D800(E) vs IQ180

Over the weekend of 26th and 27th May, 2012, we did a test in which we compared a Nikon D800 and D800E with a Phase One IQ180 back.

It was a real David vs Goliath test. So much so, we there was a real chance that the results would be ridiculously skewed in favour of the medium format camera. They weren’t. Incredibly, the D800E was able to run the IQ180 very close. So close, in fact, that we initially mistook a 60×40 inch print from the D800E as one from the IQ180 file. David almost beat the odds again.


But let’s not forget we are comparing a €3,500 36MP camera with a €30,000+ 80MP medium format back.

“Almost” shouldn’t have come into it.


For those who would like to know, here are the technical details of the equipment tested.

Nikon D800, Nikon PC-E 24mm tilt/shift lens (courtesy of Aeden Coffey and Dr. John Cuddihy)
Nikon D800E, Zeiss 21mm lens (courtesy of Javier Leite)
Phase One IQ180 back on an Arca Swiss Rm3d with a Schneider 35mm APO-Digitar XL (courtesy of Peter Cox)

We had wanted to include a Canon 5DIII in the test but were unable to source one.

We had also planned to test the IQ180 on a Phase One 645AF camera with a Phase One 35mm f/3.5 lens. No such luck. The camera broke down during the first test.

We tested for sharpness at an optimum aperture (determined for each camera/lens combination) focused at infinity; sharpness at the relevant optimal apertures’ hyperfocal distance (calculated using 2x pixel pitch); sharpness achieved using tilt and shift, and dynamic range.

Real world conclusions

Our real world conclusions were simple.

The D800, while an amazing camera, quickly became the bronze medalist. It’s E-sibling is subtly but perceptibly better. That didn’t mean it was merely the runner up. Oh no.

The Phase One IQ180 back on an Arca Swiss Rm3d with a Schneider 35mm APO-Digitar XL produces stunning results. Absolutely gorgeous at 30×20 inches and 60×40 inches. Knock out.

At 30×20 inches, you can see subtle but clear differences between the IQ180 and the D800E. Not all of them weighted in favour of the medium format camera, though. For instance, the D800E produced much more pleasing shadow areas on the prints of the photographs produced to test dynamic range.

Resolution and detail of the IQ180 prints was better than that of the D800E prints – but not massively. Again, the difference was there, but it wasn’t huge. Certainly not €30,000 huge.

And we were stunned just how close the D800E ran the IQ180 when the files were printed at 60×40 inches, which is bigger than many dining room tables.

Put simply, Nikon has produced a phenomenal camera.

Medium format camera manufacturers have cause for concern.


Pixel peepers enjoy straining their eyeballs out of their heads, and who are we to deny them the pleasure?

Here are some sample sections from the files we produced during our D800 and D800E vs Phase One IQ180 comparison test.

No sharpening has been applied to any of the images.

What are your thoughts?

Comparison 1: Full IQ180 frame © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 1: 100% crop from the IQ180 frame above © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 1: Full frame from the D800E with a 21mm Zeiss © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 1: 100% crop from the D800E and Zeiss 21mm above © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 2: Full frame from the IQ180 © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 2: 100% from the IQ180 frame above © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 2: Full frame D800E/Zeiss 21mm frame © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 2: 100% crop from the D800E/Zeiss 21mm frame above © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 3: Full IQ180 frame © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 3: 100% crop from the IQ180 frame above © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 3: Full frame from the D800E. This time with a 24mm tilt/shift lens © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

Comparison 3: 100% crop from the D800E frame above © The Circle of Confusion Ltd 2012

29 Responses to D800(E) vs IQ180

  1. RVB

    The Phase back looks better, not 30 grand better but better all the same. How does the D800 file respond to opening up shadows compared to the 180 back?

    I have an order in already for a D800E. It will be fun to compare it to an S2 with top quality Leica glass. The phase may have done even better here with SK glass..

  2. Wow!!! Can’t wait for my D800E to arrive :D

  3. You luckily so-and-so :-)
    Enjoy as your won’t be disappointed.


  4. Thanks Neil. Love your work and the podcast!

    Keep up the good work.


