D800 vs. D800E - Which is the right choice for you?

[Update 2/17/2012 10:30am: Nikon has updated their info on the differences between the D800 and D800E.  Skip to the end of the article to see the changes they have made]

If you've been watching the latest Nikon news, you know that the long awaited D800 has finally been announced.  While we've been adding quite a few people to our pre-order list, we've been getting more and more people asking which version of the D800 is right for them.  I think that Nikon did a good thing by offering two versions of the camera, but wish that they would have better explained the differences between the two.  They have stated publicly that the D800E "facilitates the sharpest images possible and is a great option for RAW shooters who are in a position to control light, distance and their subject to the degree where they can mitigate the risk of moiré and any false color."  I personally think that for 99% of shooters the D800 is the best choice.  Ultimately the D800E will be a good choice for certain people, but with some analysis I hope to identify who those 1% really are.

To answer which is the right camera for you, we first have to clarify what the differences are between the D800 and the D800E.  Simply put, the two cameras are identical in nearly every way.  The only difference is that the D800E has a modified Anti-Aliasing Filter.  Well what's an Anti-Aliasing filter and what does it do?

The Anti-Aliasing Filter
Unlike film, digital sensors are sensitive to a variety of different types of light.  When all spectrum's of light, including those that are not visible to humans, are allowed to reach the sensor, sometimes irregular results can occur.  Because of this, digital sensors are equipped with filters called Anti-Aliasing filters (sometimes referred to as an Optical Low Pass Filter).  These are placed just above the sensor, and filter out things like infrared light, ultraviolet light, and moiré (pronounced more-a) patterning.  Under certain circumstances, if these things are not filtered, your image can suffer, sometimes quite dramatically.  Leica ran into very public criticism in 2006/2007 after releasing the M8.  This camera has a very weak Anti-Aliasing filter, which as a result allows a high amount of infrared light to reach the sensor.  The result, as shown below, is that synthetic black materials have a magenta hue to them.  Eventually Leica developed a workaround by including two screw on IR blocking filters with each camera purchase, effectively putting shooters back to the same spot they would be if the camera had a normal AA Filter.  Nikon has taken the approach of developing a completely different model, the D800E, which has a modified Anti-Aliasing filter.  The resulting filter still eliminates infrared and ultraviolet light, but does not effectively eliminate moiré patterning.

Moiré Patterning & False Color
Moiré patterns are most easily identifiable with patterns, often in clothing.  It can also manifest itself in other applications such as architecture, hair, fences, even hair.  Taking a photograph of your computer monitor or TV will usually show a prominent moiré pattern as well.  Sometimes the patterning also produces renditions of false color.  The finer the pattern, the more likely the moiré is to occur.


So tell me which camera to get
Now that we've identified how the D800E differs from the D800, let's look at workflow.  Let's assume you're planning on getting a D800E.  It's only $300 more than the standard D800, and it is technically sharper.  However, at this point Nikon has been unable to quantify how much sharper it actually is.  Are we talking 10% sharper, 20%?  My guess is somewhere in the 2%-3% range, but we're still waiting on the exact data.  There are likely a few scenarios to consider that make this technically sharper image not worth it.

  1. People shots - If you're shooting people that have repeating patterns in their clothing you're going to be spending time in the computer removing the moiré.  Now, if you're in a studio environment with models, and can control what they're wearing, your shooting distance, and all lighting variables this might not be an issue.  However, step outside the studio, say at a wedding, where there are lots of people whose outfits you can't control, and shots that need to be taken when you can't control every aspect.  The post processing time will continue to add up with each shot taken.
  2. Quick snapshots - Say goodbye to the quick jpg snapshot with the D800E.  In order to remove the moiré patterns you will be needing to shoot in RAW and process the image, preferably in Nikon Capture NX2.  Another method to remove moiré is to lower the resolution, but why pay extra for a camera, plus spend extra time editing every picture, only to decrease the sharpness you just paid extra for?
  3. Shooting video - If you plan on shooting even the smallest amount of video on the D800E, I hope you have plenty of spare time.  Editing the moiré patterning out of all your videos will likely require a major time investment.  Plan on purchasing extra software too, because most consumer level video editing programs do not have moiré pattern reduction built in.
  4. What is your time worth? - The most difficult part of this debate is harder to define.  Because of the extra editing required with the D800E files, you're likely to be spending more time in the computer than you are used to.  Depending on your target audience, this extra time may not be worth it for the small, and still to be defined, increase in sharpness.  Do you really want to be going through a wedding shoot, removing moiré patterns from every affected shot?

Like I said at the beginning, I think that it's a great thing that Nikon introduced the D800E.  For the right photographer it can provide a technically superior image.  However, and remember these are Nikon's words not mine, it is only for "RAW shooters who are in a position to control light, distance and their subject to the degree where they can mitigate the risk of moiré and any false color."  If you are a landscape or studio photographer, who is shooting 99% of your images in well planned, thought out, controllable environments, and are willing to edit out any moiré patterns, then the D800E is the camera for you.  Add unpredictable, sporadic and otherwise erratic content (also known as humans) and I say all bets are off.  If you enjoy street photography or other recreational photographic activities, don't spend the extra $300.  The result will be more time editing the images, and will likely deflate your passion for a great hobby, pastime, or profession.

Think I missed something or am way off?  Let me know in the comments below!

[Update: Nikon had added the following information to their website to help clarify the differences between the D800 and D800E.  For more information visit http://www.nikonusa.com]

Anti-aliasingD800D800eFebruary 2012MoiréNikonOlpfOptical low pass filter