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Nikon D800 or  D800e

Which One To Choose?

Every now and then a camera comes along that says – I'm something really special. Not just new, but newly conceived – a game changer of you will. I believe that the Nikon D800 and D800e are just such cameras. The specs of the D800 models are well known by now, so I'm not going to repeat them here. As this is published in mid-March, 2012 neither model has yet shipped. The D800 is due at dealers within days, while the D800e is due in mid-April, about a month later.

For many photographers contemplating the purchase of a D800 series camera the question will be – should I get the D800 or the D800e?  Note that the only difference between the D800 and the D800e is that the "e" model does not have a low pass anti-aliasing filter.

What is an AA Filter?

It's worth taking a moment, for those who might be a bit fuzzy on the subject (joke) to explain that almost all digital cameras have what are known as an anti-aliasing (AA) filters, also called low-pass filters. The reason for this is that unlike film, where the light sensitive silver grains or dye particles are randomly distributed, the layout of photosites on a digital sensor are absolutely uniform, like the cells of a honeycomb or window screen. And, just as when you have two window screens at an angle to each other you can have shimmer or "beating", so too with a camera sensor. This means that if there is a subject in a shot that has a fine pattern to it, such as a fabric, railings on a distant building, or other-man-made objects with very fine uniform texture, moiré is possible, especially colour moiré caused by "beating" with the Bayer pattern. For this reason, almost every camera sensor has a built-in anti-aliasing filter, which is also called a blurring filter. These slightly blur the image so that moiré and colour aliasing are suppressed.

So now that we know what an AA filter is, and that 99%+ of all cameras ever made have them, why has Nikon chosen to produce a second model, the D800e, effectively without an AA filter? (I write effectively, because Nikon hasn't just removed the AA filter. They have modified the sensor's light path such that intentional blurring is removed, but otherwide the path is unaffected).

Another Digression

While it's likely no exaggeration that 99%+ of all digital cameras have an AA filter, some don't. Virtually all medium format digital backs do not have AA filters. Neither do Leica M8, M9 and S2 cameras, or the Pentax 645D (optional). Neither does the new Fuji X1 Pro or any Foveon sensor based cameras. We're still at 99%. Knowing though that there are tens thousands of cameras and MF backs that do not have AA filters will be important further on in the essay in understanding the pros and cons involved in choosing a D800 or D800e.


Is Moiré Really an Issue?

Yes, of course it is. If it wasn't manufacturers wouldn't go to the bother and expense of building AA filters into their cameras. But, I've owned and been shooting medium format backs extensively for more than 10 years; Kodak DCS Pro Back, Phase P25, P45, P65, and IQ180, and along the way have shot with and tested the Pentax 645D, and Leica S2. In the 35mm world I have owned and shot thousands and thousands of frames with the Leica M8 and M9. I have never, ever seen moiré or colour artifacting on any shot taken, unless I was looking for it at 100% on a large monitor. 

I have also discussed this with several other people; fine art photographers, writers and teachers, and to a man they agree. Moiré and colour artifacting are extremely rare on cameras without AA filters, especially those with resolutions of about 18MP and higher. The natural world simply doesn't have many fine repeating patterns that can cause it.

Now, if I was regularly shooting architecture, fashion, weddings... anything that contained fabrics or fine man-made patterns, I might avoid the 800e and any other back or camera without an AA. But, even then, Pros shoot with MF backs all the time for advertising, fashion layouts, etc. The rule of thumb is, the higher the resolution of the sensor the less likely it will be that one will encounter artifacting, because the sensor grid is so very small that only very fine patterns at very precise distances can cause it. In a fashion shoot even moving the camera an inch or two can reduce or eliminate fabric moiré.

The moiré tools in Capture One and now Lightroom 4 can make fast work of it when it does show up. Nikon even has a new version of Capture NX that includes a moiré reduction tool. This will be included with the D800e. Also, simply stopping down (f/16 or lower) will usually get rid of moiré due to diffraction limiting. This is a quick and dirty yet effective in-the-field AA filter that we all have available all the time, if needed.

Some Nikons have had weak AA filters. Just strong enough to do the job. So, it's interesting that they are trying to squeeze that last little bit of resolution out of the new 36MP sensor. If the "e" model didn't provide it I doubt that they'd have gone to the bother. Nikon is to be commended for being the first company to produce two models of the same camera, one with and one without a blurring filter.


Why Choose the D800e?

Simple. If you want the utmost resolution possible from the camera's 36.3 Megapixel sensor then the D800e is the way to go. Regardless of what anyone may say, the same sensor without an AA filter will be able to provide higher resolution than one with an AA filter. And, since these are identical camera's using the identical sensor, with the exception of the AA filter component, there is no equivocating. 

Think about it. If there was no noticeable difference would Nikon have gone to the bother of creating a separate product? I think not.

So, if you want the highest resolution that this camera can provide, then the "e" model is the way to go. But, there's a price to be paid, and that is the possibility of moiré under some circumstances. As well, there's the need to use exceptional shooting technique to really realize the advantage that the D800e can offer over the D800. Without such techniques, you're wasting your money and you'd be better of with the regular D800. We'll look at this in detail momentarily.


Why Prefer the D800?

The answer is again simple. You shoot subjects such as architecture, fashion, weddings, portraits and the like where man-made patterns are found. You may shoot JPG more than raw, and you don't have the time or inclination to do post processing of raw files and use moiré reduction tools when needed. You will also likely not want to use the precision shooting techniques necessary (see below) to actually be able to produce images that can reveal the increased resolving power of a sensor without an AA filter. That's fine. Many photographer's shooting style prohibits or at least doesn't welcome these.

