Low- Pass Filter Removal (Part 1)

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Two ground-breaking cameras are emulating the random pattern of film grain in a digital sensor for ultimate sharpness and clarity.

Just when we thought the megapixel race had calmed down, Nikon blew the market wide open again recently with its D800, a staggering 36.3-megapixel full-frame beast that looks set to rival or even better medium format in a DSLR body. But even more interesting was its simultaneous announcement of the D800E, a 'special edition' of the aforementioned camera that included an astounding additional feature - or, more correctly, a lack of one.

Description: Nikon D800 DSLR

Nikon D800 DSLR

Fujifilm wasn't about to let Nikon have all the fun, though. It, too, had incorporated the same technology into its new high-end interchangeable lens system camera, the X-Pro 1. So what is this incredible new feature? It is, bizarrely, the removal of a component that already exists in virtually every digital camera - an optical low-pass, or anti-aliasing, filter (OLPF). By shedding this tiny part, both manufacturers claim their cameras can deliver extraordinary sharpness and clarity.

In order to leverage the power of this technology, Fujifilm created a brand-new filter, the X-Trans CMOS, that the company claims: “Is capable of delivering resolution that is parallel, if not superior, to a full-frame sensor."

Description: The completely new Fujifilm X-Trans CMOS

The completely new Fujifilm X-Trans CMOS

Fujifilm’s new colour filter array paves the way for an ideal sensor that does not need an optical low-pass filter (OLPF). While the OLPF is indispensable for the reduction of moiré and false colour generated by conventional sensors, it also degrades resolution. The results were inspired by the random patterns of fine film grain, a medium that never needed those filters in the first place.

But what does this mean for image quality? Well, a good example can be found in architectural photography. Straight lines and repeating patterns can cause serious issues for camera sensors and if an area of repetitive detail exceeds the resolution of the camera, a 'moiré' pattern appears. This is a wavy or maze-like pattern that is unappealing and inaccurate, so the low-pass filters eliminate it - but at the expense of image sharpness. Moiré can also be produced when photographing textiles or fine pieces of hair.

Equally important is the issue of 'false colour'. Colour that is not present in the object itself, or introduced into the shot by the set lighting is known as false colour. This, like moiré, can be introduced into an image as an artefact that will detract from the overall image if not corrected. False colour can be introduced with the moiré pattern or on its own. These anomalies can be removed in post-processing but this can prove both difficult and time-consuming, so in-camera correction is always preferable - hence the inclusion of the OLPF.

Nikon's D800E doesn't eliminate an optical filter entirely, but it does remove the anti-aliasing properties that correct the issues above. Nikon claims this provides "absolute definition" for those who seek it and will produce the sharpest images possible “for photographers who can control light, distance and their subject to the degree where they can mitigate the increased risk of moiré and false colour.”

The trade-off for this increased resolution and sharpness, then, is a picture that is potentially ruined by wavy patterns and inaccurate colours. As a result, the D800E certainly isn't for everyone. Even Nikon accepts this, stating that: “for the vast majority of photographers who shoot a wide variety of subjects, shoot handheld as well as with a tripod, use a selection of lenses and shoot at all aperture settings, the D800 and its 36.3MP using the OLPF will be the ideal choice.”

Description: Wedding, commercial or landscape, the D800 is the ultimate 36.3

Wedding, commercial or landscape, the D800 is the ultimate 36.3

So who, exactly, would want or need a camera with the OLPF removed? The answer is likely to be the photographer who has used medium or large format digital cameras as these already have no OLPF. Nikon is clearly attacking this market, targeting those who may demand a medium-format level of image quality but with a much smaller body costing a third of the price. These photographers are likely to shoot studio, commercial, landscapes and still-life subjects and will already have a working understanding of the added workflow needed to counteract or correct for moiré and false colour. They may also understand that extra time will be needed In the creation of each image, whether it involves solving any issues of the above during the shooting process, in processing the RAW Image files, or using software to fix images in post-processing.

Description: Simultaneous Live View on the camera's LCD monitor

Simultaneous Live View on the camera's LCD monitor

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