My judgment on the quality of an image is not about what it looks like in its raw format, it’s about the subtlety and flexibility with which I can make changes to it in Lightroom. In fact, from a “straight out of the camera” aspect, my cheapest camera (the Fujifilm XT2) is far and away the best of the lot. I don’t need to touch a Fujifilm image — and as odd as it sounds, their in-camera film looks are absolutely stunning. But when it comes to the nuanced work of post-processing, there’s just nothing like working on a Nikon file. It’s truly transcendent. Until you’ve done it, it’s hard to appreciate it. Watching the image adjust ever so slowly as you slide your shadows up, for example, offers a seemingly endless range of control and subtlety that no other file I’ve worked with does as well. And for some reference, I was a Quantel Paintbox artist for years, doing high-end photo retouching.
I’ve been using the Nikon D800 since it came out, but have been looking forward to advancements announced in the D850 (backlit sensor, higher pixel count, articulated screen, wifi, higher frames per second, to name a few). I finally got the call, rushed down to Samy’s Camera and grabbed it. By the time I got home, it was dark and I couldn’t take a photo — instead, I just slowly attached the new grip, my leather Tanner strap and downloaded Nikon’s SnapBridge app and paired it to the camera. Needless to say, sleep was difficult.
There’s a lot to know about the camera — and I’m happy to get into it, if anyone cares to hear the same info that is on a few hundred other sites from my perspective — but all I really cared about was getting a decent image into Lightroom and playing around with it. We are beginning some construction in our back yard, so I took the thing with a 24–70mm f/2.8 on there out to the back. It’s a perfectly overcast day here in L.A., so light was perfect. I just wanted one shot. As usual, I was cautiously underexposed — my priority is always to keep my ISO way down for the purest image possible. I grew up shooting ISO 100 film, so I’m always starting there. This was at 160. Wide open at 2.8 (it’s probably worth noting that the image would be even sharper at f/5.6), to let the most light hit that backlit sensor and a middling 1/500th of a second. My meter showed that I was underexposed, but I had a feeling it was all there. Here’s how the Raw file looked:
That’s a completely usable image and, honestly, there’s occasions where I might just use this, as is — and be happy with it. Those colors could not be more accurate. With 46MP, you know it’s going to be detailed, but it’s really the quality of the pixels that I’m looking at. Take a look at this detail:
It’s fun to marvel over how well-detailed an image is — and I can obsess with the best of them — but the real value is in how it makes you feel something. In this case, the roughness of the wood, the rust of those nails, the weathered paint, the quality of light. Detail is how we come to know stories — and so the more detail you have, the more textured your story is. That’s what the detail is doing for this image. If I need a photo of wood, I want one that really tells me about that wood. This does that. You feel it.
I tried my old presets — none of them looked good. They were all too drastic for this image. It wanted only little tweaks. And part of this is because it’s a lot of subtle wood tones that you don’t want to lose with a lot of contrast, but also because it’s already such a well-articulated image, you tend to lose those textural feels when you push it too far. So, instead I just put my hands on the main sliders. Like butter.
The shot on the left is the same one in the header image. I love the more subtle variations of color here where I’m really just bringing out what’s already there. On the right is just an experiment where I tried to create a bit of color contrast between the more blue-leaning wood and the warmer ones. These adjustments were as easy as you can imagine, requiring only a bit of color-adding to shadows and some slight tweaking of the main controls. Nothing major. And, of course, with no loss of detail anywhere.
Perhaps ironically, my main photographic style is in high contrast black and white. And while that might sound like an excuse NOT to get this camera, it actually is highly useful for that, too. To explain, best to look at it through a comparison:
The left image is a straight black and white conversion. A beautiful shot in its own right, but the right is close to how I’d process it for my own tastes. As you can see, suddenly there’s a separation of elements here that helps them stand off from each other. But it still maintains incredible detail in the wood grain and metal bits that helps this remain an image about textured wood, while still being in my own black and white style. That’s something that’s near-impossible to achieve with a lesser file. It can be emulated with filters, but none of those will look like this, up close:
The thin white strip of paint along the edge of that horizontal board in the upper middle. The dark ominous stains along the side of the board at the top. The knots and nails and worn grainy wood pieces that jut out of the darkness — all the details of this story still remain. And, if I wanted to, I have more than enough information to bring out any of those shadows. For example, here’s a local adjustment just to that big dark area above that wood piece in the upper middle:
Notice in the image above this one how this area was in pure black. Here I’ve lightened just the edge of that predominant board on the left with one adjustment and then brought up the shadows with another adjustment. This is, in essence, the work of a writer — finding characters and adding detail to them to best tell your story.
And that’s everything you want in a camera.
Thanks for reading. For more of my photography, visit me at joshsrose