And last, but not least, you'd rather not spend the extra $300 that the "e" model will cost, or wait the extra month for it to become available, which in the grand scheme of things isn't that big a deal for most people, one way or the other. I just thought I'd mention them though.

Remembered. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. March, 2012
Not taken with a Nikon D800e. I wish it had been.

Are You Good Enough for a D800e?

I don't mean your soul. I mean your technique. 

Though I have not shot with a production D800 or D800e yet I have no doubt that the basic camera will be capable of producing exceptional image quality and very high resolution images. The D800e will do so to a slightly greater extent. But, don't imagine that extracting this extra bit of image quality will be easy. It won't. All the lessons that medium format photographers have learned over the years need to be applied, because in terms of resolving power a 36MP sensor without an AA filter is definitely in medium format territory – at least as we've known it until now, and at least when it comes to resolving power if nothing else.

Here then are the things to keep in mind and to master if you want to be able to extract the best from the D800 and especially the extra quality available from the 800e.

– Use the best lenses. The following are the current lenses that Nikon recommends for use with the 800e...

AF-S NIKKOR 14–24 mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24–70 mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70–200 mm f/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 16–35 mm f/4G ED VR

AF-S NIKKOR 24–120 mm f/4G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 200–400 mm f/4G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 24 mm f/1.4G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 35 mm f/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 85 mm f/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 200 mm f/2G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 300 mm f/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 400 mm f/2.8G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 500 mm f/4G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 600 mm f/4G ED VR
AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60 mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8G IF-ED

Will other lenses work? Of course they will. But the above lenses, when used with proper shooting technique, will produce optimum image quality.

– Use the optimum aperture. Apertures above about f/11 introduce diffraction and effectively act as an unintentional AA filter

– Use a really solid tripod and head

– Use Live View, or mirror lock up with a remote release or self timer.

– Use critical focusing, using single point AF and LV focus magnification (up to 23X)

– When shooting hand-held use lenses with VR when possible, and also a high shutter speed... 2 or 3 over the reciprocal of the focal length, not the 1/focal length of olden days

– Use the lowest possible ISO, and if shooting JPGs turn off high ISO noise reduction even at low ISO

Anyone who has done studio, landscape and nature photography with a medium format system will wonder what the fuss is about. These are mostly standard techniques that are used when extremely high resolution gear is used and the utmost image quality is desired. But, these are not typically the day-to-day shooting techniques that 35mm DSLR shooters are used to.

Of course you may be able to obtain and take advantage of the D800 and especially the D800e's higher resolving power in regular day-to-day shooting (the above are suggestions, not rules). But the payoff for having purchased a 36 MP camera, and one which doesn't have an AA filter as well, will only be visible when the techniques and tools mentioned above are all brought into play appropriately.


Is it For Me?

A 36 Megapixel camera, with or without an AA filter is terra incognita for many photographers. Till now, unless one has been able to outlay $25,000 to $50,000 for an MF back, camera and lenses, this type of resolving power has not be accessible. Now, for about $3,000, is the D800 series able to match medium format other than in resolving power? We'll have to wait until photographers with MF systems have a chance to do some comparisons, but I wouldn't take bets either way at this point.

Keep in mind that a 36 Megapixel camera isn't for everyone. If you just shot for the web and electronic media; if you rarely make prints larger than Super-A3 (13X19"), if you don't own high-end glass and know how to get the most from it, then neither the D800 nor the D800e are going to make a visible difference to your photography – at least not in terms of their higher resolving power. But if you do make large prints, do have some top Nikon and third party lenses, and do understand and practice optimum shooting technique, then it's my guess that there is nothing for the price that will do as much for your output as one of these two new cameras.

I can tell you that I have placed my order for both a D800 and a Nikon D800e from my local dealer, and hope to take delivery in mid-April. This coincides with my return to Toronto from Mexico, and I expect to spend a good part of the summer shooting various projects (stills and video) with the new Nikons. You can therefore expect several reports on the D800/e to appear here in the weeks and months ahead. Friends and colleagues with various MF gear, including the Leica S2, Pentax 645D and Phase, Leaf and Hasselblad backs have already volunteered to help with comparison shoots, and likely the web will be full of such from other sources as well before long.

It's going to be a fun summer.

16 March, 2012

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Concepts: Digital camera, Camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital photography, Photography, Leica Camera, Image sensor

Entities: Toronto, Nikons, Foveon, Leica, Kodak, Pentax, Hasselblad, Mexico, ISO, Michael Reichmann, D800, Leica M8, S2

Tags: aa filter, camera, sensor, AF-S NIKKOR, moiru00e9, medium format, Nikon, shooting techniques, image, fine, image quality, anti-aliasing filter, model, camera sensor, in-the-field aa filter, AA filter component, Leica M8, Leica S2, pass anti-aliasing filter, fine patterns, digital cameras, unintentional aa filter, reduction tools, built-in anti-aliasing filter, weak aa filters, man-made patterns, day-to-day shooting, NIKKOR 14u201324 mm, NIKKOR 24u201370 mm, NIKKOR 24u2013120 mm, NIKKOR 70u2013200 mm, NIKKOR 200u2013400 mm, sensor based cameras, NIKKOR 24 mm, high resolution, new 36MP sensor, regular day-to-day shooting, exceptional shooting technique, format digital backs, day-to-day shooting techniques