 (lens) against $16900 (body+DB) and $ 5900 (lens) is a huge…
The only thing which stops me from getting Nikon instead of Hasselblad is a freedom to use Medium Format back in technical view cameras like my Cambo Ultima. Yes, there are adapters to mount 35mm DSLR to a view camera rails as well as DIY solution like this one I did myself, but none of them do not allow to use tilt/shift/skew angles possible with MFDB: the sensor is too deep in DSLR camera body.

This is the end of a first part of the review.

 Wait for a second part of the review to read about: 

  • Overexposure and highlights recovery tests
  • Why Phocus and Nikon ViewNX sucks at highlights recovery
  • Color accuracy
  • Get RAW files from both cameras to run your own tests
P.S You can also check out DxOMark Nikon D800 review and my other reviews.

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16 responses on "Nikon D800E review v.s Hasselblad H4D40 review: the end of medium format superiority?"

  1. Much appreciate to discussion and especially the photos.. Being a believer that the whole system (camera, lens, sensor, in camera processor, etc) must be considered when making comparisons, I would like to add my thoughts. Image sensor technologies are phenomenal today. Canon, Nikon , Sony are certainly the leaders. This is evident from the quality of their point & shoot cameras with miniature sensors compared to 35mm full frame sensors. Amazingly high quality. So, this edge in technology could easily offset the sensor size difference. MF size about 1.6 times that of 35mm full frame. The in camera RAW processing is significant when viewed. My question here is; what is the impact of the MF lenses over the 35mm lenses????? That is what I see in the comparative photos. Hasselblad has always been able to resolve one hair from another, even back in the 60’s with not so good film.

    • Nice discussion, agree with Michael.
      Its hard do a real comparison with this cameras if two different systems use different lenses. Would be nice see some test with 35mm camera with Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus, or Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 ZF.2 lens. Even in this hypothetical case, zeiss 35mm lens have a great price difference from an hasselblad lens. For remind, Nikkor 150mm Micro is situated around 30rd position in global lens ranting score for resolution and optical quality.

  2. It is punishingly obvious that Hasseldbald is so beyond superior in the image quality compared to the Nikon D800.

    Any geek who says there are elements of data and factors missing from the comparison lacks the artist eye and understanding and belongs in a lab filling data charts and not behind a camera.

    I have Pro Nikon products and I am beyond frustrated with the limitations of the cameras. Sure the autofocus is great and I can catch non-studio that no other camera can, but I am still left with a subpar image. So a shot that is really good always falls short of being a master work.

  3. Thank you for the info. I can only afford one camera body right now, and I’m after that “as-close-to-real-life” feel in color fidelity and resolution. I read this post because I’m considering switching from a 5d mark lll to either a nikon D800e or Sony A7r. Suggestions?


    • Eliott, hard to suggest.. I’ve tried to go mirrorless route, but it did not work for me. Owned Sony Nex7 for a year as “everyday handy cam”, and both, me and my wife went back to canon DSLR. So, see yourself. I know people love Sony A7/A7R

  4. Hi, I had Hasselblad in the past and now own a Nikon D800 (non-E). Also had a Canon 5D Classic and then 5D Mark II, I own 20 older MF lenses from Nikon, Zeiss etc (for use on the Canon via Bajonett adaptor).

    And forward to my objection: To make sharpness comparisons at F11 or even F16 is nothing else than foolish.
    It is no wonder that you end up with softness. Everybody sees this if you compare a few test shots at different apertures (tripod, mirror locked, identical scenario, camera, lens).

    The phenomenon of diffraction was discovered about 100 years ago. And I really have to wonder, why you don’t even mention its effects in a single word. And true, as a matter of physics you will notice diffraction even more so on a smaller sensor.

    Just my 2 kopekes,

    • Sorry Alex, but your test is no foundation for reasonable results. Too many things are unknown.
      (Which lenses, which crop of what, which distance etc.)

      It is beyond the obvious diffraction btw. extremely important which lens was connected to your 800E.
      More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean sharper.

      And forget zoom lenses.
      Sorry, I have no modern Hasselblad available for testing. But I could send you comparison pictures taken with my normal non-E D800 and a cheap 50mm 1:1.8D taken at ISO100 and F8, that outperform your alleged D800 results.

      And no, nobody pays me in order to say this.
      I’m also unbiased and no Nikon fanatic (as you see from my Canon and previous Hasselblad ownerships).
      All I’m interested in: REAL RESULTS.

      Thanks, %martin

      • Ok, sorry, I just reloaded the page and now see that you did provide the lenses you used (Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Lens for the D800E). I never tested this new lens and I’m not sure if it is as good as the old manual focus Nikon 105mm f/2.5 AI-s version I have). Whatever, the first thing you should do: Repeat the test at F8 or maybe F5,6. And then it would be helpful to have the possibility to inspect full-res NEF files (or as least best quality JPG).

        Otherwise all this is nice and good, but the rest is still just guessing.


        • Martin,
          I understand your concerns, but there was a reason for me to test lenses at such apertures. I also used lenses I had and had no intention to grab all possible combination of available lenses and do a test. See, Like you, I like to see a real results and this is what I did.
          Images I’ve got as real as images I am getting when I shoot for clients, using gear i have.

          Again, I had no intention to find an absolute winner by comparing things scientifically, but wanted to share my own findings and results, rather than keeping them private.
          How to treat these results – as a fake and dull or as a guide for future gear upgrades, it is up to our dear Photigy readers.
          Thank you!

