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Nikon D800 vs D800E, Which to Choose?

by Shun Cheung, July 2012



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.

Sharpness Differences

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.

Conclusion

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.


Where to Buy

Nikon D800
Price as low as $2099.00 from 5 retailers
$2179.00
$2099.00
$2996.95
$2996.95
$2219.95

Nikon D800, (compare prices) (review). From the Nikon website: Hold in your hands an HD-SLR able to capture images rivaled only by those produced with a medium-format camera: extremely low noise, incredible dynamic range and the most faithful colors. Meet the Nikon D800, a 36.3 megapixel FX-format HD-SLR for professional photographers who require end results of the highest quality, who demand superior performance, speed, handling and a fully integrated imaging system…

Nikon D800E
Price as low as $2509.95 from 3 retailers
$2599.00
$3296.95
$2509.95

Nikon D800E, (compare prices) (review). From the Nikon website: The D800E realizes higher resolution without sacrificing the high basic performance and superior mobility of the D800. Without the effects of the optical low-pass filter, the resolution enabled with 36.3 effective megapixels is maximized by transmitting light coming through NIKKOR lenses more directly to the photodiodes of the image sensor. The D800E delivers extremely high resolution and depth suitable for shooting landscapes and works of art that require high definition…


Text and photos © 2012 Shun Cheung.

Article created July 2012

Readers' Comments


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Joel B. , July 09, 2012; 03:36 P.M.

Thank you, Shun. As always, your comments are clear and reasonable.

 

I understand that for most people, the D800 will more than suffice. At the same time, for the extra $300, the D800E does seem to have a slight advantage. I think many people have been afraid to take advantage of that advantage, though, because of concerns about moire. It sounds, though, that your tests have shown moire to be a much less significant issue than was originally thought.

 

So the conclusion I draw is that while there is not necessarily a compelling reason TO get the E version of the camera over the non-E, there is also -- aside from price -- no compelling reason NOT to get the E version. And that is helpful for me to know.

 

Again, my thanks.

Mukul Dube , July 10, 2012; 01:07 P.M.

Puzzled by the apostrophe in moire'.

Louis Meluso , July 10, 2012; 08:46 P.M.

That you for a nice comparison. If you want to try a moire monster, try an undulating piece of fine grade, raw silk fabric. It's a tough customer.

Shun Cheung , July 11, 2012; 12:05 A.M.

Hi Mukul, as you probably know, moiré is a French word with the accent on the e. Originally I had problems generating that in the text, but thanks to my editor Josh Root, who fixed this text for me.

Louis, I have tried many different types of fabric already, including silk, jeans, clothing from my Asian Indian friends, etc. etc. I am sure that if one photographs bridal gowns every day, they are going to run into more problems than those whose subjects are more general. I have also checked with a few people who have been using the D800E for longer than I have, and they all agree that moiré is not something one needs to worry about.

Mukul Dube , July 11, 2012; 01:04 A.M.

Ah, moiré, that old bug-bear of photo-mechanical reproduction. Accented characters can easily be had on modern computers.

Vincent K. Tylor , July 12, 2012; 01:26 P.M.

I would really like to have seen some test comparisons done with a wide angle lens. I don't use my 80-200 nearly as often as 17-35 and almost never go to 300. And this is the first test that I've heard of diffraction starting after f/4.

I ordered the D800E from B&H the same morning it came out in February and still have not received it. The most recent update from them said they were hopeful about getting new shipments of the D800 but not so much regarding the D800E. It is now July. :(

Shun Cheung , July 13, 2012; 04:28 A.M.

Sorry Vincent, I didn't mean to suggest that diffraction started at f4. Instead, I definitely start seeing the effect of diffration at f8. However, IMO the D800E still has a small advantage over the D800 at f8, althought both are not as sharp as they are at f4 and 5.6. By f11, the amount of diffraction gets serious.

