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Nikon D800 / D800e First Comparison

Is the "E" Sharper? Is Moire a Problem?

Figure 1
Nikon D800E with Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro OS
1/320 sec f/5.6 @ ISO 160 hand-held

Toronto – Wednesday, 18 April, 2012

I picked up my Nikon D800 about 10 days ago, and have been shooting with it and working on an initial review ever since. Then, this morning, the phone rang at about 10:30 am. It was Henry's, my dealer in Toronto where I had ordered both a D800 and a D800E as soon as they were announced. (Yes, I purchase most of the gear that I test at retail, especially items that I expect to use long-term).

"Hi Michael. Your D800E just came in."

"Great, I'll be over within the hour".

And thus began my day. Fortunately my schedule was clear, as was the weather, with crisp temperatures and clear skies. I grabbed my Nikon gear bag and headed out to both pick up the 800E and to do some long-awaited comparisons between the two cameras.

As you likely know, the new 36 Megapixel full-frame D800 and D800E are exactly the same camera with the exception that the D800E does not have an anti-aliasing filter. Instead, Nikon has replaced it with an optical assembly that maintains the light path (thus allowing the camera to only cost $300 more than the regular D800). In theory the lack of an AA filter allows increased resolution, but also may create potential problems with moire, which it is designed to reduce.

Figure 2
Detail at 100% from Figure 1

Sidebar

I have earlier written in more depth about the issue of choosing the D800E vs. the D800 in an essay entitled D800 vs. D800E – Which One To Choose? You may want to read that first before proceeding here.


The First Test

Nikon D800E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Nikon D800
Figure 3

Let me start by saying that this comparison is in no way intended to be definitive, either for me, or for my readers. I spent several hours doing comparison shots between the two that first afternoon because first and foremost I was curious for my own interest as to whether the E provides a worthwhile increase in resolution (which I guessed it would), and whether or not moire would be a problem (which I guessed it wouldn't). Would my suppositions be correct?

I'm going to show you 100% crops of the above shot , which was my first comparison. Others showed similar results.

This was taken on a large RRS tripod, with an Arca Cube head, standing on a concrete parking structure. There was no wind. Mirror lockup was used along with 3 second delay. Exposure was set to Aperture priority, ISO 100. The E metered at 1/640sec while the D800 at 1/800sec, a trivial difference.

Single point AF as well as Live View AF, and also manual focusing with magnification were used for several alternative shots (all turned out to be essentially identical in terms of focus). The lens used was an Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G . This is the highest resolution and best corrected 135 format lens that I own. It was shot at f/4, its optimum aperture. This lens has been shown to resolve more than 4000 line widths per picture height at this aperture; performance that few lenses can match. I also did similar tests using the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO OS Macro, another extremely high resolution and contrasty lens.

At 100% On-Screen

Below are two crops from the test pair in Figure 3 above. Please note – none of these comparison images have been sharpened or have received any other image processing. Lightroom 4 was used for raw conversion because Nikon has decided that in the US and Canada we will not receive Capture NX with the 800E. I had hoped that we would, since elsewhere in the world Capture NX ships with the E body. Hard to figure why Nikon cheaped out on this here. I will shortly be purchasing a copy to use in future testing.

Nikon D800E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Nikon D800
Figure 4

Nikon D800E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Nikon D800
Figure 5

Draw your own conclusions and then continue below.


What About Moire?

Sorry to disappoint, but several dozen photographs taken over a few hours failed to turn up a trace of moire on the D800E, and I was looking for it – hard. I'll try harder tomorrow. In the meantime, it's worth keeping in mind that the 800E is not by any means the first camera without an AA filter. The Leica M9, S2, Pentax 645D and just about every medium format back ever made all lack AA filters. These cameras and backs are used by thousands of pros around the world daily, shooting fashion, architecture and just about anything else that you can imagine. Moire isn't a boogyman, except maybe on some photography discussion forums.

Will the D800E produce images with moire where the D800 won't? Undoubtedly, and when I find some, I'll show them here.

