Thinking Out Loud: The Nikon D800EM for Monochrome

Bengt Nyman

If some of you recognize part of what follows it’s because it has appeared on one of the Nikonian Forums, where it received mostly boos and oh-nos. I have had an idea for some time which was recently confirmed by a statement by Panasonic: “Blame the Bayer filter for your camera’s poor low light performance.”

Indeed I am very pleased with my D800E. It makes miraculous images out of just about anything. Many times you can pull out a bonus image from deep inside the image without running into the usual resolution reminder.

I also use my D800E in dark places, shooting in next-to-no-light to produce dark, saturated, ambience-dripping music and theater scenes. The high resolution again allows me to go deep into darkness before the lack of light and subsequent fine pitch noise becomes objectionable.

When I go too far I can often still salvage an intriguing scene by going to high contrast black-and-white with color and chromatic noise converted into ruff and tough graininess.

So why am I talking about a D800EM a.k.a. D800E Monochrome? I am so convinced that high resolution gives us photographers a new lease on life that I would like to take it a step further.

What if... | M-less image courtesy of Ming Thein
What if… | M-less image courtesy of Ming Thein
I am envisioning a Monochrome D800EM with no Bayer filters and of course no anti-aliasing filter.

In other words: a straight black-and-white 36.3MP D800EM with nothing in the way of any of the pixels.

Resolution and detail should be exquisite.

Light sensitivity would of course be substantially better than the color version since there are no color filters refusing entrance to photons of the wrong color.

We already have the Leica M Monochrom. However, with an 18MP CCD sensor the Leica M Monochrom lacks in both resolution and ISO.

Even though I am not personally a black-and-white fanatic, I can’t help envisioning the potential of a monochrome extrapolation of the D800E into a D800EM.

I realize that Nikon might not be interested in putting out a specialty product with an even smaller market than the D800E. However, I hope they, or somebody, will — because the photographic world would be richer for it.

We probably all remember the anxiety initially caused by the E version of the D800.

People said with a D800 it is more difficult to shoot handheld because the high resolution will highlight any camera shake. After hundreds of thousands of handheld shots with 13MP and 21MP cameras, and many thousands of handheld D800E shots with 36MP I can confidently say: nonsense.

People also said that with a D800E you run the risk of getting moiré patterns in your images. Nonsense. After many thousands of shots I still have not spotted a single moiré pattern.

I believe that a D800EM would be a terrific addition to a serious photographers arsenal.

The objections I have received so far are essentially: “Oh no, I need the color to differentiate and manipulate the tonal range of the final black-and-white image.”

I can see that. I guess I am more of a documentary photographer where composition, balance and enhancing the natural beauty of the image is of essence, as opposed to a more intrusive or artsy manipulation of the image.

If you have enough light to shoot in color and create your desired black and white from that, great.

When I do not have enough light to create a quality color image, I would like to be able to reach for my D800EM to create an amazing black and white at ISOs unthinkable behind any kind of filter including a Bayer filter.

P.S. No, you can not remove a modern Bayer filter. The Bayer pattern pixel window tinting is today an integral part of the image sensor manufacturing process.

  • dierk

    “We already have the Leica M Monochrom. However, with an 18MP CCD sensor the Leica M Monochrom lacks in both resolution and ISO.”

    Did you shoot the M Monochrom?

    The effective resolution seems to be much higher than the 18MP and the high ISO is great (for me)
    you can not put the great Leica M lenses on the D800E :)


  • Have to second the M Monochrom’s amazing 18MP resolution. When looking at samples shot handheld I thought to see leaves of the trees on the other end of the valley. Unbelievable when being used to common color rendition. Right, the M also has the Bayer filter removed.

  • keru

    Of course a D800EM would be awesome. I have the Leica MM and the D800. Both are wonderfull.

    But “the Leica M Monochrom lacks in both resolution and ISO.”
    What ? Leica MM lack high ISO ? Nononono.
    And the resolution it’s as good as the high MP D800.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I love it! The loyalty of Leica owners is enough to defend a nation.

    And to some extent I agree. As long as you don’t enlarge past exhibition size you have to look hard to see the difference between 18 MP and 36 MP. However, if you crop very deep to pull out an image from within the image you quickly see the difference.

    On the other hand, an ordinary lens on a D800E makes your 36 MP work look ordinary, while a top quality Leica lens can make an 18 MP image look extraordinary.

    That’s why you will only find one of two lenses on my D800E. One is the AF-S Nikkor 85mm 1:1.4G. The other one is the Sigma 35mm 1:1.4DG A. Why? Because DxOMark
    said so and my own experiments confirm their findings.

  • Laurent Laborde

    The only reason i own a Leica is because it’s a Monochrome.
    I’m not planning to defend france with a german camera ;)

    (i’m not planning to defend france at all btw)

  • Bengt Nyman

    Excellent !
    I would buy the Leica MM if Leica could convince Nikon to let Sony sell the B&W version of their 36.3 MP image sensor to Leica.

  • Matisha B

    You may need to check your findings. Also check other reports from the users that made comparison between the two. Leica MM isn’t even near D800 in both high ISO nor resolution.

    Get real mate, you’re comparing apples with oranges

  • Pablo Ricasso

    “and you can not put the great Leica M lenses on the D800E :) ”

    No but you can put excellent Nikon and Sigma lenses on it. Please don’t [email protected] over things you don’t know much about.

  • JakeB

    Dan, with all due respect – there are many reviews and comparison between the Leica MM and Nikon D800e. The Leica cant’t touch the resolution of the D800e…sorry .

  • Roscoe Tanner

    “However, with an 18MP CCD sensor the Leica M Monochrom lacks in both resolution and ISO.”
    Those are my findings as well, and I own both the Leica MM and Nikon D800E

  • Brian

    Getting rid of the Bayer pattern mosaic filter picks up 1 stop in speed. The M Monochrom is a native ISO320 vs ISO160 for the M9. Truesense improved the noise floor on the CCD by another stop, and improved uniformity of the image. The latter is probably difficult, “cherry-picking” detectors to get suitable performance might be in use. Detector uniformity is more important for a monochrome camera than for a color camera, as the latter interpolates the image and will smooth over local non-uniformity. Detector uniformity was the main problem with the DCS760m of 10+ years ago. The DCS760c used the same detector with a Bayer filter, the interpolated image did not show uniformity problems.