Anti-alias or Moiré? (buy the Nikon D800 instead of the D800E)

Bottom line: the D800E misses a proper anti-aliasing filter. This probably does more harm than good, so buy the D800 instead, unless you absolutely need maximum per-pixel resolution and know how to avoid Moiré artefacts.
Disclaimer: The D800/D800E are great cameras that differ in subtle ways. Making a purchasing decision based on these differences will necessarily involve “splitting hairs”, but that is probably why you are reading this blog entry, so let’s do that.
I started writing this post before D800E reviews were available online. 
Now that it’s been tested by dpreview and DxO I have to admit that the D800E is less prone to Moiré than I expected it to be. Yet I stand by what I wrote in this post and I still advise you to get the D800 instead of the D800E unless you know exactly what you’re doing. Read on.

The D800 and the D800E

When Nikon announced their brand new D800 and D800E full frame (FX) DSLRs a few months ago, it was a breakthrough. These cameras push the limits in resolution beyond anything previously seen on 35mm and set new benchmarks in DSLR video capabilities. This is great news, because whether or not competitors come up with even better models, you (the consumer) still win. So, we know that they are excellent. All he reviews tell us so. The big question in photographers’ minds is probably whether to get the D800 or the D800E. The “E” sounds somehow more Exotic and Exclusive, and promises even sharper photos. Given this, the D800E’s 10% higher ($3300 vs $3000) price sounds justified. Sort of like a D800 “de luxe” edition, right? Not necessarily.

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The Olympus PEN E-PL1 vs Nikon D3000 paradox

Petavoxel recently bemoaned the fact that the majority of sensors in recent micro four thirds EVIL cameras (or MILCs, if you prefer) perform poorly compared to contemporary APS-C sized sensors in digital SLRs. The only exception was the Panasonic GH1, which put up quite a respectable showing compared to its μ4/3 stablemates.

Yesterday dpreview posted their review of the E-PL1, and they were very happy with its high ISO performance. I quote:

Overall, the E-PL1′s images are the most natural and convincing here – avoiding the D3000′s overly contrasty, noisier images …  Most impressive is the E-PL1′s ability to produce results comparable with the EOS 500D and Pentax K-x, despite its smaller sensor.

But what does DXO Labs have to say? They disagree, showing that the big three leave the E-PL1 gasping for photons with a lowly 487  points in the low-light ISO stakes.

Hence, the paradox.

How do these two $500-ish cameras weigh up against each other?

How can this be? Is either DXO Labs or dpreview writing nonsense? The keen observer will notice that there are two significant differences in the way these two respected websites measure image quality:

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So, what's so great about "raw" files?

Have you ever heard an enthusiastic photographer saying something like “I shoot everything in raw”? But what is a “raw” file? Sounds like raw meat, doesn’t it? Why do people use these?

Few people think about it twice, but pretty much every photo on the internet is stored as a JPEG file. This also happens to be the kind of file you get out of most digital cameras. In fact, most consumer-grade cameras can give nothing else but JPEG output. This is no coincidence: JPEG’s been around since 1992, and it turns out that it’s a really great file format for photographs. JPEG allows you to store a lot of image information in a reasonably small file, and is quick to decode and write. Unfortunately JPEG is a lossy standard, which means you always lose some image information when creating a JPEG.

Contrary to common belief, this “lossy” property is not the main reason to avoid using JPEG. The JPEG algorithm is actually really clever in the way it loses its information, meaning the human eye often can’t see the difference between a lossy JPEG and its lossless equivalent. Look at the seagull below to see what I mean.

A JPEG file compressed at 95% quality. (click for detail)
File size = 78 KB
Scarcely any degradation artefacts, despite the fact that a losslessly compressed PNG would have required more than 300 KB.
Compressed JPEG at an extremely low 30% quality. (click for detail)
File size = 9 KB.
Compression artefacts are visible (sky, detail in lantern glass), but the image remains perfectly recognizable due to the clever way JPEG works. And this is an extreme example.

No, the reasons why you should be interested in raw files are more subtle…

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Moby killed my camera!

At Rock Werchter, on Friday 4 July 2008, a thin beam of intense green energy caused my 1-month old camera’s CCD sensor to have a stroke. Yes, dear readers, it’s true! Moby killed my camera. The high-powered(?) stage laser went straight into the lens, and – zap!

Here is what happened:

I thought cameras were designed to survive bright lights, but actions speak louder than words, and lasers shine brighter than than the brightest star.

Now, every picture I take with the camera looks exactly like this:

My camera now only sees this...

My camera now only sees this...

And now with a whacked camera, blasted ears and a stunned mind, I have also realised that this little blog has an existential crisis. In my opinion, successful blogs have a guiding theme or topic of interest – something this one has lacked thus far. That, and content. But now that will change… Over the coming weeks I’ll try to add more of the latter, so that the former might start to emerge. And I even made it a bit more pretty, by adding some eye candy to the to top bar… But then again, it’s only words, words, words. :)

Update: 15/07/2008

Indeed it seems as if things sometimes do go wrong at professional laser shows, as illuminated by the article in New Scientist entitled Party laser ‘blinds’ Russian ravers.
Ravers at the Aquamarine Open Air Festival in Kirzhach, 80 kilometres northeast of Moscow, began seeking medical help days after the show, complaining of eye and vision problems.

“They all have retinal burns, scarring is visible on them. Loss of vision in individual cases is as high as 80%, and regaining it is already impossible,” Kommersant quoted a treating ophthalmologist as saying.

Not cool.