  5. RVB

    @Chris,try to get Zeiss Glass for your D800E… ;-)

  6. John Finn

    I enjoyed the test but it reminded me of the supercar tests done by the Top Gear guys – driving high-powered cars around a disused airfield runway. All good fun but utterly removed from the everyday reality of speed limits and traffic cops. I can confidently state that I will never have the need to print at 60×40. The largest I’ve done is 30×20 and my Canon 5Ds (Marks 1 and 11) do a very fine job indeed at that size. I would safely bet that the bulk of professional photographer’s large print sales are in the region of A3/16×12 for the simple reason that most clients’ houses don’t have the space to accommodate huge framed prints. And so, given that at those sizes the difference in quality between an IQ180, an D800E or whatever is well nigh imperceptible, I just don’t see the point in burdening oneself with huge file sizes and a possible computer upgrade to cater for them. I hope Canon don’t compete in this MP race – we have enough MPs as it is. What they should do to compete with the D800 is cut €1,000 from the ridiculously over-priced 5D Mark 111.

  7. Thanks John for your comment and comparing us to Top Gear even better :-)
    Your probably right that you will never need to print at 60×40 like myself. However went you see one of your images printed at this size it’s just wonderful.
    There was a noticeable difference in the 30×20 prints but a lot of that was down to the quality of the lens on the D800E as the edges were not sharp compared to the IQ180 system.
    Canon will and are testing a high mega pixel camera as I type so watch this space. I still have not had the chance to test the Canon 5D Mk3 and it would have to have a massive increase in quality for me to change as the 5D Mk2 with the 24mm TS-E lens can produce great results.

  8. MarkB

    Enjoyed the review guys. John, loved the TG analogy and I agree with you that this level of pixel count seems beyond what even most pros are likely to use. Neil, do you think your current prints would benefit from 30+ MP? For my screen and print requirements, the 5D II still gives me everything I need. Still looking forward to seeing the video of this test. You guys certainly seem to have a blast doing this stuff, which is always great fun to listen to and watch. Best, MarkB

  9. MarkB,
    The honest truth is, I don’t really know. I would like to do more testing with the D800E. But for know, my prints are perfect :-) .
    I’m more interested in cleaner pixels than mega pixels and thats were the Leica M comes into play for me if I was to change camera systems. But for now I’m happy with the 5D Mk2.

  10. @RVB, haha definitely! I’m saving up for a Zeiss 21mm but kinda hoping Nikons patent for a 17mm PC-E is made and that it will have superb optical quality.

    @John Finn, 36.3mp isn’t just handy for 60×40 prints but also being able to crop at 6×17 and not worrying about loosing all those pixels when printing.

  11. Jason French

    D800e over D800 ? or vice versa?

  12. John G Moore

    Great test lads. ;) I’m amazed by the D800e, and I’m loving shooting with it. It holds up really well against the Blad 40/50 and 60 shots I’ve taken, and particularly so with some Zeiss ZF2 lenses on it. I’m particularly amazed by its shadow detail and its ISO performance. Nikon have to be congratulated on producing a brilliant camera. All in all – it’s well worth the money in my opinion. ;)

  13. Thanks John.
    Peter said the same about the shadow detail compared to the IQ180. We were all impressed by the camera and that’s coming from 3 long time Canon shooters. The Zeiss 21mm glass we used was crap and must have being a faulty lens as all the reviews I have read about this lens is great.

    Regards Neil

  14. Peter Little

    Hello gentlemen.

    Not that I wish to be an old cynic, but how useful to Nikon would it be for a certain amount of people to buy the D800 / 800E and for them to say after 100,000 sales “well people to get the best from this camera you will need to buy our new super douper highly expensive lenses” and these have a high markup / margin.
    As it stands “good photography depends on a good photographer”, hence we admire certain peoples work with any level of camera.
    Rant over, it must be my age!!!!!!


    Peter L

  15. Thanks Peter for your comment,
    and your right but Nikon are saying themselves that you need to put the best glass on this camera to get the best out of it. And there is the problem. If you buy into a medium format camera system the lens are made for that high quality system. In a 35mm camera system you have the entry level camera and lens right up to the Pro system. So you can put the budget lens on the “pro” camera and expect to get the best results. I see it all the time as people keep jumping on the band wagon and buying the latest best camera and not investing in new glass. Results not good so blame the camera and not he tool behind the camera.
    I’m with you on the age thing.
    Regards Neil

  16. regarding the dynamic range, did you overexpose the IQ180 so that it pushed into the highlights? The IQ is biased so it has a lot more in the highlights than a typical DSLR.. Good test though – nice to see

  17. Tim, we set the exposure the same on all camera to get a fair as possible result. However, as Peter did all the post processing I will leave it up to Peter to answer your question fully once he gets back for his 10 day workshop.
    Regards Neil

  18. John G Moore

    Hi Neil. You must’ve been unlucky with the Zeiss right enough – they are usually stellar, and particularly so on an 800e. No matter what I’ve shot in the past (you know the story) the Nikon is a compelling buy. If the 24 MP D600 has the same sensor tech as the D800, selling at £1299, then the 5D mkIII will really struggle to compete methinks.