 

I have also made a bunch of comparisons using wide angles: the 24-70mm/f2.8 AF-S at 28mm and the new 28mm/f1.8 AF-S (also at 28mm, of course), capturing the side of a building. In those situations at least I can't tell any differences between the D800 and D800E. I also have the 17-35mm/f2.8 AF-S. Previously I had used that lens on the 24MP D3X; unfortunately, on the wide end near 17mm, corner sharpness is poor. I repeated that test on the D800 and got essentially the same results: http://photo.net/nikon-camera-forum/00aU7B

However, the 17-35mm/f2.8 AF-S performs much better at 24mm.

 

Nikon started shipping the D800E around the 2nd week of April this year. Initial comparisons against the D800, which was available a few weeks earlier, started to appear around mid April. I waited until I had read enough early experiences with the D800E and was convinced that moire is not a major concern before I ordered my D800E around April 18 from my local camera store. It took them just shy of two months to deliver it on June 15.

 

Those who are NPS (Nikon Professional Service) members have priority receiving their Nikon cameras. But for those who are not NPS (and I am not), by now, there should be essentially no waiting for the D800 in the US. The D800E is still harder to find. Unfortunately, ordering from B&H and Amazon will lead to the longest wait. This entire D800/D800E pre-order process has been messy in the US, but that is another topic.

Tristan Jones , July 14, 2012; 12:40 P.M.

The same issue in Eurpo, supply is erratic and both models are still in high demand.
I opted for the D800 having read plenty of reviews, as rightly suggested, I put the extra saving towards a Tamron 16-28 (slightly sharper than the competition).

One thing I can say is that results are always going to be different for every lense, some will not give you much extra on the E (the lense just not being optically capable of providing the shapness) and some will if the have a sweet spot that at the right F/f will give noticable advantage.

I don't mind a little quality loss(?) that I can resharpen in photoshop, especially now I have 36mp to use, a few lost pix aren't going to make me lose any sleep!

Also agree that perhaps Nikon's presentaion of the E was almost a reason to not go for it, almost scaremongering of their own product! Once reasonable reviews came out it was clear to see in most circumstance (in the field) you would not get much gain, but in studio controlled situations you can definately squeeze out some more clarity for sure.

Pedro Saraiva , July 15, 2012; 03:44 A.M.

hi!

I´m a studio photographer that 90% of the time shoots in medium-format. I´m about to replace the second camera (small-format), but I´m not sure which.

these are my concerns:

D800e, should be the one, but moire is it a big issue for me (i Shoot lots of textile and  fabrics, "solo" or apply in chairs for example). Also a big issue is reproduction CMYK prints in hi-def (wine lables, packshot, etc) anyone tried this?

D800: not so sharp, but much sharper then D700, D3x, D7000, right? 

D600???: that size/pixel rate = dynamic range should be the one for me. The plastic body isn´t a problem because a rarely touch the camera. 

Shun Cheung , July 15, 2012; 09:10 A.M.

Again, the real differences between the D800 and D800E are very small. In most situations, you need to pixel peep to see some minor differences, and sometimes, they'll look the same.

 

If your subjects are prone to moire, the D800 is the easy choice. However, just because you are using D800 does not mean you won't have miore issues.

Andre Noble , July 15, 2012; 06:07 P.M.

Shun, thanks for the write up, but as a teacher I an only give you a B-.  Your conclusion is way too long.  It should be a short paragraph of 4 or 5 sentences in length.

FNU Jeffrey Brawijaya , July 24, 2012; 09:23 P.M.

It is good to see the comparison presented by Shun. I already got the D800E (it is my wife's, though). Enough to read the comparison for the still image. What about their capability in recording videos? Before D800 and D800E have emerged, all my Nikon shooter friends have to use Canon 5D Mk2 special for its video-recording. I am planning to use it special for video, but alas very little comments about it shown in the internet. Any comments about the video capability? Ciaoo... 


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