How to get the most out of the Nikon D810 for landscapes

Nikon D810
The Nikon D810 is the new heavy-weight champion of the DSLR world, or at least it has the sharpest pixels and greatest dynamic range.  It’s so good, in fact, that I have to wonder how it would compare head to head with medium format cameras.  I don’t shoot medium format, but Alex Koloskov wrote a great head to head comparison of the D800e vs the Hasselblad H4D40 medium format camera (see it here).  And now Nikon has just taken things one step further with the D810!

But, as Voltaire (and Spiderman) said, with great power comes great responsibility.  Or, if you want your images to stand up to the D810 hype, you have to use it the right way.  Many people have given me the awkward (or backhanded) compliment, “Your camera takes great pictures!”  Well, it also takes horrible pictures if you don’t use it the right way.  I don’t know why the general public discounts the value of the person behind the camera so much, it’s not like you’d give someone a Stradivarius and assume they can play beautiful music.  If you want to make great landscape images with the D810, there are a few key things you need to do to pull out all the color and sharpness that this camera is capable of.

I recommend the following approach to get the most out of the Nikon D810 for landscapes:

  • Use mirror lockup.  When the D810 (and most DSLRs) take a photo, there are two internal mechanisms that create vibration in the camera that can impact image quality:  the mirror and the front curtain.  The mirror causes a lot of “mirror slap”, which can significantly reduce image sharpness (especially for exposures in the range of about 1/15 to 1 second).  Setting the camera to “Mup” will cause the mirror to lift and wait for you to take the photo, and this time delay dissipates the mirror slap so that it does not impact image sharpness.  If you don’t have a remote cable release (or are using the self-timer mode to shoot HDR brackets), then you can alternatively use exposure delay mode set to 2 seconds.  This will also avoid mirror slap, but you won’t get the benefits of electronic front curtain shutter (unless Nikon updates their firmware).
  • Use electronic first curtain shutter (menu/custom settings/d5 = enable).  This addresses that second source of internal vibration, the front curtain, by opening it and pausing before taking the exposure.  Dpreview.com has a great example showing just how much of a difference this can make on the D810.  Nikon cautions that this feature should be turned off when using tilt-shift lenses faster than 1/125 if you see uneven lighting, and disables it by default at shutter speeds of 1/2000s for any lens.  Since this feature is only active when using mirror lockup and I’m shooting at slower speeds almost always due to low ISO and moderate apertures on a tripod, I always leave this feature enabled.
  • Shoot RAW, 14 bit, Adobe RGB, Lossless compressed or uncompressed.  Anything less than this and you’re giving away a lot of quality.  I’m not just talking about the ability to tweak white balance or exposure in post, but the ability to pull more out of the image even when you nail the exposure perfectly.
  • Shoot at ISO 64-100 whenever you can.  This gives you the best possible dynamic range, which is critical to seeing shadow detail, pulling color out of a bright sky, etc.  If you have to shoot at a higher ISO (especially true for moving subjects that would blur with a longer shutter speed), try to keep things as low as you can.  I’ll shoot portraits up to ISO6400 and get very good results, but I try to keep landscapes at 400 or below whenever possible.
  • Use live view to focus.  When you focus through the viewfinder, the camera’s autofocus system does not use the sensor to achieve focus – and this can result in autofocus errors due to the extreme precision required to achieve focus.  Live view is also easier for performing manual focus.  Use the “ok” button to switch on or off a preview of what the exposed image should look like.  If you are having trouble focusing on a dark area, you may wish to use this and temporarily put in overexposure settings to make it easier to see detail on the LCD.  And, not only does live view offer a better ability to focus in many situations, but you can also activate split-screen display mode (“i” button, select the bottom option).  Split-screen display allows for an ultra-level horizon (note that you can also hit the “info” button a few times to get the tilt display, which is nearly as good for horizons and gives vertical info as well).
  • Check your histograms.  The overall histogram is good, but I really prefer the RGB histogram to make sure I’m not blowing out detail in something colorful.  Be sure to “expose to the right” to get the brightest possible exposure that won’t blow out any important highlights.
  • Don’t be afraid to read the camera manual.
  • Shoot on a tripod.  This goes for any serious landscape work, but especially if you want ultra-sharp images at high resolution.  Think of it this way, if you smear your image even 1 pixel in each direction, you’ve cut the horizontal resolution in half and you’ve cut the vertical resolution in half.  And since resolution is height times width, you’ve just turned a 36 megapixel camera into a 9 megapixel camera.  And not all tripods are created equal.  I personally shoot with Really Right Stuff (I primarily use the TVC-33).  Those aren’t cheap.  If you’re on a budget, there are other good options.  The key thing I would look for is NO center column.   Even if you shoot with the center column down, it’s robbing you of image quality.  If you do have a center column, you can significantly improve your results by hanging a significant amount of weight from the bottom of the center column (such as your camera bag full of lenses, or a bag that you fill with rocks).
  • Use high quality lenses.  Pixels are no better than the light that hits the sensor, so make sure you’ve got a lens that can keep up with your camera.  DXO mark has published a great list of images that have tested highly with the D800e.
  • Use f/8-f/13 when possible.  There are plenty of times when I shoot more wide open to get a shallow depth of field or use a faster shutter (or minimize the impact of shooting through glass from a building).  There are also times when I shoot with a small aperture for more depth of field (though I’d try to use focus bracketing instead) or slower shutter speeds (though I try to use an ND filter or lower ISO instead).  But both of those extremes reduce the sharpness of the image, and very small apertures really bring every bit of dust on the sensor into the image.  So stick with a middle aperture whenever you can to get the sharpest possible image.

 

I demonstrate most of these settings in the following video:

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