  19. Hi John,
    We have being, sorry the guy who owned the lens, unlucky alright.
    Fun time ahead with the D600 and 5Dmk3 and the D800 with the new Canon, oh did I say that, no not me.

  20. Interesting results here. Though I am heading from an IQ 180 owner that I know that even the Schneider 35XL is not quite good enough to make the most of the chip.

    As it happens I have looked at the Zeiss 21 in the past, and as I shoot scenes with a lot of manmade objects in them, the wave distortion makes it unusable for me.

    I have bought the 800E and look forward to a Canon camera with similar resolution. I am a long time Canon user, the 800E is my first Nikon. Now I’m feeling that there are quite a few convenience features in the Nikon that I prefer over the Canon.

    So far I am still preferring the look of my 2006 Aptus 75 to the 800E, but I’m reserving my judgement until I’ve done more testing.

  21. Thanks Paul for your comment and we would be interested in hearing from you again when you have done some more testing with your D800e.

  22. Ah now!
    The more I see of this D800 the more it’s a case of ”ne nos inducas in tentationem’, or thereabouts. Tried a few sample files in C1 6.4 and it is really astonishing how good the shadow detail is with this thing.. single image HDR and Dragan effect portraits without shadow noise are probably going to be a piece of cake as well. I had been thinking seriously about migrating to Phase One… Has Mr Cox pronounced yet?

  23. @Ger – I guess it’s a case of whom you’re asking the “sed libera nos a malo” of. Canon? I’m sure Neil would agree.

    Me? I could jump into anyone’s arms right now.

    Peter? I wouldn’t speak authoritatively for him, but his PhaseOne/Arca combo/Schneider mongrel does, ultimately, still produce the best prints. It’s just that the D800e runs it so close.

  24. Great test guys, i had read recently on Tim Parkin’s site Onlandscape how well the D800 done against a 39meg Blad but totally surprised by how close
    the D800e came against the IQ180, as long time Canon user i can only hope Canon throws a high meg contender into the ring and fairly soon.
    Just as a mater of interest Neil, do you use the canon 24 tilt&shift and if so what would be your verdict on it?

  25. Thanks John for your comment. It was hard for me to say as I have work for and with Canon over 25 years, but the D800e is a cracker of a camera. Yes I have the 24mmTS-E Mk2 lens and it’s one of the best if not the best lens Canon have in their line-up.

  26. Very interesting comparison. Nikon really did a wonderful job with the D800e. Too bad there is very little glass to make the most out of it. That being said, the entire feel of the medium format images is just better. The biggest pixel peepers are high paying clients, especially commercial ones. Kudos to Nikon but you cannot beat the laws of physics. Since they have narrowed the gap, it will bring prices down on medium format which is still king for absolute high end work and pay.

  27. Ken

    Regardless of my personal preferences, when it comes to making a living with my gear, I agree with Andrei: “The biggest pixel peepers are high paying clients, especially commercial ones.”

    On another note… I don’t recall ever taking a file from camera to print without stopping for some degree of “enhancement” with Capture One and/or Photoshop and/or Lightroom. How much work it would take to get a D800e file to look as close as possible to an IQ-160-180 file?

  28. carl

    Ken wrote: “How much work it would take to get a D800e file to look as close as possible to an IQ-160-180 file?”

    This is my question, too. I’m not so much excited about the resolution of the 800/E as I am interested in how close the 800/E comes to, in print, giving one that fuller, more “3D” look of medium format.

  29. Clyde Franklin

    I cannot avoid observing that (barring considerable lens variability), the superiority overwhelmingly lies consistently with the full frame versions by the IQ 180, even when viewed on my humble monitor.

    The three dimensional clarity therein is revealed clearly, in a way which I would think would cause anyone who could manage it to stretch a bit to acquire one, regardless of how many 60 by 40 inch prints were planned.

    After all, that beautiful rendering is there as Everest is there, and like the mountain – what more is needed to inspire the climb?

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