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Comparing detail and moire in the Nikon D800 and D800E  
Monday, April 30, 2012 | by Rob Galbraith
The stars aligned recently to compare the still photo capabilities of the D800 and D800E, Nikon's 36.15 million image pixel digital twins, to see if the latter model was capable of producing noticeably sharper pictures with noticeably more pronounced moiré and other colour artifacts. Here's what we found.


If you caught the announcement of the D800 and D800E back in February, you'll know that the two differ only in the design of the low-pass optical filter in front of the image sensor. In the D800, the filter blurs fine detail slightly, on purpose, to ward off colour problems such as moiré. In the D800E, the filter's blurring effect has been nullified. The result should be more finely-detailed photos from the D800E, accompanied by an increased prevalence of moiré swirls in fabrics, patterned objects and the like. The D800E's probable fine detail upside comes with a potential colour artifact downside, which is why Nikon is touting the D800 as the standard version and the D800E its more-specialized counterpart.

Siblings: The D800, left, and D800E. Click to enlarge (Photo courtesy Nikon)

To see how much more detail the D800E can deliver, if any, and how much less prone to colour weirdness the D800 might be, we shot several things with a mix of five Nikkor lenses. The three primes and two zooms were:
The examples ahead will give you an idea of the differences we spotted in image files from the two models. All but the volleyball photos were taken with each camera clamped to a sturdy tripod, the mirror locked up to minimize vibration and the focus set within Live View (using its contrast detect AF).

As you'll see, the D800E produces a somewhat sharper-looking picture than the D800. It also shows a somewhat greater tendency to show pattern moiré as well as introduce false colour in things like specular highlights. But, the D800 isn't far off the D800E, in either respect. Its low-pass filter blurs fine detail only very slightly, plus some specular highlight colour artifacting and faint moiré creep into its photos too. The delineation between the two cameras and the pictures they produce is subtle. It's certainly more subtle than we were anticipating. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this has made it easier to pick the D800 variant we prefer. More on that in the conclusion.

Processing notes

Unless the caption or accompanying text says otherwise, all pictures were shot as 14-bit NEFs and then converted in either Nikon Capture NX2 v2.3.2 or PictureCode Photo Ninja. If you haven't heard of Photo Ninja, that's because the upcoming RAW conversion and image editing software is still in private beta testing. Even in its not-quite-final form, however, Photo Ninja's interpolation algorithm and sharpening filter pull the finest-possible detail from D800 and D800E NEFs, making it an ideal RAW converter to use for this comparison.

To maintain maximum image crispness, as well as demonstrate colour artifacting differences between D800 and D800E captures, no detail-smearing luminance noise reduction has been applied to any of the example pictures.

Some have been given a low-intensity hit of colour noise reduction, but at settings that don't affect the appearance of colour artifacting around specular highlights, small lettering on signs or other similar areas of tiny detail. This was done deliberately, so you can see how much more evident this type of artifacting is in D800E files, compared to the D800. But it might leave you with the impression that such artifacting will present a problem for the D800E shooter, when it really won't. That's because it's a type of colour error that's generally quite easy to filter away, either completely or at least down to D800 levels. Without sacrificing detail.

All examples have been sharpened. For NEFs converted in Photo Ninja (which comprises all of the NEF examples in the rollovers), the sharpening filter in the software was used, with the D800's slightly softer files being given slightly more sharpening than those from the D800E. For NEFs converted in Capture NX2, the files were sharpened subsequently in Photoshop CS5.1 using the superb Smart Sharpen filter. There is one set of examples in the rollovers that are crops from in-camera JPEGs. They were sharpened in the camera on level 3 within the Neutral Picture Control.

All D800 - D800E cropped comparisons in the rollovers that follow are at 100% magnification, meaning that one image pixel equals one on-screen pixel.

Example 1 - intersection

Exposure information Shot with both the D800 and D800E + AF-S 85mm f/1.4G at ISO 100, 1/800, f/5.6. Converted from NEF with Photo Ninja 1.0 (beta).

Things to look for If you check out only one comparison in this article, make it this one. When the lens is super sharp, as the AF-S 85mm f/1.4G is when stopped down a bit, the detail, moiré and artifacting differences between the two cameras are obvious. Subtle, but obvious.

If you roll your cursor back and forth over the Bike comparisons, you'll notice that fine detail in the D800 version looks really good, but in the D800E version the fine detail is tighter and, well, finer. The Sign comparisons show the same, plus colour artifacting differences, while Shoes reveals a touch of moiré in the D800E version that's not present in the D800 version (look at the sneaker in the lower right).

D800 Bike
D800E Bike
D800 Sign
D800E Sign
D800 Shoes
D800E Shoes
Full-resolution downloads Download the D800 and D800E photos in this comparison by right-clicking on a link below and selecting your browser's download-to-disk option.

The original NEFs in this comparison can be downloaded as well. Like their JPEG counterparts, these files are for personal viewing and printing only and not for display on another website. Since some browsers stumble when trying to download RAW files, each NEF has been compressed into a ZIP archive first.

Example 2 - volleyball

Before the D800E arrived, we already had some experience with the D800 and flash-lit volleyball and basketball. From that, we know its autofocus and image quality are up to the task of capturing crisp and clear action pictures of these sports. The only question was whether the D800E could produce even crisper moments, and whether fabric moiré would be an omnipresent problem.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, pictures shot with the D800E + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II or AF-S 400mm f/2.8G ED VR do look more finely detailed. And no, fabric moiré is not a problem. Out of over 300 D800E frames of athletes wearing a mix of black, red and white uniform pieces, we spotted a small patch of moiré in a pair of black shorts, in one frame. That's it.

A peak action moment, lit with flash, looks sweet when captured with the D800. And it looks even sweeter with the D800E.