Day for Night. Toronto, April 2012
Nikon D800E with Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO Macro OS

Preliminary Conclusions

It doesn't take more than a glance at the above samples to see that the D800E has higher resolving power than the D800. Yes – judicious sharpening could narrow the gap, but what can be done to one can be done to the other. This is the case at 100% on screen. But, what about in prints? The D800E's resolution advantage is still visible on prints, though it's not as great as on-screen.

As for moire, I've yet to see it, but I'm sure that it's there. I just don't expect it to be any greater a problem than with other high-end cameras and MF backs without an AA filter. 

The bottom line for now is that unless the moire boggyman keeps you awake at night (or you shoot fabrics for a living), the D800E will be found to produce higher resolution images than the D800 and makes a lot of sense for anyone looking for top image quality along with the highest possible resolution.

My full D800 / D800E field review will follow soon.



Update - April 20, 2012

Nikon D800E –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Nikon D800
Figure 6 – highly cropped

It's little surprise that the previous comparison test upset a lot of people. "OMG – there must be something wrong. The Nikon D800e displays higher resolution than the D800". Various people wrote and posted on forums that my technique was flawed, there was too long a delay between exposures, the clouds came in (there were no clouds) , the building moved(?), I misfocused, or maybe the stars weren't in proper alignment.

OK, maybe. So, I had some time today to do another series of tests, one of which is displayed below. This is one that anyone can do in their own backyard. I taped a Canadian $20 bill flat to a window glass (Euros, Pounds or US Dollars work equally well), then carefully aligned the camera to be plane parallel. Currency is a good macro subject because of the extreemly fine engraving.

This time I used the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO OS at f/5.6, that lens' optimum aperture. The shot was taken in the shade, and again there were no clouds. The same massive tripod was used, massive tripod head, and the tripod was on a concrete slab. Mirror lockup with a 3 second delay was also used. OS turned off. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO set identically. This time the lens was mounted to the head, so only the cameras needed to be swapped, and changeover time was reduced to 90 seconds. The stars were judged to be in alignment.

Nikon 800E Unsharpened – @ 100%

Nikon 800 Unsharpened – @ 100%

One of the interesting upshots of the first comparison is that different people looking at the same web images, saw quite different things. Some people saw the difference as dramatic. Some saw it as insignificant. Go figure.


Sharpened

One valid criticism of the first test was that the images were unsharpened. The argument goes that a camera with an AA filter needs more sharpening, while one without an AA filter can still use some, but not as much. The argument goes that this will largely level the playing field.

Nikon 800E Sharpened – @ 100%

Nikon 800 Sharpened – @ 100%

The above 100% crops were sharpened in Lightroom 4 using my usual techniques. (See my tutorials done along with sharpening guru Jeff Schewe – Camera to Print and Screen, and also our Advanced Guide to Lightroom 4 for more on how shapening is done.

What do you see? I see a crisper rendition of both images (of course), but a small but clear advantage in resolution by the D800E holds true. Yes Virginia – cameras without AA filters are capable of resolving more than cameras with them, and in the case of the D800 and D800E, which are identical with the exception of the AA filter, we have proof of that pudding.

Is the difference huge? No. It's fairly small. Is it visible in screen at 100%? Yes. Is it still visible in medium to large prints? Yes. What more is there to say.

Oh yes, moire! Sorry, none yet. Still searching.

April, 2012

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Concepts: Camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Display resolution, Digital camera, Anti-aliasing filter, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Nikon, Leica Camera

Entities: Toronto, Nikon, Henry, Pentax, US, Canada, image processing, ISO, Michael Reichmann, D800, D800E, Anti-aliasing filter

Tags: moire, aa filters, camera, image, comparison shot, Nikon, Nikon gear bag, new 36 megapixel, highest possible resolution, higher resolving power, large rrs tripod, Arca Cube head, APO OS Macro, NX Capture ships, concrete parking structure, aperture, higher resolution images, highest image quality, moire boggyman, highest resolution, Aperture priority, optimum aperture, resolution advantage, initial review, phone rang, high resolution, worthwhile increase, long-awaited comparisons, judicious sharpening, contrasty lens, trivial difference, Mirror lockup, Preliminary Conclusions, crisp temperatures, anti-aliasing filter, light path, 135 format, Capture NX, Leica M9, test pair