Nikon D800 vs D800E, Which to Choose?
Nikon D800 or D800E?
When Nikon introduced the D800 and D800E back in February, 2012, they provided very thorough materials explaining that inside the D800E, the anti-aliasing filter elements cancel the effect from each other out so that effectively, the D800E has no anti-aliasing filter such that it is capable of producing sharper images, with the trade off for potentially more moiré problems and false colors. Nikon also provided several sample images illustrating the differences and problems
Since there are the D800 and D800E options, for those who are interested in getting a D800, the natural question has been which one to get. In other words, how much sharpness can you gain by choosing a D800E and perhaps more importantly, how often will one run into moiré issues, which can ruin some images in the worst case.
While Nikon started shipping the D800 in late March, 2012, the D800E version wasn’t available until mid April. A number of photographers who had both models immediately compared them. The initial findings are similar from everybody: the D800E can resolve a little more details, but the difference is, at best, small. And moiré is rarely an issue in real-life shooting.
Moiré and False Colors
My experience with moiré is that it can come from subjects with fine, repeating patterns, such as fabrics, bird feather, etc. In order to find out how serious this problem can be in real-life shooting, I captured a lot of images on those subjects with both the D800 and D800E. So far, regardless of how hard I try, I have yet to come across one image from either the D800E or D800 with moiré problem capturing fabrics from all sorts of clothing.
I have the first version of Nikon’s 500mm/f4 AF-S that I have been using since 1998. During the film era and up to the Nikon D2X and D300 DSLRs, I typically used that lens wide open at f4. Starting with the D7000, I realized that I need to stop that lens down to f5.6 to get the most out of the D7000’s 16MP DX sensor; the fact that the D7000 has better high-ISO results than the earlier Nikon DSLRs also makes that easier to do. On the D800/D800E, the difference between using the 500mm/f4 AF-S wide open and stopped down to f5.6 is also very obvious, perhaps due to both sharpness and depth of field reasons. The D800 can produce a lot more details with the lens stopped down.
Typically, when we photograph birds from the side with long lenses, we tend to focus on the eye that is facing the camera. However, depending on the size of the bird, its wing on that same side can be an inch or two (i.e. a few centimeters) closer to the camera so that the feather around it can be just slightly out of focus, or at least not sharp enough to cause any moiré issues. After I realized that, for the purpose of this experiment, I started focusing on the wing instead, although that also means the bird’s eye could now be slightly out of focus, which is normally a major no no.
After capturing literally hundreds of bird images this way with the D800E and D800, I have come across only a few images with minor moiré issues, issues that you not only need to pixel peep to observe but may also need to enlarger to 200%, 300% from the original size for it to become obvious, as the pink/green banding is very clear in the sample image at 300% magnification. Moreover, I can capture a series of several bird images in rapid succession from the same angle and same lighting, but only one or two from the sequence have minor moiré issues; the others do not even have a trace of it. Meanwhile, I also notice that the amount of feather details 36MP can resolve is amazing.
Another issue to keep in mind is that the plain D800 is not free from moiré issues either. I have a few sample images from the D800 that have the same issue, although relatively speaking, it is slightly worse on the D800E while the overall problem is minor on both cameras.
Among my lenses, the Nikon 300mm/f2.8 AF-S is among the sharpest. I mounted that lens on a tripod with a gimbal head and tested the D800 and D800E at all full-stop apertures from f2.8 to f11. It turns out that lens produces the sharpest results on the D800 and D800E at f4. By f8, diffraction starts to play a role and the result is not as sharp. Therefore, one can also observe the greatest amount of differences between the D800 and D800E when the lens is set to f4. The image captured by the D800E provides a tiny bit more detail, but the difference is very subtle. By f8, the images are visibly less sharp than at f4 and the difference between the D800 and D800E narrows. By f11, both are on the poor side and the tiny differences are all but gone.
Since currency has a lot of fine details, it is a good subject to test resolution. In this case I mounted a 200mm/f4 AF-D on a tripod and swap D800 and D800E bodies to capture a small section of a 10 Euro bill, using manual focus on live view to fine tune the focus. Once again, the D800E seems to have a tiny advantage, but the difference is very subtle.
Perhaps I am merely pointing out the obvious, but the biggest difference between the D800 and D800E is actually the price. In the US, the D800E is $3300, 10% more expensive than the plain D800 at $3000. Otherwise, the differences between the two are, at best, small. The good news is that moiré is largely a non-issue even on the D800E. I am sure it can appear once in a blue moon, on both the D800E and D800 alike, but even though I alter my usual photography approach in an attempt to induce it, moiré is still a rare occurrence, and when it happens, in most cases you need to look very hard to find it and it is most likely not observable in your final print. The key is that moiré tends to appear at random. When you capture a series of successive images, your subject or camera position will only need to move a tiny bit and it will make all the difference between some moiré and the absence of it. Therefore, if you are photographing people wearing fabrics with patterns that are prone to this problem, I would capture a few more images just to be sure that you have some good samples free of moiré issues.
On the other hand, any sharpness advantage from the D800E is also not significant. You definitely need to set the camera (or lens) on a tripod, use live view to fine tune your focus, and set the aperture of the lens to the absolute optimum, such as f4 to f5.6 on most lenses, After all of that, you may observe some subtle differences in terms of image quality. I have tested the two cameras side by side over and over with different lenses, and while in some cases I can see a small advantage from the D800E version, sometimes I cannot discern any difference and in fact, in one case I actually thought the D800 version was slightly sharper, perhaps due to some minor lighting changes so that the D800 version has a little more contrast. If you stop further down to f8 and f11, on the D800, diffraction will start to kick in and negate most difference in sharpness.
In my case, I decided on a D800E because sometimes I review Nikon F-mount lenses, and I would like to use a camera body that provides the highest resolution to test those lenses with. For most people, I think the regular D800 is more than enough. The $300 you save can get you a good flash or become part of the cost towards a good lens. For those who would like to get the most out of a 36MP DSLR and have the discipline to use the best techniques, the D800E is for you.