What follows isn't an A-B comparison from the two cameras, but rather some medium-resolution volleyball examples from the D800E followed by two full-resolution downloads, one from the D800 and another from the D800E.

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Bump and Serve: Nikon D800E + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, ISO 160, f/9, lit with Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 flash units set to 226ws. Click to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Full-resolution downloads Download the D800 and D800E photos that correspond to the two thumbnails below by right-clicking on the link within each caption and selecting your browser's download-to-disk option. Note that the uncropped files both show a thin black band at the bottom of the frame. This is a result of (intentionally) choosing a flash sync speed higher than x-sync, to help minimize ambient light in the flash exposure. So, the black band is not a sign of a camera problem.

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Reach: Nikon D800 + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II at 165mm, ISO 160, 1/400, f/9. Click to enlarge. Right-click here (14.3MB JPEG) to download a full-resolution version (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Player: Nikon D800E + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II at 200mm, ISO 160, 1/400, f/9. Click to enlarge. Right-click here (11.4MB JPEG) to download a full-resolution version (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Example 3 - downtown

Exposure information Shot with both the D800 and D800E + AF-S 85mm f/1.4G at ISO 100, 1/500, f/5.6. Converted from NEF with Photo Ninja 1.0 (beta).

Things to look for Roll your cursor over the Balcony comparisons and you will once again see a slight but noticeable detail difference in favour of the D800E. In Metal, a moiré-ish pattern is visible in both the D800 and D800E frames, but it's more pronounced in the D800E version.

The only true oddity we saw, in all the D800-D800E comparison photos taken for this article, is shown in Lights. The D800E version is as impressively detailed as ever, but the D800 version is softer than usual. It looks like camera motion or perhaps heat waves are messing with the detail, but there's no reason for either to be the case.

It took a half-dozen tries to get this particular comparison completed properly, because the sun kept going in and out of the clouds, which meant swapping the D800 and D800E on the tripod a bunch of times (but using the same 85mm lens throughout). In each of the resulting half-dozen sets of D800-D800E pictures, the D800E version has sharply rendered the area around the lights while the D800 version's lights have the same softer-than-usual look. It's an anomalous result, and one we can't explain.

D800 Balcony
D800E Balcony
D800 Lights
D800E Lights
D800 Metal
D800E Metal
Full-resolution downloads Download the D800 and D800E photos in this comparison by right-clicking on a link below and selecting your browser's download-to-disk option.
Example 4 - JPEG vs NEF

Exposure information Shot with both the D800 and D800E + AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED at 24mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/5.6. The rollovers include in-camera JPEGs, and NEFs converted with Photo Ninja 1.0 (beta).

Things to look for This comparison is of the in-camera JPEG and converted NEF renderings from the D800 and D800E, and how potential moiré is handled in each instance. The D800 JPEG shows a little, and the D800E JPEG shows even more, but the NEFs from each camera, when converted in Photo Ninja, are almost entirely moiré-free.

Photo Ninja has no moiré-specific filtering, but appears to employ an interpolation algorithm that can detect at least some instances of moiré and then eliminate them during the conversion. This suggests that D800E shooters will want to experiment with different conversion software to see if some moiré can be kept at bay simply by choosing an alternate RAW converter.

D800 NEF

Example 5 - house

Exposure information Shot with both the D800 and D800E + AF-S 24mm f/1.4G ED at ISO 100, 1/640, f/7.1. Converted from NEF with Photo Ninja 1.0 (beta).

Things to look for The Centre comparison tells the same story as the other examples in this article: the detail in the D800E version is a bit finer than the D800, and there's a bit more colour artifacting too. These differences melt almost entirely away in Edge, suggesting that the lens' sharpness falloff at the sides of the frame, though minimal, is enough to smooth over the resolving power differences of the two cameras.

D800 Centre
D800E Centre
D800 Edge
D800E Edge
Full-resolution downloads Download the D800 and D800E photos in this comparison by right-clicking on a link below and selecting your browser's download-to-disk option.

Everyone will attach their own level of significance to the detail and artifact differences these comparisons reveal. Overall, these differences can fairly be described as small. But for those who want to extract every bit of detail from a scene - and if you've elected to shoot stills with a 36.15 million image pixel camera, chance are this is a consideration - the D800E's slight superiority will be enough to push some into the arms of this model. Conversely, if a bit more false colour and a bit more moiré is going to add even a smidgeon of workflow hassle at times, then others will choose the D800 and only the D800 as a result.

For me personally, the fact that the D800E is capable of slightly better detail, with only a marginally increased risk of artifacting and moiré, means it's the one to get. Everything from aerials to team photos to poster-sized portraits can clearly look great with the D800. But the D800E's extra detail edge is too enticing to forgo, particularly when, for what I shoot that can benefit from heaps of detail, there's little chance that moiré in particular is going to be a factor, either often or at all.
Related articles  
Related coverage of this topic includes:
  • Firmware update for Nikon 1 J1, V1 corrects slow motion video bug (May 8, 2012)
  • Nikon issues recall of some EN-EL15 batteries (updated) (April 24, 2012)
  • Nikon Capture NX2 updated to v2.3.2 (April 24, 2012)
  • Nikon D3200 support added to NEF Codec for Windows (April 24, 2012)
  • Nikon to release AF-S 28mm f/1.8G in May (April 19, 2012)
  • Nikon announces D3200, WU-1a wireless accessory (April 19, 2012)
  • Nikon D7000 disassembled (Update: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, too) (April 11, 2012)
  • Nikon posts user guide for Wireless Transmitter WT-5 (March 31, 2012)
  • Nikon Wireless Transmitter Utility updated to v1.3.1 (March 22, 2012)
  • D4 'Why' behind-the-scenes video posted (March 14, 2012)
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