  5. I was waiting for this review, you do and excellent job( as always!) thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks much for your comparative work here Alex, I’ve just stumbled here but it was well worth the read. From the standpoint, you have these resources (at present) and which can achieve what I‚Äôm looking for (currently). I agree that H4D40 yields a better resolved detail especially when looking at eyelash and the peaks in the focal plane. Hard to judge the hair as the images rendered at different depths within their focal planes.

    That leads to the observations presented by Dusan Maletic. Having enjoyed the work you’ve presented (as mentioned above) readers must consider the facts that Dusan was so kind to point out; we have apparent differences in these present examples of technology but is not the apple compared to apples and any near comparisons will change quickly. Also that there are fundamental differences to consider between the two formats and these are aesthetic in nature as both offer differing points of view (viewpoint) in how they render the same object (depth of field, perspective compression, etc) as illustrated by Dusan.

    I wouldn’t say ‚Äėobjections‚Äô, I‚Äôd like to say; a comparison of the resources presently on hand.

    Enjoyed the examples Alex. Cheers

  7. Totally agreed with Olivier Chauvignat’s responses, in particular number 2. We shoot a lot of high end product in our studio and know that MF is prime for this, regardless of MP size. However I seem to be having the same conversation with fellow photographers, and for years now; MF and 35mm can’t be compared when it comes to physical sensor size and the overall effect that has on any capture. Referring to bokeh mostly and that separation and detail that can only be seen on larger sensors.

    Some might remember when photographers shot film, they usually had 3 kits, (35mm, MF and 5×4) each with their own purpose and individual end result. When sensor development finally plateaus (and hopefully prices do to), I’m hoping we’ll all get back to where we started. Imagine framing up that incredible home or landscape or car or even tapware on your 5×4 inch digital back. Real tilt, shift, rise and fall on a really big sensor!

  8. As Physicist by profession I must chime in, particularly because of the second part of the title. If one could compare same technological level 35mm and medium format camera (as in the days of film with the same film stock used in both), comparison would have more meaning. That is the main scientific objection to this analysis. Mpix number is just one measure. Material technology behind sensors in Hasselblad and Nikon is different. What this analysis points to is that present Nikon sensor material technology can produce similar level of quality from 35mm sensor as the present Hasselblad sensor material technology in medium format. If we let Hasselblad to achieve the same competency in sensor production – Physics MANDATES that larger sensor sites would produce better result in every important aspect (better S/N, deeper pixel depth, better dynamic range…) – worth the price difference. This relation will always be valid when comparing the same generation of 35mm and medium format sensors of similar Mpix ability. Hence, medium format will always have advantage in fair comparison.

    Another objection is from exactly opposite viewpoint. Leave science at bay and consider artistic needs and qualities. (Well, we’ll need a wee bit of science applicable to artistic demands). Lens image profile is scientifically linked to the focal length, not equivalent focal length. Things of artistic importance like depth of field, perspective compression,… are locked to the real focal length. Field of view changes with the sensor size. Hence, medium format image of the same vista as one taken with 35mm from the same viewpoint and equivalent focal lengths will have substantially different look and feel, one that can’t be Photoshopped. Even if not for the purely scientific quality reason mentioned above, this artistic aspect will perpetuate the need for medium format in some disciplines.

    So, temporary 35mm – medium format equivalency only because medium format leader is technologically lagging in sensor engineering behind 35mm leader. Kind of comparing 1980’s sports car and 2010 econobox concluding that we do not need sports cars any longer. (Exaggerated but in electronics technological generations fly by fast).

  9. Thank you so much for really nice article :)

  10. Very good work.

    But this comparison is only about electronic features. So I think you must warn readers about differences that make impossible for a 24×36 to replace a MF :

    1 – High Speed Synchro-x to 1/800e. So you can make pictures than 24×36 can’t do, with Studio Strobe-packs like Profoto ProB3, 1200 Ws.
    2 – MF rendering, especially with a very short depht of field, due to the size of the sensor in combination with the optical system, and the high quality of lenses. The smoothness, gradation and quality of the bokeh is not possible with the 24×36.

    You can see photos here, done in the middle of the day in St Tropez, Cote d’Azur, France : Full day light !!!.
    This illustrates these two points – High Synchro-X Speed, Full aperture and short DOF – (there is more other points) : http://www.olivier-chauvignat.fr/2011/portfolio/sezz_st_tropez/index.html
    They are done with a H4D-60. I use 24×36 too, but only for tasks than can’t be done with MF (High Iso, fast movements, bad weather or conditions, etc)

    The Point 2 is very important in studio too, if you want pictures with a very smooth gradation of bokeh. Not all portraits are done at f22 :) : http://www.olivier-chauvignat.fr/2011/portfolio/cosmetic_beauty/index.html

    (excuse my english !)

  11. Having never used a Hassleblad (and most likely never being able to afford one) I am in love with the D800 series. I have both the 800/800E that I use for Weddings and Studio shots and they make a huge difference for me. The dynamic range and ability to retain information in difficult lighting situations is great. And the iso on both is very acceptable given the intended use of the D800 line. So overall did you enjoy using the D800E for your studio images? And outside the studio did you notice the moire creeping in at any point? I very rarely notice it but I also don’t take it outside much..Good read Alex. Thank you.

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